Monday, October 31, 2005


The Origin of the Air Guitar

Some time ago I tracked down what I think is the first mention of the custom of wearing baseball caps backwards. The opening stanza of "The Preacher's Boy," by American poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), contains a description of a preacher's wayward son wearing "his cap-rim turned behind" (line 7). See The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley (Garden City: Garden City Publishing Co., 1941), p. 284.

Now I have traced another modern custom, playing the air guitar, back to the nineteenth century. The hero of Anthony Trollope's novel The Warden is Septimus Harding, whose avocation is playing the cello. He doesn't need a physical cello in order to play, as the following excerpts show.

Chapter III:
He walked on awhile in silence before he recommenced his attack, during which Mr Harding, who had still the bow in his hand, played rapidly on an imaginary violoncello.
Chapter V:
The warden still looked mutely in his face, making the slightest possible passes with an imaginary fiddle bow, and stopping, as he did so, sundry imaginary strings with the fingers of his other hand. 'Twas his constant consolation in conversational troubles. While these vexed him sorely, the passes would be short and slow, and the upper hand would not be seen to work; nay, the strings on which it operated would sometimes lie concealed in the musician's pocket, and the instrument on which he played would be beneath his chair;--but as his spirit warmed to the subject,--as his trusting heart looking to the bottom of that which vexed him, would see its clear way out,--he would rise to a higher melody, sweep the unseen strings with a bolder hand, and swiftly fingering the cords from his neck, down along his waistcoat, and up again to his very ear, create an ecstatic strain of perfect music, audible to himself and to St Cecilia, and not without effect.
Chapter XVII:
Mr Harding, seated in his chair, began to play a slow tune on an imaginary violoncello.

"Nay, my dear sir," continued the attorney-general, "there is no further ground for any question; I don't see that you have the power of raising it."

"I can resign," said Mr Harding, slowly playing away with his right hand, as though the bow were beneath the chair in which he was sitting.

"What! throw it up altogether?" said the attorney-general, gazing with utter astonishment at his client.


And, as he finished what he had to say, he played up such a tune as never before had graced the chambers of any attorney-general. He was standing up, gallantly fronting Sir Abraham, and his right arm passed with bold and rapid sweeps before him, as though he were embracing some huge instrument, which allowed him to stand thus erect; and with the fingers of his left hand he stopped, with preternatural velocity, a multitude of strings, which ranged from the top of his collar to the bottom of the lappet of his coat. Sir Abraham listened and looked in wonder. As he had never before seen Mr Harding, the meaning of these wild gesticulations was lost upon him; but he perceived that the gentleman who had a few minutes since been so subdued as to be unable to speak without hesitation, was now impassioned,--nay, almost violent.
True, it's an air cello, not an air guitar, but both instruments have strings and the resemblance is striking.

Sunday, October 30, 2005



Kierkegaard, Journals, January 17, 1837 (tr. Alexander Dru):
There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.


Pater Noster

Kierkegaard, Journals, July 19, 1840 (tr. Alexander Dru):
I learnt from him the meaning of fatherly love and so was given some idea of divine fatherly love, the one unshakable thing in life, the true archimedean point.


The Party

Anthony Trollope, The Warden, chapter VI (The Warden's Tea-Party):
And so went off the warden's party, and men and women arranging shawls and shoes declared how pleasant it had been; and Mrs Goodenough, the red-faced rector's wife, pressing the warden's hand, declared she had never enjoyed herself better; which showed how little pleasure she allowed herself in this world, as she had sat the whole evening through in the same chair without occupation, not speaking, and unspoken to.
My experience is the same as Mrs. Goodenough's. Fortunately I don't get invited to many parties.

Saturday, October 29, 2005



I once asked my mother (an accomplished seamstress) if she would embroider a sampler for me to hang in my bathroom, with the Latin expression "Cacatio matutina est tamquam medicina." She demanded to know what it meant, and refused when I told her. In English, the phrase means roughly "A bowel movement in the morning is as good as medicine." In other words, a crap a day keeps the doctor away.

Henerik Kocher's dictionary of Latin proverbs gives the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum as the source of the phrase, but I cannot find it in the Latin text.

Another text suitable for framing and hanging in the loo is a little poem composed by the precocious Gargantua (Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, book I, chapter 13). This translation by J.M. Cohen relies heavily on the Urquhart-Motteux translation:
Thy bung
Hath flung
Some dung
On us.
May you burn with St Anthony's fire
If all
Your foul
Are not well wiped ere you retire.

Ton lard
Sus nous.
Le feu de sainct Antoine te ard!
Sy tous
Tes trous
Tu ne torche avant ton depart!
Saint Anthony's Fire is the devastating disease also known as ergotism, caused by the chemical ergot and found in rye infected with the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Rare now, it was once common, and the physician Rabelais was doubtless well familiar with it.

Laughter is also excellent medicine, and I prescribe chapter 13 of the first book of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, one of the funniest things I have ever read.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Learning and Teaching

George Eliot, Adam Bede, chap. XXI (The Night-School and the School-Master):
"Now, you see, you don't do this thing a bit better than you did a fortnight ago, and I'll tell you what's the reason. You want to learn accounts--that's well and good. But you think all you need do to learn accounts is to come to me and do sums for an hour or so, two or three times a-week; and no sooner do you get your caps on and turn out of doors again than you sweep the whole thing clean out of your mind. You go whistling about, and take no more care what you're thinking of than if your heads were gutters for any rubbish to swill through that happened to be in the way; and if you get a good notion in 'em, it's pretty soon washed out again.

You think knowledge is to be got cheap--you'll come and pay Bartle Massey sixpence a-week, and he'll make you clever at figures without your taking any trouble. But knowledge isn't to be got with paying sixpence, let me tell you. If you're to know figures, you must turn 'em over in your heads and keep your thoughts fixed on 'em. There's nothing you can't turn into a sum, for there's nothing but what's got number in it--even a fool. You may say to yourselves, 'I'm one fool, and Jack's another; if my fool's head weighed four pound, and Jack's three pound three ounces and three quarters, how many pennyweights heavier would my head be than Jack's?' A man that had got his heart in learning figures would make sums for himself and work 'em in his head. When he sat at his shoemaking, he'd count his stitches by fives, and then put a price on his stitches, say half a farthing, and then see how much money he could get in an hour; and then ask himself how much money he'd get in a day at that rate; and then how much ten workmen would get working three, or twenty, or a hundred years at that rate--and all the while his needle would be going just as fast as if he left his head empty for the devil to dance in.

But the long and the short of it is--I'll have nobody in my night-school that doesn't strive to learn what he comes to learn, as hard as if he was striving to get out of a dark hole into broad daylight. I'll send no man away because he's stupid: if Billy Taft, the idiot, wanted to learn anything, I'd not refuse to teach him. But I'll not throw away good knowledge on people who think they can get it by the sixpenn'orth, and carry it away with 'em as they would an ounce of snuff. So never come to me again, if you can't show that you've been working with your own heads, instead of thinking that you can pay for mine to work for you. That's the last word I've got to say to you."

Monday, October 24, 2005


Etymologies and Word Coinages

Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin's, 2002), p. 55:
I knew that "venison" and "veneration" come from a common root, but this is still an awful lot of baggage to lay on one deer.
When I read that, I thought, "No way. They look superficially similar, but I'll bet they have different roots." But Scully is indeed correct.

See Calvert Watkins, Indo-European Roots, in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. wen- (to desire, strive for):
8. Suffixed form *wen-es- in: a. Latin venus, love: VENERATE, VENEREAL, VENERY1, VENUS.

11. Lengthened-grade form *wēn-ā- in Latin vēnārī, to hunt: VENATIC, VENERY2, VENISON.
Scully also coins a useful word (p. 84):
The hubris of it is staggering, but they hardly seem serious enough souls to deserve such a weighty word, guilty at worst of a dopey arrogance we might call boobris.
Boobris is inspired, reminiscent of H.L. Mencken's booboisie.

Scully used to write speeches for president George W. Bush. Yesterday on television I heard the President coin what seems to be a new word. He was talking about illegal immigrants, and he said that they just wanted to "embetter their lives." I suspect that his words were impromptu. I doubt that a professional wordsmith would coin such an ugly and unnecessary word.

A friend sent me Scully's well-written and well-argued book as a gift. Thanks again, my friend.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


The Proper Age for Philosophy

Plato, Gorgias 485a-d (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):
It is a fine thing to partake of philosophy just for the sake of education, and it is no disgrace for a lad to follow it: but when a man already advancing in years continues in its pursuit, the affair, Socrates, becomes ridiculous; and for my part I have much the same feeling towards students of philosophy as towards those who lisp or play tricks. For when I see a little child, to whom it is still natural to talk in that way, lisping or playing some trick, I enjoy it, and it strikes me as pretty and ingenuous and suitable to the infant's age; whereas if I hear a small child talk distinctly, I find it a disagreeable thing, and it offends my ears and seems to me more befitting a slave. But when one hears a grown man lisp, or sees him play tricks, it strikes one as something ridiculous and unmanly, that deserves a whipping. Just the same, then, is my feeling towards the followers of philosophy. For when I see philosophy in a young lad I approve of it; I consider it suitable, and I regard him as a person of liberal mind: whereas one who does not follow it I account illiberal and never likely to expect of himself any fine or generous action. But when I see an elderly man still going on with philosophy and not getting rid of it, that is the gentleman, Socrates, whom I think in need of a whipping.


Blog Fights

Plato, Gorgias 457c-e (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):
It is not easy for people to define to each other the matters which they take in hand to discuss, and to make such exchange of instruction as will fairly bring their debate to an end: no, if they find that some point is in dispute between them, and one of them says that the other is speaking incorrectly or obscurely, they are annoyed and think the remark comes from jealousy of themselves, and in a spirit of contention rather than of inquiry into the matter proposed for discussion. In some cases, indeed, they end by making a most disgraceful scene, with such abusive expressions on each side that the rest of the company are vexed on their own account that they allowed themselves to listen to such fellows.

Thursday, October 20, 2005



Plato, Gorgias 458a (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):
Of what sort am I? One of those who would be glad to be refuted if I say anything untrue, and glad to refute anyone else who might speak untruly; but just as glad, mind you, to be refuted as to refute, since I regard the former as the greater benefit, in proportion as it is a greater benefit for oneself to be delivered from the greatest evil than to deliver some one else. For I consider that a man cannot suffer any evil so great as a false opinion on the subjects of our actual argument.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Dalrymple Watch

More essays by physician and writer Theodore Dalrymple:


Another Fable

Babrius 40 (tr. Ben Edwin Perry):
A humpbacked camel was crossing a swiftly flowing river when he defecated. Seeing that the dung was floating ahead of him, he said: "Truly, I'm in a bad way; what ought to be behind me is now going in front." [A state in which the worst citizens are in power, instead of the best, might tell this story of Aesop's.]

Διέβαινε ποταμὸν ὀξὺν ὄντα τῷ ῥείθρῳ
κυρτὴ κάμηλος, εἶτ' ἔχεζε. τοῦ δ' ὄνθου
φθάνοντος αὐτὴν εἶπεν "ἦ κακῶς πράσσω·
ἔμπροσθεν ἤδη τἀξόπισθέ μου βαίνει."
[Πόλις ἄν τις εἴποι τὸν λόγον τὸν Αἰσώπου,
ἧς ἔσχατοι κρατοῦσιν ἀντὶ τῶν πρώτων.]


Florebat Olim Studium

A medieval praiser of time past complained about the younger generation in an anonymous poem (Carmina Burana 6, tr. George F. Whicher) that opens as follows:
Learning that flowered in days of yore
In these our times is thought a bore.
Once knowledge was a well to drink of;
Now having fun is all men think of.
Today mere striplings grow astute
Before their beards begin to shoot --
Striplings whose truant dispositions
Are deaf to wisdom's admonitions.
Yet it was true in ages past
No scholar paused from toil at last
Nor shrunk from studies the most weighty
Till his years numbered more than eighty.

Florebat olim studium,
nunc vertitur in tedium;
iam scire diu viguit,
sed ludere prevaluit.
iam pueris astutia
contingit ante tempora,
qui per malivolentiam
excludunt sapientiam.
sed retro actis seculis
vix licuit discipulis
tandem nonagenarium
quiescere post studium.
In any generation, those devoted to scholarship are few.

Monday, October 17, 2005


A Political Programme

Émile Zola, Germinal, IV, 4 (tr. L.W. Tancock):
'But why don't you explain? What's your object?'

'To destroy everything. No more nations, no more government, no more property, no more God or religion.'

'Yes, I gather that. Only where is it going to lead you?'

'To the primitive and formless community, to a new world, a fresh start.'

'And how are you going to carry it out? How do you propose to set about it?'

'By fire, poison, and the dagger. The real hero is the murderer, for he is the avenger of the people, the revolutionary in action, not someone just trotting out phrases out of books. We must have a series of appalling cataclysms to horrify the rulers and awaken the people.'


'Tell me what your programme is? We want to know where we are going.'

Then Souvarine, gazing with misty eyes into space, peacefully concluded:

'Any reasoning about the future is criminal, for it prevents pure destruction and holds up the march of the revolution.'
Souvarine's ideas are still alive and flourishing. But today, instead of fire, poison, and the dagger, the preferred means of destruction are suicide bombers and improvised roadside devices.

Sunday, October 16, 2005



Dennis Mangan writes about a children's book in which politicians interfere with a child's lemonade stand. Art imitates life. This actually happened in my town a few years ago, when city officials temporarily shut down a lemonade stand run by two little girls on a street near the state fairgrounds.

Here are some rules on lemonade from the Code of Federal Regulations (21 C.F.R. 146.120):
(a) Frozen concentrate for lemonade is the frozen food prepared from one or both of the lemon juice ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section together with one or any mixture of safe and suitable nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners. The product contains not less than 48.0 percent by weight of soluble solids taken as the sucrose value determined by refractometer and corrected for acidity prescribed in "Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists," 13th Ed. (1980), section 22.025, "Frozen Concentrate for Lemonade (12)," under the heading "Soluble Solids by Refractometer--Official First Action," which is incorporated by reference. Copies may be obtained from the Association of Official Analytical Chemists International, 481 North Frederick Ave., suite 500, Gaithersburg, MD 20877-2504, or may be examined at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For information on the availability of this material at NARA, call 202-741-6030, or go to: When the product is diluted according to directions for making lemonade which shall appear on the label, the acidity of the lemonade, calculated as anhydrous citric acid, shall be not less than 0.70 gram per 100 milliliters, and the soluble solids, measured as described for the concentrate, shall be not less than 10.5 percent by weight.

(b) The lemon juice ingredients referred to in paragraph (a) of this section are:

(1) Lemon juice or frozen lemon juice or a mixture of these.
(2) Concentrated lemon juice or frozen concentrated lemon juice or a mixture of these.

For the purposes of this section, lemon juice is the undiluted juice expressed from mature lemons of an acid variety; and concentrated lemon juice is lemon juice from which part of the water has been removed. In the preparation of the lemon juice ingredients, the lemon oil content may be adjusted by the addition of lemon oil or concentrated lemon oil in accordance with good manufacturing practice, and the lemon pulp in the juice as expressed may be left in the juice or may be separated. Lemon pulp that has been separated, which may have been preserved by freezing, may be added in preparing frozen concentrate for lemonade, provided that the amount of pulp added does not raise the proportion of pulp in the finished food to a level in excess of that which would be present by using lemon juice ingredients from which pulp has not been separated. The lemon juice ingredients may be treated by heat, either before or after the other ingredients are added, to reduce the enzymatic activity and the number of viable microorganisms.

(c) Label declaration. Each of the ingredients used in the food shall be declared on the label as required by the applicable sections of parts 101 and 130 of this chapter.
This is not all. Separate regulations govern artificially sweetened lemonade and colored lemonade.



Phaedrus 1.7 (tr. Ben Edwin Perry):
A fox, after looking by chance at a tragic actor's mask, remarked: "O what a majestic face is here, but it has no brains!" This is a twit for those whom Lady Luck has granted rank and renown, but denied them common sense.

Personam tragicam forte vulpes viderat:
"O quanta species" inquit "cerebrum non habet!"
Hoc illis dictum est quibus honorem et gloriam
Fortuna tribuit, sensum communem abstulit.


This Age

Friedrich Schiller, The Robbers, I, 2 (tr. F.J. Lamport):
I hate this age of scribblers, when I can pick up my Plutarch and read of great men.

Mir ekelt vor diesem Tinten klecksendem Säculum, wenn ich in meinem Plutarch lese von großen Menschen.
Erkeln isn't in my pocket German dictionaries (Langenscheidt or Harrap). The brothers Grimm define it as "nauseare, dolere." "Tinten klecksendem" is literally "ink-stained." So an alternative translation is:
This ink-stained generation makes me sick, whenever I read about great men in my Plutarch.

Saturday, October 15, 2005



Seen last night at a bookstore: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, shelved under Nature Paperbacks.



Hester Lynch Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D.:
"What signifies," says some one, "giving halfpence to common beggars? they only lay it out in gin or tobacco." "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?" says Johnson; "it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to show even visible displeasure if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths."



Joseph Wood Krutch, Samuel Johnson, chap. V:
The sometimes introductory and sometimes parenthetical "sir" Boswell no doubt consciously established as the Johnsonian trademark by seeing to it that it occurred somewhere in most of the reported remarks, especially those of the knock-down-and-drag-out variety. But the vocable is not a mere meaningless syllable. It served Johnson only somewhat more conspicuously than it served eighteenth-century conversation in general by enabling him to speak freely without degenerating into insult. "Sir" used as an introduction to a vigorous attack means: "I acknowledge that this is a civilized gathering and that we are all ladies and gentlemen. In general, you have a claim to be treated with respect and the claim I hereby acknowledge. But you will grant me the privilege, which one gentleman grants another, of speaking frankly." To have lost, as we have, the use of such formulae is to make conversation that is at once full-blooded and civilized more difficult. It makes it harder to escape from merely vapid amiability without falling into what looks like mere rudeness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Human Nature

Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius I, 3 (tr. anon.):
Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start by assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it. If their evil disposition remains concealed for a time, it must be attributed to some unknown reason; and we must assume that it lacked occasion to show itself; but time, which has been said to be the father of all truth, does not fail to bring it to light .... Men act right only upon compulsion; but from the moment that they have the option and liberty to commit wrong with impunity, then they never fail to carry confusion and disorder everywhere.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005



My son, talented in so many areas, is also clever at writing light verse. Here's a birthday poem he recently wrote and sent to a friend (one month older than himself, both in the prime of life):

The sword of Damocles threatens to fall,
As life's autumn stage descends with a sigh,
The writing's on the wall, but alas,
You can barely read it with your one good eye.

Age before beauty? You're first in line!
On the bus people offer their seats.
The discount for seniors is yours at last,
Whilst your hairline rapidly retreats.

This is not a reproach!
No gloating from me!
You'll not hear one word of disdain.
For I always learned
To respect my elders:
"Sir, may I hand you your cane?"

On your birthday, let me add
That although your back is bent
You'll be pleased to know I got you
Two tubes of Poli-Dent.

And that's not all, oh no! No, I declare!
Now harken well, my friend.
Would you like me to speak a little louder?
Should I repeat that last phrase again?

An aged cheese for you, a glass o' red wine,
A trip down memory lane,
But the irritable bowels...the memory's haze...
Oh I guess you'd better abstain.

Your bones creak ominously as you struggle up the stairs,
Your breathing is labored and short,
Your friends exchange furtive glances
As hands extend offering support.

You're in your twilight years, it's true,
A venerable old mossback, a diehard,
A fusty grognard, a grand old geezer,
A doddering, dated old dotard.

But according to legend and lore and the ancient tomes,
You were once born this very day,
So please enjoy it! Best wishes, old pal!
Go treat yourself to Morrison's buffet.

The birthday poem is an ancient literary genre, known by its Greek name genethliacon. "Though there were Greek antecedents in the conception of the δαίμων, in the rhetorical handling of natalician themes, and in epigrams of the Anthology, yet the typical birthday poetry of Rome was so intimately associated with the worship of the Genius, that as a separate genre it made one of the original features in Latin literature." That quotation and most of the following list of Latin genethliaca come from J. Wight Duff's article on Genethliacon in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 461:Here are two genethliaca, one for the birthday of Cerinthus, and the other for the birthday of his beloved Sulpicia, from the Tibullan Corpus (3.11 and 3.12, tr. J.P. Postgate):

This day that made thee live for me, Cerinthus, shall be for me one to be hallowed always and set among the festivals. When thou wast born, the voices of the Fates proclaimed that now there was new slavery for woman, and bestowed proud sovereignty on thee. I burn more fiercely than them all, but joy, Cerinthus, in the burning, if within thy breast lives fires caught from mine. May love like mine be thine, I pray thee, by our stolen raptures, by thine eyes and thy Birth-spirit. Great Genius, take this incense with a will, and smile upon my prayer, if only when he thinks on me his pulse beats high. But if perchance even now he sighs for another love, then, holy one, depart from that faithless altar. And, Venus, be not thou unjust; either let both alike be bound thy slaves or lift my shackles off. But rather let us both be bound, with a strong chain that no coming day can loose. The lad desires the same as I, but conceals his longing more; he is ashamed to say the words aloud. But thou, Birth-spirit, a god and knowing all things, grant the prayer. What matter if his suit be uttered or unspoken?

Juno of the birthday, receive the holy piles of incense which the accomplished maid's soft hand now offers thee. To-day she is thine wholly; most joyfully she has decked herself for thee, to stand before thy altar a sight for all to see. 'Tis in thee, goddess, she bids us find the reason for this apparelling. Yet there is one that in secret she desires to please. Then, hallowed one, be kind, and let none pluck apart the lovers: but forge, I prithee, like fetters for the youth. Thus shalt thou match them well. To the maid he, to no man she might fitlier be thrall. And may no watchful guard surprise their wooings, but Love suggest a thousand ways for his outwitting. Bow assent and come in all the sheen of purple palla. They are making offering to thee, holy goddess, thrice with cake and thrice with wine, and the mother eagerly enjoins upon her child what she must pray for. But she, now mistress of herself, sues for another thing in the silence of her heart. She burns as the altar burns with the darting flames, nor, even though she might, would she be whole. Be grateful, Juno, so that, when the next year comes, this love, now of long standing, may be there unchanged to meet their prayers.

From both of these poems it can be seen that it was the ancient Roman custom to make a wish or prayer for oneself on one's birthday, as we do even today when blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Dangers of Academic Life

Samuel Johnson, Edmund Smith, from Lives of the Poets:
Though he was an academic the greatest part of his life, yet he contracted no sourness of temper, no spice of pedantry, no itch of disputation, or obstinate contention for the old or new philosophy, no assuming way of dictating to others, which are faults (though excusable) which some are insensibly led into who are constrained to dwell long within the walls of a private college.

Saturday, October 08, 2005



William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, discusses positive and negative signs designed to keep trespassers out. One could make a good no trespassing sign out of a passage of rustic dialect from Shakespeare's King Lear (4.6.266-268):
Keep out, che vore ye, or Ise try whether your costard or my ballow be the harder.
In my modern English version:
Keep out, I warn you, or I'll test which is harder, your head or my baseball bat.


Crony and Crone Again

This follows up an earlier discussion of crony and crone. I am grateful to Professor Roger Kuin, who kindly supplied me with the Oxford English Dictionary's entries for these words. The OED does not commit to the derivation of crony from Greek chronios, saying only:
Found first after 1660. According to Skinner 1671 'vox academica', i.e. a term of university or college slang. No connexion with crone has been traced.
But the spelling of the OED's first citation (from Pepys' Diary, May 30, 1665) tends to support the Greek origin:
Jack Cole, my old school-fellow..who was a great chrony of mine.
Here is the OED's etymology of crone:
In the sense 'old ewe' the word appears to be related to early mod.Du. kronje, karonje, 'adasia, ouis vetula, rejecula' (Kilian), believed to be the same word as karonje, kronje, MDu. caroonje, croonje carcass, a. NFr. carogne carcass: see CARRION. As applied to a woman, it may be an Eng. transferred application of 'old ewe' (though the evidence for the latter does not yet carry it back so early); but it was more probably taken directly from ONF. carogne (Picard carone, Walloon coronie) 'a cantankerous or mischievous woman’, cited by Littré from 14th c. App. rare in the 18th c., till revived by Southey, Scott, and their contemporaries.
The OED's first citation of crone is from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, around 1386 (Man of Law's Tale, line 432).



H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay:
It was Plutarch, you know, and nothing intrinsically American that prevented George Washington being a King.

And I found Langhorne's "Plutarch" too, I remember, on those shelves. It seems queer to me now to think that I acquired pride and self-respect, the idea of a state and the germ of public spirit, in such a furtive fashion; queer, too, that it should rest with an old Greek, dead these eighteen hundred years to teach that.


Lady Di

James Boswell, Life of Johnson (aetat. 64, 1773):
On Friday, May 7, I breakfasted with him at Mr. Thrale's in the Borough. While we were alone, I endeavoured as well as I could to apologise for a lady who had been divorced from her husband by act of Parliament. I said, that he had used her very ill, had behaved brutally to her, and that she could not continue to live with him without having her delicacy contaminated; that all affection for him was thus destroyed; that the essence of conjugal union being gone, there remained only a cold form, a mere civil obligation; that she was in the prime of life, with qualities to produce happiness; that these ought not to be lost; and, that the gentleman on whose account she was divorced had gained her heart while thus unhappily situated. Seduced, perhaps, by the charms of the lady in question, I thus attempted to palliate what I was sensible could not be justified; for when I had finished my harangue, my venerable friend gave me a proper check: 'My dear Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle virtue and vice. The woman's a whore, and there's an end on't.'
The woman was Lady Diana Spencer (1734-1808), the husband was Sir Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, and the gentleman on whose account she was divorced was Johnson's friend Topham Beauclerk.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Distasteful Foods

In Shakespeare's King Lear (3.4.131-144), Edgar in disguise is asked his name and introduces himself as follows:
Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp'd from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish'd and imprison'd; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body,
            Horse to ride, and weapons to wear;
            But mice and rats, and such small deer,
            Have been Tom's food for seven long year.
Let's look at one dish in Poor Tom's diet, cow-dung for sallets, that is, cow-dung instead of salads. Josephus, Wars of the Jews 5.13.7 (tr. William Whiston) mentions the same dish, eaten by necessity:
Some persons were driven to that terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there; and what they of old could not endure so much as to see they now used for food.
H.L. Mencken, Happy Days: 1880-1892 (1936; rpt. New York: Knopf, 1968), pp. 135-136, claims to have eaten cow flops of another sort:
The humor of the young bourgeoisie males of Baltimore, in those days, was predominantly skatological, and there was no sign of the revolting sexual obsession that Freudians talk of. The favorite jocosities had to do with horse apples, O.E.A. wagons and small boys who lost control of their sphincters at parties or in Sunday school; when we began to spend our summers in the country my brother and I also learned the comic possibilities of cow flops. Even in the city a popular ginger-and-cocoanut cake, round in contour and selling for a cent, was called a cow flop, and little girls were supposed to avoid it, at least in the presence of boys.
I have no idea what the abbreviation O.E.A. stood for in late nineteenth century Baltimore, although I would guess the wagons carried off night soil. Mencken's cow flops remind me of another pastry with a scatological name, pets-de-nonne (in English nun's farts).

Finally, in 2 Kings 6.25 we read of the dung of another animal eaten as food:
And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it, until an ass's head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove's dung for five pieces of silver.
Keil ad loc. mentions an Arabic phrase meaning sparrow's dung, referring I think to saltwort, and also a German word for asafoetida, Teufelsdreck (devil's dung).

The ancient Greek word for eating dung is koprophagia. See my Latin translation of the phrase long-tongued poo eating moonbat.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Crony and Crone

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, crony is Cambridge student slang, appeared first in 1665, and probably comes from Greek chronios (long-lasting), itself from chronos (time). It is easier to see the root chronos in chronic, chronology, chronometer, etc.

Webster's unabridged dictionary (1913) gives two definitions of crony:
  1. A crone. [Obs.]
  2. An intimate companion; a familiar friend. [Colloq.]
Bush's Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers obviously fits the second definition, but she seems remarkably well preserved for her age, so I would hesitate to apply the first definition to her.

I would have thought that crony (old friend) and crone (old woman) were etymologically related, but the Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. crone, says:
c.1386, from Anglo-Fr. carogne, from O.N.Fr., term of abuse for a cantankerous or withered woman, lit. "carrion," from V.L. *caronia.
I wonder what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the origins of these two words.



Robinson Jeffers, Praise Life:
This country least, but every inhabited country
Is clotted with human anguish.
Remember that at your feasts.

And this is no new thing but from time out of mind,
No transient thing, but exactly
Conterminous with human life.

Praise life, it deserves praise, but the praise of life
That forgets the pain is a pebble
Rattled in a dry gourd.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Suitable Subjects for Poetry

Joseph Wood Krutch, Samuel Johnson, chap. III (Running About the World):
Johnson's melancholy nature supplied him with sick fancies which, it is not unreasonable to suppose, might have appeared, in print, as novel as those of Rousseau or even Baudelaire. But like most of his contemporaries, it would never have occurred to him to regard them as suitable subjects for poetry. Of some he relieved himself through the prayers and meditations which it became his habit to write, but he would no more have published verses about them than he would have exhibited his physical peculiarities on a platform at Smithfield Fair.
Today, when sick fancies masquerading as poetry ("When did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?") and public exhibitions of physical peculiarities (Michael Jackson's nose and crotch) are not uncommon, that eighteenth century reserve has a certain quaint appeal.

Monday, October 03, 2005



Languagehat draws our attention to a neat auto-antonym in Urdu, the noun lāg, which means both enmity and love. An auto-antonym is a word that can mean the opposite of itself. The clever title of Languagehat's post is Odi et Amo, the opening words of Catullus' famous couplet (85):
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
  nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
In the translation of F.W. Cornish:
I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.
I discussed auto-antonyms here.


Wachet Auf

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (June 8, 1850):
Cultivate the habit of early rising. It is unwise to keep the head long on a level with the feet.
The time will come, all too soon, when our heads rest level with our feet forever.


Making a Living

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (February 18, 1851):
Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off. If it were not that I desire to do something here, -- accomplish some work, -- I should certainly prefer to suffer and die rather than be at the pains to get a living by the modes men propose.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


A Poem by Rolfe Humphries

Rolfe Humphries, The Intellectuals:
Aeternum stagno, dixit, vivatis in isto--

There was Cassandra, whom Apollo loved,
To whom, for promised love, he made a gift,--
Always to prophesy truly:
And for her promise broken, another token--
Never to be believed,

And then there are those men
Who never loved Apollo, nor he them,
Descended from the Lycian ancestors
Who made the water muddy for Latona,
And for their churlishness were turned to frogs
Forever in that marsh.

Co-ax, Co-ax!
Oho, Batrachians,
Isn't it fun to bubble in the puddles?

Always to prophesy falsely;
Always to seem, at least, to be believed.
The Latin motto prefixed to Humphries' poem comes from Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.369, and means "May you live forever, she said, in that swamp of yours."

Cassandra tells her own story to the chorus in Aeschylus' Agamemnon 1203-1212 (tr. Herbert Weir Smyth):
CA. It was the seer Apollo who appointed me to this office.
CH. Can it be that he, a god, was smitten with desire?
CA. Ere now I was ashamed to speak of this.
CH. Aye, in prosperity we all grow over nice.
CA. Oh, but he struggled to win me, breathing ardent love for me.
CH. Came ye in due course to wedlock's rite?
CA. I promised consent to Loxias but broke my word.
CH. Wert thou already possessed by the art inspired of the god?
CA. Already I prophesied to my countrymen all their disasters.
CH. How came it then that thou wert unscathed by Loxias' wrath?
CA. Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of aught.
The second stanza alludes to the Ovidian passage from which Humphries borrowed his motto, Metamorphoses 6.313-381. Too long to quote here, it tells the story of Leto (Latona in Latin), mother of Apollo and Artemis by Zeus. Persecuted by Zeus' consort Hera, Leto wandered here and there. In the course of her wanderings, some farmers in Lycia tried to prevent her from drinking at a spring by muddying the water. She cursed them and turned them into frogs.

In the third stanza, the Batrachians or frog-men (Greek batrachos = frog) croak in the words given by Aristophanes to his chorus in the play Frogs (lines 209 etc.).

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Contempt for Archers

Homer, Iliad 11.368-395 (tr. Samuel Butler):
As he spoke he began stripping the spoils from the son of Paeon, but Alexandrus husband of lovely Helen aimed an arrow at him, leaning against a pillar of the monument which men had raised to Ilus son of Dardanus, a ruler in days of old. Diomed had taken the cuirass from off the breast of Agastrophus, his heavy helmet also, and the shield from off his shoulders, when Paris drew his bow and let fly an arrow that sped not from his hand in vain, but pierced the flat of Diomed's right foot, going right through it and fixing itself in the ground. Thereon Paris with a hearty laugh sprang forward from his hiding-place, and taunted him saying, "You are wounded - my arrow has not been shot in vain; would that it had hit you in the belly and killed you, for thus the Trojans, who fear you as goats fear a lion, would have had a truce from evil."

Diomed all undaunted answered, "Archer, you who without your bow are nothing, slanderer and seducer, if you were to be tried in single combat fighting in full armour, your bow and your arrows would serve you in little stead. Vain is your boast in that you have scratched the sole of my foot. I care no more than if a girl or some silly boy had hit me. A worthless coward can inflict but a light wound; when I wound a man though I but graze his skin it is another matter, for my weapon will lay him low. His wife will tear her cheeks for grief and his children will be fatherless: there will he rot, reddening the earth with his blood, and vultures, not women, will gather round him."
Sophocles, Ajax 1120-1123 (tr. Richard C. Jebb):
MENELAUS. The bowman seems to feel no little grandeur.
TEUCER. I do, since it is no lowly skill that I possess.
MENELAUS. How you would boast, if you had a shield!
TEUCER. Even without a shield I would be a match for you fully armed.
Euripides, Heracles 155-164 (tr. E.P. Coleridge):
Is it for this then that Heracles' children should be spared? a man who has won a reputation for valour in his contests with beasts, in all else a weakling; who ne'er buckled shield to arm nor faced the spear, but with a bow, that coward's weapon, was ever ready to run away. Archery is no test of manly bravery; no! he is a man who keeps his post in the ranks and steadily faces the swift wound the spear may plough.

Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?