Sunday, December 30, 2012


I don't often choose words that are completely new to me, but this one was--at least I have no recollection of it. It came to me by way of a Christmas card, and the quotation was:

The lion with the fatling on did move
A little child was leading them with love:

It comes from the border of a painting by Edward Hicks from 1826 called "The Peacable Kingdom"--one version of it, anyway, which is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Now other people might want to know more about Hicks, or the style of his work or what the couplet means. But I just want to know what a fatling is. I may have run across it at some point, but it's sure not something that comes up in common speech. It's really quite a delightful sounding word, but it would sound a bit insulting today. From the picture, it's apparently the cow, but let's find out.


A fatling, not too surprisingly, is simply a young animal being fattened up for slaughter. In some translations of the Bible, the world fatling is translated as fatted calf, which may sound a bit more familiar. As Hicks paraphrase in the form of a poem is taken from Isaiah 11:6 , and there is already a calf in that translation it is probably the larger white animal in the painting, which I guess is a kid.

It's interesting that Hicks painted many versions on this theme, over a hundred, in fact, and this probably not the most famous one. That might be this one from the National Gallery, circa 1834:
Getting back to the word, it came into usage around 1534, and  as far as I can tell has largely disappeared. I wonder if it's the "fat" or the "for slaughter" aspect that's most to blame for this. A fatling sounds pretty adorable if you can suppress from your thoughts its inevitable end.
There is apparently one form of resurgence, though. According to the Urban Dictionary, it now can refer to an overweight or obese child as well.
It's the Urban Dictionary, folks. You weren't expecting something kind, were you?

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Brian O'Rourke reposted a question that came up for him a few years ago--which would you rather celebrate, Christmas or Saturnalia? Leaving aside questions of faith and meaningfulness, Brian makes a pretty good case for Saturnalia. As I said there, a week off work would be  more than enough to convince me.

In the course of explaining Saturnalia, Brian mentions that one of the things you get to indulge in is 'tomfoolery'. I think we all know what it means--practical jokes, hijinx, tricks of the kind you get when you don't do the right thing on Halloween. But why "tom" foolery? Is there some prehistoric Tom that everyone blames? Or is this going to be one of those "origin unknown" kind of definition?


 Before there was tomfoolery, there was such a thing as a tomfool, a buffoon or clown of the 1640s, and before that there was the Middle English Thom Foole, a fictional personification of a mentally deficient man. "Tom", in fact, is a stand in for a whole host of common man types, from Uncle Tom, to Tom O'Bedlam, to Tom and Jerry, to Tom, Dick and Harry. It must be something about the shortness of the name that's so appealing. And I'm going to hazard a guess that saying 'tomfoolery' is a satisfying word to say, but that 'tomfool' was replaced in American venacular with 'damn fool'. It has the same sort of notes and accents in it.

Here is a Tom Fool's knot:


I think you can see why. And  here is a famous American racehorse who bears the name:

He was voted American Horse of the Year, and sired a couple of famous racehorses in turn, Buckpasser and Tim Tam. But why no Tom-Tom, Tom?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sure On This Shining Night

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far
Of shadows on the stars.
                                        -James Agee

Music by Morten Lauridsen

I came across this at a holiday concert this month. Beautiful music and I was moved to realize that one of my favorite writers ever wrote the poem that Lauridsen used. It isn't actually a winter song, but I think it works.

I hope your winter holidays were or will be good ones.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The First Line

Taking some time for some shameless self-promotion, I'll just mention that a story I wrote was accepted by The First Line  a month or so ago, and it is now published because I just got contributor copies today. I've written about this magazine on my story related blog before, but since few have read that, I'll just mention its unique concept here. Four times a year, they invite people to submit a story based on the first line of their concoction and the put out an issue of stories all beginning with that first sentence. It's a fun idea. I was pretty excited to get in this time, as I've tried a time or two before.

This isn't meant as an advertisement so much as a simple announcement, but if you want to check out this volume, you can find it at their website, or, if you're in that realm, you can even buy a copy for Kindle if you want.

Here's the line:

Sometimes, when it's quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs.

And they've got a new one up if you want to try your own hand at this. February 1st deadline...

Monday, December 17, 2012


I was thinking of doing this word a while ago, probably after watching one of the political news shows talking about congress, but it actually  came up again tonight at a discussion group I go to, and after a fairly raucous discussion, one of the men said jocularly, "Enough with your rancid fulminations!" It was funny, but it also gives me my cue.

To fulminate is to hold forth or blow a lot of hot air, I think. A senator fulminating is one of the more common ways you hear this word. But what does it really mean? I've already seen that there may be some tantalizing chemical origins, so let's take a look...


Okay, well, I have this slightly wrong. It has a more specific meaning. To fulminate is to denounce or attack verbally, usually in a thunderous manner. The thunderous bit is key here, because the word goes back to the Latin fulminare--to hurl lightening or to lighten, because the Latin for lightning flash is fulmen. Interesting that the sound and not the light seems to have crossed over. The word started in English in the fifteenth century in its metaphoric and not its literal sense and was originally used in ecclesiastical censure. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

In chemistry, though, a fulminate is an explosive salt of fulminic acid. Yeah, yeah, whatever, you say. But hasn't Breaking Bad taught you that high school chemistry is eternally relevant? And in fact, Episode 6 of Breaking Bad has a scene involving mercury fulminate:

And here is an article with comments on whether this was a realistic scene and other related topics.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Separation

Have you gotten around to watching the 2012 Oscar winner For Best Foreign Film yet? I hadn't till last night, even though I've had the envelope from Netflix for weeks. I think that in the kind of "fog of war" talk that we live in around the subject of Iran, this small but beautifully done movie works as a kind of antidote and reminder of the  humanity  of people we often think of as on the other side of a line.
A husband and wife have what seem to be irreconcilable differences as the movie opens, she wanting to take an opportunity to go to America, he feeling unable to leave his mentally deteriorating father behind. Caught in the middle of this struggle is their pre-adolescent daughter, who decides to align herself with her father and remain at home for the time being. An arrangement is made through the wife's friend to have  a young mother come and look after the father during the day. She brings her own small daughter, but elects to leave her husband largely in the dark about this arrangement. That is essentially the setup.
This is a wonderful bit of ensemble acting, with even the nearly mute father and the four year old child holding up their ends of the story. There is a dimension to the story that is universal--how do husbands and wives handle differing wishes and differing obligations, how do people of differing economics and class backgrounds interact when difficulities arise, and so on. But there is also a very unique Iranian story being told, with Iranian law and Muslim faith being central aspects of the story. There is an unfolding crisis but no villains. What it reminds me of a little, actually, is the American novel House of Sand and Fog  by Andre Dubus III. Although if anything, the characters in the novel have far more freedom of choice in how things unfold than these characters do.
Check it out. My copy is going back to Netflix tomorrow.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


It's much in the news these days, what with the desire to reform it and all. A filibuster, for those who may not know the term, is a delaying tactic, usually thought of as being in the form of an extremely long speech ala Jimmy Stewart, but in fact not usually taking that form these days at all. The tactics are not new, as they used some of the same devices in the Roman Senate way back when, but 'filibuster' is an American coinage. I thought it was probably based on some Latin legal term, in fact, but no, it's not, and if you don't know its origin, it's pretty fun.

Filibuster apparently goes back to the Dutch vrijbuiter, which meant robber, or plunderer. Freebooter is a loan word derived from this and is related to 'booty' here as well. If all this smacks of piracy, well, that's because vrijbuiter becomes both  the  Spanish filibustero and the French flibustier, both terms for the pirates of the West Indies and giving us the English word 'flibutor' as well. To me, 'flibutor' just doesn't have the same ring as 'pirate', which is probably why it didn't catch on...

The Spanish term is the one that caught on in Texas, where filibusteros  incited insurrection against Spain in Latin America, under the banners  of  Narcisso Lopez in Cuba and William Walker in Mexico and Nicaragua. I think this sense of insurrection and rebellion is more what carried over to the stalling tactics in the Senate than actual piracy. Although when I think of the money moving through Washington DC, I realize I could very well be wrong. 

Sorry, no pictures--my picture file is acting wonky, so you will just have to imagine these bold brigands for yourselves...