‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

Most people have their own pet annoyances in books. Some people can’t stand anything written in first person. Others get riled when characters in an epic fantasy start using modern day slang. For some, swearing is enough to make them close the book.

walkie-talkie-780306_1280I’ve got a few things that will always pull me out of a story. One of these, in both books and TV/films, is the phrase ‘over and out’. It’s pretty much always used by characters who are professional, using a radio as part of their job, and yet they continually get this wrong. ‘Over and out’ is either a contradiction, or it’s an insult.

Some years ago, I took a VHF Radio Operator’s course (at the time I believe you needed to pass this, with a test to ‘officially’ use a VHF radio), and I can still remember what we were taught. Sometimes, static can make it hard to hear, and so various words are used, almost like punctuation. ‘Over’ and ‘out’ are two of these.

When you’ve finished your sentence or short bit, you say ‘over’ to let the other radio user know that you have finished, and that it’s now their turn to speak‌—‌‘over to you’, or ‘I’m passing the dialogue over’. ‘Out’, on the other hand, is used to bring the conversation to a close,‌—‌‘I’m out of here’. It’s the last thing said in a radio dialogue.

So using both basically means ‘it’s your turn to talk, but I’m not going to listen, because I’m switching this thing off’. It’s the radio equivalent of ‘talk to the hand’. See, either an insult or a mistake.

gladiator-1931077_1280There are other words and phrases that I find annoying, but one of these I have had to reassess. See, language changes, and it looks like I haven’t kept up with this particular word.

That word is ‘decimate’.

It’s likely you believe that word to mean one of two things. The first is how I’ve often seen it used‌—‌if a city is decimated by enemy fire, it is totally destroyed. In this usage, decimate is pretty much synonymous to annihilate.

But this isn’t the classic meaning. There’s a clue in the first three letters. They come from the same root as ‘decimal’, ‘decade’ and all those other words related to the number ten. And, unsurprisingly, the word is related to the Romans. In battles, there was always a winner and a loser, and there was a punishment for losing. The army would be decimated. This meant that one out of every ten soldiers would be killed. Ten percent of the losing army would be sacrificed.

To decimate means to reduce by a tenth. That doesn’t mean total destruction. Kill one out of every ten, and there are still nine to fight another day. If the population of a country is decimated, and there were originally about ten million residents, after this supposedly catastrophic event there are still nine million. A bank account of five thousand is decimated, and it still holds four and a half thousand.

That is the classic definition. But words change over time. Decimate has been around for millennia.

There was a discussion on a forum I occasionally browse, and the meaning of this word came up. Someone included a link to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This is how it defined ‘decimate’:

1: to select by lot and kill every tenth man of
2: to exact a tax of 10 percent from
3a: to reduce drastically especially in number
3b: to cause great destruction or harm to

The first two definitions confirm my understanding, but the third is closer to total destruction.

I checked out a couple of other dictionaries. First, the Cambridge Dictionary:

– to kill a large number of something, or to reduce something severely

Not even a mention of tenth. Next, the Oxford Dictionary:

1: kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of
2: kill one in every ten of, as a punishment for the whole group.

And finally, the Collins Dictionary:

1: to decimate something such as a group of people or animals means to destroy a very large number of them
2: to decimate a system or organization means to reduce its size and effectiveness greatly.

Again, no mention of a tenth. Also, in their list of synonyms, Collins has ‘destroy’ and ‘devastate’.

So it appears that the word now, officially, can be used in the same way as a word like annihilate. The people in charge of the ‘official’ meanings of words have decided that decimate now no longer means what it used to.

And that means I can have no argument against all those books that have wound me up. They’ve been using the word in this new meaning, and it’s been my interpretation that has been in error.

I have to accept this, but a part of me doesn’t want to. I know language changes over time, especially with slang (when the Flintsones theme song says ‘we’ll have a gay old time’, a modern interpretation would surely have Fred and Barney sharing one house, and Betty and Wilma in another). But to change a word like ‘decimate’ seems wrong. The two meanings (’destroy a very large number’ and ‘reduce by a tenth’) oppose each other. At least with a word like ‘gay’, homosexual and happy are not contradictory.

But I should really be used to this kind of thing, having worked in the UK education system. It seems that government ministers over here have their own particular way of using words that are removed from their meaning.

school-1019989_640I’ll explain. In UK schools, there are official lesson observations, carried out a few times a year on every teacher. When these observations started up, the teacher was given an overall rating from a choice of four; requires improvement, satisfactory, good, or excellent. As long as you did not ‘require improvement’ you were doing okay. ‘Satisfactory’ meant that you knew what you were doing, and that the kids were learning. There was room for improvement, of course, but you weren’t letting anyone down. You were doing okay. Just as the word ‘satisfactory’ implies.

Those in charge of education always want improvement (at least, in the things they deem as important). They decided that a satisfactory rating was no longer acceptable. Why should students settle for lessons that were merely average? Surely every child deserved the best. And overnight, in UK education, satisfactory now meant ‘not good enough’. If you were rated as satisfactory, you were no longer providing a satisfactory education.

And this came from the same government agency that was calling for all children to be ‘above average’.

We really have problems with our education system in this country.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

Words change their meaning. Decimate can now mean ‘totally destroyed’. I’m not sure how this came about, but it was probably through misuse that simply became accepted over time. But it has been accepted. If I choose to stick to the classical use of the word, I will be left behind.

Language is not static. Just try reading something like the original Chaucer. Even Shakespeare, which is only a few hundred years old, sounds strange to us today. It’s taught almost as poetry, but at the time Shakespeare was writing for the people, in a language that would appeal to as many paying punters as possible (yep, old Bill was an entrepreneur). But over time, words have shifted.

And I need to remember this when I’m reading. If I come across something that sounds wrong, I need to take a moment and consider‌—‌has the author made a mistake, or is my interpretation in error?

inigo_montoyaMaybe if it’s me, I can blame my education. I’m sure my teachers were satisfactory, so they were clearly getting things wrong somewhere. I can’t expect words to remain static. To bring this back to the title of this post (for anyone who’s a fan of The Princess Bride), such a notion would be inconceivable.

A few book recommendations

There are so many good books out there. I’m reading more now than I ever was, and my to-be-read pile keeps on growing. Loads of these books are by new authors, too‌—‌people who are publishing independently, without the backing of big-name publishers, and many of them deserve far more recognition. Every time I finish a great book, I tell myself I should review it. It’s a way of spreading the word, and of doing what I can to help these fantastic authors.

Problem is, by that time I’m already onto the next book. And when I turn on my computer, I’m distracted (if that’s the right word) by stories I’m working on, or finding things to write about on this site. Somehow, I never get around to these reviews.

But I intend to. And, as a start, I’m going to let you know about books that have impressed me. Every couple of months, I’ll pick a few great reads and write about them.
So here goes.

spaceteam_barryjhutchinsonSpace Team (Barry J Hutchinson)

Comedy books are hard to pull off. It’s tempting to simply run from one joke to the next, leaving the plot to fend for itself. Yes, Douglas Adams got away with this in his earlier stuff, but his writing could carry it. Other authors who use comedy, like Terry Pratchett, work just as hard (harder?) on the things that make a story great‌—‌plot and characters. The comedy comes out of the situations and how the characters react.

Barry J Hutchinson does this with Space Team. It tells the story of Cal, a wise-cracking petty criminal who is imprisoned in a cell with a cannibal. And things get worse when he’s abducted by aliens and forced to join a gang of reprobates on a mission to save the galaxy. And, of course, things don’t run smoothly.

It could have been a mediocre story, but there are enough turns to keep things interesting, as well as a feeling that things are not quite what they seem. The start promises intrigue, and it is clear that there is more to this simple mission than meets the eye. See, Hutchinson has a plot that could work for a serious book. The humour just adds an extra layer.

The fact that he has a main character who reverts to insults and comedy as a defence mechanism helps. So too does the way Hutchinson doesn’t over-explain things. Just like Pratchett, much of the comedy lies in what isn’t on the page. He also uses running gags, but again, by putting them in the mouth of a character who is trying to wind others up, they don’t become annoying.

I really enjoyed this book, and bought the next two in the series as soon as I’d finished it. I hope they carry on the same high standards.

Mr Ruins (Michael John Grist)mrruins_michaeljohngrist

I’ll start by saying that this book isn’t for everyone. Looking at reviews on Amazon, a couple mention that it is confusing, and I can see this. From the very first page, we’re thrust into an incredibly strange world, where the main character goes diving in the minds of others, and little is explained outright (in fact, much is left unexplained throughout the book). The main character (Ritry Goligh) is being chased, or something, but then there is a secondary story, with a group of marines (possibly) battling across this world that feels like something out of Lewis Carroll, only with deadlier intentions. Who these marines actually are, and how they connect to Ritry’s story, is left hanging for much of the book.

But there are hints, and I think I picked up on these fairly quickly. And the strange terms that are thrown in with no explanation, such as ‘lag’‌—‌it is possible to understand them in context. Besides, I’d far rather read a book like this than one that slows down with paragraphs of exposition every few pages. The fact that there is no explanation shows how confident Grist is in his writing, and because of this, as a reader I trust him. I might not quite get what’s happening, but I’ll follow, because I trust he’ll deliver in the end.

Another facet of this book that many will find off-putting is the tense‌—‌it’s written in first person present (so we have things like ‘I walk into the room’ rather than ‘I walked into the room’). That did jar with me initially, but I soon grew accustomed to it, and I can see how it works in the book’s favour. It makes things seem both more intimate and more distant (and I’ve no idea how Michael John Grist pulls this off), which suits the character perfectly. Add the lack of explanations, and it does feel like you’re in Ritry’s head (or maybe someone else’s).

Mr Ruins himself is a shadowy character, and at the end I was a little disappointed‌—‌I felt he wasn’t developed as well as he could have been. And I’m still not sure I totally understand what happened to him (even after reading the second book‌—‌hopefully the final part of the trilogy will help me there). But that’s only a small negative. With this book I enjoyed the ride (even if, like a decent roller coaster, it sometimes felt like I couldn’t follow what was happening), and as with Space Team, I bought the rest of the trilogy immediately I’d finished it.

So, not for everyone, but if you’re looking for a mind-bender, and are prepared to try something difference, check it out.

shellcollector_hughhoweyThe Shell Collector (Hugh Howey)

I’ve come to Hugh Howey a bit late. I read Beacon 23 last year, but I still haven’t got round to reading Wool. I really should, though.

Judging from reviews, this book is different to the rest of Howey’s work. That’s mainly down to it being a romance. And before you switch off, let me say that this isn’t a genre I’m familiar with, or one that particularly appeals. I’ve read a few, and I’ve been unimpressed.

But The Shell Collector is different.

To start with, the prologue is one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long time. It would stand up as a short story on its own, and I was almost tempted to stop when I reached the end, as I couldn’t imagine how Howey could top it. There is so much emotion and back-story conveyed in a short time, and it’s a fine indication of how good a writer he is.

But I carried on, and the book became intriguing. I didn’t know I was reading a romance, because the build-up to the relationship is slow, and evolves around a mystery, as journalist Maya Walsh gets an invitation to interview Ness Wilde, one of those responsible for the destruction of the oceans (at least, as she sees it). The story’s set in the near future, and shows the effects of environmental change without resorting to ‘end of the world’ catastrophes, and without beating us over the head with ‘look after the planet’ stuff. Instead, the world is what it is, and Maya (and the other characters) just have to cope with it. It’s like a real-world dystopia, if that makes sense.

The characters are very believable, as are their interactions. And the mystery element really keeps things moving, as Maya finds out more about the real Ness Wilde (and his grandfather). I don’t know if I totally like either character, but they are interesting and real enough that I wanted to find out more, especially about Ness’ secret.

And this was one let-down in the book. When this secret is finally revealed at the end, it felt rushed. Maybe Howey thought that giving it more time would have impacted on the romance, or maybe it was never supposed to be the driving force of the book. I don’t know. But I would have preferred a little more meat to the mystery side of the story.

But it’s still a very good book, written by someone who definitely deserves the success he’s enjoyed since Wool got so much interest. Where Beacon 23 hides its seriousness behind a playful exterior, The Shell Collector is earnest throughout. It shows how Howey can change his writing to suit the story he’s telling. It’s a fine example of character-driven story. I’ll definitely be reading more of his books.

So, three books that have impressed me over the last month or so. I know they won’t appeal to everyone (a comedy, a book that seems to purposely make reading difficult, and a romance), but the writing itself is great in all of them, and I’d recommend all three.

And now I’ve got more books to read. Some promise to be cracking stories, others are things I’m not sure about but I’ll give them a go anyway. Some will leave me unimpressed. But others will blow me away.

I’ll let you know which ones do that for me in a couple of months.

New short story – ‘The Customer Is Always Right’

Another short story for you. This one’s called The Customer Is Always Right. It’s based around another minor character from Dark Glass. I like Jimny, the cafe owner who’s everyone’s friend, but I always thought he had a really tough job. When everyone is out for number one, how do you serve them all without them killing one another‌—‌or worse still, killing you? So I wrote this to show some of the things Jimny has to put up with.

I want to do more with this character. He did turn up in early drafts of both Dead Flesh and Deep Water, but I had to get rid of those parts, much as I hated to see him go. But he does make an appearance in a new book I have out soon (although you’ll have to pay attention). More on that later, though.

For now, check out the story, and let me know what you think, either in the comments or directly (you can e-mail me at twiain@twiain.com). I’d like to know what you like, but also what I can improve on.

And don’t forget there are more stories here.