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Memento Mori

The phrase memento mori is usually used in the context of a literary topos, that is a commonplace, or a motif in art. The New Latin (i.e. not Classical, but late Medieval or Early Modern Latin) is derived from Latin mementō, singular imperative of meminisse, “to remember’ + Latin morī, “to die.” Memento mori is conventionally translated as “remember that you have to die,” or the even less literal “remember your death” (AHD).” Remember here has a cautionary connotation of “don’t forget.” The driving idea behind the tag (and the topos) is that all creatures die; we should thus go through life remembering that our death is inevitable. In a Christian context, the emphasis is less on fate and fatality, and more on the Christian concept of a heavenly life to come; we should thus remember our mortality, and use this life to prepare for the life to come.
As the AHD entry for memento mori notes:
n. pl. memento mori
1. A reminder of death or mortality, especially a death's-head.
2. A remi…

Buckles, Cobblers, Grunts and Slumps

It’s blueberry season in Maine. The abundance of blueberries got me thinking about my mom’s blueberry buckle recipe. What, pray tell, is a buckle?

Buckles
Fruit buckles are very much associated in my mind with New England, but my quick check of southern recipe collections suggest that that’s not the case historically. Southern recipes for buckles feature apples and plums Almond-Plum Buckle recipe rather than blueberries Blueberry Buckle Recipe. A buckle, for the curious, is an old-fashioned style of single layer cake, typically cooked in a flat pan, round or square (rather than , and includes fruit and streusel-style crumb topping. Some recipes call for mixing the fruit into the cake batter, others have the cook spread the fruit between the batter and streusel topping, as a separate layer. The batter is very dense, and as the cake cooks, the batter sinks to the bottom, and pushes the fruit and streusel up, making them “buckle,” or give way. In other words, the “buckle” in question is…

Asterisk

Asterisk is one of those words in English that began as a noun, but is often used as a verb, with the meaning “To mark with an asterisk” (AHD s.v. asterisk). An asterisk is:
n.
1. A star-shaped figure (*) used chiefly to indicate an omission, a reference to a footnote, or an unattested word, sound, or affix.
2. Mathematics A symbol used to indicate multiplication, as in 2 * 3 = 6. Etymologically speaking, asterisk (present in Middle English) derives from Late Latin asteriscus, from Greek asteriskos, diminutive of astēr, “star.” Asterisk, Aster, and Star are all derived from the Proto Indo-European root *ster-3.

Our practice of using an asterisk to identify things as particularly important, or as a reference to mark that there’s a note or comment about an item has a Classical heritage:

The practice of using a star-shaped sign, an asterisk, began in Ptolemaic Alexandria where the great textual scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium and his student Aristarchus of Samothrace used them to mark …

Coulee

If you know anyone from Eastern Montana, you likely have heard them refer to coulees. In Montana and most of the Western U.S., a coulee is “A deep gulch or ravine with sloping sides, often dry in summer” (AHDs.v. coulee). While coulee means different things in other places (a stream bed or even a bayou or canal in Louisiana and Southern Mississippi, a valley with hills on either side, or a lava flow), I want to focus on the Montana definition of coulee.

Writer Kari Lynn Dell, novelist and Montana resident defines a coulee this way:

It's smaller than a valley, wider than a ravine, deeper and longer than a draw. In our area they have been carved by creeks into the flat plain left behind after the massive glacial sheets of ice retreated back to the mountains at the end of the last ice age. Since the word is of French origin, I assume we have the early French Canadian trappers to thank for its prevalence, given that they were the first white men to venture into this area.  Go look at …

Welsh

The word Welsh can refer to the Celtic language of Wales, called Cymric in that language, or it can be an adjective referring to  items related to “Wales or its people, language or culture” (AHDs.v.Welsh.
Etymologically, the word Welsh entered Modern English via the Middle English Walische, derived from Old English Wælisc, from Old English Wealh, “foreigner.” The plural form of wealh, wealas, gave us the Modern English word Wales.

There’s a certain irony that the Germanic-speaking invaders refer to the previous inhabitants of Britain, the Celtic speaking ancestors of modern Welsh, as “foreigners,” but to the English, the people “over there,” across the border in Wales, were “foreign,” if not “enemies,” and in some contexts, the word Wælisc does in fact seem to be a synonym for “enemies.”

As the note in the AHD entry for Wales mentions, Welsh derives from the I.E. root walh-, as does the OE word for walnut; walhhnutu. This word, is a surviving in a single c. 1050 ms. is a compound …

Sheepish Idioms

As we move along the paths of technology and human invention, our skill sets and our language change along with our manner of life. But because so much of language, especially idiom, is built upon metaphor, as we lose understanding of past ways of living, those metaphors die, and become complicated literary allusions.

Take, for instance “dyed-on-the-wool,” which Ngaio Marsh used in a punning title of her mystery novel, Died in the Wool. The idiom really is “dyed,” and dyed-in-the-wool means, according to the AHD, “Thoroughgoing; out-and-out: a dyed-in-the-wool populist.” You usually see the idiom used in a political context, as in “Kennedy was a dyed in the wool Democrat.” SyedDin-the-wool can be used for other fields as well; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Macintosh fan. The idiom derives from the practice of dying wool that has been washed, combed or “carded” to remove tangles and bits of trash, but which has not ye been spun into yarn. Wool dyed in after being washed and carded but before …

Easter

Easter n.
1. A Christian feast commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus. 2. The day on which this feast is observed, the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or next after March 21. 3. Eastertide.
That seems straightforward enough. It gets a little less straightforward when we start looking at the etymology behind the word Easter.

This much we are reasonably sure of; Easter is derived from Middle English ester, itself derived from Old English ēastre. There's a very clear Proto Indo-European root there; *aus-, "to shine." Derivatives of *-aus included east, Easter, and Aurora, as well as the name of the Greek dawn goddess, Eos.

You will see a fair number of people stating that Easter is derived from teh name of a pagan goddess named Eostre, or Ostara. Despite urgent and repeated assertions from Neo Pagans, Easter is not Celtic, nor is there a fertility goddess represented by the rabbit named Eostre, nor is she a moon goddess; the fact that the word Easter begins…

The Language of Basball

Foolish me; I had been planning for some time to welcome the Springtime return of major league baseball with a bit about the way baseball idioms have crept into ordinary American English.
I’m far too late to the pitch. There’s a wikipedia article already. Even the OED got to first base before me.

There are books about the language of baseball; Ryan Gray’s The Language of Baseball: A Complete Dictionary of Slang Terms, Cliches, and Expressions From The Grand Ole Game. And there's a book (and a website) by Paul Dickson about the signs used to signal plays used by catchers, pitchers, coaches and even players (at bat or in the field); The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime.

Nonetheless, because I love the way baseball has embedded itself so very thoroughly into American English, I’m going to talk about a handful of words and phrases. Bear in mind that while I love baseball, I’m not a player or even an expert fan…

Filibuster

According to the official U.S. Senate Glossary a filibuster is an
Informal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions. According to the AHD, a filibuster:
a. The obstructing or delaying of legislative action, especially by prolonged speechmaking. b. An instance of this, especially a prolonged speech. An adventurer who engages in a private military action in a foreign country. Etymologically the English word filibuster derives from Dutch vrijbuiter, “pirate” via Spanish filibustero, or “freebooter”; the Spanish borrowed the word from French flibustier, who in turn derived their word from Dutch vrijbuiter.

English also derives our word freebooter “A person who pillages and plunders, especially a pirate” from Dutch vrijbuiter. Dutch vrijbuiter derives from from vrijbuit, plunder, a compound of vrij, free; (see prī- in the Appendix of In…

Penguin

There’s universal agreement today that a penguin is:

Any of various stout, flightless aquatic birds of the family Spheniscidae, of the Southern Hemisphere, having flipperlike wings and webbed feet adapted for swimming and diving, short scalelike feathers, and white underparts with a dark back (AHD). It’s possible that penguin is of Welsh origin; it breaks down very neatly into pen + gwen/gwyn, with pen meaning “head,” and gwen meaning “white,” (and there are species of penguin with white heads).

However, the etymology isn’t at all certain. The OED offers two early quotations in context:
1577 F. FLETCHER Log of ‘Golden Hind’ 24 Aug. in N. M. Penzer World Encompassed (1971) 128 Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese. 1589 N. H. in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations (1589) III. 809 The Port of Desire… In this place we had gulles, puets, penguyns, and seales in aboundance. The OED also expounds in a lengthy etymology note after…

Dray

A dray or drey is a squirrel’s nest. Dray is also sometimes applied to a nest of squirrels, or a litter of squirrels.

The OEDs.v. dray offers “A squirrel’s nest” with the following in context citations:

1607   E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 497   They..make their nestes, like the draies of squirrels.
1627   M. Drayton Quest of Cynthia in Battaile Agincourt 141   The nimble Squirrell..Her mossy Dray that makes.
The etymology of dray isn’t clear; it’s generally associated with the dray that means a sled or cart that lacks wheels, and is thus dragged. That dray derives from Old English dragan to draw; the OED suggests “compare Old English dræge drag-net, also Swedish drög sledge, dray, (Old Norse draga, plural drögur timber trailed along the ground)” (s.v.dray).

I suspect, though I can’t prove it, that dray for a squirrel’s nest also derives from OE dragan meaning to draw or drag, and refers to the way squirrels create the dray, by dragging leaves and brush into a nest in the for…

Flotsam and Jetsam

flotsam n.

Goods floating on the surface of a body of water after a shipwreck or after being cast overboard to lighten the ship.Discarded or unimportant things: "Keyrings, bookmarks ... gum, scissors, paper clips ... pencils and pads stolen from various hotels: all this detritus, this flotsam of a life being lived at full throttle" (David Leavitt).People who are considered to be worthless or to have been rejected by society. flotsam AHD jetsam n.
Goods that are cast overboard from a ship, especially in an attempt to lighten the ship, and that sink to the bottom of a body of water.Discarded odds and ends. AHD jetsam
We almost always hear flotsam and jetsam as a phrase, typically in the context of the beach and the sea: "The flotsam and jetsam of the sea dotted the tide line."

As the AHD points out, in maritime law, flotsam refers to "Goods floating on the surface of a body of water after a shipwreck or after being cast overboard to lighten the ship." Jetsam

Dormouse

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. “Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,” thought Alice; ”only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind.” —Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Chapter VII. A Mad Tea-Party.
Technically, the dormouse is a small omnivorous rodent, a native of Eurasia and Africa, of the family the family Gliridae. The dormouse featured in Lewis Caroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland is almost certainly meant to be the British Hazel dormouse, Muscardinus avellanarius. Dormice that live in temperate regions like Britain hibernate, sometimes for as much as half the year, depending on local conditions. They may occasionally wake just long enough to snack on edibles they’ve hidden near their burrow, but then it…

February

The standard dictionary definition for February is very like this one from the AHD:
The second month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. Modern English February is ultimately derived from Latin; the Latin name for the second month, the name used by Romans, is februarius mensis, “purification month,” or, more literally, "month of purification,” the last month of the ancient (pre-450 B.C.E.) Roman calendar. The month was named after the Roman feast of purification, held on the ides of the month, with the new year starting in the following month.

The etymology of February is a little complicated, in that Modern English February is derived from Latin Februarius, which was used as a direct borrowing in Old English, where the Old English equivalent month, Solmōnað, or "mud month," is glossed with Latin Februarius. The Latin name for the month was used in addition to the Old English name, and gradually, began to be used instead of the Old English name.

After the Nor…

Points

In the post about aglets, I mentioned that according to the OED, in earlier eras, aglets were called points. According to the AHD, under definition 35 for point, a point is “A ribbon or cord with a metal tag at the end, used to fasten clothing in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

The following bit from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act 1, scene 5, between Feste the Jester or “clown,” and the maid Maria, refers to points. Feste has returned, late, long after he was expected:
Maria Yet you will be hanged for being so long absent; or,
to be turned away, is not that as good as a hanging to you?
Clown Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage; and,
for turning away, let summer bear it out.
Maria You are resolute, then?
Clown Not so, neither; but I am resolved on two points.
Maria That if one break, the other will hold; or, if both
break, your gaskins fall.
Twelfth Night I. 5. 14–21 Feste is making a bawdy pun regarding a good hanging, meaning both “lynched,” and well, “well hung.” He says he is un…

Aglet

An aglet according to the AHD is
1. A tag or sheath, as of plastic, on the end of a lace, cord, or ribbon to facilitate its passing through eyelet holes.
2. A similar device used for an ornament. The OEDs.v.aglet offers:
a. A tag attached to the end of a lace, originally of metal and now also of plastic, intended primarily to make it easier to thread through the eyelet holes, but also developed as an ornament. The aglet is that small plastic sleeve on the end of your shoelace. Sometimes aglet refers to ornaments at the end of a lace, especially on shirts or other items of clothing. You see this use in the N-Town mystery cycle play # 26 when the Devil describes the clothing he will offer followers:
Hosyn enclosyd of the most costyous cloth of crenseyn; Thus a bey to a jentylman to make comparycyon, With two doseyn poyntys of cheverelle, the aglottys of sylver feyn (Play 26, Conspiracy; Entry into Jerusalem ll. 70–72) The hose have two dozen points, with fine silver aglets at t…

Haggis

If you mention to anyone, at all, that you're going to visit Scotland, you're bound to be warned about Scotland's national dish; haggis. Haggis is, according to the AHD “A Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal.” The closest thing I can compare with haggis to in terms of standard American dishes is stuffing, made with giblets.

People tend to think of haggis around the 25th of January, the date reserved to celebrate the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. All over the world Scots are celebrating Burns Night with a meal that includes toasts to Burns, his poetry, a ceremonial presentation of the haggis, and naturally, a reading of Burns' poem “Address to a Haggis.”

Haggis was not always thought of as a Scottish dish; indeed it was quite popular in the Middle Ages as this English haggis recipe from c. 1430 implie…