The Ecphorizer

Your Roving Wordsleuth
Ed Rehmus

Issue #59 (October 1986)

NEOTENY is an interesting word — it means "holding onto youth" and it refers to the principle, in contemporary evolution theory, in which individuals of species tend to adapt more quickly when they are less specialized. That is to say, when the characteristics of the young are carried over into adulthood for subsequent gene transference. Thus, a dog is a neotenic wolf [quoteright]and homo sapiens a neotenic chimpanzee or gorilla. (The young of wolf and ape being physically more like the adult dog or man). Presumably, if man ever evolves any further, he will do so by becoming more like the fetus or at least by lengthening his childhood still further than he already does.

Here's a fascinating etymology I ran across in Grammatical Man by Jeremy Campbell: "The word 'algorithm' derived from the name of the mathematician and astronomer Al-Khowarizmi, a cultivated and scholarly man whose patron was Al-Mamun, son of the ninth-century Moslem ruler Harun al-Rashid, the caliph who appears in many of the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. Al-Khowarizmi, a member of the House of Wisdom, an academy of scientific thought in Baghdad, devised abstract rule of procedure for reorganizing mathematical expressions. He wrote a treatise entitled Al-jebr w'al-mugabala, meaning "transportation and removal," the transposing of terms from one side of an equation to the other, and the cancellation of equal terms on both sides. The system is known today as algebra."

And what the hell does the Sheriff's Department need with that medieval-looking "penetration device," a picture of which from the L.A. Times was sent me last week? This "device" as used in Hill Street Blues is simply a renamed "battering ram," which some people found offensive — even though it was not the name people objected to, but its purpose (to bust in doors of drug users and innocent old ladies). A propos, penetration is a word of mysterious origin. Latin penis and penes are not inevitably brought together by scholars. The latter is from the same root as Penates, those Roman gods familiar to crossword addicts, pen-, "in" penitus, "within", penetralia, "the inner part of anything." We are told that penis means "a tail"," but I wonder if that might not have been simply an afterthought kind of definition. Gotta remember, folks, that when etymology was in vogue, so was Victoria — and such questionable words were pushed aside as quickly as possible.

Here's a hot item from George Washington's contract with his gardener:

"Witness, that the said Philip Bater, for and in consideration of the covenants herein, doth promise and agree to serve the sd. George Washington, for the term of one year, as a Gardener, and that he will during said time, conduct himself soberly, diligently, and honestly, ...that he will not, at any time, suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned.

In consideration..., the sd. George Washington doth agree to allow him...annually, a decent suit of many pair of Shoes as are actually necessary for him; 4 dollars at Christmas with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights; 2 dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars also at Whitsuntide, to be drunk two days; a dram in the morning and a drink of grog at dinner or at noon."

Well, a dollar certainly bought a lot of drinks in 01' Virginny!

Hilarious! Can the world have really been so very different a mere 200 years ago?! Hard to believe. And what a wealth of thoughts that conjures! Why was Whitsuntide as important as Easter? (It was the time when converts donned white robes and in Scotland was the day when rents, annuities, etc were paid.) It was also the beginning of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit -- calling, therefore, for other sorts of spirits? And "disguised with liquor" doesn't mean going to a masquerade dressed as a mint julep, but just good and drunk. "Guise" is the closest thing we mortals come to what the gods call their "Aspects." And when our guise is knocked down — manner, behavior and external appearance become considerably lopsided. 

Wordsleuth ED REHMUS lives with his word processor (an etymological Cuisinart, so to speak) in San Francisco. When he has something ready for publication, his computer phones up our computer.

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