Sunday, November 28, 2010

SPAM--Part one

Okay, I know what it is in both its senses, but I also have a few questions about each. As talking about both kinds at once could get a bit lengthy for all of us, I thought I'd make this post about the one that comes in a can.

So first to what I think I know. I believe I did at one time hear what all those letters meant, and if memory serves (it usually doesn't), SPAM was a wartime protein supplement, perhaps for troops that otherwise would have had little of it.

Another story I've heard and not yet tracked down is that SPAM first turned up on Hawaii and perhaps other Pacific Islands during WWII, and that ever after the native islanders have had a particular fondness for it.

... Well, it seems that some of these rumors were true. SPAM, though, is not really an acronym where every letter corresponds to a word. It is simply Hormel's condensation of Spiced Ham. It was originally called Hormel Spiced Ham, but didn't thrive under this more conventional name. SPAM, then, was perhaps an early instance of 'rebranding'. As SPAM has become a kind of cultural icon in its own right, some amusing 'backronyms' have sprung up, including Something Posing as Meat, and Special Product from Austin Minnesota.

The story about SPAM becoming popular in Hawaii and Southeast Asia seems to be correct. It's origin in 1937 could not have been more timely for its broad dissemination in this part of the world. What's interesting to me is the different status it has come to have in the U.S. and the Pacific in the intervening years. Stateside, it is snubbed as something that poor people eat, while in Hawaii, South Korea and other areas in that region it has been incorporated into the cuisine without ridicule. It seems to me that it is just a different kind of 'cold cut', which formed the basis of many of my childhood sandwiches, at least the ones that weren't peanut butter and jelly.

If you would like to overcome your own internal snob, at least for a day, why not watch the video posted here? At the very least, the host seems like a very nice young man and able demonstrator of cooking a dish that, who knows, might one day save your life...

Monday, November 22, 2010


I heard President Obama say in a recent interview that he was impressed by the resilience of the American people in a difficult time, and though at times he had taken his innings, he felt that if the American people could bounce back, the very least he could do was be resilient too.

As a matter of fact, in doing a little spot googling searching for that exact quote, which I failed to find, I see that resilience is a kind of leit motif in his thinking and speaking. He has called New Orleans a national symbol of resilience, and praised India for its resilience too.

Of course, like you, I do know what resilience means. It means the ability to bounce back, usually after adversity of some sort. What I don't know is where it originally comes from. The re-, of course, means "again" in some sense, but what is the 'silience' all about? I actually have no clue. It doesn't really connect to anything else I know. Well, unless you have a better idea, I guess it's time to take a look...

Well, well, well, if it isn't our old friend salire, "to jump, to leap", come back to haunt us.  (No, not Salieri, that's a different old friend.) Sure, we are thrown off the scent by the fact that our last encounter was a -sult ending (consult, insult, result, desultory) and this is a -sil connection, neither of which sound all that much like -sal.

Whatever. I suppose all that leaping around blurs the vowels a bit. But just to be clear--

That's Antonio Salieri, the musical rival of Mozart's, who probably got a bit of a bum rap from popular history when it came to his fellow musician's death. Let's hope that if he knew the rumors, he proved resilient in living them down.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I had another word or two in mind to explore, but this one popped up while I was watching an old Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett last night. It was a dramatization of Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle".

Of course I know what the word means now. I'll forego posting an image of one until the end, in case you haven't read or seen this tale. But it's odd that I still don't associate the word with the object. If someone were to ask me what a carbuncle was before this refresher course, I would probably have guessed it was something like a boil or a goiter--in other words, some protuberence on the human body. So let's see exactly how I got this impression.

...Well it's very interesting. I suppose we've come far enough now that I can reveal that the carbuncle of the story is a jewel, "a forty-grain weight of crystalized carbon". In other words, a blue diamond. Or maybe not, as some have pointed out that Holmes never refers to the jewel as such. But my original guess about the boils would also be right. That's because the word has taken off in two very different directions. Once again, it all goes back to etymology.

"Carbuncle" comes from Latin and means, "little coal". (That "-cle" on the end turns out to be diminutive.) It was first used to describe gems of a fiery color, such as rubies and garnets. (I guess it's assumed that the little coal is glowing.) Only later did it come to describe an inflamed sore or boil, which like a coal, though not so much like a jewel, is glowing red. You would think that a jewel and a boil would be about as far apart, as concepts go, as you could get, but apparently the associative mind does or did make that leap at some point. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mind takes it even further, making the red jewel glow blue...

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is actually a nice little holiday story and as we are rapidly advancing on that season, you might like to either read or listen to here. And when you've done that, you might enjoy some interesting questions about the story that I happened upon here.

  (Well, it was either this or  a picture of a flaming pustule...)

Friday, November 5, 2010


Thanks to my last post,  I found a financial word of the day email and subscribed to it. Couldn't hurt, I thought. "Bellweather" was the very first one, which did not, shall we say, instill confidence. In one of my rare moments of non-ignorance, I actually know that the word is "bellwether", not "bellweather". I know this almost exclusively because I read the Connie Willis book of the same name. The book is not her best (I'd say that honor might go to To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book, though friends report that her latest ones, Black Out and it's sequel, the just released All Clear, about WWII England are up to that high bar.) Bellwether, though, is really good in its exploration of its title concept.

The bellwether is, to my understanding, the sheep that leads the drift of the flock. As a metaphor,  it's maybe something like the trendsetter, or the avant garde. Willis's novel is partly about trying to figure out about how the bellwether is selected. I think I'll avoid spoilers around this one, as at the very least, there is a very interesting hypothesis proposed about this.

However, we still have the word to deal with. It's easy to understand how the misspelling, which implies an underlying mistake in meaning, came about. People probably think it has something to do with weather forecasting, with being able to  prognosticate. In fact, a bell wether is not such a dynamic creature. Here is a nice definition that I got from They Have a Word for It:

The word comes from the 13th century and first meant a wether (that is, a castrated male sheep) which wore a bell. Wether is Old English and dates from the 9th century. Bellwethers were noted for their docile nature and were used to lead flocks, especially to the slaughter. A curious feature of old sheep slaughter-houses was that the final run before the slaughter-pen had a side gate in the fence, known as a bellwether gate. Along comes the dopey bellwether down the sheep run, followed by trusting flock, then, at the last moment, wallop!, the shepherd slips the bellwether through the bellwether gate and the other sheep trot on, oblivious to their imminent doom. The bellwether was then introduced to a new flock and the sinister cycle was repeated.

Okay, not exactly a character to emulate. On the other hand, well, just look at the picture and decide for yourself whether (no, not wether) there might be some compensations...

Monday, November 1, 2010


My mom had a small life insurance policy, which was mainly to cover what I have since learned is the oldest reason for insurance of all: the costs involved in death and burial. My sister has been the main one helping her keep track of her finances, so I haven't really been too involved in that end of things. Thank God, one would have every reason to add, as it came to my attention during our discussion with her lawyer after she died that I didn't really have any idea what an annuity was, not even when it was used in a sentence. Sure, I get the annu- prefix as having to do with 'year', and certainly it has to do with money, but is it payment in, or payment out, or what exactly?

Well, it's been far too long since I delved into the abysmal depths of my financial ignorance, so pick up your miner's lantern and come with me...

Okay, maybe in this case, we'd better start with the etymology. Annuity means "yearly allowance", and has that usual pedigree of tracing back through Old French (annuité) , Middle Latin (annuitatem) , and back to the Latin annus, or "year". The Online Etymology Dictionary has it that the word acquired the meaning of an investment that entitled the investor to equal, annual payments in the 1670s. So far, so good, right?

Over time, the word annuity has shifted from meaning the money paid out to the actual contract between the individual and the insurance company. By this contract a person pays money to the insurance company, which is invested and paid back in regular payments. In a fixed annuity, these payments are all the same interest rate, while in a variable annuity, the payments are linked to the stock market, so will be up when the market is up and down when the market is down. The real disadvantage with any annuity, though, is that there is a substantial penalty for withdrawing the money prematurely, which in the U.S. would mean before the age of 59 and a half. This is why it can make sense as a retirement strategy, and is not really a young person's best investment choice.

It's all actually rather interesting, but maybe not so much as to go on and on about here. There are some easy explanations in this article on Annuities for Dummies which will explain pretty much anything you want to know about annuities far better than I could. To round this out, I'll just add that any  money left at the time of the "annuitant's" death is paid out in  a lump sum to the beneficieries designated. This is called a "death benefit", which is a very dubious term at best, to my way of thinking.

But let's close out on a more positive note, namely with my new favorite, Anatoly Liberman, and his blog post Year In, Year Out, which does indeed have a passing reference to annuity. Here is the relevant passage:

We seem to know more about the derivation of the word year. Even though speakers of the Germanic languages counted years by winters, they, like probably all people living in areas with moderate climate, identified the beginning of the year with spring. The most ancient meaning of year has been preserved by several of this word’s cognates, for instance, Slavic iara “spring,” as well as Classical Greek hora “time, season” and especially “spring” (the initial h of hora goes back to i, pronounced like y in Engl. year). Latin borrowed the Greek word. Later, the Romans’ hora, via French, reached English and became hour; horologe and horoscope are also loans from French. (It is a curious fact that in none of those French or English words was h- ever sounded; the letter h embellishes Engl. hour and Fr. heure in deference to their Latin etymon. Middle English did well with ure and oure, and Old French had ore and eure. The less spelling masters bother about etymology, the better.) Germanic cognates of Latin annus “year” have been recorded, but not in English. Annual, annuity, superannuated, perennial, and biennial are straight from French or Latin. Both year and annus seem to have the same root as the Indo-European verb for “go.” Year “spring” was a name marking the arrival of a new cycle of the ever-revolving season.

I suppose the thing to take note of here is that a year, in any language, will go as fast.

As this one has already.