Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Waaay…”

I receive many requests that sound something like this: “Why don’t you do a column on…what do you call it? ... the kind of word that sounds like what it is… like ‘boom’ or ‘hiss’ or ‘tinkle.” Few of us dare try to spell it or say it, (it has eight vowels!) so it’s difficult to remember. (Dictionary entries usually call it “imitative.”) But most of us seem to sense a language arc connecting us to our primitive past when we get onto the subject of onomatopoeia.

This jolly holiday month seems like a good time to write on the subject… “Fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la!”

Onomatopoeia comes from two Greek words meaning “name” and “I make.” We all hear kids, before they can speak, imitating sounds like “bow-wow” and “choo-choo.” Parents often use these sound-words in teaching children, who may continue using them long after they learn dog and train. Indeed, what honest-with-himself adult doesn’t love to join with a group in singing “Old Mac Donald?”

It’s no wonder that an early leading theory of the origin of language, formulated by Charles Darwin, has our ancestral grunts imitating the sounds they heard in nature aided by gestures. When they gleefully reproduced those sounds with their lips, larynx, tongues, and breath, they began to experiment, perhaps commanding the cave-cat, “Meow…hie!” (“come here, cat”!) (It still doesn’t work!) And on and on it evolved over the millennia…the human mind embracing new concepts while searching to express itself. To reverse the philosopher’s adage, “The limits of our world are the limits of our language.”

All this much time later, we’re still imitating as we create new language to meet our word needs. All new words derive from older ones in one way or another. Marketing focus groups research sounds we associate with positive feelings. It is no coincidence that Xanax makes you feel “relaxed.” And when detectives needed a new word for “to follow closely behind a suspect,” they didn’t have to look farther than the “tail” of the dog to get an idea, and ‘voila!’ we had a new verb. People who are easily duped were tagged ‘gullible’ by a clever wordsmith connecting the “dupee” with the sneaky and deceptive characteristics of the seagull, for the gain of a new adjective.

But there is relatively little onomatopoeia among the slew of new words we see every year. The daily comics were, in the 1950’s, a great new source, among them a favorite, “boing…the sound of a coiled spring being released.” Lewis Carroll’s “galumph… (1871) to move in a clumsy, ponderous or noisy manner” is another.

Poets and songwriters delight us with their artful use of word sounds that, together, create a mood or feeling. These are sometimes referred to as onomatopoeic poems. Edgar Alan Poe was a master of the form. In his poem, “The Bells,” written within earshot of Fordham University’s church tower bells in the Bronx, he coined the word tintinnabulation…a ringing or tinkling sound. Using the word “bells” repeatedly and their various sounds, he celebrates the course of his love’s life from their joyful courtship on a sleigh ride (“tinkle, tinkle, tinkle”) to his mourning her death (“tolling, tolling, tolling.”)

In this holiday season, if you are awakened by “such a clatter that you spring from your bed to see what’s the matter” you may hear a familiar onomatopoeic-style stanza from “’Twas the Night before Christmas”: Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!/ On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!/ To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!/ Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
The lines, with their reindeer names, verbs, and punctuation, work together to create a sense of excitement, movement, and clatter. (And you can see how that upstart, Rudolph, sooo never fit in!)

Enjoy the myriad sounds of this holiday season. Notice the mood they create…(Ho-ho-ho!) and see if you can identify a fresh onomatopoeia among them. The current list from achoo to zoom should welcome a newcomer.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How “Honour” Was Lost & “Ain’t” Gained Ground …in the Dictionary Wars

I felt a shiver, a frisson of fellowship, when I read this revelation from Emily Dickinson’s biographer, “The dictionary was no mere reference book to her; she read it, like a priest his breviary --- over and over, page by page, with utter absorption.”

How could she not have been smitten by a book so full of itself?!

She owned Noah Webster’s first “American Dictionary of the English Language” which he had completed in 1828 at the age of 70. Expanded in 1841, it contained 85,000 words. “Honour” was not one of them!

Fifty years after the Revolutionary War, as Americans were still struggling to define their own national identity, Webster booted the English spellings of words like “honour,” “programme,” and “centre,” embraced terms from the Arts & Sciences (gasp!) rather than just literary references, and advocated our use of “a federal language.” Infuriated cultural conservatives criticized him for being too inclusive, said his book “bordered on vulgar.”

Were he alive today, he might say his dictionary is “as American as apple pie.” Indeed, “Webster’s Third” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of The English Language, Unabridged),
published in 1961, was so inclusive and descriptive of common usage that it even allowed the long-disdained “ain’t” … “though disapproved by many, and more common in less educated speech, (it is) used orally in most parts of the US by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase, “ain’t I.” Sounds fair enough, eh?

But there has never been a lull in the Dictionary Wars. The publishers of American Heritage magazine, after failing to buy out Webster’s to halt its sales, geared up and came out with their first dictionary in 1969. It favored the prescriptive tradition, guarding what, to their team of lexicographers, is “proper” English.

What would Emily Dickinson say? A line of her own might provide a clue, “A word is dead when it is said, some say/ I say it just begins to live that day.”

I am lucky enough to witness words begin to live in the minds of hundreds of children every year at this time. “Crazy About Words” is a local sponsor of “The Dictionary Project”* here on Eastern Long Island. Volunteers personalize and present over 300 copies of “A Student’s Dictionary” to Third Graders at eight local schools. I give a short introductory lesson in how to use their dictionary, by first asking the teachers to help the kids adopt a pet letter in advance of our school visit.

After volunteers call them up one-by-one to receive their very own first dictionary, I ask the children to turn to the page where words with their “pet letter” begin, and suggest that by the end of the school year they might be experts on words beginning with that letter. Then I ask them each to find a 5-letter word they don’t know. On one recent visit, a “C” boy, beaming with the light of discovery, identified cache. The boy spelled the word, heard the correct pronunciation (not catchy!), and read the definition. Many of the kids, now bristling with recognition of the idea, had anecdotes about caches they’ve known.

I like to think they will have an abiding affection for the words they discover on this day.

The inspirational cover of their new dictionary bears a photo of Planet Earth from space and a quote from the Viennese Philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of your language are the limits of your world.” We close our lesson with a discussion of its meaning.
The Dictionary Project’s slogan, “A Dictionary is a Necessity” rings true for me constantly. I look at one of my several grownup’s dictionaries and I ask myself, “Where else but in a Dictionary could I find the words, “brumal,” “kyphosis,” and “okapi” between two covers?” … three words I discovered in my reading this past month and was delighted to squirrel away in my cache of ken.

And only with an adult’s understanding of the multiple definitions of so many words could I know that “a Caesarean Section” might also be “a neighborhood in Rome” (from my cache of puns!)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Summer Catch

Mentally searching for an image that would serve to capture the feeling of this past fine Summer for me, I recalled spending afternoons at the beach on Long Island Sound watching fishermen net bait fish. It’s an activity that has endured without change for thousands of years. That image from this Summer could be used to illustrate a Bible story.

It also serves as a metaphor for how I gathered words here and there…

On vacation in Stonington, Maine, I attended a benefit concert of folk and fiddle songs by Archipelago, a group of four very talented musician/singers. Geoff Warner rendered a wonderful song he wrote, “Pronoia.” The word virtually jumped into my net! Geoff told me it was originally defined in the 70’s as “a state of mind” by John Perry Barlow, a longtime songwriter for Grateful Dead. Recently it was used by well-known horoscope columnist, Rob Brezsny, as his book title, “Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: How All of Creation is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.” I hope the song, the book, and the concept go viral. Our world needs more pronoia and less paranoia. Let’s spread the word! …“Pronoia” is not yet used by enough of us to make it into the dictionaries.

An enthusiastic participant in my “Poetry Appreciation” group presented “Travel” … “I should like to rise and go/Where the golden apples grow;” … from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection, “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” I was carried back to my own youthful dreams of exotic experiences by the line, “swinging in a palanquin;” (pronounced pal-an-keen). This Javanese to Portuguese to English word is an East Asian covered litter, carried on poles on the shoulders of two or four bearers. By the time I was borne on one in Dacca, East Pakistan, (now Bangladesh) in the 60’s, I found it bumpier than a Checker on a Manhattan Street, and so labor intensive, I felt very uneasy. That’s how dreams sometimes go!

David Foster Wallace, in a 1997 review of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” described the author as suffering from “ontological despair”… a feeling that there’s no worthwhile reason for being (based on ‘ontology’…the branch of philosophy that deals with being). The phrase was used to describe Wallace himself after he committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. I’ve long wondered if there might be a single word which could stand-in for that phrase, and this summer came across one that comes close in a 1923 Dictionary list of German words which have come into English: weltschmerz…world weariness.

“A Nation of Scofflaws” is the title of Part 2 of Ken Burns’ excellent mini-series “Prohibition.” Scofflaw… simply scoff+ law… has a nice quirky etymology…seems there was a contest in Boston in 1923 to come up with a word to define “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.” Two of the 25,000 entries tied to win with the word we now apply to a person who willfully disregards any law. Example/confession: When I was taking courses at Baruch College in Manhattan in the 60’s and always late for class, I had a favorite tiny illegal parking space on Lexington Ave. The floor of my VW “Bug” was littered with dozens of unpaid parking tickets. I wonder if Ken would be interested in serializing “He Was A Hippie-Scofflaw.”

Much as I respect and love to taste artisanal cheeses, I was not aware of “the evangelical zeal….among hard-core fanatics of fromage.” As Brian Ralph, the “cave manager” at Murray’s in Manhattan explained in the NYT (10/5/11) affinage (a French word new to English) is the careful practice of ripening cheese. The affineur prevents many of the problems that can occur if the temperature and humidity are not just right and the cheese does not develop the proper mold. Needless to say, there are skeptics who feel it’s no more than a marketing gimmick, and parents who worry that their kids might aspire to be cave managers!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making Sense of Jabberwocky

I was minding my Ps and Qs recently, when I ventured upon “portmanteau words,” that wonderful lexical key which opened the door to the creation of hundreds of new words since 1871, courtesy of Lewis Carroll. Each is a blend of two or more words, their sounds and meanings combined.

In his Through the Looking-Glass, he has Humpty Dumpty explain the concept to Alice, “You see, it’s like a portmanteau…there are two meanings packed up into one word.” (Portmanteau is a French word, (carry+cloak) carried over to English, and currently called a “suitcase,” which is designed in two halves, but combines into one.)

Carroll’s genius gave us “slithy” (pronounced “sly-thee,” he insisted) from “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” from “miserable and flimsy” and my favorite, “frumious,” describing the “fuming and furious” Bandersnatch in the nonsense poem, Jabberwocky.

Victorians were besotted with Alice, as we are today with Harry Potter. Well-read, language-proud Englishmen made creating them fashionable, and “portmanteau words” proliferated.

Most were “nonce words,” neo-logisms made up on the spot or for an occasion, but some went on to enter the standard vocabulary. Within a relatively short while, we were breathing “smog,” eating “brunch” and overnighting at “motels.”

Today we generally call them “hybrid words.” But technically, a “hybrid word” is composed of elements from different languages, e.g., “pescalator… a conveyor belt used on fish farms to move fish, as they grow, from one tank to another.” So I’m advocating for not letting go of “portmanteau” or the memory of Lewis Carroll.

Think of the lexical wealth he spawned: “bionic” (biology+electronic), “humongous” (huge+monstrous), “motorcade” (motor+cavalcade), “outpatient” (outside+patient), “palimony” (partner+alimony), “sitcom” (situation+comedy), and “telegenic” (television+photogenic), to name a few from a long list.

What name might Tanganyika and Zanzibar have used when they merged in 1964, without the portmanteau concept that suggests “Tanzania?”

How could we have survived these past twenty years, our political sense of humor intact, without “Billary,” and how would we cross the Channel without the “Chunnel?”

Portmanteau words pour out of our creative brains as we face new situations… “Spanglish” and “Chinglish” and “Hinglish” and “Ponglish” are heard in the melting pots of English speaking nations that continue to lure peoples of the world. “Sporks” and “knorks” are designed to make our cutlery choices simpler. And “e-mail” is making snail mail obsolete!

Erin Mc Kean, former Editor of the OED, in her new Wall Street Journal column, “Week in Words,” recently reported that in the 1970s, Oliver, a chimp who walked upright, was suspected of being a “humanzee” until DNA testing proved otherwise.

So what can we make of Carroll’s choice of a title for his nonsense poem in Through the Looking Glass? The clue is in the “-wocky” part of the word; it’s from “wocor” an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “offspring or fruit.” There may have been a lesson intended: jabber often produces useful language as its offspring.

Alice herself said of Jabberwocky, “It seems very pretty but it’s rather hard to understand. Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas...”

Jabber away!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ugh! Slugs

Sometimes a very ordinary word goes to extraordinary ends to get your attention …

I walked out for a bit of fresh air and a look at the coming-on moon before going to bed one hot and humid Saturday night in August two years ago. On my way back in I had to sidestep to avoid squishing slugs which had appeared on the slate walkway during the five minutes I was gone.

If you’ve ever stepped on one you’d remember. It’s more like slipping on a banana peel than crushing a bug, and I muttered, “Damn things … you could really break your neck.”

I counted six of them in the course of a few feet (a “slugfest!”) and stopped to notice how each moved ever so slowly, or just lay there in its slime. They seemed to have no other destination or purpose than to get under my feet, after feasting on the leaves in my garden.

Then I observed that they resembled apostrophes, and felt a little better about them, because I’m a big fan of punctuation. Which got me thinking about the word … “s-l-u-g”. Nice little four-letter guy … an anagram of “lugs” … too bad there isn’t a word “glus”… and what might it mean if there were?

Besides being the name for these slimy, slippery creatures that no one can warm up to, “slug” is a verb and a noun meaning “punch,” as in, “… then he slugged the guy.” And, of course, we call people who seem lazy and unmotivated “slugs” or “sluggards” … no doubt derived from the characteristic “sluggish” movement of the lower form. Then, we have “slug” as a piece of metal, a blank, to be made into a bullet or a counterfeit coin. And, oh yes, there’s a slug of water, or some other liquor.

It’s interesting to speculate on the etymology, how over the centuries, these several meanings might have derived from one original idea of something slow and heavy. And it’s fun to realize how we’ve built on this little word to get sluggish, slugger, slugging average, and slugfest.

It occurred to me that if you think of a slug as a “snail,” to which it is very closely related, you instantly upgrade its image; not only does no one gag when you mention a snail, most people smile at their mental image of a mythic, self-reliant creature toting its mobile home along, looking, for all the world, like a moving Scotch tape dispenser. Or they picture delicious escargot bathing in garlicky butter.

My reverie ended with a chuckle as I realized how much time I’d spent on this most unlikely subject. Most people would be waxing poetic over the magnificent moon while I’d been looking down at what must be pretty near the bottom of the evolutionary scale.

I was in for a pleasant surprise the very next morning when I grabbed the NYTimes “Week in Review.” Verlyn Klinkenborg, a brilliant essayist whose attention to the tiniest details of life gives me such pleasure, opened “The Rural Life” on the editorial page as follows:
“I do not detest slugs. They are a perfectly valid life form. I discover them in the garden with no surprise or alarm. I expect to find them on the stone walk in the early morning, and I step around them, respectfully. But now I find them on the walls of the house, climbing up the door jamb, climbing up the door as if they were going to pick the lock and come in out of the rain. In their form, their liquid droplike appearance, they distill the essence of this appalling summer. It’s as if the thunderheads – rising fungally above us – were raining slugs.”

What a nice coincidence, I thought, to be seeing analogies along with of one of my favorite writers …

But how much coincidence can there be before it’s called something else? I turned to the “Op-Eds” and Nicholas Kristof’s column title jumped off the page, “How To Lick A Slug”!

His essay was a thoughtful lament of the fact that kids these days do not value and learn from being outdoors as they once did. He ends with this sentence:
“Time was… most kids knew that if you licked the underside of a banana slug, your tongue went numb. Better that than have them numb their senses staying cooped up inside.”

And the next day’s NYT crossword offered the clue “Mays” for which the answer was “slugger Willie”!

My imagination had been captured by “slug” to which I’d previously given no mind whatever. With its appearance now compared to a drop of water, a banana, and an apostrophe, the slug has great metaphorical potential for a wordsmith.

But was the Universe conspiring to tell me something more? Had it brought this lowliest of creatures and simplest of words dramatically to my attention for some good reason? Or was it just a coincidence?

The naturalist, William Burroughs, once said, “In the magical universe, there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” And Elizabeth Kubler-Ross adds, “All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”

I thought about it and remembered that only ten days earlier, I’d had a minor heart problem which landed me in the ER. At the conclusion of several hours of testing, the heart specialist said, “You’ve got to remember to slow down.”

The slugs were my reminder.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poor Little Orphans

It’s a sure sign you’re crazy ...about words, at least, when you come to think of them as people. I began to realize this about myself some time back as I was checking out the etymology of bamboozled. I was surprised that it was as old as 1703, but floored when I saw that it was categorized as “origin unknown.” How could etymologists not know how such a nifty word originated?

Sometime later, I saw that bludgeon (1868) was in that same category, then flirt (1877) and punk (1596). I wrote them down on a sheet of paper and printed “origin unknown” at the top. I felt like a character in a Dickens novel, a benevolent one, gathering in orphans from the street. Now, every time I come across a word with that label, or “origin uncertain,” I feel parental and add it to my list.

Most words are like children whose roots can be traced as pedigrees are … axiomatic from Greek, obsequious from Latin, maladroit from French, galore from Irish Gaelic, or assassin from Arabic, to list a few. They come to us from long lines of traceable language.

Or they are new words, easily traceable in this Google era, e.g., app (short for application and the 2010 “word of the year”), tweet (a 2009 winner which defines a message containing no more than 140 characters and delivered by Twitter), and locavore (a person who eats only food grown and produced within a certain number of miles of his home). No etymologist of the future, with the prowess of the Internet at his fingertips, will fail to detect the precise origin of words like these.

Actually, the more I get to know of etymologists’ exacting work, the more I appreciate what they have been able to trace with certainty. E.g., genro (a group of elder Japanese statesmen, formerly advisers to the emperor) originated as two words in Ancient Mandarin. I am in awe of the lexicological digging involved here; it’s akin to archeology.

Here are a few surprises that defied etymologists in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century: chad (“a bit of paper punched out from a data card.” It became world famous in the 2000 US presidential election; it’s been traced to 1947, but how did the word come about? … perhaps from the Scots “gravel”… “origin uncertain”); copacetic (“very satisfactory,”1919… a fun word; I expected it to be of Greek origin); gimmick (“an ingenious or novel mechanical device, gadget,” 1926… you could have an interesting time with fellow word lovers making up an etymology for it!) They each have a special place in my heart.

Another favorite is quaff (1529) thought perhaps to be imitative. I’ve tried, even wiped my lips with the back of my hand, but quaff after quaff, I can’t get myself to sound like the word.

Simoleon (1895-1900) is a cool slang word for a dollar. How I wish we knew its origins. It’s bound to be interesting.

At the top of my list is acne. While not exactly of unknown origin, it had a peculiar beginning, in that it was the result of a manuscript error, aka “typo.” “Acme” was intended, after “the head of a pimple” : ( … but “acne” stuck (and most of us were stuck with it at some point in our young lives!). So it’s fitting that the last word in my alphabetical list of “origins unknown,” zit, originated in 1966, the last year that etymologists could not detect a word’s origin. Since then, the huge computer databases available make it virtually impossible for a word to be born without a birth certificate. It marks the end of an etymological era.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


My life is strewn with bits of paper, words scribbled on them, and shards of newspapers and magazines with words or phrases circled. I find them in my pockets, all over the house, serving as bookmarks, on dry cleaning tickets I now can’t surrender, on cash register receipts, and restaurant napkins. I seldom remember to carry one of the little pads purchased to keep words I hear or read organized in one place.

I’m sitting with a small pile of these jots I’ve gathered to share. They look like large confetti. So let’s do a gala!

On the day of “the wedding,” “regalia” was used all day long to describe the royals’ dress (except for Princess Beatrice’s hat! That was called many other things.) The word originally applied to the symbols of royalty, e.g., the crown & scepter; gradually, to the symbols of rank, like military officers’ brass; and, eventually, to any finery in dress. It’s a Latin plural (as is confetti) used as a singular noun in English to describe, sometimes facetiously, any dressed-up look. Used in this sense, the opposite/antonym of “regalia” that I like best is “rags.”

I came across “spavined” in Morris West’s 1963 novel, “The Shoes of the Fisherman:” “He had flung his cap at the whirling windmills, but when the time came to assault them…how would he be then? A knight in shining armor…Or an aging Quixote on a spavined nag, an object of laughter for men and angels?”

For hundreds of years, it’s been used only to refer to a bony-hipped horse. But why not broaden its definition a bit and extend its use? Aren’t there millions of humans in the world who would rather think of themselves as “spavined” than “arthritic?” It sounds more elegant, begs elaboration, and might just save the word from becoming archaic.

David Brooks is helping coin a couple of neologisms. In his new book, “The Social Animal,” he writes of “sanctimommies”/ mothers who critique their peers’ parenting skills and “extracurricular sluts”/ their kids who participate in too many organized after-school activities. No one has more fun with our language than he.

The hero of a 2005 novel, “Indecision,” by Benjamin Kunkel is described as “the 21st-century literary descendant of Holden Caulfield” except that he suffers from “abulia,” a disease characterized by a lack of will or initiative. “Dwight knows that his indecisiveness makes him a sociological cliché.”

“Fracking” is the buzzword in the world of energy technology. It describes a new, economical method of hydraulic fracturing of underground shale rock allowing vast supplies of otherwise trapped natural gas to flow. Promoters say it’s a safe method to tap into 100-plus years’ supply in the US & Canada; detractors say it may pose a threat to drinking water. It’s controversial, and “fracking” will soon be on everyone’s lips….a new “f-word” at last!

One syndicated version of cryptograms is called “Cryptoquote.” I love to work these puzzles and watch the wise words of well known people emerge from the eyesore of encryption. A recent cryptoquote yielded this from Dr. Seuss: “… There is no one alive who is youer than you.” It’s a psychological principle, a spiritual concept, and a great word all rolled into one! Seuss could have properly used “more you,” but, oh, how I appreciate his lexi-play that, at last, gives us a homonym of “ewer.”

I hope you will accumulate some confetti of your own and enjoy a party with fellow word lovers

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Remembering a Special Word

There it was, spelled out in all its glory…
O-C-H-S-E-N-S-C-H-W-A-N-N-Z-S-U-P-P-E. I’d never seen a word like it.

At the end of my first day in Germany, August 1, 1962, I had changed into civvies and walked off base from Coleman Barracks, five miles outside Mannheim, to a modest country gasthaus at the end of a farm lane, just a few yards from the Rhine River.

From its position at the head of the menu and its final five letters, I figured OCHSENSCHWANNZSUPPE must be soup. But what kind? … I had no idea. When the waiter came to take my order, I wanted the word. I pointed to its 19 letters, spread out like a banner across the top of the left inside page of the speisencarte.

“Ja, ochsenschwannzsuppe?” he asked, pronouncing all five beautiful syllables slowly and clearly. I loved hearing the word; it was so exotic. It occurred to me that the only German word I knew for sure at that point was gesundheit.

“Ja” I replied, taking to the language with lust, “ochsenschwannzsuppe.”
I had made my first transaction in a foreign language although my pronunciation was risible.

The waiter seemed pleased, all affability, as though it were a triumph of understanding for both of us. Then, as so often occurs when only one of two speakers is native to a language, he was encouraged to go on and speak a few sentences, quickly, and replete with the gutturals I would come to love. I only understood, from the uptick in his voice, that he had ended with a question.

I decided to just say “Ja.” I’ve always been a culinary adventurer, able to eat anything, so it didn’t matter much to me what I had ordered. I could wait to find out.

But I hadn’t been able to wait to get out among the German people, to experience “exotic” after 23 years during which I’d never traveled further from my native New York City than Columbus, Ohio.

I had arrived only that morning, a newly minted ROTC Second Lieutenant, fresh from four serious party-hard years at Cornell University. Two months in Armor Officers’ Basic at Fort Knox, Kentucky, had hardly prepared me for the introduction to my platoon… four sergeants and eighteen enlisted men, who had lined up, chests out, in front of their shiny washed tanks with guns pointed to the sky, and saluted me only a few hours earlier. It felt strange to be addressed respectfully as “Lieutenant Mc Kay, Sir” when I still felt like Joe, the Phi Delta Theta social chairman.

As I signed the documents accepting responsibility for the inventory of five tanks, a 2 ½ ton truck, two jeeps, machine guns, and many hand weapons, a shiver passed through me. I realized that I might have to lead these men, on a minute’s notice, in our five brutish, rattling panzers to defend the West German border. Tensions were high since the Berlin Wall had gone up the previous summer.

Guaranteeing that plenty of vodka and grape juice for “purple passions” was on hand for a toga party, and that “Bobby and the Counts” showed up on time with their rockin’ guitars, suddenly seemed like a faraway life.

The ochsenschwannzsuppe arrived, incredibly hardy and incongruous on that warm summer day, a thick, dark brown concoction with bits of meat, more like gravy than soup, and incredibly delicious. What I had agreed to with my second “Ja” was a huge platter of varied, healthy-looking brotchen with pads of butter stacked neatly at one end, slices of golden cheese at the other, and a smaller plate with pickled beets, cauliflower, and onions. I gauged it was enough, no multiplying miracle necessary, to feed my whole platoon. And all of it, it turned out, was provided at no extra charge.

I walked out to that gasthaus many times during my two-year tour of duty and was always greeted with a big smile and a welcoming, ochsenschwannzsuppe? Before I returned to the States, I asked the waiter/owner for that menu because the word held such a special place in my life. It had prompted me to study German and I became quite fluent.

This memory came back recently as I was preparing a session on compound words for a “Crazy About Words” class I originated and teach in my community. I love the fact that languages stretch and adapt, through compounding, to express new concepts. I read that other Germanic languages compound by stringing out a single word endlessly (eriebnisgastronomisches restaurant is a “theme restaurant”) while we English speakers use open compounds like “oxtail soup.” I think that love was born when I first saw ochsenschwannzsuppe, and I thank all the oxen who have donated their tails to making this word so memorable.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

It's Greek to Me

The other day, following a talk I’d given, a word enthusiast raised her hand and asked, “Why do you feel entomology is so important?” I responded, deadpan, “Because they say insects will one day dominate the earth.” She blushed as the audience laughed. But I am all too familiar with that mistake. I apologized to her for my smart-aleck response. Until I really got into etymology, the study of the origin of words, I hesitated in my reach for the correct one of those two words myself.

Among the nearly 500 “–ologies,” (Greek suffix for “the study of”) listed in the dictionary, many are difficult to remember or distinguish from another. Cosmetology (cosmetics) and cosmology (the cosmos, the origins of the universe) or ethology (animal behavior) and etiology (the origins of disease) could hardly be more different in meaning. Yet the words are similar enough in their look or sound that we blunder ceaselessly and tend to avoid using them. Too bad!

One of the banes of my existence is that favorite word of writers waxing philosophical, a word I really like but, ironically, can never remember: epistemology (the study of the origins of human knowledge). I have to look it up every time, but I know one day it will stick.

Our problem, it seems to me, is most acute when the front part of the word is Greek as well. It’s so much easier to say, “He studies fish… or spiders” than to risk, “He’s an icthyologist…or an arachnologist.” If the root is a familiar word, even when of Greek origin, like anesthesia, we have little problem. Or if the word is thought of without regard to its being in two parts like anthology (literally, “a gathering of similar flowers”), or archaeology, it presents no challenge.

In modern times, many areas of scientific inquiry have had “–ology” added to them and work fine in our everyday language because we understand the root, as in climatology and angelology.

In American humor, we add all kinds of things up front of “-ology” to get a laugh or to be sarcastic, e.g., “I spend all this dough on tuition and my kid is studying “beerology.” Or, when asked to take out the trash: “What am I… a “garbologist?”

As problematic as “-ologies” may be, English owes Greek a big debt: almost 30% of the 80,000 words educated people use derive from Greek.

Back to the intended question, I feel “etymology” is important because language is inextricable from history. Historic events, periods, and trends bring changes that are reflected in the words/language we use. Investigating the origin of a word can serve as the threshold to the study of some interesting aspect of history.

There are, of course, major events like the Norman Conquest that resulted in our language adapting to become one-third French…and a big story there!

On a smaller scale, consider two words: pajamas and shirtwaist. Also spelled pyjamas, it derives from the Persian peyjama, and was incorporated, via Hindustani, into English, during the Raj, the period of British colonial rule in South Asia (1857-1947), along with many other words including khaki, dungarees, and pundit. A parent might use the time of putting on the kids’ pajamas for a short etymology/history lesson, “Do you know where that word came from?”

The word shirtwaist, a woman’s upper body garment, fell out of use after the deadly and much publicized Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire one hundred years ago last month. “Blouse” replaced it, and the ILGWU was born. Etymology in the making!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March and Other Ambiguities

What with the lion, the lamb, and the ides hovering around our “bewareness,” March is an iffy month.

“Well, old hag, the ides have come.” mocked Julius Caesar to the seer on his way to the Senate on 3/15/44 b.c. “Ah, yes, but they have not gone.” she retorted ambiguously, a short while before he was stabbed 23 times by his iffy friends.

I really wanted to use “iffy” in writing. It’s such a wonderful creation…an adjective coaxed out of a conjunction by the simple addition of the underappreciated little suffix, -y. Like the currently controversial “truthy,” it leaves me feeling uncertain every time I hear it, exactly as intended by whomever first used it.

But the dictionary labels it a colloquialism, meaning it originated in informal conversation, and is “not suitable for formal speech or writing” such as you experience here! Ah, how different things would be had Dickens written, “They were very iffy times.” in opening “A Tale of Two Cities!”

In keeping with the “iffiness” that abounds this month, let’s look at a few words, phrases, and facts I’ve come across recently that demonstrate, in one way or another, just how ambiguous (from Latin, ambigere, to wander about) life is.

I like the word amphiboly (an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence) and these nice examples of it: Disraeli once said to a man who handed him a book to read, “I shall waste no time reading it.” And how about a recent news story headlined, “Victims Advocate Counts Yellowstone Wolves.” (say whaaat?), or the made-for-Groucho road sign, “Eat Here and Get Gas.”

Humpty Dumpty got Alice going when he said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less.” To which she replied, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” (It’s a fact, according to the OED, that the 500 most used English words have an average of 23 different meanings! The word “round,” for example, has 70 distinct definitions. That explains much of the ambiguity in our beautiful language.)

Legerdemain (pronounced ‘lejerdeman’) is a neat word, meaning sleight of hand. Sy Safransky in an interview about The Sun, said, “…as if I were a magician and my ad-free, nonprofit magazine an elaborate feat of legerdemain, each issue another rabbit pulled from my hat…”

Lagniappe, (pronounced ‘lanyap’) per the dictionary, comes from Creole meaning a trifling present given to customers by a salesman. The iffy thing about that is it doesn’t sound like either a French or Spanish root. Sure enough, further research indicates that its origin is likely a Quechua word, nyapa, that made its way into Spanish, then traveled up from the Inca empire into New Orleans where the French article, la, was added. Ayelet Waldman, author of the recent best seller,“Bad Mother,” rewarded readers who preordered her book with a copy of one by her famous husband, Michael Chabon, as a lagniappe, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As this iffy month barrels past the ides, the time of the equinox (half night-half day), will be upon us. We might look on that as another example of March indecisiveness. But no ifs, ands, or buts about it, the longer days say that Spring is here at last. And whether March goes out like a lion or a lamb, the weather is going to get better… maybe!

Katherine Hepburn said of Humphrey Bogart, “He walked straight down the center of the road. No maybes. Yes or no.” He is the antidote to March iffiness!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oh, To Be a Sandwich! …or… What Does It Take to Become an Eponym?

If you were born in July or August by Caesarean section, you have an eponymous connection… the first and last names of an early Roman Emperor, Julius or Augustus Caesar.

But, do you ever wish you could be an eponym, with something named after you…something more enduring than your not-totally-reliable progeny?

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, James Brudnell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, and, no kidding, Joao Marmalado (1450-1510) of Portugal, are all folks whose names were taken by the items they originated, which survive centuries later.

Eponyms also attribute to something discovered, like America (although Vespucci must give indigenous people their due!), something invented, like the derringer (Henry Derringer, American gunsmith), or something inspired, like the axel (Axel Paulsen, Norwegian figure skater). They surprise us frequently… we just never think that there might have been a Mr. Doyley, a 17th century London draper, who inspires the tatting of doilies to this day!

Some are very subtle, like maudlin, which derives from Mary Magdalene’s effusive sentimental behavior in the New Testament. Others are more obvious, like ritzy after Caesar Ritz, Swiss hotelier. Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills is forever preserved in the idealistic quixotic.

Eponyms come not only from people’s names, but from the names of places where things originated like the mazurka, a dance from Mazury, a region of Poland, and madras, that wonderful cotton fabric, from a city now renamed Chennia, the 5th most populous in India. (Back in “the day” I had to have bleeding madras, whose dyes were not fast, so that it looked different every time it was washed…cool!)

Writing this column, I have to be careful of something not so cool, malapropism, after the fictional character, Mrs. Malaprop from Sheridan’s “Rivals.” She was noted for her blunders in the use of words.

Two of my personal favorite eponyms come from nineteenth century circus performers, who died before their time only fifteen years apart.

Jumbo, whose name is from a Swahili word jumbe meaning “chief,” was a 6½ ton French Sudanese elephant, born in 1861. He toured the US and Canada with “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was the largest of its 30 elephants, a big hit with the public, and featured on most of the Circus’ posters. On the night of 9/15/1885, he was hit and killed by an express freight train in St. Thomas, Ontario. The resulting publicity inspired “Jumbo-size” food items like hot dogs and sausages. The word stuck to describe anything large or huge, including Boeing’s Jumbo Jets.

Jules Leotard (1842-1870) invented the flying trapeze and popularized the one-piece gym-wear that bears his name. He joined the Cirque Napoleon, went on to international stardom, and inspired the 1867 hit song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Although he sprained his ankle in a bad fall in Boston, he died in Spain of smallpox.

So now you have some idea of what it takes to achieve eponymous immortality. Remember… that favorite lunch food, the ham sandwich could just as easily have been called a ham sullivan, or a ham smith. If your name is John, you don’t have to bother…you’re already a famous necessity.

And if you want the easy way to eponymic status, simply be my Valentine!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Aught-itude

It still impresses me that the 100,000 plus words in my dictionary (2006 pages in the American Heritage, 4th. Edition) are each constructed simply from some combination of letters derived from our 26-letter alphabet. From aardvark to zyzzyva, we have managed to create the most expressive language imaginable, the toolbox of writers, poets, and all who use and appreciate words.

The beginning of a new year puts many of us in a reflective mood. As that mood extends to my writing this column, I wonder what single word I might select as my “most important word in the English language.” Looking at a smorgasbord of candidates, I quickly realize that I have long regarded “attitude” as basic to just about everything in life.

It’s a great word that originally had a physical meaning, the “position of something relative to some other physical thing” (e.g., an aircraft or a ballet dancer assumes an attitude). It was later adopted by our ancestor-wordsmiths looking for a word to describe a “mental or emotional position relative to some aspect of life” (e.g., a person has a positive or negative attitude about money).

Because we all have the power to wake up each day and assume the attitude we choose, and so set the course for “the first day of the rest of our lives,” I rank it my #1 word.

Viktor Frankl, Dachau survivor, when asked upon liberation in 1945 to describe his experience, simply said, “I learned a lot about myself in these past three years.” In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he says that “the ultimate human freedom is to choose one’s attitude.”

Looking at the word, and focusing on the fact that it begins with “a,” the abecedarian in me comes out, and I reach for a “b” and a “c” word that will fit into this New Year’s reflection.

Bittersweet is a nice compound word with a yin and yang quality to it. The strong, fast-growing bittersweet vine chokes its host bushes and trees in growing season, but decorates their bare branches in winter with its glowing red berries encased in orange. Look up on a sunny day in the winter woods, or gather pieces of the vine to bring indoors, and you’ll appreciate the -sweet end of this word.

Frankl’s point was that many life experiences, even the toughest, are bittersweet, but we can learn and grow as human beings from each of them if we have an attitude of openness and an interest in learning about ourselves relative to Life.

Circumstances, a Latin word meaning, the things that surround us,
need not dictate our attitude. Attitude comes from within us, is self-determined. Imagine you have only six pennies. Are you poor? Circumstances might say so. But you give two away with generosity in your heart, then buy a piece of bread with a third, consciously savoring the taste of it. You are rich.

Cheers! Here’s to a rich and rewarding 2011.