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.