Three Billy Goats Gruff

Like many short fairy tales for younger children, this story has resisted attempts to pin an obvious moral on it. It is based on the archetypes:

protagonist achieves heart's desire through guile
protagonist overcomes antagonist through guile and main strength
three brother tale
the monstrous gatekeeper

The heart's desire is the green grass on the other side, but don't be fooled. There isn't a "grass is always greener" Aesop afoot here. On the other side of the river the grass really is better, and this is confirmed once it is tasted. You can argue until you're blue in the face about the lesson here, there isn't one. In many traditional tales, a wish to be fed is fullfilled, and lends weight to the idea that reading about a feast helps to alleviate hunger (as well as making it worse for some people).

The tale makes very strong use of rhythm - as announced by the title. It is possible that "billy goats" were selected as heroes for the rhythmic quality of the phrase "three billy goats gruff". Peasants will remember that male goats, even brothers, will rarely tolerate one another. So we can assume that they "aren't really goats". This is where it becomes a classic "three brother tale" — any hero who sets out on a quest that has already claimed the lives of his two older brothers is absolutely guaranteed to succeed. Where TTBGG makes this more interesting is that the first two brothers both meet the danger with guile, passing it on in turn to a stronger older brother. In the classic three brother scenario, it is the youngest who succeeds, usually through guile or with the aid of magical helpers or talking cats.

In this case, the eldest brother doesn't even take the time to complete the repeated rhythmic mantra, but directly, and with no fuss, overcomes the troll by the most direct means available: butting him into the river.

There are lessons for writers and storytellers in this story, not just lessons for children. I have often wondered what Aesop would have made of it. He was a smart man, so he would probably have thrown in the towel.

The monstrous gatekeeper addresses the injustice of feudal europe that is, sadly, hardly less present today: that a few individuals have power over critical structures or resources. This is a story that teaches that those who haven't the strength to rebel should use subterfuge to escape control, while those who do have the strength should rise up in bloody insurrection. Okay, maybe that's a bit strong, but the trope is there.

Finally, this story contains an essential staple of the fairytale, that of structural and verbal repetition. Indeed it takes the verbal repetition to a point where the children not only feel it is acceptable, but necessary, to join in. Each goat is bigger, so his feet make a louder sound, so each time the (poor) troll has to shout his challenge louder, and the balance of the defiant sound (trip-trap, trip-trap of the goat's hooves) with the troll's challenge (who's that trip-trapping over my bridge) provides the children with an advance warning of what will happen in the end.

In terms of its influence, the most obvious place is Roger Hargreaves, who frequently uses the same devices in his stories, and frequently subverts narrative convention in the same way that this story does. In Mr Tickle, the eponymous character has arms so long he can reach across more than one page. Terry Pratchett is both consciously and unconsciously influenced by this story. I suspect its legacy is very great indeed, as it tells storytellers that you can make a good story by combining strong conventions with deliberately misused conventions. It also tells us that we can, and should, be subversive in what we teach even to the very young!

Probable, reasonable, realistic — stories

Supposing I set you a simple problem, that requires a little knowledge of the mathematics of probability:

A simple, discrete, independent and isolated test has two possible outcomes, A and B. The probability of each outcome when the test is run is 0.5 (one half). I run the test 10,000 times. Every time the result is A.

a) What is the probability of getting outcome A 10,000 times in a row?
b) If I run the test one more time, what is the probability of getting outcome A?

I remind you, the above is a math test question.

I think the answers are:

a) 1/(210,000) (one over (two to the power ten thousand))
b) 0.5 (one half)

Now, suppose I ask you a different question:

This morning, I spent my time rather frivolously tossing an English Fifty Pence Piece. This is a standard coin minted in the UK to acceptable quality levels. It has a clearly distinguishable head and tail, and because of its shape, rarely lands stably on its edge.

I tossed the coin ten thousand times, give or take. Every time it came down heads. I was careful to vary both throw and catch height. Sometimes I allowed it to land on the floor, sometimes I threw it over my shoulder and sometimes I kept my eyes shut (to avoid quantum).

My questions are:

a) what are the chances of that happening?
b) will you take a bet of one dollar if I say that I reckon the next toss will come down heads?


I contend that there is only one approach, and only one answer to the mathematically expressed, theoretical question about outcomes A and B.

However, the real world example may be answered in any of three ways. Two are mutually exclusive, the third might be seen as a modified combination of the other two.

The first approach is the purely mathematical. It gives the same precise answer to a) as I gave above, and the same precise answer to b) as I gave above. Mathematically, it is correct. But I have been telling you an anecdote about a real-world event that took place this morning. Theoretical mathematics assumes that the test is subject only to the stated constraints. (In Rumsfeldian Notation, there are zero known unknowns and zero unknown unknowns.) The result is that we cannot trust the mathematical answer in the real world. Will you take the bet just because the math says that heads and tails are equally likely?

The second approach is based on what is often called The Law of Averages. This law arises from an incomprehension of the math of probability - or an attempt to infer a real world rule from a mathematical statement of probability. The Law of Averages states that if two outcomes are equally likely, then the more times you test, the more the number of times each outcome occurs will tend to equalize. It supposes, therefore, that each time I get heads, tails becomes slightly more likely in the next toss, so after 10,000 heads, tails is extremely likely. If you think like this you'll have taken the bet without hesitation. You will be just as wrong as the mathematician.

The third approach is known as induction or inductive reasoning or proof by induction. It doesn't matter too much why it is called that. In matters of repeated events, induction assumes that whatever happens most often is most likely. In real world situations, this assumption is the only approach which enables you to allow for unknown factors without even trying to know them. If you are naturally suspicious, you will already have assumed that I haven't told you everything about this mornings events, or that I am lying to you (shame on you!). Consequently you will assume you will lose your money and you won't take the bet. This is wise, but the wrong reason to refuse the bet.

If you reason from the evidence available: 10,000 reported heads; you will conclude that there is some unknown factor that is making heads much more likely. This is inductive reasoning. You use this for a whole lot of other things. It frequently gets called common sense, or intuition. In the real world, induction – evidence – is much more reliable than mathematical theory, and both are more reliable than the Law of Averages.

The Law of Averages and induction both arise from our tendency to turn everything into stories. The Law of Averages is a sort of "Story of Probability", while induction is a "story of evidence". Our ability to turn things into stories is essential in real life, where there are always huge numbers of unstated constraints - unknown unknowns. Without stories, we can't predict the future, and we need to predict the future to survive. If you don't believe this, just answer me this: do you wait until you are hungry before you eat, or do you eat at set times to avoid hunger? The former is reacting to the present, the latter is predicting the future by telling yourself a story. Probably one about a little bear who didn't eat his dinner. Which since this is my story, was probably salmon, rather than porridge. Or do bears have that for breakfast? Or was that little girls? One thing is certain. Little girls rarely eat bears. There is probably a story that convinces them not to.

I blogged recently about the chimera of Planning. Planning is also storytelling — people will judge your plan a good one if it makes a convincing story.

Much of people's behaviour is determined by which stories about the future they believe, and which they don't. Soap Opera exploits this by creating characters who constantly believe the wrong stories. The tension between the story that the character believes, and the one the audience expects, is the origin of almost all drama.

Even those of you who won't take my bet because you are suspicious are succumbing to a belief in a story that conflicts with the story I told you. The story you believe is that the coin must sometimes come down tails if both are equally likely. The mathematician will tell you this is not so, and you are a fool to believe the story. He is wrong. Conflicting stories, both of the past (evidence) and the future (expectation), are our best and strongest indicators of error, accident and misdoing.

Indeed, I did not toss a fifty pence coin 10,000 times. I do not own a fifty pence coin, and I don't have time for that sort of thing. I was telling you a story. I'm sure that's obvious by now.


What to expect from an editor #3: What to expect from me

As I am planning an update of my website, I've been thinking about how I set out my stall. To this end I have been re-reading past posts that deal with my literary ideology, as well as those that deal with what I think editing is all about. By the end of this post I hope to come up with additional expectations for editors and authors.

Here are some past posts about this sort of thing. There are more, but this post is already long enough.
I have also made use of the wonderful educational tool, InspireData to help me think about how I think about editing:

Each of these diagrams shows the same set of editing "interventions" (e.g. spelling, grammar, diction, punctuation) sorted via Venn diagramming three different ways, first by general editing domain, then by the type of checks (or controls) used, and then by the origin or source of those controls.

The broad outcome of this analysis is that in my thinking, editing can be divided into four general domains, as follows:

  1. PresentationPresentation includes all interventions whose primary purpose is to assure and maintain readability in print. Much of this work is done by electronic typesetters (formatters). This is the expert in page layout, font and onscreen presentation. If you intend your work to be read on more than one type of device or screen, you should go to a formatter. The main work of the literary editor in this area is in aiding the author in making his choices, such as localization of spelling and punctuation, and selection and application of a consistent style and format.

  2. Linguistic. Initially this was the domain that was hardest to define in such a way as to separate it from the others. You can see from the first diagram that nothing is solely in this category. (I could create an arbitrary intervention called "grammar" and put it there.) Linguistic interventions are all those that deal with word selection and word use, however there is significant overlap with the third domain, narrative, in features such as POV, person, tense - linguistic intervention in such cases concerns the consistent execution of these choices.
  3. Narrative. Narrative elements of your book are based on your choices, conscious or unconscious. There are many features that appear only in this section, and those which overlap overlap with linguistic inasmuch as linguistic concerns will determine the effectiveness of your narrative techniques.
  4. Oversight. Has no sector (since InspireData doesn't do four sector Venn diagrams). Those outside the other sectors are all ones which can be an embarrassment if they are not controlled. Practical concerns are those outside of the book itself, such as marketing and distribution. Factual is what it sounds like; authors and editors must verify information presented as fact, even in a fantasy novel. Originality deals with copyright, disclaimers and plagia (unconscious or otherwise). Inside the Narrative domain are three others subject to oversightfeasible, naturalistic, realistic. There is a close overlap between these three, but in short, feasible is concerned with whether an imagined thing is really possibly; naturalistic is concerned with trying to write events and people that occur and behave like in real life as contrasted with stories; realistic is concerned with whether the reader will be able to believe the story or indeed, suspend his disbelief.

The purpose of this analysis is not to create something new; it is to describe what I am already doing, what I have always done, and how it has evolved in the light of the indie publishing phenom.

Two major points arise from the co-evolution of indie-publishing and literary-editing-for-indie-publishing:

1. Formatters can do all the layout work. The opinion and advice of the formatter is valuable when making stylistic choices within the domain of Presentation. Editors and writers should both be aware of this.

2. While many editors will, for their own comfort or ease, or the comfort or ease of their writers, continue to apply style and format using the Chicago Manual or the Economist Guide; will continue to refer to dominant arbiters over word use and meaning, and over grammar and (especially) syntax, the author who is confident of the value and clarity of his personal preferences can ignore all authority if he wants to.

In the case of 2 above, I think that the author has a duty, and the editor a responsibility, to ensure that the author's eccentric, esoteric or merely mildly divergent choices remain consistent within a given book (so they do not confuse or alienate readers), and do not hinder clarity or accessibility.

Like never before, however, we writers and editors have an opportunity not merely to democratize publishing, but to democratize language; to celebrate regional variation; to experiment with alternative means and modes of expression. I for one feel that (f'rinstance) there are many situations where the common US and UK conventions for laying out direct speech are stifling and inflexible, and I would love to see more writers looking for something better (and simpler).

Great (and apparently, Irish) writers have in the past had to establish and fight for their own authority before being allowed to go outside the conventions (Joyce, GB Shaw). You don't have to. As long as you don't compromize comprehensibility, you don't have to compromize on your style.

So here are two additions to What to expect from an editor  parts 1 and 2:

For part 1:

A good editor is aware of the greater literary freedoms that are possible with indie publishing, and will aid and encourage you to take advantage of them if you want to, but will also know how to shelter you from their uncertainties if that is what you need.

For part 2:

You can expect me to ask you if you have a preferred style manual, or what consistent style rules you apply. I will make a choice between proposing one of the commonly used conventions, that, with your agreement, we apply across the board, OR I will infer a set of personal rules for you from the choices of style and presentation that you make, and ensure that those are applied consistently.


Zombie Zeitgeist — the uncomfortable truth about why we love them so

In 1951, celebrated Golden-Age Sci-Fi author Cyril Kornbluth* published in Galaxy magazine the story "The Marching Morons". In the fifties, Sci-Fi fell into two fairly narrow categories: pulp sci-fi was all about scare and schlock, alien invasions and monstrous creations. Pulp sci-fi was for the drive-in, and both catered-for and nurtured the public's fear of the strange, unknown, foreign and, of course, commie. Highbrow Sci-Fi (which later became literary SF) originated in the social sciences, indeed I've heard Sociology claimed  as the only true science.  Kornbluth was resolutely literary and sociological, and if you haven't read Morons, go do so now.

Let's take a look at the first two really big Zombie Movies. These were the main influences on modern culture, with regard to the Zombie. They are the equivalent of Bram Stoker a source material for Vampires.

George A. Romero's seminal work has a small group of outsiders fighting off the numberless dead, ultimately trapped in an isolated farmhouse they are devoured one by one. The symbolism is much the same as Kafka (in The Trial or The Castle) or Camus (most notably in The Outsider). The dwindling group of survivors are you and me. The living dead are Kornbluth's Morons.

This is brought home ten times harder in Dawn, which is set principally in a shopping mall, and most of the Zs are dead shoppers.

As human animals, we sometimes have a hard time seeing strangers as actual people, and when those strangers are innumerable, they become entirely faceless, voiceless, doing nothing other than crowding us out, consuming everything, overwhelming our planet's (and our) meagre resources with no knowledge or understanding of the consequences of their existence, and worse, the consequences of their proliferation.

Zombie stories, with the exception of a few challenging and esoteric tales, fall into two broad categories. Those where there are some survivors at the end, and those where there are no survivors at the end.

In those where there are survivors, there is a certain wish fulfilment.  The wish is to have the world to ourselves and our personal, carefully selected group of survivors (like Drax in Moonraker), and also to have free license to slaughter the Morons.

Those where there are no survivors are for those who can't stomach the necessary sociopathy of survival, and hence realize that the overwhelming human population will ultimately destroy the earth, itself and them.

Zombies are in the zeitgeist right now because now as never before, more and more people are aware that even if overpopulation isn't our number one problem, then it is the largest, and most severe exacerbating factor. Never before have we been closer to Kornbluth's moron apocalypse.

And it will take a psychopath to save us. Good thing they're 1% of us.


*this name seems to have lots of pronunciations (cornblue, cornblute, cornbluff, cornblooth, cornbluth)  so take your choice


Pronunciation and Spelling — and The New Model

In a FaceBook discussion about pronunciation it was recently brought home to me just how much my personal social ideology influences my choice of language, and my attitude to grammar, spelling, speech and vocabulary.

My great friend Holly posted this link: 100 Most Often Mispronounced English Words.

What I originally began reading with curiosity I soon found myself reading with horror and eventually revulsion, not at the nature of the common mistakes described, but the mockery of the poorly educated, and the arbitrary, high-handed, divisive nature of the "selection" of the "correct" pronunciation. Finally I was unable to read all the way to the 100th entry as I happened across more and more examples of entirely unresearched words, of which for me the worst offender was the claim that we should say "in paretheses" not "in parenthesis"*.

Obviously if you read my post on The New Model, you will understand that I object to the notion of "correct grammar" as it is understood by most people. In brief: grammar exists to allow specialists and enthusiastic amateurs to describe language to eachother. It does not provide a set of rules that everyone must follow in order to use language "correctly". In even briefer: grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive.

In the 1920's, the British Upper Classes (which still existed in recognizable form back then), in a deliberate effort to distinguish themselves both from the British proletariat and from the upstart ex-colonial rebels (um... if you're American, that's you), altered their own pronunciation of English. It was viewed at the time as a natural progression of an ongoing process of "refining" the language, particularly since the English spoken in North America had changed so little in the preceding hundred years. Yes, I am saying that US English is more authentic than British English. Americans would do well to realize this. Authentic because you didn't deliberately try to change your language so that you could more easily identify and preserve artificial social differences.

Parents and teachers are of course absolutely correct when they say that if your child doesn't learn to use his language in the way that is commonly accepted as correct or proper, that this will be a disadvantage for your child, whose intellect will be judged on his vocabulary, diction and pronunciation (what we call "articulacy"), not on his knowledge or skill.

Sadly, in trying to prepare children for this kind of injustice, we perpetuate the injustice.

Even if the list referenced above was prepared by someone whose motivation was to help people in North America to be viewed and responded to (and judged) fairly by those around them, what it really does is tell people that they are wrong. I believe, however, that there is little grounds to be generous when inferring the motivations of the writer. Many of the distinctions are true only in middle-class North America. Many are specious. Many are spurious. Many are plain wrong. But a much larger proportion are examples either from dialect, or from different variants of English. The reality of everyday life in a North American city is that there are many varying pronunciations, whose origins are both from different regions of North America, and from different regions of the world.

In such conditions there is not, and there will never be agreed, common, immutable correct pronunciation. Pronunciation will change and continue to change, faster than grammar, faster than spelling, faster, even, than meaning. And it will continue (as it always has) to radiate - to split and separate, as one generation distinguishes itself from the last, as one socio-economic group distinguishes itself from another, as one ideology distinguishes itself from another.

So what does The New Model have to offer to pronunciation: simply this:

to be heard, we must learn to listen

People who live in multi/polycultural (and multi-lingual) communities learn very rapidly to modulate their speech to match the expectations of the person they are speaking to. This is critical to articulacy, and it is achieved through a careful balance of talking and listening. If you have a hard time making yourself understood (and this is as true in the street, in the classroom, in the home, in the debate chamber, in the courtroom, in the newsroom), you have to stop talking and get the other guy to talk. And then you have to listen. Nothing will get you understood faster or more clearly than listening.

If this sounds like a koan, then I need to add a bit more:

The consequence of listening is twofold: first, it gives you a handle on how the other guy talks; how he expresses himself and how he understands his own words. Second, it will give you a view of his attitude. Attitude is way more important than opinion. Attitude is how you approach your own opinions and the opinion of others. You can't even begin to make yourself understood if you have no idea of how your opinion will be received. So you have to give it in small bites and see how each bite is received.

I'm not overly good at this. But I try.

I know there are people reading this because I look at the stats. You guys have to comment now. Otherwise I can't listen, and those of you who think my pontifications are introspective ego trips (while partly correct) will continue to think so indefinitely.


* In case you can't be bothered to look it up yourself, 'a parenthesis' is a word or group of words inserted into another clause, phrase or sentence, indicated by punctuation, most commonly the round bracket (curved or normal bracket, what this parenthesis is in). The name of the punctuation mark is "bracket" or "round bracket".


Mental Competence #5: Smart

Although used much more North America than in the UK and other parts of the ESW, smart is nonetheless a frequent alternative to both clever and intelligent, but its meaning is not quite the same; usage seems to be more about some innate quality, and has some similarity with bright (used much more in the UK) – on which more later.


a : mentally alert : bright 
b : knowledgeable
c : shrewd <a smart investment>
a : witty, clever <a smart sitcom>
b : pert, saucy <don't get smart with me>

a : being a guided missile <a laser-guided smart bomb>
b : operating by automation <a smart machine tool>
c : intelligent 3


smart (comparative smarter, superlative smartest)

2. Sharp; keen; poignant.
3. Exhibiting social ability or cleverness.
4. Exhibiting intellectual knowledge, such as that found in books.
5. Good-looking.
a smart outfit
6. Cleverly and/or sarcastically humorous in a way that may be rude and disrespectful. Cf: (verb) to smart off; (noun) smarty pants, wise guy, wiseacre, wise-ass; (adjective) cute.
He became tired of his daughter's sarcasm and smart remarks.

Urban Dictionary:

Here are the first two definitions:

1. smart 1698 up, 279 down
Knowledgeable, witty, or intelligent. Not a popular thing to be in America these days.

2. smart 1465 up, 497 down
The opposite of George W. Bush.
'George W. Bush is so not smart.'

I included the TU and TD stats because it is rare in UD for a non obscene term to get more than 1000 TU's. The users and contributors to UD were, to start with, mostly rebellious teenagers, but clearly a number of them have both social and political sensibilities!

Webster's definition is really not very helpful. I have only included those definitions that denote types of mental competence. Definition 7, quite an important one IMO, is missing from Wiktionary, whose definition is as confused and disordered as you might expect for a problem word like this. Definitions 2 and 6 really ought to be together, as 6 is a figurative use of 2. Compare 3 and 4 with the definitions I've already given on clever and intelligent. Defininitions of mental competence tend to be rather circular!

UD's first definition is pretty good, since the most generalized usage of smart is as a generic term for mental competence:

"He's a smart guy!" Bob exclaimed.

"Smart clever or smart intelligent?" Alice inquired.

Here's the etymology from the highly esteemed Douglas Harper:

late O.E. smeart "sharp, severe, stinging," related to smeortan (see smart (v.)). Meaning "quick, active, clever" is attested from c.1300, probably from the notion of "cutting" wit, words, etc.; meaning "trim in attire" first attested 1718, "ascending from the kitchen to the drawing-room c.1880." [Weekley] In ref. to devices, "behaving as though guided by intelligence" (e.g. smart bomb) first attested 1972. Smarts "good sense, intelligence," is first recorded 1968. Smart cookie is from 1948; smarty-pants first attested 1941.

There is an alternative etymology but it differs little, for our purposes. The distant origin seems to be a Proto-Indo-European root (smel-) which has to do with burning. The Latin word acer means keen (in the sense of sharp), sharp, quick, swift, and is often used figuratively of a person to mean that he is "quick witted" or clever. This usage of words for sharpness, hotness, stinging or speed as figurative terms for mental competence (especially in social or other high-stress situations) is common to all the languages I know (c.f. the expression "so sharp you'll cut yourself".). This means that the modern sense that you find in Wiktionary's definition 6, smartarse (smart-ass in US English) is probably closest to early uses for mental competence.

However, as I suggested above, modern usage in North America is (outside of the idioms smart-asssmart cookie, etc) is generally as a generic term, or to single someone or some group out from the others for general mental ability, aside from learning or cleverness:

"I wasn't one of the smart kids." Bob bewailed.

Thinking of your character as smart is not setting him apart in the same way that wise, or clever would, however. Smartness, when applied as a description of a person becomes a description of a personality, as well; the association with being smartly dressed gives the impression of someone whose mental competence includes discipline, and order. Contrast with intuitive, instinctive. A smart guy is a useful, go-to guy when you have a problem, but he isn't overloaded with brains, and won't, therefore, spend months being "fascinated" by a problem that you need a solution for within the next sixty minutes.


Mental competence #4: Wisdom

This one is less of a problem for some, more a problem for others. Memorably, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ reduces all mental capacity to a score out of 18 for Intelligence and for Wisdom. Intelligence is usually used for learned or technical matters and wisdom for innate or homely. If you view things this way you'll rarely have a problem with wisdom,  but not everyone sees things that way.


a : accumulated philosophic or scientific learning : knowledge
b : ability to discern inner qualities and relationships : insight
c : good sense : judgment
d : generally accepted belief <challenges what has become accepted wisdom among many historians — Robert Darnton>
: a wise attitude, belief, or course of action
: the teachings of the ancient wise men


wisdom (countable and uncountable; plural wisdoms)
  1. (uncountable) An element of personal character that enables one to distinguish the wise from the unwise.
  2. (countable) A piece of wise advice.
  3. The discretionary use of knowledge for the greatest good.
  4. The ability to apply relevant knowledge in an insightful way, especially to different situations from that in which the knowledge was gained.
  5. The ability to make a decision based on the combination of knowledge, experience, and intuitive understanding.
  6. (theology) The ability to know and apply spiritual truths.
Urban Dictionary:

Wisdom is knowing what you know as well as what you dont know.
Wisdom is not not simply knowing what to do, but doing it.
Many people will without invitation offer their "words of wisdom", wise people realise when it is not their time or place to do so.
A wise person does not think less of another who chooses not to follow their advice.
Wisdom is not undermining a person for their weaknesses, but appreciating their strengths differ from yours.

Webster, usually terse, is almost monosyllabic on this one. It asks us to choose between either knowledge (see the etymology), insight and judgement. Wiktionary, after making the correct references to "wise", certainly gives us something to think about. I think Wiktionary's offering #5 may be the most revealing. UD fails to supply a definition in the conventional sense at all. Indeed none of the other attempts (further down the same page: "wisdom" - UD) does any better.

I'm going straight to Doug; "wisdom" is formed from "wise", so here's what he has to say about "wise":

O.E. wis, from P.Gmc. *wisaz (cf. O.S., O.Fris. wis, O.N. viss, Du. wijs, Ger. weise "wise"), from pp. adj. *wittos of PIE base *weid- "to see," hence "to know" (see vision). Slang meaning "aware, cunning" first attested 1896. Related to the source of O.E. witan "to know, wit."

A wise man has no extensive knowledge; He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man. [Lao-tzu, "Tao te Ching," c.550 B.C.E.]

Wise guy is attested from 1896, Amer.Eng. Wisenheimer, with mock German or Yiddish surname suffix, first recorded 1904.

As you can see, the etymology offers little help. Wise comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as vision, and just means "knowing stuff". Doug's inclusion of a quotation from the Tao shows that he too is aware of some mystery, or at the very least, mystification of the idea of "wisdom".

It is my contention that we all observe, both in others and in ourselves, the occasional evidence of good or insightful judgement, in the absense, or at the very least paucity, of prior or learned knowledge. There seem to be situations and problems that we can deal with without recourse to trained intelligence. We call those who are able to do this wise. We observe that wisdom is more often found in older people, even though it evidently isn't an inevitable consequence of ageing. So we conclude that some people, through experience, become more wise over time.

I suggest that a great deal of what wisdom is has to do with the experience of being human, and being social. Much of what we call wisdom has to do with understanding other people and understanding how people behave as individuals and as groups. With this understanding comes the knowledge of how to handle difficult social situations, an, especially, how to pass-on both knowledge and wisdom to others.

When you describe (or even just think of) one of your characters as "wise", not only are you opening yourself up to a slew of highly subjective challenges ("you said that guy was wise; what he just did doesn't seem very wise to me."), but also obliging the reader to wonder what you meant by wise, yourself. This is, IMO, one of those cases where you need to show what the character says, and/or does and/or thinks, and let the reader come up with the description "wise" on his own.

Feel free to comment with your definitions of wise without copy/pasting from an online dictionary that I didn't use!

Or go back to the first post in this series.


Mental Competence #3: cunning

In this post I shall be using a word that is considered offensive even in the citation by some. Consequently I have added the tag "NSFW" to the post, but I have not labelled it "adult", as that doesn't conform to my view that it is impossible to give offense, only to take it, and that those that mind don't matter. This said, in the interests of everyone being able to access this, the word itself is included in an image, not in the text, so your filters won't catch it.

I apologise if my use of this word provokes you to take offense. If it does, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.

Today's word is "cunning". Luckily in modern English, the noun and the adj. are the same.


: dexterous or crafty in the use of special resources (as skill or knowledge) or in attaining an end <a cunning plotter>
: displaying keen insight <a cunning observation>
: characterized by wiliness and trickery <cunning schemes>
: prettily appealing : cute <a cunning little kitten>


cunning (comparative more cunning, superlative most cunning)
1. Sly; crafty; clever in surreptitious behaviour.
2. Skillful, artful.
3. (rare) Cute, appealing.

Urban Dictionary:

A word to describe someone or sometimes something that's tricky, devious, sly or shady

"I'd stay away from that cunning chap..he's pretty weird"

UD, gloriously celebrates the shortest possible definition. Its example is characteristically oblique, however. Notice that the resolutely US Webster doesn't call its fourth definition "rare". This usage was common for a while in the mid C20, mostly in the USA. I know of one specific example of this usage in a Judy Garland song... I forget which song (c.f. cute). Also notice that Webster puts third what the other two put first. This is rather conservative of them.

Here's Doug Harper:

early 14c., "learned, skillful," prp. of cunnen "to know" (see can (v.)). Sense of "skillfully deceitful" is probably late 14c. As a noun from c.1300. Related: Cunningly.

Here's what Doug says about can:

O.E. 1st & 3rd pers. sing. pres. indic. of cunnan "know, have power to, be able," (also "to have carnal knowledge"), from P.Gmc. *kunnan "to be mentally able, to have learned" (cf. O.N. kenna "to know, make known," O.Fris. kanna "to recognize, admit," Ger. kennen "to know," Goth. kannjan "to make known"), from PIE base *gno- (see know). Absorbing the third sense of "to know," that of "to know how to do something" (in addition to "to know as a fact" and "to be acquainted with" something or someone). An O.E. preterite-present verb, its original p.p., couth, survived only in its negation (see uncouth), but cf. could. The prp. has spun off as cunning.

Here, about canny

1630s, Scottish and northern England formation from can (v.) in its sense of "know how to;" lit. "knowing," hence, "careful." Often used superciliously of Scots by their southern neighbors, implying "thrift and an eye to the main chance."

(Canny continues to be used in Scotland and the North of England, of someone with specialist knowledge or the particular knowledge required for a specific act or skill. It is also used as a purely positive variant for cunning. Usage is much rarer in southern England.)

There are a couple of important things to note about "can". First is that we can trace it to the (imaginary/theoretical) language "Proto-Indo-European". It is directly related to "know". The second is the first hint at an extremely long standing phonic and cognitive relationship with another lineage of words that I give here:

The last word in this set is "quaint", which Webster defines as follows:

obsolete : expert, skilled
a : marked by skillful design <quaint with many a device in India ink — Herman Melville>
b : marked by beauty or elegance
a : unusual or different in character or appearance : odd
b : pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned or unfamiliar <a quaint phrase>

Doug Harper gives the etymology as follows:

early 13c., "cunning, proud, ingenious," from O.Fr. cointe "pretty, clever, knowing," from L. cognitus "known," pp. of cognoscere "get or come to know well" (see cognizance). Sense of "old-fashioned but charming" is first attested 1795, and could describe the word itself, which had become rare after c.1700 (though it soon recovered popularity in this secondary sense). Chaucer used quaint and queynte as spellings of c*seeabove*t in "Canterbury Tales" (c.1386), and Andrew Marvell may be punning on it similarly in "To His Coy Mistress" (1650).

Deliberate punning, in addition to the similarity of sound and meaning between can, coney, cunny, canny, cunning, c**t and quaint, have all contributed to the modern meaning of cunning, in particular the sense of slyness and unpredictability, fickleness

Choosing cunning to establish your character, especially if you prefer it over clever, will lead your reader to feel that this character, while able and skillful, is skillful in deceit and trickery rather than ingenuity or machinery (c.f. machination).

There are examples of heroes who are supremely deceitful but remain sympathetic (one thinks of "Fantastic Mr Fox"), but most are more ambivalent; indeed the most famous, Brer Rabbit often seems to be cunning for the sheer joy of the discomfiture of his opponents, and his gleeful humiliations of Brer Bear and Brer Fox can and do become schadenfreude.

The classical example is Odysseus (Ulysses). Critically, however, Odysseus is a strong and skillful warrior who is counted among the battlefield heroes of the Greeks; he possesses great skill in deceit, but uses it only when it is needed, rather than using it for preference (to compensate for physical weakness) or for his own entertainment (as Brer Rabbit seems to).

Cunning when your character uses it as a tool of necessity will not make readers (and other characters) distrustful of him.

The final post in this series is about wisdom.
Or go back to the first post in this series.


Mental Competence #2: clever

I started with the noun, intelligence because the adjective intelligent is formed from the noun. With clever, the reverse is true, the noun, not often used, is cleverness.


a : skillful or adroit in using the hands or body : nimble <clever fingers>
b : mentally quick and resourceful <a clever young lawyer>
: marked by wit or ingenuity <a clever solution> <a clever idea>


clever (comparative cleverer or more clever, superlative cleverest or most clever)
  1. Nimble with hands or body; skillful; adept.
  2. Resourceful, sometimes to the point of cunning. clever like a fox
  3. Smart, intelligent or witty; mentally quick or sharp.
  4. Showing inventiveness or originality; witty.

Urban Dictionary

Describing someone smart, intelligent or witty, opposite of dumb
''man he's really clever!''

Doug Harper is terse, but does throw in a quote from Dr Johnson:

late 16c., "handy, dexterous," from E.Anglian dialectal cliver "expert at seizing," perhaps from E.Fris. klufer or Norwegian dialectic klover "ready, skillful," and perhaps influenced by O.E. clifer "claw, hand" (early usages seem to refer to dexterity); extension to intellect is first recorded 1704.

 'This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning.' [Johnson, 1755]

Evidently, in the C.18, the word had become rather like "nice". In some parts of the ESW (English-speaking-world) the meaning has reverted back to that of dextrous, and you will certainly hear this in both UK and US in phrases like "clever with her hands". Once it became a term for mental competence, it certainly seemed to have preserved for a long time the sense of dexterity or careful skill. It is possible that this meaning arose an association with the word cleave which in the late middle ages was pronounced somewhere close to 'clave/clahver'; this word had two distinct and logically opposite meanings. Here's Doug on cleave:

Cleave (1): "to split," O.E. cleofan "to split, separate" (class II strong verb, past tense cleaf, past participle clofen), from P.Gmc. *kleubanan (cf. O.S. klioban, O.N. kljufa, Dan. klöve, Du. kloven, O.H.G. klioban, Ger. klieben "to cleave, split"), from PIE base *gleubh- "to cut, slice" (see glyph). Past tense form clave is recorded in Northern writers from 14c. and was used with both verbs (see cleave (2)), apparently by analogy with other ME strong verbs. Clave was common to c.1600 and still alive at the time of the King James Bible; weak past tense cleaved for this verb also emerged in 14c.; cleft is still later. The p.p. cloven survives, though mostly in compounds.

Cleave (2): "to adhere," O.E. clifian, from W.Gmc. *klibajanan (cf. O.S. klibon, O.H.G. kliban, Du. kleven, O.H.G. kleben, Ger. kleben "to stick, cling"), from PIE *gloi- "to stick" (see clay). The confusion was less in O.E. when cleave (1) was a class 2 strong verb; but it has grown since cleave (1) weakened, which may be why both are largely superseded by stick and split.

In figurative language there are (allegedly) some examples of cleave being used in the sense of taking a decision, either as "choosing between two options" (cleave (1)) or "picking a side" (cleave(2)). Both of these are plausible, but I haven't been able to track down any positive examples of this.

In any case, this "decisional capacity" doesn't seem to be a major element of the modern sense of clever. In modern English, unless we are using the vague sense that the top TU'd entry in UD so precisely gives, most usage seems to be related to skill or quickness.

Use of clever when establishing a character will, therefore, give the reader a sense that the person has quick mental reactions, and skill with tricky or highly detailed problems – especially in terms of coming up with ingenious or original solutions in situations where others are too slow or at a loss. This can occasionally be taken too far, for example the invention of a gadget that while effective and ingenious is unnecessary – or making a remark that may be apposite, but is facetious rather than helpful, and is met with cries of: "Oh very clever!"

The next post in the series deals with cunning. Some readers may find one of the words in the post about cunning offensive.

Or go back to the first post in this series.


Sharp readers will notice that I have used the US spelling of skillful – this is deliberate. I think the UK spelling is silly. I have also used my own spelling rule for dextrous. I drop the letter 'e' when it is it is between two consonants in a word where 90% or more of the ESW pronounce the word without adding a syllable for the 'e'. Bear in mind that if you publish independently you can normalize spelling with impunity AS LONG AS IT ISN'T TOO GLARING. English is spelled horribly, and we can change that. We just have to be really gentle about it. :-)


Words for mental competence - clever, cunning, intelligent,wise etc.

A fascinating set of words, as they are in common use all the time, have changed very little since their earliest recorded usage, but we seldom differentiate clearly between them, and it is our loss. There are different types and different scales of mental competence, and different people (and therefore for writers, different characters) have differing degrees of competence in each of this group of skills or characteristics.

I'm going to start with what Webster, Wiktionary and the most TU'd entry in Urban Dictionary have to say about the modern meanings, starting with today's offering:

1. Intelligence


(1) : the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason
(2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests).


Capacity of mind, especially to understand principles, truths, facts or meanings, acquire knowledge, and apply it to practice; the ability to learn and comprehend.

Urban Dictionary:

Something severely lacking on Urban Dictionary, for god sake at least know what you're talking about before you post a load of crap on here.

The eiffel tower was built by eskimos as a present for Jesus!11!! He then changed his name to Bob Dylan and formed an emo band!1!

No form of intelligence was used in the above statement, but you'll probably believe it because you read it on the internet.

The highly esteemed Doug Harper has this to say:

late 14c., "faculty of understanding," from [Old French] intelligence (12c.), from [Latin] intelligentia, intellegentia "understanding, power of discerning; art, skill, taste," from intelligentem (nom. intelligens) "discerning," prp. of intelligere "to understand, comprehend," from inter- "between" (see inter-) + legere "choose, pick out, read" (see lecture). Meaning superior understanding, sagacity" is from early 15c. Sense of "information, news" first recorded mid-15c., especially "secret information from spies" (1580s). Intelligence quotient first recorded 1921 (see I.Q.).

It is not always the case, but I think the key to differentiating intelligence from the others is in the etymology. Because of its evident Latinness, the word tastes newer in the mouth than solid Germanic terms like wise or canny, but you'll notice that it has hardly changed from classical Latin, and probably dates from the earliest common usage of words meaning to read.

The type of mental competence implied - indeed intended in classical Latin - is one that is learned, book-learned, but goes beyond the mere absorbing of information through the sense of inter – among, between. Intelligence is the capacity to read-into things, people, events; to see beyond or between appearance to what underlies it. Intelligence requires the capacity to learn quickly, and to observe detail. When we talk about the critical sense, about reading-between-the-lines, about subtext, we are talking about intelligence. Intelligence may be necessary in order to be subtle (another mental competence that I shall be dealing with).

Of all the types of mental competence, intelligence is the one most associated with formal learning, academia, but a lack of formal learning needn't hamper intelligence, only articulacy, and therefore, possibly, the ability to act on, or analyse, information acquired through intelligent observation.

When establishing a character, the writer should be aware that the adj. intelligent will give the reader an impression of bookishness or of effete, obscure or reserved "higher" mental ability. It is the least homely of this group of words, probably both because of its Latin character, and its close association with reading.


Tomorrow I shall take a look at clever.


Warning! Part Two.

That is the same image as yesterday. Just to be on the safe side.

Let's start with WARNING.

This is from Old West Germanic, and means, predictably enough, a warning. OWG is the source of English, Dutch and German, but notice that modern German (D) just uses ACHTUNG ("watch-out"-ing). Dutch seems to have lost the "n" somewhere. Swedish (S) is speaking English, Finnish and Czech look as if they might be too…

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Romanian and Slovak all seem to be using the same latin root "vert" - "warn". Not surprising for E, P I and RO. French, of course, has to be different, and is using a different Latin root "tend" - to reach towards.

The Greek, Polish and Hungarian are both Greek to me. The Turkish (TR) may well be the same as English.

The next word is "years".

Dominant are the German "Jahr" and the Latin "Annus":

  • jahren, years, år, jaar, (yasindan and éves may be related)
  • annos, anni, ani, años
Polish and Slovak share roku and rokov, though lat is also used in Polish (e.g. pięciolatek - a five-year-old, and Sto Lat! a popular Song, meaning 100 years), and is the same as let used here in Czech. Finnish, Hungarian's main competition for uniqueness is the winner here.

Next up, "child".

The English word has no modern relatives but can be traced back through English to "Proto-Germanic" (P.Gmc), an imagined common ancestor of the Germanic languages. So for once, English wins the uniqueness prize. Languages generally find their most and least unique words in their most commonly used words - which is why this warning notice is such a special case. In almost all these languages, the most familiar terms possible are used. Even French has a hard time being wordy, pompous and obscure.

The German word kinder is the plural of kind, meaning child. This is also traced back to P.Gmc, but not unique as the English words kin (family) and kind (of a type) are both direct descendants of the same P.Gmc root, and indeed closer to its original meaning of "blood relative". Dutch uses the same word.

The French enfant is the English word infant, both of them come from Latin infans which means (figuratively) small child and literally means "not having yet acquired the power of speech". Spanish and Italian have recently (for languages, at any rate), replaced the use of this word with infantile diminutives: niños and bambinos, though forms persist with the meaning "childhood".

Portuguese uses crianças - which I can translate into French (nourrisson) but English is trickier.

Czech and Slovak share the slav det - which is also the root of the Russian word.

Swedish, Danish and Norwegian all use variations of barn. The Scottish word bairn and the English words bear and born are all from the same root, which comes, again, from P.Gmc, this time a word meaning to carry, bear, give birth to.

Some curiosities.

S, DK and N all share små - small. Pronounced "smor".

The Dutch for "Younger than three years" is jonger dan drie jaar. Just say it aloud (the 'j', is pronounced as an English 'y').


All this to show just how much time I can end up spending whenever I mark up my client's manuscript with that little code "ic". This stands for inconceivable.

"Are you sure it doesn't/does mean that, really?" they ask me, in defence of inconceivable usage. So I have to go trawling through current usage and etymology and whatnot, before either concluding YKB (you know best) or OYHBI (on your head be it).


Warning! Language can waste your time!

In my opinion, I don't need to tell you what the picture is all about. Most of those translations are pretty good. I know this because they conform to standards, not because I know most of those languages. I can translate well or adequately from eight of them into English. Of the others, I can translate badly and very slowly from a further three.

Okay, that came out wrong. I was trying to be self deprecating but it actually just looks immodest. Let me try to explain why I can do what I can do.

My mother is trilingual in English, French and Italian, so although I wasn't formally raised multilingual, I've always had a familiarity with the second two of those languages. At school, I studied (among other things) French, Italian, Latin and Russian. Today I live and work in France, my wife is French and my children are formally bilingual.
These factors lead to several of these languages being readily accessible, as follows:

(British English) and  (French, France) because I read and write in these every day. Not very interesting that one…

E (Spanish), P (Portuguese), I (Italian) and RO (Romanian) because they are all direct descendants of Latin (romance languages), and share most of their structure and most of their vocabulary. They are more curious in their differences than their similarities. We could add to this list BG (Bulgarian) which is usually written in cyrillic (Russian) characters, and although it "belongs" to the slavic group of indo-european languages is actually so stuffed full of romance vocabulary that translation into English is relatively straightforward.

DK (Danish) and (N) Dutch share a great deal of vocabulary with eachother and with English. Dutch often sounds like English spoken with a strong accent. Once you've got to grips with the spellings and diacritics (accents), these two start to reveal themselves, though I can't do either without a dictionary, even for relatively short sentences.

D (German) is my problem language. In spite of its obvious similarities with English and Dutch, and the presence of some of the most beautiful and the ugliest words I know, I have a hard time understanding written german. ERSTICKUNGSGEFAHR is a lovely word. It means "the presence of a risk of getting stuck".

H (Hungarian). My maternal grandmother was Hungarian, and when I hear it spoken it sounds familiar, and I can even read it aloud with passably correct pronunciation, however with the exception of the few words that I learned as a small child, I can't translate it at all. In the text, I know három éves is 'three years' as my grandmother used to count aloud in Hungarian, and add up aloud too during card games, though eventually she had to stop doing this as my sisters and I started to work out what the numbers meant.

PL (Polish). I can, very slowly, translate Polish as it has strong links with Russian, though it is structurally weird (though not as impenetrable as Hungarian).

So this has turned into a sort of ego-massaging biographical post, when I meant to spend it looking at the curious similarities and differences between the languages listed on the warning notice.

The point about the title of this post is I suppose that I spent an enjoyable half hour reading the warning notice from a box of Christmas crackers, with much the same pleasure that you get from doing a crossword puzzle or watching Mastermind or University Challenge*.

I also spent an hour this morning researching this post, and I will likely spend more than that tomorrow, going into the details of each language.

A number of linguistics scholars have published the opinion, and I suspect it is an idea that develops in everyone who is multilingual eventually, that there is really only one language in Europe, and around the world, only a small handful of languages in all. This thought would be more readily accessible to all had not the early twentieth century passion for national identity cause so many nations to pursue and reinforce their differences.


* Maybe someone can tell me what the US equivalents of these are