Sunday, February 20, 2011

Another English Lesson

by Marsha Ward

I recently heard someone refer to the need to wet someone's appetite for a book manuscript. That's when I knew I had my topic for today's blog post.

What the person meant to write was "whet." The word comes from the Old English hwettan, meaning "to sharpen, encourage." We use it today in at least two contexts: to sharpen knives or other bladed implements, and to stimulate, enhance, or increase; such as desire, appetite or curiosity.

Seeing "wet" applied to appetite for anything makes me think the opposite: to dampen down or diminish, and that's not what you want to do when you present a book manuscript to an agent or editor. You want to whet that appetite for your work.

Now that you understand the difference, let's wander off into the first meaning for whet, because I have a childhood memory to share. My father had a whetstone, a fine-grained stone about 6 or 7 inches long by 2 inches wide and an inch thick, that he used to sharpen and hone the blades of knives, principally his pocketknife. Those were the days when a man wasn't a man unless he carried a pocketknife in his, well, pocket, and my Daddy was no exception. Sometimes, if he was away from home, he used spit on the surface of the stone before he honed the blade of his knife to a sharpness that could slice through a tomato without denting the skin. If he was home, he used a bit of machine oil. In fact, when I handled the whetstone, I recall it had a slight oily film on the surface.

Sometimes Daddy used the whetstone to sharpen a camp axe, but mostly it was his knife that I remember him stroking repeatedly over the surface, back and forth, one side and then the other. He would test the sharpness of the blade on his thumb as he progressed with the task, until he was satisfied at the keenness of the edge. Only then did he attempt to use his knife on the job.

We have to do the same thing with our writing: perform the mundane, almost hypnotic task of coaxing out words, testing the sound and the keenness of them as we go, until at last, they are perfect. Only then will they do the job they are designed for: entertaining or educating others.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for that, I never knew there was a difference, but since I know what a whetstone is, it makes sense.

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  2. That was interesting and educational. You also brought back memories of my Daddy using his whetstone. Unfortunately I never paid as much attention as you and therefore never learned how to use one properly and all my knives are dull. What do you call the big round stone for sharpening? I have fun memories of sitting on a seat and doing a bicycle or treadle(sewing machine) motion--I don't remember which-- to make a rock for sharpening tools, shaped like a bike wheel, go around?

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  3. I'm glad this was educational for both of you.

    Susan, I would probably call that implement a stone grinding wheel or a stone sharpening wheel. I've also heard it called a grindstone. When you say, "keep your nose to the grindstone," that's what I visualize, but there must be a story behind the saying.

    Marsha

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  4. Ok Marsha I'm sensing a proper English usage book coming around here. Def a need for it.

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  5. Marsha, I love you posts! I actually heard someone misuse that same word just a couple of weeks ago! I wasn't in a position to correct them. I agree with Terri, btw...go Marsha!

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