Daily Archives: March 28, 2010

po

Two circles, one of them on a stick. Perhaps a lollipop heading towards a mouth? Or a pair of eyes, one with a monocle? One way or another, it’s a short word and a short vocal gesture, which might seem fitting for those who know po as the French abbreviation for “inch.” But for those who know Italy, Po is a name for a long river – the longest in the country, cutting across northern Italy from the Alps near France all the way to the Adriatic Sea south of Venice. (It comes from the Latin name Padus, which is based on a Celtic name.) Its water is not always potable, thanks to pollution.

Early in its journey, the Po passes through Turin, or Torino as it is known in Italian and now generally in the world of winter sports. The 2010 World Figure Skating Championships were just held there. Figure skating being a sport with highs and lows, one does not see too many po faces at them.

Po face? Would that be as in “can’t read my, can’t read my po face?” Well, the phrase may have been influenced by poker face, and certainly a po face is not notably more muscularly mobile than a poker face, but one can always read a po face. It is quite humourless and joyless, perhaps even p.o.‘ed, and says one thing: “Poh.” Or “pooh.” Or perhaps plain old “poo” – the po in po-faced may come from the expression of disapproval poh, cognate with the expression of disapproval (and word for “feces”) pooh or poo, but it may as readily come from where poo goes: a chamber pot, in French pot de chambre, the first word of which was borrowed into English as po meaning the same thing.

We see po in a few other places as well. I am told by Oxford that po – or p’o, indicating a Wade-Giles transliteration – is a word borrowed into English from Chinese, referring to the feminine or yin side of one’s spirit, the anima versus the animus as it were. It’s also an obsolete word for a little devil, and another obsolete word for a peacock, both motifs that – like yin – seem reasonably relevant to figure skating. And if the winning skaters seem radiant, then the fact that Po is also the abbreviation for polonium (a rare element produced by radioactive decay of radium) may be vaguely fitting.

This little word packs a lot in, it seems. Sort of like a po’ boy sandwich. Now, I am happy – delighted, almost ecstatic in fact – to tell you that the po’ in po’ boy has nothing to do with the po in po-faced. It’s just short for poor, and a po’ boy sandwich is a New Orleans kind of sub sandwich kind of like a Cajun sloppy Joe in a French loaf. Perhaps the p is a hand holding the end of one of those, ready to pop it into the o open mouth.

No, I have the answer – we had a little votive candle burning for light during Earth Hour (and a few hours past that), and I just picked it up and blew it out: the p the wick and flame, the o the open mouth, the /po/ the oral gesture of putting it out with a puff. And now good night.