Sunday, December 14, 2008


In a recent post over on Adrian McKinty's blog , the word 'shibboleth' was mentioned in reference to some things the British hold dear. Once again, it's a word I can read well enough in a sentence, but couldn't use in one with any confidence without a little dictionary checking. (Yeah, I know--it gets old.)

I can understand it in a sentence because I can figure out the meaning from the context. But without that help, I wouldn't be sure if 'shibboleth' meant something more along the line of sacred cows or of taboos.

So what is a shibboleth, exactly? And where does the word hail from?

...Well, apparently I can't read it well enough in a sentence, because I have got it pretty wrong. At its most basic,'shibboleth' means a word that distinguishes one class, group or sect from another. The etymology apparently goes back originally to the Hebrew sibbolet, meaning 'torrent of water', which, according to the Free Dictionary, was used by the Gileadites as a kind of password against the Ephraimites, who couldn't pronounce the 'sh' sound. So it means a password, a catchword, but then extends on to mean a part of insider language that excludes others. Apparently the test is not only about pronunciation but about agreement with received wisdom. So it can also mean a slogan or rallying cry, but also often refers to an outmoded meaning.

No, I'm still not sure I would use it correctly in a sentence, but I'm also pretty clear that I might not be caught out by most if I didn't. Because an outworn slogan is surely in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it? To the insider, it's the received wisdom.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


In honor of Pearl Harbor Day, I thought I'd ponder this word a bit. As an American, the word 'infamy' automatically links to 'Day of Infamy', meaning Pearl Harbor Day. It was a Sunday, perhaps much like this one, when the Japanese led the surprise attack on the Hawaiian naval base that launched us into our participation in WWII. I've posted a comment about meeting some of the survivors of that day today here: Pearl Harbor Day Breakfast.

But what is infamy, exactly? How do I translate it in the above phrase? I guess in a very rough way, I take it to mean a day that will go down in history in a really, really bad way. Maybe that's close enough, but maybe it isn't. In the U.S., there are no other 'days of infamy', though I suppose 9/11 might end up being called something very like it. I'm curious, in any case, what this word really means, as opposed to my assumption.

Infamy is, according to the Free Dictionary, a state. It's a condition of dishonor, of shame, of being held in contempt. FDR's exact phrase is "a date which will live in infamy." Oddly, though, this conveys a sense of him being a reader, and a classics reader at that. Because when you look at the citations, it seems to be a word that, unless it is being pulled out of the attic to heap scorn on someone, has already largely passed out of the language. The sources cited are quotes from Anne Bronte, Henry Fielding and other pre 20th century British literary giants. This might just be the Free Dictionary's data base. But I don't think so. I think the reason we think of the Day or should I say Date of Infamy so easily is that there are not a whole lot of other examples that spring to mind of the word being used in our common social context. Yet surely there have been many other infamous days since then.

And our position hasn't always been that of the innocent one. Unfortunately.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Trust me--I do not know how to spell this word. It's going to be right in the title by the time you see this, but I am really just taking a random guess as I'm thinking about it. Oh, I know what it means all right--roughly anyway. 'Without a scintilla of proof' is close enough to 'without a shred of evidence' as to make no difference. But where does it come from? Is it Spanish? Italian? Latin? And why do we use it?

Uh, I got it right. No, really--I swear. It comes from the Latin 'spark'. I remain curious as to why so many words for the infinitesimal remain in our language. Iota, smidgen, jot, tittle.

One difference of scintilla--it can mean 'a sparkling, glistening particle'. I was somewhat surprised to realize that the word 'scintillating' is actually related. Hardly surprising, you say? It's just that they appear in such different contexts that I never made the connection.

scintillate: to throw off sparks, to flash.

to sparkle or shine

to be animated or brilliant--as in a dinner table conversation

Scintillating, mais non?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Okay, it's the beginning of the title of a new movie, directed by Charlie Kaufman and starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman. So I expect that avid indie film followers already know what this word means, even if they didn't a week or two ago. But I had actually come across this word in my reading a couple of days before, and hadn't been able to even make a guess at it. It came in the phrase 'synecdoche of'. I believe it was in Zoe Heller's The Believers,but won't swear to it. Nevertheless, it seems to be a mini motif, so I'm going to take a stab at it. All I can come up without help is that syn means something like 'with' or 'together'. But what the 'doche' is, I haven't a clue. I'm sure it will be transparent to all once I look it up. Here goes...

Well, this is one rambling grab bag of a word. It is in essence a substitution word. According to the free dictionary, it can mean a part standing in for the whole, the whole standing in for a part, the specific for the general or the general for the specific, and finally the material from which a thing is made.

It sounds complicated, but we do this all the time. "All hands ashore!" for example doesn't mean that the captain wants some kind of grotesque ritual of amputation. He wants the bodies that come with the hands. "I'll sic the law on you!" means I'll get some policemen to chase you down, not that the abstract institution is going to be sent round.

When you use a brand name instead of the more generic name, like Kleenex instead of tissue paper, you are using a syndecdoche. And when you get up to the check out counter and say, "I'd like to put that on plastic," the clerk likely knows very well that it's not just any piece of plastic that you propose but some very specific charge card.

As for "Synecdoche, New York", we can only guess at this point which form of synecdoche will be employed. Something stands in for something else. That would be my guess.

By the way, the word is Greek and does have a 'with' component. I can't quite get a take on the original Greek meaning, but it's something like 'to receive with' which is sometimes translated as 'simultaneous understanding'. I just read it also as 'acceptance of part of the responsibility for something.' You pronounce it si-nek-duh-kee, which, frankly, surprised me. If I think of a cynical duck, I will perhaps remember how to say it, but not, alas, what it means...

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I was teased a few days ago after using this word in a short book review on The Wind in the Willows for our in-store newsletter. Although my critic wondered about my use of the word to endorse a children's book, she did day I had used the word correctly. There is a difference, though, between using a word correctly and actually knowing what you're trying to say. I feel fairly sure that what I meant to say was communicated, but once again, am less sure that I actually know all that much about the word I used. (You can see what my life is like--haphazardly throwing a word out there and then optimistically hoping for the best.)

So what is a 'paean?' The way I think of it is as a sort of hymn of praise, but in a Greek, or at least pagan sense. The word 'ode' also comes to mind. Now it's time to find out the truth...

Well, I seem to be closer than my average in my understanding of the word this time. The word does mean something like a hymn of praise, song of joy, etc., and it does come from Ancient Greek and apparently relates back to songs sung in praise of Apollo. Paian, 'the healing one' seems to have been an epithet of Apollo, and relates back to the Greek word paiein--'to strike, to touch'. You can see the progression, and yet 'song of joy or praise' seems quite a long distance from 'striking or touching', doesn't it?

Saturday, November 8, 2008


So this is sort of a double confession of ignorance, or maybe a confession of ignorance laced with a dash of the unobservant is more accurate. Last night, my sister and cousin were in town and we were having dinner on the wharf from which you could see the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary last year. On the walls of the restaurant were some historic Boardwalk pictures, one of which was of the 'first casino fire'. My sister asked, "Is the casino still there?" and I said no, that there were conference rooms and a ballroom there now. She said that the word casino, which we now associate with gambling, actually just means large meeting room. Santa Catalina, for instance, has a casino but it was never a gambling place. I would suspect that Santa Cruz wouldn't have had much tolerance for that either.

The unobservant part comes in as they were driving me home, and we came toward the front of the building, where the word CASINO shown in very prominent neon. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except that I live close enough to the Boardwalk that I can see that sign from my window. Admittedly, it's turned sideways toward me, but it's not like I've never walked along that stretch of pavement. So yes, there is still a casino at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, but it in truth more of a game arcade.

Anyway, we now have some inkling of what 'casino' means, but now I'm curious about its origins. It sounds like it must have Italian or Spanish origins, but we shall see...

Okay, it does all begin in Italy, and in the way that words do sometime begin meaning something almost opposite to what they mean now, 'casino' is Italian for little house. I suppose in Spanish it would be 'casita'.

In Italy, the word was first applied to a country house, and you only have to think of all the cutesy names Americans have had for their getaway homes to understand the diminutive aspect here. But just as inevitably, the word came to encompass what one might do in a country house, and so came to mean a place to dance, listen to music, and gamble. Apparently gambling took over as the main association to the word, first in Italian and then in English. It appeared in English in its first (or second) meaning of 'social gathering place' in the 18th century, and then meaning 'gambling establishment' in 1851.

So what was really going on on Santa Catalina that they felt obliged to use this word? I'll bet there were some card games to be found--and they weren't just betting toothpicks.

Monday, October 27, 2008


This is the first post that takes a suggestion from a reader (thanks, StephanieG!) to further extend the realm of ignorance in order to combat it. Luckily, my ignorance probably matches anyone's who posts here, so I can treat your ignorance as my own!

Today's word is "Hibernian". Our commenter confesses to thinking the word is an Irish word, but has recenly discovered that it's the name of a Scottish football team. I am guessing that it is a Celtic word, with a meaning in both languages. My own associations to the word are curiously financial, as my only point of reference is the "Hibernian National Bank." And I am intrigued by the possible connection to the word 'hibernate'. I will even guess that it all somehow relates to the Latin word for winter, which I believe is something along the lines of 'hiver'. So lets see where I went astray...

So Wikipedia has it that "Hibernia" is the Roman name for Ireland. Apparently, this is some sort of dubious translation from the Greek word for Ireland "Iouernia" with overtones of the Latin word hibernus, meaning 'wintry'. I am sorry to say that Hibernia and Iouernia do not sound similar enough to be cognates unless you are extremely hard of hearing...Perhaps someone would like to stake their doctoral thesis on the idea that the Romans were slightly deaf. Or at least deaf to the sound of Greek words.

It's interesting that Ioernia and Eire do have a similar sound.

This leaves the problem of the fact that, to American ears, "Hiberian" has vaguely Scottish connotations. But it turns out that the Romans were as confused as we are about this. "Scotia eadem et Hibernia", as Isidore of Seville would have it, means "Scotland and Ireland are the same country". Is this a condescending blurring by the conquering class, or is it in fact an identity?

I don't know, but it's worth pondering.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

And M is also for....

I know, I know--it gets repetitious after awhile. I can't help it if it's only the M words that have it in for me.

Today's word is maunder. I once again found myself writing someone whom I did not particularly want to appear an idiot in front of, and said that I had been 'maundering around', but had to catch myself, because I did not know for sure that I was saying what I thought I was saying.

I had to look it up before I posted this blog, so I can say straight out that I was more or less right. It means to move, talk or act aimlessly, which was the impression I was aiming for. However, the surprise for me was the connection, not certain, with the word "meander". It's not proven, but it makes perfect sense, and it seems to be one of several instances I've encountered where one word splits between the conventional version and its dialectic variant and then takes two separate paths. This seems to give the word more room to spread out and fulfill itself. I can hear the relation of maunder and meander, and I know one has pleasant connotations and one more negative. But at least in my mind, they are both really describing the same sort of activity.

Friday, October 10, 2008

M is for...

Okay, let's forget for the moment all the countries beginning with M that I don't know anything about--Mali and Mauritania, I'm looking at you. There is a word beginning with m that has been much in the news lately, a word thrown about in that cavalier fashion that is so characteristic of words that appear on this blog. It has to do with the presidential election and will be heard far more in Republican speeches than Democratic ones. Got it? Give up?

The word is 'maverick', of course. Now I think we all think we know what this word means. Trailblazer, or something to that effect. I think of that early television show of the same name, and am sure it was intended in a positive light, and that the McCain/Palin ticket are attempting to draw of sort of reflected aura from it by using it every chance they get.

So I know how to use the word in the common parlance. But is a maverick a positive characterization as originally used? My understanding of the word, probably hideously wrong, is that it refers to a steer who wanders away from the herd. Not necessarily a good thing from the cowhand's point of view. But let's find out the definition before I wax philosophical...

Well, it's interesting because there are a couple of different kinds of ideas and meanings floating in the word. It does indeed mean a person of independent ideas. But the animal form of maverick is not at all what I pictured. It means an unbranded animal, particularly stray calves who have been separated from their mothers, and thus become fair game for the person who first brands them. The name was apparently taken from that of a Texas rancher, Samuel Augustus Maverick, who apparently left his own calves unbranded, though on what basis, I do not know.

The Wikipedia article on Mr. Maverick says that his not branding cattle was not a result of his independent thinking, but because of his basic last of interest in ranching, a turnabout that amuses me for some reason. Getting credit for unconventionality when you are just lazy sounds about right to me, at least in as far as how reputations get made.

In what I suppose is one of those never to be resolved arguments about history, Maverick said that his reason for not branding was that he did not want to inflict pain on the calves. His enemies suspected that his real reason was that he wanted to pick up any unclaimed, unbranded calves as his own. This is probably a litmus test for our own feelings about human nature. Was he compassionate or just greedy? I think my own answer is that he could very easily have been both. It would fall quite comfortably in the middle range of the human spectrum.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Maldives

Apparently the theme of countries that I don't know about is "Must begin with M". Because here I am with yet another country or region or God knows what it is that starts with M that I don't know the first thing about.

Well, okay, I do know the first thing about it. Them. Because this came to mind while I was watching the BBC covering some recent unrest there. They are very good about zooming in on the part of the world they are talking about, realizing that the vast majority of their viewers probably flunked geography at some point in their education. Unfortunately, I wasn't really paying attention...

However, I think they may have zoomed in to the Indian Ocean. If I remember correctly, the reason they have sprung to recent world attention is that they are holding their first democratic election. The incumbent has been in power for something like thirty-five years. His challenger was a political prisoner. It's the big deal for the Maldives. Only question is, what precisely are the Maldives?

Okay, I already find my preconceptions arrested. I was thinking maybe the Greater Maldive and the Lesser Maldive, as far as islands go, but in fact, there are 26 coral atolls, which in turn comprise 1,192 islets. 250 of these are islands large enough or at least hospitable enough to be inhabited. However, I was right about the Indian Ocean part. If you look at a map, they seem to drop off the bottom of the west coast of India, while Sri Lanka is a more solid form on the right.

Like so many places now, they've pretty much seen it all as far as the conquerors and colonizers go. First, there were fisherman from the west coast of India and as far away as Sri Lanka. Buddhism imposed itself in an early expansion, but since the 12th century, the Maldives have been Muslim. In fact, a revision of the constitution this year requires that a requirement of citizenship is adherence to Islam. So much for the separation of church and state.

If you think a moment about the Maldives being in the Indian Ocean, you will realize that I am more than a little remiss in not knowing more about them. In December, 2004the Maldives were one of the places that experienced the power of the tsunami that killed and devastated so many in that quarter of the world. 108 people are reported to have died as a result. Some islands were evacuated and six were decimated. The toll on the infrastructure was massive,especially the tourist infrastructure,which is a main source of the present day economy.

But there have been other economies. In the early part of our last millennium, the Maldives actually as good as coined currency for the Arab trading world, in as much as cowry shells, which served as coinage in this realm, literally washed up on its shores.

There is yet another noteworthy thing about the Maldives. They apparently hold the record for being the lowest country in the world. Their highest point is cited at only about 7 1/2 meters above sea level. A charming Guinness Book of World Records sort of fact, until you realize that this means that global warming and other reasons for oceans rising threaten this nation's very existence.

And you thought the current economic crisis was bad...

Monday, September 29, 2008


Leaving T.H. White aside for the moment, I'm going back to my own often overly glib use of English after catching myself using the word "sanguine" a couple of times recently. It is not a word I would say, but it is apparently one I write without hesitation. I would never say "I am not overly sanguine about the prospect." I would say "I am not too confident about that." Or "I am not optimistic."
So why "sanguine"? Does it have a further (or, my fear, an entirely different)meaning than the more commonplace words? It sounds like it has something to do with blood. But perhaps not. Here goes:

Well, I am uncharacteristically close to the mark on this one. The word does mean cheerful or optimistic and it also means "of the color of blood" or red. The connection between the two lies in the medieval theory of the body as having four humors, or fluids--blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile. Charming. Anyway, one's personality was supposed to be controlled by one's dominant humor. If one was ruled by their blood, they were supposed to have a ruddy face and the qualities of courage, hope and the willingness to fall in love. Not too shabby. I hesitate to think what the qualities of one ruled by black bile were.

The dictionary notes that "sanguine" and "sanguinary" are related linguistically but very different in meaning. "Sanguinary" means bloodthirsty. I'd be willing to bet that most of the sanguinary types were, and probably still are, mainly the envious black bile people. Probably only hoping to put a few roses in their cheeks...

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I think that my own last post threw me so much that it's taken me this long to recover. The thing with language is that, apparently, you can never get through it. You try to pin down one tiny aspect and does it reward you for your efforts? No. It leads you on to further conundrums.

This was the little passage that stymied me:
"a small turret corbelled out at parapet level, usually at the corners of a tower."

Never mind that I probably don't properly know what a parapet is. Let's just stick with 'corbelled' for the nonce. (And, yes, I used
nonce deliberately, as it's probably yet another word I will have to research.)

Anyway, I think we can somewhat deduce this. From the above passage, I think we can picture a rounded tower, coming out of square walls. I have no idea how they go about doing this, but at least I have an image. So let's go to a stricter definition:

corbelled: to provide with or support by corbels

So, inevitably, what's a corbel?

Basically its a bracket. It's typically used to support an arch or a cornice. And no, I don't know what a cornice is either. Is this blog really going to be bogged down in architecture? Well, I suppose there are worse fates. We can think of it as something that holds something else up.

The most interesting thing is that 'corbel' has this basis in Middle English, taken from old French. It is completely apt for T. H. White's novel, as the Arthurian period is based in the Norman, ie, French invasion. And corbel apparently comes from the word corp, which means raven. Because the corbels reminded someone of the shape of a raven's beak.

I always love when a somewhat ornate word turns out to have very homely beginnings. Someone saw the shape and thought, "that reminds me of a raven!"

Hope no one minds if I stay in White's universe for a long time, because there are an awful lot of words that I've been glossing over.

Monday, September 8, 2008


This is another one from The Once and Future King, by T.H.White. It is evident from the text that this word relates to warfare or at the very least defense--I'm apparently too lazy to go and look up the exact quote right now. However, I am not too lazy to relate that the only connection I have to the word 'barbican' is "The Barbican School of Modeling", which, unless modeling is a much more aggressive skill than I've been led to believe, is puzzling, to say the least...

Well, thanks to the internet, we actually have easy access to things like "The T.H. White glossary", which will not only happily provide us a definition of 'barbican', but actually cite the page reference, so that I can now quote the sentence it appeared in. Page 41: "The stone part of the drawbridge with its barbican and the bartizans of the gatehouse are in good repair."

I'd noted that "bartizan" in reading, but thought I could gloss over it. Apparently not.

First, let us go to that old Barbican School of Modeling reference, for I feel sure I have now found its source. I actually haven't been so successful finding any listing for such a school, but any reference obviously is trying to link to the Barbican Theatre in London, and get a "posh" connotation by inference. The Barbican Centre in London is all about theatre, dance, music and the like, and so actually rather far from the original definition of the word.


"A tower or other fortification on the approach to a castle or town, especially at a gate or a drawbridge." (thanks,!)

But a certain Pettifer at the T.H. White site goes a little further: "An outer extension to a gateway, increasing the number of barriers which a besieger had to force his way through. The commonest type of barbican is a walled passage projecting from the front of the gatehouse proper."

Got it? Good. Because now we are on to 'bartizan', which the White glossary refers to as "a small turret corbelled out at parapet level, usually at the corners of a tower."


Sunday, August 31, 2008


I've recently started The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I can already tell that this classic fantasy is going to keep me in fodder here for weeks!

I'm of two minds about this post, as it isn't perhaps quite in keeping with what I've set out to do here. This is not a word I'm actually familiar with. However, there's really no reason not to learn it now. Rather than search my mind for vague assumptions, I can search the text for clues. The reference comes from the moment when "Wart", alias King Arthur-to-be, steps into Merlin's home for the first time. One of the many unusual things he sees is "a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible wth glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When it's master came into the room, it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed."

Obviously this is something that once lived and is capable of being stuffed. It sounds like a fish of some sort, though, given the book, I'm tempted to guess it to be a dragon. It doesn't help that this is a British book. For all I know corkindrills are quite common around England. The only other thing I can get out of the name itself is that it might be something like a swordfish, with some sort of odd, sharp, useful beak. Shall we see?

Well, this is actually quite interesting. My web search has led me immediately to "T.H. White FAQ", because this is really the only reference to the word. But that doesn't mean it is just a fanciful word. A Dr. Zoe-Jane Playdon, University of London, leads us straight back to Dickens, where Peggoty, listening to young David Copperfield read from a book on crocodiles asks, "Now let me hear some more about the Crorkindills." Playdon thinks the allusion may be a deliberate echoing of the David/Peggoty relationship in the Wart/Arthur relationship. It's very interesting to me as I continue with this book to think of Dickens as White's spiritual father.

Peggoty gets the word wrong. But so, apparently did pretty much everyone else. "Crocodile" is one of those words that didn't really become rock solid for awhile. Other posts on this site remind us that there is an evolution of the word "calcatrix, cockatrice, corcodrile, crocodile."

Now to make this even more of a wonderful muddle, another poster has shown that the confusion lies not just in the way people heard the word, but even in the way they imagined the animal. In his novel, White is imagining a half-fanciful medieval, or even pre-medieval England, where a crocodile would have been a largely mythical sort of creature. In this poster's thought, the reference is to the confusion between what we think of as the crocodile, and the creature who ate its eggs, a Nile mongoose called Ichneumon, which was translated, somewhat improbably, in Latin to calcatrix. Since I can't hope to be any more lucid than he, here are John Dyson of Indiana University's words on the subject. "Both the words and the animals were so exotic in Europe that a truly bizarre bestiary grew up around them, occasionally fusing the two into a single animal with a single name. The "r" in crocodile wandered all around the word."

I suppose we are still not really privy to what White was thinking when he used this word. But as with so much in language, it is packed to the gills with shadowy hints and implications.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Hapless. Hopeless. Right? But even if so, what would it mean to be feckful? Full of feck? What's feck?...

'Feckless' does mean lacking in character or deternination. Feeble. Weak. And it turns out that 'feck' is an obsolete word meaning value, or effect. Wonder why that word went out of our general knowledge, when 'feckless' didn't. Although I admit that to use feckless in everyday conversation is also uncommon.

Delving further into the word feck, I find all kinds of interesting tidbits. For one thing, at the time of Robert Louis Stevenson's writing, which was not all that long ago, the meaning was common enough that, in his short story Thrawn Janet, he refers to a 'feck o' books', meaning a quantity or great quantity of books. And Robert Burns uses the phrase 'the feck o' my life,' meaning the greater part of my life.

The word, both its appearance and disappearance all become clear or clearer when you understand that feck is a kind of Scottish variant or dialect of 'effect'. Which was probably obvious to anyone with a more sensitive ear than mine. So a feckless person is an ineffective person. Feck and feckless drop from our more common language in favor of ineffective, or ineffectual, and effect or effective.

One place where feck has not dropped into the background as of yet is Ireland. Probably understandable in a country that uses the English language but is in rebellion against English domination. Also a country with strong Celtic ties to Scotland and a history of intermarriage.

In Ireland, 'fecking' is used to hold the same place in a sentence that a harsher expletive we all know is used. But it doesn't actually have the sexual connotation of tht word. I am guessing that it is a little like substituting 'darn' for 'damn', in that you can use it in the same way, and it can substitute for a word some might find offensive, but isn't actually connected in terms of meaning.

Well, I sense that I'm getting in over my head here, speaking of matters I know not of, so I'll stop for now.

Friday, August 15, 2008


I'm learning as this blog unfolds that the words are finding me more than I'm finding them. This blog is responsible for my reconnecting with an old friend, more details of which can be found under comments at 'revenant'. And I am very surprised how often that word has come up in recent weeks--who'd have thunk it? Anyway, my old friend signed on as 'okapi' and yeah, I think I have a pretty good idea what an okapi is. It's like some kind of African gazelle, right? I kind of left that to dangle for awhile, but then the word came up in some crime fiction I was reading--I mean as some sort of metaphor, and I thought, when is an okapi used as a metaphor to describe something else, for pete's sake? So it is apparently now time to find out what an okapi truly is.

Okay, it really is a shame that I am not tech savvy enough to download a picture or two onto this blog, because, well, a fleet-footed gazelle this thing is not. Basically, it looks a bit like a zebra that has changed its mind somewhere in the process of transformation, because its black and white striping only runs up its legs, while the trunk of its body is all brown. It looks like it should be some distant cousin of the zebra, but in fact it is related to the giraffe, and its head bears this out. It also has a long, black prehensile tongue, which is apparently something shared in common with giraffes, who also use theirs to get a handle on leaves and twigs.

A couple more things about okapis. Their fur is oily and very velvety to the touch. Their ears rotate independently so that they can pick up sound both coming from behind and in front. They hide from humans, and this wise practice means that they were among the very last of the large mammals of Africa to be 'discovered', in the early 1900s, although of course native peoples knew of their existence all along.

Their home is the Ituri Rainforest which lies in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I thought this name sounded familiar, and sure enough I had heard about it some years ago, because it is also the home of the Mbuti pygmies. Which perhaps doesn't add much to the discussion but is still interesting.

Monday, August 11, 2008


I was privileged to take part in the launch of the 2008 edition of the literary mag Ping Pong ( this past Saturday. This journal has its home at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, which is where the event took place. (Fans of Miller, the library, or Big Sur will be happy to know that the library survived the recent fires there, though it was a narrow escape and fire season isn't over in California.) We heard part of a fine story called "Long Distance" by Richard Lange, which featured, among other things, a gentleman with an ascot. On the trip back, one of our party was honest enough to admit that he didn't know what an ascot was. Now this is truly in the spirit of this blog, and even if I thought I knew perfectly well what an ascot was, this would still be sufficient reason for me to post about it here.

However, more in the spirit of this blog, it turns out that I may well think I know what it is without really having more than a vague sense of it. One of the other people in the car said, "It's a large cravat." Jim paused and said, "That doesn't help." She then asked, "Did you ever watch Gilligan's Island?". "Yes." "Do you remember what Thurston Howell the Third wore around his neck?" "Oh, now I understand."

So, yes, it's neckwear, and I'm thinking of the scarflike, billowy kind. But the more I think about it, the less I can visualize it. And what does it have to do with Ascot, the horse race? (It is a horse race, isn't it? I feel sure they must be related.)And what exactly is a cravat?

...Well, according to Ralph Lauren (and who, really, could be more authoritative on this score?), an ascot is a man's scarf worn looped under the chin for a sophisticated style. And it does indeed originate as a style from the horse races at Ascot Heath, which began under the reign of Queen Anne in 1711. The RL Style Guide, though copious, is not so clear on when the ascot became known as suitable racetrack wear.

And, since we have him so handy, we may as well consult dear Ralph on the matter of the cravat as well. He or at least his website says that nowadays, any style of neckwear may be described as a cravat. Well, this is not the rigorous, or semi-rigorous definition that this blog looks for. It is much more interesting to know, also per RL, that this was the prototype of the modern necktie, and was introduced to the French Regency by visiting Croatian cavalrymen who wore colorful pieces of fabric around their necks.

Can you see this scene of the French Regency hanging out at court, and the Croatian cavalry making an appearance, and everyone fancying their ties?

The mind boggles.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Argot, Jargon, Slang

About a week ago, I used the word 'argot' when I became aware that I didn't know what I was talking about. I immediately thought, 'Confessions of Ignorance, here I come!' However, I was away and time passed. Then tonight, I was at a discussion group I go to, and a man whose great strength and sometimes great failing is his linguistic obsession brought up the very word and was able to define it for us.

So let's start from what I would have guessed. I would have said that 'argot' was a sort of slang or dialect.

What he said was that 'argot' is a specialized language used in a social setting. 'Jargon' is a specialized language in a professional setting. And slang is actually something that has already passed from the language. We recognize something as slang when we no longer use it. In common use, of course, we think of slang as being something different. We use it to mean a kind of relaxation or alternative to 'proper English'. Likewise, what might seem an 'argot' to one person might be 'jargon' to another. Someone raised the point that a thief's language might be argot to someone who is not a thief, but jargon, i.e., a professional, specialized language, to a thief.

Okay,(But 'okay' is also slang that doesn't recognize itself as such yet, according to our expert.) let's see what the dictionary has to say on this matter.

Argot: a specialized language or set of idioms used by a particular group. And they use the very example we mentioned--thieves' argot. But in the next definition we have 'slang or jargon used by a particular group.'

So we differentiate, only to have it all jumbled together again.

Jargon: Whoa! Yes, it is a specialized or technical language of a trade, profession or similar group. But it can also mean nonsensical, meaningless, incoherent talk. Or a hybrid language, like pidgen. Or having a pretentious vocabulary, convoluted phrasing, and vague meaning.

Interesting how a a very precise language may come to sound vague or meaningless to those who are not within the circle.

Slang: Well, again it is used interchangeably with both argot and jargon. But as my friend said, the salient characteristic is that it is short-lived coinage. In fact, I think he was saying that the 'sl' in slang stands for that. The idea of slang is to replace the standard term in favor of raciness, irreverence or humor. You can see how it might generally be short-lived, but how certain terms that really hit the mark might be around for awhile.

Monday, July 21, 2008


I think this will be the last of my Satanic Verses posts. Towards the end of the book, Rushdie uses the word 'deliquescent' twice. What I substitute in in somthing like 'languid' or 'limp'. Let's see how close I get.


To melt away or to disappear as if by melting.


Relating to a solid substance that absorbs moisture from the air and becomes liquid.

Generally, I'm close to the target, but why didn't I hear the 'liquid' in that word?

Friday, July 4, 2008


Okay--still moving along slowly through The Satanic Verses, and have come across this word twice. I would have said that it meant something like 'haunted' or related to the spirit world, but I think I came across the phrase, 'revenant spirits', which would seem to be a bit redundant. Shall we see?

Well, it's related.


One who returns after a lengthy absence. Which would make a phrase of Rushdie's like 'the revenant tide' make sense.

One who returns after death. Which would make my own understanding of the word comprehensible.

What strikes me now is that though these are two very different experiences, we can sometimes conflate the two, so that the unexpected appearance of someone long absent can feel like someone returning from the spirit world.

I've had that experience recently.

Friday, June 20, 2008


After Salman Rushdie's visit to our town, I've taken up Satanic Verses for another try. Early on, I've come across the phrase like a 'disgusted turbot', and realized that I have absolutely no idea what a turbot is. I realize that the way I've glossed it so far in life is to try to fit it into a sentence without caring about it, so in this case I would try tureen and turnip as general associations, without stopping to ask whether it makes sense. This one is a stumper. Online dictionary, please enlighten me.

It is a European flatfish, highly prized as food.

Why do I have the feeling of 'Oh, yes--of course'?

Like I was ever going to come up with this.

I still don't have any idea how a turbot looks disgusted.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I was starting a story recently one of the characters informed another that she is in “the Belvedere”. This is the kind of thing that happens in first drafts--the characters say something and I figure out later what they mean and whether they are talking nonsense. I have no idea what “the Belvedere” might be, but what I was using it to mean was actually very precise--I pictured it to mean a kind of spacious walkway, in front of impressive old buildings, such as that area in Bath that they film in all the Jane Austen period movies that are located there. I am pretty sure as I write this that I am rather far from the mark. But rather than just look it up and change it in the story, I thought it would make a good post.

…I'd say I pretty much struck out on this one. It actually means a small roofed structure, open on one or more sides, and very often on top of another building, from which one can see a beautiful view. (Bel--beautiful, and vedere--to see: elementary, my dear Watson.) The only possible excuse I have is that there are some very famous Belvederes, notably the villa and court at the Vatican, which has a famous district of the same name around it. There are actually a lot of grand buildings and forts, etc. that have grabbed the name of Belvedere, obviously to imply status of some sort. But none of them are really quite what I was thinking of. Perhaps I’ll keep it though—it may allude to a fashionable district without my having to spell it out in detail right away.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Okay, I think this one should be fairly straightforward, but it's come up twice in my recent reading, and I realize that I am not quite comfortable with my understanding. I think it means something like to be separated from one's race or culture, or homogenized into some raceless state. Now it's time to search for the definition.

Well, it's close, but as I suspected, not quite right. What it really means is to be uprooted, or pulled out by the roots. The base of the word is a French word for root, not race, although I suppose they could be related. The second definition, to be displaced from one's native custom or environment, is closer to my thought, but all that means is that when I'm reading the word in a sentence, I've been able to puzzle out an approximate meaning that usually fits.

It's not always an innocent word. It can also mean to eradicate or to cut off from existence.

Deracination. Think carrots being pulled and the concept will stay with you.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


As in "Artist manque" or any other fill-in-the-blank manque. I believe there should be an accent over the 'e', but I don't know how to do that on this screen. My sense is that this means not quite the real thing, but I don't know in what sense. A fake? Someone who aspires to be the real thing? My sense of the word has always hinted at the over-the-top or outrageous, but this may just be a reading into the word...Here goes.

Not too far off. Manque: unfulfilled or frustrated in one's ambitions, as an artist manque, or writer manque. A "would-be" (Is that the same as a wannabe?) Ambitious.

I think I probably conflated outre into my understanding of the word, as it doesn't seem to suggest anything of the outrageous in it. Fake isn't quite right either, but I think I did catch something of the flavor of the word.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


The new anniversary blend from Peet's Coffee, which I bought a few days ago, includes beans from Malawi as a key ingredient. I realized as the barista was grinding them for me, that this is yet another place I've bluffed my way through life about. I would like to just say I really have no idea, in case I guess too badly, but as this is supposed to be a confession of sorts, I'll posit my guesses. I have kind of assumed that this was an African nation, but as I think about it, my confidence wavers. Is it actually an island between Africa and the Middle East? Is it a South Pacific Island? Okay, I give up--just what the hell is it?

Okay it is in Africa. Whew! But it's a tiny sliver in the southeast, not in the northeast where I had mentally placed it. It is surrounded on three sides by Mozambique, which I feel that I could have confidently placed in Africa, though where would have been hazy. It used to be called Nyasaland, which doesn't shed much further light for me. It is sadly one of the world's least developed countries, with most of the country living through subsistence agriculture. (We must hope that Peet's paid those farmers a generous price for their beans!) There seem to be different theories about where the name comes from but one at least is that it derives from the Maravi Kingdom, which flourished there between the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth century.

There is a familiar name that comes up in relation to Malawi: David Livingston. (He of "Doctor Livingston, I presume" fame.) He visited Lake Nyasa, as Lake Malawi was then called, in 1859, and called attention to the effects of the slave trade there: warfare between opposing tribes had led many people to be sold to the Arab and Swahili traders on the Indian Coast. As with so much of the world, the British Empire ended up in control of the area for a time. It became a British protectorate in 1891, and was referred to as Nyasaland from 1907 to 1964. Malawi is its name since independence in 1964. I was somewhat surprised, given its poverty, that it is a multiparty democracy under the constitution of 1995, and that it has a popularly elected president, whose term runs for five years. Its hold on such democracy has recently been shaky--let's hope it keeps a firm grip in the coming years.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Ant's Breath

After a recent ant invasion in my home, I started thinking about them more closely. I know that I must have learned this in some biology class eons ago, but I found myself wondering, how do ants breathe? It was hard to imagine the cumbersome paraphenelia of breathing encompassed in such tiny bodies. If you were sensitive enough, could you feel an ant's breath? I fear that if I could, I would never be able to carry out the wholesale destruction that clearing your house of ants requires again.

Well, thanks to David Richman of New Mexico State University, I now know. It would be more succinct to just paste in his answer, but for the purposes of learning a little something myself, I will paraphrase what he said. Ants do not have lungs, nor do they carry oxygen through blood as we do. Instead, they have a system of tubes, which are called tracheae and tracheoles. Through these, oxygen from the atmosphere is carried into their tissues and, as he says, almost to the cellular level. The opening to the outside air are called spiracles. The gas exchange is largely by diffusion (yeah, yeah, future topic). In larger insects, there is a more complex process called ventilation, aided by muscles contracting and expanding along the tracheae, but ants are smaller and get by on a few spiracles. There are usually valves that keep the spiracle open or closed. Ants apparently do have something like blood, but its not used for carrying oxygen. The question is, or the questions are, is it really 'blood', what are it's functions, and what color is it?
But that's all for another day. Thank you, David!

Monday, May 5, 2008


I know-or think I know- that it's a spice, (what precisely is the definition of a spice?) and I also know it's very costly. I've certainly eaten it. I've even sold it in one of my past lives as a cheese, wine and etc. salesperson. Beyond that, what do I know about saffron? Nothing.

Until now.

The first thing I've learned is that it comes from the stigmas of crocuses. Is that the plural? (Future posts may be on a.) the crocus and b.) stigma in general. I never thought of stigma being so, well, floral.) Apparently, the crocus only has three stigmas per flower, which are also referred to as saffron threads. It takes a whopping 13, 125 threads to make a single ounce (I am skeptical that anyone has really taken the time to count the threads), so you can see why saffron is the world's most expensive spice. Oh, here's another way to visualize it--one acre yields 10 pounds... Think about it. An acre would generate a whole lot more than ten pounds of potatoes, folks.

Saffron is also a familiar color, and even after researching this, I remain unclear as to whether the flavor is as important to the gourmand's hot pursuit of it as the aesthetic stamp it gives to a dish. Certainly there is a consensus that a little goes a long way, which, given the cost, is just as well. I’ve also learned that it has medicinal uses, and that it was used as acure for melancholy, as well as an aphrodisiac. (Is there anything that hasn’t been used as an aphrodisiac?)

I thought I remembered something about saffron as a color of Buddhist robes, and I was right. I am still not sure if the color has a sacred meaning or not. It seems to have accumulated many meanings over time, and covers a wider section of the globe than I might have thought. Most conclude that saffron has Persian origins, and so it is not surprising that it spread as far as China along the trade routes. But I was a little more surprised to learn that it may have also ended up in Ireland. Well, there seems to be some dispute about that, because due to the nature of how one obtains saffron, it was always going to claim a high price, and when until possibly now could the Irish afford it?

Tumeric seems to have often been used as a familiar substitute, but I don't know if it fools the tongue.

I have a feeling that there is a lot more to say about saffron, so please talk amongst yourselves.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Quite rashly, having just started one blog, I have now decided to start a second. There is a catalyst, but in fact, I think the idea for this has been percolating for a long time. Tonight , I saw a preview for a show about a dogfight over Guadalcanal. I realized that, like so many places on the globe, I had little idea where it actually was. In the spirit of correcting my own vague sense of geography, as well as so many things, I decided that I would find out a bit more about it.

Guadalcanal: my uninformed guess. I knew it had something to do with World War II, but I had never bothered to find out more. I realized tonight that I had somehow conflated the Panama Canal and Guam (subject of a future post) as my mental reference point for the region, though as I thought about it more logically, I knew that it must have been a site in the Pacific Campaign of World War II .

No doubt should have watched the show about the dogfight, but here's what I learned:

Guadalcanal is not a canal, as one might reasonably suppose, but an island. Now this is interesting--it was named by the Spaniards who "discovered it" for a town back home in the province of Sevilla in Andalucia, Spain. The home town did not have a canal either. the word is a loose transliteration of an Arabic phrase, Wad-al-Khanat, which meant, and, I suppose, still means "Valley of the Stalls" after the refreshment stalls set up there, in the hometown, during Muslim rule. So an island colonized by the Spanish is named after a town colonized by the Muslims. And no canals figure into any of it at all.

Our consciousness of it as place of any consequence, comes from the Pacific campaign. It is jungly island among the Solomons (how did they become the Solomons?) that contains their capital, called Honiara. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese apparently saw the Solomons, as well as other Pacific islands, as a place where they could effectively stop communication between Australia and New Zealand on one side, and the U.S on the other. They attempted to build an airfield here. In the jungle. Can you imagine? Well, you probably can.

The Allies got wind of this. The first amphibious landing of the war happened right here. The battle that followed was for the high stakes of Pacific supremacy, but the Allies won it, and eventually drove the Japanese into the sea. Renamed the airfield "Henderson Field" after an aviator killed at the Battle of Midway. However, this didn't stop the Japanese from pressing the island very heavily, and as result, the shipping lanes between Guadalcanal and two adjoining islands became known as Ironbottom Sound, becaause so many ships from both sides were sunk there. I found it rather poignant to learn that before the war, this was known as "Sealark Sound". Happier times.