Monday, October 24, 2011

Word of the Day: sackbut

No, sackbut isn't a Shakespearean insult for a steatopygous individual; it's the precursor to the modern trombone used during the medieval and Renaissance eras.

Trombones in Syntagma Musicum (1614-20), by Mi...Image via WikipediaThe word comes from the Middle French saqueboute, which itself comes from Old French saquier, "to pull," and bouter, "to push." After all, that's how you play it — by pushing and pulling.

The etymology of the "pull-push" bears a resemblance to that of the "soft-loud" — the piano, which is more accurately called the pianoforte, derived from the Italian words for "soft" and "loud": piano and forte, respectively. The immediate precursor to the pianoforte was, strangely enough, the fortepiano, the instrument that Haydn and Mozart wrote for. Earlier keyboard instruments, like the harpsichord, were plucked, and so did not have a wide range of dynamics. The fortepiano introduced mechanisms that, for the first time, allowed keyboardists to control the volume of the notes by how hard they pressed the keys. So the fact that the instrument could play loudly and softly, forte e piano, was the selling point.

And the rest is music history.

But back to the sackbut. As horrible as sackbut might sound, if those musicians of old had decided to put the "push" before the "pull," it might have been called the even worse-sounding butsack.

I almost wish they had.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anxiety and NaNoWriMo 2011

Anxiety, which can encompass an entire spectrum from apprehension and uneasiness to complete self-doubt about one's own ability to cope with a perceived threat, comes from the Latin anxietas, which basically means the same thing. Someone who has anxiety is said to be anxious,

Ambrose Bierce. Portrait by J.H.E. Partington.Ambrose Bierce
Image via Wikipedia
But you can also be anxious if you're just very eager. This is one of those "disputed" usages. Many grammarians will swear up and down that anxious cannot and should not be used to mean eager, but a closer look at where this proscription comes from reveals some surprising facts.

According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (pp.101-104), the proscription against using anxious to mean eager started in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. This "rule" first appeared in print in "The Black List" in Write It Right, from that curmudgeonliest of grammar curmudgeons, Ambrose Bierce, though his explanation is unexpected:
Anxious for Eager. "I was anxious to go." Anxious should not be followed by an infinitive. Anxiety is contemplative; eagerness, alert for action.
No other source bears out the idea that anxious shouldn't be followed by an infinitive, and before Bierce, using anxious to mean eager wasn't uncommon, especially in Great Britain.
  • From Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published in 1814: "We are not rich enough or grand enough for them; and she is the more anxious to get Miss Darcy for her brother, from the notion that when there has been one intermarriage, she may have less trouble in achieving a second . . . "
  • From Lord Byron's "Don Juan," the first cantos of which were published in 1819: "His manner was perhaps the more seductive, / Because he n'er seemed anxious to seduce . . . "
  • From Anthony Trollope's The Macdermots of Ballycloran, published in 1847: "[Mr. Webb] was, moreover, a kind-hearted landlord — ever anxious to ameliorate the condition of the poor — and by no means greedy after money, though he was neither very opulent nor very economical."
Perhaps more common than anxious as eager is a sort of middle ground indicating excitement and worry, but without the dread or uneasiness:
  • From Sense and Sensibility (1811): "He had just compunction enough for having done nothing for his sisters himself, to be exceedingly anxious that everybody else should do a great deal . . . "
  • From A Tale of Two Cities (1859): "Defarge gave into his anxious hand, an open scrap of paper. It bore the words in the Doctor's writing. . ."
  • From Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett (1908): "'Oh, but you must tell me, doctor,' Constance insisted, anxious that he should live up to his reputation for Sophia's benefit."
True, using anxious in the sense of anxiety is by far the most common, but anyone who says that anxious can't ever mean "eager" has two centuries of literature from careful writers to contend with.

The history of and controversy about anxiety and anxious isn't really all that interesting -- at least, it didn't seem that way when I started writing this. I bring it up for another, personal reason, though. The word nerd portion of this post is finished. After the break is a more personal look at what anxiety is to me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Coming Clean about My Addiction

I think I might have a problem. An addiction. Maybe even a sickness.

Last weekend, I took my two sons to lovely Camp Collum in Frankfort, Indiana. It's a beautiful place to camp, with lots of woods and paths, playgrounds, fire rings, a building for large gatherings, available showers, and even, in the middle of a large, open, wild-grown field, a smallish observatory. It really is a great place.

This Post Is Not about Praetoritio

I never thought I would say this — ever: I learned a new word as a result of the debate by the Republican presidential candidates.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Canary Yellow

The color named after a bird named after an island named after a dog

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tough Times in Gotham

"You understand. Right, Alfred?"

"Of course, Master Bruce."

"It's the economy. I just can't afford to keep you on anymore."

"Of course, Master Bruce." Alfred lifted the immaculate silver dome from the tray he had placed in front of Bruce Wayne, releasing the savory steam of his famous venison stew, which cast a brief haze upon his thick glasses. "I am only grateful for the time I have had with you, and for the opportunity to prepare for you, one last time, your favorite meal."

"Thank you, Alfred." Bruce stirred the stew with a large silver spoon, leaning forward to blow across his hot meal. "Like I said before, with upkeep of the mansion . . . and what's under the mansion . . . and the financial situation at Wayne Enterprises, there just isn't enough money left for everything. I just wish there was more I could do. You practically raised me, after all."

"That I did, sir," said Alfred, standing behind and to the right of Bruce's Louis XIV chair, white-gloved hands clasped in front of his genitals. "It was my sole purpose in life. But, as you said, your expenses are neither as small nor as predictable as that of other billionaires."

Alan Napier as Alfred in the Batman TV series.Image via Wikipedia
I may be no Michael Caine,
but you're no George Clooney.
(Val Kilmer, maybe.)
"But you'll bounce back, Alfred. Right? You're smart and resourceful."

"Yes, sir. There are quite a number of opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old proper English butler in the job market these days."

Bruce nodded, took a loud but tentative sip of stew, and then shoveled a spoonful of venison and scallions into his mouth. "Thith ith delithuth, Alfred."

"One should not speak with one's mouth full, Master Wayne."

Bruce downed three more spoonfuls, the moist slurps and slops of mastication echoing in the cavernous dining room, before coming up for air. "Did you put something different in the stew?" he asked.

"The stew is as it should be, Master Bruce."

"Huh." He sucked up another spoonful. "That's weird. It tastes . . . different . . . somehow." He took another thoughtful spoonful. "Regardless, it's delicious."

"Thank you, sir."

"I trust," said Bruce after another few mouthfuls, "that certain . . . information . . . about my usual evening activities will be kept, uh—"

"Of course, sir. You secrets shan't leave this room, sir."

"I knew I could count on you, Alfred." Another spoonful sloshed into his mouth, more than half the stew gone. "We wouldn't want my work — my real work — to come undone now, would we?"

"Of course not, Master Wayne. But while we're on that subject, there is something I've always wondered about. Might I be so bold as to inquire, considering this might be my last chance to do so?"

"Ask away, Alfred," said Bruce. "Whatever you want to know. It's the least I could do."

"Quite right, sir. What I wanted to know, Master Wayne, is whether, during all your experiences with the underworld, you ever learned . . . what cyanide tastes like."

"That's a strange question, Alfred." Bruce thought about it, then shook his head. "No. I can't say I've ever tasted cyanide."

"I beg to differ, sir," said Alfred, bowing slightly. "As a matter of fact, you have tasted cyanide, you selfish, ungrateful, out-of-touch little trust-fund baby!"

So, readers, tell me the truth: Was the ending too obvious? Did you get there before I did?
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Monday, October 3, 2011

The Grandfather Clause

For many people, the word grandfather conjures images of family Christmases, bouncing on knees, butterscotch candies, and games of (in my case) euchre, gin rummy, or cribbage. In short, happy images of good times.

The idea of being grandfathered in is usually a good thing, too. If you're grandfathered in, it means that a new rule or regulation does not apply to you; you continue under the previous rules. In the legal documents, the guidelines for grandfathering in existing customers are usually contained in a "grandfather clause." Hence the word grandfathering.

These days a grandfather clause usually means good news, but the original grandfather clause was a blatantly unfair, political, and racist bit of legislature.