Sunday, January 31, 2010


Delving into your own ignorance sometimes has the secondary effect of revealing to you how incurious you've been over the years. Certainly I've heard the name Wuthering Heights for most of my life, and probably knew the story through a movie or television adaptation long before I read it, but it never occurred to me to wonder what "wuthering" meant. I assumed that it was just an atmospheric name given to a kind of gloomy place and if anyone had asked me, I would hazarded the guess that Bronte just invented it.

However, an early sentence in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas changed all that. In describing a very basic church, his narrator says "No organist played a Magnificat but the wind in the flue chimney, no choir sang a Nunc Dimittis but the wuthering gulls, yet I fancy the Creator was not displeazed."

Now leaving aside the fact that I have no idea what a Nunc Dimittis is, I was quite surprised to see that wuthering in there as an adjective for gulls. And it doesn't help me figure out the Wuthering Heights angle either. I suppose I always thought that "wuthering" in the book title meant something like "stormy" or "foreboding". But "wuthering gulls" doesn't seem that it could have this threatening aspect. It seems more like wandering or airborne or even cawing, and maybe in the context of the sentence, it would be more likely to have something to do with the sound they make. I am not going to get any further on this by deduction, so let's cut to the chase.

Okay. "Wuthering" comes from Northern English dialect, and is a version of the Scot "whither", to blow fiercely. It derives from the Old Norse word for "squall", which is hvitha. The sense in which Wuthering Heights and wuthering gulls come together is that both are buffeted by and at the mercy of strong winds. The Heights would simply be battered; the gulls, more mobile, wind-tossed.

Uttered on the shores of an island off the coast of New Zealand by a San Franciscan, this seems like an exceptionally long way for a word of local dialect to have traveled. Perhaps it was wuthered there.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

foundering or floundering?

This post was at the outset borrowed ignorance. Friend, fellow blogger and perhaps most relevantly here, copy editor Peter Rozovsky asked if I might want to post about the common confusion of the words "foundering" and "floundering". At first, fairly confident that I knew the difference, I felt disinclined. But for me, anyway, the more I think about words, the less I feel entitled to say categorically that I know what they are all about. Questions begin to arise. And so with these.

Here is my initial impression of the meaning of the two words. "Foundering" is to sink like a boat in a shallow harbor, getting stuck in the mud. You come to a halt, a stuck place when you founder. "Floundering" is to be in a state of confusion, but the opposite of a stuck state--it's more of a state of casting about wildly. Or that's my impression.

Well, we'll see how close I am. But in the meantime, a couple of instances of my own ignorance have come to the fore. I had always thought that floundering meant "to behave like a flounder", as on a ship's deck or other dry land just before the end. According to Peter, this is not the case. So what is the case? I can't even make a
guess at the original meaning. I am wondering, though, if there is any connection between flail and flounder. Just because of their opening sounds.

And foundered--what is it's connection to all the other "found" words--found, founded, foundry?

I'm floundering here, but I'm not foundered yet. Let's get to the bottom of this...

Whoo, boy--getting to the bottom of all this may indeed be cause for foundering. And foundering does mean "to sink or fall to the bottom", by the way. It goes back to the Latin fundare, which stems from the Latin fundus, or bottom. So it's related to words like "Founders"--as in our nations's--and foundation.

But foundry? No. Just when I thought it was all smooth sailing, I discover that "foundry" traces its lineage back to quite a different, though still Latin, root. Blink and you'll miss it, but this one is fundere which means "to melt or cast", as in metal. Makes sense for a foundry, I guess. And this doesn't even get into another "found", past tense of "find". Yep, completely different source. (Middle English for the curious.)

You may not be surprised that the etymologists have been floundering around a bit in their quest for the source of "flounder". The American Heritage Dictionary has it that "flounder" is probably a variation on the word--you guessed it--"founder". Your Dictionary has it as perhaps blending "founder" with "blunder". But the Century Dictionary has it related to "flounce" and being a perhaps "nasalized" form of the Dutch flodderen, which can mean either to splash through the mire (flodder), or to dangle, flap or wave, which in turn relates "flounder" to both "flatter" and "flutter".

Got that? That's a flippin' lot of "fl--" words, is all I can say.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I'm sure we've all heard, read and probably even occasionally used this one. "The delapidated old truck careened down the highway at breakneck speed," would be an example of the way I'd think of its usage. To my mind, this would be a vehicle that was coming along at a crazy, ill-controlled pace, probably wobbling from side to side as it came.

But early on in my reading of David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, I came upon this sentence: "An Indian war canoe is being careened on the shore." This sentence could mean just about anything, except that careen can not mean what it means in my sentence above. There is another careen of this type in this section of the book, which of course, I can't now find, but somehow between the two of them I've imagined it to mean something like "carved out". However, from just this sentence it could as easily be "decorated" or even "stored".

Mitchell is nothing if not verbally adroit, so this fictional diary excerpt, supposedly written at about the time of the California Gold Rush, I am sure uses careen accurately for that era, and for all I know, this one as well. It would very much surprise me if the two careens were not related. But how did we get from the war canoes to the hurtling truck?

"Careen" means to turn a ship--or in this case, a canoe--on its side, usually to clean, caulk or otherwise repair the hull. The word stems from the Latin carina, which means "hull" both in the nautical sense and in the (probably earlier) sense of a nutshell. In fact once definition I read calls it 'half a nut shell, and that makes for a visual image which at least to me shows the connection between the two meanings pretty clearly.

But "careen" also had another nautical meaning--that of a ship leaning to one side as it sails in a strong wind. It seems pretty clear to me how this second meaning grew out of the first, and our current idea of lurching or swerving from side to side came in turn out of this secondary meaning.

However, a controversy arises! Some etymologists get very frustrated by this use of the word careen when they are sure people are actually mixing it up with "career", which in one of its senses means "to gallop, run or move at full speed". You can read about this argument at what looks like a very good, if opinionated word usage site here.

My own intuition would be that the two words have been to some degree conflated. I base this finding on the highly unscientific evidence that it sounds exactly like something I would do.

Finally, my web wanderings took me to this lovely site, where careen, or at least carina becomes part of the cosmos itself. Reading through the way many things in many languages connect back to one simple word gives me a sense of language as a very far-flung gorgeous net indeed.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I know--no one is going to believe for a second that I don't know what opera is. No, this is more an "ignorance of origins" kind of post. I came across this little aside in Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, correcting my and doubtless many others' assumptions about the word.

"Incidentally, the word opera is not, as one might suppose, the plural of opus, Latin for work. It is another Latin word, opera, plural operae, which means willing work instead of the necessary or forced labor implied by opus. By extension, opera was used by the ancient Romans for any elaborate undertaking, just as we say, "a production". The word certainly fits the reality of staging one of these works as it is described in the history of the great opera houses: a battle with wounded and vanquished before roles and wills are subdued into a temporary unity."

I am an opera fan, though as may easily be suspected, a relatively ignorant one. Barzun surprised me again by saying that it wasn't until the middle of the twentieth century that a divide between music devotees and opera fanatics was healed, the music lovers looking down on the opera types, who often weren't interested in any other sort of music. What brought them together in realizing their common ground? Barzun says it was the advent of the LP, which made it possible to see that the opera without all the hoopla of the production was, in fact, musical. It's always interesting to learn that something we take for granted wasn't at all obvious before some new innovation makes it possible to see or in this case hear things differently.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Okay, I know what it means. Not that I've ever seen an actual vaudeville show, but it's referred to in countless movies and tributes to the American theatre ad nauseum. I like the song and dance, the jokes seem almost purposely tedious. Ba-da-boom.

So, no, that's not the ignorance I'm talking about in this case. What I'm referring to is a kind of lack of depth of vision, which I would say is a peculiarly American trait. Because, though we reach back to vaudeville, it turns out that vaudeville reaches back a good deal further than that.

Thanks to this interesting post I, am reading (at a very leisurely pace) From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultures by Jacques Barzun. And learned, in one of his countless throwaways that vaudeville, as "a storytelling song in many stanzas", was invented by the French in the sixteenth century.

A moment's thought would have revealed the word as French, but of course I never did take a moment's thought about it. Until now. Let's take a little closer look and see what can be learned about how a very old French word crossed the Atlantic and made a form of American theatre.

...Well, it's all quite fascinating, really. At least to me. There are actually two possibilities of the word, at least as it's been passed along to us: a corruption of the phrase voix de ville, or 'voice of the city'--which I assume would be referring to the city of France, Paris. The other option is that it is a corruption of Vau de Vire a Normandy valley noted for its distinctive songs. No, make that three--vaux de ville or 'worth of the city' was one other promulgated possibility when it first hit our shores.

Corruption, I think, would be the key here. Because apparently this word came into vogue here in the mid 1800's for two 'uplifting' reasons. First, the Frenchified name was meant to distinguish it from the working class shows billed under the name of 'variety', and second, it was supposed to be a kind entertainment that appealed to that great American ideal, 'self-betterment'.

From the Free Dictionary reference, it seems safe to assume that the actual word made its way into the country via New Orleans, where French was entirely legit, but then became part of a veneer of psuedo-sophistication for parts general.

As one Albert McLean suggests, the name was merely selected "for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility."

Now that's American.