Shortly before last Christmas, we heard of a place in Gloucester called Gaudy Green. Bit odd, we thought, so my husband looked it up. Apparently it comes from the city’s Roman days. The Latin term gaudium means “joy.” That’s how we learned that gaudy doesn’t have to be bad–nice to know when you’re about to deck your halls.
That revelation inspires me this year to look more deeply at common words of the season. What can we find by studying certain well-used terms?
We often use this term derisively about something that’s a little too much. A bit overdecorated, maybe cheaply, or maybe overused gold. But in addition to sharing an etymological Latin root with “joy,” gaudy may also draw on the old French word for the weld plant, also known as dyers’ weed, for its yellow dyeing properties. So “gaudy” has links to the colour yellow, and to joy and gladness. Why not, then, revel in what glitters?
Sure, this links to feasts and food. But what atmosphere and mood befits this term of the season? Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European root words hint at the sacred, with connections to temples and the divine. At the same time, there’s the old French term feste which means “religious festival, holy day; holiday; market, fair; noise, racket; jest, fun.” As pleasant as quiet time can be, it’s refreshing to think that a properly noisy, clamorous family dinner is also completely appropriate for a religious holiday.
The Germanic root for this pleasant term is murg, meaning “short-lasting.” It’s thought that the meaning evolved based on the principle that time flies when you’re having fun. Anything that doesn’t last (like Christmas, I guess) must be good. More interestingly, during the late 1700s merry developed into slang for sexual activity, such as: “Merry-bout, an incident of sexual intercourse.” Someone tell the Fox News crew that when they insist on wishing everyone a merry Christmas whether they celebrate or not, they’re also wishing them a sexy Christmas.
The word comfort is a bit like the term self-care, and makes me wonder about what’s genuinely comfortable. Is it curling up in a ball or stretching our legs? Helpfully, a look at the Latin root word tells us it comes from the phrase “to strengthen.” Of course–fort is related to “fortify.” When we take comfort, we should be deriving strength. When we give comfort, we should be providing strength. Comfort is not an end, but a means. A rest stop, or a build-up; whatever’s needed.
The angels said Christmas is meant to be about comfort and joy, and those have broader meanings than we realise. In light of that, let us be grateful for what strengthens us, whether noisy or quiet, and for what bring us joy, gaudy or not. Short-lasting though it may be, Christmas contains many moments. We will stow the sad ones to use in future creations, and cherish the happy ones.
Deck your halls as you see fit, friends, and draw strength.
This Week’s Bit of String: Water, chipper, calm, them.
“Miss, where are you from? America—I knew it! Do you know how to shoot guns? Say something, say ‘water.’”
I’ve changed jobs recently, emerged from a spreadsheet jungle and opted to be pelted by howls of “Miss! Miss!” as a secondary school Teaching Assistant again. Negotiating crowds of teenagers is a big change after 19 months working from home. Seeing colleagues deliver clear, targeted lessons and witnessing new provisions to nurture students’ mental health makes me feel better about the world.
I worked at the same large local comprehensive school more than five years ago. This is a whole new group of students, slightly less mature than I remember their earlier cohorts being, because obviously they’ve had to deal with Covid disruption. Students still miss school for positive tests, teachers have long absences and our most vulnerable students can’t abide cover teachers. The windows are all open as the temperatures dip into the single digits (Celsius) so throughout the lessons we burrow into coats and scarves; a Year 11 girl shares her fuzzy white gloves so her friend can wear one while she wears the other.
Slang has evolved since I was last working with young adults. They still use “safe” and “wicked.” But there’s also “chipper” for when they want you to think they’ve understood something: “Nah, Miss, I’m chipper, I’ll start working in a minute.” And “calm” to describe someone they like. Maybe it’s just that they know they can get away with things around a “calm” teacher, but I suspect there are other ways they feel safer with him or her, too.
It makes sense that after the last few years “calm” might be one of the highest terms of esteem used by young people. And that “sick” has gone out of fashion.
Supporting in different lessons means I get to learn, too. In a GCSE class about Maths vocabulary, the teacher shared that “Algebra” comes from an Arabic term meaning “reunion of broken parts.” I love hearing that stuff. The kids were busy sharpening rulers under the table or doodling or exchanging gloves or peeling labels off glue sticks, but with gentle prompting they got a few notes down, and the disparate parts came together a little.
The pandemic seems to have given my school cover to broaden its aims from academic achievement to include more nurturing and tolerance. While the government was forced to acknowledge that students couldn’t be expected to pass the same rigorous exams due to lockdown disruptions, there was more leave to consider their mental state. Consequently, more students have Time Out options, to spend a few minutes cooling down in an alternative classroom designed for that purpose. When I last worked at school, students would get an official warning and be one step closer to detention if they didn’t have a pen. Now, all teachers have equipment to loan.
The fact that I’m American serves a similar purpose. My slight accent piques their curiosity, forces them to acknowledge I’m here, lets them make fun of my pronunciation and feel more comfortable. “Water” is a giveaway for an American accent. I can try to make the T more clipped, less like a D, but it sounds ridiculous and forced. When I first emigrated our street was called Water Lane and my accent embarrassed me every time I told my address to local people. I oblige the kids when they want to hear it, though. They like to feel superior in something, even if I have lived on this Small Island longer than they’ve been alive.
I have a stash of writing utensils too, of course. Lessons start much better when I can quietly check with a student that they have the equipment they need and lend what’s necessary, rather than them instantly getting into trouble.
“I bet you still say ‘water’ funny.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t quite got rid of all my Americanisms.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Miss.”
So they get to play the part of being generous and hospitable, too.
One successful result of the school’s efforts to support well-being may be the diversity accepted within the student population. While it’s a rural area and not very multicultural, students support their friends of colour and Black Lives Matter. I also got to have a discussion with a Year 11 prefect about her witchcraft practice, and of course the crux of my job is to support students with various disabilities.
With a designated unisex bathroom now on site, other students are able, more and more, to inhabit more comfortable roles. Previously it was agony for certain teens to deal with bodies that were developing in an unwanted direction while their thoughts and preferences veered a different way, and everything around them reminded them how they ought to be. There’s a student in most of my Year 11 lessons whom I’ve tried to remember not to apply gendered language to, but I slip up sometimes since my ways of referring to subsets within the group are old-fashioned.
“Here you go, ladies.” I hand out the GCSE Language practice paper to the two students in the back.
“Non-binary,” corrects one, without even looking up.
“Of course. I’m so sorry, I’ll try to keep doing better.” They shrug and get on with the work. I hope that they’re always around people they can safely express their identity to. People who are, one might say, “calm.”
After all, I’m feeling more and more free to say “water” in my slightly redneck American way. That’s one word I won’t convincingly be able to fix, but I can work on a few others. Having to mind my language puts me in a much more writing-centred frame of mind than when I was dealing with billing and numbers. Have you been picking up any new lingo lately?
When I was thirteen and my youngest sister eight, she asked me, her eyes alight and eager, ‘What’s your favourite swear? Is it the f…u…c…k one?’
Even during a slightly rebellious phase, I didn’t swear for fun. I tend to swear when events leave me little recourse. Like when an amazing piece doesn’t make a competition longlist.
Back when I fielded my sister’s question, NYPD Blue was newish on the air. Blazing TV Guide editorials argued whether its use of the f-word was an appropriate reflection of the setting, or a symptom of the nation’s damnation. One letter compared the language on NYPD Blue to the moment in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler used the d-word.
Now GWTW is controversial for glossing over slavery, normalising marital rape, and glorifying the roots of the KKK. Not because a protagonist commented that he didn’t ‘give a damn.’ To me, this discloses a long habit of obsessing over language when the actual subject matter should be the issue.
A Tale of Two Comedians
Fast forward about 25 years (sheesh, 25 years!) and comedian Samantha Bee uses the c-word on cable TV. Is this just the progression of opening language barriers, from d- to f- to c-words? Is this one truly more grievous than other oft-used derogatory names for women that reduce us to a single body part?
Many have highlighted false equivalencies between this incident and Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweet–the one about Valerie Jarrett, as there seem to be a few to choose from. It’s quite partisan. For every Roseanne I name, you can accuse a Samantha Bee. For every time I want to call out Ted Nugent or Scott Biao, right wingers may cite a rapper or pop star who bad-mouthed conservatives.
Trump—Weinstein. Deplorable—Libtard. It’s like tennis, but (to borrow a phrase from Four Weddings and a Funeral) with much smaller balls.
Let’s call the whole thing off. We can’t call it even, because having someone who says a bad word on one side isn’t the same as having a number of white supremacists on the other. Still, can’t we admit human beings are prone to loss of temper and excesses of vulgarity? It’s not about saying there are ‘good people on both sides,’ but we need to remember there are, in fact, people on both sides and stop reducing political opponents to animals or lady parts. We need to weigh the substance of those people’s message rather than the language it’s couched in.
What’s in a [Rude] Name
It’s perhaps unexpected, a writer’s blog suggesting we ignore words. Of course we spend a lot of time finding the exact right ones, and I get quite dorky about which are correct and preferable.
For example, I checked out some of these terms on EtymOnline (oh, my poor browser history…) In the 1300s, the c-word was a medical term for female anatomy, thought to come from pre-Latin words meaning hollow place, slit, or sheath. Not very flattering, but I’m unconvinced it’s more insulting than less reviled terms.
What about the relatively uncensored word whore, you ask? Its roots are early German, meaning ‘one who desires.’ This jolted me when I read it, because I’m working on a novel about Eve. Part of her curse was to desire her husband, who would then have dominion over her. Eve is basically characterised in the Bible as One Who Desires, and as Western religion assumes all women inherit Eve’s curse, all women are whores. How convenient.
It gets worse, too. The word seems to have sharpened its meaning by taking in a later German masculine term for adultery, and then a middle English word for filth. If all that injustice makes you want to swear, I won’t judge.
These aren’t the only words people haven’t delved fully into. Idiot used to be a disparaging clinical term for the mentally challenged, and berk is short for the Cockney rhyming slang equating to the c-word itself—yet it’s used in completely different contexts, even popping up in the Harry Potter series.
Unless we all want to look properly at the words we use, there’s not much point assigning a random few so much importance in the media.
When No Other Word Will Do
I turned to Twitter to see if other writers might disagree and assign swears more power than I do. But like me, whether for or against using them, no one had feelings so pervasive they wished to convert anyone else. Here are a few answers:
If I believe the character would swear, the character swears. I like to think my characters dictate their language to me.—historian, writer and actor Christine Caccipuoti
Some characters would sound false (to me!) if they said ‘oh dear’ or ‘oh god’ or anything else… Who decided these words were bad anyway? —Jennifer Riddalls, copywriter and Writers Forum Flash Fiction winner 2017
What comes out of your mouth reveals what’s inside your heart / mind / soul, but I’m currently writing a story in which characters swear (a bit) because of who they are and the extremity of the situations.—Fantasy writer Marcus Bines, published in the Shadows of the Sea anthology
Even if I didn’t write YA I wouldn’t swear in my writing. I think it’s unnecessary but doesn’t bother me to read swear words in books. There are plenty of synonyms that work just fine—Kelsey Atkins, author of the YA fantasy series Finding the Light
I try to choose stronger words and rely on physical descriptions and reactions to convey strong emotions. —Literary fiction writer and Insecure Writers’ Supporter George R McNeese
I go by the same rule as I do for similes and metaphors. Once a page, tops, and only if you must. personally I find similes and metaphors far more offensive than a good swear…! —short story phenomenon and photographer Jason Jackson
In my current piece on William Morris in Iceland, the decision was already made for me: Morris was well known for his temper and swearing. —Laurie Garrison, Founder of the vital Women Writers School
I enjoy a well-timed swear myself. It’s part of the joy of language. —Alex Clark, Writers HQ rep and Cheltenham Flashers Club founder
Sometimes it’s more like a spoken punctuation rather than actual words —scifi and fantasy writer Mark Huntley-James
All words are permitted in proper context. Trust your reader.—Stephen Hines
Words are words and they are there to be used. However, on the page they can be a distraction and too many can ruin a good piece of writing. So I am selective but I use ALL of them.–Stephen Tuffin, flash fiction author and writing lecturer who’s been known to give students a class on ‘Choosing Your Fucks Carefully.’
I respect writers who try to use words other than curses. It sometimes feels like a cheat, doesn’t it, to use a single, often body function-related word to encompass a grave situation? On the other hand, there are a lot of characters who will swear. And to all of us, the characters are paramount, not the language they happen to use.
In the end, words are just tools to chisel our characters. They’re the clothes we dress a story in to send it out to the world. We mustn’t get distracted by them. Let’s mind immigrant children alone in detention centres, plastics going in our oceans, racism in our institutions, intolerance in universities, hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, social anxiety in our kids, and guns going into our schools. Let’s mind all that, and let the language go where it must.