15 May 2009

Good Word: Inimitable

It is one of those words that I hear less frequently but have always found it useful (less so when overused, as with any word). It has such specific meaning, that it limits it to (usually) proper use. I am reading P.G. Wodehouse's The Inimitable Jeeves, can think of no better title. Jeeves is such a particular being. He represents something that probably never existed, at least in one person, but is the personification of decades and generations of proper English breeding, celebration of perfection and wishful thinking. Jeeves is, as the definition says, matchless. Incapable of being imitated.
Inimitable is now a mascara offered by Chanel. Does this sound matchless:
"Now, in a single stroke, CHANEL sets a new standard in mascara with a formula that does it all. A sophisticated formula and unique brush design combine to lengthen, plump and curl, delivering lush, long-wearing colour so precisely that each lash, even the finest, is perfectly defined and separated."
And after a PR firm, the amazon listing for this very Jeeves book appears in a google search.

So rarely used is this specific, matchless word.

03 April 2009

Good Word: Catafalque

Usually I write about words that I have heard, maybe even used, but was just more interested in their past.  In this case, I was completely taken aback.  I had never even heard of catafalque.  In my head, I presumed it was derived from French and I guessed it was pronounced ca-taffel-kay.  I read it in the (very good) book I am currently reading: Manhunt - The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer.  The author refers to the catafalque used to display President Lincoln's body at the Capital building. It turns out, the word is pronounced cat-i-falk and comes from the Italian for scaffolding.  

Catafalques are built/used for people of note, whose body is likely to be visited by the public, and therefore necessary to be viewed as well as protected from distressed mourners and souvenir hunters.  Lincoln's was built for him and is stored, on display, at the US Capitol.  It has been used since, including for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

The black, draped decoration are termed castrum doloris and have since been replaced on Lincoln's catafalque, although the original structure remains intact.  

The West Norwood cemeteries in England invested in a mechanical setup that included a catafalque for the graveside ceremonies that then lowered the coffins into the catacombs for either interment or cremation.

02 April 2009

Good Word: Berserk

Now used as an adjective to mean crazy and off the wall, its etymology is as a noun. Berserk has its roots in old Norse languages and refers to a Scandinavian in battle who was invulnerable. A band of them was called berserkers or berserkergang. Some historians have posited that the groups of warriors would use naturally occurring, hallucinogenic drugs before heading into battle, thus their unusually frenzied state.
They wore the hides of bears (in Norse, bera=bear and serkr=shirt), gnawed on their metal shields, foamed at the mouth. By 1818 (according to Merriam-Webster), berserk had come to simply refer to a person who acts with reckless abandon.
There are berserk potions and "power-ups" in many video games with Medieval and magic themes. It is also a long running manga series. The main character is a mercenary warrior in Medieval Europe.
Maybe one of the last modern usages of the term was as the title of a Joan Crawford picture in 1967. Desperately clinging to her reputation and falling beauty, the film follows the desperate (and unfeeling) owner/ringmistress of Rivers' Circus as one by one, circus performers turn up dead. Berserk! uses its title to imply the unruly, strange and unpredictable underworld of a traveling circus.

18 March 2009

Good word: Basilisk

The basilisk belongs in the annals of cryptozoology.  It is strange progeny -- a yolkless egg of rooster hatched by a toad.  The result is a snake-like creature that destroys most things in its path using its hateful breath, killer gaze and burning stench. 

The first descriptions seem to have appeared in Pliny the Elder's Natuarlis Historia, in about 77 AD, where it is listed as a small but deadly snake.  Over time the legend grew to include a tale of a knight who managed to kill the serpent from atop his horse but the poison was so strong that it climbed the lance, killed the knight and then killed the horse.  In fact, it is possible the stories of St. George are related to this fable.  
Strangely, the only creature able to stalk and kill the basilisk and live to tell the tale is the weasel.  Perhaps the storytellers were inspired by the mongoose and his ability to fell a cobra (the cobra and basalisk's descriptions are remarkably similar -- "he creepeth not winding and crawling by as other serpents doe, with one part of the bodie driving the other forward, but goeth upright and aloft from the ground with the one halfe part of his bodie").   It also is allergic to the crow of a rooster and cannot look at itself in the mirror.
The corpse of the basilisk became associated with alchemy.  Presbyter insisted it could be used in the creation of gold from copper.  Others claimed it could turn silver into gold.
The basilisk is a popular entry in most bestiaries, including that of Leonardo da Vinci's.  It appeared in the Bible (Isaiah 14:29), Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's Richard III, The Beggar's Opera, Voltaire's The Zadig, and Shelley's Ode to Naples.
The most modern iteration of the beast appears in JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Its name has also been adopted by science.  Basilicus is a genus referring to South American lizards.  It is also the guardian creature of Basel, Switzerland.

16 March 2009

Good word: Picayune

Etymology: Occitan picaioun, a small coin, from picaio money, from pica to jingle, of imitative origin
Date: 1804
1 a: a Spanish half real piece formerly current in the South b: half dime
2: something trivial

Originally pronounced something rhyming with "Pick a yoon," the prevalence of this word in the titles of so many newspapers seems to have created a new pronunciation something along the lines of "Pick Cane."

Picayune is the name of a small city in Mississippi. Picayune was founded in 1904, named by Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson, the owner and the publisher of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Established as The Picayune in 1837, the paper's initial price was one a Spanish coin equivalent to 6 and 1/4 cents, 1/16 of a dollar. It became the Times-Picayune after merging with its rival paper, the New Orleans Times, in 1914.

On the Gulf Coast, Picayune is still recovering from Katrina.

From: thanks-katrina.blogspot.com

07 March 2009

A Good Word: Balaclava

A balaclava is a piece of headgear that basically just leaves your eyes and nose open, but protects the rest of your head from the elements.  It makes one look like a combination of a knight and bank robber.  

This isn't a word you hear much anymore, even among skiers and sporting good stores.  The only places I am aware that one would find it are among the denizens (or formerly so) of the UK. 

I recently read it in an entry of Neil Gaiman's highly entertaining blog/journal.  It made me smile -- and immediately recall its usage in one of the most melodic short stories ever written.

From Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales": 
There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o'-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o'-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.

It also happens to be the location of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War:

"Forward, the Light Brigade!" 
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply, 
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
by Alfred, Lord Tenneyson.

07 February 2009

Strange days...

Today the deep-seated cold that has been chilling my bones finally lifted.  It reached the 60s, and the outdoors was a welcome sight.  So I took a book that I have been re-reading out to the square, and purposefully sat out of the line of tourist traffic.  The idea was to quietly sit on a bench, enjoy the fresh air and entertain myself with a story.
I was barely able to become engrossed in the tale when a man, I would guess in his mid-30s, walked by with his yellow lab.  I always look at dogs, and this guy took my brief glance as an opportunity to speak to me.  The moment he opened his mouth, it was clear he was already well into his Saturday drinking binge.  He barely managed to slur his questions about if I lived here and which square was Telfair.  The alcohol must have also made it hard for him to pick up the giant hints that I had no intention of having any further conversation.  He finally went on his way and pretending to let the dog wander so he could stare some more.
A few minutes later an unlikely bike gang entered the square.  It was a group of 40-something tourists who had rented or borrowed bikes, which would have been fine.  But then the "Guys in the group decided to do Indy 500 laps around the central vegetation in the square.  Now, technically you are not allowed to ride your bikes through the squares.  It is posted on all sides, but people do it anyway.  But this was a new level of asinine adolescent behavior.  I let them alone for a few laps, hoping they would get it out of their systems, but the equally silly women just egged them on.  So I finally just yelled out and they blew by, "You're not really supposed to be riding your bikes in the square."  They sort of said, "oh" and went back to their women, snickered, then proceeded to go the wrong way down a one way street.
Finally, I think I may find a few minutes of solitude when a scraggly looking man with a bike walks up, and says something unintelligible.  He asks me if I have something, did I bring something with me.  I said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand," and tried to return to my book.  But then he puts his bike on its stand, and takes another step toward me and says he needs help because his pants are falling down and he wants me to fix it and starts yanking at his pants.  At that point I realize he is completely unhinged and firmly say, "No, sir, I am sorry."  I get up and walk away, defeated in my quest to read a book in the sun.
Why is it no one thinks anything of interrupting the reading of a book?  If we see someone on a cell phone, we wait until they are done.  Wives everywhere know to not try to speak to their husbands when the game is on.  Why are books so far down the social totem pole?  
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