Saturday, February 27, 2010


On Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders blog, it happened to come up what exactly was in the purview of this blog. I promptly said that there was nothing that was beyond the purview of this blog, and only belatedly realized that I didn't entirely know what "purview" meant.

Well, I know what I want it mean, at least. I want it to mean something like "the defined scope" or the "rightful subject" or something like that. The "-view" part I think we all get--it has to do with sight or seeing. The "pur" however, I'm not so sure. The only "pur" I can think of is related to "pure" and I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with that. At least I hope not. Pure vision is not anything this blog can ever hope to promise...

...This is one of those instances where I seem to have the definition largely right and the etymology miserably wrong. "Purview" can be taken to mean the extent of something's scope, its reach (and let's emphasize that last word's familiar distinctness from its grasp as entirely fitting.) However it has nothing to do with purity or vision at all. It is actually very closely related to words like proviso and provide and purvey. It's real root is the Anglo-Norman purveu est--"it is provided". Interestingly enough, it seems to have been altered due to some kind of strong influence from the verb "view", which means... okay, we know that part already. And yes this blog especially must acknowledge that, well, mistakes can happen.

(The first, uh, view is, rather predictably, the Milky Way. The second is not a galaxy. It is an image of the 15 million atoms in the protective coating of a virus, courtesy of Rice University. This sums up the scope of my ignorance quite nicely. Now let's hope that the nice folks that posted these pictures let me keep them up...)

Monday, February 22, 2010


I'll start out by saying that this is one I should know, and may in fact actually know. I'm just not sure. The word came up in my last Finnegans Wake meeting, and here is the Joycean sentence that provoked this post:

"In fact, under the closed eyes of the inspectors the traits featuring the chiaroscuro coalesce, their contrarities eliminated, in one stable somebody similarly as by the providential warring of heartshaker with housebreaker and of dramdrinker against freethinker our social something bowls along bumpily, experiencing a jolting series of prearranged disappointments, down the long lane of (it's as semper as oxhousehumper!) generations and still more generations."

Leaving aside the question of whether I understand any of this, I will say that it does tend to confirm my sense of the word in question. What I think chiaroscuro refers to is a style of painting, pretty obviously originally an Italian one, which uses the play of light and dark to highlight what the painter wants our eye to focus on. I know that "oscuro" must refer to darkness, and though I don't know quite how, I think the "ciar" must refer to clarity or light. Shall we see?

Well, given my outrageously wrong guesses on some recent posts, it's heartening to see that I seem to have played this one right. Chiaroscuro is precisely a word about the mixture of light and dark and my etymological understanding is correct. Hooray!

Ignorance, of course, has its several levels. What I don't know about chiaroscuro is far more than what I do know, including the other meanings the word has accrued. For one thing, in a technical sense, it refers not just to such bold contrasts, but even subtler effects of light and shading. And though we usually think of chiaroscuro in terms of masterly paintings of the past, you have only to think of the effects sought in film noir cinematography and in many, many comics and graphic novels to know that chiaroscuro is alive and well and living in Sin City.
Or at least slumming there from time to time...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Thanks to my new Finnegans Wake blog, or more precisely, to Mr. Joyce himself, whole new realms of ignorance have been revealed lately. One word that came up in our last session was "chimera".

After my last post, I am not confident enough to be sure that what I think I know is actually right. But my sense of "chimera" is that it is a mythological figure, possibly Greek, which is something like a willow-the-wisp. In other words, whimsical, elusive and possibly puzzling.

But what is it really?

Well, not what I think, anyway. At least I got the Greek part right. In Greek mythology, it's a creature that has the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tale of a serpent.(And we think we have identity crises.) The chimera is consistently thought of as female, despite having a mane on the lion's head aspect. It is a sibling of Cerberus the three-headed dog. It also breathes fire. And Harry Potter fans are apparently going to be way ahead of me on this one.

What's perhaps more interesting is the modern day application of the word, in which the term has come to mean many organic things that have two or more different genetic sources. If you stop and think about it, this is an age ripe with the chimerical. Grafting, organ transplants and genetic engineering all result in sorts of chimeras, don't they? In fact you may meet a chimera tomorrow, or eat a piece of fruit from one and never even know it. (Try not to eat one from any of the fire-breathing varieties, though. Unless it's a pepper.)

By extension, "chimera" has come to mean a monstrous figment of the imagination, or even a kind of pipe dream, something of the imagination only.

Monstrous, sure, but come on, it's not that bad. Didn't you see that cute little geep or shoat or whatever it is up above?

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Recently, on another blog I write, I mentioned a new publishing venture called, in which the publisher will publish a 300 character story on the inside of a matchbook. Peter Rozovsky and I were batting around some very short reviews that these stories might evoke, and one of his was "coruscating".

I am pretty sure I can understand the general drift of coruscating--it means something like "scalding, abrasive, harsh", right? A review that was coruscating would be dripping with venom.

But here is one of the problems of Latin having dropped from our curriculum. I can guess at the general meaning from context, but the sounder etymological roots I haven't a clue of.

The one clue I do have is that it must have something to do with either tinder or fire. Or at least matches...Here we go.

Oh, dear. So far off. Coruscating means "to give off flashes of light. To sparkle."

Diamonds coruscate. So do, apparently, flutists. But it doesn't mean to rake over the coals, as I somehow thought.

The one thing I was right about was the fact that a grounding in Latin would have stood me in good stead here. "Coruscating" comes from the Latin coruscare, "to flash".

Who knew?

Well, okay--maybe the Romans.

Looks like I'm going to be reading reviews in a whole new, uh, light.