Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

There is an evil hand afoot ahead

with 22 comments

Caricature of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron ...

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I have been out and about, watching films and reading books. As a result, I have discovered that the sky can be ‘cerulean’ and now know the meaning of the lovely word ‘passaggio’. And by serendipity, I came across the even lovelier word ‘passeggiata’.    

I have also found out who coined the phrases ‘the great unwashed’ and ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.  The very same person, as it happens, who first wrote the classic opening line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ –which led me to some competition results that made me laugh out loud. All this, and Ashima too — a beautiful name I came across.    

Cerulean, passaggio and passeggiata     

I came across ‘cerulean’ and ‘passaggio’  in Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating book, The Decisive Moment, about how the brain makes decisions.    

Recounting the moments before a catastrophic mid-flight explosion, Lehrer writes poetically:  The sky was a cloudless cerulean blue. ‘Cerulean’ meaning, I discovered, ‘deep blue’, derived from the Latin ’caeruleus’ meaning ‘sky blue’.    

And in describing how the brain’s workings can make performers and sportsmen and women ‘choke’, he uses the example of opera star Renée Fleming who faltered during a performance of The Marriage of Figaro.  Lehrer points out that: Most sopranos struggle with Mozart’s tendency to compose in the passaggio, or the awkward part of the vocal range.    

I’m glad he provided that definition as the word is not listed in my Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) or the online Oxford Dictionaries. Here’s a very detailed explanation if you’re interested.      

While searching for ‘passaggio’ in the ODE, I came across ‘passeggiata’. Obviously from the Italian, and meaning a leisurely walk or stroll, especially in the evening for socialising. The plural is ‘passeggiate’. You can listen to the pronunciation of ‘passeggiata’ at Merriam-Webster.      

It was a dark and stormy night…    

This, I learnt at the excellent Evolving English exhibition at the British Library in London, is the opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. He also coined the phrases mentioned in the introduction above. I then discovered that the San Jose State University in California holds an annual tongue-in-cheek competition in Bulwer-Lytton’s honour. Entrants are invited to, ‘compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’. Be sure to check out all the winning entries for 2010.    

Here are my favourites, both from the detective genre category:    


She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA routing transit number and account number and then disable your own overdraft protection in order to do so.      

Steve Lynch, San Marcos, CA     


As Holmes, who had a nose for danger, quietly fingered the bloody knife and eyed the various body parts strewn along the dark, deserted highway, he placed his ear to the ground and, with his heart in his throat, silently mouthed to his companion, “Arm yourself, Watson, there is an evil hand afoot ahead.     

Dennis Pearce, Lexington, KY     


I liked this entry too, from the romance genre:    

Cynthia had washed her hands of Philip McIntyre – not like you wash your hands in a public restroom when everyone is watching you to see if you washed your hands but like washing your hands after you have been working in the garden and there is dirt under your fingernails — dirt like Philip McIntyre.     

Linda Boatright, Omaha, NE      


The most outstanding film I have seen recently is The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair and based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Both the acting and the script are beautifully understated, and Nikolai Gogol’s mysterious short story The Overcoat (1842) is woven through it with a restrained lightness of touch. As quoted in the film, Fyodor Dostoevsky said: We all come from Gogol’s overcoat.    

Anyway, the mother’s name in the film is ‘Ashima’, a Hindu name meaning ‘without borders, limitless, endless’. Isn’t that lovely?    

Sorry all that was a bit longer than usual – hope some of it caught your fancy. Summer has suddenly arrived here in Blighty; the sky is cerulean and I am going out for a passeggiata.    

 Literary terms  


22 Responses

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  1. Come, come! Do not apologise for the length of this posting – it clearly deserves the extra wordage. More of the same, I say.

    Lizi Brown

    06/04/2011 at 2:57 pm

    • Hi, Lizi! Nice to see you here again. Thanks, and I’m glad you enjoyed this longer-than-usual post.


      06/04/2011 at 3:01 pm

  2. Hi Deborah,

    “The sky was a cloudless cerulean blue.” Just a tad tautological?

    Bulwer-Lytton is frequently pilloried for “It was a dark and stormy night… ” but I don’t really have a problem with it. After all, not all nights are dark, or stormy, so both together was maybe worth a mention. OK, it doesn’t leap out and grab you by the throat, but how many opening lines do?

    How about (from books to hand) “The solitary, steep, hill called Corona Heights was as black as pitch and very silent, like the heart of the unknown,” – Fritz Leiber, Our Lady of Darkness.

    Or, “I come from Desmoines. Somebody had to,” – Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island.

    Neither, I think, exactly overwhelming inducements to proceed further (though both books will reward you if you do). I think poor old Bulwer-Lytton deserves a break.

    This one, though, works for me “Something was wrong here, a cold whisper of evil,” – John Sandford, Phantom Prey.


    06/04/2011 at 3:47 pm

    • Hi, Ron! Thanks for all those examples. Bryson can be very witty, but I think that ‘somebody had to’ thing is a bit well-worn. I agree with you about B-L — I quite like that opening. Strange how often it’s quoted — and pilloried. But it must work at some level, or it would have been completely forgotten, along with so much other poor prose. You’re right about ‘cloudless cerulean blue’ – good effort for a scientist, though.


      06/04/2011 at 3:55 pm

  3. I wouldn’t have noticed the length either, as it has sufficient buoyancy. I appreciated the recitation of Lyttony. I’m busy studying “bad arts” myself lately. Victorians clinched both the “worst ever” fiction and poetry prizes in English. The poet was William McGonagall, who wrote the “Tay Bridge Disaster”, but also bad poems about its building, and the bridge that replaced it.

    Invisible Mikey

    06/04/2011 at 3:48 pm

    • Thanks, Mikey — much appreciated. The McGonagall poem and information about the disaster can be read here. Sample (not that I want to put anyone off from finding out more):

      Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
      Alas! I am very sorry to say
      That ninety lives have been taken away
      On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
      Which will be remember’d for a very long time.


      06/04/2011 at 4:01 pm

      • And yet McGonagall persists where other, better, poets have sunk without trace. Can a poet ask for more than literary immortality?


        06/04/2011 at 4:26 pm

        • Maybe it’s ‘so bad it’s good’?


          06/04/2011 at 4:41 pm

          • It does have a sort of simplistic charm about it. Or maybe I’ve just been on Twitter too long . . .


            06/04/2011 at 6:10 pm

  4. I love the word “cerulean” which I discovered in my son’s Crayola Crayons box. He was pronouncing it “ser-yoo-leen.” Very cute.

    I enjoy reading bad fiction. It brings me hope in my endeavor to “get published.” Ha.


    06/04/2011 at 11:29 pm

    • Hi! Thanks for dropping by. That’s a very poetic crayons box! I like your son’s pronunciation too. Don’t give up on your ambitions!


      07/04/2011 at 7:21 am

  5. First names in Hindi language (most of the time deriving from ancient Sanskrit) take all sorts of meanings–mostly inspiring or philosophically enchanting.

    My own name means evolution/progress/development; my father’s name (not revealing names lest my passwords be cracked) means ‘victory’; my mother’s name means ‘clean/pure/pristine’; my sister’s name means ‘courteous’; brothers’ name means ‘prudent’. Names of my friends and relatives are equally meaningful.

    Our PM is Manmohan (dear to the heart or one who wins our hearts); President is Mrs Pratibha (talent), Speaker of House of People is Meira (a historical figure who fell in love with lord Krishna)–every name has a meaning here!

    You can search any site on meaning of Hindu names and it will throw up all meaningful vocabulary. Urdu names of my Muslim friends are also very interesting.

    PS: I have the said film; will watch it sometime. I know most characters there (from Bollywood). Irrfan (Ashoke, actually Ashok or Ashoka, in film) will soon come in Spiderman’s next version (as villain?) (Ashok was an ancient king who ruled most of India and his name has a meaning– painless without sorrow; see wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashoka)

    Ignore typos if any; hate the small comment box (I believe there is no way to tweak its size).

  6. It can also be said that Indian/Hindu names present paradoxes– Mulayam meaning ‘soft’ is one of the most corrupt politicians in India! Often the names don’t suit us but you don’t change your name with evolving character!

  7. Hi, Vikas — it’s always lovely to see you here, and thanks so much for taking the time to share all that fascinating stuff. I find it so interesting and you explained it all so beautifully. I really appreciate it.

    I highly recommend the film.

    All good wishes from Blighty.


    07/04/2011 at 2:07 pm

  8. Just finished watching the film: the Namesake. Liked it. We are as depicted in the film; the railways station and buses and streets are exactly as shown.

    PS: I was rooting for Maxine but Gogol disappointed me. BTW, Tabu’s hair is black again when she goes back to India as the film ends (goof)!

    • Hi, Vikas — it’s so interesting to hear your perspective on the film. I think my favourite character was the father. Although I very much liked his wife, Ashima, too. Apparently, the author of the book on which the film is based appears in the film too, but I’d have to see it again to spot him. That was an interesting goof you spotted!

      Thanks, Vikas!


      08/04/2011 at 9:46 pm

      • I too missed Jhumpa. I read the full cast om IMDb, the most popular movie site, and read she is ‘Jhumpa Masi’. I played the CD again to find her: I think she is the woman sitting near the baby Sonia (wearing a saree) at the traditional ceremony (26-27th minute in my CD) in which the baby has to choose the pen or the dollar.

        And this observation proved to be correct because it is corroborated by the cast published in the end which is in order of appearance and Jhumpa’s name is there between Gogol (age 4) and baby Soniya which is all happening between the 25th and 28th minute in my CD.

        PS:IMDb link of the film http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433416/ I love this site; you can even write reviews there or make your own list/archives/recommendations.

        • And yes, Irrfan (father) is unbeatable but we are used to his brilliance here (kind of take it for granted).

          • I had some Google on it but unfortunately there was no info on it. Hopefully, in future people will land on this page while searching Jhumpa in Namesake.

            Masi (mother’s sister, Bengali terms; also Mausi in HIndi) has a special place among relatives. It can mean actual kinship or fictive kinship (very common). So I know that this Jhumpa Masi could be found only in the 2-3 scenes in which relatives/neighbours have gathered and I found her in the Sonia’s birth ceremony (I didn’t hear anyone address her Masi though).

            • Thanks so much for all this background, Vikas. And how stupid am I referring to Jhumpa as ‘him’.


              09/04/2011 at 5:19 pm

  9. What a lovely post to read on a lazy Saturday morning. Thank you!

    I’ll definitely look out for that movie. I have seen a couple of her movies and loved them; ‘Kama Sutra’ stands out — so sumptuous. Have you seen ‘Such a Long Journey’ the 1998 film adapted from the novel by Rohinton Mistry? I preferred ‘A Fine Balance’ — but as yet, no movie. Thank God, perhaps.


    09/04/2011 at 3:13 pm

    • Thanks, Jo. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I haven’t seen the other films you mention and will add them to my list! Yes — do watch The Namesake. I’m sure you would enjoy it.


      09/04/2011 at 5:21 pm

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