What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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Surfers’ paradise

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, July 18, 2014

For a while in the '80s I lived in Hermosa Beach, California, just 31 miles away from Malibu. I enjoyed Hermosa Beach so much that I never spent any time in Malibu; now, of course, I wish I had.

Linguists think that the name for this hip seaside town, which is highly popular with surfers, comes from the Ventureño language. That language, according to Wikipedia, is “a member of the extinct Chumashan languages, a group of Native American languages previously spoken by the Chumash people along the coastal areas of Southern California from as far north as San Luis Obispo to as far south as Malibu.”

The word, also according to Wikipedia, may have had an association with “[(hu)maliwu], 'it (the surf) makes a loud noise all the time over there.'”

Photo special to the Sentinel


An elegant skill

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, July 16, 2014

“Finesse” is an elegant word. It has a mere two syllables, and all of its letters sound soft. I cannot imagine anyone ever shouting this word; indeed, most speakers seem to drop their voices a bit when they utter it.

The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides these definitions:

“1:  refinement or delicacy of workmanship, structure, or texture

 2:  skillful handling of a situation : adroit maneuvering

 3:  the withholding of one's highest card or trump in the hope that a lower card will take the trick because the only opposing higher card is in the hand of an opponent who has already played”

Diplomats are probably the best examples of those who must understand finesse. It's important to remember, however, that diplomats are not just government officials jetting off to exotic countries to hold high-level talks. We're all diplomats, if we choose to be.

For more than two decades I've been the fortunate recipient of countless instances of finesse from many diplomats in this community … far too many to list here. No one among them is the kind who seeks public accolade, anyway.

With just the right words and just the right actions at just the right times, these diplomats have guided and inspired me. I will always be deeply grateful for their finesse.

“I'm not a writer because I want to make money. I'm a writer because I'm a very slow thinker, but I do care about thinking, and the only way I know how to think with any kind of finesse is by telling stories.”
Gregory Maguire, American novelist
Source: Brainyquote


Hair-raising experiences

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, July 9, 2014

“Mother lode” in today's Tundra is used metaphorically to decribe something of great value. Velma's going to make one heckuva nest after scoring an unfortunate man's toupee. (In my humble opinion, cartoonist Chad Carpenter could've had a little extra fun if he had drawn Velma as a bald eagle.)

In its literal sense, "mother lode" is an Americanism that means “the main lode, or vein of ore, in a particular region or district,” according to Webster's.

“The term probably came from a literal translation of the Spanish veta madre, a term common in old Mexican mining. Veta madre, for instance, is the name given to an 11-kilometre-long (6.8 mi) silver vein discovered in 1548 in Guanajuato, New Spain (modern-day Mexico),” Wikipedia notes.

Carpenter relies on the reader's understanding of what a toupee is in order to get the joke. Coincidentally, another cartoonist — George Lichty, creator of Grin and Bear It — also had fun today with the idea of a wind-ruffled toupee:


Those who show the way

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hmm ...  If Nelson repeats Grampa's final comment to his grandmother, Opal, Grampa may end up on the couch again. (See yesterday's "Pickles.")

“Avant-garde” is defined by Webster's as “the leaders in new or unconventional movements, esp. in the arts; vanguard.”

Wikipedia defines the phrase as “a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm.” As examples, painter Pablo Picasso, composer Igor Stravinsky and architect Frank Lloyd Wright are all considered among the avant-garde in their respective fields.

Both “avant-garde” and “vanguard” come the French phrase å vän gård, which literally meant “before guard.” It referred to the part of an army that went before the main army.

Right below “avant-garde” in Webster's is the phrase avant la lettre. In French it literally means “before the letter.” Figuratively it means “before the (specified) concept, words, person, etc. exist,” according to Webster's. For instance, Wiktionary notes that mid-Victorian women who were suffragettes could be considered avant le lettre. “Suffragettes were feminists before the word 'feminist' existed.”

"A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way."

John C. Maxwell, American pastor, author, speaker
Source: Brainyquote.com

1954 portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright by Al Ravenna
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Illustration special to the Sentinel


Colorful expressions from the high seas

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, June 30, 2014

Similar to “chutzpah,” using the expression “show their colors” can be a compliment — or not.

Showing one's colors means revealing what is really inside a person – that person's essence and/or true identity. Commenting on a person's character in this way can have a positive or negative connotation. In today's B2 story on Community Hospital's team tennis tourney, “show ther colors” has a positive spin.

The phrase is among many nautical expressions that came about from life upon the high seas. By international law, ships were (and still are) required to fly flags showing their country of registration. In that way, sailors could ascertain at a distance whether they were within sight of a friend or a foe.

Back in the swashbuckling days of piracy, a common ploy of pirates was to sail under false colors, writes Harry Oliver in Flying by the Seat of your Pants. It was only until a pirate ship got close enough to its quarry to attack that the ship's “true colors” were hoisted. It is probably from that tactic that we now have the expression “under the color of,” meaning “under the pretext or guise of,“ according to Webster's.

In the ensuing battle, one of the ships would ultimately have to flee, ask for a truce, surrender or be defeated. A ship calling for a truce would hoist a white flag, according to Wikipedia, but often that move was seen as a sign of near-surrender, since the weaker combatant generally would the first to signal in such a manner.

If a ship's captain decided to surrender, Wikipedia also notes, he'd order his crew to lower the ship's flag with the command,“Strike the colors.”

"But I see your true colors
Shining through"

Cyndi Lauper, “True Colors,” 1986

Illustration special to the Sentinel

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