Thursday, January 27, 2011


I watched
the President's State of the Union speech a couple of nights ago, made to both houses of Congress, an audience which has been noticable in recent days for its lack of vitriol. After the very sad shootings in Tucson, Congress seems to be making a conscientious effort to tone down the rhetoric a bit. Whether this helps, even as a symbolic gesture, I don't know. I certainly hope so, but by nature I'm a skeptic.

However, the main reason for this blog is not to express ignorance about unknowable things, but to seize on things I think I understand but probably don't. Like most Americans watching the news of late, I have heard the word 'vitriol' used many times. I know that it means something like rancor, or bad temper, or something like that in this context. But it occured to me that I don't really know what vitriol is in itself. It sounds a bit like alcohol or ethanol, so is it a word for a physical substance that has tranferred gradually to a more metaphoric meaning, or what exactly?

Vitriol, or at least oil of vitriol, is basically  a concentrated sulphuric acid. Although our metaphoric sense attaches to its corrosive effect, the quality that gave it its name is its glassy quality, which goes back to the Latin for glass, 'vitrium'.

You never know exactly what you're going to turn up when you start these kinds of researches on the internet. So of course, I've saved the best for last...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

shallot--a guest question

Okay, it's not officially a guest question--no one wrote in and asked 'could you research this for me?' But it did come up as a question on another blog, and as I didn't actually know, I thought it would be a good one to look into. I did think I knew more or less what a shallot was, but the reference to something being served on a "bed of shallots" threw me.

A shallot is an onion, right? Some form of it, anyway. How it differs from scallions or leeks, I really have no idea. And why it would be a good idea to serve anything on a bed of onions eludes me. But I'm going to give this all a go...

...So onions and shallots are distantly related, but there are differences. They both come from the genus allium, but those largish single bulbs we generally think of as onions are categorized as allium cepa, while most shallots are classified as either allium oschaninii or allium ascalonium.  Shallots are smaller, and grow in clusters. You could think of them a bit like garlic cloves, except that they don't have that fibrous membrane binding them all togethe, although they are said to have a bit of garlic in their flavor, which is generally milder and sweeter than onion. Onions are harder to grow than shallots, and are propagated through seeds, while shallots are 'vegetatively multiplied'. Meaning, I think, you put a shallot in the ground and it becomes a seed of itself. Or something like that.
Actually, according to wikipedia, it is a form of cloning, the 'offsets' containing the same genetic material as the mother plant. I'm not sure then why all shallots aren't identical, but that is probably another topic.

But now let's throw scallions into the pot. Scallions and shallots are the same thing, except when they aren't. Scallions, at least to this Californian mind, denote green onions. But apparently to an Australian mind, they conjure up the abovementioned shallots. This confusion of identities is partially etymological, because both shallot and scallion go back to the Vulgar Latin escalonia, which basically means, "from Ascalon". Ascalon was a port of the Levant and still exists as the modern day Israeli city Ashkelon. A website that I chanced upon in my travels called Bashelon--Hebrew Language Detective tells more about onions in relation to that ancient city, and even cites a few classical references. It also tells you why the name Ashkelon might sound familiar.

What questions of an alliumal nature remain? Well, I still don't know why anyone in their right mind would serve anything on a bed of shallots.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Fairytale Crime...yet another interruption

I promise that I'll be getting back to spelunking the caverns of ignorance shortly, but I'm a little behind on some other projects. Meanwhile, if you like reading short crime fiction, the TIRBD fairytale crime fiction contest has ended  and you can find links to all the stories here. Blogging pal Sean Patrick Reardon has written a dark and gritty one, for instance, here, and I would also like to thank him for publicizing the contest, as it motivated me to enter as well. In fact, in order to enter, I had to have a place to link to, so I decided to start a whole new blog, called Story Dump. It may well be a "one post wonder", but I thought it might come in handy.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Walt Disney Family Museum

On the Monday after Christmas, I ended up joining my family and friends at the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is located in the Presidio in San Francisco. I have to admit that not only had I never heard of the museum before, which opened in October, 2009, but left to my own devices, I would not have been particularly driven to go there. My thoughts about Disney in recent years have mostly been about Disneyland and other later enterprises, and though I researched a fair amount of fascinating tidbits for a trivia book I co-wrote about Southern California a few years ago, some of the darker aspects of a Disney envisioned society have lingered.

But oddly, this museum, which is funded by the family foundation and not by the huge media entity, the Walt Disney Company, took me back to a more elementary relationship to the man. Although there were cartoons enough to entertain the younger cohort of our group for awhile, the museum actually speaks more to people of my generation. There is also something about the way that it is designed that quickly separated me from all my companions and so it was that in a somewhat disembodied state I traveled through largely alone.

When I was a kid, our first television was a black and white set in an era when television was still new and impressive enough that the set rated its own substantial wooden cabinet. Pretty much every Sunday night, we watched "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color". Although the theme song, which begins "The world is a carousel of color" echoes in my head to this day, it would be quite a few years before we actually had it transmitted to us in anything but black and white, though the discordance didn't really strike us very much at the time. For some reason, the one that remains imprinted on memory is "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates", which was surely a strange choice for a girl who was not to even see snow for several years to come.

But what the museum really succeeds in bringing back is the persona of the man himself. The television hour always began with Walt, dressed impeccably in a suit that would scream Mad Men to the present era, introducing us reassuringly not just to the hour that was to follow, but to the future. His own interest in his next project, whatever it might be, was so winning that no one could doubt that whatever future he was envisioning had to be as American as apple pie.

We had an odd relationship to Disneyland itself, though. We actually lived for several years in the neighboring community of Buena Park, which was close enough that on summer nights, we would peer out of the upstairs window and watch the nightly fireworks, which were just visible over the distant trees. We also had a family friend who was an illustrator at the Disney studios, and my childhood friend Lisa gained considerable cachet in being able to borrow a film version of Cinderella and show it on the home projector at her birthday party.

Despite all this, though, we did not visit Disneyland. Even then, it was a pricey experience in relation to actual wages, and we were a single income family of that era, and had to content ourselves with the then free Knott's Berry Farm, which actually was pleasure enough. Still, when we were about to move north, my parents must have decided we should see the place before we left, so one day my mother actually took us out of school on a weekday and she and my sisters and I went to Disneyland together. It remains vividly impressed on my mind to this day, and none of my teenage cynicism or adult wariness of the Disney vision can diminish it.

In roaming through the museum, though, it is Walt himself who remains predominant. Coincidentally, my father shared his name, though it is actually my mother's family that the Disneys remind me of. Perhaps it's because my dad's clan were never Californians, but the Bruntons and the Stanleys did all make the trek west and shared in the Disney optimism about the United States, and California in particular. It is in some ways, I think, a Republican vision, if Republican can be equated anymore with individual enterprisingness and small scale entrepeneurship. Disney suffered a few failures that might have quelled lesser spirits, but he was always looking to the next thing.

The similarity, though, goes beyond politics. There are a lot of family films of the early twenties and thirties displayed in the museum, and they chronicle an era that we in a more jaded time might forget. What I saw a lot of as I watched these old clips was simple family affection. It seemed at times that they could hardly keep their hands off each other, though in a post-Freudian era this might be suspect. Really, though, I think they were just so happy to be together, couldn't get enough of each other, really, and in an age of disillusionment, I am happy to think that this is somewhere in my roots as well.

Monday, January 3, 2011


It's already been exceptionally damp here this fall and winter, and there are undoubtedly a few more months of it to go. True,  heavy rain doesn't have quite the glamor of blizzards and the other midwinter hazards, but I think the invasion of mildew may beat other things for sheer depressingness. I'm living on a slope in a structure with an inadequate foundation, and this isn't the first time I've moved a box and found a sneak attack of mildew along the baseboards. Typically, rather than try to put everything back the way I found it before my most recent campaign, I decided to take time out to write a little blog post instead.

What is mildew, exactly? And does it have any redeeming features whatsoever?

Hmm. Now I'm not sure whether to call my invader mildew or not. Mycologists, or those involved in the study of fungi, would probably call this mold, reserving the name of mildew only for the type that grows on plants. Moreover, there are two types of mildew, and they belong to two different plant kingdoms, "powdery mildew" which is a type of fungus, and the "downy mildew" which is part of the protista kingdom--largely the one-celled among us, but not always. Frankly, we are getting way deeper into biological plant classifications than I particularly want to go at the moment, particularly since I am unlikely to be able to figure out exactly which type has taken up residence anyway.

The etymological history is actually just as ambiguous. For the most part, the etymologists seem to agree that "mildew" actually comes from the Latin for honeydew, which originally was not a melon, but the sticky droppings left on plants by aphids. Presumably, other kinds of visible plant plagues got swept up into the concept. But, as a book called Folk-etymology , by Abram Smythe Palmer points out, "The etymological diversities of this word are remarkable." He thinks that the Anglo-Saxon mele-deaw suggests a connection with melu or "meal" because of its powdery appearance. He mentions the honeydew connection (and then  moves on to the Gaelic word mill-chou ("probably borrowed from the English word") which he thinks is a combination of mill "to injure" and "ceo" mist and ends up meaning "a destructive mist".

Well, maybe.

Whew. Where is Anatoly Liberman to sort all this out when we need him?

Well, luckily, there is also Charles Hodgson. He talks a bit about mildew over on the Pod Dictionary. Thanks to Hodgson, I now know about Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. After Henry the VIII dismantled the Catholic monasteries of England, Cotton singlehandedly rescued many of the manuscripts that suddenly were without a safe home. Mildew shows up in the Cleopatra Glossary A.III. Whether Cleopatra ever spoke about mildew is irrelevant. Cotton had busts of famous people on the tops of his bookshelves, and this document resided within her domain. Nice system, don't you think?  

Considering the value of the documents that Sir Robert housed, I really have to hope that he did not have the same kinds of mildew problems that I do.