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...