Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Here is a word that validates the adage "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
I usually fell asleep before they [my children listening to a made-up bedtime story] did, lulled by my own pump-engine rhythm, but this is Homeric in its parataxis, its telling of the story with no subordinate clauses, accumulating one detail after another, its rapidity, its formulaic phrases taking up reliable positions in the pattern of the lines, its cherishing the memories and heroizing of the ordinary, its love of the shared experience between speaker and listener, its cavalier way with the facts.
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Para + Taxis ... I thought, "I've got this one."

So para- has several meanings: In anatomy para- tends to mean adjacent as in parathyroid, paratracheal, paravertebral. In popular science para- may mean above, implying not, as in paranormal, parapsychology, parascientific. Para- might also mean close, but not really: parasynonym, parainfection. Add to this list is para- as abnormal: paraphila, paranoia.

Something from this list should be useful to decode parataxis.

Now taxis, pronounced tax-is, not taxi-s (many taxicabs). Here is where that little knowledge thing really makes trouble. Taxis is really popular on biology: chemotaxis, phototaxis, thermotaxis. Taxis is about movement, towards or away from some stimulus.

Where does this leave us with parataxis ... no where.

So back to basics. Para- is adjacency, and taxis is position, and parataxis is not scientific, but literary. Parataxis is a literary technique of juxtaposing parallel short sentences without the use of conjunctions: I came; I saw; I conquered.

Short sentences. Nothing complicated. Nothing scientific. 

Monday, October 27, 2014


Spume derives directly from the Latin for foam.
"Plato thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghastly paradigm of things." Yeats said, and you could say the same of Parry's Homer: Homer thought his poem but a spume that played upon the ghostly truths that came from long ago.
Not even a breaking wave us allowed to break, but the wind strips the spume from the wave top and blows it...
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

It shares its etymology with  spumoni and pumice.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


A pintle is part of a primitive pintle-and-gudgeon hinge system. The gudgeon is a single collar and the pintle is a single pin that fits into the collar. The pintle, pointing up, might be attached to the static side of the hinge and the gudgeon would be slipped down over the pintle (pictured). Alternately, the gudgeon might be attached to the static side, and the pintel would be slipped down into the gudgeon.
 Is the rudder secured on its pintles?
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

While this seems to be a specialized, mostly nautical, term, the etymology highlights the varied nature of etymological paths into the English lexicon. The antecedent is none other than penis, as might be expected from its nautical heritage. When not being used to mount (pun intended) rudders or guns, pintle might still be used to refer to an actual penis.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Plangent means a loud sound, often a melancholy, sad sound of lamentation.
His [Pope's] preface to the Iliad, published in 1715, is one of the most plangent descriptions written in English of the power of the Homeric poems. ... "No man of true Poetical Spirit," the young Pope had written, "is Master of himself while he reads him [Homer]; so forcible is the poet's Fire and Rapture." 
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

While plangent is obscure (around 300K Google hits, many of them definitional), its root has had an important impact on the English lexicon. The root is the Latin/Greek plaga meaning to strike or beat, in the context of beating one's breast or wounding one's enemies or even hitting a drum, evidentally. This root can be traced forward to both plague and plaintive, but we can see from the above example, plangent is not always a curse or a sadness, but can simply be a load, forceful sound as befitting its etymology.

Monday, October 20, 2014


English suffers, or benefits, from the lack of central authority like other languages, such as French or Spanish. The free-for-all provides for much confusion and duplication.
Here was a boy [Keats], born the son of a London ostler, hungry for depth, for a kind of surging reality, for largeness and otherness which only epic poetry could provide.
 Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

 What is this strange ostler? A phonetic spelling of hostler that has been hanging around in English for over 500 years. Funny thing about English, some words come and go, while other just hang around, like zombies, refusing to die.

Hostler gives us hotel, youth hostel and hospital ... all very useful additions to the lexicon, but why has ostler remained after all these centuries. How did this happen? The answer can be guessed from Google.

Ostler has over 750K hits, while the seemingly more common, transparent and comprehensible hostler is under 500K. The answer seems to be that Ostler is also a common surname, while Hostler is not.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


But as only the most recent of many generations accustomed to living under the knout... Whether the knout was the tsar's or Stalin's or Hitler's apparently made little difference.
A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae

A knout is whip made of multiple knotted cords, similar to the cat-o-nine-tails. I wonder what it says about us that we have so many synonyms for whip, which seem to be divided into two categories: everyday items that can be use to beat someone, such as cane, bat, belt, rod, ruler, and strap , and words which are primarily instruments of punishment: birch, crop, goad, scourge, switch,  and of course whip (bull whip, horse whip, etc.).

The etymology of knout is from the Russian and is generally associated with the tsar. On the other hand, knot is thought to derive Germanic roots. However both derive from the Old Norse. Even though they share this common etymology, the arrived into the massive English lexicon by very different routes.