Posts Tagged ‘Latin’

Those of us who write and  are not digital natives will remember a most excellent piece of technology called a typewriter. Anyone under 30 may well never have used one, nor even seen one, bizarre as that may seem to we “oldies.”

The typewriter was a predecessor to the word processor and was a mechanical device that printed letters on paper when you pressed the keys on a keyboard. When you hit a key, a small metal block with a letter embossed on it would hammer against a piece of paper through an intervening inked ribbon.  Here’s a short clip of someone using a typewriter, especially for our younger readers:

One of my first purchases when I went to university in the late 1970’s was a Smith-Corona blue typewriter, which I used to make my reports and essays more legible because my handwriting was never all that good. It still isn’t. At the time it was pretty much cutting edge, and, if memory serves, it had two colors; black and red. Cutting edge indeed!

Still, the act of creating an essay was laborious, especially if an error was made because there was, of course, no delete key available. The process of deletion involved using a white correction fluid to cover the mistake, then, once you’d let it dry, retype the intended word – or even sentence.

The temptation to make life easier by copying whole chunks of text from articles and books was always there. However, when you were “pulling an all-nighter” [1] it was actually easier to hammer out authentic text than copied, although there was always an element of rephrasing going on.

The act of taking whole chunks of someone else’s work is called plagiarism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as;

The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.

The first written example dates from 1621 in Richard Montagu’s Diatribæ upon the first part of the late history of tithes in the phrase, “Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?” Yet only a few years earlier we see the word plagiary also being used, and so both plagiarism and plagiary existed together.

Both words can be traced to the Latin plagiarius, a person who abducts the child or slave of another, or even a kidnapper, seducer, or literary thief. The Latin plagium means “kidnapping,: and so the modern notion of plagiarism fits well with the metaphor of “kidnapping an idea.”

The word may derive from the earlier Latin plaga meaning “net” or “snare,” or perhaps the earlier ancient Greek πλάγιος, which means oblique or slanted. Either way, it’s almost poetic to describe the stealing of someone’s work as a kidnapping of ideas. It almost makes it sound fair.

The Internet, with its easy access to text, has now made plagiarism much easier. Stunningly easier. As bloggers cut and paste wholesale from online newspapers, publishers are scrambling to know what to do. When does “fair use” become outright plagiarism? And how do you stop it when tossing bits and bytes across the Net takes no more than a click of a button and can be routed through computers across the entire world, many of which sit outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement?

The “plague of plagiarism” [2] is with us for the foreseeable future. And in case you were wondering, sadly plague does not come from the same source as plagiarism, despite it sounding so similar. The Latin plaga also exists as a word meaning “wound” or “gash” or “strike,” which is different from the “net” meaning of plagiarism. This meaning also carries the association with a wound or blow due to some form of divine retribution, hence the link to the modern meaning of plague.


It's a crime

[1] An “all-nighter,” as the word suggests, is a mode of action favored by procrastinators, idlers, and party-loving students, who wait until the night before an essay is due to actually write it. Knowing that your work had to handed in at a specific time less than 24-hours away focuses your concentration wonderfully. Much as I tried to avoid these things, I found that drinking copious amounts of tea would help the process along, and for that very reason I bought myself a pint mug to make large drinks. On a tough essay, I could go through up to four pints of tea before I’d finished.

[2] To avoid the charge of being a plagiarist, I have to ‘fess up to the fact that although I came up with the phrase “plague of plagiarism” on my own, it sounded so appropriate that I couldn’t believe no-one else had ever used it. Not surprisingly, it isn’t unique.  A Google search popped up 77,800 hits, with the first being to an article by Dr. Irving Hexham from the University of Calgary. In it, he says that to avoid the charge of being a plagiarist you should cite where you find text. So here’s the link to Dr. Irving’s original essay, The Plague of Plagiarism.


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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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Ever one for checking the etymological pulse of the world of pop culture, the word planking has caught my eye by exploding onto the media scene as the latest dangerous craze/fad/gene-pool-thinner. The act itself involves laying face down, like a plank or wood, in weird and/or unusual places, and then taking a picture to be shared across the internet. That’s it!


Get you plank on!

Now, like all stupid and pointless activities, the reason for it being catapulted into the collective consciousness is that someone has died, and nothing excites the media like Death, except Sex, and if you can link the two, you’re pretty much guaranteed a slot on Fox News. Curiously, many of the news reports refer to the dead man, Australian Acton Beale, as a “victim” of planking, which is an interesting metaphor to use considering that his death was caused by his own recklessness and not some wicked, third-party agent. Of course, one of the first steps to demonizing something is to turn it into a living thing by the metaphorical process of objectification. It also confers onto planking the status of an illness or disease, and therefore reinforcing that it’s a “bad thing.” Ah, how quickly our use of language can shape our perceptions of the world!

Still, if you must do it – and the 100,000 members of the newly swollen Facebook page, Official Planking apparently are at least considering it – there are some rules on how to plank safely:

1. You must always lay face down, ensuring your face remains expressionless for the duration of the Plank.
2. Your legs must remain straight, and together with toes pointed.
3. Your arms must be placed by your side, held straight and fingers pointed.
4. You must make it known that you are Planking. Saying “I am Planking” usually get this across. Sternly announcing it will ensure a good result.
5. Your safety should always be considered. Properly thought through Planking procedures should always go to plan. Never put your self at undue risk.
6. Every Plank that is captured must be named.

Notice that planking is crossing word-class boundaries. In the phrase “I am planking” it is taking on verb characteristics, whereas in “…Planking procedures” is is more adjectival, describing the type of “procedures.” But in the shock headlines where planking is used to refer directly to the activity, it is used as a verbal noun, or what we oldies prefer to call a gerund, if only because the word gerund sounds much more fun, cute, and cuddly than the more clinical, academic verbal noun. On the other hand, the rules above also refer to “the duration of the Plank,” so we now have the word “plank” without the -ing being used as a noun too!

What we need to watch for are references to someone who “planked himself to death” or perhaps “he planks regularly,” where the use of the -ed and -s suffixes establish the verbiness of plank meaning “to lie like a plank in an odd place.” Oh wait, the T-shirt is already here…!

planking T-shirt

"I planked" T-shirt

Planking previously had to significant meanings. The first is to refer simply to a collection of planks;

Planks collectively; the planks of a structure; plank-work. Also: a layer or surface made of planks, spec. one forming the outer shell or inner lining of a ship’s hull. (OED)

So you might say something like “I fell through the rotten, loose planking through to the deck below. Or you might just decide to fix the deck.

Another use is in the gerundial form as the “action of providing or covering something with planks,” such as in the sentence “When the planking was completed, he had the laborious job of caulking to do.”

In the US, planking is also the name given to a form of cooking that involves nailing fish or meat to a slab of wood:

Planking‥involves nailing the fish to thick oak boards coated with shortening, propping those boards on racks around a bonfire of logs‥, continually basting with the secret sauce‥and waiting for five hours in the middle of the night until the smoke has thoroughly roasted hundreds of pounds of shad. (Washington Post, 10th June, 2004).

Planking meat

Planking on the grill

Going back to the day when people wore hats other than backward-facing baseball caps, planking described the process of shaping and hardening a hat on a plan;

Planking,‥the felting of hat bodies by rolling them on a plank, and frequently immersing them in acidulated water. (OED)

Finally, an even more obscure meaning is “the action of levelling land by drawing a plank across it,” which sounds rather similar to the process by which folks who create crop circles work but in a much more artistic fashion.

Using planks to create crop circles

Planking crop circles

The word plank appears in Middle English as plakys, planak, planc, and a host of others. It came to the language via Anglo-Norman and Old French roots, and can be traced to be a variant of the Old French planche meaning “little wooden bridge.” Going back a little further , classical Latin has the word planca for “board, plank, or slab.” It’s the notion of stiff, wooden, and slab-like that has lead to the word planking taking on its new connotation.

At the time of writing (19th May, 2011) this definition of the words is so new that even the usually current Urban Dictionary has an older meaning;

When one individual proceeds to lie naked, face to face, on top of another person, in a rigid horizontal state.

Of course, I have taken the opportunity to submit my own entry and I’ll post the results of this in the future. Meanwhile, stay sensible and always practice safe planking.

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One of my favorite books is an illustrated copy of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which I picked up on sale at a Barnes &Noble store, but you can find online at the Barnes & Noble web site.

The illustrations are by Gustav Doré, who has to be one of my favorite illustrators. The pictures are in black and white and are for me depict just what I think things should be like in the Afterlife.

In Canto IX, Dante and Virgil come across the Erinyes or Furies.
Because mine eye had altogether drawn me
Tow’rds the high tower with the red flaming summit,
Where in a moment saw I swift uprisen
The three infernal Furies stained with blood,
Who had the limbs of women and their mien,
And with the greenest hydras were begirt;
Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,
Wherein their horrid temples were entwined.

"This is Meghera on the left-hand side..."

"This is Meghera on the left-hand side..."

The word cerastes is new to me, although I had clearly read it in the past and simply skipped over it.

A cerast(e) is a horned serpent typically found in Africa and parts of Asia. In the poem, Dante is trying to evoke the image of Medusa, so using “serpents and cerastes” does the job.



The word derives originally from the Greek, κεράστης, which means horned (κεράσ = horn). Note the initial letter is a hard /k/ sound in Greek. However, that softened when the word became the Latin, cerastes, and took on the initial /s/sound instead.

The word ceratinous is an adjective that means horny or of a horny structure or nature and a cerastium is a horn-shaped plant.

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