Category Archives: word tasting notes

spry

A bit over two years ago, my wife and I went to a Leonard Cohen concert. The various band members walked onto the stage, one at a time, got set up. Then some guy came bounding onto the stage. We thought it was one of the techies bringing on something for someone. Then he took the microphone and started to sing.

Leonard Cohen, 78 at the time, had just jogged onto the stage like a 24-year-old.

Throughout the concert, he was here, he was there; now he was on his knees, now back up, now on his knees again. Not quite a sprinter, but sprightly. A spring in his step.

Leonard Cohen, after 8 decades of life, is pretty spry.

Last week we saw Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, live on stage. Angela Lansbury is 89½ years old. Angela Lansbury was up pacing around, dancing in a trance, flopping onto a sofa.

I described her on the phone to my parents as “pretty spry.”

Obviously spry is a relative word. A person in their prime has to be frankly gymnastic to earn the term. A nonagenarian can earn it by dancing. And not landing sprawled as a result.

Spry showed up in English by the later 1700s, meaning (as it still does) “Active, nimble, smart, brisk; full of health and spirits” (Oxford). It has also sometimes been used to mean ‘spruce’ (as in spruced up). But it’s not clear just where it came from. The best guesses trace it to sprightly or to an Old Norse word meaning ‘brisk, active’. But there’s no clear trail. Somehow it just sprang into the language. And sounded right.

Right? Let’s see common words that start with spr: sprain, sprat, sprawl, spray, spread, spree, sprig, spright, spring, springe, sprinkle, sprint, sprit, sprite, spritz, sprout, spruce, sprue, spruik. Most of them have to do with spreading or distributing motion, or with things that move quickly or grow forth. There’s an accumulated association of that general sense with this sound, even though the words aren’t all related. It’s what is sometimes called a phonaestheme.

And the vowel, the diphthong /aɪ/ (spelled y)? That’s not as concentrated, to be sure. But there can be a sense of movement away: fly, try, sigh, die, hie. There’s also the sound of wry embedded in spry. And of course there’s the unfinished sprightly and sprite, and there’s pry and almost prize and prime. Associations between words and sounds may in general be arbitrary, but people automatically look for patterns and make associations on the basis of resemblance. Word meanings can shift because a word sounds like another word. Language is sometimes a nimble thing.

Nimble? That’s a rough synonym for spry. But tell me what you feel the difference to be. I find that nimble is like agile with a particular sense of quick and sure feet and ability to negotiate tricky situations (it commonly shows up with fingers and feet), while spry focuses more on the athletic vigor and youthful sinew, still with a sense of indefeasibility. And it’s commonly used to refer to older people – the most frequent modifier for it (by far) is still. It’s relatively more easily attainable in greater age, and it connotes retention of a youthful vigour.

Come to think of it, it sounds like a word Sean Connery might use, doesn’t it? He’s still spry, too, you know… at 84 years old.

pristine

Outside, the temperature is brisk, but the air boils: snow rolls and roils, billows and piles into soft pure pillows. When the storm is past and all is settled and halcyon, the world takes on a pure, primeval aspect: crystalline white, untrodden, a fantasy. This is the moment just after the fall. The sheet white of the land is a page yet to be written on, new, immaculate, not bearing the trace of any conception: no stripe, nor even the prints of a sprinter. Clean and glowing like spirit. Pristine.

Not only snow can be pristine. Forests, beaches, lakes, wilderness, but especially – in the words of today’s writers – anything clean, pure, and white: teeth, china, clothing, clouds… What is pristine is printless, priceless, primeval, like a clear running stream fed by snows from the dawn of time. It is not some passing pretty interest or painting to be pinned on your Pinterest; it is the epitome of ideals of purity. Time and tide have not happened to it yet.

Pristine puts me in mind of Seneca. I don’t mean the Seneca Nation of American Indians, although fantasies about the natural natives and unexplored wilderness could come into play. I mean the Roman author and statesman, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, playwright, stoic, advisor to Nero. His plays feature dark and brutal happenings, but they also feature a yearning for times that were not so dark and brutal. In Phaedra, Hippolytus, soon to be dragged to death by horses (though he doesn’t know it), rhapsodizes about the life in the forests primeval: “There is no life so free and innocent, none which better cherishes the ancient ways, than that which, forsaking cities, loves the woods.” He goes on to say that people in the primal age lived thus, in communion with the gods, without cities and civilization and greed, tools and towers. This is Seneca’s presentation of the pristine.

But where he uses the word pristine – its Latin etymon, to be precise – is in another play, Agamemnon: Clytaemnestra says “Surgit residuus pristinæ mentis pudor – quid obstrepis?” Which can be translated as “The remnant of my old time chastity revives; why dost thou cry against it?”

So pristinæ (an inflected form of pristina, feminine of pristinus) translates to chastity? No; that translates pudor (or mentis pudor; I think modesty would really be a closer translation, though). Pristinæ translates to old time.

Yes. Prior. Prime. The opposite of procrastinated (crastinus means ‘later’). Originally, even in English, what was pristine was, to quote Oxford, “Of or relating to the earliest period or state; original, former; primitive, ancient.” From this came a sense of “unspoilt by human interference,” as witness this quote from the 1910 Encyclopædia Britannica: “This presence of the pure, the pristine, the virginal in the verse, this luminousness, spaciousness, serenity in the land.” And from that we came to general freshness, spotlessness, newness.

Obviously this word pristine is not quite pristine, then; use has shifted its sense. Some would insist that it be reserved for things in an ancient and unspoiled state, either preserved or atavistic; one could not in this sense speak of pristine lines of modernist architecture. But languages changes all the time; rare indeed is the word that has not shifted form, sense, or both in the past millennium. This is not despoilment. This is simply change, which always happens. Do you see that new snow? Each pretty crystal is made of water that has passed through the cycle countless times since the world was new. It has been drunk, passed, watered on roots, transpired to the air, rained down from the clouds, swum in, frozen, thawed, boiled, made into snow and packed and shovelled and melted, and it will go back and do it all again. Everything does that. Every bit of matter in your body was once matter in some other animal’s body, and will in future times be matter in others still. Pristine is a fantasy. But on a fresh, snowy day, it is a pleasing one.

Pristina, on the other hand, is the capital of Kosovo. It is not a new place; people have been living thereabouts for a hundred centuries – a literal myriad of years – and it has had its name for at least seven centuries. It is not untouched; a war was fought there even not so long ago. And yet it has a lovely name, a name that brings to mind the printemps of time, prior to imprints. Its name does not come from the Latin, though. It sounds like Serbian for ‘boil’, but more likely it comes from a personal name, much changed over the ages.

Thanks to Benjamin Dreyer, @BCDreyer, who mentioned a month ago his appreciation for this word and so, without intending to, provoked this tasting.

lurve

You know what lurve is, don’t you, baby? Yeah, baby, you do. You want to feel my lurve. You want to know my lurrrrve. Yeah, baby, you know. You know my lurvature. I know you’re lurvaceous. We need to relieve, baby, relieve with verve. And make lurve. Lurve is a butterfly… and we are its lurvae.

Aw, come on, baby, you know I’m not some kind of lurvert. I’m the man with the velvet voice and the velvet glurve. I just want to give you what you desurve. Yeah, baby, you deserve my lurve. Because you’re lurvely. You’re sent from heaven aburve.

Baby? Baby?

Aw, baby, you know what lurve is. Aw, come on, don’t make me say it. It’s that word… that worrrd without the purr… if you take away the purr, it’s naked. It’s unpurrtected. It’s…

But lurve isn’t a new word. No, baby, no. It’s in Oxfurrd. They quote the Daily Mirror from 1936: “Which means..that (a) you’re in Lurve, but (b) you’re not sure he’s in Lurve with you.” But you’re sure, baby. You can be sure of my lurve.

What’s the definition? Oh, baby, come on, you know. Okay, be cool, baby, this is what it says: “Romantic infatuation; sex; love. Freq. when regarded as being treated (esp. in films, pop music, fiction, etc.) in a hackneyed or clichéd manner.”

No, baby, that’s just those British people, baby. No, oh come on, baby. I say lurve is love with a purr. It’s like a one-word aphurdisiac.

That’s what, baby? Where’s it come from? Oh, lurk, baby, I mean look… Yeah, baby, yeah, okay, here’s what it says: “Sometimes specifically parodying the slow, smooth, crooning pronunciation of love in romantic popular songs. In some cases perhaps also reflecting British perceptions of the U.S. pronunciation of love n.1

Well, look, baby, what do they know about lurve? They’re British, baby. They don’t make lurve. They make awkward half-hinting proposals. Or they sing songs about, you know, well, “wouldn’t it be lurvely.”

Baby, baby, you know I said it: you’re lurvaceous. Between us we can make a beautiful smooth lurvature. Lurve, lurve me do, baby, you know I lurve you… Oh yeah… you want a whole lotta lurve…

kenodoxy

A word bursts on the scene, fresh, faddish, perhaps consciously classical or rebellious or hip. It has its Warhol-appointed quarter-hour or its full Shakespearean hour on the stage, and then it slips back, retreats into the thin pages of the dictionary, eventually dies with a dagger through its heart and has its grave condition marked with an obelisk. Such is life; vanity may be glorious, but all glory is vain.

But just because this too shall pass doesn’t mean we should despise it. Indeed, the very evanescence of life’s delights enjoins us to enjoy them: if not now, when? Every moment is a new opportunity. Take it. Just don’t become attached to it. Relish it and relinquish it. Spend the moment well; just don’t give it meaning beyond its worth. Don’t think your first-class upgrade makes you a first-class person. Take the meretricious for its merry tricks, knowing you will be rapt one moment but unwrapped the next, and discard the rapper when it is empty.

Take this word, kenodoxy. Is it not glittery like a cut diamond, or at least like glass costume jewelry? The two hard velar stops are represented with sharp angular strokes in k and x; the third set of angles are a tail, a vowel y. It touches at the back, tip, tip, back and tip of the tongue. It sounds crisp and detailed and looks stylish in an expensive-watch sort of way: a beautiful machine so exquisitely made, you will pay much for it even if it doesn’t perform its ostensible function as accurately as a cheaper one may do. It glitters like a lottery winner; it has the meretrix’s merry tricks.

Lottery? How about keno? There’s a fun game, involving drawing numbers to match pre-selected numbers – originally five, hence the name keno, from Latin quinque. And meretrix? That’s an old word for a lady who has the oldest profession, one who will share her glories for a price and a limited time – ah, such is life. Another (perhaps less nice) word for the same is doxy. So. Keno and doxy? Free money and pricey love, twin impermanent luxuries? Perhaps you would not appreciate something so much like a diamond-studded balloon that will, when optimally filled, pop from the diamonds’ sharp points. But perhaps others would. And perhaps we all engage in a little kenodoxy.

Kenodoxy is not from keno the game plus doxy the gamer. Actually, it’s from Greek κενοδοξία kenodoxia, from κενός kenos ‘empty’ (whence kenosis) and δόξα doxa ‘glory’. (My, doesn’t that xi – ξ – look like a snake coiled and ready to bite?) Kenodoxy is, according to Oxford, an obsolete rare word meaning “The love, study, or desire of vain-glory.”

Oh, yes, vainglory! We do glory in our vanities, and remind ourselves of their impermanence. Riding high in April, shot down in May, but we’ll be back in June. Quicquid enim florui, felix et beatus, nunc a summo corrui, gloria privatus. Worldes blis ne last no throwe. But you might as well get it while you can. As we are counselled by much of the entire œuvre of rap and hip-hop.

O vainglory, how can we not be captivated by you? Here is a little bit of kenodoxy from Old Goriot by Balzac:

Love in Paris is a thing distinct and apart; for in Paris neither men nor women are the dupes of the commonplaces by which people seek to throw a veil over their motives, or to parade a fine affectation of disinterestedness in their sentiments. In this country within a country, it is not merely required of a woman that she should satisfy the senses and the soul; she knows perfectly well that she has still greater obligations to discharge, that she must fulfill the countless demands of a vanity that enters into every fiber of that living organism called society. Love, for her, is above all things, and by its very nature, a vainglorious, brazen-fronted, ostentatious, thriftless charlatan.

The vainglory of love, the love of vainglory, the vainglory of the love of vainglory.

We do not have to engage ingenuously in vainglory. We can always stand apart, observing ourselves bouncing in the ballroom of the world, delivering keynotes and savouring the finest things. This aesthetic appreciation that leads to insight, what the Sanskrit philosophers called rasadhvani, can also be applied to vainglory. Take your kenodoxy out from your lexical jewel-box and wear this rock on your ring finger. Be engaged in it. Just know that all vainglory is a jilt, and in the end you will be disengaged, whether you want or not.

spiteseeing

Yes, this is a neologism. I made it up just the other day. It’s a word that’s needed, because what it names has existed for some time. It’s the tourist equivalent of hate-watching.

What is hate-watching? It’s watching something that you loathe, precisely because you loathe it. It’s indulging in irritainment (entertainment that irritates you). It seems rather popular these days. People can download whole series on Netflix and sit there loathing every second and making snarky comments from the comfort of their couches or beds.

Well, you can’t do spiteseeing from home.

It’s not too likely that someone would plan a whole trip just to see something they despised. It’s not inconceivable; indeed, I think A.A. Gill has made a minor practice of it just to fuel his entertaining subgenre of slasher travel writing. But usually if you go spiteseeing it will be an excursion or stopover on an otherwise enjoyable trip.

The example that came to my mind first was going to the Champs-Élysées while on a trip to Paris. It’s infested with tourists and high-end chain stores; it’s about the only place in Paris to find a Starbucks, and that Starbucks typically has a huge lineup. In Paris! The city of boulevard cafés where you can drink a grande crème and eat a croissant and watch the world walk by! Yes, spiteseeing is what you do, in the middle of a nice trip, to remind yourself that people are stupid and that you’re vastly superior to them. You take a break from looking up at things to look down on things …and people.

Your choice of spiteseeing excursions will depend on your tastes. If you like high art, a famous tourist trap amusement park may be worth a day. If you like fine wine, some demotic jug-winery that tours people around in open-topped train-like bus-wagons may be worth a snicker with your swirl and spit (you may also enjoy hearing the people at the tasting bar next to you compliment the disgusting swill, which you are tasting just to remind yourself of how good the other wineries are). If you are skeptical of organized religion, a trip to Rome will not be complete without a visit to the Vatican (although, honestly, most of the grand attractions of Rome will have some spiteseeing potential for the truly dedicated anti-religionist). If you like fine dining, you could go to the McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome, or, to really crank it up, if you’re in Paris you could do what A.A. Gill did (him again!) and stop by L’Ami Louis. And wherever you are, if nothing else presents itself, you can find the nearest shopping mall. Unless you like shopping malls, of course.

Now, we may think of spite as referring to resentment, cultivated ill-will, and grudge; that is the most common sense today. In spite of that, however, it is still suitable for use anent sights with which you have no personal history. Spite, after all, is shortened from despite (the noun, from which our preposition today came), which in turn is from the Latin verb despicere, which gave us despise; despicere is de plus spicere, and means ‘look down’. Not as in literally look down, of course, as for instance from the top of the Eiffel Tower; you may as readily look down on the Eiffel Tower, in the figurative sense, while standing level with its base (and some distance away, muttering to yourself about how long the lines are to get up).

Etymology does not determine present meaning, of course. But we still have the nice phrase in spite of, as in seeing it in spite of yourself, and viable usages in phrases such as just for spite. And it makes a nice play on words in spiteseeing.

Spite has an interesting mix of flavours. It can be refreshing and lively with its overtones of sprite, and it can be disgusting and disgusted in its taste of spit. It also calls to mind site, of course, which in this case may be unfortunate. Why unfortunate? Because it will reinforce the common reanalysis of sightseeing as site-seeing.

We use site now so often that many people assume that site-seeing is the word they have heard. But really it’s originally sightseeing, as in seeing the sights; while that may seem tautological (“Is it possible to see sight?”), in this case a sight is something to be seen, something worth seeing, as in a sight for sore eyes and a sight to behold and so on. The sense of sight as something striking or remarkable dates from before AD 1000, although sight-seeing dates from only the early 1800s (when touring became a big thing). Site-seeing showed up first in the mid-1900s.

Now, of course, language changes and all that, and who knows but I may not be able to stem the tide of site-seeing (although it’s still far less common), but to me a site is the plot of land that the sight I want to see is located on. Unless it’s a gravesite, you know, or other historic site (e.g., “On the 15th of June, 1215, on this site was signed the Magna Carta”) – in the latter case, it’s the plot of land where something happened that’s no longer there happening, it’s just crowds of twits wandering around on the site looking for a sight that’s not to be seen… it’s not that there’s no there there, it’s that there’s nothing but there there, and there’s nothing there on the there, just dirt or concrete and gum someone happened to spit. So it’s the sort of place you wander through out of pure spite, to look down on.

ouroboros

Does this word have a familiar ring to it? A tale come round once again?

It’s a riverrun of a word, a liquid motion. The four rings rolling past o o o o make me think of the Lazy River, a waterpark feature that runs in a never-ending ring; you grab an inner tube and hop in and ride it, around and back to where you started and, if you so wish, around and around again, like an Escher staircase. Everything is downstream from everything else, and upstream from it too.

Well, yes, I’m referring as much to the sense as to the form. The word does seem as though it could start and end in other places – souroboro, osourobor, rosourobo, orosourob, borosouro, oborosour, roborosou, uroboroso – and it would be equally inscrutable, but it is the endless, self-feeding ring that it names that truly comes to mind: the Greek source is οὐροβόρος, ‘devouring its tail’, and it refers to a serpent that eats its own tail.

But this is no omphaloskepsis. This is not stasis but a self-contained universe. Yes, yes, in the real world a snake that devours its tail cinches up smaller and smaller as the tail goes farther and farther in until it’s looped around several times inside itself and too tightly to go any farther. Shut up. This isn’t a real snake, OK? It’s the universe an’ stuff. OK, it’s just the universe, no additional stuff, because there is no additional stuff. That’s the point. It feeds itself. It is a closed system, eternally returning. It is the hand that grasps itself. It is the beginning and the end together.

Beginning and end? Alpha and omega then, no? Well, let’s see: the small alpha is α, like a rope (or snake) with the ends crossed. A closed circuit but with dangling ends. A large omega (omega actually means ‘large o’, but I mean the capital form of it) is Ω, which is like the same thing only turned 90 degrees and with the crossed ends broken away so they don’t cross anymore: the end, turned off. (The small omega is ω, which is like someone grabbed the ends of the rotated α and pulled till it spronged. The large alpha is A, which is like some clever architect’s conception of a new way of making people see α, though actually the small came from the large.)

Anyway, the point of the ouroboros is really that the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end. The big crunch is the big bang and vice versa; the conclusion of every phase is the opening of another; it’s the never-ending story.

Never-ending story? A familiar tale? A tail told by a madman, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Well, what’s nothing? 0, of course, or O if you wish. There we go. The shape of a halo, the shape of a ring – on a planet, on a finger, on a space shuttle, of an onion or squid – or a button or a hole or the shape of some people’s sense of logic. It’s always something, but nothing compares to it, and it has an empty heart. It’s that familiar ring, going round and round and round and round again. The experience of being buttonholed by a never-ending tale-teller is suggested by the old-style English spelling (by way of Latin, as opposed to the more directly Greek version we prefer now): uroboros, “you’re a bore us.”

Oh, sorry, no, the accent is on the second syllable. “You rob or us.” Really? What roborant has so empowered the antepenult to rob the rhythm? Even the ou version is said by the dictionaries to be “oo rob or us.” This in spite of the accent you can clearly see on οὐροβόρος: the long syllable is the third one. (The mark over the ὐ simply means “no heavy breathing.”) We seem to be ringing the prosodic changes; perhaps in future ages they will put the stress on the first syllable, and then on the last (which would match the motif of the opening movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony).

But all of this doesn’t happen of its own little lonesome. The reason anything happens is that there are things to happen with and by and to, a multiplicity of things, differences. Countless atoms with their little ring-like systems cooperating to make molecules that make organelles that make cells that make organs that make bodies and so on. Just as we have time so everything doesn’t happen at once, we have difference so everything’s not the same. We need cooperation; we can’t have stories unless there is a hearer as well as a teller, and we can’t have truth unless two people corroborate each other’s tale.

Corroborate? Co-ouroboros. Couroboration.

couroboros

Couroboroation. Based on a character outline in the (PostScript Type 1) “Fnord Hodge-Podge Discordian fonts version 2″ by toa267

Thanks to @mededitor for getting this started. As it were.

Lamson Room: an epilogue

How did I have such detailed descriptions of the Lamson Room? I took pictures.

Why didn’t I include the pictures? Well, they weren’t that great. I took them with my iPhone.

But also, I was a bit embarrassed. In the picture were the Operation Instructions, but I found that when I enlarged them they were illegible. And I hadn’t stopped to read them in the actual room. In fact, I hadn’t stepped into the room.

Today the door was open again.

They had been drilling, I think; the floor had plaster dust on it. But they were on lunch break. So I stepped in a little, leaving prints in the dust. I had to hold the door open. But I leaned forward and got a photo of the instructions.

Lamson Room door
Lamson Room
Lamson Operating Instructions

Lamson made more than one kind of machine. They’re famous for their tubes, but this was something different. And in fact, I had been wondering. There were no actual tube ends to see. All behind the sliding doors?

No. This Lamson is a “selective vertical conveyor.”

In case you can’t read the instructions in the image, this is what they say:

SELECTIVE VERTICAL CONVEYOR

OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS

CAUTION MOVING MACHINERY BEYOND FIRE DOORS

KEEP HANDS CLEAR

LOAD CONTENTS ENTIRELY INSIDE THE CONTAINER

PLACE THE CONTAINER ON CONVEYOR LOAD PLATFORM

DIAL DESTINATION

PRESS DISPATCH BUTTON

DO NOT RE-DIAL AFTER PRESSING DISPATCH BUTTON

DO NOT REMOVE CONTAINER FROM INSIDE CONVEYOR OPENING AFTER PRESSING DISPATCH BUTTON

IF CONVEYOR MALFUNCTIONS CALL MAINTENANCE

LAMSON

SYRACUSE NY

So. I did not quite accurately convey the nature of the machine. I went down the tubes a bit. But I have now elevated your awareness.

This Lamson is, in fact, a kind of corporate dumbwaiter. Like a servant waiting in his room for you to call him: “Lamson! Take these documents up to the thirteenth floor!”