Saturday, June 30, 2012


I have another longer post brewing, but I thought I'd pop in a short one about a word I have read in many places over my lifetime, but which I don't really know. "The desuetudes of" something is a phrase I probably invent a new meaning for each time I run across it. Out of context, it's a little hard to pick apart. For some reason, maybe the association with the word lassitude, I think of laxness, but its a bit hard to get that "suet" out of my mind. The doldrums?

Never mind. Let's forge ahead.

Ever heard of the word "mansuetude"? No, me either. Mansuetude means "tameness, gentleness or mildness" It comes from the Latin manus, or hand plus suescere--to accustom or habituate. To accustom to the hand--ie, tame.

Timothy Treadwell petting a wild fox

Desuescere, in contrast, would mean, to become not accustomed to--to fall out of use or practice.
Desuetude is the condition of being out of use or practice, a state of disuse or inactivity.

So we have the desuetude of manual typewriters, old docks,  mothball fleets, and so on. It is a doctrine in law as well. In some places and some cases, after a long period of desuetude, statutes and ordinances may become unenforceable. There are a lot of things on the books that not only will not be enforced but cannot be enforced, as practice has been otherwise for so long. Things are not always struck from the books when common practice has moved past them. Many small communities, for example, have zoning laws still on the books that are frankly racist in character, but are not observed in practice and will never be resuscitated.  Although, geez, repealing them might be a nice gesture...

Desuetude-apparently also a horse.
Although why you would name a racehorse Desuetude is a bit beyond me.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


This has come up a couple of times in my Finnegans Wake group. We're on a section featuring the rainbow girls, and heliotrope is one of their colors. I think. I looked it up the first time, and yes it was a color, but my interest gave out after that. Then it came up at the group meeting the other day in a different aspect entirely. Color? Region of the earth's atmosphere? Let's find out.


Well, at its root, heliotrope merely means "sun turn". It follows that very common route from Greek heliotropion through Latin heliotropium and French héliotrope. Heliotropic plants are those that turn their leaves and flowers to the sun. Think sunflowers. There is a nice Old English word that means the same thing, turnsole, although this was eventually taken from the plant that had this property and applied to the dye extracted from it (and used for illuminated manuscripts).

Heliotropes actually are a whole genus of flowers, and many if not most of them are yellow. But for some reason, the color heliotrope is a pinkish purple one, and is taken from heliotropes of this hue. Heliotrope, as I probably should have remembered, is the correct answer to the guessing game in Finnegans Wake, and there are reportedly many clues within the text itself in the form of puns, anagrams and obscure allusions. Well of course there are--it's Joyce, after all.

There is also a mineral called heliotrope. It is often called bloodstone, as it often shows up with blood red specks in it. It gets the name heliotrope from it's reflective qualities rather than its color.  

But just when you're thinking we've turned a bit too far from the sun, we're turning back again. Because there is still another use of the word heliotrope. This is the surveyor's instrument that, using a mirror, reflects the rays of the sun over great distances. In this way it creates a target that would otherwise be too indistinct to see from afar. Heliotropes had their problems, ie, night and bad weather, but were very effective in many cases. In fact, during the 1874 Transit of Venus, several were taken to the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean to aid in the observations.

Wurdemann's heliotrope
Very steampunk.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I grew up in the era before microwave ovens, and probably could have gotten on without them perfectly well for the rest of my life, but have instead had a sort of all or nothing relation with them over the past fifteen years or so. If  there's one in the place I'm renting I use it, but if there isn't, I don't miss it. Currently I'm living in a place which like many studios here, has one in lieu of an oven. There's also a two-burner hot plate, but one of the dials has broken off, and in any case, it takes a long time to heat and a long time to cool off too. So the microwave is in for some pretty heavy usage.

The other day I was reading a short piece in Newsweek by Brian Greene on the multiverse theory. He ably explains the general idea to the non-scientist--it's kind of a Multiverse for Dummies approach, which is definitely the approach for me. Anyway, microwaves came up quite a bit in his explanation, and the one that stuck with me was the idea that measuring microwaves might be a possibility if some otherwise  undetectable universe collided with ours. Seems like  a slightly higher form of use than heating up frozen tamales. Although not as practical.

Anyway, it led me to realize that I really have no idea what a microwave is. It really is time to change all that.

Let me just start by saying that my default position of checking out Wikipedia for this kind of info--largely because it usually pops up first in any kind of Google search, was not particularly helpful here. It was not of the Microwaves  for Dummies variety. But there is a really clear and simple website that NASA puts out on the Electromagnetic Spectrum, which you can find HERE. If you want to just cut through all my fol de rol, or if you want to learn about the whole spectrum, you might as well pop over there, as I am not going to be better at explaining this. But for the purposes of my own education, which is really what this all about in the end, I'll proceed.

A microwave is a wave on the electromagnetic spectrum lying in the frequency between radio waves and infrared. It is actually at the higher end of the radio wave spectrum, but is differentiated because there are different technologies used to access them. There are actually subbands of microwaves, such as C-bands, L-bands and so on, which are each on their own distinct part of the spectrum.   

I turned to the FDA website on radiating products  to get some simple information about how microwaves cook. The important points are that microwaves are reflected by metal, but can pass through paper, plastic, glass and, presumably ceramics, and then can be absorbed by food. The microwaves cause water molecules to vibrate, which produces the heat that cooks the food that lives in the house that Jack built.

Sorry, got carried away.

A couple of popular misconceptions about microwave cooking. It doesn't actually cook the food from the inside out. The outer layers are what get cooked, and the inner layers are heated by conduction of that heat. It's also why that microwave permeable bowl you're holding is so damn hot.

And microwaves don't cause food to become radioactive or contaminated with radiation. The microwave energy is converted to heat as it is absorbed by food.

The Holmdel Horn antenna

So, skipping right through the lengths of microwave that are used to penetrate clouds to detect weather conditions beneath them, let's turn right to those microwaves that are used to explore the reaches of space. As the NASA website explains it, in 1965, two Bell Lab scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, accidentally discovered a strange background noise, with the help of a  special low noise antenna. The strange thing about this noise was that it did not seem to come from any particular direction, and in fact seemed to come in unvaried intensity from everywhere. This cosmic microwave background radiation, as it is termed, fills the entire universe, and is a clue to what eventually became the Big Bang Theory.

To return to the beginning, the way that microwave study would allow observers to deduce a collision of universes is that in theory, this cosmic collision might cause some changes in the temperature of the microwave background radiation.

I guess we shouldn't expect to just feel it as a little jolt.  
Got the Nobel Prize for it, too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I've used this one fairly often recently, almost always in writing rather than aloud, but don't really know what it means, so I probably often use it wrongly. "The sentence doesn't quite parse" or "I couldn't parse the sense of this." In general, I take it to mean that something in language doesn't quite work, or doesn't entirely make sense. I'm guessing it has a more technically grammatical function.

I know, it's awfully close to perse, but we'll do our best to keep them separate...


Quae pars orationis? "What part of speech?" If you've studied Latin in school, this is no doubt a familiar question. Parsing once meant identifying the parts (pars) of speech and finding out their relation to other parts in a sentence. It's the usual trajectory from Latin through Old French. When I was in school, they had long dropped Latin from the curriculum, but there was still a hold over unit of diagramming a sentence. I actually wasn't very good at it for some reason. I found it perplexing.

Maybe if I'd had this guy to explain it...

Here's an interesting parsing of  one of the president's own sentences courtesy of BoingBoing.

Anyway, parsing has branched out a bit from its origins. It can, as I've sometimes used it, mean "to subject something to scrutiny, break it down into its components, examine more closely." This is to take the activity of parsing a sentence and turn it into a metaphor for any analytical activity.

But what seems to be a more current and perhaps prevalent use of the word now takes it back to its original usage.This is in the realm of computer language. In fact, when you check out the Wikipedia article on "parsing", it's the computer languages and linguistics that get first mention, and "natural languages" come in second. Parsing  is now about analyzing a string of "tokens" or chunks of data, which are only sometimes words. Parsing probably works a bit better for computers, because they are more natural rule followers.I'd say they live for rules, but of course they don't "live" for anything. They merely follow instructions.

The cool thing about human language is that it's a bit more ambiguous than a set of rules and protocols can contain. One of the fun things I learned about in writing this up is the idea of "garden path sentences." This is when a sentence tends to lead a reader to draw certain conclusions in the beginning, which don't end up parsing in the end. "The man who hunts ducks out on the weekend." "The old dog the footsteps of the young." It's an effect often seen in the terse style of headlines. There's even been a proposal that these ambiguous headers be termed Crash Blossoms in honor of this headline: "Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms".

Unlike other experiences of being led down the garden path, these brief detours are pretty fun.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I think we hear this word pretty often, especially these days, with budget cuts and layoffs still very much part of our general economic picture. "Draconian measures" is the usual phrase. It tends to mean very harsh and even drastic measures. But what is draconian exactly?
Let's put it in the form of a quiz.
Is draconian

a.) related to dragons

b.) named after one of the many emperors of Ancient Rome?

c.) having something to do with the historical as opposed to the legendary Count Dracula

d.) all of the above

e.) none of the above?

Bear in mind that I'm writing the quiz without knowing the answer.


Shoot. The answer is e. None of the above. (Well, there might be just a slight tinge of a.) I thought I had covered all my bases, but in fact, it originates in ancient Greece with one Draco, the first legislator of Athens.  By this, it's meant that he was the  one who was "tasked" (as the jargon goes now) with writing down the laws of Athens. Prior to this time, Greece was in a period of vendetta and blood feud, which seems to be what happens when more legalistic systems don't hold sway.

Since no remnant of this written law exists now, a lot of this must be taken with a grain of salt, I think. For one thing, though he has the reputation of being the first lawgiver, it seems that there were some earlier attempts. One theory is that this Draconian attempt may have been in response to a crisis. Which, of course, usually how these shoring up efforts do happen.

The other thing is that we really know Draco largely through hindsight and as a contrasting figure to the later democratizing lawgiver, Solon. In this light, Draco's laws certainly seem Draconian. "Off with their heads!" seemed to be the general theme. Plutarch writes:

It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.

But I do wonder why all the things I read about this seem so confident about this story. There is very little documented evidence, but there is a tradition that Draco wrote the laws, and then Solon revised them to be more humane. Scrapped them, really, apparently keeping only the one about homicide. Apparently, Draconian law introduced a distinction between intentional and unintentional homicide. Unintentional equaled exile. Intentional equaled death. It seems that so did stealing a head of cabbage.

I do wonder if Draco is getting a bad rap here. According to no less a light than Aristotle, Draco only wrote down a pre-existing oral law. So, in the same way that Homer is homeric, Draco is draconian.

"Draco" means "sharp sighted". But it also has a connection to dragon. The Greek draconem means "huge serpent, monster". It connects back to derkesthai. Uncharacteristically, the Online Etymology Dictionary guesses: "Perhaps the lit. sense is "the one with the (deadly) glance."  

I don't know what Solon meant in his own time, but now the name means "the wise one". The one with the deadly glance vs. the wise one. It's all just a little too convenient.

There is not all that much known about Draco, but one tale has stayed with us. He went to the island of Aegina, which was then or subsequently a great rival of Athens. In a customary show of approval, his supporters threw so many cloaks and hats on his head that he suffocated. They literally "killed him with kindness."

Or maybe literarily would be more apt.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


 Yeah, I know we all know what howdy means. And I suppose it's just a contraction of "how do you do?" But I'm curious about its Western twang. Do only Americans say it? And what kind of Americans say it? And when?

I've been known to use the word, but there's a bit of jokiness in its usage, and its certainly a relaxed situation when I would introduce myself in this way. I can't actually think of the last time I said it.


Apparently, its origins are more Southern than Western, and the word is a contraction of "how do ye". It was first recorded as "how de" in 1828, and our present spelling is from 1837. It is a southern expression, but migrated west with Civil War vets.

Thinking about this word made me think about the expression "Boy howdy". I'm pretty sure the first time I ever heard it was on Big Valley when Lee Majors said it in passing to Barbara Stanwyck. Of course, Big Valley was set in Stockton, California, but Majors was originally from the south, so perhaps he slipped it in. It is a Southernism usually attributed to Texas, and if for some reason you've never heard it, it really just means "Wow!" According to The Word Detective, there's a theory that it was brought to other parts of the U.S. after World War One, when returning vets used the term after hearing it from their Texan counterparts.

If there's one thing I've learned from doing this blog, it's that soldiers and sailors have had an awful lot to do with the dissemination of language over the centuries.

Also television.