Monthly Archives: April 2013

In Case You Get Asked

Parachute + Sailing = Parasailing

Parachute + Sailing = Parasailing

When my high school geometry teacher admonished us, “This is important, people!” I probably should have paid closer attention.  If I had, now I wouldn’t be choking back tears of shame every time someone stops me on the street and says, “Hey, you can’t remember how to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle, can you?”

Oh, I remember it had to do with a guy named Pythagoras and some theorem he had, but if I had known how often it would come up in conversation, I would have taken the time to memorize it.

In my defense, I’ve always been more of a words guy than a numbers guy: I can spell hypotenuse and can define it (“the side of a right triangle opposite the right angle”), I just can’t solve for it.  when I was a kid in school, I guess I thought that when I grew up and people stopped me on the street, they would be asking, “Excuse me, sir, can you tell me the difference between a prefix and a suffix?”

Does that ever come up?  Never.  But questions about triangles and how to solve for X — on average, I get those from complete strangers about twice a week.

Well, if you’re more of a numbers person and keep getting hit out of the blue with inquiries about the etymology of certain words, let me save you some embarrassment.

Let’s say your little nephew demands to know why so many words start with the prefix “para”.  You can start by acknowledging that there certainly are a lot of them:  paradise, paralysis, paragraph, paranoid, paradox… “Yeah,” he interrupts, “and parasite and parable and paramedic.”

Smile patiently; give him a moment to rattle off paradigm and parallel and parathyroid if necessary.  Eventually he’ll pause and let you explain that there are actually several meanings for those “para” prefixes.

Most seem to have origins in Greek, and have the meaning at, next to, or side by side.  Examples of those are parallel, paragraph, paradigm and parathyroid.  Other loanwords from Greek convey beyond or past; paradox, for instance, literally meant “beyond belief”.

In English, the prefix para became associated with occupations that are subsidiary to professions that require more training, or perhaps have higher status.  A paralegal does tasks that assist an attorney, but is not licensed to practice law.  Similarly, a paramedic may truly be a life saver, but serves that role in the absence of a doctor.

A paratrooper, however, is not a trooper with lesser credentials.  That word is a combined form of parachute and trooper.  In the same vein, parasailing combines parachute and sailing.

Your nephew will be impressed when you tell him that the word parachute actually comes from two French words that mean “guard against” and “falling”.  You might want to add that a parasol guards against… yes, the sun.

If you want, you could enlighten your nephew that parakeet and Paraguay and paradise are derived from other words.  Or maybe not.  You don’t want to overdo it and, you know, exceed the parameters of friendly discussion.

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The Tiled City

A view of Old Lisbon, painted on tile

A view of Old Lisbon, painted on tile

“This reminds me of Korea.”

That’s what the lieutenant said as I drove him through a rural section of Utah in our military vehicle.  I assumed he meant Korea (the country) and not Chorea (disease characterized by jerky movements).

“It looks like this?” I asked, not having been there.  “Well, not exactly — just those hills over there are sort of… I don’t know, something about it…”  He trailed off and then changed the subject.

That was decades ago, but in the intervening years I’ve had similar experiences:  There’s something about a place that momentarily conjures up memories of another place.  They aren’t identical, but one is somehow evocative of the other.  Maybe I’m the only person who ever thought so, but Lisbon reminded me of San Francisco.

The two cities do have some physical similarities; both are built on hilly terrain.  Narrow, winding streets in Lisbon lead down to a bay — the Portuguese capital is located at the mouth of the Tagus River where it empties into the Atlantic.  Lisbon’s bay isn’t as vast as San Francisco’s, but there is a long, orange suspension bridge that crosses it.

Both cities have fine views (miradouros is what they call them in Portuguese) and expansive parks.  In one of Lisbon’s, we saw a young couple having sex, oblivious to the other park visitors all around them.  One might expect to see that sort of thing in San Francisco, too.

Well, some or all of these factors made the connection in my brain, but there are several ways in which Lisbon is distinctive.  The main one is the tile.

It’s everywhere:  The exterior walls of buildings are covered with it (and interior walls, for that matter).  Sidewalks and fountains and even some of the old streets are made of ceramic tile.  The tiles vary in size, but often are 4″x 4″, or 8″x 8″, like you may have in your bathroom.  However, the tile in your bathroom probably isn’t a mural of battle scenes or saints or landscapes.

Not all of the tile in Lisbon is representational art; much of it is in geometric patterns — interlocking chains and so forth.  Apartments buildings that are six or seven stories high sometimes alternate:  A couple of stories will have what looks like lacework, and then there will be one that depicts a voyage by one of Portugal’s famed explorers.

The tiles are in all colors, but the favorite seems to be a specific shade of blue (see photo).  I’m not an expert on all the degrees of the color wheel, but let’s call it deep azure.  That works as a sort of mnemonic, since in Portuguese, the tiles are called azulejos.

Another distinctive feature of Lisbon is fado music, which is melancholy songs about fate and lost love and regrets.  If you go to one of the fado clubs or restaurants, you may also have regrets about the high cover charge.

Console yourself with Lisbon’s butter, though; I don’t know what their secret is, but it’s the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.  Just don’t expect to put it on sourdough bread — that’s a specialty of San Francisco.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Sipped, not gulped.

Sipped, not gulped.

There are hundreds of different combinations of ingredients served in bars around the world, but no cocktail bespeaks sophistication and elegance quite so much as the martini.  Of course, there are almost that many opinions about what constitutes a proper martini.

James Bond, for instance, famously insisted that his martinis be “shaken, not stirred.”  Those who favor the opposite — stirred — claim that shaking the mixture “bruises” the gin, which seems to mean that the gin tastes more bitter.

The “shaken” people retort that their preferred method gets the drink colder; “stirred” people begrudgingly agree, but claim that shaking a martini makes it look cloudier in the glass, due to air and ice fragments.

Martini enthusiasts on both sides of the shaken/stirred debate would agree that what James Bond drank was not a martini, because he ordered his with (shudder) vodka.  Purists are adamant that a true martini is made only with gin — well, and some dry vermouth, garnished with an olive or two, or with a twist of lemon peel.

Who invented the drink, and when, is also the subject of controversy, but it’s safe to say that eloquent toasts have been made with raised martinis since the early 20th century.  They gained popularity in the U.S. during Prohibition (1920-1933) partly because bathtub gin was in more plentiful supply than other kinds of booze.

The recipe for a martini in its introductory phase called for — brace yourselves, drinkers; this might trigger your gag reflex — one part gin to one part vermouth.  By the 1950s, the gin-to-vermouth ratio was commonly 3 to 1.  That’s how it would be served in a bar unless the customer specified otherwise.

“A very dry martini” is a way to let the bartender know to go easy on the vermouth; others, who like the proportions to be more like 50 to 1, will order “an extremely dry martini.”

According to the book “Vintage Cocktails” by Susan Waggoner and Robert Markel, Sir Winston Churchill made his favorite drink by pouring gin “and glancing briefly at a bottle of vermouth.”

A variation on that recipe, according to authors William and Mary Morris, was the one favored by Alfred Hitchcock.  He supposedly combined a well-chilled glass, five jiggers of gin stirred with ice, and a bottle of extra-dry vermouth, which he tapped lightly against the cocktail shaker three times.

If you’re not into vermouth — and clearly, almost no one is — it’s a fortified wine (additional alcohol added) that is flavored wtih herbs and roots and shrubs and whatnot.  In the context of vermouth, dry is an antonym for sweet, not wet.  There is such a thing as sweet vermouth, incidentally; it’s used in Manhattans, another popular cocktail.

The leading international brand of vermouth is Martini & Rossi, which may have contributed to the misunderstanding in Florence, Italy, when my wife ordered a martini.  The waiter came back with an old-fashioned glass… yeah, you’re way ahead of me, aren’t you?  It was filled with Martini & Rossi vermouth.  Although she managed to drink it, it sort of left Sally feeling shaken, not stirred.

The Hundred Years’ War: Greatest Hits, Part II

J.A.D. Ingres, "Joan of  Arc at the Coronation of King Charles VII in Reims Cathedral" (1854) -- The Louvre, Paris

J.A.D. Ingres, “Joan of Arc at the Coronation of King Charles VII in Reims Cathedral” (1854) —
The Louvre, Paris

It looked like the long-running war was going to get capped at 85 years, but in 1422, Henry V of England and Charles VI of France both died.  That pushed the restart button.

Henry was succeeded as King of England by his nine-month-old son Henry VI, whose royal proclamations included things like “na-na-na-na” and “goo-goo”.  He was advised (if that’s the right word) by two uncles who happened to be scheming against each other.

The situation in France wasn’t much better.  You’ll recall that King Charles VI had disavowed his own heirs and, under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes (1420) acknowledged Henry V as his successor.  The rumor was that Charles’s legitimate heir was, well, illegitimate, the result of an affair the queen had with her brother-in-law.

That all seemed pretty harsh to the Dauphin (the title given to the heir-apparent of the French throne).  He aspired to become Charles VII, but got chased out of Paris while civil war raged in France.  The Dauphin, who was a teenager, set up his palace in a two-bedroom condo south of the Loire Valley; his “kingdom” extended approximately from his garage down to the liquor store at the corner.

Into this mess stepped the most remarkable figure of the entire Hundred Years’ War:  Joan of Arc.  A peasant girl, she talked her way into an audience with the Dauphin and informed him that through visions, God had instructed her to lead the French army to victory and get the Dauphin crowned king.

Joan must have been incredibly charismatic.  Think about it:  If you were in the Dauphin’s position and a 17-year-old girl tells you that fantastic story, would you be inclined to say, “Great!  Go for it!”  It could be argued that at that point, the Dauphin Charles didn’t have much left to lose, so why not give her a shot.

Anyway, he let Joan lead a small army; they headed off to Orléans, which had been besieged by the English for several months.  Within a few days of their arrival in April, 1429, Joan and her troops defeated the English, lifting the Siege of Orléans.  That victory got the French fired up again, and is now considered the turning point in the Hundred Years’ War.

Jeanne d’Arc, as she is known in France, then led her soldiers to victory in other battles and was present in Reims when the Dauphin was crowned Charles VII.  Thanks to “the Maid of Orléans”, the French army was energized and eager to win back territory held by the English.

Unfortunately for Joan, in May of 1430 she was captured by troops loyal to the Duke of Burgundy, who eventually sold her to the English.  When the subject of ransoming this unusual prisoner of war came up, Charles VII (who wouldn’t have been king without her help) was apparently hiding under the bed.  Joan was alone, on her own.  The English gave her a show trial before burning her at the stake on May 30, 1431.

The war went on for another couple of decades, basically ending after the Battle of Castillon on July 17, 1453.  This enabled the English to turn their full attention to fighting each other again, notably in the War of the Roses (1455-1485).  No official treaty between the French and the English was ever signed.

The English had their king; the French had theirs.  The English did continue to hold Calais until 1558 — which means that when it was finally over, things were left pretty much as they had been at the outset of the Hundred Years’ War.

The Hundred Years’ War: Greatest Hits, Part I

Edward III of England:He started it.

Edward III of England:
He started it.

When the Hundred Years’ War finally ended in 1453, the weary combatants looked at each other and said, “Where has the time gone? The Middle Ages are almost over.” Or, more likely, they said, “What was that about?”

Later generations of historians have examined the factors that contributed to all that combat, but then they pretend not to notice that the Hundred Years’ War actually lasted more than 100 years; it began in 1337.

Since we lack the space (and enthusiasm) to review the entire war, let’s just take a look at some colorful characters and events that made the highlight reel, so to speak.

In a nutshell, the Hundred Years’ War was really a series of wars fought between the English and the French. Mostly it was about who the rightful king was, and there were lots of applicants for that job. That’s why the long-running war between England and France was sometimes interrupted by wars between countrymen: Two English armies fighting each other, for instance, to win the chance for their leader to claim he was King of France.

Anyway, the guy who started it all was Edward III of England.  He had become the British monarch when his mother Isabella, sometimes known as “the she-wolf of France”, led an invasion against her own husband, Edward II of England — it was a troubled marriage, apparently.

Because of his mother’s French ancestry, Edward III thought he was entitled to be King of France, even though the French already had a guy with a crown.  His name was Philip VI, and naturally he took offense when Edward III sent armies into northwest France to stake his claim.

Edward began the offensive in 1337, capturing Brittany and Normandy.  His troops won a number of important battles, including one in 1346 at Crécy.  The English introduced longbows to the battlefield, sending a lethal rain of arrows at the French infantrymen, whose armor was fashionable but not particularly arrow-resistant.  Philip VI lost a lot of relatives and soldiers that day.

Pressing on, Edward III  had control of about 25% of France by the mid-1300s.  His holdings began to wane, however, when the so-called Black Death (Bubonic Plague) hit Europe.  It’s hard to imagine the devastation it caused — estimates of those who died in the years from 1347-1351 range from 30-50% of the population.  Obviously, that hindered army recruitment efforts.

Edward III made a strategic blunder by dying (not of plague) in 1377.  He left several heirs who all seemed to think they were qualifed to be King of England.  They fought with each other for the next few decades, until Henry V won the title.  Henry was the subject of one of Shakespeare’s historical plays, and either looked like Sir Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh, depending on which movie you saw.

The army of Henry V won a big one at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  That resulted in the French king Charles VI (a.k.a. Charles the Mad) disinheriting his own kids and designating Henry V to be his successor.  That might have resolved the whole mess, except that in August of 1422, Henry died of dysentery at the age of 35.  Charles VI died that October.  So if Henry had lived two months longer, he would have been the king of France, fulfilling the dream that had begun with his great-grandfather Edward III.

Instead, the Hundred Years’ War continued… and in the next blog post, this topic will, too.