Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 2

This is the second part of a playwright’s advice to people who want to become playwrights. Part 1 appeared last Thursday.

The first part of this article appeared last Thursday, and it just got too long for one piece, so here’s the rest of my advice to beginning playwrights and other people crazy enough to want to be involved in a life in theatre.

Write every day, and then write some more

Write, write, write, a little bit or a lot every day. And don’t feel compelled to just dive into a full length and go. I didn’t. The best approach — and, oddly enough, most marketable — is the so-called 10-minute play, for which there are contests all the time, and I think that my first four or five produced works were all within that limit.

Working with plays of this length makes it a lot easier to write every day, but there’s another big advantage to the form.

It teaches you how to write perfectly formed scenes, because 10 to 20 minutes really is the ideal scene length for any play, although some may go as short as seven. If you can do a strong beginning, middle, and end in that length of time, then you can essentially write 9 to 12 short plays that chain together and advance the overall plot and, ta-da — full-length!

Side note: this formula is also the secret of writing for film or TV. If you want to do half-hour, for example, perfect writing the seven-minute scene. For one hour, aim for nine to thirteen minutes.

The best description I’ve ever read of a one act or short play is this: The playwright’s job is to bring a stick of dynamite on stage at the beginning and then somebody strikes a match at the end. And… scene.

This is exactly the approach I took to that full-length I mentioned after having written a bunch of 10-minute plays, and I think it’s why I ultimately wound up getting produced. Well, that and I copied the elevated linguistic style of late 19th century playwrights, since the play was set in 1865.

Character first, plot later

Also, in structuring your plays, do not focus on plot. Rather, focus on your characters. Define each one in terms of who they are, what they want on a day-to-day basis, who or what they would kill to actually have it, who they think they are, who the other characters think they are, and so on.

Toss all of these into the pot and stir, and then you’ll have your plot — because if you let your plot drive your characters, then you just get sitcom or soap opera, and that’s crap.

Jumping back to Shakespeare, Richard III is a great example of this. The story is not about what Richard does to become King of England. Rather, it’s about why he does it.

We enter the story through his insecurities and needs, and then follow his personality, which drives everything else he does, from having his own brother drowned in a barrel of wine to ordering his nephews be executed in the tower of London to accusing his brother’s widow of being a witch, and so on.

But every one of his vile acts comes out of his needs and wants because the only thing he must have is the Crown of England. It’s a singular focus, but it makes for a very strong character and powerful play.

Also, to Shakespeare’s credit, he actually created this arc and these needs for Richard over not one but three plays — Henry VI part 2 and  part 3, and Richard III.

If you’re really adventurous, check out what’s known as the Eight-play Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, Henry V, Henry VI part 1, and the aforementioned three plays.

And then… go read August Wilson’s Century Cycle, which actually covers a slightly longer time period — and much bigger changes — than Shakespeare’s Henriad. And yet… is still driven by the needs of the characters involved.

I’ve written a play, so now what?

Look for playwriting groups or classes in your area, then join one. The best ones will involve no drama besides what’s on the pages and will be safe spaces that nonetheless provide valid criticisms and suggestions on the work.

The best format is generally just a bunch of writers sitting in a circle and, at each meeting (usually weekly) everyone brings pages — usually 10 to 12 (there’s that short play advantage again), then assigns roles to the other playwrights and the piece is read and then discussed.

And don’t worry whether the other writers can act or not. Sometimes, as with watching bad plays, you can get a really good idea of whether your dialogue works when it’s read really badly. If what you’re trying to say comes through, then you’ve succeeded, so try not to bite through your arm during the reading.

The best of the writers’ workshops will also periodically hold fully readings of works that the teacher and writer think are developed enough, generally beginning with one class session dedicated to a read-through of the entire piece, often with invited actors, and then a public reading designed to elicit feedback.

I cannot stress the importance of all these things enough in developing new work. No one can create in a vacuum. Bonus points: Sometimes, you can get lucky in casting an actor, and their performance will actually inform how you rewrite and tweak the part. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.

Okay, now I’ve finished the play. So now what?

Okay. You have that play or that stack of short plays, so what do you do with them? The best route, really, unless your aunt is a theatrical agent or your cousin is a producer, is to enter contests and/or if you’ve been involved with a small theatre company as part of the doing all the things part, see if they’re open to considering your works.

There’s a lot of material out there, especially at the larger theaters, and if you submit directly if they have an open policy, it can take years to get a response. I think I once heard back from a theater something like six years after I’d submitted, and by that time, although they mentioned the title when they rejected it, I didn’t even remember the play off the top of my head.

Most importantly, never give up. My personal record for length of time between developing a play and seeing it produced was about twenty years — and that was actually the second full-length I’d ever written, which I started on the heels of the first one, which was produced within a year or two of me finishing it.

It was also the strangest collaboration ever, because I was essentially working with a dead playwright — myself from twenty years earlier — and fixing mistakes I’d made at the time. Ultimately, the whole thing turned out amazing.

Someday, I’m actually going to go back and try to figure out how much of the original “final” draft I threw out and how much was totally new.

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 1

Here is a playwright’s advice to fledgling playwrights who want to know what they should do to get good at their craft.

Recently, an old friend forwarded some questions to me from the grown-up child of another friend of his. They recently graduated college and want to become a playwright, and they had four questions.

I answered those and started to include answers to an unasked fifth question that was soon longer than the other answers combined, at which point I realized that I should share this with everyone.

Of course, how I really wanted to respond to them was with a hearty Michael Scott, “No. No! No, dear god — No!” Why would anyone want to become a playwright now, when we don’t even know what the state of theatre will be in five years.

It’s entirely possible that only Broadway and the larger regional theaters survive. On the other hand, we could see a lot of small theater companies pop up to replace the ones we’ve lost and could end up with a huge needs for playwrights — as long as those playwrights don’t expect to make a living at it.

So my best advice would be go into real estate or become a plumber, and then let playwriting be the side gig that you enjoy doing.

But here is my advice, and this also applies anybody who wants to go into any aspect of theatre, like acting, any of the creative design, directing, producing, etc. Just substitute your discipline where applicable.

Curtain up…

Learn theatre history

Study western theatre from the Greeks to modern day, and theatrical traditions from other parts of the world. Japan has a particularly rich theatre history, as does China.

So does every other part of the world. African theatre came out of ancient rituals but — surprise! — that’s exactly where western theatre came from, too. Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia had their own forms of theatre, with Incan tradition being particularly rich.

Keep in mind, though, that theatre and traditional culture in all of those continents was muzzled and replaced with the European version once the invading colonizers arrived. In modern times, Latin American theatre is basically western theatre, as is the case with Canada and Australia.

Sometimes, an historical style can be the perfect way to stage a modern piece or ideal style in which to write a new one. For example, I saw a production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge that was staged as a Greek tragedy, and it worked. Blood was raining onto the stage by the time it was over.

The director and producers also wisely reduced the cast size since they were not working in the heyday of Broadway in the 1950s, when plays would frequently have fifty or more actors on stage. The incidental neighbors and passersby were cut and were not missed.

Also keep in mind that some country’s traditions do not tell their stories in chronological order, while in others, movement is just as important as dialogue. These can all become brushes in your palette and the hues you use in creating your own works.

Read plays

Read lots of them, from all eras and areas. Definitely read as many of Shakespeare’s works as you can. Books with is complete works are easy to find and not that expensive — there’s one sitting on my coffee table right now, and I think I have a couple more floating around.

A very important note: Don’t be afraid of the language. Pay attention to the psychology of his characters because he was a master at it. If you follow what the characters need, the language will become clear.

I once played your basic Shakespeare cop in a comedy, and even though the character only had a few lines and mostly served for physical comedy in other scenes, the Bard put enough bread crumbs in there that it gave me my entire character arc and needs — the dude was only interested in the money — and that gave me something to play.

This production also demonstrated how completely adaptable Shakespeare’s works are. The play was The Comedy of Errors and the director staged it in a very colorful 1980s sitcom world. I wound up playing my character as a traditional cop, but with a very heavy stage Irish accent, and had a huge scene-stealing moment in which I and three women in the cast suddenly started River-dancing before being chased off stage by one of the sets of brothers.

Yes, this is the one with not one but two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, and while the director cast two actors with a very strong resemblance as the older brothers, she cast as the younger siblings one black actor and one very white one but dressed them identically — and it worked because the world allowed the audience to just buy into the conceit.

Now, if Shakespeare’s language is a problem at first, watch some of the better film adaptations, because good actors and directors can put the message across — anything by Branagh or Zeffirelli, for example. Do try to avoid Olivier, though. While he’s acclaimed as an actor, I find his Shakespeare performances to be dull and bloodless. No pun intended.

Try to read plays from all the major theatrical eras — Greek tragedy and comedy, medieval Miracle and Mystery plays, Commedia dell’Arte (although those weren’t so much scripted as improvised from stock characters using loosely planned scenarios), and all the major playwrights around Shakespeare’s time, mainly the Bard, Moliere, and Calderón de la Barca or any of the Spanish playwrights working in that era.

Take a quick trip through the Restoration (both comedy and drama). You can find a list of 10 plays you should read here. Be sure to veer around that bit during the Enlightenment when not a lot original was being created but Shakespeare was being bastardized, and then pick it up with Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, O’Neill, Williams, etc.

On certain playwrights, avoid the plays everyone knows and go for the obscure. For example, with Arthur Miller, skip The Crucible and take a look at the aforementioned A View from the Bridge or After the Fall. With Neil Simon, if you must… (sigh — his stuff comes from a place of such white privilege…) The Prisoner of Second Avenue does at least get a bit deeper into relatable problems.

Once you get past those (i.e. the end of the American Classical phase in the 1950s), look for playwrights who speak to you.

Next up, pick the playwrights you like, and steal their style. There’s no shame in this as a beginning playwright — as long as you’re not stealing their plots, of course. I remember modeling my first attempted (never finished) full-length on the general moods and character types of Tennessee Williams, and to this day, my works are still mostly influenced by Williams, Wilde, Joe Orton, and Tom Stoppard, along with various film directors — for stage, mostly Nicolas Roeg, because I picked up his knack for telling stories out of chronological order, instead telling them in what I call “emotional order.”

Read more than just plays

I’ve always been interested in history and so read a lot about the subject and historical figures, and with only two exceptions, every one of my full-length plays has been based on historical events or real people — although one of those exceptions was a black comedy set during the American Civil War, and the other was inspired by, although not based on, events in my father’s life.

Since history tends to repeat itself, always look at history from the perspective of how it relates to our times, and either mimics current events or provides a contrast. And look at history from other than the victor’s version. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a western written from the Natives’ point of view, at least not on stage — and the few western films that did look favorably at America’s indigenous population still had to have a white character taken into the tribe as the POV character.

Of course, you don’t have to stick with history. Reading about science can lead to important moments in time, as well as very interesting characters — Tycho Brahe certainly had an interesting life (and ridiculous moustache), for example.

Mythology can be a rich source of stories no matter where in the world it comes from. Greek and Roman theatre were pretty much steeped in their mythologies, and all of the MCU and DCEU superhero films are just modern western mythology, even if some of the characters are blatantly lifted from other western mythologies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Thor and Loki.

Even beyond this, just read about a subject that interests you. It can be computer gaming, skateboarding, scrapbooking, parkour, hiking, knitting, kayaking, camping — literally whatever. That’s because reading about these fields of interest can immerse you in those worlds and can suddenly give you ideas for settings and characters for plays.

If you know enough about a subject by reading up on it, you can then create an authentic world on stage and populate it with real, relatable people. For example, the world of knitting, which seems like the most innocent and innocuous hobby in the world, can be fraught with politics and controversy — and the most prominent knitters around today are not senior citizens, but 20-something women. Who knew?

Go to the theatre

Go see plays as much (and as safely) as you can. And while it’s always a nice treat to catch the latest touring musical or prestige play, you’ll learn more by seeing new works produced by small and mid-sized theaters (when they’re back in business again), because some of them will absolutely suck — and you’ll learn more sitting through one bad play than you will sitting through twenty Broadway hits.

Why? Because after a play that just misses the mark, it’s your turn to ask, “Why didn’t it work?” Was it the production and acting getting in the way, or was it the story itself?

If the former is the problem, that can give you great insight into how to actor- and director-proof your works without being obvious. If it’s the latter, then you get to be the dramaturg and fix the story in your head.

Not to mention that I have gotten more great ideas while watching bad plays — and ideas that had nothing to do with that play, but which might have been inspired by one element on the set or a particular character or costume — that bad theatre is perversely worth it in getting a creative education.

Do theatre

It’s always been my belief that anyone who wants to be involved in theatre as a writer (or actor, director, or designer) should do as many jobs as possible at least once. That includes helping to build and strike the sets, running sound or lights or both, directing a play, even if it’s a short one, and acting.

Yes — if you want to be a writer, you need to act in at least one production. It doesn’t have to be a major role. You just need to go through the process, including performing in front of an audience, in order to understand what you shouldn’t do to your actors.

For example, never write a costume change for a character who is onstage at the end of one scene and onstage at the beginning of the next unless you know that a designer can create a quick-change version. Otherwise, start the subsequent scene with some other character or business to give the actor time to change.

Or, if you’re writing for a smaller theater with a limited budget, try to keep it all confined to one set with as few operating doors as possible — did you know that working doors are one of the most expensive things you can install on a set? I didn’t find that out until I wrote a farce with eight of them.

Once again, I got rolling on a subject that just became too long for one post, so check back next Thursday for the second and final part of my advice. Thanks for reading!

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Sunday Nibble #63: Dyning out

One of the neat things about Greek and Latin is that they use stems and affixes to create a whole lot of words with complex meanings. The affixes are prefixes and suffixes that can completely change the meaning of words.

The prefixes are largely prepositional in nature, but they can also act as adjectival markers. For example, contra-, re-, ab-, and inter- all indicate some sort of physical relationship: Against, back, from, and among. These are prepositions.

Then there are prefixes like ben-, semi-, multi-, and sub-: Good, half, many, and insufficient; adjective. If course, they do overlap, since they’re just creating words rather than sentences.

Most Latin affixes have Greek counterparts. Well, actually, it’s the other way around, since Greek came first. But from one to the other, contra- is anti-; ab- goes with apo-; and re- and inter- have no matches. Likewise, ben- goes with eu-; semi- matches hemi-; multi- hooks up with poly-; sub- matches hypo-.

English lifted a lot of words directly from both languages but frequently with a French influence, which removed typical Latin noun declensions.

Greek was heavily tied up with Western Medicine from the beginning, Latin became first the lingua franca of an Empire and then the religious language of a continent, and then both were eventually preserved and used as the scholarly languages of the Renaissance — when religion was given back to the vernacular.

A lot of it stuck, and you’ll see a lot of Greek and Latin in medicine to this day: prescription, vaccine, hypodermic, and hypochondriac, for example. Of course, a lot of more modern words will just jam the two together. Words like antacid, bigamy, claustrophobia (in fact, a lot of phobias), dysfunction, and liposuction are all considered hybrid words.

But the real power (pun intended) comes in how many different words can come from one stem just by changing the affixes. Today, we’re looking at the stem -dyn, which means power or force — hence the pun.

Here are a few variations.

Dyne: At its most basic, in modern terminology, the stem is a unit of measure. One dyne is equal to the force required to produce a change of velocity in one gram of mass in one second equal to one centimeter per second. If that’s a bit confusing, think of producing a change as just accelerating the mass, but then forget that acceleration only means “pushing forward.” When you hit the brakes on a car, for example, you’re just accelerating backwards, more or less.

Dynasty: Ultimately from Greek dynasthai, with the “thai” ending referring to a class of people. Pretty clearly, it means “people of power,” or those with the leadership roles. It’s resemblance to the English words “die nasty” are pure coincidence.

Dynamic: Basically, the moving force in anything, whether it’s a working machine or the plot of a play, movie, or novel. This gave us words like aerodynamic, photodynamic, thermodynamic, and so on. Aerodynamic also gave us…

Aerodyne: Which was derived by shortening aerodynamic. Specifically, it describes any aircraft that uses principals of aerodynamics to generate lift and so is, by definition, heavier than air. Contrast this to aerostat, which refers to a lighter-than-air ship, like a balloon or blimp, that uses gas to generate buoyancy and lift. Here, the dyne part is replaced with the Greek stem -stasis, which means still or motionless, or quite the opposite of power and force. An aerostat essentially just sits there and lets the gas lift it.

Heterodyne: and others; there are a number of dyne words invented to refer to radio frequency generators from days when they were trying to perfect the techniques. They’re all just variations on how things were done, but this one is typical. The prefex, hetero-, means other. Basically, this was a method of taking two different radio frequencies and combining them, ending up with one that was the sum of their frequencies and the other that was their difference. (Short version: one mix would line up the peaks of the waves and the other would line up peaks and troughs.) Usually only one of the resulting frequencies is used, though.

Dynamite: Finally, here’s one that combines Greek with English. Invented by Alfred Nobel and patented in 1867, his guilt over its destructive power and early use in warfare led him to establish the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, dynamite fell out of favor with the military, who replaced it with TNT (not the same thing) because the latter was more stable, immune to weather conditions, and needed a blasting cap or other charge to set it off. On the other hand, dynamite was very susceptible to the weather, decaying quickly, and was also prone to flames, sparks, or a sudden shock making it go “boom.” Remember: one of the main ingredients in dynamite is nitroglycerin.

Now here’s a fun challenge — see how many Greek and Latin affixes and stems you can spot in words in this story that are not specifically listed as having such, or do it with anything you might happen to read next.

The commonality of such constructions might make you hyperventilate.

Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.