Norwich author Peter Sargent explains why he’s swapped pandemic for palaver in his latest book on the origin of words…
I began researching and writing my latest book during the autumn of 2019. In hindsight it was a time of innocence. All we had to worry about was Brexit and the threat of climate change.
My first three published books had been collections of short stories on East Anglian history. A Moment in Time, A Place in History and Anglian Annals had been a joy to write, and had gone down well with readers. This time I was looking at the origins of words, how we use them and how their meaning can change in our fast-paced word.
By the early spring of 2020, My Word! was taking shape. I set myself the task of investigating 100 popular words, and was inspired by a mixture of overheard conversations, books, music, films and items in the news. The likes of palaver, bully, caprice, bohemian, marmalade, zenith, shambles, dude, referendum, Europe, blackmail, pantomime, office, puritan and cavalier were in the bag. My publisher Paul Dickson and I had decided to publish in the autumn. All looked set fair.
Taking a temporary job in a supermarket to make ends meet
Of course, in the middle of March, everything changed overnight. When bookshops and most other retail outlets were closed, with little prospect of reopening, I abandoned the whole project. For nearly three months I did not write a single word. As my other freelance work had also been cancelled with no notice, I took a temporary job at a supermarket for a while to make ends meet.
What changed? By June things were easing, as shops reopened. I sent a couple of chapters off to my sister in Lincolnshire, she showed them to some of her friends and school colleagues. . . and they said they were keen to read the finished version. It was the glimmer of encouragement I needed.
I dusted off the book, and began to write again. Back in my natural habitat, doing the thing I’m good at. Life felt good again. Initially I pondered adding the new words we were having to use – pandemic, zoom, lockdown, quarantine, social distancing – but decided against it. I hope they have a short shelf life. They were out of step with the rest of the book, which is an entertaining and informative safari through our colourful language.
That said, on re-reading the final proofs before publication, some of my off-the-cuff remarks jarred. Casual references to popping into the pub and enjoying live sporting and theatrical events looked like something from a different age.
In one section I had trashed the good name of a fine international airport in Essex just to get a cheap laugh in the section about the word ‘queue’. Right now I harbour a warm, nostalgic feeling for Stansted Airport, and hanker for the day I can stand in a long line at midnight waiting to see if my digital passport will finally work!
A summer of social protest showed that our use of historical language is something of a battlefield. All the more reason to ponder where our words come from and why we use them.
In the end I’ve kept the tone light. We could all do with raising a smile in difficult times.
The book is due to be on sale by the start of October. Hopefully, later this year we’ll return to a form of normality. Even if, through gritted teeth, we have to add the prefix ‘new’. In the meantime, I’ll carry on writing.
My Word! will be published on October 1, 2020. It is published by Paul Dickson Books, price £10, and will be available at Jarrold and Waterstones in Norwich, also at Amazon and from Allthingsnorfolk.com
Find out more at www.petersargent.co.uk