Friday, September 26, 2014


Sindhi Ghazal by Habib Sajid
Believe it or not, I was planning on writing about this word at some point. Admittedly, it has been on the back burner for awhile now, and so might not ever have happened. The occasion for my own interest was a conversation I had a few months back with local poet Len Anderson who publishes Hummingbird Press and helps head up the local poetry scene at Poetry Santa Cruz.

Anyway, it turned out that he has achieved some recognition working in the poetic form of the ghazal. I sort of understood what the form was from his description, but decided to go home and look it up, which I did, but that was about as far as I got with it.

Enter another local figure, Gary Patton, formerly a County Supervisor and now an environmental lawyer. His blog Two Worlds, which treats of the two worlds we simultaneously live in, that of nature and that which we human beings construct, can be found in the side panel here. So what should happen the other evening but that he turns out a blog post not only talking about the ghazal but containing a rather wonderful ghazal by Ken Weisner. Well, perhaps wonderful is the wrong word for a poem that with every other line returns us to Dick Cheney, but you get my drift.

I am going to give you a link to Patton's post HERE and to Ariadne's Web which has Len Anderson's description as well as a ghazal he wrote himself. If you can't be bothered to click on the links (why?) then I'll just say that the form of a ghazal is a series of couplets, the second line of which always ends with the same thing.  I.e., Dick Cheney. There's a bit more to it than that, but that's enough to be getting on with, I think.

In Arabic, the language the form originated in, ghazal  means "talking to women". According to a book called Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal by K.C. Kanda, the ghazal's central concern is love even though it covers a wide range of human experience. You might say that Ken Weisner is stretching that range a tad when it comes to Cheney, but maybe that's just me. The other etymology Kanda finds for the word: "The painful wail of a wounded deer."

Hmm. I think I'd probably better just leave it at that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


No, not that kind. I'm talking about fawn as in fawning, being obsequious, or as Peter Rozovsky said in the comment field here recently, being a lickspittle--a great word for which I praise whoever first came up with it. But that is not our quest today.

Fawning is also a good word, but when you try and reach back in time for the sense of it, well, it's difficult to come up with the connection. Fawns may have some negative traits...oh, who am I kidding--fawns have no negative traits, none whatsoever, unless it's that they grow up to become deers that eat a lot of your favorite plants. Remember The Yearling? No, try not to. It's sad.

Anyway, fawns may be timid or shy, but they aren't exactly known for kissing up to people. So where does this word come from?


It turns out that there are two kinds of fawns. The little furry hoofed kind, which comes from the Old French faon or feon, meaning "young animal". It goes all the way back to the Latin fetus which I probably don't have to translate for you. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that originally fawn meant any young animal, and was "Still used of the young of any animal in King James I's private translation of the Psalms." but mostly just referred to young deer from around the fifteenth century.

The other kind of fawn, as in fawning, has nothing to do with all that. It goes back to fægnian, which is an Old English word meaning "to be glad, to rejoice, exult." It's connected to that old-fashioned sounding word fain, as Gonzago uses it in The Tempest, when he says, "I would fain die a dry death.", fain here meaning gladly. None of this sounds much like fawning, though, does it? Well, the Online Etymology dictionary tells us that in Middle English, fawn was used to refer to expressions of delight, such as a dog's tail wagging. Somehow this perfectly lovely thing that dogs do changes from a good thing in the early 13th century to a bad thing in the early fourteenth, when it starts to take on its present meaning of groveling or acting slavishly. In other words it amounts to a smear job on dogs. And actually, fawns. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

roiling toilets--another public service announcement from Confessions of Ignorance

Take a look at this short video (not mine, by the way). Has this ever been in the realm of your experience?

Me neither--until it suddenly started happening in the spring. Suddenly, a word frowned upon in writing by some, was quite appropriate here, because it would just happen out of the blue. No other water was running in the old abode, and in fact sometimes it happened in the middle of the night. My landlady suggested Liquid Plumber so I tried that and it seemed to stop for awhile, so I forgot about it.

In the last couple of weeks, though, it started up again and got steadily worse. Toilet decloggers were no longer effective in stopping the rub-a-dub action, and in fact flushing wasn't happening so much as slow draining. I finally managed to describe the situation accurately to the internet and I found the answer. If you've dealt with plumbing you probably know that it has nothing to do with clogged drainage pipes, gaslines from the street, or anything else others suggested to me during the time of crisis.

It has to do with air vents.

Turns out your plumbing needs some way to vent not just water, but gases. And unfortunately since these are exposed to your external surroundings, sometimes they got blocked. Ice or snow in regions less temperate than mine, but very often the answer seems to be pine needles.

My landlady did get the handyman to come out because I certainly had no clue where the air vent was. Usually they are on the roof, but mine was running up the side of the wall under the eave. There is a pine tree above, but it seemed like the cap just got clogged with spider webs and other things. He took the cap off and put a makeshift screen over it instead, and presto, chango!-- all is well.

I'm going to include this simple and informative video on how to flush it out if your vent is on the roof. Partly, yes, as a public service, but also because, as seems to be the way with internet how-to videos, you will find an amusing and unexpected side story going on if you watch it through.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Your Fingerprint Word?

There's an interesting post by Matthew J. X. Malady up on Slate right now about "fingerprint words"--words that others identify as "your" words. For Malady it is "iteration"--and yes, he knows it's not necessarily something to be proud of. What was interesting to me in the article, because of my ongoing interest in word drift, is how one's signature word tends to spread around one's group, and how we feel about that when it happens. To copy people's usage is a compliment, but to feel copied too much can feel like theft apparently.

I, perhaps not surprisingly to readers of this blog, am a bit resistant to new usage spreading around me. I noticed a long time ago that in my former workplace, I would not switch to the more casual and usually shorter form of a person's name that I had originally learned as a longer one till it had become quite common usage--Jen for Jennifer, for instance, or Mike for Michael. If they were just introduced to me as Jen or Mike in the first place, then of course I went with that. But I didn't move from more formality to less formality very quickly. And as for true nicknames, which one of my colleagues was quite gifted at coining, I don't think I ever adopted them at all.

In the same way, when everyone suddenly started using the word "referenced", as in "I referenced that", I very deliberately did not do the same. In a workplace, there's quite a high rate of "infection" of that kind. And I do sometimes catch the bug of something, but I usually notice after the word has popped out of my mouth and I feel embarrassed. It's a little bit like being taken over by something that is not your own thought process. One that springs to mind is that there was someone in my sphere that used to say "Excellent" a lot. Or maybe not a lot, but the things he was referring to did not always deserve that response. Still, it's slipped out of my mouth a few times since then.

As for my fingerprint words? Well, actually--no, those are my fingerprint words. "Well" and "actually". I use them too much and unnecessarily. I don't believe I have any really fancy-schmancy ones, or really idiosyncratic ones. But perhaps some readers here can tell me if I'm wrong. Or maybe they'd like to identify their own.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


For some reason or another, I was thinking about looking into this word awhile ago. Way leads on to way,  however, and I somehow got off that particular quest. Today, though, I happened to notice Rob Kitchen's short review of Christopher Steiner's Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World over at The View From the Blue House and thought to myself, okay, just give it up. You (meaning me) don't really know what algorithms are. I mean, the word is familiar enough from high school math, but that was a long time ago, folks. I suppose it's possible that they were defined for us back in that hazy past, but I think it's more likely that we just had to do them. Use them. Whatever.

Today, though, I vow to go further.


An algorithm is not, as I suspected, an extremely complicated higher math formula, but just the name for an overall type of mathematical or computational procedure. It's a step by step guide for solving a particular problem. Even a recipe can be considered an algorithm if it outlines certain steps and procedures and the order in which you do them. Here is  a webpage example of how you would turn a standard recipe into a "pseudocode". (And yes, do go there, because it will teach you how to make an easy pizza brownie, even if you don't want to learn algorithms.)

So why the fancy word? Well, it all goes back to one Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer, living between 780 and 850 AD, whose work when later translated introduced both Hindu/Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics. The treatise on numbers came into Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum, which just means "al-Khwarizmi on the numbers of the Indians", Algoritmi being the Latinization of his name.

a page of al-Khwarizmi's algebra

Algoritmi in Medieval Latin became algorismus (the normally nonjudgmental Online Etymology Dictionary calls this "a mangled transliteration"), and led to the Old French algorisme, which meant the Arabic numeral system. French turned this into algorithme, under the mistaken idea (again the OED) that it had something to do with the Greek word for number, arithmos. Middle English had algorism from Old French, but it too simply meant decimal number system. It wasn't until the 19th century that our current English word took on its current English meaning.

And though I didn't write this up today intentionally, as I certainly wouldn't have thought 'algorithm' derived from a Persian place name (al-Kharizmi just means "from Khwarezm", an oasis in Central Asia), it is perhaps a good day to remember that not everything that has come to us out of the Middle East has meant trouble for the West, and some of it has actually brought us great good.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

High falutin'

I used the term high falutin' the other day, and of course that led me to think about where it comes from. I think of high falutin' as being fancy, perhaps overly so, or giving oneself airs that one shouldn't. But what, I wondered, is falutin'?


It turns out that this is one of those slang terms that sprang up somehow without anyone really bothering to record it. It was first recorded in usage in 1839. People do like to guess about it, though. Witness Merriam-Webster online:

"perhaps from 2high + alteration of fluting, present participle of flute"

Or perhaps not.

If you head over to Word Detective, you will find the author acknowledging that no one knows but that there are two possible sources, either possibly true. He (or she) mentions the flute possibility but then says that others suggest high flying or high flown. It's worth continuing on into the comments thread there, as it illustrates with some humor that where meanings aren't known, they will be invented. You will find there the mention of the fluting on Mississippi steamboats, the way pretentious flautists hold up their arms, fluting on blouses, armor and much, much more.

"Zbroja 1514" by Unknown - Own work User:Mathiasrex Maciej Szczepańczyk

But after scrolling through such comments, we need a bit of etymologist Anatoly Liberman to bring us back to earth. Hence I direct you to his article "Low-Key Thoughts on Highfalutin'". It's worth reading for the way he untangles things and reasons them out. He holds back his "one feeble idea" till the end and I won't ruin it for him. But I'll give you a hint.

Think Yiddish.

Monday, September 1, 2014


No, that wasn't drunk typing. Apparently I'm just really into the acronyms these days. Here's what it stands for:

General opinion, Specific opinion, Size, Shape, Age, Color, Provenance, Material. (As a learning device, it's not exactly the best with three Esses in a row, is it?)

OK--now go read this Slate article by Katy Waldman to find out what it's all about...