Pow! A snowball connected with my skull behind my right ear. I turned to see young Marcus Brattle, one of England’s less staid exports, already making another.
“Like a missile!” He said.
“Enough with misconstrued similes,” I said. “Not like one. It was one. Something that’s thrown can be called a missile, though we use the word mostly for rockets these days.”
“No, but like a ballistic missile!”
“It was ballistic. You threw it; its course was not under continuous correction. Ballistic comes ultimately from Greek ballein, to throw” – at this point I ducked his next snowball and he started to scoop snow for another – “and missile comes from the past tense of Latin mittere, to send or throw. So ballistic missile is a tautology – and an etymologically paradoxical name for something that is not thrown but launched under its own power, and that in more recent times may have continuous guidance systems.”
“Yes, well,” said Marcus, hurling his next projectile and forcing another evasive manoeuvre on my part, “every time I miss I’ll make another one. Whereas you, apparently, are stuck hurling prayer books.”
He was referring to my North American pronunciation of missile with a schwa in the second syllable, making it sound like missal. “You know,” I said, “in the nineteenth century British dictionaries also gave my pronunciation as the only one. The ‘long i’ version didn’t crop up until about a century ago.”
“Right,” he said, hurling another, giving me cause, as it cruised past my hat, to consider whether my pacifist approach was really effective here, “we finally got it right. ‘Cause we don’t think hurling and churches necessarily go together.”
I looked for, and did not see, an effective missile shield. I continued to try the disarming power of facts. “Missal comes from the same Latin root as missile, though,” I pointed out, “albeit by a less direct route: the word missa, ‘mass’ as in Catholic, comes from the same verb, perhaps from the sending away of catechumens before the eucharist –” Marcus hurled another with a shout of “Away, catechumen!” – “perhaps –” I leapt aside as it scudded by – “from the dismissal of the congregation at the end: Ite, missa est. That past participle became a noun and from that the adjective missal was formed, which has given many a Canadian Catholic the occasional bellicose pun.”
“Well, I’m aiming for your dis-missal,” Marcus said, hurling on the dis.
“You could be on a sticky wicket, sport,” I said, gradually drawing nearer to him.
“I’ll make this missile whistle – past your ear!” He hurled another and indeed narrowly missed my left ear. “And now –” he started packing one more carefully. I considered my options for missile defense. He held up his ball, which was a rough cube. “The cubin’ missile crisis!” he shouted. I leapt forward, took it in the chest at close range, and promptly put him in a headlock.
“Hey!” he said, as I squeezed my biceps against his cranium. “What’s that got to do with this? You’re changing the topic!”
“It’s a guided muscle,” I replied, and gave him a good grind on the scalp with my knuckles.
Thanks to Ted Witham for suggesting British versus American “missile” conflict.