Thursday, May 30, 2013


Sure, I know what "input" is. But why is it that I'm suddenly hearing the plural everywhere? It's partly, I suppose, that I was taking a course on Global Poverty, and as brilliant as the course was, there was still a fair amount of jargon associated with it. Referring to things as inputs was one of the ways this happened.

My sister then mentioned inputs when referring to her cell phone, and my latest sighting of the word was over at the One Acre Fund, which refers to a farmer carrying "farm inputs" home on her head. One Acre Fund looks like a great project, but as the woman is carrying a brown burlap sack on her head which could contain anything but probably contains seeds, fertilizer and the like, this is not exactly a model of precision in language. Wendell Berry would probably very much disapprove of seeds being termed inputs, though of course I shouldn't speak for him.

My first guess was that inputs comes from computer speak as  much as anything, but then I remembered that input and output have been around a bit longer than that, so I'm going to guess that this kind of jargon was adopted more from factory speak. I don't really know why we like to refer to ourselves as machines and farms as factories, but of course we adapt language endlessly, and perhaps that's reason enough.

Although I have to say that when someone says, "I value your input," it very often means they don't.


Okay, so here's a snippet from the Free Online Dictionary regarding usage.

"The noun input has been used as a technical term for about a century in fields such as physics and electrical engineering, but its recent popularity grows out of its use in computer science, where it refers to data or signals entered into a system for processing or transmission. In general discourse input is now widely used to refer to the transmission of information and opinion, as in The report questioned whether a President thus shielded had access to a sufficiently varied input to have a realistic picture of the nation or The nominee herself had no input on housing policy. In this last sentence the meaning of the term is uncertain: it may mean either that the nominee provided no opinions to the policymakers or that she received no information about housing policy. This vagueness in the nontechnical use of input may be one reason that some critics have objected to it.... Though the usage is well established, care should be taken not to use the word merely as a way to imply an unwarranted scientific precision."

And I did just check out Wendell Berry's thoughts on what seems to be common usage in the ag industry. It comes from Chapter 9 of The Gift of Good Land, which I highly recommend. The relevant passage is this:

In agriculture, so-called “inputs” are, from a different point

of view, outputs – expenses. In all things, I think, but especially in agriculture struggling
to survive in an industrial economy, any solution that calls for an expenditure to a
manufacturer should be held in suspicion – not rejected necessarily, but as a rule mistrusted.

Check out Wendell Berry if you haven't yet. I'm sure my thoughts were formed by him, though sadly  not as well  as he's elucidated his own. Mainly, I think I can't live up to his vision, but we are kindred spirits all the same...


Monday, May 27, 2013

Meanderings of Memory

On The Rachel Maddow Show of May 17th, there was a clip about the Oxford English Dictionary's appeal to the public to help them find a copy of a rare book called Meanderings of Memory, written by one "Skylark". More than a few words in the OED apparently have only this work as a source, and no copy of the book has ever been found. Since the airing of this show, Wikipedia tells us that one other mention of the book has now been found in an 1854 Sotheby's catalogue, making it less likely that the book's existence is a hoax. 51 words in the OED, many of which we use commonly, have Meanderings of Memory as a first or early source. So if you happen to have a copy lying around somewhere, do be so kind as to let the OED folks know. And if your great, great granddad (or grandma) has "Skylark" on his tombstone, I suppose that would be helpful too.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013


I needed a fairly short and straightforward post here as I'm not home or in my regular routine for a week or so. But after reading and reviewing Adrian Hyland's Moonlight Downs over the last few days, I realized that there was one word that kept cropping up in his book that I had glossed over one too many times. It's not one of the aboriginal words, or one of the Australian slang words, both of which he provides a helpful glossary for. No, spinifex is just a word for some plant that apparently grows in abundance in the Australian Outback. And I think elsewhere, as I've certainly come across it before--somewhere.

At the very least, it's time to get a visual.


Well, this is presumably what much of the terrain in Moonlight Downs looks like, as Wikimedia Commons tells us that this is a picture taken in central Australia. 
But spinifex--straightforward? No. Because when you look up spinifex in say, Wikipedia, it will tell you that this is a coastal grass of Australia and New Zealand. Now not to give anything away, but as far as I can remember, no one in Moonlight Downs goes anywhere near the ocean. Coastal spinifex grass looks like this:
The seed head

The grass

What people in central Australia call spinifex is actually a grass called triodia, which grows in hummocks and grows in arid land and is not part of the coastal genus spinifex at all.
Sometimes I think the word gods are just messing with me. 
Of course, this is all an English and Latin layover of a native plant first named by the aboriginal peoples completely differently. Baru was the name it was given by at least some of the different peoples there. As with some plants and animals that native people of America knew well, multiple uses were found for spinifex, including making food from its seeds, adhesives from its resin and shelter using its long grasses.
 Various dictionaries tell me that spinifex comes from the Latin for "thorn maker". But spina in Latin also means spine, and I think it's more their porcupine like spines that gave these plants their name.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mountain lion trapped in Santa Cruz aqueduct and...

When I came up to work the cash register today, my coworker told me that there was a mountain lion trapped in  downtown Santa Cruz. By the time that shift ended, my 'career' as a bookseller, for lack of a better term, was over.

The mountain lion was not actually in downtown Santa Cruz, it was in an aqueduct some distance away. I used to walk over that aqueduct every day in a former life, and remember it chiefly for the wild ducks that frequented it.

In the time immediately after this announcement, I got into a lot of nice interactions with people and one exceedingly bad one, where a woman wanted to forego the now mandatory by city ordinance paper bag fee (one dime) because she was a regular customer who spent four hundred dollars a year there. Frankly, flaunting your money is the thing least likely to move me as a lowly salesclerk, but there you go. Of course this is the kind of person who would rather call and complain than pay a dime for a bag, so that's exactly what she did. My employer demanded to have an account of the conversation. I refused. That is pretty much where my longstanding relationship with this bookstore and independent bookstores  in general ended. Live long and prosper if you can, but not with my support.

I was going to say that I'm sorry to authors everywhere that I will no longer be able to support their books there, but really, I have no compunction at all now about supporting them on Amazon and by any other means I can, which will be, if not better, at least equally helpful. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


BraluKapi MoribundHorseMan
A regular reader here could not be blamed if he or she thought that I'd lost interest in this blog, but though I have often wondered why I do this, I haven't actually become bored with this odd little project at all. Rather, it's been a busy spring, moving out of my home and then back in again, taking a class on line, entering a screenplay contest, and, oh yeah, working when I have to. The last few days, I've really wanted to take the time for this, but I knew if I sat down to do it, I wouldn't get up again fast to do something less agreeable, like sort through all the questionable stuff I've managed to accumulate over time.

But this afternoon I feel like I've done enough to justify sitting down for awhile, and the word moribund seems like it might be simple enough to explore without a lot of delving. It's come up a few times lately, I think mainly via writer Adrian McKinty, who has recently bemoaned the moribund nature of both American literature and Australian television.

It's a good word, and I think I know generally what it means, though not precisely. I think it means dead, stagnant, without vitality, caught in the doldrums--something like that. I'm guessing the "mor-"
at the beginning must have to do with mort, or death--the rest I'm not so sure. I think that when I hear it, I get a kind of 'bound in death' kind of sound going through my head.

Let's see.


Well, it's not so much dead as approaching death, or in danger of becoming obsolete. And yes, stagnant, or without force or vitality is a valid definition. It comes from the Latin moribundus, dying or at the point of death.

Pretty simple, right? Probably one of the most straightforward words I've looked into, actually. But that doesn't mean that it isn't tied up with a little mystery when you dig a bit deeper. It turns out that a common variant or really, misspelling/mispronunciation is 'moribound'. As an interesting comment on an Egghorn forum has it, there are very few words in English that keep that Latin -ibundus ending, so moribund lends itself fairly naturally to mutation. People hear 'moribund' and they think 'bound for death', as in headed for death or tied up for death. Hence, moribound. Nice.

The original commenter on that thread said that moribund was a "Latin adjectival gerundive form" which we would translate as dying". But a later commenter said, strictly speaking, it is isn't that at all. The second commenter says that -bundus is really a trick the Romans had for turning verbs into adjectives, and cited a few more examples of English words that had the -bund ending: cogitabund, errabund, ludibund. And one that has passed out of usage if the commenter is right (as if these last three haven't): lascivibund. He or she seemed to think it meant 'playing', but the Latin lascivibundus means about what you'd think--wanton or full of petulance. I actually am unable to find any other reference to it.

Finally, it was a little hard for me to believe that Jacques Brel's "Le Moribond" (yes, yet another spelling variant) is the same song that Rod McKuen translated into "Seasons in the Sun". Ah, the French...they  just have that certain je ne sais quoi, don't they?


The photograph which starts this out is of the Moribund Horseman in the Brāļu Kapi  or Brothers' Cemetary, in Riga. It was taken by someone named Exxu and was graciously uploaded on to Wikimedia Commons.