Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Sandwich Is There



The headline above is part of the punch line of a hoary pun, of course:

Q. Why can’t you starve in the desert?
A. Because of the sand which is there.

Word parts denoting sand show up in some $2 words, and that makes them interesting.

The combining form ammo- comes from the Greek word ammos, sand. There is ammocoete, the larval form of various lampreys (sand + bed). Then there’s the ammodyte, a venomous snake (sand + burrow/dive). And there are plants and insects that live exclusively near sand; they are ammophilous (sand + loving).

The Latin formation aren-, as most people know, gave the name to the arena, a combat zone covered in sand to soak up blood and guts. Anything arenacious has the form or appearance of sand. Arenicolite is a worm-hole originally made in sand, then preserved in sandstone rock. And arenicolous (sand + dwelling) means the same as ammophilous.

The Greek form psamm- shows up in many scientific terms. Add psammophilous (sand + loving) to arenicolous and ammophilous. A psammophyte is a plant found in sandy soil. A psammosarcoma is a fleshy tumor with sand-like particles.

Sabul- owes its existence to the Latin sabulum, sand. “Darling, you look sabulous” is something you may say to a friend whose hair is covered in sand. Sabulosity is an obsolete term for sandy, and sabuline doubles as a synonym for sabulous.

Finally, the Latin saburr- (sand) is a close cousin of sabul-. Saburra is a foul granular matter deposited in the stomach. To saburrate is an obsolete verb meaning to place ballast in a ship. And in ancient medicine, saburration--applying heated sand to the body--was seen as salubrious.

Sidebar: Mr. Sandman



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Monday, November 27, 2006

One Singular Sensation: hapax legomenon



I have been asked to share the strangest term that I know. One of the top contenders has to be hapax legomenon.

A hapax legomenon is a word or grammatical structure that occurs only once in the entire written record of a language, only once in the complete works of a particular author, or only once in a single text. It comes from two Greek words: hapax (once only) and legomenon (having been said).

Linguists--especially those who work with ancient languages--pay particular attention when they find a single instance of a word unconfirmed anywhere else in a work.

For one thing, it makes it difficult to render an accurate translation. They must become even more acutely aware of context and what it can reveal about the term. For another, they must weigh the possibility that the word or structure is simply a typo or the product of mishearing. They don’t enjoy the security afforded by multiple instances in a variety of contexts.

Biblical scholars in particular must deal with this reality. The Jewish Encyclopedia points to about 400 unique, unconnected terms in the Old Testament. They occur in the Song of Songs, the Book of Job, and in passages dealing with detailed lists, such as Leviticus or Deuteronomy.

On the extra-biblical scene, Chaucer uses the word nortelrye in the Reeve’s Tale:
/ Hir thoghte / þat a lady sholde hir spare / What for hir kynrede /
and hir nortelrye / That she hadde lerned / in the Nonnerye /. . . .
The word seems to mean education, but it never shows up again.

And in Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus, evidently for the first and only time in his works. The character Costard says,
O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

The singularity concept found in hapax also appears in the combining form haplo-, though they are not directly connected.

• Haplology is the utterance of one letter, syllable, or word instead of two.
• A haplodont has crowns of the molar teeth that are simple or single, and not divided into
ridges, etc.
• Haplography is single writing; the unintentional writing of a letter or word, or series of
letters or words, once, when it should be written twice.

Sidebar: Haplology and vowel underspecification



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Friday, November 24, 2006

I've Got A Secret


There are a number of interesting terms denoting secrecy. Let’s focus on four of them in this posting.

furtive:
Done by stealth or with the hope of escaping observation. Originally a Greek word, it morphed into the Latin fur (thief) and furtum (robbery). Since then, the elements of hidden action and slyness have been emphasized.

covert:
Concealed, hidden, secret, disguised. The Latin verb co-operire ( to cover completely) is the parent of our word. In recent decades, "covert operations" has been a stock phrase for government/military actions.

surreptitious:
Clandestine, skulking, on the sly. The Latin words sub (under) and repere (to creep) combined to form this word. A snake in the grass comes to mind.

clandestine:
Secret, private, concealed. The Latin clandestinus (secret, private) provides a straight transaction here. Sometimes the word merely designates a fierce desire for privacy, as in a clandestine marriage, but clandestine council meetings are not appreciated by voters.

Of the four terms, covert is the most clinical, surreptitious introduces an undertone of extreme caution, clandestine often involves illicit actions, and furtive hints of guilt and evasion.


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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Xeno: Warrior Stranger


Happy Thanksgiving, Pilgim!


John Wayne may have encountered quite a few pilgrims, but he didn’t seem to be afraid of them. Come to think of it, though, his best advice was to sit with your back to a wall when visiting a rowdy saloon.

If he had been afraid of strangers, he would have been termed a xenophobe (pronounced zeenophobe). This is because the Greek segment xeno- comes from a word that means stranger or foreigner. Phob- indicates strong aversion or even fear. The Duke would not have been so tolerant if things had led to a xenocracy (ruling body of foreigners).

One of the stranger pursuits is xenobiology, which studies extraterrestrial life forms. I suppose it’s confined to Area 51.

The word part xeno- is particularly useful in zoology and in medicine, where we encounter terms such as xenobiotic (foreign to the body or to living organisms), xenograft (in which the donor and the recipient come from different species), or xenophthalmia (presence of a foreign body in the eye).

Don't be a stranger, now, hear?


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Monday, November 20, 2006

Pilgrim's Progress




Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and the word Pilgrims will inevitably arise.

Pilgrim is a word that was used by John Wayne in several of his westerns, usually addressing a stranger on his way through town. That was entirely appropriate.

The word started life in Latin as two words: per (through) and ager (field). This led to the word pereger, someone traveling abroad. That, in turn, led to peregrinus, a foreigner. Over the course of centuries, this was transmuted in English to pilgrim.

We have retained the fancy word peregrination to denote a journey, and we know that there is a peregrine falcon. In Gregorian chant, there was a Peregrine Tone, an unorthodox set of notes that wandered more than usual. And the British satirist Tobias Smollett wrote a novel entitled, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, poking fun at the Grand Tour concept of his day.

Cease your peregrinity, Pilgrim, and rest your spurs awhile.


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Thursday, November 16, 2006

East Is East


Orienteering is a sport or pursuit growing in popularity. The purists use compasses and folding maps. Their wealthier counterparts carry elaborate and expensive GPS devices. In all cases, getting your directions straight is the goal.

The older amongst us will remember Lamont Cranston, “who, while in the Orient, learned the power to cloud men’s minds.” Even if you don’t remember The Shadow, you know that the Orient stands for the Asian nations.

It started before compasses. One of the simplest directions to discern for the Romans was oriens, that point on the horizon at which the sun rises each morning. In the European Christian era, since Jesus’ homeland was to the east, it was a requirement that altars be oriented—facing east, that is.


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Monday, November 13, 2006

You Are My Sunshine


Sunbeam is a warm, comfort-filled word, but quirky nonetheless. It is, of course, a ray of sunshine, so the sun- segment makes perfect sense, but what about a beam? I associate that with the huge piece of timber used in construction to hold up the roof.

As it turns out, so did the scholar who invented the word. We’re talking about Alfred the Great, famous for building up the storehouse of Old English literature by translating books from Latin.

While he was translating Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), he kept bumping up against the image columna lucis, rendered as “column of light” in modern English. Old English did not contain the word column, so Alfred reached for the nearest reality in his day: bêam, a tree or building post.

So a sunbeam was a sun post was a columna lucis.


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Friday, November 10, 2006

Flagrantly Blatant




Blatant and flagrant are often treated as synonyms, something that throws language purists into conniption fits. “Conspicuously reprehensible” sums up the shared meaning.

The American Heritage Dictionary
prefers blatant if you are referring to the shameless in-your-face nature of the act, and flagrant if you are emphasizing the serious moral failure at the heart of the act.

Blatant is a word that was either invented or adapted by Edmund Spenser in his Fairie Queene. It was probably related to the word bleating, and it may owe its existence to the Latin blatire, to babble. Today, it is a word that depends upon sight, but originally, it related to the auditory sense. In fact, for a couple of centuries, its sole meaning was noisy or clamorous.

Flagrant owes its existence to the Latin flagrare, to burn. Glowing, fiery, and hot were the original meanings, but by the 18th century, it had taken on the sense of notorious or scandalous.

If you are prone to outbursts of censoriousness, there are other fine words at your disposal: atrocious, audacious, brazen, disgraceful, flagitious, glaring, gross, heinous, monstrous, nefarious, outrageous, rank, scandalous, and shocking. I can feel the temperature rising.


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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nausea


We all know that it’s easy to be queasy, especially on roller coasters and airplanes. The word nausea took root in an ancient form of travel.

In Greek, a nautes was a sailor, and he shipped out on a naus. So the original nausea was seasickness, though it has expanded to many potential causes and is even used to signify emotional or ethical loathing.

By the way, its inelegant cousin, puke, seems to be onomatopoetic: it imitates the sound made by a person throwing up. Oddly enough, William Shakespeare may have been the first writer to use the word. In Jacques’ Seven Ages of Man speech (As You Like It), we find, “At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.”


Sidebar: Selection from Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea


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Monday, November 06, 2006

Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along


Q. Where does the term “plumb bob” come from?
Mark, Traverse City, MI

A. A plumb bob is a piece of metal suspended on a string. It is used to establish straight vertical lines. Often, the string is chalked and then snapped while taut to draw a perfect line.

The plumb part comes from the Latin plumbum, which meant lead, the metal. It seems that the Romans used lead pipes to conduct water because the substance was easy to work with. Some have speculated that lead poisoning contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire, but most authorities disagree. At any rate, the original plumbers were lead workers.

The origin of bob is uncertain. It may come from the verb to bob since the weight, when first dropped, bounces a bit. Fishermen are familiar with bobbers, plastic or cork floaters that bounce up and down with the waves, and mariners plumbed the depths by dropping a metal weight suspended on the end of a rope. Another explanation points to the Middle English word bobbe, a cluster of fruit, due to a supposed resemblance between the chunk of metal and grapes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bob is still used in Scotland to designate a bouquet--or cluster--of flowers.

A versatile word, bob can also mean a knob, a sleigh runner, an earring, a knot of hair at the back of the head, a horse’s tail docked short, a woman’s short hair style, the weight on the tail of a kite, a lump of clay used by potters, and the grub of a beetle.


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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Muscling In


A muscle man may drive a muscle car and try to muscle in where he’s not appreciated, but even he can’t escape the age-old question: are you a man or a mouse?

In Latin, musculum meant a little mouse. The conceit was that the rippling of muscles under the skin (think biceps, for instance) looked very much like the motion of mice under a piece of cloth or sacking.

The Greeks had the same idea. For them, the word mys had two equally apt meanings: field mouse and muscle. From that source we derived the much-used medical combining form myo- (muscle): myoatrophy, myocardial, myocele, and dozens more.


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