Saturday, April 27, 2013


For the past few weeks, I've been fortunate enough to be staying in my friends' studio while my own place undergoes extensive renovation. My friends have an English bulldog, who I've known for many years, and one of the fun things about my stay here is that she likes to come and visit when I'm home. The studio used to be inhabited by my friends' son, so I'm sure it's kind of a reflected glory, but still, it's nice to have a parttime animal friend. The other day, though, when I wasn't quick enough to answer the door, she had already returned to my friends' house and was waiting to be let in there. When I called out to her, she turned and gave me what could only be described as a baleful look. It was exactly the word that came to mind, and no other would do as well. But what does it mean, exactly? I mean by it some kind of cross between recriminatory and disappointed, with a touch of bad mood thrown in. By chance, I found a picture of a baleful bulldog, which is not quite the same as an English Bulldog, but captures the mood:



Well, I'm glad I had that picture as a kind of verification that this is more or less what people think 'baleful' means, as the definition is a bit more severe. As The Free Dictionary has it, baleful means

1. Portending evil; ominous.
2. Harmful or malignant in intent or effect.
And over at
1. Miserable, wretched, distressed, suffering.
2. Malicious, injurious, noxious.
That's because baleful comes out of  the Old English  bealu-full, "dire, wicked or cruel" and bealu itself is even more extreme: "harm, injury, ruin, evil, mischief, wickedness, a noxious thing". The speculated ProtoIndoEuropean root is bheleu--to beat. This all seems a pretty long way from the reproachful glance of a bulldog.
But there has long been a bit of poetic license around the word. Even by the time the Anglo-Saxons got ahold of it, bealu was used in a poetic sense only, or so the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us. Couple of nice words there, though--bealubenn, a mortal wound, and bealuðonc, a mortal thought*. Although the range of use seems a bit limited if we can go by our examples... 
Baleful became extinct for a time, as you might understand why, but was revived. By who? Modern romantic poets, of course. I went looking for an example but only encountered a "pre-romantic" poet, one William Collins, who I hadn't heard of before.
But who is He whom later Garlands grace,
Who left a-while o'er Hybla's Dews to rove,
With trembling Eyes thy dreary Steps to trace,
Where Thou and Furies shar'd the baleful Grove?

                                   from "Ode to Fear"

Here's the poem in its entirety. 
And here's  a little bit about William Collins. Though he died relatively young, he did make it to almost forty, but Wikipedia tells us that this is the sole portrait.

*Edited because I misspoke the first time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I've been taking a very interesting (and free) class on Global Poverty through EdX lately. It's about to wrap up, but I'm  fairly certain they'll offer it again. This week's topic was "Entrepreneurs and Work". As is usual with this course, it tended to upend certain assumptions I had but this time it also seemed to upend some of the thoughts of the MIT students who are part of the video. When asked what they thought an entrepreneur was, they tended to think of someone with a new vision, who was willing to back it, even if, as in one example, they were working for Toyota, and they were simply (or not so simply) designing a new line. In America, the idea of the entrepreneur tends to be glamorous, but in poorer nations, most of the poor are entrepreneurs, and what they really want for their kids is not that they take up the family business, but that they find a good government job.

As Professor Abhijit Banerjee defined it for them (and for us), an entrepreneur is basically someone who bears a lot of the risk of production, and includes the idea that that risk is closely tied to the ownership of the asset. It doesn't matter how much the asset is worth. In the example of the course, it was a few bucketfuls of wet sand.

Woman Dairy Entrepreneur, India, by McKay Savage

So this is all well and good, but of course now I wonder what entrepreneur really means. Or where did the word come from originally? Pretty much got to be French, but beyond that, I don't know.

Well, I guess you can make it mean pretty much anything you want it to mean, at least judging by the Wikipedia article on it. Banerjee says it has to do with assets, however small, and risk. But Peter Drucker, business guru says that an entrepreneur must create something new or transmute ideas or values. Frankly, I like Banerjee's more comprehensive view better. It seems less snobby and business schoollike. But I bet that's where the MIT student got the idea. And who's to gainsay Peter Drucker?

When it came over to England in 1828, 'entrepreneur' was taken up to mean the not exactly exalted position of 'manager or promoter of a theatrical production'. The word had already tried to make the Channel passage once before, in the late 15th century, but like so many entrepreneurial ideas, it didn't take.

In the Old French, it simply meant "one who undertakes, or manages" and is related to the word "enterprise" through the Old French entreprendre, to undertake, or take in hand. And indeed, it took the meaning of "business manager" in English as early as 1852.

After all, there's no business like show business.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I don't usually do reposts, ignorance being a well I can draw from readily, but it's been a tough week here in the States for more than one reason, and the word "resilience" has been coming at me from many angles. I thought I might write about it, but then discovered that back in November of 2010, I already had. Boston and Newtown, know that we out here on the West Coast are thinking of you too.

I heard President Obama say in a recent interview that he was impressed by the resilience of the American people in a difficult time, and though at times he had taken his innings, he felt that if the American people could bounce back, the very least he could do was be resilient too.

As a matter of fact, in doing a little spot googling searching for that exact quote, which I failed to find, I see that resilience is a kind of leit motif in his thinking and speaking. He has called New Orleans a national symbol of resilience, and praised India for its resilience too.

Of course, like you, I do know what resilience means. It means the ability to bounce back, usually after adversity of some sort. What I don't know is where it originally comes from. The re-, of course, means "again" in some sense, but what is the 'silience' all about? I actually have no clue. It doesn't really connect to anything else I know. Well, unless you have a better idea, I guess it's time to take a look...

Well, well, well, if it isn't our old friend salire, "to jump, to leap", come back to haunt us.  (No, not Salieri, that's a different old friend.) Sure, we are thrown off the scent by the fact that our last encounter was a -sult ending (consult, insult, result, desultory) and this is a -sil connection, neither of which sound all that much like -sal.

Whatever. I suppose all that leaping around blurs the vowels a bit. But just to be clear--

That's Antonio Salieri, the musical rival of Mozart's, who probably got a bit of a bum rap from popular history when it came to his fellow musician's death. Let's hope that if he knew the rumors, he proved resilient in living them down.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Cloves, by David Monniaux
 One of those words that came up in two different contexts recently, making me wonder. Cloves-- what are they exactly? In a novel I'm currently reading, The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng,  which is set in Penang in the days before and during WWII, the narrator mentions the cloves being brought into port in boats, reminding  me of the value of spices as a commodity that we largely take for granted now. They must come from some place in India  or Southeast Asia, but what about their funny little thorn shapes? What's the larger plant look like? Is the word related to cloven, or for that matter, clover, or is it some Indian word transmuted to become pronouncable by the English speaking tongue? Are all cloves the same, or are there different varieties?

We shall see.


They aren't thorns, but buds. Dried flower buds. The tree they grow on is called Syzygium aromaticum. I was curious what that 'syzygium' came from, thinking it might be named after some famous Hungarian botanist, but no, it's just Greek--syn as in "with" and zygot meaning "yoke", as in yoked or joined, because the petals merge to form a kind of cap. Cloves come originally from the legendary Spice Islands, also known as the Maluku Islands, perhaps more familiar to us as the Moluccas. Anyway, a subgroup of the many islands that make up Indonesia.

The Dutch, as you doubtless already know, played a big roll in Indonesia, and in the case of spices, it wasn't one that casts them in their best light. They attempted a monopoly on cloves, much like their very successful ones around nutmeg and mace. Apparently, though, nutmeg only grew on one island, while cloves grew on many, so their export was a bit harder to control. Nevertheless, in Britain in  the 17th and 18th century, they were worth their weight in gold, or so says Wikipedia.
Map by Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638)
There is an intriguing story about one Monsieur Poivre smuggling some seedlings off the island, which ended up in France, the Seychelles, and ultimately in Pemba and Zanzibar, with Pemba being the current top producer. Zanzibar? Now why does that name sound familiar?
But that's not all there is to the story. Poivre is said to have gotten the seedlings from a tree named Afo, believed to be the oldest clove tree in the world, and now between  350 and 400 years old. Check out Simon Worrell's BBC story on his own quest to find Afo, the 'rogue clove'. Afo's survival is something of a mystery, as the Dutch moved to eradicate all clove trees not in their own possession. And that's not all--anyone found growing, possessing or stealing clove plants without authorization could be put to death.
And we thought marijuana laws were tough.
"Clove" is not Indonesian. It derives from the Latin clavus, or nail.  Because apparently where I see thorns, more people see nails. In fact, the  nail imagery is prevalent in many languages when it comes to cloves, as you can see here, on this really thorough article on cloves by Gernot Katzer. Worth checking out the rest of his spice library, too. Or at least check out his personal home page...


Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Sir Thomas More, wearing the fashionable livery collar, as painted by Holbein*
After my last post on lackeys, who turn out to have originally  been liveried, or uniformed servants, I of course started wondering whether the word 'deliver' has any connection to this livery word. It seems at this close juncture that it must, but when I hear words like 'deliverance', I think of more spiritual concepts, and that there must be another Latin root that denotes salvation of some kind.

Well...which is it?


According to my usual resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary, livery makes its original appearance in English in about 1300. At that time, it meant a "household allowance of any kind (food, provisions, clothing) to retainers or servants". It made it's way over by the typical Anglo-French means, coming from livere, out of the Old French livrée, which was an allowance, ration or pay, but originally seems to have meant clothes "delivered by a master to his retinue". Over time, the meaning contracted to simply mean servants' rations, and, interestingly, "provender for horses". Perhaps not so much distinction was made between servants and horses as there might be now...

Livery shrank still further till it only meant "distinctive clothing given to servants", and the horse part died out--except for in the term "livery yard" or "livery stable". Both of these places provide provender for horses, but have slightly different functions. In England, a livery yard or livery stable is a place where you board your horse. But in America a livery stable was actually a place where you hired horses and wagons and teams.

According to Wikipedia, the livery stable "was a necessary institution of every American town, but it has been generally ignored by historians." If that's so, I wonder why. They go on to tell us that not only were livery stables the source of many resources that arrived in town, like hay, grain and coal, but were also a lively, somewhat immoral or at least amoral venue, attracting such things as cockfighting and gambling--not to mention vermin. Like other kinds of questionable districts, there were a lot of efforts to control them. The advent of the automobile age effectively put an end to livery stables--though probably not the kinds of activities they drew into their spheres.

But cars didn't put an end to livery. In fact, automobiles are some of the many vehicles that, following the fashion of decorated carriages, sport livery these days. Planes, trains and automobiles, in fact. Well, jets.

Horizon Air's custom livery promoting four Oregon public colleges.

In fact, a lot of things that we think of more as logo design and branding are, in fact, livery.

As for the connection between livery and delivery, well, I'm still not sure I've gotten to the bottom of that. The root is the Latin liberare, which means "to free", and they both have something to do with handing something over. Like livery, delivery has become pretty diffuse in its meanings. As the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, for example, sometimes deliver means to hand over or yield, which puts it in opposition to its root.

Words are funny that way. 

*I should say that More's livery collar is actually the chain. It was a symbol of allegiance, though it's actually the emblem hanging from it that is the livery.