3.12.2011

What is the etymology of that idiom?

Something amazing happened at the beginning of this month, something amazing and wonderful, and most people didn't even know it and wouldn't have cared if they did.

When someone asks, as happens more often than you'd think with me, "So, what are you reading now?" and I answer, "A fantasy novel called [fill in the title of a fantasy novel I've recently read]", the interlocutor gets this sort of vacant look and you can determine the exact moment when the part of their brain that governs interest in responses to questions of reading material actually shuts down. Or, as I described it in a previous post, the eyestalks retract.

For some bizarre reason, otherwise normal people don't allow that genre writing (fantasy, science fiction, crime, suspense, western, etc) can be literary writing. Literary fiction has to be about adulterous egotists falling apart in college towns or abusive family relationships in Podunk, USA, or the universal shock waves emanating from very prosaic deaths, or whatever. But toss in an oppressive emperor or an evil god or a many-fanged creature and "literary" gets tossed out the window by these otherwise sensible people, like the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Here's a recent example: a few weeks ago, the BBC had a series of televised programs about books for World Book Night, designed to get people interested in reading by talking about "books we love". Yet, during the entire programming, not a single mention was made of a fantasy or science fiction novel. (Or horror, either, but that's one of those "et cetera" genres, like romance, that I distance myself from on principle.)

I'm not saying there's no trashily written sci fi or fantasy, because there is. I'm saying that people shouldn't turn off reading a book simply because it is sci fi or fantasy, because you're missing out on some really great storytelling and some very fine literary writing all while not having to subject yourself to the annoying antics of dysfunctional American families. I've talked about the injustice of literary prejudice before, and I've even thought about starting a crusade. But where would I carry it to? Publishing houses? Sunday supplement book review editors' offices? Critics' homes?

Anyway, it's all very frustrating, because Patrick Rothfuss' book, The Wise Man's Fear (the second book in his three-volume fantasy series) was just published at the beginning of this month. And it's amazing.


Everyone who knows anything about the fantasy genre knows that Rothfuss is one of the better literary writers out there. But because he writes fantasy, most people who read books won't know a thing about him.

Last weekend, Rothfuss was at a signing in San Diego, so naturally I took the wrong exit off the freeway on my way there and arrived too late to get a seat in the little bookstore that was the venue. By the time the event started, there were over 300 people in and around the store. I managed to find myself a spot standing in amongst the bookcases, but I was around the corner from where Rothfuss sat and, during the entire presentation, I couldn't see him and I could barely hear him. He talked for about an hour, and I naturally didn't get a great deal out of it. He must've been really funny, though, because the audience emitted regular bursts of laughter. Mostly, it sounded like this:

Rothfuss: First what I usually xnlqpnsif to djilsnvizaas; for a nidnwisnf and then alidnanke to be slnfinw.


Audience: HAHAHAHA!


Rothfuss: qpwlsnni sls writing ckmlnsien hours smvnzoepvjnv, language snlkda’vm.


Audience: HAHAHAHA!


Rothfuss: mflsj sp0jf a lbo vomqnani movie option.


Audience: HAHAHAHA!

Silence. (Maybe he was making faces or rude gestures or something.)

Audience: HAHAHAHA!

Rothfuss: alpsncxienghz snichlsken Joss Whedon.

Audience: HAHAHAHA! WHOOO!!

And so on.

I don't know why he brought it up, but one thing I did hear more or less completely was a comment about language change (it may have been in relation to the use of vulgar language -- I didn't quite hear the preamble to his comment). He said the word "harlot" comes from ancient Greece, from the word for a priestess of Ha, or maybe Har. Well, that's when I wanted to laugh. Hahaha! Or maybe Harharhar! Because as soon as I hear anyone say "X is derived from the ancient Y word for Z," I am immediately suspicious and begin to wish I had a pocket OED with me.

I did finally get to actually see Rothfuss and talk to him ever so briefly when he signed my books. I didn't worry about saying anything specific, like I usually do at author signings, because everyone kept making a huge deal about moving quickly along because "there are over 300 people here for this signing." I think I heard that from the store employees about 300 times.


When I got home, I did a bit of research on the rather fishy statement about harlots, and this is what I found out: "harlot" is derived from an Old French word of obscure origin meaning "vagabond, knave" and was first used in English in this masculine sense in the early 1300s. It wasn't applied to women of loose morals until a hundred years later. As for some Greek goddess supposedly named Ha or Har, the closest I can find is Hera (which may have been what Rothfuss said, but only if his pronunciation is as bad as his etymological skills). But I can't find anywhere that priestesses of Hera were called anything like a harlot.

So Patrick Rothfuss isn't much of an etymologist. So what? It doesn't matter because he's not writing dictionaries, he's writing fantasy! And that's what counts; that's where he excels. And more people need to know that.

3 comments:

Queen M said...

Absolutely true what is considered literature. I distance myself from 90% of the New York bestsellers simply because I can. The other 10% are lovely.

Were you always interested in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi genre?

I'm always curious to know your favorites so I can start on those without getting culture shock.

Shannon said...

I find that statement ridiculous. Yes, there are some strange fantasy/sci-fi books out there, but what about Lord of the Rings? Harry Potter? And yes, Name of the Wind. All very well written (well, for HP I'm thinking the overall story, and anything after the first book specifically).
And you're right, there's no Greek goddess "Ha" or "Har." So Harhar to him. But also congrats, because he's an excellent writer. If I had more time I'd get around to reading the second installment!

Megan said...

Um, mostly I think you're funny, useless comment bla bla bla. But yeah, you crack me up.

Also, the snail eyestalks analogy is extremely apt (?) and I like it a lot. Everyone is a snail...

I really agree with you for the most part that people seem to overlook any good writing with plotting mages and evil ducks and stuff. But, like you, I usually get bored of the family drama in Whocares, USA. I think where we differ is with the whole 'universal shock waves emanating from very prosaic deaths, or whatever'. I think this can be an incredibly poignant topic and obviously it's pretty universal, as you said. I dunno, if it's done well, it can really hit home and make you think. There are just so many avenues... however, it's true, a little goes a long way.