5 English Writing Basics to Remember

writing-basics-title

There’s a lot to be said for writing well.

I’ll admit, if you read anything in Morgan Freeman’s voice, it’ll sound cool. That’s just a fact. But poor writing is poor writing, and not expressing yourself properly can be detrimental to the point you are trying to make. Regardless of how good your intentions, or useful your information, or how great your internal Morgan Freeman voice is; your words will suffer.

It’s easy to forget in this modern world of information overload how important the fundamentals of English really are. You’ve got your basics such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Beyond that comes word choice and vocabulary. Beyond even this you enter the realms of wordplay and articulation (the fun of semantics).

The building blocks of English are timeless, even when the language itself can adapt and evolve with each generation.

I like to read something to jog my memory about writing structure rules whenever I’m feeling a bit of writer’s block. We need to know the rules before we can break them (as is sometimes necessary).

So, with that in mind, the lovely people at GrammarCheck.Net have come up with this lovely infographic to help to jog your memory about some of the basics to help make your writing better. For most of us, this will be simple revision. The odd refresher here and there is always welcome in the Itchy Quill house!

5 Basic Rules of English Writing That Everyone Should Know (Infographic)
Source: www.grammarcheck.net

 

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2017

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Grammar Cheat Sheet

grammar-title

Who hasn’t had one of those days where you proofread and spot a ton of mistakes you’d normally never make?

Nobody is perfect. Less than that, none of us can be fully capable of spotting our own mistakes all the time, or even remembering all the rules for this wonderful language we speak; English.

Sometimes the biggest struggle with writing can be the act of physically sitting down and forcing yourself to spew something worthwhile. But there are other times where we manage to get the words down, only to hear that it might be riddled with mistakes. This could be down to exuberance, lack of care, speed, or anything.

Yet the fact remains; good writing needs good grammar.

So, to help you with this, we managed to find a wonderful cheat sheet over at grammarcheck.net that covers 21 of the key rules to remember.

We hope it helps you!

Bye Grammar Mistakes! 21 Rules to Remember (Infographic)
Source: www.grammarcheck.net

What I Learned From Finishing The First Draft Of My Novel

Manilla Church Title

So I did it. Yeah yeah, it’s finished. It was painful, hilarious, testing, stressful, simple, complicated, disastrous and most importantly; fun!

Regardless of whether it goes on to be published or not, there’s a lot of lessons to take from the experience (some of them expected, some of them surprising).

It’s Easier Than I Thought

So when I started out on this journey, I didn’t know whether I’d actually be able to get to the end. I’ve started many a story before, and normally one of three things happens:

1. I didn’t have a large enough idea, and it turns into a short story / novella.

2. I have another idea half way through, and then switch all my attention to that one.

3. I lose interest / grow intimidated by my own idea, and give up.

The struggle is real. And yet, with this little nasty, I managed to keep going and finish it. I started it on the 5th of March, and it was finished by the 2nd of June. It sits at 102,508 words, so it needs work. But getting there was a lot easier than I had anticipated. How I got there was simple.

"It's not rocket science, honestly"

“It’s not rocket science, honestly”

Setting Targets Pushed Through My Procrastination

I started out small, forcing myself to write 500 words a day. Easy peasy, lemons are squeezy. Then, once my brain and fingers were on side, tricked by my awesome scheme into seeing how easy 500 words was, I upped the count to 700. ‘You call that a challenge’ they cried, drunk on word counts and punctuation.

I ended up banging out 1,000 words a day, averaging 1,150 words a day in April and May. I know this, because I made a spreadsheet that I could log my totals into every night. This seems geeky, I know. But hear me out. I’m a child of sandbox computer games, so my brain responds to simple stimuli like upgrades, xp, and stats. If I can develop this real world data to reflect the effort I’m putting into myself and one of my hobbies, it gives me personally, an extra level of satisfaction. Gone are the wasted days of thinking about wanting to write. In their place, a tangible, real-time record of every word I’ve written.

It might not be everyone’s flavour, but it certainly worked for me.

Nerd Alert

Nerd Alert

Write It, Warts and All

The only way I could realistically squeeze a thousand words into my day (taking me anywhere from 30-60 minutes) was to just write them out, knowing I’d be back at a later date to edit. Unrestricted word slamming, churning word-chunder onto the page without stopping to wipe it up. Groovy.

For the purists out there, I know this might sound like a nightmare. A friend of mine prefers to write the detail now, rather than know it will need to be returned to later. For me, this was too much of a start / stop approach, and I’d quickly be demotivated as the mammoth task facing me would seem like an overbearing mountain. Hence by doing it my way, each day felt like a tangible step in the right direction, even if I knew what I’d written might be dogshit.

Also, this gives you the chance to rant out key facts, feelings, scene setting or monologue and know it will be returned to and tidied up later.

Sure, if a single scene feels like it needs attention, or the desire to edit is so strong you can’t fight it, then there’s nothing to say you can’t do that. It’s flexible.

Just remember, a thousand words a day gets you to a novel in about three months. That’s decent. Then you’ve got three months to edit. At that pace, you could write 20 novels in your twenties alone!

It also helps break the story down into sections, instead of one long road. First draft done? OK. Now, on to draft two. Instead of stopping every few paces to check your laces are tied, you’re sprinting to the end and worrying about it then. Sure, you might have more blisters, and the laces will probably be frayed, but you got there. You did it.

"Wooo"

“Wooo”

Fail to Prepare and Prepare to Fail

I read a post recently on the wonderful Terrible Minds (Chuck Wendig’s personal writing blog) about the need to plan your story. The post is actually by another writer named Rob Hart, and he uses the analogy of building a house when talking about constructing a story. In his own words:

It was like if you’re building a house, but the blueprints are constantly getting changed, and the builders aren’t communicating, and suddenly there’s a toilet next to the fridge. And you have to figure out how to move it, but once you do, it screws with the plumbing lines… (read the original post here)

I can’t think of a more lovely way to put it; once you’ve set stuff up, moving characters, threads, plots, pivots, all of it can be disastrous if not thought about and juggled with sense and purpose. And both of these things come from a solid plan. Though it’s tempting to plan as you go, and write on the coat-tails of inspiration, you’ll hit trouble if you haven’t set out in advance, clearly, the threads and pathways your story will take.

When I started out writing the story, I had a brief idea, and a few characters in mind. I wrote these out in a notebook, then left them there. I then took a long train ride and pondered the greater story (with no writing) – my thinking being that I’d work through the gunk in the filter and get to the good stuff.

Then I slept on it, and thought over it some more. The gutsy stuff I’d come up with didn’t seem so necessary in the cold of the following morning. So I erased a few random details, and looked to string together the rest in a different way. Then again. And again.

I tried to explain the story to a friend, and realised it had no purpose, and no overall meaning. Ultimately, you should be able to sum up your story in one sentence. I went away again and pondered this, simplifying and removing and adding until I had it.

I ended up with a story that had a start, a middle, and an end. I planned this out by hand, then on my PC.

Finally, I was ready to start writing, and the rest took care of itself. It changed (a lot), but having a base, and an idea of what was going to happen, when, and why, meant I had the minerals to concoct and adapt. The elements were the story components, and once identified, it made this particular method of word alchemy that much easier. And crucially, the toilet never ended up in the kitchen!

There were other complications though...

There were other complications though…

90,000 Isn’t So Big

In fact, it’ll creep up on you in no time. I planned the story to fall into three clearly identified sections of 30,000 words each. Each of these sections was divided further into three 10,000 word portions. This really helped with the planning and staging, and mean’t I had clear signposts to measure my progress, and make sure I didn’t waffle on in certain parts.

In the end, this total disappeared into the rear-view mirror, and I know for sure I’ll need to cut it down once the editing begins.

Still, it’s nice to have too much and not enough.

"OK, no need to show off"

“OK, no need to show off”

It Came to Life

It really did. I’d sleep and dream about the characters, and wake up in the middle of the night with great ideas. I’d scramble through my bedside table finding my pens and paper to jot down these ideas, only to wake in the morning and realise it didn’t fit, or that I’d already written it out like that.

The ideas grew, and the story started to tell me what was happening. Ideas came to me seemingly from nowhere, ideas that slotted in perfectly and tied up loose ends I didn’t realise I had.

Once the ball was rolling, and I was regularly checking in with my characters, everything just seemed to gather its own head of steam.

Once you get going, you won't be able to stop

Once you get going, you won’t be able to stop

It’s Possible to Hate a Wordfile

By the end, I was dog tired, and completely and utterly ready to finish. It took more will power than at any other moment to finally finish it. I knew the ending, and knew exactly how I wanted it to end. So creativity wasn’t the issue. It was the effort. The effort of knowing that it needed finishing, even after all the energy and time I’d put into it. Like it was a spoiled child or something. I was just desperate to be able to say the words; I’ve finished. It’s done. It’s over.

The funny thing is, now it is over, I realise in reality it is actually only just beginning. Following the advice of Stephen King, it sits in a desk drawer at the moment, maturing and hopefully not stagnating and fermenting. My hope is I’ll open the draw in August and find a novel waiting for me that I can be proud of, and one I can work on through the next few months and finish.

I guess we’ll wait and see…

surasakiStock

I’d love to hear about your experiences writing, and the struggles, stories, or surprises you have encountered. Please comment below.

Special thanks to Anamwong, Marco Torresin, Marin, Stockimages, surasakiStock, and tiverylucky @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2016

Finding Translation; Investing in Your Future With a Second Language

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你好! I have been studying Chinese with extra vigour recently, and I have to say that watching a page of seemingly meaningless characters turn into a page of slightly less meaningless characters gives a real sense of accomplishment and a true moment of ‘I-did-this’-ness. Why am I learning Chinese? For that matter, why am I learning the traditional and not the simplified version? Well, I live in a country where traditional Mandarin is the official language, and so firstly it would be darn rude of me not to, and secondly, the opportunities to learn it from native speakers for relatively cheap are rife. My cup doth overfloweth.
Having learned languages in the past (French and German), and having been an English teacher (or as the industry would have us call ourselves “language enabler”) I have a pretty rounded view of what it means to learn a new language from both views of the whiteboard.
Why do people learn a second language? For work? For social motives? To emigrate? For fun? For brain food…?
I come from a city in England with a strong mix of cultures from around the world. It is a place full of pockets of different cultures, which is only heightened by the constant stream of foreign students who head to the city for either of the universities, or to study English in one of the billion or so language schools.
It shouldn’t be forgotten however that each of those students is fluent in another language, and that English is their second language. That is a whole group of people who get to travel to a distant land for work or knowledge.
Why shouldn’t we, as English speakers, give ourselves the great wonderful experience?
Now we know some of the reasons why people do learn a language. Here are some reasons why we should learn a new language…
ahem...

ahem… “fun”

It’s impressive
Who isn’t impressed  by the sight of a foreigner, in any land, being able to bust out some mad local lingo? It’s a skill that takes time to master, but once you have a language, you can channel the Fonzie and be the cool kid everyone wants to hang out with.
If not, it will at least impress the locals, who you will have a slightly better conversation with after you’ve shown you’re not just there to try and speak English louder and louder until you make your point. You’re actually trying. My bad Chinese is often a wonderful icebreaker with old ladies in markets.
Obviously, make sure you know what you're saying...

Obviously, make sure you know what you’re saying…

You gain perspective on another culture
Who hasn’t heard the one about Eskimos and how many words they’ve got for snow? Though this popular theory was thoroughly debunked recently, the idea remains the same; a people’s language reflects their culture. Culture comes from the environment, the history, the traditions, and the people themselves. If culture is the story, the language is obviously the words used to tell that story. History, and the journey of it’s people, is inevitably locked in it’s words. By learning the language, you are learning the culture. It’s inescapable. Just the fact that they have words for certain things means that those things are common, or were common, enough to warrant verbal expression.
Living in another culture advances your understanding of the world. Immersing yourself in the ways of others helps to flesh out your character, giving you new insight into different world views and mentalities. Some are happy to spend their lives in an area 50 miles from where they were born. I have constantly chased the sunset, and language learning is a tool to facilitate that adventure.

“Anyone know the Marathi for help?!”

It opens doors in life and work
On a personal level, I cannot visit another country without thinking at some point ‘I wish I knew the language’. You get a real sense that you are only experiencing the surface of a place, and that if you could only scratch that surface, there would be a world of wonder under there, just waiting to be seen. Imagine how much more you could gain from a trip to Paris if you could chat with an old artist in his mother tongue in some smokey cafe, or sit and play dominoes with some older ladies in Bangkok? These stories, these experiences, are the bread and butter of travel. A little language goes a long way in these moments, and they are the things that will linger long after the tan fades.
As for work, you make yourself infinitely more employable by being able to speak a second language well. We  live in the global village, like it or not. A range of different industries now rely upon their ability to communicate worldwide, and to establish such links they require staff capable of bi-lingual expression. You can’t expect the world to learn English, after all. As an example, China is a vastly influential industrial nation whose current economic boom has meant the expansion of many companies to oversees trade. Though the English learning industry is currently exploding within its borders, there is still a dearth of people with an English level necessary for business correspondence. If you can appear to your boss and say ‘it’s cool, I got this’ and then rile off some supreme mandarin (tones and everything), you can go right ahead and upgrade your hero status from ‘Nigel’ to ‘Thor’ as you close the Wang account.
Go  me!

Go me!

It increases creativity
Your first language, like the ability to walk and the ability to wash yourself, is a skill you learned at a young age. It is the fundamental way you express yourself, and many people live their whole lives utilising only that initial guise. But language, like any skill, has different forms. We can walk, but we can also run, jog, skip, pirouette, jive, samba, walk like an Egyptian, crawl, slither, wriggle…
Recent evidence has demonstrated a potential link between second language learning and divergent thinking. That is, how to think in alternative ways. This study focused specifically on the difference in foreign language learning from school learning, and how learning a foreign language as an adult often involves fluency, elaboration, originality and flexibility; all skills that can help you develop your inner Van Gogh/Picasso/Lady Gaga.
Bonjour, I'm an artist!

Bonjour. I’m an artist!

It unlocks new horizons
Though language, as stated previously, opens new horizons in the literal sense of enabling a fuller travelling experience, it can also open them in a figurative sense too.
For example, if you are a lover of classical fiction and are reading your way through the western canon, you can expect to encounter a range of writers from non-English speaking countries such as Dumas (French), Hesse (German) and Dostoyevsky (Russian). Perhaps you are more interested in Classic Chinese poetry and can’t decide who was greater, Li Bai or Du Fu? Their wonderfully romantic imagery tickles the imagination to this day (that is, if you love drinking and moon light).

“Who doesn’t? AmIright?”

If you are able to read in these native language, you can read the classic stories as they were written, not as they were translated. Authors choose their language carefully, and when this is translated, some of the meaning may be lost as some words don’t have direct translations in English. Most modern translations are fantastically well done, but that doesn’t mean the original doesn’t give something more.
What about world music? Or cinema? There is a profusion of different artistic areas in the world that you will never encounter if you can’t understand them. Learning a language is a key to the arts!
You can study or live abroad
This is my second time living away from my home country, and each adventure has brought with it a whole range of experiences (some expected, some not) that have shaped me and my mentality. I am thankful for these experiences, but there are always more to be had. With a couple more languages under my belt, I could fit seamlessly into tens of others countries and be amongst the people.
In Taiwan there is a great relationship between the universities there and some of the big ones abroad in countries such as America, Germany and the UK. Many students move both ways to study amongst a different culture, and this requires the learning of either traditional Mandarin or English. Even those whose language might not be perfect before they leave will see a huge improvement by the time they return, as to be amongst the language is the best way to learn.
For a work example, if your company has an office abroad and a promotion comes up in that city, they are probably going to be looking for people who will relish the challenge and won’t struggle to adapt. If you can demonstrate a competence in the native language of that place, surely that makes you a front runner?
...should have studied

…should have studied

You can improve your English
Ok, so this may seem a silly reason to learn a foreign language, but stick with me, Quillers. By looking at the grammar structures, how vocabulary is made and how we gain meaning from context, you are wiring your brain to analyse language in a critical way. This mindset will transfer naturally into your first language, as the human brain will always apply new knowledge against that which is known. You will find yourself trying the new rules out on your own language, and even if they aren’t compatible, you will be equipped to critically analyse your own language for it’s own rules. How many of you know the difference between the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous? It is rather a tenuous difference, I know. Hence why many of you probably aren’t familiar with the terms, even though your knowledge of the difference is there, buried in your unconscious mind.
Brain fuel

Brain fuel!

It can save your life
Ok, so this definition needs to be stretched as far as is physically possible. I am not trying to say that one day you will be trapped in a house that is burning down when suddenly you use some Spanish to carefully negotiate with the fire and save your life. No, not at all, (though there is room for an argument that knowing another language could save your life in some situations, such as being held hostage…).
I want to focus here more on the argument that being bi-lingual could actually help to prevent the onset of brain degenerating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
There is a body of evidence to support the idea that learning a second language in early life could help thinking in old age, and by extension this could not only improve your standard of living as an elderly person, but also keep you safer and help you to avoid dangerous situations too. Another study suggests that quality of life is vastly extended, which would also imply a longer life as the longer you are living well, the less chance you have of dying young from health related issues.
Money can't buy you love, but language can give you youth and happiness

Money can’t buy you love, but language can give you youth and happiness

Phew! That was a lot, right? I almost feel like I’ve done enough learning for one day!
Tell me though, who amongst you can speak a language other than English? Is English even your first language anyway? Do you agree with these points or are you thinking I missed something?
For the language learners amongst you, watch this space, as the IQ team will be posting a list of the best apps and programs for language learning, in the near future. Find it here.
Every day’s a school day!
Freeze frame

Freeze frame

Special thanks to arztsamui, Chiwat, graur razvan ionut, imagerymajestic, Naypong, samuiblue, stockimages and Witthaya Phonsawat @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

✒Idi…ummmm; The history of some of our favourite idioms (and OK) ✏

Idioms logo

The English language; a diverse and ever-changing beast. As a teacher, I am often confronted with how perplexing our great language can be, and how some of the words that inhabit its planes of communication are far from the lands of sanity. As a mish-mash of various languages, English is very much a patchwork quilt of Latin, French, Germanic, Greek and Polynesian origins. And that is just the start. Trace the history far enough and you will find many more influences too.

Even in our contemporary world, English still insists on ‘loaning’ words when a better one doesn’t already exist in the language, such as Karaoke. New words find their way into our language too from popular culture and general life around us. Anyone who has ever seen The Thick of It will be familiar with Malcolm Tucker’s classic ‘omnishambles’. A word which is only as old as that show, invented to describe a “situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations” according to Oxforddictionaries.com.

This wonderful flexibility is arguably one of the reasons why English is such a popular language, and spoken so widely. But, don’t you ever wonder where some of the sayings come from?

Specifically, I like to look at the history of idioms. An idiom is a figure of speech used to mean something other than its literal meaning. In the English language it is estimated there are over 25,000 idioms in use!

That would be a seriously long-read if we tried to define them all! So, let’s start small. Here is the meaning for five famous idioms (and for one famous phrase that isn’t an idiom but has an interesting history).

“Mum, your flan was an omnishambles”
“Aaaargh!”

Always a bridesmaid, never a Bride

Lets start with an easy one, the meaning of which is exactly what it says; someone always being present at other people’s weddings but never having their own. It is often used by old, cruel mothers to mock their unwed female offspring… generally to make single women feel that they are unwanted or cannot find love 😦

It was first used in the Victorian dance hall song Why Am I Always a Bridesmaid by Fred W. Leigh. The phrase gained popularity after being used in a comedic Listerine advert. It shows a picture of a woman named ‘Edna’ under the slogan ‘always a  bridesmaid, never a bride’. She stares forlornly into the distance as she contemplates how her halitosis prevents her from finding love. The solution? Buy Listerine mouthwash and watch the suitors pile in!

Of course, it can't fix everything

Of course, it can’t fix everything

Ride Shotgun

Who remembers their days as a kid/student/adult/parent, scrambling with your friends or siblings for the honour of riding in the passenger seat, next to the driver? Of course, “I called shotgun” is the way of letting all others know you have earned this mighty privilege without the need for bloodshed.

This saying comes from the ol’ Wild West, a time and place where life was much more dangerous than today. If you were sitting next to the driver you would be expected to wield a shotgun so as to defend the stagecoach (the transport of the day) from bandits and looters. More pressure than merely map reading!

“I’m just here for the free ride”

Basket Case

This is a phrase often used to describe someone who is mentally unhinged. It was also the name of a big hit for Pop-Punk trio Green Day in 1994.

This is supposedly a term from World War I, used to describe someone who has lost all their limbs. The first recorded use of the term in official use was by the US government in denial of this practice. In 1919 The US command on public information issued this statement:

“The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.” according to all-that-is-interesting.com

“Yeah, none at all”

Hold Your Horses!

This means ‘wait a moment’, and is often used to calm someone who is showing overt keenness or exuberance.

It is believed to come from around 800BC. A line in book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is commonly translated as “Antilochus – you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” That is, apart from the original translation in 1598 that has it as “contain thy horses”. I’m not sure why I prefer if I’m honest. Either way, this Antilochus fellow sounds like a bit of a bad ass. Those horses though…

“Contain this!”

Close, But No Cigar

This is another way of saying that you only just missed out. It was a near miss!

There was a time, many moons ago, when cigars were the preferred choice by fairground stalls as their prizes instead of the large, fluffy plush toys you will find yourself winning these days. One can only imagine if the cigars would also be over-sized and cheaply made… That said, winning was much more impossible than it is now, with games often rigged to make them even harder! The first time it was written down was in a script for the film version of Annie Oakley in 1935,  appearing as “close Colonel, but no cigar” according to phrases.org

From then on it gained popularity and appeared in newspapers from 1949 onwards.

So, it comes from con artists, tricking you into playing a game you were destined to lose. Can you trust anyone?

“We’re out of snake oil, but why not enjoy some of this lovely air. Yours for only $99!”

OK

This, of course, is not an idiom, but it is an extremely popular expression that also has a rather random history.

Used initially in American, then global English, OK is now a staple in many different languages all across the world. It can mean ‘I understand’, or it can mean something is not very good, as in “the karate film was ok”. It can mean I am fine, and can even be a friendly way of saying hello, as in ‘Hey guys, you ok?”

So, onto its origins. There are myriad explanations for where this expression comes from: it could come from the Greek olla kalla, from German alles korrekt or Ober-Kommando, from Finnish oikea, from the Haitian port “Aux Cayes”, from Latin omnes korrecta, from Chocktaw okeh, from a Puerto Rican rum named “Aux Quais”, from Scotland och aye, from Louisiana French au quai, from Wolof waw kay, from Mandingo O ke. There are countless other stories too, increasing the legend of OK; initials on biscuits, branding on cattle, ‘Old Kinderhook’ being the nickname of president Martin Van Buren, ‘0 killed’ being the report of the night’s death toll in WWI or American Civil War, ‘Orl Korrect’ military reporting indicating that troops were in good order, or even ship builders marking wood for the ‘Outer Keel’.

The truth appears to be much more simple than any of that, however. In 1963 a famous etymologist named Professor Allen Walker Read published a book called American Speech. In it, he draws the conclusion that OK effectively started out as a prank.

On March 23rd, 1839, the editor of The Boston Morning Post published a humorous article about a ridiculous organisation named the Anti-Bell Ringing Association (ABRS). They were campaigning to have the laws of dinner bell ringing changed, and OK was used in this article as a shortened version of ‘Oll-Korrect’, or ‘all correct’. At the time it was not uncommon for abbreviations to change the spelling of words, such as ‘KG’ meaning no go (know go) and ‘OW’ meaning all right (Oll Write).

These witty abbreviations are essentially the old world’s LOL and BRB.

“ROFL!”

So, that’s us for this post. Any phrases you think have an interesting story but you didn’t see up here today? Or perhaps you have a phrase you would like us to look into? As always, feel free to leave a comment. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Thanks to mentalfloss.com, all-that-is-interesting.com and phrases.org.uk for the inspiration for this post.

Special thanks to David Castillo Dominici, imagerymajestic, num_skyman, olovedog, stockimages, Tina Phillips and Sira Anamwong @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

Tokens of Our Time; The History of Some of Our Favourite Symbols

In 2012, I spent a summer in Brighton, UK, teaching English in a small scale language school with bags of charm but ageing resources. My class was filled with about ten 16 year olds, real cool kids away from home for a summer of language learning, beach-side romance and a few adventures to carry back to their respective homelands.

One afternoon we went to the attic room to use the listening suite. There was a vast collection of audio cassette and VCR tapes, but not a CD nor DVD to be seen.

Their desks were all fitted with embedded tape players, with individual headphone sets and audio control buttons. They had free roam of the wonderfully categorized shelves of materials, and as this lesson required no planning, I was expecting to be able to fill the time with reading while I casually supervised their progress. I was wrong.

Within a few minutes, hands were being raised and I was being told about the same problem.

“Sir, my player’s broken”.

I’d walk over, check the tape, and see that whoever had used it previously had failed to rewind it. I’d put the tape in and ask the students to rewind. They would hit the ‘skip back’ button. Nothing would happen, so they’d assume it was still broken.

It dawned on me; these teenagers had never used tape players in their life! In fact, their understanding of that technology was so absent, they believed it was possible to actually skip tracks in a way similar to CDs!

Those teenagers were digital natives. To them, the symbols on a laptop, TV, iPhone were all invented purely for those devices. I felt pity for them, but then realised for myself how I had done much the same thing when I was a child. Did I truly know the history of the symbols I saw every day? Had my grandmother laughed when I didn’t recognise the ‘L’ in the £ sign? Did my Science teacher chuckle at the fact I didn’t recognise Norse History on my telephone keypad?

I had to know more, so here is the Itchy Quill History lesson on some famous symbols and their origins!

ampersand-hiStuart MilesThe ampersand and pound sign

What do London, the & symbol and the £ sign have in common? Yes, they are all very popular in England, but more importantly, they were all invented by Romans. Ok, ok, So you can’t invent a city, but London, or rather Londinium, was a very successful experiment in replicating traditional Roman methods of living, but overseas. All three were also opportunities for ancient Romans to demonstrate their remarkable skill in design, ingenuity and style.

See, the ampersand is essentially a highly stylized version of the Latin word for and, Et, invented by a fellow named Marcus Tullius Tiro. He didn’t give it the catchy name however, you can blame the true lovers of Latin – Victorian school children – for that. In the time of Queen Victoria, the symbol was essentially treated as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Children would chant the alphabet through rote learning with the ending being “and per se and”. This literally translates as ‘and, in itself, and’. Children being children, they couldn’t wait to finish the chant and be the first one to get to the jelly and custard at break time, and so the words ended up blending together to make ampersand.

As for the £ sign, that little guy is essentially just a fancy pants ‘L’. Those of us born in modern times will find it harder to recognise, as practising this style, known as roundhand, becomes less and less promoted in schools. Why L? Well, it’s down to those Romans again. They had a unit of weight called the ‘libre’, and the £ sign is merely an abbreviation (which is the reason for the one or sometimes two dashes across the middle of the £). Interestingly, the libre is also the namesake of the lb measurement of weight too.

So, Ancient Rome… not just nudity, baths and hedonism.

Boy, us Romans invented most of this puny language you call 'English'. We smite you with Latin - basiate culos meos!

Boy, us Romans invented most of this puny language you call ‘English’. We smite you with Latin – basiate culos meos!

powerThe Power Sign

We’ve all stared at it knowingly for years, touched it on countless instruments, but never truly known what it means. In truth it’s a symbol from when coding was in its formative years. As far back as WW2, this symbol was used to demonstrate in binary the presence or absence of power; 1 (the line) means on, 0 means off.

However, sometimes there can be a line within an unbroken 0  which means a single switch can move an instrument from on to off, and vice versa. There can also be a 0 broken by a line which represents that something can be turned off, but not disconnected from the power source completely.

My power can never be turned to binary code 0, puny nerd

My power can never be turned to binary code 0, puny nerd

jscreationzsThe Dollar Sign

The dollar bill, a beacon of the American Dream, is arguably one of the best recognised currencies in the world. In parts of SE Asia and South America, dollar bills can actually be used as a de facto currency, meaning black markets exist for travellers who never need to change into the local money from USD, as the value of an American Dollar is so robust. So, where does this wonderful bastion of autonomy come from?

There are various theories to choose from, but the most widely accepted seems to be that it is an offspring of the Spanish Peso. In the 1700s, the Peso – “peso de ocho reales” or ‘pieces of eight’ – was the common currency of the Americas. PS was the abbreviation, and it is thought that over time the S and P would be placed on top of each other, forming an early ancestor of the $. This seems to fit the time line, as it was evident on the first paper bills printed by the US in 1875.

Those feeling curious are free to check Ayn Rand’s alternative idea, that the $ sign is a combination of the initials of U and S from USA, with the bottom of the U being cut off. Cifrão symbol.svg

Dollar dollar bills ya'll

Dollar dollar bills ya’ll

asterisk-hiThe Asterisk

He’s not just a menace to the Gauls; the asterisk has a history that goes back as far as the Middle Ages. Original employed with its best friend the dagger (†) as two of the first proof-reading marks, largely from need for the scholars tasked with editing Homer’s poetry epics. Ask an Athenian though, and they may tell you it comes from the Greek word asteri, meaning star.

In literary terms, it fell out of favour largely until the twentieth century, utilised to great effect solo to demonstrate the insertion of a footnote, or as a trio to break text into sections.

In modern times, it can literally mean anything. A pro athlete never wants one of these next to their name as it can signify a win under controversial or conditional circumstances, or in some biographies it can mean the year of birth (*1969). On the number key of your keyboard it could be a replacement for × (multiply), a mask for expletives in t*ts and s**t, and it can even be used to denote a *snigger* or a *gasp* on twitter. Whatever it’s use, the asterisk is a real chameleon of the symbol jungle, and it deserves a place in our hearts.

Shut the f**k up... *giggles*

Shut the f**k up… *giggles*

bluetooth-hi

Bluetooth

What do wireless devices syncing together and medieval Scandinavia have in common? No, it’s not a thirst for pillaging and decimation; it’s actually quite the opposite.

Harald Bluetooth was the Viking king of Denmark from 958 to 970, and famous lover of Blueberry’s (hence the blue teeth). He is best remembered for uniting parts of Norway and Denmark into one country, and converting them to Christianity. See Harald was a man famous for bringing people together.

In the early 90s, when various different technology sectors were developing their own systems, it was assumed by some designers that this difference would vastly impede wireless compatibility across them. Jim Kardach was one such designer. Inspired by Harald, who he viewed as a perfect symbol for bringing together rival parties, he was able to help mediate between the various interested bodies and from this the Bluetooth Special Interest Group was born.

Think it stops there? It’s Harald’s name in ancient rune form that actually makes up the official Bluetooth logo!

Cute like human Ewoks, Vikings were known for their deadly skill at battle

Cute like human Ewoks, Vikings were known for their deadly skill at battle

digitalart

The at sign

Few can imagine a world without it now, as it stands as the posterboy of modern communication; the twitter handle’s opening character, the link between username and domain on any email address. Alas, there was a time when this inescapable symbol was just a forgotten key stuck in obscurity on old typewriters.

The true origins are somewhat of a mystery, though many can agree that it came to prominent use as a symbol for ‘at the rate of’ in commerce, as in ’20 chickens at £1″ (its crucial meaning being demonstrated by the fact the total there would be £20).

It wasn’t until 1971 and the advent of the forerunner to email, that ‘The snail” (as the Italians called it) came into a new age of importance. Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist at BNN (the company tasked by the American government with creating Arpanet – the precursor to the internet) sent a message to himself from one computer to another, and saved the @ sign from disappearing into symbolic and literal obscurity.

Make sure to take regular breaks from the screen to avoid hallucinations and Tron-esque out of body experiences

Make sure to take regular breaks from the screen to avoid hallucinations and Tron-esque out of body experiences

hash-sign-hi

The Hash

And here we are – the symbol of our time. Has any symbol found itself more crucial to our technological strides, not just once but twice in modern history? Initially one of only two symbols chosen for dial tone phones to make the new keypads more symmetrical, it later entered the public psyche via Twitter in 2007 to demonstrate a trend or topic. As my friend recently noted, “it’s the only thing that’s always trending”.

Most of us know it now as the hash sign, but its actual name is The Octothorpe, giving it the air of a superhero. Those etymologists among us will recognise that octo means eight. A quick count and you can see we are looking at only six points, but that’s not the only mystery. See, some claim that the thorpe part means ‘farm’ in Old Norse, and that # would indicate a village on old maps. To this day, the symbol can mean a lumber yard on Swedish maps. It can also be used in proof-reading to signify a space should be inserted, and it can even mean a checkmate in chess!

If that wasn’t enough, a similar incarnation would be adopted by the Romans (them again) as another symbol for pound (bringing the total to, yes, three different symbols for pound)!

bored at work #worklife #notlistening # presentation #booooring #cliche #wearinashirt #rolex

bored at work #worklife #notlistening  #presentation #booooring #cliche #wearinashirt #rolex #lolz

What symbols do you think are missing from this list? Do you feel aggravated that I didn’t include the Neptune inspired USB logo? Perhaps you cannot contain your rage at the non-inclusion of the question mark? There are many websites out there with information on the history of symbols, Gizmodo being one of my favourites.

The point here was never to give a definitive answer to all and every, but to instead give you the clip notes of some of the symbols we see everyday. The ingenuity, intelligence and history that is behind each of these could fascinate. I’d like to know what you think.

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Special thanks to AKARAKINGDOMS, digitalart, Iamnee, iprostocks, jscreationzs, Pixomar, Simon Howden, stockimages, Stuart Miles, vectorolie, imagerymajestic and patrisyu @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015