Monday, May 30, 2016

Review - Resolution by Robert B. Parker

Resolution is a story about rugged, dusty, sharpshooting, whiskey-loving manly men doing manly-men things such as shootin' and talking 'bout shootin', and then shootin' som'more. These men are too busy managing their testosterone to have emotions, too deep in the heart of Marlboro Country to make full sentences. They are macho.

Okay, now on with the real review.

Resolution is a western, not a genre I typically read (unless we go back to when I was around 9 and in love with The Oregon Trail and everything western). I bought this book on a whim in a used book store. It turns out it's the second novel starring the characters Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, the first one being Appaloosa. I haven't read Appaloosa but that wasn't a problem.

The very first page of the novel made me think of the wonderful online group Critique Circle and its infamous Hook Queue, where, only once a month, members have the chance to anonymously critique (savagely tear apart) the opening hook to the pieces submitted.

Just have a look at the entire first page from the novel and, if you're acquainted with the Hook Queue, tell me if it would survive.

  I was in the Blackfoot Saloon in a town called Resolution, talking with the man who owned the saloon about a job. The owner was wearing a brocade vest. His name was Wolfson. He was tall and thin and sort of spooky-looking, with a wall-eye.
  "What's your name?" Wolfson said.
  "Hitch," I said. "Everett Hitch."
  "How long you been in Resolution?" Wolfson said.
  We were at the far end of the big mahogany bar, sipping whiskey that I had bought us.
  "'Bout two hours," I said.
  "And you come straight here?" Wolfson said.

I have to admit I said "Oh, crap" when I read that opening scene. Fortunately, the story picks up immediately and we are whisked away to the brand new town of Resolution, where our main character is hired as a gunman for the town saloon.

Despite the choppy and curt style (it's Hitch's point of view, after all), and the ubiquitous "said," the unceasing action--however small--in each short chapter was enough to keep my attention and make me read just a little bit more. By the time I decided to stop I had already reached page 100.

That's probably the best thing about this novel: the chapters are short and focused on one scene.

More characters are introduced as the story progresses, and a main conflict also rears its ugly head: Wolfson wants to claim ownership of everything: the town, the surrounding land, the mine--and all at the expense of the current homesteaders.

Hitch is soon joined by his comrade Virgil Cole, and both end up doing Wolfson's dirty work, even though it goes against their ideals. It was interesting to see two tough western men doing things they didn't agree with, and all for a paycheck. I spent many chapters wondering when their patience would run out and they would turn on Wolfson.

But then the ending came and went without glory. I spoil it for you at the very bottom of this review, so you can have a look at it if you want.

As for the style, the conversations throughout the book had me sniggering more than once. Every spoken line is floating in its own little puddle of testosterone.

And not only that, but practically every line has "he said" nestled in it. After a few pages, I automatically skipped over the dialogue tags, and thank goodness I did because it would have driven me insane (as some Goodreads reviewers complained). Usually, we writers are urged to use "said" as a dialogue tag instead of more colorful options such as "muttered" or "shouted." Supposedly, "said" blends into the background easier.

Not here.

My God, I've never seen "said" used that many times!

Dialogue was, I'd say, the worst part of the novel. In an attempt to be macho cowboy men, the characters fumble through half sentences and speak with periods even when asking straightforward questions. Sometimes it was hard to follow.

All in all, because it kept me entertained throughout, but also had cringeworthy dialogue and a disappointing resolution, Resolution receives three Pirates.

** Ending spoiler.**

Wolfson fires the main characters and hires ex-military men to control the town. The main characters arrange a meeting with Wolfson. Wolfson appears with two escorts, Virgil Cole shoots them all dead. End of conflict.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Semantic Change - Broadening - Part 2

Words constantly change meaning. It's something inevitable that happens due to usage. This process is called semantic change or shift in meaning. I posted a general explanation about this previously, and now I'm going to focus on one of the ways a word can change its meaning: broadening.

Broadening is basically a process in which a word used to refer to something specific goes on to refer to something more general. Its meaning broadens, widens, becomes more general.

In my previous post on semantic broadening, I used several brand names as examples. Names such as Kleenex or Velcro are commonly used nowadays not to refer to the specific brand, but to refer to the general object. Other words such as "escalator" or "aspirin", previously brand names, lost their trademarked status and became part of the public domain. This is yet another example of semantic broadening, and in the case of brands, "genericide."

Here are some other examples of broadening:


Procession of a guy.
This word nowadays refers to any male person. It originates from Guido (Guy) Fawkes, the most famous of a group of conspirators who attempted to blow up the English Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. This was known as the Gunpowder Plot. You might recall a little rhyme from the movie V for Vendetta mentioning this.

After Fawkes's trial and execution, Londoners began celebrating the thwarted plot each November 5 with bonfires, fireworks, and the burning of an effigy, which was called a guy (but usually represented the Pope).

During the 19th century, the word "guy" was used to refer to any oddly dressed person. In America, the word lost its pejorative connotation and came to mean any man, and that's the use we give the word today.

Ezio Auditore is the most
charismatic assassin ever!

The origin of this word is as twisted as you would expect! It seems that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries there was a secretive murder cult which received the name "hashishin" meaning "hashish eaters."

This cult targeted prominent figures and also took money from contract killings. Even though their main goal was to coerce or murder, the group wasn't as bloodthirsty as you'd think. They were highly intelligent and trained killers, known for only inflicting harm on their target. They specifically took care not to harm bystanders or any innocent people who might be nearby.

Because of their assaults were focused on prominent figures, the words "assassin" and "assassinate" nowadays refer to killings of a major public figure. If an ordinary everyday person is killed, that is murder, not assassination.


The Old English word "docga" (or "dogga") is still a linguistic mystery. At the time, the word "docga" was used to refer to a specific breed of canine, but once it entered the language it gained popularity to the point that it forced out the Old English "hund" (which gave us today's "hound") and went on to mean any sort of dog disregarding its breed.


Is there a more general word than "thing"? Well, in Old English (it was "Ă¾ing") the word referred to a council, meeting, assembly or discussion. It's incredible how generalized this word has become and how forgotten its origins are!


Oops! Sorry for cursing! No, not really. I honestly don't have any taboos when it comes to language because the word itself isn't inherently right or wrong; its the connotations we humans give it. So, let's talk about shit.

Originally, the word referred to fecal matter, and it still does today. However, its sense has been broadened. Have you ever heard phrases such as:

"I've had enough of her shit."
"I have so much shit to to today."

I'm sure most of you must have. In the first example, the word "shit" might refer to "problems" or "issues" or "drama" or "complaints." It's very general! In the second example, "shit" is also immensely general, meaning "things."

What's happening to the word "shit"? It's undergoing a process of generalization or broadening, but it's also on the verge of losing any meaning! When a word becomes so, so general, it risks losing its full meaning and becoming nothing more than a function word (used to express grammatical or structural relationships in a sentence) or an affix (a word element: prefix, suffix...). This process is called bleaching.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Semantic Change - Broadening Part 1 - Brand Names

Semantics! Yay!

Oh, come on! It isn't that bad... Here's a comic strip to get you in the mood.

Semantic change (also called shift in meaning) is a process in which a word changes its meaning over time. It actually happens a lot more than you'd expect! There are many words which we happily toss around in our everyday conversations which started out with a completely different meaning. Let's have a look at a few words that underwent a form of semantic change called broadening.

Also called widening or generalization, the process of broadening a word's semantics means that it takes on a more general sense.

Perhaps the most obvious use of broadening is related to brand names. Over the years, we've grown accustomed to using a specific brand name to refer to a general idea or item. Can you find all the brand names here?

When Julie finished her shift at the mall, she had a massive headache and really needed an aspirin. As she got on the escalator, she remembered she had some in her backpack. She checked all the pockets--even the ones shut with Velcro--but the only things she could find were some Kleenex, ChapStick and Band-Aids.

Easy, right? The brand names are capitalized: Velcro (registered name for "hook-and-loop fastener"), Kleenex (registered name for "facial tissue" or "handkerchief"), Band-Aid (registered name for "adhesive bandage") and ChapStick (registered name for "lip balm." Note the capitalized "s" in the middle).

That looks weird, doesn't it? Especially "ChapStick"! I'm so accustomed to using it as a generic name that seeing it capitalized is a bit unnerving. But have a glimpse at the official website and, yup, it's a registered trademark.

However, there are two more trademarked names in that segment: aspirin and escalator. But why aren't they capitalized?

Well, it turns out that these words lost their trademark status.

Let's begin with the easy one:

The word "escalator" was trademarked by Otis Elevator Co. in 1900, but in the 1950 case Haughton Elevator Co. v. Seeberger, the company lost its trademark rights because the court declared it had allowed the word to become generic, meaning nothing more than "a moving staircase." Thus, the company lost its trademark and "escalator" officially became part of the public domain.

The word "aspirin" was trademarked by the well-known German pharmaceutical Bayer in the year 1899. However, at the end of World War One, many of the company's assets and trademarks were confiscated and other companies jumped at the opportunity to use the highly acclaimed name. Bayer, however, still holds trademark in over eighty countries, including Germany, Canada and Mexico.

By the way, did you know that Bayer had also trademarked "heroin"? The name of the drug is actually diacetylmorphine. However, Bayer created its brand name Heroin from the Greek word "hero" in order to associate "heroic" traits to the medicine. As you might have guessed, the company also eventually lost trademark rights over this word.

These last two examples (three if we count "heroin") of semantic broadening are also clear examples of a phenomenon called brand genericide--when a brand name becomes a common name. Otis Elevator Co. failed to properly protect its trademark over the word "escalator", and Bayer pretty much had its trademark stripped from "aspirin" after WWI.

Other companies are currently at risk of losing their trademark this way, for example "Google" with regards to the common phrase "let's google this", meaning "let's look this up on the internet."

Brand name broadening has happened many times, and probably will continue to happen throughout the decades. It's a form of dying of success: the trademarked name becomes part of your day-to-day until you disassociate it from its source (the company) and use the name solely to refer to the item. Once we've reached this point of semantic broadening or generalization, court claims can be put forward to declare the word public domain--and other companies can jump at the opportunity to use a well-known word.

So, it turns out semantic change isn't something that only affects us nerds! The evolution of language has deep and long-lasting effects on society, and phenomena such as shifts in meaning have, as we've just seen, even been dealt with in court cases.

In my next post I'll give you some examples of broadening which affected regular words we use every day.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nostalgia Reading - R.L. Stine

Raise your hand if you also loved R.L. Stine as a kid!

I grew up reading Goosebumps and enjoying every moment of it! I remember going to the bookstore every month, bubbling with excitement, ready to get the latest book in the series.

Right now, I'm not sure which Goosebumps book I read first of all. I think it was The Ghost Next Door. It was the tenth book in the series, released in August 1993. From there, I went back through the list and read Say Cheese and Die! and Let's Get Invisible! and all the others.

I was hooked! I couldn't wait for the next book to come out--and they usually came out once a month or once every two months.

Shortly after turning ten, my love affair with Goosebumps guttered out.

The last Goosebumps book I read was The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight. It was released in May 1994. I still remember that day: I'd just bought the book and was at my aunt Delia's house. I sat on the big armchair in her living room and read the entire thing in about thirty minutes. Then I remember closing it and deciding that Goosebumps wasn't for me anymore.

I didn't stop reading just because of that book, though. The previous one, Deep Trouble, also wasn't all that I was expecting. The book prior to that one, Monster Blood II, involved something with a giant monster hamster... The previous one was called Why I'm Afraid of Bees. The cover showed a bee with the face of a boy... and I just wasn't feeling the love anymore. I think I actually skipped the bee one because the cover looked too silly. I was growing out of my Goosebumps phase and The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight marked the end.

Now that I think about it, I have such a strong sense of nostalgia towards these books, but if I do the math (August 1993 to May 1994), I was hooked on them for under a year! Even so, I must have read around 18 or 19 of them in total (the scarecrow one was number twenty).

I currently don't have all of the Goosebumps books I owned, but I still have most of them. I think I got rid of the ones I thought were too silly in a yard sale.

Around the time I was weaning myself off of Goosebumps, I discovered the Fear Street Saga, a trilogy set in different time periods, and I also immensely enjoyed it. The first book came out in 1993, so I must have been around nine when I began reading them.

Much darker than Goosebumps, the Fear Street Saga is a story of love, betrayal and revenge. I felt so grown-up reading it! I still have the trilogy, so last year I decided to give it a read and it holds up pretty well. The scenes aren't as vivid as I imagined them and the action seems rushed now, but I can still see the appeal.

One of the last R.L. Stine books I read was The Prom Queen. I still have it so I should probably give it another read, but I remember I didn't like it all that much. I think I had matured too much by then and was looking for stronger stuff.

I think that around age ten I moved on to things like Lois Duncan's Down a Dark Hall or Daughters of Eve (I don't remember much about that second one, but I immensely enjoyed the first one), or Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song.

I still don't know how my parents just let me get any book I wanted! Tailchaser's Song was not intended for a ten-year-old audience! But still, it's wonderful.

And now we come to present-day me, thirty-two years old and browsing through a used book store. I came across Call Waiting by R.L. Stine and immediately bought it just to have a nostalgic kick. I'd never read this one before, but I wanted to see if my favorite childhood author still lived up to my expectations.


I'm not going to criticize the style or the simplicity (or the predictability) of the novel because I'm not its intended audience, but I will criticize one thing: sexism.

The main character is a teenage girl called Karen. We don't really get to know her except for one thing: she has a boyfriend who she's terrified of losing. Her whole life revolves around her boyfriend and her suspicions of him cheating on her with someone else. Her thoughts and her conversations are centered on her boyfriend during the entire book. We don't really get to know anything about her, no hobbies or areas of interest.

Is the guy worth all that? All we know is that he has long dark hair and that's supposed to be very sexy. He barely interacts with Karen, and when he does, he comes off as aloof and not very interested in their relationship.

Overall, Karen came off as the typical "psycho girlfriend." That's just sad. The final straw came when readers discover the "phone killer" who had made the threatening calls was another teenage girl also after the boy.

The whole story boils down to two women fighting for a man.

It's not like this sort of situation can't actually happen, but an entire book portraying teenage girls as completely dependent on boys and void of any hobby or interest other than having a boyfriend just makes me think this isn't the best kind of role model you want to give your kids.

Am I reading too much into this? Children are incredibly perceptive but they might not be able to discern good role models from bad role models. Furthermore, I believe readers usually try to identify with the main character of a novel. Is a one-dimensional and dependent main character a good example for young readers?

Monday, May 9, 2016

What is Semantic Change?

Let's delve into linguistics! It was one of my favorite subjects at university, but sadly it only lasted one year. (I studied Translation and Interpreting--English, Spanish, Catalan, French and Arabic.)

More specifically, let's take a look at one of the main branches on linguistics: semantics. Semantics is the study of meaning. We can look at semantics from a logical point of view (logical semantics), and study sense and reference and presupposition and implication, or we can study lexical semantics, analyzing the meaning of words and the relationships between them. We can also study computational semantics, which deals with how to implement programs to process natural language.

The meaning associated to a word is susceptible to change over time--to the point that it can actually mean something completely different! This process is called semantic change or shift in meaning. This is a common event in all languages and it simply implies that communication is forever undergoing evolution. If a language can't adapt to its users, it stops being useful!

An example of this phenomenon appeared in an earlier post, where I commented on the shift of meaning for "nimrod." Nimrod is the biblical name of the great-grandson of Noah, an expert hunter and ruler of Shinar, but thanks to some general wackiness the word is now synonymous to "idiot." This type of shift, which turned a name into an insult, is called pejoration.

In the following months, I'll be posting about some interesting shifts in meaning. Just for the more curious readers, here are some of the proposed types of semantic change.

- Metaphor - We've seen several examples of metaphors which have now become the common term in medicine. For example, the Latin musculus, meaning "little mouse" has given us muscle. But metaphors can be much more recent. For example, and let's look at the same furry rodent: the word mouse refers to the animal, but (given its physical similarity) it also to a computer device.

- Metonymy - Instead of calling something by its own name, we use an associated term to refer to it. For example, in the expression "The pen is mightier than the sword", words such as "pen" and "sword" are substituting their associated ideas "writing" and "force."

- Specialization of meaning - Also known as narrowing. A general word becomes more specific. For example, the Old English word mete used to refer to food. Nowadays, the word is spelled "meat" and its meaning has been narrowed down to "food which is animal flesh."

- Generalization of meaning - Also known as broadening. A specific word becomes more general. This occurs with famous brand names. For example, the brand name Kleenex is commonly used as a general term for "handkerchief."

Synecdoche - There are various types of synecdoche. This figure of speech uses part of something to represent the whole, for example: "they hired some extra hands." Here, the word "hands" is substituting "people." It can also use the whole to represent just part of something, for example: "The police arrived five minutes later." Here, we can safely assume that only a few officers arrived, and not the entire police force.

- Antiphrasis - This figure of speech uses a word to mean the opposite of what it usually means. It's basically used for humorous or sarcastic effects, for example: "So you dropped your keys down the well? You're so smart!"

- Auto-antonymy - Also called contronymy, this technique involves changing the sense and concept of a word to mean its complementary opposite. For example, the word "dust" can mean to add dust to something, or to clean dust off of something.

These are just a few of the linguistic processes involved in semantic change. Over the next few weeks, I'll post some specific examples of words that have undergone a transformation. Some of them are evident, such as brand names (using the brand "Kleenex" to refer to a tissue), but others not so much... I'm sure we're all in for a surprise!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review - Stardust

I saw the film Stardust many years ago on an overseas flight and immensely enjoyed it. The book, however...

**Warning! Spoilers for both the movie and the novel.**

Stardust was one of those movies I knew absolutely nothing about. I didn't know what to expect, and that was awesome. I remember the man sitting next to me on the plane was also watching it (his session was a bit ahead of mine) and he was literally laughing out loud, having the hardest time trying not to make too much noise.

Stardust is a fantasy adventure with magical and memorable characters: murderous princes, evil witches, a star fallen from the sky... and a regular love-stricken country boy, Tristran Thorn.

The story is basic: young Tristran promises to give Victoria, the woman he is infatuated with, a fallen star to prove his love. To find the fallen star, he must cross an age-old wall and search the magical land of Faerie. However, he doesn't know that other, much more dangerous, people are after the same star.

In my opinion, the movie greatly outdid the novel. The film adaptation was riveting, funny, quirky, full of memorable characters and beautiful landscapes. The novel, while it did have some positives, didn't feel as charming.

Where the film outdid the novel:

Overall, the tone of the film is much more enjoyable than the novel, at least in my opinion. Perhaps it's because I saw the film many years before reading the novel, and it already was one of my favorites. Also, the film seems to get more to the point. In the novel, it took Tristran a terribly long time to reach the star, Yvaine, and it's not a very long book. While reading, I kept worrying that I was about to reach a third of the book and he hadn't met Yvaine yet!

In both the novel and the film adaptation, Tristran and the fallen star, Yvaine, end up falling in love. They realize they're meant for each other, and Tristran abandons his quest to please the unattainable Victoria.

The love story between Tristran and Yvaine is dealt with nicely in the film. In their escape from danger, they board a sky ship high in the clouds. The captain befriends them and during their stay, we see the two characters interact and slowly fall for each other.

In the book, however, the two characters spend the vast majority of the time arguing or in a mood. Only near the end do they suddenly decide they should be together. It was a letdown and did not feel natural. Tristran treats Yvaine as an object during the majority of the book, and only realizes she has feelings and is in pain near the end. (Unlike the film, where the witch heals Yvaine's twisted ankle, in the novel Yvaine's leg is broken from her fall and she's in pain during most of the story. When her leg finally heals, she has limp.)

Now that I've mentioned the sky ship, I must also point out the captain, who in the film was called Captain Shakespeare (that was not his name in the novel). He was played by the impeccable Robert de Niro. For me, he is the most endearing, badass and whoopsie character in the entire film, so you can imagine the massive disappointment I was in for when I realized his persona didn't even exist in the novel. It was sad...

The ruthless prince Septimus was also much more charismatic in the film adaptation than in the novel--and he spoke, too! In the novel, he rarely speaks and is always--always--described as crowlike. Every time he appears on the page, expect to see crowlike lurking nearby. Unfortunately for him, Septimus dies both in the novel and in the film. The film had him dying in a magnificent final battle--which, to be honest, felt a bit over the top and Hollywoodish. His death in the novel was shockingly simple: he is bitten by a poisonous snake. I actually partly prefer the novel's way to off this character, because honestly, the film's final megabattle with the witches felt like too much.

Where the novel outdid the film:

The author isn't afraid to show blood and death if necessary. Both in the novel and the film, a unicorn is killed. In the novel, it is much more graphic and the witch later partially resurrects the unicorn for a ritual to find the star. That made for a highly interesting scene.

The film adaptation of Stardust portrayed Victoria, Tristran's initial love interest, as a superficial pretty girl and not much else. I was happy to see that she is a deeper character in the novel. She doesn't toy around with Tristran so maliciously, and she is in turmoil during the time Tristran disappears into the land of Faerie. Near the end of the novel, there is an excellent scene where Tristran returns to his hometown and discovers much more time has passed on that side of the wall than in Faerie. He meets with Victoria and she tells him how worried she was and how guilty she felt for making him walk into the magical land to find that fallen star.

Probably my favorite part about the novel, which I mentioned above, is that there isn't any big final battle between the heroes and the evil witches out to devour Yvaine's heart. That battle, while well-done, felt over the top, as if Hollywood can't fathom having an adventure without a fatal final showdown. In the novel, the main witch defeats herself with her own powers. Instead of having a final battle, the witch consumes all her powers in her search for Yvaine and becomes a frail creature, unable to do anything to acquire the star's heart. Yvaine ultimately takes pity on her.

Overall, in my opinion the film is much superior to the novel. I don't normally say this but good work, Hollywood! The main problem with the book is that I didn't feel I needed to go back to it. I didn't feel that invisible tug drawing me to its pages. While halfway through, I actually left it for over week and had to force myself to get back to it.

Stardust the film receives four Pirates!

Stardust the novel receives two and a half Pirates.

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