Sunday Evening Words
Bill Long 9/21/08
Delights before Beginning a Long Week
How do you spend a Sunday evening preceding a pretty busy, even stressful week? Some watch football; some quietly listen to music or "gear up" for the week. I found myself, on the other hand, wandering through dictionaries as if I was in a museum filled with valuable and rare objects. I was going to study some terms for 19th-early 20th century carriages, such as barouche, britzka, cabriolet calash/caleche, landau, stanhope, victoria and others, but I didn't find enough good pictures online to bring them to you. I guess I will have to satisfy myself with a trip to the Carriage Museum in Lexington, KY for that. Then, I turned to an old favorite--fabrics, and thought I would start there.
1. Galatea. The word is known from mythology as the name of the disappointed (female) lover of Acis. Handel made the story known through his "masque" (courtly dramatic entertainment; Youtube video is here); the music is very "Handelian.." But it is also a fabric, popular in the 1920s, consisting of a cotton material striped in blue on a white ground. It was named after the HMS Galatea; and the material was often used for children's "sailor suits." I think I had one of them when I was a kid; I am sure that my mother saw to it that I was photgraphed in it, probably just before I was photographed naked in the bathtub. Here is a 1920s sample of galatea, even if the picture isn't terrifically clear.
2. Stammel is another type of fabric, a coarse woollen cloth, or linsey-woolsey, usually dyed red. It can also be an under-garment of this material, worn by ascetics. The OED says that it is derived from the word stamin, which is "a coarse cloth of worsted" first worn by ascetics. One of the earliest references we have to it is from 1290: "[Beket wore] Moneken Abite with Inne...both Covele and stamin." Not sure how attractive this rough woollen undergarment would be today!
I found myself being ineluctably drawn into obscure words, perhaps as a way of fighting off the facing of another week...
3. Subhastation is "a public sale of property to the highest bidder," but the way it got to this meaning is fascinating. Livy, the historian of early Rome, in telling one story, describes the attack of the Romans, led by Messius, against the Volscians (4.29). The battle was won by the Romans when the consul actually threw a Roman standard inside the stockade of the enemy to make the soldiers more eager to assault it. After victory, the following was done:
"A part of the booty comprised the plundered property of the Latins and Hernicans, and after being identified, was restored to them, the rest the Dictator sold 'under the spear.'"
The Latin phrase in the text is "partem sub hasta dictator vendidit." The word for spear is "hasta;" thus a sale "under the spear" was one conducted by the commanding general after victory. He set a spear next to the sale as a sign that the goods had been won by the spear. Later, however, the usage was extended to all sales of government property--by auction. Cicero in the first century BCE testifies to this usage in several passages. The word, subhastation, then came into English through Holland's 1600 translation of Book XXIX of Livy to mean a public sale by auction. Thus, the next time you go to an auction, ask directions to the subhastation, and see if you get out alive..
4. While I was looking up subhastation, for some reason I came across another word that wasn't familiar to me--propination. The word is near propinquity, which seems appropriate, but is derived from the Latin propinatio, the "drinking to someone's health." The OED says that it was especially used in ancient Greek and Roman contexts when you drank from a cup that was then offered to another. Sort of like passing the reefer around, I suppose, but maybe that should be called procannabation... For some reason an 1886 usage of this word meant the right to manufacture, distribute and sell alcoholic beverages in Poland. So, one might have the leasing of "propination" rights from a Polish noble.
Digging Deeper into Obscurity
5. The Century alone has anaphalantiasis, which is the "falling out of the eyebrows." It is taken from the Greek ana, meaning "up" and phalantos, which means "bald in front." Thus, one might upbraid someone who is plucking out his/her eyelids, a sort of trichotillomanic activity, to desist lest anaphalantiasis set in. Surely that will stop the person in his/her tracks.
6. A word that is almost absent from a Google search but present in the Century is helvolous. The Century has it mean "tawny" or "dull-greyish or reddish-yellow." The Latin helvus means "dull yellow" or "dun." Actually, we have many references to helvolus in English, especially to the Dorylus helvolus, a type of South African ant. Here it is, closer than you ever want to see it. Actually, I became fascinated with that little prefix "dory," and wondered what it meant. It is actually derived from the Greek word dorys, and means "spear." Thus, the Dorylus helvolus is a little tawny or yellowish small spear(ed) ant creature.
Speaking of the prefix, I discovered the word doryphore in the OED. If we look just at the Greek we see that a doryphore is some kind of creature that "carries the sword." What might that be? Well, in 1952 Harold Nicholson coined the word to describe one who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly. He said: "Often I have tried to supplement my vocabulary by inventing words, such as 'couth' or "doriphore' or 'hypoulic,' feeling that it is the duty as well as the pastime of a professional writer to make two words bloom where only one bloomed before.." The New Yorker picked it up in 1989, thus encouraging its use: "When [the editors]..took me to lunch, they were rigidly abstemious, lest they fuddle their minds and give hostages to subsequent doryphores on returning to work." By the way, the OED gives "no results" for hypoulic, but it says that couth goes back at least 1000 years. What was Nicholson thinking..? Michael Quinion has a great column on doryphore on his site.
Now that I have fully retreated from any responsible activity, I will sleep restfully and then arise to duty. Ugh.