Monday, September 20, 2004
A dumbbell is a fine tool for exercise, but what does it have to do with a bell? A church's bell ringer would pull down on a rope, causing the bell to swing and toll the hours. Since bells were heavy, bell ringers developed great upper body strength. Their work also required a good deal of practice. (I presume this was, in part, to learn to time the pulls to match the bell's swing-period.) Apprentice bell ringers practiced on a rope and pulley apparatus that mimicked the action but which used a deadweight rather than a bell, thus saving money and avoiding noise pollution. In other words, it was a bell that was silent, or "dumb", and quite naturally came to be a "dumbbell". Gentlemen in the 1700s adopted the same apparatus for healthy exercise, and "dumbbell" became associated with weights for exercise.
Some idle thoughts: What I've given you is the standard story, and it's interesting enough. But isn't it odd that the word first appears so late as 1711, though church bells are centuries older? If bell ringers needed a training apparatus, surely one was built, used, and given a name long before 1711.
The first known use of the word is by Joseph Addison in The Spectator of Thursday, July 12, 1711, copied below. Addison seems to be making an implied pun that the exercise dumbbell renders the ladies silent; that is, it renders the belles dumb. His very next paragraph also makes a witty analogy between an exercise method and the larger world. An idle speculation: could it conceivably be that Addison concocted the word 'dumbbell' as a term that would describe the apparatus and also make his word-play? That would certainly explain why no prior use of the word has been found.
For my own part, when I am in Town, I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb Bell that is placed in a Corner of my Room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require of it in the most profound Silence. My Landlady and her Daughters are so well acquainted with my Hours of Exercise, that they never come into my Room to disturb me whilst I am ringing.
When I was some Years younger than I am at present, I used to employ myself in a more laborious Diversion, which I learned from a Latin Treatise of Exercises that is written with great Erudition: It is there called the skiomachia, or the fighting with a Man's own Shadow, and consists in the brandishing of two short Sticks grasped in each Hand, and loaden with Plugs of Lead at either End. This opens the Chest, exercises the Limbs, and gives a Man all the Pleasure of Boxing, without the Blows. I could wish that several Learned Men would lay out that Time which they employ in Controversies and Disputes about nothing, in this Method of fighting with their own Shadows. It might conduce very much to evaporate the Spleen, which makes them uneasy to the Publick as well as to themselves.
CanWest News Service
Somewhere in the murky depths of the continent’s deepest lake lurks a
Jim Lynn is sure of it.
This week, the 66-year-old Roman Catholic priest was looking out from
his home on the shores of Great Slave Lake near Yellowknife when he saw
an object trailing a small boat across the water.
“I got the goggles because it was moving fast and I was kind of curious
as to what it was. It was high, six to eight feet above the water and
moving at an incredulous speed,” he said. “It was like the head of a
dragon - just coming out of the water at just a ferocious speed, just
moving like crazy.”
Lynn watched as the creature, which looked green in colour, hurtled
behind an island, then disappeared. He quickly called Yellowknifer, the
local newspaper, to place a classified asking the person on the lake
that day to call him.
“I would think they would have felt the waves (from the dragon),” he
Step aside Nessie and Ogopogo, there’s a new mystery leviathan on the
block. And according to Chris Woodall, it’s called Ol’Slavey.
Woodall is a Yellowknifer columnist who wrote earlier this summer that
Great Slave, with a depth of 614 metres, must hide some weird and
To his surprise, his phone soon started ringing with stories of people
claiming to have seen just such a thing - and he gave it the name
Ol’Slavey, after one of the aboriginal languages in the Northwest
It’s a fitting name, since the Dene abound with stories about an
unknown creature in the waters.
When Antoine Michel was growing up in the traditional community of
Lutsel K’e, about 200 kilometres east of Yellowknife, he was taught
that a creature lived in the waters off Utsingi Point, about 80
kilometres to the south-west of the community. To appease the nameless
creature, people boating by the point pass by in silence and pay
respect to the lake with tobacco offerings.
“We usually stop the motor and go around the point, paddle quietly,” he
Years later, he saw the creature himself, on a calm moonlit night as he
and his wife returned by boat from a caribou hunt.
“We seen a rock there - I thought it was a rock first time, there was
seagulls around it,” he said. “I just turned away from it, I didn’t
want to hit it, (then) it just went down. … I felt the waves, and then
I just took off. I didn’t take a look back.”
Boaters have seen strange creatures suddenly surfacing in the water in
front of them - and near Lutsel K’e are some of the deepest pockets of
Great Slave Lake, a natural habitat for a beast of the depths.
Naysayers will tell you it’s just a big fish, but the northern divers
who actually swim those waters will tell you differently.
A decade ago, Arctic Divers was sent on a deep-water body retrieval
near Lutsel K’e when one of its divers saw a terrifying beast.
“It looked like much like an alligator, but with a head like a pike,”
said Wayne Gzowski, the company’s district manager.
“I really do believe that there’s unknown marine life in a lot of these
areas,” he said, in places that have never before been explored by
And if you don’t believe him, believe the Dene elders. According to
aboriginal legend, the great Mackenzie River was created by a giant
beaver. Rene Fumoleau, a retired Oblate priest and respected northern
historian, remembers a Gwich’in elder telling him that a dragon now
lives in the waters of Canada’s biggest river.
“There are some places where the water never freezes in winter, and
that is because there is that monster somewhere at the bottom of the
river that stirs the waters,” he said.
The Mackenzie flows out of Great Slave Lake; perhaps Ol’Slavey moves
between haunts. Whatever the case, Archie Catholique, the chief of
Lutsel K’e, is a believer.
“The elders were saying that this thing here doesn’t bother anybody -
it’s not there to hurt anybody,” he said.
But, he added, “people see it.”
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
The classical Greeks, like any other ethnic group, used ethnic slurs upon their neighbors. This week we'll present some of those slurs that have come into English.
Yes, I can foresee you saying for some of these words, "That wasn't ancient Greek. It was coined by later speakers versed in the classics." Or, "That referred not to the ethnic group, but to the traits of a prominent person or mythological figure from that place. " Or, "That wasn't a slur. It was just descriptive, or the negative meaning came later." To all of which I respond, "Pooh! Let's not let quibbles stand in the way of the tale."
laconic [using or involving the use of a minimum of words; concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious]
Lakonia's chief city was Sparta, and Spartan speech was short and to the point.
? given to laughter; particularly, inclined to foolish or incessant merriment
But is the dictionary definition correct? The word abderian is too rarely used for me to glean its meaning from context. The sources agree that it comes from the Thracian town of Abdera, a town in Thrace, or from its prominent philosopher Democritus. [One says Abdera's "citizens were considered rustic simpletons who would laugh at anything or anyone they didn't understand".]However, the stories about Abdera and Democritus don't really support a concept of "foolish merriment". In general they show the townsfolk as stupid or as subject fits of nutty emotion, and show Democritus as a worldly-wise man laughing at the follies of mankind, in an attitude of "Lo, what fools these mortals be." ... Here's one:
Richard Strauss based his last work, Des Esels Schatten ('The Donkey's Shadow'), a 1774 satire set in ancient Abdera, Die Abderiten by Christoph Martin Wieland. The plot is a legal dispute over the question, "Who owns the donkey's shadow?" The renter of a donkey cooled himself in the donkey's shadow, whereupon the donkey's owner demands more money, claiming he leased the donkey, not its shadow. The legal dispute rages; the city and its citizens are sharply split on the controversy ? and everyone forgets the donkey, who is neglected and dies of starvation.
? a person devoted to pleasure and luxury; a voluptuary
from Subaris (Sybaris), from the notorious luxury of its inhabitants
[Ben] Franklin's personal habits aroused even greater ire in [John] Adams. Franklin lived the grand life of a sybarite, attended by nine servants, feasting daily frorn a table generously laden with unimaginable delicacies, in command of a wine cellar stocked with more than one thousand bottles, and borne about Paris and Passy in an elegant carriage driven by a uniformed coachman.
? John Ferling, John Adams: A Life
This is a deplorable street, a luxurious couch of a street in which the afternoon lolls like a gaudy sybarite.
? Ben Hecht, Michigan Avenue
Why would there be 22,000 books on, for instance, the enigma of Richard Wagner? The supposed enigma is that a man who wrote some music that is sublime (Parsifal), some that is noble and romantic (Lohengrin), and some that is wise and gently humorous (Meistersinger) should have been an active anit-Semite, the seducer of a loyal friend's wife (Cosima Von Bulow) and at various times a liar, cheat, politician, egomaniac and sybarite. Why on earth not? There is no enigma in Wagner if you remember the Anything Goes Rule. The real enigma is that experienced people who must know that traits of character and talent have complex, shifting causes, can believe or pretend to believe, that a personality must be all of a piece morally.
? Richard Brown, Social Psychology
? a dull, obtuse person. The emphasis seems to be on rude ignorance and illiteracy (think "country bumpkin") rather than stupidity.
Boetia is a farming district in ancient Greece, whose inhabitants the urbane Athenians found thick and stupid, with no understanding of art or literature. Think "country bumpkin". Brewer gives another explanation: "The ancient Boeotians loved agricultural and pastoral pursuits, so the Athenians used to say they were dull and thick as their own atmosphere." But the slur seems unfair, since Hesiod, Pindar, and Plutarch all hailed from Boeotia.
It was called Boeotia; and in Hellenic minds the word 'Boeotian' had a quite distinctive connotation. It stood for an ethos which was rustic, stolid, unimaginative, brutal ? an ethos out of harmony with the prevailing genius of the Hellenic culture.
? Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History
Boeotian bliss is not conducive to invention: the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from from the realization that something is missing, from awareness of incompleteness.
? Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self
Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education
2004 Spring; Vol. 15, No. 3; Pg. 8-9
Native Languages: a Question of Life or Death
By Ambler, Marjane
During the Vietnam War, a Blackfeet man, Marvin Weatherwax, and three other
soldiers were captured by the enemy. They hung the soldiers by the arms
along the wall and asked, "What unit are you from? How many are in your
unit? Where is your unit?" The first man spit on them and started cussing,
and they cut him with a knife from kidney to kidney. The same thing happened
to the second and the third.
When they came to Weatherwax, he told them what they wanted to know--but he
told them in the Blackfeet language. They kept him prisoner for over three
years and tried to figure out what he was saying, but Weatherwax spoke only
Blackfeet. To this day, he believes that his language kept him alive.
Native languages meant the difference between life and death for not only
Weatherwax but also for countless World War I and World War II soldiers.
Recent publicity has honored the work of the Navajo code talkers in World
War II, but during both world wars, American Indian code talkers helped
bring victory by using various languages, including Choctaw, Comanche,
Lakota or Navago words.
Today, learning Native languages continues to be of crucial importance to
American Indian people, sometimes perhaps life or death importance. In
Indian Country, the frequency of suicide among adolescents is more than
double the national rate. Their despair and hopelessness have many causes,
of course, but may be related to loss of culture and language.
Dr. William Harjo LoneFight, the president of Sisseton Wahpeton College, is
one of the most passionate Native language advocates. He says, "When people
spoke Dakota, they understood where they belonged in relation to other
people, to the natural world, and to the spiritual world. They truly knew
how to treat one another."
Research has shown that when Native children know only English, their
families and communities suffer from a breakdown in intergenerational
communication, which sometimes leads to juvenile gang behavior and drug
An innovative government TANF (welfare) program in California recognizes
this. The director of the Owens Valley Career Development Center in Bishop,
CA, Paul W. Chavez, believes that culture and language programs provide a
sense of identity to young people. The center puts the vast majority of its
funds into prevention activities, such as the vocational education, Even
Start, and language. This model is being expanded to serve four additional
counties in the area.
The TANF-funded language program has a staff of 18. The language program
director, Laura Grant, says, "We believe in starting at the earliest level
[preschool] and building individuals from the ground up so they don't get
into these patterns that lead to welfare."
More than a Fad
This generously funded program is the exception, however. While the needs
for and the community interest in language work skyrockets, the availability
of federal and private funding plummets.
Veteran language fundraiser Marina Drummer of the Advocates for Indigenous
California Language Survival says funders have difficulty understanding the
importance of language revitalization work in the context of issues more
clearly associated with life or death, such as homelessness. They tend to
think of language work as arcane and specialized like linguistics instead of
the "absolute bedrock of culture."
Funders sometimes see language programs as a fad, according to Janine Pease
(Crow), the author of the immersion article in this issue. "Saying language
programs are a fad is like saying that tribal colleges were a fad 30 years
ago. The work is much too difficult to be a fad," she says.
To build fluency, language programs need sustained funding for many years,
not three or four-year grants. You can't take a Berlitz course. Short-term
grants are like "throwing a potato chip into the wind," Pease says.
Outsiders also tend to feel that efforts are futile, merely putting off the
inevitable time when all American Indian people will speak only English. For
the past couple of hundred years, the American public largely has bought
into the End of the Trail syndrome, a symbol created in the 1800s by
sculptor James Earle Fraser. Artists such as George Catlin, Edward Curtis,
and Karl Bodner also strived to capture images of the Vanishing Red Man,
assuming that those Indians who were not killed would assimilate.
In 1877 the Secretary of Interior forbade children in the American Indian
boarding schools from speaking "barbarous" languages, saying, "If Indian
children are to be civilized, they must learn the language of civilization."
The assumptions behind the Vanishing Red Man syndrome continue. Yet despite
200 years of concerted efforts to eliminate them, most of these tribes have
survived, and many of their languages also have survived.
Today English Only advocates annually ask Congress to make English the
"official language" of the United States. Nevertheless, in 1990, Congress
passed the Native American Languages Act, which said that saving languages
is part of the national policy. Funding has been totally inadequate,
Churches Should be Involved
Richard LaFoune (Yupik) and the Heart of the Earth, Inc., organization have
a unique proposal for a private/public partnership that would infuse
resources into language revitalization work following a Canadian model.
Their proposal would involve churches, three agencies of the federal
government, and Native organizations, such as the American Indian Higher
Education Consortium and the National Congress of Americans.
The federal government in Canada has decided to fund language and culture
projects as part of its reparations for physical, sexual, and emotional
abuse through the boarding schools, according to LaFortune. In Canada, as in
the United States, the boarding schools harshly punished children who spoke
their Native languages as they tried to purge them of their "barbaric"
Canada has proposed $47 million per year for 50-60 Native languages,
according to his calculations. LaFortune compares this with the $2 million
that the United States government is providing to save over 200 languages.
LaFortune includes the churches in the reparations plan because of their
significant role in boarding schools and assimilation. He says it will take
more than a generation of funding to fix things since boarding schools spent
more than a generation trying to destroy cultures.
A handful of foundations are responding to the arguments of Native language
advocates and providing significant funding for language projects - W.K.
Kellogg Foundation, Lannan Foundation, Grotto Foundation, and recently Ford
Foundation. The Congress is considering legislation that would provide
additional funds for Native language immersion projects. We commend these
efforts and hope that other foundations, members of Congress, and churches
will study the Heart of the Earth proposal.
The late language advocate Ken Hale said every language lost is like
dropping a bomb on the Louvre. Native languages are important to the
economic, emotional, and physical survival of Indian people. They are also
an important part of the world's heritage. Like petroglyphs carved into
rocks, these languages are fading and disappearing with time. They hold
precious stories and knowledge that need to be preserved.
Tuesday, September 07, 2004
David Denby, New Yorker, on "We Don't Live Here Anymore"
He frames this discordant material with formal elegance and a soothing, even redemptive beauty--the right aesthetic strategy, I think, since other people’s unhappiness, however fascinating, can be merely tawdry when offered without the relief of lyricism.
David Denby, New Yorker
January 12, 2004, on "House of Sand and Fog"
The ineluctable downward pull of absolutely everything in this movie is more exasperating than moving. ... [Director Vadim Perelman's] work is quiet and steady, but, like Jane Campion's recent "In the Cut" and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "21 Grams," Perelman's movie offers a malign and depressive view of life in America--a place where people can discover their souls only though misery and mess. Working with generally good actors, these three foreign directors created small, dense networks of relationships, and their sense of concern comes as a relief in our increasingly anti-humanist commercial cinema, where spangled fantasy is the norm. The trouble is, as talented as these directors are, they don't really get America right. They don't provide a flow of activity around the core relationships; they miss the colloquial ease and humor, the ruffled surfaces of American life. "In the Cut" is set in a paranoid, mouth-of-Hell version of New York, "21 Grams" in a nameless urban and rural wasteland (it's as if the landscape were so fouled it repelled an identity), and this movie, too, rattles angrily in a vacuum. Campion, Inarritu, and Perelman may be complacent in their own ways. Perhaps they accept tragedy too easily; perhaps they need to work harder to make it seem unavoidable. Dolorousness is becoming a curse in the more ambitious movies made in America by foreign-born directors. We need criticism and satire. We don't need other people's despair.
David Denby, New Yorker
October 27, 2003 on "In the Cut"
What's disturbing about the picture is not its blood tones but its mood of self-pitying haplessness. Frannie is ... utterly vulnerable, and the emotional success of the movie depends on our finding her sympathetic. Yet nothing that Frannie does quite makes sense. ... We get the point that Frannie is self-destructive, that she's lost and looking for danger, but the audience may grow impatient with a woman who can't walk down the street without stumbling or getting mugged or run over. For some reason, she keeps losing her shoes as well. As if all that weren't enough, she has a half sister, Pauline, who's an even bigger mess than she is and is played by-who else?-Jennifer Jason Leigh. As the two women sit around in a rubbishy apartment longing for love, philistine thoughts rise to the surface: Couldn't they at least tidy up a bit? How about putting a vase of flowers on the table?
There are people everywhere, of course, whose lives unaccountably slip into horror; and there's no reason that screwups can't be fit subjects for drama. Clint Eastwood, the screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and a talented group of actors have just proved as much in the great "Mystic River." But, even though "Mystic River" is about a malaise overtaking a community, one can see intimations of ordinary life in it. There's no ordinary life in "In the Cut," just art-thriller flourishes. The movie has been entirely prearranged for dreadfulness. This isn't true of Susanna Moore's novel.
Sunday, September 05, 2004
A pair of words whose meanings contrast but whose etymologies pose like problems.
peccadillo – a small sin or fault
punctilio – 1. a fine point of etiquette 2. precise observance of formalities
But do these words come from Italian? The authorities' etymologies cite both Italian and Spanish.¹ But the first English citations are 1591 and 1596 respectively, and I'd say those dates very strongly argue that the source was not Spanish. The English of the 1590s had very recently defeated the Spanish Armada, and I doubt they felt kindly to the Spanish or to their words.
Clinton also had the good fortune of governing a pre-9/11 America, in which an otherwise competent leader's lack of probity could be sloughed off by the masses as a peccadillo – the stuff of late-night comedy monologues, not consequence. That world, however, is over.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, Vietnam & Authenticity, National Review, August 25, 2004
In the early 1970s, American feminists came up with the shocking proposition that "sexual harassment" of women workers was not a "private peccadillo," but a significant obstacle to women's achievement of equality for which employers should be held liable. By 1977, it was a recognized claim.
– Kathleen Peratis, ONLY HUMAN: No Ifs, Ands Or Butts, The Forward, August 6, 2004
This principle will be put to the test with the arrest warrants issued against Ahmed and Salem Chalabi Sunday. The Iraqi people and the world alike will see this as a political move, which is why the Iraqi interim government must strive to deal with this sensitive matter with all the punctilio, diligence and decorum that the law deserves.
– Lebanon Daily Star, Chalabi cases will quickly test Iraq's legal system, August 10, 2004
¹Thus, for 'peccadillo' OED lists both Sp. pecadillo and It. peccadiglio, "small sin"; for 'punctilio' it lists both It. punctiglio and Sp. puntillo, "small point". Other authorities or similar, though some give only Spanish for 'punctilio'.
Regarding 'punctilio': a few decades later the word punctuality, which previously had a different meaning, came to mean "exact promptness".