Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Boldly Going Bawdy, Super Bawdy!

I'm going to keep this legit, but this post deals with some big boy topics which could cause some tittering among the children.  So if you feel the tittering, go ahead and get yourself on over to something more your speed.

Indo-Europeans had an surprising fascination, and thus many words, with two categories of things: a) things that shine, and b) things that appear blown up, like your cheeks when you are blowing out birthday candles.  The root word bhel-2 carries the meaning “to blow, swell; referring to various round objects"  The word also has a more intimate meaning, "the notion of tumescent masculinity”.  "Tumescent masculinity"... do I need to break that down for you?

First things first.  From bhel-2 we get such familiar words as bowl meaning just that, a pot or bowl.  Bulk refers to cargo, literally a “rolled up load”.  Closely related is bale – rolled up bundle.  And again, boulder, a rounded stone continues with the physical imagery.

Both ball and balloon resemble a blown up, inflated object - like your cheeks.  You know that piece of paper you mark on to vote, the ballot?  The ballot derives it's name from an ancient form of voting - dropping small balls in one container or the other to signal your preference.  If you've ever been out to the farm and seen a full-grown bull in all his glory you'd agree the shape is full and rounded.  Of course, there's another indication you're looking at a bull, right?  I mean, that's not an udder under there.  A seldom used term, bullock, refers to castrated male bovine... which now has nothing hanging around... down there.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, sometimes the b in bhel-2 can flip vertically when it goes traveling and we wind up with a root something like phel from which we get folly and fool puffed up, but still empty inside.  Turn that b back up and you'll recognize bellows has the same meaning.

Leaving the seat down... I mean leave the p down and we have the root for phallus.  And phallus is not just a reference to the male apparatus, it specifically refers to swollen, erect penis - which is the difference between Michelangelo's David sculpture being phallic or not.  Ironically sounding like bullock, bollix is how the Brits refer to testicles, and no surprise that they're referred to as balls.  That metaphor is technically appropriate and not really a bawdy term.  Speaking of bawdy speaking, that term derives from comments about phalluses, balls, and other matters best left “private”.  Let's get this out there as well... if someone acts bold, what do we say?  Yup, they've "got a lot of balls".

As it often happens, we're kind of back where we started.  I love the college football bowl season and a month after that concludes we finally get the Super Bowl (yeah, I used the term without permission - come and get me Goodell).  We refer to these significant sporting events as "bowls" because that is simply the shape the facility in which they play - the football stadium is bowl-shaped.  Originally, end-of-season games were played in famous structures - the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl - and so the game itself came to be called by the structure in which it was played*.  (Wouldn't it sound odd, now, if we looked forward to the Cotton Arena and the Rose Stadium.  Same thing really.) Isn't it ironic that our modern day bowls are filled with young bulls in their prime - all swollen and bold.  At one point in the tormented history of sport, it is rumored that athletes would shoot themselves up with the stuff their balls were supposed to make naturally.  You know, to ensure that they earned a ticket to the big bowl, the Super Bowl (oops, I did it again).
[Thanks to Mike Pearce for the extraordinarily great bowl mashup.]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nice to Mete You

Shakespeare said, among a few other things, "therefore it is meet that noble minds keep ever with their likes".  He means it is appropriate that like minds stick together.  (We rarely use "meet" this way anymore.  To "meet" someone for an appointment is from an altogether different IE root.)  Shakespeare's meet comes from the root, med-, meaning "to take appropriate measures".  In fact, measure also comes from this root.  The English root of measure is mete.  Although seldom used in common conversation, I am gratified to see that "mete out punishment" (deliver the right amount) gets well over 100,00 hits on Google.

What do we ask doctors to do if not take appropriate measures to heal us?  Wonder why we call it the medical profession?  Hopefully, before Sawbones prescribes arsenic for a hangnail, he will meditate (consider what is appropriate) on his options for treatment.  Some docs are accused of arrogance when we wish they'd be more modest (taking accurate measure of their abilities).  On the other hand, many parents have wished docs would prescribe less moderate-strength antibiotics when the little ones are suffering an ear infection.  (Moderate means, well, the appropriate measure - neither too much nor too little.)

If you are working on a project - whether a work of art, an essay, or a batch of cookies - and the result is not quite right, you modify it.  If something is not the right shape, put it back in the mold and press harder!  Again, we are dealing with the idea of finding the appropriate measure.

If you want to meet (remember, unrelated) someone who lives in a castle, you must measure up to their expectations or they won't let you cross the mote (literally meaning to be permitted).  If the castle is empty, well, you need to find modify your plans for accommodation.  ("Empty" comes from an Old English word æmettig meaning "not occupied" - having nothing to measure.  "Accomodation" is based on the root mode generally referring the measure of the thing.)

Let's conclude with a personal favorite - Diomede.  A native Alaskan, I grew up hearing about the twin Diomede Islands.  (Only two miles apart and connected with an ice-bridge in the winter, Little Diomede is a part of Alaska; Big Diomede is Russian.)  Diomedes is a personal name with a fascinating etymology.  The man Diomedes was a hero of the Trojan Wars.  Because of his excellence as a warrior, it is said that Diomedes received counsel (as to the right mode and measure of battle to employ) from Zeus (please read that post!).  Dio (Zuess / God) + Mede (appropriate measure) literally means "he received counsel from Zeus".

Sliding Sideways Part II

Every once in a while, I like to talk about subjects tangentially related to word origins and relationships - topics I call "Sliding Sideways".  Lookie here, we got another one.

I'm reading a funny little book by H. Allen Smith entitled The Great Chili Confrontation.  This book chronicles the events culminating in the first famous chili cookoff in Terlingua, Texas in 1967.  Accordingly, Smith (no relation) waxes authoritative and humorous about all things chili.  At one point, Smith treats us to a real etymological delight regarding how chili was once referred to in Los Angeles:
Mr. Beck tells me that chili was once called “size” in the town known to him as Lil-ole-ell-ay. “Size” came into usage by way of one Ptomaine Tommy, once proprietor of the largest and best known chili parlor in the city. Ptomaine Tommy served straight chili and an epical Southwestern variation, a hamburger smothered with chili. He had two ladles, a large and a small. When a customer ordered straight chili, he got out the large ladle. When he wanted the other, he usually said “Hamburger size.” So Ptomaine Tommy put up one sign that read HAMBURGER SIZE 15¢, and another that read CHILI SIZE 20¢. Other chili joints followed suit and before long chili was know throughout Los Angeles as “size”. They’d say, “Just gimme a bowl of size.” source
The actual thing, chili, came to be called something related to its portioning, size.  When I read this section of the book, I was immediately reminded of a prior post here at BackWords Blog on the word ambulance.  Originally, an hôspital ambulant  (walking hospital), the term became shortened in English "ambulance" - just the walking portion was kept, with the actual thing, hospital, getting dropped altogether.  Just like chili in Los Angeles, the primary thing - chili / hospital - came to be referred to by an incidental thing.

Let's return to the food world to get one more example.  Cheese is one of the most ancient and common foods in the world.  Across Europe this substance is called queso (Spain), cacio (Italy), Käse (Germany), queijo (Portugal).  These words come from the IE root kwat meaning age, ferment, or sour.  Fitting.  Did you notice I didn't mention France among that list of countries and their words for cheese?  All those words look and sound like "cheese", but oh no, not the French.  The French do a little sliding sideways themselves and call cheese fromage.  Like size and ambulance, fromage refers to the fact that cheese is formed into brick, wheels, blocks, and other shapes.  The French don't refer to the food itself, but to the process of how it is handled.  (Ironically, here is a page discussing the Forms of Cheese.)

These are just the three words that strike me as related at the moment.  But I'm sure I'll be sliding sideways again soon when I discover more sideways words.