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.
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