What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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Horsing around

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On tap for this weekend is the Lions’ Club parade at 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by its carnival starting at 5 p.m. at Two Rivers Convention Center. There’s sure to be hijinks, hilarity and/or horseplay at both events. After all, the Lions’ motto is “Doing the most good, for the most people, while having the most fun."

Speaking of horseplay, the word has been around for centuries. It came into English in the 1580s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

In his book, Red Herrings and White Elephants, Albert Jack sheds more light on the word’s history. “To indulge in horseplay is to behave in a boisterous but friendly manner,” he writes. “The origin of this saying lies with the English Morris dancers. At country fairs players riding wooden hobbyhorses usually accompanied Morris dancers. These ‘horses’ were expected to engage in wild and uncontrollable antics to entertain the crowds ... and the ‘horseplay’ became a popular and important part of the Morris dancers’ act.”

Morris dancers along the Thames near Richmond, c. 1620.
Detail of The Thames at Richmond, with the Old Royal Palace by an unknown artist
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Caption and photo courtesy of Wikipedia*

* This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.
The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason:
This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.




Watered-down rum

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In modern parlance, “grog” is a synonym for any alcoholic beverage, but its original meaning has been watered down over time. Perhaps a certain English military man, were he alive today, would be happy about that.

Admiral Edward Vernon was a long-time naval officer in England in the mid-1700s. At least one of the men he commanded respected him highly — none other than the half-brother of President George Washington. According to Wikipedia, Lawrence Washington named the family estate, Mount Vernon, after the admiral.

Alas and alack, this staid historical tidbit about Vernon seems to have been surpassed by notoriety related to what the admiral wore and an order he issued.

Vernon apparently was fond of wearing a grogram cloak. Grogram was “a coarse fabric … made of silk, worsted, and mohair, often stiffened with gum,” according to Webster’s. As a result, he was nicknamed “Old Grog.”

“In 1740,” writes Albert Jack in Red Herrings and White Elephants, “Admiral Vernon, the commander in chief of the West Indies, replaced the neat rum which was then issued to all sailors twice daily, with a watered-down version.” Other sources claim Vernon had the rum diluted with lemon juice or lime juice — a practice that actually improved the health of his sailors by reducing the chances of scurvy.

At any rate, his order went straight to the heart of many a sailor. Given the conditions of sailing ships in those days, it is not too far-fetched to think that the rum rations were the highlights of a sailor’s day.

Sailors began calling the new concoction “grog” after the admiral’s nickname. Many, I suspect, did not consider the term complimentary.

Jack mentions that one sailor, Thomas Trotter, who was aboard the Berwick, enshrined Vernon’s mandate into history in this manner:

“A mighty bowl on deck he drew
And filled it to the brink
Such drank the Burford’s* gallant crew
And such the gods shall drink
The sacred robe which Vernon wore
Was drenched within the same
And hence his virtues guard our shore
And Grog drives its name”

*The Burford was Vernon’s flagship from 1739 to 1742.

Portrait of Admiral Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough
Photo of painting courtesy of Wikipedia

Royal Navy grog issue
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia



A wry twist on a lovely poem

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Liz is punning on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, which has a rather long name, “Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

As the title suggests, the poem is one of a collection of 44 sonnets this Victorian writer penned as a tribute to a fellow poet, with whom she had more than a professional relationship.(Sonnets are poems of 14 lines that have a strict rhyme scheme; Shakespeare was also adept at composing them.)

“The poems largely chronicle the period leading up to her 1846 marriage to Robert Browning. The collection was acclaimed and popular in the poet's lifetime and it remains so today,” according to Wikipedia.

Here are the first four lines of the poem:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

For the full text, go to http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172998

Phoebe Anna Traquair’s illuminated copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet 30”
Held by National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and uploaded by oaktree_b
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia



Football, English-style

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, February 3, 2014

The second “Jumble” word stymied me today, so I left it and worked on the others: round, smooch and bother. Then I came back to it … still no luck.

I tried bugry, gubry, gubyr, rubyg, gybru, rybug and guyrb. All were footless and fruitless attempts, but suddenly the right answer floated up in my mind, much like words do in a Magic 8 ball: rugby.

It turns out that the game of rugby, which is a type of football, comes from the public school by the same name. That’s where the earliest version of the game was first played, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The school was in the city of Rugby in Warwickshire in central England, and the word was first used in 1864, the dictionary also notes.

The field at Rugby School
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia



‘As strong as oak’

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, January 31, 2014

It’s mid-afternoon. The snow is still falling, the office is toasty warm, a Broncos-inspired buffet is just steps away and plenty of coffee awaits down the hall. I’d really like a nap.

This time of year I don’t feel particularly robust, but I’m certainly glad others do. This morning, for example, I was grateful that Gary Terell, who is in charge of maintenance here at The Daily Sentinel, was vigorously shoveling off the north lot of the building. I had no trouble parking, thanks to his robust labors.

I imagine that snowplow operators are out in force, clearing off streets and highways. This latest snowfall is sure to bring out robust skiers and boarders, who likely will hit the slopes en masse Saturday. On Sunday they may have to decide between being robust recreationalists or watching robust athletes playing in front of robust fans at the Super Bowl.

The word “robust” came into English in the 1540s from Middle French, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The Middle French word, the dictionary adds, derived “directly from Latin robustus ‘strong and hardy,’ literally ‘as strong as oak.’”

And not just any oak. The dictionary notes that the word goes farther back in Latin to mean “’a special kind of oak,’ named for its reddish heartwood, from Latin ruber ‘red.’”

I’ll have to remember all that information the next time I’m out walking and passing by the Bur Oak in my neighborhood park. Perhaps seeing the tree will help me break out of my mid-winter lethargy.

I’ll also try to keep in mind this observation by Bill Bryson in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything: “You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 X 10^18 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.“

Photo special to the Sentinel

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