What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 6 of 132


By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I've recently introduced my granddaughter to the game of jacks. Since I enjoyed playing it as a youngster, revisiting that part of my salad days with her has been fun. Neither of us, it seems, are very dextrous at it, and sometimes her younger brother makes off with the ball, but that's all part of the adventure of playing with grandchildren.

Since I haven't seen many kids these days playing jacks, I've wondered if this game has largely been relegated to the ancient days of my childhood. Little did I know until today just how ancient it is.

I already knew that “dibs” is a slang word that means “a claim to a share of, or rights in, something wanted,” according to Webster's. What I didn't know, however, is that it came into English in the “mid 18th century (denoting pebbles used in a children's game): from earlier dib-stones,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

“As with many children's playground games, [knucklebones] is known by a wide variety of names including astragaloi, hucklebones, dibs, dibstones, jackstones, chuckstones, five-stones jackrocks, onesies, jax, kugelach, batu seremban, or snobs,” according to Wikipedia.

Our modern-day jacks, the little x-shaped pieces, evolved from the “knucklebones” of a sheep, Wikipedia further explains. “Sophocles, in a fragment, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to Palamedes, who taught them to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones … .”

It is unclear how one name of the game, which Wikipedia says has a myriad of variations and is played in many parts of the world, evolved into a claim for something. A player, though, indeed tries to pick up and thus “claim” the jacks, so maybe that's why.

As always, when I research a word I meander down interesting semantic byways, often stumbling across a good quote I just have to share. Here's one by a psychologist and a pioneer in the use of play therapy for children:

“Perhaps there is more understanding and beauty in life when the glaring sunlight is softened by the patterns of shadows. Perhaps there is more depth in a relationship that has weathered some storms. Experience that never disappoints or saddens or stirs up feeling is a bland experience with little challenge or variation of color.”

          Virginia Mae Axline, Dibs in Search of Self
          Source: www.goodreads.com

The Game of Knucklebones, an oil on canvas painting by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1734
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Bark, books and treasure troves

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Along with getting exercise, I enjoy my walks around a nearby park for many pleasant scenes: children playing, kites flying, families picnicking, friends chatting, weekend warriors playing volleyball, musicians performing al fresco concerts and, sometimes, someone immersed in a book while under a shade tree.

I'll now better appreciate the sight of such a reader, since today I discovered that “library” harks back to describing the bark of a tree, according to Webster's. The Latin word liber meant “a book, orig. inner bark or rind of a tree (which was written on).”

That made sense. We know, after all, that the ancients wrote on cave walls, shards of pottery and, when life got really plush, papyrus, so I can see that tree bark would also come in handy.

Writing was cumbersome, yet people throughout the ages in various parts of the world still felt compelled to write information down and preserve it for others in libraries.

In China, for instance, libraries came into being during the Shang dynasty, according to Wikipedia, which ran from the sixteenth to eleventh centuries B.C. The Royal Library in Alexandria, Egypt, was constructed in 283 B.C. “With collections of works, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens, the library was part of a larger research institution called the Museum of Alexandria, where many of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world studied,” also according to Wikipedia.

From such ancient endeavors, of course, have come our modern libraries, treasure troves of both information and equality. These days it's not tough or expensive to obtain a library card.

A library feels almost like a church to me. Once inside, I like its quietness and orderliness, the smell of books and the sight of people enriching themselves through knowledge. I quite agree with writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

I like finding an intriguing book and knowing I get to read it at no charge — well, as long as it's returned on time. But that small mandate is just part of the order of a library, and I'm happy to comply. This spring or summer I plan to head to the library, find just the right book and then find just the right shade tree.

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Coven, 19th century
(Artistic rendering, based on archeological evidence)
Rendering and caption courtesy of Wikipedia


Austen answers

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Answers to yesterday's quiz questions: The gerund is “flattering.” The quote comes from Chapter 14 of Pride and Prejudice.

Oh, in case you're wondering, here is Mr. Collins' reply to Mr. Bennet's question:

`They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.''

Illustration special to the Sentinel


A handy hybrid

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Although I beg to differ with Stephen Colbert's accuracy in quoting Shakespeare, the English teacher in me is rejoicing at the thought of explaining a gerund. (Countless readers undoubtedly are sharing my joy.)

A gerund is a hybrid of a noun and a verb. It always ends in “ing.” Though it sounds like a verb, it works as a noun. It can be used as a subject, direct object, indirect object and object of a preposition. Examples:

Subject: Taking good photographs is really his forte. (Complete subject: Taking good photographs)
Direct object: They like hiking.
Indirect object: They give finetuning ample time in the production process.
Object of a preposition: I beg to differ with Stephen Colbert's accuracy in quoting Shakespeare.

One must really understand nouns and verbs in order to distinguish between gerunds and participles. Participles also end in “ing” but they are verb forms. In the first paragraph I included two: “is rejoicing” and “are sharing.”

Pop quiz: Can you spot the gerund in this quote from Jane Austen? And in which novel is it? (Answers tomorrow.)

``'You judge very properly,' said Mr. Bennet, 'and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?'''

Jane Austen
Special to the Sentinel



Not just any Friday

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, April 18, 2014

TGIF.  More importantly, TGIGF.

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