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.
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