Archive for the ‘Latin’ Category

On my Twitter feed and companion site, Tweetionary, I’ve been running a “happy pairs” fortnight, where each day there’s been two etymologies for a pair of words, such as “nook and cranny,” “fast and furious,” “cloak and dagger,” and “rock and roll.” After I announced I was doing this, one of my Twitter friends (@GLHancock) commented, ” Hope you do ‘jot & tittle’ or ‘tiddle.’

Jot or tittle

Jot or/and Tittle

Well, this was a new one to me, and yet another example of how I seem to know less and less as I get older. The only wisdom that appears to have come with age for me is that I am pretty certain that I know very little, and every day I find something new that reminds me of the truth of such a position.

Still, ever one for learning new things, armed with the OED and Internet I was able to find all I needed to know about jots and tittles. But first, what does the phrase “jot and tittle” mean?

The general meaning is something along the lines of “the smallest part,” “a miniscule amount,” or “the tiniest detail.” The earliest reference is from the Gospel of Matthew and reads;

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  (Matthew 5:17-18)

The OED cites the Wycliffe Bible where we find;

Til heuen and erthe passe, oon i [gloss that is leste lettre], or titil shal nat passe fro the lawe, til alle thingis be don.

The phrase seems to vary between “jot or tittle” and “jot and tittle.” [1] The quote above definitely references the or version, and a quick Google search shows that the and version scores a Ghit[2] of 88,400, whereas the or version comes out with a respectable 252,000. I also measured the Bhit score [3] to find “jot or tittle” scoring 276,000 hits against “jot and tittle” with 303,000. Seems like Google and Microsoft disagree! In all honesty, choosing the and or the or is unlikely to make any difference to the meaning, so it would be a particularly rabid and pedantic etymologist who would want to prescribe either of these as “correct.”

I then checked the 450 million words of the Corpus of Contemporary American, or COCA. Here I discovered that the and version scored 9 while the or version only got 4. So according to the COCA, “jot and tittle” is twice as popular as “jot or tittle.” It seems that COCA and Google disagree!

Alas, the British National Corpus was equally as unhelpful. I suppose one could argue that “jot or tittle” scoring 2 against “jot and tittle’s” zero suggests the former is more common, but these are hardly decisive numbers. It’s probably safe to say that you can pretty much choose whichever you prefer and claim to be correct. But putting aside the discussion about which is the more frequent version, what on earth are jots and tittles anyway?

A jot is “a very small amount” and if you “care not a jot,” you mean you care very little. It first makes an appearance in English in the 15th century and can be traced back to the Greek word iota(iώτα0, which as well as being the name of the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet also means “a small amount.” It is the smallest letter in that alphabet, hence its name. It was first written in English as either iot or iote but the “i” became a “j” because of its similarity, and the iota became a jot.

For those who like obscure and archaic word meanings, at one time, the word joy meant “a person of small intelligence, or of low condition.” The word appears in Langland’s Piers Plowman in 1362 but didn’t really catch on as a long-term connotation. Clearly the metaphorical origin of the association was smallness.

The word tittle has a much more interesting history. It looks very similar to title and that’s no accident. The Latin titulus was used to describe an inscription placed above or below something, such as a placard in a theater. Then, in the 14th century, it began to be used more specifically to refer to a small stroke in writing, such as the dot over an i. The Latin for such a stroke was apex, which meant “point or stroke” but when John Wycliffe created the Wycliffe Bible [4], he translated apex as tittle, obviously influenced by the fact that tittle was already being used to describe something “placed above.”

wycliffe bible

Wycliffe’s Bible

Eventually this took on the extended meaning of a small or miniscule amount, and modern biblical translations opt for dropping the jot and tittle to replace them with “letters and pens”:

New International Version (1984): I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

New American Standard Version (1995): For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

The good old King James version resists the temptation to deviate from the immutable word of God and stands fast with jots and tittles:

King James 2000 Version: For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

However, the American King James version strays from righteousness:

American King James Version: For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

So there you have it: just over 1000 words to describe something that means “small and miniscule.” Perhaps the next post should be on oxymoron!

[1] Tittle also appears as tiddle but this is a phonetic variation rather than different etymologies. For the /t/ to become a d/ is almost obligatory in US speech, where the phenomenon of the “intevocalic ‘d'” is well known. Pronouncing your “t’s” in the middle of a word is pretty much a shibboleth for spotting Brits in the US.

[2] Ghit is short for “Google hit” and it’s the number of search hits you get when using the Google search engine.

[3] If a Ghit is a Google hit, there’s no prize for guessing that a Bhit is a Bing hit. A “bong hit” is just one vowel modification away from “Bing” but has a different meaning!

[4] John Wycliffe is unlikely to have written the Wycliffe Bible all by himself. Biblical scholars believe that the bible was the work of a small group of people, with Wycliffe being the translator of just the New Testament.

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Who’s that trip trapping…?

Once upon a time there were three billy goats, who were to go up to the hillside to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was “Gruff.”

On the way up was a bridge over a cascading stream they had to cross; and under the bridge lived a great ugly troll , with eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker.

So begins The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a classic Norwegian tale of gluttony and violence [1], which is, after all, par for the course as far as fairy tales go. And the best fairy tales pull no punches when it comes to being profane, scary, politically incorrect, and generally unwholesome for little girls and boys.

Or so one might think.

The tendency for well-meaning modern writers to “reinterpret” such stories so that they don’t harm the fragile psyche of the child misses the point; that the fragile psyche actually needs to be damaged. Or at least shaken around a little.

In his classic book, The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim does an amazing job of explaining why such tales are important to the psychological development of children, and how their often dark and upsetting subject matter is actually a way for kids to learn to deal with the harsh realities of life.

And this desire to “protect our children” is why many of the current version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff end up with the troll who lives under the bridge being pushed into a river – a significant difference from the original fate of the hapless bridge-dweller. Here’s how the third of the goats disposes of the troll;

And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade, and after that he went up to the hillside.

There’s little chance of “swimming to safety” or “just getting a wee bit wet” here. The goat clearly has an agenda, and the almost ritualistic killing would look a little distressing in a kid’s picture book.  It’s also unclear what the troll had actually done to deserve such a brutal slaying. Sure, he’d threatened to eat the goats but they were, after all, trespassing on his bridge.

In Scandinavian mythology, a troll is an ugly and malevolent creature, larger than humans but with a taste for their flesh. They live in caves (and apparently also under bridges) and only come out at night, otherwise they turn to stone in sunlight.

The word comes from the Old Norse troll meaning a giant or a demon, but there is also the Old Norse word trolldomr meaning witchcraft. The Swedish trolla means “to charm or bewitch,” so the link between troll and some supernatural element is clear. [2]

And it’s this sense of the word troll that forms the basis of the modern term,  patent troll. In the legal world, a patent troll is a person or company that buys patents for the sole purpose of using them strategically in order to sue others who infringe – or appear to infringe – the patent. The trick for a patent troll is to look for cheap patents (usually from a company going bankrupt) and keep them until there’s an opportunity to use them. If an innocent third-party invents something new that appears to be covered by the patent, the troll will “jump up” and surprise them with a huge claim, usually in the millions.

There is a twist to this use of the word that depends on another meaning of the word troll that comes from the fishing world. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this originates from the Old French troller, which means;

To move or walk about or to and fro; to ramble, saunter, stroll, ‘roll’; spec. (slang) of a homosexual: to walk the streets, or ‘cruise’, in search of a sexual encounter.

Now no-one is suggesting that the slang notion applies to patent trolls – although I’m sure folks who have been sued by them may well be inclined to favor it – but the “moving about” and “rambling” lent itself to describing the activity of pulling a single line behind a boat to try to catch fish. This choice of word may also have been influenced by the similar-sounding word trawl, which means to fish using a net with the intent of pulling it through the water to trap sea creatures.

The word trawl derives from the Middle Dutch traghelen, meaning “to drag,” which may, in turn, come from the Latin tragula, a dragnet. Thus, although troll and trawl may both be fishing words and have similar functions, the words come from different roots.

The idea of “trolling for fish” was extended to include “trolling for ideas or information.” And this, in turn, lead to the modern notion of an internet troll, which the OED defines as;

A person who posts deliberately erroneous or antagonistic messages to a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response.

The person is either seen as (a) behaving like a troll, waiting to “jump up” and pick a fight, or (b) trolling for responses. However, just to make things even more confusing, if you are surfing the net to accumulate lots of pieces of data, you are “trawling the net,” not “trolling”; the two things are different. Here’s how the OED defines this newer meaning of trawling;

To engage in an exhaustive or extensive (sometimes indiscriminate) search for something.

So let me summarize the various definition we’ve encountered:

1. troll (mythology): a Scandinavian ogre who eats people.

2. troll (law): an attorney who uses patents to sue people.

3. troll (slang): a homosexual who cruises the streets to have sex with people.

4. troll (internet): a person who posts outrageous comments to bait people.

5. troll (fishing): to drag a single line behind a boat to catch fish.

6. trawl (fishing): to drag a net through water to catch anything.

7. trawl (informatics): to hunt for information.

Who would have thought such confusion could come from simply cross a rickety, rackety bridge.

[1] English translation at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0122e.html#gruff: Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, De tre bukkene Bruse som skulle gå til seters og gjøre seg fete, Norske Folkeeventyr, translated by George Webbe Dasent in Popular Tales from the Norse, 2nd edition (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.), no. 37, pp. 275-276. Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman

[2] During the 60’s, the “Troll Doll” became a popular toy in the US and the UK. Short, naked, and with huge spiky hair, the trolls were a cure version of their androphagous ancestors.

Troll Dolls

Troll Dolls

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Scribble Scribble Scribble bookOn a recent trip to the UK, I picked up a copy of Simon Schama’s collection of essays entitled Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. This is a reference to a quote attributed to Prince William Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh who, when he received another volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?” At his most populist, Schama is fun to read and capable of some hilarious turns of phrase; at his more scholarly, I’m afraid he reminds me of how stupid I am and how little I know. I get the impression that if we were sat at Hooters just chatting about anything, he’d not only already know what I was talking but always have something else to add that I didn’t know, making for a miserable time until the alcohol kicked in and I said, “Simon, just quit being a smart arse tell me who you think’s going to win the World Series this year.” Beer, boobs and baseball are great levelers.

Schama describes his collection as a salmagundi, which he defines as “a thing of various tastes and textures.” In that sense, it’s close to a potpourri, a cornucopia, or a gallimaufry. I’m sure he could have used any of those words and been just as happy to quote the etymology of each and every one. However, I’m just interested in the one.

The OED tracks its first citation in Thomas Blount’s 1674 edition of Glossographia, where he defined as;

…a dish of meat made of cold Turky and other ingredients.

The OED itself gives the following definition:

Cookery: A dish composed of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions with oil and condiments.

Blount says it is of Italian origin whereas the OED cites it as French, presumably noting its entry into English via French cuisine rather than Italian. Its variations into salmagondi, salamongundy, and salad-magundy.



I was originally struck by how similar it sounded to a children’s rhyme I used to sing called Solomon Grundy, which went like this;

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy

Well wouldn’t you know it, this appears not to be a coincidence. The suggestion is that Solomon Grundy is simply a corruption of salmagundi. What’s also fascinating to me – at least – is that when I now reread the rhyme, it could, indeed, be a poetic description of a stew made up from all the odds and ends that were hanging around on a Monday! You could eat it on Tuesday, even on Wednesday, but by Thursday, in the absence of a refrigerator, it would certainly begin to turn sickly. By Saturday, it would be no use at all, hence its burial on the Sabbath. In fact, this make more sense than applying it to a fictional person with a one-week lifespan.

Solomon Grundy

Solomon Grundy

The OED chooses to consider its origins earlier than the 17th century as being obscure, which is not that I suspect they don’t think there are contenders to the throne but that they feel these to be pretenders and not verifiable royalty.

This wasn’t always the case. Way back in 1888, the Oxford University Press published An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter William Skeat, the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of (shh!) Cambridge.

Skeat was the first to use the term “ghost word” to refer to words;

… which had never any real existence, being mere coinages due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors.

One example he gives is the word morse in the following sentence by Sir Walter Scott in the book, The Monastry: “… dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?”

One etymologist at the time explained the words as being derived from the Latin mordere meaning “to bite” and so morse meant “to indulge in biting, stinging or gnawing thoughts of slaughter.”

Tragically for his reputation, the truth turned out to be that it was a misprint of the word “nurse!” Sometimes, etymologists can be too clever for their own good. Which is another reason why the OED possibly wanted to avoid entertaining speculations about the pre-17th century origins of salmagundi.

But not Skeat. He was quite happy to point out that;

We may fairly explain it from Italian salame, salt meat, and condito, seasoned. This is the more likely, because the Ital. salame would make the pl. salami, and this was once the term in use… The derivation of Ital. salami is clearly from Lat. sal, salt, though the suffix is obscure. The F. –gondi, for Ital. condito (or pl. conditi), is from Lat. conditus, seasoned, savoury, pp. of condire, to preserve, pickle, season. Thus the sense is ‘ savoury salt meats.’ (Skeat, 523)

This sounds pretty convincing, both from the sense aspect and from the phonetics. I’d be OK with taking Skeat’s assessment and inclined to believe that this is NOT an example of one of his ghost words.

Meanwhile, it seems that salmagundi also found its way to Jamaica as a fish paste dish called Solomon Gundy. Yes, the name is just an /r/ away from the British Solomon Grundy and it is likely to have originated from that. And apparently, there is a dish served in Nova Scotia consisting of pickled herring and onion in sour cream that is also called Solomon Gundy.

Solomon Gundy paste

Jamaican Soloman Gundy

It’s use in a transferred non-cooking sense is first noted by the OED as in 1761, and since then had cropped up with this meaning, although not as a particularly high-frequency word. The Corpus of Historical American English shows 60 examples between 1810 and 2000, with the decade from 1910 to 1920 being the highest scoring period with 11 examples.  Compare that with the British National Corpus that includes only shows three instances during the 1980s through to 1993, and all these are in reference to an American journal called Salmagundi. So, not exactly a popular word.

So if you enjoy reading essays, it’s worth taking a look at Schama’s smorgasbord. Just be prepared for the occasional spoonful of stodge.

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Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.” I’m with Woody on this one. Well, the second part in particular. Which is why I am currently back on the WeightWatchers® diet in an attempt to reverse the results of a recent “Wellness Check.” I purposely have that phrase in quotes because the reality is that a “wellness check” is really an “unwellness” check – it is designed to tell you how sick you are. The check was also linked to a new “Health and Wellness” scheme we’ve recently implemented at my company, the major motivation for joining being that it reduces your health care contributions. Being healthy saves you money. In truth, without that financial incentive, I’d be hurtling towards an untimely end a significant number of years earlier than the traditionally allotted three-score-years-and-ten. Who would have thought that exclusive consumption of dead animals, fermented fruits and grains, and exercise no more strenuous than lifting a six-pack of beer could lead to premature death?

The blood test revealed that I was on the border to becoming a diabetic, on the border to becoming a high cholesterol heart attack victim, and so far over the border as regards my weight that I can legally be classified as an illegal alien in Fatland. But what really sealed the dieting deal for me was my very cool and very expensive Joseph Abboud, single-breasted, pin-striped gray suit. It doesn’t fit.

Just before Christmas, which is always a bad time to think about weight loss in general, I am ashamed to say that my choice of attire for the company party was dictated to by my waistline. In the words of Steely Dan in the classic Deacon Blues;

This is the age of the expanding man
That shape is my shame, there where I used to stand.

There was no way on earth, short of paying for liposuction, that I was going to be able to fasten those pants. None. The shame was further enhanced by the fact that I couldn’t even pull the zip all the way up, let alone fasten the buttons. The effect of my blubber slobbering over the waistband was less of a muffin top than a tsunami of fat that threatened to bury my feet.

The word muffin top has now achieved some legitimacy in that it has recently been added to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since March 2011, the official definition of a muffin top now includes;

A roll of flesh which hangs visibly over a person’s (esp. a woman’s) tight-fitting waistband.

Prior to this, the original definition has been in existence for almost 100 years;

The top of a muffin; spec. the part which rises above the rim of the tin or cup during baking; (now also) a type of intended to resemble this, baked in a specially designed tin with shallow depressions.

The metaphorical use of this to refer to the all-to-familiar state of sartorial inelegance is obvious. The OED has a written reference dated 2000 but it will have been around longer than this in spoken language.

The word muffin itself can be traced back to 17th century England where it also appears in the forms muffings, moofin, moufin, and mowfinn. The origin is uncertain but Low German had the word muffe meaning “little cake,” and in the 14th century, the Old French word moflet referred to a kind of bread – which, in turn, was used as an adjective meaning “soft” in reference to bread.

By the time the word was common currency in British English in the 17th century, it referred to any type of bread or cake, but it seems that primarily, a muffin was a flat bread that was often cut in half and toasted.

Then it gets more complicated.

There is also a popular British flat bread called a crumpet, which differs from a muffin only marginally. The crumpet mix contains milk and baking soda, and is made to be thinner than a muffin mix, which uses yeast or sourdough. When cooked, the crumpet develops distinctive dimples, the true value of which is that you can cram butter into the holes and therefore increase your cholesterol intake probably by a factor of ten.

English crumpet with butter and dimples

English Crumpet - with dimples

In the US, the word became more specifically used to refer to sweet cakes rather than breads, with the originally bread-type muffin being referred to as the English muffin, which is the way it is today. The American muffin is closer to the English bun or cake, baked in a small cup like the American cupcake.

A small, usually sweet sponge cake, baked in a cup-shaped container. Freq. with modifying word indicating the flavour or additional ingredients (1835 definition).

Still with me?

OK, let’s make it a little clearer with pictures. Here’s an English cake or bun, which is an American cupcake:


English Bun, or Cake, or US Cupcake!

And now here is an English muffin, as sold in America.

English muffin in America

Finally an American muffin, which can be bought in the UK as an American muffin! Note the distinctive overhanging muffin top.

American muffin

American Muffin with muffin top

In the busy world of slang, where words are tossed, twisted, tweaked, and thoroughly abused in order to make them work much harder, the word muffin has taken up residency with some vigor. Back in 1830, we find it being used to refer to a fool, but this has since evolved to include the notion of a muffin as a dogsbody or anyone who is overly compliant;

It was already attracting a group of young, eager volunteers like Cornelius—‘muffins’, in the parlance of ‘Primary Colors’—whose job was to perform whatever tasks‥needed doing. (New Yorker, 15 April. 56/2).

In baseball, the word was used to describe someone who would miss catching a ball, although what is worth noting here is that the derivation is not from the bread or cake but from the verb “to muff,” defined by the OED as;

To miss (a catch, a ball), esp. in cricket; to play (a shot, a game, etc.) badly. Also with it: to miss a catch, to play or perform badly.

This meaning appeared first in 1827 in  William Clarke’s Every Night Book, or Life After Dark, where he wrote;

When one of the fancy dies, the survivors say, that he has‥‘mizzled’—‘morrised’—or ‘muffed it’!

Canada provides us with another interpretation of the muffin; a temporary female partner.

At the beginning of the winter season each young man chose ‘a muffin’—a ‘steady date’ for the season—an arrangement terminated by mutual consent in the following spring. (Stephens, G. 1965).

This has become extended to refer to any attractive woman, and more recently – from the early 1980’s at least – it has been further tweaked to become specific to a sexually attractive male in the compound stud muffin.

Its use as slang for the female vagina is, etymologically speaking, also fascinating. In John Farmer’s 1897 book, Merry Songs & Ballads, he quotes a song from 1707 with the splendidly raunchy phrase, “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d‥a Mag-Pye’s Nest.” However, the word muff in comes from the Middle Dutch muffel, meaning “related to fur” and ultimately perhaps from Latin muffula.

The shift to using muffin rather than muff seems, in retrospect, to not be too much of a stretch. It also appears to have been an American creation. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang traces its use to the 1950’s in the US, but in the UK, there was a popular children’s pupper show called “Muffin the Mule” that ran from 1946 to 1957. It’s unlikely the chappies at the Beeb would have allowed a puppet to be named after a slang term for a vagina![1] So, the chances are that the genitally orientated interpretation is an American 40’s/50’s word.

By now you are probably either confused or hungry. But remember that a Blueberry Streusel Muffin from Starbucks is 10 WeightWatcher Plus Points, which is a sizable hole in my 29-point daily limit, or 360 calories for those of you who are following calorie-control diets. Either way,  you may want to consider something else if you want to avoid turning the blueberry muffin top into your own personal muffin top.

[1] The BBC also ran the animated series, Captain Pugwash, which aired initially from 1957 to 1966. Allegedly, the characters included Master Bates, Seaman Stains, and Roger the Cabin Boy (in UK slang, “to roger” means “to have sex with.”) Sadly this is an urban legend – and I say “sadly” because I do so wish it had been true!

Postscript: 5-15-2011.
My good friend and fellow word lover, Steve Badman, sent me the following correction to my Steely Dan quote:

This is the day of the expanding man
That shape is my shade, there where I used to stand.

He took that straight from the lyrics printed on his physical copy of a 1997 re-issue of Aja on ABC Records. I’m adding this as a postscript rather than simply changing the original quote because I have a thing about creeping Revisionism on the net. I want folks who read this to KNOW that I made a mistake, and they can then speculate as to WHY I did it. Was I negligent in my sources? Have I always had the wrong lyric in my head? Is the erroneous version a result of some unconscious feelings of guilt or anxiety? Whatever it is, simply deleting the error and pretending it didn’t happen strikes me as ethical dubious.

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For me, one of the saving graces of the Digital Age is that I don’t have to produce written documents that demand any skilled use of a pen. The mechanics of smearing ink onto a piece of paper have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. As a child, I remember distinctly having to practice handwriting as a skill. This was, of course, before personal computers and before even typewriters were available as a mode of writing in schools. I’d sit for hours trying to join letters together in the vain hope of ending up with legible words and sentences. Sadly, despite years of practice, I was never able to rise much higher than “legible if you squint.” The popular myth at the time was that I was clearly going to join the medical profession because all doctors were lousy at writing.

Such was the myth.

By the time I went to Grammar School, I was close to being a remedial writer – although I seemed to be OK with the actual content of my scribblings. And when I finally went to university, I invested in the popular ersatz laptop of the day – the portable typewriter. This at least helped get me past the legibility barrier and I could hand in papers that had been laboriously typed and edited using white correction fluid. There was no DELETE button on one of those babies.

All of which makes it curious that my latest technology acquisition is a fountain pen. And for younger readers, a “fountain pen” is a little like the stylus you might use on a touchscreen device, or even your finger on a smartphone. A “pen” contains a substance called “ink,” which leaves marks on paper called “writing.” Crazy, huh? Why on earth would someone do that when they can use a laptop, desktop, or pop-up on-screen keyboard?

Well, although I can’t write legibly enough for other folks to read, I can write well enough for ME to read – and for notes, jottings, scribblings, annotations etc., it is, is it not, all about me? It’s also the case that even though I am motorically challenged with script, I actually find physical writing preferable to keyboarding.

So for some years, I’ve had a dual system for recording information; high-tech aids such as laptops, Windows-based PDA’s, a Palm Pilot, and now my Droid smartphone, paired with my low-tech Moleskine notebooks and a pencil. I simply chose whichever is the easier at the time.

The new fountain pen is made by A.T. Cross and called the “Sauvage.” It’s in Azurite blue and has a crocodile skin pattern, along with a 14-carat white gold nib. Pretty cool.

Cross Sauvage fountain pen

Azurite Blue Sauvage pen

The use of the word fountain to describe this type of pen is based on the notion that ink is stored in a reservoir. Now this is also true of a ball-point pen, but the “fountain pen” definition also requires there to be a nib. Ink is drawn through a slit in the nib by the dual action of capillary motion and gravity. There’s a short history of pens at Richard Conner’s Penspotters site.

The OED provides the following definition of a fountain as it was used in the 15th century:

A spring or source of water issuing from the earth and collecting in a basin, natural or artificial; also, the head-spring or source of a stream or river.

The Late Middle English fontayne came from Old French fontaine, which in turn derives from Late Latin fontana, the feminine of fontanus, meaning “pertaining to a fount.” The Latin proved to be a veritable fount for other languages; fontana is found in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, and the Welsh equivalent is ffynnawn (I’ll buy a vowel, Bob).

The Latin root font or fontis meaning “spring” is NOT the same as the word “font” that is used in modern typography. Although many of us may not be familiar with using a pen, we are all now skilled at manipulating fonts when producing documents. The fact that fountain pens and fonts are both used for writing doesn’t mean they have the same origins!

The word font was originally written as fount in the 15th century to refer to a “complete set or assortment of type of a particular face and size.”The origin, however, is from the French fonte, which comes from fondre, meaning “to cast or melt.” This relates to the fact that originally, fonts were cast from lead blocks and then place in a printing press. The word foundry comes from the same root. The original British English spelling “fount” has given way to the more common spelling of “font” since digital typefaces appeared on computers.

Lead fonts

Lead fonts

During their earlier progressive years, the rock band Genesis brought out their third album, Nursery Cryme, in 1971, and it included the almost 8-minute-long track, The Fountain of Salmacis. This title is taken from Greek mythological story of the nymph, Salmacis, who, attempts to seduce Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, by a pool. The seduction fails, so she leaps on him and cries out to the gods that they never be parted, whereupon the gods respond by fusing the two into one. Hermaphroditus then asks that anyone who baths in the fountain of Salmacis should suffer the same fate – to become a hermaphrodite. And so was born the Fountain of Salmacis.

Sculpture of the nymph Salmacis

Salmacis by Francois-Joseph Bosio

The drummer for Genesis at that time was Phil Collins, who only really became a lead singer once Peter Gabriel had left in 1977. Collins then went on to enjoy a tremendously successful solo musical career. As part of that career, he played the lead role in the 1988 movie, Buster, and sang on the soundtrack a remake of the 1960’s hit, Groovy Kind of Love. This was originally done by The Mindbenders, whose lead singer was – wait for it – Wayne Fontana!

Stretching just a little, the bass player with The Mindbenders was Eric Stewart, who went on to form the successful 70’s band, 10cc. However, just before 10cc became 10cc, they were known as Hotlegs, and one of their first songs was called Waterfall – another fountain link!

I suppose I could also mention that the first two lines of Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne are;

Stacy can I come over after school
We can hang around by the pool…

But now I really am taking it too far… perhaps.

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If I were given the chance to choose another era into which to have been born, I’m pretty sure that culturally, the mid- to late-19th century would have suited me fine. Well, provided I were given the resources to avoid having to live in grinding poverty, succumb to fatal diseases, and be an Englishman. In truth, it took me a long time to realize that I was perhaps born a century too early, and a simple list of my cultural interests outside of the 20th and 21st centuries make it so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how stupid I was to miss it!

Top Five Musicians: Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky.

Top Five Poets: Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson.

Top Five Painters: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Arnold Bocklin, Thomas Cole, John Collier, Casper David Friedrich, and John William Waterhouse.

Top Five Writers: Han Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Mark Twain.

Now not all of the above are 19th century – and consider that your “Quiz of the Week” to find out which are more early 2oth – but the majority certainly are. Add to this the fact that my collection of Freudiana takes up three shelves and you can see that on balance, I appear to be a hopeless Romantic, in the full 19th century meaning of the word.

You could say that I am enchanted by the era. It’s no surprise that I’ve already talked about the romanticism of vampires and that both Lara Croft and Xena Warrior Princess are guilty pleasures. But why should that be? What have these fictional characters got to do with the word enchant?

Well, the obvious link is that it also the root of the word enchantress, defined by the OED as a “female who employs magic; a witch, sorceress.” And perhaps the most iconic and well-known enchantress is Circe, who appears as a major character in Homer’s Odyssey, and gets a minor mention in Hesiod’s Theogeny. In the myth, Circe tried to use her magic to enchant Odysseus, but by using a drug given to him by Hermes, he was able to resist her charms. However, the same could not be said for Circe who fell in love with him and eventually let him and his men leave.

J.W. Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (Latin for envious) came close to having me banned from the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide when I committed the heinous crime of trying to take a photograph. My error was to use a camera since that what caught the attention of one of the fine art Gestapo, who were conveniently ignoring all the spotty-faced yakking kids on a school outing happily clicking their cell phones at all and everything. Unless he thought I was an international art thief planning my heist, I have yet to work out what possible harm I could have caused.

Circe Invidiosa painting

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa phto

Circe Criminalis

The word enchant derives from the Latin incantare, which in turn comes from the prefix in- meaning upon or against, followed by cantare, to sing. The word incantation, meaning a magic spell or charm comes from the same root. In his 1377 The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, William Langland wrote;

The frere with his phisik this folke hath enchaunted

By the 16th century, the word had extended its verbiness and become an adjective. In Spenser’s Faire Queene, he said;

When Britomart with sharp avizefull eye
Beheld the lovely face of Artegall
Tempred with sternesse and stout maiestie,
She gan eftsoones 6 it to her mind to call
To be the same which, in her fathers hall
Long since in that enchaunted glasse she saw.

Coleridge was also enchanted by “enchanted” and used the word in Kubla Khan (an etymologized version of which can be found on this very blog).

But O, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Kiss of the Enchantress

Kiss of the Enchantress 1890 Isabel Gloag

Tennyson used the masculine form of the noun in the story of Merlin and Vivian in Idylls of the King:

And Vivien ever sought to work the charm
Upon the great Enchanter of the Time,
As fancying that her glory would be great
According to his greatness whom she quenched.

In the poem, Merlin is eventually spellbound by Vivian as she casts a charm on him and imprisons him in an oak tree.

Beguiling of Merlin painting

The Beguiling of Merlin 1874 Burne Jones

Enchant has certainly worked hard at crossing the parts-of-speech boarders by moving from verb to adjective to noun and even to adverb! For a very brief period in the 13th century, magic was referred to using the noun, enchantery, and we also see the first appearance of enchantment at around the same time, although this form of the word has continued to also mean “alluring or overpowering charm; enraptured condition; (delusive) appearance of beauty” up until today.

Shakespeare (who else?) appears to have been the first to coin the use of the word as an adverb in the passage;

Yet hee’s gentle, neuer school’d, and yet learned, full of noble deuise, of all sorts enchantingly beloued

And only last month in Vogue magazine, in a review of Oscar de la Renta’s latest collection, writer Indigo Clarke said that there was;

An enchantingly ladylike extravaganza like no other during New York Fashion Week…, Oscar de la Renta’s preternatural ability to make antiquated styles relevant in a modern context is continually inspiring.

Oscar de la Renta gown

Enchantingly elegant de la Renta?

As a final example of the dangers of enchantment, consider once more Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca and his brush with the sirens. These seductresses of the sea were said to lure sailors to their doom by singing the most beautiful and hypnotic songs and causing their prey to crash against rocks and drown. Artist John William Waterhouse, a slave to feminine enchantment, painted Ulysses and the Sirens in 1891, and The Siren around 1900.

Ulysees and the Sirens painting

Ulysses and the Sirens 1891 Waterhouse

If you click on the paintings and look at the faces of all the sirens, you’ll see that Waterhouse was indeed enchanted by a vision of one woman, whose image appears over and over in his paintings.

The Siren painting

The Siren c.1900 Waterhouse

Male artists seem to be prone to enchantment. It could be said of Quentin Tarantino, the director, that he was enchanted by Uma Thurman, who has appeared in a number of his movies and with whom he maintains a professional relationship.

But men and their Muses… that’s another story.

Wordle: enchant - etymology

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So I just got back from the movies. In an age of digital downloads, large screen TV’s, and on-demand video, I still prefer the big-screen cinematic experience. Sure, having a 60-inch LCD and a Panasonic surround sound DVD player is a great way to watch films at home, but even then, I tend to do that after seeing them at a local theater. It’s just that sitting in the fifth row and enveloped in sound lets me fall into the story rather than just be a viewer sitting on the couch.

This evening’s escape was The American with George Clooney and the stunningly attractive Violante Placido. Set in Italy, it tells the story of a hit man trying to quit his profession. Visually it’s engaging, and it runs as a slow pace, which is exactly want the movie needs.

Placido and Clooney in the movie the American

Placido and Clooney

About 30 minutes or so into the narrative, there was a close-up shot of Clooney who, during a conversation, turns up the corner of his mouth in a rare, semi-smile. Just like Clint Eastwood in his earlier movies. It was at that point that I realized what I was actually watching: a Spaghetti Western. Just like the westerns of the 70’s, the film is set in Italy; instead of horses, there are cars; and Clooney plays Eastwood.

The giveaway was during a later scene in a bar where folks are watching Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I was almost expecting Clooney to turn to the camera and give a little wink! He didn’t – of course – but it was enough to confirm my suspicions.

Spaghetti Western

Called simply Jack, Clooney has a tattoo on his back of a butterfly and Placido calls him affectionately Mr. Farfalle – the Italian for butterfly. If it had been set in France, presumably he would have been Monsieur Papillon.

The word butterfly first appears around 1000 AD in the works of Aelfric of Eynsham, where it’s written as the Old English buttorfleoge. The word fleoge referred at that time to any winged insect, which in turn derived from the hypothesized Old Teutonic *fleugan meaning “to fly.” The prefacing buttor referred to our modern meaning of butter – churned and creamed milk.

The jury is still out on why the butterfly has that name. One suggestion is that butterflies would fly through windows and land on pats of butter, which would seem reasonable if that was typical butterfly behavior. However, it isn’t. Think quickly: when was the last time you saw a butterfly sitting on butter? My guess for most folk is never.

A second – and to me a little more plausible, is that it refers to the buttery color of some butterflies. That has the advantage of at least having some truth even today. There are, of course, some non-butter colored examples, but there is a ring of possibility about it.


A third is based on a Dutch synonym, boterschijte – literally “butter shit,” which refers to the color of butterfly feces. I can’t say that I have spent any time checking this assertion out empirically, and I can also say with some certainty that I don’t intend to be checking out butterfly shit in the near or distant future. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating derivation and as such I would so like it to be true.

Shakespeare appears to have been the first to use it in a figurative sense as meaning:

A vain, gaudily attired person (e.g. a courtier who flutters about the court); a light-headed, inconstant person; a giddy trifler. (OED).

In his King Lear (1605), he writes;

So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news…

The motion of butterflies as they flit from place to place was the inspiration for another metaphorical use of the word in 1890, where an article in Chamber’s Journal said, “A ‘butterfly’ man rests for a moment to wipe his streaming brow, when the warder’s stern voice bids him proceed with his work.” This use refers to a person or persons whose periods of work or occupation of a place are transitory or seasonal. It appears that this use was also transitory and it is currently rarely used in this manner.

What is still commonly used since its first appearance in 1908 is to describe the fluttering feelings in the stomach caused by stress or tension. By 1944, this reference had become fairly common, as evidenced by an article in an edition of Word Study:

“The expression some aviators use to describe their condition before taking off. They have ‘butterfly stomach’, they say, so marked is the fluttering in the Department of the Interior.”

These days, it’s typically used as part of the phrase, “I have butterflies in my stomach,” with that body part being a common companion to butterfly itself.

It’s also interesting to follow the historical development of butterfly in that the Latin papilionis gave rise to the French papillon, retaining that intial “p” sound, whereas the Italian word became farfalle, with the “p” being substituted by an “f.” This is an example of a process that can happen in languages whereby a specific sound can become weaker and result in a change in how a word is pronounced. In this case, the harder voiceless plosive sound, /p/, loses its explosive quality to become a hissier fricative sound, /f/.

Similar examples can be seen with words like the Latin pedis becoming foot (/p/ to /f/); the Latin pater becoming father, and going back a little more, the Greel pyr became fire. These types of change fascinated the German collector of fairy tales, Jacob Grimm, who went on to realize that there was a general tendency for words to change in this way over time. This notion became knows as “Grimm’s Law.” Jakob also went on, along with his brother , Wilhelm, to establish one of the worlds’ definitive collections of fairy stories and legends.

Finally, a more recent use of butterfly metaphor is in the phrase, the butterfly effect. The specific use of this phrase is usually taken to have originated in 1972 when meteorologist Edward Lorenz presented a paper entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly‘s Wings in Brazil Set a Tornado in Texas? The notion is that small events can have very large consequences, and that there is an element of unpredictability built into the universe.

Oh, and The Butterfly Effect is also the name of a movie from 2004 starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart. Despite the fact that it’s Kutcher, the film is surprisingly good and well worth renting. Kutcher is also the most followed personality on Twitter. Who would have thought that one tweet could cause a storm of interest.

Wordle: butterfly - etymology

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The recent kerfuffle regarding the non-burning of the Koran is an object lesson in the more depressing aspects of human nature. Ironically, one of the very things that makes us human and distinct from animals that simultaneously makes us intolerant and aggressive. That’s the ability to use symbols.

The Koran

A Koran

In modern usage, the OED defines a symbol as:

Something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition.

Language is an example, par excellence, of symbolic behavior. When we use the word “dog” to stand for a four-legged animal that barks and wags its tail when happy, the word itself is just an arbitrary collection of sounds. There’s no inherent relationship between the word and the object it represents, which is why different languages can have different words for the same thing. Thus, the French have a “chien, ” the Spanish have a “perro,” the Turks have a “kopek,” and the Chinese have a “gau.”



In a different example, very young children play with boxes and use them as cars, boats, houses, hats, and any other number of objects, simply because they can. Little Frank can use a stick as a sword, an airplane, a wand, or a guitar; a chimp uses a stick as… well, a stick. Some folks might want to debate this on the basis that some studies seem to suggest that chimps demonstrate evidence of symbolic understanding, but it’s hardly overwhelming and of limited magnitude when compared to the almost limitless symbolism that rattles through the brain of homo sapiens.

As an extension of the ability to use objects symbolically is the tendency to create taboos – and more specifically, taboo objects. This is no more obvious than in religious mythology. For Christians, a small piece of bread – called a “host” – can be magically transformed into the body of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, abuse of a consecrated host is viewed as being a mortal sin, which ranks as an 8 or 9 on the “Sin Scale” and can lead to the desecrator ending up spending the whole of eternity burning in the flames of Hell: All for messing with a piece of bread. In less enlightened times, offenders could be tortured and beheaded for host desecration – which is relatively mild when compared with eternal damnation.

John Martin, 1841, "Pandemonium"

And pity the poor pig, an animal that for no particular reason whatsoever is shunned by Jews and Muslims as being unclean. Not for them the guilty pleasure of a freshly made hot bacon sandwich with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Meanwhile, for Hindus, anything that comes from the humble cow is to be avoided. Other taboo foods include bats (non-kosher), cats (too cute), fungi (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness say they “excite passions”), rabbits (OK for Sunni Muslims, not for Shias), lettuce (according to one branch of Islam, the lettuce is evil), and humans.

The thing about taboos is that they carry with them an awful lot of emotional baggage. Not only do humans have the capacity to create symbols but they also imbue them with powerful feelings. Symbols are also, for the most part, culturally specific, and difficult to understand from an outside perspective. Although it’s easy to pass them off as “primitive” or “stupid,” even the “sophisticated” cultures have their quirks. Your average American would almost choke if you suggested putting cat or horse on the menu at the local bar, yet other countries have no taboo against it. After all, what’s the difference? Why should we be OK to eat pigs and sheep and cows but balk at horses?

And how about flag burning? Take a large piece of cotton, paint some stripes in red and white across it, and them dab some stars in the corner. Now set fire to it. It’s just painted cloth, right? But it was only four years ago that there was a vote on whether or not to criminalize the burning of the US flag. So how “civilized” or “sophisticated” is a country that wants to lock people up for setting fire to something akin to a bed-sheet? And next time you’re on a trip that involves flying to a hotel, try asking to sit in seat 13 or book a room on the 13th floor. There’s a good chance you’ll be unable to do either of them because even in the 21st century, the number 13 is taboo in many countries.

It’s really, really, really hard for people to see past symbols. Once a symbol takes on a taboo status, all reason goes out of the window and the emotions take over. Be it a piece of colored cloth, a collection of pieces of paper bound together, or a ham sandwich, someone, somewhere, is going to hold it in reverence and even be prepared to kill others to maintain that sacred state.

In fact, the word symbol was originally used strictly in a religious sense to refer to;

A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian church, or of a particular church or sect; a creed or confession of faith, spec. the Apostles’ Creed.

This use can be traced back to Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, who was born around 208 CE. He used the Latin word symbolum to refer to the baptismal creed. This was because accepting baptism was a mark that differentiated a Christian from a heathen, and the word symbolum means “mark.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage

In fact, it can traced further back to the Greek σύμβολος meaning “mark,” “ticket,” or “token.” This in turn comes from the prefix, sym-, which means “together” followed by bolos meaning “a throw.” So the underlying notion is of things thrown or put together, which can then be compared using a token. This evolved over the centuries to refer to a token (or symbol) that can be compared with another object (or sign).

In 1590, Spenser used the word in The Faery Queen in its current sense of a representation:

That, as a sacred Symbole, it [sc. a blood-stain] may dwell
In her sonnes flesh.

Shakespeare also used it in Othello in the sentence, “To renownce his Baptisme, All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin.”

Yet paralleling this was its continued use to refer to any object regarded as sacred, especially the bread and wine of the Christian eucharist as representing the body and blood of Christ:

After the prayer..the symbols become changed into the body and blood of Christ, after a sacramental, spiritual, and real manner. (John Evelyn, 1671, Letter to Father Patrick).

And from 1620, the word was already being used to refer to any “…written character or mark used to represent something; a letter, figure, or sign conventionally standing for some object, process, etc.” (OED). Certainly in the worlds of physics and mathematics, the prime meaning of symbol is as an element in an equation.

Bu the psychological reality of symbolism is so ingrained into ourselves that we forget it’s there. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to identify something as symbolic is that symbols can become transparent and, in a sense, disappear. And when a symbol is also taboo, it is extremely hard to see past it, which in turn makes it almost impossible to diffuse the emotional component. Knowing and understanding that the “Old Glory” is in reality a bundle of colored threads doesn’t stop some people from feeling angry when it’s burning. And knowing that a Koran is just a bundle of printed pages doesn’t stop some people from going on a riot and killing people.

But cheer up! It is possible – with a little willpower and perception – to see through symbolism, and even ignore it altogether. Once, when asked about what his The Old Man and the Sea “meant,” Hemingway said;

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.

And Freud came out with the classic;

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Sigmund Freud

Sometimes, a cigar...

Wordle: symbol - etymology

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Asking people about their favorite books, music, and movies is always a fun way to indulge in some amateur psychoanalysis, Freudian or otherwise. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) used the concept when it started the show Desert Island Discs back in 1942. Its originator, Roy Plomley, hosted the show for 43 years until his death in 1985 at the age of 71. The concept was, and still is, that the guest had to choose eight pieces of music that they would want to have while cast away on a desert island.

Desert Island Discs

The show is still being broadcast by the BBC and is the second longest-running radio show in the world after Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, which has been on the air since 1925. As a sign of the times, Desert Island Discs is now available as a regular podcast, tipping its hat to the MP3 generation.

I’ve tried to identify my own eight but failed miserably. Not even eighteen. The best I’ve been able to do is come up with as a “Top Eight albums” – and even that changes with my mood. However, in that eight is usually Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, his first solo offering distinct from his residency with Steely Dan. Released in 1982, Fagen described it as a collection of songs about;

“…certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

Fagen has since used his personal visions in 1993’s Kamakiriad, and his 2006 offering, Morph the Cat. Not one to rush out new albums, the current turn out rate suggests he’ll release the next one around 2019 – pre-order now to avoid the download rush!

Donald Fagen, The Nightfly, 1982

What’s etymologically interesting is that the use of the word nightfly to describe the character in the album’s title song seems to be the first instance of being applied in such a fashion.

It’s first ever recorded use is in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

Here the word has the literal meaning of, as the OED puts it, “a flying insect which is active at night.” Ultimately this comes in the first part from night, a tremendously old word that appears in many of the Germanic languages (c.f. Old Frisian/Middle Dutch/Middle Low German nacht, Old Saxon and Old High German naht, and Old Icelandic nátt.) Classical Latin gives us noct and nox (c.f. nocturnal meaning “at night), and Ancient Greek has nύξ meaning “night” and personified as Nyx, goddess of the night and mother of Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep).

Ultimately, we can trace the word back to Sanskrit nak or nakt, and digging even further back, Shipley (1984) and Mallory and Adams (2006) suggest the Proto-Indo-European form, *nekut, meaning “dark,” “night,” or even “death,” and “die.”

In turn, fly comes from Old English fléoge, a winged insect, cognate with Middle Dutch vlieghe, Old High German flioga, and probably ultimately from the verb *fleugan, meaning “to fly.”

The word was transferred to the angling world in 1799 to refer to an artificial fly used in night fishing. The meaning remains to this day, as demonstrated in Auckland, NZ’s Sunday News, 23rd June, 1996; “Select night flies that are the shape of crayfish, cockabullies, smelt or any locally common surface food.” [A cockabully is a small New Zealand fish, the word itself possibly coming from the Maori word, kokapuru, meaning “small fish.”]

The Ginger Pearl - A night fly

In Donald Fagen’s song, the word appears in the following context:

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use.

The meaning here is closer to that of a night-flyer, which, according to the OED, refers to “a person who or animal (esp. a moth) which flies by night.” The word is first recorded in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in the sentence;

I knew one fellow, that while I was a prisoner in Newgate, was one of those they called then Night-fliers,..who by connivance was admitted to go abroad every evening.

In this context, it refers specifically to a prisoner who was released each evening – which sounds something of a recipe for trouble – and in return for freedom would reveal the details of the activities of other criminals. An earlier stool pigeon?

With the invention of the airplane, pilots became night flyers: “What the night flyer needs… is the power to change his vision quickly from the illuminated cockpit and instrument panel to the outside world and back again.” Science, 10th March, 1939.

Horror writer, Stephen King, penned the short story, the Night Flier, a story that involves a man who flys a plane by night but also a vampire – another type of “night flier.”

Clearly Fagen uses the word – unhyphenated – metaphorically, as Lester is the DJ who works the night shift, playing Jazz and listening to calls from the sleepless, the lonely, and the disaffected.

And the album is on my top eight list. So go ahead, Dr. Freud, make of that what you will.

Mallory, J.P. and Adams, D.Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press: New York.

Shipley, J.T. (1984). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Words. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Wordle: nightfly -etymology

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Given a choice between investigating a word’s origins and going for a ride on my motorcycle, the weighting is heavily determined by the weather. So while the sun shines down in NE Ohio and the temperatures stick around the 80’s, there’s little mystery as to why there’s been a delay in the weekly posting. This, of course, is the correct decision to make because life is’ after all, about experiences and not writing about experiences. As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his masterpiece, Zorba the Greek;

I felt once more how simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

In the movie – a rare case of where a film actually does justice to a novel – you get to see how the English, bookish, academic character played by Alan Bates learns a valuable lesson from Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, about what it means to be alive. Those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie are in for a treat when you finish reading this and rush out to buy them (or order them online – whichever is your preference.)

Zorba teaches Basil

My motorcycle is a Triumph Bonneville America, perhaps not an unusual choice for an English ex-pat, I suppose. It is, without doubt, one of the most stylish bikes on the planet – although I may be a little biased. I can guarantee that whenever I park up, someone is going to come over and talk to me and tell me how much they like it. I’d like to say it was a “chick magnet” but it’s more of a “geezer magnet,” so the typical discussion revolves around engines, torque, valves, and other items about which I have no clue. To paraphrase Star Trek‘s Leonard McCoy, “I’m a linguist, dammit, not an engineer.”

2003 Triumph Bonneville America

The word triumph is of Greek origin, θρίαμβος, and means a hymn to Dionysus sung in processions to his honor. Dionysos, who was to become Bacchus for the Romans, was the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Well, in the sense that he was in charge of wine, agriculture, fertility in nature, and the Greek stage.


The Romans took the notion of the “hymn of praise” to use the word as follows:

The entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome, permission for which was granted by the senate in honour of an important achievement in war.

The word appears to have slipped into the Latin via Etruscan, according to Liddell and Scott, authors of the definitive Greek-English Lexicon, first published in 1819. From there it morphed into Old French triumpher, the Provençal triomfar, Spanish triunfar, Portuguese triumphar, and Italian trionfare. So all in all, quite a popular and useful word.

Triumphant entry: Spring by Alma-Tadema

There’s an early use of the word by King Aelfred in 893, but we can see it in Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite (1374) where he says. “With his tryumphe and laurer corovned thus… Let I this noble prince Theseus Towarde Athenes in his wey ryding.” By the 16th century, it had slipped across the border from noun-hood to verbiness;

I tryumphe for a conquest or a victorye gotten… It was a marvaylouse syght to se the Romanynes tryumphe, whan they had the vyctorie of their ennemyes. (Palsgrave (1530), Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse).

At around the same time, specifically in 1529, a priest named Hugh Latimer gave a controversial Christmas sermon on playing cards. Although this was a pastime sanctioned by the church at Christmastime, the Reformers were antagonistic, even though Latimer used the metaphor to teach a spiritual truth based on the triumph or trump card. In fact, he uses the words triumph and trump synonymously. Compare the following:

Heartes is trumpe. {emem} Cast thy tromp vnto them both, and gather them all three together.

And then;

Lette therefore euery Christian manne and woman playe at these cardes, that they maye haue and obteyne the triumph; you must marke also that the triumphe muste apply to fetche home vnto hym all the other cardes, whatsoeuer sute they bee of.

So the word trump, as used in cards, comes from the word triumph. Incidentally, the Sermon on the Cards may well be the original precursor of the popular Text Ritter country song from 1948, The Deck of Cards. This tells the story of a soldier arrested for playing cards but who talks his way out of the charge by saying that the deck is his bible, with the Ace representing God, the two the Old and New Testaments, the three Holy Trinity, and so on.

Deck of cards

Other noun variations are triumphator or triumpher – one who triumphs; triumphress – a woman who triumphs; triumphalism – the sense of pride after achieving a triumph; and triumphancy – the state of being triumphant. Although these are not likely to be tripping off the tongue on a regular basis, they do illustrate how the word has blossomed since its early days.

As well as sitting happily in the noun and verb camps, triumph‘s promiscuity extends to its sleeping with adjectives and adverbs. The popular triumphant can be traced back to the late 15th century, and it’s less frequently used analog, triumphal even further back to the beginning of that century. Triumphous pops up at around the same time, and by sticking the adjectival -ing on the end, triumphing appears as yet another option in the earlier 16th century, with poet William Dunbar offering “O hye trivmphing peradiss of joy (Poems, 1500-1520). Why, there’s even the existence of triumphable (capable of being triumphed over), but a quick Google search reveals a ghit score of 106, of which most are in sentence pairs where one ends in triumph and the next starts with able (“…triumph. Able…)

In terms of adverbs, you can do things triumphantly, or even triumphally, as evidenced in an article from the Miami Herald in 1984, where we read, “Mike Zeck returns triumphally as… the local kid who actually did break into the business.”

It’s heating up outside. The sun is still shining. My bike is waiting. Write no more.

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. D.H. Lawrence

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