Saturday, June 26, 2010


I heard this word on some financial news the other night, and realized that it's come up a time or two before in similar contexts. If you're like me, there are certain words that catalyze a kind of brain crash, and for me 'fungible' is one of them. It's partly because the world of finance is opaque to me in the first place, but partly because no matter how much I glean from context, 'fungible' immediately makes me think of fungus and also of sponge, so 'fungible' just sounds like something squishy in a kind of odious way. I had to try to find the word in context even to begin talking about it and so already know that it has to do with the liquidity of assets, which in this context (ooh, yuck!) doesn't really help matters.

So what does fungible really mean? What's its derivation? And why, oh why does it have to keep reminding me of a giant fungus plotting to take over the world?

Okay, at root, fungible really means 'interchangeable'. (Fungus, by the way, probably comes for the Attic Greek version of spongos, which is sphongos and means sponge. See?)  It helps to understand that it is related to function, not fungus. It comes from the Latin fungor--to execute, to perform, to discharge a duty, and -ible, which signifies the ability to do so. It actually comes down to us from the Latin through law, not finance, and the idea is, what is equivalent to what is owed, or, more simply, what exactly will make this right?

There's a good definition that helps our understanding of the way the word is used in different contexts at WordIQ. Fungibility is the degree to which items are equal. The example used there is that a gram of gold is recognized as substitutable for any other gram of gold, while a bale of wool is not a pure measure in the same way, as wool varies in quality, color, etc.

It's interesting to think about the most fungible assets as the ones being in some crucial way most uniform. You can trade a barrel of crude oil for another barrel of crude oil without blinking--okay, that was probably an unfortunate example--but when it comes to a barrel of apples, we might be arguing all day about whether my barrel of apples is sweeter than yours or vice versa.

Monday, June 21, 2010

darshan, darśana, दर्शन

It is the practice of this blog (and, okay, by 'practice' I really mean 'whim') that when a word springs to my attention a couple of times in the space of a few brief days, it's time to get it sorted out. Darshan came up twice in an even shorter period than that. First, I noticed it in a comment on a post  at Girish Shahane's Shoot First, Mumble Later blog. Girish was on a tour of Eastern art in Western Europe, and a commenter said "Looks like you are getting a priviliged darshan of all the museums and exhibitions." I thought, okay, that's an Indian word that I do not know, but I get the general idea of the sentence, so let's let it slide. I mean really, isn't there a limit to the ignorance I am supposed to proclaim and then attempt to correct?

Apparently not. Somehow the next morning, I ended up on Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project blog. I say "somehow" because I got there through a series of links on Slate, and because I don't really know what to think about happiness projects, even when they're written into our Constitution. It's not that I'm against happiness or anything, just that it seems to fall where it will. As does misery.

Anyway, somehow the links lead me once again to 'darshan'. Gretchen also found it to be a word outside her ken, but she made an interesting leap with it. According to her research, 'darshan' means sight, or auspicious viewing. According to her, "Darshan is the beneficial glow that comes from being in the presence of a great spiritual leader (or holy place or object). Merely looking at such a person – and even better, receiving his or her glance – bestows a blessing."

The interesting extension that Rubin makes is extending this to movie stars and the like. She hadn't really understood people's need to see and be in the presence of their idols, but the kind of spiritual benefit sought made it all make sense to her. Well, you can read the whole thing here.

But maybe we shouldn't just take Rubin's word for all this. What does darshan mean?

Well, it pretty much means what she said, I think. But here's a bit from the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is granted a vision of God:

Hari, the great lord of the possessors of mystic power, then showed to the son of Prithâ his supreme divine form, having many mouths and eyes, having (within it) many wonderful sights, having many celestial ornaments, having many celestial weapons held erect, wearing celestial flowers and vestments, having an anointment of celestial perfumes, full of every wonder, the infinite deity with faces in all directions. If in the heavens, the lustre of a thousand suns burst forth all at once, that would be like the lustre of that mighty one. There the son of Pându then observed in the body of the god of gods the whole universe (all) in one, and divided into numerous (divisions). Then Dhanañgaya filled with amazement, and with hair standing on end, bowed his head before the god, and spoke with joined hands. [Arguna said:] O god! I see within your body the gods, as also all the groups of various beings; and the lord Brahman seated on (his) lotus seat, and all the sages and celestial snakes. I see you, who are of countless forms, possessed of many arms, stomachs, mouths, and eyes on all sides. And, O lord of the universe! O you of all forms! I do not see your end or middle or beginning. I see you bearing a coronet and a mace and a discus—a mass of glory, brilliant on all sides, difficult to look at, having on all sides the effulgence of a blazing fire or sun, and indefinable. You are indestructible, the supreme one to be known. You are the highest support of this universe. You are the inexhaustible protector of everlasting piety.

Maybe I'm missing something, but this seems to be of a slightly different order than seeing Brad Pitt on the street...

On the other hand, it's possible that I'm wrong... 


Friday, June 18, 2010


I recently wrote a sentence that began "A big, black dog barked in a desultory way...". At the time, I thought I knew what I was saying. But in examining the word I'm thinking that maybe I did not. What I meant to say was that the dog was barking in a half-hearted, not particularly urgent kind of way. But is that what desultory really means, or is it simply the meaning I supplied it with?

As has come up recently on this blog, when we learn words simply by context and without knowledge of their roots, we can sound perfectly correct in our sentences while being perfectly incorrect in our thoughts. The error may never be revealed--to ourselves or anyone else.

I don't know what that '-sult' ending means, and haven't found the commonality that would result in, uh, "result" and also "insult" as well as our featured word here. I could guess , but, well, actually I couldn't. So shall we just cut to the chase and see?

Okay--in the first place, '-sult' is 'leap' so 'result' is 'spring, forward, rebound' and 'insult'  is 'to leap upon, assault'. And 'desultory'?

It's 'to jump down' or off. This led to the image of a rider leaping from one horse to another. Our modern word comes from this image. For to leap from one horse to another is, in essence, to be uncommitted.

A desultory bark is an uncommitted bark.

I was right.

By the way, the photo above is of one Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford and his birthday was just a couple of days ago at the time of this writing. I can think of a lot worse ways to spend your time than to check out his short biography. And thinking about this a little, I think the last thing you can say about someone who jumps from horse to horse is that he or she is uncommitted... 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

money laundering

I came across this term in a crime novel the other day and had the same question I always have about it--do they wash the coins and cash together, and, more importantly, what drying cycle do they use?

Just kidding. I don't remember if even the first time I came across the term, I thought it had anything to do with actual cleaning. But I have always wondered, and still wonder, how just passing money through some other more innocent looking institution makes it come out looking legit. Offshore accounts,  Swiss bank accounts, all kinds of ways for stowing money seem fairly clear to me. But hiding all trace of its criminal past seems a lot harder. Isn't there always a paper trail? Sure, a human accountant might take awhile to spot something, but these days, with the help of computers, isn't it all a lot harder? Or, with the ability to doctor accounts in cyberspace, is it possibly a whole lot easier?

...Although I haven't found any verifiable source as to whether this is true or not, a popular story is that the term money laundering came into being because Al Capone used to make his cash flow look legit by means of laundromats. Maybe, maybe not, but laundromats are actually a good example of how money can be laundered in a small scale way, because they are the type of business where cash taken in cannot be correlated with how much service has actually been rendered.

Say you have your little coin op. At the end of the day you do your bookkeeping on the cash you took in on all those loads of laundry and then it's child's play to add that fifty or a hundred bucks that came  in in a, shall we say, less conventional way to the books as just that many more loads of laundry, because who's ever going to know? As Philip Brewer at Wise Bread points out, the only way to prove otherwise is to have someone there undercover for weeks counting every coin. The fact that sometimes the water bill has been supoenaed in an attempt to prove a disparity is humorous, but on a small scale is exactly the type of roundabout information gathering that law enforcement must often resort to figure out and prosecute much more elaborate cases. Car washes and hair salons also make easy covers, as would many other businesses where the product is a service rather than a physical product that can be tracked.

As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, the basis of all money laundering is a track record of depositing clean money before slipping in the dirty money. So there has to be a clean, or seemingly clean, operation for the dirty one to camoflage itself within or through. Wikipedia also points out the inherent problem for organized crime in money laundering--you have to co-opt someone on the inside of a respectable organization, very often a bank, to do it. And as the game grows ever more sophisticated, and as financial institutions are ever more scrutinized, finding helpers who are not only willing but able becomes increasingly complex.

I mentioned Swiss bank accounts and the like in my original questions, but I was thinking about storing money, not laundering it. In fact, countries with secretive banking policies play a huge role in money laundering, and in fact you kind of wonder why any criminal enterprise would bother with anything else. I mean it takes a lot of laundromats to clean up the kinds of proceeds that come from illegal drugs, doesn't it?

How Stuff Works has a nice little lesson on money laundering, and if you're so inclined you can take a little quiz here.

Whew. Let's just say that you could enter the world of lore about money laundering and never, ever come out. It's fascinating stuff, really, and though the crimes it covers up are very often reprehensible, what I come away with after just dipping a toe into the ocean of literature is that what money laundering and the attempts to stop it are really like is an elaborate and ever changing game. Neither side is ever going to conclusively win, but it appears that for the foreseeable future, the money launderers will be ahead--to the tune of at least $500 billion dollars a year (and that's one of the lower estimates.)

...In the time between posing this question for myself and actually getting around to answering it, a short article on how Iran has been managing to get around sanctions has appeared, which illustrates at least a few of the principles of laundering. You can read it yourself, as well as the much longer New York Times piece it links to, but basically, the U.S. blacklisted 123 ships from the Islamic Republic of Iran's Shipping Lines, and Iran has gotten around that pesky problem by reregistering all but 43 of the ships to supposedly foreign companies, which later turned out to be shell companies that actually had offices in Tehran, run by managers of the original shipping line!

You would think it would be much harder to launder a ship than a little chunk of change, but apparently not so much...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

shambles--a postscript

I was bit bemused today to discover that  A. Word. A. Day is posting about the word "shambles". Zealous readers here (yeah, right) who do not have short term memory loss will realize that "shambles" came up in the course of discovering the source of the word shambolic. This can only mean one of two things: A.) A. Word. A. Day. has been methodically following this blog to come up with material, or B.) it is a complete coincidence. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

There are a couple of uh-ohs related to that post. First, your humble blogger apparently did not dig back far enough. Sure, we (eventually) got to the fact that shambles=slaughterhouse, but where did the word really come from?

According to AWAD, "shambles" actually traces its roots back to the Latin scamnum, which mean "footstool, low bench" or something like that. Gradually this evolved into a word meaning "vendor's table" and then "butcher's table". It's quite interesting, if somewhat horrific to contemplate how the word came to take on its destructive, chaotic current meaning.

The second, uh oh, though, is surprisingly AWAD's, not mine. It uses this sentence as an example: "The program aims to rebuild a system in shambles before nearly 4,000 schools were destroyed."

($2 Billion Sought to Overhaul Ruined Haiti Schools; Associated Press; May 15, 2010.)

Now, according to my sources, "in shambles" is wrong. It should be something more like "a system that was a shambles". So does usage override correctness? What say you?