Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Aunt Deborah

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent, chap. 14:
So many words are mine because Aunt Deborah aroused my curiosity and then forced me to satisfy it by my own effort. Of course I replied, "Who cares?" But she knew I would creep to it [the dictionary] alone and she spelled it so I could track it down. T-a-l-i-s-m-a-n. She cared deeply about words and she hated their misuse as she would hate the clumsy handling of any fine thing. Now, so many cycles later, I can see the page -- can see myself misspelling "talisman." The Arabic was only a squiggly line with a bulb on the end of it. The Greek I could pronounce because of the blade of that old woman. "A stone or other object engraved with figures or characters to which are attributed the occult powers of the planetary influences and celestial configurations under which it was made, usually worn as an amulet to avert evil from or bring fortune to the bearer." I had then to look for "occult," "planetary," "celestial," and "amulet." It was always that way. One word set off others like a string of firecrackers.
The world needs a few more Aunt Deborahs. My mother used to do the same irritating thing, point me to the dictionary when I asked what a word meant. The definition of talisman in Steinbeck is apparently from the Oxford English Dictionary. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following derivation:
1638, from Fr. talisman, in part via Arabic tilsam (pl. tilsaman), a Gk. loan-word; in part directly from Byzantine Gk. telesma "talisman, religious rite, payment," earlier "consecration, ceremony," originally "completion," from telein "perform (religious rites), pay (tax), fulfill," from telos "completion, end, tax."

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