Like most readers, I’m a magpie when it comes to picking up odd facts and wonders. All things books make for particularly glittering tidbits. I can never resist a chance to see unusual and beautiful books.
— Tucked into a far corner of the annex to Carolina Rediviva, the main library at Sweden’s Uppsala University, a book sits alone behind bulletproof glass. You might think its remote placement indicates its minor significance. But look closer and you’ll see a work of visual splendor. It’s the Codex Argenteus, a beautiful and mysterious bible from the sixth century.
—How about Emily Dickinson’s herbarium? So many writers have been gardeners and have written about gardens that it might be easier to make a list of those who didn’t. But even in this crowded company, Emily Dickinson stands out. She not only attended the fragile beauty of flowers with an artist’s eye—before she’d written any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to anyone with the leisure, curiosity, and creativity to undertake it.
— Artist Yiota Demetriou’s new book of love letters can only be read when warmed by human touch. The book is a metaphor for relationships and the insecurity that comes with love and grief.
Of course, there’s always a chance to read books about such books.
Or unexpected connections and literary inspirations:
— The influence of “The Year Without a Summer” on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when a sun-obscuring ash cloud ejected from one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history caused temperatures to plummet the world over. Frankenstein and the Climate Refugess of 1816
I could probably spend all day at this. So I think the thing for all us magpies to do is to give ourselves a magpie holiday every once in awhile and simply allow ourselves an entire day to just follow from one shiny object to another at our leisure.
Inspired by Julie Paschkis (one of my Books Around the Table co-conspirators) questioning how the phrase “And how!” might have come into existence, I spent a wonderful afternoon looking at websites which trace the origin of strange phrases in English. If one person says to another, “Pistachio ice cream is the best ice cream on the planet!” and the other responds “And how!” you have to scratch your head and wonder about that (well, you don’t have to, but if you’re a writer with any curiosity about your language, you probably do.) How on earth did “And how!” come to mean “Absolutely! Amen to that!” Nothing on the surface of the phrase – definitions or etymologies of individual words, for example – explains it. So I scratched my head and began to explore.
There’s no doubt anymore, thanks to the internet, that if I wonder about something, many other people have wondered about it, too. I googled “origins” and “phrases” and “English” and in less time than it takes to blink (7/10ths of one second, to be precise) I had 68,500,000 hits. Granted, not all the hits would tell me about the curious origins of English phrases, but even if I only looked at a millionth of them, I would have a nice 68 to spend my day on.
Websites from Bored Panda to the Oxford Royale Academy (that’s quite a spread, yes?) have posted articles about phrase origins. Ever scratched your head and wondered about the following?
“Pleased as punch….” The word “punch” used to be capitalized, as far back as the 1600’s, because it came from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, where two puppets fought it out in front of a delighted audience. Punch was a mean cuss, always playing tricks on Judy or banging on her head with a stick, and he always took pleasure doing it. I found the long literary history of the phrase (back to Charles !! of England, who – in 1662 – ordered a command performance of the puppet show from an Italian puppeteer known by the alias Pollicinella) at a site called Idiomation: Historically Speaking. Punch and Judy were also the origin of the words “punch line” and “slapstick.” If you head over there after this, be sure to read about the woman who researches and writes the entries – her own history is impressive.
“Go haywire…” I love this phrase, maybe because I know how it feels to do it? Here’s what Mental Floss says about it in their list of 16 curious phrases: “What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the ‘messed up’ sense of the word.”
I definitely go more haywire than this….
“The whole shebang….” Another favorite phrase of mine. Mental Floss is less sure of the origin of this, but says, “The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.” That sounds right to me, especially given how many Irish were coming to America before and during the Civil War.
The whole shebang of a shebeen in Ballybeg House, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
“Minding your P’s and Q’s…” Speaking of drinking establishments, P’s and Q’s refer to pints and quarts, which barmaids had to keep track of serving so that the bills would be correct. To mind your p’s and q’s means to get things right, to be careful and do what you should be doing. You can find it in the list of curious phrases over at Owlcation, a site of “engineers, product and community advocates, moderators, and editors that are passionate about writing and online know-how. In addition to our official team, we are a tight-knit community of thousands of writers and enthusiasts.” If you visit, you’ll see articles as diverse as “The Many Uses of Cow Dung” and “The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture.”
“Mad as a hatter….” You might think you know the origin of this one. But according to Grammarly, “No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Carroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The ‘Mad Hatter Disease’ was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear ‘mad.'”
I’m going to end here and say toodle-oo. If you want to know where “toodle-oo” came from, you’ll be astounded by the length of the article about it over at The Phrase Finder.
In December 2015, I received an email from a father in Novato, California: “I wanted to write you because you’re my daughter’s favorite author. And we just wanted to let you know how much we LOVE the Zelda and Ivy series! I wanted to thank you for writing and illustrating the book series my daughter will always remember as her childhood favorite. You are truly a hero of hers!”
He went on to say how they have several copies of each of the six Zelda and Ivy books and that they’ve done all the crafts on my website.
“And last year our family had a baby sister, and my older daughter thought Ivy would make a perfect name. And honestly, we were a coin flip away from naming our second child after your book’s character.” (They named her Zoe.)
As the years passed, Luna, the older daughter, began a tradition of making a yearly Christmas art project that related to Zelda and Ivy: Z&I Christmas ornaments for the tree, an elaborate Lego Z&I house, including outdoor sandbox, swing, pirate hideout, lemonade stand, birdbath, bunkbeds, piano – the complete setting of the books.
When we did a launch event for Little Wolf’s First Howling at Charlie’s Corner in San Francisco in April 2017, Luna and her family drove down and we got to meet in person. I invited them, if they were ever in Seattle, to come by my studio for an art project and tea.
Luna sent another amazing Christmas project last December: a Twelve Days of Advent calendar that has Christmas outfits for Zelda and Ivy paperdolls behind each door.
Then last month, they took me up on my visit offer. We made gouache resist paintings together in my studio – and chomped on cucumber sandwiches (of course) with tea.
All of this is the unexpected golden extra – the cream that I didn’t even know was in the offing as I worked alone in my studio cooking up the Zelda and Ivy books.
It makes me smile to re-read Luna’s dad’s note: “Our family has TONS of Zelda and Ivy inside jokes too: we often play Go Fish, joke about cucumber sandwiches, sing “Take me out to the ball game” as a bedtime lullaby, often play pirates, occasionally change our names to Yolanda/Boleo Rose and say “halibut” if something is amiss, Luna got a (velvet-looking) gown (gloves and boa included) last Christmas, and a baton she reluctantly shares with her younger sister Zoe, she also has a Lucky Jewel, camps inside, digs holes to China, creates interesting “concoctions” and much more..”
What is better than to know something I wrote became part of my readers’ family’s lexicon and lives?
When Luna’s family visited, they brought along Fourth of July outfits for the Z&I paperdolls
and a beautiful illustrated book of Luna’s own, The Fox Princesses, in which sisters named Luna and Zoe team up with Zelda and Ivy to help a bear.
The cover and the conclusion of Luna’s latest book.
Best of all, was to have these sweet sisters working beside me at the drawing table on a lovely July day, together in that happy hum of creating.
Like Luna near the end of The Fox Princesses, I beamed.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.