Monthly Archives: May 2011

discobolus

Could this, by any chance, be a myriad-mirrored thing that hangs from the ceiling and scatters light in the darkness at dance clubs? Mmm, no. Not even if the thing in question were shaped like a plate (or some kind of bolus) rather than a ball.

It is the same disc, mind you: from Greek diskos, “disc”. In a disco the discs that are being tossed around have music on them. In discobolus, there’s no need to discuss much or dance around the topic: the disc is a discus, a heavy plate-like thing that was originally hurled for the purpose of hurting the enemy but now, in the hands of students everywhere, is at least as good for hurting oneself (or even, if the grip slips at the wrong time, for auto-discombobulation).

But discobolus does not refer to the discus itself; it’s what you call the dude who is tossing the discus. The bolus is a Latinization of bolos, “thrower”, which is related to ballistics and other words with the ball (βαλλ) root that refers to throwing.

The oral gesture of this word has a sort of match to the act of throwing a discus: it starts at the tip of tongue, like the backswing, then bounces back to the /k/ and releases, and sails across the mouth to impact at /b/ and bounce and flip a bit at /l/, finally lying flat at /s/.

I find the sound of this word to have a bit of a wobbliness about it, not unlike the average discus in mid-flight. That’s thanks to the obol in the middle, which rhymes with wobble because in Latin and English renditions of Greek words we tend automatically to put the stress on the antepenult (third-last syllable). This in spite of the fact that in the Greek δισκοβόλος the stress is on the second-last syllable, making it sound even more like disco ball.

Discobolus also has some letter-form iconicity: the d like the arm with the discus in hand, the co like a cartoon drawing of a disk in motion, the b like it first hitting into ground, edge-on, and then it bounces out at o. Or you could come up with other narratives, but in the main it’s gonna be man meets disc, man picks up disc, man hurls disc, disc obeys the laws of physics.

The place you’re most likely to see discobolus is not at the Olympic games or other track-and-field events; they use more standard English terminology. No, you’ll see it in a museum, on the placard for a statue of some buff nude dude all wound up in a twist with a disc ready for hurling. Come to think of it, he probably wouldn’t look out of place in some discothèques…

I wrote this note without remembering I had already done this word once. Well, I don’t have time to write a whole new one now!

Quaoar

What would you say if you saw, dancing a slow dance in your telescope, a new world – or at least a world new to you?

You might say “Cool!” or “Wow!” I’m tempted to say I would have said “Phwooar!” but that’s really a British male expression of appreciation for a woman’s curves. But cool and wow and phwooar are similar to what Chad Trujillo and Mike Brown said:

Quaoar!

OK, that’s probably not the first thing they said, but that’s the name they gave it.

The “it” in question isn’t really a planet, not quite (in fact it’s not much more than a third the diameter of Earth’s moon), so it’s not really a world qua world, but it’s way bigger than an asteroid – it’s about 1250 kilometres in diameter. It’s a KBO: a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper Belt is a bunch of big bits orbiting beyond Neptune. The biggest KBO is the former planet known as Pluto, which has about twice the diameter (and thus eight times the volume) of Quaoar. Quaoar has an orbit a bit farther out than Pluto’s (it takes 288 years to circle the sun), but it’s a nice, circular, non-eccentric orbit, unlike Pluto’s. Trujillo and Brown first spotted it in 2002.

OK, but why did they call this ball of (probably) rock and ice out in the cold, dark periphery of the solar system Quaoar?

I mean, really, it looks like the name of some creature from H.P. Lovecraft, say, or a representation of the growling roar of a nasty large quarrelsome bloodthirsty beast. The lips, in saying it, make a “wow-a”, but the tongue launches the whole thing from the back and ends tense in the middle of the mouth, like the creature ready to hurl itself forth.

The big Q is like a planet with a motion line, but it also carries, in English, a certain resonance of exoticness and uncertainty. The word may recall Latin for you, or it may make you think of a quark. The string of vowels in the middle befuddles the eyes. Try typing it without hesitating. You may find it requires practice. It just seems unnatural. Strange. And threatening, perhaps.

And yet in fact the original Quaoar is quite likeable. Quaoar is a deity of the Tongva people, whose ancestral lands are around Caltech (the California Institute of Technology, setting, incidentally, for the TV show The Big Bang Theory), where Trujillo and Brown worked (Brown is still there; Trujillo is now in Hawai’i). But Quaoar is not just any deity. Quaoar is the Tongva creation deity.

Quaoar, you see, came along into the primordial chaos and was sad to see a whole lot of nothing. So he/she/it danced Weywot (the Sky Father) and Chehooit (the Earth Mother) into existence, and then the three of them danced more gods into existence, and each new god joined the dance and danced more into existence…

It makes me think of a church song, “Lord of the Dance” (not Michael Flatley’s touring show), which starts,

I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the moon, the stars and the sun…

If you’d like to know more about this distant world and its quaoardinates, I mean coordinates, see www.chadtrujillo.com/quaoar/ and science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2002/07oct_newworld/.

asterism

What’s the connection between the following lists?

A.
Diamond of Virgo
Summer Triangle
Great Square of Pegasus
Winter Hexagon
Sickle
Teapot
Terebellum
Saucepan
Coathanger
Kemble’s Cascade
B.
Cassius Ceramix
Goldenslumbus
Dubius Status
Overanxius
Autodidax
Valueaddedtax
Fulliautomatix
Justforkix
Cacofonix
Ptenisnet

Answer: list A is names of asterisms. List B is names from Asterix comics.

Now, it seems to me that asterism would be a perfectly suitable word for a name on the model of the names of Asterix characters – punning variants on forms in -ix for Gauls, -us for Romans, -a for females, -ax for Britons, -ic for Goths, and a few more (Ptenisnet is Egyptian). But the word asterism is already taken, so if you use it for these it’s your ass to risk.

Asterisk is, of course, the word on which Asterix is a pun. Its original meaning is “little star”; its root is the same Greek ast(e)r root that shows up in many words relating to stars. Asterism means “a grouping of stars that is not an officially recognized constellation” (constellation uses the Latin root relating to stars, stella, and in this case it seems the Latins own the private club). Each thing in list A is a grouping of stars into some discernible shape that, however, is not an offical constellation. (For some more on asterisms, including some others to look for, see Observing Asterisms.)

I don’t find anything especially starlike about the word asterism (whereas the k on asterisk looks like half an asterisk). But it nonetheless seems a word of some prettiness and quality, perhaps because it makes me think of asters in the lobby of a Waldorf-Astoria as viewed through a prism. When you say it, you stay to the front half of your mouth; after the initial open [æ], you can say it with your lips almost closed – and then, finally, fully closed. Perhaps as though you were eating Smarties.

But there is a closer link between asterisk and asterism (closer than the distance between k and m, even): there is a not-often-used character, a constellation of asterisks, three in a triangle, also called an asterism: ⁂. If you’ve ever seen one in a book, you may have wondered, “What’s it there for”? Well, it’s not “therefore”, for one thing – that’s three dots in an otherwise identical triangle, ∴. An asterism marks a subsection of a chapter, or calls attention to a particular passage.

Another asterisk shape that’s quite naturally attention-getting is the one you see in certain gems, for instance the Star of Bombay sapphire (I don’t mean the stars you see if you have too much Bombay Sapphire Gin). And that, too, is called an asterism.

I have also found a blog that is called Asterism – a blog on Iraq politics. Its slogan, explained at asterism.blogspot.com/2005/06/after-communism-and-capitalism-there.html, is “After communism and capitalism, there is asterism.” While this is a joke for Unicode geeks (since ⁂ can be found in the Unicode character set), it occurs to me that asterism could mean government by stars (Reagan and Schwarzenegger, anyone?). Or, on the other hand, it could mean government by politicasters – inferior versions of politicians. You see, aster is also a Latin suffix (unrelated) designating an inferior version or imitation: poetaster from poet, criticaster from critic, etc. Either way, in that kind of asterism, there would seem to be a mix-up about who is master.

But what if the star is me? Well, when I was a kid I certainly fancied myself being a hero on the model of Asterix. My friend Christa Bedwin has recently suggested, as a fun diversion, that everyone come up with their own Asterix names. So, perhaps, even if I don’t earn my place in the firmament, I can still be an asterism. Mine, obviously, would be Sesquiotix.

tumbrel

Barbara Kay, writing in the National Post, commented, “Ignatieff has zero emotional appeal to Quebecers and anyway, you could hear the rumble of the tumbrils for the Liberal Party a mile away.”

Ah, the rumble of the tumbrils – also spelled tumbrels (the spelling I’m more used to and will go with here). Some people may not be familiar with the reference. The context suggests that she was saying their days were numbered, the writing was on the wall (and yes, that’s what she was saying, and more, but I’ll get to that in a moment). But let me head that off: how like you this word, without a thought for the moment of what it refers to?

It goes nicely with rumble, yes, and also number, and obviously tumbler (as in a lock or a drink) and probably temblor, and perhaps tendril and prehaps trouble, and lumber too. And just maybe umbrella. And the word fairly rumbles. The /t/ gives it a crisp start, but then it has that dull central vowel, prenasalized by the following /m/. And then that /mbr/ rolling into the final /l/: first resonant and building /m/, then with a bend or bounce or break at the /b/, then releasing and rolling with the forward liquid /r/, and, after a swallowed vowel, the hollow /l/ like the echo of a landslide. Yes, that’s what this word sounds like to me: an avalanche, albeit a small one perhaps.

Well, it’s not that. But it is something that rolls and rumbles. And it may roll and rumble quite innocently to an innocent purpose. But that’s not what it’s known for. Guilt by association prevails. Just as words are known by the company they keep, so, too, are their objects. And what company does – or did – a tumbrel keep? Well, eat some cake and have a sit; it may put you on edge – or put an edge on you.

Some clarity may come from this quote from my colleague Paul Cipywnyk, from a discussion on truth versus the mob in ephemeral digital data: “Is that a social-media tumbrel carrying my bits to the guillotine?”

Do you have a mental picture of a tumbrel now? It’s a two-wheeled, flat-bottomed wooden cart that is made to be tipped to the back so its load may be easily dumped. It just happens to be what was used during the French Revolution to carry the condemned to the guillotine.

And is tumbrel related to tumble? In fact, it is, and both are related to French tomber “fall” (which came to French from a Germanic root, not a Latin one).

I am tempted at this juncture to compose a sentence about a person in trouble riding a lumbering, rumbling tumbrel while holding an umbrella (to keep the head dry), knowing his or her number is up, but taking no umbrage when a temblor interrupts the drumbeat… but I think I’ll cut it short and let things fall where they may.

Thanks to Barb Adamski for making me aware of the National Post quotation. Paul Cipywnyk’s bon mot was the impetus for this tasting.

ictus

I was in rehearsal last night. We were preparing for an upcoming concert, Mozart’s C-minor Mass. Noel Edison, our conductor, happened to use a word which he’s used many times before, but this time it occurred to me that it’s worth a tasting.

Ictus.

It’s a good choral word, fairly made for spitting out with that forceful enunciation some choral singers use (largely to make up for some others who don’t enunciate enough). The /kt/ is practically a coenunciation. The /t/ certainly comes out with a good puff of air and perhaps spit. But, now, here’s a question: how do you hear the /k/? After all, it’s not released – the release is the /t/.

As with many things in music – and in fact in speech – you hear it as much from what’s not there as from what’s there. You can hear the change in resonance in the mouth as the tongue starts to go from the vowel to the stop – it is, after all, possible to hear the difference between tick-tock and tit-tock and tip-tock – but only to a point. The voice cuts out before the tongue really touches. That’s how you know it’s a voiceless stop – it’s /k/ and not /g/. The vowel before it cuts off sooner, and is also a bit shorter. (Vowels cut back in later after a voiceless stop is released, too, but this /k/ doesn’t release.)

That happens to be very similar to how we sing many notes in the piece (and in others). Staccato, of course, calls for that, but in many cases where a syllable ends with a stop, we will drop out the sound for a moment before articulating the stop. This gives contour and heightens the contrast. (It’s sort of like dotting the i, too.)

On the other hand, some phrases are meant to be sung more smoothly together, with less reading. There are long stretches of sixteenth-note runs that we need to phrase together so that we give an overall shape rather than a collection of notes, for instance. Less is more. And we need to make sure not to rush the ictus.

Oh, yes. Ictus. It’s a downbeat kind of word.

I don’t mean it’s somehow unhappy. It’s quite compatible with even a manic rictus. And while choristers who sing the same stuff over and over again may have some small risk of gaining a jaundiced view, it has nothing to do with icterus, icteric, and icterism, all words for “jaundice”. No, those yellow words come from Greek, whereas ictus comes from Latin. Rather, ictus refers to rhythmic stress – or, when Noel’s talking about it, the point at which his finger (or pencil) begins its downstroke from zenith to nadir.

And well enough we should use a Latin word here, since the piece, like most liturgical music, is written in Latin. So you would find talk of an ichthus fishy here, for instance, in spite of the obvious Christian context. And while the pointing finger is ictic, it is not in this case deictic – not only because it’s not pointing at anything (which is what it means to be deictic), but because deictic is another Greek-derived word, referring to showing rather than, as ictic, to striking. So one of these things belongs, and the other doesn’t. (Which I say just to excuse mentioning that iktas means “things” or “belongings” – but it comes from not Greek but Chinook.)

And just as the ictus can be a tricky thing in a complex piece of music such as a Mozart mass, so can the string (but not the morpheme) ictus be a sneaky thing – showing up in benedictus, for instance, and (in the Requiem Mass) maledictus and addictus, among other places. They’re all past tenses of verbs with roots ending in ic, which is not such an odd thing in Latin.

But perhaps that’s Greek to you. Well, that would be ironic, wouldn’t it, given what I’ve said about Greek versus Latin? Just about as ironic in that regard as what we sing on our first downbeat of the whole piece – of any mass. The first word, the first phrase, the first whole movement of a Latin mass, the opening ictus, as you may know, is in Greek – the Kyrie.

Abbottabad

You know where Abbottabad is, right? The small city northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden had his compound – incognito for half a decade – and where he was ultimately tracked down and killed.

As soon as I saw Abbottabad in print (as opposed to hearing it being tripped over by newsreaders), my spidey-sense started to tingle. Well, OK, more like my lingua-sense – this is etymology, not entomology (or arachnology).

Oh, yes, it’s a pretty word, isn’t it? With its double letters, all of its consonants ascending (like the peaks around Abbottabad), its three a’s, three b’s, two t’s, one o, one d forming an interesting pattern… It’s vaguely reminiscent of a popular tongue-twister or any of a few different vocal warm-ups for actors.

But it’s not the prettiness of the word that caught my attention the most. What did grab me led me to this poem:

I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air

The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show

To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream

The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss

And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay

I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right

And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon

Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow

Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears

I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart

How do you like it?

Not very good, is it?  I mean, it describes what by all accounts is a rather nice place, almost like a Banff of Pakistan. But it’s doggerel (and who ever heard of a welcoming hiss?). It reads as though it was written by, um, some dilettantish army officer, say.

Indubitably. Major James Abbott, to be precise.

He was a British Army major. He founded the town in 1853. (Curious as to what he looked like? You may like this painting.)

I figured that the town was named after a British guy named Abbott. You see, abad means “dwelling place” or “town” or, I suppose, “abode”, or such like (as opposed to bad in place names like Marienbad, which is German for “bath”). And given the history of the region and the surprisingly British form of the first part… well, I guessed right. (Yabba-dabba-doo! Not bad, eh, bud?)

Now, going by the constituents, the stress should be on the first syllable, which would make it singable to the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. In fact, in Urdu, the second syllable has disappeared altogether. However, if you look in Wikipedia, you find a pronunciation guide that puts the stress of the English name on the second syllable, making it sound like part of a sentence: “I picked up some groceries, but by mistake Abbottabad apple.”

Well, pity, if so. I like it better with the stress on the beginning. Then, for instance, I could say “Abbottabad, Abbottabad, Abbottabad, that’s all, folks!”

pessimal

I was commenting today, apropos a certain situation that had occurred, that there may not have been a possible optimal result, and that what was left was debating whether we had managed the least pessimal result.

Ah, one doesn’t want to be pessimistic, but, in the absence of efficacious pessomancy (divination by means of pebbles), one has to perform a calculus, not necessarily to the last decimal, but at least to avoid decimation… What will prevent pessundation (destruction) to the extent possible? And do you simply get depressed, or do you get on a pess (church kneeler, also hassock) and petition? Il faut peser les choses… (one must weigh matters…)

And as you watch each mile pass, wondering whether you will leap or miss, you may feel like a sap if you smile, for how could it be as simple as all that? But somehow you must impel your ass and hope not to make the same slip as you have before… If only you didn’t feel so mixed up…

I think pessimal is an underused word. It’s the nice opposite to optimal, after all, and pessimum to optimum, just as pessimist is to optimist. But somehow the optics of optimal are worth opting for, while pessimal just gets a pass – or at best is used piecemeal. Pity, since we spend so much time in our lives trying to find the lesser of two (or more) evils.

The word even looks fairly right. You can see the ss like the cartoon symbols of foul smell from some fetid mess. (And they give that nice hissing sound that allows one to express disapproval quite effectively even in the saying of the word.) Its p is like a thumbs-down, too. I can’t account for the i and the l, though – they’re like flowers growing through the pavement.

And what is its source? Latin, of course. Pessimus means “worst” and is related to peior “worse”, which gives us another word, pejorate “make worse” – the opposite of ameliorate.

But let us always remember that things can always be better, and that’s a good thing. To quote as I often do from Laurie Anderson’s “Language Is a Virus,” “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” To start with, even when things are pessimal, your email may go pss… and deliver you a delicious word.

apocolocyntosis

This is a heck of a word… ¿un poco loco, no? Such a concatenation could be a lexical cynosure or could be a bit of cynicism. Does it belong in a classical apostrophe – or is it more of a verbal colonic or collyrium? Is it language heightened to its apotheosis, or is it more ridiculous than sublime? Does this word even have any collocations, or is it an appendix on the language (or perhaps a colophon)? It is colourful, but while it may suggest cyan, it seems a bit more on the purple side, really…

Actually, though, it’s orange. That’s the colour of pumpkins.

I’ll explain. This word really has one noted collocation, a title… in Latin: Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii. The English translation is typically The Pumpkinification of the Emperor Claudius.

The Romans, you see, had developed a habit of declaring deceased emperors to have become gods. Transformation into a god is apotheosis, a Latin word that’s really a Greek word taken into Latin basically unaltered.

But some of the emperors were not such great guys. Anyone who has watched or read any of I, Claudius by Robert Graves – or any of quite a few other works on Rome of the time – knows that, for instance, Caligula (who, to be fair, was not deified) was just about the most insane person you could even imagine running a country. Well, his successor (and uncle) – Claudius – wasn’t such a splendid guy, either, especially not if you asked the Roman stoic philosopher and playwright Seneca. And even if you didn’t ask him, he said so. In the Apocolocyntosis.

Seneca certainly didn’t like the undermining of divinity by according it to such venal people as Claudius. So he wrote a satire on the apotheosis of Claudius. In it, Claudius goes to Olympus to make his case for deification. But his many crimes are noted, and he is escorted to Hades. On the way down, he passes a funeral procession for him filled with lowlifes mourning the end of the perpetual Saturnalia under him. In Hades, he is met by the various friends he had had murdered, and his punishment is determined: to spend eternity trying to throw dice in a box with no bottom. (He liked to roll the dice, it seems. Well, alea jacta est… Oh, wrong emperor.) But then Caligula shows up, declares that Claudius used to be his slave, and hands him over to become a law clerk in the underworld.

This word, thus, is a parody of apotheosis – in fact, it’s a Greek construction represented in Latin, just like apotheosis. It wasn’t Seneca who came up with the word, though – it was a later author, Dio Cassius, who gave the work that title. I’m sure Cinderella came much later than Dio Cassius, but I do like the image of a carriage meant to carry Claudius to Olympus turning into a pumpkin.

We may know, as the Romans did, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum – say nothing but good of the dead. But sometimes the praise is not altogether merited. To say the least. And sometimes we must observe that some purported sublimity is not just subliminally ridiculous. A word such as apocolocyntosis is a nice way of saying, “Well… aren’t we special.”

Seneca was just the right person to write such a satire. The general trend of thought you get from his writings is that the world was perfect until people screwed it up, and civilization is entropy. We should also note that he was banished to Corsica by Claudius. On the other hand, he made a point in the Apocolocyntosis of sucking up to the next emperor. (Well, at first, anyway. A decade later he was accused of plotting to assassinate him and was directed to commit suicide, which he did.) Oh, you may have heard of the next emperor, too: Nero.

bellwether

Words in different languages that resemble each other but mean different things are often called “false friends.” But what about words in English that may seem to be made up of words different from the ones they actually are made up of? Should we call them “fair-weather friends”?

Well, the term for misconstruals of words – reanalyses, as linguists call them – on the basis of plausible-sounding but inaccurate derivation is eggcorns, named after just such a misconstrual of acorn. And today’s word, bellwether, is subject to just such a misconstrual, as you can see, for instance, at news.nationalpost.com/2011/04/26/road-map-to-a-potential-ndp-breakthrough/ : bellweather.

We know what a bellwether is, right? Something like a canary in a coal mine – a thing that tells you which way the wind is blowing? Like a bell that rings to tell you the weather?

Such a train of reasoning may seem sensible but can leave people a bit sheepish. You see, if you have it as weather as in wind, you’ve blown it. Nor is it whether, as in to be or not to be. No, this is more to baa or not to baa. Wether is an old Anglo-Saxon word for a castrated ram. The leading one in a flock gets a bell on its neck so the shepherd knows which way the sheep are going (you may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but you may need a wether, man, to know which way the sheep go).

So bellwether meant first “lead sheep”, and from that more broadly a leader or person at the forefront; on the basis of that – and perhaps the idea of the weather bell – it has gotten the meaning “leading indicator of trends”. A bellwether is not quite someone who says “Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on” (actually, that’s Bill Withers), but it’s also not a belle-weather friend. But when we the people (or perhaps sheeple) follow the bell (or follow where there be parallel lines), we are likely following a bellwether.

This word is uncommon for its llw combination, incidentally. The /lw/ sound is not normal in English (though ordinary enough in French, for instance), but it escapes here because it’s across syllable boundaries. Anyway, we tend to reduce the /l/ at syllable’s end so that it’s just like a /w/ but without the rounding, so all you need for /w/ is to round your lips – sort of like folding the two l’s into two v’s and gluing them together to make w. So the /l/ largely assimilates to the /w/ here.

And assimilation is just the sort of sheeplike behaviour that makes bellwethers so effective: follow the path of least resistance. I’m reminded of a joke. An old rancher has suffered a stroke and the doctor is testing his faculties. The doctor says, “Say you have a pen with 100 sheep in it and one gets out. How many sheep do you have?”

“None,” says the old rancher.

“Well… no,” says the doctor, “that’s not quite right. If you had 100, and you’ve lost one, how does that make none?”

“Look, young fella,” says the old farmer, “you may know brains but you don’t know sheep. If one of those damn things goes, they all go.”

And we just know which one gets out first, now, don’t we? Begins to ring a bell, doesn’t it?