BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: JEWELRY

Very few people wear no jewelry at all, at any time.  That said, men are more likely than women to be among those few. Where, when, and what type of adornment provide fertile ground.

Characters from different cultural backgrounds, time periods, and social classes are likely to view jewelry in ways that seem odd to outsiders.

So change it up! 

Go Against Expectations

In June of 2020, I posted another blog about jewelry titled JEWELRY AS MORE THAN BEAUTIFICATION: IDENTIFICATION, INFORMATION, AFFILIATION, COMMUNICATION. Lots of good information there (I say, most humbly) but I won’t repeat it here. 

In determining your characters’ jewelry profiles, start with “Why does this character wear (or not wear) jewelry?”

Uses of Jewelry

Jewelry is often viewed as a fashion accessory for complementing one’s clothes, especially for special occasions. With a bit of imagination, it can be so much more.

Research has shown that wearing jewelry can increase an individual’s self-esteem. Nursing home residents with memory loss were less unruly when they wore jewelry.

Not wearing jewelry when it is the norm can also attract attention, possibly criticism (such as removing a wedding ring before going out to drink).

Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith-Joyner)

Many wear jewelry as a symbol of femininity or masculinity. Think of the number of female athletes who wear jewelry while competing or even coaching. Think biker chains and skulls.

Jewelry has an obvious dollar value that can be a signifier, even if it is fake.

  • Showcase social status or wealth
  • Serve as an investment
  • Be a safety net for financial independence
    • This is especially common among women, particularly in nomadic cultures
Traditional Afghani Bridal Jewelry

Jewelry can make a person feel confident and attractive.

Jewelry can have personal or sentimental value. It can be a powerful connection to loved ones and memories.

Many wear jewelry because, well, one likes how it looks

Wearing jewelry can be a way to express oneself.  

  • Red jewelry, for example, connotes vitality, courage, and confidence.
  • Anchor jewelry denotes stability, strength, steadfastness, and hope. 
  • Hemp

A variety of jewelry pieces signify strength, courage, and hope. Some actually contain the word—in letters or Morse code.

Rings by goldsmith Danielle Crampsie

The recorded sound wave of a loved one’s voice (or bark) can be etched onto the metal of a ring or pendant.

Others are symbolic like the Celtic tree of life, the Viking axe pendant, the Egyptian ankh, or the eagle ring. Still others could be more esoteric, like dragonfly earrings supporting the wearer to pursue dreams. These are often gifted or awarded to someone.

Jewelry for Healing or Health

One well-known example is the usual 7 stones in the chakra, used for reiki, healing, meditation, chakra balancing, or ritual: 

  • Amethyst (Crown Chakra)
  • Carnelian (Sacral Chakra)
  • Yellow Jade (Solar Plexus)
  • Green Aventurine (Heart Chakra)
  • Lapis Lazuli (Throat Chakra)
  • Clear Crystal (Third-Eye Chakra)
  • Red Jasper (Root Chakra)

Virtually every stone is associated with physical and/or mental health in one way or another. Whole books have been written about. One good all-around reference for The Book of Stones: Who they are & What They Teach by Robert Simmons & Naisha Ahsian. 

Particular Stones in Jewelry

First of all, think birthstones.

Although there is assumed to be a particular affinity with one’s birthstone, there is no hard evidence (that I found) that this is the case. One thing they all have in common is that they sparkle, especially in sunlight. Some wearers find the sparkle both beautiful and cheering.

In general, does your character prefer sparkly stones, opaque ones, or no stones? 

Malachite
  • As a general rule, sparkly stones are dressier as well as more expensive than opaque ones. Are these factors?
  • Opaque stones offer more variety, from jasper to turquoise to onyx.
    • Color and pattern are primary considerations.

Turqupise: An Example of How a Stone Can Be Related to a Character 

John is an undercover police officer, 6’4” tall, and he wears silver jewelry as a statement that he’s a rogue, and not to be intimidated. Depending on the role he’s playing, he sometimes goes more subtle, choosing a tie bar, cufflinks, or belt buckle.

When he delved into turquoise, he discovered the huge range of colors, including copper-turquoise in blue, green, purple, red/orange, and black. 

Women find him handsome and say his jewelry just accentuates that he’s one of a kind. He once dated a woman who told him turquoise represents wisdom, tranquility, protection, good fortune, and hope, and that contemporary crystal experts celebrate it for its representation of wisdom, tranquility, and protection. John is skeptical of all that.

His preference for turquoise reflects his (distant) connection to Native American culture, even though he has no involvement with a tribe and was reared entirely within the Anglo world. However, his paternal great-grandfather was Navajo. John has a blue turquoise ring that belonged to his great-grandfather, and a green turquoise one made by his great-grandfather’s brother.

When those rings came to John, he was surprised to learn that Native Americans (the Hohokam and Anasazi peoples) first started mining and using turquoise around 200 B.C.E. They mined the famous Cerrillos and Burro Mountains of what is now New Mexico and, in Arizona, the Kingman and Morenci turquoise mines.

When John is deep in thought, he often turns his ring around and around. Depending on context, he can do this when problem solving, daydreaming, or planning. He is very disciplined not to do it when playing poker or being threatened.

Which Metal

  • Platinum
  • Gold
    • White gold
    • Yellow gold
    • Red gold
  • Silver
  • Aluminum
  • Titanium
  • Stainless steel…

Not to mention the role of leather, cord, wood, hemp… But I’m not going there!

When Not to Wear Jewelry

Many professions require specific jewelry or no jewelry at all. This could be for safety considerations or to create a specific professional impression.

  • Most medical professionals cannot wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, or large earrings for health safety.
  • Jobs requiring heavy machinery, blades, or high temperatures (locksmith, chef, welder, etc.) generally prohibit wearing anything that dangles or hangs.
Those working out of the spotlight, such as in the pit orchestra or in the flies usually wear no jewelry, at least nothing that catches the light.

Raw food can also get caught in the settings of rings and bracelets, trapping bacteria and other contaminants in your jewelry and leading to possible skin irritation or contaminated food. 
While at the beach, the sun, sand, and sharks (attracted to shiny objects) are three reasons why not to wear jewelry at the beach.

Whenever the activity might damage or wear-down the gem or the metal. This list is just a reminder. You can figure out the risks associated with each activity for yourself—except, maybe, sleeping!

  • Showering
  • Swimming
    • Whether in the pool or at the beach
  • Exercising
  • Cleaning
  • Getting ready in the morning
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Sleeping
  • Painting

Jewelry prongs/settings can wear down faster during sleep, especially if someone tosses and turns a lot. The prongs can also become bent out of shape if caught on a sheet or blanket, making the chances of accidentally losing a gemstone more likely.

Bottom line: Writers, tap the rich vein of jewelry and gemstones to add depth and detail to your work!

SEPTEMBER FOCUS

Every day of every month marks something remarkable, something to celebrate, something to be aware of. I’m not up to tracking daily events; instead, I like to look at whole months.

Of course, International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th is worthy of being studied and celebrated all month long!

So here, for your information, entertainment, and possibly seasonal scenes in your fiction, is the September summary.

Books/Education

  • Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month
  • Library Card Sign-Up Month
  • Sea Cadet Month
    • (The Sea Cadet program is similar to the ROTC, run by the Navy and Coast Guard.)
  • International Strategic Thinking Month

Food

  • Eat Chicken Month
  • Great American Low-Cholesterol, Low-Fat Pizza Bake
  • Hunger Action Month
  • National Honey Month
  • National Mushroom Month
  • National Rice Month
  • National [Milk]Shake Month
  • Whole Grains Month

Health and Safety

(Make sure the baby is wearing a helmet before she rappels off the roof.)
  • Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Month
  • Baby Safety Month
  • Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
  • Gynecologic Awareness Month
  • International Speak Out Month
    • (For those who suffer from a fear of public speaking) 
  • Mold Awareness Month
  • National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
  • National DNA, Genomics, & Stem Cell Education and Awareness Month
  • National Head Lice Prevention Month
  • National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
  • National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
  • National Recovery Month
    • (To support recovery from substance abuse, addiction, and mental illness)
  • National Skin Care Awareness Month
  • Healthy Aging Month
  • Sports Eye Safety Month

Pets/Animals

  • AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Month
  • Happy Cat Month
  • National Service Dog Month

Relationships

  • Intergeneration Connection Month
  • International Women’s Friendship Month
  • One-On-One Meetings Month
    • (In the workplace)
  • Pleasure Your Mate Month
  • Subliminal Communications Month

And Then There Is…

Bottom line: September has something for almost everyone! But if none of these are for you, look forward to next month (or back to last month).

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SLEEP

Even without pausing to think, people can easily describe their sleep habits. What does your character think and feel about about his or her own ? Is sleep a welcome respite or a necessary evil? What’s necessary for your character to fall asleep—and stay there? Is insomnia a chronic condition, or only within the plot situation? Does your character sleep as an escape mechanism? Does your character take sleep aids? Self-medicate with alcohol? Does sleep feel like a waste of time?

Deviating From Eight Hours

By now, pretty much everyone knows that, on average, people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Anything that time-consuming must impinge on people’s (characters’) awareness.

It turns out most people sleep about 7 hours a night, so that would be “normal.” Fewer than 6 hours a night means one is a short sleeper, and more than 8 hours a night is a long sleeper. Does it matter?

People tend to perceive short sleepers as high-energy, productive, and on top of things. Long sleepers are often perceived as lazy, or at least not hard workers. 

What is your character’s sleep duration? Is s/he happy with with it? Smug? Defensive? Self-conscious?

Sleeping longer is better for physical health.  A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled Sleep Duration and Survival Percentiles Across Categories of Physical Activity says sleep duration affects physical health: Those who get less than six hours of sleep are at increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and early death even if they’re active and exercise regularly.

But can one sleep too much? Not if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity. (Inactive long sleepers also die earlier, usually from cardiovascular problems.) 

Keep this in mind when creating realistic characters.

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

Early birds tend to get up early without setting an alarm, and even on the weekend.  Mornings are the most productive times. And activity trackers indicate that early birds actually move 60-90 more minutes per day. They fade in the evening, often in bed by 10:00.

There is a middle group: Day people sleep a little later and are most effective in the afternoon.

Night owls sleep as late as possible and are up well past nightfall, into the wee hours of the morning.  Night owls tend to sit more and move less, even when researchers factored for education and health conditions—so need to make an effort to move more for health reasons! And because this pattern doesn’t fit the world at large, making appointments for doctors, etc., can be problematic. Robo-calls while still in bed are especially annoying!

Stereotypes favor early risers for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. On the other time, creative types often report that their best work hours are evening/wee hours of the mornings.

NB: sleep patterns can change naturally over the lifespan. Infants sleep almost constantly; teenagers seem to sleep only while in a classroom setting.

What is your character’s sleep rhythm? Is it felt to be a blessing, a burden, or relatively irrelevant fact of life? Does s/he struggle against the “natural” rhythm? If so, why? Does your character push the limits for staying awake and then “catch-up” later?

Napping

Some people doze off while sitting in a chair; some settle into a recliner and nap intentionally; and yet others can only nap in their own beds, often with shoes off and tight clothes loosened. 

Some take “power naps” for 15 minutes or so during the work day; others nap for an hour or more at a time.

Napping offers several benefits for healthy adults, including

  • Relaxation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved mood
  • Extended functioning hours later
  • Improved performance, including quicker reaction time and better memory

Napping can also have negative effects, such as

  • Sleep inertia: feeling groggy and disoriented after waking up from a nap.
  • Nighttime sleep problems. 
    • Short naps generally don’t affect nighttime sleep quality.
    • People who experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might worsen these problems. 
      • Insomniacs often have trouble napping at all because it takes longer to fall asleep than the allotted duration of the nap!

Does your character nap? Where? Why?  And is s/he okay with that?

Dreaming

Does your character claim not to dream? If so, s/he is mistaken. People team an average of 7 times a night during so-called REM sleep. These dream periods get longer as the night’s sleep progresses. Chances are, your dream denier simply doesn’t wake up within ten minutes of dreams ending.

Are dreams important to your character?  Some people mine dreams for clues to their inner lives, creative insight, and even hints of the future. Some people treasure dreams as raisers of awareness of non-conscious problems or conflicts. Some believe internal conflicts actually get solved during dreams. Some dreams are erotic and can lead to sexual release. And some people keep dream journals for later review and inspiration for creative works.

Like other dreams, nightmares often include elements of real life: anxiety, fears, failures, embarrassments, or trauma. People do not wake up happy from nightmares. Because nightmares are a disruption of the REM cycle rather than a part of it, a sleeper with nightmares wake up less refreshed than before. (Nightmares are not the same as night terrors.)

Lucid dreaming is less well-known than other sorts of dreams. According to Psychology Today, “During lucid dreaming, which most commonly occurs during late-stage REM sleep, a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within their dreams, to some extent.” Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There are communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive. Still, that doesn’t mean your character can’t be a dedicated lucid dreamer!

Research indicates that dreaming is crucial to intellectual functioning, memory consolidation, and mood regulation. A sleeper who is allowed to undergo every part of the REM cycle except dreaming will eventually develop the same problems as severe sleep deprivation, including hallucinations and strokes!

What is your character’s dream scape? Are dreams remembered? Are they amusing, irritating, or sources of unease? Does your character talk about his/her dreams? If so, to whom?

Bottom line: sleep—and everything associated with it—can make your plot richer and your character more realistic. 

A while back (March 10, 2020, to be exact) I wrote a blog Sleeping Alone and Together, about gender and personality reflected in sleep positions. 

EASY FIXES FOR FLABBY PROSE

(It’s not flabby; it’s fluffy!)

By flabby prose, I mean prose that includes unnecessary words. Besides improving the quality of one’s prose, cutting out excess words can help keep the word count down when there are page or word limits.

Stop Mentioning the POV Character’s Senses 

“The flavors of carrots and mulch mingled on his tongue.”

Yes, sensory images are rich and desirable. What’s unnecessary is citing the character’s senses. 

~She heard squirrels scampering up her tree.
~He smelled the tantalizing scent of acorns.
~They saw flying squirrels swooping overhead.

~Squirrels scampered up the tree outside.
~The scent of acorns filled the breeze.
~Flying squirrels swooped among branches overhead.

“The banana thief twitched his tail to remain steady for his heist, upside-down and backwards.”
(Proprioception or equilibrioception)

If the character describes a squirrel stealing a banana, the reader knows that character sees it and needn’t be told that he sees it. Ditto for other sensory systems. If they are mentioned, make it a conscious decision for a writerly reason.

Don’t forget the other senses! In addition to the five we all learned about in school, scientists classify up to 21 neurological senses. The body’s awareness of its place in relation to surroundings (proprioception) is invaluable to any character in tight spaces or moving quickly. Feelings of hunger or lack of air are classified as chemical senses, very useful to characters undergoing any kind of physical deprivation.

Consider also balance, gravity, pain, temperature, air pressure, the passage of time, itching, muscle tension, or even the perception of magnetic fields. There is an entirely separate set of nerves to detect stretching in the lungs, stomach, bladder, and blood vessels. Just think what a character could do when paying attention to that!

Stop Telling What a Character Notices, Remembers, Etc.

“The seed-stealer gyrated and spun, his prize always just out of reach.”

If a character recounts something from the past, it’s clear s/he remembers it. When a squirrel was a hairless kit, his mother taught him how to steal from bird feeders. He doesn’t have to tell his friends that he remembers being a kit.

Your reader doesn’t have to be told that the POV character noticed the squirrel hanging off the bird feeder again. It’s probably an event that happens every time the bird feeder is filled.

This is similar to how one handles what a character sees, hears, feels, smells, or tastes: it’s typically obvious in the rest of the sentence.

Beware Is, Are, Was, and Were

“Gravity worked overtime, and her limbs refused to work at all.”

By and large, these verbs should be replaced by something stronger and less passive.  “Fatigue weighs her down” is much stronger than “She is fatigued.”

Reconsider -ing Verbs

Is, are, was, and were often precede an -ing verb. For example, ”is walking” or “was walking” might better be replaced with “walks” or “walked.”

Question Every Adverb and Adjective

“The graceful, red-furred, majestic, enormous, flying squirrel soars gracefully and majestically, proudly displaying its enormous, red-furred wing flaps in its graceful, majestic flight.”

Some writing teacher or other once told me that an adverb modifying a verb is often hiding a stronger verb. For example, consider replacing “walked fast” with “rushed” or “hurried” or “scurried” or whatever fits the context. 

“This pale, white, albino squirrel displays the very odd and unique trait of striking, brilliantly blue, nearly cobalt eyes.”

Saying something is very tall or very beautiful is vague, triggering different images for different readers. Specify “over seven feet tall,” for example, or say what is beautiful about the person, object, scenery, etc.

And for goodness sake, don’t modify things that shouldn’t be modified, that are already specific. There is no such thing as ”very unique.” Unique means one-of-a-kind. If it isn’t truly unique, switch to “very rare”—and then consider whether the “very” is really needed! A second and a glance are, by definition fast/brief. Enough said.

Examine Attributions 

“You’re eating too fast,” he said.
“I’m hungry!” he said.
“You’re hogging all the jackfruit,” he said.
“This fruit outweighs both of us combined. Calm down,” he said.
“You’ll make yourself sick,” he said.
“Stop worrying,” he said.
“My stomach hurts just watching you,” he said.
“Krjxqkkkk…. Ahem….. Choked on a seed,” he said.
“Told you so!” he said.

Probably everyone knows that the most frequent, useful, and unobtrusive attribution is “s/he said.” True, when multiple people interact in a scene, the writer needs to identify whether it’s Joan, John, Susan, or Sam speaking.  But when there are only two people in a scene, identifying/attributing every change of speaker gets clunky. Use sparingly.

If you’re unsure about whether it sounds clunky, try reading it aloud.

Bottom line: Go forth and tighten your prose!

KITCHENS CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

We’re all aware of accidents that can happen in kitchens. The bathroom may be the most common room for injuries, but kitchen injuries come in a wide variety of gory types. For example

  • Knife cuts
  • Burn hazards
  • Injury from machines
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Lifting injuries
  • Head and eye Injuries
  • Crowded workspace risks
  • Chemical hazards
  • Fire hazards
  • Electric shock
  • Infection or contamination
Murder often happens in the kitchen while playing Cluedo (Americans play Clue).

Similarly, most people take steps to minimize accidents. For example, keeping knives sharp because dull blades will more easily slip off food and into a finger; keeping floors dry; and making sure ovens and stove burners are turned off after use.

Writers, think home invasions, homicide, domestic violence, and torture. What can happen accidentally in the kitchen can be inflicted on purpose or in the heat of the moment.

Burn

Cooking the kids would be much easier if the stove was actually turned on….

Serious burns are easy to come by in the kitchen: touching hot surfaces, direct flames, hot oils, hot pots and pans, or scalding from hot liquids like boiling water, oils, and steam.  All provide an opportunity to inflict serious injury or even death. 

Long hair is particularly hazardous around heat. Extra long tresses can swing too close to the flame or get caught on knobs and catch fire before the owner even notices.

Steam can reach temperatures over 400°F.  Steam burns tend to be far more intense than scalding from boiling water.  And don’t forget burns caused by electricity or chemicals. 

Knives 

Any variety of cutting implement, including vegetable slicers, food processors, and table knives, are a natural, and offer a variety of possible injuries depending on size, serration, etc.

  • Stabbing
  • Slicing
  • Removing body parts that may or may not be essential
    • Fingers
    • Toes
    • Ears
    • Hands
  • According to lore, the most commonly seen injuries in New York Emergency Rooms are from people cutting open their own fingers while trying to slice bagels!

Cuts 

Even without tools specifically designed for cutting, serious injuries can be inflicted lots of ways. Kitchens have plenty of glassware and crockery, all of which can be broken and used to slice someone’s skin. Being thrown into a window is always exciting!

Stabbing

Remy the Rat faces the risk of stabbing every time he goes in the kitchen.

Beside knives, stabbing can be done with scissors, metal kebob skewers, fondue and cooking forks, corkscrews, or nearly anything pointy a very determined stabber can lay hands on.

For other skin injuries think graters, slicers, garbage disposals, or food processors.

Bludgeoning 

That is the face of someone planning a bludgeoning.

Blunt force trauma isn’t just for the head—think broken fingers, feet, or limbs. Any heavy object will do.

  • Cast iron cookware
  • Counter top KitchenAid mixer
  • Liquor or wine bottles (which can then be used to stab or slice)
  • Meat hammer/tenderizer
  • Canned goods
  • Cutting boards
  • Cartons of ice cream (though that seems like a waste of perfectly good ice cream – blood does not improve the flavor)
  • Fire extinguishers

Head Injuries 

Besides bludgeoning someone in the head, there are plenty of other methods of attaining a head injury in the kitchen. Many are caused by being pushed or shoved, or falling into kitchen fixtures. Water, oil, grease, and things you’d rather not think about are often spilled on kitchen floors, making slips and falls much more likely.

  • Overhanging shelves
  • Corners of open doors
  • Walls
  • Furniture
  • Floor
  • Being forced into a tight, confined place such as a walk-in pantry or chest freezer
  • Especially tall people will hit their heads on everything
    • Especially short people are likely to climb on counters or stepstools, with the associated risk of falling

When considering head injuries, go beyond concussion and bruising. Consider intentionally popping out an eyeball with a fruit spoon or strawberry huller—although accidental eye injuries in kitchens more commonly result from hot oil, steam, or water.

Choking

  • Dishtowel
  • Appliance cord
  • Apron 
  • Stuffing something down the victim’s throat
  • Accidentally (or tricked into) eating something that causes anaphylactic shock

So, do what you can about accident hazards in the kitchen.  Avoid overcrowding for injuries are often caused by bumping into or tripping over another person.  Do not try to do kitchen work if you are overtired, ill or under the influence of alcohol or medication.  Remove all trip and slip hazards. But …

Bottom line: Whether accident or attack, the kitchen is a great place to ramp up tension, develop plot, or create a puzzle.

TATTOOS: CONVICTS AND STREET GANGS

Japanese Yakuza

If you aren’t in a prison or a gang, who cares? More people than you might imagine! Think self-preservation and decision making—not to mention writing realistically.

  • Prison employees
  • Parole officers
  • Social workers
  • Police officers
  • Medical providers
  • Those new to the neighborhood/prison
  • Border patrol
  • Anyone living or travelling in Eastern Europe or Russia

Indeed, an extensive list of tattoos, with pictures and meanings, has been produced for the Canadian Border Patrol. It’s available online at publicintelligence.net (search tattoos and their meanings).

Another good source is corrections1.com.  

There is an abundance of on-line information about the meaning of prison tattoos, and it’s generally consistent. But keep in mind, there are varied meanings, and context is important.  One example here would be playing cards, typically found on the knuckles. In Russian prisons, the suit chosen have meanings. In other settings, this type of tattoo may indicate someone who likes to gamble, or who sees life as a gamble. (See below.)

The Nature of Prison Tattoos

Overall, prison tattoos tend to look dark and crude. Inmates tattoo each other using whatever equipment they can gather, such as staples, ballpoint pens, paper-clips, improvised needles, molten rubber, styrofoam, etc. 

Sometimes the “artist” will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner’s body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. When prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, they can jury-rig a tattooing machine.

One of the least horrific photos I could find of an infected tattoo

Ink is hard to come by, so for dye, they can use pen ink. Also, they  can burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner’s urine – a practice superstitiously believed to reduce the chance of infection. Research has revealed a connection between tattoos and high rates of hepatitis C among prisoners.

Tattooing is typically slow and nearly always painful.  Conditions are inevitably far from sterile, so infections and complications are common.  Suffice it to say that what prison tattoos convey is important to the wearer.

Not All Tattoos are Voluntary

The most famous instance would be during the Holocaust when concentration camp inmates were tattooed with an identification number. Also see the section on gender below. Any tattoo that stigmatizes a prisoner, or invites abuse by other inmates, is likely to have been applied involuntarily.

White Supremacist Gang Tattoos 
  • KKK
  • Neo-Nazism
  • Arian Brotherhood (AB)
  • Family Affiliated Irish Mafia (FAIM)
  • Sacramaniac
  • Number tattoos
  • General white supremacist symbols
    • For example 1488 (or 14 or 88) found anywhere on the body identifies white supremacists/Nazi inmates.  There are a variety of tattoos associated with the Arian Brotherhood, important to identify, for they make up 1% of the prison population but commit 20% of inmate murders.
  • FAIM members sometimes wear a shamrock as well, signifying affiliation with the AB—but this is only allowed with permission of the AB
Russian Prison Tattoos

In the Soviet Union, particularly during Joseph Stalin’s time, non-political prisoners (thieves, murderers, arsonists, etc.) in the Gulag system were often given preferential treatment by prison guards. Tattoos told the guards as well as other prisoners how to treat a prisoner, including what labor assignments they got and whether to assign prisoners as enforcers. Eventually, non-political prisoners gained so much power within the Gulags that the Vor v Zakony (Thieves in Law) essentially ran many of the prison camps. Today, the Vory is one of the most powerful mafia organizations in the world. In many areas within the former Soviet Union, anyone with visible tattoos is assumed to be affiliated with the Vory or pretending to be.

  • Star
  • Manacles
  • Epaulette
  • Birds on horizon
  • Barbed wire
  • Symbol of the cross
  • Crowns and rings
  • Scarab beetle
  • Playing cards
  • Cat
  • A cat tattoo represents a thief.
    • One cat = the prisoner worked alone
    • Multiple cats = the prisoner was part of a gang of thieves
    • A cat tattoo (think stealthy as a cat) is considered good luck for a thief
    • If worn on the chest, it also signals a dangerous criminal who hates law enforcement 

Playing card suits carry specific meanings: spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general, diamonds label stoolpigeons and informants – and was probably applied by force—and hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.

The knife through the neck tattoo, in Russian prisons, means the bearer is a murderer—and proud of it. Much has been written about Russian prison tattoos. If interested, you can find information specific to Japan, Australia, France, Italy, etc.

Street/Prison Gang Tattoos

MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha)
  • Mara Salvatrucha 13
  • Black Guerrilla Family
  • Red Blood Dragon
  • Gangster Discipes
  • Santana
  • Mexican Mafia
  • Mexikanemi
  • Texas Syndicate
  • Almighty Latin King Nations
  • 18th Street Gang
  • Sureños
Crips
  • Norteños
  • Texas Chicano Brotherhood
  • Border Brothers
  • Hells Angels
  • Bloods
  • Crips
  • Indian Warrior
  • Laotian Boyz (LB)
Common Symbols
  • Tiger
  • Spider web
  • Tear drop
  • Three dots
  • Five dots
  • Angel of death
  • Clown faces/masks
  • Vida loca
  • Barbed wire
  • spiderweb, typically representing a lengthy incarceration, is commonly found on the elbow or neck. 
  • Teardrops can mean a lengthy prison sentence, that the wearer has committed murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and the tattooed one is seeking revenge.

According to corrections1.com, “One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos, the teardrop’s meaning varies geographically. In some places, the tattoo can mean a lengthy prison sentence, while in others it signifies that the wearer has committed murder. If the teardrop is just an outline, it can symbolize an attempted murder. It can also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. The teardrop has been popularized recently by rappers and other celebrities, but still remains a staple in prisons. Those who are newbies behind bars with a teardrop tattoo will make a lot of enemies, fast.”

Alternatively, Mental Floss says, “There are many stories about why a prisoner would have this tattoo, but the most common is that an unfilled teardrop might symbolize the death of a loved one, while an opaque one might show that the death has been avenged.

Three dots representing “my crazy life” (vida loca) refers to the gang lifestyle, but no particular gang; typically applied at the corner of the eye or between the thumb and index finger. Sometimes three dots, like three crosses, represents the holy trinity of Christianity. 

Five dots between the thumb and forefinger represents time done in prison. It’s found internationally. Located elsewhere on the body, this design may mean association with the People Nation gang.

A clock with no hands represents doing time and a lot of it. Ditto watch without hands or an hourglass.

Barbed wire tattoos are fairly common and many have no specific meaning. Sometimes each barb represents a year served in prison.  On the forehead, such tattoos typically mean serving a life sentence.

Laughing and crying clown faces/masks often means “Laugh now, cry later” attitude of the gang lifestyle.

Gender As a Factor in Prison/Gang Tattoos

Although there is much online discussion of convict tattoos in general, most of the images shown feature men. From this, with an overlay of gender stereotypes, one might conclude that tattoos among female inmates are rare.  But I found one research paper to the contrary.

“This study confirmed that there is a high frequency of tattoos among female offenders, but disproved the hypothesis that the frequency would be higher and more aggressive among violent offenders in comparison to non-violent offenders. Based on these findings, non-violent female offenders were more likely than violent female offenders to have a tattoo or tattoos, to have multiple tattoos, and to have aggressive or masculine tattoos. However, offenders convicted of violent crimes like robbery and assault or battery had the most visible tattoos, primarily located on the hands, face, fingers, and wrists.” 

(Sullivan, Megan, “Crimes Committed By Tattooed Female Offenders and the Significance of Body Art Content and Location” (2011). All Regis University Theses. 48 (.https://epublications.regis.edu/theses/483

I found no indication that the images and/or their meanings differ by gender. 

And according to Wikipedia, “Forced and enslaved prostitutes are often tattooed or branded with a mark of their owners. Women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will may have their boss’ name or gang symbol inked or branded with a hot iron on their skin. In some organizations involved with the trafficking of women and girls, like the mafias, nearly all prostitutes are marked. Some pimps and organizations use their name or well-known logo, while others use secret signs.  Some years ago, the branding mark was usually small, only recognized by other pimps, and sometimes hidden between the labia minora, but today some “owners” write their names in big letters all upon the body of the victim.”

Bottom line: Tattoos can carry a lot of meaning. When deciphering that meaning, tread carefully.

TATTOO!

Quick: what’s the first thing that came to mind?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name
Vladimir Franz, a candidate for the Czech Presidency in 2013

Last week, a woman said to me (approximately), “People  think permanent make-up is a new thing, but Cleopatra’s famous eyes were tattooed on. Soot was applied with knives.” I’d never heard such a thing, and I’ve actually been to Egypt. I always assumed her face was painted. As with anything that pricks my curiosity, I googled it. Lo and behold, it’s a much more complicated topic than I ever considered.

Bontoc Warrior with Chaklag Tattoos

Basically, any time an indelible design is created by inserting pigment under the epidermis, the result is a tattoo. Tattooing has been practiced in various cultures over centuries.

How Many Centuries? 

Ötzi the Iceman

As for bodily evidence of tattoos, for a long time the oldest known examples were Egyptian mummies, dated about 2000 BCE. However, Ötzi the Iceman, found on the Italian-Australian border in 1991, pushed that back. His mummified skin has at least 60 tattoos and was carbon dated a thousand years earlier, making him 5,200 years old.

This pre-Cucuteni figurine was made sometime between 4900 and 4750 BCE, with what look like evidence of cultural tattoos.

If one considers non-body evidence such as figurines and and paintings, then tattooing was practiced in Egypt in the Predynastic period, around 3100 BCE.

Tattooing Was Everywhere 

Moana was also the first Disney film to feature characters with tattoos!
Tätowierung Inuitfrau, an Inuit woman painted by Jens Peder Hart Hansen, circa 1654

The word tattoo started as the Polynesian word ta, meaning to strike. It evolved into the Tahitian word tatatau, meaning to mark something. As seen in the animated film Moana, these traditional tattoos were applied by means of rapidly striking a bamboo rod to drive an inked thorn into the skin.

A marriageable girl of the Koita people of Papua New Guinea, who had new tattoos added every year since she was five years old

In nearly every ancient culture, such as those in Greece and Rome to Native Americans, Japanese, sub-Saharan African, Australian Aboriginal, and Innuit, evidence has shown that tattooing was and most modern cultures tattoos were and are everywhere.

But Why Tattoo?

Preserved skin of a British military deserter, tattooed with a D
  • A cultic symbol dedicating the wearer to a specific god or belief
    • For example, Amunet was a priestess of the goddess Hathor.
  • As a brand signifying servitude/slavery/shame
    • For example adulterers marked with an A, T for thief, etc.
  • As a professional identification (e.g., prostitute, priestess)
  • As a permanent amulet seeking protection
    • Sailors having anchor tattoos or miners with lamps tattooed on their foreheads were trying to bring good luck.
    • The patterns of tattoos on Egyptian women’s abdomens and thighs seem to have been for fertility and for protection during pregnancy and childbirth. 
Japanese prostitute of the Kansei Era (circa 1888) painted by Tsukiok Yoshitoshi
  • Tattoos may have been a therapeutic tool, similar to acupuncture. 
    • The Ice Man had tattoos on his hands, lower back, and feet in areas that showed signs of stress damage.
  • As a declaration of group membership (think Marines, college fraternities, or Nazis)
  • As a visible means of intimidating the enemy (think Maori warriors) or showing bravery or success in battle
  • As a personal symbol of a meaningful event (e.g., birth of a child) or belief (sayings of Jesus or Buddha), or tribute to a beloved person
  • And, of course, as pure body art/decoration
  • Tattoos used by gang members and prisoners are often extraordinarily complex and will be covered in a separate blog post of their own.
    • The tattoos used by the Nazis in concentration camps were a form of branding, not in the same class as voluntary markings prisoners have chosen to put on their bodies for various reasons.
  • Tattoos to repair or restore
    • Today, plastic surgeons often work with tattoo artists to cover scars, burns, the effects of alopecia or vitiligo.
    • Many women get tattoos on their breasts after cancer surgery.
      • Along with her other artistic work, Amy Black (Pink Ink Fund) is a tattoo artist well known in the Richmond, VA area, for creating realistic-looking nipples or other art for women who have had cancer surgery. 

Permanent Make-Up, the Daughter of General Tattooing  

The goal is to look natural, or like externally applied makeup, enhancing colors on the face, lips, eyebrows, and eyelids. This type of tattooing (also known as cosmetic tattooing, dermapigmentation, micropigmentation) is also older than one might think.

Tattooed Eyebrows and Eyeliner

The first documented permanent makeup artist was Sutherland MacDonald, in the U.K. in 1902! His specialty was “all-year-round delicate pink complexion”—i.e., rouged cheeks. By the 1920s, it was popular in the U.S. The tattooist George Burchett wrote about beauty salons that tattooed women using vegetable dyes without their knowledge under the rise of “complexion treatment.” (Personally, I can only imagine that those women were willfully ignorant, given that tattooing is generally an uncomfortable procedure with visible aftereffects, such as temporary scabbing.) 

Mrs. M Stevens Wagner, 1907

As with all matters of fashion, popularity varies over time. During the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of tattoos took a sharp uptick. According to one article (the guardian.com) in 2016, a US poll revealed that 29% of people had a tattoo, up from 21% four years earlier. Of people born between 1982 and 2004, 47% have at least one.

General Considerations 

Whang-od Oggay is the last Mambabatok (master practitioner of the traditional Kalinga tattoo method) of the Butbut people of the Philippines.

Do multiple tattoos create a different impression from a single one? And if so, in what way? What difference does the reason for the tattoo make? What about the nature/content of the tattoo?

But Back to Cleopatra 

Retrato Femenino: Fresco of a woman believed to be Cleopatra from a villa in Roman Herculaneum, circa 1st Century CE

According to accepted academic evidence, in Egypt—unlike most cultures—only women were tattooed. The tattoos most often seemed related to fertility and childbirth, or identifying the woman as high ranking. However, I found nothing specific to Cleopatra’s face. Bummer.

Bottom Line

Permanent body decoration serves psychological and/or practical purposes for the tattooed one. In addition, body decorations send out a range of social signals—intentional or not. Think about it.

THIS ONE’S FOR WORD LOVERS

(You know who you are!)

Yep, I confess to being an unabashed logophile (lover of words).  (This seldom-used word comes from Greek roots: logos, meaning speech, word, reason; and philos, meaning dear, friendly.) 

Some people are logomaniacs—i.e., obsessed with words. I may be borderline, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet! On the one hand, I do have more than five full shelves of dictionaries, from general ones like Random House and the OED to specialized ones for everything from slang and historical periods to non-American English (e.g., Australian and South African). On the other hand, I can go whole days without even opening one!

Mrs. Malaprop, from The Rivals

Of course, there is a big difference between being a logomaniac and acrylog. The former are not necessarily loquacious but prefer the mellifluous to the sesquipedalian and can use catachresis rhetorically. The latter are generally more interested in verbiage and tend to commit malapropisms without irony.

Still, I’m gratified to know (according to the Cambridge English Dictionary) that gobby means talks too much. Closely related—but with different nuance—in American English, gabby means excessively or annoyingly talkative.

Recently, I began posting a word a day on FaceBook, just the word, no definition. The only criterion is that it strike my fancy on a given day. But maybe I should theme it.

Uncomfortable Words

These are perfectly good, innocent words that tend to make people squirm. And of course there is a dictionary for that!  The Dictionary of Uncomfortable Words: What to Avoid Saying in Polite (Any) Conversation by Andre Witham and Brian Snyder. Here are a few samples of such words early in the alphabet:

  • Abreast
  • Bunghole 
  • Dong
  • Emission
  • Globule
  • Horehound
  • Arrears
  • Crotch
  • Dangle
  • Feckless
  • Grotty
  • Ball cock
  • Crapulous
  • Elongate
  • Fecund
  • Hocker

Old Words That Deserve a Rerun 

Why be exhausted when you could be ramfeezled or quaked? Why be surprised when you could be blutterbunged?

One of the best dictionaries for these and other old words is The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk.

  • Biblioklep: book thief
  • Bouffage: satisfying meal
  • Bruzzle: to make a great to-do
  • Cabobble: to mystify/puzzle/confuse
  • Cark: to be fretfully anxious
  • Fabulosity: the quality of being fabulous
  • Falling weather: rain, snow, hail
  • Flamfoo: a gaudily dressed woman
  • Fleshquake: a tremor of the body
  • Flonker: anything large or outrageous
  • Flurch: a multitude, a great many (things, not people)
  • Gutterblood: people brought up in the same immediate neighborhood
  • Hipshot: strained or dislocated in the hip
  • Leg-bail: run from the law, desertion from duty
  • Nicknackitarian: dealer in curiosities
  • Noggle: to walk awkwardly 
  • Overmorrow: the day after tomorrow
  • Prinkle: tingling sensation
  • Rooped: hoarse, as in bronchitis
  • Scruze: squeeze, compress
  • Smoothery: medicine or salve to remove hair
  • Tazzled: entangled or rough, untidy head of hair
  • Thenadays: in those days, times past
  • Thinnify: to make thin
  • Woman-tired: henpecked
Not to be confused with the Planet Word Museum, in Washington DC.

Words That Are Seldom Seen—or Heard 

I just like them. 

  • Rantipole: a wild, reckless, sometimes quarrelsome person; characterized by a wild, unruly manner or attitude.
  • Solivagant: rambling alone, marked by solitary wandering.
  • Agathokakological: composed of both good and evil. True of many (most?) people, and of all good villainous characters!
  • Noctiphany: something that happens only at night.
  • Skice: to frisk about like squirrels in spring.
  • Lethologicawhen a word is on the tip of your tongue. 
  • Sesquipedalian:

And when it just won’t come in time, you can substitute. Here are some words for an object, event, type of media, abstract concept, or person whose name is forgotten, unknown, or unmentionable. There are regional variations, but some of these seem to be universal.

  • Thingamajig
  • Thingummy
  • Thingamabob
  • Whatchamacallit
  • Whatsit
  • Thingy
  • What’s-his/her-name
  • What’s-his/her-face
  • Doohickey: object or device
  • Doodad
  • Gizmo

And then there are the nuances of words to consider. By this, I mean words that can objectively mean the same thing but create different impressions of age, social class, education, gender, etc. Some words are essentially unintelligible to people outside a particular social group. This is where a good thesaurus comes in handy (or Urban Dictionary). A few examples:

A geographic explanation of why English is so weird
  • Old, aged, elderly, antique, boomer
  • Curvy, overweight, fat, thicc [sic]
  • Whopperjawed, off-kilter, crooked, ill-fitting, skeevy
  • Heart, ticker, vascular organ
  • Tall, high, elevated
  • Angry, upset, ticked, pissed off, aggro
  • Vessel, container, bowl, pot, urn

Writing about words could go on forever.  So I think I’ll wrap this up for now, without even touching on insults and name-calling. Maybe another time.

Bottom line: never too many words.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: MONEY

I have to work very hard not to spend all my money (and time) one books.

Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.

Does owning an entire city count as filthy rich?

How much money?  These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.

Being penniless isn’t so bad when there are open barrels of food everywhere.
  • Penniless
  • Poverty stricken
  • Poor
  • Lower middle class
  • Middle class
  • Upper middle class
  • Well off
  • Rich
  • Filthy rich

*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.

Social attitudes toward shopkeepers often depends on the quality of merchandise.

Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.

Musicians playing in a bar are often treated differently from musicians playing in a symphony hall, though their incomes are often almost identical.
  • Begging or panhandling
  • Gambling
  • Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
  • Illegal activities
  • SSI disability
  • Medicare/Medicaid 
  • Hourly wage
  • Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
  • By the job/ piecework
  • Having multiple jobs
  • Salary
  • Salary plus bonuses
  • Stocks/bonds, dividends/interest
  • Trust funds
  • Family loans/gifts

Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.

Some people value experience and travel more than money, making a living on the road, feeling the wind in their fur… er… hair.
Assassins are generally exempt from income and property taxes, though sales tax may still apply.

Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.

  • Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
  • Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
  • Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
  • Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
  • Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)

Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.

Making everything at home is a way to save money and ensure quality.
  • Always more where that came from
  • Easy come, easy go
  • Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
  • Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
  • Always live below your means
  • Clips coupons and shops sales
  • Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
  • Buy quality, not quantity
  • Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid

Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.

Relationships can get really complicated if your friends sell you off for scientific experiments.
  • Similar
  • Comparable
  • Much above
  • Much below
  • Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
  • Income disparity causing conflict

Where the money goes:

  • Religious tithes
  • Charitable contributions
  • Necessities only
  • Whatever strikes one’s fancy
  • Luxuries, with or without guilt
  • Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
  • Hobbies (what?)
  • Supporting family or friends who need a hand
  • Pets
  • Back into a business
  • Stocks/bonds
  • Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
Partying with demons is surprisingly expensive.

How money is handled:

If these characters offer a loan, running away is probably the best response.
  • Cash only
  • Charge everything possible
  • Pay by debit card whenever possible
  • Pay bills as soon as one arrives
  • Have bills paid by bank debit
  • Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
  • Tip lavishly or stingily?
  • Bank account
  • Checking account
  • Savings account
  • Needing to take payday or title loans
  • If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?

Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?

No matter how carefully one budgets and saves, it can all be taken away at any time when a horde of dragons comes by.

WORDS FROM WAR

In last week’s blog, I discussed nom de guerre, literally war name, that in current French usage has come to mean any pseudonym. Like any other in-group, soldiers develop their own jargon—which often lingers in subsequent slang, often with a morphed meaning.

This blog will showcase just a few such words/phrases.

US Army poster from WWI (Gordon Grant)

A.W.O.L. (Absent Without Leave) Even before the Civil War, this meant a soldier who has gone off without permission. Now business executives, teenagers, spouses—virtually anyone—can be AWOL, pronounced A-wall. The unexplained or unexcused absence is often trivial.

S.N.A.F.U. (Status Normal: All F*cked Up) The Marines are usually credited with this particular acronym, which originated during World War II. There is some evidence that radio operators came up with the phrase to give humorous meaning to a commonly used set of letters from coded messages. In modern usage, this acronym has essentially the same meaning, lacking only the cynical mocking of commanding officers. (S.U.S.F.U. [Situation Unchained: Still F*cked Up] was coined as a follow-up, but it has largely fallen out of use.

F.U.B.A.R. had several variations of meaning, though “F*cked Up Beyond All Repair” pretty much covers it. Occasionally, it was defined as “F*cked Up By A**holes in the Rear” to express frustration with military command issuing orders from the comfort and safety of their offices well out of harm’s way. Like SNAFU, it originated as military slang during World War II, and it has retained its original meaning in modern slang.

Ambulance Dogs in WWI were sent with medical supplies to find wounded soldiers who could not be otherwise reached. They were also called Mercy Dogs because, very often, all they could do was comfort the dying.

Basket case is used in a fairly lighthearted way today (often describing someone who repeatedly makes stupid mistakes, or who crumbles under pressure), but it has a strange history. Shortly after World War I, rumors circulated of multitudes of soldiers who had been so badly injured that they had to be carried from the battlefield in a barrow or basket, usually having lost all four of their limbs. This belief was so strong that it persists in the public imagination today despite direct evidence to the contrary. In 1919, the Surgeon General of the Army made a public statement that this was not the case, and only one quadruple amputee from the war is known to have survived. Ethelbert Christian lost all four limbs at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, but he learned how to walk on prosthetics and lived what appears to have been a full and happy life.

Blue-footed booby
In Spanish, “bobo” is a clown or a fool.

Booby-trap has been in use since the mid-19th century for a fairly harmless prank or practical joke. A “booby” was used in English slang to mean a stupid or gullible person as early as the late 17th century. But in WWI, it morphed into meaning an explosive device deliberately disguised as a harmless object. The English journalist Sir Philip Gibbs (1877-1962) said, “the enemy left … slow-working fuses and ‘booby-traps’ to blow a man to bits or blind him for life if he touched a harmless looking stick or opened the lid of a box, or stumbled over an old boot.”

As a nickname for body lice or head lice, cooties first appeared in trenches slang in 1915. It was presumably derived from the coot, a species of waterfowl known for being infested with lice and other parasites. Today it’s a children’s term for an imaginary germ or a repugnant quality transmitted by obnoxious or slovenly people.

In the 19th century, dingbat was used like thingamajig or whatchamacallit as a  placeholder for something or someone whose real name the speaker couldn’t come up with at the moment. It came to be used for a clumsy or foolish person during the First World War, before morphing to mean shell-shocked, nervous, or mad. Now it’s used for a stupid or eccentric person.

In British English, “to be in a flap,” meaning “to be worried,” dates from 1916. It was originally a naval expression derived from the restless flapping of birds, but quickly spread into everyday English during the First World War. The adjective unflappable, meaning unflustered or imperturbable, calm in the face of crisis, appeared in the 1950s as a reference to the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Son of a Gun is generally held to originate as a euphemism for the child of a military father away on a lengthy deployment (and thus somewhat suspicious paternity). In current usage, it is an epithet similar to “son of a bitch,” with positive or negative meanings depending on the speaker.

Brainwashing is a literal translation of the Chinese phrase xi nao, to wash the brain. During the Korean War, military reports estimated that 30% of American prisoners of war collaborated with their Korean and Chinese captors. To explain how this was possible, the media created the term brainwashing: systematic, intensive interrogation techniques and indoctrination procedures used by hostile forces to change allegiances of prisoners of war. The term gradually came to be used to label any change of opinion or allegiance—though it still implies unsavory, unfair, or unethical methods!

Skedaddle, meaning to run away or desert from military service, became popular during the American Civil War. Now it means to leave quickly or hurriedly, to run away. In true American fashion, the etymological origins of this word are a mix of many possible languages or perhaps none at all.

OMG (Oh My God!) is very often used as an abbreviation in electronic communication. The first appearance of OMG was in a sarcastic letter Lord Fisher, a retired Naval Admiral, sent to Winston Churchill in 1917, complaining about the number of knighthoods being bestowed upon Naval officers. It has become so common that people sometimes use it as an acronym when speaking aloud: “ohemgee!”

Kilroy or Kilroy Was Here might be considered a bit of visual military jargon that has made its way into common use. James Kilroy wrote his name on sections of Navy ships under construction to certify that he’d personally checked the welding. Because his name seemed to be everywhere, British and American service members took to writing it on every surface imaginable in Europe and Asia, most likely as good-luck totem. (The origins of the accompanying long-nosed, bald man are unknown, but it may have started as a British cartoon.) Kilroy is still one of the most commonly graffitied images in the world today, with or without his name.

Bottom line: Word meanings are fluid, so be aware of timeline and context in order to truly understand what the speaker is trying to communicate.