Words Beg. With "S" and "K" I
Bill Long 10/22/08
Words take us on incredible journeys, if we just give them the privilege of teaching us. Tonight I introduce words that find their home in contexts ranging from Turkish ice cream to a poisonous New Zealand spiders.
1. Let's begin with salep, which is a "nutritive meal, starch, or jelly made from the dried tubers of various orchidaceous plants. Well, here's one of the plants, the Orchis mascula, that produces it. I would love to witness the process by which someone takes the flower and grinds it/slices it, processes it and then comes up with the meal/starch/jelly that becomes salep. Actually, as the web site tells us, salep gives Turkish ice cream its unusual texture and resistance to melting. So there you have it: ice cream that doesn't melt. It can be sold from carts as street food even in the hottest weather without concern that it will "melt. No Italian gelato can boast that track record! Salep can also be a drink where salep is added to milk, as pictured here.
2. When we are in the neighborhood of smectic, we are dealing with crystalling structures lie somewhere between a solid and a liquid state. They are called liquid crystals, and a crystalline-clear introduction to these is found here. As the site tells us,
"As most substances are heated, they go from a solid (usually crystalline, possessing high order) to an isotropic liquid (highly disordered). Yet, crystalline solids have positional and orientational order, something absent in conventional liquids."
If the liquid crystal has no positional order but has orientational order (i.e., crystals are not arranged in well-defined planes), they are nematic crystals. The Greek word nema means "thread." However, if the liquid crystals have both positional and orientational order (i.e., they are arranged in the same plane), they are smectic. This language wasn't uttered by Adam & Eve in the Garden; it has a more recent origin. Actually, this 1923 usage was the first:
"A complete treatise upon the types and properties of matter existent between the true amorphous and cryst. state. The condition formerly designated as liquid crystals or anisotropic liquids is divided into 2 classifications: smectic and nematic."
The word smectic is derived from the Greek smektikos and the underlying verb smekein means "to wipe" or "cleanse" (we get our word smegma from it), and this was the original English meaning of the term. But smectic was dying out in the early 20th century, only to be "rescued" by physical chemistry in the sense quoted above. No reason why some of my readers might not take up physical chemistry. It isn't too late!
3. Spruik is "Down Under" slang for a showman's delivering a speech or speaking in public. A spruiker is a speaker employed to attract customers to a sideshow. From 1941: "The ampster's is an easy job. He stands in the front row of the listening crowd registering intense interest and enthusiasm while the showman 'spruiks.'" I hadn't run into the word ampster either, and he is "the helper of a showman or trickster, 'planted' in the audience to start the buying of tickets or goods.." My, with ampster and spruiker, I am just about ready for a trip to Queensland....
4. While on the "s's" let's introduce sasin (SA sin), which is a Nepalese word (I am taking the OED at its word!) for the common Indian antelope, Antilope bezoartica cervicapra. Look at its remarkably beautiful horns/antlers. I bet you haven't ever seen one like this before. It is found mainly in India but also in parts of Pakistan and Nepal. I wonder if Osama keeps one for a pet.
5. The word sherwani also keeps us in Asia, and this is a knee-length coat, buttoning to the neck and worn by men in the Indian subcontinent. The word is Hindi. Loads of pictures are online. Here are some studly-looking Indian models wearing multi-colored sherwanis. The web site says that originally the sherwani was the court dress of Turkish and Persian nobles in the Dehli Sultanate and Mughal Empire before the 18th century but then became more generally adopted. The Nehru jacket made it big in the US in the 1960s; can the sherwani be far behind?
6. A kainga is a Maori village (New Zealand). To those who know little of NZ culture, the word sounds strange, but it couldn't be more basic or familiar in that part of the world. From 1926: "There are places for the artist, these out-of-the-way kaingas." I can't wait to make it to NZ some day.
7. A kalong is also from East Asia--and is the largest bat in the world. Here is an amazing painting by Vincent van Gogh entitled "The Flying Fox (Kalong)" 1885. I suppose if Picasso can enhance our vocabulary through his 1901 painting of La Diseuse, van Gogh can do the same with a bat. Its Linnaean name is Pteropus edulis, and it is found "in immense numbers" in Java, Sumatra and nearby islands. The word is Malay..
8. While on exotic creatures from East Asia or down under, let's conclude with the katipo, a Maori term for a large venomous NZ spider, Latrodectus katipo. The word came into English in 1843, but I am sure the spider was biting far before we knew what to call it. Its description? From 1963: "The katipo spider...is black with a red stripe on its back." Lest you think he should be racing in NASCAR, I found some pictures. Here they are, with a text entitled "Is The Katipo Tough Enough?" I suppose that isn't a question I would naturally ask, and so I read the short article with interst. Apparently in the recent past the introduction of new grass species to sand dune areas, combined wtih the spread of the faster breeding South African Steatoda capensis, has contributed to a dramatic decline of these spiders. So, a project to check out the numbers on some beaches due west of Palmerston North on the Northern Island is underway. So, study of the katipo is the life of some people; and we barely know the word....
That's enough for one more essay, as we keep marching through all the words...