Category Archives: Language and Literature

On the Other Hand…

Evidence that birds of a feather do flock together -- Barcelona

Evidence that birds of a feather do flock together — Barcelona

Human beings can live for about forty days without food.  They can live for three or four days without water.  There is no statistical proof of this, but I’m inclined to believe that humans can’t exist more than a few hours without rationalizations:  “OK, maybe technically I don’t need another garden gnome, but it was 70% off, so I had to buy it.”

Our need to rationalize — to ascribe our behavior to causes that seem reasonable, even if they aren’t — is often supported by folk wisdom.  There’s a proverb that’s been passed down for generations that can justify almost anything.

For instance, if I want to engage in some activity that you might consider risky, my logic is, “Hey, you only live once.”  However, if you’re trying to persuade me to do something that’s outside of my comfort zone, I explain my refusal with the adage “Better safe than sorry.”

Your retort to that is the maxim, “You’re never too old to learn.”  I shrug and remind you that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  “Mm-hm, there’s no fool like an old fool,” you mutter, and then our conversation turns to an uncomfortable silence — which is golden, by the way.  Except when the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

If an acquaintance shares the details of some romantic difficulty he or she is having, you could offer this sage advice:  “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Or, depending how you feel about their loved one, you could go with “Out of sight, out of mind.”  Part of that same conversation might also include the folk wisdom that “Opposites attract,” or depending on context, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

There are contradictory proverbs that can be applied in many other situations as well.  I probably don’t have to remind you that “Many hands make light work,” although I must point out that “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”  But wait — haven’t we always been told “The more , the merrier”?  True, except that “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”

Sometimes “Patience is a virtue,” but don’t forget that “He who hesitates is lost.”  Similarly, it’s important to “Strike while the iron is hot”; just bear in mind that “All good things come to him who waits,” and maybe “Haste makes waste” is the tiebreaker.

At the end of the last century, a psychologist named Robert Epstein examined the validity of some folk-wisdom statements in the context of then-current scientific studies.  In other words, is there proof that “confession is good for the soul”, or should we “let sleeping dogs lie”?

In general, there seemed to be some validity to some of the adages.  Confession does seem to be good for the soul, and apparently practice does make perfect (or at least, brings about improvement).  There is also evidence supporting the notion that “Old habits die hard.”

On the other hand, misery tends to not love company, based on studies about depression, and old dogs can learn new tricks.  There were a few proverbs, however, that science doesn’t support, such as this one, succinctly swept aside by Dr. Epstein:

Cold hands, warm heart.  Cold hands, poor circulation.  See your doctor.”

It’s my speculation that the frequent application of folk wisdom gives us at least a 50-50 chance of being right.  Maybe you can even find a proverb that justifies buying a deeply discounted garden gnome.  After all, everybody knows that the best things in life are 70% off.

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When the Group Gets Together

This is known as a mustering of storks.

This is known as a mustering of storks.

The first time I saw lions in the wild, there’s a good chance I did not say, “Oh, look — a pride of lions.”  It’s more likely that I said something like, “Holy *&%!”

As we know, though, the correct term for a bunch of lions is a pride, just as a group of witches is a coven.  A gathering of cattle is a herd, several servants comprise a staff, and, as you can’t possibly have known before now, a group of hippos is called a bloat.  Seriously.

These names for particular groups are called collective nouns, or sometimes “nouns of assemblage”.  Some are so common we don’t have to stop to think about the correct term.  For instance, what’s a group of birds?  Of course — a flock.  But it starts to get trickier when designating a specific type of bird.

Let’s see… multiple geese are a gaggle when they’re on land, but a skein when in flight.  The collective noun for parrots is a company, and for pheasants it’s a bouquet.  I like the term “a parliament of owls”, and “an exaltation of larks” has a nice ring to it.  On the other hand, a group of crows is ominously called a murder.

Many of these nouns of assemblage are so fanciful that they seem to have been made up one evening by a group of comedy writers, who should perhaps be collectively referred to as a liquor.  It turns out, however, that these collective nouns have been in use since the Middle Ages.  That is particularly true of the words — called terms of venery — applied to groups of animals.

The tradition seems to have begun as a sort of hunters’ jargon among English gentlemen.  Perhaps to impress their fellow aristocrats with their specialized knowledge, the hunter/linguists kept adding more of these collective nouns.  By 1486, the Book of St. Albans, which focused on hunting and heraldry, included 165 such terms.

They have been analyzed and catalogued down through the centuries; I got the ones that follow from respectable sources like the San Diego Zoo and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wildlife Research Center.  Here are a few of my favorites:

A Group of…                                          Is Known as

alligators                                                 a congregation

cats                                                           a pounce

cockroaches                                            an intrusion

cormorants                                             a gulp

eagles                                                       a convocation

gnats                                                        a cloud

hyenas                                                     a cackle

monkeys                                                  a barrel

squirrels                                                  a scurry

woodpeckers                                          a descent

As I was busy compiling this list of collective nouns, this thought leaped to mind:  “What is the collective noun for collective nouns?”  Then it hit me:  “Oh, right — a list.”

What Is a Swan Song?

OK, Johnny, "I Did it My Way" in the key of G."  (Photo by Sally Reeder)

OK, Johnny, “I Did it My Way” in the key of G.” (Photo by Sally Reeder)

It’s a shame that the writers and philosophers of long ago didn’t have access to the internet.  They could have saved themselves a lot of embarrassment by checking the facts before they wrote noble words based on nonsense.

Consider this snippet about swans from Plato’s Dialogues, written around 360 B.C.:  “For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever…”

The myth that swans save their best singing for last was perpetuated down through the centuries, altered along the way to the notion that the only singing the swan does is at the end of its life.

Shakespeare wrote this line for Portia in The Merchant of Venice:  “…Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music.”  Lords Byron and Tennyson, among many others, associated that last-gasp musical attribute to swans as well.

There isn’t any scientific evidence to back up that romantic notion, although there is a common variety of the genus Cygnus known as the Mute Swan.  However, it isn’t silent during life, as the name suggests — it makes grunting and snorting noises — and it doesn’t burst into a glorious rendition of “Ave Maria” during its final hour, either.

No one knows exactly how the legend began, but “swan song” is now used metaphorically to mean the last great work of a painter or author or musician; in other words, a final or farewell appearance.  It implies that the artist or performer or athlete has saved his best for last, ending his or her career with one final glorious effort.

That being the standard, this doesn’t qualify as my blogging swan song.  Having written several hundred thousand words over the last five years, though, I’m going to be posting at an even more leisurely pace than I have been.

You’re welcome to rummage around in the archives; in fact, please do.  I hope to find occasional inspiration to write new stuff that I’ll put up here, like why a muscle cramp in the leg is called a Charley Horse and not, say, a Marjorie Horse.

Hmmm… excuse me, I have to look up something.  See you later.

Practical Knowledge

He's getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

He’s getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

Sometime during the second or third year of life, kids latch onto a word that drives their parents crazy:  “Why?”  If you’ve spent time with toddlers, you have probably had a “why” conversation.   If not, here’s an example…

You:  “OK, let’s put on your raincoat.”  Kid:  “Why?”  You:  “Because it’s raining.”  Kid:  “Why is it raining?”  You:  “Because those clouds up there have water in them.”  Kid:  Why?”  You:  “Because, uh… it’s something to do with condensation caused by, uh — look, just put your raincoat on!”

Here’s a transcript of an actual exchange between mother and son in my household, back in the ’70’s…  Son:  “Can I go outside and play?”  Mother:  “Yes.”  Son:  “Why?”  That one may have just been his attempt at socializing, but child-development specialists attribute much of the “why” talk to the natural appetite human beings have for knowledge.

Ever since Plato, philosophers have tried to distinguish between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge.  To put it very briefly, practical knowledge is knowing how to swim; theoretical knowledge is knowing that since 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it might therefore be prudent to know how to swim.

A case could be made (and probably has been by some guy with a beard and a tweed jacket) that all theoretical knowledge has value because at some point it can become practical knowledge.  The concept of humans flying had been around for many centuries before Orville Wright finally got cleared for takeoff.

So because we all have this innate hunger for knowledge, and you never know when it might become useful, here are a few answers to questions that may have occurred to you…

Why does it say “57 Varieties” on bottles of Heinz ketchup?  Most people assume that the H.J. Heinz Company makes 57 products, including ketchup.  Nope.  Here’s the official explanation, taken from the company’s website:

“While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever.  Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number.  So, he began using the slogan ‘57 Varieties’ in all his advertising.  Today the company has more than 57,000 products around the globe, but still uses the magic number of ‘57′.”

Why do I yawn when I’m tired or bored?  We yawn when our brain stem senses that there is not enough oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.  The brain stem alerts the yawn impulse — a deep inhale of oxygen and exhale of carbon dioxide results.  That temporarily revives us.  And makes everyone else in the room yawn, too.

What are the odds of being killed by a shark?  There is one chance in about 264 million.  That depends on where you are, of course.  The odds are even longer if you’re a hermit living on a mountaintop, or if you don’t know how to swim and therefore stay out of the water.

How do you tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth?  There are several differences, including coloration and time of peak activity.  The easiest way, though, is to see them at rest.  The resting posture of a moth is with its wings spread out to its sides.  Butterflies tend to fold their wings up above their backs.

I hope you find these tidbits of knowledge useful.  If nothing else, maybe they will be practical in getting a 3-year-old to stop saying “why” sometime.

Casus Belli

Robert Jenkins presents the evidence

Robert Jenkins presents the evidence

Years ago there was an item in the newspaper about an assault in a bar.  Two guys had been arguing over this age-old question:  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  One of them tried to prove the logic of his argument by stabbing the other man.  The chicken-or-egg topic was the excuse for the fight, but the reason might have been too many beers.

The fancy term for that tipping point — the excuse for combat — is casus belli.  It’s Latin (so sometimes italicized), and according to Webster’s, it means “an event or political occurrence that brings about or is used to validate a declaration of war.”

One of the more colorful illustrations of a casus belli is a conflict historians call The War of Jenkins’ Ear.

The British had been fighting one opponent or another for centuries, but they took a little time off in 1729 to polish their buttons and reload.  There was lingering hostility between Britain and Spain, though; the Spanish suspected the English were violating the terms of a treaty by smuggling goods into or out of Spanish America.

In 1731, a Spanish patrol boat off the coast of Florida seized the merchant ship Rebecca, which was under the command of Captain Robert Jenkins.  According to his later testimony, Jenkins was bound to the mast of his ship and his left ear was severed.

The Spanish commander, Julio León Fandiño, supposedly said something like, “Go tell your king that I will do the same (to him) if he dares to do the same.”  Jenkins was probably in too much pain at that moment to think of saying, “What?  I can’t hear you,” which would have gotten huge laughs from his crew.

After eventually making it back to England, Jenkins reported the incident; through intermediaries, it supposedly reached King George II.  This news was now a bit inconvenient, however, because Britain and Spain were patching things up, thanks to the Brits supporting the Spaniards in The War of Polish Succession (1733-1738).

Jenkins seems to have been told, “We’ll be in touch,” because nothing came of his report until 1738, when the British were mad at the Spanish again.

Jenkins was brought in to testify again, this time to Parliament.  He brought a dramatic prop with him for this appearance:  An ear, supposedly his, that was kept in a pickle jar.

At that point in the story I start to get a little skeptical.  First of all, why would Fandiñ0 have lopped off his ear and then given it back to him?  “OK,  almost done now… and — here you go!”  Secondly, it seems odd that Jenkins would think, “Cool.  I’m keeping this as a souvenir.”

Anyway, the political climate had changed to the extent that Parliament was now ready to go to war (again) with Spain.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear officially began in 1739; most of it was fought in the Americas, including what is now Colombia, as well as Georgia and Florida.

Combat continued for several years, but by 1742 it had pretty much merged with the War of the Austrian Succession, in which the British and the Spanish were also on opposite sides.

Robert Jenkins’ ear was the casus belli that resulted in about 30,000 dead, wounded or missing.  Little is know about him after the early 1740s; he became so obscure, there is no historical record of which side Jenkins took in the chicken-versus-egg debate.

Bigwigs

George Frideric Handel, bigwig composer -- portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1727

George Frideric Handel, bigwig composer — portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1727

The same clothing and accessories that make you feel fashionable now will probably make you feel foolish when you flip through old photos in the future.  If you were a man in the 1970s, for instance, you now see pictures of your younger self in plaid pants and shirts with giant collars, and realize that some clown suits are more understated.

At least we came to our senses after a while and moved on to Members Only jackets in the 1980s.  That is in contrast to men of earlier centuries who clung forever to the notion that large powdered wigs made them look cool.

Wigs had been around since ancient Egyptian times, but they became the European rage in the 17th century.  That fashion seems to have caught on at first for practical reasons; specifically, personal hygiene back then was, quite literally, lousy.  Since bathing was only an occasional occurrence, infestation with head lice was a common problem.

Nitpicking — the task of removing nits (lice eggs) from the scalp — was time-consuming, uncomfortable and often ineffective.  For men of rank and privilege, it was easier to shave one’s head and wear a wig.  The wigs got infested, too, but they could periodically be sent out to be boiled, which wasn’t a convenient thing to do with one’s actual head.

The headdresses of the 1600s were elaborate — sometimes shoulder-length and beyond.  They were quite expensive, of course, so they were status symbols.  That’s how the term “bigwig” came to mean “an important or high-ranking person.”

Since the rich snobs had wigs, naturally middle-class strivers wanted them, too.  There was demand for less expensive wigs, and it was rumored during the 17th century that some of the hair for the more affordable ones was, uh, harvested from plague victims.

The higher-quality periwigs or perukes, as they came to be known, were made of horse or goat hair, or sometimes wool.  If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the expression “pulling the wool over his eyes”, it’s based on a common practical joke from that period.  A prankster would sneak up and tip a fellow’s wig over his eyes, causing him to temporarily be unable to see.  That allowed the opportunity to deceive him, which is the current meaning of the expression.

The wigs were powdered with starch or flour, often scented with lavender.  In retrospect, it may have seemed a bit insensitive of French noblemen to put food products in their perukes when poor people were starving.  That probably contributed to wigs starting to disappear in France around the time of the Revolution, when heads also started to disappear.

Meanwhile, the English government — which had previously levied a tax on hats, gloves, wallpaper and windows — imposed a tax on hair powder in 1795.  Demand for powder waned, and men decided they could live without wigs, too.

The only vestiges of wig-wearing that remain are among U.K. judges and barristers in certain kinds of cases.  The rationale for doing so, apart from the fact that it’s traditional, is that robes and wigs confer dignity and solemnity.  Maybe.  Personally, I think a guy in a horsehair periwig would look just as dignified wearing a Hello Kitty backpack.

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.