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Words And Reason: Literary Allusions

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

At one point, when talking with someone younger than I am, I commented on something that ended well as going out in a blaze of glory. The younger person brightened and asked, “Oh, so you like Guns and Roses?” Not seeing the connection I admitted that I didn’t know their music. “That’s who said, ‘go out in a blaze of glory.’” Well, they may have said it, but not first. It is, like a lot of what folks say, an allusion to something someone else wrote or said. Shakespeare and the Bible give us the majority of the most common allusions, but stacks of other writers have contributed to our language—though fewer and fewer people know it all the time. (As for “blaze of glory,” that appears to have originated in John Dryden’s poem “The Hind and the Panther,” written in 1686.) Below is just a smattering of allusions. There will be more in time.

Best laid plans of mice and men This line, often used as things come crashing in, refers to a line in the poem “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. In the poem, Burns, while plowing a field, has turned up the nest of a field mouse, he mourns that his activity has disrupted the mouse’s careful preparations. “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley” (go oft awry). It’s a lovely poem that is not often read in the United States as the Scottish dialect in which it is written makes it hard for most readers to understand. Yet one of the most famous verses is easy to grasp and is perhaps the best known from the poem. Continue reading Words And Reason: Literary Allusions

Words And Reason: False Friends and Close Cousins

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

The French have an expression—fauxes amis, or false friends—that refers to words in different languages or dialects that look similar but have different meanings. For example, the French word blesser might look like it is related to the English bless, but in fact, blesser means “to wound.”

Even within English, however, there are words that act like false friends. This often occurs because English has words from so many languages, but it also often happens because words can have more than one meaning. They are distantly related, so they behave like false friends, even though they are more like cousins.

The outcome of this is that people sometimes use a word that means something quite different from what they intended simply because it sounds like a word that does reflect the intended meaning.

One example is enormity. This word has begun to crop up with increasing frequency in places where the desired meaning is largeness or scope, because it sounds a lot like enormous. One might read about some executive where the “enormity of his job” is being described. Oops. Actually, enormity means “great wickedness; an outrageous or immoral act; monstrous.” It is appropriately used when describing a crime or bad behavior: “The public was shocked by the enormity of the crime.” That said, it can also be used to describe something that is really terrible. In Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck wrote of a family waking in the forest and remembering that their house and everything they owned had just burned to the ground: “…the enormity of their situation burst upon them. ‘How did the fire start?’ asked Pablo.”

The original Latin word from which both enormity and enormous come to us—enormis— means “out of the norm,” or “out of rule.” As languages developed from Latin, they often picked up differences in interpretation. The French énormité, from which we get enormity, meant “atrocity, heinous sin.” Definitely “out of the norm.” As English evolved words from Latin, it picked up on the idea of being huge and vast, and in the 1530s, “enormous” emerged as being stuff that was outside the norm by way of size. Continue reading Words And Reason: False Friends and Close Cousins

Words And Reason: More Mythological Word Origins

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Mythology has given us a wealth of words and phrases. We get most of the days of the week, and the names of most of the planets from mythology.

The planets (including recently demoted Pluto, which is no longer considered large enough to really qualify as a planet)—in order, from the Sun moving outward:

Mercury The Roman god who was the equivalent of the Greek Hermes. He was the god of science and commerce and acted as messenger for other gods. He is most often pictured with wings on his feet and wearing a hat with wings.

Venus Roman goddess of beauty and love. She helped Paris carry off Helen of Troy.

Mars Roman god of war. From his name we get not only the name of the planet Mars, but also the word for fighting—martial.

(Earth, alas, has no mythological pretenses. It comes to us from the Middle English erthe, from Old English eorthe, which meant “soil, dry land, the ground,” but was also used to mean “the (material) world” (as opposed to the heavens or the underworld). It had evolved into “earth” before the 12th century.)

Jupiter The king of the Roman gods and goddesses. He was the son of Saturn and father of Vulcan, the Muses, Apollo, many of the heroes of Roman mythology. He is identified with the Greek god Zeus. The largest planet in the solar system is named for him.

Saturn Roman god who was father of all the other Roman gods and goddesses.

Uranus a Greek god who was the personification of heaven. The story goes that Earth (Gaea to the Greeks) arose from Chaos and produced Uranus (the heavens), the mountains, and the sea. When Gaea and Uranus mated, they produced the Titans and the Cyclopes.

Neptune Roman god of the sea, corresponding to the Greek Poseidon.

Pluto Roman god of the underworld, parallel to the Greek god Hades.

While the Greeks and Romans gave us the names of the planets, it was the Norse gods who ended up giving us most of the days of the week (with one Roman god stuck in there):

Tiu is the Old English version of the Old Norse got Tyr. Tyr is a god of considerable antiquity among the ancient Germanic peoples, and appears to have been the god of the formalities of war, such as treaties, but also a protector of oaths, contracts, and promises.

It is thanks to this deity that we have Tiu’s-day. Continue reading Words And Reason: More Mythological Word Origins

Words And Reason: Mythological Word Origins

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Mythology has given us a wealth of words and phrases. The stories can help us remember the words’ meanings—and vice versa. Here are a few mythical characters who have contributed to our language.

Arachne A young Greek woman who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Athena wove a tapestry depicting the gods as powerful, while Arachne created a tapestry that mocked the gods and showed their dark side. Enraged, Athena tore Arachne’s work to pieces. Arachne hanged herself on her loom, but Athena did not let her die, turning her instead into a spider, which would go on weaving, Today, the scientific name for spiders is Arachnida, from Arachne.

Ceres The Roman goddess of the growth of food plants. It is from her name that we get the word cereal.

Mnemosyne Greek goddess of memory and mother of the nine Muses. It is from her name that we get the word mnemonic, which has to do with memory—particularly with things that help us remember.

Pan The Greek god of nature. Part man, part goat, the emotion he was thought to produce in those who saw him gave us the word panic, which means literally “of Pan.”

Proteus Neptune’s herdsman, an old man famous for his power to change shapes at will. Gives us our word protean, which describes anything that can change shapes, adapt quickly, or display variety.

Tantalus In Greek myths, Tantalus was a king who revealed secrets belonging to the gods. His punishment in Hades was being tied to a fruit tree and surrounded by water. However, when he reached up to eat, the branches moved out of reach, and if he bent down to drink, the water vanished, so he was tormented by hunger and thirst, but with the things he wanted just out of reach. From his name, we get the word tantalize.

Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com .

Words And Reason: Biblical Allusions

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Northrop Frye, professor and author of literary theory and criticism wrote: “the student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads. The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think or believe about it.” E. D. Hirsch, author of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, is even more emphatic: “No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible.” Only reading the Bible will really give you all possible allusions, but I hope to share at least a few of them with you, as well as some common phrases and ideas that are part of our language.

Beelzebub In the Old Testament, Beelzebub is a prince of the devils. His name translated is “Lord of the Flies,” which was used as the title of a novel by William Golding. (The name also appears in shortened form in the classic John Collier short story, “Thus I Refute Beelzy.”)

A house divided against itself cannot stand When Abraham Lincoln spoke these words during the American Civil War, he was quoting a verse in the Gospel of Matthew.

Doubting Thomas Of the 12 Apostles (or, to be perfectly correct, 11 remaining apostles, as Judas was gone by this point), Thomas was the one who did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When Jesus later appears to Thomas, Thomas immediately declares that he now believes, but Jesus said there is greater blessing for those who believe without seeing. The expression “doubting Thomas” is still used to describe people who refuse to believe anything, even from extremely reliable witnesses, unless they see it for themselves.

Going the second mile Continue reading Words And Reason: Biblical Allusions

Words And Reason – Phrase Fads and Media Speak: Linguistic Landmines

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

When the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” came out, we started getting phone calls from people who wanted to borrow money. Seriously. Never mind that we lived thousands of miles from California or that our name wasn’t spelled quite the same—or even that it was a purely fictional TV show (this was before “reality shows” began blurring the lines). People were beginning to believe what they saw on TV.

Of course, any warning about believing what you see on TV can be extended in several directions: things that are “based on a true story,” for example. But I think a key area in which people need to be careful about believing what they hear on TV is language. Some commentators like to use big words but don’t always use them correctly. A few TV writers think the words sound impressive and use them, and it spreads, creating a phrase fad. Soon, people outside the media start using things incorrectly because they’ve heard it a couple of times and don’t even think to question whether the user knows what he or she is saying.

For example, it suddenly seems as though everyone who wants to point out that an issue has been raised is saying that it “begs the question.” It’s popping up on TV (news and entertainment), in print, and in conversation. Continue reading Words And Reason – Phrase Fads and Media Speak: Linguistic Landmines