Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's that fabulous day of the week!

It's time for words and phrases. Today the material comes from John Ciardi's "A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions & Intriguing Facts". You should buy one. It's great for browsing. I've pulled a few interesting terms out of Ciardi's hat for you today. Have a look.

Influence. n. An affective power; v. To affect. [Root sense: "a flowing in, to flow in upon." From the Latin in- in; fluere, to flow. Whenever this word is encountered in writing prior to circa 1800, it is reasonable to ssume an astrological reference to the influence of the stars.]
NOTE: One of the most graceful effects of poetry (or of any precise writing) occurs when the author sets a word in a context that allows a counterpoint of the root sense and the extended sense. Assume the poet to be standing on an eastward-facing beach just at dawn with the surf running high. Then assume him to have written, "And dawn is all one rosy influence." The surf, tinged red by the level rays of the new sun, flows in (root sense) rosily; and it has (extended sense) an affective power upon the beholder. Language is rarely used at this depth, but the rareness of excellence should not be made into an excuse for the failure to recognize it. In the days when the school system still taught languages (and sometimes even English), the recognition of root senses was as common as it is now rare. This book is in part an effort to reawaken an awareness of the root depths of words.

[Note from Keith: Don't you love Ciardi even more after that?]

Midwife. A woman who attends another at childbirth. (Because hospital birth has become standard in the U.S., it may be well to say that until very recently almost all births occurred at home with only a midwife in attendance. Midwife delivery is still standard in most of the world.) [Root sense: "with-wife: a woman who is with another (at childbirth)." Old English mid, with, wif, woman. Note: Latin obstetrix, midwife; from stare, to stand, prefixed ob-, before, and with agential suffix -ix: literally "she who stands before (another woman at childbirth)."]

Keep one's powder dry. Be prepared to fight. [With reference to muzzle-loading guns into which loose gunpowder was poured from a powder horn and tamped in. If the powder was allowed to become wet, it would not be fired by the spark of the flint.]

Take a powder. 1. To clear out fast. 2. As a command. Get out of here! Scram! [In the days before modern methods of pill-making and encapsulation, powder was a standard usage for "medical dosage," and medical powders were commonly folded into small paper packets to be dissolved in water or mixed with it. So a headache powder. The powder at the root of this idiom is a laxative, and by intention, a strong one, the root sense being a crude joke: "Take a (laxative) powder and clear (yourself) out."

Spitting image. An exact likeness. He is the spitting image of his father. [A corruption of spit and image, spit 'n' image, which were formulas of the most ancient practices of black magic and the casting of spells by hex dolls, in which any harm done to the doll is transferred ot the hexed person. The two basic principles of such hexing were: 1. Anything that was once part of a person, or that was intimately associated with him, retains a power over him. Hex dolls, therefore, were made as symbolic resemblances (power 2), and bits of his or her hair, spit, feces, nail parings, clothing, etc., were incorporated into the material of which the doll was made (power 1). Spit, therefore, on the first principle; image, on the second. See Rosetti's "Sister Helen" for a late hex poem; Sister Helen, in melting the wax doll she made on these principles, causes her victim to waste away.]

Spoof. A mild hoax or good-natured satire. [Spoof, name of a half-nonsensical, bluffing card game invented and popularized by English comedian Arthur Roberts (1852-1933), the name being his coinage. Give Roberts credit for an excellent ear: his coinage somehow manages to sound like what it means, and in being so accepted, it has survived to become a standard word in British and American English.