Monday, December 5, 2022

"Etymological Curiosities"



Sydney M. Williams 


Thought of the Day

“Etymological Curiosities”

December 5, 2022


“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

                                                                                                                           Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936

                                                                                                                    Speech Royal College of Surgeons, 1923



Each year, lexicographers at Merriam-Webster, Britain-based Collins Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and others, select a “word of the year,” often a neologism, but not always. Gaslighting[1] (a form of psychological abuse) was the choice at M-W, while Collins chose permacrisis. The former was chosen because of the increase in lookups (up 1,740%), while the latter was selected, as it was applicable to a year that saw the first war in Europe in seventy-seven years, China’s increased aggression, and world-wide inflation. The OED selected three words, including my favorite – more a phrase than a word – goblin mode, which was also cited by Ben Zimmer in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. It refers to behavior that is “unapologetically lazy, slovenly, greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms.” It is often assigned to those who spend inordinate amounts of time on social media, as in my grandchild is in goblin mode.


I have been thinking of words and phrases – their origins, meanings, and appropriation by political opportunists, often leaving their opponents with the etymological dregs. Over the past few years, we have created a political alphabet soup: CRT, DEI, ESG, and BLM, reminding one of Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup agencies’ from the 1930s. But, unlike FDR’s agencies which actually put people to work, today’s alphabet soups have more in common with Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”


Words have assumed new meanings. Yesterday’s environmentalists have become today’s climate warriors. Information to some is misinformation to others. Should it be the state that decides what is accurate and what is not? Is it too much to ask Twitter users to be personally wary of conspiracy theories and to look out for offensive language – offensive to some but not to others? And what, for example, does the European Union means when it tells Twitter that it must apply “content moderation” to the posts it allows?


When I read of Larry Fink pontificating as to being socially responsible, I picture a greedy John Bull with a smirk on his face and a halo above his head. And the scam artist Samuel Bankman-Fried, a promoter of progressive fads, bills himself as an effective altruist. Is not an altruist already effective? Certainly, his investors and depositors who lost millions of dollars do not see him as altruistic.


The definition of the word liberal has changed. In 1828, Noah Webster defined the word as “of a free heart; free to give or bestow, generous.” The 1995 edition of Webster’s college dictionary defined the word: “favorable to progress or reform…advocating progressive philosophies.” However, the OED defines liberal as an individual “willing to accept or respect behavior or opinions of others…[a} social philosophy that promotes individual rights.” Such broad and varying definitions allow almost anyone to claim to be a liberal. Other words creep into cultural use. Woke comes from African American vernacular English of the 1930s; it became a popular internet meme after the shooting of Michael Brown and is now largely used by whites, signaling, like naughty Little Jack Horner, their virtue. 


Consider two of my favorite etymological bêtes noires: progressive and conservative. The former makes us think of the future, the latter of the past. They were the subject of a fascinating op-ed by Professor Hyrum Lewis of Brigham Young University in the November 26 edition of The Wall Street Journal. He wrote: “Republicans have a narrative problem that originates with the idea of ‘conservativism’ itself.” He referred to William Buckley’s observation that a conservative is someone who stands athwart history and yells, stop. Progress, in contrast, is defined as a forward movement toward a better end. Which sounds more appealing?


Conservatives want to conserve the good of the past – the Constitution, classical education, etiquette, personal responsibility and accountability, the value of work – but they are as interested in progress as are progressives. The difference is that conservatives emphasize the role played by curious, aspirant, diligent, and talented individuals, while progressives cite the state as the principal impetus for progress. There is truth to both claims. While technological, scientific, and industrial progress has been largely due to the efforts of individuals – Alexander Graham Bell, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk – the Department of Defense and federally funded programs, like NASA, have also produced consumer products. And while legislated social progress – emancipation, the right of women to vote, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 – is a consequence of government, individuals played crucial roles in their adoption. 


DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), the phrase has been hijacked by virtue signalers, to distinguish them from what they claim are culturally offensive conservative bigots But, just because the initials are not tattooed on our arms, is that fair? I know of no true conservative who does not support diversity of opinions, equality of all people before the law, and inclusion of all people in public institutions. Social organizations, fraternities, sororities, private clubs select members based on common preferences, which may be based on gender or race, but may also be based on similar social preferences, regardless of race or gender. Is that so terrible? In a decision reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the Brearley School, an exclusive school for girls in New York City, recently required a signed pledge by teachers and parents that they support the school’s commitment to anti-racism and inclusion, and that they agree “to participate in required anti-racist training and ongoing reflection.” As a private institution, they have a right to act as they wish, but both teachers and parents should be conscious of what is being demanded – a request for blind loyalty. 


But is it words or beliefs that separate our two political parties? In broad, general terms, the main difference between Democrats and Republicans is not that one favors progress and the other favors regression. It is the emphasis each puts on the role government plays in our lives. Democrats, in general, favor more government and Republicans, less.  Resistance, for example, was legitimate when exercised by Democrats following the election of Donald Trump in 2016 – remember the pink “pussy hats” of solidarity? – but resistance to the 2020 election was deemed undemocratic.[2] In essence, the difference between the two Parties reminds one of the Chinese saying: Is it better to teach a man to fish, or to give him a fish? Americans do not to march to a single drummer, so ideologies are scattered along a broad spectrum of political thought. Republicans, if they want to become the dominant political power, must do a better job of describing their beliefs. Granted, it is easier to argue what you want government to do than what you would like it not to do. So, Republicans should highlight the individual, stress the importance of education, aspiration, diligence, and effort in ascending the economic ladder, a ladder to whom all should have access, a ladder whose first rung is education, where emphasis, above all else, should be on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. “Words,” as Kipling told the College of Surgeons ninety-nine years ago, are “the most powerful drug used by mankind."

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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

"A Prehistoric Connecticut Site"

 Essays from Essex, my latest collection of personal essays, is expected to be back from the printer today, or so my publisher tells me. The book can be ordered from her - or from my brother’s bookstore - The information on Amazon’s website is still wrong, as of this morning. I apologize for misleading you in my last essay of almost two weeks ago.


Like many, I have become disgusted with our politicians. They represent, for the most part, an assemblage of self-righteous, pontificating rogues, more interested in lining their own pockets than in advancing the desires of an aspirational people. There has been a lack of substantial debate and respectful discourse – offering choices of extremes and a lack of nuance.


The attached essay stemmed from a short hike onto a friends property     about three weeks ago.


Sydney M. Williams


More Essays from Essex

“A Prehistoric Connecticut Site” 

November 30, 2022


“Honor the sacred. Honor the Earth, our Mother. Honor the Elders. Honor all with whom we share

the Earth: four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged ones, plant, and rock people. Walk in balance and beauty.”

                                                                                                                                                Native American Elder


Unlike Stonehenge, the prehistoric artifacts I saw on a friend’s property in the northeast section of Lyme, Connecticut were invisible to the untrained eye. Deceptive in their simplicity, they are, nevertheless, evidence of human life from thousands of years ago. To the untutored, they might be dismissed as remnants of stone walls that marked boundaries in New England’s colonial past. In fact, they represent North American indigenous people’s celestial awareness, and were likely laid down three or four thousand years ago by ancestors of the Pequot Nation. 


On the east side of a knoll lay a boulder, with its triangular tip pointed east. Behind it, in serpentine fashion, trailed a wall of smaller stones, about seventy feet in length. On the west side of the knoll lay its counterpart, pointed west. It appeared that the triangular tips of the two large rocks point toward the rising sun during the summer solstice and the setting sun during the winter solstice. 


Estimates vary as to how many people lived in the Americas when Europeans first arrived in the late 15th Century, but the consensus is between four and five million in North America, and perhaps fifty million in Central and South America. Their ancestors are assumed to have been nomadic hunters from northeast Asia who crossed the Bering Strait during the last glacial period, approximately 20,000 years ago. The indigenous population became known to European immigrants as Indians, as Christopher Columbus assumed he had reached southeast Asia when, in fact, he was in what we know as the Caribbean Sea. It is estimated that between twenty and eighty percent of the native population died off over the next three and a half centuries, a consequence of wars and diseases brought from Europe, like measles and smallpox. 


Connecticut’s serpentine walls are less monumental than England’s Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids of Egypt, which were constructed at about the same time, and they cannot be compared to later edifices like Peru’s Monte Picchu, China’s Great Wall, or the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to walk on land trod by humans so many years ago, touching stones they touched.


One of the beauties of history is the perspective it provides. We are here but for a brief moment on the endless conveyor of life on Earth – one small part in a continuum. Yet it is natural to take pride in what we have built. We have tools and knowledge undreamed of four thousand years ago. But will anyone a thousand years hence look with wonder upon China’s Three Gorges Dam, Florida’s Disney World, or a New York City $150 million condo? Will today’s monuments still stand, as do the stone structures on my friend’s property? Or will they, like the colossal works of Ozymandias, become nothing more than Shelley’s “lone and level sands?” 


Thursday, November 17, 2022

"Bluebird in Winter"


Sydney M. Williams


More Essays from Essex

“Bluebird in Winter”

November 17, 2022


“A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than

a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.”

                                                                                                         Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

                                                                                                         Letter to Daniel Ricketson, November 22, 1858

                                                                                                         The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 1864


On a chilly November morning, my wife and I, walking through a field, spotted a bluebird. I wondered: Why haven’t you gone south? It turns out some bluebirds stay for the winter. While temperatures have risen in Connecticut by about a degree and a half Fahrenheit over the past hundred and fifty years, average January and February lows are still between five and seven degrees below freezing.


As a fan of Beatrix Potter, Thornton W. Burgess, and Kenneth Grahame. I anthropomorphize our avian friends. The male bluebird we watched had been sent by his wife on an errand – perhaps to the hardware store, but more likely to purchase sheets of music; for the bluebird is a harbinger of happiness, and singing is important to him.  In The Birds of John Burroughs, the author-naturalist (1837-1921) wrote: “There never was a happier or more devoted husband than the male bluebird. He is the gay champion and escort of the female at all times, and, while she is sitting, he feeds her regularly.”


Bluebirds have long been symbols of happiness. In China, during the Shang Dynasty, a green or blue bird was the messenger of the Queen Mother of the West. In North America’s west, Navahos identified the mountain bluebird with the rising sun. In Russian fairy tales, the blue bird is a symbol of hope. The French fairy tale, L’Oiseau Bleu, written in 1697 by Madame d’Aulnoy, tells of a king changing into a blue bird.


Once on the endangered list, the eastern bluebird has made a comeback. It is estimated that the species has a breeding population of about twenty-three million. Urbanization and changing land use limited their feeding grounds in late 19th Century and early 20th Century, and the introduction of European starlings and house sparrows created competition for nesting cavities. For about a hundred years the population of eastern bluebirds declined. From the 1980s on, however, as we became more environmentally conscious, their numbers increased. Nevertheless, competition persists. A few years ago, from our bedroom window in Old Lyme, I watched helplessly as a starling chased newly settled bluebirds from the birdhouse we had put up.


I worry about wintering bluebirds. While no expert on the fauna that surrounds us, I know birds do not have fur coats or down-filled parkas. They do not have wool hats or lambs-wool-lined leather gloves. There are no galoshes designed for four-taloned feet. All they have is what nature provided – body temperatures of about 107 degrees and feathers that ruffle to hold in their body heat. They do, though, gain fat for the winter ahead, and they are able to slow their metabolism.


Nevertheless, I am happy they are here in winter. In her 1984 book I Hear Bluebirds, Dr, Shirl Brunell wrote: “As long as there are bluebirds, there will be miracles and a way to find happiness.” During wintery days, they provide music and color, and they put smiles on our faces, as this one did on ours.

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