Wednesday, 29 July 2009

v-mail, e-mail and pee-mail

V-mail. Seems like a twenty-first century word. But it isn't. It's a word coined in the middle of the last century by the US military to describe a process of microfilming mail to and from military personnel.

The process, in which letters were written on special one-page sheets, originated in England. Microfilming letters lessened the weight of mail and made it possible for more efficient communication between military personnel and their families back home. A slide show at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum makes the process clear and shows the enormous difference in size between a pile of actual letters and the microfilmed copies.

But I've seen another use of the word V-mail. It's the title of a great little book I bought at the British Museum Shop, an intimate look at the everyday lives of Romans living at Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall around the first century AD.

The tablets are small, thin pieces of wood and were used for letters, reports, lists or quick notes. The wooden slices were tied together in bundles. In the book there are all sorts of letters. I like the birthday invitation best:
Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, for the day of the celebration of my birtuday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, it will make the day more enjoyable for me if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you.
I thought the letter from Severus to his slave was interesting, too.
Severus to his Candidus, greetings. Regarding the dish for the Saturnalia, I ask you to buy it at a price of four or six asses and radishes to the value of not less than 1/2 denarius. Farewell.
Next I wanted to find out who coined the word email. But I haven't been able to find out. If anyone knows, I'd love to hear from you. I did discover the history of that first email, but not who named it.

And pee-mail? Well, as any dog-blogger knows, that's how dogs leave messages for each other on any available surface as they take their humans for a walk. It sure slows down our daily walk as my dog scans the liquid deposits for interesting snippets of news.

World's first historical thesaurus of english

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, the world's first historical thesaurus, is to be published in two volumes on 8 October 2009. I read about this at English, Jack and followed the link to the BBC News, where the report includes a sample page giving the evolution of words for trousers.

Of course, we couldn't discuss trousers without thinking of that old favorite song, Donald where's Your Troosers?

And at Podictionary I read the surprising origin of the English word pants.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

clever crows aren't murderers

As I walked the dog this morning I watched a crow going about its mid-winter business - gathering sticks, perhaps for its nest - and I wondered why a group of crows goes by the collective noun, a murder. I've seen some very amusing behavior by crows and I think they're fun to have around. (Maybe the Australian birds are actually ravens, but that distinction is in the 'too hard' basket for me, so I'll just call them crows.)

And this evening, on Boing Boing, I've just read an anecdote in which the expression murder of crows was used. Okay, that's a sign. I need to discover the truth about this harsh noun.

The American society of Crows and Ravens says
A "murder" of crows is based on the persistent but fallacious folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn't belong in their territory or much more commonly feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries (because they scavenged on human remains). In England, a tombstone is sometimes called a ravenstone.
The Grammarphobia Blog, on the other hand, suggests the expression might be a fanciful one and not a genuinely medieval collective noun.

The Boing Boing post reported a study showing crows can recognise individual human faces.

I think they are one of the smartest birds around. And I like them.

Monday, 27 July 2009

a moratorium on remoras

Reading The Big Issue today, I came across the word remora.

It was explained in Mic Looby's regular column. He said the word comes from the Latin for 'delay', because 'according to one legend, a few affixed remora can slow a ship's progress'.

Online Etymology Dictionary says: "sucking fish", 1567, from L. remora, lit. "delay, hindrance," from re- "back" + mora "delay"...Pliny writes that Antony's galley was delayed by one at the Battle of Actium.

I wondered how large they are, that they could slow a ship, so I had a look at a video clip of one attaching itself to a diver who was waiting out a decompression stop on the way up from a dive, and it only seemed as long as his forearm.

Dive The World, where this video was posted, says:
In ancient times, the remora was believed to stop a ship from sailing. In Latin remora means "delay", while the genus name Echeneis comes from Greek echein ("to hold") and naus ("a ship"). Particularly notable is the account of Pliny the Younger, in which the remora is blamed for the defeat of Mark at the Battle of Actium and (indirectly) for the death of Caligula.
Good on you, little (or not so little) remora, I say. Caligula was no loss, from what I gather.

Here's a fascinating essay with interesting quotes from Pliny. It seems that "Upon its being shown to the emperor [Caligula], he strongly expressed his indignation that such an obstacle as this should have impeded his progress, and have rendered powerless the hearty endeavours of some four hundred men. One thing, too, it is well known, more particularly surprised him, how it was possible that the fish, while adhering to the ship, should arrest its progress, and yet should have no such power when brought on board" (Id.). Thus, Pliny points out, "did an insignificant fish give presage of great events.

Encarta says they grow to about 90 centimetres long, so I suppose if you were rowing around in a galley, a few remoras on the hull might slow you down.

Then I got to wondering about the word moratorium. Back to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1875, originally a legal term for "authorization to a debtor to postpone payment," from neut. of L.L. moratorius "tending to delay," from L. morari "to delay," from mora "pause, delay," originally "standing there thinking." The word didn't come out of italics until 1914. General sense of "a postponement, deliberate temporary suspension" is first recorded 1932.
Well, enough of standing here thinking... I'd better stop.

Monday, 13 July 2009

the pompeiians didn't have a word for 'volcano'

When I visited the Melbourne Museum's special exhibition, A Day in Pompeii, I was surprised to learn that Latin had no word for volcano.

I had expected to enjoy the exhibition in an uncomplicated way, but reckoned without the fact that the ancient disaster would evoke such strong memories of the recent bushfires here in Victoria. Embarrassed by my reaction, I surreptitiously wiped away the tears as I watched a realistic 3-D computer animation of the pyroclastic cloud rolling down the mountain towards the town of Pompeii. I wondered how many others had the same reaction - the teenage girl beside me spent the entire time sobbing into her mother's breast, the mother gently rubbing her daughter's shoulder.

And the room with the plaster casts of people and animals who died in agony...too confronting in Victoria in 2009.

The striking point made in the exhibition - in what I am sure would be an unintentional reference to the current Royal Commission into the recent deaths here - is that the Pompeiians had to decide whether to stay to defend their property or leave early. Those who fled lived, those who stayed died.

They didn't know what they faced, because they didn't know what a volcano could do. Which seems strange, given the Latin root of the word.

Science and Mathematics in Ancient Greek Culture by Christopher Tuplin and Tracey Elizabeth Rihll, contains an article by Harry M. Hine suggesting the word volcano was coined by Italian or Portuguese sailors as recently as the fifteenth century CE.

When the ancients discussed volcanoes, it was specific named volcanoes, such as Etna, which was one of the more well-known ones. They didn't have a tradition of discussing volcanic activity in a general way, because there hadn't been many eruptions in Europe. Opportunities to witness volcanic activity were rare and localized. Before Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, Etna was the only volcano close enough to major cities to be visible from them.

The modern city of Naples lives on the edge of disaster, as the ancients did - the difference being that the inhabitants have a word for volcano, understand what can happen and should receive some warning beforehand. In a short film about Naples, the narrator argued the necessity for a plan to evacuate the city.

And I wondered how we could evacuate our towns buried in the heart of the flammable bush, with the only possible exits along narrow tree-lined roads.

Let's hope it isn't another drought-stricken summer.

Monday, 6 July 2009

A hound or a dog?

I sometimes wonder why we call our canine pets dogs and reserve the word hound for a sub-group of dogs, given that the German word Hund is the translation of dog and The Free Dictionary gives the etymology I would have expected:
[hound - Middle English, from Old English hund; see kwon- in Indo-European roots.
This question came back to the forefront of my mind when I was browsing the archives of A Word a Day, and read this anecdote, which I've posted on my dog blog:
Our seven-year-old daughter Ananya has developed an interest in etymology. Often she'll interrupt her play in the backyard and peek in my downstairs study to ask about whatever word comes to her mind. Some time back she barged in with, "So how did the word dog came about?" I explained to her that the word dog came from Middle English dogge which came from Old English docga. Satisfied, she went back to her play.

I had completely forgotten about it when a few days later I overheard her talking to her grandmother on the phone, "Amma, we got a dogga." I was puzzled and later asked why she said dogga instead of dog. She patiently explained, "You know, Amma is old. That's why I used Old English with her."
Okay, that explains the word dog, but why has it prevailed over hound as the general term?

An article by Nancy M. Kendall in The Christian Science Monitor gives a clue.
For centuries, sportsmen have bred dogs for their tracking abilities. A "sleuthhound" was a dog trained to follow the track (sleuth) of a quarry in all weather. This Scottish bloodhound not only hunted game but also tracked down fugitives.
Aha! I was on the track (or slot, or sleuth), of my word origin.

And then...I didn't need to search any more, because I found a fascinating post about the underlying human-canine relationships that formed these differences in English vocabulary. It concludes:
It seems that hound and dog are not the same. The word dog implies common in every sense of the word. The word hound implies hunter and nobility. It seems that no creature escapes the class system in our society.
Basically the writer suggests that hounds were for hunting and dogs were for guarding.

Hmm...does that mean it's rather common to keep a dog as a pet? Yes, perhaps in more than one sense of the word, given the ownership rate of dogs. (37.3% of Australian families owned a dog in 2006.)

Sunday, 5 July 2009

chiasmus and chocolate cheese cake

My sister prepared a chocolate cheese cake last night and we just ate some of it, in a celebration of all that is unhealthy in delicious food, a symphony of fat and sugar that will sing through the veins and into the organs and probably settle on the hips forever. (I said 'prepared' rather than 'baked', because it's a frozen, uncooked one, and not such a good choice for a barbecue on a summer's day - but that's another story.)

We felt a teensy bit guilty eating it, but comforted ourselves with the knowledge that although it would have been unhealthy to eat a large portion, we each took a piece that was quite small compared to a huge serve. And then had to admit it was undeniably huge, compared to a small serve.

An example of chiasmus! The very first day after I learned this new word, it slid quietly into the lunchtime conversation. defines chiasmus:
A verbal pattern (a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. Essentially the same as antimetabole.
Of the examples quoted after the definition, my favorite would have to be Samuel Johnson's "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."