Free Rice (and Others) Words XXV
Bill Long 8/30/08
Starting with Carmagnole, Colcothar and Others
Words take you down so many different, and difficult, paths that sometimes you are tempted to stay in your "field" because you just don't understand everything about the word you are studying. But a little understanding starts us off; you can always build on it...
I had that feeling immediately upon meeting colcothar. The Century tells us that the term, derivation unclear, was probably invented by the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus. Some day I will have to try to get to the bottom of his work.. But, for now, we just need to know that colcothar is the brownish-red peroxid of iron remaining after the distillation of the acid from iron sulphate. This remains are used for polishing glass and other substances. Well, we can go further. Paracelsus, as this book says (p. 151), was interested in the vitriols. A vitriol, derived ultimately from the Latin word for "glass" (vitrum), is presumably named because of the glassy surface of their crystals. The four most important were blue (sulphate of copper), green (sulfate of iron), red (sulfate of cobalt) and white (sulfate of zinc). The OED tells us that some of these were used medicinally, and indeed in the 17th and 18th centuries there would be a lot of work done on the medicinal uses of vitriols. Colcothar, however, was the thing left in the crucible (or "retort," as the OED would have it) after the green vitriol was distilled.
One source I read called it a caput mortuum, though I don't know if that is completely true. But it does give us an occasion for understadning the way the alchemists used this term. A caput mortuum, meaning "the head of death," was an alchemical term signifying a useless substance left over from a chemical operation. Interestingly enough, alchemists represented such residue by the stylized human skull--which later became partially associated with poison. The term could also take on a figurative meaning beginning in the 18th century as "worthless residue," as in this 1812 statement: "The caput mortuum of the Addington administration." Let's leave colcothar here, after not even scratching its ample surface.
One couldn't be in a different world from colcothar when you come upon this French word, memorialized in a patriotic song, sung with several variants, from the time of the French Revolution. Its primary referent, beginning in 1792-93, was a lively song and dance popular among the revolutionaries. This 1871 sentence captures its power for the revolution: "That liberty which has for her lullaby the carmagnole." It was originally a 13-stanza song, which was sung very briskly and with much authority, which was added to in 1830, 1848, 1863-64, and 1882-83. The theme of the song was the inability of the King and his wife, Marie Antoinette, to put down the rebellion which they had promised to quell. One of the striking verses runs as follows:
"Antoinette avait resolu/ De nous fair tomber sur le cul:/ Mais le coup a manque/ Elle a le nez casse..."
Which can be rendered,
"(Marie) Antoinette had resolved/ to drop us on our asses/ But the plain was foiled/ And she fell on her face."
Every two or three stanzas we hear the bold refrain:
"Dansons la Carmagnole,/ Vive le son, Vive le son/ Dansons la Carmagnole,/ Vive le son du canon."
"Let's dance the Carmagnole, Long live the sound, long live the sound/ Let us dance the Carmagnole,/ Long live the sound...of the cannon!"
The powerful revolutionary spirit is "in the air" in the song. You can't help but listen to and watch this "YouTube" video without feeling pride, and some fear, in the spirit of that revolution. The words are translated into German there, but an English rendering of some of them is here.
Continuing our Dance...with Words
Well, let's turn to a few more quickly. I didn't know claro previously, but it is one of the wrappers or coverings for the Cuban cigars. It is a "silky, tan wrapper with a light, delicate and distinctly smooth taste." The color of the surface of the cigars (the "wrappers") can go all the way from the bland colored "Double claro" to the black "Oscuro" or "Double maduro." Thus, the claro is on the lighter end of the color chart.
Before leaving cigars, I wanted to introduce two terms familiar to those who just love tobacco or the practice of cigar-smoking. I think that in the rush to ban smoking implements from the middle class in America (it is so politically incorrect to smoke anything now, except marijuana), one threw out the cigar and its pleasure too easily. The words latakia and perique come from that world. Perique is a strong, dark tobacco from Louisiana, cured in its own juices and usually mixed with other tobaccos. The OED tells us that Perique was the presumed nickname of Pierre Chenet (b. 1758), a Louisiana tobacco grower. He was reputed to have been given the tobacco seed by Choctaw Indians. Finally, latakia is a fine kind of Turkish tobacco produced near and shipped from Latakia. Latakia is on the coast of Syria, just south of the Hatay Province of Turkey, the southernmost area of Turkey. Latakia has a rich history, told here.
It really would be wonderful to have someone compile a dictionary of place names which have bequeathed words to us in English. There must be thousands of those words. But learning those words would also bring you into the history of those places and into a production process for goods that, if learned, will add depths of insight to our lives. Well, in any such dictionary, latakia/Latakia would appear.
Brancard, Sizar, Dido
A brancard (BRAN ked) from the French word for "litter" for carrying people, is a kind of stretcher, but both the OED and the Century describe it as "horse litter" or a litter/stretcher drawn by a horse. One usage from 1879 gives a historical reference to the term: "Had I seen the brancard in which Charles XII was carried at the battle of Pultawa?" Other sources I looked at said that this very brancard was in the Museum of Moscow.
When I saw the word sizar I almost didn't want to include it, because it is merely another name for a student at the University of Cambridge or Trinity College Dublin. It seems like the former university has a whole series of words unique to life at Cambridge; this is another one of them. But this quotation from 1588 stopped me for a moment: "Under the pain of six shillings and eight pence for everye tyme that any... Fellow, Scholer, Pensioner, or Sizer shall offende in any of the foresaid Orders." Thus, each one of these terms described a different way that members of the university community related to the university. This article differentiates sizars, pensioners and fellow commoners (no mention is made of "scholers"/"scholars"). The sizar was charged lower fees and obtained free food/lodging but had to do lots of menial duties in order to "pay" for his education. Normally sizars were the sons of poorer parents. The pensioners, in contrast, paid a fixed sum annually for their education. Finally, the fellows paid double fees and enjoyed several privileges, including that of finishing college in three rather than four years.
When we get to dido, we may have reference to the leading female character in Virgil's Aeneid, though the OED calls the origin "uncertain." Yet the Century argues that the word, which means a prank, joke, trick or caper (often used in the phrase, "to cut (up) didoes") originates from Dido's ruse in bargaining for as much land as could be covered by a hide, and cutting the hide into a long thin strip so as to enclose a large tract." Whatever its origin, it appeared in the 19th century to mean a trick or prank. From 1807: "A Jolly Irishman, who cut as many didos as I could for the life of me." The word can be used without the "cut" verb: "'Well, you can't,' snapped John Dene, 'receiver's off. Your boys have been playing dido all morning on my phone." I don't see a huge possibility of the word's suddenly returning.
That's enough for another day. Thank you for joining me.