Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

When Is a Man a Widow? Where Do We Get the Word 'Blurb'? Sci-Fi Versus Fantasy. Bert and Ernie.

Episode Summary

895. A listener asked why he's hearing people refer to men as "widows," and we found a surprising history. Also, I recently mentioned a blurb I wrote, and a reader wanted to know where we get that funny word "blurb."

Episode Notes

895. A listener asked why he's hearing people refer to men as "widows," and we found a surprising history. Also, I recently mentioned a blurb I wrote, and a reader wanted to know where we get that funny word "blurb."

| Transcript:

| Merriam-Webster "blurb" article.

| Grammar Girl sci-fi versus fantasy article.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, we're going to talk about the word "widow," the word "blurb," and the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

Widow or Widower?

Hello, Mignon. My name is Michael, and I recently moved to the Kansas City area. I have a question about the words "widow" and "widower." I've always believed that a widow is a woman whose spouse had died and that a widower is a man whose spouse had died. Lately, I feel like I've heard an increased use in the word "widow" as a replacement for "widower." I've enjoyed listening to the Grammar Girl podcast for years. I understand that word usage changes over time. I'm wondering if you can offer any insight into what I think is a change to the usage or definition of "widow" and "widower." Thank you so much for the work you do on this wonderful podcast. Have a great day.

Thanks, Michael.

Since death is a fundamental human experience, you probably won't be surprised to hear that "widow" is an exceptionally old word. For example, the Old English version "wydewan" is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a set of records created under King Alfred's reign from the year 871 to 899 and that, according to Etymonline, can be traced all the way back to a Proto-Indo-European word that also gives rise to a Sanskrit word that means “lonely or solitary.”

And I had the same impression — that a widow is a woman and a widower is a man — and that's how modern dictionaries like Webster's New World College Dictionary list them, but the Oxford English Dictionary actually shows (much to my surprise) that "widow" has been used quite regularly over the years to refer to a man whose spouse has died. They have examples starting from Old English and going all the way up to 2003. Another option they show, from Irish English, is to call someone a "widow man."

I did a Twitter poll to get an idea of how many other people had heard "widow" used to refer to a man, and about 23% said they had, so it's actually not that uncommon. Multiple people responded that they didn't know what a widower was or thought it was some kind of verb, and I've heard from at least 2 or 3 widowers who say they particularly hate the word.

So the short answer, Michael, is that you’re right on both counts. Current reference books, like the AP Stylebook, still recommend using the word “widow” for a woman and “widower” for a man, but you’re also not alone in hearing “widow” used to refer to a man. Especially with the push to make language more gender neutral, it wouldn't surprise me at all if this use of "widow" to refer to every bereaved spouse spreads.

And it’s interesting too because usually when one word takes over, it’s the word for a man. For example, we used to have editors and editresses, and now we just have editors. And we used to have actors and actresses, and now the word "actor" is often used for everyone.

I’m not 100% sure why the word “widow” is winning in this case, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that there are more widows than widowers, which means that people are likely to hear the word more often. According to the U.S. Census bureau, in 2014, about 54% of women who were 75 or older reported being a widow, whereas only about 19% of men in the same group reported being a widower.

Finally, here are some other interesting meanings of the word "widow."

In publishing, a widow is a small bit of copy, like a single word, at the end of a paragraph that doesn't fit at the end of a column or page, so it appears all by itself at the top of a new column or page.

Publishing also has orphans, which are something similar. The definitions seem a little more varied for “orphan,” but it also amounts to a word or short bit of text that appears alone on a line. Page designers don't like the look of these kinds of stranded words, so they'll make formatting changes to suck them back into the paragraph somehow.

Some other interesting uses of the word "widow" that I found in the OED that I didn't know include it being the name for "an extra hand or number of cards dealt to the table in certain card games, especially poker" and the name for "an expiring or nearly extinguished fire." That last one is rare and obsolete, but it might be something interesting to use in fiction or poetry.

Thanks again for the question, Michael. I was surprised by the answer.

What is a Blurb?

Next, I was really excited this week because I got my print copy of the AP Stylebook, and I have the top blurb on the back. It's just wildly exciting for me because it's a book I've used my entire adult life, and there it is, my name is right there on the back giving it a recommendation. So I posted pictures on all my social media accounts, and Steve Brown on Facebook asked to me talk about the word "blurb." I mean, it does sound kind of silly, right?

Well, unlike "widow," "blurb" is pretty new, but it's a common word in publishing. It's a noun to describe the recommendations that are printed on books — or I guess, included on ebooks now — and it's also a verb. Like I might say, "I was really happy to blurb this book for my friend. I loved it."

I'm used to it now, but it did sound weird to me when I first heard it. The Merriam-Webster website has a fabulous article on the topic, which I'll link to in the show notes. It says the word was coined by an American humorist named Gelett Burgess in 1907. Apparently he was a guest of honor at the annual dinner of the American Booksellers' Association, and he prepared copies of his book to give to attendees with a fake book jacket that had over-the-top recommendations such as "When you're read this masterpiece, you'll know what a book is." He attributed them to a woman he made up called Miss Belinda Blurb. He even included a photograph of her and in the caption said she was "in the act of blurbing."

He was just trying to be funny, but what seems especially funny to me is that although he was joking, the publishing people who were present loved the idea, and real blurbs quickly became a thing. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the early 1920s that make it sound like this is a common practice.

So that's the story of the word "blurb." Again, I'll put a link to the Merriam-Webster article in the show notes.

Sci-fi Versus Fantasy

I also want to highlight a literary Twitter meme I found especially funny this week that I think a lot of you might enjoy. It compares fantasy to science fiction. For example, Amy Louise with the handle Amylouioc wrote, "Fantasy is when Irish words are randomly thrown into conversation and sci-fi is when all street signs are in Japanese". And Brian J. White with the handle talkwordy wrote, "Fantasy is when potions are made in vats, and sci-fi is when meat is made in vats."

There were thousands of these tweets, and they were super funny, but also on target and rooted in what we've talked about before in the podcast: that readers expect certain things from different genres. We've talked about how word choice matters — if you're writing a fantasy novel, you may want your characters to drink ale instead of beer or whiskey for example. And if you’re writing a romance novel, your readers expect some kind of “happily ever after.”

So these memes hilariously illustrate some of differences between the expectations that readers or viewers have for the different genres. They fall into the “funny because it’s true” category.

I collected some of my favorites into an article on the Quick and Dirty Tips website, and I'll put a link to that in the show notes too, but here's one more: Sarah Nicolas, whose handle is sarah_nicholas wrote, "Sci-fi is when nanobots heal the otherwise unsurvivable injury. Fantasy is when magic heals the otherwise unsurvivable injury."

And an editing thing I noticed while reading all these tweets was that, wow, people do write "sci-fi" a lot of different ways. Capitalized. Not capitalized. Hyphen. No hyphen. And all the combinations of those.

If you're writing something more important than a tweet and want to get it right, both The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press seem to prefer lowercase "sci-fi" with a hyphen.

Finally, I have a familect story.

"Hello, Grammar Girl. I have a familect story for you. We have two wood racks on the front porch during the winter. We use the wood from one rack while the more recently stowed wood is drying on the other rack. While we were loading the racks one day, I mentioned the 'back rack,' inspiring my husband to respond, 'Oh, you mean Bert?' I understood the reference to the song writer Bert Bacharach. So of course, the front rack is Ernie. From now on, whenever there are two wood racks or any kind of racks or shelves one in front of the other, Ernie is the front rack, and Bert is the back. Thank you. Love your podcast. Bye."

Thank you for calling. I absolutely love that kind of convoluted story. If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil, wants to give a shout out his two cats, Finn and Rey, for being themselves (in other words, being sleepy crybabies). Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find me on Twitter and YouTube as @GrammarGirl. That's all. Thanks for listening.