What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 100 of 132

Attic now a bargain-basement word

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An attic is at the top of a house, but the word “attic” has tumbled from once-lofty heights.

We tend to think of an attic as an unfinished, cramped space just under the roof that is crammed with junk we can’t seem to part with. The word, though, has much more noble beginnings.

In Words from History, Isaac Asimov writes that “attic” comes from Attica, a peninsula of ancient Greece that was renowned for its high cultural standards in the fifth century B.C. Athens was its main city. “Attic or ‘Athenian’ came to mean everything that was intellectual and worthwhile,” he notes.

“The ancients,” continues Asimov, “even had a phrase, ‘Attic salt,’ meaning ‘elegant and delicate wit.’ Attic salt was that little bit of seasoning that made conversation sparkle more wittily, as ordinary salt brings out the flavor in food.”

Asimov further explains that London architecture in the 1700s began to imitate the style of ancient Greek buildings. Houses with “Greek temple touches” were called “Attic architecture.”

Each of these houses had a peaked roof over the main structure. The area under the roof slowly became known as the attic.

“Nowadays … the attic is usually a jumbled storeroom and junkpile that would truly horrify any truly Attic soul,” Asimov concludes.

Fortunately, Webster’s does pay tribute to the historical significance of attic by listing it both as a lowercase word and a word with a capital A. Capitalized, it means “characteristic of Athens or its people or their language or culture,” according to Webster’s. Synonyms are classical, simple and restrained.

Nourished by all this new knowledge, I’m anxious to attend my next dinner party. I’ll relish saying, “Pass the Attic salt, please.” I suspect people will either pepper me with questions as to what it means or ask if I wish to be excused from the dinner table.

Illustration above: Map of Attica, cropped from old public domain map of Greece.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Temple of Hephaistos in Athens, the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece.
Photo and caption courtesy of Wikipedia









The skinny on Fat Tuesday

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, March 7, 2011

Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French. Well, not exactly. It literally means Tuesday Fat.

It’s a good reminder that in Latin languages such as French and Spanish an adjective comes after a noun, directly opposite of what is generally written in English prose. (Poets often take “poetic license” in English, however, and put an adjective after a noun.)

Wikipedia notes that Mardi Gras refers to the “practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which started on Ash Wednesday.” Now, in cities spanning the world, it is a riotous celebration, complete with elaborate costumes, parades with fancy floats and bead necklaces galore.



Minimum meeting members: Who knew?

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, March 4, 2011

This excerpt from “Today in History” has two important civics terms: adjourned and quorum.

Adjourn means to close a meeting or session for a time, according to Webster’s.

Webster’s notes that quorum grew out of the Latin word qui, meaning who. Webster’s gives three definitions: “1 orig., the number of justices of the peace required to be present at sessions of English courts 2 the minimum number of members required to be present at an assembly or meeting before it can validly proceed to transact business 3 a select group or company.”

Holding meetings is an important part “of government of the people, by the people and for the people,” in the words of our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. U.S. citizens are lucky that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees, among other rights, the right to assemble. Not everyone in the world is so fortunate.

How did you do on the analogies yesterday? Answers below:

LARGE : MACRO :: SMALL : __________ (MICRO) synonyms

LEFT : RIGHT :: UP : _____________ (DOWN) opposites

CLOCK : TIME :: THERMOMETER: _________ (TEMPERATURE) measurement devices

CHILD : PEDIATRICIAN :: PUPPY : _____________ (VET or VETERINARIAN) medical jobs

TEACHER : SCHOOL :: NURSE: ______________ (HOSPITAL) places of employment



Pop quiz on analogies

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, March 3, 2011

Analogy is “the likening of one thing to another on the basis of some similarity between the two,” according to Webster’s.

For years, students have pondered analogy questions on the SAT test, a standardized exam that many colleges and universities require as part of their acceptance process.

Here is an example:


The reasoning here is: A leg has a joint called a knee, and an arm has a joint called an elbow. The fact that both limbs have joints is the similarity in this analogy.

Want to try some basic analogies? I’ll provide answers tomorrow.

LARGE : MACRO :: SMALL : __________

LEFT : RIGHT :: UP : _____________

CLOCK : TIME :: THERMOMETER: ____________

CHILD: PEDIATRICIAN :: PUPPY : _____________

TEACHER : SCHOOL :: NURSE: ______________


Single stone, many words

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A  local example of a monolith is Independence Rock in the Colorado National Monument. Eric Sandstrom, a seasonal park ranger, comments on it and other monoliths today in the third part of a series about Grand Valley’s fascinating 20,000-acre park.

Mono is a word part that means one or single. Lith means rock or stone. Put together, they become monolith, or single stone.

Knowing the meanings of these two word parts helps us understand many other words. Here are a few examples:

monopoly - one controls many

monotone - one tone of voice

monochrome - one color

lithology - the study of rocks

megalith - huge rock

xenolith - foreign rock, or, more precisely, “a rock fragment that is different in kind from the igneous rock in which it is embedded,” according to Webster’s.

Sandstrom also explains why people become confused over the word “monument” when they visit the park. To enjoy his complete column, take a look at www.gjsentinel.com or the print or e-edition of The Daily Sentinel.

Page 100 of 132


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