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Hello, dear readers. While I was reading some posts by my blogging buddies, I came across an old friend, Anand. (Hi, Anand!) at Blabberwockying. As usual, I learned something new, but was also challenged to find out why!

As you may know, the opposite of ‘correct’ is ‘incorrect’ and the opposite of ‘accurate’ is ‘inaccurate.’ But, the opposite of ‘valuable’ is NOT ‘invaluable.’ So, Anand, I had to go find out why. The prefix ‘in’ does indeed mean ‘not.’  But, in the late 1500’s, ‘value’ was a verb meaning ‘to estimate the worth of (something).’  So, invaluable therefore meant something so priceless that you could not estimate how much it was worth. Who knew?

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An A-maze-ing Mystery

I just watched about the silliest movie ever – Clue – with Tim Curry, Leslie Ann Warren, etc,. etc., etc.,  But what is a ‘clue?’  According to Business Insider a clue is “(noun): a fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem.” And in the movie, as in the board game, there are an overabundance of clues.

We are all familiar with clues from our favorite detective books and shows:  from Sherlock Holmes, to Miss Marple, to “C.S.I.,” to “Blue Bloods.”  All of the crime stories involve finding the clue or clues and – in an impossibly short period of time – solving the mystery!  But where did we get this word?  How did it come into use?

Thank the Greeks.  Sort of.  Actually, the word we know, ‘clue,’ did not exist until the mid-1500’s.  But there was a homophonic word, ‘clew,’ around long before that.  A clew is a ball of twine, rope, or cord. It was and is usually associated with sailing, where it has two meanings – the ball of cord, OR a ring in the bottom of a sail that cord is run through to attach the sail to the ship.

But what on earth does all that have to do with solving mysteries, you ask?  Well, back to the Greeks. Theseus, an Athenian prince, had many mythic adventures.  One of them took him to Crete to stop the Minotaur from slaying Athenians every 7 years. (For details as to why, check Wikipedia.) However, the king of Crete’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus and found a way to help him.  She knew the way in and out of the labyrinth which confined the Minotaur, so she told Theseus how to get in AND gave him a – wait for it – a CLEW of thread to help him find his way back out! So the clew solved the mystery of the maze.

Now humans being the way we are, the word ‘clew’ came to mean something that points the way (out).  And of course, illiteracy being more common than not in the 1500 and 1600’s, the spelling changed to ‘clue.’

So whether you are tying a sail, navigating a maze, or solving a mystery, you will probably need a clew at some point.  Or do I mean a clue?  Maybe I’d better get one.  A clue, that is!

A Word Becomes An Encounter

What happens when a non-science type person encounters an essayist who happens to be a paleontologist?  Quite a lot, actually.

It began one year when I was in college.  My mom gave me a subscription to Natural History magazine one Christmas, simple because she knew I enjoyed the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  I enjoyed reading about the various exhibits at the museum and many of the articles, skipping over the more scientific ones.  But I gradually began reading the monthly column, “This View of Life,” by Stephen Jay Gould.  I imagine that the first time I read it was because of an interesting title or subject.

I was hooked – even if I found nothing else of interest in the rest of the magazine in a given month, I never missed reading “This View of Life.”  I even started reading and collecting Dr. Gould’s books.  The first ones I read were collections of his essays from the magazine, usually being related to a central theme.  Gradually I began to read other books of his, including The Mis-measure of Man­ and Wonderful Life.

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I often felt challenged by Dr. Gould’s massive vocabulary, and hindered by my own lack of knowledge regarding biology and other sciences.  (After all, what need does a language major have of knowing a thorax from a dorsal fin!)  I often read his books, especially Wonderful Life, with a dictionary on one side of me and an encyclopedia on the other.

Because I read so many of his books, I noticed that there was one word in particular that Dr. Gould liked to use quite regularly. That word was ‘polymath.’  I could not find it in my rather large (but apparently not large enough) dictionary at home, so I went to the public library one day and tried their HUGE dictionary.  Nothing.  Having some small knowledge of word origins and Latin roots, I knew ‘poly’ meant ‘many,’ and ‘math’ obviously had to do with knowledge or numbers somehow, but that’s as far as I could get through deductive reasoning.

One day, I was at work and someone asked what I was reading, and in the course of the conversation, I mentioned trying to find the meaning of ‘polymath.’  My co-worker said, “Well, why don’t you write to him and ask what it means?”  Hmm.  So, I found a phone number for Harvard University, and called them up, asking them for a mailing address for Stephen Jay Gould.  Surprisingly they gave me a general address for his department. So I wrote.  And he answered!  A handwritten letter, even.  He said that a “polymath was a person who was skilled in many different areas or disciplines.  (Thank you, mystery solved.)  Oh, and by the way, I’m lecturing at the Free Library in Philadelphia in a few weeks – I would love to meet you if you are interested.”  Was I?  Brother, you know it.

So, I called the Library to see about a ticket.  They gave me another number, called that, tickets sold out, but I can view a free simulcast in the library rotunda and they’ll put me on a waiting list.  Co-worker (same one – smart girl!) says, why don’t you write to him and tell him you can’t get a ticket – maybe he can get a pass?

Well, I thought it was a long shot, but since he wrote on Harvard letterhead, I now have an exact address to send it to, so, why not?  Fast forward about 3 weeks.  Busy day at work as usual.  My coworker takes a call, places it on hold, and says to me, “Jackie, it’s Dr. Golden for you.  I think he’s with the University of Pennsylvania.  Are we still handling that account?”  I didn’t think so, but a call is a call, so I picked up the line.

“Hello, this is Stephen Gould from Harvard.  I have a guest pass for the lecture, and I will leave it at the desk for you.  Will you come backstage afterwards?  I’d like to meet you?”  I nearly fell off my chair! Needless to say, I went over to Philadelphia, found the library, and went backstage after (with my copy of Wonderful Life, naturally!)   I listened as Dr. Gould spoke to others there who there asking him to sign books, and telling them he never personalizes them, just signs his name, if that’s alright.  When I was able to speak with him, I explained who I was.  He immediately took my book and wrote in it.  But I could tell, he wrote more than his name! He did indeed personalized it!  When he handed it back to me he asked if I could wait and have coffee with him later.  Naturally, I agreed.  After all, coffee at the Four Seasons and conversation with such a mind -who wouldn’t?

What an experience speaking with such a brilliant man.  He was down to earth, speaking about his son and his love of baseball, his family, his work.  What struck me is that he didn’t have separate vocabularies for speaking and writing, as most people do.  No, he used words and used them well.

But all good things come to an end. After all, it was a weeknight, I lived an hour away, and I had to go to work in the morning.  He walked my back to my car, I dropped him back at his hotel.  Good night, farewell.

The only other time I met Stephen Jay Gould was in New York, at the American Museum of Natural History, several years later.  Another lecture, another line of people having books signed.  He was looking down at the table as each one placed a book there for him to sign.  When it was my turn, I just said, “You already signed mine in Philadelphia.”  He looked up then, stood up and smiled, gave me a hug, and said, “It is so nice that you came to another lecture.  It’s good to see you again.”

He died a couple of years after that, but I still remember how a simple word led to such a memorable encounter with one of the most interesting men I have ever met.

Fishing in the market

by Gemma Bardsley

by Gemma Bardsley, Flickr.com

Once a general market which probably sprung up in the 13th century, Billingsgate became a fish market in the 17th century.  In Old English, “Billingesgate” refered to the gate of or belonging to the man named Billings, and may have been a gap (gate) in a Roman wall along the river.  Perhaps Billings fished the river and brought his catch up through the gap to hawk it to passersby!  Who knows?

But of what interest is a market to a word nerd?  Well, because the market was once known for the foul, coarse language of the fishmongers who sold their wares in the market, the name of that market has become synonymous with such language.  According to Dictionary.com, billingsgate is a noun from:

         1670s, the kind of coarse, abusive language once used by women in the Billingsgate market on the River Thames below London Bridge.

Billingsgate is the market where the fishwomen assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand. [“Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1811]

And in case you think it doesn’t get bandied about any longer, here is a quote I found from a 2008 newspaper article:

“Kitty Warren is articulate when needed but when threatened or challenged, guttersnipe dialect and billingsgate dominate.”
Ted Hadley; Shaw Play Masterfully Tackles Taboo Topics; Buffalo News (New York); Jul 25, 2008

This tendency of the fishwomen of Billingsgate to use such language also gave rise to the word “fishwife,” a coarse, vulgar woman, likely to outswear a sailor!

So the next time you are in the market for fish, do mind your tongue!

#weekly

#etymology

Jumbo-laya!

Jumbo

He was, as found in Wikipedia, the “first international animal superstar, and the first African elephant to reach modern Europe alive,” and the largest elephant in captivity!  He was a constant attention-getter wherever he appeared, and caused worldwide mourning when he was killed in a railroad accident.  He was Jumbo, born in East Africa, travelling all over Europe, and finally ending up as part of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth.’  But..

He also added to our modern day lexicon!  Because of his size and the furor, the fads, the attention he garnered during his lifetime and after, his name, Jumbo, became symonmous with huge, enormous, gigantic, etc.! So, the next time you’re asked if you want the jumbo size at your fast-food place, remember who started it all!

BarnumJumbo