A fortnightly newsletter of words and everyday life
Issue #3 - May 25, 2023
I. Bring the Noise … and Maybe Something to Calm Your Stomach
Like a lot of people, I enjoy sleeping. Unfortunately, I suck at it, which is a round-about way of saying I don’t get enough of it. It’s not for a lack of trying. See, on a given day, I typically fall asleep on the couch in our living room around 11:30 pm or midnight, often with great ease. Then, sometime between 3:30 and 5:00 am, things get rocky.
Sometimes I just wake up for no reason, sometimes I wake up because my coffee-filled bladder sends my brain an urgent message about visiting the bathroom, and sometimes my dogs, who start thinking about breakfast around 5, wake me. Whatever the cause of this pre-dawn rousing, I eventually make my way to my bedroom, where I attempt re-entry in the Land of Nod. I eventually get there, but it takes some time. All too often, the walk from the couch to the bedroom is enough to get my blood moving, making sleep that much more difficult. So I lay there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for my eyelids to get heavy. And that’s when the noise starts.
know why, but in my little corner of the world, 5:00 and 6:00 am is prime time for
a few idiots who’ve been inspired by the Fast and Furious movie franchise to
drive their loudly modified cars through and close-by my neighborhood (and
home) at high speeds. I don’t know why—or why anyone would want such a car—but the
amount of noise these vehicles make is obscene. Even though the windows of my
bedroom are closed, it sounds like these cars are driving within a few feet of
my bed. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. Who are these people and what makes them think
such behavior is acceptable? Are they upset that they have to be up at that
ungodly hour, so they want everyone else to be up too? Whatever the reason,
these assholes should have their licenses revoked—and then forced to attend
common courtesy summer school classes.
Anyway, enough about these Vin-Diesel wanna-bees. Living through this cacophony day-in and day-out has me thinking about the word noise and its origins.
to the good people at Merriam Webster, noise has quite a few definitions.
Clearly, though, I’m interested in only this one: “sound, especially one that lacks an agreeable quality or is noticeably unpleasant or
And where does this word come from? Interestingly, the Latin word for nausea, which is … um … nausea. According to our pal Eric Partridge and his Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the connection between noise and nausea has to do with the timeless sound of “a shipful of passengers groaning and vomiting in bad weather.” No wonder the people driving the awfully loud cars in the early morning hours make me sick.
It's worth pointing out that this connection, spurious though it may seem, is supported by other etymological texts, including the Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins, which can be somewhat contrarian. As it notes of noise:
Unlikely as it may seem, the ancestor of English noise meant 'sickness.' It comes from Latin nausea, (and of course, English nausea). This was used colloquially for the sort of 'hubbub' or 'confusion' which is often coincident with someone being sick (and particularly seasick, which was what nausea originally implied), and Old French took it over, as noise, with roughly these senses. They later developed to "noisy dispute, and modern French noise has retained the 'dispute' element of this, while English noise has gone for the ‘intrusive sound.’The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories makes a similar ruckus and so does the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. In fact, the latter even considers another etymological option and then abandons it die to lack of evidence.
[Although] the tracing of the Old French to Gallo-Romance is now recorded in most sources, it is difficult to accept the disparity of both sense and form, which makes it tempting to suggest that noise may be related to the obsolete English noisance a variant of nuisance: however, such a relationship is not sustainable if the record of Middle English is accurate, for noisance and its related words do not appear until at least 100 years after noise and in most instances almost 200 years.
Let’s just assume that record is accurate, shall we?
II. New Words & Phrases (Or Words and Phrases New to Me):
Riff-Raff Are Naff
I don’t recall exactly when I heard it, but it must have been on or around April 1 when I encountered the word, naff, which was uttered in a BBC radio segment about April Fools jokes in the media. Should naff be new to you too, it means “lacking in style or good taste, vulgar and unfashionable,” and although I don’t remember the context of the discussion, it must have had something to do with the comedic value of media outlets running fake news stories on this joke-filled “holiday.”
Are One Thing, but Rude Health?
To continue with the Britishisms for a bit longer, I am not shy about my affinity for the British TV show Midsomer Murders. Not only do I love the show’s long and winding storylines, but each episode is a treasure-trove of British slang. As a case in point, the show recently introduced me to the idiom “in rude health,” which means “strong and healthy.”
Interestingly, in its example of how to use the idiom,
Merriam-Webster offers, “We hope to find you in rude health
when we arrive.” This is not too far from how it was used in the episode of Midsomer
Murders wherein I was introduced to it. For in it, there’s a scene in which
the forthright and tireless Inspector Barnaby looks upon the corpse of a
notoriously rude man and says something to the effect of “… and here he is in
rude health.” Oh, that Inspector Barnaby ….
How Long Has It Been Since You Touched Grass
The kids these days … they’re so quick with the new slang for, well, just about everything. Thankfully old geezers like me have the Internet, which helps me stay somewhat in the loop and aware of what time it is. In fact, the Internet was where I encountered and learned the meaning of the phrase “touch grass.” Before I go on to tell you what it means, let me just say that, surprisingly, I kind of like this one—and sometimes feel the same way.
According to Spieltimes.com, the phrase “is used to describe the act of going outside and spending time in nature to improve one’s mental health and well-being.”
You Crazy Diamond!
I love email newsletters. I love signing up for them and I love deleting them unread from my inbox because I’m too lazy to read them. In this particular instance, however, I did read one of the newsletters I agreed to receive for reasons I don’t quite remember—the daily missive from (supposed) marketing guru Seth Godin—and that’s where I encountered the word chatoyancy.
Chatoyancy is defined as “the quality or state of being chatoyant,” which is absolutely no help at all. However, the word chatoyant is defined as “having a changeable luster or color with an undulating narrow band of white light.” That is more helpful. So is the additional explanation of the word on Merrian-Webster.com, which includes the following: “chatoyant, a word used by jewelers to describe such lustrous gems (and by others who see the same luster elsewhere). Chatoyant derives from the present participle of chatoyer, a French verb that literally means "to shine like a cat's eyes."
Just Extreme Squatting?
Among the most troubling of the new words and phrases I’ve encountered lately is phrogging. According to the website Lifehacker.com, is the practice of “living a rent-free criminal existence hiding in occupied houses.”
Holy shit, is
this a real thing? Apparently it is and, apparently, it happens on occasion (at
least according to this
story). What’s important to know, from a criminological taxonomy
perspective, is that, as is noted in the article, “Phrogs aren’t squatters. You
squat in an unused house. Phrogs are not common thieves—those are all too real.”
(So, no, phrogging isn’t just extreme squatting.) The other thing to note is:
Supposedly, there is an underground community of phroggers out there who don’t draw enough attention to themselves to be the subject of news stories. They are said to congregate on dark web message boards where they share tips for successfully avoiding detection in strangers’ homes, and even post videos of homeowners sleeping for bragging rights.
The last and perhaps most important
thing to note is that, if you think you have a ghost in your house, it might
really be a phrog. Again, as stated in the article:
Many news stories of phrogging report that residents at first thought their house was haunted. But ghosts aren’t real, so don’t hire a priest of a shaman to cleanse your house—burning sage and sprinkling holy water doesn’t work on phrogs.
III. Art of the Dictionary
Yeah, dictionaries are all about words and meanings and etymologies and synonyms, but believe me when I say that some of the books in the Butter Lamb Reference Library contain some wonderful art. This section of Live & Learn aims to highlight some of it, and spread the idea that dictionaries and references can be treasure-troves of wonderful graphics and images too.
As yet another case in point, I submit to you the following artistic rendering of The Devil from the Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, published in 1995.
From the text: Devil, the personification of evil, the opponent of God and good. Satan, from an Arabic word meaning adversary, is in Semitic and Christian belief the archfiend who was created an angel but whose pride and rebellion brought about his fall. He is now the source of all evil, constantly attempting to thwart the good purposes of God by winning the souls of humans for himself. In some monotheisms, and heresies such as Manicheism, the Devil is one aspect of the single god, good and evil in one person.
IV. From the BLRL’s Collection
In this installment of “From the BLRL’s Collection” I present to you one of my favorites, Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art. To say this is an impressive work is like calling the Mona Lisa a pretty good painting. The scholarship that went into this thing is obvious and the illustrations and dare I say even the typeface are exquisite. In fact, I like this dictionary so much I have a hard time describing it without an avalanche of superlatives. Therefore, instead of having me blather on about how wonderful a book this is, I’ve decided to just reprint the about-the-book text that appears on the inside flaps of its dust jacket. Enjoy.
Treated with similar thoroughness are such everyday objects as flutes, glass, helmets, lamps, masks, mirrors, and shields. Perhaps most intriguing are the comprehensive general essays on classical society and culture. Under the headings Adoption, Agriculture, Architecture, Banks and Banking, Books and Book Trade, Clothing, Coinage, Comedy, Commerce, Drama, Dreams, Education, Games, Geography, Gymnastics, History, Judicial Procedure, Literature, Marriage, Painting, Meals, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Sacrifices, Slaves, and Taxes, the social and cultural attitudes of the Greeks and Romans of the classical world are revealed in fascinating detail.
The text is complemented by more than 450 black and white illustrations, most of which are line drawings of ancient statues, vase paintings, residential murals, coins, buildings, relief friezes, and household artifacts. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art is the ultimate reference book for everyone who is interested in the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.
If that hasn’t spurred you to run out and grab yourself a copy of this book, I don’t know what will. On the plus side, I often encounter copies of this text on the shelves of used bookstores, so if you have a good one near you, keep your eyes peeled for this text.
V. From the Archives:
Where Is All This Productivity “Leading” Us?
If I had walked by it on a sign or a poster, the headline, “How one notebook could replace all the productivity apps that have failed you” would have stopped me in my tracks. I was sitting down when I encountered it, though, so I wasn’t in motion. In fact, it didn’t stop me from doing anything, because I was at work, sitting in my cubicle, browsing Twitter. I was not in any way being productive, but this headline, from an article on the Popular Science website, did get me thinking about the word productive and what’s required to have such a label bestowed upon you.
As the headline suggests, we’re all a little obsessed with being productive these days. (Although I can assure you that no “productivity apps” have failed me — ever — because I don’t use them.) Yet, I wonder: Do we even know what it means to be productive? In my experience, most folks equate productivity with “getting things done” either at work or around the house. But does productivity always have to result in some product? Is productivity something that only happens at work or when you’re engaged in some sort of labor? Can you be productive at something that others might consider pointless or a waste of time (e.g., my work on this blog)? Can you be a productive sleeper?
To begin answering these questions, I reached for the biggest gun in my lexicographical arsenal: The (compact) Oxford English Dictionary. It defines productive as follows:
Having the quality of producing or bringing forth; tending to produce;
2. That causes or brings about; that results in; causative
3. (In economics) That produces or increases wealth or value; engaged in the production of commodities of exchangeable value; especially in productive labor
4. That which produces readily or abundantly; fertile, prolific
As usual, I consulted other dictionaries too and all define productive in similar ways, so I’ll spare you the superfluous definitions. I will not, however, spare you a trip down etymology lane, as peering into the word’s history was definitely worth the effort.
The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories doesn’t have an entry for productive, so in this instance, we’ll have to settle for produce.
Produce [late Middle English] The first sense recorded was ‘provide something for consideration’ (as in produced a contract). It comes from Latin producere, from pro- ‘forward’ and ducere ‘to lead.’ Current noun senses (as in farm produce, produce of their joint efforts) date from the late 17th century. In the late Middle English period, the Latin verb producere also gave riser to product (as a mathematical term) from Latin productum ‘(something) produced.’ Production via Old French from Latin productio; and early 17th century productive from French productif or late Latin productivus.
The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins sings a similar tune.
Produce To produce something is etymologically to ‘lead it forward,’ a meaning still discernible beneath the veil of the metaphor that clothes the modern English word’s range of meanings. It comes from the Latin producere, a compound verb formed from the prefix pro- ‘forward’ and ducere ‘lead’ (source of English duct, duke, educate, introduce, etc.)
Really, duke? I didn’t see that coming. Strange as it might be, this is backed up the very long Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. This text doesn’t have a proper entry for produce either. Instead, it directs the reader to … wait for it … duke, where said reader finds the following: “Latin dux, leader, hence chief … from ducere, draw to oneself, draw on or along, to lead, conduct.”
It’s here that our etymological journey ends and brings us back to the doorstep of productive, for as Mr. Ayto so astutely points out, when you get right down to it, what we mean when we say we’re being productive is simply that we’re moving things along in the desired direction (aka: forward).
Yes, when we’re productive we “bring forth” stuff, or our activity “results in” something, or creates something of value (be it directly or indirectly). Our creative powers may even be so productive that we earn a reputation as a “prolific” songwriter or author. Yet, even in these instances, what we’re doing is moving things along toward some desired goal.
Thus, herein lies the answer to my initial question: Does productivity always result in some product? The answer is yes, and that product is advancement or progress, which it’s worth pointing out, may not be a physical thing.
So, in addition to being productive at work or around the house, we can also be productive when performing activities others deem a waste of time as long as what we’re doing leads somewhere (like the long-overdue end of this post or fresh blog content). We can even be productive sleepers as long as our rest leads us to feeling well-rested.
And hey, if you made it all the way to the end of this nonsense, I hope your efforts have led you to a better understanding of the word productive.
many people a dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium
to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and
pronunciation. Yet what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information
about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It
should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we
should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of
meaning are today, and its social status."
VI. The Last Word:
—From the Introduction of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969)