Saturday, February 21, 2015


I traveled a lot over the last week or so, in one of those odd swells of time when you have multiple significant events to attend in multiple places. It was looking forward to all of the events, several of which were culminations of a kind for various people close to me. But I wasn't looking forward to the travel, as public transportation isn't seamless here in the greater Bay Area. It's usually just a matter of waiting an extra hour here or there when you miss a bus or train by five minutes, so, though not exactly painful, it does get a bit wearing. Still a good book and a stoical attitude can go a long way.

The events were all wonderful as it turned out but the travels were, well, not. I lost my backpack in San Francisco, which was of course my own fault, but which happened in part because of a ghost San Francisco muni train which kept saying it had arrived, or actually, was 'departing' when it wasn't even there. I came back to Santa Cruz on possibly the worst day at the worst time, which was Valentines Day, the beginning of a warm holiday weekend, and at the end of an already long journey, it literally took me an hour to make what is normally about a ten minute bus trip because the roads were packed to the bursting point. And on my final return trip I was actually making a list of all the subpar things that had happened on the four trips I'd just made when the train I was on broke down in Redwood City. It didn't get better from there.

But of course, travel and travail are closely associated in our minds, and not just by sound. The good think about long trips is that they don't usually leave much of a mark once you get through them. But I started thinking about words like harrowing, ordeal and travail as a result of all this, and travail in particular caught my interest.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the derivation of travail takes the standard course back to Latin. In English it means 'toil or labor', the Old French of the same spelling has all that and more, including 'arduous journey', but the further back we go the closer we get to torture and torment ending in an obscure reference to something called a tripalium, which is supposed to have been a Late Latin instrument of torture, tripalis meaning "three stakes". However no one seems to have left a record describing it or its uses, and for that we should perhaps count ourselves lucky.

The word travel which originated in the late 14th century comes from travailen 'to make a journey', and of course goes straight back to travail's Latin roots. I liked what the Online Etymology had  to say about it:

The semantic development may have been via the notion of "go on a difficult journey," but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages. 

As with travel itself, looking up words takes you on some unexpected byways. I came across a website previously unknown to me called Language Log.The rather rambling entry included a bit about the word travail, but I am indebted to it for a different reason. It has introduced me to a line from T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, which I believe will in future be my constant invocation when blogging here:

"Think! Great Powers of Pedantry Assist Me Now!"

And I suppose I should really get to the book as well...

(Oh, that's Goya's  A Pilgrimage to San Isidro that heads up this cheery post. But I bet you guessed at least the artist already.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Quite typically of me, I didn't think of the obvious image for this page until Peter Rozovsky pointed it out.
Yeah, usually these words have some relation to my real life, but don't worry, no one has done anything treacherous, iniquitous or malicious to me lately, at least not that I know of. This word came to my attention from elsewhere recently, probably television. It's a great old word, one we should use more often when outraged, but what does it really mean? And from whence has it come?


Yes, it's got those old Latin roots, no surprise. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the Latin perfidia goes back to the phrase per fidem dicipere, which means "to deceive through trustingness". The Middle French was perfidie and it hit English in the 1590s. Perfidious Albion (la perfide Albion), as in, "Hey, looking at YOU, England!" came over from France a bit later in the form of a poem of 1793 by a Frenchman named Augustin, although it seems the sentiment predated the poem by, well, centuries.

Wikipedia tells us that there is a particular meaning to perfidy in war, which is actually a war crime. So you can't hold up a flag of surrender and then not surrender. You can't feign wounds or illness. You can't pretend to be a non-combatant if you are one, and you can't pretend to be a United Nations peacekeeper either. The reasoning is that it is hard to create an atmosphere of mutual restraint for all parties, including civilians, if one side can't believe a word the other side is saying.

Interestingly, though, ruses of war are not perfidious. What ruses of war? Well, things like camouflage and decoys, dummy operations and misinformation, according to the 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva Convention. Kind of makes me wonder how all these distinctions were hammered out.

You'd think that there would be a lot of great quotes on perfidy, and perhaps there are, but the one I liked best was the one at the bottom of the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

Combinations of wickedness would overwhelm the world by the advantage which licentious principles afford, did not those who have long practiced perfidy grow faithless to each other.

                                                                           --Samuel Johnson

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Language Matters with Bob Holman

I'm kind of on a roll here with the "fac-" words, but I'm going to interrupt my own direction to mention that I just watched a great show on languages on PBS which is narrated by Bob Holman as he travels the world to look at how different cultures try and sometimes succeed at saving their own endangered languages. There's so much food for thought here that I hope you'll check it out. You can find it HERE.

Friday, January 23, 2015


If you guessed that this word came up while looking into my last post on the word "factotum", you guessed right. I was looking at the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary for that word and it recommended taking a look at the word factitious for another use of that Latin prefix fac-- which has to do with, well, doing.

I can't say I use the word factitious myself but I occasionally run across it while reading and it's always a bit confusing. On the one hand, it sounds an awful lot like "fictitious", which leads me to think that it is kind of the opposite of that, as in fact and fiction. But usually context is enough to make me realize that there is something a little dubious about factitious, so that can't be right. And then it has an uncomfortable similarity to "facetious" as well, which also has a sense of not being entirely truthful, as in "But I jest."

Do you ever wonder how non-native speakers ever actually learn this language?

Factitious, although with more critical overtones today, really just means artificial as opposed to natural. These days, it looks like synonyms for it are mainly things like 'fake, bogus, sham', but even the Latin factitius, artificial, still goes back to the same facere that factotum hails from, which is simply 'do'. My revered art history professor Mary Holmes always defined art as "something made by human beings, as opposed to the natural" (She went on to say that the real question was, "But is it any good?"). So in that sense, all art is factitious, and most of everything else we keep around us as well.

I wonder when the idea of the made thing began to carry this tone of being inferior to the natural one. I would have thought the 60s, though it seems that the Romans might have started it. But surely if the natural is always better, we really shouldn't have bothered with civilization at all.

Am I being facetious? Well, maybe just a little...

Saturday, January 17, 2015


I was watching a selection of opera highlights the other night and hear an aria featuring Figaro from The Barber of Seville. The good thing about watching this stuff on television is that the subtitles are right there and you don't have to crane your neck to see them like you do with supertitles on a live stage, so you don't miss much. One of the translations was "I am the factotum of the city". I was thinking, hmm, factotum--that doesn't enlighten me much. So I noted it down and moved on.

A few days later, I was reading Adrian McKinty's Gun Street Girl and found some mention of a factotum there as well. I don't even remember what character was being referred to, but I knew it was about time to get down to it with the word.

I have heard it before, of course. But it's one of those Latin sounding words where I have the resentful feeling that it could have been said just as easily in plain English, so I always just gloss over it. But enough of that attitude! I've got a blog to write!

"Factotum" has always struck me as vaguely academic sounding--like adjunct professor. Maybe someone behind a lectern. You have a feeling that it has lasted there in the ivied halls the longest. But Figaro is a barber, not a don. So what are we really talking about here?


A factotum is one who does all kinds of things for another, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It is an English word starting somewhere around 1560, and comes from the Medieval Latin, which looks exactly the same and is a combination of fac, the imperative form of "do" (in other words, "do!" and totum, or all. It was used in combination with other words, dominum (or magister ) factotum, which meant the master of all things, or Johannes factotum, which translates rather easily into Jack-of-all-trades. It seems a little unclear as to the status of such people, as for some reason, people who can do a wide range of things for others often have a pretty lowly status. Our own terms gofer, personal assistant and handyman have some of this same ambiguous quality. On the one hand, we rely on them, on the other, we resent it. I shouldn't say we, as I would be much more likely to be in the factotum position than that of the one they work for, except for the fact that I really am fairly inept.

I didn't realize that Factotum was the title Charles Bukowski gave to his second novel. The description from Wikipedia has it as the story of Henry Chinaski, whom it terms Bukowski's unemployed, alcoholic alter ego. Rejected by the draft during World War II, he drifts from one menial job to another, trying to find something he can do which will allow him to write at the same time. Sounds interesting.

And if that weren't enough, I found another fascinating sounding book, a collection of essays by Marius Kociejowski called The Pebble Chance, because one example of the use of the word I came across is an essay title in that book called "A Factotum in the Book Trade" where he describes working for the London bookstore, Bartram Rota. Head on over to the Washington Post article by Michael Dirda on the book, where you can read a lot of fascinating things that Kociejowski came across in this position. I was already thinking that working as a bookseller as I did for many years was kind of a factotum position, but I must admit that nothing quite so incredible ever happened to me in that role as it did to Kociejowski.

Whether we think of a factotum as lowly or high, Figaro was clearly proud of the position. Don't believe me? Here--take a look. Oh yeah, and opera aficionados will already know that the aria is called "Largo al Factotum" or, 'Make way for the factotum', which I guess I should have known...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Slate on how the brain organizes language

Yes, I've got a lot of ignorance brewing up around these parts, but haven't had a lot of time or energy to deal with it. Meanwhile, though, I just read another fascinating piece on language acquisition at Slate. It all begins with a cow...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


If I wasn't too lazy to label my blog posts, I would probably have a little category called something like, "We Speak the Same Language, But...". Tannoy isn't an American word. I don't think I've even come across it in reading British novels or watching Eastenders. But it may be one of those things I just let my mind slide over, as is my wont. However in reading Alex Marswood's well-written if macabre mystery The Killer Next Door recently, I found the word used a couple of times quite casually without further elaboration, and must assume that that's because it's a common enough word in England, or at least London, where the novel is set.

I must admit that I rather skipped over the first reference, but when I came upon it a second time, I found myself stopping to sort it out:

"The rhythms of the London underground: shrill beeps, a brief flicker of the lights as they pass out of the station, something incomprehensible on the tannoy." (page 308).

Something about the way it was written made me think at first that the tannoy was the platform and that the character in question was referring to an object. But a second go made me realize that the tannoy was some kind of sound system or loudspeaker. If I'd paid more attention the first time, though, I would have known this already:

"...the tannoy playing a recorded announcement on the unmanned station platform"(page 90).

It turns out that Tannoy is actually a trademarked name, though it isn't capitalized in the novel, and in this sense is much like dumpster or crockpot in being used generically but still having a registered trademark which means that it really should still be capitalized. The Tannoy is a loudspeaker, but the sense has extended to mean many sorts of public address systems as well, as is the case in the novel.

Tannoy Ltd. is a Scotland based company that was started in London and is now owned by the Danes. Or a Danish group anyway. The word is an acronym of the words "tantalum alloy" which was the metal used in an electrolytic rectifier (don't worry, we're not going down that particular road today) and the reason Wikipedia gives for it becoming a household name is that it was the supplier of PA systems to the troops during World War II, and subsequently to British holiday camps, as well as providing amplifiers for home use.

Yes, that's none other than Cyril Ritchard, aka Captain Hook!

Tannoy is kind of an odd word for a public address system, considering that I don't have the impression that the metal itself is even used in the loudspeakers, though I could be wrong. On the other hand, "loudspeaker" is a kind of odd word too, when you start to listen to it. It seems a bit obvious and ponderous, but then I guess many English words do, once you break them down.