Monday, June 30, 2008



Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet, chap. 3:
Madness is the attempted liberty of people who feel themselves overwhelmed by giant forces of organized control. Seeking the magic of extremes. Madness is a base form of the religious life.

But wait — Sammler cautioning himself. Even this madness is also to a considerable extent a matter of performance of enactment. Underneath there persists, powerfully too, a thick sense of what is normal for human life. Duties are observed. Attachments are preserved. There is work. People show up for jobs. It is extraordinary. They come on the bus to the factory. They open the shop, they sweep, they wrap, they wash, they fix, they tend, they count, they mind the computers. Each day, each night. And however rebellious at heart, however despairing, terrified, or worn bare, come to their tasks. Up and down in the elevator, sitting down to the desk, behind the wheel, tending machinery. For such a volatile and restless animal, such a high-strung, curious animal, an ape subject to so many diseases, to anguish, to boredom, such discipline, such drill, such strength for regularity, such assumption of responsibility, such regard for order (even in disorder) is a great mystery, too. Oh, it is a mystery. One cannot mistake this for thorough madness, therefore. One thing, though, the disciplined hate the undisciplined to the point of murder. Thus the working class, disciplined, is a great reservoir of hatred. Thus the clerk behind the wicket finds it hard to forgive those who come and go their apparent freedom.


The Monitor

William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), p. 253:
Six months later, the Union ironclad went down on New Year's Eve in a storm off the North Carolina banks. Though "impregnable" enough, she was not very seaworthy. She left us with one battle and her name, conceived by her engineer creator: Monitor, which in Greek means "the warning."
Monitor is Latin, not Greek, and it means "one who reminds or warns," not "warning." Greek words meaning "warning" include νουθέτημα (nouthétēma) and νουθέτησις (nouthétēsis).

The "engineer creator" of the Monitor was John Ericsson, who wrote in a Jan. 20, 1862, letter to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox:
In accordance with your request, I now submit for your approbation a name for the floating battery at Greenpoint. The impregnable and aggressive character of this structure will admonish the leaders of the Southern rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of the Union forces. The iron-clad intruder will provide a severe monitor to those leaders. But there are other leaders who will also be startled and admonished by the booming of the guns from the impregnable iron turret. 'Downing Street' will hardly view with indifference this last 'Yankee notion' — this monitor. To the Lords of the Admiralty the new craft will be a monitor, suggesting doubts as to the propriety of completing those four steel ships at $3,500,000 apiece. On these and many similar grounds I propose to name the new battery Monitor.

Sunday, June 29, 2008



Sara Stein, Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), p. 199:
In the semiphore of arborists, blue or green tape tied or tacked to a tree or shrub means that it needs attention, such as limbing up or pruning. Red, orange, or day-glo pink means to cut it down.
Semiphore should be semaphore, from Greek σῆμα (sēma = sign) and φορός (phoros = bearer). This is a word for which knowledge of etymology might assist spelling, although cf. semiotics and semantics, also from the same root.

I don't mean to denigrate Stein's excellent book. Indeed, the very paragraph quoted, spelling aside, taught me something that I didn't know. It's a sign of my own boundless ignorance that I once marked some trees at the back of my woodlot with orange spray paint, to show approximately where the property line was. Fortunately no one cut down the trees so marked.

One of the endearing qualities of Stein's book is her readiness to admit mistakes, e.g. on pp. 45-46:
The finished effect, in which the lawn serves as background for some baubles of exterior decoration, seems so normal to us that it is hard to view a piece of land in any other way.

It seemed so normal to us that even though we bought a glutton's portion — and there was no lawn at all — we immediately proceeded to "develop" it by clearing the brush and mowing. We started near the house. First, a back lawn, then lawn to either side, then loppings and mowings to roll the green rug over the land in all directions.

The first indication that we were doing something wrong was the disappearance of the pheasants. In those early days, we had planted behind the house a kitchen garden encircled by a hedge of currants whose brilliant berries were regularly enjoyed by a mother and father pheasant and all their little chicks. The distance from the hedge to the unmowed, tall grass cover was about twenty feet — a critical distance, it seems, for when we mowed a broader strip, the pheasants were cut off from their breakfast as though by an invisible fence. The more we extended the lawn, the less we saw of them, and finally we came to realize that there were none.
Gradually Stein came to see that one purpose of her land should be to increase habitat for fauna. On p. 244 she wrote:
Let's imagine a goal: that at some time in the future, the value of a property will be perceived in part according to its value to wildlife. A property hedged with fruiting shrubs will be worth more than one bordered by forsythia. One with dry-stone walls that provide passageways for chipmunks will be valued higher than one whose walls are cemented stone. Buyers will place a premium on lots that provide summer flowers and fall crops of seed. Perhaps there will be formal incentives: tax abatements geared to the number of native species; deductions for lots that require neither sprays nor sprinklers. A nursery colony of bats might be considered a capital improvement. There could be bonuses for birdhouses.

Oh, brave new world!



Jim K. sent me the following excerpt from Nick Tosches' biography of Arnold Rothstein titled King of the Jews: The Greatest Mob Story Never Told (HarperCollins, 2005), p. 49:
Theology redacts, revises, implants conditional clauses and circumstantial exegesis. Where once was the Word, there are now words. Where once was the Law, there are now legal definitions, interpretations, and amendments. Where once was the Book, there are now treatises.

The Greek word "pneuma", the divine spirit, the breath of life, also meant flatulence. Thus theology.
It is true that pneuma can mean flatulence, at least in the plural pneumata. See Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ), s.v. πνεῦμα, II.3:
flatulence, in pl., Eub.107.9, Arist.Pr. 948b25, Dsc.2.112, D.L.6.94.
Purely as a scholarly exercise, not to provoke vulgar laughter, here are the passages cited by LSJ for this meaning.

Eubulus, fragment 107.1-9 (a riddle, tr. Charles Burton Gulick):
[A.] It has no tongue, yet it talks, its name is the same for male and female, steward of its own winds, hairy, or sometimes hairless; saying things unintelligible to them that understand, drawing out one melody after another; one thing it is, yet many, and if one wound it, it is unwounded. Tell me, what is it? Why are you puzzled? [B.] It's Callistratus! [A.] No, it's the rump. [B.] You keep talking drivel. [A.] No, really; this it is, one and the same, that tongueless speaks; it has one name though, belonging to many; wounded it is unwounded; it is hairy and hairless. What would you? Guardian of many gales....

[A.] Ἔστι λαλῶν ἄγλωσσος, ὁμώνυμος ἄρρενι θῆλυς,
οἰκείων ἀνέμων ταμίας, δασύς, ἄλλοτε λεῖος,
ἀξύνετα ξυνετοῖσι λέγων, νόμον ἐκ νόμου ἕλκων·
ἓν δ' ἐστὶν καὶ πολλὰ καὶ ἂν τρώσῃ τις ἄτρωτος.
τί ἐστι τοῦτο; τί ἀπορεῖς; [Β.] Καλλίστρατος.
[Α.] πρωκτὸς μὲν οὖν οὗτος. [Β.] σὺ δὲ ληρεῖς ἔχων.
[Α.] οὗτος γὰρ αὑτός ἐστιν ἄγλωττος λάλος,
ἓν ὄνομα πολλοῖς, τρωτὸς ἄτρωτος, δασὺς
λεῖος· τί βούλει; πνευμάτων πολλῶν φύλαξ.
What Gulick translates as "guardian of many gales" could, in light of the LSJ definition, be translated "guardian of many farts."

[Aristotle], Problems 27.9.948 a 20-26 (tr. W.S. Hett):
Why is it, seeing that fear is a form of pain and grief, that those in pain cry out, but the frightened are silent? Is it because those in pain hold the breath (so when it escapes in a mass it escapes with a cry), but in the case of the frightened the body is chilled and the heat travels downwards, and creates breath? It creates most wind in the region to which it is carried. So the frightened break wind.

Διὰ τί τοῦ φόβου λύπης τινὸς ὄντος καὶ τῆς ἀλγηδόνος, οἱ μὲν ἀλγοῦντες ἀναβοῶσιν οἱ δὲ φοβούμενοι σιωπῶσιν; ἢ οἱ μὲν ἀλγοῦντες κατέχουσι τὸ πνεῦμα (διὸ ἀθρόον ἐξιὸν μετὰ βοῆς ἐξέρχεται), τῶν δὲ φοβουμένων κατέψυκται τὸ σῶμα καὶ τὸ θερμὸν κάτω ἐνήνεκται, ὃ ποιεῖ πνεύματα; ᾗ οὖν ἐνήνεκται μάλιστα, ἐνταῦθα καὶ ποιεῖ αὐτά. διὸ καὶ ἀποψοφοῦσιν οἱ φοβούμενοι.
Hett translates ποιεῖ πνεύματα as "creates breath," but John Scarborough, Medical and Biological Terminologies: Classical Origins (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), p. 174, thinks that πνεύματα here means "farts," which is more in line with the LSJ definition. So the second sentence should probably be translated
Is it because those in pain hold the breath (so when it escapes in a mass it escapes with a cry), but in the case of the frightened the body is chilled and the heat travels downwards, and creates farts?
Dioscorides 2.112 (tr. Lily Y. Beck):
The radish, too, causes flatulence, it is tasty, it is not good for the stomach, and it causes belching.

ῥαφανὶς καὶ αὐτὴ πνευμάτων γεννητική, εὔστομος, οὐκ εὐστόμαχος, ἐρευτική.
"Causes flatulence" could also be translated a bit more literally as "is productive of farts."

Diogenes Laertius 6.94 (tr. R.D. Hicks):
Metrocles of Maroneia was the brother of Hipparchia. He had been formerly a pupil of Theophrastus the Peripatetic, and had been so far corrupted by weakness that, when he made a breach of good manners in the course of rehearsing a speech, it drove him to despair, and he shut himself up at home, intending to starve himself to death. On learning this Crates came to visit him as he had been asked to do, and after advisedly making a meal of lupins, he tried to persuade him by argument as well that he had committed no crime, for a prodigy would have happened if he had not taken the natural means of relieving himself. At last by reproducing the action he succeeded in lifting him from his dejection, using for his consolation the likeness of the occurrences. From that time forward Metrocles was his pupil, and became proficient in philosophy.

Μητροκλῆς, ἀδελφὸς Ἱππαρχίας, ὃς πρότερον ἀκούων Θεοφράστου τοῦ περιπατητικοῦ τοσοῦτον διέφθαρτο ὥστε ποτὲ μελετῶν καὶ μεταξύ πως ἀποπαρδὼν ὑπ' ἀθυμίας οἴκοι κατάκλειστος ἦν, ἀποκαρτερεῖν βουλόμενος. μαθὼν δὴ ὁ Κράτης εἰσῆλθε πρὸς αὐτὸν παρακληθεὶς καὶ θέρμους ἐπίτηδες βεβρωκὼς ἔπειθε μὲν αὐτὸν καὶ διὰ τῶν λόγων μηδὲν φαῦλον πεποιηκέναι· τέρας γὰρ ἂν γεγονέναι εἰ μὴ καὶ τὰ πνεύματα κατὰ φύσιν ἀπεκρίνετο· τέλος δὲ καὶ ἀποπαρδὼν ἀνέρρωσεν αὐτόν, ἀφ' ὁμοιότητος τῶν ἔργων παραμυθησάμενος. τοὐντεῦθεν ἤκουεν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐγένετο ἀνὴρ ἱκανὸς ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ.
Euphemisms in Hicks' translation obscure the point of this story. "When he made a breach of good manners" and "by reproducing the action" are both the same word in the original Greek, ἀποπαρδών, aorist participle of ἀποπέρδομαι, "fart." Similarly "if he had not taken the natural means of relieving himself" is actually εἰ μὴ καὶ τὰ πνεύματα κατὰ φύσιν ἀπεκρίνετο, "if he had not released the farts naturally."

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Wedding Toast

At the suggestion of David Norton, I've been reading some poems by Richard Wilbur, and I just found one I wish I had known about sooner. My son married a wonderful woman last month, and I stammered a barely coherent toast during the celebration. Here is a truly eloquent Wedding Toast by Richard Wilbur, the sort of thing I wish I had been able to say:
St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.


Two Quotations Attributed to Thoreau

Chris Dodge, Thoreau Today (June/July 2008):
"Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around." Does that sound like Thoreau to you? No. But it's attributed to him in a chapter 4 epigraph to Joelle Jay and Amy Kovarick's Baby on Board: Becoming a Mother Without Losing Yourself—A Guide for Moms-to-Be (AMACOM, 2007). And over 3,000 Google hits, though none (that I could see) with a source cited. How about a contest for the most trite and inane "quotes" attributed to Thoreau? Starting now, send me your nominations.
In addition to Baby on Board, the following books attribute the quotation to Thoreau, apparently without bibliographical information:This is not a complete list. I can see that there are broad areas of contemporary literature that will forever remain closed to me.

Chris Dodge, ibid.:
Where do people get these lines? Here's the latest "quotation" I've seen attributed to Thoreau, with no source given: "The smallest seed of faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness." It sounds rather banal and unequivocal, to me, not very Thoreauvian. Can anyone find its source? On the morning of May 13, 2008, there were 339 Google hits for this exact line, 275 when Thoreau's name was included. Stacey Lawson begins her essay "What is Faith?" published on Huffington Post, "Henry David Thoreau once wrote, 'The smallest seed of faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness.'" Did he? Where?
Thoreau did say this, or something similar, in a letter to Lydia Emerson's sister, Lucy Jackson Brown (Jan. 25, 1843):
I do not venture to say anything about your griefs, for it would be unnatural for me to speak as if I grieved with you, when I think I do not. If I were to see you, it might be otherwise. But I know you will pardon the trivialness of this letter; and I only hope — as I know that you have reason to be so — that you are still happier than you are sad, and that you remember that the smallest seed of faith is of more worth than the largest fruit of happiness. I have no doubt that out of S——'s death you sometimes draw sweet consolation, not only for that, but for long-standing griefs, and may find some things made smooth by it, which before were rough.
Anyone who has tried to console someone after the death of a loved one knows how difficult it is to avoid the trivial and banal.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Dishonest and Lying Narcissists

Some writers have stated that they wrote only for themselves or that one should write primarily for oneself, e.g. Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Tolkien.

Umberto Eco, in his essay How I Write (tr. Martin McLaughlin), disagrees:
However, I would not like these last statements to generate automatically another view common to bad writers — namely, that one writes only for oneself. Do not trust those who say so: they are dishonest and lying narcissists.

There is only one thing that you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list. It helps to remember what you have to buy, and when you have bought everything you can destroy it, because it is no use to anyone else. Every other thing that you write, you write to say something to someone.
Related posts:


More on Balanoculture and Balanophagy

I received two informative emails in response to my post on balanoculture and balanophagy.

Al Kriman wrote:
In your Laudator Temporis Acti blog last Tuesday, you mentioned an _Ambio_ article by Bainbridge that you do not have access to. I do. The word _balanoculture_ occurs in three of the article abstract's four sentences:

"The oak tree, today revered primarily for its beauty, may once have been the central food bearer around which entire societies (balanocultures) built their diet and lifestyle. Recent evidence shows that tools used for grinding and pounding food existed long before corn became popular and may have been used to process acorns into meal. Factors such as the domestication of goats and the burning of oaks for fuel may have contributed to the movement away from balanoculture. By the end of this century severe crises in agriculture world-wide may make a return to some modified form of balanoculture a viable alternative."

Bainbridge doesn't explicitly claim the credit or blame for this word, but he goes to the trouble of writing this (last sentence of the first paragraph): "I propose that the acorn resource and the balanoculture (from the Greek _balanos_--acorn) it supported were essential for the evolution of agriculture as we know it today."

Although you indicate that _balanoculture_ is a barbarism, you neglect to note the oddity of using a word of the form <foo>culture to designate a society that cultivates <foo>. Although he twice defines _balanoculture_ in this way, Bainbridge uses the word both as he defines it and to designate the act or technique of cultivating acorns.
Chris Dodge wrote:
The journal News from Native California published an issue a few years ago (c. 2003–2005) with a number of articles related to acorn eating, or so I recall. I no longer have direct access to back issues, but in trying to track down a reference to this issue I found a citation for a title that uses the word "balanophagy" in a document titled "Past and Present Acorn Use in Native California"

See "Mayer, Peter J. 1976. Miwok balanophagy. . . "

Maybe the issue I'm remembering is the one described here (Fall 2005):, with "Beautiful Tree: California Indians and Oaks." The "number of articles" I recall may have been this one article with multiple sidebars.

Thoreau's journals, as you know, are full of oaky commentary and description ("I should not be ashamed to have a shrub oak for my coat-of-arms"--Feb. 8, 1856). I see you've previously written about acorn eating and quoted from Thoreau's October 8, 1851, journal entry here:
On October 17, 1857 he wrote, "Glossy-brown white oak acorns strew the ground thickly, many of them sprouted. . . . I find some quite edible, but they too, like wild apples, require an outdoor appetite. I do not admit their palatableness when I try them in the house."

_Walden_ might have been titled _Two Years and Two Months before the Mast_.

And what did mastodons eat, anyway?
Chris attached to his email the following photograph:

Thursday, June 26, 2008



Among the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary for vitriol is "Virulence or acrimony of feeling or utterance" and for vitriolic is "Extremely sharp, caustic, or scathing; bitterly ill-natured or malignant." Figurative expressions such as "vitriolic pen," "pen dipped in vitriol," and "pen dripping with vitriol" are so common as to be almost clichés. For example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its entry for Spanish satirist Marjano José de Larra (1809-1837), says, "[M]inisters feared his vitriolic pen."

But for many centuries, pens were literally dipped in vitriol, a corrosive chemical, otherwise known as ferrous sulfate, one of the ingredients of ink. W. Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter, 3. Aufl. (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1896), discusses "Tinte" on pp. 233-244 and gives some old recipes for ink on pp. 238-239, among them the following (p. 238) from a manuscript of 1412 (the rough translation is mine):
To make good ink. Take oak galls and crush them finely into powder. Over them pour rain water or small beer and add as much vitriol as you think is sufficient. Let it stand thus for a few days. Then strain it through a cloth, and it will be good ink. If you want to write with it, add a bit of gum arabic, heat a bit over a fire until the ink is just warm, and the ink will be good and indelible, over whatever material you write with it.

Ad faciendum bonum incaustum. Recipe gallas et contere minute in pulverem, funde desuper aquam pluvialem vel cerevisiam tenuem, et impone de vitalo (l. vitriolo) quantum sufficit juxta existimationem tuam, et permitte sic stare per aliquot dies, et tunc cola per pannum, et erit incaustus bonus. Et si vis (scil. scribere), tunc impone modicum de gummi arabico, et calefac modicum circa ignem, ut solus incaustus tepidus fiat, et erit incaustus bonus et indelebilis, super quocunque cum eo scribes.
Wattenbach's book is available in its entirety on Google Book Search. I haven't seen Monique Zerdoun, Les encres noires au moyen âge (Paris: CNRS, 1983; rpt. 2003).

If you've ever eaten the snack known as Cheetos, then you've ingested vitriol. Ferrous sulfate is one of the ingredients of Cheetos. Cheetos are one of my favorite junk foods, and I've eaten lots over the years. If you are what you eat, then perhaps that helps to explain why I am "extremely sharp, caustic, or scathing; bitterly ill-natured or malignant."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Dead Languages

W.S. Merwin, Learning a Dead Language:

There is nothing for you to say. You must
Learn first to listen. Because it is dead
It will not come to you of itself, nor would you
Of yourself master it. You must therefore
Learn to be still when it is imparted,
And, though you many not yet understand, to remember.

What you remember is saved. To understand
The least thing fully you would have to perceive
The whole grammar in all its accidence
And all its system, in the perfect singleness
Of intention it has because it is dead.
You can learn only a part at a time.

What you are given to remember
Has been saved before you from death's dullness by
Remembering. The unique intention
Of a language whose speech has died is order,
Incomplete only where someone has forgotten.
You will find that that order helps you to remember.

What you come to remember becomes yourself.
Learning will be to cultivate the awareness
Of that governing order, now pure of the passions
It composed; till, seeking it in itself,
You may find at last the passion that composed it,
Hear it both in its speech and in yourself.

What you remember saves you. To remember
Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never
Has fallen silent. So your learning is,
From the dead, order, and what sense of yourself
Is memorable, what passion may be heard
When there is nothing for you to say.

Czeslaw Milosz, Readings (tr. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee):

You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of caesars
On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
There were plenty of persons whom the text calls
Daimonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
Or, if you prefer, the bedeviled (as for "the possessed"
It's no more than the whim of a dictionary).
Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
Were not considered signs of talent.
The demonized had no access to print and screens,
Rarely engaging in arts and literature.
But the Gospel parable remains in force:
That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
Which, exasperated by such a sudden clash
Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
Jump into water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
And thus on every page a persistent reader
Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
In a world which one day will come to its end.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Dry Drudgery

Charles Lamb, Work:
Who first invented work, and bound the free
And holyday-rejoicing spirit down
To the ever-haunting importunity
Of business in the green fields, and the town—
To plough, loom, anvil, spade—and oh! most sad
To that dry drudgery at the desk's dead wood?
Who but the Being unblest, alien from good,
Sabbathless Satan! he who his unglad
Task ever plies 'mid rotatory burnings,
That round and round incalculably reel—
For wrath divine hath made him like a wheel—
In that red realm from which are no returnings;
Where toiling, and turmoiling, ever and aye
He, and his thoughts, keep pensive working-day.
Lamb sent this sonnet to Hazlitt in a letter dated July 19, 1824. Lamb had also called Satan sabbathless in an 1815 letter to Matilda Bentham.


Timber and Wood

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1986), p. 67:
The wood therefore yields two products, timber from the trunks of the timber trees, and wood from coppice stools or suckers (plus the branches of felled timber trees). Timber and wood had different uses and are not to be confused; we talk of 'timber' buildings and 'wood' fires. Wood is rods, poles, and logs, used for fencing, wattlework, and many specialized purposes but in large quantities for fuel. Timber is the stuff of beams and planks and is too valuable (and too big) to burn.
In Latin there seems to be a similar distinction between materia or materies (timber) and lignum (wood). See Pliny, Natural History 16.76.206 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley):
Next after them comes the cornel, although it can hardly be looked upon as timber [materies], in consequence of its remarkable slimness; the wood [lignum] of it, in fact, is used for hardly any other purpose than the spokes of wheels, or else for making wedges for splitting wood, and pins or bolts, which have all the hardness of those of iron.

ab iis proxima est cornus, quamquam non potest videri materies propter exilitatem, sed lignum non alio paene quam ad radios rotarum utile aut si quid cuneandum sit in ligno clavisve figendum ceu ferreis.
and Justinian, Digest 32.1.55 (Ulpianus, On Sabinus, Book XXV, tr. S. P. Scott):
The term "wood" is a general one, and is divided into building material [materia] and ordinary wood [lignum]. Building material consists of what is necessary in the construction and support of houses; ordinary wood is anything which is intended for fuel.

Ligni appellatio nomen generale est, sed sic separatur, ut sit aliquid materia, aliquid lignum. materia est, quae ad aedificandum fulciendum necessaria est, lignum, quidquid conburendi causa paratum est.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Black Thoughts

Charles Lamb, Hypochondriacus:
By myself walking,
To myself talking,
When as I ruminate
On my untoward fate,
Scarcely seem I
Alone sufficiently,
Black thoughts continually
Crowding my privacy;
They come unbidden,
Like foes at a wedding,
Thrusting their faces
In better guests' places,
Peevish and malecontent,
Clownish, impertinent,
Dashing the merriment:
So in like fashions
Dim cogitations
Follow and haunt me,
Striving to daunt me.
In my heart festering,
In my ears whispering,
"Thy friends are treacherous,
Thy foes are dangerous,
Thy dreams ominous."

Fierce Anthropophagi,
Spectra, Diaboli,
What scared St. Anthony,
Hobgoblins, Lemures,
Dreams of Antipodes,
Night-riding Incubi
Troubling the fantasy,
All dire illusions
Causing confusions;
Figments heretical,
Scruples fantastical,
Doubts diabolical,
Abaddon vexeth me,
Mahu perplexeth me,
Lucifer teareth me—

Jesu! Maria! liberate nos ab his diris tentationibus Inimici.


Sardonic Again

This supplements a previous note on the word sardonic.

I haven't read Paul Kretschmer, "Das sardonische Lachen," Glotta 34.1-2 (1954) 1-9, but Joseph Russo has. According to Russo's commentary on Homer, Odyssey 20.302, Kretschmer
reviews and refutes the ancient etymologies and would derive the word from a Near Eastern people called the Shardana, neighbours of the Egyptians who migrated westward and gave their name to Sardinia and to laughter-provoking performers of south Italian farce. This last connection, however, based on Hesychius' gloss σαρδανάφαλλος· γελωτοποιός, seems tenuous, and so the origin of 'sardonic laughter' remains obscure.
Erasmus, Adagia III.v.1, discusses Risus Sardonius (Σαρδώνιος γέλως) in detail. See Collected Works of Erasmus, 35 (Adages III iv 1 to IV ii 100, tr. Dennis L. Drysdall) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pp. 59-67.

The Sardinian plant which, when eaten, is supposed to cause a sardonic grin is the hairy buttercup, Ranunculus sardous:

Ranunculus sardous, photographed by Kristian Peters

Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ), s.v. σαρδάνιος, say that the word is "Perh. connected with σεσηρώς, grinning, sneering." For σεσηρώς, one must consult LSJ under σαίρω (A):
only found in pf. with pres. sense σέσηρα,

A. part the lips and show the closed teeth (cf. Gal.18(2).597), grin, σέσηρεν ἄν τε βούλητ' ἄν τε μή Alex.98.26; Σάτυροι ἀπὸ τοῦ σεσηρέναι Ael.VH3.40; but mostly in part., ἄπλητον σεσᾰρυῖα (Ep. for σεσηρυῖα) Hes.Sc.268; οἷον σεσηρὼς ἐξαπατήσειν μ' οἴεται Ar.V.901; ἠγριωμένους ἐπ' ἀλλήλοισι καὶ σεσηρότας Id.Pax620; ς. καὶ γελῶν Com.Adesp.606; γελῶντα καὶ ς. Plu.2.223c; σιμὰ ς. AP5.178 (Mel.); but also without any such bad sense, εἶπε σεσᾱρὼς ὄμματι μειδιόωντι smiling, Theoc. 7.19 (cf. προσσαίρω).

2. transferred to grinning laughter, σεσηρόσι μειδιήμασι Hp.Gland.12; σεσηρότι γέλωτι Luc.Am.13 : the neut. is used in Adv. sense, σεσᾱρὸς γελᾶν Theoc.20.14; σεσηρὸς αἰκάλλειν, of a fox, Babr.50.14, cf. Ps.-Luc.Philopatr.26.

3. of a wound or sore, ἕλκος σεσηρὸς καὶ ἐκπεπλιγμένον gaping, Hp.Fract.32, cf. Aret.CA2.2; also ς. χάσμημα, of a metrical hiatus, Eust.840.43.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Fewer Sands In Our Glass

Charles Lamb, Popular Fallacies, XII (That Home Is Home Though It Is Never So Homely):
We have fewer sands in our glass to reckon upon, and we cannot brook to see them drop in endlessly succeeding impertinences. At our time of life, to be alone sometimes is as needful as sleep. It is the refreshing sleep of the day. The growing infirmities of age manifest themselves in nothing more strongly, than in an inveterate dislike of interruption. The thing which we are doing, we wish to be permitted to do. We have neither much knowledge nor devices; but there are fewer in the place to which we hasten. We are not willingly put out of our way, even at a game of nine-pins. While youth was, we had vast reversions in time future; we are reduced to a present pittance, and obliged to economise in that article.

Friday, June 20, 2008



The theme for this week on A.Word.A.Day is toponyms (words derived from place names), and the word for Tuesday, June 17, 2008, was sardonic:
sardonic (sahr-DON-ik) adjective
Marked by scorn, mockery, and cynicism.
[After Sardinia, a large island in the Mediterranean. Eating a Sardinian plant was believed to produce facial convulsions as if in a maniacal laughter.]
But the ultimate origin of the word is not as certain as A.Word.A.Day suggests. See the Oxford English Dictionary s.v. sardonic:
a. F. sardonique (16th c.) = Sp. sardónico, Pg., It. sardonico, as if ad. L. *sardonicus, an alteration (by substitution of suffix: see -IC) of sardonius: see SARDONIAN.
and s.v. sardonian:
f. L. sardoni-us + -AN. The Latin adj. is ad. Gr. Σαρδόνιος Sardinian, which in late Gr. was substituted for σαρδάνιος (Homer, etc.; of obscure origin), as the descriptive epithet of bitter or scornful laughter; the motive of the substitution was the notion that the word had primary reference to the effects of eating a 'Sardinian plant' (L. herba Sardonia or Sardōa), which was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.
See further Liddell-Scott-Jones, s.v. σαρδάνιος:
an Adj. used of bitter or scornful smiles or laughter, μείδησε δὲ θυμῷ σαρδάνιον μάλα τοῖον Od.20.302; so ἀνεκάγχασε μάλα σαρδάνιον Pl.R.337a; ὑπομειδιάσας σαρδάνιον Plb. 18.7.6; τί μάταια γελᾷς ..; τάχα που σαρδάνιον γελάσεις AP5.178 (Mel.); πεφύλαξο σίνεσθαι, μὴ καὶ σ. γελάσῃς APl.4.86; ridere γέλωτα σαρδάνιον Cic.Fam.7.25.1. (Perh. connected with σεσηρώς, grinning, sneering, Sch.Pl. l.c.; cf. σαρδάζων: μετὰ πικρίας γελῶν, Phot., Suid. —

The common expl. given of this laugh was that it resembled the effect produced by a Sardinian plant (Ranunculus Sardoüs, Sardinian crowfoot, called σαρδάνη by Tz. ad Hes. Op.59, σαρδόνιον by Ps.-Dsc.2.175, D.Chr.32.99) which when eaten screwed up the face of the eater, Paus.10.17.13, Sch.Pl. l.c., Phot., Verg.Ecl.7.41; whence later authors wrote σαρδόνιον or σαρδώνιον (from Σαρδώ) for σαρδάνιον, Ps.-Dsc. l.c., D.Chr. l.c., Luc.Asin.24, etc., σαρδώνιος γέλως and -ωνία πόα Dsc.Alex.14, and σαρδόνιον appears as a v.l. in Hom. and Pl.; hence our form sardonic; this and other explanations are given in Timae.29, Zen.5.85, Lyc.796, Sch. Pl. l.c.)
The following translation of Suda, s.v. Σαρδάνιος γέλως (Σ 124 Adler, tr. Robert Dyer et al.) comes from that wonderful resource, the Suda On Line. I've taken the liberty of substituting citations for footnote numbers in square brackets:
A proverb [applied] to those laughing at their own death. Demon [says] that it was handed down because the inhabitants of Sardinia used to sacrifice to Cronus the finest of their captives and those over 70 years of age, who laughed to show their courage (that is, bravery). [FGrH 327 F18] But Timaeus [says] that those who had lived long enough in Sardinia used to laugh when they were herded by their sons with wooden staves into the trench in which they were about to be buried. [FGrH 566 F64] Others [say] that it came from grinning with mischievous intent. [schol. Homer, Odyssey 20.302] And Clitarchus [FGrH 137 F9] and others say that in Carthage, during great prayers, they place a boy in the hands of Cronus (a bronze statue is set up, with outstretched hands, and under it a baking oven) and then put fire under; the boy shrunk by the fire seems to laugh. Simonides [fr.202A Bergk] [says] that when the Sardinians did not wish to hand over to Minos Talos, the crafted man, the latter leapt into a fire, being made of bronze, and, clasping them to his breast, killed them with their mouths open. Silenus, in the fourth book of his History of Syracuse [FGrH 175 F5], [says] that there is among the Sardinians an herb resembling celery and those who taste it bite off pieces of their own faces [i.e. lips] and flesh. Some [say] that it is of those laughing at evil, as Homer says of Odysseus, 'But godlike Odysseus smiled a sardonic smile,'[cf. Homer, Odyssey 20.301-2] and elsewhere, 'She laughed sweetly with her lips, but her face was not cheerful under her dark brows.'[cf. Homer, Iliad 15.101-3]
Suda On Line's notes are also helpful:
These many fanciful explanations, many basing the definition on retracted lips rather than the sound of laughter, arise from attempts to explain Odysseus's sardonic smile when he avoids being killed by an ox's jaw thrown by one of the suitors (Homer, Odyssey 20.302). The scholiast on that passage and on Plato Republic 337a think the adjective is related to participle σεσηρώς which refers to grinning or sneering. The connection with Sardinia perhaps arises from early antiquarians wishing to show their knowledge of customs of the Sardinians or of the Phoenician colonists there. The adjective for Sardinian is usually not 'Sardanios' but 'Sardonios.' Sardinia was, however, an active source of Phoenician trade in metallurgy well before Homer's day (OCD3, s.v. Sardinia), and a connection is possible. The phrase occurs of laughter in Plato (Republic 337a, with a lengthy note by the scholiast, again differing slightly from Suda, the Homeric scholia and the scholia to Lycophron 796), Cicero (ad Fam. 7.25.1) and elsewhere.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Cosmetic Treatments

Horace Miner first investigated Body Ritual among the Nacirema in the American Anthropologist 58 (1956) 503-507. In the half century since his seminal article, much additional research has been done on this exotic tribe, so much that no one could possibly read it all. But my son drew my attention to one recent brief item of anthropological interest on the Nacirema by Jonathon Morgan, Natural cosmetics: $200 for a bird poop facial, Green Daily (April 30, 2008):
As it turns out, the last time one of Mother Nature's feathered friends dropped a bomb on your noggin, they were doing you a favor. Because, believe it or not, high-rolling New Yorkers are paying for that crap — the Shizuka salon in midtown Manhattan charges $216 for the courtesy of lathering your face in bird excrement.
This type of cosmetic treatment is not unique to the Nacirema. For example, Pliny, Natural History 30.10.28 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley), also recommended bird excrement as a cosmetic treatment to the ancient Romans:
Wool-grease, mixed with Corsican honey — which by the way is considered the most acrid honey of all — removes spots upon the face. Applied with oil of roses in wool, it causes scurf upon the face to disappear: some persons add butter to it. In cases of morphew, the spots are first pricked with a needle, and then rubbed with dog's gall. For livid spots and bruises on the face, the lights of a ram or sheep are cut fine and applied warm, or else pigeons' dung is used.

maculas in facie oesypum cum melle Corsico, quod asperrimum habetur, extenuat, item scobem cutis in facie cum rosaceo inpositum vellere — quidam et butyrum addunt —, si vero vitiligines sint, fel caninum prius acu conpunctas, liventia et suggillata pulmones arietum pecudumque in tenues consecti membranas calidi inpositi vel columbinum fimum.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used similar products from other animals for similar purposes, but that will perhaps be the topic of another blog post.

Faced with zits, one can also just do nothing. See P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, chap. 8:
We start out in life with more pimples than we know what to do with, and in the careless arrogance of youth think they are going to last for ever. But comes a day when we suddenly find that we are down to our last half-dozen. And then those go. There is a lesson in this for all of us.
Related posts:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Balanoculture and Balanophagy

William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), p. 9:
Likewise, I am indebted to David Bainbridge, who so far as I know coined the word balanoculture and whose thesis about acorn eating shaped my own.
On p. 55 Logan again credits Bainbridge with coining balanoculture.

The word balanoculture is the offspring of a mixed marriage between Greek βάλανος (bálanos = acorn) and Latin cultura. It means a society in which the collection, storage, preparation, and consumption of acorns as a foodstuff play a large role. A synonym derived purely from Latin would be glandiculture, from Latin glans = acorn, but glandiculture appears nowhere outside of this blog post.

Logan's book lacks footnotes, and he doesn't say where the word balanoculture first appeared in print. There is a bibliography, however, which lists two items by David A. Bainbridge (p. 310):The Ambio article is unavailable to me, and an online version of "The Use of Acorns" doesn't contain the word balanoculture.

The word balanophagy apparently first appeared in Edward W. Gifford, "California Balanophagy," in Essays in Anthropology Presented to A.L. Kroeber in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1936), pp. 87-98, reprinted in R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple, edd. The California Indians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). It is a compound formed from the Greek roots βάλανος (bálanos = acorn) and φαγεῖν (phageîn, infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω, meaning to eat).

Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) list the following compounds formed from βάλανος and φαγεῖν. The LSJ definitions and citations are inside the parentheses:I don't know if balanoculture or balanophagy appear in any printed dictionaries. They are not in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Thanks to my son, who gave me Logan's Oak as a gift on Fathers' Day.

Related posts:

Monday, June 16, 2008


Staying at Home

Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, Newsletter 590 (June 7, 2008), on the neologism staycation:
Ken Thomson heard this word on TV in San Francisco and thought it had a nice ring to it. It's a stay-at-home vacation. It seems to have first appeared in 2005 but has become significantly more visible in the past three months because of financial concerns as the economy weakens and the price of fuel keeps going up. Other reasons were given in an article in the Washington Times on 23 March: "Increasing concerns over the environment as well as the desire for more family time add to the staycation's popularity."
Stanley Crawford, A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm (New York: Edward Burlingame Books, 1992), pp. 192-193 (from a chapter titled Staying at Home):
But staying at home is the most ecological thing to do. There is no other way to grow your garden, tend your animals, your orchard, your streams and rivers, ponds and lakes, fences and roads, to study the accretions of time. This is of course mainly what most of humankind has done for most of history. The numbers are rapidly coming in to say that running around, driving and flying, on the scale now considered socially acceptable and even fashionable, is something the planet cannot much longer support.

Staying home is hauling water and chopping wood, mending your fences, hoeing your row, planting your tree, digging out your ditches, raising your children, milking your goats. For those who stay at home, there is no figure of speech here: these are lists of the real chores by which the notion of home, both of house and of landscape, is made and defined.
Sophocles, fragment 934 = Aeschylus, fragment 317 (tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones):
The man who is truly fortunate should stay at home.

οἴκοι μένειν δεῖ τὸν καλῶς εὐδαίμονα.
Related posts:

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Spunhungan, Wangan Stick, Wambeck, etc.

Lew Dietz, The Allagash (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968; rpt. Camden: Down East Books, 2000), p. xvii:
Once the gear was unloaded, Bud went for dry wood, cutting and fetching in ten-foot lengths of sound dead trees. John arranged the cooking gear and Dave began axing up the logs into usable billets, enough for the night fire and the morning. The lug pole was set on forked sticks. This frame built over the cookfire is called by Allagash men the "spunhungan," or at least this is as close as my ear could ever catch it—I've never seen the word in print. Crotched green sticks are hung from the lug pole with a nail tacked at its end to hold the bailed teakettle. This is variously called a lug stick, pothook, or wangan stick. The pole driven into the ground at such an angle as to extend over the fire is a wambeck.
Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and for Travelers in the Wilderness, 2 vols. in 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1917), I (Camping), 228, n.:
It is curious how many different names have been bestowed upon the hooks by which kettles are suspended over a fire. Our forefathers called them pot-hooks, trammels, hakes, hangers, pot-hangers, pot-claws, pot-crooks, gallows-crooks, pot-chips, pot-brakes, gibs or gib-crokes, rackan-crooks (a chain or bar on which to hang hooks was called a rackan or reckon), and I know not what else besides. Among Maine lumberman, such an implement is called a lug-stick, a hook for lifting kettles is a hook-stick, and a stick sharpened and driven into the ground at an angle so as to bend over the fire, to suspend a kettle from, is a wambeck or a spygelia — the Red Gods alone know why! The frame built over a cooking-fire is called by the Penobscots kitchi-plak-wagn, and the Micmacs call the lug-stick a chiplok-waugan, which the white guides have partially anglicized into waugan-stick. It is well to know, and heresy to disbelieve, that, after boiling the kettle, it brings bad luck to leave the waugan or spygelia standing.

If this catalogue does not suffice the amateur cook to express his ideas about such things, he may exercise his jaws with the Romany (gipsy) term for pot-hook, which is kekauviscoe saster.
For yet more additions to the catalogue, see Clive Upton et al., Survey of English Dialects: The Dictionary and Grammar (London: Routledge, 1994), s.vv. crane (p. 102) and hook (pp. 213-214), recording answers of informants who were asked, "What do you call that old-fashioned arrangement for hanging a kettle on to heat it over the fire?"

John Gould, Maine Lingo (Camden: Down East Magazine, 1975; rpt. 1980), p. 310, doesn't mention wangan stick in his discussion of wangan:
Found by Fr. Sebastien Râle in the St. Francis Indian language, this word meant the effects a brave carried on a wilderness journey. It remains today as the term for the gear and duffle of a canoe trip, and in general all the food and supplies needed for wilderness travel. It has come to mean the company store in a lumber camp, and also the traveling kitchen that accompanied river drivers down a stream. Besides the company store, it has also come to mean the account there, usually charged against wages, until a man will say he has to "pay his wangan." Maine woods people, to whom the word has long been second nature, tend to pronounce it wong-'n, with perhaps a little carryover of the g, thus: wong-g'n. Always remembering that Maine Indian terms came into our English through the French, we should perhaps note that French-Canadians, to whom the term is equally easy, give it a whang-g'n sound. The Minnesota embellishment of "wannigan" is sheer bosh; the word has only two syllables. The quickest definition of wangan is woods supplies; Maine canoeists have rope-handled wooden boxes for carrying their wangan, and these are wangan boxes.
But, pace Gould, the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary is the trisyllabic wanigan, with the following etymology:
Shortened from Montagnais Indian atawangan, f. atawan to buy or sell. Cf. Cree and Odjibwa atawâgan, 'ce dont on se sert pour acheter ou pour vendre' (Lacombe).

Saturday, June 14, 2008


The Man of Science

John Clare, Shadows of Taste, lines 97-124:
The man of science in discoverys moods
Roams oer the furze clad heath leaf buried woods
And by the simple brook in rapture finds
Treasures that wake the laughter of vulgar hinds
Who see no further in his dark employs
Then village childern seeking after toys
Their clownish hearts and ever heedless eyes
Find nought in nature they as wealth can prize
With them self interest and the thoughts of gain
Are natures beautys all beside are vain
But he the man of science and of taste
Sees wealth far richer in the worthless waste
Where bits of lichen and a sprig of moss
With all the raptures of his mind engross
And bright winged insects on the flowers of may
Shine pearls too wealthy to be cast away
His joys run riot mid each juicy blade
Of grass where insects revel in the shade
And minds of different moods will oft condemn
His taste as cruel such the deeds to them
While he unconsious gibbets butterflyes
And strangles beetles all to make us wise
Tastes rainbow visions own unnumbered hues
And every shade its sense of taste pursues
The heedless mind may laugh the clown may stare
They own no soul to look for pleasure there
Their grosser feelings in a coarser dress
Mock at the wisdom which they cant possess

Friday, June 13, 2008


Live Happy

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals III.23:
Live happy in the Elizium of a virtuously composed Mind, and let Intellectual Contents exceed the Delights wherein mere Pleasurists place their Paradise. Bear not too slack reins upon Pleasure, nor let complexion or contagion betray thee unto the exorbitancy of Delight. Make Pleasure thy Recreation or intermissive Relaxation, not thy Diana, Life and Profession. Voluptuousness is as insatiable as Covetousness. Tranquillity is better than Jollity, and to appease pain than to invent pleasure. Our hard entrance into the World, our miserable going out of it, our sicknesses, disturbances, and sad Rencounters in it, do clamorously tell us we come not into the World to run a Race of Delight, but to perform the sober Acts and serious purposes of Man; which to omit were foully to miscarry in the advantage of humanity, to play away an uniterable Life, and to have lived in vain.

Thursday, June 12, 2008



Gary Snyder, "Doctor Coyote When He Had a Problem," Danger on Peaks: Poems (Washington: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004), p. 59:
Doctor Coyote when he had a problem
took a dump. On the grass, asked his turds where they lay
what to do? They gave him good advice.

He'd say "that's just what I thought too"
And do it.        And go his way.
Snyder's source may have been Jay Miller's introduction to Mourning Dove, Coyote Stories (Caldwell: Caxton, 1933; rpt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. xii:
As he bestowed every one of the powers, the leader also gave out medicine powers. He would point to the center of a person's body, to the heart, which is the seat of thought and emotions, and proclaim what that power would be. Typically, Coyote misunderstood this gesture, assuming that the leader was pointing to his stomach. Thus, by virtue of the creative force granted to his thoughts, Coyote received a special power different from other beings. The representatives of his power lived in Coyote's intestines until he summoned their help. At that moment, they came out and took the form of five feces or, as polite Colvilles say, turds. Coyote called them his younger siblings and asked their advice, which they always gave wisely, although each encounter ended with Coyote, suddenly brilliant, claiming that their help was superfluous because, after all, he had known what to do all the time. If his younger siblings were slow or reluctant to offer advice, he bullied them into cooperation by threatening to cause a rainstorm which would melt them.
One could classify Coyote's method of asking advice as scatomancy, which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines as "Divination or diagnosis based on the examination of the faeces." The OED gives the following quotations:
1569 J. SANDFORD tr. Agrippa's Van. Artes lxxxiii. 145b, For this cause Scatomancie, Oromancie, Drymimancie, be called the diuinations or Prognostications of Phisitians, gathered by ordures and vrines. 1861 READE Cloister & H. xxvi, I studied at Montpelier... There learned I Dririmancy, Scatomancy, Pathology [etc.]. 1897 in Syd. Soc. Lex.
The OED also has an entry for scatoscopy, defined as "Inspection of the faeces for the purpose of divination or diagnosis."

One of the other modes of divination mentioned by Agrippa, in the passage from his De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium cited, is "oromancie," i.e. uromancy, divination by urine. Samuel Butler, Hudibras 2.3.609-612, doesn't use the word, but obviously refers to the practice:
Your modern Indian magician
Makes but a hole in th' earth to piss in,
And straight resolves all questions by't,
And seldom fails to be i'th' right.
Related post: Matshishkapeu.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The Information Revolution

John Updike, The Tried and Treowe:
I have yet to be persuaded that the information revolution, so called, is anything but an exercise in reading and writing wherein evanescent and odorless PC screens take the place of durable, faintly fragrant paper and ink.



Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare:
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity.


What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind.


The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008



W.S. Merwin, Witness:
I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language


Wounds In Front and In Back

Many thanks to E.J. Moncada for the following comments on wounds:
    "When Anthony, the orator, pleading for Aquilius, suddenly tears the habit of the accused and exhibits the [frontal] wounds he had received in fighting for his country, the Roman people cannot resist the spectacle, but absolve the criminal." Urquhart. Comment on Classical Learning. (Apparently from Quint. Inst. Orat. II. xv. 7., hence my addition of frontal.)

    Is (Sicinius Dentatus) pugnasse in hostem dicitur centum et viginti proeliis, cicatricem aversam nullam, adversas quinque et quadraginta tulisse. Aul. Gell. Noct. Attic. II. 21. 2. (Enough body space for such?)

    Sallust writes of leader Sertorius as having many scars on his breast (adversis cicatricibus). Loc. cit. II. 27.

    Ausonius has kind words for Thrasybulus (Lacedemonian) who fell fighting most bravely: That thou receivest seven gashes all in front... (Excipis adverso quod pectore vulnera septem)... Epigram XLIII (From Anth. Pal. VII. 229). Related epigrams: Dioscorides AG VII, 329 and Hegemon, AG VII, 435.

    One, Cleonnis --"and though he had received many wounds, he had got them all in front, thus providing the fullest proof that he had given way before no one of his foes." But, as a matter of fact, Cleonnis, so wounded, is arguing with Aristomenes (who emerged from the same battle unwounded) for the need of valor. After listening to both sides, the judges voted for Aristomenes (so, lack of wounds not necessarily a sign of cowardice). Diod. Sic. Frag. VIII. 12. 2.

    Petrarch (anachronistic here but assuredly a classical soul) in a letter to F.M. (?) writes: "No one chooses for a captain someone with a sword wound on his back."

    Bassus on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae: When Hades receives the boat load of 300 men aboard, all slain in war, he cries, "id' os pali prosthia panta,/ traumata, kai sternois deris enesti monois..." See again how every wound is frontal and the mark of battle is nowhere but on the breast. (As I typed this it occurred to me how easily (and incorrectly) one might think 'sternois' here might have some derivative connection with English (naval) 'stern.') A.G. IX. 279. Someone termed this a "wretched epigram, but I don't rightly recall who. Since I used to read the Gow and Page A.G. before settling in with Loeb, they might have been the commentators.

    M. Manlius had received twenty three wounds on the front of his body (XXIII cicatrices adverso corpore exceperat). Pliny, HN, VII. 28.103.

    BUT MY FAVORITE is Quintilian's account about Pomponius showing a wound on his face which he had received in the rebellion of Sulpicius and which he boasted he had received while fighting for Caesar and thereupon Gaius Caesar (cousin of the father of C. Julius Caesar) retorted,"You should never look round when you're running away." Quint. VI. iii. 75.

Monday, June 09, 2008


Facing Death

In Wounds, Honorable and Dishonorable, I made the following (by no means original) observation:
A wound in the back is generally disgraceful, because it means that the man struck was fleeing, and it is shameful to flee in battle. Examples in the Iliad include 5.38-42 (Agamemnon slays Odius), 11.446-448 (Odysseus slays Socus), 16.307-311 (Patroclus slays Areïycus), 17.578-579 (Menelaus slays Podes), and 20.487-489 (Achilles slays Areïthous).
I may have missed a striking example, discussed by Robert Renehan, "The Heldentod in Homer: One Heroic Ideal," Classical Philology 82.2 (April 1987) 99-116 (at 109):
Patroclus is not given a chance to die heroically in the full sense (16.786-857). First Apollo strikes him senseless with his hand—from behind. His eyes spun, says the poet. The god then knocks off Patroclus' helmet and disarms him completely; he stands stupefied, στῆ δὲ ταφών. Next, Euphorbus takes advantage of this divine intervention and hits Patroclus in the back with a spear—again from behind. Patroclus tries to shrink back into the throng of his fellow warriors and avoid death (Homer is explicit on this), but Hector sees his opportunity, rushes up to him as he retreats, and drives his spear deep into his flanks. That is the fatal blow. How a warrior who is killed while he is running away in an attempt to save his own life can be said to have died defiantly and heroically—looking death in the face, as it were—is not readily apparent.
In Richmond Lattimore's translation of this episode from the Iliad, Hector strikes Patroclus "in the depth of the belly," which implies that Patroclus is facing Hector. Likewise A.T. Murphy ("in the nethermost belly"). But the Greek says νείατον ἐς κενεῶνα, and Renehan's "flanks" seems more accurate. Liddell-Scott-Jones define κενεών as "hollow between ribs and hip, flank," and one of the definitions in Autenrieth's Homeric Dictionary is "small of the back."

One word used by Homer for "belly" is νηδύς, and a relevant quotation is Iliad 13.288-291 (Idomeneus speaking to Meriones, tr. Samuel Butler):
If you were struck by a dart or smitten in close combat, it would not be from behind, in your neck nor back, but the weapon would hit you in the chest or belly as you were pressing forward to a place in the front ranks.

εἴ περ γάρ κε βλεῖο πονεύμενος ἠὲ τυπείης
οὐκ ἂν ἐν αὐχέν᾽ ὄπισθε πέσοι βέλος οὐδ᾽ ἐνὶ νώτῳ,
ἀλλά κεν ἢ στέρνων ἢ νηδύος ἀντιάσειε
πρόσσω ἱεμένοιο μετὰ προμάχων ὀαριστύν.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


A Grove of Ancient Trees

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 41.3 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity.

si tibi occurrerit vetustis arboribus et solitam altitudinem egressis frequens lucus et conspectum caeli densitate ramorum aliorum alios protegentium summovens, illa proceritas silvae et secretum loci et admiratio umbrae in aperto tam densae atque continuae fidem tibi numinis faciet.
Ivan Shishkin, Forest Reserve, Pine Grove

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Homo Animal Querulum

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, VII:
"Homo animal querulum cupide suis incumbens miseriis." I wonder where that comes from. I found it once in Charron, quoted without reference, and it has often been in my mind—a dreary truth, well worded. At least, it was a truth for me during many a long year. Life, I fancy, would very often be insupportable, but for the luxury of self-compassion; in cases numberless, this it must be that saves from suicide. For some there is great relief in talking about their miseries, but such gossips lack the profound solace of misery nursed in silent brooding.
A footnote in Pierre Charron (1541-1603), De la Sagesse: Trois Livres, ed. Amaury Duval, Tome Premier (Paris: Rapilly, 1827), p. 284, attributes the Latin quotation to Apuleius, but I can't find it among the works of Apuleius.

Giovanni Alberto Colombo, Naturalis Philosophiae Elementa, Liber Primus (Physica Generalis) (Patavii: Typis Seminarii, Apud Joannem Manfrè, 1772), p. 435, gives a fuller quotation but no attribution:
Est enim homo animal querulum cupide suis incumbens miseriis, & ubi veris malis haud premitur suopte se macerans ingenio.

Man is a querulous animal, eagerly brooding on his own miseries, and, when he is not troubled by genuine evils, tormenting himself in his own imagination.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Narrow-Leaved Purple Coneflowers

This is the second in a series of notes to myself about some flowers recently planted in my yard.

Narrow-Leaved Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia)

Linnaeus originally classified purple coneflowers in the genus Rudbeckia, but Conrad Moench, Methodus plantas horti botanici et agri Marburgensis a staminum situ describendi (Marburgi Cattorum: In officina nova libraria academiae, 1794), p. 591, gave them their own genus, Echinacea, from Greek echinos (ἐχῖνος) meaning hedgehog and also sea urchin. In Latin, echinus occurs as a fairly common loan word, with the same meanings as in Greek.

Augustin de Candolle, Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis, Part 5 (Paris: Treuttel & Würtz, 1836), pp. 554-555, recognized nine species of Echinacea, among them Echinacea angustifolia. The compound angustifolia comes from the Latin adjective angustus, -a, -um (narrow) and the noun folium (leaf). All nine species of Echinacea are native to North America.

Britton & Brown (III, 475) describe Echinacea thus:
Perennial erect branched or simple herbs, with thick black roots, thick rough alternate or opposite, 3-5-nerved entire or dentate, undivided leaves, and large long-peduncled heads of tubular and radiate flowers, the rays purple, purplish, crimson or yellow, the disk green or purple, at length ovoid or conic. Involucre depressed-hemispheric, its bracts lanceolate, spreading or appressed, imbricated in 2-4 series. Receptacle conic, chaffy, the chaff carinate and cuspidate. Ray-flowers neutral, or with a rudimentary pistil. Disk-flowers perfect, the corolla cylindric, 5-toothed. Achenes 4-sided, obpyramidal, thick. Pappus a short dental crown. [Greek, referring to the spiny chaff of the receptacle.]
Britton & Brown (III, 476) describe Echinacea angustifolia thus:
Stem hispid or hirsute, slender, often simple, 1°-2° high. Leaves lanceolate, oblong-lanceolate, or linear-lanceolate, hirsute, acute and about equally narrowed at each end, strongly 3-nerved and sometimes with an additional pair of marginal less distinct nerves, entire, 3'-8' long, 4"-12" wide, the lower and basal ones slender-petioled, the upper short-petioled or sessile; heads and flowers similar to those of the preceding species [Echinacea purpurea], but the rays usually shorter, spreading. In dry soil, especially on prairies, Minnesota to Saskatchewan, Nebraska and Texas.
Melvin R. Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region (1919; rpt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), p. 79, wrote, "Echinacea seems to have been used as a remedy for more ailments than any other plant." The Native American Ethnobotany database has 84 entries for Echinacea angustifolia. It remains popular today as a remedy in alternative medicine, and it is so costly that thieves sometimes steal purple coneflowers. For almost ten years the following statute has been on the books in North Dakota (N.D. Cent. Code, § 4-24-12):
1. A person is guilty of a class A misdemeanor, is subject to court-ordered restitution to the landowner, and also is subject to a civil penalty of up to ten thousand dollars if that person willfully enters upon land owned by another and, without the express written consent of the owner, removes or attempts to remove a purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea angustifolia, from the land.

2. A person is guilty of a class A misdemeanor, is subject to court-ordered restitution to the state, and is subject to a civil penalty of up to ten thousand dollars if that person willfully removes or attempts to remove a purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea angustifolia, from state-owned land.

3. A person is guilty of a class A misdemeanor and also is subject to a civil penalty of up to ten thousand dollars if that person willfully possesses a purple coneflower removed from land in violation of this section.

4. Any vehicle used to transport a purple coneflower removed or possessed in violation of this section is forfeitable property under chapter 29-31.1.
For more information see Sandra Carol Miller, ed. Echinacea: The Genus Echinacea (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2004).

Related post: Golden Alexanders.


Pencil and Peattie

I received the following email from Chris Dodge:
Michael, re: penises and pencils,

Penicillin should be an erection-producing drug, no? And it should cost but pennies.

I see that you post excerpts from Donald Culross Peattie occasionally. His son Noel was a friend of mine. Eulogy here: Publisher of his poetry:

With thanks for the brain food,

Chris wrote the eulogy of Noel Peattie.



Sara Stein, Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), pp. 132-133:
The literature on mouth-to-mouth recycling is necessarily scatological: all animals suffer a degree of indigestion, and what is waste to one is food to others. At first the thought of caprophagy is repelling, but weighing the services of feces eaters against a landscape deep in dog doo, one is moved to benediction of the sanitation crew. The Australian range disaster occurred when cattle were imported without the dung beetles that customarily roll balls of cow manure into their underground chambers to feed their larvae. Left whole and baking in the sun, the cow pats dried to a crust that killed the grass and stayed undecayed sometimes for a decade. The problem was solved by introducing African dung beetles, which could cope with both wet pats and dry weather.
Caprophagy is obviously a mistake. There is a rare Greek word καπροφάγος (kaprophágos), defined by Liddell-Scott-Jones as "eating boar's flesh, epith. of Artemis at Samos." But what the context demands here is coprophagy, from Greek κοπροφάγος (koprophágos = eating dung), itself from κόπρος (kópros = dung) and φαγεῖν (phageîn, infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω, meaning to eat).

Sara Stein is not alone in making this mistake. Google Book Search reveals nine examples of caprophagy from printed materials, and Google has over two hundred examples. You can also find caprophagous on the Web and in books, but it is likewise a mistake for coprophagous.

On a related note, David Quammen, The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature (1988; rpt. New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 203, has a tongue-in-cheek (dung-in-cheek?) adaptation of the Biblical book of Exodus, chapters 15-16:
And behold, in those days the children of Israel had taken their journey into the desert, and they were hungry and they were thirsty and they were sorely vexed, and so they murmured against Moses, saying, What is this nonsense? Moses, we are fixing to die out here and shrivel away like dried chilies if you don't do something, they said. So Moses cried unto the Lord and the Lord showed him a sweet spring where it flowed out of the rock. Fine, but what about some food? said the children of Israel. So the Lord sent overnight a great host of scale insects of the species Trabutina mannipara and Najacoccus serpentinus, this is true fact, and these insects fed upon the desert tamarisk bushes and then they shat upon the ground; a fine white layer of nutritious excrement, tiny granules that lay over the ground like hoar frost, did they shit. And when the children of Israel saw this stuff, they called it manna, and they did nourish themselves upon it for forty years.
Related posts:

Wednesday, June 04, 2008



Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960), p. 314:
lead in [one's] pencil, have     1 [taboo] To have an erection; to be capable of and eager for sexual intercourse. 2 To be full of energy and vitality.
Sense 1 is apt in light of the etymological connection between pencil and penis. See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), s.v. pencil:
Middle English pensel, pencel, from Old French pincel, from Vulgar Latin pēnicellus (unattested), from Latin pēnicillus, a brush, pencil, "small tail," diminutive of pēnis, tail.
and s.v. penis:
Latin pēnis, tail, penis.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


In Calm Leisure Let Me Rest

Andrew Marvell, translation of The Second Chorus from Seneca's Tragedy, Thyestes:
Climb at Court for me that will
Tottering Favour's slipp'ry hill.
All I seek is to lye still.
Settled in some secret Nest
In calm Leisure let me rest;
And far off the publick Stage
Pass away my silent Age.
Thus when without noise, unknown,
I have liv'd out all my span,
I shall dye, without a groan,
An old honest Country man.
Who expos'd to others Eyes,
Into his own Heart ne'r pry's,
Death to him's a Strange surprise.
Seneca, Thyestes 391-403:
Stet quicumque volet potens
aulae culmine lubrico:
me dulcis saturet quies.
obscuro positus loco
leni perfruar otio,
nullis nota Quiritibus
aetas per tacitum fluat.
sic cum transierint mei
nullo cum strepitu dies,
plebeius moriar senex.
illi mors gravis incubat
qui, notus nimis omnibus,
ignotus moritur sibi.



Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns (June 2):
A man need not know how to name all the oaks or the moths, or be able to recognize a synclinal fault, or tell time by the stars, in order to possess Nature. He may have his mind solely on growing larkspurs, or he may love a boat and a sail and a blue-eyed day at sea. He may have a bent for making paths or banding birds, or he may be only an inveterate and curious walker.

But I contend that such a fellow has the best out of life—he and the naturalists. You are ignorant of life if you do not love it or some portion of it, just as it is, a shaft of light from a nearby star, a flash of the blue salt water that curls around the five upthrust rocks of the continents, a net of green leaves spread to catch the light and use it, and you, walking under the trees. You, a handful of supple earth and long white stones, with seawater running in your veins.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Golden Alexanders

This is the first in a series of notes for my own use about some flowers recently planted in my yard. Photographs come from the web site of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. References to Britton & Brown are to Nathaniel Lord Britton and Addison Brown, An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970). Ethnobotanical information comes from the Native American Ethnobotany database.

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)

On the etymology of the common name, see the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), s.v. alexanders (a different plant):
Cf. Fr. alexandre (Lyte's Dodoens), alisandre Palsg., alisaundre, alissandere Godef., med.L. name Petroselinum Alexandrinum, a synonym of P. Macedonicum. The note in Holland's Pliny (1634) II. 30 that alisanders is 'a corrupt word from olus atrum, as if one would say olusatres,' seems disproved by the 10th c. alexandre.
The only OED definition of alexanders is:
An umbelliferous plant (Smyrnium olusatrum), called also Horse-parsley, formerly cultivated and eaten like celery.
Note that the scientific name of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) reflects the discredited etymology from olus atrum.

Linnaeus originally named golden alexanders Smyrnium aureum, but W.D.J. Koch, "Generum tribuumque plantarum Umbelliferarum nova dispositio," Nova Acta Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino-Carolinae Germanicae Naturae Curiosorum 12.1 (1824) 55-156 (at 129) renamed the plant Zizia aurea in honor of German botanist Johann Baptist Ziz (1779-1829). The second half of the binomial (aurea) means "golden."

Britton & Brown (III, 641) describe the genus Zizia thus:
Perennial mostly glabrous herbs, with ternate or ternately compound leaves, or the basal ones undivided as in Thaspium, and compound umbels of yellow flowers, the central fruit of each umbellet sessile. Involucre none; involucels of several small bracts. Calyx-teeth prominent. Stylopodium none. Styles elongated. Fruit ovoid, or oblong, glabrous, or nearly so, somewhat flattened at right angles to the commissure, the ribs filiform, not winged; oil-tubes solitary in the intervals, with a small one under each rib. Seed-face flat.
Britton & Brown (ibid.) describe the species Zizia aurea thus:
Erect, glabrous, branched, 1°-2½° high. Basal and lower leaves long-petioled, 2-3-ternately compound, the segments ovate, or ovate-lanceolate, acute, acuminate or obtusish at the apex, 1'-2' long, sharply serrate; upper leaves shorter-petioled, ternate; rays of the umbels 9-25, stout, ascending, 1'-2' long; fruit oblong, nearly 2" long, about 1½" wide.

In fields, meadows, and swamps. New Brunswick to Ontario, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Florida and Texas. April-June.
Thoreau saw golden alexanders on his trip to Minnesota. See Frank B. Sanborn, The First and Last Journeys of Thoreau: Lately Discovered among his Unpublished Journals and Manuscripts (Boston: Bibliophile Society, 1905), p. 34:
This was a noble crop for the two botanists. Before dining with the doctor, apparently, Thoreau had found on the prairie Osmorrhiza brevistylis and a Thaspium, of the variety apterum; and he adds, "Dr. Charles L. Anderson [his host] has this variety, and also the Zizia aurea."
According to Huron H. Smith, "Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki Indians," Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee 4 (1928) 175-326 (at 250), Zizia aurea was used as a headache remedy.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Books in Heaven and Hell

Joseph Epstein, The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), p. 117 (essay "Bookless in Gaza"):
Allow me my major premise for a moment: if there is a Heaven, will it contain books? Or will the very need for books be expunged? In Heaven, there may be no need to read about foreign shores or treasures hitherto undreamed of. There may be no need even to dream of such treasures; they will presumably be there, on the premises, so to speak. But if there are no books in Heaven, then—as John Sparrow once remarked of Heaven if his dear friend Maurice Bowra were not there—I do not care to go. My own view is that there will be books in Heaven, but only in foreign languages, ancient and modern and even lost, all of which I shall be able to read with perfect ease.

As for Hell, will there be books there? The Abbé Mugnier, friend to Edith Wharton and the artists and intellectuals of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, was once asked if he, gentle soul that he was, believed in Hell. He said that since it was Church dogma that Hell existed, he believed in Hell, though he also believed there was no one in it. But if the sweet-natured Abbé was wrong, it seems unlikely that there will not be something to read in Hell. My own guess is that there will be no actual books, but only bound volumes of the New York Times op-ed pages.
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