Monthly Archives: October 2009

A Very Scary Halloween tale

A travelling carnival came to town this year for Halloween and set up in the fair grounds. Along with the usual assortment of spinning rides, a haunted house was erected, quite separate from the other attractions, in a quiet corner. The advertisement in the newspaper for the spooky house said:

UntitledHah! As if you’d actually die –they have laws against that kind of thing … right? Still … I vow not to scream, just in case.

My friends have joined me at the entrance now, so I pay the fee and bravely volunteer to be the first to enter the dilapidated looked structure. Jeez, it’s dark. Really dark. What is that glowing ahead of me? Are those words? I inch forward in the blackness and the words suddenly move toward me.

Untitled 2My late what? I snicker, turning to my friends. But no one is there, just a sign directly behind me, less than an arm’s length from my face, that says

Untitled 3How did that get there? And where all the apostrophes? The hair is standing up on the back of my neck. “Guys?” I call out to my friends, but nobody answers, so I back away from the creepy signs into another room. This room appears to be long and narrow – I wish my eyes would adjust to the dark so I could see where I’m going!

I’m edging forward when something brushes against my back and I spin around to face it.

Untitled 4Taut?? They mean taunt! Something drops from the darkness above and I stifle a squeal and duck.

Untitled 5I spin to my left.

Untitled 6I’m starting to perspire. I want to get out of this weird place; it’s scarier than I expected. Okay, there’s the exit from the room. It doesn’t look too far away.

Untitled 7Yes, I am bored with it! Where are these phrases coming from??

Untitled 8I’m scrambling now, and the eerie glowing words just keep coming! Where did the exit sign go? I can’t see it!

Untitled 9Ouch! I tripped over   Untitled 10

and almost tumbled into Untitled 11

Untitled 12I am excited about leaving and I’m almost there, just a few more steps!

Untitled 13No, not that! I clap my hand over my mouth to keep from screaming and leap through the door to the next room. I still can’t see, but at least I’m not being attacked by bad grammar. The exit is straight ahead….

What’s that noise? Yikes, something fluttered right over my head! There’s another one! What ARE those things – are they bats? Yuk, that one was almost stuck in my hair.  Are they…? Could they be… ? They are! They’re apostrophes and they’re dive-bombing me! “Leave me alone! Why don’t you go back to the words you belong with??”  White, shimmering forms are starting to fill the room around me – ghosts – and the one closest to me answers my question:

Untitled 14And it starts laughing; a shrill howl that sends chills down my spine.

Untitled 15

Ahhhhhhhhhhh! I can’t contain my scream any longer! And now I’m running as fast as I can to the exit, beating off apostrophes and screeching ghosts like Buffy in a room full of vampires, until I finally shove the door open and throw myself through it. Phew! Deep breathes. That was horrifying! Deep breathes. It’s okay. I’m all right.

And hey, at least I didn’t literally die screaming.

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What’s in a Vampire Name?

Contrary to popular belief, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not named after Vlad the Impaler. It is believed that Bram Stoker would have known very little about Vlad, “certainly not enough to have been inspired to base Count Dracula on him.” In fact, Stoker discovered the name Dracula in an old book with a footnote suggesting it came from a Romanian word for “devil”, which was, obviously, appropriate for his main character. Until then, the name he had in mind for his spooky Count was Wampyr. Yes, the best known vampire in history was almost Wampyr the Vampire.

The 1922 German film Nosferatu stole the story of Dracula and hoped to get away with it by changing the characters’ names, including that of the main character to Count Orlok. The Stoker estate successfully sued the production company for copyright infringement, leaving the company bankrupt and proving that a Dracula by any other name was … well, illegal. (Dracula has always been in the public domain in the United States, but in the United Kingdom and other countries the novel was under copyright until April 1962, fifty years after Stoker’s death.)

Dracula lends itself wonderfully to parodies. The Bugs Bunny cartoon Transylvania 6-5000 features Count Blood Count; Count Duckula is “a little bit Dracula, a little bit Daffy Duck”; Count Chocula has his own cereal; Count Floyd hosted SCTV’s Monster Chiller Horror Theater; and toddler favourite Count von Count lives on Sesame Street and helps his audience learn to count. “They call me the Count because I love to count things!  One friend from Sesame Street, plus one friend from Sesame Street, equals two friends from Sesame Street! Ah, ha, ha!”

In early tales, the starring vampires often had titles, including Sir Francis Varney in the 1847 serial Varney the Vampire, and Lord Ruthven in The Vampyre, 1918.

Anne Rice says her inspiration for the character Lestat de Lioncourt, star of the hugely popular Vampire Chronicles, came largely from her husband, poet and artist Stan Rice. The name Lestat is, or is meant to sound like, an old French name.

Angel, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was once one of the nastiest of the nasty.  He terrorized Europe in the 1700s as Angelus before being cursed with a soul, a punishment designed to make him suffer eternally for his past crimes. The name Angelus is obviously ironic, referencing the handsome demeanour hiding the monster within. As Angel entering the 21st century, the vampire with a soul spent all of his time helping others.

In modern times, vampire names have become less formal, allowing them to fit in with today’s society. The vampires in the recent Twilight series were born in the early 1900s and have simple names from that period: Edward, James, Victoria, etc.

And that brings us to the current American television series True Blood, which features a vampire lead character. Through the last couple of hundred years of vampire fiction we’ve gone from Counts to … Bill.

If your horse or other pet has expressed an interest in getting into character for Halloween, search on-line for vampire names for your dog, horse, etc. and a site will come up – no kidding – with suggestions such as Igor (faithful assistant) and Blade (Tomb of Dracula).

To discover your own vampire name, search for vampire name generators and you’ll find several sites. My vampire name is Karula Drifher. I like it.

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National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month. Last year, close to 120,000 people registered on the NaNoWriMo Web site to take a shot at writing 50,000 words between November 1st and 30th. That’s a 175-page novel in 30 days.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to encourage everyone who has ever thought of writing a novel to stop procrastinating and write … something … anything! It doesn’t matter that it likely won’t be award-winning material. It doesn’t even matter – just this once – about grammar and spelling. The only thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output.

NaNoWriMo “is an event for all nations. We’d change the name to ‘International Novel Writing Month,’ but InNoWriMo doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way.”

So if you’ve ever fancied becoming a novelist, November is the month to give 50,000 words a try. 21,683 people successfully completed the challenge  in 2008.



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D is for Dangling Modifier

Yesterday I went to a movie starring George Clooney with Brad Pitt. Popping in the container, we could smell the buttered popcorn, so we got some at the counter that cost $3.00. We ate the popcorn that we had bought slowly. Leaving the theatre, the wind grew cold. Shining brightly in the sky, my date pointed out the full moon. After starting the car, a squirrel ran out from under it. Then we drove the car to my house with chrome wheels.

Modifiers are just what the word implies—words or phrases that modify something else by describing, clarifying or giving more detail. Dangling and misplaced modifiers are words that either haven’t been given a subject to modify, or have been poorly placed in a sentence and describe something you didn’t intend them to modify. I didn’t go to the movie with Brad Pitt or pop in a container. The counter didn’t cost $3.00 and we didn’t buy popcorn slowly. The wind didn’t leave the theatre, my date didn’t shine brightly in the sky, and … well, you get the idea. You know the intent of the above sentences, but they read poorly with the dangling and misplaced modifiers.

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a subject not clearly stated in the sentence. Usually the subject is implied and the writer is assuming that the reader will know what is meant. For example, in the sentence “After starting the car, a squirrel ran out from under it,” after starting the car states an action but doesn’t name the doer of that action. The doer must be the subject of the main clause that follows so in this sentence, it is the squirrel. You know I didn’t mean that the squirrel started the car, so the first phrase is a dangling modifier. The sentence can be easily fixed by adding a subject to the beginning phrase: “After I started the car, a squirrel ran out from under it.” Tip: dangling modifiers frequently contain verbs ending in –ing.

A misplaced modifier causes confusion by falling in the wrong place in a sentence. “Then we drove the car to my house with chrome wheels” is easily fixed by just moving the modifier (chrome wheels) so it directly follows the object it’s really modifying: “Then we drove the car with chrome wheels to my house.” The best way to avoid misplaced modifiers is to place the modifying word(s) as close as possible to the word it qualifies.

At least dangling and misplaced modifiers can provide a laugh to the reader. Here are some amusing examples:

– Walking downstairs, the doorbell rang.
– Having been thrown into the air, the dog caught the ball.
– The closet was empty, having packed everything into the suitcase.
– Pressing the button, the elevator went down to the basement.
– While sleeping, the house caught on fire.
– Flying over the oak tree, the farmer saw the flock of birds that had damaged his crops.
– For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
– Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.
– Buried deep within the earth, the scientists said the blast would be harmless.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know…

– Groucho Marx

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When Good Grammar Goes Bad

 I photographed this sign in front of an Oxford Learning Centre near my home. ... Perhaps they specialize in math at this location.

I photographed this sign in front of an Oxford Learning Centre near my home. ... Perhaps they specialize in math at this location.

I visited Oxford’s Web site and found “the early years of school is about critical groundwork” among other grammatical and typing (“be it not being not keeping up with homework”) errors.


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Great Beginnings

Charles L.P. Silet of The Strand Magazine calls the famous first sentence of Rebecca “one of the great opening lines in English fiction. In one stroke, du Maurier establishes the voice, the locale, and the dream-like atmosphere of the story.”

Rebecca, the suspense novel that made Daphne du Maurier one of the most popular authors of her day, is about a shy paid companion who, while in the French Riviera with her vacationing employer, meets wealthy Maxim de Winter. She and Max fall in love, marry and return to his large country estate in Cornwall to begin their life together. But Max is haunted by the death of his first wife, Rebecca, in a boating accident the year before. The second Mrs. de Winter (whose given name is never revealed) soon discovers that Rebecca still has a strange hold on everyone at the estate.

Since its debut in 1938, the novel Rebecca has had a hold on the public. It has been adapted for both the small and large screens several times, with the Alfred Hitchcock version starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier winning the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture.

There are three novels inspired by the original and approved by the du Maurier estate:  Mrs. de Winter, by Susan Hill; The Other Rebecca, by Maureen Freely; and Rebecca’s Tale, by Sally Beauman.

Du Maurier herself adapted Rebecca as a stage play in 1939, and a new musical based on the novel premiered in Vienna in 2006, where it played to sold-out houses for two years. Discussions are under way regarding a possible Toronto run of the musical prior to its openings in New York and London in 2010 or 2011.

And it all started with that great beginning sentence. Did it come back to your mind as you read this, or did you know it all along?

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.


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Happy Thanksgiving

May your stuffing be tasty
May your turkey be plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have nary a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!

– Anonymous



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Part Two

Jay Leno was offering five and six-year-olds the opportunity to finish well-known (by adults) proverbs on The Tonight Show. “People who live in glass houses …” he began, and offered the microphone to a bright young fellow. The Californian youngster promptly responded with the very logical reply “die in earthquakes.”  His answer changed the second half of that proverb (from “shouldn’t throw stones”) for me forever.

Most of us use quotations and proverbs, or slightly reworked versions of the originals. In fact, a lot of what we claim as quotes are actually misquotes. Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake,” Machiavelli didn’t say “the end justifies the means,” and Horace Greeley never made the recommendation to “go west, young man.”

Sherlock Holmes didn’t say “Elementary, my dear Watson,” in any of Conan Doyle’s stories.

No one said “Play it again, Sam” in the movie Casablanca and the closest Captain Kirk came to saying “Beam me up, Scottie” in the original Star Trek television series is “Beam us up, Mr. Scott.”

“Luke, I am your father,” from The Empire Strikes Back, topped a list of memorable movie misquotes compiled earlier this year following voting by 1,500 filmgoers. Darth Vader actually said “No, I am your father.”

How many times have you heard a co-worker say “Ours is not to reason why,” usually in reference to a decision made by management and considered stupid by staff? I wonder how many of the speakers even know that the original line is “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

For anyone who is interested in researching accurate quotations, whether for a specific use or just for fun, there are quotation dictionaries available to suit all needs and interests.

It’s such a pleasure to write down splendid words – almost as though one were inventing them.  ~Rupert Hart-Davis

Quotations 3


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Thumbs Up for Castle

Thumbs up for the television dramedy Castle. The show is about a famous crime novelist who, while suffering from writer’s block after killing off the main character in his hugely successful novels, is approached by Detective Kate Beckett of the NYPD. She asks for his help in catching the copycat killer staging murders based on scenes from his novels. Naturally, once that case is solved, writer Castle (Nathan Fillion) decides that Detective Beckett (Stana Katic) would be the perfect model for the lead character in his new series of novels and receives permission from the NYPD to shadow Kate on the job.

In the 2nd episode of the season, The Double Down, Castle points out that the message left on a murdered woman incorrectly uses your instead of you’re. As a wordsmith, he finds the common error irritating.I’m just saying, whoever killed her also murdered the English language.”

Later in the show, when Beckett uses the term “against who,” Castle mutters “whom.”

It’s lovely to have a grammarian on television: Monday nights at 10:00 p.m.

Nathan Fillion plays witty and likable Rick Castle.

Nathan Fillion plays witty and likable Rick Castle.


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Part One

When visiting one of the University of Toronto’s libraries, I discovered a massive dictionary just inside the entrance. I have never seen anything like it. It was huge! All those words, all that knowledge! I gazed in awe at the magnificent tome, displayed reverently on its own pedestal with a light shining down on it from the heavens. There may have been a choir singing… well, that’s how I remember it anyway.

Everyone should have a standard dictionary, or more likely these days, a bookmark for an on-line version, but a quick Google search shows that there are also specialized books with terms specific to just about every profession, hobby or interest imaginable. Following is just a small sampling of dictionaries available for those interested in expanding their English vocabulary.

The Logodaedalian’s Dictionary of Interesting and Unusual Words, by George Stone Saussy. I had to look up the word logodaedalian in a conventional dictionary to discover that it refers to someone who is clever at playing with words. This book, according to the publisher, lists the meanings of difficult and obscure English words, and offers examples of their use from the works of top British and American writers.

One-Letter Words, a Dictionary, by Craig Conley. My first thought was that this must be a very short book, however, according to the description it “illuminates the more than 800 surprising definitions associated with the letters in the English alphabet. For instance, Conley uncovers 69 different definitions for the letter X, the most versatile and printed letter in the English language.”

Knickers in a Twist: a Dictionary of British Slang, by Jonathan Bernstein. After reading this, “at least you’ll be aware that when a British citizen describes you as a ‘wally,’ a ‘herbert,’ a ‘spanner,’ or a ‘bampot,’ he’s not showering you with compliments.”

Magic Words: A Dictionary, by Craig Conley.  According to reviews, “The first 48-pages are utterly fascinating, with Conley an engaging tour guide through literary, philosophical, cultural and spiritual landscapes,” and in the following pages, “magic words taken from literature, plays, movies; all the way from Ovid to Shakespeare to Ronald Hutton to J.K. Rowling.”

KA-BOOM! A Dictionary of Comic Book Words, Symbols & Onomatopoeia, by Kevin J. Taylor. “Shouldn’t all dictionaries start with AAAA and end with ZZZZZZZTZZZTZZZ? KA-BOOM! does.”

If you’ve been thinking of learning another language, I found three dictionaries of interest.

The Elvish Dictionary, by Ambar Eldaron. J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford academic who was an expert in ancient languages, spent a great deal of time creating his own. He developed two forms of  Elvish, which were integral to the creation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sindarin is based on the sounds of Welsh, and Quenya is related to Finnish. You can buy dictionaries for both. Certainly as spoken in the Lord of the Rings movies, Elvish is a beautiful language. Ni ve sa (I like it.)

The Klingon Dictionary (Star Trek), by Marc Okrand. This book includes a precise pronunciation guide, proper use of affixes and suffixes, conjunctions, exclamations and superlatives, and simple and complex sentence structure, i.e. everything you want in a dictionary. It also contains the Klingon translation and pronunciation of representative phrases such as “activate the transport beam”, and “surrender or die!” Surely a necessity for every home.

Harrap’s Rat Dictionary. No, it’s not about rats; it’s how to speak rat. It includes Rat-English and English-Rat, with over 5,000 references, 80,000 translations and hundreds of new expressions. Here’s a sample entry from the E page: eee [‘ii:i] v. tr. to want; eee ee awp, I want that pea. The book comes with a CD-Rom pronunciation guide with over 80,000 words spoken by…wait a second…trained rat professionals? The book has 1523 pages? Oops, sorry, it’s a hoax. You’ll have to keep waiting for the real thing.


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