Friday, November 30, 2012


Belgian Revolution, by Gustave Wappers

I was watching the Rachel Maddow show a couple of nights ago and she used the word 'foment' to describe some trouble the Republicans were threatening to stir up in congress. I know roughly what foment means--it does mean to stir things up or catalyze some action. But am I the only one who always hears the foam in foment, even though it can have nothing to do with foaming? I have thought a bit about the word, but I can't figure out the root. It would actually be weird if it was foam. Well, let's find out.


No, no foam. Foment means to encourage the growth of, to instigate or stimulate. But it comes from an earlier more precise meaning of  'to apply hot liquids'. The  Old French was fomenter, to apply a hot compress, and comes out of  the Latin fomentum, a warm application or poultice. It is actually a contraction of fovimentum, which is probably neither here nor there to you, but the longer word makes it more easy to see that it's rooted in fovere  'to warm, cherish, encourage', and connects it to our word fever.

Interestingly, although I did find someone else curious about the foam in foment, more people actually confuse it with 'ferment'. This seems to be because the words have similar sounds and different meanings that can be used somewhat interchangably in certain settings. Here's a good post about this. I would agree with one of the commenters that foment has more immediate and ferment more long term resonances. Fermenting trouble seems more like 'brewing up trouble'. But as the post points out, the two words have probably been linked from the beginning, as foment comes from the aforementioned fovere, 'to heat', and ferment goes back to fervere, 'to boil'.

Another comment on the above mentioned blog mentions an entirely apropos scene from The Office. Wish I could YouTube it for you, but I am apparently not that adept. So here's the dialogue as provided by someone named Pete:

Dwight – So I expect you to be on your best behavior, which means none of you will be insubordinate nor will you foment insurrection.

Jim – Question. If we’ve already fomented insurrection, may we be grandfathered in?

Dwight – Define “foment.”

Jim – You define “foment.”

[awkward silence]

Thanks, Pete.


Sunday, November 25, 2012


A woman was looking at one of the small books we keep at the register while I rang up her sale today--I think it was a picture dictionary. At any rate, she said "Imbricate. What's imbricate?" The pencil drawing showed a plant somewhat like an asparagus, but beyond that, I didn't even know what the drawing was. I said, "I don't know, I guess I'll have to look into that."  She said, "I'm going to take a picture of it. That's how I remember things." And so I suppose to prove that I can remember things without a camera, I'm going to look into this now.


Well, Latin students will know all about this one, I suspect. Imbricate plants are those whose leaves overlap partially in an even sort of pattern. The tips of asparagus do fit the bill, but so do artichokes. And pinecones. In fact, a lot of things in the world are imbricated. Fish scales. Shingles.

And shingles, or, really, roof tiles, are the key here. Imbricate and imbricated come from the Latin imbricatus,  "covered with tiles", the past participle of imbricatare, "to cover with rain tiles". An imbrix was one of the rounded Roman tiles that lay over the joins of two tegula, the other flatter tile used as part of the rainproofing system. The imbrix was so named because it protected from imber--rain.

the rounded, upper tile is the imbrix.

Seems a long way from there to artichokes, doesn't it?

In the course of my wanderings, I came across this post by a professor named Michael Drout from Wheaton College, refuting the idea that "imbricated" was a good way to describe overlapping cultural studies. It is not only a word used to show we are smarter than someone else, but also it is used imprecisely in this context.

"We fight a losing battle against fossilized metaphor and imprecise language, but it is a long defeat worth fighting, because when we preserve the specific meaning of "dilapidated" as "having stones missing" or "imbricated" as "overlapping like shingles on a roof," rather than allow these words to decay into just dead metaphors for "old" or "entwined," we keep the language richer and more powerful, more able to communicate specific, concrete ideas in only a few words."

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to used "imbricated" without having to resort to academic-speak.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Blast from the past--Addi Somekh and Mary Holmes

I've mentioned here a couple of times, I think, that I'm a regular at a local discussion group called the Penny University. I've flagged a bit over the last couple of years--it has to do with external things more than lack of interest--but I always make that extra effort when word of certain guest speakers show up. Such was the case this Monday, when Addi Somekh, balloon twister extraordinaire, returned to give us a talk about one of our beloved leaders of the past, Mary Holmes.

Addi is a story in himself and enlivened our lives considerably from the moment he appeared on the scene some years ago, and returned from time to time to regale us with his stories of making balloon hats for people around the world. Sounds crazy,  maybe. It wasn't. And in fact, one of the first people to encourage him was Mary Holmes. With her amazing art history background, she was able to place his project in a larger historic and cultural context. In a word, people like hats.

Addi's presentation included some video from some film that was shot of Mary and which he has posted on YouTube. You can find that stuff here. Seeing her again, even in virtual form, was a true delight.

Addi didn't just go around the world making balloon hats. He came back and he and his photographer partner Charles Eckhert put together a  beautiful book about Mary called Mary Holmes: Paintings and Ideas. I picked up another copy at the Penny last night.

This doesn't sound much like a confession of ignorance, does it? Well, there was a Mary Holmes story that I had never heard, so let's go with that. Addi had heard that Mary was a friend of Ray Bradbury (which I didn't know). They had in fact, driven out to Los Angeles together at some point. Addi had some version of the book ready when he heard that Bradbury was doing a book signing in some part of L.A., Glendale I think, so he decided to go out there and present him with a copy. When he got there, there was a line circling around the block to see him, and he could barely make it through the crowds. When he got somewhat within range, he talked to a handler of some kind and said he wanted to give Ray Bradbury this book. The handler basically said get lost, buddy. Addi said, "Just mention the name Mary Holmes." So the handler did. Bradbury stopped what he was doing and said "Mary Holmes--I knew her for years and years." And then he spent several minutes going off into raptures about her, much to the befuddling of the stunned crowd. Bradbury did endorse the book. Here is the quote from the balloon hat website:

"This is a fascinating book about an amazing woman. I knew Mary Holmes on a personal level for more than thirty years, and this book captures the ambiance of her fantastic personality." - Ray Bradbury

Tell it, Ray.

Sometimes, I find myself a bit uncertain about the meanderings of my own life. But sooner or later, I always seem to come upon an evening like this one, where I am reminded of the extraordinary people who have come my way and how lucky I have been to know them.

Mary with our two present leaders, Jim Bierman and Paul Lee.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Where did all the money go, part 2

By coincidence, I just found that our local paper has researched the part of the money trail that my post on campaign spending didn't. Namely, what happens to the money that didn't get spent at all? As Josh Richman says, it kind of depends...

Go on. I know you're curious.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


November 15th is the launch of Occupy Wall Street's (or at least one of its offshoots) next venture. It's called the Rolling Jubilee, and I've already posted the explanatory video here. It's a simple and in some ways brilliant idea: We ordinary citizens buy up some of the distressed loans that are sold for pennies on the dollar, and instead of leveraging them, we pay the loan and forgive it. As this article says, on a large scale it might be problematic, as the strategy may well drive up the price of these loans. But as an initial gesture to do something for people in financial trouble it would seem to work pretty well, and it would take a pretty big influx of money to reach problem proportions.

I thought that in honor of the launch, I'd track down the origins of 'jubilee'. I think most of us know the term 'diamond jubilee', as Queen Elizabeth II celebrated hers this very year. In the case of royalty, it celebrates the 60th year of a monarch's reign, though in terms of other anniversaries, it means the 75th.

But the source of all this is somewhat different--and more relevant. 'Jubilee" goes back through the usual Old French jubileu, which meant jubilee, anniversary, rejoicing. The Late Latin jubilaeus meant jubilee year, and was originally an adjective meaning 'of the jubilee', but which switched meanings a bit by being promiscuous with the Latin jubilare "to shout with joy". I haven't quite been able to pin down the background of this close word to see if it has some of the same root, and there are some alternate theories of etymology out there, but in any case, jubilaeus goes back to the Greek iabelaios and earlier iobelos. But that's not even yet the basis of the word, which is Hebrew and is pronounced yobhel or yovel, and means jubilee but also a trumpet made of ram's horn, and ultimately comes from 'ram'. The ram's horn may be more familiar to you as the shofar, which is present and important at many Jewish ceremonies. 

The original idea of jubilee is that, every 50th year (or really, the end of seven cycles of Sabbatical years known as schmita) is a year of emancipation of slaves and restoration of lands, set off by the sound of trumpets everywhere.Jubilee deals with land, property and property rights. I like the more transcendent sense of the Septuagint--the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek in the third century BCE-- that yovel means "a trumpet-blast of liberty" (αφεσεως σημασια afeseos semasia), at least according to Wikipedia. Here's the passage from Leviticus.

Christianity did carry the idea forward, in the sense of a period of remission for sin penalities in exchange for alms, pilgrimages and so on. But I like best the way it crept into African-American spirituality and became the name of a type of folk song in the 1800s.

This is a video of the Jubilee Singers, and I'd say it's appropriate for the launch of the Rolling Jubilee
as well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


If you go back into the ancient history of this blog, you will find one of my personal favorite posts, that of shambolic. Now it turns out that Oxford Dictionaries has a certain predeliction in that direction, at  least, based on their current choice for UK Word of the Year 2012. As they say in their blog post about it, this doesn't meant that 'omnishambles' will make their dictionaries any time soon. But this word from a British television favorite, The Thick of It, has gained a lot of currency over the last few years. As they point out, a promising aspect of any words longevity is how well it spawns new words. As an American left-leaning Democrat, Romneyshambles is about as good as it gets--that is, if you discount Romnesia, which I do not.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Where did all the money go?

I thought I'd be done with politically related blogging, but one of the big topics post-election is how much money the ultra-rich Republicans spent and how little they had to show for it. The recurring image is flushing it down the drain, but obviously that isn't precisely right--after all, it was spent somewhere. I even thought it was probably helpful to the economy in terms of creating  jobs and purchasing a few things. Subsequent research has shown that I am fairly off on that, and I thought I would post a bit about what I learned.


First, there's the question of where the money actually did go. According to this CNN article, campaign spending is at 4.2 billion dollars and may rise as high as six by the time it's all accounted for. Although in those all important swing states there were profits to be made for the local media and print shops and caterers and anyone else who gets paid to help a campaign when it's in town, it is really the large companies tied to the campaign who will benefit the most. CNN quotes former FEC chair David M. Mason in saying that though there's a lot of talk about how it's all going on the web, "the biggest industry beneficiary of campaign spending is any business that works with broadcast media". At least in part, this means the big ad firms that fashion the ad campaigns. In other words, Mad Men, 2012 style. The head of the chief firm for Obama's ad campaign was GMMB, headed by Jim Margolis. He said that the campaign has spent over 400 million dollars on advertising during the course of the race. The ad companies get paid to create the ads and then disperse them. They usually keep some portion of the funds for their services. Margolis declined to say what GMMB's portion was.

Now, on to what this all means in terms of stimulus. I'm sorry to say that those who know much more than I do on this stuff are pretty much in agreement--it's a pretty poor form of stimulus. Matthew Yglesias of Slate actually goes so far as to say that "Heavy spending on campaign television advertisements is like a textbook example of things that don't boost the economy."

First of all, it's just a shifting of wealth from someone like Sheldon Adelson  to the owners of the local television stations. A closely contested race leads to more ads and more profits, but it doesn't induce a station to invest in their physical plant or higher new long term staff. It's simply a boost in short term profits. Secondly the flow of advertising is basically fixed, Yglesias says. All the increased demand for air time does is inflate the prices. " Every ad that Romney or Obama ran in Ohio was an extra 15 or 30 seconds that wasn't used to air some other advertisement."

New York City ad men, 1960

On whether campaign spending has a good effect, I read a nice piece by Paul Solmon, familiar to many of us as the explainer of all things financial over at the PBS Newshour. In answer to a question from a reader over at Making Sen$e , he says that scholars like Tom Ferguson have long pointed out that "campaign spending represents something substantially more problematic than a "lousy priority." He might use the term "pernicious priority." "

Solmon goes on to quote Lawrence Lessig on why the large campaign spending is bad for the Republic in the long term.

"These few don't exercise their power directly," notes Lessig. "None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped."

Finally, I came across this mocking of an MSNBC correspondent on her suggestion that all this campaign spending might have have had a mini-effect on the economy, and added a bit of stimulus at the right time for Obama. Noah Rothman of Mediaite says:

"this belief betrays a stunning lack of understanding about the size and complexity of the American economy, let alone the global economy. If one held the belief that a grand total of approximately $2 billion in spending over the course of 18 months (funds raised exclusively from donations rather than yields from commerce and investment, no less) into consultancy firms and advertising can stimulate the economy, than that individual can also convince themselves that the economy is small enough to be competently managed from the top down."

Commenters have pointed out that Joy-Ann Reid was being a bit facetious, but Noah, I will own the error of scale and take the drubbing on her behalf.

Although I suspect that many Americans are under the erroneous impression that two billion dollars is a lot of money...

This is one billion...

Friday, November 9, 2012


Yes, you have to watch the whole damn thing and then read my last blog post to understand why this is in any way relevant.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


This word came up in our Finnegans Wake group tonight. It was actually the word 'irrelevance' (page 249, in case you're wondering), but the word I ended up pondering was 'relevant'. It seemed, well, related to 'relation', but then I started wondering if they had different etymological roots. Wondering if it was really the '-levant' we should be focussing on. We wondered if it was connected to the relevé of dance, which is all about lifting. The part we were reading did seem to be about a dance, so maybe it was more 'relevant' than we thought.


So yes--lift. It's not a dance move, though. It goes back to the Latin relevare, "to lift or lighten"--in this sense, it's related to "relief". Interestingly, it was originally a Scottish word with a specific legal meaning. It meant "to take up, take possession of  property". It took on (up?) its more general meaning of "having a connection to the matter at hand" later. Not quite sure how the drift happened, but words are like that...

I know--irrelevant.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Yes, just one more post about voting and then odds are great that you will never have to hear about it from me for four more years, which in blog years means, "never again." But as you're considering your ballots and figuring out how you're going to get to the voting booth on Tuesday--the New York Times has it that "some New Jersey voters may find their hurricane-damaged polling sites replaced by military trucks, with — in the words of the state’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno — “a well-situated national guardsman and a big sign saying, ‘Vote Here.’ ”--you might want to spend a moment thinking about what "suffrage" is. Or maybe not. But as I've already cast my ballot, I have little left to do in life but contemplate such stuff.

When I was a kid and heard about the suffragettes, and learned that they were working to get women  the vote, I'm sure I thought that suffrage had something to do with suffering. As I  mentioned a couple of posts back, the British suffragettes went through some hardships for the cause, so this wasn't the wildest guess I've ever made.

But suffrage actually has different origins. "Suffer" has roots in the Latin sufferre, to bear or undergo--it's really sub- plus ferre, to carry, and is thus more related to ferrying people than it is to universal voting rights.

Suffrage, on the other hand, comes from suffragari, which was Latin for "lend support, vote for someone". It breaks down sub- plus fragor--"crash, din, shouts". (The Online Etymology Dictionary steers us a bit by adding "(of approval). But fragor comes from frangare--to break. So suffrage is actually related to the word "fraction", rather than to the vehicle that will carry people across.

Interestingly, and I did not know this, it's  first usage meaning the right to vote comes in a very American document--the U.S. Constitution of 1787.         

Crash, din, shouts. Huzzah!