I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.
The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.
“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?
“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!
So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.
In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.
“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.
So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?
For this year’s New Year’s Eve movie marathon, we watched Star Wars, the original three movies (on VHS, no less. Yup, we still have a VCR). I’m not a huge Star Wars aficionado, so I haven’t got these films memorised, verbally or visually; when I watch them, they’re always quite new-ish to me. And what struck me this time through is how utterly pristine Princess Leia’s appearance is.
I mean, the first time Luke Skywalker sees this woman, she’s just been through torture (so we’re told – not shown, thankfully), and now she’s imprisoned in a bare cell without even sheets on the bed – no place to hide a comb, let alone a shower or laundry facilities. Yet here she is, with not a hair in her elaborate coiffure out of place, wearing a spotless, unwrinkled white gown.
I used to have long hair when I was a kid, and I can tell you that with fairly straight hair like Carrie Fisher’s was then, pinned-up styles do not stay tidy long. They slip out of their hairpins very quickly, get straggly and messy (which is why I gave up fairly early on trying to put up my hair – I just can’t be bothered). Yet Princess Leia never, ever has even a single strand hanging loose – not even after she goes tobogganing down the garbage chute. And her gown – good grief, wearing white? With all she goes through, by rights she should look like she’s wearing Dobby the House Elf’s ragged kitchen towel.
But she doesn’t. She never looks like anything but – a princess.
Leia is a wonderful character. Carrie Fisher’s passing has brought out in countless tributes what a great inspiration and role model Princess Leia was and still is for now several generations of viewers – a woman of strength, of determination, of agency; a larger-than-life hero.
And part of that larger-than-life effect comes from having a hairdo that never sheds a single bobby pin.
Disney’s cartoon princesses don’t have anything on Leia. You see, in cartoons we know not to expect realism – we know it’s just a drawing, “just” a story. But in a live action film, we think that what we’re seeing is real. So when we see Cinderella’s flowing golden locks and the gown that just appears on her body with a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand, that’s one thing – but we never think that Leia’s glossy dark snail shells and her snowy robe come under the same heading, because, obviously, they’re real. We can see them with our own two eyes, can’t we? What we’re not seeing is the army at Leia’s (or rather Carrie’s) command, an army not of rebel soldiers, but of hairdressers, make-up artists and wardrobe staff, as befits a princess. (“Ah, Recruit Skywalker – you’re in wardrobe today. The princess spilt oatmeal on her dress this morning; go do your duty to the cause.” “What?!? What about flying a fighter plane?” “Never mind that, anyone can handle that. Go make your mark where it counts!”)
We need that army to make us believe in Leia the Princess. We need her to have the superpower of never-a-hair-out-of-place and never-a-spot-on-her-dress because she is a princess. And princesses are mythical creatures on the order of dragons, unicorns and superheroes. In cartoons, that’s easy to handle, but in “realistic” fiction, it takes a bit more doing. Yet when it’s done well, as it is in Star Wars, the impact is tremendous. Because we believe with all our hearts, informed by our disbelief-suspended senses, that what we are seeing is real, that it actually happened, we also believe in the power of The Princess to do what she has set out to do, which is to save the world.
And in that, there is hope.
Life, the Universe, and the Power of the Unreality of Realism. And here we thought she just had funny hair.
I got a new Kobo for my birthday, as the one I’d bought myself six years ago is in the process of giving up its electronic ghost. You can read all about that one here – it’s one of those older (brand-new released at the time) non-touch-screen ones that don’t really do anything but display books. My new one doesn’t do much else either, it just does it faster and with a built-in sidelight. Actually, pardon me – one thing it does do that the old one didn’t is make it possible to borrow ebooks straight from the library, via its wifi connection.
You see, that’s one of the great things about an ebook reader: getting library books at any hour of the day or night you darn well please. Like right now, my local library is closed for the holidays, but I’m still merrily downloading books to my Kobo. (A big reason I chose a Kobo, i.e over a Kindle is that it allows you to get library books, which a Kindle won’t, at least not here.)
But you don’t have to have an ebook reader to do that mad midnight murder mystery acquisition. Any computer, tablet or smartphone has the possibility of downloading free ereader software – the Kindle App, the Kobo App (all of which designed to get you buying from their websites), and – my favourite – Overdrive (which is the program that allows you to borrow books from libraries – both “print” ebooks and audiobooks – but also read books from other sources). Plus, most phones/tablets/computers come with built-in ebook software – Google Play Books is the one I got on my phone, for example, and Apple devices come with iBooks.
Even quite aside from the wonders of library downloads, there are treasure troves of books out there on the internet – for free, and for keeps. I’m not even talking about all the great perma-free indie books you can get; Amazon and Kobo and the other ebook vendors abound with free books (like Seventh Son – you know, just sayin’). No, there are websites out there where you can get more free books than you can read in a lifetime. We’re talking the classics here, books that are in the public domain, and other wonders.
That’s right, free. Austen, Dickens, Brothers Grimm, Brontë, the Oz books, Trollope, Andrew Lang, L.M. Montgomery, Chesterton, Sherlock Holmes – to just mention a few that I loaded up my new Kobo with – all yours for the collecting, with just a few clicks. Pretty awesome, right?
So here, without further ado, are some of my favourites of those sites (click on the names for the links):
–Project Gutenberg: over 50,000 free books (!) in the public domain. Extremely easy download for epub, Kindle, plain text, html…
–Mobile Read: a community of people who’re into, well, e-reading. They have an ever-growing library of books (again, numbered in the tens of thousands) that members put in the collection for free download. A lot of them are the same as the Gutenberg.org ones, but nicer – better cover images, cleaner formatting, less front matter etc.; they also have languages other than English. In fact, Mobile Read is the first place I look when I want a classic for download to my Kobo. Quite incidentally, this is also the go-to site for any e-reading support. The good people in the discussion boards have been invaluable in helping me learn to drive my ereader.
–Librivox: this is audiobooks – crowd-sourced, as it were. Volunteers from all over the internet record themselves reading public domain books, and upload it to the site. Thanks to Librivox, I finally fulfilled my long-held good intention of getting through some of the Victorian writers like Dickens and Trollope. I like getting both the audiobook and ebook of the same title, and listening to it while I do boring housework, then flipping to the print when I have time to sit down. You’ll need to download the Librivox App to listen, but it’s quite painless and works well.
There are other places where you can get books, of course, but as I said, those are my favourites, with the most extensive selections, so I wanted to share it.
Life, the Universe, and Free Ebooks. What’s your favourite ebook site?