Hephaestus's Blog

Word of the Month: Lapis Lazuli
May 16, 2016, 18:55
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: Middle Latin lapis lazuli, ‘stone of Lajward’, from  lapis ‘stone’ + lazuili, genitive of lazulum, from Arabic lazaward; lazaward itself being derived from Lajward, a location in Western Asia where the stone was found.

Definition: A blue gemstone, composed of the mineral lazurite, along with calcite, pyrite, sodalite, and traces of others.

Lapis lazuli has been used in sculpture and jewelry for millennia. One of the most famous lapis lazuli objects is the funeral mask of Tutankhamen, with lapis lazuli inlays in the eyes and beard.

In addition to its use as a gemstone, lapis lazuli, powdered to make the pigment ultramarine, has been used in countless paintings; in addition, the word ‘azure’ comes from the same root as lapis lazuli.

Phrase of the Month: Et Cetera
March 3, 2016, 18:41
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology:  ‘[F]rom Latin et cetera, literally “and the others,” from et “and” + neuter plural of ceterus “the other, [the] other part, that which remains.”‘ -Online Etymology Dictionary

Definition: And the rest; and so on.

Commonly abbreviated as etc. or &c.

This phrase is one of the many Latin elements which permeate our language. Its usage, however, renders it distinctly prosaic and easily overlooked.

I don’t have anything else to say about this phrase.

See you later!

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by commenting on this post.

Word of the Month: Merlin
January 7, 2016, 18:39
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: Probably from Anglo-French merilun, contracted from Old French esmerillon, ‘small hawk’.

Definition: Falco columbarius, a species of small falcon.

The merlin is native to much of the Northern hemisphere. Its summer range includes much of Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, and parts of the British Isles. Its winter range includes southern Japan, Mexico & the U.S., much of Europe, the Caribbean, other parts of the British Isles, and southeast China.

The wizard Merlin, surprisingly, is not named for the bird; Merlinus is a Latinisation of the Welsh Myrddin(pronounced approximately merthin [with th voiced]).

There is a claim, which I cannot verify at this time, that Geoffrey of Monmouth chose Merlinus over Merdinus (apparently a more conventional Latin rendering) to avoid association with the scatological merde.

Word of the Month: Noel
December 31, 2015, 20:51
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: From Old French Noel, meaning ‘Christmas’ or ‘the Christmas season’; itself from Latin Natalis, short for natalis dies, or ‘birthday’.

Definition: Christmas, Christmastide, etc. Also a given name (masculine; feminine is Noelle) traditionally given to those born at Christmastime.

Some people with the name Noel include Noël Coward, a 20th-century British playwright and songwriter, a French and a New Caledonian politician both named Marie-Noëlle, and (Noel) Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.

I don’t have much else to say about this word, so to close out this post and the year, click here to hear me play the Christmas carol ‘The First Noël’ (on the recorder, because my flute’s being overhauled).

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by commenting on this post.

Word of the Month: Contrafactum
November 5, 2015, 12:00
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: circa 16th cent,; direct from New Latin contrafactum, neuter past participle of contrafacere, meaning to counterfeit, created from contra- (against) prefix and facere, to do. According to Merriam-Webster, contrafacere is a translation of Middle French contrefaire.

Definition: A song created by combining new words with a previously used tune.

Wow, this is another weird etymology, isn’t it? It’s not every day you find a word borrowed from a Latin translation of French.

Traditionally, the term was mostly applied to religious or liturgical music with secular words added. However, the definition has broadened to the point where we can apply it to songs where both the words and music are of a secular nature.

Some contrafacta you may know include:

The Star-Spangled Banner (Music To Anacreon in Heav’n, 1700s; words The Defence of Fort M’Henry, 1814)

My Country ‘Tis of Thee (Music God Save the Queen [King], prior to 1744; words 1831) (The tune may be even older, but it’s very hard to tell).

The Russian National Anthem (Music State Anthem of the USSR, prior to 1944; words 2000) (The first ever Russian anthem was a contrafactum on God Save the Queen).

`Two famous Christmas carol contrafacta are Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (Music Festgesang Cantata, 1840, words even older, dating to 1754 in their current form), and perhaps the most famous contrafactum in English poetry, What Child is This to the tune of Greensleeves.

Note that contrafactum and contrafact are not identical; a contrafact is a jazz term meaning a melody written on a borrowed harmonic structure (no words necessary).

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured in the comments below.

Word of the Month: Precarious
October 15, 2015, 11:00
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: From Latin precarius, ‘obtained through request or prayer’.

Definition: Uncertain, risky.

*deep breath*

This is a weird one. The word precarious entered English in the seventeenth century as a legal term. Something was precarious if it was held by the favour or consent of another. Somehow, over time, the meaning of the word shifted. As a position, or the ownership of a thing, being dependent on the caprice of another person is necessarily risky, the word came to mean ‘risky’. (In fact, my first instinct in that last sentence was to use ‘precarious’ instead of ‘risky’).

I decided to investigate this on a whim because a YouTuber I watched, Kurtjmac, was musing on where this word came from. It turned out to be a great deal more exciting than I anticipated.

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by commenting on this post.

Word of the Month: Boustrophedon
September 17, 2015, 20:12
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: Direct from Greek βουστροφηδόν, meaning turning like an ox, from βοῦς (bous), meaning ox, and στροφή (strophe), meaning to turn.

Definition: Writing that switches directions 180 degrees with each line. (see arrows below)




As the name may suggest, boustrophedon is a feature of some Ancient Greek inscriptions. I couldn’t find any explanation for why people write like this, but they do, which I guess is enough.

Other examples of boustrophedonic writing include ancient scripts such as hieroglyphic Luwian, and the modern Avoiuli script from Vanuatu.

An extreme form of boustrophedon is seen in the Rongorongo script of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where the writing also turns around another way, like so:




…that is, if it’s even writing at all. *Dun dun DUNN…*

But seriously, it’s never been deciphered, and its origins seem pretty hazy.

Word of the Month: synchronicity
August 8, 2015, 08:14
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: 1953; coined by C. G. Jung from synchronic (itself from Late Latin synchronus, meaning ‘synchronous’, derived from Greek synkhronos… from –syn meaning ‘together’ and khronos ‘time’. That was an awful lot of the same word over and over again.)

Definition: The Jungian concept of meaningful coincidences, or “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.”

Ignoring synchrony (symphony, euphony, Eubalaena glacialis) for the moment, the concept of synchronicity is a somewhat thorny one. It appears that Jung, at a loss for how to explain ‘paranormal’ events, coined the term as an alternative to normal causality. This would seem to make the possibility of synchronicity somewhat dubious, as based on a too strict idea of causality. Probability theory holds that with enough occurrences (every sentient being thinking all the time, for example) events will eventually occur which seem to defy causality, just as if you throw ten dice enough, you will eventually throw ten sixes (or ten fives, fours, et cetera). This leaves the field open to have everything caused by something far, far in the past, therefore nothing is ever acausal, only random. This is, of course, always assuming that causes even exist… but if you go that far, nothing can save you, and synchronicity becomes meaningless anyway.

Critics of synchronicity also point out that there is a tendency in the mind to see patterns in data where there are none. The word for this is apophenia; but more on that next month.

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by posting a comment on this post.

Word of the Month: Celerity
June 8, 2015, 11:12
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: From Old French celeritee (14c., Modern French célérité), from Latin celeritatem (nominative celeritas) “swiftness,” from celer swift“.

Definition: Swiftness.

Celerity is one of those words that have, for the most part, disappeared from common usage. However, back in the nineteenth century, it was considerably more common. Jane Austen, who used many words that have since fallen out of favor, used it, among others. It also appears in the (modern) historical novels of Patrick O’Brian, who used words found in documents of the period (Napoleonic Wars) to colour his writing.

Despite appearances, celerity is not related in the least to celery, which is descended, through French, Italian and Latin, from an old Greek word for parsley. Convergent evolution is not confined to biology. Go figure.

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by posting a comment on this post.

Word of the Month: Heptarchy
May 28, 2015, 16:15
Filed under: Words of the Months

Definition: The political state, traditionally consisting of seven kingdoms, that what is now England was in until Wessex took over (possibly in 829 A.D., no one seems to agree on when the period ended.)

Etymology:  Greek ἑπτά hepta, seven and ἄρχω arkho, to rule. Analagous to monarchy.

The Heptarchy consisted of the kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. However, some of these, notably Northumbria, contained sub-kingdoms with some degree of autonomy. Additionally, at several points in history, one or another of the kings achieved dominion over part or all of the island.

Today, shades of the Heptarchic kingdoms remain in the names of some English counties, such as Essex and Kent.

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by posting a comment on this post.