Monday, July 29, 2013

Colonel of Wisdom

Why do we pronounce colonel just like kernel?  It has to do with similar words in Italian, French, and Spanish that competed with each other for popularity in the seventeenth century.

In Italy, a colonella  was the commander of a colonella compagnia, which was a company composed of a small column of soldiers at the head of a regiment.  Colonella derived from Latin columna (“pillar”).

The French and the Spanish modified the word colonel to coronel in the sixteenth century in a process known as linguistic dissimilation, which occurs frequently with “l” and “r.” In English, coronel was the usual form, pronounced accordingly with an “r” sound.  But some erudite writers reverted to the Italian colonel, and both spellings co-existed during the sixteenth century. Eventually, the Italianate spelling won out, but the Spanish pronunciation prevailed. By 1670 the English, as they so often do, abbreviated the word to two syllables and shortened the vowel sound of the “o.”

A kernel is from the Old English cyrnel, “seed, pip,” from Proto-Germanic kurnilo, meaning the root or seed of corn. 

            A high-ranking United States colonel 
            Had an illness he felt was intolonel. 
            He consulted some docs, 
            Who said his equinox 
            No longer appeared to be volonel.

NOT SO HIGH TEA: I see that one of our worthy charities is auctioning what purports to be an elegant social event as a fund-raiser—“high tea” with Lynn Wyatt at either her River Oaks Houston home or New York’s Carlyle Hotel.  I don’t think those folks really mean “high tea,” the meaning of which I pointed out in an earlier blog ( Tea, in England, is not only a drink, but also a light meal, which typically includes bread and butter, biscuits (cookies), and, if you’re lucky, cake, crumpets, or scones.  This ordinary afternoon tea differs from “high tea” (so-called at least since 1831), which is a principal meal, specifically one that includes meat, and is eaten in the late afternoon, taking the place of both afternoon tea and dinner. “High tea” might typically consist of fried eggs, sausages, baked beans on toast, and, of course, chips (fried potatotes).  I bet that’s not Mrs. Wyatt’s menu.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Baton Twirling

Twice in recent days, in journals that should know better, I’ve seen the word baton used as if it were batten, as in “baton down the hatches.”  It is useful to know the difference, especially since it is very awkward to secure a hatch with a baton, or, for that matter, to conduct a symphony orchestra with a batten.

Baton, usually pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, and rhyming with upon, can denote several things: a club or cudgel, like a billy-club; a slender, tapered rod used by an orchestra conductor; a hollow metal tube carried by a relay team; a heraldic band; or a hollow metal rod with weighted bulbs at both ends twirled by drum majors and Miss America candidates.  It’s a French word derived from the Late Latin bastum, which means “stick.” Although it may sometimes be pronounced to rhyme with fatten, especially in the case of Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, it is not interchangeable with batten.

Batten, which does rhyme with fatten, means a thin strip of lumber used to seal or reinforce a joint, or some other similar bar or support. Its origin is Latin battuere through French batre (to “beat”) and Middle English bataunt, a “finished board.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou speaks softly but carries a big baton—it’s up to you to decide which kind.

            A gorgeous drum majorette
            Could twirl her baton with no sweat,
            It was tossed in the sky,
            And then caught on the fly,
            With a flourish you’d never forget.

            But one day this poor majorette
            Did something she lived to regret,
            Her baton was mislaid,
            And instead, I’m afraid,
            She twirled an old bayonet.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Your Protasis Valid?

A letter to the editor of a daily newspaper, commenting on the alleged misreading of the Second Amendment, maintained, “Every schoolchild knows that the protasis needs to be valid for the apodosis to be valid.”  I would not venture a guess about what every schoolchild may know—in fact, I shudder to think—but I have to confess to my undying shame, self-anointed grammar maven that I am, that I was not familiar with either a protasis or an apodosis until now.

The Constitutional section under discussion is “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  The first part of that sentence is the protasis, and the part following the comma is the apodosis.

A protasis is the premise of a syllogism, or the subordinate clause of a conditional sentence: “If I drink too many martinis…”  It comes originally from Greek proteinen, “to stretch out or put forward.” 

An apodosis is the conclusion of a syllogism, or the main clause of a conditional sentence: “…then I will be out of gin.”  It derives from the Greek apodidonai, “to give back or deliver.” 

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first usage of these terms in 1638, although Webster’s puts them as early as 1568.

An earlier meaning of protasis refers to the introductory part of a classic Greek drama (the “exposition”), which is followed by the epitasis (“development”) and, ultimately the catastrophe (“resolution” or “dĂ©nouement”). (I’ve seen plays in which the catastrophe comes much earlier.)

Now as to the Second Amendment, the letter-writer’s point was that its protasis is no longer valid, i.e. a well-regulated militia is pretty much irrelevant in the era of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, intercontinental missiles, suicide bombers, and unmanned drones.  A few Tea Party members, even if armed with Uzis, wouldn’t hold out long against modern weaponry.  Ergo, the apodosis of the Second Amendment is also invalid, meaning it is perfectly OK to infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, by registering and licensing them, limiting them, or banning some of them.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou uses his arms principally by bending their elbows to lift glasses of chilled Chardonnay to his parched lips.  You can tell how successful he is in that operation from the following: 

            If you pose a protasis, 
            And you find it’s not valid, 
            Then the egg on your face is 
            Best used in a salad. 

            But since your apodosis 
            Is also in question, 
            You may get a neurosis 
            Or at least indigestion.            

Monday, July 8, 2013

When In Laconia…

A noted reviewer writing about The Great Gatsby, the new movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tedious novel, stated that the word “great” in the title was intended “laconically.”  I wonder if he really meant that.  Laconic means “terse, using few words.”  It would seem that any one-word description would qualify as laconic.  In the context, I’m inclined to think the intended word was ironic (“other than, and especially opposite to, the literal meaning”) or possibly sardonic  (“derisively mocking, skeptically humorous”).

All three words have Greek origins, but from quite different sources. Laconic derives from Laconia, a region of ancient Greece of which Sparta was the capital. Spartan discipline was known for its rigorous austerity—as everyone knows who remembers the story of the boy who stole a fox and then allowed it to gnaw through his stomach rather than confess he was hiding it under his tunic.  Austerity was also the hallmark of the speech of the Laconians. They prided themselves on what they thought of as concise wit—but the rival Athenians regarded as abrupt rudeness.  Hence, laconic assumed the meaning of “brusque and terse.”

Sardonic originated with sardonion, a plant so named because it came from the island of Sardinia, and which the Greeks believed would cause facial contortions resembling derisive laughter in those who consumed it. 

Finally, ironic is from the Greek eiron, meaning “one who pretends ignorance,” a a term frequently applied to the philosopher Socrates, in describing his method of questioning.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is fortunate in that he need not pretend ignorance, of any subject, since it comes quite naturally to him. 

            Hippocrates and Socrates
            Were the best of pals.
            They liked to dine and wine well,
            And loved both guys and gals.

             Socrates would disparage
            His shrewish wife, Xanthippe;
            Hippocrates shunned marriage,
            And often shouted, “Yippee!”
             Their history’s a mystery,           
             Here’s what we know of both:           
             Socrates took hemlock,
             And Hippocrates an oath.
             The loss of her philosopher
             Upset the former’s wife,
             For the latter, ‘twas no matter,
             In his long and happy life.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Let’s Take A Break!

Around this time of year, Americans turn their thoughts to taking a vacation, while Brits prefer to go on holiday. Holiday and vacation are used in both countries—but with nuanced differences. 

Holiday, which comes from holyday, meaning a “religious festival,” originated as early as the tenth century with the Anglo-Saxon halig daeg.  By the sixteenth century, it had changed to holiday, with a short o sound and was used to mean any day free from work.  In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hall observes: 
            If all the year were playing holidays, 
            To sport would be as tedious as to work
            But when they seldom come, they wished-for come, 
            And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

Vacation, from the Latin vacare, “to be empty,” was used from the fourteenth century to mean “rest, or freedom from work or usual activity.”  Its use today in Britain applies mostly to time off from schools and universities, and is often shortened to “vac,” as in the Christmas vac or long (summer) vac.

Holiday was generally used by Americans in the same way as their British cousins until the late nineteenth century. From about 1870, it became popular among affluent New Yorkers to flee the city in the hot summers and head for the Adirondack Mountains.  They spoke of this custom as “vacating” their city homes for their lakeside retreats, and the term vacation replaced holiday as the usual way of referring to a pleasurable break from work.  Of course holiday is still used in this country, usually to mean an officially sanctioned day off from work.

The popularity of Adirondack vacations is attributed to a clergyman named William Henry Harrison Murray, known as “Adirondack Murray,” who wrote an influential series of articles and books extolling the virtues of the upstate New York outdoors.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never had a vacation, primarily because he has never done an honest day’s work, from which he could take a break.  You wouldn’t call it work to create the following, would you? 
             If I ever took a vacation,
            I’m not certain where I would go.
            I might visit some foreign nation,
            Or possibly just Idaho.

            I’d love to view Italy’s fountains,
            Or ski up and down a tall Alp.
            Or maybe I’d climb several mountains
            With ice and snow frosting my scalp.

            Perhaps I would go to the seaside
            And sit there just sipping Martinis,
            I might even find myself beside
            Some beauties in scanty bikinis.

            I might ride a dogsled to Nome,
            Or to Mecca I’d trek on a hajj
            Most likely I’d just stay at home
            And clean out my dirty garage.