More Free Rice Words XVIII
Bill Long 8/23/08
The Adventure Continues with Levisomnous and Torsade
I ended the previous essay with an exposition of levigation, which is to make smooth or polish. But the Latin word levis can also mean light (as opposed to heavy) or even trivial or inconsequential. For example, levitation, which we have all heard of, is "the action or process of levitating or rising in virtue of lightness." It is opposed to gravitation (grav is the Latin root for "heavy"). Before returning to my "list" of words, my eye ran down the page to levisomnous, a "rare" and "obsolete" word, according to the OED. By taking it apart we have "light" and "sleep," and thus someone levisomnous is a "light sleeper." I would suggest coining the word levisomniac (formed on the analogy to insomniac) to describe a person who is a light sleeper. I don't know why the "professionals" haven't invented such a useful term...
Let's continue with torsade, another word we can explain quickly. It ultimately derives from the Latin root tors, which means "twisted." Thus, a torsade is a "twisted fringe, cord, or ribbon, used as an adornment in head-dresses, curtains, etc." On this page is an image of a "chequerboard with filigree torsade." All that means is that the circular "twisted" outside circle is of filigree work. This necklace is also called a torsade; indeed it is more than a necklace... I also found many images of silverware/flatware which the sellers call torsade; it has to do with the "twisted" nature of the pieces.
For some reason this word was also absent from my vocabulary growing up, but it was coined in 1910 and is "a cheap motor car or aeroplane." The OED says that it originally arose as slang in the United States; here is the first attestation: "You stick to me an' you'll be travellin' 'round the country in a flivver." According to this web site, the flivver was a nickname of Ford's Model T automobile, the first of which rolled off the line at the end of Sept/Oct. 1, 1908. It was referred to as the "flivver" because of the noise made by the car--or at least that is one theory. We don't know, then, actually when the term was coined, but a date between 1908 and 1910 in Michigan looks pretty realistic.
A few months ago I also ran into a new word for an old car: "Cluster Buster." Have you heard it? I ran into this word through this old-time video on Jan & Dean's 1964 hit (with the longest title ever for a song, "The Anaheim, Azuza and Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association") where "Chickie," a friend of Jan & Dean, tells them that he is driving a "Cluster Buster" tonight with his girl Sada. Enough on old cars....
The kapok is a large tropical tree, Ceiba casearia. It can also be silk cotton, the fiber produced from the soft covering of the seeds within its fruit. This silk is used to stuff matresses and cushions. Kapok is a Malay word and first appeared in English in 1735: "There is also [in Guinea] the Capot Tree, that bears a sort of Cotton." But here is my confusion. The Wikipedia article says that the kapok (which it calls the Ceiba pentandra) is a tropical tree native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, northern South America and tropical West Africa. It actually is the official tree of Puerto Rico. Why is the name derived from a Malay word, then? Well, the Britannica tells us that this huge triee was transported to Asia (when?), where its is cultivated for its fiber or floss. Here is a picture. So, maybe that is our explanation. Perhaps the tree only gets a "name" when it becomes of economic significance.
What fascinated me was not simply the word and the tree, concerning which a generous lore has, no doubt, developed, but to learn that there was a restaurant in Clearwater FL for many years known as the Kapok Tree. As this nostalgic web site says, the Kapok Tree at its height could serve 4,000 guests daily in twelve dining room and lounges. It was an international tourist destination, too. Named, obviously, from a kapok tree growing just outside, the restaurant experienced financial problems and closed in the early 1990s.
You know, I just love the fact that people want to remember important places from their past and that they have the time and energy to post old pictures and memories. Places like the Kapok Tree Restaurant provide the context for so many memorable times. The same thought hit me about two months ago when we passed the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination. I recall re-reading the events of that fateful early June 1968 night and then wanting to look at the floor layout of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, especially the kitchen, where Kennedy was shot. But the hotel has been knocked down, even though a web site commemorating this old grand hotel exists. Our memories are thin tissues or sinews that connect us to a past that is still very alive for us. Without the memory, and the ways to encase memory in writing, oral histories or images, those memories would fade. But let's preserve them as long as we can, in hopes that someone from the next generation will consider something that we say or have seen to be worthy enough to attract their attention, as they then pass the experience on to the generation that succeeds them...
Let's complete this little tour with the words shamba, shikari and pantler. The last is a sort of fun word because of how the OED defines it--"an officer in a large household who was in charge of the bread or pantry." As if you just have a sort of early "Great Harvest"-type of person hanging out where the bread is kept, and that is all they do! The word probably originates from panter, and behind that word we see "pan," the bread of life. But, in fact, the pantler had more duties than that. S/he was also a sort of butler. Originally a butler was a "boteler," a person in charge of the wine-cellar who dispenses liquor. But later he became the head servant of a household. So, I think the same kind of evolution probably happened with pantler--from keeping the bread to keeping the house. Thus, by 1706, in the following quotation, we can see how the terms had become identified with each other: "When my old wife liv'd, upon This day, she was both pantler, butler, cook, Both dame and servant; welcom'd all, serv'd all."
So, do we have a process of reverse specialization happening here? From people who were in charge of just one thing to those in charge of the household in general? They never taught me about that in school. I just learned that, over time, everything gets more specialized. Maybe not. Well, I think shikari and shamba are going to have to wait for another essay.
In the meantime, I found a word, grigri, which begs for a long consideration. I turn to it in the next two essays.