Tuesday, April 20, 2010

High Praise

I read through Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a couple times in my late teens.  For the younger generation who has only seen the movies, you owe it to yourself to discover the incredible way Tolkein crafted his legendary legends.  Tolkein wove everyday words into fantastic adventures.  One of the most vivid images still fixed in my mind is the shrewish Gollum hovering over his ring murmuring, “My Precioussss”.  Eventually, dear little Gollum pays the ultimate price – his life – for the object of his praise.

Oops, I did it again, Precious, Price, Praise.  All related to the IE root per5 meaning to traffic in or to sell.  Today, all these ideas relate to assigning value to something.  When my beloved wife says she does not appreciate my sense of humor, she means she doesn’t find much value in it.  (What’s up with that?)  When you appraise an object, you establish its value or selling price.  Over time, most things lose value - they depreciate.  When you praise something, you are literally celebrating its value by devoting your energy to acknowledging that value.  Gollum sought to possess the precious ring even at the cost of his own life.  That’s about as high praise as you can give!

A related word is interesting.  Preciosity means extreme meticulousness or over-refinement.  Use it in a sentence?  The owner of the antique store had an air of preciosity to him; always fussing over the smallest detail in his collection.

Think about this family of words the next time you go about buying and selling.  Does the price truly reflect the object’s value?

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Pope's Dentures

Most people of prominence wind up having several titles (e.g. President, Commander in Chief, POTUS) so I didn’t worry too much about the Catholic Church’s Pope also being called the Pontiff.  That is not until I saw a dental term that seemed strangely similar – pontic.  Yes, the Pope often wears a hat that looks like a giant tooth, but that’s not usually the way words work.

First let’s take notice of the word Pope, itself.  Pope, comes simply from papa, daddy.  (In fact, in Italy, the Pope is called Il Papa.)  Many religious titles relate to father because of their leadership, mentoring role, including the Jewish rabbi.  So, is Pope related to Pontiff?  No chance.

Pontiff, the leader of a religious organization based in Rome, is related to another word you see all over Italy – ponte.  One of the most famous of these ponte is the Ponte Vecchio – the Old Bridge in Florence.  (Ponte means bridge, vecchio means old – they say their words backwards in most of the world.)  It’s a fascinating structure you should look intoPontiff means something to the effect of “bridge maker” or way-shower – a religious concept of helping people find a connection to God.  By the way, to pontificate (one of my favorite words) means to speak as one in authority - the way the pope would speak.

Now, maybe you are getting out ahead of me on the word pontic.  If you have one or two teeth missing with healthy teeth on either side, your fantastic dentist with solve the problem with what?  A bridge.  Technically speaking, the pontic is the artificial tooth fashioned into a dental bridge.

Our IE root is pent meaning to tread or go.  A bridge is a very important structure that helps us go farther.  Path derives from this root as does find (you have to go to find what you are looking for).  Another memorable word from the youth of Baby Boomers is also related – Sputnik, which means "fellow traveler".

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Throw Another Blog On The Fire

Today’s word family comes from the IE root leg1.  (The 1 means there are other leg roots that are not related to this one.)  The root leg1 means to collect.  (The -lect of collect comes from this root). Now follow this – the root also leads to the meaning of “spoken”.  Think about it.  Hopefully, when we speak or write, we bring together the words that will effectively communicate our meaning.  First example: legal.  See, over thousands of years, the root leg is still intact.  Legal matters are based on law (a collection of spoken words). Related words include lecture, legislature, elect, neglect, and select.

Continuing with the idea of words, all those school subjects like biology, geology, psychology actually mean “words about _____”.  The Greeks had the word “logos” which just means words.  It strikes me as funny that today a company develops a symbol (like MacDonald’s golden arches) so they don’t have to use words to express their company identity. What’s that called? A logo.  (Ever heard "a picture is worth a thousand words"?)

Remember the era of discovery and captain's notes we find in the ship’s log?  That kind of log is like a diary where words are collected.  But what about that good old tree log?  Trees are cut down and gathered for firewood or for building purposes. Fire logs and captains’ logs come from the same root and meaning – to collect.  Right now, you are reading my word blog – a collection of words, in this case, about words.  Where do you think blog came from?  Blog is a contraction of "web log" (a log on the internet).  It will be interesting to see where blog goes from here.

Consider that log could mean either a piece of wood, a diary of sorts, or even to “log on” to software or website.  Today, a Google search of “log” get’s 751 million hits.  Pretty impressive and that represents the far-flung uses of the word.  “Blog” is a far more limited word, really pretty peculiar.  The word "blog" is only about 12 years old (first used in 1998).  How many hits do you think it will get through a Google search for “blog”? 2.7 billion!!!  Almost four times more hits for “blog” than “log”.  [By way of comparison, the word "love" get's 1.48 billion hits on a Google search.]  Why does blog get more hits than log?  A blog is something that exists on the internet.  If you use the internet to search for an internet-related term, you’re going to get a lot (A LOT) of hits.  But if you walk through a neighborhood, you won’t see many blogs, but you’ll probably see thousands of logs patiently waiting for the fireplace.  That’s a good example of the peculiarity of words and how meanings and uses change over time and circumstance. 

Other words related to this root include logic, lesson, legend, dialect, dialogue, and legitimate.  The word privilege is also related. What is a privilege?  A word or law spoken privately, to just one or a few people.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Of Marbles and Marriage

This time of year, folks up north are getting excited about warmer weather.  In central Alaska, the sporting kind are laying down wagers on the Nenana Ice Classic - when the ice pack on the Tanana River will break up and start flowing out to sea.  Back in the day, the Spring thaw also signaled a sport of another kind to school kids all across town.  When the snow turned to mush and the pussy willows started budding, young’uns dug through their dressers to find that old sock full of marbles that has lain dormant for ten months.

Puries, clearies, cat-eyes, steelies, and boulders get their game on in a seasonal celebration that is dearly memorable – if only a memory.  We played marbles one of two ways, “keeps” or “no keeps”.  “Keeps” meant the winner kept his marble and took mine.  “No keeps” meant we were just having fun. Yeah, some “fun”.  My God-fearing parents cautioned me sternly that playing for keeps was the same as gambling.  Hmmm.  One thing was clear, if you agreed to “play for keeps” at the start of the match, then no whining when you lose.  To renege on the terms at the end of the match, depending on outcome, meant well-deserved social ostracism.  The best way to get a bad rep on the playground was to go back on your pledge.

Across the Northern Hemisphere, springtime is a celebration of bunnies and flowers and abundant new life.  The word May itself is tied to an ancient goddess of fertility.  ‘Tis true.

Now Is the Month of Maying (lyrics by Sir Thomas Morley)

Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing!
Each with his bonny lass, a-dancing on the grass.
                 Fa la la la la!
The Spring, clad all in gladness, doth laugh at Winter's sadness!
And to the bagpipes’ sound, the nymphs tread out the ground!
                 Fa la la la la!
Fie! Then why sit we musing, youth’s sweet delight refusing?
Say, dainty nymphs and speak! Shall we play barley break?
                 Fa la la la la!

Sweet delight refusing?  Of course, all those merry lads, bonny lasses, and dainty nymphs lead to one thing… er, uh, true love and a desire to get married.  That’s the ticket.  Thus, June is the most popular month for weddings.  Now, as things go, two can live as cheaply as one, it just costs twice as much.  So, hubby and/or bride will be ensure they have an income with which to feather the nest.

Turns out that betting (either on the ice pool or marbles), getting married, and making a living have one IE root in common – wadh. This root has the core meaning of “pledge”.  Everything we’ve talked about revolves around the idea of making (and keeping) a pledge.  What is a synonym for betting?  Wagering.  When you bet, you pledge money (or marbles) against a certain outcome.  If you don’t get your outcome, you lose your money.  Wager… wages.  An employer pledges to pay wages for certain work.  It’s just a pledge until you do the work and get paid.  As for marriage, clearly it is a social arrangement based on a pledge, or vow.  I hope you can see that wed is close in sound to wage.  Like any other proposition (that’s a pun), marriage is a forward-looking pledge.  From my perspective; however, unlike not knowing when the ice is going to break up, marriage is a wonder-filled relationship, the outcome of which can be impacted by the earnestness of our pledge to our spouses and our daily decision to follow-through on that pledge.  Marriage is playing for keeps!  Fa la la la la!