Monday, June 30, 2008

Wail Sightings


I attended a middle-eastern funeral not too long ago, and one of the striking elements was the ululation that I encountered. This is a ritualized howling or lamentation for the dead, piercing in quality and utterly arresting in its effect. The word comes from the Latin ululare, and the noun connected to the sound was originally used to name the screech-owl.

This led me on a search for other terms for wailing.

caterwaul: to wail like a cat in heat, but also applied to squalling children.
ejulation: [obsolete] from the Latin ejulare, to wail.
keening: the Irish version of wailing or lamenting the dead.
quain: [obsolete] from the Icelandic kveina, to lament.
thutter: to howl or wail, from Old English.
vagitus: a cry or wail, especially of a newborn child.
• And yes, SNL fans, there was once a wailster, a female wailer.

SIDEBAR: The Keening Spell [a song]

SIDEBAR: Jeremiah 9:20


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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Skunked


Listener David Gill sent a link relating to the Traverse City Beach Bums and Tim Calderwood, the voice of that Frontier League baseball team.

It seems that a skunk wandered onto the field and stymied the best efforts to remove it without incident. That led David to ask where we got the term skunked.

Currently, it means to be defeated, especially in a shutout. In 1831, it was a New England expression meaning to fail. By 1843, “defeated without making any score” was firmly entrenched. A decade later, it had shaded into “failure to pay a bill” and then into cheating or being cheated. You could be skunked by a salesman who inflated the price.

The verb form is considered slang, and it is derived from the noun. A skunk is responsible for the big stink, of course, so it’s easy to see where the unpleasant connotations come from. The word originally came from the Abenaki tribe.


SIDEBAR: The Beach Bums are Skunked


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Monday, June 23, 2008

Elephantine


There were several programs on cable TV this weekend about extinct animals and scientific attempts to extract their DNA. I suspect that the outbreak of such similar programs arose from the fact that a major cable network aired Jurassic Park yet again.

Mammoth was one of the words used. A mammoth was a very large elephant-like mammal, typically hairy with a sloping back and long curved tusks, which became extinct during the late Pleistocene period. The word derives from the Russian, where it seems to have meant earth-horn. Some claim that it owes a portion of its existence (the back end) to the word behemoth.

Behemoth comes to us from the Hebrew. It meant monstrous beast. Scholars believe that this description referred to the hippopotamus. It was used in the Book of Job xl, 15-19:

• “Behold now, behemoth, which I made as well as thee;
He eateth grass as an ox.
• Lo now, his strength is in his loins,
And his force is in the muscles of his belly.
• He moveth his tail like a cedar:
The sinews of his thighs are knit together.
• His bones are as tubes of brass;
His limbs are like bars of iron.
• He is the chief of the ways of God:
He only that made him giveth him his sword.”

The mastodon was also mentioned in those TV programs. It was a large extinct mammal related to and resembling the elephant, but having simpler teeth and lower tusks. It lived from the Oligocene epoch until late prehistoric times. The word came from the French, where it meant breast-tooth. This was because of the nipple-like tubercles present in pairs on the crowns of the molar teeth.

SIDEBAR: mastodons

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Summer Solstice


Summer solstice is coming up in my hemisphere, the longest day of the year. Solstice, from the Latin, means “sun standing still” because it appears to come to a halt on that day. Fortunately, it always changes its mind and returns to its journey.

There are some interesting words through which the sun shines.

• Apricate [L. apricari] means to bask in the sun, something that my Neo does rather well.

• Helianthus [Gr. helios, sun + anthos, flower] is the botanical genus that contains the common sunflower.

• Heliosis was exposure to the sun, often leading to sunstroke.

• The chemical element helium was first discovered by studying the spectrum emitted by the sun.

• To insolate is to expose something to the sun’s rays, quite the opposite of insulate.

• Something solific [L. sol, sun] was impregnated with solar qualities; medicinal wine was exposed to the sun in measured doses to capture its healing qualities.

SIDEBAR: Sumer Is Icumen In


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Monday, June 16, 2008

On Death & Dying



I think that Tim Russert would have been delighted to see the straightforward way that his death was announced in headlines. “Tim Russert dies at 58” was a typical example. What struck me is that very few headlines pussyfooted around the word death. They came right out and used it in an unflinching way. That was Tim’s style.

What makes this notable is that few experiences in human life have given rise to more euphemisms than death. Many people treat death and dying as an affront or an indelicacy; “how dare you die!” is the unspoken reproach. A fart in an elevator is more socially acceptable.

Tiptoeing around the subject of death is nothing new. The Old West produced a passel of euphemisms. Given the hazards of pioneer life, I suppose that a little deflective humor was understandable.

Hang up your saddle. . . . . Bite the dust
Hang up your boots. . . . . Get sawdust in your beard
Drop the reins. . . . . Go over the range
Ride off into the sunset. . . . . Ride the long trail
Cross the Great Divide. . . . . Shake hands with St. Peter
Go to the last roundup. . . . . Go to the great spread in the sky
Pass in your chips. . . . . Turn your toes to the daisies

Today, the euphemisms continue to proliferate.

Bought the farm. . . . . Laid down his burden
Called to a higher service. . . . . Put down his knife and fork,
Cashed in their checks. . . . . Left the building
Croaked. . . . . Met his maker
Crossed the River Styx. . . . . Not with us anymore
Earned a promotion. . . . . Passed (over to the other side)
Gone to greener pastures. . . . . Removed himself from the voting list
Jumped the last hurdle. . . . . Went home

One of my favorites comes from medspeak. Patients never die; there is simply negative care outcome.

SIDEBAR: The Death Clock: when am I going to die?


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Friday, June 13, 2008

Metaphor Madness



A guest on CNBC this week was promoting diversification in holdings, always a smart move in a volatile market. The way he expressed it, however, caught my attention. His advice: “You don’t want to put all your chips in one basket.”

The normal form of the cliche is, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” It goes back to a more rural stage in our nation’s development. If you came back from the hen house after a friendly raid and stumbled on the path to the farm house, thus dropping the basket, you had inedible scrambled eggs.

To be fair to the guest (whose name I don’t remember), if he was talking about tech holdings and chip-making companies, it could have been a cute play on words. I wasn’t paying slavish attention at that moment, but I don’t think he was limiting himself to computer companies.

He may have been mixing the eggs with an idea from roulette strategy: “Don’t put all your chips on one square.” I’m no gambler, but I get the impression that your chances of winning improve if you play combinations on each bet (red or black, odd or even, high or low).

At any rate, while I admire CNBC and think that it has a first-rate staff, I am often amused and annoyed at the frequency with which language gaffes show up there.

SIDEBAR: Eggs in a Basket


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Monday, June 09, 2008

Inundation


Unrelenting rain storms have inundated the midwestern United States in the last few days, and forecasts don’t seem to promise much relief. It’s appropriate to examine some words that relate to rain.

Pluvius was a Latin word for rain, and it brought us several words.
• compluvium: a square opening in the roof of the atrium through which the rainwater collected on the roof fell. In turn,
• the impluvium was the square basin located under that opening designed to collect the rainwater.
• pluvial: a long cloak worn as a liturgical vestment, but originally designed to be a raincoat.
• pluvial adj.: characterized by much rain.
• pluvialine: resembling the plover, the rain bird.
• pluviculture: the art of inducing rain.
• pluviometer: a rain gauge.
• pluviose: rainy.
• pluvius: relating to insurance coverage against disruption by bad weather.

Huetos was a Greek word for rain, and it shows up in a couple of places.
• hyetal: pertaining to rain or rainy regions. [Note that the hernia is spelled hiatal.]
• hythergraph: a graphical representation of climate in which one important coordinate is precipitation or humidity.

In addition, the Greek ombro- meant rain. Some organisms were ombrophilous (craved rain), while others were ombrophobic (shunned rain). The Latin imbro- was a cousin; it shows up in imbricated, covered with overlapping rain tiles, and imbriferous, bringing rain.

SIDEBAR: World Rainfall Statistics


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Friday, June 06, 2008

Pain


I was talking to a senior citizen the other day when she used the phrase, “hidden aches and pains.” The context was an admonition that she had followed all her adult life: when you’re a mother, you take care of your family without moaning and complaining, even when you’re ill. It made me think of the hidden pain concealed in some words.

Alg- is a common stem used to convey the idea of pain. It comes from the Greek algos, pain. Something producing pain is algetic. Algolagnia is sexual satisfaction achieved through pain, the polar opposite of algophobia, which flees from pain no matter what the promised reward. Cardialgy was an old term for heart pain, cephalalgy was pain in the head, and gastralgia meant stomach pain. Perhaps we should start a campaign to start using pygalgia, pain in the buttocks.

The combining form -algesia, the ability to feel pain, shows up in words such as analgesia (loss of sensibility to pain), hypalgesia (diminished sensibility to pain), hyperalgesia (extreme sensitivity to pain), and paralgesia (disordered or diminished sensitivity to pain).

The word parts -dynia or odyno-, from the Greek odune, pain, showed up in gastrodynia (cousin to gastralgia), odynophagia (painful swallowing), pleurodynia (pain in the side), coccygodynia (pain in the coccyx), and otodynia (chronic ear pain), and proctodynia, actual cousin to the hypothetical pygalgia.

If you suffer from somatalgia (gratuitous pain in all parts of the body) , you’re probably a senior citizen, and it’s time for a full-body transplant.

SIDEBAR: Managing Chronic Pain


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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Blinking Rictus



I watched John McCain’s speech last night. The message was polished and predictable, but the delivery was positively alarming.

We all have inappropriately behaving relatives: the uncle who cackles loudly at a joke told in a funeral parlor, or the aunt who chatters endlessly at a movie theater, drowning out the dialogue.

Senator McCain displayed what I would have to call a blinking rictus. He would say something quite serious, then instantly break into a highly artificial smile and blink like a chipmunk caught in blazing headlights.

One of his handlers must have thought that a smile would make him seem less rigid, more viewer friendly, but I would have to label it as the Howdy Doody Syndrome. It was painful to watch. With that level of disconnect between body of thought and body language, he’d be better off phoning in future speeches.

This is not change that we can believe in.

SIDEBAR: the McCain Speech


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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lying Beggars



In Latin, mendacium meant a lie, a falsehood. It led to a few English words that also refer to lack of truth.
• Mendacity is the tendency to lie or deceive; an obsolete version is mendation.
• A person with that quality is mendacious.
• The obsolete word mendaciloquence--a blend of mendacious and eloquent-- describes a skill at telling lies.
• Its practitioner is mendaciloquent.

We need to be careful not to confuse this root with another one that comes from the Latin mendicans, a beggar. That root led to
• mendicity: the practice or habit of begging; also mendicancy and mendication.
• mendiciary: appropriate to beggars.
• mendicable: able to be begged.
• mendicant: a member of any of the four Christian religious orders whose members originally lived solely on alms (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinian Hermits.)
• mendicate: to beg.

SIDEBAR: Signs that someone is lying


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