Monday, December 29, 2014


Last Monday, which seems a long time ago now, given Christmas and everything attendant on it, I was at the Penny University again, and Paul Lee, who co-leads the discussion there, happened to say in passing that he was fascinated by words that had lost their original coinage. As an example, he mentioned the word "gossip". He said that originally it had come for a word for godparent. Not that I didn't believe him, but I decided to look it up...

Yes, indeed. The word was godsibb in Old  English, and meant something like a sponsor or godparent, -sibb being related to our "sibling", as it expressed kinship or relationship and had to do with happiness, friendship, love and peace. Pretty great, in other words. Time went on, and by the time Middle English took it up (as gossib) mid-fourteenth century, the meaning had expanded to include any familiar acquaintance, especially, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, "women friends invited to attend a birth". Do you see where this is going?

"Baptism Window" in Memphis, Tennessee

By the 1560s, it meant anyone engaged in "familiar or idle talk". Although gossip started as a noun referring to a person, the verb "to gossip" eventually followed it in the 1620s. And by 1811, we have our current understanding of gossip as "trifling talk, groundless rumor".

Yep, that's women for you.

A friend of mine mentioned some while ago that she thought gossip was a social good not a social ill. It's been awhile since I talked with her about it, but I think the sense is that it's a kind of social lubricant, something that binds a community together. I wasn't so sure about it at the time, but put it another way. What is worse than being interested in everybody's business?  

Not being interested in everybody's business.

Gossiping women, apparently surrounded by devils. Little Melton, Norfolk

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Well, you know why the word's come up just now, I suppose. But actually, I think the reason it didn't just get buried in the standard Christmas greeting is that some friends gave me a Christmas card with their very photogenic kids on it and all it said was "Be Merry". Which I liked. But it did get me to wondering about the word itself. Even though it's not spelled the same way, is there some hint of Mary in the meaning?

No. There is not. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English word was myrge, meaning pleasant, agreeable or sweet. It comes from the proto-German *murgijaz, which seems to have something to do with the idea of being short-lasting, apparently in the sense of making the time fly.

In America, the word merry doesn't seem to be much in vogue anymore, with the exception of Christmastime. There is a sense of England lingering in it more than most somehow, perhaps because of being attached to things like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the Merry Wives of Windsor.

However, of course there is a word which has merry in it which is very familiar in the U.S. that doesn't bring up English associations.

Yep, merry-go-round. It turns out that Middle English was very expansive in its use of merry, using it to mean (again according to the Online Etymology Dictionary): "pleasant-sounding" (of animal voices), "fine" (of weather), "handsome" (of dress), "pleasant-tasting" (of herbs). It was also a time when it got joined to a lot of other words, merry-go-round being the main one that stuck. But there are others that are equally engaging: "merry-go-down" for strong ale, "merry-begot" for an illegitimate birth, "merry-go-sorry" for a mixture of joy and sorrow.

I couldn't get the idea out of my head, though, that Shakespeare had used merry a lot to begin a piece of dialogue. Well, I found a concordance and it turned out that he did use merry a lot, just not in that way. In pages of examples, I only found one that supported my sense of it--"Marry, amen." in Twelfth Night. And it's not clear if that's an example of what I was thinking of. So I was about to give up and accept that I was imagining things when I suddenly realized that maybe he hadn't spelled it that way. Checking the same concordance, it turns out that he uses marry in the way I mean frequently. "Marry, that's a bountiful answer that fits all questions." (Twelfth Night). "Marry, hang  you!" (All's Well That Ends Well). This marry means something like "I agree", or "indeed", or "well", and as I suspected, related to Mary. Originally it was a sort of euphemistic oath based on the corruption of her name. So I was right, but I had the wrong merry.

Marry, have a jolly old Christmas, will you?


And if the Nativity's not your thing,  you can still have a nice old merry-go-down anyway.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Of course it would seem to be obvious why I picked this word to look into, given that I've illustrated it with the poster of the movie that has gained notoriety over the past few days. But life is a little weirder than that. And I am a little denser. I was actually beginning to write this post while I had the news on, and then, thinking it was going to maybe turn out to be a little thin, I googled the word "interview" just to see what would come up first. And only then did I realize that the news I had been watching about Sony pulling a movie that North Korea vehemently objected to--to put it mildly--had to do with a movie called "The Interview". Somehow the title hadn't registered till then.

The real reason I became interested in this word is that I was down in L.A. this past weekend, where my sister Julie was one of a few MFA candidates who gave readings from their work at Venice's Electric Lodge theatre. (She rocked it, of course.) While I was down there, I also went and heard a few other readings and presentations given by others at Antioch University, which were also interesting. One woman happened to give a short talk on The Art of the Interview. I like interviews, especially, for some reason, printed versions, like the Paris Review interviews, or the ones they do in Tin House. But I had never really thought about the word until this woman led us to consider it a little more closely. I won't plagiarize her material here, but I think the etymology is fair game.

The Electric Lodge

We all know what an interview is, right? One person asks another person questions. But the word originally comes from the Middle French entrevue, which according to the Online Etymology Dictionary is verbal noun coming out of s'entrevoir--"to see each other, visit each other briefly, have a glimpse of", the components being the French entre--between, and the Old French voir, to see. Intriguing, non? I think the French word recognizes how little is actually knowable of another person better than the English does. And the French had to borrow the word "interview" back when they needed the more brash sense of the English. Originally the English meant simply a face-to-face meeting or formal conference. That was in 1510. Journalists didn't get into the picture until somewhere around 1869, and this is first attested in American print. Somehow, this figures.
Again without going into the details of our lecturer's talk, we were led to think a lot about what is going on in an interview, which is basically a lot about power and control. A cat and mouse game. Who's holding the reins--the asker or the teller? If we submit to an interview, how much do we really want to reveal? And to what end?

Congratulations, Julie, and to all your Santa Ana cohort.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Yeah, I got a little sumpin' sumpin' for you. I started thinking about this word after reading Delores Hitchens Sleep with Strangers and then watching the Netflix streaming Welsh program Hinterland. Sumps turn out to be interesting places for mystery and crime stories. The sump in Delores Hitchens is an oil sump on Signal Hill in the middle of Long Beach, California. The sump in the episode of Hinterland that mentioned it was a watery one. Both had some secrets to reveal.

Obviously sumps are some kind of pits. But where does the word come from and what else can we learn about them?


Well, first of all a sump can be a lot of other things than the ones I've mentioned. If you are looking up sump images, most of them will be metal or plastic as these days, we may first associate a sump with cars. In this case it's the oil reservoir in the internal combustion engine of a car. Sumps come in handy in mines, where water is accumulated at the bottom of a mine shaft. It can be a pond of water reserved for salt works. It can be just a pool or pond of dirty water. In fact, although I hadn't connected it before, we also have the sump pump, which removes unwanted water from basements. A sump, as far as I can tell, is a repository of unwanted or semi-unwanted things.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that sump first came on the scene in the mid fifteenth century to mean a swamp or morass. It comes from the middle Dutch somp or the Middle Low German sump and goes back to the hypothesized ProtoIndoeuropean for "spongy". Our present meaning of "a pit to collect water" is from the 1650s. And that sump pump, first mentioned in 1884, was originally used in mines, not family basements.

The great slightly creepy photo is by Alfred T. Palmer. It was taken in 1927 and is entitled "OIL SUMP AT DRILLING RIG, SIGNAL HILL, LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA". You can view a few more of his evocative images HERE.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Washington Post's fun quiz on Pantone's color of the year.

Name this color:

Why is this important? Well, you want to be fashion forward, don't you? And how are you going to do that if you don't know the color that Pantone has decided will be 2015's color of the year?

Pantone Inc. is a corporation out of New Jersey which has a famous color standardization system called the Pantone Matching System. Apparently, every year they try to figure out what the next 'color of the year' will be. Wonkblog at the Washington Post has a quiz up to see if you can figure out past colors of the year based on how much they lived up to the hype. Online quizzes are the most fun if they ridicule mercilessly for being  wrong, and this is a very good quiz. I can testify to that.

Oh, you will have to hit the link to the quiz to find out the name of the color for 2015. The only hint I can give you is that it has a "full-bodiness like the cooking wine" without being overpowering.

Or, I imagine, inebriating.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


For some reason, this word came up on an episode of New Tricks, the British mystery series about old codgers solving old cases. I associate the word with the upper American Midwest, so this was somewhat surprising. I also associate it with the children's book Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandberg, which I either never read or was so unimpressed with that it has left no record upon my consciousness. It's quite possible that I would like it a lot more now, as the nostalgia factor of its content would mean more. Maybe.

I know that most people who happen upon this blog will already know what a rutabaga is, but it isn't something that seems to have made its way into the California cuisine that I grew up with with any frequency. Or at all, really.

I do know it is some kind of root vegetable, but how people use it is pretty much a mystery to me. Time to find out more.


Well, as pretty much every website I looked at seems to agree, the rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. Some  say that this cross was done intentionally by a Swiss botanist named Gaspard (Caspar) Bauhin, while others think he was merely the one to describe it. Wikipedia doesn't connect him to the rutabaga, but it does say that his principal contribution to science was in his description of genera and species.

I also learned in passing of the mysterious sounding "triangle of U". It turns out that this is simply a theory about how three ancient plants from the brassica (cabbage) family evolved and combined to make some common modern vegetable and seed plants. It was named after the guy who thought of it, a Korean-Japanese botanist named Woo Jang-choon, whose name translated into Japanese through its characters became U Nagaharu. Here's a picture of the triangle:

But essentially it's all about the relation and ancestry of things like turnips, cabbage, mustard and yes, rutabaga.

Rutabaga, it turns out, is a lot like a turnip, except its flesh is yellow,  not white, and it isn't quite as moist.It is popular in the northern climes of the U.S., but in fact a lot of it is grown in California. Its name comes from a Swedish dialect, rot meaning root and bagge meaning bag. However, as with much else about this plant, there are other versions. Wikipedia, for instance, tells us that the etymology from Swedish actually means 'ram's root', possibly because it is used commonly as livestock feed. It goes by a lot of names, but we'll just stick to the English language versions. Americans and Canadians may be familiar with rutabaga, but many English speaking people just call them swedes. The Scots have their own name for them, calling them neeps or tumshies, and the southeastern part of the region calls them bagies. They even use them in their traditional Burns Supper, in celebration of the life of the poet Robert Burns, where they play their part in the menu of haggis, tatties and neeps.

Popular in the cuisine of several cultures, rutabaga under any name is apparently not held in high esteem in France or Germany, and is thought of as more or less fodder for animals. Several sources say that this is because it was the only food available to people enduring great privation during the First and Second World Wars and bears unpleasant associations for many. However those wars are a long time ago now, and maybe it's time for this very versatile root to make a comeback.

The illustration that begins this piece is from the original frontispiece to the 1922 first edition of Rootabaga Tales. The artists are Maud and Miska Petersham. Project Gutenberg has a copy of the book free to peruse online. I think that whether or not you like Sandberg's tales is largely a matter of taste, or so I gather from the mixed reviews of the book on GoodReads, but in any case, you should take a moment to skim it for the wonderful illustrations.

Here's a link to info about the rutabaga drawing which comes from France in 1883. The humble root bag was not so despised back then, I think.