Following on from The Power of Language last week, I thought I would look at how it doesn’t take many words to have an impact on readers. This is something I think about a lot for my flash fiction writing. You get better over time at maximising impact while still minimising word count. It is literally a trick of the trade.
I calculate it takes three words, yes, that’s all, to conjure up unforgettable images for a reader.
The words I love you have immense impact, depending on who is saying them to whom and the circumstances. It can, sadly, of course be a lie too. It’s for your reader to work out whether the speaker means the words or not.
On the other side of the coin, I can think of another three words which conjure up a brutal part of our history in the UK and which have different meanings and uses – hang, draw, quarter.
It’s hard to imagine two such opposite impacts of three little words!
History is a fascinating study but I am so glad some things have been left behind. Guy Fawkes, whose nefarious activities in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, will be commemorated again in November, was hanged, drawn and quartered and is probably the most famous victim of that brutal form of execution.
Yet hang, draw, and quarter all individually have much nicer meanings and usages. It’s what happens when you put them together that conjures up images of horror and fear.
Let’s start with definitions and uses.
- To affix an object to a wall for display or support purposes (e.g pictures)
- To put meat on a hook for the purposes of drawing out flavour (e.g. pheasants)
- To relax with friends (i.e. to hang out…)
- To put to death, usually on a gallows with a noosed rope (usually hemp. For convicted peers they could have a silken rope, something that was inferred in one of the classic Ealing comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Incidentally that film has one of the best ever endings to a film (as does The Italian Job – only the one with Michael Caine in it, mind you). But do check out Sir Alec Guinness playing eight different roles with aplomb in Kind Hearts and Coronets and the ultimate in being non-plussed by Dennis Price. (For fans of Dad’s Army look out for Arthur Lowe too).
Another three word phrase The Tyburn Tree refers to the gallows at Tyburn where hangings were routinely carried out. Definitely not the kind of tree I like either.
There are similarities between the first two meanings, though the meat one is for a specific purpose and for a different reason. It’s certainly not for display purposes!
The range of meanings for hang is varied to say the least. Easily the nicest meanings are one and three.
We’ve all hanged something in our time though, even if it is just the washing out to dry! General rule here is meat is hung, a man is hanged.
the meanings and uses include:-
- To portray an image on paper or other materials using manual means to do so. The nice thing here is that image can be something you see or imagine. The image can be realistic or fantastical. It can include animation, bearing in mind all images for this used to be hand drawn. The number of images needed for something like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first animated film, was immense. The one source I could track (but couldn’t confirm elsewhere) has the figure down as 18 frames a second. For the length of the film, that is a lot of animation! (Oh and I love CGI by the way but you’ve got to admire the sheer craft and hard work when Disney produced Snow White. You then look at when he produced it – 1937 – and you take your hat off to him further for his creative skill and determination to make animation a respected movie form. I guess we can say he succeeded there.).
- To cut a cross on the body of a hanged criminal who is still alive to form four sections as part of a particularly brutal death sentence. The executioner is getting ready to draw out internal organs here. Sometimes the word draw here can be used to describe the process of dragging the criminal on a cart to the place of execution. It can also be used for the process of hanging the criminal but, for me, the meaning that makes the most sense is this one – the actual drawing out of a cross on the body.
- A special attraction (as in XXX was a huge draw for the concert).
- A raffle-like competition. (As in £500 was the first prize in the charity draw).
Again let’s have some meanings and uses.
- One-fourth of an object (e.g. I have one slice of four slices available from a cake).
- To cut something into four pieces and no more.(e.g. apples, pears etc).
- To take from the four sections “drawn” on a criminal various internal organs. For real cruelty, a criminal would still be alive and would be shown their own organs. Heads would be cut off after death had occurred. British history is not pretty. I do believe in the truth of the saying that a country which forgets its past is destined to re-live it. There are plenty of examples of our history that I’d never want any of us to go through again. We neglect history, and the lessons from it, at our own peril.
- To give credence to (as in the saying to give due quarter. There is a sense of something like respect being owing because a person speaking has the due experience and qualifications to justify what they say).
- One fourth of the year which in turn gives us the expression Quarter Days. These are Lady Day on 25th March, Midsummer Day on 24th June, Michaelmas Day on 29th September, and Christmas Day on…. Well you can fill that one in!
A lovely mix of meanings here though the one to avoid is number three! Thankfully, the last example of this happening in the UK was back in 1782.
I would not wish the grisly fate of David Tyrie on anyone. The indignity (to put it mildly) didn’t stop when the sentence had been carried out. If you have the stomach for it do check out the link (and yes that phrase is peculiarly apt too!).
Where I used to work, the quarter days were still important. It was when rent demands were dated for and due on. I used to work for a land agent in Winchester and there were always many invoices to get out in time for these days. The quarter days roughly align to the equinoxes and solstices too.
Best use of the word quarter? Getting it out in Scrabble on the triple word score and you get the 50 point bonus for getting all seven tiles out in one hit! Alas, I’ve not had this luck yet but I’ll keep working on it.
Well, you would expect a wordsmith to play word games, wouldn’t you?! I inherit my love of Scrabble from my mother, though I wonder what she’d make of my playing the game on a mobile phone app (especially since I have got her original board and tiles).
Still given executions, the more grisly the better, used to be seen as a form of entertainment, (the whole family would go to them), I think I’ll stick to playing with words instead and be fervently grateful some of the meanings at least are no longer relevant or in usage!
What is a little scary here though is it only takes three simple words put together convey a whole raft of horrific historical images. The words hang, draw, and quarter, when used together, would induce fear and horror (as was the intention. The reason for the brutal punishment was to deter others). If you ever doubted the power of language to influence behaviour and to try to exert control over people, these three words alone should remove those doubts.
In dictatorships, the first victims of such are often writers and journalists. Why? Because we can put words together and use them to the greatest effect. Even fiction is not exempt. Did Orwell set out to be a prophetic writer with 1984? I think not. He was showing the horrors of dictatorship as he’d witnessed it and from both left and right wings. No wonder writers can be feared at times. We “sell” ideas and that can be dangerous to the wrong kind of people.
To finish then, let’s go for something much more positive – three words which have nice images and when used together conjure up an even nicer one. I can help out there. How about afternoon, cream, and tea? Yes, I think that should do it.
Never underestimate the power of words! (Oh and should we think carefully about how we use them? Oh yes but that’s a whole new debate altogether!).
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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