Friday, April 8, 2011

Maurice, the bagatelles, hurry up.

Here, this is me trying to be more disciplined and write more often. I don't plan on writing anything good tonight. But I want to write something, you hear? So, I have a word for the day. I almost wrote about this one last night, but I was too tired. The word is "bagatelle." I'll give you three guesses as to which language English borrowed this word from. That's right, you don't need three guesses: it's French. Thank you battle of Hastings.

Oddly enough, a bagatelle is not something edible. Lexical delectation only. The most commonly used meaning of bagatelle these days is "a trifle." But again, not the kind of trifle you eat, rather "something of little importance." Its second meaning has to do with a game which involves "rolling balls into scoring areas," or so says Merriam Websters. Well, that sounded rather strange and a little suspicious to me, so I consulted other dictionaries and eventually YouTube, which revealed bagatelle to be something that looked like an ancestor of the pinball machine. It has little pins and obstacles blocking the holes that you are trying to get the balls in. Actually, it is a macro version of one of those little hand-held affairs that used to be popular before Gameboys came to be. They had little steel BB's that you would try to roll around and get to stick into various slots. Anyway, a bagatelle looks like a four-foot by three-foot version of one of those.

The third definition is "a short literary or musical piece in light style," whatever that means. I think Beethoven wrote a few bagatelles or something. The end.

So, most of the contemporary ways to introduce this word into your daily life would be to use it in the first sense--a trifle. Well, I started out thinking that this would be a good idea, but I have changed my mind. It just sounds rather pretentious, I'm beginning to think. I guess a lot of French words do, but can you imagine breaking out this new word in public:

Friend: Hey, Cort, how are you doing? My, but that is a fetching waistcoat you have on.

Cort: Oh, this old thing; it's just a bagatelle, really.

Friend: It's a what?

Cort: Just a bagatelle.

Friend: Is he a designer?

Cort: No, no, it's just a trifle.

Friend: Gross, are you supposed to eat it?

Cort: No, a trifle, you know, something of little importance.

Friend: Oh...

Cort: Sorry...I...

Friend: Um...Hey, I've got to run.

So, really, be careful with this one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wherefore art thou Farrago?

I found a note that I sent to myself, months ago, about the word Farrago (pronounced Fuh-rah-go) if I ever wanted to do etymology again. This blog has certainly lost that original focus, though I admit that there was not much to lose as this blog consists of less than twenty posts. Unfortunately, I don't even remember where I came across this word, but it is just the kind of word I like to highlight here, as it doesn't get used much, but it certainly could.

Farrago is "a confused mixture or hodgepodge." See--there are endless possibilities. It comes from the Latin "farragin," which has something to do with "mixed cattle fodder." Some of the dictionaries I consulted also hint at some relation with barley, whose Latin counterpart I keep seeing as "far spelt", but I can't tell, with my limited linguistic training, whether "far spelt" is a translation, or if the "far" is Latin for "spelt". Sorry, just geeking out a little. Anyway, it's a very old word, used as early as 1623.

It can be used in so many charming ways. For example, "This gallery has a fine farrago of artwork." Or, "My life is a 'farragin' farrago right now!" Or as my wife might say to me, "Honey, what on earth is that farrago you are making in the kitchen...I'm not eating that."

I haven't once seen it used as a verb, but I think that's a shame. Think of how useful it could be: "Excuse me, sir, could you repeat the question--I'm a little farragoed from last night's office party." Or, "No, I still don't get it; I think my parents farragoed me as a child." Or, "How would you like your eggs: sunny-side up, scrambled, or totally farragoed?"

Seriously, this word is worth a test-drive. But please--farrago responsibly.

Monday, April 4, 2011

You Say Pajama...

Just before going to bed the other night, my wife and I got into one of our favorite past-times...arguing about words of course. Usually, I use a word--something that might come up on the GRE--and my wife challenges it as though our life was a never-ending game of scrabble or something. Then we argue about the connotations in which it can be used and finally pull out Winston (my red, Random House Webster's dictionary) to settle the matter.

Well, on the night in question, instead of me commenting on her pulchritude and proceeding to argue its usage, we decided to guess the origin of the word Pajama. I know what you're all thinking; you want to invite us both to your next party. It was her idea this time. We were just lying there in the dark and she said, in a very serious tone of voice, "What language do you suppose the word 'pajama' came from?" I love this woman. At first, I guessed it was from some Arabic language, and said so very confidently like I had just looked it up this afternoon. I paused for effect... "You just made that up!" she exclaimed, calling my bluff. "You're right" I said, "but I bet I'm close."

I suddenly remembered that the word "Panjandrum" was Hindi--which is completely incorrect, by the way--and felt sure that pajama must be as well. Winston was called forth, and sure enough, he claims that "pajama" entered English in the late 18th century via Hindi and Persian. The pajama, which literally means "leg garment," (pay=leg jama=garment) was very popular in the Middle East and India when colonial English types noticed how much more comfortable Sikhs and Muslims were in their loose-fitting trousers. And of course they were embarrassed about being copy cats, so they took to only wearing them at night, when no one else was looking. Ha! The cat is out of the bag now, you empire-bent colonialists. Now, everyone knows.

Still, it's a shame that we in the West can't seem to make our fashion justify the wearing of comfortable clothing for more than a few years at a time, except for our nightclothes. Yeah, I'm talking about skinny-jeans, which I do not recommend sleeping in, or wearing on any occasion other than to 1980s-punk-rock parties.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I Apologize.

After apologizing to BP for a White House "shakedown," and then (after some pressure from his own party) apologizing for his apology, Joe Barton, Republican representative of Texas was feeling much better about himself. Clearly on a roll, he picked up a phone and apologized to his wife for forgetting their anniversary. Then he called his son and asked forgiveness for missing all of those baseball games. He was feeling distinctly lighter, and didn't want this feeling to end.

On his way out of the committee hearing he stopped to apologize to the oil-smeared protester who was now sitting in handcuffs being questioned by a police officer. Suddenly, she began feeling bad for having interrupted the hearing. Tears welled up in her eyes and she sincerely apologized to the police officer. She reminded the officer of his mother, and he began thinking he should probably call his mother and come clean about the broken vase he blamed on his sister all those years ago. He hoped a good old-fashioned "I apologize" would do. Consequently, he let the protester go with a warning, and handed her a paper towel to wipe off the oil.

Barton saw the growing effect of his apology and realized he couldn't stop there. He immediately called a press conference and apologized to Joe Biden for having offended him. This inspired Biden to apologize to Barak Obama about all of the gaffs he has made over the course of their term of office. The President was deeply touched and decided to call the Tea Party and select members of the Republican Party to apologize for having scared the $&*# out of them with his more socialistic policies. The parties responded by saying sorry for all of the times they had called him "Adolf Stalin" in private, and vowed to take down all of the "Obamanation" posters they had put up.

This overwhelming feeling of reconciliation and love spread throughout the country. It became so powerful that all of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico voluntarily gathered itself together and retreated back into the ground. Expert oil translators reported a gurgled apology right before the last of the oil disappeared. Then, in an unprecedented move, Greenhouse gasses sent an email to Al Gore saying they were sorry for all of the trouble, and that they knew when they weren't wanted. Baffled scientists have not been able to find any in the atmosphere since and Al Gore finally said sorry for flying in private jets. The French apologized for their snobbery, and then they apologized again for being skinnier than us even while eating better food. And Texas even vowed to be a little more humble.

Don't underestimate the power of an apology.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bizarre dreams and fighting off old age.

I have been having really bizarre dreams lately. I can't say that this is anything new. If you know me you have heard the one about the kittens attacking the poor toothless baby alligators. I'm not sure why my dreams are so often violent, and just down-right strange. I really don't take any drugs, I promise, unless you count Breyers Butter Pecan ice cream. I have heard that ice cream can give you strange dreams, but I thought it was merely folklore--maybe not.

So the other night was in a concentration camp with my wife, at least one of my children, and a few friends. It was a small camp and we were planning our escape by staging a violent coup. For some reason there was a lot of junk in all of the barracks. We scoured the place for weapons, and I suddenly remembered that one room had, at the bottom of a pile of junk, a sword and a battle axe. So I went to go dig them out, but our captors came looking for us, just as I got into the room with the junk. There were about five of them after me and they all had billy clubs. I decided to try and hide under the junk. They were poking around in the pile trying to find me when I found the sword. The only trouble with the sword was that it had a rat-tail tang, so I knew it was good for about one hit.

Now, in retrospect, I know that what I am about to describe might sound slightly humorous, but it was terrifying at the time. I had to make the decision to fight for my life and potentially kill other human beings. This was not something that my dream mind came to lightly. The decision to kill was further complicated by the fact that the longer the people looked for me the older they became. Within seconds they were all between the ages of 65-85, and wearing retirement garb--complete with cardigans and baseball caps. But I knew that it was either them or me, so I finally lashed out with my sword, and instead of breaking immediately at the thin tang, it sort of deflated. That first hit was good, and it drew blood in my pursuer, but right then my sword became as limp as a ribbon (please no Freudian interpretation of my dreams, if you chose to comment).

As the elderly guards/retirees, closed in, I managed to run to a near-by closet and grab my battle-axe. I started hacking away at my foes, and the feeling of the blade lacerating their flesh was a truly horrible. Amidst the gore, they started cracking jokes and growing very cavalier about death. Then I woke up.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Description of the ocean waves...abridged

Oh thou elusive short post, how I seek thee--so often in vain. Even now as I sit by an open window with the ocean crashing less than 30 yards below me I fight the impulse to drone on about its beauty in clumsy attempts to avoid cliche. Who will win in my quest for brevity--the soul of wit, or the Charles Dickens wanna-be that is my soul?

As I sit, typing, and tasting the salty mist wafting into my room, filling me with Wordsworthean rapture, I struggle against the second-rate Russian novel begging to be born...Ah, Moscow...No! I must fight the tuggings and the tantalizing call of the imp of the verbose.

But the waves are so spectacular, the call of the seagulls so haunting. Let me describe them--describe them in the same ways that they have been described for centuries--let me talk about the the sublime--let me use 20 words where five will do. I want to put Tolkien to shame with my my description!!!

See?! Here's the problem. Now that I have this at about the right length I have no way to end it. It seems that I am doomed to ramble on in an attempt to craft some kind of misguided arch, or to stop in a place so awkward that

Friday, April 30, 2010

Power-point, bullets, and parliamentary procedure

I feel like talking a little news this morning. There is so much interesting stuff going on. That's probably always true, but I seldom have time to read newspapers. First of all, I have to say that I am terribly proud of the military for they way they are questioning their current excessive use of power-point. Yeah, I didn't even know that the military used power-point, I thought it was more like point and shoot for them--okay that was dumb, sorry. Anyway, apparently they use power-point in high-ranking military councils, debriefing troops etc. Why not? That makes sense.

Everyone else is using power-point, why not the military? Plenty of people in my field (oh, let's face it, I don't have a field) think of the military as a gathering of mindless automatons, but I am happy to report that they are not. No, they are not thinkers because they use power-point, but because they very responsibly analyze their use of it, and its effect on humans. According to a New York Times article about it, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster said that power-point can be an internal threat: "It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control." He also said, "Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable." Sure, all of his statements have that definite and laconic feel of your iconic tough guy, but with his frequent use of the word, "illusion" and his knack for creating new words for the English lexicon (bullet-izable) I would almost suppose that he has been reading philosophy--at least Baudrillard.

He dislikes bullet-points (no one in the New York Times article picked up on the irony of how often the Military was using the word "bullet" in a non-combat sense) because of the way they de-humanize a situation and take away from the interconnected social, political, economic and religious factors: "If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise." I don't pretend to understand, in these contemporary conflicts, when exactly war is necessary and when it is not, but I think this shows at least the beginning of some fairly responsible thinking.

In other news, if you haven't seen the brawl that broke out in Ukrainian Parliament you ought to check out one of the videos on it. It's almost surreal. You see a completely normal-looking parliamentary room and people are behaving like it is junior high--at least my junior high. I'm not saying that people have always behaved in parliamentary rooms, but there aren't many bar-room brawls in them. It was like a John Wayne movie. People where throwing eggs--seriously, who brings eggs to Parliament--that the house speaker was deflecting with umbrellas (PS they don't have the superstition in Ukraine about opening umbrellas indoors). There were choke-holds, punches, kicks, bloody noses, and head slaps. I kept waiting for the three stooges to come out with pies.

One New York Times article about it was titled, "Fight in Ukraine Parliament Reflects Turmoil in Politics." No, really? You think? Isn't there something else it could reflect?