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?