Monday, March 31, 2008

Opportunity Knocks


Latin mythology/theology gets a bit fuzzy at times, especially when separate gods or goddesses have overlapping duties. Take Portunus, for example. He started out as the god of keys and doors, and later of granaries. It all came about because porta meant gate or door.

A similar Latin word, portus, meant a harbor or shelter. That was originally the domain of another god, Palaemon, but over time he merged in the common mind with Portunus, no doubt because of the similarity of the two words. So Portunus evolved into the god of harbors.

This explains the origin of words such as opportune, inopportune, importune, and opportunity. Opportune, for instance, comes from the prefix ob-, toward, and Portunus, god of the harbor. A boat coming close to a harbor was about to fall under the favor of the harbor-god. Or, to go back to the root portus, it was moving toward the harbor, a good opportunity to embrace shelter.

A Christian apologist named Arnobius [284-305] made waves against the idea that pagan gods were the source of safety and protection. Here’s part of what he had to say in his Seven Books against the Heathen, III.23:

“But you will, perhaps, say that the gods are not artificers, but that they preside over these arts, and have their oversight; nay, that under their care all things have been placed, which we manage and conduct, and that their providence sees to the happy and fortunate issue of these. Now this would certainly appear to be said justly, and with some probability, if all we engage in, all we do, or all we attempt in human affairs, sped as we wished and purposed. But since every day the reverse is the case, and the results of actions do not correspond to the purpose of the will, it is trifling to say that we have, set as guardians over as, gods invented by our superstitious fancy, not grasped with assured certainty. Portunus gives to the sailor perfect safety in traversing the seas; but why has the raging sea cast up so many cruelly-shattered wrecks?”

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.

NOTE: Mike is on vacation. His program will resume on April 15.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Boat-Shaped


A number of words contain the element “boat-shaped.” That wouldn’t have been all that surprising centuries ago when boats were essential to travel and commerce, but boats are no longer in the ascendancy. Some of these words are quite literal, actually describing a boat, but many are based on analogy.

• cymbiform: boat-shaped. [L. cymba, boat]

• cymbocephalic: having a skull long and narrow, and, as viewed from above, somewhat boat-shaped. Also kumbo-kephalic [Gr. kumbe, boat]

• navicular: a boat-shaped bone in the ankle. [L. navis, ship]

• naviculoid: a diatom which has bilaterally symmetrical boat-shaped or spindle-shaped cells.

• naviform: boat-shaped

• scaphite: a cephalopod with a boat-shaped shell. [Gr. skaphe, boat]

• scaphocephalus: a boat-shaped head

• scaphoidal: boat-shaped; hollowed out

SIDEBAR: how shape affects speed

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.

NOTE: Mike is on vacation. His radio program will resume on April 15.


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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Loose Change




Many of us have a change jar on our desk or on a shelf. When we empty our pockets, pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters clink into the jar to join their brethren. In time, they add up, so we wrap them in paper cylinders and take them to the bank to convert them to paper.

Over the years, a number of idioms have grown up based on small change.

• bad penny (to turn up like a): to show up at an event or a place where you are definitely not wanted.
• count your pennies: pay attention to small details if you want your affairs to be in order.
• in for a penny, in for a pound: a show of determination that no mattter what the cost, you are going to stay the course.
• not have a red cent: totally bankrupt. The red referred to the collar of copper used in the coin.
• not have two pennies to rub together: again, to be totally bankrupt.
• pennies from heaven: an unexpected benefit, probably a reflection of the biblical manna from heaven.
• penny dropped, (the): a thought finally impinged on one’s consciousness. Probably a reference to a slot machine or a gumball machine; the money drops and finally hits home.
• penny for your thoughts: an indirect way of saying, “what are you thinking about?”
• penny-pinching: being a most careful steward of your money; you hold it in a tight grip.
• penny saved is a penny earned: even small amounts begin to add up if you spend nothing as money comes in.
• penny wise and pound foolish: you pay attention to small monetary matters, but are careless about larger expenses.
• pretty penny, (that’ll cost you a): the price will be high.
• put in my two cents’ worth: give your opinion. It has apparent elements of self-deprecation, but may actually represent false modesty.
• don’t take any wooden nickels: don’t let yourself be cheated or scammed; real nickels are metal.
• nickel and dime someone: to add on small charges that, in time, begin to be significant or, at least, annoying.
• not worth a plugged nickel: worthless. A plug was a hole made in a coin and filled with a baser metal. Defaced currency would not be accepted as legal tender.
• dime a dozen, a: cheap and readily available. Each item would cost less than a cent.
• drop the dime: to betray someone. A dime was the price of a pay-phone call to the local police precinct.
• get off the dime: to spring into action, especially after a period of lethargy.
• stop/turn on a dime: to come to a halt/change direction very quickly.

SIDEBAR: The United States Mint

SIDEBAR: Market Value of American Coins

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Laugh and the World Laughs with You



Dour, unsmiling, mirthless: this describes an agelast, one who never laughs. It’s a great word, and it comes to us from the Greek verb gelaein, to laugh, plus the negative particle a-, not. Some other English words denoting laughter come from the Latin verb ridere, to laugh, which gave us the roots rid- and ris-.

• gelasin: a dimple in the cheek, produced by smiling.
• gelastic: serving the function of laughter; risible
• gelophobia: fear of laughter
• hypergelast: excessive laugher
• rident: radiantly cheerful
• ridibundal: inclined to laughter
• risible: given to laughter
• risorial: risible
• risus: an involuntary grin resulting from a morbid condition
• subrident: smiling

Shakespearean joke:

Macbeth is standing watch on a castle parapet at Dunsinane when a messenger rushes in, breathless and with a look of abject fear on his face.

Macbeth demands, “What is it, man? Tell thy story quickly.”

The messenger points a shaky finger at the field below and says,” Cheese it--the copse!”


SIDEBAR: The Stress Management and Health Benefits of Laughter

SIDEBAR: How Laughter Works


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.

NOTE: Mike is on vacation. His program will resume on April 15.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Hesthographomania


Q. I live in an area rife with tourists. A walk along Front Street will take you past many stores selling T-shirts and caps with town slogans on them. My question is, is there a word for this touristy compulsion to buy and wear clothing emblazoned with place names?

A. My personal favorite is, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” but the Chamber of Commerce isn’t amused. I’m not aware of any such word, but why not make one up?

My Word Parts Dictionary lists -mania as a compulsion or craving, grapho- as a term for marking or printing, and hestho- as a word part meaning clothing or dress. So get out there in conversation and in writing and promote the word hesthographomania: a touristy compulsion to buy and wear clothing emblazoned with place names.

If you manage to get it in print, please let me know.

SIDEBAR: U. S. Department of State Travel Warnings


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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?



A couple of seed catalogs have arrived in the mail, signifying that even though we still have a couple of feet of snow covering the lawn here in northern Michigan, spring is not impossibly far away. That turned my thoughts to the names of blooming trees and flowers, many of which are poems on a stalk.

➢ ACACIA: the OED says that it may come from a Greek word meaning “pointed,” in reference to its thorns. A web site featuring flower names
guesses that it comes from a Greek word meaning “not bad.” Faint praise, indeed.
➢ AMARYLLIS comes from a Greek word meaning to sparkle, and it was the stock name given to a rustic girl in some works of Theocritus, Ovid, and Virgil.
➢ ANEMONE comes from a Greek word meaning “daughter of the wind.”
➢ AZALEA comes from a Greek word meaning dry, either from the dry soil in which it flourishes, or from its dry brittle wood.
➢ CARNATION: Some say that it is a corruption of coronation because the flowers were sometimes used to make wreaths for the head. Others think that it refers to flesh color.
➢ CHRYSANTHEMUM comes from two Greek words that mean “gold flower.”
➢ DAISY, in Old English form, meant “day’s eye.” It closed at night and opened in the morning. It always struck me as a happy little flower, so I’m not sure why that flower was chosen for push up the daisies, under the daisies, and to turn your toes up to the daisies, all references to death.
➢ GLADIOLUS comes from a Latin word meaning little sword; it had sword-shaped leaves.
➢ HYACINTH has a somewhat obscure origin. The Greeks said it was the name of a youth loved by Apollo. When Hyacynthus was accidentally killed, flowers sprang up from his blood.
➢ IRIS was the Greek goddess who acted as the messenger of the gods, and her sign was the rainbow.
➢ LAVENDER: Some commentators think that it was related to a word that meant laundered linen, but the OED throws cold water on that theory. Another speculation is that it derived from a word that meant livid or bluish.
➢ MARIGOLD: Another word with an obscure origin. Literally, it means “Mary’s gold flower,” Mary being the Blessed Mother. German and Flemish legends speak of her cutting her finger by accident and staining the edges of the flower, or alternatively, spilling her tears on the flower.
➢ NARCISSUS was the gorgeous youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a fountain. When he pined away and died, a flower sprang up on the spot, according to Ovid.
➢ ORCHID means testicles in a wide range of languages: Greek, Avestan, Old Irish, Armenian, Albanian, and Lithuanian, so it stands up to close scrotiny. The image probably refers to the flower’s root, which features paired tubers.
➢ PEONY comes from Paean, the physician of the gods. [Immortals could catch a cold?] The lowercase paean is a song or chant properly directed to Apollo under the name Paean.
➢ POSY is a variant of poesy, a poetic composition, from the Greek verb “to construct.”
➢ RHODODENDRON: From two Greek words, it literally means rose tree.
➢ ROSEMARY comes from the Latin ros marinus, sea-dew, possibly because it grew near the sea.
➢ TULIP is related to the Persian word for turban, which the tulip was thought to resemble when open.

SIDEBAR: Burpee Seed Catalog

SIDEBAR: The Gardener’s Network

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Bacteria: The Only Culture That Some People Have


The combining form -culture, found in words such as agriculture or horticulture, comes from a Latin word meaning to raise, rear, or develop. It signifies supervised and promoted growth.

There are some interesting words fashioned from that combining form. Let’s look at a few of them.

• apiculture: raising bees
• aviculture: raising birds
• boviculture: raising cattle
• hirudiniculture: raising leeches
• ostreiculture: raising oysters
• pecudiculture: raising cattle
• pisciculture: raising fish
• pomiculture: raising fruit
• sericiculture: raising silkworms
• silviculture: raising trees
• vermiculture: raising worms
• viniculture: raising grapes
• viticulture: raising grapevines

The form is also used metaphorically, as in homiculture (developing mankind), menticulture (developing the mind), pluviculture (rainmaking), puericulture (raising children), and urbiculture (developing cities).

SIDEBAR: culture shock

SIDEBAR: Culture Club

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bad Donkey!


[Fuseli: Nightmare]


From the Greek word kakos, bad, we have inherited our combining form caco-, (bad, depraved, evil, putrid, etc. ) I remember chanting kakos onos! in my high school sophomore Greek class. Literally, it meant “bad beast of burden.” But to us, it meant “bad ass.”

Aside from the word cacophony (dissonance, harsh sound), we don’t use many of these words in ordinary conversation, but they can be useful.

• cachomyny: unhealthy state of the humors of the body
• cacodemon: evil spirit; nightmare
• cacodorous: ill-smelling
• cacodoxy: bad doctrine
• cacœconomy: bad management or fiscal policy
• cacoëpy: faulty pronunciation
• cacoethes: bad habit; a compulsive proclivity to do something
• cacography: wretched handwriting
• cacology: vicious pronunciation
• caconym: bad terminology
• cacosphyxy: irregular pulse
• cacotrophy: disordered nutrition
• cacotype: an imperfect description in writing

SIDEBAR: Cacophony, the band

SIDEBAR: El Caco


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Monday, March 03, 2008

Wolf At The Door



The title phrase now refers to hunger. It appears in the saying, “to keep the wolf from the door” (to stave off starvation), and it’s been with us since the 15th century. I live in Michigan, known as the Wolverine State, and it turns out that wolverine is based on the Teutonic wolv, a wolf.

Wolf shows up in a number of folk phrases: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to wolf down your food, to cry wolf, to have a wolf by the ears, lone wolf, to run with the wolves, to throw someone to the wolves, and to be in the wolf’'s mouth.

It is tucked away in a number of words. Loup garou was an early term for a werewolf. The same idea is found in the word lycanthropy; the wolfman is a lycanthrope. The adjective lupine means having the characteristics of a wolf. Lycodont (wolf tooth) is the name given to a particular snake, simply because it has canine-like teeth. Lycoperdon (which came up in an earlier posting) is a fungus puffball; it means wolf fart. The obsolete word lycophosed (wolf light) meant keen-sighted. Lycopodium (wolf foot) is a moss that has a claw shape.


SIDEBAR: International Wolf Center

SIDEBAR: The Chicago Wolves


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