Monday, February 24, 2014

Gone, But Not Forgotten

In a recent blog I referred to words that were “obsolete and archaic.”  I really should have said “obsolete or archaic,” because a word cannot be both at the same time.  What’s the difference between the two terms?

Obsolete, from the Latin obsoletus (“worn out, gone out of use”) and obsolescere (“to wear out, grow old, decay”), refers to a word that is no longer in use (except in quoting historical material).  Most dictionaries use the date 1755 as the cutoff date, and if no instances of the word can be found in any writing since then, it is labeled obsolete. That happens to be the publication date of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.

A few obsolete words, which I daresay are not part of your vocabulary, are snoutfair (“an attractive person”), brabble (“argue loudly about something inconsequential”), slubberdegullion (“a slovenly person”), gobemouche (“a silly person”), roinish (“despicable”), and pudibund (“bashful”).
Archaic derives from French archaïque (“antiquated”), which had its origin in ancient Greek arkhaikos (“old-fashioned”), which ultimately came from the verb form arkhō (“I am first”).  Linguistically, an archaic word is one that is rare, but is still in use, even if only in specialized situations.

A few examples of archaic words, which you probably use sparingly, are avaunt (“begone”), ere (“before”), hark (“listen”), sooth (“truth”), and whilom (“formerly”). 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou cannot decide whether he is archaic or obsolete, but there is no doubt that he is uncouth, unkempt, disheveled, unhousled, disappointed, and unaneled.  Despite these disadvantages, he soldiers on.

            Three words I met upon the street—
            Hither, and thither, and yon
            Wanted to be obsolete,
            Just like a mastodon.

            But all their efforts were in vain,
            And those three are still prosaic,
            And like anon, anent, and fain,
            Content to be archaic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hockey on the Rocks

The United States men’s and women’s hockey teams have both played well in the winter Olympics--on ice, of course. The unadorned word hockey in North America and Europe generally refers to the sport played on an ice rink, but it was originally played on a grassy field, and the grassy version, or field hockey, is still the national sport of India and Pakistan. The icy variety is Canada’s favorite pastime. 

The origin of the word hockey is uncertain, with the first known usage in English occurring in 1527, when a manuscript referred to “the horlinge of the litill balle with hockie stickes of staves.”  (No prizes for spelling in those days.)  The next appearance of the word in print is not until two and a half centuries later.  Was no one playing the game during that time, or did people just not want to talk about it?

In any event, the origin of the word is probably the French hoquet, meaning a “shepherd’s staff or crook,” alluding to the stick used in hockey, which is crooked. Hoquet derives from Old French hoc (“hook”), which migrated to Old English as hōc.

Hockey ought not to be confused with hooky, which appears almost exclusively in the phrase play hooky and means to absent oneself from school without permission. The phrase probably derives from a nineteenth-century slang expression, hook it, meaning to “clear out.”  As for the origin of hook it, your guess is as good as mine or Webster’s.

You could of course play hooky to play hockey.  But that would be hokey.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been playing hooky (certainly not hockey) all his life, and this is all he has to show for it:

            A jailer, a judge, and a jockey
            Decided they’d like to play hockey,
                        And to save a few bucks,
                        In place of real pucks
            They used extra large pieces of gnocchi.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Relataively Speaking

Some useful words that I’ve never known about just showed up in a Facebook post.  They’re obsolete and archaic terms for family members that define their relationships much more precisely than modern English does.  You no longer have to stop and figure out how you’re related to Cousin Elmer or Aunt Elmira.  Think how useful these descriptions can be when you’re seating family members for Thanksgiving dinner or deciding whom to leave out of your will.  

Patruel is a child of a paternal uncle or aunt, or a child of your own brother. Instead the loosey-goosey terms “cousin” and “niece” or “nephew,” you can say “patruel” and be much more specific. It is from the Latin word patruus, “father’s brother,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of its use in 1603. 

You can also stipulate which kind of uncle or aunt you mean. Avuncle is a maternal uncle, the brother of your mother.  We have the word avuncular in modern English, which means “like an uncle (of any kind),” but its origin is the Latin avunculus, literally “little grandfather.” Avunculus, of course, is the root of uncle, which came to English through the French oncle.

If you don’t like avuncle, eam is an Old English word that means the same— maternal uncle.  It stemmed from Old High German oheim via the Dutch oom.

A maternal aunt can be referred to as the Old English modrige, from Pro-Germanic mōdrijō.

Old English also had words for paternal uncle (fædera) and aunt (fadu), which are derived from Proto-Germanic fadurjô via Old High Gereman fataro.

 The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is nobody’s uncle and nobody’s aunt.  He’d like to think he was also nobody’s fool—but that’s hard to prove.  


     There once was a very sick uncle,
     With a badly infected carbuncle.
                The doc, at his appointment,
                Said, “Here’s two tubes of ointment—
     If the goo doesn’t cure you, the gunk’ll.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Pantoum of the Opera

You may have missed a recent interview with Daniel Radcliffe (né Harry Potter) in which he confessed that he secretly indulges in pantoum. No, it’s not an illicit drug or a kinky bedroom antic. It’s a verse form, and budding poet Radcliffe is an avid practitioner.

The pantoum is derived from a Malay form of verse called a pantun berkait, which means a series of interwoven quatrains.  It’s similar to a villanelle, which also has lines that repeat throughout the poem. In a pantoum, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. In the final stanza, the second line is the third line of the first stanza, and the final line of the poem is the same as the first line of the first stanza.  Got that?

If the poet is on his toes—and young Radcliffe, being a wizard, is bound to be—the meaning of the words changes slightly when they are repeated.  There’s a subtle shade of new meaning or different punctuation or a different context in which the word is used.

The usual rhyme scheme is ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, and so on.

Pantoums appeared  in Europe in the early 19th century.  Introduced by Victor Hugo, the form was taken up by French poets, as in Charles Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du soir” (although it varies slightly from true pantoum form).

A well-known popular example of the pantoum is the lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II of “I Am Going to Like It Here” from Flower Drum Song:

I'm going to like it here.
There is something about the place,
An encouraging atmosphere,
Like a smile on a friendly face.

There is something about the place,
So caressing and warm it is.
Like a smile on a friendly face,
Like a port in a storm it is.

So caressing and warm it is.
All the people are so sincere.
Like a port in a storm it is.
I am going to like here.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never heard of a pantoum, but he is a great fan of Harry Potter, whose wizardry he tries to emulate on days that he’s sober.  Evidently, from the following, today is not one of them:

                        There once was a dashing young wizard
                        Who was chilled to the bone in a blizzard.
                                    His body was numb,
                                    Except for his thumb  
                        And certain parts of his gizzard.