Friday 25 October 2013

Things you never knew about your body parts, Part 3

Welcome to the last instalment of the trilogy that is “Things you never knew about your body parts”. Let's start at the top, not the very top, but a bit down, at the mouth. We think of the mouth as being something which can open to let food and drink enter and words exit, but actually, “mouth” started out a bit further down as something usually quite prominent and certainly not open. The original root of “mouth” basically meant “jutting out”, giving a number of derivations that we use in modern English. The Latin word most closely related to “mouth” is mentum, chin, which suggests that “mouth” actually started life out as the chin, and somehow climbed up the face a little. Other words related to “mouth” and mentum are Latin mons, which gives us “mountain”, and minari, which means “threaten”, on the basis that something jutting out is threatening. So there you are – your mouth was once a chin and could have been a mountain and even a threat.

On the subject of chins, one word underscores the effects of culture on language, which might lead to the strangest formations, often ending up having no basis in reality. The Russian for “chin” is podborodok. Apart from being quite long, it doesn't seem particularly interesting, until you understand that the pod bit means “under” and the borod bit means “beard” (yes, it's historically the same word). Essentially, then, podborodok means literally “underbeard”, suggesting that the original word for “chin” was lost and that beards were more significant than what was under them. Strangely enough, a woman also has a podborodok even though she doesn't have a boroda (at least, the vast majority of women don't). But then Russian always did do strange things with the body, with claws for hands and nails for feet.

Now let's take a wander around the body for the next three words, all of which have transcended the mere physical and have come to describe a variety of feelings and emotions. First of all, when we think of a situation in which everyone agrees and gets on well, we have “harmony”, from Greek harmonia, literally “joining together”, from harmos, “joint”, related to English “arm”. And what surrounds all our joints and bones? Flesh, of course, which is sarx in Greek. What's that got to do with feeling? Well, if you want to strip the flesh off the bone you use the verb sarkazein, which also came to mean “sneer, speak bitterly”, sort of metaphorically tearing strips off someone. This gave us sarkasma, or “sarcasm”, which doesn't really do much for harmony when it's used.

The last of the trio is by far the most intense and uncontrolled emotion that most people will ever endure, though, actually, only half of the human race should really be able to suffer it, or so the other half would maintain, and that's “hysteria”. So which half can suffer it? The Greek for womb was hystera, and we see this in the medical procedure “hysterectomy”, in which the womb is removed. The ancient Greeks believed that each emotion was associated with a specific part of the body, and as such, hysteria was held to arise in the womb, and therefore to be associated only with females. So there we are – only women could become hysterical.

So we come to the last of these meanderings through terms for parts of the body, finishing up with the region just below the womb, in fact. Under sixteens need to turn off their computers and go to bed now. Firstly, we will talk of avocados and witnesses. What do they have in common? Well, in a manner of speaking, a great deal, as they refer to the same thing, or rather, same two things. “Avocado” is the Spanish representation of the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, a fruit which the Spanish first encountered when they landed in Mexico and trekked up to Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs gave it that name for its resemblance to the real ahuacatl, “testicle”. Now, “testicle” is interesting in its own right, as it comes from Latin testiculum, “little witness”, from testis, “witness”, which we can see in “testify” and “testimony”. The idea behind the little witnesses was that they testified to a man's virility.

Still in the same area, let's turn to the two other features which were named after certain other things they resembled. Originally, Latin penis meant “tail”, but it was also used to refer to the male appendage, which, naturally, is the one we use today. Funnily enough, you can use one derivation of penis to sketch a picture, as “pencil”, from penicillus, actually means “little brush”, since brushes were long and hairy, just like tails. Now, the pencil may be mightier than the sword, but the sword gets put into the sheath. And what is the Latin for sheath? Yes, you've guessed - vagina. And on that note, this little journey round the body comes to an end.

Monday 21 October 2013

Things you never knew about your body, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my little wander through the weirder side of names for parts of the body. In this part we'll start off with measurements. Probably the most obvious part of the body used as a measurement is the foot. The main problem with using a foot to measure things is the fact that feet are generally not the same length from person to person, so until a foot was defined as twelve inches, it was rather inaccurate, as all measurements based on body parts must have been.

The other four measurements in this discussion are all based on the upper limbs. The most obvious is the “hand”, though this is only used nowadays as a measurement in association with horses, despite the use of hands for measurement going back to the ancient Egyptians. Three other measurements take up more than the hand, stretching some way up the arm. The first is the “ell”, a word of Germanic origin related to Latin ulna. The ell was a measurement from the tip of the middle finger to, naturally, the elbow, which, of course, takes its name from the ell. The second is the “cubit”, which denotes exactly the same length as the ell. In fact, cubit comes from Latin cubitum, “elbow”, which is actually related to Greek kybos, “space above a cow's hip”, and also to English “hip” itself. So there we have it: the ell is the same as the cubit in length, the elbow is the same as the cubitum as a joint, and the ell is related to the ulna, the bone leading from the elbow to the hand, while “cubit” is from the same root as “hip”. So in a real sense, you're elbow's connected to your hip bone.

The third is actually something which could be alternately the same measurement as a cubit, alternately a weapon, and which ends up as being not so much a measurement as an indicator of size. The Greek pygme, related to Latin pugnus, meant “fist”, which, of course, usually only exists at times of anger and conflict. A pygme also represented the same length as a cubit, and this meaning was applied to a mythical race of people known in Greek as pygmaioi, reputed to be only the height of a cubit, thereby giving us modern “pygmy”.

Another interesting aspect of body terminology is the way we can use parts of the body to make things happen. Here are some which may never have occurred to you. First up, what do you say when someone sneezes? Why, "bless you", of course. However, if you knew the original meaning of “bless”, you might not be so willing to say it. We think of a blessing as being a priest making the sign of the cross, but 1500 odd years ago it was something quite different. The pagan Germanic tribes which came to Britain at the fall of the Roman empire engaged in animal sacrifice, and blessing involved sprinkling blood on the object to be sanctified. The ancestor of “bless”, Old English bloedsian, meant “sanctify with blood”. When Christianity arrived, the practice changed but the term remained. What's more, the French blesser, “wound”, is from a Frankish root similar to Old English bloedsian. Both roots referred to the letting of blood - in war in French, in religion in English. You could say that Stephen King's Carrie was blessed in an English way with pig's blood, and returned the favour by treating her teachers and schoolmates to quintessentially French blessures.

On the subject of religion, have you ever thought about the way many children are taught to adhere to religious dogma? One way to ensure they learn and never forget the teaching is to inculcate it into them. Now, you might think that violence is not the best way to teach, but “inculcate” tells another story, whether literal or metaphorical. The Latin calx meant “heel”, and inculcare meant literally “stamp in”, the idea being that once stamped in, knowledge would remain. However, if a child did not want to be inculcated, he or she might do a little stamping of their own by being recalcitrant. Calx also produced the verbs calcitrare, “kick”, and recalcitrare, “kick back”, rather like a horse or a donkey. “Recalcitrant” was borrowed from Latin in the 19th C with the meaning of “obstinately disobedient”, rather like a kicking donkey. Stamping and kicking - who would have thought that the education process could be so violent?

If all that stamping and kicking has taken it out of you, have a rest. And what better way to have a rest than to doss for a while? And while you're dossing, looking up at the stars or the ceiling, you can think of the best way to doss and why it's called dossing at all – because you're on your back, which, of course, is dos in French, from Latin dorsum. So there you have it – if you lie on your front, you can't be termed a dosser. Another thing you can do with your back is to write on it, or rather, let someone else write on it, especially if you want to be a bank cheque. “Endorse” comes from the Old French endosser, “put on the back (of)” (with the spelling changed later). So if you're a politician running for office, you can always get important supporters to endorse you, perhaps with a giant stamp on your back saying “The Next President”.

Of course, if you do run for office, you'll have to persuade enough people to give you their vote to make sure you win. So you'll spend days consulting the polls, until the day when the real poll comes – the only one that matters. That's when everyone lines up and officials count their heads, usually one per person. OK, that would be rather time-consuming and impractical in a modern democracy, but that's how polls started out – head counts. “Poll” in Middle English originally referred to the head, or just the hair of the head, before it came to mean “head count”, and later “election”. The old meaning can still be seen in that much-reviled term “poll-tax”, literally a tax per head of population. Now, let's move from the head to the other end of the body, at least for quadrupeds - the tail. Latin coda, “tail” has produced three words in modern English. The tail-end of a musical piece is termed the “coda”; the tail that you wait in is a “queue”, which comes via French; and the tail that you use to hit balls on a table is a “cue”, an alternative spelling of “queue”.

One other part of the body can prove useful in amusing the public, as long as you know how to use it for speaking - your belly, venter in Latin. That's precisely what a ventriloquist does – speak from the belly, though in a sense, we all speak from the belly from time to time, with sounds that say “I can't eat another morsel”.

Part 3 coming up soon.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Things you never knew about your body: Part 1

We all know the names of the parts of the body, where the parts are and what they do. What we might not know are the strange origins of some of those names, as well as some of the bizarre uses that parts of the body have been put to, literally and figuratively speaking. Over the next few posts, I'll be expounding on some weird and wonderful linguistic facts regarding certain parts of our bodies.

Let's start with the origins of some of these terms. Your shoulder is quite a large, flattish bone. If you took it out of your body, you might be able to use it in the garden (or maybe you wouldn't be able to, as one of your arms would be inoperative), because it probably comes from an ancient root meaning “dig”. Of course, if you do anything vigorous like digging, you'll need plenty of muscles – all those little mice running around your body. For indeed, that's what muscle means, coming from Latin musculus, literally “little mouse”, so named because in ancient times muscles flexing were thought to resemble mice moving around. Just think of that next time you're down at the gym watching those bodybuilders pumping iron. Of Mice and Men.

Still on the subject of animals, the most prominent features of carnivores are their fangs, those big, sharp pointy teeth. What are they used for? Seizing and gripping, of course, which is precisely what fangs do, as evidenced by these exact meanings in Old English. By the time Dracula came along, he no longer needed to seize or grip his victims with his fangs; he just needed to plunge them in the neck. One group of animals, to which we indeed belong, are the mammals, so named because they have mammaries to supply milk to their young. This term came about because baby Romans used to cry out mamma! to their mothers, who responded by offering them their mammaries. Of course, the big question is, do baby vampires say "fangs for the mammaries"?

Other body parts with interesting origins include the skeleton. While we think of the skeleton as all the bones in the body connected together, that's a relatively modern usage of the word, as originally a skeleton denoted mummification, from the Greek skeleton soma, literally “dried up body”, from the verb skellein, “dry up”. So, with Halloween coming up, it would be more appropriate to wear a mummy costume than a skeleton one.

The extremities of the skeleton consist of fingers and toes, ten of each. However, technically speaking you should have twenty toes and no fingers, or at least, the toes should be on your hands. One of the most common and obvious things we do with our fingers is point. In fact, that's why we call them digits. Latin dicitus came from an ancient root meaning “point out, show”, related to English “teach”. Dicitus changed in time to digitus and referred to the things we point with, namely fingers. The idea of digits being pointers was clearly the case in the Germanic languages, because the Old English ta, which gives us the modern “toe”, comes from the same root as dicitus. Essentially, "toes teach", at least according to their ancient meanings. In time, “finger” took over the meaning of the digits on the hand, while toes remained on the foot, having long lost their association with pointing. Unless, of course, you wear shoes with pointy toecaps.

One last part of the skeleton has come to mean something you might pop into your mouth and crunch away on. No, this is nothing to do with cannibalism. It involves the Latin bracchius, which meant “arm”, and which produced brachitellum, “little arm”. This was borrowed by Old High German as brezitella and used to denote a biscuit made in the form of folded arms, the modern “pretzel”. So, logically speaking, that's something to think about next time you're at a cocktail party.

Look out for some more tasty morsels in the next post on body parts.

Sunday 22 September 2013

This one could run and run

I've been rummaging around in the giant bag of word origins and histories for some time now, and what I find never ceases to amaze me. One of the most fascinating aspects of doing this is the discovery of and investigation into derivations from the same root which have come down through time into modern English via disparate roots, or even routes.

One such set of derivations is from the Indo-European root for “run”. One came to us from Latin, either directly or through the mediation of French, and even Croatian and Hungarian. The second came initially from Gaulish, the language of ancient France, was borrowed into Latin and ended up creating a set of derivations that entered English via Latin, French and Spanish. The third and last is good old English, coming down through the ages, unmediated just like many other words from Old English, but packing a surprise in its wake.

The Latin for “run” was currere. From this we get an abundance of derivations.
  • Something which is running is literally current, though current affairs are not really carried out at a running pace. An electric current is electricity running along a wire, and running rivers have currents. Equally, something which has relevance to the present has currency, presumably including dollars, pounds and euros, though the only running they seem to do is out of my wallet.
  • From Latin cursus, a running, came course via French, firstly as a place where running takes place and later as something which runs for a time, especially in education, though not much running happens during five-course banquets. Strangely, in English a concourse is a place where people literally run together, but in other languages it means a competition. Naturally, if you run between people, you engage in intercourse, and if you do it at the same time then it's concurrent. If you need to run back to something, you have recourse to it. I suppose that if several people have recourse to concurrent intercourse on a concourse, it would be rather interesting.
  • If your writing runs along nicely, then it's cursive, and if you run past something with your eyes, you just give it a cursory look. Oh, and I'm typing all this stuff up on my trusty computer with the aid of the cursor, which is now running across the screen.
  • If you run together with someone, as we saw above, you concur. If you run into something, you might find that you incur it, like a fine or someone's anger. If you run in the way of something, something bad might occur, and if something runs again and again, it recurs.
  • Why would you run up to someone? In Roman times, it would have been to help them – hence sucurrere, help. This produced French secours, Spanish and Portuguese socorro and Italian soccorso, and the rather posh English succour. I suppose speed was of the essence when bringing help, and sauntering wouldn't quite get the job done. But what if you ran to succour someone who then tricked you and robbed you? Would you be a succour sucker?
  • Now, one very wet runner would have been a corsair, which came into English via French. It can be applied to the swift ships pirates used, or equally to the pirates themselves, though I don't suppose pirates did much running at sea.
  • So, are there any derivations from currere which still literally run around? Well, one is courier, literally runner, which we get from Italian via French, though a courier might just as easily be on two or four wheels, as on two legs. Another type of person who used to do a lot of running around was a huzzar, or hussar, and the word did a lot of running around itself. It started out the same as a corsair, but it galloped over to central Europe and found its way into Croatian, from where it cantered into Hungarian, designating a particular kind of light cavalry, and then trotted its way back to the languages of western Europe. Huzzah!
Latin was not averse to borrowing a few words from its neighbours, and one very good example is my second root word, carrus, a relative of currere, which Latin picked up from Gaulish, a Celtic language. Carrus has in turn also been quite generous to English.
  • The most obvious thing here is that the things we use which have names derived from carrus all have wheels: car, carriage and chariot. Car and carriage came via Anglo-French, thereby keeping the unchanged c-, and generally referring to the same thing, while chariot came from standard French with the initial change from c- to ch-. In any case, they're all variations on wheeled vehicles. Nowadays, we'd say a car runs smoothly. Presumably an ancient charioteer would have said the same thing about his wheels.
  • Latin produced a verb carricare from carrus, and this led to the modern verb carry. Strictly speaking then, if you carry something, you should either have it in a car, a chariot or a carriage, or you should be running with it in your hands. What you actually carried in your carriage would be cargo, which came to us from Spanish, from the verb cargar, load (for transport). What French did with carricare was to create charger, also meaning to load. After coming into English, charge has extended into a lot of other areas, getting its running feel back with the cavalry.
So we come to the last word. This one is the true English one. We can see the connection with running, with speed; yet perhaps the most fascinating thing is that in English the act of running was inextricably bound up with an animal, the animal most recognisably a runner, the animal which has lent its speed to humanity in its growth and development over hundreds of years. Of course, I can only be talking about one animal, the runner par excellence – the horse.

And this is where one ancient root echoes down the centuries, testimony to the fascinating and enduring nature of language, but also to the vagaries of history, which allow three strains which parted company so long ago to intertwine once again for real. A courier might carry his letters on a horse. A car with 1000 horsepower might run round a racecourse. Horses go with carriages, and chariots, of course. Horses for courses indeed – or should that be courses for horses? This could run and run...

Saturday 14 September 2013

What's in a national name?

It's axiomatic that one of the most important aspects of an identity for both an individual and an ethnic group is the name of the group, whether that be a clan, a tribe or a nationality. It may come as quite a surprise to find out that the commonly used name of such a group is often not that name which the group gives itself. However, this is more often the case than you might think. Here are a few well-known, and a few less well-known examples.

The Scots

What comes to mind when you think of the Scots? Kilts, whisky, Rangers, Celtic, lochs, Rabbie Burns, och aye the noo, etc., etc. However, the original use of the term Scot was by the Romans, who referred to the Scotti, raiders from Ireland who settled Scotland and brought their language, Gaelic, with them. So perhaps the Scots should really be drinking whiskey, chasing leprechauns and kissing the Blarney Stone.

The Welsh

This is a classic example of a people bearing a name which was given to them by a hostile people and which is essentially dismissive of them. When the Romans abandoned the British to their fate in the face of the invading Germanic tribes which came to be known as the Anglo-Saxons, the British tribes took on the name Combrogi, Fellow Countrymen, which eventually became the Welsh name of their country, Cymru (pronounced come-re). The term Welsh came from the invading Germanic tribes and meant foreign. So essentially, the Welsh were called foreigners by the English in their own land – a habit which the English have cherished right up to now with regard to other nations. A further twist comes from the fact that the term Welsh originally came from the Volcae, a Celtic tribe encountered by the Romans whose name they applied to all Celts. This term was picked up by the Germanic tribes and adopted as the term for foreign, which is still true in modern German Welsch, which denotes peoples that speak languages descended from Latin.

The French

We talk of Gallic humour, Gallic shrugs and Gallic wit, but that should really only apply to those of Celtic descent, who can trace their ancestry back to the time of Gaul before Caesar conquered it and brought it into the Roman empire. The French are technically not Gauls – they're German. The Franks were a group of German tribes, some of which started to settle in ancient Gaul during the time of the Roman empire, but who eventually took over the country after the collapse of Roman rule. In fact, Frankish vocabulary accounts for about 10% of modern French vocabulary, with the bulk coming from Latin and the rest mainly from Gaulish. So the French shouldn't really be the French, as so little of what the French are is genuinely French.

The Dutch

Now, the Dutch are used to being called Dutch, but they never call themselves Dutch, and they don't really like the term, calling themselves Nederlands, people from the Low Country. This is mainly because the real Dutch are the Germans, who call themselves Deutsch. I know, it gets confusing. The origin of Dutch and Deutsh is the Germanic version of the ancient Indo-European form *teuta, people, which produced Proto-Germanic *theudiskaz, of the people, producing Old High German diutisc. So basically, the Germans call themselves the People, but the Dutch, who English speakers call the People, don't like being called the People. Other languages use a word from the same root to name the Germans: Italian Tedesco, Scandinavian Tysk, and even the languages of Eastern Asia. Funnily enough, the Slavonic languages all refer to the Germans as Nemtsi, literally the Dumb Ones, as the Germanic tribes were unable to speak the language of the Slavs, who regarded themselves literally as speakers, or people of the Word, slovo.

The Greeks

Let's get one thing straight. The Greeks have never been the Greeks. They have been many things, but never Greeks. What I mean by this is that the Greeks have never called themselves Greek, and are the victims of name-calling by foreigners, in this case the Romans, who designated them according to a subset of the wider people, which is actually quite a common occurrence (see below). Interestingly, the Greek government once ran a campaign to get foreigners to effectively abolish the term Greek and use Hellene, with little success.

The people known as the Greeks have actually called themselves many things. Homer, writing around 750 BCE, mostly used Achaeans, Argives and Danaans, terms which are associated with different areas in Greece, to describe the peoples who went to war against the Trojans. After Homer's time, the name Hellene gained currency throughout Greece and has remained the name that the Greeks use for themselves to this day, along with the name of the country Hellas (modern Elladha), though that's not the whole story.

As the Romans expanded their rule through Italy, mainly to the south, they started to come across various peoples living in cities which were colonies settled by people from mainland Greece. The practice of the colonies was to identify themselves strongly with their mother-city, metropolis, in Greece, rather than with the Greeks as a whole, who were all Hellenes (though they constantly fought amongst themselves). The first of these people who the Romans came into contact with called themselves Graikoi in acknowledgement of the region they originated from in Greece, so the Romans cheerfully called the whole of southern Italy Magna Graecia, Great Greece. The name stuck and the rest is history.

It doesn't end there. The Greeks also founded colonies on the coast of Asia Minor, modern Turkey, the best known of which referred to themselves as Ionian, giving their name to that region. The coast of Asia Minor fell under the dominion of Persia, which took the name Ionian to refer to all Greeks. From this we get variations of the term Ionian in Arabic, Persian and Hebrew to refer to the Greeks. All this chimes with other instances of one tribe or group being used to denote the wider group, such as the Chechens being named by the Russians after a village in their country, and the Germanic Allemani tribe giving their name to French, Spanish and Portuguese to describe all Germans.

One final thing here; the Greeks don't even call themselves Hellenes, really. Hellene is largely a revival of the ancient term to denote the modern country. Before modern Greece was founded, any self-respecting Greek would call himself Romios, Roman, and many still do. By the time the Roman empire split into eastern and western, Athens had long been reduced to a village and the centre of the Hellenic world was Byzantium, or Constantinople, known just as i Polis, the City, by the Greeks. In fact, if one Greek asked another where he was going, he would reply “to the City”, “is tin bolin”, which gives the modern Istanbul. As Constantinople was the capital of the surviving Roman empire, the people living there called themselves Romios, Roman, even though they spoke Greek. So, essentially the Greeks reject the name of one of their own tribes, which was applied to them by the Romans, but are happy to call themselves by the name of the people who actually gave them the name from their own language that they reject. That's history for you.

The Russians, the Hungarians and the Romanians

The Russians are not really the Russians. They're actually Swedes. Well, at least their name is Swedish. Back in medieval times, before the Slavic tribes settled down in the countries we are familiar with now, groups of Swedes known as Varangians, essentially eastern Vikings, started rowing their ships from the Baltic up the rivers of what is now modern Russia. These people were known for their rowing skills, from which they got the name Rus, the first name of the kingdom which became Russia. The name also sticks in the Finnish name of Sweden, Ruotsi.

The Hungarians are not really the Hungarians. They're the Magyars. However, they were stuck with the name Hungarian, which comes from the Turkic Onogur, meaning either Ten Tribes or Ten Arrows. Medieval Latin added the initial H.

Finally we get to the Romanians. Romania, formerly known as Dacia, was settled by the Romans in the 2nd century. Although the Romans pulled out around 150 years later, it was enough for Latin to be established as the main language. Apparently, from that time the Romanians have always regarded themselves as the true Romans, which, in a sense they are, even though it's debatable how many of them are actually descended from the original Romans. Still, at least they have the name they want to call themselves, even thought the real Rome is hundreds of miles away in Italy.

There's a world of weird and wonderful ethnic names just waiting to be discovered. Feel free to find some more and bring them back here.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Always look on the bright -cide of life

We engage in -cide every day. Some acts of -cide might be beneficial to you; others might land you in prison for the rest of your life.

Here are the basic facts: -cide comes from the Latin caedere, which means cut or kill. It formed compounds with the altered form -cidere, as in circumcidere, concidere, decidere, excidere, incidere and praecidere, from which we get circumcise, concise, decision, excision, incision and precision respectively. A lot of cutting but nothing really killing about these words. But then we come to the death-dealing creations with -cide, such as fungicide, insecticide and homicide. Now the -cide part carries a lot of connotations, depending on the first part of the compound. An insecticide is normally considered a chemical compound which causes the death of insects. However, I want to look at it in another light, namely as an act of killing.

Engaging in the act of killing something may or may not carry criminal associations. The act of killing an insect is not normally considered a violent act conveying the threat of punishment consisting of an extended stretch in prison at the very least. The act of insecticide is usually trivial, unless, of course, you're the insect. It stands to reason, however, that if you find yourself shrunk to the size of an insect in the manner of many a children's cartoon feature from Hollywood, the implications of insecticide might be more deleterious to your prospects of long term freedom, particularly if the insects have arthropodal courts of law in which they can put humans on trial and exoskeletal prisons to confine them to.

Homicide, on the other hand, is rather more serious than insecticide, since it results in the death of a human being. The -cide bit of this compound carries serious connotations of wrongdoing. On the other hand, it depends on the agent of the homicide. Just as humans do not generally consider the act of killing an insect something serious or heinous, a mosquito biting a human host would not give serious consideration to the consequences of its action in infecting the human with dengue fever or malaria, quite probably resulting in his/her death.

Admittedly, this is most likely to be a function of the inability of the mosquito to rationalise its actions and prognosticate about the implications of its deeds, largely because its brain is significantly lacking in the quantity and quality of those neurons which allow us to engage in these mental machinations. If the mosquito indeed had the use of such highly evolved mental faculties, and was challenged with the question “do you realise your act of biting this human will probably result in his or her demise?” one would surmise that the answer would be something on the lines of “sod off; I'm just having a quick bite to eat and I don't give a flying toss what happens to the victim”.

The result, however, is strangely symmetrical: we consider the act of inflicting death on another human as probably the most serious act any of us can perpetrate on society, yet we consider the swatting of a fly as a rather insignificant act to remove the source of an annoyance. With the proviso, outlined above, that insects lack the mental faculties of us humans, insects are equally uncaring about the effects of their -cide on us, but would probably view the act of insecticide of one of their species on another in the same light as we would when it comes to human on human killing.

Now, I admit that this doesn't really get us anywhere in the grand scheme of things, but I think you will agree that depending on how a compound word is formed, the second element often has connotations which are introduced into the compound by the first element and which are not present in the bare form of the second element. Think more on these compounds and see what you can come up with on the same lines.

  • ludere, play: allude, collude, delude, elude, illusion, interlude, prelude
  • praehendere, seize, grasp: apprehend, comprehend, reprehend
  • sedere, sit: dissident, insidious, obsession, preside, reside, subsidy, supersede
  • sentire, feel: assent, consent, dissent, presentiment, resent
  • signum, sign: assign, consign, design, designate, insignia, resign
  • specere, look at: aspect, circumspect, despicable, despite, introspection, inspect, perspicacious, perspective, prospect, respect, retrospect, suspect

Saturday 11 May 2013

The Changing Name and Nature of the PRINCE OF WALES

Kilburn in north west London is the epitome of the inner-city mix of peoples, wealth and poverty, creativity, bustle, hope, despair and decreptitude. Take a walk down the High Road as far as Kilburn High Road station, and then take a right down to Kilburn Park station. There, by the station, stands a pub, the PRINCE OF WALES. You might not think that there is anything particularly significant about a pub with such a name anywhere in Britain; after all, there must be at least one pub bearing that name in every city in the country.

However, this particular PRINCE OF WALES is characterised by its slow, seemingly inexorable decline, epitomised by its gradually evolving name, resulting from the growing lack of care afforded to that name; to be precise, the gradual loss of letters from the name on the side of the pub facing the road is clear testimony to the lack of care and money lavished on the external appearance of the pub. However, it can also be construed as a fascinating insight into the changing nature of the establishment, or indeed, the evolving character of the royal personage after whom it is named.

Here is the process of evolution laid out in stages, as if a series of mutating prehistoric forms excavated from a fossil-rich vein stretching back millions of years. The first loss of a letter from the PRINCE OF WALES rendered it the PRICE OF WALES. Now, I have no idea if the cost of living in the Principality is rising to the extent that the whole country has become more costly, but that certainly seems to be the intimation here.

The next mutation resulted in a rather defective form, known as the PRICE OF WALS. If the “L” were doubled, then it would be of particular concern to builders up and down the country, who are engaged in purchasing bulding materials for the fashioning of walls of all shapes and sizes. However, the single “L”, while displaying a certain lack of orthographical exactitude, still conveys to the reader the impression that walls are going up – in price, that is.

These initial stages of letter-loss have since progressed to the third, and current, stage, possibly the most awkward of all: the PRIC OF WALS. Now, all kinds of interpretations spring to mind, not least by placing a “K” on the PRIC, though quite how that renders the nature of the WALS is anyone's guess. One could replace the missing “E” in WALS, producing the PRIC OF WALES, which would reflect many an opinion of the current heir apparent, but let's not go there (the Tower of London can get quite cold in winter).

So, what else is in the offing? I shall certainly continue to pass the pub on the bus, as I occasionally do, and look out to see if any of the following come to pass: the RICK OF WALS, the RICE OF WALS, the RICE OF WALES, the RINCE OF WALES, the PRINCE OF ALES, the PRIC OF ALES...the possibilities are almost endless. So there we have it; a landlord's lack of care has become a source of social commentary on the state of the modern monarchy; or if you wish, deep philosophical musings as to the nature of life, society and the world we live in.

Oh, sod all that; it's just bloody funny.

Saturday 16 February 2013

What they really meant when they wrote it.

Have you ever read a book and felt that the content of the book doesn't match the promise of the title? What if the writer had misspelt the title and had really meant the content to be something else? Well here are some re-imaginings.

The Lord of the Files

This is the terrifying and gripping story of a group of schoolboys who are flying in a plane over the Pacific Ocean when the plane crash lands on an island. They try to organise themselves under the leadership of Ralph, who rescues important files detailing the students' homework for the next term. He is aided by Piggy, who, as the boy with glasses, is the only one intelligent enough to interpret the files and allocate the homework which needs to be done before they are rescued, especially as the glasses convey mystical powers onto the wearer, a secret known only to Piggy. However, a faction led by the evil Jack rebels and attempts to steal the files and take Ralph's place as the boys' leader by virtue of possession of the Sacred Files. In the ensuing battle, Piggy loses his magic glasses, and with that his intelligence, and he falls off a cliff to his death. Then the true lord comes to reclaim the Sacred Homework Files and the boys start crying.

King Solomon's Fines

This is the epic story of a gruelling expedition across the Dark Continent by a group of intrepid explorers with their trusty native African porters to the ancient land of Sheba to uncover the hidden history of the fabled visit by King Solomon to the court of the legendary Queen of Sheba, most beautiful and alluring of ancient women of power, and to locate the treasure said to be hidden there. They risk man-eating wild animals, fiercely hostile tribes, ferocious storms and rancorous internal disputes over the beautiful but pointless female that they take with them to arrive at their destination, only to discover nothing more than the records of penalty notices issued to the retinue of King Solomon by the Sheba State Police for parking their camel trains in the wrong place.

The War of the Words

One ordinary day in Woking, south west of London, or maybe in New York, depending on your viewpoint, nothing much is happening. Then there is a flash in the sky and a strange spaceship crashes to earth. A crowd gathers round as the never-before-seen alien craft, throbbing loudly in a very non-pre-synthesiser-age manner, and giving off an eerie reddish glow, lies smouldering. Then a strange arm-like object slowly rises from the object with a flashing red light on the end. Suddenly, a volley of words flies out from the end of the arm. The words are so painful that people fall to the ground clutching their heads and explode in clouds of dust, with comments like “you earthlings are a bunch of non-entities” and “we Martians will wipe the floor with you puny humans” horribly ringing in their ears. The evil Martians fan out around the world and proceed to infect anyone within earshot with their terrible put-downs, until suddenly, all the machines start going out of control and crashing, with the Martians slowly perishing from an unknown cause. It turns out that they have been infected by the most banal utterances known to humanity, which humanity has grown so used to that they have developed total immunity. Unfortunately for the Martians, they have never encountered these utterances before and it proves deadly to them – politicians' promises. Armed with this knowledge, people all over the world blast the Martians with proclamations of tax cuts, manifesto pledges of prosperity and solemn-faced promises of firearm reform, and the world is saved!

Great Expectorations

This is a warm and touching 19th C novel about a young orphan called Pip and his attempts to escape his lowly position and make a success of his life. When he is young, he encounters a horrible escaped convict called Magwitch, who forces him to bring him food and a file to cut away his chains. Pip is mostly impressed by Magwitch's ability to clear his chest of phlegm in huge quantities and resolves to be like him, even after Magwitch is recaptured. He spends his youth improving his chest-clearing abilities, and goes to live with an old woman called Mrs Havisham, where he falls in love with Estella and trains her in the niceties of throat clearance in exalted company. He then finds out that he has received an inheritance consisting of finance to build a chest-clearing device factory. He becomes rich and finds out that it was Magwitch who gave him his inheritance. Unfortunately for Magwitch, he falls desperately ill after the biggest chest-evacuation he has ever attempted and dies. The factory collapses and Pip loses all his money and with that his ability to perform outsized mucus movements. However, he finally makes up with Estella and they live out their lives together with their great expectorations reduced to modest but manageable levels.

Peter Pun

This is the magical and heart-warming story of boy who never grows up and can fly owing to his ability to produce an apposite turn of phrase for any occasion. He arrives at Wendy's house and persuades her to fly with him to Neverneverland, where they will be able to indulge in magical word plays all day. They fly off together after Tinkerbell sprinkles Wendy with witty expressions to give her the power of flight. Once in Neverneverland, they encounter Captain Hook, a dour, humourless pedant, who leads a band of mirthless pirates that combat any kind of witty wordplay with swordplay. Peter constantly raises his ire with expressions like “have you hooked up with anyone recently?” and “come on captain, I'm waiting for you to get stuck in”. Eventually, the epic struggle of verbal witticism against cold literalism reaches its climax when Hook is eaten by a giant crocodile, with Peter wisecracking “fangs for the memory, it was a jaw-dropping experience!”

The Lord of the Rungs

This is the epic tale of a small and simple Hobbit called Frodo, who, aided by his fellowship of eight companions, must risk his life to protect his world and rid Middle Earth of the greatest evil in its history, the evil lord Sauron. In the mists of time past, Sauron created a giant ladder leading to the top of Mount Doom which he invested with most of his power. However, the ladder was destroyed in an epic battle at the end of the second age and all its rungs were scattered far and wide. Now Sauron has managed to recover most of the rungs, but one rung remains, the last and greatest rung, which will complete the ladder and allow him to ascend to the top of the mountain and regain his lost power. Frodo's doughty band, led by the great wizard, Gandalf, whose knowledge of ladders and rungs is unsurpassed, battle through danger, horror and treachery, not least from the evil Gollum, who himself once possessed the Great Rung and used to stand on it to become invisible. Frodo, aided by his trusty servant, Sam, manages to fling the rung into the fire of Mount Doom, thereby denying Sauron his last chance to reach the top of the mountain, destroying the ladder and his power in the process and saving the world. One small step for a Hobbit, but a giant step for Elfkind, Mankind, Dwarfkind and every other kind in Middle Earth.

Moby Duck

A crazed ship captain known as Ahab swears vengeance on the denizen of the ocean which has blighted his life for years. He pursues the creature, a gigantic white quacking waterfowl known as Moby, and finally corners it near an island where the bird is exhausted and doesn't have enough room to take off. Ahab launches himself with his duck harpoon at the massive aquatic avian, and in the ensuing struggle gets himself tangled up, with the result that they both go to their doom at the bottom of the ocean.

The Adventures of Tom Lawyer

This is the ripping story of the adventures of a poor boy living in a small town on the banks of the great Mississippi river. His shenanigans involve falling in love with his classmate, Becky Thatcher, hanging out in a graveyard with his friend, Huckleberry Finn, and getting into all kinds of trouble. However, he dreams of becoming a respected attorney, and seizes his chance when he defends the town drunk, Muff Potter, framed for murder by the local mob don Injun Joe, who actually committed the crime in an attempt to take over the local crime syndicate. Revealing, in truly dramatic fashion in the courtroom, that Muff is indeed innocent, and Injun Joe is guilty, he earns the accolades of the townsfolk and the eternal hatred of Joe, who escapes and swears his revenge. In the end, Tom triumphs in the face of adversity and travels abroad as a great international advocate.

Look out for more of these in the future if I can think of any.

Friday 15 February 2013

The Prehistory of the World in Welsh Tribes and Chalk

What's in a name? Why do certain phenomena have certain names? To my mind, one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic naming processes was that of naming the periods in prehistory up to the end of the dinosaurs: Cambrian, Devonian, Silurian, Ordivician, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Generations of palaeontologists, geologists, bonehunters and schoolchildren have had them rolling off their tongues, probably with no real idea of how these names actually came about, what they're named after, and how the names have resonated in time.

So, how did these periods get their names? Clearly, the people who researched these times over the last couple of hundred years, after interest in the prehistory of the world really took off, had their own favoured naming strategies. Let's start at the beginning, quite literally

The first period of the Palaeozoic Era, literally “ancient-life era”, was the Cambrian period, from about 541m to 485m years ago. It was characterised by the first explosion of multi-cellular life forms, the fossils of which were first found in rocks in Wales, known as Cambria in Latin, and Cymru (pronounced “come-ree”) in modern Welsh, ultimately from an ancient British form meaning “fellow countrymen”.

The Cambrian was followed by the Ordivician, which lasted until about 443m years ago. The Ordivices were a Celtic tribe living in North Wales and conquered by the Romans in 77-78CE. Their name was applied to the period whose rocks mostly appeared in their territory. The Ordivician was followed by the Silurian period, lasting till about 419m years ago, the Silures being a tribe living around South Wales and the English borders, where the rocks from that era predominated. Strangely, the use of Silurian to describe an ancient race of human-like reptiles in Doctor Who is inappropriate, not because the Welsh tribe actually consisted of humans as opposed to reptiles, but because no reptiles existed at the time, the most dominant life forms being early bony fish and giant sea scorpions

So far, so Welsh. For the next period, we have to move south, across the Bristol Channel. The Devonian period lasted till around 359m years ago, and was named, surprisingly enough, after Devon, where such rocks abound. However, Devon gets its name from the Dumnonii, a Celtic tribe which occupied the furthest south-western region of Britain, so in essence, they were an extension of the Welsh. So there we have it; the first four Palaeozoic periods named effectively after ancient British tribes.

So what of the next one? Was there a tribe called the Carboniferi? No. The Carboniferous period, which lasted till about 299m years ago, literally means “carbon-bearing”, because this was the period when huge forests dominated the land and were transformed over time into the coal that fuelled the industrial revolution. This was followed by the Permian period, the last of the Palaeozoic, lasting till about 252m years ago. So, who were the Perms, actually, Permians, and how were they related to the Welsh tribes? Well, they weren't. Permia was a medieval kingdom on the western slopes of the Urals in Russia and gave its name to the age as a result of the rocks found there which dated from that era

The Mesozoic, or Middle Life, Era is probably the most famous in prehistory, mainly because it was the period of the dinosaurs. The first of the three Mesozoic periods was the Triassic, running till about 200m years ago and named after the three-colour rock formations, black on white on red, which were found mainly in Germany. Then the most famous period, the Jurassic, followed, lasting till about 145m years ago and named after the Jura mountains straddling the French-Swiss border. The third and last period, lasting till the end of the dinosaurs about 66m years ago, was the Cretaceous, named after the Latin for chalk, creta, which was laid down in western Europe in the shallow seas of this period.

So, there we have it: Wales and two of its tribes, an ancient west country tribe, bearers of carbon, a province in Russia, three German rock layers, French/Swiss mountains and western European chalk; a motley and varied crew defining almost 500m years of prehistory, named mostly according to the personal whims of the geologists who defined them. And if you look into virtually any other area of science, you will find remarkably similar stories.