Word Of The Week: December 26th, 2009.

rocodilesUnless I’ve miscounted I’ve gone through the alphabet twice and 2009 has graced us with an additional Saturday. As a parting shot to the year that was, here are a few completely random thoughts about language:

For most of my life I’ve heard that Eskimos had anywhere from ten to three-hundred different words for snow. Then someone told me that this is actually a myth. It may be a myth that people who live in the very far North have actual different words for snow, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t have terms for different types of snow. After all ice climbers really do have terms for different types of ice, such as verglas, which is “a thin ice created over rocks during a rainfall or when snow melts freezes on rock.” Since some types of snow and ice are safer for crossing than others it makes sense that people would come up with ways to describe them.

In a previous post I talked about Pizzzza Hut’s ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet, but I forgot to mention that, when I was in Russia, I went to McDonald’s and had a Big Mac. The Russian word for “big” is больш, or “bolshoi”, which can also mean “beautiful”. You’d think that calling the Big Mac a Больш МаК would be great marketing, but instead they called it a Биг МаК, or “Beeg Mak”. This just seems really sloppy, although the famous Russian ballet company is called the Bolshoi, so maybe McDonald’s actually thought people would confuse burgers with ballet dancers. And it probably makes more sense than calling a Quarter Pounder a Royale with cheese.

A librarian from Kenya once visited the library where I work. Before he got there I did some quick research so that when I was introduced to him I said, “Jambo. Nafurahi kukuona.” That’s “Hello. It’s nice to meet you.” Apparently my pronunciation was pretty good because he immediately started speaking to me in Swahili and I had to explain that I’d just used up my entire vocabulary. Fortunately he was fluent in English, but he appreciated my effort and it helped break the ice.

This experience and similar ones made me realize that, while we might see different languages as barriers to communication they can actually be bridges.


Book ‘Em: Happy Solstice!

I don’t remember when exactly I first realized that days got shorter in winter. At some point, possibly even before an adult pointed it out to me, I must have noticed that in winter it was already getting dark when I’d come home from school. I don’t even remember anyone explaining this phenomenon to me, although I do remember reading about the analemma in a book when I was nine or ten, and seeing a picture of it. And for young readers now there’s by The Shortest Day: Celebrating The Winter SolsticeWendy Pfeffer, with illustrations by Jesse Reich. This book provides a clear, straightforward explanation of why the days get shorter and colder, and has a short history of the study of astronomy in ancient Egypt and China, and discusses solstice traditions in Rome, Britain, Sweden, and even Peru. My one quibble is that, at the beginning, Pfeffer says that, long ago, “People feared that the sun wouldn’t shine on them anymore, making their world cold and dreary dark.” The scholar in me immediately wants to say, “citation, please!” Humans, like other animals, may have always had an instinctive understanding that the shortening of days was merely a temporary and recurring phenomenon, followed by a lengthening of days.

And that’s a minor quibble because The Shortest Day is clear and well-written and has a lengthy section at the end of solstice facts as well as solstice activities. The activities include a chart for tracking sunrises and sunsets, measuring shadows on the shortest day of the year, using a ball to show how the Earth’s tilt makes the seasons, and feeding winter birds.


Sunday’s Child.

My mother used to recite this poem when I was young:

Mondays child is fair of face,
Tuesdays child is full of grace,
Wednesdays child is full of woe,
Thursdays child has far to go,
Fridays child is loving and giving,
Saturdays child works hard for his living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

It comes to mind occasionally, although, as an adult, I have a slightly more jaded outlook.

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Word Of The Week: December 19th, 2009.

Every once in a while in the store I’ll still see a pair of button-fly jeans. It’s a fad I never did understand. I’ll always prefer the zipper, Gideon Sundback’s great invention which was unleashed–er, I mean, which helped zip up the world in 1925. The Oxford English Dictionary is fuzzy on the etymology of the word zipper, although I’d guess the word must be onomatopoeic. I don’t know if it’s onomatopoeic in every language, though. We all hear the same sound, right? So, in theory, the word zipper should be similar in most languages, and yet in Dutch a zipper is a ritssluiting, in French it’s a tirette, and in German it’s a Reißverschluss. The Greek word for zipper seems somewhat more onomatopoeic, being φερμουάρ–but then again onomatopoeic is a Greek derivative. Spanish for zipper is cremallera, which is lovely-sounding, while in Italian a zipper is chiusura lampo–literally a “closing lightning bolt”. Personally I don’t want a lightning bolt anywhere near my zipper, thank you very much. And finally the Portuguese word for zipper is…zipper. Go figure.

Update: Check out this short but fascinating History of The Zipper. I’ve often heard Sundback mentioned as the inventor the zipper, but he benefitted from the work of earlier inventors Elias Howe (inventor of the sewing machine) and Whitcomb L. Judson.


Beneath The Bough Of Mistletoe.

Most of the leaves have fallen off the trees now and in several places I’ve seen bunches of mistletoe. That, and the time of year, got me thinking about the tradition of two people who meet under mistletoe kissing. I wondered what the origin of it was. After doing some research I can say with absolute certainty that I don’t know, but neither does anyone else. In the Penguin Guide To The Superstitions of Britain & Ireland, Steve Roud says,

In AD 77 Pliny the Elder wrote his famous description of Druids, stating that they revered mistletoe growing on an oak as their most sacred plant, and harvested it with a golden sickle. This short piece is responsible for more disinformation in British folklore than almost any other.

Roud mentions the kissing tradition, but doesn’t say anything about its possible origins. He also points out that Pliny was describing Gauls, not anyone from Britain.

According to Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, mistletoe is sometimes called “allheal” and is used as a healing plant. I was pretty surprised to read this since mistletoe is poisonous. Maybe mistletoe was given to people as a curative on the principle that being poisoned would somehow make them stronger and better able to fight off whatever else they were suffering from—sort of a folk vaccine. Farmers in parts of England and Wales would also feed mistletoe to the first cow to give birth in the new year, believing this would bring luck to the entire herd. In fact mistletoe seems to have been pretty important as a symbol of luck to farmers. Presumably because of a belief that mistletoe grew on trees that had been struck by lightning, a sprig of it placed in a house would prevent the house from ever being struck by lightning. As for the kissing, all Funk & Wagnall really have to offer—aside from the fact that it’s a tradition—is that in some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on Twelfth Night, otherwise those who kissed under it will never marry. There is some speculation that the kissing came from the “license of Saturnalia”, but how it got from ancient Rome to late 18th and early 19th century Britain isn’t explained.

Since that’s about all my research turned up, I’m going to make an educated guess that, because mistletoe stays green, like other evergreens it was considered a symbol of fertility. According to Pliny, who may have gotten one or two things right, women did sometimes carry mistletoe as a fertility aid. People may have thought there was something especially special about mistletoe since, unlike evergreen trees, it remained on trees that lost all their other leaves in the winter. Although you can find mistletoe on a tree throughout the year, there is something wonderful about seeing it appear when all the other leaves fall off.

If anyone knows or turns up anything else I’d love to hear it. Here’s a few lines from John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar:

The shepherd now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of misletoe
That ‘neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;
The shadow still of what hath been,
Which fashion yearly fades away.


More Sense And Sensibility Than Pride And Prejudice.

There’s an exhibit going on right now of Jane Austen’s letters, manuscripts, and some engravings at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. Today’s Jane Austen‘s birthday. She was born on this day, December 16th, in 1775. If I could I’d go to the exhibit, but instead I’ll pull out my worn copy of Emma, which is one of my favorite books of all time. And maybe Ms. Austen would prefer that. In a review of the exhibit, Edward Rothstein says that, while we know Jane Austen the author, and while we’re intimately acquainted with her characters,

The difficulty comes, though, in imagining Austen herself. She was such a subtle reader of her characters’ manners, so knowing about their flaws and virtues, yet herself so opaque and mysterious a presence that it is hard to imagine her in the flesh. You have to read her the way her most sentient characters read their companions, attending to subtle signs, mannerisms and language.

Maybe she’d prefer not to be read as a person, though, and instead be read as a writer. There were times when she’d hide what she was writing under her sewing, keeping it a secret from family members, and yet she still published four novels–Sense And Sensibility, Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma–in her lifetime. For most of her characters marriage–and not just marriage of convenience, but happy, loving, romantic marriage–is the ultimate goal, and yet Austen herself never married. I don’t know if she felt something was missing or if she was happy with her own independence. Ultimately it doesn’t matter.

Included in that exhibit is a new year’s greeting written in 1817, the year she died, to her eight-year old niece Cassandra. Austen turned the letter into a game, writing every word backwards, starting, “I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey.” It’s a fun way to write a letter, and, in the spirit of that, yppah yadhtrib, Enaj Netsau.


Word Of The Week: December 12th, 2009

The year is almost over. We’re getting close to the point where I’ll turn off my work computer and say to my co-workers, “See you next year!” And we’ll laugh even though it’ll be true. Sometimes I think it would be funny to say that then disappear until late December of the next year. I’d show up and say, “Well, I told you I’d see you next year.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has a relatively straightforward definition of year that I think most of us would recognize:

The time occupied by the sun in its apparent passage through the signs of the zodiac, i.e. (according to modern astronomy) the period of the earth’s revolution round the sun, forming a natural unit of time (nearly = 365 days); hence, a space of time approximately equal to this in any conventional practical reckoning (considered with respect to its length, without reference to its limits).

I find it interesting that it calls an astronomical year nearly equal to 365 days, since I thought the time it took the Earth to orbit the sun was closer to 365.25 days–hence the need for a leap year with an additional day every four years, except the extra day is skipped in most years ending with 00, and is only included every four-hundred years (1600, 2000, 2400, etc). And in leap years it’s the month of February that gets an extra day. Fans of Frasier probably remember the episode in which Frasier encouraged everyone he knew to “take a leap” on February 29th, with disastrous results.

The whole business with leap years just highlights how hard it is to keep track of time. I’m not sure we’ll ever fully understand it and trying to fit it into such neat categories as seconds and minutes or even weeks and years seems futile. And yet I think every year it’s one leap we’ll always keep trying to make.


Book ‘Em: Elf Help.

Some presents just shouldn’t be unwrapped. As funny as David Sedaris‘s Holidays On Ice is, I can’t help feeling that way reading parts of it. The star section of the book is, of course, The Santaland Diaries, about Sedaris’s time working as an elf during Christmas at Macy’s. It’s not so much what goes on behind the scenes, the fact that he’s certain he failed his drug test, or the way, thanks to employee theft, “the store treats its employees the way one might treat a felon with a long criminal record”, or even the occasional abuse he gets from customers. No, for me the most disturbing thing is that Sedaris says he got the job as an elf because he’s short–and he’s just an inch shorter than I am. He does try to balance cynicism with good humor, although it’s obviously difficult at times, particularly when the employee training includes a lecture on how to keep elf costumes clean and the female elves are told they have to wear underwear. And there are times when Sedaris comes off a little more mean-spirited than necessary, such as when he describes a man he calls Santa Santa, who takes himself “a little too seriously”.

I asked him where he lives, Brooklyn or Manhattan, and he said, “Why, I live at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus!” I asked what he does the rest of the year and he said, “I make toys for all the children.”…Santa Santa sits and waves and hingles his bell sash when no one is there. He actually recited “The Night Before Christmas,” and it was just the two of us in the house, no children. Just us. What do you do with a nut like that?

Hey, as long as he’s not a danger to himself or to children or anyone else, wouldn’t you want a department store Santa like that? He’s better than, say, David Sedaris, who tells one misbehaving boy that Santa “no longer traffics in coal”, but will instead break into the houses of bad children and steal things.

The original edition of Holidays On Ice, published in 1997, had just five other stories, including the extremely bitter and dark but also funny Seasons Greetings to our Friends and Family!!! Although Sedaris tends to be a little too heavy-handed when writing fiction, it’s a wonderful Christmas story you can share with your family–if you’re The Addams Family. The collection also has the very touching Dinah The Christmas Whore. Yes, it really is a touching story. Sedaris tends to have mixed feelings about his family, but Dinah makes him look at them in a very positive way.

The expanded edition, published in 2008, adds six more stories, including Jesus Shaves. Originally published in Me Talk Pretty One Day, the main subject of Jesus Shaves is actually Easter, as Sedaris tries to explain the Easter Bunny to his psychopathic French teacher, while also trying to understand the French Easter tradition of a giant chocolate bell that flies in from Rome. It also includes Let It Snow, originally published in Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, about a snowy day when young David and all his siblings get locked out of the house by their mother. They decide their mother will be sorry if one of them is killed by a car, so they try to make the youngest lie down in the street.

The expanded edition also includes what I think is Sedaris’s funniest and best essay of them all, Six To Eight Black Men. Sedaris considers the traditions of other countries, focusing on the Netherlands where Santa pretends to kick bad children and is accompanied not by elves but by six to eight black men–former slaves but now simply assistants. As Sedaris says, ” As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution–so what’s not to love about being Dutch?” He’s got a good point. Even though the Dutch Santa might pretend to kick you and be accompanied by six to eight assistants, he’s not as frightening as some of the characters you’ll meet at Macy’s.

Here’s a selection from Six To Eight Black Men.

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Word Of The Week: December 5th, 2009

Artists can be inspired by almost anything. In the case of Camille Saint-Saens, for instance, I’ve heard that he wrote his piece Danse Macabre solely to feature the xylophone, which had never been used in a symphonic work before. That may or may not be true, but it’s still a story that I like. It’s my second favorite story about Saint-Saens. The first is that he attended the first performance of Stravinsky‘s Sacre du Printemps and sat through the entire thing repeating, “He’s insane…he’s insane.” The word xylophone comes from the Greek words xylo, which means “tree”, and “phone”, which means “voice”. I always thought The Lorax was the voice of the trees–but that’s another story.

Saint-Saens apparently liked the xylophone so much it also plays a part–no pun intended–in his Le Carnival de Animaux.

I realize this is more appropriate for Halloween, but, hey, with the holidays approaching, any dance–even a macabre one–is a way to celebrate.

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Precious Bodily Fluids.

You really have to wonder what went on in the mind of the person who designed the cover for The RE/Search Guide To Bodily Fluids by Paul Spinard. Obviously this was not an easy subject to sum up with a single picture, but why they chose to illustrate it with what appears to be a sweaty large intestine is beyond me. The publisher’s description is equally enticing:

This guide sparks a radical rethinking of our relationshiup with our bodies and Nature, humourously (and seriously) spanning the gamut of everything you ever wanted to know about bodily functions and excreta.

The website also includes an excerpt on vomit. This book promises to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about your precious bodily fluids, but, if you want to read more, there are those children’s classics Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts by Shinta Cho. While not exactly covering the same topic, they are books in a similar…vein.


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