Tuesday, December 28, 2010


This post really arises out of our ongoing group reading of Finnegans Wake, where the word "demiurge" came up, probably via Joseph Campbell, and made us all scratch our heads a bit last time. But in trying to get a handle on it, I thought of "demimonde" and also "demitasse". I realized I'd been fudging them all a bit, because I don't really know the meaning of that initial prefix. One member of our group was fairly certain that a demiurge was a sort of god. I am thinking that demimonde is a kind of subworld, like, for instance, the underworld of crme, and a demitasse is a kind of small cup, so maybe 'sub' is the general meaning here. It's quite possible that I am not only wrong about the underlying meaning but about the more general meaning of the words themselves, so I suppose it really is time to just plunge in...

Did I say 'half'? I really did think half at one point, but since we already have hemi and semi, I didn't think that could possibly be right. What gives?

Well, hemi, semi and demi do all mean half. They probably all relate back to one of those Protoindoeuropean roots, but they are filtered through, respectively, Greek, Latin and Old French. Demimonde, interestingly comes from and old Alexandre Dumas fil comedy, in which the demimonde is "half the world". It is "the link between good and bad society ... the world of compromised women, a social limbo, the inmates of which ... are perpetually struggling to emerge into the paradise of honest and respectable ladies". One of these denizens is called a demimondaine.

A demitasse is, fairly straightforwardly, a halfsized cup.

But things are never simple. It turns out that demiurge, the impetus for this blog post, does not come from "demi" at all. It comes from "demos", the common people, and "ergos", work. The demiourgos was a public worker in Greece, and this was sometimes used as a title for a magistrate. Kind of like a public servant in our parlance, I expect. In Platonic thought, the maker of the world was  such a magisterial being, a subordinate to the Supreme Being and not always working for the good. (Look around--are you surprised?)

I did discover a term I had never heard of before: the hemidemisemiquaver, or a 64th note. You've heard of a quarter note, right? Think about it...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's not that I've run out of ignorance, but...

...I have run out of time, at least till Christmas is over. So I thought I might leave a couple of links to things you might be ignorant of. How's that for a concept? Both do relate to our current festive season, by the way.

First, a Christmas tale from a blog that's new to me, but apparently has a rabid fan base. Can't remember exactly how I came across Hyperbole and a Half--was it you Kathleen?--but I know I'll be following it hereafter. (Yes, the picture has been swiped from that blogger. I hope that the fact that I'm advertising it will suffice.)

And then, though I've already posted about this on another blog, I can't resist repeating that we are all having a rollicking good time over at Do Some Damage, reading Christmas Noir--or at least each writer's idea of what Christmas Noir might look like. You may see some familiar names there as things roll along, and a certain power hitter has the Christmas day honors.

Happy holidays everyone. I'll be checking in  at all the usual places.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Lincoln Place Apartments

Okay, let's call this a departure, as it's not a typical "Confessions of ignorance" post, but I think it fits within the broader reaches of the idea. We'll see.

I am not a Facebook user. Why that in particular should seem a bridge too far, I don't know, but I have at least for now decided to forego the entertainment I could have by stalking my friends in favor of other pursuits. The main drawback I can see is that in this world of searching out long lost acquaintances, people are typing in my name, and coming up blank. Well, not exactly blank--I believe that what they actually get is an attractive young black woman, whom they would probably be much happier having as a Facebook friend anyway.

There are one or two people I wouldn't mind connecting with again out of the past, though. And on just that whim, I tried to search out the identity of a boy I went to kindergarten with before we both moved away. It's not too likely that I will be successful at this, because I don't even remember his last name, although that might come back to me--you never know.

Anyway, purely on a whim I did some googling around our old grade school, and when that proved fruitless, I decided that somehow researching the old apartment complex where we both happened to live might help. It didn't. I mean why would it, it's not as if he signed the lease.

But, as is sometimes the way with fruitless searches, the secondary rewards can compensate you to a degree for the loss of the primary ones. Because just by chance I came across a blog post about those very apartments. And here is where my subject and the theme of this blog finally come together.

I didn't know, for instance that when I was between the ages of about three and six that I had lived in a housing project. This isn't because I was ashamed about my past, or tried to block it out, it's just that I didn't think of it as what we've come have as the stereotyped image of a project, which I suppose would include the adjectives 'scary, unsafe, graffiti-scrawled and probably in a skyscraper. These two-story buildings with spacious lawns in between were none of that. But their building was funded with section 608 subsidies by the Federal Housing Authority. Section 608 was born out of the emergency need for housing for returning vets after the war and was thought of as War Housing Insurance. Lots of scandal around it too, but that's another story.)

Anyway, my parents were part of that wave of veterans who married and came to L.A. and began starting a family as they, meaning mostly my dad, began his post service career path. This housing complex in still low-priced Venice, though still near to my grandmother in more tony Santa Monica must have seemed a fine first step.

Here's a couple more things I was ignorant of, though. First of all, this complex was apparently designed by Ralph Vaughn, one of the few African-Americans architects then--or now. The issue was apparently so charged that project manager Heth Wharton acted as a kind of beard. One of the developers of the project said that they hadn't known Vaughn was African-American and it wouldn't have mattered if they had. They later received death threats for working with a black architect, but were not deterred. The full story is

Seems like enough to know about a place you once lived in, right? Well, maybe, but in this case, no. Because one of the most important events to happen in this place happened in this our current millennium. In August of 2005, the tenants of the Lincoln Place Apartments were treated to the largest single day eviction lockout in L.A. history. By then, the property owner was AIMCO, one of the largest apartment owning companies in the country. Predictably, they wanted to tear down this complex and put up expensive condominiums.

Okay, enough holding out on my source for all this stuff. You can read the blog and see the pictures here.  There is a little film about the eviction that is quite moving. You'll be happy to learn that the story has a happy, if ambivalent ending.

For me, of course there are other reasons to be moved. The touching thing is how little any of this has changed. There might be a slightly different demographic these days, but apparently the way of life that the architecture was meant to facilitate remained intact for almost half a century. It is a bit uncanny to see, actually.

It's as if I never left.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Just woke up thinking of this word for some reason. I think I was thinking of using the phrase "arms akimbo" in a sentence. Then I realized that I didn't really know if I had it right or not. At the present time, I think it means with arms or legs crossed and folded. But I think when I used to read it, I thought it meant "strewn about all over the place". Maybe it means neither.

Where does it come from? It sounds like it could be African, but maybe that's because it has a sound association to the unfortunate Little Black Sambo. Or maybe it's one of those words from India that migrated with returning soldiers. Well, with my luck at guessing such things, it is probably Old English. Let's see...

Darn. How can I be so right about being so wrong? It is in fact, Middle English--kenebowe kene- (origin unknown--hate when that happens!) +bowe which is "bow" or "bend". Like elbow. And in fact elbows have a lot to do with it, because akimbo is really about the elbows pointing out to the side with hands on hips. Yeah, yeah--I got that wrong too.

However, there is a bright side. Turns out that the ever provocative Anatole Liberman has written an article about the problematic etymology of the word for the OUP. Hooray! I advise you to stop reading this highly speculative blog and read his article here.

If you must choose to read on, I will pose a quiet note of contradiction, though. Liberman says:

"A third putative source of akimbo is Gaelic cam “bent, crooked”; the English adverb kim-kam “all awry, all askew” has been attested...The suggestion that just one component of akimbo is Celtic has little to recommend it."

Well, maybe. I find it interesting, though, that I had some underlying sense of the 'all awry, all askew' meaning, even if it did not pan out. Does that come from my Irish roots? Or, more probably, has this shadowy secondary meaning haunted the word all along?

Mr. Liberman, I hope that some day, these questions will be answered.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Okay, enough about Spam and enough about spam. "Salient" is actually taking a step backwards. Sure, I think I know what I'm saying when I mention the salient point about something. To me I mean, the crucial point, or the most revealing point--something like that. But when I was researching resilience a few posts back, I noticed  a passing reference in the etymology of the word that "salient" was actually a relative. In short, we have another of those salire words, meaning that somehow it probably incorporates the concept of leaping or bouncing. Right? The bouncing point? The leaping point? What? I wouldn't believe it was the same root, but apparently it is. Time to find out how.

So first things first. I am not too far off base in my sense of the word, because "salient" means conspicuous, noticeable, prominent. It is what juts out above the surface. It is, I suppose, what leaps out at one, which connects it to its other salire relatives. It has a military meaning, as when a part of the forward line pushes forward into enemy territory, and it has a geometrical meaning, where an angle of less than a 180 degrees is a salient angle. It has a meaning in heraldry, where it applies to creatures that are leaping or springing. Speaking of springing creatures, the superorder that includes frogs and toads and related fossils is called Salientia.

But the salient point in all this is, well, the salient point. According to the Online etymology dictionary, the "salient point" first appeared in English in the 1670s. The salient point is the heart of an embryo,which seems to leap. It goes all the way back to Aristotle, as the punctum saliens in his writings. "Hence," as the dictionary entry so eloquently ends, "the 'starting point' of anything."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Spam--Part 2

Before we entirely leave the topic of SPAM- part one, I will confess that I failed to pursue my research far enough to include the classic Monty Python skit on same. For those of you who haven't seen this error corrected by astute blog commenters, I have included the YouTube above.  I have actually left out a lot of SPAM lore and culture, and this blog acknowledges that it has hit only the tip of the SPAM iceberg.

But before this image imprints itself too deeply, let's quickly move on to the other meaning of spam. Of course we all know what it is by now, though I will attempt to define it more precisely.  How did the email junk mail we love to hate come to adopt this name? And how does electronic spam really work? How effective is it? Do people really leap to buy Viagra through these means?

Well, as it turns out, that Monte Python skit is more relevant than I knew. (Go ahead, check it out if you haven't, because what follows will be a spoiler otherwise.) In the skit, the cast of characters slowly drown out all other requests off the breakfast menu in a dense insistence on Spam, Spam, Spam! as breakfast ingredient of choice. And at least the Wikipedia article I read says that the skit alludes to the "preponderance of imported canned meats" in the post-WWII United Kingdom as it struggled to get its agriculture back up to steam. So SPAM itself became a kind of spam, although in this case, it seems the real villain was canned corned beef from Argentina, which unfortunately for Hormel, does not provide such a good acronym.

Of course, all this was ripe to make a good metaphor for a bulk electronic message system that has tended to gradually drown out more legitimate or at least wanted messages unless some sort of filter is put in place. I was not surprised to learn that spam comprises a good percentage of email, but even so, I was flabbergasted that as a conservative estimate, MAAWG, the Message Anti-Abuse Working Group, has spam as taking up 80 to 85 percent of the world's email. Our piddling little conversations about our personal lives and passions seem pretty meaningless in this context.

SPAM wasn't just a metaphor in its early usage, though. Apparently, there were a lot of Monty Python aficionados on the early web who used to fill up electronic bulletin boards and the like with the word "Spam" over and over in order to force readers to scroll and scroll to get to more relevant content. Sometimes, they even put whole portions of the skit's text in the boards. It was often an insiders vs. outsiders tactic, forcing the newcomers to give up and leave. Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans used to attack each others' fan boards in this way.

Okay, I think we can all understand the role of spam as an annoyance factor on early message boards and games. But to consider its commercial value, we have to consider its relation to email. Why do people spam? Do they actually make money? Is there really a sucker born every minute? And do they all have a computer?

Well, as far as I can tell, the beauty of spamming is that there is no real cost to the spammer--the cost of spam is borne elsewhere.  I learned the term "barriers to entry" in the course of writing this up. Barriers to entry are the obstacles someone seeking to take part in a market faces. They may have to pay start up fees, get professional credentials and licenses, or be forced to compete with a larger rival that has access to better pricing, etc. Apart from the cost of an internet connection and a computer, a spammer has basically no barrier to entry. His--or her--profit comes from sending out an email ad to millions of people and then pocketing the money from the tiny one or two percent of people who actually reply back. When the numbers are this high, even a small amount of response can translate into a decent living. Here's a blog post on how Viagra spam works, that I found quite informative. One key element is that Pfizer still controls the market on the product in the U.S., but in other countries this patent has expired, which enables them to make a generic Viagra at a fraction of the cost.

According to this MSNBC article, often those in the shadowy spam world are affiliated in some hard to trace way to legitimate companies, which enjoy getting lists of potential clients as well as anyone. Put in this light, spamming doesn't really seem any more dubious than other corners of world finance we have come to know and love, such as the bundling of mortgages for unaccountable entities to hold.

Let me admit that, every once in awhile, I do enjoy a good halfway literate scammer. I doubt that putting your writing talents to work actually adds much to the income flow, but at least the results aren't tedious. Here is one that's been making the rounds of late. You may have read it. If not, enjoy...

Hey Family!

Just wanted to write you and let you know, how the degree program I tried out went.
Well, six weeks later, I graduated, finished & received my Masters Degree with no study required and %100 verifiable.

Yeah mom, I know you and Dad doubted it at first, but this turned out to be %100 legit. This opportunity was given to me because of the professional experience and previous course work I had accumulated.

I’m so excited mom and dad, this was a life altering opportunity & for once in my life I took advantage of it.

I already have jobs, that wouldn’t have given me a chance before, now they are calling off the hook! This really is a godsend.

Tell Susan and Cousin Joey that they better hurry up and call that # I gave them the other day.

Again these are the degrees they offer, BA, BSC, MA, MSC,MBA and PhD, and the number to call is (I'm deleting the number lest I unwittingly become an accomplice) Tell them to leave a brief message with their name, the degree they are interested in and their day and evening phone numbers. They will contact you soon after,

Anyway, much love, and tell the rest of the family I said hello

Your son,


Mom, why don’t you send this email to a few of your friends? My professor told me that if we send over referrals the school can give us a scholarship.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

SPAM--Part one

Okay, I know what it is in both its senses, but I also have a few questions about each. As talking about both kinds at once could get a bit lengthy for all of us, I thought I'd make this post about the one that comes in a can.

So first to what I think I know. I believe I did at one time hear what all those letters meant, and if memory serves (it usually doesn't), SPAM was a wartime protein supplement, perhaps for troops that otherwise would have had little of it.

Another story I've heard and not yet tracked down is that SPAM first turned up on Hawaii and perhaps other Pacific Islands during WWII, and that ever after the native islanders have had a particular fondness for it.

... Well, it seems that some of these rumors were true. SPAM, though, is not really an acronym where every letter corresponds to a word. It is simply Hormel's condensation of Spiced Ham. It was originally called Hormel Spiced Ham, but didn't thrive under this more conventional name. SPAM, then, was perhaps an early instance of 'rebranding'. As SPAM has become a kind of cultural icon in its own right, some amusing 'backronyms' have sprung up, including Something Posing as Meat, and Special Product from Austin Minnesota.

The story about SPAM becoming popular in Hawaii and Southeast Asia seems to be correct. It's origin in 1937 could not have been more timely for its broad dissemination in this part of the world. What's interesting to me is the different status it has come to have in the U.S. and the Pacific in the intervening years. Stateside, it is snubbed as something that poor people eat, while in Hawaii, South Korea and other areas in that region it has been incorporated into the cuisine without ridicule. It seems to me that it is just a different kind of 'cold cut', which formed the basis of many of my childhood sandwiches, at least the ones that weren't peanut butter and jelly.

If you would like to overcome your own internal snob, at least for a day, why not watch the video posted here? At the very least, the host seems like a very nice young man and able demonstrator of cooking a dish that, who knows, might one day save your life...

Monday, November 22, 2010


I heard President Obama say in a recent interview that he was impressed by the resilience of the American people in a difficult time, and though at times he had taken his innings, he felt that if the American people could bounce back, the very least he could do was be resilient too.

As a matter of fact, in doing a little spot googling searching for that exact quote, which I failed to find, I see that resilience is a kind of leit motif in his thinking and speaking. He has called New Orleans a national symbol of resilience, and praised India for its resilience too.

Of course, like you, I do know what resilience means. It means the ability to bounce back, usually after adversity of some sort. What I don't know is where it originally comes from. The re-, of course, means "again" in some sense, but what is the 'silience' all about? I actually have no clue. It doesn't really connect to anything else I know. Well, unless you have a better idea, I guess it's time to take a look...

Well, well, well, if it isn't our old friend salire, "to jump, to leap", come back to haunt us.  (No, not Salieri, that's a different old friend.) Sure, we are thrown off the scent by the fact that our last encounter was a -sult ending (consult, insult, result, desultory) and this is a -sil connection, neither of which sound all that much like -sal.

Whatever. I suppose all that leaping around blurs the vowels a bit. But just to be clear--

That's Antonio Salieri, the musical rival of Mozart's, who probably got a bit of a bum rap from popular history when it came to his fellow musician's death. Let's hope that if he knew the rumors, he proved resilient in living them down.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I had another word or two in mind to explore, but this one popped up while I was watching an old Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett last night. It was a dramatization of Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle".

Of course I know what the word means now. I'll forego posting an image of one until the end, in case you haven't read or seen this tale. But it's odd that I still don't associate the word with the object. If someone were to ask me what a carbuncle was before this refresher course, I would probably have guessed it was something like a boil or a goiter--in other words, some protuberence on the human body. So let's see exactly how I got this impression.

...Well it's very interesting. I suppose we've come far enough now that I can reveal that the carbuncle of the story is a jewel, "a forty-grain weight of crystalized carbon". In other words, a blue diamond. Or maybe not, as some have pointed out that Holmes never refers to the jewel as such. But my original guess about the boils would also be right. That's because the word has taken off in two very different directions. Once again, it all goes back to etymology.

"Carbuncle" comes from Latin and means, "little coal". (That "-cle" on the end turns out to be diminutive.) It was first used to describe gems of a fiery color, such as rubies and garnets. (I guess it's assumed that the little coal is glowing.) Only later did it come to describe an inflamed sore or boil, which like a coal, though not so much like a jewel, is glowing red. You would think that a jewel and a boil would be about as far apart, as concepts go, as you could get, but apparently the associative mind does or did make that leap at some point. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mind takes it even further, making the red jewel glow blue...

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is actually a nice little holiday story and as we are rapidly advancing on that season, you might like to either read or listen to here. And when you've done that, you might enjoy some interesting questions about the story that I happened upon here.

  (Well, it was either this or  a picture of a flaming pustule...)

Friday, November 5, 2010


Thanks to my last post,  I found a financial word of the day email and subscribed to it. Couldn't hurt, I thought. "Bellweather" was the very first one, which did not, shall we say, instill confidence. In one of my rare moments of non-ignorance, I actually know that the word is "bellwether", not "bellweather". I know this almost exclusively because I read the Connie Willis book of the same name. The book is not her best (I'd say that honor might go to To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book, though friends report that her latest ones, Black Out and it's sequel, the just released All Clear, about WWII England are up to that high bar.) Bellwether, though, is really good in its exploration of its title concept.

The bellwether is, to my understanding, the sheep that leads the drift of the flock. As a metaphor,  it's maybe something like the trendsetter, or the avant garde. Willis's novel is partly about trying to figure out about how the bellwether is selected. I think I'll avoid spoilers around this one, as at the very least, there is a very interesting hypothesis proposed about this.

However, we still have the word to deal with. It's easy to understand how the misspelling, which implies an underlying mistake in meaning, came about. People probably think it has something to do with weather forecasting, with being able to  prognosticate. In fact, a bell wether is not such a dynamic creature. Here is a nice definition that I got from They Have a Word for It:

The word comes from the 13th century and first meant a wether (that is, a castrated male sheep) which wore a bell. Wether is Old English and dates from the 9th century. Bellwethers were noted for their docile nature and were used to lead flocks, especially to the slaughter. A curious feature of old sheep slaughter-houses was that the final run before the slaughter-pen had a side gate in the fence, known as a bellwether gate. Along comes the dopey bellwether down the sheep run, followed by trusting flock, then, at the last moment, wallop!, the shepherd slips the bellwether through the bellwether gate and the other sheep trot on, oblivious to their imminent doom. The bellwether was then introduced to a new flock and the sinister cycle was repeated.

Okay, not exactly a character to emulate. On the other hand, well, just look at the picture and decide for yourself whether (no, not wether) there might be some compensations...

Monday, November 1, 2010


My mom had a small life insurance policy, which was mainly to cover what I have since learned is the oldest reason for insurance of all: the costs involved in death and burial. My sister has been the main one helping her keep track of her finances, so I haven't really been too involved in that end of things. Thank God, one would have every reason to add, as it came to my attention during our discussion with her lawyer after she died that I didn't really have any idea what an annuity was, not even when it was used in a sentence. Sure, I get the annu- prefix as having to do with 'year', and certainly it has to do with money, but is it payment in, or payment out, or what exactly?

Well, it's been far too long since I delved into the abysmal depths of my financial ignorance, so pick up your miner's lantern and come with me...

Okay, maybe in this case, we'd better start with the etymology. Annuity means "yearly allowance", and has that usual pedigree of tracing back through Old French (annuité) , Middle Latin (annuitatem) , and back to the Latin annus, or "year". The Online Etymology Dictionary has it that the word acquired the meaning of an investment that entitled the investor to equal, annual payments in the 1670s. So far, so good, right?

Over time, the word annuity has shifted from meaning the money paid out to the actual contract between the individual and the insurance company. By this contract a person pays money to the insurance company, which is invested and paid back in regular payments. In a fixed annuity, these payments are all the same interest rate, while in a variable annuity, the payments are linked to the stock market, so will be up when the market is up and down when the market is down. The real disadvantage with any annuity, though, is that there is a substantial penalty for withdrawing the money prematurely, which in the U.S. would mean before the age of 59 and a half. This is why it can make sense as a retirement strategy, and is not really a young person's best investment choice.

It's all actually rather interesting, but maybe not so much as to go on and on about here. There are some easy explanations in this article on Annuities for Dummies which will explain pretty much anything you want to know about annuities far better than I could. To round this out, I'll just add that any  money left at the time of the "annuitant's" death is paid out in  a lump sum to the beneficieries designated. This is called a "death benefit", which is a very dubious term at best, to my way of thinking.

But let's close out on a more positive note, namely with my new favorite, Anatoly Liberman, and his blog post Year In, Year Out, which does indeed have a passing reference to annuity. Here is the relevant passage:

We seem to know more about the derivation of the word year. Even though speakers of the Germanic languages counted years by winters, they, like probably all people living in areas with moderate climate, identified the beginning of the year with spring. The most ancient meaning of year has been preserved by several of this word’s cognates, for instance, Slavic iara “spring,” as well as Classical Greek hora “time, season” and especially “spring” (the initial h of hora goes back to i, pronounced like y in Engl. year). Latin borrowed the Greek word. Later, the Romans’ hora, via French, reached English and became hour; horologe and horoscope are also loans from French. (It is a curious fact that in none of those French or English words was h- ever sounded; the letter h embellishes Engl. hour and Fr. heure in deference to their Latin etymon. Middle English did well with ure and oure, and Old French had ore and eure. The less spelling masters bother about etymology, the better.) Germanic cognates of Latin annus “year” have been recorded, but not in English. Annual, annuity, superannuated, perennial, and biennial are straight from French or Latin. Both year and annus seem to have the same root as the Indo-European verb for “go.” Year “spring” was a name marking the arrival of a new cycle of the ever-revolving season.

I suppose the thing to take note of here is that a year, in any language, will go as fast.

As this one has already.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Mostly, this is a blog about words or concepts I see fairly frequently, sometimes even use, but don't really know as much about as I ought. Every once in awhile though, a word will sneak into a perfectly ordinary sentence that I could swear I have never heard used before. I don't mean technical words, or foreign ones, I mean ones that the writer of the sentence uses casually, as though it would be easily transparent to the common reader. If the common reader is anything like me, though, they are almost certainly wrong.

"Orrery" is one of those words. I came across it in the forward to The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb. Although I haven't gotten any further than the introduction, it looks like an interesting book, claiming to be an exploration of a now vanished, rural France that Robb thinks has not been adequately charted. He knows urban France and he knows the France of literature, which he has studied, but this France he apparently discovered largely by biking around it.

Anyway, in attempting to give an idea of his objectives, he speaks of trying to give "a sense of the orrery of disparate separate spheres" Now quite frankly, I have no idea what he talking about there. I can plug in various guesses--disonance, connection, echoing--but really, none of it would I stake a dollar on. Maybe we better just move on to the definition.

...All right, all right--I must have seen this word before, even if I don't remember it. An orrery is a mechanical model that illustrates the orbits of planets and moons around the sun or a sunlike center. I don't know if Robb's model is truly heliocentric, but I assume if it is that sun would be Paris--or perhaps the King. And of course his sentence makes perfect sense now. I suppose spheres should have been the key.

When I read that these mechanisms were often operated by clockwork, I thought "Damn--I knew this word had something to do with hours!" But my etymological investigations showed me to be wrong again. This one however, could not have been deduced.

An orrery is called that because it was named after Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, who was also and more familiarly to American ears, the Earl of Cork. (Sometimes it seems like all roads lead to Cork in my life, though I don't know exactly why they should.) Was Lord Boyle a famous scientist in his spare time? Well, possibly, but in fact this invention was thought up by George Graham (so, though English, possibly some sort of distant relative of mine) put together by a J. Rowley, and given to the Earl and named in his honor.        

According to Wikipedia, Orrery comes from the Gaelic orbhraighe, or Orb's people, so a tribe, which later became the name of the territory and then the barony. I can't find out more about this Orb or Orbh, but I hope he--if it was a he--liked to ponder the night sky in his time. It would be fitting.

Monday, October 18, 2010


It's been in the air of late, right? Maybe it's just me, but election season seems to be a good time to dust the word off and put it out into use again. It means dirty tricks and shady dealings, doesn't it? But it's an odd word and unless it's related to Chicano, which I sincerely hope it isn't, it's origins seem a bit obscure. So what is chicanery and where do I go to learn how to do it?

Okay, it does mean trickery, and comes from the French chicanerie and back to the Middle French chicaner, "to pettifog, to quibble". But this definition brings up the many marvelous words that are synonyms of chicanery, like hanky-panky, jiggery-pokery, legerdemain, skullduggery, and shenanigans.

Chicanery just seems to bring out the poet in everyone.

Through researching this word, I came across the terrific posts for Oxford University Press of etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Although, he is learned and I am not, on our sense of the origins of words I think we would be very sympatico. In his musings on "chicanery" he says:

Although criticizing the OED smacks of blasphemy, I wince every time I see “fanciful” in it. No doubt, language is always at play, but a specialist’s duty consists in deciphering the rules of the game, so that it would perhaps have been better to say: “Origin unknown.” (For what is “fanciful”? An individual coinage? Coinages like boondoggle, Lilliputian, and quark—dozens of them—also have a base. They are not akin to babies’ babbling.)

Precisely. Check out the rest of his article. It's extremely readable and very interesting.


Thursday, October 7, 2010


Well, time to get back to theme here, I guess. "Craven" isn't exactly a word I think of as an everyday sort of word. In fact, it brings to mind Dickensian characters. But I've used it myself recently, and it seems to be popping up everywhere I look for some reason. So what does it really mean? And where does it come from?

In my thinking, the craven person is a bit of a suck-up. But there is also the sense of weakness and cowardice in their makeup, as well as large amounts of disingenuousness, calculation and self-interest. So let's look at the dictionary definition...

"Characterized by abject fear; cowardly." And worse:"lacking the least bit of courage; contemptibly fainthearted" . Cowardice. Well, that seems pretty uncomplicated. Its roots, though, seem a bit more tangled.

It goes back to Middle English cravant, which is thought to come from old French crevant or crevante, meaning "defeated", which comes from cravanter, "to strike doen, to fall down," and back to Latin crepare, to crack or creak. Sometime around 1400, the word shifted from the sense of "defeated" to the current sense of cowardly, possibly under the influence of the word "crave", which comes from the different Old English crafian, to beg.

Now here's something interesting--well, at least to me. For some unknown reason, I was just thinking this morning about the word "recreant", thinking I might do it as a future blog post. But apparently there is one school of thought that sees some link between these words, as "recreant" also turns out to mean a coward, or cravenly person.  Here's an Etymological Dictionary page on the subject. Apparently," recreant" goes back to the Latin credere, to believe, and has the meaning of yielding, or surrendering allegiance. I suppose it's as simple as one word being about the process of being broken, and the other being about the act of surrender.

Either way, it doesn't look too good for the poor craven recreant in the end...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Carolyn Stanley Brunton Graham, 1922-2010

My mother passed away last Sunday evening. Her two weeks in and briefly out of the hospital were not easy for her, but gave us all time to be with her before she died, which was probably more helpful to us than to her. Although such serious subjects are not usually within the scope of this blog, a few of you have offered your best wishes to her, and as I felt odd just continuing here in the lighter vein with no acknowledgement of the heavier one, I thought I would take a moment to say a few words about my mother's life instead.

Or many lives, actually. Because as has dawned on her three daughters in the course of the last few weeks, the woman who uncomplainingly filled the stereotypical role of housewife and mother in the fifties and sixties had an adventurous past. During one of her college summers, she flew to Mexico to study Spanish at a time when few people flew anywhere, let alone young unchaperoned ladies. She and her cousin were taken in hand by the diplomatic community there, an idyllic time in which as she later confessed, "Oh, we didn't really study."

After completing her B.A. in English at USC, she joined the U.S. Navy during World War II as one of that groundbreaking group of women known as the W.A.V.E.S., an acronym for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. I learned recently that her first day as an official WAVE was in Washington D.C. on D-Day.

When the war ended, she returned to civilian life and got a second B.A. in journalism on the G.I. bill, as well as going to secretarial college.She did do a few interviews, including one with a U.S. Senator, but decided that reporting wasn't really her thing. She ended up working as a secretary for the oil man Carlton Beal, which led to her becoming acquainted with several movie stars, especially at the polo field. A story I only recently heard was when she found herself sitting in a cozy group in a V.I.P. tent across from Clark Gable, who patted the seat beside him and motioned her over. (For better or worse, she didn't take him up on the offer.)

My mom was a happy go lucky type, who seemed to sail through life without taking too much thought for the morrow. So she might have been perfectly content to continue in that life if her rather more ambitious mother hadn't taken the initiative to sign her up for an appointment with the Army Special Services one day. The next thing she knew, she was on her way to postwar Germany, where,as I sometimes like to describe it she "entertained the troops".But as a matter of fact, this is exactly what she did, planning shows and taking "the boys" all over Western Europe on tours. One great thing she did was bring her mother over for awhile, who stayed in the barracks and joined them on trips, and enjoyed the company of all those young men at least as much as her daughter did.

When my mother returned to California, she ended up getting a secretarial job with the RAND Corporation, a high security think tank. Not long ago she told me how she would be locked in a kind of vault with all these strategists who were playing war games, and no one in the outside world could get in. Her own role was more prosaic--passing messages and the like, but she did admit that it was a bit claustrophobic.

After awhile she decided to re-up with Special Services, her wanderlust getting the better of her. She wanted a hardship posting because it paid better and she was interested in Guam, but she ended up in Tripoli, Libya. My father was stationed there as a First Lieutenant in the Air Force. Post-Korean War, Wheelus Air Base was a refueling place for air transport. There was, I think, also a kind of expat environment, with so many Americans isolated in the midst of an at that time fairly friendly Arabic culture. Let's just say that it was hard to keep the beer cold there, so there were a lot martinis.

My parents married in Tripoli, before flying home. There was an economic reason for doing so, and I'm sure she sometimes wished for the big wedding she would undoubtedly have had at home. Her wedding ring was a plain gold band, which was supposed to have been an emerald ring, but they hurriedly bought one from an Arab street vendor because of some deadline, thinking they would replace it later. That never happened and I'm sure she sometimes mourned that emerald. I always thought this story was incredibly romantic and far better than emeralds. But of course, that's me, not her.

They returned to California rather than my dad's native Illinois, largely because it was a place of greater opportunity. She took to the role of homemaker with the same easy going style that she had brought to everything else in life. She and my dad made a lot of good friends through his work at the Division of Highways, and my sister and I were talking about those long ago days as we sat with her the night she died. The grown ups all drank and smoked and laughed and argued a lot but there were always kids and pets running in and out of the room till they collapsed on the floor somewhere and slept as the parties went on and on. Good times, I think, for everyone.

My mom went back to work yet again after we grew older, finding another life and circle of friends at the junior college where she worked in the faculty offices. This was in Oakland, and one of the people she met a few times there was Hughie Newton, though quite a bit after his Black Panther days.   

My mother was 87 when she died, and physically the years had taken their toll. She had macular degeneration, multiple joint replacements, and a heart condition that if nothing else had done it, would eventually have killed her anyway. But, as she frequently said to us, "I am so happy. I am happier than I have ever been in my life." We believed her, though even we found it hard to fathom at times. But it was only that, as she had done in many, many other incarnations, she had made yet another circle of friends, who laughed with her and loved her. We always thought of my dad as the joke teller, but once he died, she really came into her own. Here is one she told me recently. It seems both fitting and emblematic.

An elderly woman was visiting her doctor. "So how are you doing, Mrs. Brown?" he asked.

"Well," she said a bit plaintively, "I can't see very well anymore, so it's no fun going to the movies or reading. And I can't hear very well, so it's no use trying to talk on the phone. And I really can't walk too much, so I can't go out on hikes anymore. And I can't really taste anything, so food is no use to me. But luckily, there is one thing that still gives me pleasure."

"What's that, Mrs. Brown?"

"Thank God, I can still drive!"

Coincidently, my sister had a dream the night after my mom died. She was riding in a big green boat of a car we used to have, and my mom was driving, grinning from ear to ear. My sister realized that my mom probably really shouldn't be doing this because she was blind, but my mom was confident and unconcerned. "Oh, I think I can find my way," she said.

Drive on, Mom. And safe journey.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Okay, I already know that there will be dissenters out there who think this is the waste of a perfectly good song. But I have to admit that this is one of the most effective commercials I've seen in a long time. It shows you in a compact way the enormous scope and scale of a complex undertaking that most of us take completely for granted. And how is that undertaking accomplished? Logistics.

I think we all have a fair idea what logistics is (are?). It's the organization of a project or process in what is hoped to be the most effective or efficient way. It's the 'logical' way to get from point A to point B. But is there a science of logistics--is there something more rigorous behind our more casual use of the term?

... Well, of course it should have occurred to me that the original use of logistics was military. Before it was taken over by UPS, it was a term used in military science for the moving and supplying of troops. Military logistics had few thousand years head start on that of the global corporate world, I now realize.

Here's the definition of business logistics:"having the right item in the right quantity at the right time at the right place for the right price in the right condition to the right customer". Just switch in "gun" for "item" and "soldier" for "customer" and that's more or less military logistics as well.

The origins of this word are somewhat buried in the haze. On the one hand, some maintain that it goes back to the "art of quartering the troops", from the French loger "to lodge". But I've also seen it derived from the Greek logos, which gives us the logistiki who were apparently military officers in the Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine Empires who were responsible for matters of finance and distribution.Never mind. No one ever said words have to arrive to us down a lineage that's uncontaminated by influences from other sources.

Logistics doesn't have to be about the movement of vast armies of UPS drivers, though. It can be about one person and one problem. As an illustration, I'll end with this link to a blog post on Funny Photos on Logistics. I should warn you, though, that I got sidetracked by the video link to the Smart Phone testing ads. What can I say? I'm easily distracted. If you are too, well, I'm sorry about that.

* * * *

Turns out the Smartphone ad doesn't show up every time, but am I going to forget the whole thing? No, I'm going to give you the link right here. Why, after all, should I be the only one to dribble away my days?

Also, I have no idea why this blog is only showing these clips half-screen. Just hit the picture again and it will take you to the full screen in another window.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My mom's been in the hospital the last few days--things weren't looking so good, but she seems to have turned a corner. In this somewhat more optimistic space, I thought I'd write up a word from doctor speak. You know how it is--they make their rounds, they talk to the interested parties. It's always interesting to watch just how they approach this. Sometimes they are actually concerned to communicate with the family and sometimes they are really just pretending to. One sign of the latter intention is when they speak in medical jargon.

I have to admit that I failed at this blog's mission in this circumstance a couple of days ago. One of the doctors was saying that something or other could happen since she was no longer febrile. It was my sister, not me who more forthrightly asked, "What's febrile?"

Of course, I've heard the word febrile before. But I've let other associations take hold without ever bothering to dispel vagueness. Sounding close to 'feeble' and also with a ring of "fibrullation", which I do know is about the heart, the main source of my mom's problem, I thought I had enough of a sense of it to pass it over. And for some reason, I also kind of picture the fibrous membrane around some fruit.

But febrile simply means "feverish". (Thanks, doc, would it really have been so hard to just say that? Well, he did say "Sorry.") It from the Latin febris, in other words, just another journey the concept took from the same beginnings.

Probably I should have known febrile. But what did he mean when he said "triatic"?

Yeah--I was afraid to ask.

Oh, the picture? It's actually the inner courtyard of the hospital, Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. It's a pretty great place, as hospitals go. Too bad my mom isn't in much of a position to enjoy it right now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I know it's not a topic most of us want to dwell on, but it's been in the news recently and set me wondering. Why does the name sound like it means "little feminine salmon" when as far as I know, it has nothing to do with the valiant and selfless river climbing fish? I don't even know if it's a bacteria or what exactly.

According to the New Yorker, it used to be the case that salmonella was only found on the outside of eggs, but now apparently it's found it's way within. Perhaps I can find out a little about that transition as well...

Okay, the etymology is a bit of a let down. Salmonella is the name for one of several rod-shaped bacteria, and it takes its name simply from one Daniel Elmer Salmon, an American pathologist who studied animal disease. It was his assistant Theobald Smith, not he, who discovered the bacterium and named it in Salmon's honor.

Call me crazy, but this is the kind of honor I would happily forego.

So how does the salmonella get inside the egg? Here I was thinking somehow along the line of microscopic boring tools, but of course the answer is obvious, once you've heard it, as I did here. The salmonella is present in the ovaries of otherwise healthy looking hens and contaminates the eggs inside the hen before the shell has even formed.

Tricky little buggers, huh? Here's another item about their fiendish nature. According to Maggie Koerth-Baker over at LiveScience.com, salmonella uses an inhibiting protein called AvrA to lure your body into thinking it's not under attack, meanwhile biding it's time in your intestines until it's multiplied into a formidable force. Only then does it punch throught your intestinal walls and wreak havoc.

As Dr. Jun Sun says in this article, "This changes the way we look at bacteria. We're beginning to realize that salmonella is a creature that has existed many years longer than us and they have skills we don't understand fully. It's trickier than we thought."

I do have to say that the coolest site I found in the course of my websurfing for this is one for giant plush microbes.Take a look at salmonella:

Come on, now--what's not to like?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


See where I'm going with this? Last post  was on doughty, right? And now I'm doing dowdy. Clever, huh?

Okay, maybe not so much. But one word did really lead to another. I do know what "dowdy" means. It's old-fashioned, unalluring, plain--hell, it's practically my dress code. But where does it come from? I certainly get no etymological clues from the word itself. Elwood P. Dowd, the Jimmy Stewart character in Harvey?


So what, then?

Here's the deal--dowdy comes from Middle English doude, which means "immoral, unattractive, or shabbily dressed woman".

Oh, really?

This one upsets me on multiple levels. It's not enough that a woman is not a streetwalker apparently. If she is unattractive or badly clothed, it's all the same to the vernacular.

And what about the word "drab"? Because it's really the same logic at work. On the one hand, it means "dull, commonplace or dreary", but on the other it means "prostitute".

In other words, women, be attractive, but not too attractive. You don't want to look too commonplace, but by all means don't look too uncommonplace.

"Even amid his drabbing, he himself retained some virginal airs."

Well, nice trick (ahem) if you can pull it off. That's Stanislaus Joyce speaking. I'd like to think it wasn't about his more famous brother.

But that's probably wishful thinking.

Friday, August 27, 2010


It's not a really modern sounding word, is it? Nevertheless, it's come up several times in the course of my reading these last few weeks in contemporary works, always a sign that I should consider a word more thoughtfully. I think I know what it means--resolute, resourceful, plucky, stalwart. (Not that I know what those last two words really mean either.)

But what's it from? It certainly can't come from dough, can it? Because all I can think of in that context is the Pillsbury Doughboy. And doughty he may be, but he's not exactly a role model. Well, let's check it out..

Okay--stouthearted and resolute, we get the drift. It goes back to the Old English dohtig--competent, good and valient, and it's got one of those PIE roots, namely *dheugh-  --to be fit, able or strong.

What's interesting is that according to the Online Etymology dictionary, doughty is rare after the seventeenth century (!), and when you see it now, it's usually in an archaic or mock-heroic form, which I must admit seems to have been the sense of the uses I've seen of it. Apparently, if it has survived into modern currency, it would be rendered as "dighty".

Which doesn't sound very doughty at all. 

Monday, August 23, 2010


I know--seriously? I don't know what Flemish is? Well, much as I would like to report otherwise, I'm afraid I do not. Don't get me wrong, I have some sort of vague idea. Problem is, that vague idea may be wholly wrong.

Okay, here's what I think I know. Flemish refers to that belonging to a European region that became incorporated into some larger state, like Holland or Germany or maybe Belgium. I might not win the pin the tail on the donkey prize, but at least I'm not guessing Spain, or, for that matter, Africa. The other thing I think I know is that there was a famous Flemish school of art. Van Eyck? Even Vermeer? One of the things that got me thinking about this, though, was that among the many, many language resources that are available to anyone walking into the bookstore I work at, I have yet to see anything labeled "Teach Yourself Flemish".

Well, let's see.

So, not to brag or anything, but I'm pretty much right. Right about what, you ask? Well, everything. Okay, maybe not Vermeer. Actually, as it turns out, I might be a little bit wrong about that Spain bit too.

But first things first. Let's start with this whole language issue, because it opens up a lot. Here's a nice site that explains this in a clear and simple way, but basically, to all intents and purposes, Flemish and Dutch are the same language, somewhat different in pronunciation, but by and large mutually understandable. According to the above  mentioned site, a good way to think about the difference is to compare it to the difference between Brit-speak and American-speak. We, of course are separated by an ocean. But the Flemish and the Dutch live right next door to each other. So what happened?

History, of course.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemborg were once and sometimes still are called the Low Countries, a name given to them by the simple geological fact of sharing the same coastal delta region between higher ground. The region was held by a succession of foreign powers, including, yes, the Spanish Hapsburgs. but in the later part of the sixteenth century, the people of the northern provinces, or Holland as it came to be known, were able to make a break for independence. Meanwhile their brothers, cousins and significant others down south continued to live under whatever occupier happened to be in control, so they were more or less rubbing shoulders with Spanish, Austrian or French speakers on a daily basis, until Belgium too gained its independence in 1830. But well into this last century, French was the language to know in that country.

It was also the language of education, which is to say that the French speaker in what came to be Belgium could go far, while the Flemish speaker, well, not so much. Remember Hercules Poirot? French speaking, not Flemish. The Flemish, though, are understandably proud of their own native tongue and have been fighting for linguistic and cultural equality all along.

The other big and probably obvious thing to know is that the region of Belgium where the Flemish live is Flanders. I'm pretty sure that most people have heard of Flanders before, even if they haven't known exactly where it is. One of the main associations to this area is that many of the most important battles of both World War I and World War II were fought here. And of course one of the most famous poems of WWI was written about this very place. I'll link to a site where you can read In Flanders Fields if you have a mind to. There is a nice facsimile of the handwritten poem there which is very poignant to behold.

Okay, last thing--Flemish art. Yep, Van Eyck is their very famous representative, though he comes out of a whole school of admired Flemish painters. That's one of his at the top of the blog.  But there's another name from a later school that most people have heard as well. Do you know it? Would a picture help?

      Right. That's Peter Paul Rubens, the one and only.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Disgruntled Employee Kills 8, Self in Connecticut

Sadly, this is the kind of headline that no one who even glances at a newspaper can be unfamiliar with, and this is not just an example, unfortunately this one was real. But I found myself wondering when I saw it just exactly what disgruntled could possibly mean in this context. Aggrieved? Resentful? Full of primal rage? Or just peeved? The more I thought about it, the less I knew about the meaning of this word, its origins or its proper use.

Of course it means at its most basic level "not gruntled". Has anyone ever heard of someone being gruntled, though? If gruntled is good, it can not possibly have a connection to "grunt", which is the only association I can make. Without further ado, then, let's see what it means...

Well, originally I was a bit disgruntled with the results, but I think that I've finally got some kind of a handle on this. "Disgruntled" is one of several words that have a missing opposite root word--not necessarily never there, but vanished from our vocabulary if so. (Interestingly, P.G. Wodehouse managed to let Jeeves bring it almost singlehandedly back into the language, which would be well nigh impossible if it were anyone but Jeeves. You can read an interesting piece on this here.)

A new piece of information for me in a general sense was that dis-, though usually signifying "a lack of" something--disgrace, disgust, distaste-- can occasionally act as an intensifier of something bad already. So "disgruntled" doesn't mean "not gruntled", but extremely gruntled. Hence the "disgruntled employee kills" trope.

But originally (sorry, P.G.) "gruntled" just indicated the repeated action of grunting. And on second thoughts, grunting doesn't always necessarily signify complaint. But perhaps I'm taking this too far afield...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What would the Proto-Indo-Europeans do?

In my last post, I was quite heartened to find that the modern word "ply" shared a common root with a lot of other words. And what is that root? Why, a proto-Indo-European root, of course. "Plek" lies in the distant ancestry of "ply".

However, it isn't really "plek", but "*plek". Is this because they were very fond of the asterisk in proto-Indo-European times? No. As I slowly gathered and hazily remembered, proto-Indo-European isn't really a language at all. It's a reconstructed language. It comes from what our present languages imply about a past "mother tongue". Because, you know, no one was exactly  writing this all down back in the day. Not to mention the fact that they were hampered by an appalling absence of sound recording equipment. But that's just my own rough sense of all this. It's time to apply (*plek) ourselves to the task at hand and find out a bit more...

Okay, the reason I was never cut out to be a scientist is that when I read a sentence like "The following traits of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their environment are widely agreed-upon but still hypothetical due to their reconstructed nature", it makes me laugh. Not because I have an alternate theory, but because I picture a bunch of replicants (*plek) wandering the earth.

I know, I know--the kind of analysis and deduction that goes into reconstructing not just a language but a whole civilization isn't just pure whimsy, but to the layperson, it can certainly sound like it at times. Especially when the descriptions I've come across of proto-Indo-European culture (or proto-Indo-European pretty  much anything) are littered with adjectives like "putative" and "unattested" and "hypothetical".

Here's an example from what I assume is a pretty representative paper. By the way, the authorities in all this seem to call Proto-Indo-European "PIE", which also makes me laugh, but which seems fitting somehow:

PIE refers to the putative ancestor of the Indo-European language family, or to our reconstruction of it. There is no clear agreement on exactly where or when the speakers of PIE lived, but a fairly popular theory places them at approximately 3000-4000 BC in what is currently the Russian steppe north of the Black Sea.  

Now, having just recently learned from the Rachel Maddow show that an "argument ad populum" is an argument that says a proposition is true because many or all people believe it to be true, and is actually a logical fallacy, I know that the popularity of the Russian steppes as the cradle of our language is not really to be relied on. The rest of the article, by the way, is here, and I hope I haven't implied that it is a bad article, as this sort of tentativeness about certainty is pretty much the hallmark of this field of study. 

If you really want to get into some of the rules, though, here's a more thorough look at how languages are compared and then used to reconstruct a common past. I include it partly because there's a fun quiz at the end that tests how much you really learned.

Funner if you actually pay attention to the article before taking it,  I'm guessing. But as they say, it's just a theory...

Sunday, August 1, 2010


I'm not quite sure why these thoughts occur to me after I've reached some irrevocable point, but it's not at all unusual that well after I wrote the last post on the Merchant Marine, it occurred to me that I'd gotten a phrase wrong. I know the phrase plying one's wares works, but plying one's way? I start to grow confused.

The more I thought about it, the more I found to ponder. What about '"reply"? "Plywood"? "Pliable"? Are these words related to each other, or not at all? I am going to guess a suffix route that branched out in many different directions. But what do I know? As we all have seen, not much...

Well, apparently, those Merchant Marines do ply their way. They may even plow their way. Turns out this is a word with a lot of permutations and ramifications. It all comes back to (yes!) an Indoeuropean root, namely *plek. Plek leads in many directions, and not only "ply", "plait", and "plight", but possibly "flax" and "flex" are also distant cousins.

Let's not wander too far out into those flax fields, though. "Ply", at least, comes pretty directly through Middle English back through Old French (plie, anyone?) to Latin plicare. What all this stuff has in common is the broad idea of folding or bending.

Now, personally, I wouldn't have thought that the idea of folding would have been so very promising as a root concept. I mean, you say "folding", I say "ironing". But out of it, we have "apply" with the general sense of bringing something into close contact with something else, we have "reply", which is "to fold back, and out of that "replicate", we have "implicit"  and "explicit", with their general sense of to be folded in with or to unfold. (A fascinating factoid from the Online Etymology Dictionary is that "explicit" comes from explicitus est liber-"-the book is unrolled". The term came up at the end of Medieval manuscripts, which were, of course, rolls, not bound books. It didn't come up in our current sense of "explicit sex" until 1971.)

And so on and so on and so on. Taking up this word is a bit like picking up a dinosaur bone in the desert, only to find that it's still attached to a whole dinosaur.

But to try to get back to the subject at hand--Neither plying one's way or one's trade would seem to have very much to do with folding. In these cases, it seems to be a shortened form of 'apply'. If you look at the, uh, applications of the word "ply" at freedictionary.com, you'll see that what many of them have in common is diligence, practice and regularity. Apparently the word "ply" was first used in the sense of "to travel regularly" in 1803.

If you'd like to see how this word has mutated, you might check out this thread at egghorns. Egghorns looks like a good one to know about in general. But anyway, from the simple term "to ply one's trade," you'll find "plow one's trade", "plight one's trade", even "ploy one's trade". I'll leave it to any Northern Irish commenters who might chance by to either agree with or refute the idea presented there that in Northern Irish, "plough" and "ply" are near homophones.

Finally, I chanced upon yet another usage in a book I'm currently reading, written about an incident aboard a ship, perhaps plying its way through Aegean waters:

They said I was the strangest American they had ever met. But they liked me. They stuck to me throughout the voyage, plying me with all sorts of questions which I answered in vain.

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Merchant Marines

I don't remember where this phrase came up most recently, but I've often wondered about it. Merchants and Marines seem slightly incompatible to me. I can understand if it's just a floating mercantile fleet, which I assume it probably is, but then I don't understand why people, usually men, refer their time with it by saying "And so I joined the Merchant Marines". So, does it have a military structure? If privately owned, why haven't the corporate names long since taken over? Even baseball stadiums have been co-opted, after all. I've even met a people who've been in the Merchant Marines--a Finn, intriguingly, but not only do I know nothing about what they did there, I don't even know what to call one. A merchant? A marine? We shall see.

Oh, okay. First of all, in case I get some of this wrong, there's an informative site here. But basically, the Merchant Marine is a civilian auxilliary of the U.S. Navy. Apparently--and I may be wrong about this, as I couldn't somehow nail this down--all U.S. flagged ships are part of the U.S. Merchant Marine, and in the event of war, become supply ships for U.S. efforts. But in the meantime, they ply their peaceful way carrying imports and exports in U.S. navigable waters. A  member of the Merchant Marine is not called a merchant or  a marine, but a mariner. According to Wikipedia, there were 465 ships in the Merchant Marine in 2006, and 69,000 members.

I still don't quite get whether everyone who is considered crew of these U.S. flagged ships is automatically a mariner, or just how all this stuff gets decided. And why do a portion of U.S. ships end up flying under different colors?

However, researching this post reminded me that I did know a bit about the Merchant Marine after all. The Merchant Marine is not one of the uniformed services. Who cares about that, right? Well, apparently, perception is everything. Because even though the Merchant Marine served valiently in World War II, braving many of the same high sea dangers that other branches of the military did, it wasn't until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that granted veteran status to those mariners who had served in war. Up until that point, they did not receive any of the benefits granted to other branches of the military.

It turns out that I already knew this. It was part of the story that was told in the excellent documentary The Men Who Sailed the Liberty Ships. I have to admit that I didn't connect this story to the merchant marine, but that's just me. You can check out an excerpt or two here, but do watch the whole thing if you get a chance.