Tuesday, July 26, 2011

liminal--some thoughts on professorspeak

To be frank, 'liminal' is one of those words I've just skipped over in the past. I suppose some people hear it in everyday speech--I can't say it's ever come up in mine. When I come across the word 'liminal', it usually means I've inadvertantly wandered into the world of academic writing. Liminal is the kind of word that has been taken up as a sort of jargon among academic professionals, and for better or worse,  I tend to tune out this kind of stuff.

But liminal is a perfectly good word, and reading it  in my copy of Down These Green Streets the other day made me wonder about it a little. True, the word 'liminality' was used by a professor, namely one Ian Campbell Ross, who wrote the introduction for the book, but he at least has the grace to define it as he goes, as an indeterminate state of being. He's speaking specifically of the novels of Brian McGilloway, which operate in both a literal and metaphorical borderland. (And let me add that neither Ross nor the other writers I've sampled in the book are guilty of much acadamese. It's a highly readable collection.)

But where does this word come from? Is it related to 'limit', or to what exactly? And if it's good enough for academics to toss off every now and again, why can't we find more uses for it in daily speech?

I just now realized as  wrote this, that 'subliminal' has got to be related, and we use that one all the time. Or at least more.

I've commented elsewhere recently that a little Latin wouldn't go amiss around these parts. If I'd had some, no doubt I would have recognized that 'limin-' as going back to the Latin limin, which means threshold. English speakers might be a bit more familiar with the word 'lintel' which, also means threshold. It gets a bit confusing over at the old Online Etymology dictionary, because it seems like lintel derives from the Vulgar latin 'limitaris' or threshold, which goes back to Latin limitaris, which is an adjective meaning 'that is on the border' while liminal comes straight from the old Latin limen, but they seem to cross over and influence each other anyway. Quite appropriate for threshold words, I'd say.

Anyway, though subliminal and liminal are related through their history, they don't really relate in current usage. Subliminal in our present sense means something like 'below the threshold of awareness'. It seems to have been coined or at least translated from a coinage back in 1886 by a German psychologist named Hebert, but became popularized in 1957, when people learned about the perils of subliminal advertising. (A book called Subliminal Seduction, complete with illustrations of scary things advertisers were putting in their ads was still around when I was in college.)

But liminality has another and rather specific source. It was coined in 1884, but the Online Dictionary has it as a rare word. It's comtemporary usage all stems from the work of Victor Turner in anthropology at the University of Chicago in the sixties. Without getting that deeply into it, the liminal state is what Turner terms the stage of the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. In more traditional societies, it is made a part of the initiation ceremony, but Turner apparently also saw a certain liminal quality to the Hippie revolution that was going on at the time. Even he titled one of his books Betwixt and Between,  and left liminal to hang out in the subtitle, which seems like a good idea to me.

In short, liminal is a part of academic speech and not the popular lingo because it never really escaped the confines of the university. Maybe some of us should take it out for a good walk every now and then. Introduce it to the neighborhood.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


This one came up a little while ago, but I hadn't had time to get to it. There was a short period where the women's roller derby came to town, the Kentucky derby was on, a friend at work introduced me to the shirt.woot derby, and I was reading a book with a character wearing a derby hat. In thinking of writing this post tonight, I realized that there was also a County Derby or a Derbyshire where quite possibly all these things have the ground of their beings, but I wasn't sure if it was in England or Ireland. Then, luckily for me, I happened to be reading an essay in Down These Green Streets, in which it turns out that Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas came from a short story originally set in Ireland, but his publisher's leery of a purely Irish tale, persuaded him to set it in Derbyshire.

So that's one thing sorted.

Now it seems that a derby must be a race of some sort, but is it a particular kind of race? And did people, men, wear particular kinds of hats to go to it? Frankly, I wouldn't know what a derby hat looked like if I sat on it. Well, particularly not after I'd sat on it. 

The Derby at Epsom, 1821 by ThĂ©odore GĂ©ricault
So the origins of this bifurcated path are simple enough. Well, sort of. They come from the Derby, an annual race on the Epsom Downs, which was inaugurated by the 12th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith-Stanley in 1780, and called more correctly the Derby Stakes. The Derby is probably the most prestigious horse race in England, so it's no surprise that the name was mimicked by the time the Kentucky Derby came into existence in 1875.

Simple enough, right?

Well, kind of. Because although it's easy enough to see the translation to any kind of race, there are other kinds of contests that are called derbies that have nothing to do with racing, but are more like bouts. So what's up with that? Well, I have a theory....

First, though, the place name Derby is somewhat disputed. The online etymology dictionary says that the name of the town comes from the Old English 'deorby',  which means 'deer village' or deer habitation. That '-by' at the end means 'homestead', or 'habitation' and this relates it a bit surprisingly to 'bylaw', which means the local law, or the law of the place. However, this site  has a somewhat different derivation. They note that Derby was once called Northworthige by the Saxons, and was changed by the invading Danes. But they think that Derby, which sits on the banks of the Derwent and has a neighboring town of Darley, and perhaps comes out of a Roman station called Derventio, may share with all of these the British/Celtic root of dwr, or water.  Personally, I'm thinking more water than deer here, but who am I to say?

What's interesting to me, in any case, is that -by. Because it ties back to this more current sense that a derby is not always a race, but sometimes a contest between two sides. As this comment, from Word Reference.com makes clear, a derby, when it's not a big international race, is a small local contest:    

 In the UK a "derby" (small "d") means a "local derby": a match (football, rugby, cricket, etc.) played between neighbours. Not every big match is a derby. Manchester United vs Arsenal is a big match, but it is not a derby, because there is almost 200 miles between the clubs.  

Finally, a derby hat is really just an American version of the English bowler--(think Jeeves). It began being manufactured in the U.S. in 1850--no one seems to know how the name came about, but one story is that the manufacturer saw a lot of 'English gentlemen' wearing these bowlers at the English Derby. Anglophilia goes back a long way,  I guess, even though 1776 was  a lot closer then than it is now.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

the debt ceiling

Andrea  Pozzo--The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius
Don't worry--this won't be a blog post devoted to delving deeply into the financial realm. But after watching many nights of political news revolving around the looming crisis of not increasing the debt ceiling, I am still a little baffled about what the debt ceiling actually is. I know that the general idea is that we don't want as a nation to default on our creditors and that raising the debt ceiling is the way to avoid that, but how exactly do we do it, I do not know.
Let's see if anyone can shed a little simple light on this.


Okay, yes, there is a very simple answer. Before 1917, Congress had to pass a new law every time they borrowed money. But when the United States became involved in World War I, they needed a more efficient method to raise funds. The debt ceiling was, and is, simply the amount that the Treasury Department has the leeway to borrow, by issuing bonds, bills and notes without going back to Congress constantly to ask permission.

Many think that the debt ceiling is an outmoded financial tool because it isn't really able to control spending in the way it once did. Much of our debt is not  up for discussion, coming from the growing costs of mandated programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As one former policy advisor to President Reagan put it, in  our current situation, "it makes no sense to treat the debt ceiling as an independent variable."

Some argue that we still need it, though. According to Professor Krishnakumar of St. John's University, it represents the last vestige of Congressional control or accountability over the national debt, and it encourages Congress to "consider the interest of the general public and future generations, rather than those of special interests, and thus acts as an important institutional check on party and interest group politics."

But whatever it's utility, no one is saying it's a good idea to default. So roll up your shirt sleeves, duly elected officials, and hammer out a deal. I mean, it's the kind of thing we sent you to Washington  to

What's the image, you ask? Why, that's a hedgehog ceiling lamp. See, it's a high ceiling, and I'm thinking maybe we could all use a little light.

Editing this to add a few links that are by people who actually know what they are talking about on this, or at least know a whole lot more than I do.

CBS News

Fret Ceiling--Slate magazine

Abolish the Debt Ceiling!--Slate Magazine

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Salt Riot in Kolomenskoe by Nikolay Nekrasov, 1821–1878
Of course I  know what mayhem is. Or perhaps, fortunately for me, I don't--not if you have to experience something to really know it. We often use the word in a hyperbolic way to express our sense of things being out of control, sometimes violently out of control. I also think of mayhem as having an agent--as in 'committing mayhem'--rather than as an impersonal chaos, such as can come about through natural disaster. And of course I think of it as being something violent, which not all chaos is.

But what is mayhem really? I feel it must have ancient roots, but perhaps it is just something that was coined in a 1920s ad campaign.

Let's see.


Well, it looks like the word drifted from a more personal meaning to a larger collective one over time. It's first meaning had to do with injury, with deliberately inflicting damage upon another person. In law, it means the intentional crippling, mutilating or disfiguring of another person. It comes out of the idea of doing the kind of damage to an adversary severe enough that they can't retaliate. That is why originally, in British common law, it had to do with cutting off a limb or damaging an eye. According to wikipedia 'cutting off an ear or a nose was deemed not sufficiently disabling'. And it wasn't until 1697 that a case called Fetter vs. Beale allowed that when a person is battered to the point where part of his skull comes out of his head, that too is mayhem.

Yikes.  If such humor wasn't beneath me, I would say that that was pretty much a no-brainer.

You can get discouraged when you try to figure out word origins.  I mean sure, 'maim' sounds a bit like mayhem, but even I can see that would be a bit of a stretch. Except it isn't. Both mayhem and maim come from the same source. They derive from the Old French mahaigne (bodily harm, loss of limb) and are related to Middle High German words like meiden or meidem, which mean 'gelding'--presumably the noun and the verb. It all goes back to a theorized ProtoIndoEuropean root *mei--to change, or in one version I read, to cut. Altering by cutting has been with us for a long time.

However none of this explains why a very current meaning of mayhem is also chaos, or a state a physical disturbance. It doesn't explain why, at this very moment, there is something called Rockstar Mayhem Festival playing right here in Northern California, and though it looks pretty wild in a heavy metal sort of way, I am pretty sure that depriving people of their limbs is not part of the show.

I've seen two different ideas about why mayhem came to have its very popular secondary meaning. One is that the word was reassessed in the mid 1500s to mean rowdiness, chaos and confusion, and that this is because such states are an aftereffect of violence. Here's a nice little article on Lexical Chaos--English has a lot of words for it. But elsewhere I've read the idea that the second meaning of mayhem comes out of a mistake. In this scenario people understood the word to have a new more generalized meaning after hearing or more likely reading it attached to other things in phrases like 'violence and mayhem' or 'rioting and mayhem'.

In any case, let us hope that Rockstar Mayhem Festival involves no true mayhem at all.

Not even of the headbashing kind.

(I was going to put a heavy metal video there, but couldn't bring myself to do it. Even I have my limits.)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy Fourth

Although I wrote this up for my  story related blog I thought I'd put it up on a couple of my other blogs as well. Have a great holiday.

Happy Fourth of July weekend, everyone. In honor of the day (though largely by coincidence), I've made my self-published novella The Bird Watchers available again. The real reason this is all happening now is that Lulu.com has offered people the option of getting a proof copy of a new  work, and while I've been working on that, which is actually a sequel to this one, I realized that I might as well make this one available again too. "For a limited time only" as they say, the book will be available at cost, or as a free download. At some point I'll probably boost the price a dollar or so but for now, I'd be interested in comments from anyone who wants to take the time. As a self-published book, it's got all the flaws that come with the territory, but more people than just my mother seemed to have liked it the first time around, so give it a go if you'd like.    
The link at Lulu is HERE .

(I also don't know if the download works as a true ebook, but there's nothing to lose by trying it out.)