June 2010 Archives

fifth column

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I always wondered vaguely about the origin of the term "fifth column," but never got around to looking it up 'til now.

Turns out (according to the abovelinked Wikipedia article) that it comes from the Spanish Civil War, when a general of an army outside Madrid said that his four military columns of soldiers would be supported by a fifth "column" of people inside the city.

fracking

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I turned on the radio during Talk of the Nation's Science Friday yesterday, in the middle of a segment about natural gas in water.

At one point (starting at 13:52 in the segment), the guest (Josh Fox, director of a documentary on the topic) said, fairly emphatically:

Chemicals in the fracking process are not supposed to be found in wells. [...] I happen to trust the citizens on the ground, who are saying, “Look, our water wasn't flammable before; they came and did a frack job; all of a sudden our water is flammable.”

And I thought, Wow, I had no idea that the term “frak” from Battlestar Galactica had gained such widespread acceptance. I heard it on Gilmore Girls once, but I don't think I've heard anyone else outside of sf circles say it; but here's a guy on the radio using it completely casually as a swear word, sounding like he says it all the time.

So I started to write this entry about it, but I had to go find the recording to get the quote right. And that was how I found out that the episode title was “New Film Investigates ‘Fracking’ For Natural Gas.”

Which made clear that I was misinterpreting something.

One quick web search later, I learned that hydraulic fracturing is a method of acquiring oil and natural gas, and that it's also known as “fracking.”

Which means that Fox wasn't swearing at all.

So instead of this being an entry about the use of a science fiction swear word in mainstream society, it's an entry about a word I hadn't previously known, and about the misinterpretations that can occur when you know a homophone for the word someone is actually saying.

impithany

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Best recent line from a spam comment:

For that brief moment of today I had a little bit of sanity and than I had to hit the pavement to go look for a job. At around 9am I came to an impithany. I have no advantage entering the business world.

I was initially just amused, and then it occurred to me that this could be a useful way to track how well your comment spam is doing; you can include a nonstandard word and then search for it. But at the moment, there's only one Google result for impithany and it appears to be nonspam. So I'm back to being just amused.

Rhyme of the day

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Watched Once Upon a Mattress last night. There were several good rhymes and other good lines in the songs; I especially liked this one:

My time is at a premium

For soon the world will see me a m-

aternal bride-to-be

Practically Lehrerian. Or I guess that should be Lehreresque.

The show also contains a bunch of good Encore words, but I'll save those for another time.

The mills of the gods

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Back in 2002, I posted an entry in my main blog about the Longfellow line “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small” and its antecedents, specifically a German poem written by Friedrich von Logau in 1654.

A new comment on that entry spurred me to finally write up some info I collected in 2007, when I discovered that in that 2002 entry, I didn't go nearly far enough back.

A slightly earlier rendition appeared in George Herbert's Jacula Prudentum: “God's mill grinds slow, but sure.” (Though there's apparently some doubt as to his authorship.) I'm not sure whether that line was in the first (1640) edition; the second edition appeared in 1651. But Herbert died in 1633, so if he wrote the book, then he wrote that line earlier. And it was a book of aphorisms, not necessarily things he came up with.

But that's still not nearly far enough back. Sextus Empiricus, in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., wrote something in Latin (“Est mola tarda dei, verum molit illa minutim”) that's been translated as “The mill of god is slow [or late], but it grinds fine [or small].” (From Against the Professors, I.xiii.287; maybe specifically from Against the Grammarians.)

And then there's a line from a Latin translation of the Sibylline Oracles (“a collection of oracular utterances [...] ascribed to the Sibyls,” which Wikipedia says were composed from the second to the fifth century A.D.), book VIII, line 14: “Sed mola postremo pinset divina farinam,” which I've seen translated as “Late will the mills of God grind the fine flour.”

And before that (probably sometime in the late first or early second century A.D.), Plutarch wrote something (in Moralia) that's been translated as “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind to powder.” (From “De Sera Numinis Vindicta,” “On the Delays of Divine Vengeance,” end of chapter 3.)

Going another step further back, I'm told that Tibulius's Elegies I.IX.4 has a relevant line (sometime before 19 B.C.), but I don't know what the line was.

And Horace wrote, in Carmina III.II.31:

raro antecedentem scelestum

deseruit pede Poena claudo

Semi-literal translation: “Rarely does Punishment desert the retreating criminal, although her foot is lame.” Conington translation: “Though Vengeance halt, she seldom leaves / The wretch whose flying steps she hounds.”

And finally, the farthest-back reference I know of comes from Euripedes around 405 B.C., translated as “Slow but sure moves the might of the gods.” (The Bacchae, line 882.)

So, in summary:

  • The idea of the line dates back at least to the ancient Greeks.
  • Variants referring to either “the gods” or “God” also date back to Classical times.
  • The specific reference to the mills of the gods (or God) grinding “fine” or “small” dates back to at least the second century A.D.
  • I have yet to see a citation that uses the word "exceeding" before Longfellow's 1845 translation of von Logau, as “Retribution,” in The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems. I'm guessing that Longfellow contributed the word “exceeding” (translating von Logau's “trefflich”), and that subsequent renditions in English that use “exceeding” or “exceedingly” derive from Longfellow.

I'm still not entirely clear on the question that brought me to this topic in the first place: why do so many modern versions of the line use the phrase “exceeding fine” instead of Longfellow's “exceeding small”? “Fine” is a reasonable translation of some of the Classical sources, but if “exceeding” comes from Longfellow, then why are the Classical sources getting mixed in?

It makes me wonder whether the 1875 speech that I quoted in the original entry (by Rep. Richard H. Cain, an African-American Representative addressing the House) is what popularized the phrase, since Cain did say “exceeding fine.”

Anyway, I think that's enough on this topic for now. Apparently the mills of Jed's research grind very slowly; it took me five years to find out more about this topic, and then another three to get around to writing it up and posting it.

Many thanks to Kendra Eshleman for translations, confirmations, dates, and huge amounts of general information, and to Kevin W. Woodruff for a posting to a librarian mailing list with several of these cites. Thanks also to the New York Times's “Queries and Answers” column, August 29, 1920.

(Added later: On looking at the title of this entry, I've now got a song stuck in my head. “The mills of the gods go round and round. . . .”)

Complimentary close

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Quite a while back, I read a story (perhaps in the New Yorker or some such?) in which one character would write letters to another, and would sign off with this:

S.L.S.O.C.Y.K.

The story explained that the initials stood for "So Long, Sweet One; Consider Yourself Kissed."

I found that charming. I tried using it as a signoff in letters to certain people, but they never found it nearly as charming as I did. (Though it did spark a response from someone I'm not sure would want to be named here so I'll leave it anonymous: LYMTACS (pronounced "lime tacks"), for "Love You More Than Acronyms Can Say.")

. . . I must digress from signoffs for a moment to talk about related acronyms. I've heard of envelopes on which people have written SWAK, for "Sealed With a Kiss"; a friend of mine once wrote, on an envelope to me, "Sealed with a lick, 'cause a kiss won't stick," which made me laugh. A quick web search suggests that that's sometimes abbreviated SWALCAKWS.

Anyway. The signoff bit in a letter, just before the signature, is known as the complimentary close. I have always been fond of old-style formal complimentary closes, such as "I am, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant," especially when "obedient" is abbreviated to "obt." I've also seen abbreviations of a whole phrase, such as "yours, etc" or (as noted in Wikipedia) "I am, etc." An abbreviation for that phrase that I haven't seen before, as shown in that Wikipedia article, is "YOS."

There are lots of other common closes, of course. In English, many of them revolve around the words "yours" or "best" or "regards," though words like "sincerely" also figure prominently; also "love."

And in less formal notes to certain people, one might use a phrase like "kisses" or "xo."

Was thinking about this stuff this evening, and noticed that I'd never posted anything about SLSOCYK; in fact, a quick web search suggests that nobody has ever posted anything about that valediction. If any of you happen to know the title or author of the story that used the phrase, let me know.

Regardless (now there's a signoff), I'm now curious about what kinds of complimentary closes other people use. Do y'all use them at all? (I realize they're not common in email, but I do use them in some email contexts.) If so, which ones do you use?

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