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Originally posted on October 20, 2010

Pictograph. Bar Graph. Line Graph. Epigraph. If you’re thinking this is going to be a lesson in math, rest assured — it’s not!  :-)

Even though there is a concept of ‘epigraph’ in math, today I’m using this word very much in the context of writing.

Merriam Webster online defines an epigraph as:

            A quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.

Epigraphs are quotations, or phrases or poems, you find in some books at the beginning of each chapter. They are usually related to the theme of either that chapter or that of the whole book. They can be extracted from any number of sources: excerpts from a well-known book, folk sayings, or quotes of famous personalities, to name a few.

(I’m not sure why whoever coined this term couldn’t make up a more writerly-sounding word for it. You know what I mean?)

Here’s one excerpt topping chapter six of the book Rueful Death from Susan Albert Wittig’s China Bayles Mystery series. China is an ex-criminal lawyer, who has hung up her coat in favor of retiring to a small town in Texas where she owns and runs a small herb store and a tea shop. On the side, she keeps habitually happening upon dead bodies and solving the mysteries surrounding them, thus getting the necessary fix for her analytical side.

If gun-flints are wiped with rue and vervain, the shot must surely reach the intended victim, regardless of the shooter’s aim.

                            — C.M.Skinner

                             Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants

On my part, as a reader, such quotations make way for delicious meanderings such as:

— Does the verb rue (which is known to have been first used in the 12th century) as in to regret have its origin in the herb of the same name?

— Were the qualities of various herbs as legendary in the East as they were in the West?

And, whenever I come across any tidbit about the different medicinal plants, I begin to crave the latest book of the series. Isn’t that one of the better and innovative ways to make a series more memorable?

Another good example for an epigraph is from chapter ten of the fascinating O Jerusalem by Laurie King. (It is one of the books from her series: Novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. If you enjoy reading Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, then this series is a must for you.)

              The human body floats without exertion on the surface, and can be submerged only with difficulty; but swimming is unpleasant, as the feet have too great a tendency to rise to the surface.

                            BAEDEKER’s Palestine and Syria,

                                                             1912 Edition

Before you shudder, the passage above is merely talking about taking a dip in the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea), which the heroine, Mary Russell, proceeds to do in the chapter crowned by the words above.

Doesn’t the phrase — delivered in a most earnest and no-nonsense manner — make you want to get your hands immediately on that edition of Baedeker’s travel guide?

Another excerpt from Laurie King’s ‘O Jerusalem’

Epigraphs, for me, are:

  • A (fun) way to get readers to think about what may or may not happen in the chapter they’re about to read.
  • One means to bring out the subplot(s), obscured by the main plot line, a reader may not stumble upon otherwise.
  • An inkling of the playfulness of the author.
  • Tiny windows into the thought-process of the author and how he/she views the book in question. How a reader perceives a book is not always similar to how the author has envisioned it. Epigraphs help close the distance between the two.

Have you run into any good epigraphs you’d like to share?

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We all know that the same word when taken out of context or even juxtaposed within a slightly different context takes on a different connotation. But recent developments in America have made me appreciate something even more subtle when it comes to words and their usage. flying-letters1

A word is considered offensive when a person belonging to one race uses it, but the same word can be seen as harmless when used by a person of a different race. And what’s more, it’s used in the same context in both the cases.

What am I referring to? Yes, the word thug. This word has made serious headlines in recent weeks.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thug as:

Thug

noun \ˈthəg\ : a violent criminal

 Full Definition of THUG

:  a brutal ruffian or assassin :  GANGSTER, TOUGH

Seems like a straightforward definition, on the face of it.

However, the word “thug” used by Caucasians (like Maryland’s governor and others) and perhaps by people in power like President Obama  and Baltimore’s mayor—who are both African American, incidentally—to describe the rioters in Baltimore incited anger and hurt in the black community. So much so that the word had to be retracted in some cases with apology. However, when the same word is used by someone within the black community, it isn’t considered objectionable. In fact, it might even take on a slightly positive and affectionate patina.

Here’s an interview on NPR if you would like to dig some more into the history of how the word got to be this racially charged. The Racially Charged Meaning Behind the Word ‘Thug’.

(An interesting aside: this word originated in India. In Hindi, the word thag means swindler or deceiver. It snuck into the English language as thug during the British-Raj time in India.)

Isn’t it fascinating, how the use or misuse of a single word—which might be harmless when it stands by itself—can muddy our perceived intentions?

Now, go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite book. An average 300-page novel contains 75,000 to 80,000 words. Consider the care and caution that the writer has put into each one of those words so as to string them all together to get her point across to you, the reader. Don’t you love the book that much more now? I thought you would. :)

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Has there been a time when you were feeling out of sorts and then you happen upon a phrase or hear a snatch of a song, and violá, your mood improves?

Wherever I am, whatever time of the day, all I have to have is Louis Armstrong crooning to me, “What a wonderful world!” and I begin to see colors brushed into the air around me.

When I hear Simon & Garfunkel asking, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” the concrete walls around me fall away, and I step into fields of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

The Indie Rock band American Authors tells me: “This is gonna be the best day of my life.” Suddenly even the most mundane day turns into something memorable.

Isn’t the power of words amazing?

Which words pick you up and make your feet tap out a rhythm? Please share!

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Here are excerpts from some beautiful poems about words and thoughts:

He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his fame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

               – Life
by Emily Dickinson *

 

You say that father write a lot of books, but what he write I don’t understand.
He was reading to you all the evening, but could you really make out what he meant?
What nice stories, mother, you can tell us! Why can’t father write like that, I wonder?
Did he never hear from his own mother stories of giants and fairies and princesses?
Has he forgotten them all?
Often when he gets late for his bath you have to call him an hundred times.
You wait and keep his dishes warm for him, but he goes on writing and forgets.
Father always plays at making books.
If ever I go to play in father’s room, you come and call me, “What a naughty child!”
If I make the slightest noise you say, “Don’t you see that father’s at his work?”
What’s the fun of always writing and writing?
When I take up father’s pen or pencil and write upon his book
just as he does,-a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,-why do you get cross with me then, mother?
You never say a word when father writes.
When my father wastes such heaps of paper, mother, you don’t seem to mind at all.
But if I take only one sheet to make a boat with, you say, “Child, how troublesome you are!”
What do you think of father’s spoiling sheets and sheets of paper with black marks all over both sides?

               – Authorship by Rabindranath Tagore **

 

There is a quiet spirit in these woods,
That dwells where’er the gentle south wind blows;
Where, underneath the white-thorn, in the glade,
The wild flowers bloom, or, kissing the soft air,
The leaves above their sunny palms outspread.
With what a tender and impassioned voice
It fills the nice and delicate ear of thought,
When the fast-ushering star of morning comes
O’er-riding the gray hills with golden scarf;
Or when the cowled and dusky-sandled Eve,
In mourning weeds, from out the western gate,
Departs with silent pace!  That spirit moves
In the green valley, where the silver brook,
From its full laver, pours the white cascade;
And, babbling low amid the tangled woods,
Slips down through moss-grown stones with endless laughter.
And frequent, on the everlasting hills,
Its feet go forth, when it doth wrap itself
In all the dark embroidery of the storm,
And shouts the stern, strong wind.  And here, amid
Its presence shall uplift thy thoughts from earth,
As to the sunshine and the pure, bright air
Their tops the green trees lift.  Hence gifted bards
Have ever loved the calm and quiet shades.
For them there was an eloquent voice in all
The sylvan pomp of woods, the golden sun,
The flowers, the leaves, the river on its way,
Blue skies, and silver clouds, and gentle winds,-
The swelling upland, where the sidelong sun
Aslant the wooded slope, at evening, goes,-
Groves, Through whose broken roof the sky looks in,
Mountain, and shattered cliff, and sunny vale,
The distant lake, fountains,- and the mighty trees,
In many a lazy syllable, repeating
Their old poetic legends to the wind.

               The Spirit Of Poetry by H.W.Longfellow *** 

A thought went up my mind today
That I have had before,
But did not finish,-some way back,
I could not fix the year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely what it was,
Have I the art to say.

But somewhere in my soul, I know
I’ve met the thing before;
It just reminded me – ‘twas all –
And came my way no more.

               Life by Emily Dickinson * 

The above have been extracted from the following sources:

* – Emily Dickinson Selected Poems – Borders Classics Edition

** – PoemHunter.com

*** – The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Black’s Readers Service Edition 

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