Saturday, 31 December 2011

more about the novel 'Pompeii'

I loved the novel Pompeii so much that I can't resist writing about it again.

I don't want to post a spoiler, of course, so I have to be careful here...

But the whole time I was reading it I was thinking of the fact that the Romans didn't know what a volcano could do, because the only volcano to have erupted near a city was Etna, in Sicily. Only an extremely highly educated and well-read citizen would have recognised the warning signs of a volcanic eruption. This was one of the gripping aspects of the story - I winced each time Attillius, the main character, pondered the strange things he was seeing.

Two of the Pliny family play a part in the story, uncle and nephew. I've just come across the nephew's account of that day. It must have been a terrifying day. Parts of it remind me of the night in 1983 when I drove through ashy smoke to the Upper Yarra Valley, trying to find my uncles, who were trapped in East Warburton during the Ash Wednesday Bushfires. There was an air of general panic, and a young constable standing at the crossroads at the town of Yarra Junction told me East Warburton was burned to the ground and everyone was dead. Pliny's account of fleeing from Misenum with his mother as part of a panicked crowd seems to have had similarities to the misinformation and fear that governed the night of our bushfires. He wrote:
We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, other that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers.
As far as I know, Misenum survived the eruption okay. And my uncles were fine, by the way. They were asleep in bed!

Some trailers for the 2009 exhibition in Melbourne, 'A Day in Pompeii', give some idea of what it must have been like for those people in Roman Italy so long ago:
here and here.

I remember that I wept when I saw this one in 3D.

Here's a link to the published letters of Pliny the Younger. I couldn't find the one to Tacitus about Vesuvius, though. Perhaps I didn't persevere long enough. I'm looking forward to reading through them one by one. It's a great insight into the life of a man I'd like to have met.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

matrix - a mother of a word

Matrix. What a word. It has so many meanings these days that I won't even try to cover them all. However, I will mention the fact that matrix comes from Latin and has a sense of 'pregnant animal', 'womb', or 'mother'.

I've just finished reading the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris. Unputdownable! It's quite a feat to keep the reader's interest to the last word when a story is set in Pompeii in AD 79, because we all know it must end with the eruption of Vesuvius.

The story opens when 'the engineer' is climbing by moonlight up a hill overlooking the port of Misenum. He's the new 'aquarius' - water engineer - sent from Rome to replace the mysteriously missing Exomnium.

I think I fell in love with the book on page 10 when, in the engineer's point of view, we read;
Oh, but she was a mighty piece of work, the Augusta - one of the greatest feats of engineering ever accomplished. It was going to be an honor to command her. Somewhere far out there, on the opposite side of the bay, high in the pine-forested mountains of the Apenninus, the aqueduct captured the springs of Serinus and bore the water westward - channeled it over ravines on top of tiered arcades, forced it across valleys through massive siphons - all the way down to the plains of Campania, then around the far side of Mount Vesuvius, then south to the coast at Neapolis, and finally along the spine of the Misenum peninsula to the dusty naval town, a distance of some sixty miles, with a mean drop along her entire length of just two inches every one hundred yards. She was the longest aqueduct in the world, longer even than the great aqueducts of Rome and far more complex, for whereas her sisters in the north fed one city only, the Augusta's serpentine conduit - the matrix, as they called it: the mother-line - suckled no fewer than nine towns around the Bay of Neapolis; Pompeii first, at the end of a long spur, then Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and finally Misenum.
There's a mild romantic interest in the story, but the true love in this book is the engineer's passion for the 'mother-line'. I think I'll never use the word 'matrix' again without thinking of the complex engineering that brought water to this section of Italy in the first century.

I've walked parts of the O'Shannassy Aqueduct Trail above Warburton - not the whole thirty kilometres! - and always had a sense of walking on the flat, so I think that aqueduct may have a gentle drop similar to the Augusta. There's a history of the O'Shannassy here.

Although the two books are quite different genres, Pompeii reminds me of Robert Drewe's novel, The Drowner, because each has a protagonist who comes from a family that lives by a deep, almost spiritual, understanding of water.

The complex engineering of The Augusta is an integral part of the plot of 'Pompeii', so I was fascinated to see a photo of the castellum aquae of Pompeii - the little chamber where the water entered the town and divided into three conduits - as part of the Wikipedia entry about the novel.

Photo by RHaworth (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 22 December 2011

when words are lost, we all suffer

In Overland Issue 205 There's an article titled 'Language and politics in Indigenous writing'. It's a report on a PEN panel, originally presented at the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival.

In the first of three follow-up essays, John Bradley talks about his work with the Yanyuwa people of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria.

He writes:
The more, however, I think about this language, the hardest thing to write about or explain is how the language seems to belong in the land and sea: it is as if it rises up out of the Yanyuwa country.
Today, only the old people speak Yanyuwa. A lot of other people can understand it, but they can't speak it, which is something the old people continue to worry about.
Further on:
When the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove 222 years ago, there were 250 separate languages spoken on the continent later known as Australia. There were therefore 250 cultures, nations, each with their way of understanding the place they called home. In addition, there were at least 600 dialects of these languages. Whichever way these numbers are viewed they speak of diversity. In 2011, less than one hundred of these languages are spoken, some by only one or two people; of this one hundred, 15 are considered strong: that is, all generations of the language community are speaking the language.
He says it has been suggested by some linguists that by 2050 perhaps only a few indigenous languages will be spoken.

All of the above writing makes similar points to what I heard recently at the talk at Preshil.

It seems that the message is getting out to the average Australian (me, for example) that we should be concerned at this potential language loss.

Bradley added something I hadn't thought about, that there is other knowledge disappearing with the languages, knowledge that might be important in my own life, as well as that of the native speakers of these tongues.
Thus we are confronted by an epidemic of silencing that will result in language and cultural loss, an epidemic that has in part been produced by thinking that everything we need to know can be said in English. Yet only now, as these languages fall silent, have biological and ecological scientists begun to see how much of the knowledge that lives in these languages and cultures is also of value to them: fine-grained details of species and micro-environments have been named and worked with for millennia by Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. In the words of the Malawian-born author Amadou Hampaté Bâ from 1966: ‘An old person dying is a library burning.’
A friend of mine, who emigrated from Argentina, once told me his grandfather had been the repository of a wealth of information about Argentinian plants and herbs, and that information had died with him.

I wonder what sort of world we are headed for, where languages die and knowledge is devalued and lost to the human race.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Origin of the word golf

As I drove along today, I passed a Volkswagen Golf, and wondered why they named it that.

I thought I recalled that Golf is the German word for a gulf. (I checked it on my great little Franklin electronic translator, and I was correct.

Wikipedia gives this etymology of the name:
The Golf name is derived from the German word for Gulf Stream and the period in its history when VW named vehicles after prominent winds, including also the Passat (after the German word for Trade wind), Jetta (after the Jet stream), Bora (after Bora) and Scirocco (after Sirocco). "Golf" is also a sport, a theme that is shared with the Polo and Derby.
Here in Australia, and apparently in most of the world, it's called the Golf, but in America it's called the Rabbit. says:
Why did Volkswagen decide to call the new front-drive small car it called the "Golf" everywhere else in the world the "Rabbit" in America? Go ahead and guess, because VW has never offered an official (much less believable) explanation.
Anyway, to get back to my musing as I drove along...

I began to wonder where the sporting name golf originated. I probably wouldn't have followed this up, except that today's Grammarphobia post was about this very word.

And an interesting read it was, too!

So now I know. Or I don't, really, seeing the origin is obscure.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Facetious worship of saints, and Scrabble

My new word for today comes from an article in The Age about young Victorian, Anand Bharadwaj, who recently became the World Youth Scrabble Champion, in Malaysia. He said his favorite word is douleia, meaning worship of saints and angels. It uses all the vowels.

The word wasn't in the dictionary on my computer, nor was it in the online Macquarie Dictionary, but I presume it is one of the 130,000 words officially accepted in Scrabble. I'm not sure where one would find this list of words, but perhaps it would be here.

However, I don't think I'll be using this word anywhere except possibly in a game of Scrabble, because I can't figure out its definitive meaning. In some places it's defined as meaning slavery, and in other places, worship.

I think I'll stick to an old favorite, facetious, which is fun to say and has the vowels in alphabetical order.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

wands, magic and walls

When I was discussing concepts with some students this afternoon, I asked them what the word wand made them think of.

I was surprised to find most of these twenty-first century children initially had the same image as I did, a short piece of wood with a star on the top and lots of glitter - a magic wand that a picture-book fairy might carry. I had expected that the juggernaut Harry Potter franchise might have overlaid the older image with that of a short weapons-grade wand.

Wondering about the original concept of a wand, I looked the word up and found the Online Etymology Dictionary gives the older meaning as a bending, flexible stick.

When I was studying German, back in antiquity (my youth), I used to wonder why words in German sometimes looked exactly like English words but had seemingly totally different meanings. Nowadays I'm often pleasantly surprised to find out such parallels are the result of linguistic history, not coincidences.

The German word for a wall, Wand, is the same word as the little stick Harry Potter carries, because long ago walls in early Germany were made of whippy sticks plaited together.

In looking around the Net to research this post I came across a delightful new meaning - lavender wands.

Helen Keller realises everything has a name

I have the pleasure of working sometimes with young people who want to improve their ability to read and write. Today I wanted to talk to a group about concepts. We read about Helen Keller and how she first began to attach a word to the concept of 'water'. There's a moving film adaptation of Helen Keller's life story here, in which we see the moment when she realised the connection between the word water scratched on the palm of her hand and the actual flow of water from a pump.

Here's a quote from a book called Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat, Bantam Books, 1987:
Here the case of Helen Keller, who was taught by Anne Sullivan, is particularly illuminating. When Sullivan came to teach this child, who had been blind and deaf from an early age and was therefore unable to speak, she realized that she would have to give Helen unrestricted love and total attention.
The key step was to teach Helen to form a communicable concept. This she could never have learned before, because she had not been able to communicate with other people to any significant extent. Sullivan, therefore, caused Helen, as if in a game, to come into contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, each time scratching the word water on the palm of her hand. For a long time, Helen did not grasp what this was all about. But suddenly, she realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance in many aspects, which was symbolized by the word water on the palm of her hand... Thus the different experiences were implied in some sense as being equal, by the common experience of the word water being scratched on her hand. It is worthwhile bringing out in more detail just what was involved in this extraordinary act of creative perception. Up to that moment, Helen Keller had perhaps been able to form concepts of some kind, but she could not symbolize them in a way that was communicable and subject to linguistic organization. The constant scratching of the word water on the palm, in connection with the many apparently radically different experiences, was suddenly perceived as meaning that, in some fundamental sense, these experiences were essentially the same.

To return, for a moment, to the idea of a metaphor, A could represent her experience of water standing still in a pail, while B would represent her experience of water flowing out of a pump. As Helen herself said, she initially saw no relationship between these experiences. At this stage, her perception may be put as A not= B. Yet the same word "water" was scratched on her hand in both cases. This puzzled her very much, for it meant in some way Anne Sullivan wanted to communicate that an equivalence existed between two very different experiences, in other words that A = B.

Eventually, Helen suddenly perceived (of course, entirely nonverbally, since she had as yet no linguistic terms to express her perception) that A and B were basically similar, in being different forms of the same substance, which was represented symbolically by the word "water" scratched on her palm. At this point, there must have been in Helen a state of vibrant tension, and indeed of intense creative perceptive energy, which was in essence similar to that arising in a poet who is suddenly aware of a new metaphor. However, in the case of Helen Keller, the metaphor did not stop here, but went on to undergo a further rapid unfoldment and development. Thus, as she herself said later, she suddenly realized that everything has a name.
I've always loved words. And now I see that they are not just great for enabling us to to communicate with others, but, even more crucially, are essential for allowing us to think. Ayn Rand says:
Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication, as is usually assumed. Communication is merely the consequence, not the cause nor the primary purpose of concept-formation—a crucial consequence, of invaluable importance to men, but still only a consequence. Cognition precedes communication ; the necessary pre-condition of communication is that one have something to communicate. (This is true even of communication among animals, or of communication by grunts and growls among inarticulate men, let alone of communication by means of so complex and exacting a tool as language.) The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale; this means: to keep order in man’s mind and enable him to think.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

a plumber with aplomb

We need a plumber. We need someone to find the leak in our water pipe that is costing us money. And wasting water. As we were discussing who would be appropriate for the job, it occurred to me to hope he would deal with the problem with aplomb.

I wondered, 'Why did that word pop into my head?'

And then I realised my subconscious was at work, thinking of the etymological roots of these two words.

But what does acting with aplomb have to do with plumbing? I thought they must have some connection to the old Latin word for lead, because a plumb line is a line with a lead weight on the bottom. Gravity pulls such a line straight and shows where the vertical is. Here's the origin of plumb.

Coincidentally, at dinner tonight we were discussing whether ancient Romans died young from lead poisoning because they used lead pipes to transport water, and one family member maintained that lead is not soluble in water. Here's some information about the role of lead poisoning in the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says this about the word plumber:
c.1100, "a worker in any sort of lead," from O.Fr. plummier (Fr. plombier), from L. plumbarius "worker in lead," properly an adj., "pertaining to lead," from plumbum "lead" (see plumb). Meaning shifted 19c. to "workman who installs pipes and fittings" as lead water pipes became the principal concern of the trade. In U.S. Nixon administration (1969-74), the name of a special unit for investigation of "leaks" of government secrets. Plumbing "water pipes" is first recorded 1884.
And about aplomb:
"assurance, confidence," 1828, from Fr. aplomb (16c.), lit. "perpendicularity," from phrase à plomb "poised upright, balanced," lit. "on the plumb line," from L. plumbum "(the metal) lead" (see plumb), of which the weight at the end of the line was made.

Monday, 28 November 2011

As I was browsing Slavenka's blog I noticed a word usage that is new to me - murmuration, as a collective noun for a flock of starlings.

Nancy Friedman, on her blog, Fritinancy, quotes the OED on this usage: “one of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated”.

Starlings are a pest species here in Melbourne, and to me the noise they make when settling for the night is more of a cacophany than a 'murmuration'. When they gather in nearby date palm trees around sunset, you can't hear yourself think. But maybe their flight involves a more pleasing and restful sound. After all, the Free Merriam Webster Dictionary defines murmuration this way:
: the act of murmuring : the utterance of low continuous sounds or complaining noises murmuration of the crowds — A.E.Richardson> murmuration of prayer — Frederic Prokosch>
The photos linked on Slavenka's blog of a gigantic flock over Gretna in Scotland (reported in The Mail), and the Fritinancy link to a Vimeo clip of a flock over Ireland, are simply amazing.

In case you don't want to follow those links, here is the Irish clip:

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Australia's indigenous languages

I've just come home from attending a talk by Dr Rachel Nordlinger about Australia's indigenous languages. She presented the Margaret Lyttle 4th Annual Oration at Preshil School in Kew.

Like most Australians, I am appallingly ignorant about the wealth of languages that existed here before the arrival of Europeans. And about the languages that still exist today.

If I remember correctly, Dr Nordlinger said there were about 700 to 800 languages here when Europeans arrived about two hundred and twenty years ago. As is the case in most places around the world, some languages could be grouped together and were so similar as to be classed as dialects, but even allowing for this, there were about 260 entirely separate languages.

When she said this, I recalled an old map, one I bought many years ago. It was published by the Aboriginal Advancement League, in 1971, and showed 500 'Key Aboriginal Tribes'. The indigenous children in my class spent many enjoyable hours transforming it from a black line-drawing into a colorful celebration of the diversity of indigenous cultures in Australia.

Dr Nordlinger explained that in the indigenous view of things, language is seen as a property of the landscape, so that people who lived in a particular place spoke the language of that area. This contrasts with the European vision of language as an aspect of a cultural group, whereby speakers can move to a new place and take their language with them. A person is defined by the language they speak as well as by the place they live. (I'd love to read more about this.)

Another thing I didn't know was that indigenous children would routinely grow up in a multilingual environment, due to the traditional practice of marrying outside the kin group. (I might not have understood this well, as I don't know much about traditional marriage rules.) For instance, a child might hear her uncle speaking one language and his wife speaking another, and her own mother might speak a third language. Grandfather might speak a fourth language. All these people would understand each others' languages as well.

Throughout human history it has been the norm for people to speak more than one language.

However, we are in an age where languages are disappearing at a disturbing rate, and it is estimated that by 2050 there might not be any indigenous languages spoken in Australia. This is a reflection of a world trend. (I've posted about this previously.)

All humanity suffers when a language dies, because each language represents a different way of seeing the world. On the other hand, I suppose there have been many language 'deaths' over the millennia, and I guess new ones do emerge.

But I can't help wondering why languages are disappearing at such a terrible rate at the moment, and whether this accelerating loss will become unstoppable. I hope not.

Here's an article from The Age about Dr Nordlinger's work.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

the King James Bible and Australian indigenous languages

As I walked up the stairs in the Melbourne City Library today, I came across an exhibition about the 400th year celebration of the King James version of the Christian Bible.

After tomorrow it moves to Brisbane.

The first section to draw my attention sat below a poster with a picture of Shakespeare.

It claimed this version of the Bible has influenced our modern English language even more than Shakespeare did.

I was particularly interested in the display about translation of the Bible into Australian indigenous languages, because I think it is an indictment of our education system that most non-indigenous Australians are not only unable to understand indigenous languages, but don't even realise what a wealth of languages existed here prior to European settlement (and still exists).

The role of missionaries in studying and preserving languages around the world is a complex one. Nicholas Evans, in his book Dying Words, launched in Melbourne two years ago, says:
The idea of learning and committing to writing the languages of other, less militarily powerful peoples did not appear until Christianity, with its early urges to proselytize other people in languages they would understand...Ingenious new scripts, developed by polyglot priests for their own languages, quickly launched their traditions of religious translation, later to be followed by other forms of literature...
As would happen again and again in colonial encounters around the world, the partial official tolerance of indigenous languages and cultures did not last long.
Here's one of the short movies available at the online version of the Exhibition:

Australian Indigenous Scriptures from Bible Society Australia.

It was great to hear on this video clip that indigenous communities are taking matters into their own hands and translating the Bible into their own languages. I assume it isn't just the Bible that's being translated, of course.I assume that there would be other literature made available for people who speak an indigenous language.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

cynical about quinsy

Last week I had a quinsy.

Well, I probably didn't have a full-blown case of quinsy, because that would involve 'a severe sore throat', and mine wasn't too bad. Annoying and inconvenient, though.

I came across the word quinsy in a book called growing berries and currants, a directory of how to cultivate them successfully. (I love growing berries and I'm excited that my raspberries already have flower buds.)

Currants were often used in the past as a cure for quinsy. If I'd known about that perhaps I'd have drunk black currant juice each day, instead of lemon and honey drinks, and spared myself the sore stomach this week.

Curiosity about the word's origin sent me to the Net, and I discovered that, like the word cynic, it comes from the old Greek word for dog. The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
"severe sore throat," c.1300, qwinaci, from O.Fr. quinancie, from L.L. cynanche, from Gk. kynankhe "dog strangling," originally "dog collar," from kyon (gen. kynos) "dog" + ankhein "to strangle," cognate with L. angere (see anger).
As I said on my dog blog, I only have to see my dog straining at the lead when she sees something interesting ahead of us, to visualise a sore throat as a strangling collar. Observing the way she gargles and gags, I suspect she does at times give herself a temporary quinsy.

Monday, 3 October 2011

sawflies and the origin of the word 'clue'

Walking in Darebin Parklands today, my companions and I noticed a crowd of sawfly larvae crawling across the path. I took a photo, but didn't try to get a good one, because it didn't occur to me that I would want to post it here on my word blog...

The larvae were clumped together, but not in a ball, as they are often seen. I presume they were more spread out because they were headed across the path. There's a better photo here, at the South Australian Government Forestry site, showing them in a ball on a tree.

Later in the day, I happened to say I didn't have a clue about something, and I wondered where the word clue comes from. I seem to recall reading it spelled clew in an old Sherlock Holmes novel.

The Phrase Finder
explains that, although the word clue today means 'an insight or an idea that points us to a solution',
a clue (also spelled clew) previously had a different meaning - a globular ball formed from coiling worms or the like [my emphasis] or, more specifically, a ball of thread. Clew has been used with that meaning for at least a thousand years and citations of it in Old English date back to 897AD, when no less an author than Aelfred, King of Wessex used it in his West-Saxon translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care. Shakespeare also used the word with the 'thread' meaning, for example, in All's Well that Ends Well, 1602:

"If it be so, you have wound a goodly clewe."
Phrase Finder goes on to explain that the modern meaning came from the ancient Greek tale in which Theseus used a ball of thread to find the way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth.

At Lowchens Australia there's a list of collective nouns for animals, and for worms it has 'a clew of worms'. (I wonder why a dog-related site has this list.)

posted a photo of a clew of earthworms seen in her compost bin. Now I'll know the correct term when I come across one in my compost heap.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

sing a song about the apocalypse

I was musing about the word apocalypse - as one might do when reading the newspapers, these day - and began to wonder how it's related to the word calypso.

It turns out that if I'm thinking about the sea nymph in the "Odyssey," there is a common origin to the two words, but if I'm thinking of the West Indian song, it's not clear how the two words are related.
Online Etymology Dictionary says, of Calypso:
lit. "hidden, hider" (perhaps originally a death goddess) from Gk. kalyptein "to cover, conceal," from PIE *kel- "to cover, conceal, save". The W. Indian type of song is so called from 1934, of unknown origin or connection to the nymph.
For apocalypse, the same site says:
late 14c., "revelation, disclosure," from Church L. apocalypsis "revelation," from Gk. apokalyptein "uncover, disclose, reveal," from apo- "from" + kalyptein "to cover, conceal". The Christian end-of-the-world story is part of the revelation in John of Patmos' book "Apokalypsis" (a title rendered into English as "Apocalypse" c.1230 and "Revelations" by Wyclif c.1380). Its general sense in M.E. was "insight, vision; hallucination;" meaning "a cataclysmic event" is modern.
After finding a mention of the possibility that the word calypso for the musical form might be a folk etymology, I looked around and came across this suggested origin of the word, at eNotes.
It is thought that the name "calypso" was originally "kaiso," which is now believed to come from Efik "ka isu" 'go on!' and Ibibio "kaa iso" 'continue, go on,' used in urging someone on or in backing a contestant.[2] There is also a Trinidadian term, "cariso" which is used to refer to "old-time" calypsos.[3] The term "calypso" is recorded from the 1930s onwards.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

origins of the word ostrich

After satisfied my curiosity about the origin of the word flamingo, as I played Birdwatching on Luminosity recently, I got to wondering about the word ostrich when I bagged one with my virtual camera.

(I can't be certain that playing Lumosity is helping to keep my brain active - I think it is - but it's definitely giving me words to blog about, so that's a win for me.)

The online Oxford Dictionary says:
1 a flightless swift-running African bird with a long neck, long legs, and two toes on each foot . It is the largest living bird, with males reaching a height of up to 2.75 m.
* Struthio camelus, the only member of the family Struthionidae
2 a person who refuses to face reality or accept facts:don’t be an ostrich when it comes to security systems[from the popular belief that ostriches bury their heads in the sand if pursued]


Middle English: from Old French ostriche, from Latin avis 'bird' + late Latin struthio (from Greek strouthiōn 'ostrich', from strouthos 'sparrow or ostrich')
Which, of course, left me thinking, 'Wow! Those ancient Greeks didn't know the difference between a sparrow and an ostrich?'

An entry in makes the interesting point that the word thus has its origins in both Greek and Latin.
The name "ostrich" has an interesting history. The Greeks called this singular bird _struthion'_. This came into the Latin language as _struthio_. In low Latin, _avis_, the Latin word for "bird," was prefixed to what remained of the Greek name, giving _avis struthio_. "Ostrich" is a contraction of this low Latin compound. So we have in this name a combination of two words from different languages, having the same meaning.
And I guess those Greeks could see the difference between a sparrow and an ostrich, by the way - they called it either 'big sparrow' or 'camel sparrow'. Online Etymology dictionary says:
early 13c., from O.Fr. ostruce (Fr. autruche), from V.L. avis struthio, from L. avis "bird" (from PIE *awi- "bird") + L.L. struthio "ostrich," from Gk. strouthion "ostrich," from strouthos melage "big sparrow." The Greeks also knew the bird as strouthokamelos "camel-sparrow," for its long neck. Among its proverbial peculiarities are indiscriminate voracity (especially a habit of swallowing iron and stone to aid digestion), want of regard for its eggs, and a tendency to hide its head in the sand when pursued.

Like the Austridge, who hiding her little head, supposeth her great body obscured. [1623]

Ostriches do put their heads in the sand, but ostrich farmers say they do this in search of something to eat.

And I've learned a new word in the process - I found struthious [ˈstruːθɪəs] in The Free Dictionary
1. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Animals) (of birds) related to or resembling the ostrich
2. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Animals) of, relating to, or designating all flightless (ratite) birds
[from Late Latin strūthiō, from Greek strouthiōn, from strouthos an ostrich]

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

Sunday, 11 September 2011

flaming flamingoes

Tonight as I played games on Lumosity, trying to keep my brain active, I scored a point for 'shooting' a flamingo - with a camera.

I remembered many years ago seeing a flock of these magnificent birds in Munich Zoo,

and I began to wonder about the origin of their name. Flamingo sounds like flaming.

The Flamingo Resource Centre says:
There are two theories on the derivation of flamingo.

The word may come from the Latin word for flame, flamma, via Old Provencal flamenc. This could be based on the notion that when a flamingo takes flight, the flash if its crimson wings is like a burst of flame; or that when in heat haze, a flock of flamingos may resembled a fire.

An alternative theory is that flamingo is derived from the Spanish word flamenca meaning 'of a ruddy complexion, flesh-coloured.' In the 14th century, the Spanish used the word flamenca to describe the Flemings (people of Flanders, Belgium) who impressed the Spanish with their pink complexions. The Spanish word for a 'bird of a hue reminiscent of the Flemings' was flamengo, hence our flamingo.
(Source: Edelstein 2002)
The online Oxford Dictionary has the origin of flamingo as:
mid 16th century: from Spanish flamengo, earlier form of flamenco (see flamenco); associated, because of its colour, with Latin flamma 'a flame'
I followed the Oxford link to flamenco and found this noun defined as:
a style of Spanish music, played especially on the guitar and accompanied by singing and dancing.
a style of spirited, rhythmical dance performed to flamenco music, often with castanets.

late 19th century: Spanish, 'like a Gypsy', literally 'Fleming', from Middle Dutch Vlaminc
Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary says about the word flamenco:
1896, from Sp. flamenco, first used of Gypsy dancing in Andalusia. The word means "Fleming, native of Flanders" (Du. Vlaming) and also "flamingo." Speculation are varied and colorful about the connection between the bird, the people, and the gypsy dance of Andalusia. Spain ruled Flanders for many years, and King Carlos I brought with him to Madrid an entire Flemish court. One etymology suggests the dance was so called from the bright costumes and energetic movements, which the Spanish associated with Flanders; another is that Spaniards, especially Andalusians, like to name things by their opposites, and since the Flemish were tall and blond and the gypsies short and dark, the gypsies were called "Flemish;" others hold that flamenco was the general Spanish word for all foreigners, gypsies included; or that Flemish noblemen, bored with court life, took to partying with the gypsies.
I probably haven't explained any of this clearly, because I feel as if I've been running in circles. But at least I know that, whatever the roundabout route through European history they took, flamingo and flaming both derive from the Latin word flamma, meaning flame.

And just for a rest I'm going to look at these beautiful photos of flamingoes.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

redrafting, aka penelopising

Long ago, when people didn't work on Sundays - or didn't dare be seen to work - my mum said if I knitted or sewed on Sunday I would pull it out with my nose in heaven. That didn't make heaven sound too inviting, so maybe I was going to do the pulling out in Purgatory. I can't remember the details.

On the other hand, one of her favorite sayings was, 'The better the day, the better the deed', so knitting was acceptable if I applied a bit of Jesuitical reasoning. (Some interesting discussion of Jesuitical reasoning here)

Recently, I was reading one of my favorite blogs, by SF and fantasy writer Gitte Christensen, and she mentioned the word penelopise. This is Australian spelling, and all other references I could find online were penelopize. Penelope was definitely into pulling out her work. But not in heaven. And not with her nose, presumably.

What activity is it? Well, it depends on the reference you consult.

Wordnik defines it as a type of activity used to gain time:
To act like Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, when she was pressed by the suitors; pull work to pieces in order to do it over again, for the purpose of gaining time.
The Phrontistery, on the other hand limits the meaning:
to create work as an excuse to deter suitors
To me this misses the point, because it was in the pulling out that Penelope gained time.

Here's what Gitte said about the word:
the little known but very useful and possibly writerly relevant verb 'to penelopise' , meaning to undo one's work to gain time, derived from "Penelope", the wife of Odysseus. After the Greek hero was declared MIA whilst returning from the siege of Troy, many power hungry suitors approached his wife Penelope and pressed her to marry again. Certain that her hubby would return at any moment, she said she'd marry one of the suitors once she finished weaving a certain tapestry, but she would weave away all night and then undo her night's work in morning to keep the suitors hanging. Some scribes at the launch saw this as being a lot like writing all night only to hit the delete button come morning.
That sure rang true to me. The delete button....If I continually redraft (aka penelopise), I will never finish a story, so I won't be able to send it out, so no-one will reject it for publication. Hmm...I think there's a fallacy in this logic.

Friday, 9 September 2011


Today's email from A Word A Day was attaboy! (The focus this week is on interjections, those useful little words or phrases that act as a 'filler' and have no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.)

I can't recall the last time I heard anyone use this interjection, but I know it was used in my family when I was growing up. Of couse, I preferred attagirl! seeing I'm female. I suppose the current household equivalent would be the frequent use of good girl! when my dog Penny earns some praise.

I'd have thought it was a typically Australian usage, but Word A Day is an American institution, so I guess it might be a more universal phrase than I realised.

The online Macquarie thesaurus (Australian) includes attaboy in a selection of interjections synonymous with well done!
good for you, good on you; Informal: (you) (little) beauty, attaboy, attagirl, beaut, bewdy, bully, bully for …, curl the (or a) mo, good egg, good iron, good show, great, man, nice one, onya, that's the shot, your blood's worth bottling;
I've never used onya as an interjection, but I have used good onya (meaning good on you).

A Word A Day emails include a quote or two to show the usage of the daily offering, and here are the quotes for attaboy:
"The employees are not asking for a whole lot -- just an Attaboy! or an Attagirl! And news of this small gesture moves like wildfire through the ranks."
Labonita Ghosh; Five Ways to Reward the B-player in Your Team; The Economic Times (New Delhi, India); Feb 1, 2011.

"Dr. Burton refutes the notion that present-day parents have coddled and attaboyed their children."
Michael Tortorello; Mom, You're One Tough Art Critic; The New York Times; Jan 27, 2011.
the first quote shows the word is used in India and the second one shows it has morphed into a verb. Verbing is one of my favorite linguistic processes. As Mark Liberman on Language Log says, '... you can pretty much verb any noun you want to verb.' There are myriad examples of nouns used as verbs, from Shakespeare's day to today, but I don't know many examples of interjections as verbs. (I'm sure linguists know lots of them, lol.)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

supercilious attitudes

therigatha asked me to define supercilious and when I looked at the meanings, I thought at first it should only be used to refer to facial expressions or bodily posture.

The online Macquarie dictionary says:
adjective haughtily disdainful or contemptuous, as persons, their expression, bearing, etc. [Latin superciliōsus] says:
haughtily disdainful or contemptuous, as a person or a facial expression. has the history and I was interested to see it comes originally from a facial expression:
Word History
Date of Origin 16th c.
The etymological notion underlying supercilious is of raising the ‘eyebrows’ as a sign of haughty disdain. It comes from Latin superciliōsus, a derivative of supercilium ‘eyebrow’, hence ‘haughtiness’. This was a compound noun formed from the prefix super- ‘above’ and cilium ‘eyelid’ (source of the English biological term cilium ‘hair-like process’ (18th c.), whose meaning evolved via an intermediate ‘eyelash’).
However, it seems to me it can be used also in a wider sense, to relate to the tone in a piece of writing, because I came across this quote at The Acheh times:
Geoffrey Norman, regarding your article about college football and the significance of football relative to the disastrous events of the past week, I appreciated it on the whole, but found it to be slightly supercilious in tone when talking about those who might have caused the atrocities. We should be angry with them and we should demand that payment be made for the evil done, but believing we are better than they are will not only not help in achieving those goals, but it will also prove to be incorrect. —— Jan Perkins in 'Readers' Reactions to Terrorist Attacks'; ESPN
There are plenty of examples on the internet of people speaking in a 'supercilious tone', so it seems to me that since writing is a way of expressing speech, therefore it can be used for spoken or written attitudes. Here's one example, from The Man With The Broken Ear by Edmond About:
"No, sir," replied Fougas in a most supercilious tone, "I'm in want of nothing, and I'd rather die than accept anything from an Englishman! If I'm calling the conductor, it's only because I want to get into a different car, and cleanse my eyes from the sight of an enemy of the Emperor."

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

sparrowgrass, aka asparagus

As I was browsing gardening sites to check where I should plant my twenty-one baby asparagus plants, grown from seed last year, I came across a reference to sparrowgrass.

I think I prefer that name.

It's a folk etymology. It came into English from the Latin form, asparagus, but by the seventeenth century had been shortened to sparagus, after which it was anglicised to sperage. Alongside this form, some people began to call it sparrowgrass, because of the similarity to those two English words. During the nineteenth century, the folk name died out and it reverted to asparagus. All this I read on The article says grocers still call asparagus grass. I've never heard anyone do so, but I've never talked to a grocer about this plant.

All very interesting - well, to me.

But the fun part came when I looked at an ABC Science site. Apparently, many people have stinky urine after eating this plant. (Hmm, I'll have to enquire amongst my friends - close friends).

However, although we've been eating asparagus for thousands of years, and people have written about it for at least two and a half thousand years, no one mentioned the stinky wee until the seventeenth century. In the article, Dr Karl S. Kruszelnicki looks at some theories about why this might be so.

And he's written another article about the chemicals behind this stinky wee. And wouldn't you have guessed it? One of them is called asparagusic acid!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

grey or gray?

When I posted recently about Tennyson's poem 'Break, Break, Break', I referred to 'cold grey stones' in my post title.

But I did notice that the word was spelled gray in the poem:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
So I started to wonder - as apparently many have before me - whether one spelling is preferred over the other. I thought the British and Australians used grey and Americans used gray.

It seems both are acceptable.

If you search for gray in the Macquarie Dictionary (Australian), you read: 'adjective, noun, verb. Chiefly US' and the entry refers you across to grey.

A Wikipedia entry says
The first recorded use of grey as a color name in the English language was in AD 700. Grey is the British spelling, whereas gray is the American spelling, though the latter was also in common usage in the UK until the second half of the 20th century, and the former is considered acceptable by most American dictionaries and is commonly seen in usage, e.g. in the Grateful Dead hit Touch of Grey.
A website called greyorgray - rather specific! - says
There are two acceptable spellings. Gray is used primarily in the United States and other areas that use US English. Grey is used in Great Britain and areas that use UK English.

Friday, 15 July 2011

the uncaring sea breaks on the cold grey stones

I've been in Lorne for a few days, and each time I saw the wintry sea breaking on the stony outcrops I wanted to recall the exact words of Tennyson's poem about loss and sadness.

So I looked up my copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

Friday, 8 July 2011

a life full of adumbration

Well, the title of this post is an exaggeration. My life isn't full of adumbration, but there have been two occurrences of it in twenty-four hours, and that's spooky.

Yesterday I was reading book called cabbages & kings; the origins of fruit and vegetables, by jonathan roberts. (The title page and cover used lower-case letters, so I thought I'd better do the same in quoting it.)

I read the following passage and stopped to try to understand it:
The evolutionary careers of fruit and vegetables can be adumbrated, in some cases, long before human history begins; of the avocado, for example, whose Persea genus is thought to have rafted across the Atlantic on North America when the supercontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana, broke up and drifted apart; or of the strawberry, herbaceous descendant of the shrubby, thuggish blackberry - consider the similar way in which their suckers arch over and root where they make contact with the earth.
adumbrated? What did that mean?

I was pleased to find that no one else in our word-loving family had ever heard it, but one bright spark suggested it must have something to do with umbra, shade.

The Macquarie dictionary says:
verb (t) (adumbrated, adumbrating) 1. to give a faint shadow or resemblance of; outline or shadow forth.
2. to foreshadow; prefigure.
3. to darken or conceal partially; overshadow. [Latin adumbrātus, past participle, shadowed]
–adumbration // (say aduhm'brayshuhn), noun
I was still not quite clear how to understand it in the sentence, but we decided to go with the second meaning.

And that was fine. A new word heard but not fully understood. I continued to read and enjoy this delightful book.

However, what do you know! Today the word from A Word A Day came into my email box and it was adumbrate. The theme this week is words that can seem confusing because they have seemingly contradictory meanings:
Sometimes people, even Supreme Court justices, turn to a dictionary to resolve disputes. They may believe language is something exact, well-defined, as if words were precision molded in a foundry under exact specifications.
But the truth is different. Words can be vague, they may have multiple shades of meanings, and even completely opposite senses. In my mother tongue, Hindi, for instance, the word "kal" can mean both "yesterday" and "tomorrow". Is that a problem? Not at all. Context brings clarity. I have never seen anyone become confused by the use of the word -- would this meeting take place tomorrow or do I need a time machine to go back to yesterday?

Sometimes, though, the contrary senses of a word can be confusing. When you table a proposal, your intention depends on what side of the pond you are on. In American English you put it on the back burner, while in British English you bring it forward.

This week we've picked five such words. Each of these words has meanings as different as black and white. Call them contranyms, heteronyms, janus words, two-faced, words with split personalities, or coin your own word!

So, here's what it said:

(a-DUM-brayt, AD-uhm-brayt)
verb tr.:
1. To foreshadow.
2. To give a rough outline or to disclose partially.
3. To overshadow or obscure.

From Latin umbra (shade, shadow), which also gave us the words umbrella, umbrage, and somber. Earliest documented use: 1599.

"Mr Cameron should adumbrate painful decisions; he should sketch out the principles that will inform them; but he should not be drawn into spelling out what exactly they will be."
Walter Bagehot; Coming Clean; The Economist (London, UK); Mar 26, 2009.

"To create her three-dimensional composition, Robin Osler variedly manipulated floor and ceiling planes so as to adumbrate virtual spaces."
Monica Geran; Shadow Play; Interior Design (New York); Apr 2000.

I don't believe I'll ever use this word in writing or speech. But who know?

Monday, 30 May 2011

varlets and valets

Last night I watched the first episode of the period drama 'Downton Abbey'. Well, actually I watched until the first advertisement irritated me into leaving the room, but I've recorded it and I'll watch the rest tomorrow.

I was surprised to find that the pronunciation of the word valet includes the final T. In the modern usage of the word, valet parking, we say the word as if it were a French ending.

Hearing the way they said it in the show, I wondered if the original word might be related to the word varlet, so I looked it up. And found the Online Etymology Dictionary does say the words are related.
"personal man-servant," 1560s, from Fr. valet, from O.Fr. valet, variant of vaslet "man's servant," originally "squire, young man," from Gallo-Romance *vassellittus "young nobleman, squire, page," dim. of M.L. vassallus, from vassus "servant" (see vassal). Modern sense is usually short for valet de chambre; the general sense of "male household servant of the meaner sort" going with the variant form varlet. First recorded use of valet parking is from 1960.
Podictionary has an interesting post about the word, also.

The Macquarie Dictionary gives both pronunciations, and defines the word as:
noun 1. a male servant who is his employer's personal attendant, caring for the employer's clothing, etc.; manservant.
2. someone who performs similar services for patrons of a hotel, etc.
3. any of various contrivances, as a rack or stand, for holding coats, hats, etc.
–verb (valeted, valeting)
–verb (t) 4. to work as a valet for (someone).
–verb (i) 5. to work as a valet. [French, variant of Middle French vaslet. See VARLET, VASSAL]
–valetless, adjective
It refers to the related word, varlet:
noun Archaic 1. an attendant.
2. a page attached to a knight.
3. a rascal. [Middle English, from Old French, variant of va(s)let VALET. See VASSAL]

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

lillydale, lilly dale and lilydale

I visited Lillydale Lake recently. It's odd that this lake is smack in the middle of a township called Lilydale.

Apparently there are a few theories as to why the township was originally spelled with the doubled letters. Here's an explanation from OnlyMelbourne:
The discovery of gold in the upper Goulburn River and Woods Point areas in the late 1850s caused the formation of a miners' access track. The place where the Woods Point Road crossed the Olinda Creek was chosen for a town survey. The origin of the name is uncertain. One version is that the Government surveyor, John Hardy, suggested that the town be named Lillydale after hearing his chainman singing a popular song "Lilly Dale". The name was also inspired by the surveyor observing lilies growing in pools of the creek. The other version is that a district surveyor's wife was name Lilly. Council clerks and the local schoolmaster shortened the spelling to Lilydale.
Given that the town was named in the 1850s, the song theory seems possible, as the tune was written in 1852 and was sung in America in the 1850s. Many Americans worked on the Australian goldfields.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Yesterday I received an email about a word that I love - sitzfleisch. The email came from "A Word A Day", and defines this word as
1. The ability to sit through or tolerate something boring.
2. The ability to endure or persist in a task.
If I were talking about that second concept I would have thought of the old-fashioned sticktoitiveness - which probably isn't too old, actually.

And Word A Day also mentions the other synonym, chair glue, which I had never heard before:
Sitzfleisch is a fancy term for what's commonly known as chair glue: the ability to sit still and get through the task at hand. It's often the difference between, for example, an aspiring writer and a writer. Sometimes the word is used in the sense of the ability to sit out a problem -- ignore it long enough in the hope it will go away.
I love the latter meaning - it's great when procrastinating long enough means some problem has just solved itself.

But it's the first of the two definitions that is important to us bloggers. Keep on writing. Maybe someone will read it, lol.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

lost consonants

As I waited for the train today, I wandered down to the end of the platform and saw this sign:

I didn't feel very exciting, but my hand itched to reach into my handbag, pull out a black texta and add a letter 'c' to that first word. Luckily I didn't have a texta with me.

Which got me thinking about a great little book I had at home called 'Lost Consonants'. It has pictures of such gems as 'The collected woks of William Shakespeare', or 'administering electric sock treatment'.

And I've come across a site where the creator of these art works, Graham Rawle, answers questions (hilariously) about his work .

And he has a site.

And a blog!

I treasure my copy of his book, but now even more so, as I see that the one I have is out of print.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Googleganger is the word of the year

Every now and then a new word is so perfect that you wonder why it wasn't invented sooner. For years I've been surreptitiously searching the internet for my own name, sometimes to see whether anyone visits my totally boring home page (they don't), and sometimes to see who has the same name as mine.

And now I can come out of the closet with this activity, because once an activity has a name, of course it is legitimate. (Well, mostly.)

I've been looking for my googleganger.

The Macquarie Dictionary has named this as the word of the year. It's a noun meaning 'a person with the same name as oneself, whose online references are mixed with one's own among search results for one's name'. I guess only those of us with an online presence can have a googleganger.

I wonder whether there is already a new verb, to googlegang? I made a quick search and I can't see it yet.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

my BeBook Neo eReader

I was browsing the site of a writer, The Raven's Eye, and noticed she has self-published one of her short stories. It was only about $2 to buy a copy, so I thought I'd be part of The Long Tail and buy it.

Of course, this led to a discussion in our household about how many copies the writer would have to sell in order to 'make a living'. In my opinion, if an author self-publishes online, as long as it's not too expensive a process, any sales are a bonus, because they not only bring in a trickle - or hopefully, a flood - of money, but they act as publicity for the writer's other work.

In this case, the story was a great read. I'd categorise it as urban fantasy, which I like, and it had a protagonist who I'd like to know more about. (Yes, I do know I could have written 'whom' in that last sentence, but I'm over that word and don't intend to write it any more.)

I bought it at Smashwords, which I hadn't previously heard about.

The other benefit of buying the story was that it made me get my BeBook Neo eReader out again. Since the initial excitement of buying it, I haven't used it much. Now that I've discovered buying short stories, I think it could get as much use as my iPod. Hmmm... and that doesn't come out of the drawer much, either. Must get on over to the iTunes store and buy some music.

I have mixed feelings about my BeBook. It's a great screen, easy on the eyes, but I don't find it easy to navigate.