Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Wisp of a Tale

It's October, the witching month, if neighborhood decorations and movie channel lineups are reliable guides. I don't go all out for Halloween. My frightful rituals are limited to hanging a faded paper pumpkin on the front door on the 31st and buying big bags of assorted candy bars—fun-size, of course—for the zero to one trick-or-treaters that will ring my doorbell.

So I was amused that a recent dip into etymology brought me a Halloween surprise. I read the phrase "will o' the wisp" in a context I have completely forgotten. Ignoring whatever important point the article's author was making, I went in search of the underlying meaning of the old-fashioned phrase. I knew it as a description of something insubstantial or foolish for which one may strive in vain (not to mention as one of the descriptions of Maria by the nuns in "The Sound of Music.")

I was surprised to find that it actually means something more sinister, something fitting for All Hallows Eve. does not bring up an entry for "will o' the wisp," but instead diverts to "jack o' lantern." Jack and Will are twins. The grinning pumpkin and the…well, what is Will? Scientifically speaking, a will o' the wisp, a.k.a. ignis fatuus or "foolish fire," is swamp gas that spontaneously bursts into flame and then burns off on its own.

Less scientific minds, such as my ancestors in the British Isles, came up with their own explanations of the flickering lights in the night. In folklore, both Jack and Will were considered to be souls so malignant they were blackballed by demons and forced to wander in creepy marshes, lighting their way with incandescent coals from Hell.

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), "wisp" refers to a bundle of sticks or twisted straw or paper used as a torch. So Will o' the Wisp is the identical twin of Jack o' Lantern. They often were associated with fairies, which in folk tales are not pretty, gossamer-winged girls, but evil beings who lured lonely travelers to their doom or enticed young children away from their homes to similar fates.

Yes, Jack and Will are a wicked pair, but while Jack is famous and is represented on doorsteps nationwide in October, Will has faded to obscurity. You know, Clement Clark Moore introduced Dasher and Dancer and the boys in his poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" in 1822. It was not until 1939 that an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward stores reminded the world of Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all." Ten years later, Gene Autry recorded a song and the world never looked back. Prancer who?

If I could just write a spooky, but catchy, song about Will o' the Wisp, maybe he, too, could come into his own. It's time for the poor guy to put down that hot coal and stop haunting the marshes. And I wouldn't mind the royalties and product tie-ins. That would be a Halloween treat healthier for my bottom line than all those leftover candy bars.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Froward, march!

I just came across a word I had not seen in years—"froward"—and I realized that back when I saw it occasionally, I didn't know what it meant. It was a read-over word for me then (see Read-Over Words). But today I was so delighted to see it that I bestirred myself to look up its definition.

Here goes: "of a person, difficult to deal with; contrary." That makes me wonder why I have not heard "froward" more often and in connection with myself! It comes to us from the Old English frāward, meaning leading away from, and based on Old Norse frá, meaning simply "from."

The "ward" part implies direction, as in "windward" or "homeward." Froward, then, is the opposite of toward. It's going away from something, rather than to something. "You can go toward that nonsense if you want," the stubborn Old Englishman must have said. "I am definitely going froward it."

Rather easy to see how it evolved to apply to a cantankerous person. Yes, at times I feel quite froward. When I listen to the news of an increasingly intrusive and cockeyed world, I feel a strong urge to hasten froward it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

One side and the other

There's an old song that says "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage…You can't have one without the other." [Baby Boomers can sing the alternate lyrics, thanks to Campbell's advertising: "Soup and sandwich…"]

Alas, this sentiment is as dated as the horse-and-carriage reference. You most certainly can have one without the other, and so it is with what I call one-sided words—they imply an opposite that does not exist. These are a source of a lot of fun for those of us who like that sort of thing.

Most of the one-sided words I can grab off the top of my head begin with "dis." While you can be either disheartened or heartened you really cannot be either dishevelled or shevelled (hevelled?). You can disburse, but not burse, just as you can reimburse when necessary, but not imburse in the first place.

If I can be disgusted (and, believe me, I can), why can I not be gusted? If you can dismantle a structure, why can you not mantle it? Or remantle it? If I can be dismayed, can you be mayed?

The master of funny writing, P.G. Wodehouse, must have wondered the same thing when he used a one-sided word for comic effect. "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."

One can imagine serious writers and critics frowning as they look on such questions with disdain. That's why they are serious, also known as humorless. I, on the other side, look with considerable dain on the situation. What are such language quirks for if not to provide a bit of fun? I find that I am quite gruntled.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can't anybody here speak this language?

In 1962, manager Casey Stengel reportedly lamented of his new team, the hapless New York Mets, “Can't anybody here play this game?” The answer was “no,” at least considered at the level of major league baseball. When I hear educated Americans speaking their native tongue, I get an inkling of how Stengel felt. If these people can’t get it right, who can?

I recently listened to a Wall Street wizard talk about the government’s intention to redistribute wealth. Only he said reDIStribute…twice. Okay, the word “redistribution” had been bandied about, so the rhythm of that word was in the guy’s brain. But it’s hard to believe that once he heard himself say such a silly thing, he not only did not correct himself, but went on to mispronounce it again. And this was not an isolated incident. I have heard this new word—DIS-tri-bute—on many occasions.

Another errant emphasis has found its way into the rather formal and legal-sounding “aforementioned.” I have caught two local radio hosts recently throwing this word into their broadcast conversations, and both, for reasons I cannot think, put the stress on the first syllable—AFF-or-mentioned. Why are they working so hard? It’s just two words, “afore” and “mentioned,” shoved together. Pronounce them just as though they were separated by a space.

These are not mistakes made because speakers find the words hard to pronounce, like “lackadaisical” or “asterisk.” I can’t account for these new pronunciations. Maybe they didn’t mean it.

As Yogi Berra told reporters, “I never said most of the things I said.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Inspired by a catalog

It’s October, so catalog season is well underway. After all, Christmas (or the generic Holiday) is almost here, if you’re on Retail Standard Time. I enjoy perusing catalogs early in catalog season, before the weight of each day’s delivery threatens to topple the mailbox.

Flipping through a particularly promising catalog, I found an item called “A Woman of Valor Bowl,” $19.95. The brightly painted decorative item was inscribed with these words: “A woman of valor, more precious than rubies.” The phrase set a faint bell ringing in the back of my mind, so I read the product description, which said the item was “inspired by Proverbs 31:10.”

Inspired by…that’s a phrase that brings out the caution flag for me. As a one-time historian, I have problems with movies that proclaim themselves “Inspired by a true story.” I admit to being a bit stiff-necked about this issue, having skipped or delayed seeing movies that I knew played fast and loose with historical facts. To pick an example from long ago, I waited many years to see the Oscar-winning “Amadeus” because of its implication that Antonio Salieri, a real person, may have murdered Mozart. I thought that was a terrible thing to do to poor, put-upon Salieri. Silly, I know. Of course, I loved the movie when I finally saw it.

Anyway, seeing the “inspired by” admission was an “aha!” moment. Shouldn’t that bowl say “A woman of virtue”? The Authorized Version, a.k.a. the King James Bible, gives the verse as "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." Most other versions have similar translations. The NIV makes it “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth more than rubies.” Some other translations used “excellent” or “worthy.”

The only translation I saw that talked of valor was the Douay-Rheims Bible, actually an English translation of the Latin Vulgate, which is the Catholic equivalent of the King James version. It said “Who shall find a valiant woman? far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.”
So I suspect the artist who designed the bowl did a bit of translation shopping, taking the “valor” from one place and the “rubies” from another. The reason seems clear. If the catalog item was “A Woman of Virtue Bowl,” how many bowls would ship in time for Holiday? I imagine the numbers would be disappointing.

It is telling that in our time, no woman or man wants to be known as “virtuous.” Once the highest praise, the word now is redolent of starched collars and pursed lips. What a shame. If we do not value virtue, how can we be dismayed, or even surprised, at malfeasance in public office or betrayal in personal relationships?

I don’t know. Maybe just a bit of starch in our collars might not be a bad thing.