What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 117 of 132

Killer wave

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The word “tsunami” is another example of the way English brings foreign words into common usage.

Tsunami is a Japanese word that is pronounced (t)su NAH mee. “Tsu” means harbor and “nami” means wave, according to Webster’s.

Webster’s defines it as, “ a huge sea wave caused by a great disturbance under the ocean, [such] as a strong earthquake or volcanic eruption.”

In December 2004 a tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed more than 200,00 people. Since it struck the day after Christmas, it is sometimes called the Boxing Day tsunami. It definitely packed a horrifying punch.

The ocean unleashes a mighty fury.


Musing on metaphor

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bobby Wolff chose to pay tribute to a fellow bridge enthusiast today with a stanza from “O Captain! My Captain!”

Written in 1865, Walt Whitman’s poem mourned the death of Abraham Lincoln, our country’s 16th president. Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, just days after the Confederates surrendered.

The poem uses extended metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used as a direct comparison to something else. Webster’s gives the phrases “curtain of night” and “all the world’s a stage” as examples. Unlike simile, metaphor does not use the words “like” or ”as.”

Extended metaphor means that comparisons are used repeatedly in a written work.

The meaning of these metaphorical words and phrases will aid in understanding the poem:

Captain (President Lincoln)

Fearful trip (the Civil War)

The ship (the ship of state, the nation)

Weathered every rack (survived every hardship)

The prize (peace between the North and South)

Vessel (again the ship of state, the nation)

Bells, flag, bugle, bouquets and wreathes (signs of celebration that the war has ended)

Ship is anchored (The Union has been restored)

Here is the entire poem:

O Captain, My Captain!

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

I appreciated this poem much more after seeing Dennis Boggs’ portrayal of Lincoln at the fifth annual Chautauqua in September at Cross Orchards Historical Site. In character, Boggs reminisced about his difficulties in finding a good general to lead the Union army.  He gave a powerful performance.

Out of character, Boggs found himself reminiscing on his own life after an audience member asked what his background was. “Oh, I was afraid you’d ask that,” he said. He explained that he was a high-school dropout and paid the price for that decision for many years.

He finally got his diploma in his late thirties and became interested in community theatre. Through that experience he studied Lincoln and then began to portray him. He now appears as “Honest Abe” all over the country.

Boggs told the children in the audience that is their responsibility to get an education. Parents and teachers are there to help, he said, but the primary responsibility must reside within individual learners. In other speaking engagements, Boggs has told young audiences that he represents the past, but they represent the future.

The future of the “victor ship” does indeed lie in the hands of our youth. Here’s hoping that everyone in public schools makes the most of a free education in a free country.  As Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen noted, "A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm." 

Photo of Abraham Lincoln courtesy of Wikipedia


Hot water, cool music

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, October 25, 2010

A couple of words in the cutline (caption) above caught my eye.

A cauldron (also spelled caldron) is a large kettle suitable for boiling water and, er, creepier contents when a witch uses it. The word comes from an ancient Roman word meaning a room for taking hot baths.

A carillon is a “set of stationary bells … usually sounded by means of a keyboard,” according to Webster’s. Many carillons actually look like towers dominating the skyline of towns and cities around the world.

To get a better idea of the beauty of the carillon mentioned in the caption above, go to http://www.carillon-rees.org. In the meantime, here’s a shot of a traveling carillon, taken at the Colorado Renaissance Fair in 2008:

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Photographer: Hustvedt



A pitch for parts

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, October 22, 2010

“Propel” is made up of two Latin/Greek word parts: pro, meaning forward, and pel, meaning drive. So, propel means to drive or push forward.

Knowing that, we can figure out other “pel” words. These definitions are provided with the help of Webster’s:

Compel:  com (with); pel (drive) to gather or drive together by force
Think of an ancient sheepherder working hard to get his flock to come together. Now the word means to “force to do something.” (The rain compelled me to find my umbrella.)

Dispel:   dis (apart); pel (drive) to scatter and drive away; make something vanish
(The mother wanted to dispel her child’s fears about ghosts and goblins.)

Expel:   ex (out); pel (drive) to drive out by force or to dismiss
(The paramedic tried to expel a bone lodged in the child’s throat.)

Impel:   im (in); pel (drive) to push into motion; a synonym for compel
(The upcoming holiday season will impel me to look for bargains at the mall.)

Repel:   re (back); pel (drive) to drive back
(In the Battle of Gettysburg, Union soldiers managed to repel Confederate attacks.)

If we know just one part of a word, often we can get a general sense of the word’s meaning, especially if we think about it in its context, the words around it. (See entries for Aug. 4, 16 and 17.)

English has hundreds of Latin/Greek word parts, but that fact shouldn’t dispel efforts to learn as many as possible. Why not? Here’s my pitch: When it comes to classroom assignments, standardized testing, college applications, etc., folks who have learned them will surely deal with fewer “curve balls” in the game of life.



Orange or Oakland crush?

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Will the Broncos crush the Raiders, or vice versa?

In an article in today’s sports section, Broncos’ coach Josh Daniels did not hold back in describing the power of the Oakland Raiders, who will face off with the Broncos this weekend:

McDaniels went on to praise the Raiders in so many other ways that a headline writer chose the word “juggernaut” to help summarize the story.

Used in this sense, a juggernaut is “any terrible, irresistible force,” according to Webster’s.

Wesbter’s says it also means “anything that exacts blind devotion or terrible sacrifice."

That definition stems from the original meaning of the word. Juggernaut is an anglicized version of the Sanskrit Jagannatha, which means “Lord of the Universe."

Jagannatha, again according to Webster’s, was “an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, whose idol, it was formerly supposed, so excited his worshipers when it was hauled along on a large car during religious rites that they threw themselves under the wheels and were crushed.”

According to Wikipedia, the story of frenzied worshipers flinging themselves under the car’s wheels was told in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a 14th-century work. Wikipedia says, though, that Mandeville may have gotten his facts wrong. Worshipers close to the car may have accidentally been pushed under the wheels by the huge crowds behind them. Wikipedia also notes that British colonists in India may have used this story as propaganda (deliberate misinformation).

Whatever the truth may be, the word has gained a strong foothold in Western culture. Now, for example, we have Juggernaut, a villain in Marvel comic books who’s been around since the Sixties. And the word remains irresistible for "hed" writers who need to explain “any terrible, irresistible force.”

May the force be with the Broncos this weekend!

The Car of Juggernaut, as shown in the Illustrated London Reading Book, published in 1851
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia
Original source: Project Gutenberg archives

A religious festival in India in 2007
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and
photographer G.-U. Tolkiehn

Page 117 of 132


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