19th Century and Onwards, Books

Secret Lives of Great Authors

Note: This post originally appeared on Wordscience, a now defunct writing-focused blog of mine, on March 15, 2009. I was recently flipping through that blog’s archives and came across this post, which I thought would be neat to share here too. I’ve recently shared another post from that blog, “Weather, history, and the origins of words,” which you can read here.

The title of this entry is the name of the book I just finished reading, which my dear friend Carly gave me for Christmas. It was a quick, fun (and funny) read. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Thoreau invented raisin bread.
  • It is thanks to Lewis Carroll that books’ titles are printed down their spines.
  • Walt Whitman donated his brain to science, but a technician dropped that Walt Whitman brain all over the floor.
  • Dickens could only sleep with his head facing the North Pole.
  • Salinger tried to treat his family’s ailments with acupuncture, except he used wooden dowels.

My only complaint with the book was the concentration of authors from mostly the States and the UK. I’m sure the term “great authors” is one that’s never easy to define and one probably can’t fit in all the authors one would like to, but was there really not even one Canadian? Or anyone from any other country?

Either way, it was an interesting book. Thanks Carly!

18th Century and Earlier, 19th Century and Onwards, Books, Places

Weather, history and the origins of words

Note: This post originally appeared on Wordscience, a now defunct writing-focused blog of mine, on September 2, 2009. I was recently flipping through that blog’s archives and came across this post, which I thought would be neat to share here too.

Two things I like (after writing) are history and the weather. So it would come as no surprise that a book called Blame it on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History would be a lot of fun for me. Thank you, discount book store in St. Jacobs, Ontario!

Anyway, I’m awful at book reviews, so this isn’t one. Instead, I’m going to talk about some things I learned in this book that happen to not actually be weather-related: the origin of certain words. I didn’t expect to learn about that while reading this, but I did and I thought it was interesting. So, here:

  • Cheap: From the Old English word ceap, which used to mean “market,” hence the name of Cheapside in London.
  • Deadline: A line, painted between two markers, used outside war camps during the American Civil War. If anyone crossed this line, they would be shot dead.
  • Hooker: Named for Joseph Hooker, who was an American general during the same Civil War. Apparently his troops frequented prostitutes enough for his name to become a synonym.
  • Libel: From the French word libelle. Libelles were pamphlets circulated to spread rumours about the French royals before the Revolution.
  • Normandy: From the word “Norsemen.” Vikings conquered the area and the Normans were descended from them.
  • Sideburns: Named after General Ambrose Everett Burnside, who fought in the American Civil War and was apparently was known for his sideburns before they were called that.
  • Welsh: The Angles’ word for “foreigner” was wealas. They didn’t like the Celts much.

There you go. Wasn’t that fun and educational? Okay, well I thought it was!

19th Century and Onwards, Books, Technology

Masters of Doom

Now, normally a book about 1980s video games wouldn’t be something I’d cover on this site. However, the early days of home computers and video games has always been a particular interest of mine. In fact, it’s my stock answer for the “if you had a time machine” question – while I would love to visit all sorts of historical periods, I’d probably fare a bit better in the early ’80s as a very liberal, non-religious, mixed-race woman than I would in the Tudor era, for example!

Masters of Doom isn’t a new book by any means, but when I saw that a friend of my husband’s had sent it to him to read, I eagerly awaited my turn. While I didn’t play Doom or Quake or Wolfenstein 3D, I did grow up playing video games, and still play them today. So I was intensely curious to find out the story behind iD Software and the creation of its most famous, historically significant, games.

One reason I’m so interested in this early period of personal computers and video games is because of the sense of hope and possibility, using burgeoning technology to indulge in curiosity, explore new ideas that seem life-changing – the sorts of ideas we take for granted today:

As originally intended, the walls were anything but ninety degrees; they were octagonal, tiered, with steps leading from one room to the next. Carmack had also devised a way to create windows within walls, so a player could look from one room into another, though not know how to get inside. There were actual light sources in the games – strips of fluorescence on the floor or above.

I also like the image of a group of people getting together to investigate ideas they believe in, things that everyone else thinks can’t be done.

Carmack punched a few buttons on his keyboard and showed Tom his other new feat: side scrolling. The effect . . . made it appear as if the game world continued when a character moved toward either edge of a screen . . . Carmack had finally figured out how to simulate this movement on a PC.

. . .

As Tom immediately understood, this meant one thing: They could do Super Mario Brothers 3 on a PC! Nobody, no one, nowhere, had made the PC do this.

As someone who’s been writing online and making websites for twenty years, I guess I feel an affinity towards that sort of feeling. I certainly didn’t break any new ground with my particular thing, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for people who find a new technology to connect with, to try and make their own.

While Masters of Doom is of course non-fiction, there was a novelistic quality to it that made me think about it when I wasn’t reading. If you have even a passing interest in video games, I would recommend this book. Beware, though, if you’re susceptible to craving food based on repeat mentions in books – you may emerge from Masters of Doom with a sudden urge for pizza and Diet Coke!

You can find Masters of Doom on amazon.com and amazon.ca.

19th Century and Onwards, Books, Historians, TV and Movies

Exercise for women in the 1910s

Between my recent Instagram post about Gibson girls and revisiting a favourite article detailing how the ideal woman’s body has changed over the past hundred years, I’ve had the 1910s on the brain a little bit.

I’d remembered an episode of Edwardian Farm where Ruth and her daughter were demonstrating the calisthenic exercises that became popular for women during the late 19th century, so I thought I’d investigate other exercises that were suggested for women at the beginning of the 20th.

Margaret Mixter offers many exercises that are “beautifying,” such as exercises for the arms with very light weights. These claimed to make the arms “graceful and supple,” without overexercising the muscles. An interesting feat for a terrifying-sounding exercise – holding clubs at arms-length and swinging them in all directions around your head!

The book also claims that bending over and touching your toes, as well as stretching side to side, will slim the waist.

Before bed, the book recommends a couple of calisthenic exercises done in front of an open window, including:

[D]oubling the fists, placing them at the shoulders and then thrusting them out at arm’s length swiftly. Both arms may be used together and then alternately.

Mixter also writes that “housework is excellent exercise for a girl who wishes to develop a round, pretty figure, for sweeping, dusting, or even washing, if the latter is not too heavy to strain the muscles, helps to strengthen and beautify the body.” She recommends that standing up straight and sort of swaying as you sweep will “round” the arms and develop the hips. She also claims that a constant, firm grasp of a broom will round the arms.

Personal hygiene and physical training for women suggests that women can’t withstand “prolonged physical and mental strain,” and offers “all forms of dancing, calisthenics and light gymnastics, archery, lawn-tennis, swimming, field hockey, lacrosse, sprint running, bicycling, rowing, canoeing, golf, skating, fencing, basket-ball, and all gymnastic plays and games” as evidently less strenuous exercise that women can excel in.

Girl and Woman: A Book for Mothers and Daughters, tends to agree, claiming, “no girl can risk the strain of a match game without danger of suffering from it sooner or later, not only because of the extreme bodily effort, but because of the nervous tension arising from the excitement of competition together with the emotional disturbance inevitably attending success or defeat.”

There isn’t perfect consensus about the approved types of exercise for women (that won’t make their heads explode, apparently). Girl and woman speaks of bicycle riding as as a relic from the past, though it did have advantages as exercise. It “obliges such incessant attention to itself that enjoyment of scenery or agreeable conversation with a companion are impossible, and it rarely fails to develop a species of obsession which destroys all pleasure in any other variety of amusement.”

As an aside, one charming thing about the abovementioned book was how happy its author seemed about certain advances in exercise for girls and women. For example, “in our grandmothers’ time [ice-skating] was considered almost as indecorous as the flying trapeze.”

It’s neat to be able to chart certain items of progress that we tend to take for granted today – ice skating, and being able to play a competitive sport and lose without fear of it shattering our dainty nerves!


  • Mixter, Margaret. Health and beauty hints. New York: Cupples & Leon Company, 1910.
  • Dr Galbraith, Anna Mary. Personal hygiene and physical training for women. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1916.
  • Latimer, Caroline Wormeley. Girl and Woman: A Book for Mothers and Daughters. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1910.