Category Archives: lexicon

Greek and Latin

Among the facets of the ‘foreign’ in English are the substructure of Latin and Greek in syntax and in vocabularies and lexicons. These three books take very different approaches to the challenge of learning one’s way around the complexities, and each makes a distinctive contribution to the young pedant’s verbal armamentarium.

English Words from Latin and Greek Elements by Donald M. Ayers [1965] (a textbook, with lessons [26 from Latin; 25 from Greek] and assignments to accompany each lesson)

Greek And Latin In Scientific Terminology
by Oscar Edward Nybakken [1959] (more than half the pages are word lists, with the prefixes, suffixes, and numerals that vivify the roots)

Three-Language List of Botanical Name Components by A Radcliffe-Smith [1998] (tables of terms alphabetised by each of the three languages)

Ayers’ approach is paradigmatic and based on “word elements”: the student is to learn bases, learn suffixes, do Assignments for each lesson:

and List of Bases (Greek)

Nybakken’s method is vocabulary-based, and specifically oriented toward science:

Most of the technical words used in medicine and dentistry have their origins in the Greek and Latin languages, and over two-thirds of present-day medical English is derived from Greek alone… The traditional source for names of plants and animals has long been the classical languages. The more technical and highly specialized the terms are, the higher is the percentage of those which have their origins in Greek and Latin, especially in Greek… Word coinages, necessitated by the perennial advances in scientific fields, find their most suitable and frequent origins in the ancient languages of the Greeks and the Romans…

Radcliffe-Smith offers parallel Greek-Latin-English, Latin-English-Greek, and English-Latin-Greek:

This delicious compendium is published by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and includes this marvelous bit of British prose:

Foreign kickshaws

Reconsidering the books on the shelves spawns lots of unexpected thoughts and realizations, and the occasional Grand Scheme surfaces too. Today I’m considering these two, which are perfect “bathroom books” for short-term browsing:

Dictionary of foreign terms by Christopher Orlando Sylvester Mawson [originally 1934, mine the 1975 Second Edition]

The Dictionary of Foreign Terms in the English Language by David Carroll [1973]

Many of the words and phrases in these dictionaries are mots justes, perfect/pithy expressions of a thought: in Carroll:

The proper word; the exact appropriate word or saying for the situation.

and in Mawson:

The precise (or exact) word.

Their use in text or speech marks the writer or speaker as a sophisticate [OED: Of a person: free of naïvety, experienced, worldly-wise; subtle, discriminating, refined, cultured; aware of, versed in, the complexities of a subject or pursuit], of the cognoscente: [OED Etymology: < Italian cognoscente, Latinized form of conoscente knowing man, connoisseur < Latin cognōscent-em , present participle of cognōscěre to know, etc.]. The sort of person who refers to self as “One” …
and reading through a page or two at a time is an excellent way to enlarge one’s sense of what languages do with their basic building blocks. I mean:

muscae volitantes [L.] Flying flies, i.e., strange floating spots and lines that play across the field of vision due to clusters of cellular material that collects in the vitreous humor of the eyes.

mortuo leoni et lepores insultant [L.] Even the rabbits insult a dead lion.

interdum vulgus rectum videt [L.] Occasionally even the vulgar crowd sees things clearly.

cave quid dicis, quando, et cui Beware what you say, when, and to whom.

Somewhere along the line I picked up the phrase “natty Latinism”, referring to examples of the propensity of the over-educated to add bits of Latin as decorations in speech and writing. Strangely, Google has no instances of that delicious phrase.

Here’s part of the Preface to Mawson:

and two pages of entries, the first providing an education in the flexibility of faire, and the latter offering a run around the block with qui and quod:

One is somehow a Better Person for the time spent with these dictionaries, but perhaps is more insuffereable to subsequent interlocutors.

Polyglot’s Lexicon: a Rabbit Hole

Word books are often curious, in one or another of the OED’s senses:

5 c. Devoting attention to occult art. Obsolete.
1549 N. Udall et al. tr. Erasmus Eph. in Paraphr. New Test. Argt. That Citie was full of Curiouse menne, and suche as were geuen to magicall artes.
1578 T. Tymme tr. J. Calvin Comm. Genesis 35 Certaine courious persons abuse this place to colour their vaine prognostications.
1606 Bp. J. Hall Heauen vpon Earth 191 Curious men, that consult with starres, and spirits for their destinies.

15. Calling forth feelings of interest; interesting, noteworthy. Obsolete or archaic.
1682 Bp. G. Burnet Hist. Rights Princes (new ed.) iv. 135 The curiousest Remains of former Ages that are extant.
1759 J. Reynolds Idler 29 Sept. 305 It is curious to observe, that [etc].
1793 J. Smeaton Narr. Edystone Lighthouse (ed. 2) §56 [It] would have been not only curious, but useful, had it been handed down to us.
1816 M. Keating Trav. (1817) II. 80 It would be very curious to be able to ascertain where and how the scaffolding was obtained for such a work.

16 a. Deserving or exciting attention on account of its novelty or peculiarity; exciting curiosity; somewhat surprising, strange, singular, odd; queer. (The ordinary current objective sense.)
1715 J. Richardson Ess. Theory of Painting 100 This is very Particular, and Curious.
1719 J. Richardson Sci. Connoisseur 204 What is Rare, and Curious without any Other consideration we Naturally take Pleasure in.
1769 E. Burke Observ. Late State Nation 52 A most curious reason truly!
1807 G. Crabbe Parish Reg. iii, in Poems 115 No curious Shell, rare Plant or brilliant Spar, Intic’d our Traveller.
1868 C. W. Dilke Greater Brit. II. iv. 163 Seated in the piazza..I had before me a curious scene.
1888 J. Bryce Amer. Commonw. III. xc. 251 I give here a few of the more novel or curious provisions of the Constitution of California of 1789.

One from the shelves is all-of-the-above: Polyglot’s Lexicon 1943-1966, ascribed to Kenneth Versand, with a Preface by Kenneth Schlossberg (1973) (“[Portions] originally compiled by the Research Committee on New Words of the American Dialect Society and by G. & C. Merriam Company … [and] published annually from 1943 through 1966 in the Britannica book of the year.”).

This purports to be a presentation of “new words, new meanings, extended meanings of old words, or combinations of old words”, arrayed by year, by Science, by Politics, by Grammar (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and so on. About 2/3 of the pages are line-printer output, indicating that this was one of those early uses of mainframe computers to deal with text (which takes me back to the days of Phil Stone’s General Inquirer Project at Harvard, “a computer-assisted approach for content analyses of textual data”). The original input material would have been on punch cards (lots of punch cards), and the computer’s task was to sort the fields of the cards and output ordered lists. Here are a few page images to ponder:

And what’s the use of such a compendium? When and how is it useful to discover that “white sidewall haircut” (‘A haircut in which the hair is clipped short on the sides’) appeared in the Zeitgeist in 1957? Or is it just a curiosity? The Research Committee on New Words of the American Dialect Society sounds a bit unlikely, but really did exist. But how did Polyglot’s Lexicon come to be? Who was “Kenneth Versand”? (I discover that someone of that name ran a STOP sign in California [“Rolling stops (or so-called ‘California stops’) are not permissible under VC 22450]”) It seems quite likely that “Kenneth Versand” is a nom de guerre of Edwin Schlossberg, and he is (since 1986) the spouse of (wait for it…) Caroline Kennedy. YCMTSU. In 1973 (when Polyglot’s Lexicon first appeared) Schlossberg was 27 years old, with BA and MA degrees from Columbia, on his way to becoming an “interactive designer” and Founder of ESI Design (see a summary profile; and see also a New York Times article from 1986). And then have a boo at his 1967-68 piece Among the Words, from Wordswordswords. In these contexts, his Preface to Polyglot’s Lexicon is almost comprehensible, considered as word art:

…but the Introduction, ascribed to Kenneth Versand, defies efforts to parse:

So we’re pretty far down the rabbit hole here, and who knew, when I pulled the book off the shelf to explore for this post, that such sport was to be found? Others have trod this path:

The preface is written by Edwin Schlossberg, and I wonder if he is really the author as well. ‘Versand’ is a German word for ‘ship, dispatch’ and not really a name. This fits in with Edwin Schlossberg’s projects in the 1960s when he was friends with Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg and John Cage and worked for R. Buckminster Fuller. Since he is a very famous and very private person (married to Caroline Kennedy) I think it would probably be pretty difficult to contact him to ask about the book. (

Words in Time

Geoffrey Hughes’ Words in Time: A social history of the English vocabulary(1988) offers a different take on space-and-time and language, centered on the notion of semantic fields (“containing those words or meanings which cohere around a particular concept, topic, or thing”).

The book’s dedication says

all workers
at the alveary

It was the work of a moment to ask the online OED about ‘alveary’, and so to discover

	Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin alveārium.
	Etymology: classical Latin alveārium... 
	a. A repository, esp. of knowledge or information. Originally as the 
        name of a dictionary encompassing several languages. 1574—1983

 	b. A beehive. Also: the location where a beehive stands; an apiary. 
        Now rare. 1623—1918

	†2. A hollow in the external ear in which earwax collects; (also) the 
        external auditory canal. Obsolete.

The book itself begins with a quotation from Owen Barfield (who was, with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, a member of the Inklings):

It has only just begun to dawn on us that in our own language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust. But there is this difference between the record of the rocks and the secrets which are hidden in language: whereas the former can only give us a knowledge of outward, dead things—such as forgotten seas and bodily shapes of prehistoric animals and primitive men—language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man’s soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.

Hughes is primarily concerned with words as “semantic legacy” (e.g., of the Middle Ages, of the Growth of Capitalism, Journalism, Advertising, Ideology and Propaganda), and he presents words identified as belonging to semantic fields schematically, as circles showing registers of terminology:

and, for example,

and in tabular and chronological form:

The last thirty-plus years is a long time in lexicographical evolution, and in 2020 Hughes’ approach seems rather fusty and even a bit pedestrian; the online version of the OED produces more detailed versions straight out of the box, with dates and quotations, and yields nicely built collocations of terms in the Thesaurus mode. It’s still a pleasure to sample the pages of Words in Time for the odd bits that delight word hounds, and for the discursive style of a bygone era:

For centuries purchase meant something far more rapacious and disorderly than the present transactional sense denotes. The old senses of purchase, dating in ME from c.1297, were derived from chase and revolved around the actions of hunting and taking by force, whether the object were prey, person, plunder, or pelf. (In Old French an enfant de porchas was not, as one might suppose, a child adopted or ‘purchased’ in slavery, but an illegitimate.) These meanings reflect an ancient, primitive time when de jure and de facto possession were often difficult to distinguish, more so than today. The original strong physical sense of purchase, we observe is still used in contexts of leverage in physics and engineering.

To appreciate that 30-plus years’ distance in register, compare with A “Let’s Circle Back” Guy.

Words in Time and Place

About 50 years ago (or maybe more) I realized that I saw anthropology through the lenses of Space and Time, that I was in fact a geographer manqué, but fortunately anthropology has usually been quite tolerant of interdisciplinarity, and my cartographic and diachronic foibles were indulged by graduate school professors. Once I escaped into the professorate myself, nobody questioned my creation of a course in Human Geography (which I taught for most of my 18 years at Acadia), and my side hustles into demography and ethnomusicology and linguistics puzzled but didn’t affright faculty colleagues. The escape (after 1990) into the world of libraries was even more liberating in extra-disciplinary senses. As one of my mentors in Reference Librarianship put it, “It All Counts!”, and I bloody counted it all for 13 years at Washington & Lee.

Words have always been a signal element in my cross-disciplinary forays, fiercely pursued and lovingly collected and then deployed to sometimes-bemused audiences. And so when I saw David Crystal’s Words in Time and Place: Exploring language through The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary I immediately snaffled it up. That Thesaurus, a 2-volume behemoth published in 2009, tempted me mightily, but at $495 I hesitated… and now it’s mostly available on the used market for upwards of $600 if it can be found at all. Crystal’s little book is an irresistable aperitif:

My aim is to illustrate the way the HTOED is organized, to show the synergy between the thesaurus and its lexicographical parent, and to explore some of the linguistic and social insights that emerge from this interaction…

The alphabetical principle [of the dictionary] is an enormous convenience (once one has learned to spell), but it is a semantic irrelevance. Words which belong together are separated… We do not learn words in alphabetical order, either as children or adults. Rather, we learn them in a meaningful relation to each other as we develop our understanding of areas of experience…

Words and meanings change over time, so it is crucial to know what period we are dealing with before we are able to interpret someone’s lexical use…

…our ability to select an appropriate wordd depends on our awareness of such factors as where the word is used—by which sections of society, on which social occasions, in which part of the country or of the English-speaking world…

Crystal offers terminology from 15 semantic fields: words for dying, nose, being drunk, light meals, a privy, a fool, terms of endearment, oaths and exclamations, inns and hotels, a prostitute, money, calm and stormy weather, old person, sspacecraft… presented as chronological tables, timelines. Here’s a sample from the 20 pages of “words for being drunk”:


I snagged a copy of the buckram-clad Compact Edition of the OED about 35 years ago (complete with rectangular magnifying glass) and bought the Supplement when it came out in 1987; in 1995 I had an opportunity to explore the online OED, and did a lot of searches that are a delight to explore again via the page I constructed to introduce the online version W&L colleagues.

And today I bit whatever bullets were available and got myself a subscription ($90/year, a bargain) to the current online version of the OED, which includes the Historical Thesaurus. I look forward to further lexicographical explorations…

And if you’ve gotten this far in today’s post, here’s a Reward:

I’ll take up dialect and other-Englishes word books in future postings.

Merton & Barber on Serendipity

Today’s “word book” is Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber’s The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science (2004), a true gem of a book and one of the few on my shelves that is concerned with a single word and its connections. (The F Word is another, and we’ll get there eventually).

I wish I could remember when I first encountered ‘serendipity’, but it’s been with me for a long time as a personal leitmotiv, as I’ve wandered from thing to thing, notion to notion, idea to idea over the years. There’s a succession of factoids that piles up as one explores serendipity: the term was coined by Horace Walpole, in a letter to his friend Horace Mann in 1754; it is derived from or references a folk/fairy story of Three Princes of Serendib, the narrative line of which follows their fortuitous discoveries/inferences. Serendipity has come to mean discovery of the unexpected while in search of something else.

Of course, there’s much more to the story, and Merton & Barber are superb guides. I’ll include here a few bits of detail to whet the reader’s interest.

The 1754 letter from Walpole to Mann is redolent of 18th century epistolary prose (you can almost hear the scratching of the quill pen), and of essence of Walpole’s whimsy:

…This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want, à point nommée [at the very moment], wherever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you; you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had traveled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

It’s basic dictionary knowledge that ‘Serendip’ refers to Sri Lanka/Ceylon. But, says the etymologically curious, why Serendip/b? There’s a whole section of Merton & Barber that traces the history of dictionary definitions of ‘serendipity’ and includes this from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1909 supplement&mdashthe first dictionary definition of ‘serendipity’):

…the name of Serendib figures in Eastern romance. The name is from Ar. Serendib, Sarandib also Sarandip (LL: Serendivi, pl., as the name of the people), MGr. Skt. Sinhala-dvipa, the island of Ceylon… The Skt. Simhala is in Pali Sihalan, whence Silan, Old Tamil Ilan, whence the Malay Sailan, European Seilan, Zeilon, Ceylon… The happy faculty or luck, of finding by “accidental sagacity” interesting items of information or unexpected proofs of one’s theories; discovery of thing unsought: a factitious word humorously invented by Horace Walpole…

Clearly more than one wanted to know, and yet full of delicious nubbins. ‘Factitious’, say Merton & Barber “is well on its way to becoming a pejorative word, growing out of its meaning of ‘artificial’ and ‘unnatural’…” Elsewhere, Merton & Barber note that

In the early years of the twentieth century, a shop was opened in London to cater to those very bibliophiles who wanted “out-of-the-way books,” books by not-so-well-known authors at rather moderate prices. The first mention we have found of it comes, not surprisingly perhaps, in the form of a query in Notes and Queries… in 1903, one John Hebb writes: “A shop has recently opened at No. 118 Westbourne Grove, with the extraordinary name of ‘Serendipity Shop.” What is the meaning of ‘Serendipity’? I may add that the shop appears to be intended for the sale of rare books, pictures, and what Mrs. Malaprop (was it Mrs. Malaprop?) calls ‘articles of bigotry and virtue.’

Among the hares started by this nubbin is the pointer to Notes and Queries,

…a long-running quarterly scholarly journal that publishes short articles related to ‘English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism’. Its emphasis is on ‘the factual rather than the speculative’. The journal has a long history, having been established in 1849 in London; it is now published by Oxford University Press. The journal was originally subtitled ‘a medium of inter-communication for literary men, artists, antiquaries, genealogists, etc’. It is now subtitled ‘For readers and writers, collectors and librarians’. Its motto was once ‘When found, make a note of’, the catchphrase of Capt. Cuttle, a character in Dickens’ Dombey and Son…

Wikisource has a portal to’s 1849-1922 holdings, to be explored on Rainy Days…

So many other facets of Merton & Barber draw one’s attention. Merton wrote On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript in 1965 (a thrice-marvelous analysis of the reach of that titular phrase ascribed to Isaac Newton but at least as old as Diego de Estella [Latin: Didacus Stella], a 16th-century Spanish Franciscan mystic and theologian), known as ‘OTSOG’ in some circles: “part parody, part history of ideas, and part sociology of science” as the back-cover blurb has it). In a footnote in that book he mentions The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity as “a carefully unpublished” manuscript. The Introduction tantalizes us thus:

Sometime in or before 1945, while looking for the definition of some now-forgotten word in volume 9 of The Oxford English Dictionary, Merton’s eye “happened upon the strange looking but euphonious word ‘serendipity.’ Just as Walpole wrote of his habit of playing a sortes Walpolianae, a random flip of the page led Merton to serendipity. It was, when Merton originally stumbled upon it, a strange beast pacing restlessly within the confines of a few learned vocabularies. Had he not chosen to spend a significant portion of his third-year graduate student stipend on the then twelve massive volumes of the OED, he might not have ever stumbled on the word. Had he heeded the call of whatever his pledged mission was that day—learning about sequestration or seraphim or sepulcher—this sociological tale of the wanderings of serendipity would have been stalled, ensnared in the maze of the dictionary, imprisoned from further adventures until some other wandering eye might find it and send it on its way.

As Merton himself notes in the Preface, the book was written in the 1950s, but first appeared in print only in 2002, in Italian. The Princeton University Press version in English appeared in 2004, with a magnificent Afterword by Merton (“Autobiographic reflections on The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity”). Merton died in 2003, and Barber in 1999.

Collateral Language

I awoke thinking of a mode of language and rhetoric that is ubiquitous in political discourse and especially in parlous times. The words that came to me were: self-serving, mollification, deception, bamboozlement, Buncombe. Which of my word books address this realm?

Word books live in temporal and spatial contexts. The two-word phrases of Grenville Kleiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases echo the world of the book’s publication in 1917, and part of their charm and bite is that they are slightly outside of the current vernacular, but not so far removed that we can’t grasp their messages and apply them to our 21st century concerns and sensibilities.

In November 2003 I did a consultation gig on the GIS program at St. Lawrence University in uppermost New York—flew to Ottawa (the nearest airport), drove a rental car to Canton NY, spent a couple of days talking with faculty and staff, wrote a report. While in Canton I (of course) wandered into the college bookstore and found the just-published Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (edited by John Collins and Ross Glover), which presents short essays (“written to expose the tyranny of political rhetoric used to justify ‘America’s New War’.”) on 14 concepts that were especially of interest in those early years of the War in Iraq, after the shocks of September 11, 2001:

Anthrax, Blowback, Civilization versus Barbarism, Cowardice, Evil, Freedom, Fundamentalism, Jihad, Justice, Targets, Terrorism, Unity, Vital Interests, The War on _____

Most of those will resonate with anybody who was watching and listening in the early years of the 21st century. Collateral Language can be read as a gauge of the Emperor’s Raiment of that time, and of the modes of speech and rhetoric deployed in mass media.

U.S. officials, like their counterparts in decades past, attempted to generate public support for their actions by appealing to ideas as powerful as they are abstract: freedom, civilization, terrorism, evil. This language needs interrogation wherever it is found… Language, like terrorism,targets civilians and generates fear in order to effect political change… a specific type of fearfulness emerges, both intentionally and unintentionally… The use of specific kinds of language for political purposes exists within a long historical lineage of human development, and in order to understand any political system, we must understand the meaning created by that system. Rather than blindly accepting the meaning, usage, and truth of political leaders and news stories, we have an obligation, as citizens of a democratic state, to question, critique, and understand the language given to us by those who claim to represent our interests… (from the Introduction)

Manufacturing Consent … What You Hear Is What You See …

From Ross Glover’s “The War on _____”:

Fill in the blank. Regardless of what word you insert, the American public understands. U.S. presidents learned this lesson well over the past 40 [now almost 60…] years. “The War on _____” plays on our competitive heartstrings like a football cheer. “Yes,” we seem to respond, “fight the good fight, O fearless President, fight the war for us, fight the war for the good of humanity, but most importantly just fight.”

Poverty, Drugs, Terrorism, the “Chinese Virus”…

What Goes Around Comes Around.

Idea du jour

I have a LOT of “word books”: dictionaries, glossaries, usage manuals, specialized lexicons, etymologies, slang, commentaries on how she is spoke… This seems to be the moment to consider that trove, that tranche of my home library, and to put it to work.

This thought arose as I was exploring my mountain of Kindle texts and happened upon

Grenville Kleiser
Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and The Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write, and Speak English

which can be downloaded via Project Gutenberg and, in another form, via LibriVox (e.g., )

and there’s even a 10 hour YouTube video of a Dramatic Reading:

The tipping point for me was glancing at a page of Kleiser’s phrases and seeing that just about every one I looked at was somehow relevant to the Moment we find ourselves in:

abandoned hope
abated pride
abbreviated visit
abhorred thraldom
abiding romance
abject submission
abjured ambition
able strategist
abnormal talents
abominably perverse
abounding happiness
abridged statement
abrogated law
abrupt transition
absolutely irrevocable
absorbed reverie
abstemious diet
…and so on

And so I found myself thinking about Boccaccio’s Decameron which, if you didn’t already know, consists of “…100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city…” in the 14th century.

…and bethought myself that there might be a Decamoron which collects dumb-ass commentary and jokes about the present straits; and a Decamiron for ironic commentary on the same; and perhaps others (Decamuron might be the tales of mice… etc.)

Anyway, I’m thinking to begin a Project to blog a dictionary-a-day (or maybe not quite so often), with a scanned page showing a particularly wonderful something from that volume, and providing some context for what each dictionary/word book is actually good for.

sculpture, masks, therianthropy

A couple of days ago I awoke with the question of just who is responsible for the idea that a sculptor liberates a figure from within a block of stone by removing material. It turns out to be Michelangelo:

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

(photo by Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

For Michelangelo, the idea was already there, inside the hunk of stone,
whether by divine providence or his own imagination.
His eyes and hands were merely the vessels by which that idea—the art—was brought forth
into the physical world as he or God (or both) originally intended.



And a few days ago I ordered Chris Rainier’s new book Mask, thinking that it would assist in threading together elements I’ve been juggling as I assemble materials for the next Blurb book. Pico Iyer’s Introduction has some very useful perspectives:

(of an owl mask he had bought in Bali) It wasn’t just a mask… It carried a whole universe, a swarm of roiling forces, within. I really couldn’t tell if the spell it cast was happy or malign… All I did know was that it belonged to the realm of the spirit, the world of transformation…

…an agent of transfiguration, which allowed whoever wore it to become something other, belonging to the sphere of angels and demons.

In Africa, I knew, different kinds of masks signified the ways in which another world could enter our own, liberating our minds from the conscious realm into something no less real but much less easily tamed.

Masks are not just a portal to another world, but a reminder of the fact that our lives are defined by amazement and terror and silence. Just to see a mask is to travel out of the everyday into another, a more secret realm.

I’m still trying to figure out in what way my life might be “defined by amazement and terror and silence”, but the rest is surely pure gold, and suggests to me some new ways to think about the rocks I’ve been photographing: they are in a sense sculptures, and they have some of the Powers that are built into masks.


A story in this morning’s New York Times, Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans, surfaced the word Therianthrope just when I needed it:

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.


Therianthropy is the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shapeshifting. It is possible that cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, depict ancient beliefs in the concept. The most well known form of therianthropy is found in stories concerning werewolves.

Quite a few of my rock creatures occupy territory between human and creature, and it occurred to me that

Therianthropes guard the bridge
between the risible and the numinous

a formulation that is just too delicious as a description of part of the landscape I’m dealing with. So now I need to find some examples. And today being the first day it was cold enough for ice to form on the ponds at Drift Inn, we went to see if there were photographs to be made. Indeed:




and one from the recent Nova Scotia trip:

hands up

I won’t attempt to calculate the risibility and numinosity quotients of these, and only the lattermost seems to rise to the level of full-on therianthropy (and it’s probably a dryad anyway).

of Ot

This little story is complicated and digressive, but well worth trying to put together. It begins maybe a dozen years ago, in a taxi in Providence RI, a city that has a lot of public sculpture and other art stuff to look at. We passed by a particularly arresting sculptural creation and one of us said “What’s that?” and the taxi driver said “That? That’s ot” and thus the term ot was implanted into the Lexicon.

So yesterday morning one of the blogs I follow pointed to another tumblr with the stark message

2019 is almost over and all I gotta say is what the fuck was that

which expresses succinctly one of the mental states into which I occasionally stumble.

And the next though that coursed through my mind was

I take refuge in Ot

Where do these things come from? What imp instantiates them, sends them into Consciousness, which then offers them up to me to play with, these illusions and allusions that connect things to improbable other things?

The next thought was

hmmm. “take refuge in”…

which of course is a formula in Buddhist practice (one takes refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha), and that led to the realization that I was a bit less clear about this Dharma thing than I thought I should be, so a brief Wikipedia digression happened, and that led to an article on the Vedic concept of Ṛta (“the order that makes life and universe possible”, which seems to be nothing more or less than the Tao, innit?). That Sanskrit Ṛ phoneme is “a vocalist r, like that in pert or dirt, when pronounced with a rhotic r, e.g. as in American…”, but in Providence or Boston dialect would be non-rhotic [caa, paak, ot…]. And /Ṛta/ can be glossed as ‘Truth’.

And so on.

This Ot in which I claim to take refuge is well known to whatever readers of this blog there may be out there. Yesterday produced several more examples:

admonishing the young

punk sensibilities

(name it and you can keep it)