Wordsmithery

A crossword clue led me to this by chance. The clue was ‘word was first coined in the book If I Ran a Zoo by Dr Seuss’. The answer was Nerd! This immediately caught If-i-ran-the-zoo-cover (1).jpgmy attention because Dr Seuss is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. I adored his books when I was young and tried to pass on the love to my children by reading out his quirky verses night after night, twisting our tongues over his wonderful, wacky invented words.

But it is only now I discovered that the word Nerd is thought to have been coined by none other than Dr Seuss in his book If I Ran a Zoo published in 1950! The book is about a boy named Gerald McGrew who, when visiting a zoo, finds that the exotic animals are “not good enough”. He says that if he ran the zoo, he would let all of the current animals free and find new, more bizarre and exotic ones. Among these fantastical animals is a critter called a Nerd! To quote directly: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo/ A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!”

One year later, in 1951, Newsweek magazine included the word in an article using it to define someone who is a “drip” or a “square”. Today the word ‘nerdy’ is used to describe someone who is not attractive, and awkward or socially embarrassing; or someone who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knowing a lot of facts.

A ‘word-nerd’ would tell you that when we use Twitter, and Tweet away today, it would be worth remembering that the word was coined by Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English poetry, who died 620 years ago, to describe the continuous chirping of a bird.

And that, well before a search engine was named Yahoo, the Yahoos appeared as legendary creatures in Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726.

Surprisingly a number of words that we tend to believe are so ‘trending’ and ‘21st century’ were coined well over a hundred years ago. These can be attributed to 19th century authors, many of whom were creative wordsmiths–inventing, importing, adapting, and generally messing about with language!

The revered Bard, Shakespeare was one of the first to print words like Obscene and Eventful, as well as much-used phrases such as Bated Breath and Love is Blind.

And for those of us who plodded through Charles Dickens it is he, himself who coined the word Boredom! Writing in the early 1800s Dickens also coined very not-boring words like Abuzz, Flummox, and Devil-May-Care!

And to think that bureaucratic red tape is an affliction of modern times, Wait! The word Red Tape comes from the English practice of using red or pink tape to tie official documents and,  as early as 1851 Dickens coined the apt term ‘red tape’ as slang for “the collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming.” Thus according to the OED, a Red Tape-worm’ is “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.” Sounds like a breed we all know too well!?

For those of us who describe our calling as ‘Freelance’ writers, we may be interested to learn that in 1820 author Sir Walter Scott used the term free-lance to describe a mercenary soldier, one whose lance (a long spear) was not exclusively in the service of a single master, but was hired out along with its owner to those to needed, and paid for, the service.

Today the lance has replaced by the pen (or its electronic version) but the nature of service remains the same!

–Mamata

 

Nom de Plume

My library has recently acquired the complete set of Agatha Christie novels in attractive new editions. They take up two long shelves and I was immediately drawn to them. As with most of my generation, Agatha Christie was a must read. We were intrigued and impressed by the eccentricities and grey cells of Hercule Poirot and the genteel but no-nonsense sharp mind of Miss Jane Marple.

Agatha Christie, the Queen of murder mysteries, outsold, it is said, only by the Bible and Shakespeare! The best-selling novelist of all time with her 66 detective novels and the world’s longest-running play The Mousetrap.

While I was browsing the shelves, I also saw books by the name Mary Westmacott alongside. And it is these that I decided to explore. These are the books that Agatha Christie wrote under the pen name or pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Why a pen name? Explaining this in a piece written for her centenary celebrations in 1990, Christie’s daughter wrote “As early as 1930, my mother wrote her first novel using the name Mary Westmacott. These novels, six in all, were a complete departure from the usual sphere of Agatha Christie Queen of Crime.” The novels explored human psychology and emotions and relationships that intrigued her, in a genre that was totally different from her murder mysteries, and writing under a different name freed her from the expectations of her mystery fans.

How did she choose the name? It seems that Mary was Agatha’s second name and Westmacott the name of some distant relatives. She succeeded in keeping her identity as Mary Westmacott unknown for nearly twenty years and the books, much to her pleasure, were modestly successful.

I have so far read two of her six Westmacott novels and am enjoying the language, style and substance greatly. They so sensitively capture what seem to be very contemporary intricacies of human psyches and complexities of relationships, even though they were written in the period of 1930s and 1940s. One of these, Absent in the Spring, was published in 1944. About this book Agatha/Mary wrote: “I wrote that book in three days flat…I went straight through…I don’t think I have ever been so tired…I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself of course what it is really like, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy and author can have.”

Using a nom de plume has been common throughout the history of literature. Authors have adopted pseudonyms for different reasons. Some to make their voice heard under authoritarian regimes; some to break the mould of what their readers expect from them, and, in some cases, women have used masculine noms de plume during times when men had an easier time getting published. While the phrase nom de plume means “pen name” in French, it doesn’t come from French speakers, but was coined in English, using French words.

An antithesis of Agatha Christie is JK Rowling, who after her huge success as the creator of Harry Potter, moved from Muggles and Magic, to murder and detective Cormoran, under the name Robert Galbraith. Her intention in taking on the nom de plume was for her crime fiction books to be judged on their own merit.

As for me, Christie or Rowling, by any other name, are favourite reads all the same!

–Mamata