Straw Berries

I was probably in my teens, visiting relatives in the Lake Contance region, the fruit basket of Germany, close to the Swiss border. We were going for a walk, and came by a large strawberry field. All along the ground beneath the plants was spread a thick layer of straw.

And all of a sudden the penny dropped: strawberries!

I was already familiar with the English word, which I had learned in school. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “[t]here is no corresponding compound in other Germanic languages”; the German word is Erdbeere, earth (or ground) berry – presumably because they grow so low to the ground. But seeing that straw spread under the berries suddenly made sense of the English word.


“What’s the straw for?” I wondered. Somebody explained (or maybe I figured it out myself, I don’t remember): it’s to keep the ripening berries from sitting and rotting directly on the damp soil.

It makes sense that in rainy England, it would have been common practise to protect the precious crop that way, and so have given rise to the name. Strawberries are extremely susceptible to wet: they can rot in a matter of hours on a rainy day, right on the vine, and even after they’ve been picked. (So if you’re picking strawberries, do it when the sun is shining; and if you’ve brought home a flat of strawberries from the farmer’s market on a soggy, dreary day, better get them into those jam jars or freezer bags ASAP, or you’ll lose half your purchase. Yes, I know that from experience.)


I have no idea if “strawing” the berries is common practise anywhere, or is even done anymore back in the Lake Constance region. However, in my own garden, I actually got some strawberries for the first time this year (I don’t have much of a green thumb, so this is a triumph). And, well, I didn’t “straw” them, but I had a cardboard box of wood shavings around (I think they were left from somebody’s project). So I “sawdusted” the beds between the berries. Or one of them, anyway – I didn’t get around to the other one in time. And sure enough, the berries in the bed with the wood shavings were nice and clean; the other ones had dirt stuck to them and weren’t as happy-looking. I’m going to have to see about doing this again next year – I think grass clippings would work as well, or maybe even bark mulch.

And meanwhile, we’re going to enjoy this year’s strawberry harvest, the whole pound of it.

Life, the Universe, and the Straw in Strawberries. The best fruit ever.

PS: Old-fashioned strawberry jam: 1 kg of strawberries, 800 g of sugar. Mash the berries, mix with the sugar, bring to a rolling boil, boil for 10 minutes. Put in clean jars and cap to keep from drying out (doesn’t need to be sterilized or refrigerated; the sugar is preservative enough). Very sweet, very tasty, keeps in the cupboard for a long time (except it doesn’t because it gets eaten so fast).

The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

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?

I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“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?


“That’s Funny,” He Laughed

quillandqwerty cropI just read a quite interesting article about “The Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue”, i.e. what not to do when you’re writing fiction dialogue. And yes, I quite agree with the author on almost all points.

For example, a nasty writing habit is replacing “said” with other verbs like “queried” or “cajoled”. Or even worse, practising what they call “Impossible Verbing”.  “As a reader, that jolts me right out of the story,” I shuddered. ← There, that was one of those. One does not shudder a sentence. Try it – scrunch up your shoulders, let that shiver run over yourself from your head down your arms into your finger tips, and see if you get any sound out of that, let alone words. If you do, you’re a better vocal cord acrobat than I am.

However, there is one point on which I beg to differ with the authors of that article. Well, one sub-point. Under “Impossible Verbing”, they emphatically state that you should never use any verb other than a variant of “to say” as your speech tag, and they continue: “[E]ven more experienced writers can sometimes have a character laugh or sigh or cry a line that could not logically be produced in any of these ways.” That’s a statement I’ve heard more than once. But I’m sorry, just because people who lecture others on writing – uh, sorry, give out writing advice – like to repeat that statement that does not make it true. You can so laugh a line.

How would they suggest you describe it when someone says something while laughing? I presume the approved form would be “he said with a laugh” or something like that. But think about it: that’s actually quite a different thing than “laughing” the words. I don’t know about you, but laughing makes noise come from my vocal cords. Right? Hahaha. That’s sound. So, try this: ‘”That’s funny!” he said and laughed.’ What are you hearing in your head? Me, that arrives as: “That’s funny! Hahaha!” But now look at this: ‘”That’s funny!” he laughed.‘ Mental audio: “Thahahahat’s fuhuhuhunny!” Two different effects, no?

Okay, I’ll give you that you could write the latter as ‘”That’s funny!” he said laughingly.’ or even ‘with a laugh.’ But there’s a certain amount of clunkiness in that – too many “-ly” or “with a” would yank me out of the story more effectively than the occasional “he laughed” and “she sobbed”. (‘”You don’t love me!” she said sobbingly.’ Uh, no. Not with clunky language like that, I don’t.)

So, Impossible Verbing aside (she shrugged), I vote that laughing, sobbing, hissing, snarling, groaning, and sighing can take their occasional (very occasional) place alongside shouting and whispering in the lineup of acceptable synonyms for “saying”. After all, they do all make sounds. I will, however, draw the line at burping – yes, I know there are people who can burp the alphabet, but really, there are limits. If not of language, then of good taste.

“Life, the Universe, and Speech Tags,” she said. “Try laughing it sometimes.”