What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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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


Vice or virtue?

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, June 27, 2014

When I proofed today's editorial yesterday, I almost marked “hutzpah” as being misspelled. After a quick dictionary check, though, I learned it's an alternate spelling of that glorious Yiddish word, “chutzpah.” (Still another spelling is “chutzpa.”)

Webster's defines it as “shameless audacity; impudence; brass.”

This word always reminds me of Alexander Pope's statement that every virtue has a corresponding vice. In his poem, "An Essay on Man," Pope wrote, “The difference is too nice – Where ends the virtue or begins the vice.”

A few examples of Pope's somewhat paradoxical observation are faith vs. gullibility; tenacity vs. stubbornness; and tolerance vs. being a doormat.

“Chutzpah” seems to do double duty as a vice and a virtue. In the editorial, it is used in a derogatory sense, but quite often, it is used as wry praise of someone's assertiveness. I wonder just how many of us secretly wish we could've had a tiny bit more of it at times.

"Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Don't ever aim your doubt at yourself."

Alan Alda, graduation speech, Connecticut College, 1980
Source: Wikipedia

Painting of Alexander Pope by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Courtesy of Wikipedia


Trusted knights, classy real estate

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, June 26, 2014

“Paladin” appears in George Will's column today on B2. Like so many words in English, it has a long and colorful history, ultimately winding its way back to a Roman hill.

In the sense that Will uses it today, “paladin” means “leader,” but in the Middle Ages a paladin was a knight and a palace official in the court of the renowned ruler Charlemagne, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History. “Endless tales were told of the doughty deeds … of his knights (similar to those which, in England, were told of King Arthur's knights).”

Legends say, Asimov adds, that 12 of these trusted paladins were in Charlemagne's court.

Both “paladin” and “palace” go back to the Latin “palatium, after Palatium, one of the seven hills of Rome, where Augusta lived,” according to Webster's. Asimov refers to it as Palatine Hill.

As the city grew, Palatine Hill soon became quite the upscale neighborhood, according to Asimov. “Cicero lived there and so did many other wealthy Romans. It was handy to the circuses, the amphitheatre, the forum, and the temples.”

In 31 B.C. Octavian Caesar built a “lavish” home there and his successor, Tiberius, would later choose a nearby site on the hill for his sumptuous new digs, Asimov notes. Still later, Asimov writes, Nero would establish himself in the neighborhood.

“Nero built a most ornate structure that took up a large section of the hill. A structure like this was a 'palatium' ('a building on the Palatine') and the word came to be used for the residence of a ruler. In French it become 'palais' and in English palace.”

Roland is gifted with a sword by Charlemagne. From a manuscript of a chanson de geste*
Ruins of the Domus Augustana on Palatine Hill
Photos and captions courtesy of Wikipedia
*Old French for “song of heroic deeds,” according to Wikipedia


Fine Italian hand

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, June 20, 2014

One of the fonts we use at The Daily Sentinel is:

It belongs to the gothic typeface, or font family.

Its history goes all the way back to 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg, a German, began operating a printing press using mechanical movable type — a huge advancement in disseminating information.

The design for Gutenberg's letters, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History, wasn't simple. “[T]he letters had outlines of various widths, thick on the downstroke, thin on the cross-strokes. This imitated the action of a quill pen and had a beautiful effect, but was hard to read. The Italians called it, contemptuously, 'gothic' type …”

About 50 years later, Asimov explains, Aldus Manutius, an Italian printer, came up with another typeface, “one that was very thin, with neat outlines and a graceful slant.” This became known as italics, in deference to the country of its origin.

Asimov relates another interesting snippet regarding the use of italics in the 1500s. “Such fine writing was characteristic of the letters of papal nuncios and Venetian ambassadors, who were almost proverbial for their subtlety,” he writes. “To suspect guile, therefore, was to see signs of a fine Italian hand giving instructions via letter, and that phrase came to mean anything sneaky and underhanded, whatever the nationality.”

In modern times, writers use italics for words that should be emphasized. As an example, the national columnists the Sentinel publishes often include instructions for words to be italicized in their copy. Whenever the columnists want a word or words to appear that way, they bracket the word(s) with [ITAL]. It is then up to those who lay out pages here to make sure those instructions are carried out. No guile required — just attention to detail.

Johannes Gutenberg
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Aldus Manutius                                            Illustration of Italian manuscript special to the Sentinel
Courtesy of Wikipedia

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