If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

Here are the upcoming WWK interviews for the month of July!

July 4th Christopher Huang, A Gentleman's Murder

July 11th V. M. Burns, The Plot Is Murder

July 18th Edith Maxwell (Maddie Day), Death Over Easy

July 25th Shari Randall, Against The Claw

Our July Saturday Guest Blogger Schedule: 7/7--Mary Feliz, 7/14--Annie Hogsett, 7/21--Margaret S. Hamilton, 7/28--Kait Carson.

Our special bloggers for the fifth Monday and Tuesday of July--Kaye George and Paula Gail Benson.

Please welcome two new members to WWK--Annette Dashofy, who will blog on alternative Sundays with Jim Jackson, and Nancy Eady, who will blog on every fourth Monday. Thanks for blogging with us Annette and Nancy!

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Annette Dashofy's Uneasy Prey was released in March. It is the sixth Zoe Chambers Mystery. The seventh, Cry Wolf, will be released on September 18th. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Annette on September 19th.

Carla Damron's quirky short story, "Subplot", was published in the Spring edition of The Offbeat Literary Journal. You can find it here: http://offbeat.msu.edu/volume-18-spring-2018/

Tina Whittle's sixth Tai Randolph mystery, Necessary Ends, debuts on April 3, 2018. Look for it here. Tina was nominated for a Derringer Award for her novelette, "Trouble Like A Freight Train Coming." We're all crossing our fingers for her.

James M. Jackson's Empty Promises, the next in the Seamus McCree mystery series (5th), was published on April 3, 2018. Purchase links are here. He's working on Seamus McCree #6 (False Bottom)

Dark Sister, a poetry collection, is Linda Rodriguez's tenth published book. It's available for sale here:

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.

Shari Randall's second Lobster Shack Mystery, Against the Claw, will be available in July 31, 2018.


Saturday, September 22, 2012


Today's Salad Bowl Saturday post is by renowned short story writer B.K. Stevens. Writing in the Last Editor Standing earlier this year, she takes on the issue of our changing English language.


The English language changes constantly, often for good reasons. New words emerge to meet new needs—“astronaut” and “cyberspace” come to mind as obvious examples. The need for “bootylicious” may seem less urgent, but the Oxford English Dictionary now lists the word, so some experts must think it serves some purpose. And sometimes, when words pass out of the language, we needn’t mourn them much. True, when we hear King Lear’s faithful follower, Kent, condemn Oswald as a “whoreson cullionly barber-monger,” today’s insults sound merely crude by comparison. But “bastard” will do for “whoreson,” and “vile” may be even better than “cullionly.” We may regret the loss of “barber-monger”—“fop” isn’t nearly as colorful and concrete—but at a time when vain men favor stylists, we should probably admit that “barber-monger” no longer meets our needs.

The loss of some other words, however, may do real damage by depriving us of concise, specific ways to express certain ideas. And it’s frustrating when words or their meanings are lost not because of changing needs but because of ignorance, laziness, or, in some cases, silliness.

For example, if your friend Joan says she’s thinking of buying stocks, you might be tempted to tell her to get advice from a disinterested expert. If you do, however, Joan will probably recoil: “No! I want advice from an expert who cares!” It would take a long time to explain that a disinterested expert is not an uninterested expert; rather, it’s an expert who cannot profit from any decisions Joan makes, because he or she owns no shares in (has no interests in) any companies in which Joan might invest. So chances are you’ll tell Joan to seek advice from an objective expert, even though that won’t convey your meaning as precisely. That’s one way in which words get lost: So many people use them carelessly that one hesitates to use them correctly, for fear of being misunderstood. By now, it’s probably too late to save “disinterested.” After decades of abuse, it’s become an unnecessary synonym for “uninterested,” rather than a useful word with its own distinct meaning.

“Fortuitous” is similarly endangered. “Fortuitously, both sisters arrived exactly at noon”—many people will assume that it’s fortunate the sisters arrived at the same time, not that their simultaneous arrival, for good or ill, happened by chance. In this case, I suspect, the confusion got started not because there was any need for a synonym for “fortunate” but because people thought “fortuitous” sounded fancier. I had an intelligent, well-educated colleague who always said “comprise” when he meant “compose”—“The committee will be comprised of six people elected by the faculty.” Usually, I don’t correct people when they make this sort of mistake, but once, when he drafted a proposal that would bear both our names, I had no choice. He listened impatiently while I explained the differences between the words and showed him the relevant pages in the dictionary and The Elements of Style. Then he shook his head. “But ‘comprised’ sounds better,” he said.

Probably, to many people, it does, just as “infer” sounds like a more elegant way of saying “imply.” It’s ironic when mistakes become so common that the wrong words sound more impressive than the right ones.

“Aggravate,” “hopefully,” “tortuous,” “anticipate,” “transpire”—in one sense, these words and many others seem in no danger of disappearing from the language, for we still see and hear them often. But they’re so widely misunderstood that their usefulness is disappearing. When “aggravate” degenerates into nothing but a synonym for “irritate,” we won’t need it any more—and we’ll have an unfulfilled need for a word that concisely expresses the idea of making something worse by intensifying it.

How serious is this problem? It may not be a crisis, but I don’t think it’s trivial, and I don’t think editors and English teachers are the only ones who should be concerned. In George Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government tries to limit the range of citizens’ thoughts by limiting their vocabulary. If “double-plus-ungood” is the only word available for describing something that’s foolish, or unjust, or shameful, people’s ability to explain exactly why they oppose that thing is diminished—they’ll have a hard time articulating their objection for others, perhaps an equally hard time clarifying it in their own minds. If people have only a fuzzy notion of why they distrust Big Brother, how likely are they to rebel?

Of course, we’re far from the sort of thought domination Orwell envisions. Even if all the words I’ve mentioned and dozens of others dissolve into superfluous mush, we’ll have a vast vocabulary to draw upon. Still, it makes sense to do all we can to stop the erosion. If we don’t, it might get worse. We should at least have the courage to use words correctly ourselves, regardless of the consequences. So you should tell Joan to look for a disinterested expert, even at the risk of having to explain; and I shouldn’t have waited so long to find a tactful way to talk to my colleague about “comprise” and “compose.”

The connections between language and thought are so close, so vital, that we need to guard our words fiercely. As Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In challenging times—and that means, really, in all times—we recognize the need to make our thoughts precise. We should work hard to keep our words as precise as we want our thoughts to be.

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published almost forty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. One Shot, an e-novella published by Untreed Reads, is a humorous whodunit that takes a satirical look at issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. B.K.’s awards include a Derringer and first place in a national suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark.

B.K. has a Ph.D. in English, has taught literature and composition at the college level for many years, and has published college textbooks on composition and on literary criticism and research. Website: www.bkstevensmysteries.com.


E. B. Davis said...

I think that you are describing the human condition, which our language reflects. Our world values fast-pace decision making over precise thinking and well-thought out direction. Look at the current political candidates. They know that their platforms will not work, but it's what the public wants to hear. Winning the race means having power, more important than governing to help the nation. So goes our language.

Unfortunately, there's another problem. I looked up the word, "comprised." Herein lies the other part of the problem:

   [kuhm-prahyz] Show IPA
verb (used with object), com·prised, com·pris·ing.
to include or contain: The Soviet Union comprised several socialist republics.
to consist of; be composed of: The advisory board comprises six members.
to form or constitute: Seminars and lectures comprised the day's activities.


Patg said...

Thank you for this article. English is such an expressive language, people do seem to get carried away trying to sound eloquent. Asimov once said that if we stuck to about 2100 words in the English language we'd always make ourselves prefectly clear.

Gloria Alden said...

You made me think I'd better carefully think out exactly what I want to say before I speak. :-) Of course, at my age I'm finding myself often searching for the exact word I want to use anyway.

Good blog. I enjoyed reading it and it made me think of other words that have changed their meaning like gay. Even with the third graders I taught, if an older book I was reading to them or a poem had the original meaning, it would cause giggles by a few of my students. I'm not homophobic in any way, so I ignored those who took the secondary meaning of the word and read on.

Warren Bull said...

Thank you for an excellent blog. When Amy Tan was asked what question was never asked by her fans that she thought she be asked she relied that nobody asks about the words.

Michele Drier said...

I love this, B.K., thanks. I've been called a language curmudgeon, but English has roots from distinct language groups that gave us so many synonoms and homonyms we have almost one million words available. One of my biggest bugaboos is the demise of "who". Objects are "that", people are "who", yet every evening on TV you hear "He's the man that ..."
I'm pretty sure I'm fighting a losing battle, but I hope you keep up the good work!

James Montgomery Jackson said...

I must admit that I hate having to "dumb down" my writing because other people do not know some of the words that I think are perfect to describe what I want to say.

Although Bill Buckley never found the need to eliminate a ton of words I had never heard of, so maybe the problem is not my vocabulary, but my confidence??

And as for fighting losing battles, I remember my grandparents railing against the commercial that said, "Winston takes good like a cigarette should." "AS" my grandparents would spit out in unison.

My partner, Jan, dies a thousand deaths of small cuts when people misuse less and fewer. (A sin of which I am occasionally guilty.)

And I cringe everytime I hear, "Me and Joe went..." Followed shortly thereafter by, "It belongs to him and I."

~ Jim

B.K. Stevens said...

Thank you for your comments.

E.B., you make a good point--several good points, actually, but I’m thinking specifically of your last one. Dictionaries reflect usage, so when usage gets sloppy, dictionaries have to adjust. Many now list “alot” and “alright” as secondary but acceptable spellings; some include “uninterested” as the third or fourth definition of “disinterested.” So we can’t rely on dictionaries to preserve the original meanings of commonly misused words.

Patg, thanks for sharing Asimov’s observation—I hadn’t heard it before. I appreciate his concern about clarity, but I have to side with Orwell: We need an extensive, rich vocabulary to express a wide range of ideas precisely.

Gloria, you’re not alone. I think I often drive my husband crazy when I break off mid-sentence to search for the right word, or even a reasonable approximation of it.

Warren, thanks for your comment. I think I remember seeing Stephen King quote Amy Tan’s remark—in On Writing, perhaps?

Michele, you may be right—it may be a losing battle. But as Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” “one can at least change one’s own habits.” And once in a while, if enough of us work at it, we might even score a small victory by rescuing an endangered word or two.

Jim, the confusion of “less” and “fewer” bothers me, too. It doesn’t help when signs in grocery stores tell us we can use the express lane if we have “twenty items or less.” And “It belongs to him and I” is a good example of a mistake people make when they pay attention to what supposedly sounds good rather than to grammar.

Kaye George said...

I may be wrong, but I think *sign* is a perfectly good word and see no need for *signage*. But I do hate to hear, between you and I, and I hear it all the time!

Thanks for giving me something to think about--sorry I was so late getting here.