Recently I read a phrase in Malory, The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler by Christina Hardyment that struck me as a near perfect piece of world building. An ambush of an armed party by outlaws lasted “a paternoster while.” The time it takes a person to recite the paternoster or the Our Father prayer. Protestants know it today as The Lord’s Prayer. In 15th C England, the average person had no access to any kind of clock other than a sun dial, hour glass, or the church bells announcing the various times for Mass. The bells governed when to rise, when to eat, when to pray, and when to retire. But even these were based upon the passage of the sun, which changed from season to season.
So, for a specific amount of time one gauges the passage of time by how long it takes to say a specific prayer. This also indicates how deeply faith and the Church permeated daily life. For a writer to use such a phrase grounds the reader in the culture.
I adore the series Babylon 5. However, in nearly every episode some character will use the phrase “What in the world?” or “Where in the world?” Excuse me, this is a society that spans the galaxy and encompasses many worlds. Indeed most of the action takes place on a space station, a world unto itself, but not a world in the sense of a planet. While not as comfortable for an actor to say, I suggest “What in the Galaxy?” or “Where in the Universe?” I believe B5’s audience would catch on quite quickly, the same way that grok has entered our vocabulary as well as frell or frak and many others that began as pieces of a script. How many times have you said, or heard someone say “Transporter malfunction” in response to a problem with no discernable cause? Or “Beam me up, Scotty. There’s no intelligent life here,” when faced with bureaucratic silliness.
Which brings me to other ways our language has mutated. I have a couple of pet peeves.
Virago: an offensive term for a loud and angry woman. This usually indicates violence, also a most unfeminine trait in previous centuries.
The original, now archaic, definition of a virago, according to the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary is “A woman of masculine strength and spirit.” Some older sources go so far as to claim a virago is a woman who displays the masculine virtues of strength, honor, and dignity. As if a woman can’t have those virtues.
Virtue: goodness of behavior; a particular good quality in someone’s character.
I suppose this could mutate into a woman’s chastity if that is the good behavior or fine quality you are looking for in a female. This is a very modern usage though that came about with the proliferation of historical romance novels in the latter half of the 20th Century.
1 : in an absolute manner or condition. Often used as an intensive *absolutely brilliant*
2 : with respect to absolute values *an absolutely convergent series*
So let’s look at absolute according to Merriam Webster Dictionary.
1 a : free from imperfection : PERFECT b : free or relatively free from mixture : PURE *absolute alcohol* c : OUTRIGHT, UNMITIGATED *an absolute lie*
2 : being, governed by, or characteristic of a ruler or authority completely free from constitutional or other restraint
3 a : standing apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements
So why do newscasters have to answer every question with the single word “Absolutely.” Or reuse the word 16 times in every sentence? The word is now over-mis-used as much as “ya know.”
Our language changes daily. Technology filters in new words without conscious effort. “What’s the 411?” Do you remember when Google became a verb? Or text? or Fed-Ex? All originated as nouns. We no longer take typing in school—a class that was reserved for women entering the secretarial field when I was in high school. In fact I was denied permission to take typing because I was college prep. With my potential education I would have access to secretaries. Ha! Guess what I as an author do for a living. I type. When my son graduated from high school in 1991 “keyboarding” was required for all students. It’s no longer just knowing where the keys are. One must know the ins and outs of word processing programs and a variety of printing methods including PDF and to a website or standard ink on paper.
Languages change. I object to changing words to near opposite the original meaning and using words and phrases out of place and time for the situation. So next time we meet, please forget that absolutely exists in our language, and ask me “Where in the galaxy do you get your ideas?”
Phyllis Irene Radford
aka Irene Radford
aka P.R. Frost
aka C.F. Bentley
For more on this subject, check out my flash fiction short story on the front page today or on my bookshelf if you miss the Thursday rotation.
Phyl blogs on the Bookview Cafe twice a month, usually on Thursdays
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