What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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Just a whit on wit

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Witty” comes from the Old English wittig “'clever, wise, sagagious; in one's right mind,'” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

It's the adjective form of wit, which, according to the same dictionary, goes back to the Old English word witan “to know.”

Since “brevity is the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare wisely noted, here's just one more point to ponder by another keen societal observer:

"Words may show a man's wit but actions his meaning."
Benjamin Franklin

Painting of Franklin by Benjamin Wilson, 1759
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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Cogitating on cognizance

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, June 18, 2014


 

 

 

A synonym for “cognizant” (found in today's editorial) is “aware.” “Cognizant” is a back formation of “cognizance.” (Back formation occurs when words are clipped to create new words. A few other examples are “edit” from “editor,” “baby-sit” from “baby sitter” and “handwrite” from “handwritten.” These are verbs created from nouns, while “cognizant” is an adjective created from a noun.)

There. I should stop now. Other work awaits, but looking up “cognizant” this morning set me onto many enticing semantic paths. I'll try to limit myself to just a few.

Webster's first definition of “cognizance” is “perception or knowledge, especially the range of knowledge possible through observation.” There are other definitions, but I promised restraint. The English word winds its way back through French to Latin cognoscere “to know,” according to Webster's.

OK, just one more definition: In the late Middle Ages in England, “cognizances” were another name for heraldic badges, according to Wikipedia. They were worn to symbolize “allegiance to or the property of an individual or family.”

I didn't know that historical tidbit until this morning, but it made sense. I'm always aware that wearing my Sentinel nametag sets the stage for conversations I have with strangers. In essence, the nametag heralds a professional allegiance and likely prompts some cognition in others as to the type of person I might be even before any introductions are made.

I'd be thrilled if anybody ever considered me a cognoscente in journalism, but chances of that are as rare as a goal in the first minute of a World Cup match. That would mean I'm an expert in this field, and I'm far from it. “Dilettante” is a more apt descriptor, but, hey, at least I'm cognizant of all that I don't know.

I digress and really must move on to other tasks so I'll leave you with one final observation on back formations: Writers sometimes get carried away with them. If you wish, kindly take cognizance of one whimsical example:

"He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled, so I tactfully changed the subject."
P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938

Illustrations special to the Sentinel 

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In a New England minute

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A fun headline appears in red on the front page of today's Sports & Rec section — especially since Clint Dempsey, the player who booted in a goal within the first minute of the United States' opening World Cup match against Ghana, used to play for the New England Revolution.

New England, of course, was where the need for our country's first Minutemen arose — more than 100 years before Paul Revere and William Dawes made their famous rides (later joined by Samuel Prescott) to alert their fellow Minutemen that the British were marching into the Massachusetts countryside the night of April 18, 1775.

“Although today Minutemen are thought of as connected to the Revolutionary War in America, their existence was conceived in Massachusetts during the mid-seventeenth century,” writes Andrew Ronemus on the website ushistory.org. “As early as 1645, men were selected from the militia ranks to be dressed with matchlocks or pikes and accoutrements within half an hour of being warned.”

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, these elite colonists would be called upon to help quell Native American uprisings, fight the French and be on guard for “local insurrections, social unrest, and rioting,” Ronemus explains.

A lack of central leadership would eventually lead to their disbandment, he adds, but they were “still better organized and battle-tested than any other part-time military. … Without these 'ready in a minute' men, our history may have been written in a very different way.”

Ronemus' full article appears at http://www.ushistory.org/people/minutemen.htm.

The Concord Minute Man of 1775 by Daniel Chester French
Concord, Massachusetts
Photo special to the Sentinel

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‘Modern’ art

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, June 16, 2014

Well, as the saying goes, it's all relative.

The modern art movement actually started in the 1860s, so from a 2014 perspective it doesn't seem modern at all. This period lasted more than a century — until the 1970s, according to Wikipedia.
The Museum of Modern Art has a fine PowerPoint slide show that gives an interesting overview of the movement. Two key points from the slide show:

  • In the mid-1800s modern artists departed from the norm of showing real scenes in life to creating art that expressed the inner experiences of humans. “Many artists explored dreams, symbolism and personal iconography as ways to depict their experiences,” according to MoMA.
  • These artists experimented with “new” forms of capturing images, such as art based on photography. Paul Cezanne's “The Bather” (ca. 1885), for instance, was inspired by a sepia photograph by an unknown photographer.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, another influential modern artist, was in the vanguard of creating art for posters, according to Wikipedia. Posters had been in existence before, the site adds, but the posters to which Toulouse-Lautrec contributed his formidable talents were made possible by advancement in color lithography and mass production in printing.

Other artists considered in the forefront of modern art included Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh. To check out the museum's slide show, head to: http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/what-is-modern-art. Put your mouse on “Tools & Tips: What is Modern Art” at the upper right-hand corner of the page.

“Ambassadeurs – Aristide Bruant”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892
Photo of poster courtesy of Wikipedia

“Port-en-Bessin” (Entrance to the Harbor)
Georges Seuret, 1888
Photo of painting courtesy of Wikimedia

 

"I am quite certain in my heart of hearts that modern music and modern art is not a conspiracy, but is a form of truth and integrity for those who practise it honestly, decently and with all their being."
Sir Michael Tippett
English composer (1905-1998)
Source: brainyquote.com
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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A flame

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, June 13, 2014

It was great to see so many familiar faces last night at the Tad Benoit riverfront concert. Despite a newly mandated $2 fee for each ticket (necessitating a trip to City Market), the event drew a throng of ardent concert-goers. The longtime friend with me last night, whose judgment I trust, estimated the crowd at 800. Let's just say the hill was alive with the sound of music-lovers.

“Ardent” in the paragraph above is used in its second definition found in Webster's: “intensely enthusiastic or devoted.” Webster's first definition is “warm or intense in feeling,” and its third definition is “glowing; radiant.” The dictionary's final definition is “burning; aflame.”

The word is the adjective form of “ardor,” which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, came into English in the early 15th century “from Old French ordure 'heat, glow, passion.'” That French word, according to the same dictionary, went back to Latin ardorem. That word meant “a flame, fire, burning, heat.”

While ardent riverfront fans could take a short walk to booths selling water, beer and wine with which to better soak up the ambience of the evening, they couldn't buy ardent spirits such as vodka or rum (flammable because of their high alcoholic content). It's doubtful that anybody minded, especially since last night's full moon, at times radiant and at times softly glowing behind clouds, was intoxicating enough.

Illustration special to the Sentinel

Artist's representation of distillation apparatus for aqua vitae, from Liber de arte Distillandi, by Hieronymus Brunschwig, 1512.
Photo of artwork and caption courtesy of Wikipedia

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