Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A miscellany

In case you aren't that interested in furbelows, I've got a few other blog posts going this week, including one on a new font called Dyslexie, one on a meta episode of Community, a few thoughts on a Cozy Knave, and a plug for an excellent an anthology.

Monday, August 29, 2011


I don't know about you, but to me this is a pretty obscure word. Nevertheless, when the same word comes up twice in the same day, I take heed. First I read it in a mystery novel, and then I heard it in a play. Now from the book, I took it to mean the ruffle around the bottom of a bed, and from the play I think it had to do with some sort flounce around the bottom of a pelise (not that the word pelise was all that familiar--I kept thinking they were saying "police", so I was quite confused by lines that sounded like "I just saw him with the police!").

I think that 'furbelow' is a word more used in British English than American, and maybe it's as simple as fur+below, though the fur aspect is still rather baffling. We shall see.


Well, I'm glad to report that it is not as simple as all that. A furbelow is indeed a ruffle or a flounce or fringe or , by extension, any elaborate ornamentation. But it has nothing to do with fur, or, for that matter being below anything. The word it stems from is the French word falbala, or perhaps the Provencal variation farbello, which is more of fringe. This in turn is probably a corruption of the Italian faldella, which is the diminutive of falda, which means more like pleat, flap, or fold, and points back to one of those very densely packed ProtoIndoEuropean roots, *pel, which generally means 'to fold'.

Oh, yeah--it's also a seaweed...

Laminaria bulbosa, a furbelow

Friday, August 26, 2011


Partly, this post is just an excuse to link to Christopher Hitchens thoughts on the recent riots in England.

It's an interesting, moderate (for him) short piece, but if you don't feel like reading the whole thing, I'll cut to the chase and quote what's probably the biggest point he's making:

 But the only really new development, without historical analog, is the emergence of gangs and even small-scale "communities" that feel they owe no civic or political or in many cases religious loyalty to the state or its institutions. These groups and areas often detest each other as much as they do the wider society: There has been graphic violence, for example, between Afro-Caribbean and Asian Muslim factions. Clearly, also, these are the sort of rank, polluted waters in which white supremacist and jihadist groups can find their fishing grounds.

And here, just for the sake of another perspective, I thought I'd include this clip of the West Indian writer Darcus Howe.

But after reading a fair amount of commentary on this recent upheaval, I found myself wondering what a riot really is. I mean we all know what one is--the unruly mob works itself into a frenzy over something, whether deservedly or not, and out of the range of anyone's control, wreak havoc. I mean, you can tweak that a bit, but isn't that more or less your sense of it?

Anyway, I realized that I can't identify the root of the word, and maybe some sense of where it came from will give us some clues about the phenomenon.


Well, it's French. That would have been my guess, as I had also thought of the word 'griot', but then realized that I not only didn't really know what it meant but didn't know if that one was French either.

Ignorance can take one down an ever deepening spiral of inadequacy sometimes.

'Riot' does indeed mean violent, noisy public disorder but there were a couple of facts about the word that I found interesting. First off, in law, the word has a more precise meaning of three or more people acting together in a tumultuous way that disturbs the peace in the pursuit of their private purposes.

I had heard of course that three's a crowd, but it would never have occurred to me that three people could be a riot. Instigate a riot, maybe, but that's a little different.

It makes sense, though, because the meaning in Old French of riote was 'dispute or quarrel'. This sounds more like what three people get up to than what a mob does.

It's also interesting that though the sense of 'riot' as public unrest is first recorded in the late 14th century, the word was set down as meaning 'debauchery, extravagance and wanton living'. Didn't seem to have much to do with breaking in windows with  baseball bats. In fact, pretty much the opposite...

I was also a bit surprised to find the origin of the term 'riot act', as in 'reading someone the riot act', which at least in American vernacular pretty much means to give someone a dressing down. But those subject to British law, or at least more aware of British history, will know that it comes to us from the
British parliament's Riot Act of 1714. One of the things it did was give local officials the power to disperse or punish an unruly mob (in this case, though, it had to be twelve or more people). Similar to our current day Miranda rights in one regard, it was required that the riot act actually be read to the restive group before action could be taken. If the crowd did not disperse within one hour, the local authorities were authorized to use force.


Finally, I guess it wouldn't be right to make it sound as if all the rioting happens in England. We had a small riot here about a year ago. My understanding of it was that under pretext of a dance party on the street, a group lured a lot of students downtown, and then after diverting the police with false alarms away from the center of town, proceeded to do some damage. The police did not arrive in force until some 45 minutes after the actual rioting had started. Below is some fairly raw footage:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Absolute Zero Cool

Posted a new review of Declan Burke's much anticipated Absolute Zero Cool over at Not New for Long.
(Well, much anticipated in the circles I frequent, anyway.)

It's cool, all right.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

tripping the light fantastic

Perhaps this is a bit of a cheat, and I certainly am  not  planning to send you to my Finnegans Wake blog many times in the future. But this week I found myself looking into some things that could equally have appeared here. If you'd like to see how badly wrong I was on the phrase 'tripping the light fantastic' (a general knowledge of superiority to me being I assume one of the pleasures of reading this blog), you can go HERE, and skip, or shall I say trip, right along to the last couple of paragraphs.

Or not.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Feux Rouges

No, I know what this means. I just like having the opportunity to write it here once more, before I direct you over to my book review of this book by Simenon, author of the legendary Maigret novels. Red Lights, as it is known in translation, is not a Maigret novel, though. It's a stand alone about a man who is headed to pick up his kids from summer camp when things go badly wrong.

I didn't read this in French, but in this case, it's quite appropriate to read it in English, as the story is set in New York and points north, and the cast of characters are definitely American. You can check out my short review, or whatever it is, at Not New For Long.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Well, if you thought about it, you might have seen this post coming. After my last post on what 'bespoke' means, it had to gradually occur to me that with all the sprechen and sprachen and speaking going on, there was a big question about another aspect of the word, which, dare I venture, doesn't probably have a lot to do with speech. I'm talkin' spokes, people. No, not spokespeople. Those things that you find inside wheels that I suppose keep the rim from getting wrecked. My confession of ignorance isn't really about function--though I suspect there is a thing or two to learn there too, but about etymology.

What's the root?


Okay, okay. You guessed it already, didn't you? My problem was that I got stuck on the vowel. It's not related to speak, it's related to spike. Or probably is. At least in one theory, it's related to a lot of sharp, pointy things, like spines and pinnacles and Lithuanian thorns (speigliai) and tongues of buckles (spitna), and Latin ears of corn (spica), and all relating back to one of those ProtoIndoEuropean bases, *spei-, meaning 'sharp point'. Apparently the OED is not so sure that it actually relates to all the Germanic family words, but in any case, in Old English it was spaca and is related to the word spicing, which meant 'large nail'.

This all makes sense, but I'm still a bit confused. Spokes originally referred not to those those little sticks you see connecting the hub and the rim, but to lengths of a log that had been split horizontally into sections. What we now think of as spokes were actually carved out of these longer pieces of wood. The meaning of the word drifted, in that fascinating way that words do drift, from the raw material to the finished product. I'm not really sure why those original bigger pieces of wood were called spokes, though. It wouldn't seem that they would have necessarily been all that sharp, but I doubt I can dig down to the heart on that.

A couple of things came to light as I researched this word. One is that even spokes have geeks. One of the things that spoke geeks (mainly cyclists) talk about is the question of 'hang or stand?'--that is, does a loaded bike stand on its bottom spokes, or hang from its top ones? You can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. It's all a bit beyond me, I'm afraid.

The desired spoke length for wheels with crossed spokes.

And it was only as I was writing this that I realized that there was a phrase about spokes that's a bit odd. The expression 'to put a spoke in one's wheel', meaning to put a stop or obstacle into someone's plans, doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you try to visualize it. An extra spoke would only strengthen the thing, wouldn't it?

Well, in fact, we're talking about a whole different set of wheels. Before spokes, there were still wheels. They were circles of wood with a small hole or two in which a long pin (or spoke) could be inserted and then act as a kind of brake.

Getting around in the Bronze Age  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

New post on Things You May Have Missed

I'm just back from vacation, and thought I might change things up here a bit. I know that there are one or two people who actually delve a little deeper into the many facets of my blogging but as this seems to be the most popular one, I thought I'd use it as a kind of rubric for my various other blog interests. Truly no obligation if the links don't appeal, and it really doesn't mean I'm going to do any less of this particular blog than I've ever done. It may be more trouble than it's worth, but I have kind of wondered how to get myself out of the quandary of multiple blogs, which may have been a mistake, but which I intend to keep separate for now.

In any case, please enjoy Mr. Jake Shimabukuro while I get my next confession in order...

Sunday, August 7, 2011


'Bespoke' is one of those words that, when I read it, I know I don't understand but pass over as if I did. In my mind bespoke always means something like 'spoken for', so when I read it in a sentence like 'He was wearing a bespoke suit,' as I did in some crime story or other recently, my mind does a weird swerve and thinks of a 'spoken for' suit, which  doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But as that doesn't usually hinder the general sense of the story--and also doesn't come up all that often-- I've let it slide, as frankly I often do with unfamiliar descriptions of fashion.

Until now.


Okay, now that I know what a bespoke suit is,  I realize that what I wrote above isn't totally true. When I read this kind of word, I actually fill in some sort of image. Because in whatever that story was I was reading, the suit I filled in was a kind of blackish one with gold pinstripes, and there was some sense of it being Sunday go to meeting best, as worn by a country person who didn't always wear suits. I saw a little hay in there somewhere, maybe in the guy's mouth. Probably got the word 'spokes' mixed into this in my head.

The tailors of Savile Row would not be too happy with me right now, nor would the author feel that he had succeeded in conveying the right impression, because a bespoke suit is what we in America call a custom-made one. It makes sense, then, that I've probably only ever seen the word in British fiction.

The idea of a bespoke suit comes from the word 'bespeak', of course, in the sense of 'to speak for something'--which fits my idea of it, but has the further specialized sense here of 'to give order for it to be made'.

This comes about, I think, from the very loose sense of 'bespeak' itself, at least according to the OED. 'Bespeak' comes from the  Old English besprecan which came from a common German compound, meaning 'to call out'. In English it took up a variety of very meanings, which the Online Etymology dictionary has arising quite independently of each other, including 'speak up', 'oppose', 'arrange' 'request' and 'order goods'.

The reason for this is that the 'be-' prefix has quite an extraordinary range, and can be an intensifer, a privative (meaning deprive of, such as a beheading), a causative, which is a word that shows something has transformed something else (I would again think behead, but I digress.) In short, it can have 'just about any sense required'. Be- was useful in forming many new words of the 16th and 17th centuries, more than a few of which have since disappeared from view. The online etymology gives examples of two nice ones: 'bethwack', which is obvious, and 'betongue', 'to assail in speech, or scold', which is not.

Speaking of bespoke suits, here's a good blog post about Rufus Sewell recklessly endangering one.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Nielsen Ratings

Several weeks ago, I got a phone call. It was a recorded message rather than a live person, informing me that I would soon be asked to participate in a Nielsen ratings survey and it was very important that I participate. I found this approach very irritating--if it's so important, maybe you just call me--and had pretty much decided to refuse.

This is a far cry from my feelings about the Nielsen ratings as a child. As I understood it then, the Nielsen ratings people picked some very lucky families and put some kind of box on their television and these Nielsen families represented the American viewing public as a whole. How we wished to be designated that special family, where our favorite shows would be counted! Cynicism has taken its toll over the years and I don't believe that my lone opinion counts to any degree whatsoever, at least not in the keeping and cancelling of TV shows. And the using of my personal views in a kind of grand data base feels more invasive than special at this late stage too.

So I was all set to say no and face down their incredulity, but the Nielsen people outsmarted me. I was phoned in due course by an exceedingly nice woman who did not come across in an aggressive way at all. I thought, what the hell, and agreed to receive the 'Nielsen diary' in a couple of weeks. And to answer a few questions.

There were more questions when the 'diary' arrived. Of course there were. One of them was how many televisions you had in your house--and how many of them were actually functional. I am not sure what fascinating social analysis this question leads to, but I found it funny that they had nailed me, because I have two, and only one is functional. (It's complicated). Another thing that I found strange, but interesting, was that you were supposed to record when the TV was on but no one was watching. I found this a harder question than I thought it would be, as there were certain times during the week when I wasn't sure if the person in the house (me) was actually 'watching' or just kind of hanging out in the general vicinity of the television set without any real way to tell how much I was actually taking in.

There was also a question about how many channels I currently had. This was the one that caused me some trouble. I really have no idea. I have a standard Comcast contract where I get everything available through channel 100, but that's nothing like a hundred channels. Besides, there are random channels that come in well above that. I have never counted, nor did I have any intention of doing that for the Nielsen ratings. They suggested that I just print out a copy of the channels I receive, but I never got anything like that, and I started to get really annoyed. I was even more annoyed when someone called me that night to ask if I had received the packet. I think there is this mentality at the Nielsen's that everyone is actually happy to share their viewing patterns rather than thinking it a pain in the neck. The guy suggested sending in that printed thing and when I said I had no intention of counting what channels I had, he didn't just let it go, but asked me if I could get my diary, I said I was not going to get the diary. There was a pause and he said "Oh, so you're not at home?" I said I wasn't. I was absolutely bound and determined that I wasn't going to jump through any more hoops, so I said no, even though it was probably only 10 feet away. He told me not get all upset about it.

Anyway, I did my best with the questions and was ready to start recording my viewing hours. I found the whole process very strange. Clearly they want to fit you into a certain demographic, and I'm sure they got some of that, but actually, as it was summer, and few new network shows are on, my viewing was not particularly typical. And, I was busy that week. I watched less than I would have some other weeks.

In fact, though, the most interesting thing to me was that I felt an incredible urge to both lie and to do the atypical. You get columns for all kinds of people, even visiting strangers, and as someone who writes the occasional piece of fiction, the temptation was strong to fabricate a lively household complete with guests. That would have been wrong, but I also was tempted to watch a bunch of strange shows that week and mess with the findings. That would have been fair I think, but the fact was I didn't have time to do that. I still wish I had.  I didn't even record my strange but occasional obsession with Jewelry Television. I don't wear jewelry, I don't buy it, but occasionally I get absolutely fascinated by these late night descriptions of gems I have never heard of. What can I say? I also like docents. I like people to tell me things. But this wasn't the week for it. 

Anyway, I filled out the booklet faithfully and truthfully, if dully. I thought I might go into the history and use of the Nielsen ratings here, but frankly, it turns out that I'm not all that interested.

P.S. In looking for an image, I found this interesting little piece on how it all works. Reading it, apparently people who are participate are sworn to confidentiality. Oops. I actually don't remember promising anything like that, but if I erred, I'm happy to have my results nullified. I'll even send back the dollar they sent me in compensation--that is, if they send me the  postage.