Latin Legacies

If you pay attention to the topics dealt with in this newsletter each week, you can get a glimpse into my life. Recently, I’ve been watching the excellent HBO series Rome, about Julius Caesar and playing the extremely addictive computer game Rome: Total War. These two sources are the inspiration for this week’s article.

We all know that many English words are derived from Latin roots. Most commonly, these words come to us from Old French as a result of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 or are modern scientific and technical terms created in modern times from Latin roots. But there are a few that come to us directly and mostly unaltered from the traditions and practices of ancient Rome. Here are some of those words.

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Trafalgar & The Language of the Age of Sail, Part I

Two hundred years ago today, on 21 October 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought off the coast of Spain. A fleet of 27 Royal Navy ships under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated a fleet of 33 French and Spanish ships under the command of Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve. In the battle, 22 French and Spanish ships were captured or sunk. No British ships were lost.

Nelson was killed at the height of the battle as his flagship, HMS Victory, grappled with the French ships Bucentaure and Redoubtable. Villeneuve was captured and eventually paroled back to France. Upon his return he was found dead in his room at an inn, stabbed in the chest six times. The death was ruled a suicide.

Even though the Napoleonic wars continued for another ten years, the threat of Napoleon’s invading England was ended at Trafalagar that October. But more than this, Trafalgar cemented British control of seas for a hundred years and bestowed on the Royal Navy an aura of invincibility.

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Naming The Planets, Part II

A question to the Wordorigins.org discussion forum a week or so ago asked about the origins of the names of the planets. The "official" names of objects in the solar system are assigned by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a global association of astronomers. The IAU follows several conventions in naming planets and moons, the main ones being that planets are given names of Roman mythological beings and moons are given Greek mythological names associated with the Greek equivalent of the Roman god. Many of these names did not originate with the IAU, but have borne the names of these deities dating back into antiquity. There are exceptions to the IAU naming conventions. Shakespearean names are assigned to moons of Uranus and the occasional Norse or Inuit mythological name appears here and there.

Here is the second half of our examination of the names of the planets and moons.

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Naming The Planets, Part I

A question to the Wordorigins.org discussion forum this past week asked about the origins of the names of the planets. The "official" names of objects in the solar system are assigned by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a global association of astronomers.

The IAU follows several conventions in naming planets and moons, the main ones being that planets are given names of Roman mythological beings and moons are given Greek mythological names associated with the Greek equivalent of the Roman god. Moons tend be named after goddesses, while planets, with the exception of Venus, are all male gods. Many of these names did not originate with the IAU, but have borne the names of these deities dating back into antiquity. The naming conventions are not rigid and there are exceptions. For example, Shakespearean names are assigned to moons of Uranus and in recent years the occasional Norse or Inuit mythological name has been assigned to newly discovered objects.

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What Are You Looking Up?

Merriam Webster reports that the word most often looked up in its online dictionary during the month of September was refugee. Two other Katrina-related words made the top twenty, levee, coming in at number four and hurricane at eleven.

Other words in the top twenty indicate that school is back in session, with students looking up words for assignments. Numbers two and three were effect and affect. Metaphor and irony come in at five and six. Paradigm and rhetoric also make the list.

Scalito & Scooter

Two nicknames have been in the news as of late. The first is Scalito, a name given to Samuel Alito, President Bush’s latest nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. The nickname is a play on two names, Alito’s and that of Justice Antonin Scalia. Both judges are very conservative and the blending of their names emphasizes the similarities in their respective judicial philosophies.

Alito’s nickname is just about a year old, or at least that’s as far back as the blog search engine Technorati (http://www.technorati.com) can trace it. On 4 November 2004, the blog Serendipity contained this fragment, "With old Rehnquist’s health in decline, rumor has it that Samuel A. Alito Jr… been nicknamed Scalito because is just like Antonin Scalia." Unfortunately, that blog no longer exists and all that is left is this fragment returned by Technorati. But even without the entire context, it is clear that the blog’s author did not coin the term.

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Trafalgar & The Language of the Age of Sail, Part II

Two hundred years ago last week, on 21 October 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought off the coast of Spain. A fleet of 27 Royal Navy ships under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated a fleet of 33 French and Spanish ships under the command of Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve. In the battle, 22 French and Spanish ships were captured or sunk. No British ships were lost. Villeneuve was captured and eventually paroled back to France. Upon his return he was found dead in his room at an inn, stabbed in the chest six times. The death was ruled a suicide.

Because of the decisive victory at Trafalgar, even though the Napoleonic wars continued for another ten years, the threat of Napoleon’s invading England was ended that October. But more than this, Trafalgar cemented British control of seas for a hundred years and bestowed on the Royal Navy an aura of invincibility.

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Department of Political Correctness

Reuters today reports that a woman in Oldham, England has complained that she was upbraided by a policeman because she used the F-word--fat.

Mary Magilton, 54, suffered minor injuries when she was hit by a car in a hit-and-run incident. She had been standing on the pavement (sidewalk to us Americans) when a car driven by an unidentified woman jumped the curb and struck her. In describing the driver to the police, she used the word fat. At which point the police officer told her she should not use that word.

"I was given a frosty look and told I couldn’t say that. I could have said lardy, porky or podgy. But I wouldn’t dare use those words," said Magilton.

The Greater Manchester Police department confirmed that the incident report included the word fat. They also said if the officer did criticize Magilton, they were sure he was polite when he did it.

Railroad Jargon

Most professions have their own jargon, a specialized vocabulary that applies to that field. Railroading is no different in this respect. Many railroading terms are familiar to us. Terms like whistle stop and cowcatcher are distinctly old-fashioned.

But not all railroad jargon terms are archaic or obsolete. Here is a selection of modern terms in use by those who run the railroads.

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Review: The Complete New Yorker

The New Yorker may very well be the greatest magazine ever published. Since it began to be published in 1925, the New Yorker has featured some of the greatest writers in the English language. Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, James Thurber, Martin Amis, W.H. Auden, Stephen Vincent Benet, Ernest Hemingway, and F.Scott Fitzgerald have all contributed to the magazine. Every week for over eighty years the New Yorker has provided an eclectic mix of fiction, poetry, non-fiction, photographs, and of course cartoons.

After eighty years of publication, the entire archive of the New Yorker, from 21 February 1925 to 14 February 2005, is now available on DVD-ROM. Coming on eight DVDs, the entirety of every issues is available, all the articles, all the stories, all the cartoons, and even the ads.

The collection has a list price of $100, but is available on Amazon and elsewhere for a little over $60. At this price it is an utter steal.

The collection is not without flaws. Biggest among them is that the archive is not full-text searchable. You can search titles, article abstracts and key words, as well as by author, department, and issue, but you can’t search within the articles themselves. Also, you cannot install the issues on your hard drive.

But given the price, these are minor complaints. The archive is well worth it. If you can resist running out and buying it right away, be sure to put it on your holiday gift lists.

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