Sunday, January 25, 2015

Language Matters with Bob Holman

I'm kind of on a roll here with the "fac-" words, but I'm going to interrupt my own direction to mention that I just watched a great show on languages on PBS which is narrated by Bob Holman as he travels the world to look at how different cultures try and sometimes succeed at saving their own endangered languages. There's so much food for thought here that I hope you'll check it out. You can find it HERE.

Friday, January 23, 2015


If you guessed that this word came up while looking into my last post on the word "factotum", you guessed right. I was looking at the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary for that word and it recommended taking a look at the word factitious for another use of that Latin prefix fac-- which has to do with, well, doing.

I can't say I use the word factitious myself but I occasionally run across it while reading and it's always a bit confusing. On the one hand, it sounds an awful lot like "fictitious", which leads me to think that it is kind of the opposite of that, as in fact and fiction. But usually context is enough to make me realize that there is something a little dubious about factitious, so that can't be right. And then it has an uncomfortable similarity to "facetious" as well, which also has a sense of not being entirely truthful, as in "But I jest."

Do you ever wonder how non-native speakers ever actually learn this language?

Factitious, although with more critical overtones today, really just means artificial as opposed to natural. These days, it looks like synonyms for it are mainly things like 'fake, bogus, sham', but even the Latin factitius, artificial, still goes back to the same facere that factotum hails from, which is simply 'do'. My revered art history professor Mary Holmes always defined art as "something made by human beings, as opposed to the natural" (She went on to say that the real question was, "But is it any good?"). So in that sense, all art is factitious, and most of everything else we keep around us as well.

I wonder when the idea of the made thing began to carry this tone of being inferior to the natural one. I would have thought the 60s, though it seems that the Romans might have started it. But surely if the natural is always better, we really shouldn't have bothered with civilization at all.

Am I being facetious? Well, maybe just a little...

Saturday, January 17, 2015


I was watching a selection of opera highlights the other night and hear an aria featuring Figaro from The Barber of Seville. The good thing about watching this stuff on television is that the subtitles are right there and you don't have to crane your neck to see them like you do with supertitles on a live stage, so you don't miss much. One of the translations was "I am the factotum of the city". I was thinking, hmm, factotum--that doesn't enlighten me much. So I noted it down and moved on.

A few days later, I was reading Adrian McKinty's Gun Street Girl and found some mention of a factotum there as well. I don't even remember what character was being referred to, but I knew it was about time to get down to it with the word.

I have heard it before, of course. But it's one of those Latin sounding words where I have the resentful feeling that it could have been said just as easily in plain English, so I always just gloss over it. But enough of that attitude! I've got a blog to write!

"Factotum" has always struck me as vaguely academic sounding--like adjunct professor. Maybe someone behind a lectern. You have a feeling that it has lasted there in the ivied halls the longest. But Figaro is a barber, not a don. So what are we really talking about here?


A factotum is one who does all kinds of things for another, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It is an English word starting somewhere around 1560, and comes from the Medieval Latin, which looks exactly the same and is a combination of fac, the imperative form of "do" (in other words, "do!" and totum, or all. It was used in combination with other words, dominum (or magister ) factotum, which meant the master of all things, or Johannes factotum, which translates rather easily into Jack-of-all-trades. It seems a little unclear as to the status of such people, as for some reason, people who can do a wide range of things for others often have a pretty lowly status. Our own terms gofer, personal assistant and handyman have some of this same ambiguous quality. On the one hand, we rely on them, on the other, we resent it. I shouldn't say we, as I would be much more likely to be in the factotum position than that of the one they work for, except for the fact that I really am fairly inept.

I didn't realize that Factotum was the title Charles Bukowski gave to his second novel. The description from Wikipedia has it as the story of Henry Chinaski, whom it terms Bukowski's unemployed, alcoholic alter ego. Rejected by the draft during World War II, he drifts from one menial job to another, trying to find something he can do which will allow him to write at the same time. Sounds interesting.

And if that weren't enough, I found another fascinating sounding book, a collection of essays by Marius Kociejowski called The Pebble Chance, because one example of the use of the word I came across is an essay title in that book called "A Factotum in the Book Trade" where he describes working for the London bookstore, Bartram Rota. Head on over to the Washington Post article by Michael Dirda on the book, where you can read a lot of fascinating things that Kociejowski came across in this position. I was already thinking that working as a bookseller as I did for many years was kind of a factotum position, but I must admit that nothing quite so incredible ever happened to me in that role as it did to Kociejowski.

Whether we think of a factotum as lowly or high, Figaro was clearly proud of the position. Don't believe me? Here--take a look. Oh yeah, and opera aficionados will already know that the aria is called "Largo al Factotum" or, 'Make way for the factotum', which I guess I should have known...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Slate on how the brain organizes language

Yes, I've got a lot of ignorance brewing up around these parts, but haven't had a lot of time or energy to deal with it. Meanwhile, though, I just read another fascinating piece on language acquisition at Slate. It all begins with a cow...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


If I wasn't too lazy to label my blog posts, I would probably have a little category called something like, "We Speak the Same Language, But...". Tannoy isn't an American word. I don't think I've even come across it in reading British novels or watching Eastenders. But it may be one of those things I just let my mind slide over, as is my wont. However in reading Alex Marswood's well-written if macabre mystery The Killer Next Door recently, I found the word used a couple of times quite casually without further elaboration, and must assume that that's because it's a common enough word in England, or at least London, where the novel is set.

I must admit that I rather skipped over the first reference, but when I came upon it a second time, I found myself stopping to sort it out:

"The rhythms of the London underground: shrill beeps, a brief flicker of the lights as they pass out of the station, something incomprehensible on the tannoy." (page 308).

Something about the way it was written made me think at first that the tannoy was the platform and that the character in question was referring to an object. But a second go made me realize that the tannoy was some kind of sound system or loudspeaker. If I'd paid more attention the first time, though, I would have known this already:

"...the tannoy playing a recorded announcement on the unmanned station platform"(page 90).

It turns out that Tannoy is actually a trademarked name, though it isn't capitalized in the novel, and in this sense is much like dumpster or crockpot in being used generically but still having a registered trademark which means that it really should still be capitalized. The Tannoy is a loudspeaker, but the sense has extended to mean many sorts of public address systems as well, as is the case in the novel.

Tannoy Ltd. is a Scotland based company that was started in London and is now owned by the Danes. Or a Danish group anyway. The word is an acronym of the words "tantalum alloy" which was the metal used in an electrolytic rectifier (don't worry, we're not going down that particular road today) and the reason Wikipedia gives for it becoming a household name is that it was the supplier of PA systems to the troops during World War II, and subsequently to British holiday camps, as well as providing amplifiers for home use.

Yes, that's none other than Cyril Ritchard, aka Captain Hook!

Tannoy is kind of an odd word for a public address system, considering that I don't have the impression that the metal itself is even used in the loudspeakers, though I could be wrong. On the other hand, "loudspeaker" is a kind of odd word too, when you start to listen to it. It seems a bit obvious and ponderous, but then I guess many English words do, once you break them down.

Friday, January 2, 2015


A good one to start the new year, no? Geronimo! Off we go!

Count yourself lucky I didn't go with the gif here.

I somehow ended the old year by watching a lot of Dr. Who episodes on the BBC channel. At one point, the Matt Smith incarnation of the doctor shouts "Geronimo!" as he hurls himself off into space to save the world in some way which I now forget. But I was struck by the word in this context, wondering exactly how the name of a famous Apache warrior became the rallying cry on a British sci-fi television show.

While the details may be a bit more lore than fact, it is pretty clear that the practice began with the early paratroopers at Fort Benning, Georgia. 1940 was the year that the army was experimenting with  mass paratroop drops for the first time, and the troops were pretty nervous about being the guinea pigs. According to the story, a private named Aubrey Eberhardt went out to see a western about the cavalry fighting Geronimo with his pals, and then afterwards, over beer, boasted that he thought the next day's ambitious jump would really be no different than any other. His friends taunted him, saying that he would be so scared he wouldn't remember his own name. He retorted that when he jumped the next day he would yell Geronimo! as loud as hell as he went out the door. According to the story, everyone was waiting and watching the next day, and Eberhardt made good on his promise. You can read a fuller account at The Straight Dope.

The one on the left is a likely candidate. The one on the right is just for fun.

Apparently, it might all have ended right there, because yelling as you stepped out of an airplane was a breach of military discipline. One officer, now unknown, is said to have prevailed in his belief that the shout actually signalled bravery, and so tradition was born. After the war the practice was forbidden.My dad's cousin, who was really more like a brother, was in the 82nd Airborne. I think he may have come in a little late for the war, but he didn't seem like the type to shout Geronimo! anyway.

My own quest doesn't end here, though. Because somehow I realized that Geronimo, famous though it is, isn't actually an Indian name. It turns out that Geronimo was just a name the Spanish gave him. His real name was Goyaałé, which in English is rendered Goyathlay or Goyahkla. It is usually translated as "One Who Yawns", though I feel that a little may be lost in translation here. Why the Spanish called him Geronimo is not known, although it seems a good guess to think that maybe they were changing a native name to make it sound more familiar.

I didn't know that Geronimo had told the story of his life in later years. He had been imprisoned for many years when he told it to Oklahoma Superintendent of Education S.M. Barrett with the help of an Apache translator, Asa Deklugie. Barrett reasoned that he should "extend to Geronimo as a prisoner of war the courtesy due any captive, i.e. the right to state the causes which impelled him in his opposition to our civilization and laws."You can read the whole thing HERE, or listen to it HERE.