Sunday, April 29, 2012


A woman was asking me in the bookstore for some item the other day--I can't now remember what it was--but we found it and she said "Ah, you keep it in with the sundries." "Sundries" is a good word I  hadn't heard for awhile. I think within my living experience there used to be departments in stores called "sundries", but at least in my neck of the woods it has been "rebranded". In our store, the department is usually called "sidelines", even though ''sidelines" has a tendency in the book biz to become more and more the main show.

The phrase "all and sundry" is nice, too, though I have probably read it somewhere more recently than used it or heard it used.

It's a nice Sunday word, I think, though I'm guessing it has no connection to either Sunday or the sun, but think it might be somewhat connected to the word "asunder", though I don't yet know how.


The word may still be used very commonly in some places, but just in case your place isn't one of them, a thesaurus is full of alternate words. An assortment, a hodgepodge, a variety, and, in a store, another nice term that is fading away, "a notions department" might fill your needs as easily. "Odds and ends" would be yet another rough synonym.

"Sundry" comes from the Old English word syndrig, which meant "separate, apart, special". This connects it with many words that have the theorized ProtoIndoEuropean root, *sen(e), which has to do with separation. It's a bit ironic that it's come to mean a bunch of things that are not separated, but I think the "many separate things" idea is probably what's behind it.

I was a bit surprised to learn (thanks, as usual, to the Online Etymology Dictionary) that the term "all and sundry" predates sundries by a long shot--1389 vs. 1755. I would have thought it would be the other way.

But I am pleased to find that sundry IS related to "asunder", again through the Old English. Asunder is a contraction of on sundran, the sundran having to do with being apart or separate. And I found a nice little phrase used in Middle English "to know asunder", which meant to distinguish or tell apart.

I'm for bringing that one back. And though it's not from Middle English, here is a nice example.

HMS Endeavor

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Walking Home

There is an infinite amount of stuff that I don't know enough about to write up here, but every once in awhile, life itself is so wacky that it indicates that we don't really even know anything about our own day to day reality. I thought I would write up something that happened to me today as an example of what I'm driving at.

I decided to walk home from work this evening. Got some groceries, a fairly heavy bag, which always ends up involving a little calculating. My feet have been bugging me for awhile, so I don't approach the task of lugging groceries home with the same sang froid I once did. But things conspired to make me think it might be worth a go. It was a very lovely evening here at the end of April, and it seemed like a better choice to do some hill climbing than to deal with the bus station, the students on the bus, and all the rest of it.

I ran into a friend that I don't know all that well, but who seems to appear at significant times in my life. She was part of the reason I ended up being a kind of chaperone for International Women's Day, she turned out to be a good friend of the daughter of one of my soul friends, who died this year--we didn't know that we had this connection, we met at the memorial shindig--stuff like that. Tonight she was walking down the hill with a friend as I was walking up. She was telling me that she had made it her mission to get another friend to do an improv class with her. And this was something I wholeheartedly approved.    

Anyway, I suppose that's neither here nor there, but it made me happy that I'd walked home instead of riding, as things were afoot, and now I was party to them.

I did not stop to consider the fact that I was now only half way home.

I crossed Mission. Crossing Mission Street is always kind of a big deal, because only a mile or so north, Mission Street becomes Highway One North. One of my friends was riding her bike on Mission a few years ago. A truck ran her down and ran over her arm. Twice. First forwards and then backwards. Mission Street is Highway One in disguise.

But then I was past that and in the lovely residential neighborhoods that I live in. It's a complete fake of course. I live in a small run down studio behind someone's house, but I walk to work every day through a very pleasant well to do neighborhood, populated in large part by people who do not work in retail for a living.

Ahead of me, I saw a woman drive her car in a 360 at the quiet intersection. I was watching it because a block further on, I had almost been hit a few weeks before when a woman was doing a left turn into the sun. I was definitely not going to cross until she had made the full turn. She did. When she finished, there was purse sitting in the middle of the crosswalk. I went over and picked it up. I don't think it had anything to do with the car. I kind of wondered how long it had been sitting there, in fact. At first I thought I would just leave it against a pole or something, but then I thought, that's crazy, you don't know what the next person who comes along will do with it. So I stuck it in the canvas bag I had my groceries in, and kept walking. I thought I'd take it home and figure out how to contact the person from there.

After about half a block, I realized that I should probably check what was inside. At first I thought it had only some cigarettes and breath mints in it, but it turned out to have a wallet. The wallet had a license, and the license had an address on the street just one block away. Damn, I thought. I guess I'm going to have to try and return it.

My feet were not particularly pleased at that decision.

I walked on to King Street. I had an address, but I wasn't sure which direction it was in relation to where I was going. Of course, it turned out to be in the opposite direction to the one I was going.  My will palled a little. On the one hand, I thought about this woman missing her wallet, on the other, I knew that it was safe. I thought, maybe I could just go home, and somewhat less encumbered, I could go and take it to her house. Either way, it was looking to be a longer evening than I had anticipated.

Suddenly a car appeared. "You are looking a bit lost--can I take you somewhere?" It wasn't the Big Bad Wolf, though. It was a woman who also had worked the book biz in town, and had more recently worked in a little coffee stand right in front of the bookstore. "Well, if you don't mind, you could really do me a favor."

So she drove me the few blocks to the address. The purse owner's place was ***A, so it was clear it was a unit apart from the main dwelling. The markings for this place were incredibly clear. It was on the mailbox, it was on a sign pointing to the gate, and so on. I went up the drive, I went through the gate, I rang the bell. No one came to the door. I left the bag on the porch. It seemed pretty clear it would be safe there till she got home. She won't ever know how it ended up back on her doorstep, but then I won't know how it ended up in the middle of a crosswalk either.

My kindly chauffeur drove me the rest of the way to my house. She was heading up to campus to see a film, which I thought laudable. She said it was called Misrepresentation, so I thought it was about abstract art, but it turns out that it's part of the annual Labor film festival. It's really called "Miss Representation". She told me she'd tell me if  I should feel sorry I missed it.

I don't know how your life is, but this is a lot how my life is. Purses abandoned in the middle of the street. And when you're on your last legs, guardian angels appear and help you do what (you can only hope) is the right thing.


Monday, April 23, 2012


It's a good word, regardless of what it means. But I realized lately that it's yet another one of those words I've just floundered around with all these years, without really investigating. I think of picayune as having to do with minutiae, but how can that be right, when one of the most oft cited newspapers of our country is called the Times-Picayune, out of New Orleans?

Time to clear the matter up a little...


It's pretty easy, this one. "Picayune" does mean "of little or no consequence", "trivial", "petty".  But this is because, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (which has undergone a bit of a facelift, by the way, since I last looked), the word probably comes from the Louisiana French picaillon, a coin worth five cents, and goes back to an older small copper coin from France, the picaioun. 

The newspaper angle comes from the fact that when The Picayune was established in 1837, its price was one picayune, or about six and a half cents at the going rate. Adjusting backward for inflation, this actually seems a bit steep to me.

I was interested to learn that The Picayune innovated such features as a society page and a women's advice column. But of course the really newsworthy story about the Times-Picayune was how they managed to cover Hurricane Katrina. For two days, they could not print the paper, but were able to get a PDF online.


How did they do this without a newsroom? Well, the Columbia Journalism Review deemed this story important enough to write it up.

And no, not picayune at all.

Friday, April 20, 2012

4/20--legalizing marijuana

(I've edited this post a little. It originally included a chart about the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana.The chart was added at the request of someone I hadn't heard from before, but the information seemed interesting enough, so I built the following post around it. But on second thoughts, there are just enough unknowns about the whole thing that I've decide I'd rather not put in a link to a website that is a bit puzzling to me. The discussion in the comment field had very little to do with the chart anyway, but I'm sure you can Google the chart if you miss it.) 

This is pretty funny. A week or so ago, I got an email  asking if I would be willing to look at and possibly post a chart done by her team about the benefits of legalizing marijuana. I don't know a whole lot about this group, but it was different from the product placement type of request that I occasionally get here (and always decline). I liked the graphic that she wanted me to link to, but I wasn't really sure how to fit this all in here. You know the drill, folks--the regular gimmick here is that I don't know something, or feel unsure about what I know and then go dig into it a little and report back my findings. That doesn't immediately translate into a graphic assembled by others. And though I said I wouldn't mind publicizing their research here, it all seemed a bit forced.

But then last night I was at a party, and someone reminded me that today was 4/20. Even though I have heard of the date before, I am not insider enough to have it engraved on my brain that this is the big 'marijuana holiday'. This is the kind of holiday Santa Cruz really gets behind. The tradition, although personally I don't know how long it's been a tradition for, is that students and others head up to the Porter College Meadow to, uh, celebrate pot in some way. The police turn a blind eye unless things get completely out of hand. Which doesn't seem all that likely to happen....

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of marijuana. I don't really like its effect, either on myself or people I'm attempting to interact with. I don't mind the smell, but the stale  marijuana smell that lingered in the halls of the last place I lived in bugged the hell out of me. I mention this only to show that, though I am far from being a stereotypic Santa Cruz stoner, I think it is completely absurd to criminalize this drug. A lot of unnecessary tragedy has resulted from treating cannabis, which undeniably has beneficial uses, as something worse than alcohol. Personally, I like alcohol. That doesn't mean that I think it deserves a status superior to pot. And we all know what happened with Prohibition. Don't we?

(To make up for the lack of the chart, I am adding this research I did on the whole beginnings of 4/20, which I dug into in response to Julie's comment below. Frankly, it's more what I do here anyway.)

Although at first I thought the origins of 4/20 would be obscured by rumor and legend, both Wikipedia and say there is a specific if unlikely source--it it all started in San Rafael, California in 1971. It was just a time designation that 12 high school kids used as a code for when they would meet up to smoke. Wikipedia says that the original code was "420 Louis", which meant to meet by a statue of Louis Pasteur. It also says that originally they were meeting not to smoke but to search for a rumored abandoned pot crop. It also suggests that the lingo spread from San Rafael courtesy of the wandering fans of the Grateful Dead.


Friday, April 13, 2012

twinkle, twinkle

* * * * *  * **


Sure, I know what an asterisk is. But when I used the word in plural form last post, it looked funny. Asterisks? Asterics? Asterix? No, that last is a cartoon character.

As it turned out, I did have it right, but looking at it got me thinking about where it came from and about its uses in general.

I did see the "aster" or star element in the word once I really looked at it. At first, I associated to the word 'disaster', but that was probably because of the "risk" at the end of the word. But there is nothing threatening about an asterisk. It simply comes from the Greek asteriskos (ἀστερίσκος), meaning "little star".

It turns out that there isn't a huge amount that is known about the origin of the asterisk, and probably less that can be substantiated. But I did in the course of my wanderings find this cool website called
Typographic Marks Unknown , which takes a look at all those little symbols on the page that we forget to be curious about through overfamiliarity. The page cites the Bringhurst Bible and says that our little star appeared in Sumerian pictographs, and has been used as a symbol for at least 5000 years.

Friday, April 6, 2012

phaeton--or, what would Dorothy Parker do?

After my last post, Kathleen Kirk was kind enough to dig up a slightly different pronunciation for feuilleton. I was doubly grateful, because this version was one I had some hope of being able to pronounce. The word did remind me, though, of the word 'phaeton' and perhaps it did Kathleen as well, as she suggested riding around the city in a phaeton, talking about the universe, religion, and words, words, words. Sounds like a nice afternoon to me.

Of course, with me there is always a catch, and this time I have to admit that I am not entirely sure what a phaeton is. I have a feeling that originally it was something Greek, and I think it might have been a chariot of some sort. My next impression is a very large open carriage, or even a sleigh. But then I think it might also be a large car.

Not that any of this is mutually exclusive. When I did a recent post about the landaulet, I entirely left out the fact that there are very prestigious automobiles that have taken over the name.

"Phaeton" also has some ghostly phantom overtones to it. Well, a ghostly vehicle would be a good one to discuss the universe and religion in. Perhaps there would be some strange echoes...

But time to come back down to earth.


Oh, yeah--that Phaeton.  Burnt by the sun.*  A cautionary tale for overly indulgent parents. I guess my last comment above the asterisks was a little too apt.

Well, by this time in our common human life, there are a lot of connections to that tragic son of Apollo. There are carriages, cars, and ships. There is even a South Korean roller coaster, although this one is spelled Phaethon and pronounced "Python". Doesn't anyone else think that naming things after Phaeton might be tempting fate a little?

I guess it's just me.

But let's narrow it down a bit. There is both a carriage:

and a touring car:

1929 Packard sport Phaeton 

that would be good places for this discussion.

Kathleen also had a sort of hunch that Dorothy Parker might have ridden around in Phaetons, and I am able to confirm this hunch now. At least this was true after she arrived in Beverly Hills, where Alexander Woolcott visited her and found her living in a large white house "Southern style", with a "brand new Picasso" and a "Packard convertible phaeton".

So carriage or touring car, Kathleen--your call. I'd even try the roller coaster, though I have a feeling that the conversation might be a tad too existential...

(*Burnt by the Sun is also a great movie, by the way, which I don't mind sharing every chance I get, no matter how irrelevant this is to the topic at hand.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Having just recently finished the very lovely collection of Robert Walser's work, Berlin Stories, I have a fair amount of confidence that I would know a feuilleton if I ran into one. I have less confidence that I could actually define one. I suppose  feuilletons might be described as sketches.

Walser wrote up these brief descriptions of the early 20th century Berlin he encountered as a Swiss visitor. Apparently at that time, newspapers, at least German newspapers, actually had sections for feuilletons. Some of Walser's writings are character studies, some are of particular places, many are simply a detailing of his own sensations.

I thought I'd find out a bit more about the tradition of these missives.


For anybody still perplexed by what this form is, I liked the Wikipedia suggestion that a modern day English equivalent would be the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker.  From that example, you can see that its topics are quite wide ranging, but almost always of the comtemporary moment. As is not always true of The New Yorker, but is definitely true of Walser, they tend to be quite subjective compared to more formal journalism, and show off the writer's wit and stylistic skill.

The first use of the term, though, was not for the literary form itself but for the entire section of the newspaper this kind of thing would be found in. Originally, the "Arts and Style" section of the paper was just at the bottom of the page, often separated from the 'real' news by a bar. It was sometimes known as 'the bottom floor' or 'the basement'. It was the French  Journal des débats that first brought  out a supplemental section which they called Feuilleton in January, 1800.  Feuille means 'leaf', so a feuilleton means 'little leaf', or as we might say, a 'leaflet'.

Uh, no, that was not the way I was pronouncing it in my head.

Though you can see that the word began in France, the French grew to think of the feuilleton as something a bit different. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, after the fall of Napoleon, news was in short shrift, so they began serializing stories in the feuilleton section.  It's a bit hard to imagine writers like Alexandre Dumas, pere being thought of as filler, but there you have it. And in keeping with this, it's not hard to see how the word migrated across the media, so that it is now used to refer to French television soap operas.

Aside from 'Talk of the Town', I'm not really sure what our current examples of the feuilleton are. It's possible that you might find a good example in the blogosphere. I'm getting the sense that a great feuilletonist might be in need of a great city to fully display his or her skills. But I'm certainly willing to be proven wrong.

I'm updating this blog to add another pronunciation of 'feuilleton' offered by Google, which was suggested by daveblake in a comment below.