Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Browsing Skeat, Or, "Click ; see Clack"

A few weeks ago, I came away with a copy of The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, by Walter Skeat. It is said to have been a book that James Joyce enjoyed browsing in, and I can see why. It has among its merits a light weight, making it easy to hold, and a pattern of discrete pieces of information, generally linked backward and forward, so that one can browse happily for as little or as much time as happens to be available. (Another book I bought at the same table, The Reformation, by Diarmaid Macculloch, is likewise fascinating, but it is heavy, and demands long stretches of attention.)

A couple of peculiarities struck me early on. First, organization of related words under a root, so that Scribe, in the main alphabetic order, is followed by ascribe, circumscribe, conscript, and on down to superscription  and transcribe. The words in the sub-sequence are given as here, not capitalized. Likewise Sooth is followed by absent, present, represent, sooth, and soothsay.

Second, the entries of the form "x; see y". So Scribe immediately follows "Scribble ; see Scribe". Some of these catch the eye from half a page away, as for example "Click ; see Clack". The latter he derives from the Middle English clacken, relating it to Crack, and also to words in Icelandic, Dutch, Irish, and Greek. A couple I noticed today seem to say something about fashion: "Thong ; see Twinge" and "Trousers, Trousseau ; see Torture". However, Skeat is not thinking about the sacrifices made to look good, but about roots: thong and twinge he traces back to the Old Friesic twingan, to force or constrain; trousers, trousseau and torture come back to roots meaning to twist.

I used to forget the components that went into the word "whiskey"; but now that I have seen Skeat relate "beath" to the Greek "bios", I won't again soon.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Local Color

The other week, I picked up a copy of Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke, in part because I had him mixed up with Peter Schneider. I don't so far regret the confusion.

About sixty pages in, the narrator and a girlfriend begin a drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike:
We entered it from State Route 100, near Downingtown, after the eighth toll station. On the seat beside her Claire  had a box full of coins; at each toll station she would toss a few of them out the window into the hopper without coming to a full stop. From there to Donora we passed another fifteen toll stations. In the course of the day, Claire tossed more than five dollars into hoppers.
There are toll roads that work this way, but the Pennsylvania Turnpike, during the period I have traveled it, has not been one. One gets a ticket when entering, and one pays when leaving, whether one has passed one exit or many. Certainly in 1972 one had to stop for the toll booth operator to examine one's ticket and collect the toll..

Two points interest me here.
  1. The error does not bother me. Similar errors and anachronisms in historical novels set my teeth on edge. I infer that Handke's mistake does not bother me in part because this is really not an historical novel: it was written in 1972 and set at about that time. It does not aim at reproducing the feel of a distant time or place. There is more to Claire than her box of coins.
  2. In how many novels set elsewhere or at other times have I noticed such bits of detail and taken them for true when they weren't?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Will Mention

This morning it was announced that Monsignor Ronald Jameson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the Roman Catholic cathedral of Washington, DC, has commenced tweeting. Those who care to can follow him at Msgr. Jameson is not one of your young and trendy clerics just out of the seminary: he was ordained in 1968. He is quite good at sermon length: at 140 characters, well, that will be for Twitter readers to judge.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


For a while in my late 20s, I found it easy to buy shoes. I would walk into the local running-goods store, or the expo before the Marine Corps Marathon, and buy a pair of Asics Excalibur GTs in my size. Never before had I found running shoes I liked as much, and never since have I found anything comparable. I have found decent enough shoes, shoes made well enough, but nothing I could count on like them. I expect that a designer could explain to me in detail why the new shoes are preferable to the Excalibur GTs, but I don't care. Of course, I have added twenty pounds, thirty years, and a size and half in the foot, meaning that a supply of the old model would not necessarily do me any good.

In those days, dress shoes didn't matter much. I wore Rockport shoes when I needed something better than running shoes. Rockports are not especially dressy--my wife once told me that many scientists seem to wear them, which I didn't and don't consider an endorsement of their fashionableness.

Much more recently, I have found that Ecco made a shoe that I like, dressy enough for work yet comfortable. The model I like has lasted me through a couple pairs each of black and brown shoes, and many heels on both.The most recent black pair lasted about three years. But when it was time for new heels, my wife, acting as my fashion conscience, suggested that they were worn out and that it was time for new shoes. We stopped by the store yesterday.

That model of Ecco is no longer made. I settled on the nearest approximation, and hope that it will work out. I am more concerned that the variations will affect my stride than I am confident that they make the shoes more handsome. It seems unfair that a model of shoe that suits one so well should disappear like that. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Pilots

In my early thirties, I traveled a good deal for work. Sometimes I traveled to large cities by jet, sometimes I traveled to small cities by jet to a hub, then turboprop to the destination. In the latter cases, I noticed that the pilots seemed to be a good deal younger than I was. Some in fact looked to me as if they were flying for regional airlines until they should be old enough to graduate from high school and join the military. I suppose that my anxieties could have contributed to this interpretation.

A high school alumni newsletter arrived in today's post. It announces, among other matters, the college graduation of a young man, and his imminent employment by a regional airline. I remember this young man as a third-grader, small for his age. Yet somehow this does not bother me. Partly this must be because all those young pilots--men who did not look old enough to shave, and women who looked like the men's younger sisters--got me to and from Springfield, Utica, Allentown, etc. in one piece. Partly it must be because even those pilots with the comforting grey around the temples, the ones who fly the big jets, are mostly younger than I am. I expect that he will do fine.