Thursday, 12 April 2018


I've been reading The Diary of a Bookseller.

Yes, I do realise this is an awful photo of the book cover, but it's the best I was willing to do, given my poor photography skills.

It's a fun read, but also informative. I'll be careful next time I bother a bookseller by entering his or her shop to browse. (It's a bit like primary schools. They're great places to teach, but it's quite bothersome that children arrive most days and expect to get some of your attention.)

The author being a bookseller, I'd expect him to have a good vocabulary, so I wasn't surprised to come across words I hadn't heard before. One was incunabula, on page 126 of the edition I read. Shaun Bythell, the bookseller, says that when he's driving to assess a collection of books offered for sale, he's pleasantly excited at the prospect of finding, amongst other things, incunabula.

Often I can guess a meaning by having seen similar words, but this one had me tossed. What could he be expecting to find?

Britannica made it clear to me. It means books printed by machine before the end of the fifteenth century.

Wow! To an Australian this seems incredible. Imagine holding a book that was six hundred years old.

I do remember, as a child, having the privilege of browsing the basement of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library and touching a book published before Europeans 'discovered' this continent. I forget what the actual book was, but the emotional response is still with me. Wonder. Awe.

I think the books I saw that day are now in the State Library of Victoria, but I'm not sure.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

beseech and beseek

Yesterday's cryptic crossword clue was: Begged Hugo Best to reform.

Okay, I could get that, especially with the help of Andy's Anagram Solver. 

The answer was besought.

I don't believe I've ever before come across this verb in the past tense. It occurred to me it sounded as if it should be the past tense of beseek, as in the similar verb seek - sought - have sought.

There's no verb beseek, as far as my sketchy research could discover.

Beseech does come from the same old word as seek, though. The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
c. 1200, bisecen "to entreat, beg urgently," from Old English besecan; see be- + seek. "in contrast to the simple vb., in which the northern seek has displaced the southern seech, in the compound beseech has become the standard form" [OED]. Cognate with Old Frisian biseka, Dutch bezoeken, Old High German bisuochan. German cognate besuchen is merely "to visit". Related: Besought (OED writes that beseeched is "now regarded as incorrect"); beseeching
I'd still say beseeched. I must check out an Australian Dictionary. I'll try Macquarie...
Yes, Macquarie in 2017 still gives it as an alternative. 
verb (t) (besought or beseeched, beseeching)
1. to implore urgently.
2. to beg eagerly for: solicit.
Interestingly, the Australian dictionary gives it as an intransitive verb, but both Miriam-Webster and say it can also be used intransitively, and gives this example: Earnestly I did I beseech, but to no avail. 

No, I can't imagine myself using it as an intransitive verb, and a moderately determined internet search didn't find any such usages. (Is 15 minutes of lounging around at my computer to check out a couple of sites a 'determined' search?)

Oh well, off to bed to dream about words.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Walking the streets in fits and starts

My dog Penny and I set off briskly. After all, we hadn't had breakfast yet, but given the prediction of a hot day, we were trying to beat the heat. What was this? Oh yes, an interesting tree to sniff, and grass that might contain some recent pee-mails by local dogs.

We proceeded. And stopped again. Lamp-posts are always fascinating.

And so it  went, around the streets.

This surely must be the definition of  a walk that proceeds in fits and starts. Literally.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Luxury Edition defines this phrase as with irregular bursts of activity.

Yep. That's how it went.

The Word Detective looks at the phrase in some depth. In part, he says:
"Fits and starts" does indeed mean "intermittent" or "off and on, spasmodically, not making  steady progress."

Spot on!

The writer explains that the expression 'by starts' probably appeared around 1421, and the expression 'by fits' can be dated to 1583. Joining the two is described as a more-is-better model, like similarly redundant phrases such as 'in leaps and bounds.'

Once I had mentioned to Penny that breakfast awaited us in the kitchen, the pace picked up amazingly. Vertical surfaces lost their appeal. We raced home.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Deans as leaders of a group of ten

I am reading a book by Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, A Spirituality for the 21st Century.

I find it interesting that a manual written many hundreds of years ago has so much to tell us about how to live a measured life. Joan Chittister's commentary explains how we can learn from Benedict's wisdom.

The idea is to read one section each day, but I've fallen behind and today arrived at the entry for February 26, where I  noticed this:
If the community is rather large, some chosen for their good repute and holy life should be made deans. They will take care of their groups of ten...
Whoa, I said to myself - 'groups of ten.' Hmm...dean does seem to have some resemblance to the Greek word for 'ten, or the Latin word.

So I looked it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and bingo! It means someone who has charge of ten people.

dean (n.)early 14c., from Old French deien (12c., Modern French doyen), from Late Latin decanus "head of a group of 10 monks in a monastery," from earlier secular meaning "commander of 10 soldiers" (which was extended to civil administrators in the late empire), from Greek dekanos, from deka "ten" (from PIE root *dekm- "ten"). Replaced Old English teoĆ°ingealdor. College sense is from 1570s (in Latin from late 13c.).

Monday, 21 August 2017

The Persian Language

I was in a shop today where two women were taking dressmaking measurements of a young girl's body and the one with the tape measure was calling the numbers to the woman who was writing them down. I was fascinated by the lovely sound of the words and tried to figure out what language group their speech might belong to. I couldn't hear anything that sounded like any numbers I know.

Of course, I had to ask. It was Farsi. On this site I've just linked to, I read
Farsi, also known as Persian Language, is the most widely spoken member of the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian languages, a subfamily of the Indo-European Languages. 

What an interesting place my city is, where I can hear such a variety of languages!

One of the women obliged me by counting to ten in Farsi, which I thought was very kind of her. Here's a link to a list of those numbers.

Monday, 15 May 2017

when sadness is heavy upon our soul

The word sadiron landed in my inbox today as my daily mail from A Word a Day. The meaning of the word is
noun: a heavy flatiron pointed at both ends and having a detachable handle. And the etymology is 'From sad (obsolete senses of the word: heavy, solid) + iron Earliest documented use: 1759.

When I'm sad I do feel heavy, in every limb, so I can understand how this word came to have such a meaning.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
sad (adj.) Old English saed "sated, full, having had one's fill (of food, drink, fighting, etc.), weary of," [and gives further detail in the full description of this word's history.] Sense development passed through the meaning "heavy, ponderous" (i.e. "full" mentally or physically), and "weary, tired of" before emerging c. 1300 as "unhappy." An alternative course would be through the common Middle English sense of "steadfast, firmly established, fixed" (as in sad-ware "tough pewter vessels") and "serious" to "grave". In the main modern sense, it replaced Old English unrot, negative of rot "cheerful, glad." 

I wonder what other utensils are sad? Surely it's not just the irons and pewter vessels.

At Words, Words, Words, the writer of the blog writes more about this history, and ends with this:
But one thing that people don't know about sadness is that it is silent. You can't spot it from a mile away, it could be right next to you as you read this. But it is not the be all and end all, you can overcome sadness, but first you have to be able to see it.

I agree. We need to keep our radar scanning for sad people around us, and also to check inside ourselves to see if we are dealing with our own sadness.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

imbricated roots

I'm reading a book about plants and loving it. It lives up to the blurb inside the front cover:
From Ice Age cave art to cutting-edge research into how mimosas learn and remember, Mabey traces the history of our imaginative encounters with them [plants] - including his own.

How could I resist such an intriguing invitation to deepen my understanding of the myriad species that share this planet?

On page 69 Mabey writes that under the ground, 'The roots and fungal tissues are as imbricated as if they were a single organism.'

I  understood the general idea of the sentence, but I just had to hurry to the internet to find out more about this interesting word imbricated.

Merriam Webster explains the history of the word imbricate:

The ancient Romans knew how to keep the interior of their villas dry when it rained. They covered their roofs with overlapping curved tiles so the "imber" (Latin for pelting rain or "rain shower") couldn't seep in. The tiles were, in effect, "rain tiles", so the Romans called them "imbrices" (singular "imbrex"). The verb for installing the tiles was "imbricare", and English speakers used its past participle "imbricatus" - to create "imbricate", which was first used as adjective meaning "overlapping" (like roof tiles) and later became a verb meaning "to overlap". 
I like to think of water percolating down through the forest floor to moisten those interwoven plant roots and fungal threads.

Mabey says:
The oldest living organisms in the world are probably the subterranean mycorrhiza of ancient forest fungi. They've been there since the woods sprang up, tens of thousands of years ago, and live in an intimate partnership with the tree roots, without which neither could survive. 
A reminder to us that we can't survive without the plants, either.