Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Okay, we're still in P.D. James quasi Austen world, so this is once again a word I don't know if everyone here will have read before. But it's one I've come across and probably in the same books that I found my last post on "negus". It's a food or drink item of some sort, so it probably follows the negus in some way. In the way that I do imagine some sort of place holder image for words I am too lazy to look up, I've always thought that syllabub was a kind of Jello-y bouncy sort of thing.

...Interesting. I just did a spellcheck on the word bouncy, and while syllabub does not get the yellow marker, negus does. Strangely, "Jello-y" gets a pass as well...


Supersize me!

Not surprisingly, it's a dessert. There are many variations on the theme, but the basic idea seems to be a  heavy milk or cream mixed with sugar and slightly curdled by the mixture of wine or some other alcohol. It is supposed to have been in fashion between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, though really I can't understand why it would ever go out of fashion. Cream, alcohol and sugar--what's not to like?

There are many, many recipes out there on line, but without the slightest intention of  ever making syllabub, the one cited on Wikipedia is my favorite.  It says to mix the other ingredients together in a large bowl, "place the bowl under the cow, and milk it full."

Rather disappointingly, the etymology is unknown, and no one that I found even ventures a guess. The OED  says that "sillibus" is the preferred spelling, which I suppose will come as a bit of shock to the Baroness James. I was hoping that there would be a link to rather similar words like syllabus and syllable, but no one suggests it. I was curious to find that "syllable" actually means "several sounds taken together", and wonder if "several things taken together" might be part of the association here. Of course those are the kinds of guesses that true etymologists frown upon.

While wandering around looking for information, I ended up on the Dictionary.com site, on the word syllabus. Ever hopeful of extending our limited vocabularies, they have a little quiz at the end. This time it started out:

"Syllabus is a great word to know. So is search warrant."

Yeah, that could come in handy.

Friday, February 24, 2012


This is a word I've only ever seen in books, usually talking about a long ago time period. It seems to have something to do with festive punch, but I really don't know what it adds. Here's the sentence in Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James, which I've only just started. A ball is being arranged:

"Wine had already been brought up from the cellars and almonds had been grated to provide the popular white soup in sufficient quantities. The negus, which would greatly improve its flavour and potency and contribute considerably to the gaiety of the occasion, would be added at the last moment."

It's got to be an inebriant of some kind. I'm thinking mulled wine?


Yes, it is simply that--mulled wine. The tradition is that the British colonel Francis Negus invented this version of the drink. He was a courtier in the early 1700s, so you can imagine fashionability had something to do with his name being attached.

Negus is indeed a very bookish sort of drink, and if you aren't a fan of older British lierature, you may not have heard of it. It apparently features in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park (but not Pride and Prejudice?), and at least five books of Dickens, A Christmas Carol only being the rather obvious one. As to books I haven't read but should have, you'll find it in The Forsyte Saga, and in Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, and quite a bit in James Boswell.

Here is at least one version of the recipe .

As is the way of these Google searches, I also found a lot of mention of one Negus Webster-Chan, a rising young basketball star. I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure the Webster-Chans didn't name their son after their favorite holiday brew.

Negus was also the title used for a king in the region now known as Ethiopia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Too mulch of nothing

My sisters were down in Carmel this past weekend working on my mom's house, which we are slowly turning into a vacation rental. They let me off the hook, due to my work schedule, saying that they were primarily going to be mulching the front yard. Now though there is always a plus side to being let off of physical labor, there is one disappointing aspect of this in that I did not manage to glean what mulching actually is.

Laugh not, gardening fans! I know it has to do with some sort of soil preparation, but I haven't ever really done any of it. I'm a bit perplexed, because I thought it might mean adding nutrients, but as they put bark over it that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

This should be solved in short order, but "mulch" is a great word and it wouldn't hurt to, uh, dig into it a little...


Oh, okay--the bark is the mulch. Mulch is a protective layer of something put on top of soil to keep it from eroding, seal in the nutrients, suppress weed growth and so on. Although bark is attractive, you can use a variety of things, like hay, compost, even things like plastic or manure. (Bark is sounding better and better.)

(The following video is not of my sisters, but, let us just say a "dramatic re-creation". Plus, it contains a gardening tip.)

To tell you the truth, I always thought that this stuff was just called ground cover.

As to its etymology, it comes from the Middle English molsh, which meant soft or moist, and goes back in turn to Old English melsc or milisc--mellow or sweet. It's related to the Dutch mals (soft), Old High German molawen (to become soft), and the German mollig (soft again). I don't really think of bark or gravel as soft, but things change.

And though this genuinely isn't intended as an advertisement for our vacation getaway, if you happen to be planning a stay on the Monterey Peninsula and are looking for a pleasant place to stay there for a few people, feel free to email me for details.

As I didn't do any of the mulching, a little plug here seems only fair....

The front courtyard. Sadly, no mulch.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

a little tip that I can't resist sharing, because I am not a robot

I'm probably going to get kicked out of bloggerdom for saying this, but you know the new word verification system? After some experimentation, I've discovered that you don't actually have to type the non-blurry word at all. Also, I'm pretty sure that you don't have to pay any attention to the capitalizations even on the blurry words. Just struggle through and try and figure out what the letters are, and you should be fine.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


The word has come up a bit lately. Not only in such things as tributes to Whitney Houston  and other newsworthy events, but also oddly enough in my place of work. This is because, after all this time, we  are finally changing to a new computer system. Instead of referring to our old system as just the old system, I'm suddenly hearing a lot about the legacy system and the legacy files, and so on.

Accorduing to Wikipedia,  a legacy system is one "that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users' needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available. A legacy system may include procedures or terminology which are no longer relevant in the current context, and may hinder or confuse understanding of the methods or technologies used."

Sounds about right.

Call me a romantic, but I always thought that legacy had an aura of something different than old computer systems and procedure manuals. The more I think about the word, though, the less can I pin it down. I guess I think of legacy in relation to inheritance, to what is passed down, or what is left. It seems to have something to do with law, as in legitimate or legislation. Am I wrong about this as I've been about so many things in the past?

We shall see.


Okay, so a legacy is a gift of property through a will; a more generalized sense of what's been passed down from the past to the present day; a student or potential student to a school that was attended by that student's parent; or having the office or function of a legate (obsolete). What's a legate? We'll get to that.

BUT, as a modern day adjective, it does indeed refer to old and outmoded computer hardware, software or data. It's interesting how in computer terms, legacy becomes not so much a gift as a curse. Or at best an irrelevance. Ewaste in the current parlance.

papal legate of Boniface VIII

If we know the word at all, we probably connect legate with "papal legate", a papal emissary, discharged on some mission to do the pope's will. But this comes from the more general Latin legatus, an ambassador or envoy, someone sent as a deputy or sent with a commission. And it does have to do with Latin law, or lex , in one of its cases (legis).  In the late fourteenth century, then, a legacy was body of persons sent on a mission--I assume a legal mission rather than a religious one. It apparently wasn't until about the middle of the 15th century that the sense of "property left in a will" took root in Scotland.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

You, Robot--word verification

Overnight, seemingly, Google's word verification suddenly changed. I used to like the old Google word formations. They were amusing, and always made me realize that the English language had a lot of room for expansion. The last word I noted was 'fadrow', which I thought would be great for our bestseller table.

All that has changed, though. Now you have to type in some boring normal word and then some weird word that is partially obscured by some sort of black disc or something. I don't have big eyesight issues, but even I struggle with the blurry words presented here.

The new look says, "Please prove that you are not a robot."

Frankly, I don't mind if you're a robot. If you can enter into the general conversation of the blog, not try to sell something to the readers here (robot authors, you are excluded from this clause), and be polite to others, you're welcome, more than welcome to comment. If not, you better go back to the factory for reprogramming because sure as shooting, I will delete you.

Word verification has fallen by the wayside here, at least for now. Humans, you better be on your best behavior too...

Monday, February 13, 2012


This is a bit different than my typical word posts, because I don't recall hearing it before. I probably have somewhere, but when I came across the mention of the word in Peter Carey's novel Parrot and Olivier in America  today, I had no idea what he was talking about. Luckily, Carey is too savvy to assume anything about his readership's vocabulary, so he has the boy Parrot be equally perplexed and then reveals it's use to all of us before too long. As the boy says:

You do not know what a burin is, and nor did I, mistaking it for a shiv, a murdering steel shaft with a hemispherical handle.

A burin, it turns out, is an engraver's tool. Can you visualize it? Good for you. I can't. I'm going to need a visual...

In the book, Parrot learns to carve into a block of exceedingly hard wood, but most of the stuff I've come across here has to do with carving into metal--or stone. Here's a very informative video I came across:

After watching this video, you may understand why Wikpedia has a picture of the Dutch artist Hendrik Goltzius's hand which was said to be particularly suitable for using a burin:

Goltzius' self-portrait

The etymology does not seem to be all that conclusive--the word comes from the French burin, and is related to the Italian bolino, and the Spanish buril, and all probably go back to the Old High German bora--to bore.

Sounds about right.

Friday, February 10, 2012


This was one I took mental note of awhile ago. I don't recall the circumstances. I think I know what it means in a general sense--"a plethora of" means an abundance of, or more than enough of--something like that. But what does it mean more precisely or originally?


You'll notice that no one ever exactly provides an answer to the question...


A plethora is more an excess of or overabundance of than sheer abundance, though the sense of simple abundance is now also in the popular vernacular. That's why it was once used to describe a blood condition characterized by an excess of red blood corpuscles. Or earlier an excess of bodily fluids. It comes, through Latin, from the Greek plethore or "fullness". The sense of excess apparently comes later, at around 1700.

This is a perhaps rare case where a word has drifted eventually back to something more like its original sense.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


So in posting that last post about stevedores, and dredging up my small memory about Eric Hoffer, I realized that I had never heard him referred to as a stevedore, but definitely as a longshoreman. I may be wrong, but I think the word longshoreman is more part of our American mythology of labor than stevedore. But why is he called a longshoreman, exactly? I've been trying to piece this one together, thinking that it can't be that hard. The word is in English, after all. But all I can think is what long shore? And does it have anything to do with Long Island?

Okay. I'm not going to tell you the answer to this one just yet, because it is so incredibly obvious once you know it, that I think you can really get this one on your own. Instead I think I'll just embed the first part of a rare interview with America's most famous longshoreman.

Okay--did you figure it out already? One last chance to guess on the word's origins.

The answer in the comments field.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I was watching one of those guilty pleasure crime shows the other evening, Rizzoli and Iles, if I have to confess, and  some forgotten plot point revolved around a stevedore who worked on the docks. By a combination of context and memory, i was able to decipher that a stevedore is some level of union worker, and I think at the moment I understood it pretty well. But I did get curious about the term and more precisely where it had come from. The "-ador" ending is familiar from words like "ambassador" and "matador", and I take it that these have something to do with work or job. But what kind of job is it to be Steve?


Okay, it was no mystery why a stevedore was someone who works down on the docks, because the role of a stevedore is to load and unload ships. It comes from the Spanish estibador "one who loads cargo", the verb being estibar, "to load cargo", and has its roots in the Latin stipare, "to pack down or press". The online etymology dictionary tells us that this gives it a to me surprising relationship to the word "stiff", where the rigidness and inflexibility we associate with the word apparently comes from being packed or crammed together, at least originally.

I really should know more about the role of stevedores and all other dock workers than I do. My dad was a big fan of the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer and used to talk about him all the time. He was an admirer of his book The True Believer, which was about fanatical following of mass movements, but the one that  made the biggest impression on me (without my having actually bothered to read it), was  Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, which was his journal about his time on the docks. I remember my dad talking about how Hoffer said he would be hauling stuff around all day and then at night he would dream he was hauling it all around again. A stevedore, in other words.

Yikes--I have a hard enough time dreaming I'm working at the cash register.

Plus, I really liked the season of The Wire set on the docks, and you'd think I'd have picked up a bit more of the lingo.

Of course, those of you who are practiced in urban slang may have a different definition for the word. The same definition, only, uh, different.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pig iron

Iroquois Smelter, Chicago

Came across this one in Finnegans Wake the other night, but it's not one of his famous "portmanteau" (ie, made up words that combine and compress several ideas into one word) words. I've heard it many times and in many places, but never really thought much about it. It's a kind of iron. Duh. When you're reading along in a text and you come across the term pig iron, if you're lazy like me, you just substitute "some weird kind of iron" and keep going. But if you stop and look at it, as Joyce makes you do, repeatedly, you start to wonder a bit more about what you're looking at.

Does it really have anything to do with pigs? I'm going to guess not, but like I say, I really don't know.


Well, it has something to do with pigs. Pig iron is the result of an intermediary process in the smelting of iron. I don't know that I want to dig into the whole iron smelting process just now, but basically when you first smelt iron ore, you are left with pig iron, which, before further refining, has a lot of carbon in it. This makes it brittle and largely unusable.

The reason for the pig part, though, is not a denigration of pigs. The way "pig" came into the term apparently is that the  shape of the mold was originally a branched structure, with the ingots at right angles to a central runner lying in sand. When the iron had cooled it was easy to break off the ingots from the thinner central bar. The association was made to a sow nursing a litter of piglets.

Pig iron came to take on a slang meaning of cheap iron, as in cheap guns, for example. But this is just slang, not the real deal.

Been awhile since we had our musical example here, and who better than Leadbelly to show us the way? Don't know what "Rock Island Line" has to do the price of pig iron?

Wait for it.