for the stuck

For me, undoubtedly the hardest part of writing a poem is starting it. Unless I get direct external inspiration, it’s nearly impossible for me to just sit down and start writing anything; and, on that note, it’s sort of difficult for me to pull inspiration out of thin air.

Over the summer, though, I found a really cool spot near my hometown ( which sells more used books then I’ve ever seen in one spot for really cheap — all hardcovers are 1 dollar, all paperbacks are 50 cents. I stocked up and, while doing so, came across a dictionary of word and phrase origins. I saw and thought it would be perfect for forcing some inspiration when I want to sit down and write, and I think it’s been pretty successful so far. The book that I have, in case your interested, is by William and Mary Morris, but I’m sure you can find similar things elsewhere or online. Regardless, I highly highly highly recommending something like this if you’re stuck and in need of a starting point for a piece.

I’m going to include a few excerpts from the book, the ones with the best words and phrases I’ve found so far, and maybe you’ll find some inspiration from them:

alligator pear. By a process known as “folk etymology” (which see), unfamiliar or hard-to-pronounce words take the form of similar but more familiar words. Thus, especially in rural areas of the country, jonquils become “Johnnyquils” and asparagus is called “sparrowgrass.” In this case, avocado was mispronounced “alligator” partly because avocado trees were thought to grow in swampy tropical areas infested by alligators. And the avocado fruit does somewhat resemble a pear.

banzai. The war cry “Banzai!” meant “May you live ten thousand years!” The Japanese, with a logic incomprehensible to Western minds, used to should it when launching a suicide attack.

c.q. In a death notice in a weekly paper, c.q. was printed in small letters after the name of the deceased. The c.q. in this use has a meaning, but its appearance in the paper was an error. The symbols originally represented the sounds (dah-dit-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah-dit) used by radio operators at the start of a transmission. This c.q. alerts other listening operators that a message is to follow. As used by proofreaders, however, it is a warning to typesetters that a spelling that seems unusual or even erroneous is to be followed because, despite its appearance, it is correct. For example, if a first name had the unusual spelling “Lilyan,” a copy editor might well follow it with a c.q. in parentheses or encircled as a signal to the typesetter to follow copy. The error, in this case, was that the c.q. itself was set into type.

This reminds us of the ancient proof room legend of the zealous and now lamented proofreader who is so devoted to his task that he followed copy — even when it blew out the window.


2 Replies to “for the stuck”

  1. Natalie,

    I LOVE this. Used bookstores are my kryptonite. This makes me so happy that you ‘stocked’ up on books. Every time I go on vacation I ‘accidentally’ wander into a bookstore of sorts on a boardwalk or corner store and my suitcase is always heavier on my way home… oops. Whenever I get stuck in my writing, I turn to my handy-dandy bookshelf, choose a book, flip to a page and pick the first interesting word I see. This is the first word of my poem. And then, just go with it.

  2. That sounds like such a cool book to use for random inspiration. I think I can recommend something that strikes a similar chord: a little book I picked up over the summer called “The Secret Lives of Colour” by Kassia St. Clair. It’s a collection of anecdotes and historical contexts for specific shades and pigments — what they’re made of, where they came from, who painted, wore and popularized them. It’s a neat read if you ever want to know about how Victorians made paint out of mummies or how a guy trying to find a cure for malaria invented mauve.

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