What is etymology and why is it important for writers?

“Etymology” is the study of the origin of words and phrases and how their meanings have changed throughout history. Etymology is important for many reasons. But, for writers, it helps establish authenticity and believability and sets the scene in your fiction story.

Problems arise when writers use a word or phrase in a scene that takes place before people actually started saying it in real life.

Think about a novel set during the Plague. A person approaches someone wearing one of those spooky, pointy beak masks and proclaims, “That’s some far-out headwear!” Unless that character is a time traveler, the dialogue doesn’t fit. There’s an incongruence because “far-out” originated in the jazz scene in the 1950s, not with everyday Europeans of the 1300s.

This example is, of course, pretty obvious. Most cases of a word or phrase being used before it actually entered the lexicon are subtle and easy to miss. For example, in a book I edited recently, I spotted a slang term that people didn’t start to use until nine years after the book takes place. That’s not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, but it was enough to make the dialogue feel off and inauthentic.

When everything else in a scene (clothing, cultural references, etc.) fits with the time setting, then there is a word that’s out of its era, it sticks out. Small details like this can make or break a scene. Gather enough that are off their mark, and they can make or break the whole book.

How to check etymology

I always recommend using the Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s a quick, easy-to-use, and vast resource. Here’s its entry for “far-out,” as an example:

Another quick-and-easy tool is Google Ngram. Type in a word or phrase, and it will search texts and show you when it became popular. Below is what the ngram search for “far-out” looks like. Unfortunately, it only goes back to 1500, so if people were using “far-out” during the Plague, it wouldn’t show it. However, it should work for most of your purposes.

Remember: As you write, you will focus on the words you use. But also focus on when those words arose. This is just as important as other details of your scenes to establish authenticity.

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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Origin of “May you live in interesting times”

interesting times

The coronavirus pandemic has caused me to think a lot lately about the saying “May you live in interesting times,” which is reported to be a Chinese curse. But just where does this adage really come from? We’ll investigate that today.

The Phrase Finder website says: “‘May you live in interesting times’ is widely reported as being of ancient Chinese origin but is neither Chinese nor ancient, being recent and western.”

According to the site, the phrase was originally said by the American politician, Frederic R. Coudert, in 1939. He referred to a letter Sir Austen Chamberlain wrote to him in which he stated:

. . . by return mail he wrote to me and concluded as follows: “Many years ago, I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is ‘May you live in an interesting age.'”

Despite this, it does not appear to actually come from China and is not clear to have existed before Sir Austen Chamberlain allegedly said it.

Note that then it appeared as “interesting age.” By the time Robert F. Kennedy included it in his “Day of Affirmation Address” in Capetown, South Africa, in 1966, it had morphed into “interesting times.”

There is a Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.

Though the curse may not have been Chinese, what RFK said I hope applies today. It certainly feels dangerous and uncertain, but I hope wonderfully creative and positive things come out of this, as well.

 

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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The Difference Between Epidemic vs. Pandemic

epidemic vs pandemic

Epidemic and pandemic have similar meanings, but there is a slight difference between the two. And that difference has to do with size.

Epidemic
An epidemic is a disease that affects many people at the same time and spreads rapidly through a wide geographic area. The World Health Organization has added the clarification to their definition that an epidemic is considered to happen within a region or community.

Pandemic
A pandemic, then, is a disease outbreak that has spread beyond a region or community. A pandemic happens when many are sick at the same time at the level of country, continent, or the whole world.

So then a disease outbreak that sickens many people at the same time across the state of Texas would be considered an epidemic, but a disease outbreak that sickens many people at the same time across the entire United States would be considered a pandemic.

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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How to Use a Coordinating Conjunction with a Comma in a Sentence

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So

Coordinating conjunctions often connect two complete thoughts in a sentence. You can remember these words by the acronym FANBOYS, which stands for For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So.

Let’s go over that by looking at this formula:

COMPLETE THOUGHT + FANBOYS + COMPLETE THOUGHT.

Here’s what that looks like in a sentence:

The cat ate the pizza, and she thought it tasted good.

“The cate at the pizza” is a complete thought, and “she thought it tasted good” is a complete thought (note that they could both stand on their own as separate sentences). The coordinating conjunction “and” joined the two complete thoughts.

Do you notice anything else about the sentence? A comma goes before the coordinating conjunction when it separates two complete thoughts. That’s the last part of our formula. Now it looks like this:

COMPLETE THOUGHT + COMMA + FANBOYS + COMPLETE THOUGHT.

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Let’s look at examples for each of the FANBOYS:

For: The cat ate the pizza, for she was hungry.

And: The cat went to the restaurant, and she ate the pizza.

Nor: The cat does not like pineapple pizza, nor does she like mushroom pizza.

But: The cat doesn’t like mushroom pizza, but she ate it because it was free.

Or: The cat could eat pizza, or she could eat tacos.

Yet: The cat went to the restaurant, yet she could have had a pizza delivered.

So: The cat was really hungry, so she ate four slices of pizza.

To sum up: FANBOYS are words (called “coordinating conjunctions”) that often join two complete thoughts into one sentence. A comma goes before FANBOYS in this situation.

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of book editing, author coaching, and social media packages.

Sign up for the Dot and Dash newsletter to get writing tips and tricks and exclusive deals.  

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How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo Success

Photo of typewriter and the words: NaNo Survival & Success

Hundreds of thousands of people are signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year, just like they do every year. And like every year, most people won’t hit the 50,000-word finish line they’re supposed to reach from November 1 to November 30. Almost 90 percent won’t, if you tally up the scattershot figures.

The biggest reason why is because people don’t plan ahead. That’s the main thing that separates the “winners” from the “losers” (it’s called “winning” if you reach the word count). One group spends hours deliberately preplanning their novel, and the other plops down on November first with a pot of coffee and a couple vague ideas, thinking 50,000 words will magically pour out.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic, folks. But you can finish in time, with a solid first draft, if you spend the time now preparing.

There are three main areas to plan: plot, characters, and setting. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to think about for each section.

Plot
You can get as detailed as you want with your plot planning, but there are some areas you will want to figure out for certain:

  • Genre
  • Premise
  • Beginning
  • Ending
  • Key events in between

Some people will make a scene-by-scene outline that includes all kinds of details and even the position of the moon. They’re called “plotters.” The writers who recoil at the previous thought are called “pantsers,” as in “fly by the seat of their pants.” They sit down and write what comes to them as it comes to them. Under normal circumstances, I tell writers to do what feels best. Either way can be successful. But when you’ve been writing for twenty plus days in a row and your last three lines have come from you falling asleep on the letter Z, you’re going to be thankful you at least outlined your key events.

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Characters
For your story to feel believable and not one dimensional, you’ll want to have thoughtful, fully realized characters. This is why you’ll want to create a character profile for most of them. (The waitress with only three lines gets a pass.)

Your profile should include:

  • Physical characteristics: (eye color, hair color, build, etc.)
  • Life basics: (job, hobbies, etc.)
  • Strengths & weaknesses (physical, mental, and/or emotional)
  • Fun facts (favorite movie, favorite food, etc.)

You won’t need to include every detail about every character in your book, but knowing so much about your characters will help you better assess how they will react in any given situation.

As you create your characters, be sure to invent an antagonist (bad guy) for your protagonist (main character) and at least a few side characters. You’ll also want to think about their relationships with each other. Who is your character’s best friend? Who’s their love interest? Who do they have a positive relationship with? Who do they have a negative relationship with? Who do they tell their secrets to?

Setting
Setting is important to establishing the feeling and mood of a scene. A scene taking place in a shopping mall cafeteria would have a starkly different feeling than one happening in a darkened cave, for example.

Some questions you’ll want to ask yourself about your settings include:

  • Where does the story take place?
  • When does the story take place?
  • Does it take place in many settings or in one setting?
  • How do characters travel from one setting to the next?

You’ll also want to consider your characters’ relationship to settings. A king would have different feelings about his castle’s throne room than the person who is plotting the king’s death, for example. Characters’ relationship to the setting may influence their behavior in the scene.

Organize Your Thoughts
One way to organize all of these details is to use a workbook. I have created one called The One-Month Novel Workbook. It includes 64 pages of worksheets covering all of these topics and more, along with writing-success guides and self-care ideas.

The workbook comes as a digital download and in print. You can learn more about it, and the book-coaching program I have created for this contest, here: https://www.dotanddashllc.com/shop