Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

In 2007,
may your horizons be endless


Friday, December 29, 2006


Two different gentlemen named Richard called in to the last show with opinions on the origin of the copyrighted  trade term Bluetooth. Richard from Kingsley, MI, maintained that the original device was shaped like a tooth and that it had a blue light at one end. Richard from Traverse City, MI, claimed that it was named after Harald Bluetooth (Blatand), a Viking King of the 10th century. Traverse City wins this one.

You’ll find the full story at  I’ll simply provide a summary. In essence, Bluetooth is wireless technology that allows diverse devices such as mobile phones, PDAs, computers, and other electronic marvels to interconnect at short range without the hassle of cords.

The inventors were Scandinavians. During a discussion about the future of wireless technology, someone made an analogy to King Harald Blåtand, who had united warring factions in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Just as he had been a unifying force, so could this new wireless technology bring together diverse instruments without the need for tangled cords.

The name Bluetooth was thus set, and a logo was devised to reflect that association. Using runic characters, the logo contains the letter H, which has the shape of an asterisk, and the letter B. (See top of page)

This has to be one of the more sophisticated ways to name a product.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Quarry is an interesting word with many meanings. Originally, it referred to scraps given as a reward to successful hunting hounds or to a trained hawk. Eventually, the meaning turned to the victim of the bird of prey or to the animal pursued by a hunter. The base for this word was the Latin corium, skin. This word was also applied to a heap of deer piled together at the end of a hunt--the equivalent of our modern deer pole--and to a pile of human bodies. The verb form could refer to training a hawk or hound or to the actions required to track down the prey.

Another word with the same spelling owes its origin to the Latin quadrare, to square. It was applied to the open pit from which stones and other building materials were extracted. Obsolete meanings of this word included the hard granular part of a pear, a square-headed arrow, a pane of glass, and a square candle. In all cases, the “fourness” of the original Latin can be discerned. The verb form involves the actions needed to extract building materials.

Sidebar:  Virtual Quarry

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Holidays!

icon art by dona sheehan

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene i, lines 178 - 184

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

All In Order

Q. I know that the sequence of ranking numbers starts out as primary, secondary, and tertiary, but where does it go after that?

A. Here is a partial list of ordinal numbers, all confirmed as legitimate words in the online Oxford English Dictionary:
1. primary
2. secondary
3. tertiary
4. quaternary
5. quinary
6. senary
7. septenary
8. octonary
9. novenary
10. decenary

In all cases, the -ary suffix means connected with or pertaining to. The root section is a letter combination designating a particular number.

prim- Primacy means being first in order, rank, importance, or authority. Primal urges belong to the first stage or primitive condition. A prime minister is the first or principal minister or servant of any sovereign, ruler, or state.
second- Second-class is next and inferior to the top. Secondary colors are a mixture or combination of the primary colors (red, green, violet).
tert- To tertiate is to do anything for the third time. In philosophy, a tertium quid is something undefined that is related in some way to two known things, but is distinct from both of them.
quat- A quaternion is a set of four poems. Quaternity postulates four persons in the Godhead, in contrast to the traditional Trinity.
quin- A quincentennial is a 500-year celebration or anniversary. A quintet is a composition for five voices or instruments. NOTE of Caution: sometimes the root -quin- can mean quinine: quininic, quinism.
sen- A sennight is a period of seven days and nights--a week. Some creatures are senocular; they have six eyes. Most often, sex- is the prefix used to designate six.
NOTE of Caution: most often, sen- signifies old age: senate, senile.
sept- Septagonal means having seven angles. Septarchy is soverieignty shared by seven rulers. Something septennial lasts for seven years or recurs every seven years.
oct- If a figure is octagonal, it has eight sides. An ecclesiastical octave lasts for eight days: the festival itself, plus the seven days following. An octavo is a page size produced by folding a standard printing sheet three times to form a section of eight leaves.
nov- In the Roman calendar, November was the ninth month. Something novemfid consists of nine sections. A church novena involves nine successive days filled with special prayers. NOTE of Caution: most often, nov- signifies new: novelty, novice.
dec- A decade is a period of ten years. A decagon is a plane figure having ten sides and ten angles. The Decalogue is a set name for the Ten Commandments.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Seriously Sarcastic

A sarcastic person will chew you up and spit you out, speaking metaphorically. Sarcasm is defined as a sharp, bitter, or cutting remark. Sharpness, ripping, chewing--it’s almost like watching an animal tear flesh from a bone. And that’s an entirely appropriate image, since the Greek origin of the word, the verb sarkazein, meant to tear flesh.

Sarco-, a combining form from the Greek word meaning flesh, is very useful in scientific terminology, as the following examples will show.
• Sarcoderm: The fleshy layer in some seeds lying between the internal and external integuments.
• Sarcoid: resembling flesh
• Sarcolite: A silicate of aluminum, sodium, and calcium found in flesh-colored crystals.
• Sarcology: That branch of anatomy which treats of the fleshy parts of the body.
• Sarcophagal: Flesh-devouring, flesh-consuming.
• Sarcotic: Producing flesh; inducing the growth of flesh
• Sarcotome: an instrument for painlessly cutting through the soft tissues of the body.

The terminal combining form -sarc is used in fewer words, but they, too, are scientific in nature, occurring mostly in zoology.

• Cenosarc: The common living basis or ‘flesh’ by which the several individuals forming a compound zoophyte, or polypidom, are united together.
• Endosarc: the inner sarcode-layer of certain rhizopods, such as the amoeba.
• Perisarc: An enclosing horny or chitinous layer secreted by many colonial hydroids.

Some -sarc- words are not very pretty to picture, as anasarca (a dropsy producing a very puffed appearance of the flesh), or polysarcia (excessive accumulation of fat).

Finally, an APA report indicates that scientists may have found the area of the brain responsible for interpreting sarcasm.

Sidebar: sarcastic quotations

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gudgeon Goes to Hawaii

Q:   My mother used to say, “I searched from stem to gudgeon.” I never did find out what a gudgeon is. Can you help?
Charlie/Torch Lake, MI

A.   My first reaction was that it sounds like a variation on the far more common “stem to stern,” and that turns out to be correct. Before that show was over, listener Charles from Atwood, MI, volunteered that you might have misheard the word escutcheon as a child, accidentally turning it into gudgeon.

An escutcheon was the shield-shaped surface on which a coat of arms was painted. In nautical terms, it was the plate bearing the vessel’s name, and it was placed, almost universally, at the back end of the ship--an early version of a license plate. This is confirmed by Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book, 1867, which placed the escutcheon smack dab in the middle of the ship’s stern.

But the word gudgeon actually exists; it is not just a corruption of escutcheon. The Oxford English Dictionary has this: “Nautical: A metal socket in which the pintle of a rudder turns.” That sent me scrambling to find pintle, which the OED defines as, “A pin forming part of the hinge of a rudder, usually fixed on the rudder and fitting into a ring on the sternpost.”

Word buffs or readers of underground Victorian novels will also recognize pintle as a synonym for the male organ.

The stem, of course, was the curved upright timber at the bow of a vessel, so whether you use stem to stern, stem to gudgeon, or stem to escutcheon, the meaning is from front to back.

Sidebar:  USS Gudgeon SS 567

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Motto, Otto

Do yourself a favor and save some money: instead of hiring an expensive life coach, create a motto for yourself. If it’s potent enough, you can chant it in times of need and fill yourself with inspiration.

A motto is a short sentence or phrase used to express a principle, a goal, or an ideal. In the old days, mottoes were rife. They were used by institutions, by families, and by individuals to render a quick snapshot of essence and purpose. We still find them on currency: In God We Trust adorns American money; Canada uses From Sea to Sea (A Mari usque ad Mare). The European Union adopted United in Diversity as its motto, and Oxford University proclaims The Lord is My Light (Dominus Illuminatio Mea) on its coat-of-arms.

Motto probably took its form from the French mot (utterance, word, or saying), as in bon mot, a clever or witty saying. As several of the mottoes used above show, it was considered proper to cast the motto in Latin. I devised the motto Natus Ad Cogitandum to plaster on my motorbike helmet. Thus, my antidote to Born to Raise Hell was Born to Think. The motto of my teaching career (and of my current radio program) was taken from Wittgenstein: The limits of my language are the limits of my world. That would be more motto-like if it were shortened to something like, Small Vocabulary, Small World.

It’s probably better if you invent an utterly personal motto, but there’s no problem with borrowing one; that’s as legitimate as a couple choosing “our song” from what’s on the charts. Here are some to ponder:

Animus, non res: Mind, not property.
Aude aliquid dignum: Dare something worthy.
Bene agendo nunquam defessus: Never weary of doing good.
Concussus surgo: When struck, I rise.
Dum spiro spero: As long as I breathe, I hope.
Feriunt summis fulmina montes: Lightning strikes the mountain tops.
Ingenium superat vires: Genius overcomes strength.
Nivem flavam noli comedere: Don’t eat yellow snow.
Non quam diu, sed quam bene: Not how long, but how well.
Quod in te est, prome: Bring forth what is in you.
Sol non occidat super iracundiam vestram: Let not the sun set on your anger.
Usus libri, non lectio prudentes facit: The use, not the reading, of a book makes men wise.

Sidebar: state mottoes

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Good, Bad, Indifferent

Q:   I always thought the saying was “take the bad with the good,” but I have been coming across its opposite: “take the good with the bad.” Reversed, it just doesn’t make sense to me.
Dan/Bellaire, MI

A:   An interesting question. I hadn’t noticed that a reversal was taking place until I read your note. My sense is that the saying should be “take the bad with the good,” as you believe, since accepting good things is so very easy and natural. We don’t have to “put up with” good things, but we have to deliberately stir up a sense of proportion and balance to accept bad things, something that takes effort.

So I was surprised when I ran the Google Test. 50,100 sites think it should be “take the bad with the good.” 171,000 sites think it should be “take the good with the bad.” I’m at a loss to explain why the reversal has taken place and why it now enjoys a 3 to 1 margin.

It reminds me of the saying, “he’s head over heels in love.” Our head is supposed to be over our heels! It’s topsy-turvy only if the heels are over the head. Research shows that the original 14th century phrase was “heels over head.” Somehow, the order was reversed, and the one that makes less sense took over.

Two similar proverbs or sayings place the negative element first. In Troilus and Cressida, Chaucer used a variant on “to take the bitter with the sweet.”

“For how might ever sweetnesse have be knowe
To him that never tasted bitternesse?
Ne no man may be inly glad, I trowe,
That never was in sorwe or som distresse;” [lines 638-641]

A work known as the Tale of Beryn (a later insertion into Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale) presages our “to take the rough with the smooth.”

“Take yeur part as it cometh, of roughe and eke of smoth.” [line 1152]

Sidebar: proverbs

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