Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Mostly, this is a blog about words or concepts I see fairly frequently, sometimes even use, but don't really know as much about as I ought. Every once in awhile though, a word will sneak into a perfectly ordinary sentence that I could swear I have never heard used before. I don't mean technical words, or foreign ones, I mean ones that the writer of the sentence uses casually, as though it would be easily transparent to the common reader. If the common reader is anything like me, though, they are almost certainly wrong.

"Orrery" is one of those words. I came across it in the forward to The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb. Although I haven't gotten any further than the introduction, it looks like an interesting book, claiming to be an exploration of a now vanished, rural France that Robb thinks has not been adequately charted. He knows urban France and he knows the France of literature, which he has studied, but this France he apparently discovered largely by biking around it.

Anyway, in attempting to give an idea of his objectives, he speaks of trying to give "a sense of the orrery of disparate separate spheres" Now quite frankly, I have no idea what he talking about there. I can plug in various guesses--disonance, connection, echoing--but really, none of it would I stake a dollar on. Maybe we better just move on to the definition.

...All right, all right--I must have seen this word before, even if I don't remember it. An orrery is a mechanical model that illustrates the orbits of planets and moons around the sun or a sunlike center. I don't know if Robb's model is truly heliocentric, but I assume if it is that sun would be Paris--or perhaps the King. And of course his sentence makes perfect sense now. I suppose spheres should have been the key.

When I read that these mechanisms were often operated by clockwork, I thought "Damn--I knew this word had something to do with hours!" But my etymological investigations showed me to be wrong again. This one however, could not have been deduced.

An orrery is called that because it was named after Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, who was also and more familiarly to American ears, the Earl of Cork. (Sometimes it seems like all roads lead to Cork in my life, though I don't know exactly why they should.) Was Lord Boyle a famous scientist in his spare time? Well, possibly, but in fact this invention was thought up by George Graham (so, though English, possibly some sort of distant relative of mine) put together by a J. Rowley, and given to the Earl and named in his honor.        

According to Wikipedia, Orrery comes from the Gaelic orbhraighe, or Orb's people, so a tribe, which later became the name of the territory and then the barony. I can't find out more about this Orb or Orbh, but I hope he--if it was a he--liked to ponder the night sky in his time. It would be fitting.

Monday, October 18, 2010


It's been in the air of late, right? Maybe it's just me, but election season seems to be a good time to dust the word off and put it out into use again. It means dirty tricks and shady dealings, doesn't it? But it's an odd word and unless it's related to Chicano, which I sincerely hope it isn't, it's origins seem a bit obscure. So what is chicanery and where do I go to learn how to do it?

Okay, it does mean trickery, and comes from the French chicanerie and back to the Middle French chicaner, "to pettifog, to quibble". But this definition brings up the many marvelous words that are synonyms of chicanery, like hanky-panky, jiggery-pokery, legerdemain, skullduggery, and shenanigans.

Chicanery just seems to bring out the poet in everyone.

Through researching this word, I came across the terrific posts for Oxford University Press of etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Although, he is learned and I am not, on our sense of the origins of words I think we would be very sympatico. In his musings on "chicanery" he says:

Although criticizing the OED smacks of blasphemy, I wince every time I see “fanciful” in it. No doubt, language is always at play, but a specialist’s duty consists in deciphering the rules of the game, so that it would perhaps have been better to say: “Origin unknown.” (For what is “fanciful”? An individual coinage? Coinages like boondoggle, Lilliputian, and quark—dozens of them—also have a base. They are not akin to babies’ babbling.)

Precisely. Check out the rest of his article. It's extremely readable and very interesting.


Thursday, October 7, 2010


Well, time to get back to theme here, I guess. "Craven" isn't exactly a word I think of as an everyday sort of word. In fact, it brings to mind Dickensian characters. But I've used it myself recently, and it seems to be popping up everywhere I look for some reason. So what does it really mean? And where does it come from?

In my thinking, the craven person is a bit of a suck-up. But there is also the sense of weakness and cowardice in their makeup, as well as large amounts of disingenuousness, calculation and self-interest. So let's look at the dictionary definition...

"Characterized by abject fear; cowardly." And worse:"lacking the least bit of courage; contemptibly fainthearted" . Cowardice. Well, that seems pretty uncomplicated. Its roots, though, seem a bit more tangled.

It goes back to Middle English cravant, which is thought to come from old French crevant or crevante, meaning "defeated", which comes from cravanter, "to strike doen, to fall down," and back to Latin crepare, to crack or creak. Sometime around 1400, the word shifted from the sense of "defeated" to the current sense of cowardly, possibly under the influence of the word "crave", which comes from the different Old English crafian, to beg.

Now here's something interesting--well, at least to me. For some unknown reason, I was just thinking this morning about the word "recreant", thinking I might do it as a future blog post. But apparently there is one school of thought that sees some link between these words, as "recreant" also turns out to mean a coward, or cravenly person.  Here's an Etymological Dictionary page on the subject. Apparently," recreant" goes back to the Latin credere, to believe, and has the meaning of yielding, or surrendering allegiance. I suppose it's as simple as one word being about the process of being broken, and the other being about the act of surrender.

Either way, it doesn't look too good for the poor craven recreant in the end...