Thursday, May 22, 2008


A strange word that I run across from time to time is laurence. The basic definition these days is “the shimmering effect that can sometimes be seen over asphalt or the sands of a beach or desert on a hot day.”

The effect is enhanced if you are looking through field glasses from a distance or if you are a hunter looking through a scope. It is a mirage. Ironically, there’s a famous scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia that features an extended laurence.

In 1907, it had a slightly different meaning, though still connected to heat. “When the older people thought their children were a little slack in their work, they would remind them that they were in danger of being caught by the Laurences, meaning the little heat waves caused by the heat from the earth on a very hot day.” [W. M. Cockrum, Pioneer History of Indiana, viii,189]

Earlier still, beginning in the 18th century, laurence was used as the personification of indolence; a Lazy Laurence was an idle person. Why the name laurence? There’s the mystery.

One legend has it that St. Laurence the Martyr was put to death by slowly roasting him on a grid over a fire. In an act of sang froid, he asked his killers to turn him over because he was done on that side and was too lazy to move. Not very likely, Bucky.

A more mainstream explanation is that the feast day of Saint Laurence takes place on August 10, and August is one of the most fiercely hot months in our hemisphere. It breeds torpor and slow motion.

SIDEBAR: Creating heat distortion and shimmer with After Effects

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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