Monday, May 31, 2010


Readers of this blog may be excused if they think my ignorance has recently grown so slight that I've had to resort to decoding British and Irish slang. Sadly, this is not the case. Today, I will branch out into the rarely visited world of finance--well, rarely visited by me--to explore the meaning of derivatives. No, not "derivative"--unfortunately, I'm all too familiar with this standard dismissal of much contemporary fiction. In literature, "derivative" is kind of a kiss of death adjective. In the world of finance, though, "derivatives",  are apparently sometimes attractive. Lately, however, derivatives have been much in the news, and causing a bit of trouble.

I was, well, not comforted exactly, but relieved to know that there are a lot of other Americans who are clueless about this financial term. Now that it's clear that certain decisions in Congress will bode either ill or well for the derivative market, I thought it might be time to enlighten at least myself on what these blasted things are.

In literature, 'derivative' means something like 'stale' or 'a pale copy of the original'. I think the word means something much more neutral in other circumstances, maybe 'coming from'. In fact, now I think about it, it's probably a sibling of 'arrive'. The suffix 'rive' probably does mean something like 'come' or some sort of action word like that. We'll see.

Anyway, derivatives must have their basis in some other source. They must be dependent on some other financial vehicle for their existence. How they are dependent, I have no clue. From recent financial talk, though, I get the feeling that their presence is like the bottom part of an iceberg lurking under the water. Or are they not something so stationary, but really something more like a shark, that has to keep circulating to keep breathing?

...Well, just by chance, one of the first explanations I came across was a podcast by Christopher Hayes of the Nation, and the bonus was that I learned of his podcast show called The Breakdown, which attempts to enlighten us in short, not too taxing segments on various matters crucial to our time. If you'd like to cut to the chase--and I'd highly recommend it, actually--please check out his podcast on derivatives here . He speaks with Bart Chilton of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and together they very helpfully break it down for us.

But if you must know, here is what I gleaned from all of it. Basically, the word 'derivatives' and the word 'futures' are interchangeable, at least in their economic sense.  It's called a derivative because it derives its value from something else. Starting out as these ideas did in agriculture, that something else was a concrete thing. It's much less the case now. Anyway, it's all about trying to determine what will be the market value of something at some given point in the future. The analogy is again to agriculture, where a product is cheap at the time of harvest because its plentiful but more expensive later when it's not easily come by. It's all about what people think will happen in that future. You can call it guessing, you can call it speculating, you can call it gambling. But it is part of the way our financial markets run, and it's also one of the ways a market determines what's a fair value for something at any given time,  and I think the idea I come away with is that we could not very easily get by without them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


As I have mentioned here a time or two before, one of the criteria of topic selection for this blog is when a word or concept comes up a couple of times over a brief span of time, and I have to admit to myself not once but twice or more that I really don't know anything about it. The first instance is very likely to go by the wayside, but when I see it again, I pretty much surrender to the gods of knowledge, or whatever the opposite of ignorance really is.

While reading Adrian McKinty's The Lighthouse Land recently, I came across a passage that included today's featured word. Now, as this book is geared toward the middle grades or young adults, I was kind of surprised to find a word I didn't know contained within it, though being as it's this particular author, not all that surprised. But I was more puzzled when yesterday, I came across it again in a book which looks to be a charming but fairly frothy sort of novel, called The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise, by one Julia Stuart, which is about life at the modern day Tower of London. What's worse is that here are two instances where context did not actually help me figure out the word at all.

Of course I can't find that word in The Lighthouse Land again. I can't even remember which setting it refers to, which would help me narrow down its location in the book a lot. But its context is in a sentence something along the lines of, "The land was desolate, shambolic and wild." The sentence from the Stuart book is more ready to hand: "[the raven] arrived at the man's feet following a shambolic flight due to its wings having been clipped to prevent it absconding." I am sure some if not all of you reading here already know the meaning of this word, but if you didn't, how would you deduce a common meaning for a word used to describe a wilderness landscape and the impaired flight of a raven?

If it was just the raven, I might venture erratic, clumsy, staggering. If it was just the land, I would think maybe primitive, undeveloped. Maybe the closest I can come to a link between these uses is 'inelegant'. God, I have no idea. What's worse is that the word 'shambala' keeps creeping in from some corner of my mind, and as my supposition has been that this is some kind of Buddhist term, as it is the name of an iconic publishing house of Buddhist texts for the West, this seems unlikely. And yet it's very tempting to think it might be related. Time to concede defeat, I think...

Well, first off, shambala and shambolic are apparently completely unconnected, which is something of a relief. Shambala, as I now vaguely remember, is a hidden, mythical Tibetan kingdom, an idea that was attractive to the West as Buddhism became known here and resulted (probably) in popularizations of the idea in books like James Hinton's Lost Horizon, with its mythical Shangri-La.

'Shambala' has many more meanings than that, though, and frankly some of them are way too esoteric for this humble blogger, so I'll leave you to your own devices on that. Shambolic, however, is right up my alley. It's British slang, which explains why it's not especially familiar to me, and means 'chaotic or disorderly'. It's comes from 'shambles', as in the phrase 'in shambles', and as some dictionaries have mentioned, probably owes a lot to 'symbolic' for its structure.

Well, there you have it. I'm sure that British school children will soon be laughing scornfully at my ignorance of this (for them) utterly common word. Well, go for it, British school children. I've been laughed at by better. But after you've regaled yourself, take a look at The Lighthouse Trilogy. It's a good series that will make for some fun summer reading. For you, it should even be easy.

(And don't worry, American kids--I have just guided you past the only real obstacle to your complete comprehension.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Alright, I'll admit up front that I do know what a tantrum is, and this is somewhat in the way of a pretext. Martha Silano, after a bit of a struggle with technology, has succeeded in putting her latest collection of poems through the old word counter and  has come up with a list of the most prevalent words used within that collection. Turns out the top three are one, tantrum and America. So one of her followers has invited her readers to write a poem starting with those three words. Sounds intriguing and for any aspiring poets passing by, here's the link. I think Martha would be pleased to hear of anyone's efforts on this front.

But to stick to the purported mission of this blog, what is 'tantrum', etymologically speaking? If I were to go by the results of my own recent post on tantamount, we might guess that it means something like "so much rum". But as we are dealing, usually, with children, or at least a childish behavior, I don't think that can be right. Shall we see?

...Well, I've been a bit stymied on finding more information on that front. Pretty much everywhere I look, including the OED, the verdict is 'etymology unknown'. And I'm not even getting much in the way of the wayward theory, quite frankly. But as I'm not left quite emptyhanded, here are the findings so far: Some people have tried to link it to "tantra", which might sound plausible for a second, but "tantra" actually comes from the weaving world and means  "loom" or "warp" and so by extension comes to mean the groundwork or system or doctrine, which doesn't seem to be much help.

A book that Google has scanned, The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe by Charles MacKay, has some other leads. It  describes tantrum as "a fit of ill-temper" and then cites one Jamieson, with "tantrums, high airs". It then leads us to the idea of tantrums as "pranks, capers", which is said to have come from the tarantula dance. The dictionary goes on to suggest "See the account of the involuntary  frenzy and motions caused by the bite of the tarantula in the Penny Cyclopedia."

Uh, no thanks. Does anyone else feel that we are getting progressively further afield?

However, just at the end, there is one entry that intrigues me:

"Gaelic--Deann, hot, impetuous, fiery; trom, heavy: whence, deann-trom, a hot and heavy [fit of] passion."

Now this, if I was a betting sort, is where I'd lay my etymological money.

Remember--one trauma America. The rest is up to you. 

Friday, May 14, 2010


Admittedly, I've probably only come across this word once or twice, likely in my reading of fiction from the Greater British Isles. But this is actually in the way of a guest suggestion from the last post, in which Adrian McKinty mentioned the following scenario in the comments: a Scottish reporter riding a train with the then campaigning Nick Clegg described him as being "banjaxed" and the BBC anchor had no idea what she was talking about.

Well, I like to help out these anchors when I can. I didn't see the show, but I hope the anchor took a moment out as the Nation's Washington editor Chris Hayes did when he was guest hosting the Rachel Maddow show a few days ago. He said he would like to make a confession (it's catching on, people!): he had until then spent his life thinking 'firmament' meant 'foundation'. Yeah, look it up if you have no clue what it does mean--I'm not the only one who can use online dictionaries. I'll just say that it would be an easy mistake to make, as you would guess it would mean something like 'on a firm footing', when in fact nothing could be further from the case.

Anyway, back to 'banjaxed'. This is one of those words which context would usually make clear enough, and I'm sure I've thought I knew it well enough on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately, in this case, it's none too easy. My initial reaction was to think it meant something equivalent to the American slang 'hogtied' or perhaps 'poleaxed'. But in the context it could mean he was elated, baffled, or even drunk. Well, probably not drunk, as then there would have been hell to pay for the poor reporter. In any case, at the behest of Philip Robinson, I will now attempt to sort out the truth.

...Sorted? Perhaps not. According to the Urban Dictionary, banjaxed could mean broken, ruined, wrecked, tired, worn out or, well, yes--drunk. So what was this Scottish reporter really trying to tell us about the soon to be Deputy Prime Minister? Was this bit of Irish slang a code word? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one.

It does interest me that when it comes to etymology, most sources say it's unknown in this case. But over at, one poster has an interesting comment. He--I think it's a he--says that it actually comes from the Urdu term "bahnn gahecked", which comes from a kind of cooking pottery that was large enough that it often developed cracks at the base in the heat. All too frequently, unfortunately, this resulted in the pot's hot contents being spilled on the woman lifting it when the base broke away. By extension 'bahnn gehecked' came to mean any item that was faulty or unsafe. Or, I'll add, wrecked.

Now this sounds a bit contrived, but as the poster goes on to say, many of these far away words came home with British and Irish soldiers. Having learned in an earlier post that our oh so American dungarees also find their origins in India, for something like the same reason, I don't think distance is such a huge factor as I once might have.

Friday, May 7, 2010

At my own behest

I've noticed a kind of common theme here--I use a lot of words when writing that I don't throw around so casually in everyday speech. Well, maybe I do--the fact is I don't have many permanent records of things I say to people on the fly. (Thank the dear lord.) "At the behest of"  is one of the things that I think it's pretty unlikely I'd say to someone who was questioning why I did something at my job, say, but might throw into some written form without too much problem.

I know, I know--there's many that wouldn't.

Once again, I think this is a phrase I can use more or less properly, but at a deeper level, have no idea what I'm really saying. What is that "be-" prefix all about anyway? And where else in the English language does "hest" attach itself? I can't think of any other words that it's a part of. Can you?

I think of "behest" as being a bit like "request", but stronger. Like, say, the queen 'requests' you do something. But there is also a flavor of  "on the authority of" and "on behalf of". As is usual with these posts, the more I say, the less I know. So let's find out what's what...

Well, I think my sense of it is in the general ballpark. That "be-" prefix is a bit tricky, though. It can mean "thoroughly" or "to make seem" or "to provide with". I'll let you puzzle that part out for yourself, but basically, "behest" means an authoritative command or urgent request, and stems from the Middle English bihest, or vow.

What's interesting to me is that behest contains both sides of the equation: it is the vow or promise, but also the request or command. Which makes it ideal for diplomacy and other negotiations. It's a word that contains the gray areas. I think what it really connotates or stems from is a sense of preexisting arrangements. It's about relations that are already agreed upon. "At the king's behest", for example, assumes a relation in which the king has the right to ask certain things and the subject feels him or herself right or at least obligated to fulfill these requests.

The following video should make this all clear. Of course, it will probably be a lot clearer if you understand Hindi. (Which is pure conjecture on my part, by the way.)