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Philology Phriday–Strand

8 Oct

This is a passage I found from the seminal “Buying Work Gloves” manual, mandatory though engrossing reading from the shell of my summer employment at my parents’ glove selling business. While thinking of the word for this week, strand, the image of this passage flashed its brilliance on the insides of my closed eyelids. I often think of strands in the context of yarn or thread. I sew strands of thread into these awesome gloves.

Through the process of double indirect association, a dubious though interesting way to make passages mean something very different from their intent, the three paragraphs above made me think of the story-telling metaphor, and folklore lingo, “spinning a yarn”. If that becomes a metaphor underpinning the whole of the passage, it is interesting to see what is being unsaid, or maybe under-read is a better term, about the process of story-telling. The group of yarns, yarns=stories, become something of archetypes, all running parallel to each other, forming spaces to be filled in by obtrusive and axial counter-yarns. Even odder is the term “warp,” because it connotes a strangeness about the whole thing, an oddity, or maybe a bending in some sense, like the yarns (or stories) themselves are meant to be bent. More of the analogy can be teased out, but I will let you do that. Suffice it to say,  the thread-idea of strand I had led me to associate the word with the craft of fiction.

But the word has four noun entries alone in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first use of the word, stemming from Old Norman strond, actually meant an area of land bordering a body of water. Milton’s “Lycidas” immediately popped in my mind, specifically the money quote: “Now Lycidas, the Shepherds weep no more;/ Hence for Thou art the Genius of the Shore” (ll. 182-183).

This association really hurts the strength of the thought I was trying to weave before. It seems that the early idea of strand lent itself to a more poetic metaphor. How many poems do you know that take as their object something on the shore? Howabout Arnold’s Dover Beach?

Even more interesting is that the word seems to change in meaning to mean also a stream. My sleep-deprived, associative mind wants to jump immediately to a stream of consciousness.

But then Spencer’s Faerie Queen uses the word to describe the sea, or at least a sheet of water.This conflated use of both land bordering body of water and the water itself persisted for quite a while, being in popular use from the 12th to the 15th centuries in England.

Is this strand thing getting as confusing for you as it is for me?

The use that I started with, that of a thread, found its way into English-speaking mouths by the turn of the 16th century. How can we explain the unrelatedness of these two meanings? An uncited scholar in the OED proposes that this meaning of the word came from an adoption of the word strain in Old French.

It seems then that my confusion is completely warranted. The word has multiple tributaries that lead us (or at least me) to a dual-association. I can connect it to both poetry and fiction. In the last beats of my brain before it just shuts off for a nap, I wonder if maybe strand is the strand that binds poetry to fiction.


Philology Phriday–Right

1 Oct

It is time that this author show the world, that is the few if any people still reading these here word-thoughts, about the pervasively ensconcing quality of everyday language. You have heard of phallocentrism, maybe even phallologocentrism. You’ve been asked in all your lit classes what the place of the female character in the narrative, how she functions, may hint at the possibility that a male writer for some strange reason would actually want to subjugate the general female populace at large. You probably thought, “Hmmm. Aight.” You thought it was a cool trick of language, nothing more. Nothing less. But then it became a trend. And trends are more than just tricks.

But I have to clue you into something even more pervasive, something even more sickeningly subtle though powerful. The first time I saw it, I may have vomited a little bit. My heart, and this is sure, clenched. What was it that I saw? The OED’s entry for “right (n)”. That’s right. Do you want to see what I saw? I warn you, the following block quotation is intellectually graphic and deconstructively/ more generally just like postmodernistly really troubling to those of us who like to think that we believe in the equality of all people:

In Middle English the semantic development was probably influenced by similar developments shown by Anglo-Norman and Old French dreit, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French droit DROIT n.1, as were a number of phrasal constructions.

Even the message conveying the perpetuated subjugation going on from what seems to be the early Anglo-Norman era of linguistic dominance in the then-unformed Western World, the message is a bit underhanded.

DROIT, from what I know literally means the right side. But it’s use, parallel and equally as cunning as the English RIGHT, under the postmodern, cosmopolitan we like all have rights microscope becomes this singular, pinprick prescription to cast aside all that is on the left. RIGHT’s first uses in Old English imply a sense that the right is what is “proper, correct, [and] consonant with justice” (OED). And the uses cascade from that droplet, forming a Niagra Falls that overpowers even the most stringent.

Defining the right as the just, by difference, makes the left the not-just. And this is where I get angry. No, not because I’m left handed. I’m not sick like that. I mean. I care about the left. About all directions. Back is no better that forward, left and right no better than each other. It is unjust to connect the just with the right, and I, as a Gaucher, cannot stand for it. It is time, my left-handed compatriots, that we grab each other’s dominant hands and form a circle, large and grand, to show the world, the West, with its wily word use, just how we feel about this now-termed adroitocentrism. We must, if only because we can.

Philology Phriday–?

24 Sep

You’re probably wondering why the subject of a weekly post about the sordid and only sometimes interesting history of words is a punctuation mark. Valid question. And for that valid question, I’ll give a rather not-so-valid answer, simply that we’re on the letter “q” in our adventures. +, the story of the question mark must be more interesting than the multiple uses of words like “question” or “query” (though, it may be of worth to note that the Anglo-Norman word questiun connoted torture in the early 14th century, or that the Latin root for the word “query” meant simply complaint even though now we use it to mean something like a question implying specific doubts).

Parenthetical discussions of query actually bring us to the point of this post–the question mark. The OED lists this mark under the multiple definitions of “query”. Here’s what they have to say about it:

2. A question mark (?), used in writing to indicate a degree of doubt about the accuracy or validity of a following (occas., a preceding) word or statement. Also used in speech to express a written question mark of this kind. Cf.

QY. int.

So in the cases highlighted by the OED, “query” is really just a term to categorize moments when speakers or writers express doubt (at least somewhat) explicitly. But this has yet to explain the evolution of the question mark itself. Where does this thing come from?

The history of the ?’s inception is one of the oldest unanswered questions of the like totality of humankind. Some think it started in the Middle Ages and was inspired by the way dogs and cats curve their tails when confused. Hilarious as this answer might be, it still isn’t very correct or historically accurate. One of the more accepted genealogies for the ? comes from the work of Lynne Truss who credits the question mark, more or less as we know it today, to Alcuin of York (you know, the poet, ecclesiastic, scholar, and teacher from Northumbria) whose punctus interrogativus resembled something like a lightning bolt descending from right to left. The early Middle Ages punctuation used a series of dots at different levels, and the lightning bolt signified an inflection or intonation. This means that reading was often more musical.

Over time, however, the Alcuinesque “stroke over dot” theory saw a new competitor for explaining power, this time in the abbreviations of Middle Ages scribes that signaled a question. This abbreviation of “qo” shortened the Latin term “quaestio” (meaning question). Over time, the q formed into the hook while the o morphed into a simple dot, leaving us with the ? that we know today.

I must say that all of these histories are supposed. None have been actually proven. This leaves us with the question that we started, or at least I started, with: Where does the ? come from?

Philology Phriday–Plate

17 Sep

This morning and near-noontime, I’ve been thinking a lot about the enormous meal I’ll be eating with friends and acquaintances, prepped by fellow gaucher Brent B (also known as the Mysterious B)–of bready things, pasta things, saucy things, steamy things. Of forks and spoons. And ladles, and knives, and bowls. And plates. Plates of foods piled high only to be dug deep into.

Speaking of piling high, the history of the word plate (and its near relatives in other languages) is rampacked with all sorts of uses, each of different tastes and created in different contexts. In its root form, the Anglo-Norman slash Old French feminine “plate” meant a metal ingot–a metal cast into a shape suitable for further processing. An ingot! How amorphous, and gloriously so, is that? Over the past fourteen (14) weeks, I’ve yet to find a word whose beginnings actually denote something akin to the use of the word itself.

The word plate in its first use was very much a cast that would be shaped a multitude of ways. The rappings and molding ovens of European culture fit the word to a variety of uses. I offer you now a buffet for your mind’s nourishment:

In the 12th century, “plate” denoted a defense for the torso area made of many thin, flat pieces of metal riveted together to form a prototype for armor. Another pair to this martial affectation is the Middle French use of plate impressed upon the flat end of a sword.

The second half of the 14th century saw a strange amalgamation to denote a flat pastry. I can only wonder why terms for war and baking could be conflated.

The last use that I found interesting comes from the 17th century, when “platte” denoted flat land, land that I’m guessing was probably conquered either by swords with flat sides wielded by warriors covered in strong though thin pieces of sheet metal riveted together like patchwork quilts, or by militant confectioners needing no plates, only plates, to take the “platte”.

Philology Phriday–Obvious

10 Sep

When things are obvious to us, we know them without having to go through the journey of intellectual struggle. They are banal, trite, plain, and evident to the mind. One thing that was never quite obvious to me is the way the word obvious is actually formed. This edition of Philo Phriday will give you a brief intro to the not-so-obvious roots of obvious. It is really the amalgam of a few different phonemes in Latin:


Means in the direction of, towards, against, or in front of, in view of, on account of.



Refers to a road in Latin, though has no real English currency.



A suffix that implies an adjective form, normally connoting something is characteristic of, or full of, or even of the nature of.


Thus, the basic meaning of obvious has something to do with a roadway that is right in front of you, or, even trickier, right against you. Isn’t this strange? We normally do not think of obvious things in terms of a pathway, a word which implies certain types of deference, both spatial and temporal kinda–walking down a path is both a passage in space and time. We normally see obvious things that just hit us, almost as if they are single points in experience, not some weird Frostian other-road-type idea.

The only way I can piece together this idea with the way that we have normally conceived of obvious in its English use is that the obvious is a point on the road, an opening right in front of you. Maybe the obvious things are like a portal or toll gate. You get past them in order to get onto the road. The obvious is just a stop, and in a world such as this, post-post-modern and all, where we are all moving and moving and moving, we can’t stop at the obvious. If we do, we won’t get anywhere. Duh.

Love in the Time of Strep

6 Sep

It starts before it even happens. You’re french-kissing then disappearing strawberries beside a friend and watching Mulholland Drive and reminding yourself that it’s all a recording. No hay banda. It is all a recording. You feel a slight sniffle, then a dryness you quench with homemade mead from a bottle that pops off by way of a metal contraption that seems ingenious yet sturdy to you. A way to close things that makes sense because of its perfect intricacy. The glasses are short and cheap, but the drips of fermented honey soothe the way a viscous alcohol should, like a full-on close-up of a mouth kiss. Each gaping mouth opening wide to receive, and in opening, give.

You pass the dream phase and go into desire thinking that the dryness in your throat is a beckoning for more of something. You wonder what that something is without getting up. Fuck, it’s dry in there. In need. Indeed. The mucus traffic jam in the area behind your nostrils affects even your mentalese, giving it a lisp. And the yellowish liquor makes all resultant repetitions the equivalents of jokes. More sips lead you to want to share. You look across slowly to the friend. Her cheeks change color as she sits passively, absorbing, on your some assembly required and Febreezed futon. You’ve seen this before. It was the pits, the pits of something like longing– a stretch of the proverbial arms that left your metaphors’ rotator-cuffs sighing in anguish. The pits of love.

You turn back to watch the curves of the film and scratch at your beard, realizing that  love isn’t around for you anymore. No more man-holes. And how digging is such difficult work. Such work for what? For emptiness. And dirt. O but cheeks used to be such fun things when they changed colors, when light danced on them in the semblance of a shared multimedia experience. It used to happen with girls, nice girls who giggled and smiled at your wittiness, willing to sit through Goddard or Arronofsky or even von Trier with you. The itch you are scratching doesn’t go away. It is not in your beard. It’s deeper. In the throat. Back of the palate, where you can rub the back of your tongue like your erasing a miscalculation thoughtfully. But the itch never leaves, only gets redder and harder to forget. Even as she leaves, you wonder about quenching it somehow. Your goodnight sounds like the dull extinguishing of a ceiling fan that’s not needed anymore.

Then you wake up, and the fire has spread to your head. And it quavers each time you attempt to move. So you lie. You lie still, simply plotting and waiting. You realize how oddly draining doing absolutely nothing can really be. And how you’ve gone nowhere in life, the general, or today, the specific. But feeling drenched in the pale moonlight of your energy’s desertion you convince yourself to like the lack of progress, the incredible stagnation and parchedness of it all, leaving you reaching for something real and imaginary, an IV drip of some fresh Wild Turkey or a water gun of fresh Beefeater.

The inflection of death pops into your head, and you imagine Emily Dickinson taking notes like an amanuensis at your bedside. Enunciate things you don’t own to people you don’t know. And bequeathings, too. Till death do you part. And why about marriage? All the time about marriage. Happy whiteness and flowers deflowered but still intoxicating and fluorescent. Sameness all the time, dull yet flashing at instances of intoxication or mental dis-order. Yes, that is what it is all about. Togetherness. You must call people and tell them about your stagnant revelation.

Or maybe divorce, as you reach for the space-phone? This is when the french-kissed strawberries reap some sort of maenad-like revenge on your esophageal lining, claws outstretched as you feel that you are puking a chunky, slow-churned rendition  of sweet blood mixed with the taste of bile. You cover the floor in yourself as you crawl toward a commode that doesn’t know you and wants nothing more than to dump you anyway with its closed buffed porcelain lid. Your toil is fruitless, and back to bed you go. To ruminate and situate once more. That is all you can do when enunciation becomes not worth it anymore.

An authority figure calls. The distance between him and the phone with the console and you and it seems so strange that you two could feel so separate, you blocked off in your room, self-sequestered, and he in his office, upright and alone, yet so connected to this entity who has put your wheezing, blood-painted vocals on speakerphone, making the distance of miles more like miles + a couple feet, magnifying the whole distance issue but also the whole connection thing too. Phones don’t click anymore when you divorce yourself from them. They just cease.

But what was said? Oh yes. You must go to the minor med where a homeless man will tell you that a girl does not exist. They ain’t exist, I tell you. You think of marriage again as you feel the sweat that lined your fingers and your unwashed face now line the thin space between the transparent plastic bag and puce-colored trash can, the veil vibrating momentarily with the tremors of your bowels trying their best to jump ship. But it is weird, this regurgitated thought of together-ness. The rendition seems beautiful for a moment in the pause between the dry heaves. Utilitarian relaxation from the awful work of doing things on one’s own. Someone to share the pail with.

You look up to your father. Man has been married for thirty years and here he is, reading a boy scouts magazine and laughing at the jokes. It makes the public puking seem somehow less embarrassing. And because of this, you wonder if the pale light could really blind you. And how Milton turned divorce into a discipline. And, yeah. Maybe this. Maybe this. Yeah. Not so much.

the dry heaves become the worst, but because you’ve experienced them before, you feel kind of like a connoisseur, now. no oaky or fruity taste, only the strange feeling of your gallbladder hugging tightly to your duodenum as if the two were in some strange digestive pyrotechnic musical rendition of titanic and the liver and the colon had already said, Gentlemen, its has been a privilege playing with you tonight, and had decided to go down. Then, feeling ashamed, your body produces only what it can. What used to be called ichor, nectar of the gods, now displaced, divorced you whisper in mentalese, from that and remarried to the thought of human bile––the viscous piss that comes out of your mouth after much squeezing and wrenching. That shit used to be “you”. Now its splattered somewhere else. Pretty as a Pollock in the Met.

But wait, what was said. You need to stop missing things, again in the mentalese.

The doctor will see you now. Meaning, the doctor will make you wait on their butcher-papered half-reclined table-bench thing for another twenty minutes, allowing whatever tiny, probably animated one-eyed sharp-teethed boogers setting up market economies and thwarting socialist revolutions in the continents of your insides to roam and propagate for what for them is like another century, bringing on the inevitable experimental phase that leads toward communist dictatorships with military juntas and dissapearings and un-virusing, or whatever the microbial equivalent is to make your diseased metaphor work could be. You start to vibrate inside, fervently, like the baby you could never have is comin, and his name is going to be Jeb. Just Jeb, not short for shit. You’re sick of your own jokes, but put up with them so as not to vomit in your own presence. It would just be rude.

But shit happens. And so does vomit. The trashcan filled with once-used and discarded Kimberly Clark powder-free nitrile gloves absorbs the thin yellow liquid that literally spews out of your mouth, all geyser-like and preposterous. In the dehydration, you start to get romantic sentiments about the hard white plastic digging into you less than empty stomach area. You caress and you grope. And it feels, weeps in tenderness with the screech of your finger on the ring. You’re on one knee, and have a proposition to make. Will you–?

The doctor knocks politely, but gives you no time to put your proverbial clothes on and explain the situation, the look in the receptacle’s eyes when you both knew, and so she catches a glimpse of your ass up in the air, rocking back and forth, ever so gently, and your left index finger drawing soft infinities of sweat in the heat of a remembered moment.

You separate from your can, your receptacle. And the doctor for some reason wears a long black skirt draped down to her cankles, like she is half doctor half judge. You will have to do a strep test, a swab placed into the eye of the storm located right at the connection of your tonsil’s teardrop to the wall of throat. The doctor sizes you up wordlessly like you are a fool with no need for communication. You open when she tells you too and close when she is finished. No gagging, no squealing. You are a good boy, she says. And you look to your new wife and blush.

Though, she is pale. Unfeeling and pale. And you feel the jab in the middle of yourself. The ignition of bubbling that rises to your top forces you, soon enough, to blow wet hot bits back into her. You groan as you do it. You are angry with her. Very angry. Where was the support? The shared sense of sharing? Nowhere. You’re a bitch, you tell her, as lagging bits of strawberry-acid pulp splatter on her insides. You will get this annulled.

They do a strep test. You are told you are positive. You look down at the styrofoam cup of water like it’s a promise. How did you get it? Recognition has a funny way of being absent and leading to thoughts of magic and fate and g words and l works and f words.  It is the flatness of hope that appears in the puddle of your cup and the monotone verdict. If you had the strength, you’d smile. You feel as happy a July bride, though born-again. You now pronounce you man and wife and ride home in the back seat of a Lexus SUV.

But you come to realize something– all good things, even ones like the knowledge that you have strep throat, come to an end. Masks get itchy, and so does happiness. In bed again, sipping strawberry Gatorade while swallowing the pill that will end this torrid affair, you cannot help but fidget at the promise. The predator now known will be gone just like it arrived. In a hurry. But in the waning moments, you wonder, as you often do. You have no real words for the question but only the answer. Sometimes, it seems, the most intimately parasitic relationships become the most intellectually mutualistic. You feed off the vomit. And you don’t long for the day it visits you again, but you tell yourself you cannot wait.

Philology Phriday–Novel

3 Sep

There are two uses of the word novel, though no way of telling their differences just by hearing them pronounced side by side. Their difference lies only in their respective parts of speech and, thus, in their placement within sentences. There’s novel the adjective signifying newness or ingenuity, lightly used and  even so mainly in the academic world. And there’s the thing, the novel, a noun for the form of writing that has advanced and evolved and unraveled over the course of centuries (check out Kundera’s The Curtain for a good perspective on the novel’s evolutionl). I bring up this split in uses for the same phonetic sound only because it contrasts really well with my most interesting finding in looking up this word.

Novel comes from the Latin novella or novellus and meant, most literally, the new shoot of a plant. A fitting beginning for the adjective use. That meaning, however, died long ago. In the 10th century, the word came to mean, simply, something new. A novelty. And briefly afterward, the French start using the word “nouvelles” to mean information and news. And when we think about news, all we must do is see the “new” inside of it to see how our conception of news all the time, played fresh for us by the second on tickers and twitter feeds, is really not such a new idea. Un-novel perhaps, our idea of news information stems from this Middle French root for novel that conflated ideas of newness with the conveyance of information.

What seems most unknown about the use of the word novel is how it became connected with a literary form. My only guess is that, at the time of its inception, it had this air of newness that recent adopters of the news-use of words like “nouvelles” amended their use to include the new genre. The first to use a form of novel for the literary genre are the Italians. Around the 13th century we see the use of the feminine “novella” which really meant a literary prose form that could span any range of pages, from short story to, well, the size of Infinite Jest.

Soon enough the words pops up in every major language group in Europe, most sticking to the feminizing “a” suffix. All except for the English, who decide to chop off their neighbors’ unnecessary and ornate “uhhh” sounds. They stuck to plain and simple and elegant “novel” to signify the burgeoning new form of literary entertainment.

And yet, it all stemmed from that one Latin term–a new shoot of a plant.

A nota bene on the English pronunciation of the word. It was originally pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, implying its descent from more continental pronunciations like “novella”. The way we pronounce it today, with the first syllable stressed, is actually the Scottish way of pronunciation.