Daily Archives: June 15, 2011

cortex

I remember this record my Dad bought when I was a kid. My brother and I listened to it quite a few times. It was all about the brain – a song for every part (rather amusing, too, as I recall). I can’t remember much of it now, but I do remember one song (musically just a little reminiscent of “Copacabana”), the chorus of which began, “It’s the cortex! The cortex!”

That was, I’m pretty sure, my first encounter with the word cortex. And what sorts of flavours did cortex have for me? Not Gore-Tex, that smart outer layer to wear when you’re encountering nature and its elements – that hadn’t even been invented yet (not for another few years: 1976). No, it would have made me think of Chargex – what VISA cards used to be called in Canada – and similar commercial things and brand names ending in ex. And it would have made me think of core, of course. Which is certainly ironic, since the cortex is not the core but the outer layer of the brain. Your conscious interface with the elements, inner and outer. The part you’re processing this right here right now with.

Other flavours cortex may bring depend on context – and include context. You might get mixed up and think of an escort or perhaps of your oxters (that means “armpits”). You might think of Hernán Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztex – oops, I mean Aztecs. You might be reminded of Texas by the tex – or even by the size of the cortex, which is really rather expansive: about 2000 square centimetres, around the size of a newspaper page. A wrinkly newspaper page, though: the cerebral cortex has all sorts of wrinkles in it.

But, yes, whatever you think of, whatever new wrinkle, in whatever context, you’re thinking of it with your cortex. And not just history and geography but biology – your biology: the nerves in your oxters connect to your cortex as well.

But how did this crisp word come to be the name of the rind of the mind? You can play with the shapes, see the c come to o, the connection made and circle closed; you can see the crossroads of information at x. You can feel the tongue tap at the back, then (with a little wave motion) the tip, then again at the back and subside into a fricative at the tip, like water rocking in a box. But what has it all to do with the surface of the pond that is your brain?

Well, it’s not really that it’s the surface of a pond. It’s that it’s the bark of the brain tree – consider the ramifications of that. Cortex is Latin for “bark”, you see. Think of the bark of a pine tree, with its wrinkles.

But then think of the wood of that tree being made into a bark, to float on the seas of imagination: the wandering bark that is love, the bark of fantasy… It’s all in the cortex. The cortex!

barque

Can a word that immediately calls forth a harsh, sharp sound (from a dog or other creature) be somehow elegant, lovely, or dreamy?

I don’t see why not. Of course, as soon as you use the que spelling, everything gets a little fancier – barque is what Phydeaux does, perhaps, while bark is what Fido does. The que calls forth French but also Latin – in Latin, que stuck on the end of a word (and fully pronounced) means “and”, as in Senatus Populusque Romanus “the Senate and People of Rome”. So if you had a place called Barbecue Barque perhaps it would mean it had a barbecue and a bar. (And maybe they should go with the alternate spelling Barbeque, which, however, I have a hard time not reading like “barbeck”.)

But the best evidence of the possibility of a little crisp, fresh elegance is the contrast with barge. Barge is a word that brings to mind something quite lumpish and unpleasant – perhaps a garbage barge – and goes with ill-mannered action. “He just barged in! What a bounder – I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole!” On the other hand, embark is what one does on an expensive trip.

And yet barque (bark) and barge most likely come from the same source, by way of barca and barga. There is some dispute as to the origin – Celtic, perhaps, or maybe Greek, but by way of Latin anyway. They were once the same boat, but they’re not really in the same boat now.

Barque and bark rather are in the same boat, on the other hand, although barque can refer specifically to a three-masted ship square-rigged on the foremasts and fore-and-aft rigged on the rear. Bark can name any of quite a variety of mid-small boats – though nothing as small as a birch bark canoe (and no, that’s not the same bark any more than what a dog does is).

Why use the barque spelling when bark will do? Well, for clarity, for one thing. But also for the beautiful balance of the form. Whereas bark bursts a bubble (b > k), barque presents a back half that seems to be made of rotated forms from the front half, sea-changed: b > q (the mast trimmed and turned to make a rudder), a > e (a type a has some resemblance to that rotated e, the schwa ə), r > u (the lost leg grown back). And paradoxically we view inefficient, wasted silent letters as somehow elegant (certainly not in the mathematical sense!).

Still, it’s not the spelling preferred by poets. Well, if Noah released a lark from the ark, we may hark in the stark dark and mark a bark, wandering. Oh, yes, wandering! Shakespeare set down this collocation in his 116th sonnet: it is love that is “the star to every wandering bark.”

And where does the bark wander? In dreamland, surely. I recall again (as I did in my note on virch) “a barca da fantasia” from Madredeus’s O Pastor:

Ao largo ainda arde
A barca da fantasia
E o meu sonho acaba tarde
Acordar é que eu não queria

“At a distance still burns the barque [or barge] of fantasy, and my dream ends late – waking is what I didn’t want.”

And what do you see on the lovely barque of dreams? Perhaps a world as painted by Georges Braque…