The "Last Words" of the Page
Bill Long 7/31/08
Here I will introduce a number of words that are hanging around, still wanting or needing their 10 seconds of fame, before I close this "page" or template once and for all. A few of these words are sticcado and travado, tetrapyloctomy and growlery, seplasiary, ventripotent and transvasate and, finally, the beautiful word sciapodes. In fact, the last is so beautiful that I would like to introduce it first.
The sciapodes were, in a word, ancient monsters who had the unique feature of having feet so big that they could block out the sun and thus give a person shade. The word skia means "shade" and podes, we all know, means "feet." Rudolf Wittkower wrote a fascinating article in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 5 (1942), 159-97 in which he traced the history of some ancient monsters. Though referred to by earlier historians such as Skylax, Hekataios and Herodotus, the sciapodes first became a part of an author's "theory of monsters" in the 4th century BCE. In that century Ctesias pointed to India as the land of marvels, of fabulous stories and interesting creatures which terrified the West but were safely kept in the East, to be seen only by some intrepid travelers who then reported on their finds to breathless audiences "back home." As Wittkower says:
"He populated India with the pygmies, who fight with the cranes; with the sciapodes, a people with a single large foot on which they move with great speed and which they also use as a sort of umbrella against the burning sun; and with the cynocephali, the men with dogs' heads "who do not use articulate speech but bark like dogs."
Almost makes you want to chuck it all for the study of ancient monsters, doesn't it?
One Second of Fame
The words seplasiary,vventripotent and transvasate can be disposed of quickly. The late Latin seplasiarius is derived from the name of a street in Capua, Seplasia, where perfumers sold their wares. Thus, a seplasiary is a "perfumer," as seen in this 1650 quotation: "Sorcerers destroy onely by poyson, which every common Seplasarie and petty Apothecary can imitate." I think I should go into Nordstrom some day, amble up to the perfume counter and ask for the chief seplasiary. How long would it take them to throw me out?
Ventripotent consists of two words which combine potens or powerful and ventri or belly. Thus, someone who is ventripotent is "large-bellied." It is a great word for today, when the obesity epidemic is getting out of control. Rather than having to refer to people as obese or portly or horizontally-challenged, we might just call them ventripotent. A 1905 author could refer to Sancho Panza as "the short, ventripotent rustic." Since the assumption is that most fat people are over-eaters, ventripotent also took on the meaning of gluttonous, even though it didn't have to relate to people's appetites. Form 1837: "The ventripotent vermin [sc. fleas] were in the midst of their meal."
Transvasate means "the act or process of pouring something from one vessel to another." Though the scientific and general meaning of the term were in place by the 17th century, I love this 1678 theological usage: "For the Father and the Son are not, as they supposed, transvasated and poured out one into another, as an empty vessel; as if the Son filled up the concavity of the Father, and again, the Father that of the Son." I suppose that one wouldn't get too far with the waiter at a restaurant if one said, "Hey buddy, transvastate a little water to my cup from the pitcher..."
The "Rest" of the Words
The two Italian-origin words on the list are sticcado and travado. I hadn't run into the first word previously, which means "a kind of xylophone." We have this definition from 1875: "Sticcado or sticcato--an instrument composed of pieces of wood of graduated lengths, flat at the bottom and rounded at the top, resting on the edges of an open box, and tuned to a diatonic scale. The tone is produced by striking the pieces of wood with small hard balls at the end of a flexible stick." Sounds like a xylophone to me, right?
Travado has nothing to do with trovado or ben trovato, the last of which means "well-invented." Rather travado is derived from a Portuguese word to describe a kind of whirlwind. It is the past participle of travar, which means to twist or twine. Thus a travado is a sudden violent storm of wind and rain, with thunder and lightning; a tornado. From 1686: "Those Dire Tempests...known amongst us by the names of Spouts, Hurracans, Tornados, Travados..."
Two Deliciously Invented Words
Let's finish this essay with the two invented words, one by Umberto Eco (tetrapyloctomy) and one by Charles Dickens (growlery). I guess I prefer Dickens in this case, so here is the definition: "a place to 'growl' in; jocularly applied to a person's private sitting room." From his 1852 Bleak House: "'Sit down, my dear,' said Mr. Jarndyce; 'this, you must know, is the Growlery. When I am out of humour I come and growl here." A quick search for the term discloses that many people around the world love it, and some have put a placard to that effect on the entrance to the room so designated.
On the other hand, tetrapyloctomy appears only about 1/10 as frequently, and literally means "the art of splitting a hair four ways." Here is an excerpt from the Umberto Eco's 1989 book Foucault's Pendulum, which uses the word:
"Excellent. But would that go with Potio-section of the Adynata?...Belbo...looked at me, saw my bewilderment. 'Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No No,' he said to Diotallevi. 'It's not a department, it's a subject, like Mechanical Avunculograulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy..The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques."
The department is located near the School of Comparative Irrelevance. A fine spoof on academic life though, now that I am no longer in that life, I don't laugh so uproariously at the jokes...
Let that suffice for now.