Monthly Archives: September 2017

instar

If your life is a movie you star in…

…wait, why just one movie? Why not a serial, with installments? And restarts? Instants and incidents and incidences? Like a train with many cars… or a series of trains?

Our lives have some continuity, of course: we are wave forms flowing through time and space. But we pass through different phases: levels of education, of work, of relationships. And each time, we wear a new costume and play a new role, and then we shed the costume and move on to the next.

And, sure, we are not so significant in the grand view of things. Even the most famous person is, sub specie æternitatis, no more significant than an insect, and the great starring roles of life just so many instars: egg, larva, pupa, adult.

That is what an instar is: a phase in an insect’s life, each instar divided from the next by the clear junction of moulting – or, to use the specific technical term, ecdysis. (If that word looks familiar, you are probably thinking now of ecdysiast, a jocularly hifalutin way of referring to a stripper, i.e., someone who removes clothing in a performance for the entertainment of others.) Now, admittedly, ecdysis is a bit of a strain, and it’s not something one trains for, but it must happen and it will. And then it enters its next instar.

And is the next instar. The word also refers to the insect in that stage. It not only has four (or however many) instars, it is four (or however many) instars in sequence. The word comes from Latin instar, which means ‘form’ or ‘figure’ or ‘likeness’.

For an insect, the adult instar is normally considered the last instar, even if it moults again after reaching sexual maturity. The adult instar ends in death. For humans, for whom we may use the term figuratively, I don’t see why we can’t be a bit looser – people continue to move to new roles with new skins to wear long after they’ve reached adulthood. Perhaps they stay in one house or one job for many years, and then shed that and take on a new skin. It would be as painful and transforming. And then a new instar would star in a new instar.

Advertisements

lutescent

Today, another word picture: a short fictional word-image fantasia tangential to the word of the day.

lutescent. adjective. Tending towards yellow. From the suffix escent (as in adolescent) plus Latin luteus (with a long first u), ‘yellow’, not to be confused with Latin luteus (with a short first u), ‘muddy, made of clay, worthless’.

 

Picture the end of summer, when the aching greens of spring have relaxed, diluted their efforts, headed towards retirement. The cicada-timers have almost run out. Leaves are thinking of leaving. Barbecue smoke smells nostalgic. Things have been won, loved, and lost. She’s looking for one of them.

She is this young woman. And this one. Two pictures. Two waving sets of yellow strands.

In one, you see a field of prairie grass and shrub, shifting in shade from Chartreuse to Chartreuse, and behind it protestant evergreens and a catholic blue river. A young woman with her brown hair knotted back is walking through it with purpose. Something was lost in the mud of the bank and she wants it back. Continue reading

strand

Language is a strand.

Perhaps you read that as meaning a thread, a string, a part of a cord, perhaps a line of pearls. It could be that. But I had something else in mind.

I think of three uses of strand I encountered in my youth.

One was in “Scarborough Fair”: “Tell her to find me an acre of land (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) between the salt water and the sea strand, then she’ll be a true love of mine.”

One was the name of a street in London: The Strand.

One was in a translation of a monologue I delivered in Classical Greek in my fourth year of university: the words παραλίαν ψάμμαν were rendered by one commentator as “shingled strand.” The professor of classics who helped me with it informed me that “sandy beach” would be a more plain rendition. At which point I learned what a strand is.

Not a strand of a rope. That strand has a different source, and an uncertain one; the word seems to have washed up from parts unknown. But strand as in beach or seashore is a good old Germanic word that shows up in pretty much every other Germanic language too, and is even borrowed into Finnish worn down to ranta. All mean the same thing: ‘the land along the water’s edge’. A technical definition could be that section of the seashore that is exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide, but in general usage it’s less restrictive and can be used for freshwater places too, such as the beach on Lake Ontario I spent some time on today.

So The Strand in London is a street that used to be right where the river’s edge was, just as The Esplanade, where I live in Toronto, is a street that used to be a walkway on the lake’s edge. And there is no land between the salt water and the sea strand, certainly not an acre; the strand is defined by the edge of the sea.

Which means it is linear, strung along the lapping lip of the world’s water like an infinite thread, longer and longer as you measure it closer and closer but also changing with every instant. At every moment the edge of the strand winds around countless grains of sand, transposing with each successive shift of sea. The land is solid, slow to change; the sea is in constant flux. Hard pieces of silicon and calcium go into the water and are worn down over time into innumerable small grains, a mass object, no longer individual items. Rocks, shells, even pearls and other pieces of nacre are broken and worn to the size of seeds. And sometimes floating persons in their craft come to this land and are unable to depart: they are stranded. Not just beached but bleached and unreached.

The words of the world are rocks and grains of sand set down by wet, ever-shifting life on the edges of the islands of our minds. Or vice-versa: they are the pieces of the hard ground of the world that the waters of the psyche (and of culture) lap at. The salt of the water is the taste of the decay of ages. The grains of the strand are souvenirs of the sea on the land, and I can tell you they stay with you much longer than you thought they would. You find them days, weeks, months later. They start out as large bits of ideas and understanding and speech, and over time they are passed from one tongue to another and worn down – or made more specific. Sometimes we do commerce on them; sometimes we relax and frolic on them. But if you try to cling to them, to fix them in position and to hold the line, you will be stranded.

Look. It’s all metaphor, and metaphor is imprecise and shifting. All our meaning is based on things resembling – but being different from – other things. The solid reality of our interface with the world, our lapping and lapped-at language, is not an acre but an infinity of acres made from the evanescent infinitesimal edge – a thread thinner than any but endlessly involuted – between the salt water and the sea strand.

gudgeon

Today’s word is part of what I intend to be an occasional series of word pictures: short fictional word-image fantasias tangential to the word of the day.

gudgeon. noun. 1. A shiny silvery freshwater fish, easily caught, often used for bait. By extension, a gullible person. From Latin gobio by way of French goujon, and don’t ask me how gobio became goujon. 2. A socket-like (“female”) metal fitting made to connect to a pin-like (“male”) fitting (the pintle) to form a pivot, as for a gate, bell, spindle, axle, or what have you. From Old French gojon, perhaps connected to French gond ‘hinge’ or perhaps even related to that fish I just mentioned. verb. To be a gudgeon (extended sense) or to make a gudgeon of someone else.

 

She’s the only one looking at you, and even she isn’t looking at you. Her eyes, swung over her shoulder as though drawn by her backpack, have already skipped past you to someone more interesting behind. That man persecuting his smartphone with his fingertip as he walks a lemniscate path? The lady happily pursing a pair of fresh free promotional lipsticks? The young fellow with an indeterminate goatee walking mismatched dogs in three directions at once?

She’s looking at someone who may not be there. It’s not you. And it’s not the man standing at her other shoulder, who is not looking at her, not now.

She’s standing on a planter for a better view, but she’s not looking where everyone else is. The crowd in front of her are thirsting for a famous face, but that’s not who she’s here for. She’s waiting for someone who’s coming to see the glittering. Continue reading

droplet

What is a droplet? A little thing you’ve let drop.

Well, no, that’s not precisely it. Drops were first of all things that had been dropped, yes, or things that were about to drop, but dewdrops are more on the order of condensation and may evaporate – or be absorbed – before they drop. Droplets of sweat flow out and flow down, but they are not flowlets.

And what of this let? The French source is –et and –ette, but some French borrowings into English had an l at the end of the root or as part of an –el suffix from the Latin (trimmed from –ellus, –ellum, –ella), as in bracelet, chaplet, and gauntlet. The English saw the l and it clung to the et, and we got a fully English suffix on armlet, ringlet, kinglet… now lets are everywhere, first condensed from the precipitation of bits of language, now spread like droplets of mist.

What we know without question is that a droplet is a little drop. It can be technical or poetic. Scientists speaking of liquids found or made in tiny spheres, perfect or oblate, held together by surface tension, use the term as readily as lovers discerning the small fluids of flowers and passions. Even the sound of the word is appropriate, like a water drip hitting a small pool in a cave with a plop and a splash and maybe a splatter. And the shape: the droplet hanging at the bottom of the d, coming loose and falling as the o, clinging next to the top of the p, eventually starting to dry as the e.

Droplets can be invisibly small, measured in picolitres, in an aggregate making a cloud of colour or grey. They can also be large enough to roll down your skin and tickle you. How big can a droplet be? No one can say for sure. At some point a drop is obviously a droplet; at another point a droplet is obviously a drop, or more; but if someone tries to tickle out a precise delimitation from you, best let the matter drop.

cinereal

Thought is fire. Your brain is ignited by electric shocks of sensation and memory and burns in the heat of the moment to make the smoke traces of words and other actions. It leaves behind the ashes of the grey matter. A name for grey matter is cinerea. A name for grey is cinereal. It means cinereous. Which means grey, greying, inclining to grey, becoming ashen, becoming ashes. The warm brown wood of the world incinerates to grey smoke and grey ashes, cinders, cinereal, cinereous. Trees burn at a certain rate. Trees make paper and paper displays words and burns at a faster rate, and your brain burns fastest of all, gone before seen at every moment, sincere or insincere, cinema or real, the ever renewable eternal uncensored censer. And the smoke is the word and the smoke hides the world and all fades in slow shade layers to grey, cinereous, cinereal, cinerea. Do you see?

Dictionary page photographed from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

wymote, marshmallow

What’s a wymote? A marshmallow.

No, not the thing you roast on a stick or drop in your hot chocolate. The plant.

You didn’t know a marshmallow was a plant first? Yup, it was. Still is. Also written marsh-mallow or marsh mallow, because it’s the kind of mallow that grows in marshes.

But why mote it be that it be called wymote? Well, it’s like this. Wymote is a variant of wymalve. Why? “Unexplained,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, but anyway wymote is still in use and wymalve is not.

OK, but why wymalve? Because it came from popular Latin viscomalva, which was worn down from hibiscomalva, which was hibiscus plus malva. Viscomalva passed into Old French as vismauve, whence English wymalve and also modern French guimauve, which also translates ‘marshmallow’ the thing you eat (any Canadian should know that just from food-package French).

You know what hibiscus is and if you don’t I have no hope for you but look it up. What is malva? It’s the Latin word for ‘mallow’, the whole family of plants. The word mallow comes from it. Remember, although later Latin, especially as spoken by native speakers of later European languages, said consonantal v as /v/, classical Latin said it as /w/. So /malwa/ easily became mallow, while hibiscomalva ended up as wymalve and then wymote.

I did say, didn’t I, that there are many different mallows? There are. Two to three dozen. They include the musk-mallow, the French mallow (a.k.a. bull mallow), the Chinese mallow, the Brazilian mallow, the tree mallow, the low mallow, the small mallow, the dwarf mallow (also called buttonweed and cheeseplant), and the least mallow (also called cheeseweed – the indignity!). And, more remotely related, the marshmallow, which is part of a different genus – not Malva but Althæa.

You know those plants that grow in marshes that look like sticks with hot dogs or marshmallows on the ends? Yeah, those are bulrushes and have nothing to do with mallows. Sorry. Marshmallows, the plants, are pretty things with white flowers. They are edible. The flowers are edible. The stems are edible. The roots are edible. And if you cook the roots, you will find they contain starch, mucilage, pectin, flavonoids, and sucrose (among other things). Which means they’re great for using to make fluffy gooey confections with a bunch of fancy cooking and some more sugar and flavouring.

Which is how we came to call the confections marshmallows: because they’re made from them. Oops, sorry, they were made from them. Confectioners figured out how to make them more easily cheaply with sugar, water, starch, and gelatin (some versions also contain eggs). A key discovery in the history of marshmallows, made in the 1800s, is called the starch mogul system, not because someone who made them was a starch mogul (cf. movie moguls) but because the starch was formed into moguls sort of like how snow is formed into moguls by skiers. (See mogul for heaps more.) Another development – in 1954 – allowed marshmallow mixture to be extruded into long thick ropes and cut into segments. This led to the modern cylindrical pillows, so ready to be dissolved in chocolate or impaled and incinerated on an open flame, or some more options.

So a pretty white swamp flower has also become a pillowy edible, no longer using the original. And the malva – and althæa – has become both marshmallow and wymote. Nothing stays the same, but it’s all delicious in your mouth.