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Mon, 14 May 2007

Bryan and his posse
Today upon the arrival of a coworker and his associates, I said "Oh, here comes Bryan and his posse". My use of "posse" here drew some comment. I realized I was not completely sure what "posse" meant. I mostly knew it from old West contexts: the Big Dictionary has quotes like this one, from 1901:

A pitched battle was fought..at Rockhill, Missouri, between the Sheriff's posse and the miners on strike.
Order
Me and My Little Brain
Me and My Little Brain
with kickback
no kickback
I first ran across the word in J.D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain books. At least in old West contexts, the word refers to a gang of men assembled by some authority such as a sheriff or a marshal, to perform some task, such as searching for a lost person, apprehending an outlaw, or blasting some striking miners. This much was clear to me before.

From the context and orthography, I guessed that it was from Spanish. But no, it's not. It's Latin! "Posse" is the Latin verb "to be able", akin to English "possible" and ultimately to "potent" and related words. I'd guessed something like this, supposing English "posse" was akin to some Spanish derivative of the Latin. But it isn't; it's direct from Latin: "posse" in English is short for posse comitatus, "force of the county".

The Big Dictionary has citations for "posse comitatus" back to 1576:

Mr. Sheryve meaneth in person to repayre thither & with force to bryng hym from Aylesham, Whomsoever he fyndeth to denye the samet & suerly will with Posse Comitatus fetch hym from this new erected pryson to morrow.

"Sheryve" is "Sheriff". (If you have trouble understanding this, try reading it aloud. English spelling changed more than its pronunciation since 1576.)

I had heard the phrase before in connection with the Posse Comitatus Act of U.S. law. This law, passed in 1878, is intended to prohibit the use of the U.S. armed forces as Posse Comitatus—that is, as civilian law enforcement. Here the use is obviously Latin, and I hadn't connected it before with the sheriff's posse. But they are one and the same.


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Fri, 24 Nov 2006

Etymological oddity
Sometimes you find words that seem like they must be related, and then it turns out to be a complete coincidence.

Consider pen and pencil.

Pen is from French penne, a long feather or quill pen, akin to Italian penne (the hollow, ribbed pasta), and ultimately to the word feather itself.

Pencil is from French pincel, a paintbrush, from Latin peniculus, also a brush, from penis, a tail, which is also the source of the English word penis.

A couple of weeks ago someone edited the Wikipedia article on "false cognates" to point out that day and diary are not cognate. "No way," I said, "it's some dumbass putting dumbassery into Wikipedia again." But when I checked the big dictionary, I found that it was true. They are totally unrelated. Diary is akin to Spanish dia, Latin dies, and other similar words, as one would expect. Day, however, is "In no way related to L. dies..." and is akin to Sanskrit dah = "to burn", Lithuania sagas = "hot season", and so forth.


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Sat, 07 Oct 2006

Bone names
Names of bones are usually Latin. They come in two types. One type is descriptive. The auditory ossicles (that's Latin for "little bones for hearing") are named in English the hammer, anvil, and stirrup, and their formal, Latin names are the malleus ("hammer"), incus ("anvil"), and stapes ("stirrup")

The fibula is the small bone in the lower leg; it's named for the Latin fibula, which is a kind of Roman safety pin. The other leg bone, the tibia, is much bigger; that's the frame of the pin, and the fibula makes the thin sharp part.


The kneecap is the patella, which is a "little pan". The big, flat parietal bone in the skull is from paries, which is a wall or partition. The clavicle, or collarbone, is a little key.

"Pelvis" is Latin for "basin". The pelvis is made of four bones: the sacrum, the coccyx, and the left and right os innominata. Sacrum is short for os sacrum, "the sacred bone", but I don't know why it was called that. Coccyx is a cuckoo bird, because it looks like a cuckoo's beak. Os innominatum means "nameless bone": they gave up on the name because it doesn't look like anything. (See illustration to right.)


On the other hand, some names are not descriptive: they're just the Latin words for the part of the body that they are. For example, the thighbone is called the femur, which is Latin for "thigh". The big lower arm bone is the ulna, Latin for "elbow". The upper arm bone is the humerus, which is Latin for "shoulder". (Actually, Latin is umerus, but classical words beginning in "u" often acquire an initial "h" when they come into English.) The leg bone corresponding to the ulna is the tibia, which is Latin for "tibia". It also means "flute", but I think the flute meaning is secondary—they made flutes out of hollowed-out tibias.

Some of the nondescriptive names are descriptive in Latin, but not in English. The vertebra in English are so called after Latin vertebra, which means the vertebra. But the Latin word is ultimately from the verb vertere, which means to turn. (Like in "avert" ("turn away") and "revert" ("turn back").) The jawbone, or "mandible", is so-called after mandibula, which means "mandible". But the Latin word is ultimately from mandere, which means to chew.

The cranium is Greek, not Latin; kranion (or κρανιον, I suppose) is Greek for "skull". Sternum, the breastbone, is Greek for "chest"; carpus, the wrist, is Greek for "wrist"; tarsus, the ankle, is Greek for "instep". The zygomatic bone of the face is yoke-shaped; ζυγος ("zugos") is Greek for "yoke".

The hyoid bone is the only bone that is not attached to any other bone. (It's located in the throat, and supports the base of the tongue.) It's called the "hyoid" bone because it's shaped like the letter "U". This used to puzzle me, but the way to understand this is to think of it as the "U-oid" bone, which makes sense, and then to remember two things. First, that classical words beginning in "u" often acquire an initial "h" when they come into English, as "humerus". And second, classical Greek "u" always turns into "y" in Latin. You can see this if you look at the shape of the Greek letter capital upsilon, which looks like this: Υ. Greek αβυσσος ("abussos" = "without a bottom") becomes English "abyss"; Greek ανωνυμος ("anonumos") becomes English "anonymous"; Greek υπος ("hupos"; there's supposed to be a diacritical mark on the υ indicating the "h-" sound, but I don't know how to type it) becomes "hypo-" in words like "hypothermia" and "hypodermic". So "U-oid" becomes "hy-oid".

(Other parts of the body named for letters of the alphabet are the sigmoid ("S-shaped") flexure of the colon and the deltoid ("Δ-shaped") muscle in the arm. The optic chiasm is the place in the head where the optic nerves cross; "chiasm" is Greek for a crossing-place, and is so-called after the Greek letter Χ.)

The German word for "auditory ossicles" is Gehörknöchelchen. Gehör is "for hearing". Knöchen is "bones"; Knöchelchen is "little bones". So the German word, like the Latin phrase "auditory ossicles", means "little bones for hearing".


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Sun, 12 Mar 2006

Naomi Wolf and Big Ethel
Aaron Swartz has done a text search of The Beauty Myth and concluded that Wolf never intended Big Ethel to serve as an example of intelligence, contrary to what I asserted in my previous article. M. Swartz says:

Judging from a search on Amazon, the only time Ethel is mentioned is in the context of noting that an attractive woman is often paired with an unattractive one: "... Veronica and Ethel in Riverdale; ... and so forth. Male culture seems happiest to imagine two women together when they are defined as being one winner and one loser in the beauty myth." (59f)

I still question the aptness of the example, since, again, the principal case in which two women are imagined together in Archie comics is not Veronica and Ethel, but Veronica and Betty, both of whom are portrayed as "winners". Betty and Veronica are major characters; Ethel is not. But the error isn't nearly as serious as the one I said Wolf had made.

The most serious error here is mine: I should have considered and discussed the possibility that my friend was misquoting Wolf. That I didn't do this was unfair to Wolf and entirely my fault. Since I haven't read the book myself, I should have realized what shaky ground I was on, and taken pains to point this out. And yet other possibilities are:

  • That my friend didn't misquote Wolf at all, and I misunderstood her at the time, or
  • that my friend correctly quoted Wolf and I understood her at the time, but my memory of the episode (which occurred around 1993) is faulty.
I took Vallely to task for poor research and for failing to pick up a dictionary to confirm some of his assertions. Had I taken my own advice, I would have checked to see what Wolf said before commenting on it. My disclaimer in the original article that I had not read the book relieves me of only part of the responsibility for this failure.


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On saying too much, or, bad things come in threes
Long ago, I had a conversation with a woman who had recently read Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth. She was extolling the book, which I had not read, and mentioned that Wolf had an extensive discussion of the popular dichotomy between beauty and intelligence. She told me that Wolf had cited Archie comics as containing an example of this dichotomy, in the characters of Veronica and Big Ethel.

I had been nodding and agreeing up to that point. But at the mention of Big Ethel I was quite startled, and said that that spoiled the argument for me, and made me doubt the conclusion. I now had doubts about what had seemed so plausible a moment before.

Veronica is indeed one half of a contrasting pair in Archie comics. But Veronica and Big Ethel? No. Veronica is not complementary to Big Ethel. The counterpart of Veronica is Betty. The contrast is not between beauty and brains but between rich and poor, and between their derived properties, spoiled and sweet. A good point could be made about Veronica and Betty, but it was not the point that Wolf wanted to make; her citation of Veronica and Big Ethel as exemplifying the opposition of beauty and intelligence was just bizarre. Big Ethel, to my knowledge, has never been portrayed as unusually intelligent. She is characterized by homeliness and by her embarrassing and unrequited attraction to Jughead, not by intelligence.

Why would this make me doubt the conclusion of Wolf's argument? Because I had been fully ready to believe the conclusion, that our culture manufactures a division between attractiveness and intelligence for women, and makes them choose one or the other. I had imagined that it would be easy to produce examples demonstrating the point. But the example Wolf chose was completely inept. And, as I said at the time, "Naomi Wolf is very smart, and has studied this closely and thought about it for a long time. If that is the best example that she can come up with, then perhaps I'm wrong, and there really aren't as many examples as I thought there would be." Without the example, I would have agreed with the conclusion. With the example, intended to support the conclusion, I wasn't so sure.

Now, I come to the real point of this note. Paul Vallely has written an article for The Independent on "How Islamic inventors changed the world". He lists twenty of the most influential contributions of the Muslim world, including the discovery of coffee, inoculation, and the fountain pen. I am not so clear on the history of the technology here. Some of it I know is correct; some is plausible; some is extremely dubious. (The crank, not invented before 1206? Please.) But the whole article is spoiled for me, except as a topic of derision, because of three errors.

Item #1 concerns the discovery of the coffee bean. One might expect this to have been discovered in prehistoric times by local Ethiopians, long before the founding of Islam. But I'm in no position to argue with it, and I was ready to give Vallely the benefit of the doubt.

Item #2 on Vallely's list was more worrying. It says "Ibn al-Haitham....set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room)." It may or may not be true that "qamara" is an "Arab word" (by which I suppose Vallely means an "Arabic word") for "chamber", but it is certainly true that this word, if it exists, is not the source of the English word "camera". I don't know from "qamara", but "camera obscura" is Latin for "dark chamber". "Camera" means "chamber" in Latin and has for thousands of years. The two words, in fact, are etymologically the same, which is why they have almost the same spelling. It is for this reason that the part of a legal hearing held in the judge's private chambers is said to be "in camera".

There might be an Arabic word "qamara", for all I know. If there is, it might be derived from the Latin. (The Latin word is not derived from Arabic, either; it is from Greek καμαρα, which refers to anything with an arched cover.) Two things are sure: The English word "camera" is not derived from Arabic, and Vallely did not bother to pick up a dictionary before he said that it was.

Anyone can make a mistake. But I started to get excited when I read item 3, which is about the game of chess. Vallely says "The word rook comes from the Persian rukh, which means chariot." This is true, sort of, but it is off in a subtle way. The rooks or castles of modern chess did start out as chariots. (Moving castles around never did make much sense.) And "rook" is indeed from Persian rukh. But rukh doesn't exactly mean a chariot. It means a chariot in the game of chess. The Persian word for a chariot outside of chess was different. (I don't remember what it was.) Saying that rukh is the Persian word for chariot is like saying that "rook" is the English word for castle.

I was only on item 3 and had already encountered one serious error of etymology and one other item which although it wasn't exactly an error, was peculiar. I considered that I wouldn't really have enough material for a blog post, unless Vallely made at least one more serious mistake. But there were still 17 of 20 items left. So I read on. Would Vallely escape?

No, or I would not have written this article. Item 17 says "The modern cheque comes from the Arabic saqq, a written vow to pay for goods when they were delivered...". But no. The correct etymology is fascinating and bizarre. "Cheque" is derived from Norman French "exchequer", which was roughly the equivalent of the treasury and internal revenue department in England starting around 1300. Why was the internal revenue department called the exchequer? Because it was named after the chessboard, which was also called "exchequer".

What do chessboards have to do with internal revenue? Ah, I am glad you wondered. Hindu-Arabic numerals had not yet become popular in Europe; numbers were still recorded using Roman numerals. It is extremely difficult to calculate efficiently with Roman numerals. How, then did the internal revenue department calculate taxes owed and amounts payable?

They used an abacus. But it wasn't an abacus like modern Chinese or Japanese abacuses, with beads strung on wires. A medieval European abacus was a table with a raised edge and a grid of squares ruled on it. The columns of squares represented ones, tens, hundreds, and so on. You would put metal counters, called jettons, on the squares to represent numbers. Three jettons on a "hundred" square represented three hundred; four jettons on the square to its right represented forty. Each row of squares recorded a separate numeral. To add two numerals together, just take the jettons from one row, move them to the other row, and then resolve the carrying appropriately: Ten jettons on a square can be removed and replaced with a single jetton on the square to the left.

The internal revenue department, the "exchequer", got its name from these counting-boards covered with ruled squares like chessboards.

(The word "exchequer" meaning a chessboard was derived directly from the name of the game: Old French eschecs, Medieval Latin scacci, and so on, all from shah, which means "king" in Persian. The word "checkered" is also closely related.)

So, in summary: the game is "chess", or eschek in French; the board is therefore exchequer, and since the counting-tables of the treasury department look like chessboards, the treasury department itself becomes known as the exchequer. The treasury department, like all treasury departments, issues notes promising to pay certain sums at certain times, and these notes are called "exchequer notes" or just "exchequers", later shortened (by the English) to "cheques" or (by Americans) to "checks". Arabic saqq, if there is such a word, does not come into it. Once again, it is clear that Vallely's research was shoddy.

While I was writing up this article, yet another serious error came to light. Item 11 says "The windmill was invented in 634 for a Persian caliph...". Now, I am not very knowledgeable about history, and my historical education is very poor. But that was so peculiar that it startled even me. 634 seemed to me much too early for any clever inventions to be attributed to Muslims. Then I looked it up, and so it was. Muhammad himself had only died in 632.

As for the Persian caliph Vallely mentions, he did not exist. The caliphs are the successors of Muhammad, so of course there was one in 634---the first one, in fact. Abu Bakr reigned from the death of the Prophet in 632 until his own death in 634; he was succeeded by `Umar. Neither was Persian. They were both Arabs, as you would expect of Muslim leaders in 634. There were no Persian caliphs in 634.

My own ignorance of Islam and its history is vast and deep, but at least I had a vague idea that 634 was extremely early. Vallely could have looked up the date of the founding of the caliphate as easily as I did. Why didn't he? Well, perhaps it was just a typo, and should have said 834 or 934. In that case it's just poor editing and inattention. But perhaps it was a genuine factual error, in which case Vallely was not only not paying attention, but is apparently even less familiar with Islamic history than I am, difficult as that is to achieve. In which case we have this article about the twenty greatest contributions of Islam written by a guy who literally does not know the first thing about Islam.

And so this article, which I hoped to enjoy, was spoiled by a series of errors. I am very sympathetic to the idea that the brilliant history of Islamic science and engineering has been neglected by European scholarship. One of my very first blog posts was about the Islamic use of algebra to solve complex probate problems. Just last week I was reading about al-Biruni's invention, around 1000 years ago, of an improved method for measuring the size of the earth, a topic that Vallely treats as item 18. But after reading Vallely's article, I worried a bit that the case might have been overstated. Perhaps the contributions of Muslims are not as large as I had thought?

Fortunately, there was an alternative: the conclusion is correct, and the inept support from the author speaks only to the author's ineptness, not to the validity of the conclusion. I did not have that alternative with Naomi Wolf, who is not inept. (Also, see this addendum.)

With only cursory attention, I found three major errors of fact in this one short article. How many more did I miss, I wonder? Did Abbas ibn Firnas really invent a working parachute, as Vallely says? Maybe it was someone else. Maybe there was no parachute. Maybe there was, but it didn't work. Maybe the whole thing is a propaganda invention by someone who wants to promote Islam, and has suckered Vallely into repeating fiction. Maybe all of these. Someone knows the truth, but it isn't me, and I can't trust Vallely.

Were the Turks vaccinating people eighty years before the Europeans, or did Vallely swallow a tall tale? I don't know, and I can't trust Vallely.

People sometimes joke "I am stupider for having read this," but I really believe this was the case here. The article is worse than useless, because it has polluted my brain with a lot of unreliable non-information. I will have to be careful not to think that quilted fabrics were first brought to Europe by the crusaders, who got them from the Muslims. My real fear is that the "fact" will remain in my brain for years, long after I have forgotten how unreliable Vallely is, and that I will bring it out again as real information, which it is not. True or not, it is too unreliable to be information.

The best I can hope for now is that I will forget everything Vallely says, and meet the true parts again somewhere else in the future. In the meantime, I am worse off for having read it.


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Thu, 02 Feb 2006

Petard corrections
Eric Cholet has written in to mention that he is familiar with the fried choux pastry that I mentioned yesterday, but under the name pets de nonne, not pets de soeurs, as I said. (Nonne, of course, is "nun". The word soeur is literally "sister", but in this context means "nun". ) I had cited On Food and Cooking as mentioning pets de soeurs, but it agrees with Eric, not with me.

It appears, though, that many people do use the name pets de soeurs to refer to these fritters, and some people also use it to refer to a kind of soda-raised cinnamon roll. Citations to various cookbooks are available through the usual searches.

Eric also points out that petard is the current word for a firecracker, and also now refers to a doobie. I was already aware of this because pictures of those things appeared when I did Google image seach for petard. Thank you, Eric.


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Tue, 31 Jan 2006

Petard
A petard is a Renaissance-era bomb, basically a big firecracker: a box or small barrel of gunpowder with a fuse attached. Those hissing black exploding spheres that you see in Daffy Duck cartoons are petards. Outside of cartoons, you are most likely to encounter the petard in the phrase "hoist with his own petard", which is from Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are being sent to England with the warrant for Hamlet's death; Hamlet alters the warrant to contain R&G's names instead of his own. "Hoist", of course, means "raised", and Hamlet is saying that it is amusing to see someone screw up his own petard and blow himself sky-high with it.

Order
On Food and Cooking
On Food and Cooking
with kickback
no kickback
This morning I read in On Food in Cooking that there's a kind of fried choux pastry called pets de soeurs ("nuns' farts") because they're so light and delicate. That brought to mind Le Pétomane, the world-famous theatrical fartmaster. Then there was a link on reddit titled "Xmas Petard (cool gif video!)" which got me thinking about petards, and it occurred to me that "petard" was probably akin to pets, because it makes a bang like a fart. And hey, I was right; how delightful.

Another fart-related word is "partridge", so named because its call sounds like a fart.


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