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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Word Catcher

Not to get out of coming up with my own challenges, but assuming that a few people reading this might actually be more interested in words than in the spectacle of me humiliating myself, I thought  this interview Rick Kleffel did with poet and word guy Phil Cousineau might be worth posting. His new book Wordcatcher covers much of the same territory that this blog does, although from a much more informed starting point. One thing we do have in common is an interest in the stories that are hidden in words, rather than simply their etymology. A sentence from the interview, though I don't remember if it was his own or something he was quoting: "Words are daughters of the earth." I find that quite lovely. He gives women a lot of credit for the naming of things, and of course I find that quite lovely too, although I suppose it's possible I might be a tad biased...

Thursday, July 15, 2010


"Scuppernong" is a word that may be common in the American South, but as far as I know, it really hasn't made it out west. I have found it several times in my current rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I can deduce a little of what it means from a couple of sentences. Here they are:

"Finders were keepers unless title was proven. Plucking an occasional camellia, getting a squirt of hot milk from Miss Maudie Atkinson's cow on a summer day, helping ourselves to someone's scuppernongs was part of our ethical culture, but money was different."

"Our tacit treaty with Miss Maudie was that we could play on her lawn, eat her scuppernongs if we didn't jump on the arbor, and explore her vast back lot..."

Okay, the fairly obvious thing is that a scuppernong is some sort of fruit. My hunch is that it is fallen fruit, but I am not at all clear whether it is all fallen fruit or some particular kind of fruit, which gains a special name when it is fallen. Well, let's see if I have gotten this all completely wrong...

Well, I got the fruit part right, anyway. But that's about all I got right. Scuppernongs are grapes. They are a type of Muscadine grapes that grow in the southeastern U.S. They got their name because they were originally found  along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina by the first European settlers of the area.

Here's a couple more things I found from this venture into the world of scuppernongs:

Those European settlers could not believe the amount of wild grapes they found in that coastal Carolinian region.

Scuppernongs, the grapes, quickly got new nicknames. "Big bubble", "suscadine", "sculpin", "bullets", which is slang for "bullis", and as it went further afield, "suppeydine" or "scuppydime". I must admit that I really like these variations.

Scuppernong, the river, gets its name from the Algonquian word "ascopo", which means "sweet bay tree".

The Mother Vine, which is of course a Scuppernong vine, contends in a pretty serious way for the title of oldest productive vine in the world. It's four hundred years old and lives on Roanoke island. Here's a little link to   other possible contenders.

Roanoke Island, though? Isn't that where all those colonists disappeared? Yep, here's a little background on that.

Personally, I don't think the role of the Mother Vine in this disappearance has yet been adequately explored.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Elements--a diversion

Fear not--the well of ignorance here will never run dry. But for those with a taste for this kind of thing, I thought I'd mention the project Sam Kean is doing over at Slate. For the next few weeks, he'll be posting articles to his blog about the periodic table. I'm going to check it out as he goes along, and I hope you do too.

I followed such a liberal arts track through college that it's easy for me to forget sometimes that I actually enjoyed certain aspects of the science classes I took in high school. At least, I enjoyed the mysteries of the periodic table, even though I think it was rendered more opaque than it might have been by the heavy accent of our Eastern European born chemistry teacher. Still, he knew what he was talking about, if we had had but ears to hear. Anyway, I'd liked the neatness of the chart, even if I don't remember too much about it now. Maybe it's time to revisit that.

Anyway, if any of you happen to follow the links to read Kean has to say about the different elements and have your own thoughts about them, please let us know...  

Thursday, July 1, 2010


This one comes up from time to time when you read certain kinds of things--British fiction, say, or The New York Review of Books. I don't think I've ever heard it said in casual conversation, which is why I don't even know if it is pronouced poet taster or poet aster. Or even, as in the pun I saw it in most recently, a Poe taster. For some reason I always think of it being a poet with a qualification--I mean a poet in a qualified sense, or a dabbler, but if that -aster has to do with stars, as it does in disaster, it could mean a star poet, kind of like a poet laureate. Well, I'm sure it will all become quite obvious shortly...

Okay--a poetaster is a poet of inferior worth, or at best, one reputed to be of inferior worth. It comes from combining poet and the pejorative suffix -aster. How -aster came to be a pejorative is a bit beyond me. The online etymological dictionary has it that the suffix denotes things with an incomplete resemblance, using as an example a word I've never heard before 'patraster'--one who plays the father. So okay, the poetaster is one who plays the poet. I thought there might be a resemblance to the word manque, but that seemed too easy.

In the course of looking up the etymology, I came across this poem, which oddly mirrors my own path around this word. As the poet has given permission to blog his work as long as you mention his name, I will mention here that his name is Ronberge and he has a book of poems called Don't Think When Thriving!, which I have to admit is a pretty good title. But without further ado, his poem:

I dedicate this poem to all those who use the term poetaster; especially on me!

‘Poetaster! ’

The first time I read the word
I read it: ‘Poe – taster’
So I thought it meant someone who likes old Edgar Allan.
A least had a taste for his words
And tried hard to imitate his art
Not always with success
Doesn’t sound too much like an insult
Does it?
No Really
It got me curious
And I dug a little deeper…
Did some research on the subject
Don’t you just love a century
Where ignorance is a choice you make
By not typing a word or clicking on a button
By not searching for answers or not asking questions?
Here is what my research gave me
On that particular matter:
It was first used in a play
One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries
‘The Poetaster’
an Elizabethan satirical stage play,
written by a guy named Ben Jonson,
The term poetaster,
Meaning an inferior poet in the play
with pretensions to artistic value,
was coined by Jonson in this play.
And the wordplay itself
was actually on ‘disaster’
‘This poet was a disaster’
take out the ‘dis’
Pretty self-evident, yes?
Now I’ve always suspected that latin
Is not the forte of the many…
Anyone with a modicum
Of knowledge in etymology can spot it…
Take ‘Disaster’: it comes from two words
‘Dis’ meaning separation, negation, reversal
And ‘aster’ from ‘astrum’ meaning ‘star’
Literally meaning the star of reversal, of doom!
Follow me so far?
This was the old name for a comet
Who in the old days were thought of as a bad omen
So if you read the word
Then you can clearly see
That Literally
It means
‘Star – poet’!
No reversal here!

Hey you know what?
Go ahead and call me ‘Poetaster.’
The jokes gonna be on you.
Cause I figured something out
You weren’t clever enough to!