Sunday, June 29, 2014


Do  you ever use a word correctly but then discover that you're still slightly wrong about it? Frankly, it happens to me more than I care to admit. Actually, I don't mind admitting it, because that's what this blog thrives on, but really I don't have the hours in a day which it would require.

So I happened to use the word 'adumbration' down in the blog comments recently. I meant it as an intimation of things to come, and it does mean an intimation of things to come. I even knew, thinking about it, that it must come from Latin, as all those other -tion words do. But when I think of adumbration, I hear some heavy reverberations, like thunderclaps, though I suppose thunderclaps are really the opposite of adumbrations, whatever that would be. Echoes?

Anyway, dum-duh-dum-dum. Like that.

As English speakers, we hear the dumb in the word, too. It's hard not to. But dumb or dum or doom for that matter aren't really part of it. The word is really ad-umbration. From  adumbrare: ad--either an intensifier or "toward" and umbrare "to cast in shadow". In other words, foreshadowing.

Unfortunately for those struggling to improve their vocabulary, adumbration doesn't just mean one thing, it means a lot of things. It can be a brief sketch or an outline. It can be shading. It can mean to reveal only partially. It can be the outline of a figure, like the tracing of a silhouette. It can even mean to overshadow. Attach it to anything shadowy, in fact, and chances are you will be right.

I don't know what the movie is, but there is an adumbration here for sure.

Confessions of ignorance always lead to the revelation of more ignorance, of course. That's the way of things. Looking up things about adumbrations led me to the Wordnik website. Along the side are listed many quotations that include the word in question, but the first one genuinely surprised me. You, gentle reader, are not so gullible and maybe even I am not as gullible about these things as I think I am but here's the quote:

"Apparently from the very first episode of "Work of Art," clues to the identity of the eventual winner were baked into the show -- a kind of adumbration that is in fact seeded throughout all reality shows by their canny, all-knowing producers."
                                                             -Emma Allen

The Huffington Post explains it all for you HERE.

Sure, other reality shows, but not The Amazing Race, right? Say it ain't so, Phil.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Enlisted"--and promote something

This is a kind of funny use of this blog for promotional purposes, because I'm not promoting myself or even one of my friends. But I just got done watching the last episode of Fox network's "Enlisted", and I really feel so sad that it was cancelled before it really found its audience that I decided to join in the general clamor to keep it going. There seems to be a chance that someone like Hulu or Netflix will pick it up. I'm not apprised of what the details are, but as I'm not on Facebook or even Twitter, this is my best shot at giving my thumbs up to a very engaging show.

The concept of the series is that three brothers find themselves on a kind of rear guard army base. They come from a military tradition. The older brother is a war hero who has been sent back home after war wounds, the two younger brothers have their separate and opposite reactions to that. There are a lot of odd misfit troops who are also at the base, and they are led by a commander who has lost a leg in combat.

The brothers, who I believe are based in some loose sense on the real brothers of the writer, are quite engaging in a way that I think is a little different in television. They are all attractive, but their appeal is in the affectionate sibling rivalry between them rather than on mere good looks.

In some ways it's standard sitcom fare, I guess, although that's not really a pejorative in my book. A strong ensemble seems to be the best way to create a long running series these days, given half a chance. This one seems to have started out strong and just gotten better as the cast got to know and work with each other.

The reason I'm making an appeal for it here is that I really hate when good creative projects are killed before they have half a chance. But also because I think that this is a good glimpse into the life of a military base for those of us who aren't all that connected to the military in any other way. There is this nice mix of lighthearted comedy and the reality that we are (still) a nation at war. It's  not M.A.S.H., but you get the military shows reflective of the times you live in...

The latest plan to save the show comes from the creators. They want fans to try to get Taylor Swift to endorse the show in a last ditch effort. As I'm pretty sure Taylor reads this blog with a maniacal devotion, I thought I'd give it a go. I mean, she was on the cover of Carmel Magazine this month. And I was there...

after it came out...

Is there something you'd like to promote? Including your own work? My old blogging friend Brian O'Rourke used to host a "promote yourself'" day on his blog, which I thought was pretty cool. His rules were to promote anything you wanted, except him. My rules are, the same, except spammers will be deleted. I don't think most spammers will have read down this far, though...

P.S. You can currently watch some of the episodes of the Enlisted on Fox HERE

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I was watching one of the news shows recently, probably some news on Iraq, unfortunately, when this word popped to the surface of consciousness. I've since looked into it a little, which isn't my typical way of proceeding here, but I can remember that I thought, possibly influenced by finding it in a sentence about the Middle East, that it would have some exotic Near Eastern origin. Perhaps I was making some unconscious link to words like scimitar and dervish.

I also really had no idea what a skirmish was other than knowing it was a kind of fight. So let's get that out of the way first.

The caption reads: A skirmish near Creen Creek, Queensland

A skirmish is a minor battle. I don't know that it is defined more specifically than that. It is either minor or brief or unpremeditated. In a non-military sense, it can be any sort of clash, and is a  synonym for fracas. I was going to say that a skirmish would not be between just two people, but I find that none other than Shakespeare does me in on that score. In Much Ado About Nothing, he has Leonato say:

"There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her [Beatrice]; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them."

Of course, both Benedick and Beatrice each have a whole army of wit in their heads, so maybe this doesn't prove me entirely wrong.

Sam Waterston--still my favorite Benedick

So where does it come from?

Well, let's get to the word that influenced it first. This is the Middle English skirmysshen, which means "to brandish a weapon". It comes from the French, the Old French eskirmiss-, which is the stem of the word eskimir, "to fence". I think you get the idea. Touche!

But let's get back to the first meaning, because I found this fascinating. Originally, it comes from the Old French escaramouche, which means, well, skirmish, and is taken from the Italian scaramuccia and further back from some sort of hypothesized German root. But Online Etymology Dictionary, you had me at escaramouche. Scaramouche! Okay, maybe I've never read the 1921 novel, but I know my dad did. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it. Sometimes Wikipedia is often a bit dry, but this is pretty good:

A romantic adventure, Scaramouche tells the story of a young lawyer during the French Revolution. In the course of his adventures he becomes an actor portraying "Scaramouche" (a roguish buffoon character in the commedia dell'arte). He also becomes a revolutionary, politician, and fencing-master, confounding his enemies with his powerful orations and swordsmanship. He is forced by circumstances to change sides several times. The book also depicts his transformation from cynic to idealist.

The three-part novel opens with the memorable line: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." This line was to become Sabatini's epitaph, on his gravestone in Adelboden, Switzerland.

Okay, so the swashbuckling swordsman part of his persona makes sense. But in fact, his name doesn't come from that aspect of his many-sided personality. It comes from a set of stock characters of Italian
commedia dell'arte. He only becomes a swashbuckler later. Here's one way Scarramucia is traditionally represented:

But here is another:

photo from

 I know which version of Scarramucia I'd want to see appear under my window.

My dad knew Scaramouche through Sabatini. But generations of Brits  know of him in a different guise. Clearly a resilient individual, he leapt the English channel to find a new home in the puppet shows of Punch and Judy. Which is almost certainly where Freddy Mercury found him.

"Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?"

(At about three minutes in.)


Friday, June 20, 2014


Just about every week I get an email from a group called Downtown Santa Cruz, which lists some events they think I might want to know about. When I worked down there, I used to be more aware of what was going on downtown than I am now, but it turns out it's easy to be a bit out of touch when you're not in the midst of it, so I appreciate this. And in truth, downtown Santa Cruz is a pretty vibrant place these days. It's got not only the roller derby but the symphony, a First Friday art walk, a standup comedy night, and so on. For whatever reason, it seems to have been able to defy the trend of blight that has fallen on so many small downtowns, although it has its problems and controversies like any other.

a blanket sit-in protesting a new city ordinance last year

I started thinking about the word 'downtown' when I got the latest bulletin. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell us that we would be going downtown as a special treat, and I have to admit that I didn't entirely know what downtown was. For her, it meant not the downtown of Santa Monica, Venice or Buena Park where we successively lived in that era, but Downtown, meaning the business district of L.A. At that point, my grandfather and my aunt both worked in that area, and there were thriving department stores and fancy places to have lunch. Downtown L.A. lost its way for awhile after that, but these days, with the Disney concert center and other draws, it seems to be coming back.

But what is 'downtown' It has a nice bouncy sort of ring, of course, but why is the center of a town called a downtown?


Well, I've come across several explanations, all of which seem to think that they are authoritative. The old reliable Online Etymology Dictionary has it that it came into print in 1835:

"The notion is of suburbs built on heights around a city."

Now, while it's true that our downtown is down from a lot of other parts of oour town, it doesn't seem that would be true for a lot of other cities, such as L.A. on the one hand and San Francisco on the other. While you can understand that a lot of cities may have begun along rivers and at ports and grown around them, it isn't the case that the suburbs are all necessarily hillside retreats.

Wikipedia goes in for the idea that the first use of downtown was in New York City. Apparently the town started at the southern end of Manhattan and grew north from there. The up would refer to that sense of up you get when looking at maps, so New York has an uptown as well as a midtown. There is no reason why north should necessarily be 'up', but I succumb to the convention as much as the next  person, and used to be amused by friends saying things like "well, I'm going down to Sacramento" when the state capital was clearly north. My amusement was not really warranted.

In any case, we seem to have a convergence of ideas. Down as in lower than the hills, down as in down by the river port, which of course would be the lowest place in town, and down as in the southern end.

Downtown seems to be mainly a Northamerican term. Whether it has spread to parts elsewhere I don't know, but it seems that Europeans are more familiar with the idea of a city center, or more likely 'centre'.

No post about the word downtown would be complete without it's most famous artistic representation. But this of course only leads to more questions. Why is a Brit singing about downtown in the first place? And why, with the reintroduction of flower names for girls in recent years-I know a Dahlia, a Daphne and a Violet just off the top of my head--why isn't there a resurgence of Petulas? (Or at least Petulias.)

Friday, June 13, 2014


I happened to think about this word in a roundabout sort of way. I  was sitting up late watching one of those home shopping channels, which I intermittently get addicted to without ever having the slightest compulsion to buy anything. In this case, the host was describing a piece of jewelry as having a seersucker sort of surface, which is an interesting way to talk about the surface of something that is hard and flat, and perhaps got me thinking about the word.

I knew that seersucker was a fabric, and I also knew that I would recognize it when I saw a picture of it, though I couldn't have described it without a visual aid of some sort. One thing I did suspect was that seersucker would have an unconventional etymology--that it would not just be an Anglicization of a German word, for instance, but might very well come from parts farther East. A long time ago, I did a post on dungarees in which I was surprised to learn that Wild West word hails from India, and that other fabric names, such as calico also do. So I suspected something like this for "seersucker". For once, I was right.

It doesn't have to be blue and white, or even stripes, but that's traditional.

Seersucker has made not one but two transitions from its beginnings. It came into English in 1722 (Noah Meernaum of Steampunk Empire has it that it actually started out it's life as "Seasucker") from the Hindi sirsakar, which was in turn a mispronouncing of the Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, "milk and sugar", which is a way of describing the alternately smooth and pebbled stripes of the fabric. A Wikipedia article, though has it as kheer aur shakkar, which is rice pudding and sugar, but again with the same idea of smooth and bumpy.

The reason for seersucker is that the way it is woven leads to much of the cloth, which is cotton, not lying flat against the skin, which allows for more air circulation and hence coolness. No surprise, then, that it gained popularity in the American South, which had both cotton and humidity.

A little more surprising, though, is that it made the transition from being used for laborer's clothing to becoming a fashionable fabric for trendy college students. Wikipedia has Damon Runyon saying that his new habit of wearing seersucker was "causing much confusion among my friends. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue."

Atticus Finch wasn't really a laborer, though.

In my imitable way of being a day late and a dollar short, I have just discovered that  there is in fact something called Seersucker Thursday, in which members of the United States Senate are encouraged to dress in seersucker. Although it was instituted officially in 1996 at the request of Trent Lott, it was discontinued in 2012, because some members of the Senate found it too frivolous. But it was reinstated. Guess when?

Yesterday! Well, at least by missing the day, I can show you a good picture of the event.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Haspel

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Suffix that Got Away-- ish at Slate

Slate magazine seems to have a lot of interesting language pieces lately, and this recent piece on the neologism 'ish' is no exception. We've talked here in the past (and that's not the royal we, by the way, it's me and whoever happens to comment) on the way nouns tend to 'verb' in English, and I think there's been passing reference to a few other types of words that have morphed into other kinds of words over time. But according to Gretchen McCulloch, the instance of a suffix becoming a stand alone word is rather rare. For a long time, of course, -ish has been around to attach itself to just about anything. But now it seems to be able to stand up on its own two legs. Well, sort of. Because it's actually still a suffix. It's like the kid who's moved away from home but still has his rent paid by his parents. The lack of attachment is only on the surface.

Reworking the example McCulloch uses a little, here's an example:

Are you hungry?


Are you hungry?

It's a little close to "ick!" for my comfort, but you get the idea.

Apparently, 'ish' is a Britishism, which is why it maybe isn't so familiar out here in the wilds of California, but it has made its way Stateside. It's been in print this side of the pond since at least 2002. Of course it took a British quote to infect our otherwise pure vernacular--in this case from the editor of a London magazine.

Now I will get to the real reason I decided to write up a word that has already been written up quite well by McCulloch and other people. (Just learned of a very interesting blog through the article called Mr. Verb, for instance.) So here's my ulterior motive. It turns out that the second early example cited is found in Colin Bateman's Cycle of Violence. Here's the quote that McCulloch uses.

'Davie Morrow. Trust Davie Morrow.'
'You know him?'
'Ish. He's a regular across the road. Thick as shite, like, but as liable to give you a hidin' as look at you.'

Who's Colin Bateman? Why, one of those wonderful Irish, and in this case, Northern Irish crime fiction writers that I'm always trying to press on others.  If you haven't read any Northern Irish crime fiction, Divorcing Jack would be a very good place to start. In fact, I almost positive that Divorcing Jack was the very first piece of Irish crime fiction I ever read. I haven't read Cycle of Violence yet, but this is a good reminder to me too.

I'm not sure that anyone I know has ever used the word 'ish' in my presence. On the other hand, I'm not sure they haven't. It does sound familiar.

Well, ish.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


A friend and I were emailing back and forth last night about some interesting men we have known, and I happened to use the term " a one-off" as a way of describing each of them. She went on to use the phrase 'a bubble off plumb' in regard to one of them, and went on later to tell me that the phrase comes from a carpenter's level, which is used to determine if a board is lined up evenly. She wondered then where "one off" came from, so I decided to look into it.


The first surprise I had was that 'one-off' apparently isn't common American usage.I came across this in a  New York Times article by Ben Zimmer, which begins with one of his readers emailing him to complain that he (or she) keeps hearing the term "one-off" with great frequency. It seems obvious to the person that it is a bastardization of "one of", as in 'one of a kind' and she (or he) is increasingly irritated by it.

Mr. Zimmer has to let the reader down gently and report that just because it isn't a common term in American usage doesn't mean that the Brits don't use it.

I am American, not British, but I have never really thought 'one-off' sounded odd. It seemed obvious to me that it wasn't intended to be "of". After all, there is the phrase 'a knock off'', as in a cheap imitation. I don't think anyone would suspect that should really be 'knock of". Still, Americans are so bemused by this term that apparently they constantly are trying to correct it back to "one of". Here's a thread from the fabulous Egghorn Database, which takes 'one-off'" to be correct, but leads to some increasingly vituperative commentary.

"One-off" seems to come from the language of English manufacturing. It was probably used to describe how many items you were instructed to cast off a mold or make from a pattern. So the term would be twenty off, a hundred off, or whatever you wanted. It isn't a very old term, as the first printed instance of it is as recently as 1934. According to World Wide Words, here is that first usage:

“A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.” (The reference is to a casting mould formed in sand.)

It appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen.

As is the wonderful way with language, the concrete sense of foundry work soon led to more figurative usage. So a person can be a one-off (well, all people are, actually), an event can be a one-off, a request can be a one-off (a one time donation, for example). But as I was writing to my friend, I realized that there is a phrase that may sound more common to American ears, and thus make 'one-off' have more sense:

"When they came to Jack, they broke the mold."

(The drawings are from a marvelous early twentieth century booklet on Green Sand Molding, and you can see more of them HERE).

Sunday, June 1, 2014


When I said in my last post that I didn't know what succotash was, I meant specifically. I knew that it was food, for example. And I had a guess, anyway, that it had come from Native American culture. But, though I'm sure people do make succotash here, because California is a crazy quilt of cultures, it isn't really a California dish, even if Richard Sherman is from Compton. So I decided that I would find out just a little more about it.

Succotash, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, graces American written language in 1751. It comes to us from one of the Eastern Algonquian languages, and bears a resemblance to the Narragansett word misckquatash , which means "boiled whole kernels of corn", though other sources have it that misickquatash (slightly different spelling) means "ear of corn". We may never know precisely what the word meant to the people who first spoke it, because that branch of the language, like many others of the eastern tribes, is extinct. It is sad to think that the language of a whole people is remembered in only these English language traces. As a food, though, as early as 1793 it's recorded that New Englanders thought of succotash as referring to a boiled corn and green bean or lima bean dish.

A word it did not immediately occur to me might be related is "squash", which also comes from Narragansett. Not squash as in "to pound into the ground", but the food. The word was originally askutasquash, which broken down is askut--raw or uncooked, and asquash, which means eaten, the "-ash" at the end making it a plural. So according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "things that may be eaten raw". I don't usually think of eating squash raw, but you get the drift.

Because I always feel  bad about extinct anything, languages included, I decided to do a little research about the prospects of reviving this one. Although I didn't get so far as to find anything about the Eastern Algonquian languages, I did find something hopeful, so I thought I'd include it here. Remember the movie "The New World"? Well,  director Terrence Malick, with his usual thoroughness, wanted the native people of Virginia to be speaking their real language when the settlers of Jamestown encountered them in the film. He was set back a bit by the fact that the language had been extinct for about 200 years. Set back, but not halted. He ended up hiring a linguist named James Rudes to reconstruct the language. Originally hired to write two scenes, Rudes went on to write something like fifty. All the work he did is being turned over to the Virginian Algonquin tribes. It's an interesting story and you can find it HERE.

Probably didn't need a lot of Algonquian for this scene.

No blog post about succotash would be complete without a video on preparing succotash. I picked this nice southern woman because of her pleasant voice, but also to demonstrate that this food of the Eastern tribes went on to become a Southern cooking staple. I have to say that the recipes I immediately found were pretty low on fat and meat, but the Eastern Algonquins usually made it with bear grease...