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.