Tuesday, May 2, 2017


One of my Santa Cruz friends departed for Arizona a couple of years ago, but she was back this weekend with tales of living in the Southwestern desert. One of the creatures she sometimes has to contend with that we don't have on the Central Coast is the javelina. Apparently, they are rather awful creatures, although their offspring are quite cute. One of the sad trends of life in general, I'm afraid. They like to get into the garbage cans, and make horrible warring noises while contending with each other. It is not altogether out of the question that they will make themselves at home on the porch. Yikes. (Here's a little mp3 that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum put out of how they sound when not fighting. Listen to the end.)

Then, I happened to be reading a novel today, New Dawn by Sudha Balagopal, which also takes place in Arizona. In the part I read, two friends are out on a hike and one hears a strange noise, and wonders, what was that? The other says, likely a coyote or a javalina. Obviously, it was time to do a little research.

I know vaguely that javalinas are a bit like wild boars in nature--or think I know that. But maybe I am visualizing them completely wrong. In any case, two references in under two days is always a sign to me to dig a little further.

"Running Javelina" by Wing-Chi Poon

Hmm. Not as ferocious looking as I'd have thought. No long scary tusks, for one thing. (though the do have small straight ones, which have been adapted for crushing seeds and cutting roots.)The javelina, it turns out, is not a wild pig. It is a peccary. Pigs and peccaries bear a distant relationship, but have several differences. For one thing, all the extant peccaries are native to the Americas, while pigs and wild boars and the like are from Europe, Asia and Africa. Those we have here are all imports. Apparently there were some Old World peccaries, but they are all extinct.

Some other distinctions according to the folks at Animals.mom.me. While pigs have long, hairy tails, peccary tails are small and not visible. Peccary ears are smaller, and pigs ears are large and upright. Other small differences lie in the number of teeth they have and the number of back toes. Peccaries are apparently also distinguished by their scent glands, which this website says lie along their backs and above their tails, though Wikipedia says that they also have some under their eyes. In any case, they use them for marking territory and identifying themselves within a group. It's perhaps no accident, then, that some other names for the peccary are "skunk pig" and "musk hog."

"Peccary" comes from the Cariban language, which is a native South American language group. The original word is pakira or paquira, according to Wikipedia. "Javalina", unsurprisingly, is a Spanish word, which is an alteration of jabalina, the feminine form of jabali, or wild boar. Jabali  stems from Arabic jabal meaning mountain. So hinzir (or khinzir) jabal means "mountain swine."

As Language Hat points out, one should not be swayed by folk etymologies such as one that claims they are called javelinas after their short sharp tusks, which would be named for the Spanish word for javelin or spear. It's a bit complicated, though, because Spanish javelins actually ARE called javelinas. And why are they called javelins anyway? Well, maybe we'll get into that next time. Meanwhile, here's a little picture book about javelinas in case you can't get enough of them. The story sounds a tad familiar...almost like a certain pig story you might happen to know.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


With the reemergence of Christopher Steele, former MI6 guy, who went into hiding after compiling a not (yet) wholly substantiated intelligence report which became public through Buzzfeed, the word "dossier" has attained prominence in the news cycle. And I have become aware that I don't really know what a dossier is. I mean, I have a sense of it, just from this example, but I don't know its precise definition or its origin--though on that last, I assume it comes to us from the French. Let's find out.


                                                                                Yann Riché

A dossier is actually a pretty simple thing. It's just a collection of detailed papers about a certain person or a certain subject. And, yes, it's from the French. It came into English some time around 1880, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The dos part comes from twelfth century French and means "back", which in turn goes back to Vulgar Latin dossum, a variant of the Latin dorsum, also meaning "back", like, you know, dorsal fin.

There are a couple of ideas out there about why "back" has anything to do with it. One is that these packets of paper used to have  characteristic labels on the back. Another, at first glance,  a little more out there, is that such bundles of papers would have a bulge that resembled the curve of a back. (I say, show me.) But an interesting support to that hypothesis is that there is another Old French word, dossiere, which meant the back strap or ridge strap of a horse's harness. So, you decide.

                                                                            Pete Markham

In looking at the site English Language & Usage, a different aspect of "dossier" came up, which hadn't quite risen to the surface for me, but is interesting in the current context. A commenter there said that for him, "dossier" had a negative connotation, and he wasn't sure why, given the neutral character of the definition. Another commenter said that this was because of its Cold War connotations, and still another that most of us know the word largely from spy novels. Someone else pointed out that in fact, dossiers had been kept on potential enemies of the state by regimes long before the Cold War, and that there are cognates and near cognates in several European languages.

That said, "dossier" is a word that can and often does have a completely neutral meaning. As I was looking up the etymology, I found a listing for Etymology Dossier, which turned out to be a detailed list of a chapter's contents on Medieval Grammar.

In the current moment, though, all our thoughts do tend to drift spyward...


Thursday, February 2, 2017


Not a word we hear all the time, but it's been in the air a bit lately. I know what it means in context, but I find it a bit hard to define. I would say that to be overweening is to be grasping for more than one is entitled to. I also have impressions of overbearing and and kind of leaning over or overshadowing others.

Let's what find out what it really means.

Okay. According to the Free Dictionary, it can mean either to be presumptuously arrogant or overbearing, or to be excessive or immoderate. Sound like anyone you know?

According to the Merriam Webster website, the word only dates back to the 14th century. "Over" we get, but what's the "ween" part about. The Middle English was overwening, the present participle of overwenen. "Ween" is derived from wenen, "to think or believe". There are records from earlier times showing that people sometimes used the word overween, meaning to have too high an opinion of oneself.

The image that I would most obviously post here is one that I think we are all already tired of looking at, but I bet you can figure it out.

(The first two images come from something called AZQuotes.com, but the final one comes from IZQuotes.com. In case you're looking for more.)


Friday, January 20, 2017

And the water comes again...

In honor of the Women's March tomorrow. Loved this song back in the day, and I love it still.

You can't stop water and you can't stop women. Let it rain.


Just got back from a Lucinda Williams concert here in town. Here is the song she ended with (before the inevitable encores.)

(Found out this morning that my friend shared the concert version of the song, which you can find HERE)

All of this foolishness in my life
All of this foolishness in my life, don't need it
What I do in my own time
Is none of your business and all of mine
All of this foolishness
All of this foolishness in my life

All of you liars in my life
All of you liars in my life, don't need you
You can talk all the trash you want
But I know the truth even if you don't
None of you liars in my life
None of you liars in my life

None of your pie in the sky
None of your pie in the sky, don't need it
No matter how you go or where
I ain't gonna follow you anywhere
None of your pie in the sky
None of your pie in the sky

All of you fear-mongers in my life
All of you fear-mongers in my life
You can try to scare me down
But I know how to stand my ground
None of you fear-mongers in my life
None of you fear-mongers in my life

All of this foolishness in my life
All of this foolishness in my life
What I do in my own time
Is none of your business and all of mine

None of this foolishness in my life
None of this foolishness in my life

All of this foolishness
All of you liars
All you talk about is pie in the sky
All of you fear-mongers

I don't need you liars
I don't need your pie in the sky
I don't need you fear-mongers
Don't need your foolishness
All this foolishness

It's nothing but foolishness
It's nothing but foolishness
It's nothing but foolishness
It's nothing but foolishness
It's nothing but your foolishness
It's nothing but your foolishness

(Needless to say, on this particular night and in this particular place is was very well received.)



Thursday, January 12, 2017


(Apparently this got published somehow before I was actually finished with it yesterday. Apologies to anyone who read it and found it a bit abrupt and confusing.)

"Bathos" is one of those words that I kind of think I understand without really ever having checked to see if I do. It's a word that you can usually kind of fill in from context. Or think you can. Recently, I was in an exchange about whether something was bad writing or not. I wasn't sure, but the person I was having the conversation with said that, among other things, the writing was full of bathos. I must confess that the actual word almost immediately brings to mind the Three Musketeers--Bathos, Porthos and Aramis, right? (No, that's Athos, Porthos and Aramis.) I also think of it as being the name of  one of those theater masks, although there are really only two, one associated with tragedy and one with comedy. I always think of bathos as having something false about it, perhaps sentimental. But I really can't entirely define it. Here are a couple of examples from WordsinaSentence.com

With a great deal of bathos, Lenny went from proclaiming his innocence to confessing he'd eaten the last slice of pumpkin pie.

Bathos will change the play’s tone as soon as the audience realizes the corpse is nothing more than a big dog in a dress.

It was pure bathos onstage when the singer switched from singing a classic aria to crooning nursery rhymes.

It seems that bathos has something to do with an inappropriate mixture of tone, possibly that of descending from a more exalted or grave one to a more juvenile or comic one. So what is bathos?

You know the idea of "from the sublime to the ridiculous"? Well, that's bathos. It's the unintended movement from an exalted vision or language to the trite, trivial or silly. I liked this example from About Education:

"The director had clearly decided to confront us with the gruesome detail of the massacre, but the sight of artificial dismembered limbs, human torsos dangling in trees, and blood-stained cavalry men riding about brandishing human legs and heads, that all clearly had the weight of polystyrene, made his intentions ridiculous. The entire cinema burst out laughing as the film descended into bathos. We expected the gruesome and got the bizarre instead."

(John Wright, Why Is That So Funny? Limelight, 2007)

Alexander Pope--Michael Dahl, National Portrait Gallery

"Bathos" comes from the Greek and means depth but we owe its existence in English, at least in this sense, to a much more modern source. According to Wikipedia, In 1727, the British poet Alexander Pope published an essay called Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry. It was a parody of a work by the classical writer Longinus called Peri Hupsous or On the Sublime-- "hupsos" meaning height. Peri Bathous gives many examples of how to write bad verse, or to "sink" rather than to rise to the sublime. Here is an example from the essay that Wikipedia offers:

Many Painters who could never hit a Nose or an Eye, have with Felicity copied a Small-Pox, or been admirable at a Toad or a Red-Herring. And seldom are we without Genius's for Still Life, which they can work up and stiffen with incredible Accuracy. ("Peri Bathous" vi).

Sounds quite lively. In the end, bathos seems like it must be pretty much in the eye of the beholder. This is Hogarth's conception.

The Bathos--William Hogarth


Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year

Yes, just one more confession of ignorance before we slip out of the old year and into whatever the new one holds for us. And I realized as I woke up this morning that I had had something a little bit wrong for almost my entire life. And it just happens to be appropriate to the annual transition we are about to make.

You know the song 'Deck the Halls'? Fa la la la la and all that? Well, I was hearing the part that goes 'Fast away the old year passes' in my head and then started wondering about the next line. I had always thought it went something like 'Hail the new ye lads and lasses.' Meaning, to me, goodbye old year, let's welcome all the new people who are coming into this world in the coming year. But then I wondered 'What exactly are new ye lads and lasses?' I think I must have thought it meant something like 'the new year lads and lasses,' even though I knew the word was 'ye.' It was only in pondering it that I realized that it must be, 'Hail the new, ye lads ands lasses.' As in hail the new year, everyone. Looked it up just now and sure enough, there is a comma after new.

Frankly, I'm a little sad  that the song isn't about welcoming the next year's infants. But I'll get over it. Or forget it. One or the other.

I decided I would post a YouTube video of this but if you look closely, you'll see that they get it slightly wrong too. But you'll have to watch to see how.