Finishing on Some "Asps"
Bill Long 2/5/05
Aspinall, Asphyxia, Asportation, Aspheterism
I was having so much fun reading the OED and Century Dictionary on words derived from "asp" or "a" and a root word, that I wanted to give you some insight on a few more words before I quit them all. Let 's begin with one that I had never heard before, and probably will never use in life, but it has an interesting meaning. Aspheterism is derived from the Greek, and so the "a" is an alpha privative, and "spheteros" means "one's own." So, aspheterism is the doctrine which denies the right of private property. Aspheterism is communism. And thus if someone aspheterizes, he or she practices aspheterism. Not very useful, I bet you would agree, but it was used by Coleridge and had a brief floruit in the 1790s before dying an unnoticed death.
Aspinall has a more colorful history. It is named after the late 19th century inventor of an enamel paint, appropriately known as Aspinall enamel, and means "to paint." Therefore, one could say that three low wicker chairs were 'aspinalled' in dark green or that she spent the afternoon aspinalling the bureau. It was not the first time, and definitely not the last, when the name of an inventor would become associated with the activity with which it is used.
Sometimes people inadvertently bequeath their names to something embarrassing or not particularly praiseworthy. For example, the verb "grimthorpe" entered the English language also in the 19th century but this time in a negative context. Mr. Edmund Beckett (1816-1905), the first Lord Grimthorpe, was in charge of the restoration of St. Albans Cathedral. He restored it so lavishly and unskillfully that the building was said to be "grimthorped." So, a 1909 article could say, "The parish church, which despite of vigorous 'grimthorping,' still shows a trace of its old Norman architecture."
But back to Aspinall's enamel and aspinall as a verb. There actually is a very interesting connection between Aspinall and the debate over lead in paint. We know now that lead in paint is very dangerous, and lead-based paint has probably been resonsible for IQ loss to millions of American children. The toxicity of lead to children was first described in a medical journal in 1897. Yes, 1897. And a key source of lead poisoning in children, such as paint flaking off a porch railing, was identified in a medical journal article in 1904. Here is my source. Interestingly enough, Australia passed a law curbing lead in paint in 1920, while it took America until 1970 to do the same.
Nevertheless, the suspicion of lead's danger to children and its presence in paint was enough to have Aspinall's run an advertisement as early as 1897 in which it claimed that "Aspinall's Enamel is NOT made with lead and is non poisonous." Here is a copy of the AD:
[I acknowledge the copyright of the Cincinnati Children's Medical Center and thank them for permission to use the copy of this ad.]
This brief discussion on Aspinall's Enamel not only shows the origin of an interesting word, but even more, begs the question of which other dangerous things are being tolerated in American society because strong interests exist not to do away with them...
Let's just finish with a few other terms that I will not discuss at length but which have something interesting to be said about them. The word asphyxia is from the two Greek words "a" and "sphygmos," and means "without a pulse." Its earliest usage in English was in 1706 wehre Phillips defined asphyxia as "a Cessation of the Pulse throughout the whole body; which is the highest degree of Swooning and next to Death." The OED's second definition, which is now the one most used today in popular circles is "suffocation." Thus, death by asphyxia is, as Huxley said in 1872, "when a man is strangled, drowned, or choked."
But the OED points out nicely that there is a "curious infelicity" of etymology going on because the pulse of asyphxiated (in our modern sense of the term) animals continues to beat long after signs of respiratory action have ceased. The pulse eventually stops, of course, but that misses the point. OW Holmes, Sr. has an interesting use of the term: he refers to the "lingering asphyxia of soul."
And then, finally, we have the word asportation to mean "the action of carrying off" or the "felonious removal of property." As Blackstone said in 1768: "A bare removal from the place in which he found the goods, though the thief does not quiete make off with them, is a sufficient asportation." I remember first learning this term through the Latin. One of the three definitions of trespass in the common law was trespass "de bonis asportatis"--i.e. "carrying off 'the goods.'" Thus, Maitland, the greatest of all the common law legal historians, could talk about a defendant being charged with "the asportation of all that is asportable." His words are the reverse of the biblical image of the house of Jacob possessing their own possessions (Obadiah 17), a verse I never really understood (and one that you no doubt never knew existed...). Maybe it is time to stop.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long