Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Neck and Neck

A close-fought game on Wordscraper led me to ponder of the origin of the phrase neck and neck.  It developed in the early 1800s and comes from horse racing, where two or more horses that are evenly matched might run closely together towards the finish line, side by side.  These days the expression is used to describe any competition which is so close that the preferred standpoint shifts from person to person in a manner that is not easily distinguished.

You might also say they are on level pegging.  This comes from the card game of cribbage via the game of darts.  When darts first began to be played in public houses, players used the pegs in an old cribbage board to keep score (cribbage is the card game where points are scored on a 61-holed board with pegs).  When the scores were equal, then the pegs were level; hence the saying level pegging.

In chess, a player might say “check”
if game was ending neck and neck.


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Today (4 April) marks the birth of Maya Angelou in Missouri in 1928.  She died in 2014, leaving a wonderful legacy of poetry and wisdom.

I first met her poetry in the early 1980s when I saw an inspiring film of her reading Still I Rise, and read her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  This book became the first non-fiction bestseller by an African-American woman.

Because her friend Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated on her birthday in 1968, Maya didn’t celebrate her birthday for years afterwards, but we can honour her on this day.

Some quotes from Maya:

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.

If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.


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Esteemed Excerpts

What’s your favourite quote?

I loved Douglas Adams’ line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:  “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”, and I can remember being convulsed with laughter when I first heard it.

A quote often heard in our household is “I do not like to leave you all along” which was a misprint in a book we read to our young daughters Tiberius the Titirangi Mouse.

My favourite quote for many years has been one from Ntozake Shange “I found God in myself, and I loved her I loved her fiercely”.

Ntozake Shange

I recently learned that Barack Obama used this quote in his 1995 Memoir Dreams From My Father.

I wonder what’s your favourite quote
those special words on which you dote

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Never was a bird

Using wert in an online Wordscraper game reminded me of the saying Bird thou never wert, probably the only memory I have of that word.  I’d forgotten what came before and had to look it up to be reminded of Shelley’s To a Skylark which begins Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!  Bird thou never wert.  The latter line has become a peculiar way of saying You never wereWert is itself a peculiar word these days, and does not appear in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary except as an archaic form of the present subjunctive of be.  It’s amazing how many of these ancient words linger in the subconscious until they’re needed for a word game.  I’m lucky it was considered acceptable in Wordscraper.

All this got me thinking about birds.  Jonathan Franzen says they’re amazing.

Did you know that the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was originally started to fight against the trade in feathers to adorn Victorian women’s hats?  In the late 19th century thousands of birds were killed and marketed for their feathers, a practice decried as Murderous Millinery.  In 1921, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, forbidding plumage from being imported to Britain.

As I sit under the walnut tree on a warm summer day a blackbird chirps incessantly above me, but I can’t see her.  Maybe she never wert.

‘What is the singing that I heard?
Perhaps it never wert a bird.’

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Yesterday I enjoyed a workshop taken by Lynley Edmeades, Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence, and hosted by the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities.

Titled ‘Getting Inside with Words’ the workshop focussed on ekphrastic poetry, which is the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work, i.e. the verbal representation of visual representation.  Probably the best known example of this is John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.  After reading several examples, we went into the Museum and chose an item to write about.

Publia Fulvia Plautilla

I chose a bronze head of Publia Fulvia Plautilla.  The interpretation given was that she was one of several members of the Roman Imperial family whose image and name were overthrown during the early 3rd century C.E.  Her politically ambitious father Gaius had married her to the young emperor Caracalla.  Disliked by her husband, she was eventually executed under Caracalla’s orders and wiped from public memory.  This process was known as Damnatio Memoriae, condemning the individual.  Here’s the piece I wrote:

Marriage arranged
by politically ambitious father.
Your imperial husband
ordered your execution
third century domestic violence
has echoes today.

Wiped from public memory
Damnatio Memoriae your fate
shared by sisters through the ages
lives erased and forgotten.

Yet your bronze head endures
heavy-browed eyes raised upwards
imploring a Goddess to intercede
wondering will it ever end?

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‘Poetry Life Hacks’ was the name of the WORD Festival workshop I went to with Hera Lindsay Bird.  This was the first time I’d been upstairs in The Piano, where the Trinity Room looks out onto the head of the ballerina painted on the back of the Isaac Theatre Royal.

Hera led us through five different exercises, all ones that she finds useful herself.  We did a lot of writing in a short time, sharing what we’d written with the whole group.  You could pass if you wanted to, but I enjoyed reading my pieces out loud and it was good to get a positive reaction.

We’d been asked beforehand to bring a poem we disagreed with, and a short poem that we love.  For the one we disagreed with (I’d chosen W.H.Auden’s “In Schrafft’s”) we were asked to write a line arguing with each line of our chosen poem, then to read out our own lines.

For the poem we love (mine was “Warning” by Jenny Joseph) we had to analyse what each line was doing, then write a poem on similar lines.  I found this a satisfying exercise, and might take this poem further.

Other exercises involved writing lines, then reading them in the opposite order, choosing metaphors from a sheet of nouns, and writing a poem that (obliquely) answered a question.

Hera stressed the importance of having a repertoire of exercises that encourage you to get something on to the page, which can be refined later.  Interestingly she told us that she sometimes writes only five poems in a year.

After the workshop I went to “You write funny!’ a session featuring five poets, which was stimulating and entertaining.   I don’t plan to go to any other sessions this weekend, but these two were very worthwhile.  The WORD prices are high for anyone on a limited income, especially with booking and credit card fees added.  Plus most of the authors will be interviewed on RNZ and I can hear them then.

“Workshops like this can stimulate
and help you write a line that’s great.”



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Renegade R

I wonder whether the person who painted this might have found Junk Mail easier to spell?

“Perhaps they did it in a rush
best think before you use paint brush.”

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