Friday, December 30, 2011

A trifle

I had a really nice Christmas. I was especially aware of this this year, because the way the holiday fell, I had to work Christmas Eve and had pretty much decided that would preclude getting together with the family, even though for various reasons, I really wanted to do that this year. But my sister was kind enough to drive down to Santa Cruz and pick me up after work and so I was able to go on a rather madcap adventure around the state spending time with many people I care about. There were many elements to all this, but I thought I would mention one here in particular.

My sister as usual decided that it was not enough to pick me up in Santa Cruz and stay up late wrapping presents. She also wanted to throw her semitraditional Christmas Day brunch. She makes a souffle and sausage but as there was another guest coming she thought she'd also make a trifle. A trifle is not really a trifle to make, it has a lot of things in it and a lot of layers. Fruit and whipped cream feature heavily. As usual, I thought it was a tad over ambitious and as usual, she ignored me, much to my benefit, as it turned out.

Everything actually went very smoothly so we opened presents and the guest arrived and we shared a very nice meal and good conversation. It was a beautiful sunny California winter day, and the trifle looked gorgeous on the well set table and we dug in with appetite and really nothing could have been better. We even had Christmas crackers, and the little trinkets inside seemed apropos.

The doorbell rang and we were saying goodbye to the friend while my sister answered the door and stood there talking to someone. She stood there for a long while and though I was curious I was also distracted, so didn't think much about it till she came into the dining room, followed by a young guy, barely out of high school. "This is Nicholas," she said. We said hello, somewhat perplexed, as I had never heard of him before. He was smiling, and had merry eyes. The odd thing--and it will sound like some sort of literary device,though it isn't--but for some reason, he had the white fringe of a Santa Claus suit around the ankle of one leg. He said he had found it in a trash can at the St. Vincent de Paul.

My sister went out to the kitchen and got him a tin of the Christmas cookies she had made and we made small talk with him while he waited. After he had said goodbye, we looked at my sister and she told us his story. He was a foster kid who had aged out of the system two weeks before he had finished high school and was now homeless. He had come around to her door a few times before, looking for work, and she had given him some small tasks to do. He was happy because he had gotten a sleeping bag and maybe a place to sleep at night.

When you work in retail, you can feel a bit put upon during the holiday season. It is easy enough to understand that you're part of the "the 99%" a lot of that time, but there are other moments when you realize that by other standards, you are also part of the one percent, which merely means "lucky".

Nicholas left, though I'm sure he'll be back. And my sister will undoubtedly try to figure out some way that he can be helped to find work and a GED. There are a few ideas floating around all ready. After he had gone, we all looked at each other, a bit ashamed of our good fortune. My sister looked at the table, seeing it as he would have seen it.

"Oh!" she said. "I should have given him some trifle!"       

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Grimm Tales--Untreed Read Freed!

We interrupt our irregularly unscheduled programming here at Confessions of Ignorance to make an important announcement. Well,important to me, anyway. Normally I have a bit of reluctance to turn my blogging world into a platform for self-promotion or even other promotion, but this time, I have no scruples. Riding on the coattails of my betters, I've got a story in a really terrific new anthology. Grimm Tales, edited by John Kenyon and with an introduction by the Galway master of crime writing himself, Ken Bruen, features a whole host of up and coming crime writers, all working out their own variation on the premise of taking a well known fairy tale and ringing some changes on it in a piece of contemporary crime fiction.      

John posted this challenge sometime toward the end of last year on his blog, Things I'd Rather Be Doing (I believe I actually learned about it through the  crime community connecting blog of Sean Patrick Reardon, Mindjacker), and about seventeen of us took the challenge and came up with something that looked pretty much like a crime story. There was a contest, and there were first, second and third place winners, but basically everyone just did this in the spirit of fun. That would have seemed to be the end of it, but one way and another John thought maybe a book could be made of it, and Untreed Reads gave him the greenlight for an ebook. I believe we all quite enthusiastically agreed to be part of the project. I mean, how hard is it to say yes, when the story has already been written?)

John has been faithfully shepherding the project through to publication and keeping us all posted on the book's progress. I don't know why it came as such a surprise to me when a couple of nights ago, he emailed us all that Grimm Tales was live. But it was a pretty exciting one.  

I like--really like--to read mysteries and crime fiction, but I'm not a crime fiction writer, so I have have a bit of a sheepish feeling about my own part in this. If you happen to read my story, you will quickly see that it is not really noir. It doesn't even totally qualify as crime fiction. So I was happy to get a little and quite unexpected nod from Ken Bruen in his introduction, making me feel that at least it was okay for my story to be included.

Anyway, enough about me. Rather than focussing on highlights, I'll just mention that a variety of familiar tales (and some not so familiar) and a smaller showing of nursery rhymes inspired the very various stories to be found here. For some reason, "Hansel and Gretel" had an outsize number of takers, but as you will see the outcomes are very, very different.

As you might suspect, Untreed Reads is all about ebooks, but if you don't have an ereader, don't despair. There is certain to be a format that you can download on to your computer if that's your option.        

You can check the link out HERE

(I know I put my story up on my Story Dump blog and linked to it from here, so a few regular readers may have already read mine. I'd buy it for the other storytellers anyway.) 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

caret, or triple homonym

 Bowing to the inevitable, I take up the third and I do hope last word which has the same sound as my last two posts. I think I do know what a caret is, but as is so often the case with this blog, having to say it aloud makes me wonder whether I do have it right. I believe that a caret is that little arrow shaped mark, most often used to join things in a manuscript. I can't off the top of my head think what else it might do. I have no idea what its origins are. I don't even know if it is limited to sitting  on top of a sentence or can be turned sideways or upside down. God help me if it can because if so I will be at this all night.

Anyway, let us begin:

Okay, tempting as it is to have a do over, I pretty much have that totally wrong. Sorry, internet community readers that only skim the first paragraph here before passing on to something more scintillating. Far from meaning that a space is needed, it means that something is missing and needs to be added . It comes out of Latin carere, to lack.

Secondly, though in my mind's eye, I was seeing it above the line, like this: ˆ, it is just as likely to be used below, like this:˰ .  You can put the missing material, such as an apostrophe or a comma, under the mark, over the mark or in the margins.

A caret might also be confused with a circumflex (which means "bend around")  such as Ê, which is placed over a letter to distinguish its pronunciation in some way.

Carets actually have a lot of uses. They are used as notation in mathematics, computer programing, logic, music and social networking, and have strayed very far from their original meaning of missing. I could break it down for you, but you may as well, just go to the source.

 Perhaps the most interesting thing to me in these researches is that caret is related through this Latin origin to "caste", because in addition to meaning 'to lack', also means 'to be cut off from' or 'separated'. This incidentally is also the connection to 'castration'. Whoa.   

As Peter Rozovsky made this request, and one aspect of this was to know whether there was a keyboard command for this symbol, I will finish with these. I am not totally sure I understood his question correctly, but if you want ˰, you type 02F0 and then hit alt+X. If you want ˆ, you type the Crtl key plus the caret key over 6  and then hit the Space bar. At least this is how you do it in Windows. I don't know if this is a uniform thing or not. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I know it seems like I'm just being a bit lazy here, having just done a post on the word carat. Okay, I am a bit lazy, but if that were totally the case, I would have just drifted off over into the word caret, as my typing seemed to have drifted over in that direction anyway. (I hope this has been mainly corrected by now, but you never know.)

No, this is a little bit stranger than that. Even though I may not know carat from caret, I certainly do know both from carrot, so I am not sure what byway led me to an old recording of The Carrot Seed Song the other night.

Although we had a lot of records when I was little, I guess we must have not had that many that were just for kids, because I listened to this one a lot. It's a simple story, but I think it's kind of an interesting one, since it warns the youthful hero not just against his detractors, but even against his well-wishers. Have a listen.

(Something seems to be wrong with the embed feature, so here's the link just in case: )

I remembered this song well enough in high school that I could do a full dramatic rendition. (Okay, so it wasn't that hard.) I'd like to say that I learned the stalwartness it was meant to teach, but I'm afraid I can't.

I will say that it seems to have made a strong impression on others of my era as well (Notice the guy in the chair. A lot of my audiences probably felt the same way.)

Ditto what I said above:

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Sometimes late at night when I'm tired but not really tired enough to sleep I find myself watching Jewelry Television. For me, home shopping channels are oddly mesmerizing, even though I've never had the slightest inclination to buy anything, but lately it's really the jewelry that I find most fascinating.

This is hard to explain, as I have never had much interest in jewelry stores or even jewel exhibits at museums. I don't wear jewelry and have no desire to do so. But for some reason, the enthusiastic presenters at JTV always reel me in. Woo hoo! one says--look at the flash off of that opal!

I have no idea if any of the gemstones they are selling are actually valuable, but it sure is fun listening to them make it sound as if they were. (There's a good novel, by the way, about the art and con artistry behind the jewel business--How to Sell, by Clancy Martin, which I reviewed awhile ago here . 

But despite listening to the JTV argot, I realized recently, that I really have  no idea what a carat is. Although I think we tend to associate the word carat with diamonds, they come up in all kinds of gemstones. I assume that "carat" has something to do with weight, for what else could it be, but it's odd how little carats seem to have to do with the size of the stone.

Well, let's get to it.


Sheesh. Nothing is ever just easy, is it? Let me start by admitting that I wasn't really entirely sure how to spell "carat" going in. Maybe that's because there are actually two spellings of it. Carat, yes, but also karat. As far as I can tell from this interesting post about the distinction, both variants go back to the same source, but have taken on different meanings. In American English, the convention has arisen to say that carats have to do with mass and weight, while karats have to with purity. In British English the same spelling is used for both senses.

The word goes back to the Middle French carat, which had to do with measuring the fineness of gold, derived from the Italian careto , which was taken from the Arabic quirat, meaning pod or husk, or four grains of weight, and then back to the Greek keration, carob seed. In early, predigital times, the carob seed was used as a standard of weight because of its uniformity, just as a grain was used as a standard of a far smaller weight.

the name carob comes from the Greek word kera, or horn, which describes the shape of the pod, not the seed.

To get really bogged down in obscurity, the Greek weight was equal to one Roman siliqua, which in turn was 1/24th of a golden solidus of Constantine. This is important because keration then took on a sense of  being a proportion of  1/24th, which then became a measure of gold purity. This is why when something is advertised as 18 karet gold, it should have 18 parts of gold to 6 parts of alloy. And why 24 karat gold is usually followed by an exclamation point.

But when it comes to gemstones, a carat is a unit of mass. A carat is equal to 200 milligrams. But it still derives its name from the lowly carob seed. The confusion is not a late add on, but arose from the unit of measurement itself.

Gold prices being what they are right now, there are more carats than karats being featured on JTV these days. By the time the bubble bursts on gold, I'll probably have a pretty good handle on the difference.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


I just came across the phrase "in their heyday" yesterday somewhere or other. Normally, it's the kind of thing I just pass by, as I know what it means, more or less. It's sort of "at the height or zenith of one's fame or wealth or skills". Something like that. It usually if not always refers to some glory days that have since passed.

But I really have no idea where the word comes from or even if I do actually have the definition strictly correct. I'm a bit tired of talking turkey for now, so let's see where this one heads.


Well, this is the kind of thing that I find interesting. The original expression has nothing to do with days, apparently, but rather goes back to an expression from Middle English, heyda, which was an exclamation of playfulness or surprise, an extension of 'hey'. Heyda!--a bit like Hurrah! or Huzzah! This was back in the 1500s, and it wasn't until around the 1700s that it somehow got conflated with the word "day" and began to be used to describe the period of greatest vigor.

And here I was, thinking it had something to do with haymaking.

The Online Etymology dictionary notes that in Latin, hei was a cry of grief or fear, but heia was an "interjection denoting joy". Interesting what one little vowel sound will do.

Since this post is a bit shorter than my usual rambling, I'll put in a plug for a very nice little publisher out here on the West Coast, called Heyday Books , which does some good and sometimes very beautiful books on California and the West. I know of them partly because it's one of my jobs in the bookstore I work in to order backlist titles from them, but also because they have published a couple of really nicely made books by the late James D. Houston. Houston was probably best known for his novel Continental Drift, or perhaps the book he co-authored with his wife Jeanne Watasuki Houston, Farewell to Manzanar, which described her family's experiences in a Japanese interment camp.

Before he died, Heyday published a collection of essays he wrote on his sense of place, Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea, which enjoyed quite a bit of success locally, and one that they've published posthumously, called A Queen's Journey, which is an unfinished novel about Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii.

Heyda, Heyday! Heyda, James Houston!

(I just realized that I forgot to say why all the focus on James Houston in particular. It's because he was a Santa Cruz resident, a friend of the local bookstores, and really a pretty terrific person.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cold turkey

Yeah, getting back up to speed here after an outside commitment, it's lucky that one of the "non-effort" posts of recent weeks has generated some questions, and luckier still that it has also generated some answers. Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders wondered about a couple of turkey related expressions "talking turkey" and "cold turkey". Commenter Dan of My Point Being fortunately did a bit of my work for me. He brought up the theory that "cold turkey" has its roots in the result of going into withdrawal for opium addiction, when the skin turns clammy and goosebumpy. Or turkeybumpy. You get the idea.

However, the online etymology dictionary cites a slightly earlier reference which uses the idea of "cold turkey" in the sense we more widely use it, namely, "without preparation". In this etymological thread, cold turkey is a meal that requires no preparation, so it becomes a more general metaphor for things we do without building up to them. Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me, but it may be so.

Especially since, it turns out that at one point in it's history, the phrase "talking turkey" became "talking cold turkey", later to be contracted back to the original form again. It's a phrase that has lived a few lives. Originally, it meant to exchange pleasantries, presumably over a meal, but later acquired its current meaning of not dressing a matter up, but dealing in hard facts.

As the turkey seems to have been the focus of much American speech, it does really seem a shame that it didn't become our national bird.

(The Cold Turkey image is by Hayden Kays.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011


In between finding time to write blog posts, I thought some among you might enjoy another distraction from the natural world. This one's more watery...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wild Turkey

Yeah, I know some people are wishing I was going to be talking about the bourbon. In a slight departure here, mainly because I don't have time right now to do a proper post, I thought I'd pass along a really enchanting show form Nature that I happened upon on PBS last night, that by happy chance is also being made available for free on line.

It's the story of a natural scientist who decided to hatch and 'mother' a brood of wild turkeys. You really could not have a more delightful and down to earth guy than Joe Hutto, who tells his own story in the film. Some people might sound a little crazy in taking this on, but by acknowledging that he may have 'gone native' a bit, he pulls us into his undertaking pretty deeply ourselves.

Without further ado, then,  My Life as a Turkey .

( I hope people outside the U.S. can watch this. Really not sure of its range.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bonus Army

Well, it's not exactly Cucumber Time right now, so I'm a bit (more than a bit) behind in everything. But I thought in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street I'd do a little piece on a moment of American history that I've never heard of before, and which has become sharply relevant just now.

The Bonus Army was a group of World War I vets and their friends and families who marched on Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 to demand early payment of a bonus promised them for their service. It was not due to be paid them till 1945, but since many of them had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, they were asking that this bonus be paid early. Washington, even liberal Washington, seemed not too keen on the idea.

Rachel Maddow did a very nice piece on this moment in our American past, showing the parallels to what was taking place in the Oakland version of  Occupy Wall Street.

(I've edited this to put in the audio version, because the embedded segment hasn't led to the right video clip here)

I probably would have just watched without doing much more with it except that I came across a New Yorker archive article that they've made available without subscription about E.B. White's reaction to the Bonus Army (He was sympathetic with their plight, but not so impressed with the action itself.)

Then this week,  I found that the Library of America blog was posting some reporting by John Dos Passos on the movement.

I like the way this current occupation is reflecting back echoes of American movements past. Mario Salvo and the Free Speech movement has also figured in the picture lately.  I think sometimes we don't see the importance of such moments for our common history--our human common history, not just America's--until some aspect of those moments is mirrored in our own.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

komkommertijd--cucumber, part 2

No, I am not about to start confessing my ignorance of foreign words--or maybe I should just confess straight out that I am ignorant of them. The number of them of which I'm not ignorant, is, statistically speaking, too small to count.

But in a recent post on the humble or not so humble cucumber, the multilingual Peter Rozovsky managed to fit in a Dutch cucumber joke. I was very surprised, then to find yet another reference to the Dutch komkommer, since I read pretty much exclusively in English. I happened to be reading a very interesting article in The Paris Review by Lydia Davis on the art of translation in general and her task of translating Madame Bovary in particular. I can't link to the article, but I'm happy to report that I think most of it was done as a series of blog posts here . (You'd start at the bottom with the oldest entry.)

Anyway, I can't quite remember the context since the book she is discussing is written in French but in talking about the difficulties of translation, she mentions komkommertijd, which in Dutch literally means 'cucumber time'. To just translate it as 'cucumber time', though, would not reveal its meaning. Davis says that it is the time in August when everyone is away and not much work gets done. It is also the time when Dutch farmers harvest cucumbers. The Dutch would understand the references to both in the word, while most of us wouldn't have a clue of either. How would you get that across?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Just a word I heard recently, which got me thinking about it. I know, or think I know, what skulking is, of course. I think of it as sort of lingering around in the shadows in a less than candid or forthright way. I'm not sure if it always has an extra nefarious motive, but I think usually it does.

It's a great word. Where did it come from? I'm going to guess it's an old Anglo-Saxon one.

 Well, it's Middle English out of Scandinavian. It's got relatives in Norway (skulka, to lurk), Sweden (skolka, which seems to focus on doing a bunk, cutting a class, playing truant) and Denmark (skulke, meaning shirk). I don't have a lot more to reveal about the meaning or history of the word, but I did find one cool thing that I did not know.

If you have three or more foxes together, you have a skulk of them.

A skulk of foxes, yes, but not exactly skulking.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Adolphe Cassandre, 1935

I'm a little short on time at the moment, so I thought I'd try for a short post for a change. I ran across this word in an interesting way. I jumped in at the last minute to write something for Patty Abbott's flash fiction challenge, in which she offered to make a donation of five dollars to the work of Union Settlement for every flash fiction piece written about a painting by the artist Reginald Marsh. I liked the idea, and I liked the paintings. Peter Rozovsky did a very nice piece here, and so, though it was a bit of a slapdash affair, I did do the challenge at the last moment. You can read my story if you want, but frankly, I got more interested in the story of the S.S. Normandie than that of the human characters. I got a bit of that into my tale, but one interesting detail I omitted was that the Normandie was seized by the U.S. while it was in the New York harbor after France fell to the Germans under the right of angary, and planned to refit it as a warship, the U.S.S. Lafayette.

Angary? What was that when it was at home? Google wasn't particularly helpful, as it kept trying to turn my search into a search for Angry Birds. (Sometimes I feel the whole world is trying to turn my eyes in the direction of Angry Birds, even though I know that once I succumb to their stratagems, all is over.) But angary has nothing to do with Angry Birds, unless they turn out to be belligerents in a conflict. Angary is the right of a belligerent (though this is usually a government or something big like that) to seize the property of a neutral party or nation that happens to be on the belligerent's territory, to use it for the purpose of war, or to prevent its use by the enemy, including the property of the  citizens or subjects of the neutral state. Part of the deal is that the belligerent has to return the property and compensate the neutral party fairly for this when the war is over.

Hmm. Call me skeptical. I'm not sure that that worked out very well in the case of the Normandie...

Friday, November 4, 2011


I know this should have been Posh Spice. Couldn't face it.

The last post brought up some reflections about the word 'posh'. This one isn't so much about what the word means, since we all probably have an idea of that, but more where it comes from. In England and the greater British Isles it definitely seems to have an echo of class consciousness in it. In America, I think it's more known than used, at least in a serious way. So what did it originally mean? I'm sure it's obvious, but somehow I can't quite put my finger on it.


"Origin uncertain". The popular imagination has it that it refers to the expression 'port outward, starboard home,' which referred to the preferred ship reservations for the tony class on the passage to (and from). It first came into print in Punch in 1918 in the following sentence: "Oh yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there."  (I have to throw that in, because it reminds me that for some reason, my dad and I believe his brother-in-law, my uncle used to address my grandmother, their in common mother-in-law as Mater, and I realize that I really have no idea why. They weren't British or posh.)

Apparently, there is no evidence to support this theory. Another, supposedly better conjecture is  that  the word posh originally meant 'dandy' round about 1890, and this in turn came from thieves' slang for money. Then the claim is that this hails back to the Romany or Gypsy language, with 'pash' meaning half, and pashera, 'half penny'. Slang seems more likely in this case, as there always seems to be a faintly derogatory whiff to the word, do what you will.

It seems this word and its derivations is one of those things people do often ask about, at least so they think here. I was glad to find this very appropriate quote from Anatoly Liberman:
"Another post suggested that I temper my enthusiasm, because people are allegedly interested not in etymology, but in "words and slang; they ask about posh or the whole nine yards. They'd see no point in asking for etymologies of water, wind, wool, winter, well, [and] wine," unless those "could be illustrated with lantern slides of Life in Roman times." I've been taught never to assume anything and not to generalize in a hurry. This advice I'll pass on to anyone who will take it. Queries reflect the sophistication of the questioners. The more people know, the less trivial their questions become. If they realized how interesting the etymology of water, wind, wool, and the rest is, they would have asked about it."

No post about the word posh would be complete without a nod to the fabulous 'Posh Nosh'. If you've never heard of it, here is the first episode. It's not long.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

a right donnybrook

Posh, indeed.

Okay, I have probably never used that phrase in my life. However, I have read it enough for it to seem familiar. Familiar--not necessarily precise. I have a feeling I've thought of a donnybrook as more of a rout or a disaster, when I'm getting the impression it means more of a free for all, or in American imagery, a brawl in a Wild West saloon.

I also think I've thought that Donnybrook must be the sight of some battle, kind of like Waterloo, which has also become metaphoric. For some reason, my mind always had it as from the times of chivalry, and if pressed, I'd say that the image is more along the lines of knights on their chargers battling by a not impossibly large stream. Maybe on a tapestry.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn, once again on a  recently resumed discussion over at Peter Rozovsky's place ,that Donnybrook is actually one of the posher areas of Dublin. Is this just a coincidence? Or has there been a significant transformation from rowdier days of yore?

I've been to Dublin, by the way. Suffice to say I was not staying in one of more exclusive districts...

Well, we have the answer in one word: gentrification. Donnybrook was not always so. In fact it was the site of a famous fair which had been licenced to the corporation of Dublin in 1204, and that lasted a fortnight at it's height. Sadly, over the centuries, it became notorious for drunken brawls. No doubt it was the ancestors of the present gentry who wanted this unsavory festival shut down, but it wasn't easy. The license holders had absolute right and weren't caving to public pressure. It wasn't until 1855 that John and Peter Madden were persuaded to sell it at the behest of  the Lord Mayor of Dublin to powers that were then willing to shut it down.

We will end with not one but two musical references. First a jig:

And of course, we cannot fail to include a drinking song:

Saturday, October 29, 2011


On a recent post at Detectives Beyond Borders, Photographe à Dublin pondered a question that I believe has been preoccupying her a bit, namely, since when does something have to be gritty to be realistic? This led me wonder when 'gritty' came into the lingo to mean, not 'full of grit', but a dark and unflinching look at  harsh reality. I don't know if I can find the answer to this one, but it seemed like a nice one to attempt.


Well, in a way I wasn't too successful. I was somewhat surprised that the Online Etymology Dictionary has it that the sense of 'gritty' passed from describing the physical quality of grit to meaning unpleasantness in general as early as 1882, derived from the sensation of eating gritty bread apparently. But this still didn't tell me a lot about the genre. And in fact there was dearth of etymological explanations, though quite a large fascination with 'nitty-gritty' and it's possible beginnings. That's a bit far afield for this post, though.

In the end though, I was richly rewarded by finding the word defined in the Urban Dictionary. Sure, you've got the link, but since many won't bother to click on it, I'll just post it here in its entirety. You really should just go on and read all three definitions:

harsh, coarse, rough and unrefined, as in film depictions that portray life as it truly is, without false distortions, stylizations, or idealizations. Often, the realism is exaggerated such that the culture or society being portrayed appears more coarse than it really is.
The film "28 Days Later" is a gritty, dirt-under-your-fingernails kind of raw.
28 Days Later--gritty!

A type of realism, usually invoked by films and documentary. Strangely
enough, "gritty realism" is only perceptible to media and film critics and the term is hardly ever used by anyone else. In fact no-one but film and tv critics ever use the term.
 Film Critic: " X is a film depicting the gritty realism of life in the New York suburbs"

"the gritty realism of this documentary is in stark contrast to his other work"

A middle-to-upper class term to describe the living conditions of the majority of the human populace as seen through indie movies.
"The film 'x' was a gritty depiction of life on the streets of NY."

There was one other consolation prize, although this time of bittersweet nature. I discovered the blog of Michael J. Sheehan, which is called Wordmall. Sheehan is a retired English teacher of the City Colleges of Chicago, and he has been running a pretty fine etymology et cetera blog for a few years. It's kind of like this blog, except that he actually knows what he is doing.

Check it out, and do feel free to defect.

I might.    

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I've been reading John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hitman on my breaks lately, and though so far I haven't found anything too surprising in it--I was expecting a bit more derring-do, frankly--he does a good job of telling our recent history and involvement in various other countries' business in a readable and succinct way. So of course he gets into the formation of OPEC and the oil embargo that was launched by that cartel in the early 70s. Now, I've heard about OPEC for all of my adult life, and I've heard the word cartel because of it, but that doesn't mean I have any idea what a cartel is. Do you?

I mean, I do know that OPEC is a group or a league or an alliance of oil producing countries. But I'm not sure why calling it a cartel makes it something different. Is it something to do with the markets? Is it a financial entity rather than a purely political one? Is it a very specific and legal term, or is it a loose word that can fit a variety of organizations?


Well, yes, it is a fairly specific and legal term. According to the legal dictionary aspect of the Free Dictionary online, a cartel is an arrangement between competing companies or national monopolies that are in the same resource development field or industry. They join together to take control of this industry or resource and can set (or fix) prices, control distribution, and reduce competition among other things.

The word cartel goes back to the Italian cartello, or placard, which is a diminutive of carta, or card. (Related words are 'chart' and 'charter'.) In the 1550s, it meant a written challenge, but over time came to mean a written agreement between challengers. Its current meaning, however, in reference to a commercial trust, came to us in the early twentieth century from the German Kartell.

Anyone who has been watching Breaking Bad lately will be champing at the bit to add that another use of the word comes in the form of 'drug cartel', and that other functions of a cartel are allocation of customers and the allocation of territories. I'm not sure how Walter White's blue crystal meth factors in to all this, though, because apparently cartels usually work best when they have a homogenous product, not when there is a superior product that one member has that customers are vying for.

Breaking Bad cartel muscle

Of course, this is the problem with cartels. Wikipedia's article on the subject launches right into the games theory view of the subject, citing it as an example of a situation known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. For a cartel, this means that any given member could do better if it were to betray the arrangement by pricecuts or producing more volume, but if everyone does the same, they will all be worse off. If I read him correctly Perkins in Confessions is saying that the U.S. sought to break the OPEC cartel by entering into a complex financial relationship with Saudi Arabia. It was interesting that my first Google hit on Saudi Arabia and OPEC hit upon this much more recent NY Times article , which shows precisely the kind of tempatations a cartel member is subject to.

Cartels are illegal in the U.S., and by now, most other places. Here, this came about through the Sherman Antitrust act of 1890, though this was used effectively only later, beginning mainly with  Teddy Roosevelt in his efforts to break apart various monopolies of the time. "Antitrust" is a bit confusing, as putting money in trusts was a monopolistic tactic of the day. The bill is not actually against trusts, but against the misuse of them for monopolistic advantage.

Despite their efforts to control private cartels, governments often do create them themselves. The U.S.  allowed cartels during the Great Depression in coalmining and oil production. In a public cartel, such as OPEC, the government itself becomes involved in enforcing price-setting and output, and one influential economist, Murray Rothbard, thought that the Federal Reserve itself was essentially a public cartel of private banks.

Sometimes anyway, the worthiness of a cartel is in the eye of the beholder.

I liked this little quote from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith on cartels:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice.

Cartels, then, are a very human tendency. So apparently are bands that take the names of my theme words.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Having just used this word in a limerick homage to Peter Rozovsky's answer to Patti Abbott's  flash fiction challenge, I find myself wondering about its origins. Is it just one of those nonsense words, or does it have some root in reality? I feel that 'smith' has got to have some part in it, whether the name or the occupation, but can't get any further with it. Can you?

Wrong! Nothing to do with smiths of any kind. It comes from the Irish word  smidirīn, and I have to say I suspected that -een ending was Irish. Coleen, Eileen, shabeen, well, you get the idea. The original word is smiodar, combined with that familiar diminutive -in or -een ending.

Apparently smithereen has some shaky beginnings. There is actually some chance that it came from English first  as smither and was incorporated into the Irish language, only to be given back later. The spelling wasn't stablized and so there are mentions of shivereens and smiddereens before we have the 'official' version. Basically, though, we're talking about bits or fragments, usually begotten by explosive shocks.

I liked this article about the word, not least for the idiosyncratic fragments by two brilliant authors that frame it...

And this post would not be complete with out reference to the rock group of the same name. Herewith, a sample:

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Sand marathon in the Sahara Desert
In the last post I discovered somewhat to my disappointment that 'gruesome' and 'gruel' have no real kinship. Gruel, which is a watery porridge made from the meal or paste of some grain or bean, has nothing to do with shuddering but something to do with grinding. It is a bit more related to 'grain' and 'grit'. The speculative protoindoeuropean root is *ghreu--"to rub, grind". Okay, fair enough. But then, what about grueling? Is this related? I now see that it probably is--a grueling race is probably also a grinding one. Let's find out.

Grueling in our modern parlance means physically or  mentally demanding to the point of exhaustion. And it does relate to gruel. Hooray! But surprisingly, grueling is slang.  It comes from an idiom, 'to get one's gruel ', ie, to get one's punishment, or more brutally, to die. As Anatoly Liberman points out in his book Word Origins and How We Know Them, Dickens almost certainly knew the expression, which is why Oliver Twist's "Please sir, I want some more," rings doubly poignantly. What Oliver wants is simply a little more gruel.

Somehow through my mom's side of the family we got to know the morning food known as grits. It seems that somehow this passed into our knowledge rather late in our family life, because as a child it was all Quaker Oats and Malto Meal when it came to hot cereals. Grits are a Southern dish, so this probably came through my uncle's side. In any case, we all enjoyed it when we had a Christmas or holiday breakfast of grits, scrapple, and fried green tomatoes. But grits and gruel are closely related, all through the fine crushing power of a mill, and not at all gruesome, when you get right down to it.


Thursday, October 13, 2011


Like many others last weekend, I watched the season finale of Breaking Bad. (Don't worry, this won't give anything away  about the episode.) I caught it a little late, but the one word that leaked out beforehand was 'gruesome'. And I will say that if you are looking for gruesome you will not be disappointed.

But after I got over the shock and horror--no, that's not true, I will never get over the shock and horror--after I tried to return to some semblance of the normal life I formally led, I suddenly realized that gruesome was one of those perplexing '-some' words. When I started exploring 'cumbersome' a few posts back, I learned that -some has the general meaning of having the quality of or full of something. "Has some" might be a better way to describe this ending. But often what it has some of  is a bit obscure. And so it is here.

What is 'grue' in this word? Is it some strange twist on 'gore'? Does it mean 'gray' in Old French? In our times, I think we agree on something like "horrible to observe, often involving body parts." But where did it all begin?



Well, I had some hopes that it might have something to do with gruel, but of course it didn't. 'Grue' is an obsolete word meaning 'to shudder'. It comes from the Middle English word gruen. There seems to be little trace of what that came from, but in any case, there is a Dutch/German/Danish and Norse configuration of similar words floating around it.

Although the term languished in English, it was used commonly in Scotland and Northern England for centuries. It took Sir Walter Scott to use it in his historical novels and thus give it back to standard English. Although I do have to wonder what Scott would have made of that Breaking Bad episode. Less gruesome or more gruesome than his own imagination?  

Anatoly Liberman also has a thing or two to say:
"Quite a few words in the languages in the world begin with gr- and refer to things threatening or discordant. From Scandanavian, English has grue, the root of gruesome (an adjective popularized by Walter Scott), but Old Engl. gryre(horror) existed long before the emergence of grue-. The epic hero Beowulf fought Grendel, an almost invincible monster. Whatever the origin of the name, it must have been frightening even to pronounce it."
'Gr-', huh? Did I mention that my last name is Graham?
Probably not. I wouldn't want to scare you.

Monday, October 10, 2011


It's a fantastic word, isn't it? For such an oddball word, I'm guessing it's actually fairly well known, but maybe I just think that's just because I went to  UC Santa Cruz and can remember extracurricular activities sometimes officially sanctioned and sometimes not that centered around spelunking. It's cave exploring, in case you haven't heard it. I have to admit that I never visited any of the caves on campus, and didn't really even know where they were. I'll try to rectify that here.

But it was while I was watching The Amazing Race the other night that I got to thinking about the word again. I guess it was when the  show visited Indonesia, where the teams had to descend 160 feet into a dark cave to search for a mask and dagger. (Frankly, it would have been climbing the bamboo ladder back up again that would have been my undoing.)

Why is it called spelunking? It's got to be either a foreign word or a made up word and I'm wondering why people were so attracted to it that it's common to use it rather than the more familiar 'cave exploring'. I'm going to guess that it's a real word from somewhere else. Germany?

How about you?


Not made up, though it does have an obsolete source, namely spelunk, which was Middle English for cave. That comes as so often, from the Old French (spelunque or spelonque), back to Latin spelunca  and finally to the Greek spelynx.

Here's what's interesting though. Spelunking is kind of a revived word. Apparently a guy named Clay Perry coined the word while on assignment for the Federal Writers Project to describe the activity of  a group of men and boys who were exploring the caves of New England in the late thirties and forties. But 'spelunker' soon became associated with cave 'enthusiasts' as opposed to the more serious 'cavers', and a bumper sticker was eventually circulated maintaining that 'Cavers Rescue Spelunkers'.

Typically, this distinction seem to have been lost on Santa Cruz. And I mean that in a good way.

There is another slang meaning of spelunking, but you are going to have to go over to the Urban Dictionary and research that one for yourselves...

Thursday, October 6, 2011


No, that is not a stutter in the machine. Both Peter Rozovsky and Sean Patrick Reardon found themselves wondering how 'cucumber' might fit into all the cumbersome madness of the post before and frankly it crossed my mind as well. And then Peter beat me to the draw on the pun--who'd have thought it?--so there you go. I should probably let them write this post themselves.

So is cucumber in any way related to cumbersome, encumber or any of that family?

I haven't looked yet, but my guess is no--it will turn out to be sheer coincidence. Wagers, ladies and gents?


Correct! Cucumber has apparently always stood for the simple cucumber. It is a single source with many variants as it passed from the Latin, which was cucumerem or cucumis, which is suspected to be from an even earlier Mediterranean language. Out of this we have the Old French cocombre (which lent English that 'b')  and modern French concombre. Apparently the French still want a little more distinction from the English. And we've got the Italian cocomero, the Spanish cohombro and the Portuguese cogombro. Do you ever get the feeling that when it comes to words, people  can't just leave well enough alone?
African Horned cucumber

As a matter of fact, Old English had a perfectly good word for them, which was eorþæppla, or earth-apple. Not that they look all that much like apples to me, but still. Maybe they were rounder back in the day. The Brits kind of took their own back after awhile, though, when, in the 17th century, they  began referring to them as Cowcumbers. Which I kind of like, actually.

The online etymology dictionary waxes on uncharacteristically, telling us that cucumbers (or probably more likely, cowcumbers) were planted at Jamestown in 1609. And we even get a bit of scientific trivia. The phrase 'cool as a  cucumber'  which dates back to at least 1732, was apparently only finally confirmed in 1970, when it was proved that on a hot day in the field, a cucumber was 20% cooler inside than out.

Why no one ever thought to stick a thermometer in one before this, I don't know. 

This would be about time for a nice cucumber salad recipe, but the truth is, I'm not all that crazy about those little earth apples (they are actually from the gourd family).  Until they're pickles, anyway. Feel free, however, to post a good recipe below.                 

Oh yeah, and I forgot all about sea cucumbers. But that's probably another story...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


This one was another of those writer's regimen riff words, and it really intrigued me. Cumbersome is something like burdensome. I often think of a cumbersome object as more bulky and awkward than heavy, though maybe that's just me. Unencumbered means something like free of attachments or not weighed down. but what is 'cumber'? Is is a lost word, or one that never existed in the first place?

I also found myself wondering whether the phrase 'to be lumbered with' is related in some way. Frankly, I'm not sure I've ever heard that in American usage--it may be a British expression.

And finally, what's with the '-some' ending? I was thinking about how often it doesn't really give me a clue, I just have to know what the word in full means. A better example of this is 'handsome' or maybe 'winsome'. Well, I may have bitten off more than I can chew here, but let's take a look.


Well, I found several surprises here, which is always interesting--at least for me. Cumbersome can mean awkward becaue of size weight or shape, but also difficult in terms of its extent or complexity. Turns out a lot of things are cumbersome in this life.

That isn't what surprised me, though.

What surprised me is that the original meaning of cumber, from about 1300, is to overthrow or destroy, to be overwhelmed, to harass. Not quite the sense I'm trying to convey when I say I'm  carrying a cumbersome bag of groceries from the store. But maybe this is a false track, because there is an old French word, encombrer, and I think i's sense of to be hampered by obstructions or barriers is really closer to the mark.

But there's also the possibility that it really did have a sense of havoc and destruction, and got diluted, as big words have a tendency to do. (The degradation of the word 'awesome' being a case in point).

Lumber was the one that really got me wondering, though. Of course I've read about lumber rooms, or storage rooms, in British books, but in America lumber is pretty much always the end result of taking a saw to trees. Apparently, this is not the source word, but the other way around. Lumber  originally meant, and probably still does mean, 'disused bit of furniture; heavy, useless objects'. To be lumbered with apparently does not mean to be constrained by a bunch of timber, but by a lot of, well, crap.

This word doesn't come from where you might think it would, either. It seems to have come from Lombard,  which was a family out of northern Italy famous as bankers, and, in their migration to England, moneylenders and pawnbrokers. Although this lineage isn't assured, it seems likely that the what you might call tat in these pawnshops, also known as lombards, is what was eventually referred to as lumber. Who knew?

Venturing ever further afield, my search into that whole -some suffix thing, I was quite surprised to discover what handsome originally meant, round about 1400. It meant easy to handle, or ready to hand. Hard thing to give oneself airs about, I'd think. The meaning extended to be fair sized, or considerable, until it came to another meaning of having a fine form or good looking.

Handsome man of Martineau's day

The online etymology dictionary had this interesting quote from Harriet Martineau in 1837:

[Americans] use the word "handsome" much more extensively than we do: saying that Webster made a handsome speech in the Senate: that a lady talks handsomely, (eloquently:) that a book sells handsomely. A gentleman asked me on the Catskill Mountain, whether I thought the sun handsomer there than at New York.

I think we've largely settled on good looking, though, by now.


Saturday, October 1, 2011


I'm doing a kind of writing course this month through the Southeast Review. I've done it before, so I can tell you that the set up is that each day they give you various sorts of writing prompts, interviews and so on to get you to pump out a lot of material. I'm not usually all that successful at keeping up with it, but its a good program and I recommend it if you have some extra hours in the day. The last piece of the thing every day is a 'riff' word that you can use in any way you like. I thought it might be fun to use a few of them on the blog if they fit, and the first one does.

Of course I know what "divulge" means. It means to reveal something hidden--a secret, maybe, or even something buried physically. Something is brought to the light.

But I find that 'vulge' intriguing. I guess it's because it reminds me of bulge and also of revulsion, but there's a kind of disgorging imagery going on in my head. I can't seem to figure out the etymology on this one.


Hmm. I guess I forgot to say that I did wonder if somehow the '-vulge' could in any way be related to 'vulgar'. I knew that the Vulgate was the Bible translated into the common language of the Roman people, which was great as long everyone understood Latin. And I did know that 'vulgar' was just a way of saying common, which is often misconstrued by the upper classes as meaning something low. But I still didn't see how it could shed light on a word about revealing a secret. However, I was making this too hard.

Divulge comes (of course) from the Latin divulgare, which simply meant 'to publish', or 'to make common property'.

It's all right there in the word, isn't it? 

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I think we all know what this one means, or to put it a little differently, we each have our own idea what we think it means. Sir Thomas More borrowed it from Greek to be the title of his book. In Greek it meant nowhere, which is kind of the thing about utopias. Maybe it's just the era that I happened to grow in--in the shadows of the utopian projects of the sixties. I think a lot of them did some good, but they all ran up sooner or later against the human fraility of their framers to one extent or another.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd just highlight this word right now, because oddly I have been hearing it in a lot of different contexts  recently. I think it's in the air right now. It's one of those words that seems to be gaining energy and life again. I think a lot of people, despite or probably because of the economic woes that many face, are beginning to think again about what the good society (as Wikipedia points out 'utopia' (nowhere) is in English a homophone with 'eutopia' good place) could possibly be.

We had an interesting guest at the Penny University this week. Gary Patton was a supervisor of Santa Cruz county for twenty-five years. He used to hold early morning weekly meetings at a local coffee shop so that he could talk to his constituents. Although he's been a familiar face in the bookstore I work in, and I've run across him in other contexts as well. But I'd never really heard his bio. He got into community work because of his interest in utopian thought and together with other Santa Cruzans worked to put their own vision of Santa Cruz's future in place. They succeed in keeping the North Coast from becoming a major development, and in other ways worked to keep the small town character of the place. As Patton said, it takes about five people working together to form a movement. Fifteen is probably better, but you can do it with five.

He has an interesting blog that I learned about that evening too. It's called Two Worlds/365, and .. you can find it here . It isn't necessarily about utopia, but I think utopia is implied.

It's  a funny coincidence that I came across this article in the Sentinel today. The short story is that after the 1989 earthquake, downtown Santa Cruz was in ruins and had to be rethought. One of the decisions was to make Pacific Avenue not only one way, but not the same one way all the way through. Now, an outside consultant has been hired by the local merchants, who apparently gives them the  flabbergasting news that the traffic pattern is keeping some of the major players from coming to town.    

"Your design is keeping stores like Apple from coming here," the consultant said.

Oh, horror. The design, by the way, didn't keep Borders from coming here and lasting 10 years or so. I have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't the Santa Cruz traffic pattern that finally brought them down.

Having Apple on Pacific Avenue is probably on the checklist for some people's utopia. It wouldn't be on mine. But that's the thing about utopias. It's not as easy to construct one that fits all sizes as one might think.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Getting back to my more usual subject matter here, I've found that ignorance has once again given me an easy topic. I was sitting with a sales rep the other day, who was showing me some photography books he was trying to sell. Each was dedicated to a country or region. One of them was Cuba, one of them was some Arab desert region that I had never heard of, and one of them was Zanzibar. Of course I'd heard of Zanzibar. It was only later, after he'd taken the books back and left, that I realized that I had no idea where Zanzibar really is.

It is certainly a name to conjure with. I think all my associations to the word may actually come from film or perhaps there's a line in a famous poem or two. In any case it's a highly romantic word, with resonances of spices and somehow I'm thinking there's an Arabic/African trade route involved. Was there a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "On the Road to" movie?

We shall see.


Yep, there was a movie. But the more contemporary cultural reference, and the reason some of you will know more about the place than I did, is that one of its most famous sons was Freddy Mercury, a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara, of Queen.

Basically, my sense of Zanzibar was more or less right, which must mean that those Bob Hope movies had a hitherto unsuspected level of documentary reality...

Zanzibar is an archipelago off of Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa, and is currently a semi-autonomous region of the same. It has indeed been a kind of crossroads of not only Arab and African trade, but also that of India and Persia/Iran. There is a bit of a controversy about what the name actually means. The Persian language has it as Zangh Bar, meaning brown, Negro, or even rust coast, but the Arabs derive it from Zayn Z'al Bar, which means something along the lines of 'fair is this land'.

The spice aspect wasn't wrong either. These islands are often called the Spice Islands, which I thought might be the case, although there is an Indonesian archipelago which is a rival for that name. In fact, their main export, cloves, were originally imported from these other islands, the Moluccas. The real reason, I think, that Zanzibar is on the map for us now, though, is that the Persian traders who discovered these islands (whatever discovery means when you're talking about islands that have traces of human tools from 50,000 years ago) saw their strategic importance in trade routes between Africa, the Middle East and India. The larger island, Unguja, had, and probably still has, a defendable harbor.

After Persia, Zanzibar came under the control of the Portuguese, who retained it for 200 years. Then the Sultanate of Oman had its day there and  came to hold sway not only over a major  portion of the East African coast, but trade routes leading into the continent. Yes, spices were traded, but they were not the only goods on offer. There was also ivory, and, yes, slaves. In fact, Zanzibar was Eastern Africa's main slave port, and at the height of this trade, 50,000 slaves passed annually through its markets.

Monument to the slaves in Zanzibar

The British gradually gained control by influence of the sultanate, and took real control after a sultan they did not approve of came to power. What followed was the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, which military buffs may like to know is, at 38 minutes, still on record as the shortest war in history--at least according to Guinness.

Zanzibar gained independence from Britain in 1963, but it was only a month later that an African led Zanzibar Revolution ended the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Arabs and Indians living there, and in the process put an end to the Arab dominance of the coast that had gone on for a couple of centuries.

Freddy Mercury was actually very representative of multicultural Zanzibar and its destiny in many  ways. He was born to a Parsee family, but  his father worked as a civil servant for the British government. So it makes sense that Freddy was sent to an English boarding school, though the boarding school was not in England, but just outside Bombay. After school, Freddy returned to Zanzibar and it was actually the growing unrest in 1964 in Zanzibar that persuaded his family, rather wisely I'd say, to join many other British and Indian families seeking a new home in England.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troy Anthony Davis: October 9, 1968-September 21, 2011

Troy Davis was scheduled to be executed at seven p.m. this evening, Atlanta time. In California this was four p.m. and as usually I would be starting a register shift at this hour, I asked to be let off early. The idea of being so fully in the world of commerce at that hour seemed like a big contradiction to me. I didn't know quite where I would go, but after I left, I thought I might walk the labyrinth outside the Episcopalian church as a fitting thing, but I'd forgotten that it was the open market day and it didn't really seem like a very introspective place to be. I then thought I might walk on to the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church nearby, because with it's predominently  black congregation, I thought it might have been the kind of place that Troy might have liked to worship if he'd had the chance. I've often heard some great sounds coming over the fence, but this was a Wednesday afternoon and the place was shut and empty.

I decided to walk on home, as by now I assumed Davis would be dead and I would rather walk home and think about this quietly than ride home on a bus full of students. I didn't really feel that I'd had a significant deep moment, but I thought walking in solitude might go some way towards reaching this goal. My feet aren't the best these days, but I thought it would still be better.

I reached King Street, a street I had walked on this very morning as I usually do, and saw from quite a distance that there was a gigantic crane some ways down and it was at work on a tremendous project. As I got closer, I saw that the crew was busy at work bringing down an enormous tree. People were stopping and watching and taking pictures, and it was a busy intersection with a guy standing in the middle of the street just to direct traffic. I saw a woman that I knew and she said that her daughter lived in the house that had been in its shadow and that it was being taken down because its branches kept knocking out the wires and cutting off people's electricity. We were all impressed by the efficiency of the men high up in the branches. I said, well, I suppose there's some positive side to the tree coming down for the neighbors.

My friend said, "It's a hundred year old tree. Nobody thinks its a good thing."

When I got home, I was surprised to learn that the Supreme Court had asked for an eleventh hour delay in the execution of Troy Davis. I watched events unfold on television. The delay did not result in a stay, and the executioners proved just as efficient as the tree men had. Troy Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08 tonight, still protesting his innocence.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


As I am going to have to at some point change this back from an advocacy platform to what it was intended to be, I thought a good transitory word would be 'vigil'. I will note here that it was announced this morning that Troy Davis was not granted clemency, and is scheduled to be executed at 7 PM Wednesday evening, Atlanta time. I feel that the time of advocacy is over and the time of vigil has begun. But what exactly is a vigil?

I was not surprised by the sense of watchfulness and wakefulness it has. It comes to us from the Latin, of course, and took on the meaning of 'the eve of a religious festival' in the thirteenth century. The meaning of a watch kept on a festival eve comes later, toward the end of the fourteenth century, and our more contemporary sense of 'an occasion of keeping awake for some purpose' isn't recorded till 1711.

For some reason this started me thinking about vigilantes, which originally comes from the Spanish language, but somehow ended up in the American West--probably, I'm guessing, through the Spanish speakers who also lived in the region. It's interesting that the original sense of watchmen has all but disappeared from our mythology of vigilante justice with its disregard for due process.

I'll write a less cursory post about something probably completely unrelated in a few days.