Tag Archives: words

Just say what you mean!

I’ve taken to meeting with a small group of Bible school students for lunch once a week. We talk about writing, and stories, and the Inklings, etc.

Two weeks ago I talked about the difficulty we all have in writing plainly.

I’m inclined to think that it’s evidence of original sin that writing plainly is so hard.

Objectively, what should be easier than writing down exactly what you mean? It’s your own meaning. Just put it in words.

But it turns out to be one of the hardest things in the world.

We write a sentence, or a story, or a book, and then we look at it. We say, “No, that wasn’t what I really meant. It’s not quite right.” So we change some words.

But that wasn’t quite what we really meant either.

And so we go through revision after revision, deleting and adding words, replacing words, altering sentence length, breaking up and combining paragraphs. Until we finally hammer out something that seems to say (kind of) what we want.

But even when it’s done – even after it’s published (if we’re so lucky) there’s a lingering doubt. “Was that really what I meant to say? Could I have said it better? How would Phil Wade have put it?”

I think the reason is original sin. We’re so perverted in our nature, so blind to our own hearts, that saying what we mean is nearly the hardest thing we can do. (C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has this idea as a central theme.)

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Lo, this only I have found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”

I’m going to post this now, though I probably could have put it better.

A Load of Cock and Bull

“If truth can protect us from jaguars, dragons, demons and preachers, why can’t it protect us from presidential candidates whose cock-and-bull stories rank right up there with the Incas’ and the Mundas’?” — Marty Kaplan, “Cock-and-Bull Candidates” Sept. 28, 2015

What’s the origin of the phrase “cock and bull,” meaning “a load of hooey” (Hoowey? How do you spell that)? One story is about a battle of hype betwixt two inns.

The Cock and the Bull were two of the main coaching inns in the town and the banter and rivalry between groups of travellers is said to have resulted in exaggerated and fanciful stories, which became known as ‘cock and bull stories’. The two hostelries did, and still do, exist.

I gather these inns do, in fact, still exist, but whenever you hear stories like this, you should respond, “Oh, really?” or “Is that so?” Whatever you say, don’t believe the story. They’re almost never true.

As The Phrase Finder points out, “What is missing from the Stony Stratford tale, and this is commonplace in folk-etymological sources that attempt to connect language with a particular place (see by hook and by crook, for example), is any link between the supposed origin and the meaning of the phrase. Why should patrons of the Cock and the Bull have been any more likely to make up fanciful tales than anyone else?”

The actual (or at least much more probable) origin of “cock and bull” is the French term “coq-a-l’âne.” I know. You were just about to say that yourself.

If not the whole nine yards, at least 8.5 of it

[first posted August 29, 2003] Gideon Strauss introduced me to The Phrase Finder, another helpful etymology web site for understanding the origin and true meaning of clichés and phrases. Now, before you stop reading and rush to the site, let me tell you about the phrase you’re going to look for, “the whole nine yards.”

The phrase means “all of it or as much as can be.” If you went the whole nine yards to get something done, you did as much as anyone could do. How did the phrase come about? The Phrase Finder says, “No one knows the origin, although many have an fervent belief that they do. These convictions are unfailingly based on no more evidence than ‘someone told me’.”

There are several possible origins, but not enough evidence to back up any of them conclusively. I like what Evan Morris, the inimitable Word Detective, has to say on this. He says he likes the theory that nine cubic yards is the most a cement mixer can carry. He argues that this theory has the advantage of being concrete.

Speaking of the Word Detective, let me point you to the question I asked him earlier this year on thumbing one’s nose. It’s a small, fleeting thrill to have a question published in your better’s column. Being a small man, I’ve been quite proud of myself for months.