Thursday’s This & That & Maybe the Other

Last night was clear and below freezing. I was out at about 10 and noticed Orion out for his evening stroll, way off to the southwest. He’ll be gone for the warm months soon.
I suspect I might not ever see him standing on his head again. That was a marvel to those of us used to the northern array of stars.

Years ago, my friend Stephen Humble told me that Turkish, which he studied to entertain himself, had distinct words for “this” and “that” but also “the other.” I’ve never verified that. I don’t think I will. Absolute certainty about small things is overrated. I overrate it myself.

Here’s one way, among so very many, to realize how little you really know: watch a few episodes of Only Connect. Then again, some of the clues are like those given in crossword puzzles sometimes, so vague as to be worthless. At least that’s why I believe I’ve never had much use for crosswords.

For something completely different, listen to a few songs by the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. I like that name. Apparently they had their moment in Athens, Ga., in the early ’90s. Their sound reminds me of some of the live music in Nashville in the mid-80s, which inspires a touch of nostalgia.

Today I read that there aren’t any Goodyear Blimps any more. Not really. Goodyear now markets itself with semirigid dirigibles, which will be called blimps anyway. I would ride in a semirigid dirigible, certainly, but that isn’t quite the same as a blimp, is it?

Sestercentennial

As I was reading about the 250th anniversary of President Jackson’s birth today — reportedly Mr. Trump fancies himself like Mr. Jackson, but I doubt that the former has ever been in a single duel with actual pistols — it occurred to me that I didn’t know the term for 250th anniversary. Centennial, Sesquicentennial, Bicentennial, Tricentennial, those are well enough known. But 250?

Off to the lazy man’s fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, which lists “Sestercentennial” as the main answer, from the way the Romans said two and a half. Other suggestions include “semiquincentennial,” “bicenquinquagenry” (that’s not going to fly) and the unimaginative “quarter-millennial.”

Sestercentennial seems to have some currency, if you feed it into Google. At least two websites claim their purpose is to gear the nation up for its Sestercentennial on July 4, 2026. One seems faintly academic, the other a guy with a website and an odd dream.

Guess we’ll hear more about the 250th ca. 2024 and ’25. Entirely too much, if the Bicentennial is any guide. I’ll be 65 if I make it so long. On July 4, 1976, I was 15. It rained most of that day in San Antonio, so we didn’t go anywhere, not even for fireworks, which probably would have been at Fort Sam Houston. Or was that for Fiesta? Time muddles things.

Divers Content on a Freezing Cold Thursday

Inspired by yesterday’s natterings, I stopped at the library and checked out River of Doubt (2006) by Candice Millard. Subtitled “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” it’s about TR’s expedition into darkest Amazonia in 1913-14. As the book makes clear from the get-go, the journey nearly killed him. Even he-man action presidents have their limits, after all.

I didn’t know until today that Andrew Sachs died not long ago. There are many clips available of him in fine form as Manuel, such as this one or this one or this one.

I’ve had these glasses for a few years now. Bought them at a garage sale for (I think) a quarter each.

Coke Cans Make of Glass

They were clearly some kind of promotional item from Coca-cola but also McDonald’s, because three of them have McDonald’s arches on the bottom. The interesting thing to me is that they’re precisely the same size and shape as a 12 oz. soft drink can.

While writing about a hotel today, I encountered something in the hotel biz known as a “spiritual menu.” The concept isn’t exactly new, but I’d never heard of it. The following is from the Christian Post in 2008.

“A hotel in Nashville will be the first known in the nation to remove the standard Holy Bible from its rooms and replace it with a ‘spiritual menu’ that includes other religious books… Hotel Preston, a boutique owned by Oregon-based Provenance Hotels, will require guests to call room service to order their religious book of choice…

“The religious book list includes the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Tao Te Ching, The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu text), books on Scientology, as well as the King James and New American Bible versions.” @#$%&! Scientology?

Hm. The Gideons can’t be too happy about being replaced. And the following lyric just doesn’t have the same ring: Rocky Raccoon/Checked into his room/Only to find a spiritual menu.

Brobdingnagian

Bitter cold days ahead, especially after weekend snow. These things happen in December — this far north, anyway — but it still seems a little early. This is like late January. Are we going to get a break in late January? I have a feeling we won’t.
At least an ice storm isn’t being predicted for this weekend any more.

As an old writing pro, I don’t use too many words that I know the readers won’t understand, just to show off. That’s the mark of an amateur, or even a dilettante. Still, I occasionally float something to my editors to see if it will pass, knowing it won’t. This week, for instance, I wrote a sentence that ended this way:

… an investment firm that does nothing but manage the Brobdingnagian funds of X and his family.

A completely accurate way to describe that particular fortune, believe me. Moreover, Brobdingnagian is a fine word that needs more currency. After all, no one would think twice about using Lilliputian in a sentence.

But I knew it wouldn’t survive the final cut. I was right.

… an investment firm that does nothing but manage the enormous funds of X and his family.

I would have substituted “vast,” but that’s just a personal preference. Probably should have used that in the first place.

More on Swiftian coinages here. I never knew that Yahoo, as in the search engine and related tech-ness, is supposedly an acronym: “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” I too am suspicious that it’s really a backronym.

RIP, Susan Disenhouse. I never met her in person, but she was a professional acquaintance via phone and email.

Graduate Names, Abdulaahi to Zell

Lately I’ve been able to look at the commencement program from Lilly’s graduation at some leisure. Most of it, of course, lists the names of the graduates. Interesting thing, a list of names. This one goes, in terms of last names, from Abdulaahi to Zell.

It’s a fine example of the American salad bowl of ethnicity. Some examples at random, though alphabetical: Admundsen, Bagaybagayan, Bjorkman, Campbell, De Ocampo, Fritz, Gonzalez, Hyc, Khan, Kopielski, McCoy, Muhammad, Patel, Son, Stribling, Stepanian, Uy.

Patel is the number-one most common name on the list, hands down: no fewer than 12 graduates have it as their family name. It’s the Indian equivalent of Smith, I said to Ann. Then she noted that there was only a single Smith on a graduate list. Hm. The list doesn’t represent the nation as a whole, after all. The Census Bureau still puts Smith as most common: more than 880 per 100,000 people. Then come Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez and Wilson.

I’m glad to report at least one other Lilly on the list, spelled that way, and a scattering of Anns, though more often than not it functions as a middle name, or a part of a combination first name. Wouldn’t want them to be too common.

A glance at the list tells me that not only are girls’ names of earlier generations gone, as you’d expect — the Berthas and Ethels and Ednas and Myrtles and Zeldas — so are perfectly fine girl names popular when I was born — the Barbaras, Cynthias, Deborahs, Lindas, Lisas, Karens, and Patricias of the world, and even the Marys are fairly scarce. A couple of years ago, during a conversation on names, Lilly characterized “Barbara” (for example) as an “old lady name.” Tempus fugit.

Boys’ names are more stable across the decades, but even so there seem to be fewer Johns, Michaels, and Roberts. Or Toms, Dicks and Harrys. I’m glad to see a Lars and a Homer and an Omar.

First names are a little harder to sort through, but I did pick out some interesting ones: Atyab, Breon, Da-Eun, Destinee (a friend of Lilly’s), Dwji, Heaven, Jax, Nuh, Yash.

I’ve Been Around for a Long, Long Year

Merriam-Webster has an interesting feature on its web site, “Trending Now,” referring to words in the online version of the dictionary whose look-up rates have increased. The other day I noticed that “Lucifer” was No. 1 (with a bullet? Maybe a pitchfork).

The dictionary explains that, “Lucifer rose up from the depths of the dictionary on April 29th, 2016, (spiking approximately 7700% over the previous day’s lookups) on the heels of news reports that former Speaker of the House John Boehner had referred to Senator Ted Cruz as ‘Lucifer in the flesh’ while speaking at Stanford University earlier in the week.”

You’d think that Lucifer would be a fairly familiar name. One of the classics. It’s not like Boehner called him the Beelzebub of the Stump or Astaroth in a Suit and Tie. Maybe people were investigating the nuances. Sure they were. Anyway, the dictionary continued: “Lucifer has been in the English language for a very long time, and has not solely carried the meaning of ‘Satan.’ The word comes from a Latin root — lucifer, in Latin, means ‘light-bearing’ — and has also been used by poets to refer to Venus, the morning star.

“Although it is possible that Boehner was making a muted classical reference, and intended to characterize Cruz as a bearer of light, this seems unlikely, as he in the same talk referred to the senator by another turn of phrase which is incompatible with this imagery.”

Heh-heh. Not a bad turn of insult, Mr. Boehner, delivered (as it turned out) toward the end of a dying campaign. Whatever the merits of either of those politicos, modern American politics needs more clever invective, like we had in the 19th century. We have plenty of invective now, of course, but especially during this campaign season, it’s as dumbed down as can be.

The Seven Wonders, Overheard

Today I overheard another conversation, this time in line in an ordinary store in the ordinary suburb I call home. A man and a boy were taking, father and son, I assume. They too were about as ordinary as could be, both wearing sports logo shirts (Backhawks and Cubs).

“There was the Great Pyramid,” the father said.

“And the lighthouse and statue of Zeus,” the son said.

“Yes, and the mausoleum and the hanging garden and the lighthouse, and what else?”

“I already said the lighthouse.”

“Right. Now let’s see…”

They were talking about the Seven Wonders of the World. Maybe the boy, about 10, had been studying them, though I’d be hard-pressed to imagine they come up in school any more. Or in living memory. I didn’t learn about them in school. Maybe the boy had his own interest in them, or maybe the father did. Anyway, it isn’t something you overhear in line every day. Or ever. Until now. It made me smile, though I didn’t say anything.

I’m reminded of them time when some friends and I were in line to see a movie in Nashville, ca. 1986, and somehow the subject of the Frisian languages came up, including the notion that Frisian is as close to English as any language is, without actually being English. We’d heard that was the opinion among linguists.

A fellow behind us in line — this was at the movie theater at Vanderbilt — was visibly astonished. He felt he had to speak up, apparently, and he asked us how we’d heard about Frisian. He was from the Frisian Islands, he said, though at school at VU.

I don’t remember what we told him. I’d heard of Frisian somewhere before, maybe first in my American Heritage College Dictionary, which has a fine family tree diagram of Indo-European languages, with Frisian on it as a close cousin to English. No doubt he’d resigned himself to not bothering to tell Americans he was from the Frisians, but rather from the Netherlands or Germany.

See You Later, Alligator

While walking the dog during the most recent warm day — a few days ago now — I passed a knot of grade-school kids and their bicycles across the street. I didn’t pay them much attention, but after I’d passed by, I clearly heard one of the boys say, directed at one or more of the others, “See you later, alligator! After a while, crocodile!”

People still say that? Kids still do? It sounded old even when I was young, though I can’t say I heard it much. Later I heard the mid-50s song of that name, recorded by Bill Haley, which seems to have popularized the phrase, but not invented it.

I’d always imagined it was from the ’20s. It sounds like it belongs in the same league as the bees’ knees or 23 skidoo or the like, but after looking around a little, its exact origin and timing remain elusive. One source speculates it started with Swing devotees of the late ’30s, which is plausible, but who knows?

On the other hand, I do know that the phrase lives on in the 2010s. Maybe some celebrity who appeals to kids is saying it now.

Sorry, Ocker, the Fokker’s Chocker

Australia Day has rolled around again, and what better way to take note than with a little Oz slang?

In November 2000, my brother Jay forwarded me the word of the day from Wordsmith: ocker.

ocker (OK-uhr), noun
1. An uncultured Australian male.
2. An uncouth, offensive male chauvinist.
adjective
3. Of or pertaining to such a person.
4. Typically Australian.
[After Ocker, a character in an Australian television series.]

While Australian sports teams and individuals continue to soak up success everywhere you look, the average ocker is getting lazier and putting on the beef.” Daniel Gilhooly, Aussies with gold in laziness, Daily News, Sep 11, 2000.

Also in the email: the following comment from A Word A Day Mail Issue 20 (feedback on recent word of the day columns). Apocryphal or not, I like it:

From: Monica Clements
Subject: ocker

Seeing the word ocker reminds me of a story told by a friend. It took place during the Australian air traffic controllers’ strike of the 1980s, when interstate travellers were desperate for any form of airborne transport and all the light planes were full.

My friend’s father was one of the people who tried to hitch a ride on a light plane. He rushed up to the steward — about to close the plane doors — and asked breathlessly whether there was any room, only to be answered with the immortal line: “Sorry, ocker, the Fokker’s chocker.”

Lost Beauties of the English Language

Lost Beauties of the English LanguageMy edition of Lost Beauties of the English Language, a book originally published in 1874, is a reprint published in 1987 by Bibliophile Books in the UK. How it came to be in the Chicago bookstore where I bought it toward the end of the ’80s — maybe the incomparable Stuart Brent Books on Michigan Ave. — I don’t know.

But I’m glad I have it. All dictionaries are good for browsing, but Lost Beauties is especially charming. You find things like:

Barrel fever: the headache caused by intemperance in ale or beer.
Crambles: boughs and branches of trees, broken off by wind.
Farthel: the fourth part of anything (related to farthing, which I figure is pretty much lost as well).
Glunch: to frown.
Keech: a fat, round lump, whence also a keg (of butter).
Pingle: to eat with very little appetite.
Well-will: the opposite of ill-will.
Wordridden: to be a slave to words without understanding their meaning; to be overawed by a word rather than by an argument.

Two of my favorite lost beauties are actually prefixes, namely alder- and um-.

Alder: a prefix formerly used to intensify the meaning of an adjective in the superlative degree — as if to better the best, and heighten the highest… In Wicliff’s Bible, the Almighty is called the Alder-Father and also the Alder-Creator.

Other examples: alderbest, alderfirst, alderforemost, alderhighest, adlerlast, adlertruest, alderworst, and I guess it does survive in fossilized form in “alderman.” A little bit better than the best seems to defy the internal logic of superlatives, but language isn’t entirely subject to logic. There’s clearly a place for the alder- formation in English, or there could be.

Um: round or around.

Umgang: circuit, circumference
Umlap: to enfold
Umset: to surround

The author, Charles Mackay (1814-89), was a Scotsman better known for writing Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), which covered a lot of ground, including the South Sea Company Bubble, tulip mania, witch hunts, alchemy, crusades, fortune-telling and more. “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one,” Mackay wrote. Sounds about right to me.

One of the more interesting aspects of Lost Beauties, as least for an American reader in our time, are the words he includes that aren’t lost to American English. Perhaps Mackay didn’t know that they were still used on this side of the Atlantic, or maybe some of them were revived in the 20th century in American English. But I think it’s more likely that he knew that some of the words were spoken here, but also felt that that didn’t count.

Such as: egg on (verb), gruesome, laze (verb), pinchpenny, rung (as in the step of a ladder), swelter (in the heat), watershed.