Last night when I got home after a long day’s work I felt particularly somnolent. This was hardly surprising as I woke up at 4.30am fought with myself to get back to sleep without success, and started work at 10am.
I then proceeded with nine hours of intensive sub-editing at what is arguable the world’s most condemned newspaper, and in South Africa particularly.
During the inordinate nine hours, I attempted to distract myself with internet research and delved into the origins of somnolent, which means sleepy.
Dictionary.com cites its origins as the late 14th century from the Old French somnolence derived from the Latin somnolentia “sleepiness” from somnolentus, from somnus “sleep (from PIE root, swep “to sleep”. A related word is somnolency.
(dated) Causing literal or figurative sleepiness;soporific.
Soporific is also an interesting word which I discovered at university and it was apt to describe the nature of my tutorials on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gawain/). I could never understand why we were made to suffer this belaboured text as part of our first year English syllabus.
Yourdictionary.com dates the first usage of somnolent to 1615, but concurs with the other details that Dictionary.com provides for regional areas, confirming “swep” from Indo-Europe.
This week, I was subbing a story about horses that had been rescued from dire circumstances. If not for the language educated among us, the situation could have given rise to an inadvertent mondegreen (when a phrase is repeated incorrectly over time and eventually replaces the original phrase).
Last month I received a self-sealing letter in the post. These are usually some or other form of traffic infringement notice. Indeed, it was. But it was red. This was the first time in my life that I had received a fine in red. Reading further, I found the fine showed a photograph of a car that is not mine, for a date on which I was not available, in a city I haven’t visited for more than 10 years. “No admission of guilt”, the document warned.
Thinking I would have to show up in court to defend these outrageous allegations, I had a conniption. Or a conniption fit, as is sometimes incorrectly stated.
When asking this question, it brings to mind a scenario in a sitcom. For example, in The Nanny, Fran could be devastated when she learns that Mr Sheffield has to go for surgery. “Oh, an operation,” she might exclaim, explaining to herself that her boss will be going under the knife.
In modern language, surgery and operation are used interchangeable but not in equal measure.
Have you ever paid attention to the ampersand? Did you know that it and similarly formed words are called mondegreens?
Newspaper style prefers the use of a full “and” only permitting the use of this mondegreen (oh how titillating is the English language?) in a name such as Fick & Sons or Johnson & Johnson. The ampersand, disrespected as it is in today’s press, had an important place in the history of the English language.
Usually I write about grammar, but what about style?
Grammar, if you know the rules, can with effort and dedication be learnt. Style, however, is unique to the individual. Writing in your own voice almost as you speak, is how you will develop your style.
When you build your unique style, you readers will begin to recognise your work before they see your by line.
Ernest Hemingway used to begin his sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’, that was his style; Dickens used aesthetically complex sentences, and that was his style. So, each writer has his own style, which is the sum of all the writing mannerisms, choice of vocabulary, and grammar constructions. Will your sentences be long or short? Will you use words that are simple or sophisticated?