In this section:
Sat, 14 May 2022
A while back I wrote a shitpost about octohedral cathedrals and in reply Daniel Wagner sent me this shitpost of a cat-hedron:
But that got me thinking: the ‘hedr-’ in “octahedron” (and other -hedrons) is actually the Greek word ἕδρα (/hédra/) for “seat”, and an octahedron is a solid with eight “seats”. The ἕδρα (/hédra/) is akin to Latin sedēs (like in “sedentary”, or “sedate”) by the same process that turned Greek ἡμι- (/hémi/, like in “hemisphere”) into Latin semi- (like in “semicircle”) and Greek ἕξ (/héx/, like in “hexagon”) into Latin sex (like in “sextet”).
So a cat-hedron should be a seat for cats. Such seats do of course exist:
But I couldn't stop there because the ‘hedr-’ in “cathedral” is the same word as the one in “octahedron”. A “cathedral” is literally a bishop's throne, and cathedral churches are named metonymically for the literal throne they contain or the metaphorical one represent. A cathedral is where a bishop has his “seat” of power.
So a true cathedral should look like this:
Sat, 26 Mar 2022
While writing the recent article about Devika Icecreamwala (born Patel) I acquired the list of most common U.S. surnames. (“Patel” is 95th most common; there are about 230,000 of them.) Once I had the data I did many various queries on it, and one of the things I looked for was names with no vowels. Here are the results:
It is no surprise that Ng is by far the most common. It's an English transcription of the Cantonese pronunciation of 吳, which is one of the most common names in the world. 吳 belongs to at least twenty-seven million people. Its Mandarin pronunciation is Wu, which itself is twice as common in the U.S. as Ng.
I suspect the others are all Czech. Vlk definitely is; it's Czech for “wolf”. (Check out the footer of the Vlk page for eighty other common names that all mean “wolf”, including Farkas, López, Lovato, Lowell, Ochoa, Phelan, and Vuković.)
Similarly Smrz is common enough that Wikipedia has a page about it. In Czech it was originally Smrž, and Wikipedia mentions Jakub Smrž, a Czech motorcycle racer. In the U.S. the confusing háček is dropped from the z and one is left with just Smrz.
The next two are Srp and Srb. Here it's a little harder to guess. Srb means a Serbian person in several Slavic languages, including Czech and it's not hard to imagine that it is a Czech toponym for a family from Serbia. (Srb is also the Serbian word for a Serbian person, but an immigrant to the U.S. named Srb, coming from Czechia, might fill out the immigration form with “Srb” and might end up with their name spelled that way, whereas a Serbian with that name would write the unintelligible Срб and would probably end up with something more like Serb.) There's also a town in Croatia with the name Srb and the surname could mean someone from that town.
I'm not sure whether Srp is similar. The Serbian-language word for the Serbian language itself is Srpski (српски), but srp is also Slavic for “sickle” and appears in quite a few Slavic agricultural-related names such as Sierpiński. (It's also the name for the harvest month of August.)
Next is Krc. I guessed maybe this was Czech for “church” but it seems that that is kostel. There is a town south of Prague named Krč and maybe Krc is the háčekless American spelling of the name of a person whose ancestors came from there.
Last is Smrt. Wikipedia has an article about Thomas J. Smrt but it doesn't say whether his ancestry was Czech. I had a brief fantasy that maybe some of the many people named Smart came from Czech families originally named Smrt, but I didn't find any evidence that this ever happened; all the Smarts seem to be British. Oh well.
[ Bonus trivia: smrt is the Czech word for “death”, which we also meet in the name of James Bond's antagonist SMERSH. SMERSH was a real organization, its name a combination of смерть (/smiert/, “death”) and шпио́нам (/shpiónam/, “to spies”). Шпио́нам, incidentally, is borrowed from the French espion, and ultimately akin to English spy itself. ]
[ Addenda 20220327: Thanks to several readers who wrote to mention that Smrž is a morel and Krč is (or was) a stump or a block of wood, I suppose analogous to the common German name Stock. Petr Mánek corrected my spelling of háček and also directed me to KdeJsme.cz, a web site providing information about Czech surnames. Finally, although Smrt is not actually a shortened form of Smart I leave you with this consolation prize. ]
Fri, 09 Jul 2021
Last week at work we released bad code, which had somehow survived multiple reviews. I was very interested in finding out how this happened, dug into the Git history to find out, and wrote a report. Originally I titled the report something like “Forensic analysis of Git history” (and one of my co-workers independently referred to the investigation as forensic) but then I realized I wasn't sure what “forensic” meant. I looked it up, and learned it was the wrong word.
A forensic analysis is one performed in the service of a court or court case. “Forensic” itself is from Latin forum, which is a public assembly place where markets were held and court cases were heard.
Forensic medicine is medicine in service of a court case, for example to determine a cause of death. For this reason it often refers to a postmortem examination, and I thought that “forensic” meant a postmortem or other retrospective analysis. That was the sense I intended it. But no. I had written a postmortem analysis, but not a forensic one.
Mon, 05 Jul 2021
In English, this is called duckface:
In German, I've learned, it's Schlauchbootlippen.
Schlauch is “tube”. A Schlauchboot is a tube-boat — an inflatable rubber dingy. Schlauchbootlippen means dinghy-lips.
Sun, 27 Jun 2021
In Korean, “바둑이” (/badugi/) is a common name for a spotted dog, especially a black-spotted dog. This is because “바둑” (/baduk/) is the native Korean name for the game of go, in which round black and white stones are placed on a board.
In English, black-and-white spotted dogs are sometimes named “Checkers” for essentially the same reason.
Mon, 08 Mar 2021
Today I was reading about Avicenna's work The Canon of Medicine and learned that the original Arabic title
is rendered in Latin script as al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb with al-Qānun (“the law”) being translated into English as “Canon” (“rule” or “law”). The English word comes via French and Latin, ultimately from Greek κανών, “rule”.
Is the resemblance between Qānūn and κανών a coincidence, or is the Arabic word originally borrowed from Greek?
I was about to write the next sentence “and where could I have looked this up?” but then I remembered that this kind of thing can be looked up in English Wiktionary. English Wiktionary is not a dictionary of English, but a universal dictionary in English. It not only defines English words, but also words in many other languages, with the descriptions and etmologies written in English.
So I looked it up, and it is a Greek loanword!
The Internet is amazing and wonderful. Truly, we live in an age of marvels.
Sat, 26 Dec 2020
This tweet from Raffi Melkonian describes the appetizer plate at his house on Christmas. One item jumped out at me:
I wondered what that was like, and then I realized I do have some idea, because I recognized the word. Basterma is not an originally Armenian word, it's a Turkish loanword, I think canonically spelled pastırma. And from Turkish it made a long journey through Romanian and Yiddish to arrive in English as… pastrami…
For which “spicy beef prosciutto” isn't a bad description at all.
Fri, 11 Sep 2020
In reply to my recent article about the history of words for “eggplant”, a reader, Lydia, sent me this incredible map they had made that depicts the history and the diffusion of the terms:
Lydia kindly gave me permission to share their map with you. You can see the early Dravidian term vaḻutanaṅṅa in India, and then the arrows show it travelling westward across Persia and, Arabia, from there to East Africa and Europe, and from there to the rest of the world, eventually making its way back to India as brinjal before setting out again on yet more voyages.
Thank you very much, Lydia! And Happy Diada Nacional de Catalunya, everyone!
Fri, 28 Aug 2020
This morning Katara asked me why we call these vegetables “zucchini” and “eggplant” but the British call them “courgette” and “aubergine”.
I have only partial answers, and the more I look, the more complicated they get.
The zucchini is a kind of squash, which means that in Europe it is a post-Columbian import from the Americas.
“Squash” itself is from Narragansett, and is not related to the verb “to squash”. So I speculate that what happened here was:
The Big Dictionary has citations for “zucchini” only back to 1929, and “courgette” to 1931. What was this vegetable called before that? Why did the Americans start calling it “zucchini” instead of whatever they called it before, and why “zucchini” and not “courgette”? If it was brought in by Italian immigrants, one might expect to the word to have appeared earlier; the mass immigration of Italians into the U.S. was over by 1920.
Following up on this thought, I found a mention of it in Cuniberti, J. Lovejoy., Herndon, J. B. (1918). Practical Italian recipes for American kitchens, p. 18: “Zucchini are a kind of small squash for sale in groceries and markets of the Italian neighborhoods of our large cities.” Note that Cuniberti explains what a zucchini is, rather than saying something like “the zucchini is sometimes known as a green summer squash” or whatever, which suggests that she thinks it will not already be familiar to the readers. It looks as though the story is: Colonial Europeans in North America stopped eating the zucchini at some point, and forgot about it, until it was re-introduced in the early 20th century by Italian immigrants.
When did the French start calling it courgette? When did the Italians start calling it zucchini? Is the Italian term a calque of the French, or vice versa? Or neither? And since courge (and gourd) are evidently descended from Latin cucurbita, where did the Italians get zucca?
So many mysteries.
Here I was able to get better answers. Unlike squash, the eggplant is native to Eurasia and has been cultivated in western Asia for thousands of years.
The puzzling name “eggplant” is because the fruit, in some varieties, is round, white, and egg-sized.
The term “eggplant” was then adopted for other varieties of the same plant where the fruit is entirely un-egglike.
“Eggplant” in English goes back only to 1767. What was it called before that? Here the OED was more help. It gives this quotation, from 1785:
I inferred that the preceding text described it under a better-known name, so, thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, I looked up the original source:
The most common term I've found that was used before “egg-plant” itself is “mad apple”. The OED has cites from the late 1500s that also refer to it as a “rage apple”, which is a calque of French pomme de rage. I don't know how long it was called that in French. I also found “Malum Insanam” in the 1736 Lexicon technicum of John Harris, entry “Bacciferous Plants”.
Melongena was used as a scientific genus name around 1700 and later adopted by Linnaeus in 1753. I can't find any sign that it was used in English colloquial, non-scientific writing. Its etymology is a whirlwind trip across the globe. Here's what the OED says about it:
Okay, now how do we get to “aubergine”? The list above includes Arabic bāḏinjān, and this, like many Arabic words was borrowed into Spanish, as berengena or alberingena. (The “al-” prefix is Arabic for “the” and is attached to many such borrowings, for example “alcohol” and “alcove”.)
From alberingena it's a short step to French aubergine. The OED entry for aubergine doesn't mention this. It claims that aubergine is from “Spanish alberchigo, alverchiga, ‘an apricocke’”. I think it's clear that the OED blew it here, and I think this must be the first time I've ever been confident enough to say that. Even the OED itself supports me on this: the note at the entry for brinjal says: “cognate with the Spanish alberengena is the French aubergine”. Okay then. (Brinjal, of course, is a contraction of berengena, via Portuguese bringella.)
Sanskrit vātiṅgaṇa is also the ultimate source of modern Hindi baingan, as in baingan bharta.
(Wasn't there a classical Latin word for eggplant? If so, what was it? Didn't the Romans eat eggplant? How do you conquer the world without any eggplants?)
[ Addendum: My search for antedatings of “zucchini” turned up some surprises. For example, I found what seemed to be many mentions in an 1896 history of Sicily. These turned out not to be about zucchini at all, but rather the computer's pathetic attempts at recognizing the word Σικελίαν. ]
[ Addendum 20200831: Another surprise: Google Books and Hathi Trust report that “zucchini” appears in the 1905 Collier Modern Eclectic Dictionary of the English Langauge, but it's an incredible OCR failure for the word “acclamation”. ]
[ Addendum 20200911: A reader, Lydia, sent me a beautiful map showing the evolution of the many words for ‘eggplant’. Check it out. ]
Mon, 06 Apr 2020
[ Warning: this article is kinda all over the place. ]
I was looking at this awesome poster of D. Moor (Д. Моор), one of Russia's most famous political poster artists:
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, in Russian, “Himmler”, “Göring”, “Hitler”, and “Goebbels” all begin with the same letter, ‘Г’, which is homologous to ‘G’. (Similarly, Harry Potter in Russian is Га́рри, ‘Garri’.)
I also love the pictures, and especially Goebbels. These four men were so ugly, each in his own distinctively loathsome way. The artist has done such a marvelous job of depicting them, highlighting their various hideousness. It's exaggerated, and yet not unfair, these are really good likenesses! It's as if D. Moor had drawn a map of all the ways in which these men were ugly.
My all-time favorite depiction of Goebbels is this one, by Boris Yefimov (Бори́с Ефи́мов):
For comparison, here's the actual Goebbels:
Looking at pictures of Goebbels, I had often thought “That is one ugly guy,” but never been able to put my finger on what specifically was wrong with his face. But since seeing the Yefimov picture, I have never been able to look at a picture of Goebbels without thinking of a rat. D. Moor has also drawn Goebbels as a tiny rat, scurrying around the baseboards of his poster.
Anyway, that was not what I had planned to write about. The right-hand side of D. Moor's poster imagines the initial ‘Г’ of the four Nazis’ names as the four bent arms of the swastika. The captions underneath mean “first Г”, “second Г” and so on.
[ Addendum: Darrin Edwards explains the meaning here that had escaped me:
Thank you, M. Edwards! ]
Looking at the fourth one, четвертое /chetvyertoye/, I had a sudden brainwave. “Aha,” I thought, “I bet this is akin to Greek “tetra”, and the /t/ turned into /ch/ in Russian.”
Well, now that I'm writing it down it doesn't seem that exciting. I now remember that all the other Russian number words are clearly derived from PIE just as Greek, Latin, and German are:
In Latin that /t/ turned into a /k/ and we get /quadra/ instead of /tetra/. The Russian Ч /ch/ is more like a /t/ than it is like a /k/.
The change from /t/ to /f/ in English and /v/ in German is a bit weird. (The Big Dictionary says it “presents anomalies of which the explanation is still disputed”.) The change from the /p/ of ‘pente’ to the /f/ of ‘five’ is much more typical. (Consider Latin ‘pater’, ‘piscum’, ‘ped’ and the corresponding English ‘father’, ‘fish’, ‘foot’.) This is called Grimm's Law, yeah, after that Grimm.
The change from /q/ in quinque to /p/ in pente is also not unusual. (The ancestral form in PIE is believed to have been more like the /q/.) There's a classification of Celtic lanugages into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic that's similar, exemplified by the change from the Irish patronymic prefix Mac- into the Welsh patronymic map or ap.
I could probably write a whole article comparing the numbers from one to ten in these languages. (And Sanskrit. Wouldn't want to leave out Sanskrit.) The line for ‘two’ would be a great place to begin because all those words are basically the same, with only minor and typical variations in the spelling and pronunciation. Maybe someday.
Thu, 12 Dec 2019
Many ‘bene-’ words do have ‘male-’ opposites. For example, the opposite of a benefactor is a malefactor, the opposite of a benediction is a malediction, and the opposite of benevolence is malevolence. But strangely there is no ‘malefit’ that is opposite to ‘benefit’.
Or so I wrote, and then I thought I had better look it up.
The Big Dictionary has six examples, one as recent as 1989 and one as early as 1755:
(Charlotte Charke, A narrative of the life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq.), 1755.)
(I think the “benefit” here is short for “benefit performance”, an abbreviation we still use today.)
Mrs. Charke seems to be engaging in intentional wordplay. All but one of the other citations similarly suggest intentional wordplay; for example:
(P. Howard, Word in Your Ear, 1983.)
The one exception is from no less a person than J.R.R. Tolkien:
(Around 1973, Quoted in C. Tolkien, History of Middle-earth: Sauron Defeated, 1992.)
Incidentally, J.R.R. is quoted 362 times in the Big Dictionary.
Tue, 26 Nov 2019
A chalupa is a fried tortilla that has been filled with meat, shredded cheese, or whatever. But it is also the name of the mayor of Prague from 2002–2011.
The boat-shaped food item is named after a kind of boat called a chalupa; I think the name is akin to English sloop. But in Czech a chalupa is neither a boat nor a comestible, but a cottage.
[ Addendum 20191201: I should probably mention that the two words are not pronounced the same; in Spanish, the “ch” is like in English “church”, and in Czech it is pronounced like in English “challah” or “loch”. To get the Spanish pronunciation in Czech you need to write “čalupa”, and this is indeed the way they spell the name of the fried-tortilla dish in Czech. ]
[ Addendum 20220115: Other people whose names are accidentally foods ]
Fri, 25 Oct 2019
Wikipedia's article on the etymology of gringo is quite good, well-cited, and I did not detect any fishy smells. I had previously tried to look up gringo in the Big Dictionary, but it only informed me that it was from Mexican Spanish, which is not really helpful. (I know that's because their jurisdiction stops at the English border, and they aren't responsible for anything outside, but really, OED folks? Nothing else?)
Anyway Wikipedia helped me out. I had gotten onto this gringos thing because yesterday I learned about gringas, which are white flour tortillas. I immediately wondered: are they called gringas because (like gringos) they're made of white paste? Or is it because they're eaten by gringos, who don't care for corn tortillas? The answer seems to be: both explanations are current, but nobody knows if either is correct.
On the way to gringo I spent a while reading about yanqui, which Latin Americans use to refer to northerners.
So do people in the USA for that matter. Southerners will angrily deny being “yanqui”. They reserve that term to mean anyone from the north, such as myself. But folks like me from the Mid-Atlantic states also deny being Yankees and will tell you that it only means people from New England. Many New Englanders will disclaim being truly Yankee and say that to meet true Yankees you need to go to Maine or maybe New Hampshire. And I suppose people in Maine use it to mean one particular old Yankee farmer who lives up near the Canadaian border.
Anyway, I wonder: in Latin America, does “yanqui” always mean specifically USA-ians, or would it also include Canadians? Would a typical Mexican or Guatemalan person refer casually to Canadians as yanquis? Or, if they were drinking beer with a Canadian, and the Canadian refered to themselves as yanqui, would they correct them? (“You're not a yanqui, you're Canadian! Not the same thing at all!”)
If Mexicans do consider Canadians to be a species of yanqui, what do they make of the Québécois? Also yanqui? Or do Francophones get a pass? (What about the Cajuns for that matter?)
Fri, 26 Apr 2019
What is the shed in “watershed”? Is it a garden shed? No.
I guessed that it meant a piece of land that sheds water into some stream or river. Wrong!
The Big Dictionary says that this shed is:
This meaning of “shed” fell out of use after the end of the 17th century.
Sat, 30 Mar 2019
Katara just read me the story she wrote in Latin, which concerns two men who chase after a corax. “What kind of animal is corax?” I asked.
“It's a raven.”
“Awesome,” I said. “I bet it's onomatopoeic.”
So I looked into it, and yup! It's from Greek κόραξ. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon says (p. 832):
κράζω (krazo) and κρώζω (krozo) mean “to croak”. “Croak” itself is also onomatopoeic. And it hadn't occurred to me before that English “crow” is also onomatopoeic. Looking into it further, Wikipedia also tells me that the rook is also named from the sound it makes.
(J.R.R. Tolkien was certainly aware of all of this. In The Hobbit has a giant raven named Roäc, the son of Carc.)
Liddell and Scott continues:
κορώνίς (koronis) means “curved”, and in particular a “corona” or crown. Curvus of course means curved, and is akin to Latin corvus, which again means a crow.
The raven's beak does not look so curved to me, but the Greeks must have found it striking.
Mon, 14 May 2007
Bryan and his posse
A pitched battle was fought..at Rockhill, Missouri, between the Sheriff's posse and the miners on strike.
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.
Fri, 24 Nov 2006
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.
Sat, 07 Oct 2006
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.
"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.)
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".
Sun, 12 Mar 2006
Naomi Wolf and Big Ethel
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:
On saying too much, or, bad things come in threes
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.
[ Addendum 20200204: Thirteen years later, it occurred to me to wonder: Why does Arabic chess have chariots anyway? ]
Thu, 02 Feb 2006
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.
Tue, 31 Jan 2006
Another fart-related word is "partridge", so named because its call sounds like a fart.