Last word(s) from England: “perspicacity” and “berserk” (yes, a nutty duo)

perspective-hunting in London

I’m sorry for only getting last week’s word(s) up just now, on the literal eve of my going home for my “working break.” Please note that there will only be two words next term, probably, as there will only be two issues of The Cambridge Student, one at the beginning, and another at the end, of the term. I may continue to (indeed, I’d even love to try, even in the midst of writing up my research project, ostensibly the reason I’m here) and post blog-only words/put up some old ones from the first term, but stay posted, as it were. In the meantime, please see below (as also found on the left-hand side of pg. 16 in the paper):

“The longer one lives, the more perspective one has, at least in theory. As a university student, I confess that I sorely lack it, especially at those crucial junctures in life that involve making Big Decisions (yes, with capital letters, making them Serious). I must thank my friend Colin Thomas for suggesting we look at such matters, or, rather, some “perspicacity.”

This noun comes to us from the Middle French “perspicacité,” meaning “discernment” or “discrimination,” as derived from the classical Latin “perspicāx,” which, in turn, means, “having keen or penetrating sight,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Since roughly the late 16th century, it has meant keen mental insight. As such, the word is thus related to the adjective, “perspicacious,” referring more figuratively to clear-sightedness, but also to someone’s wit or sense of discernment. It shares the same Latin root as does the word “perspective,” namely, “perspicere,” meaning “to see through, look closely into, discern, [or] perceive,” according to the OED.

To have perspicacious perspicacity, therefore, means to have (suspicious) perspective: the Latin root at it all, “specere,” means “to look,” with a similar root for “suspect” (“suspicere,” meaning, “to look up, look up to, admire, esteem”). Hence having perspective means having a strong sense of being able to “see,” life-wise, what is really there.

All that etymological speculation aside, the first recorded usage of “perspicacity” proper comes in about 1548, in the Solace of Soule, by the theologian Thomas Becon (c. 1512-1567), with the line, “Thou shalte neuer by the perspycacyte and quyckenis of thy reason perceyue, howe it maye be possyble.” A slightly later example, from 1663, comes to us in The Parable of a Pilgrim, by Anglican clergyman (the bishop of Ely, actually) and devotional writer Simon Patrick (1626-1707), “The greatest wits want perspicacity in things that respect their own interest.” Patrick met his future wife thanks to this work, who, having read it, sought him out. This gave him a sort of romantical perspicacity, as it were.

To close, as the term’s end-time approaches, I thought it would be fun to mention a very un- perspicacious word, namely, “berserk.” A quick shout-out is due to my friend Faith Tsuruda for bringing it to my attention. As the OED relates, a “berserk” (singular) was a Viking who flew into a purposely ferocious battle-fury (i.e. the “berserker rage” of yore).

The word is Icelandic, probably, and also probably referred to the “bear-sark,” or the “bear-coat” worn while going berserk. “To go berserk” had a slightly more violent meaning back then, but has mellowed out in contemporary usage, meaning more just-plain frenzy and less frantic head-lopping. Sir Walker Scott (1771–1832) is given credit by the OED for the first modern example of the word’s usage, in a note from The Pirate, published in 1821, “The berserkars were so called from fighting without armour.”

I hope you have perspicacity, and refrain from going truly berserk, between now and next term. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

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Being gregarious

any gregarious folks out there? Howdy! anyone? looking down Sidney Street in Cambridge

I’ve been told that Americans are actually far from rude while abroad.

Well, what with our being loud and demanding good service all the time, we might come off that way, and so yes, we might be “rude” in that sense; I hope, however, that we are more classy than that, and stand up for ourselves in a charming sort of way.

Anyway,  I’ve read and observed that my countrymen are perceived as silly and bumbling, well-meaning and trying ever-so-hard to please, more Twain’s Innocents Abroad than The World’s Big Sister, which the sophisticated (and wryly world-wise) Brits find endearing.

I’ve been told, in fact, that if you (and by “you” I mean me, still quite the novice liver-abroader) are so thoughtless as to propose – on the spot – to your new English buddy that you should have an impromptu social call right then and there (“hey, Chester, how about we get some grub right now?!”), instead of recoiling in unfamiliar horror at the sheer impropriety of it all, the obliging Englishman will sometimes just make an exception for his obviously clueless American friend (not that this has happened to me … more than a few times).

Now, we’re not entirely exempt from all the various forms of etiquette one must try, at least, to observe in a foreign country (for make no mistake, England, as charming as it can be, is far from Kansas).

But I sense that we get a certain amount of “oh,-he’s-just-a-silly-American” grace.

I try not to use this leeway for mischief – never mind, I do. It’s great fun to “randomly” (ha! used my own word for this week!) start talking about the weather with a complete and total stranger.

“Fine day, isn’t it?” you say to someone next to you in a queue (pick a queue, any queue will do!).

“Oh, well, yes, I suppose it is …” your unfortunately placed neighbor will reply (even as he thinks, “why is this bloody weird Yank talking to me?!”).

“How are you doing?” I’ll ask.

“Ah, fine, thank you …” while he’s really thinking … “come on, silly queue, move faster, please!”

I don’t like to go too far beyond that, because the extreme social forwardness I’ve just displayed won’t get me much further. Sometimes, however, I’ll run into someone from Scotland or Ireland, and find I am soon hearing all about someone’s grandchildren or the weather in Dublin or Glasgow.

Aussies and Kiwi’s also tend to return any gregariousness shown them, to almost American proportions, often throwing in an odd joke or two, usually involving some “random” (ha! did it again) animal only found Down Under. I mustn’t forget our Canadian brethren either, who admit to being far more North American than English, especially while in England. Indeed, it seems that all our fellow colonists (past and present) enjoy the goofy, perpetually proper propensities of our English hosts, perhaps painfully (all right, I’ll stop with the alliteration).

But to conclude with an anecdote, while walking through St. John’s College the other day (it was snowing, if I recall, and rather medieval looking, more so than normal, particularly near its old gate), I overheard an older American couple talking excitedly.

“Is this where they filmed Harry Potter?” I heard the lady ask.

“I don’t know, dear, let me ask …” replied the dutiful husband.

I could imagine the eyes beginning to role around me.

“Silly Americans!” they all thought.

And I am one of them. Oh my.

This week’s word: “random”

David Parry and I looking rather random

It’s about time this blog had a “random” post.

OK, yes, that is a rather lame lead-in to this week’s word, which also happens to be random, as it were, which can be found, as usual, on The Cambridge’s Student‘s site, in its usual corner on its usual page, but also below:

“As one might imagine, the meanings of words tend to change, not always randomly, but sometimes seemingly so. I must thank my decidedly non-random friend Neil Simpson for suggesting that we investigate “random.”

Something or someone that acts in a random fashion, as we know it today, does so rather chaotically, without purpose or guidance. This contemporary meaning has its roots in a much less random meaning of the word, stemming directly from its origins in clashing knights on war-horses.

That is right: chivalry, and all that jazz.

The original Anglo-Norman and Old French word, “randoun,” dating from around the 12th century, and then the later Middle French word, “randon,” refers to “speed” or “haste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED), and also to “impetuousness” or “violence,” from “randir,” meaning “to run fast,” or “gallop.” It might be related to the Germanic word “rand” (as in the Old Saxon, or Middle Low German) meaning “shield,” or, alternatively, “border” or “edge,” and thus “shield-rim” or “shield-boss” (the knobby thing in the middle of round shields, and handy for hitting).

As such, and as noted by the OED, the word can be found in as old a text as “Beowulf” (which itself dates to between the seventh and tenth centuries) with this rather undecipherable line, “He under rande gecranc.” An Old English translation of Exodus from the 10th century describes the parting waves of the Red Sea as the “randgebeorh,” or “shield-wall.”

We also find the Middle-French expression, de randon or “at speed,” and the Anglo-Norman phrase, a grant randun or “in great haste.” To strike “with great random” was to do so with great force while riding or running, as in the medieval joust, though “at the random” probably refers to the wilder jousting that did not include such niceties as barriers. Additionally, in falconry, “flying at speed” was said to be “at random.” These now obsolete meanings, as the OED tells us, referring to a “an impetuous rush” or a “rapid, headlong course” were its predominate senses until the 17th century.

By the end of the 1500s, the meaning behind the phrase began to change, and meant something less directed, and more out-of-control, perhaps stemming from the idea that running at a full gallop was not always the picture of serenity and restraint. Thus we have the Bard using this line in his Venus and Adonis (c. 1592), “But hatefully at random dost thou hit.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744) later used the word in his Dunciad, which attacked hack writers, with the line in question being, “She shows … How random thoughts now meaning chance to find.”

Finally, in a bit of nostalgia, Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens; 1835-1910), used the word in 1889, in its older sense, in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the line, “Two knights came together with great random.”

Well, I hope that was not too terribly random, as it were. If you have any (random) word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Being asked if I am an American …

find the American!

It is strange that such a simple question can make your heart jump into your throat.

“Are you an American?” people will ask, as soon as you open your mouth, or just act in your typically overly gregarious American way, which sometimes involves using your hands to eat, looking people in the eye, laughing out loud, or just smiling because you want to (from what I can tell, the far more reserved Brits usually don’t do these sorts of things, not normally).

“Why, yes,” you reply, with perhaps too much obvious pride, and in my case, maybe slowing down your syllables so much that you’d make John Wayne grimace.

“That I am, ma’aaam,” (or “sir,”), adding, “I am an Am-er-ic-an.”

Now, I feel like a fairly patriotic fellow. I do love my country, very much, and its people, despite our flaws, because of what we stand for, and what we represent. We can do better, of course, and should. To barrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, ‘”My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'” Chesterton also talks about how a love of one’s home and country, put in a proper perspective, can help you to learn and look forward to Heaven.

“How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” asks C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. “Once you have realized that the Frenchman like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everything else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

Though I know very little, and perceive even less, I do sense that people the world over, even in England, do look to us for leadership (no pressure!). All my American friends in Cambridge have stories of being grilled about our foreign policy, even here, by our closest friends and allies.

But to continue.

“I could tell,” whoever asked you if you’re from America, usually says, “because of your accent” (not adding, “and because you’re loud and silly and are smiling like a nutter”); this is quickly followed by, “Where in the States [they like putting it this way] are you from?”

“Seattle, Washington!” I’ll announce, with pride.

Sometimes, just for a moment, there’ s a bit of confusion … perhaps surprisingly, not everyone knows exactly where Seattle is, and the mention of “Washington” makes even the more geographically astute pause.

“You mean Washington state?” they’ll ask, for clarification.

“That’s the one!” you’ll add, still beaming with more than your fair share of pride (“I got asked if I was an American!” you think, ” and how cool is that?”).

Ah, but sometimes I am forced to add, “it’s near Vancouver,” or “just across from British Columbia, where we use the names of Indian chiefs and tribes,  as well as dead English sea captains, to name our cities and mountains.”

I mean this is as a sort of joke, but I usually get a thoughtful nod of the head (“what did he say about dead sea captains?”).

ah, there's one of those American-types!

It’s not just British people who ask if you’re an American, but people from all over the world, including lots of students from Asia, but it’s especially fun, I think, to be asked by someone who is quite English.

We were, after all, their colony not too long ago (certainly not by their standards of history), but instead of being their sons or daughters, we are now their “cousins.” It really does feel like we are part of some kind of extended family, complete with eye-rolling at the others’ behavior.

My friend Neil, for example, bemoans my habit of resorting to folksy Americanisms.

At a meeting the other day, I was about to cheer our little editorial board for a journal project we’re working on with some Davy-Crockett-esque phrase: “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead …” and my fellow American (well, half-Danish, but still mostly American) friend Christian hopped in, “when your backs against …”

“Ah!” Neil sighs, in his Glasgowian-Scots brogue.  “There you Americans go again, with your folksy backwoods sayings …”.

You smile: “he said ‘you Americans’! how often does that happen?” you wonder … .

P.S. I must include a shout-out to my grandma for her box full of snacks she sent all the way from Florida; thanks grandma!

This week’s word: “merry-andrew”

trying to, everyday!

I am a merry-andrew, about many things.

It’s true.

Starting with writing about rugby; I happened to be going to the Royal-Navy-Cambridge game on Wednesday night, and was drafted by the sports editor at The Cambridge Student to write something about it. Their real sports reporter couldn’t make it; I was silly enough to mention that I was going to be there.

“Do you want cover the match, Will?” my editor asked, turning from his computer to face me.

“You do realize I know nothing about rugby, having never seen a live match, or any sort of match, for that matter?” I implored.

“Oh, that’s fine, it’ll be fun!” he enthused, adding, “it’ll be an experience!”

“But I don’t even know the rules!”

“Oh, just write down who scores what and when,” he assured me, “and just do your best.”

So your vainglorious etymology columnist set off to write not only his first story about rugby, but his first sports story, ever.

With lots of help from my editor, and my friend Werner, who came to the game with me and who used to play rugby, and was thus a sort of interpreter,  it turned out all right (indeed, a far more experienced sports-reporting friend of mine said I exercised some “1920s sports writer lingo”). I should also give a shout-out to the Green family from Tennessee; they were part of our little group too. Their dad, Dr. Brad Green, is here on sabbatical at Tyndale House.

he's not a merry-andrew

Regarding the word, I was inspired to write about it after recalling a scene from Kate and Leopold (and yes, it’s a romantic-comedy, but I’m still manly … I have a beard … that makes me manly, right?). You can find it in its usual spot, on the left-hand side of p. 16 (the rugby story is on the back, on p. 32) as posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site, but also here:

“In the film, Kate and Leopold, Hugh Jackman’s character (the titular Leopold) warns his friend Charlie that he is acting the part of a “merry-Andrew.”

“A what?” asks Charlie, who, unlike Leopold, was not born in the 19th century, literally.

“Everything plays a farce to you,” replies the debonair duke. “Women respond to sincerity. No one wants to be romanced by a buffoon.”

Certainly not! Hello there, fellow word-fans; taking a break from our etymological trek into contemporary idiom, let us spend a few minutes pondering … buffoonery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) identifies this (apparently) formerly proper noun with the antics of a crowd-pleasing clown, a foolish jokester or a mountebank’s assistant (more on that in a moment). While I am sure we have all felt like merry-andrews (or Merry-Andrews) at one time, or even acted like one, the actual origin of the phrase, and its connection to clownish behavior, can be traced back to London’s infamously rowdy Bartholomew Fair.

Held in Smithfield, in the ward of Farringdon Without, from roughly the 12th to the mid-19th centuries, this was not an innocent country fair, but rather a rancorous gathering of all manner of crazy entertainments, including prize fights, acrobatic exercises, music and puppets. Yes, puppets, as well as bawdy ballads, an especially silly character from which probably inspired the original idea, which had enough popular cachet by 1668 to be recorded by that prolifically observant diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), when he noted in his entry for Aug. 29, “I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey’, a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”

The word’s use by a  pair of poetical playwrights, John Dryden (1631-1700) and Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689), shows how it had caught on by the end of the century, with the former using it in a 1684 poem with the line, “Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace.” The latter used it in a more descriptive sense, with this line from the 1678 play, Sir Patient Fancy, “I am made a John A-Nokes of, Jack-hold-my-staff, a Merry Andrew Doctor to give Leander time to marry your Daughter.”

As for acting like a mountebank’s assistant, to understand that, you should know that historically, a “mountebank,” as related by the OED, was “an itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, frequently using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers.” The word comes from the Italian phrase, “monta in banco,” or “mount on bench,” as such roguish tricksters were wont to do as they sold their quackery, and a merry-andrew or two could come in handy.

You definitely do not want to be a merry-andrew, or worse, a mountebank’s sidekick.  Having been forewarned, if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Finally, here’s the group of us from the rugby match:

my friend and the other Will, Werner and the Green family at the rugby match

Paperwork

Trinity College: built on ... lots of paperwork

My first inclination was to apologize, which was very English … as instead of finally writing about my recent trips to some of the villages surrounding Cambridge (which I still promise to do), I wanted to mention one very British bugaboo: paperwork.

Amazingly, the UK has a bit of a bureaucracy. Shocking? Not quite. Nonetheless, I am used to paperwork. Growing up in a military family, we did a great deal of paper-pushing, form-filling and question-answering, and as my parents used to say (and still do, even though I ought to know better), “God doesn’t fill it out for you” (usually used as an encouragement to apply to something I know I don’t have a hoot and a holler of winning, but should apply to regardless; another saying of my mom’s: “the only way you can make sure you don’t get something is by not applying for it!”).

Really, I have some empathy when it comes to writing in block letters in little boxes on piles, nay, veritable swaths, of dead trees (err, I mean paper).

Yes, I am slight environmentalist; I love to recycle, and therefore feel bad using so much paper … But the British have taken it to a whole new level: they love the stuff! Forms in triplicate, forms for forms, signatures, notarized copies … it’s all very Proper and Procedural, of course, sort of like politeness turned pulpy, or queuing on stationary. If they were good at it, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the sad truth of the matter is that they’re not.

For example, I ordered a mini-fridge for my room a long time ago (back in October). I waited for the proscribed amount of time (about five weeks or so) and then checked to see where it was … it wasn’t quite ready, they said. So I told them not to worry, but to deliver it to my room for the first week or so of this term … ah, but no fridge was forthcoming. I checked again. Several weeks later, a sincere apology is made, but “sorry, sir, but it seems we never actually ordered it …” . Ugh!

Now I just assume that processing all that paper will just take time. If they say something will be ready by Thursday (in this case, my student-loan checks), I realize nonchalantly that they won’t really be here until Monday.

“They’re not in yet … sorry.”

“Oh, that’s all right …” I saw out loud, but to myself: “didn’t expect them to be, you silly Brit!”

With internal dialogue like that, it’s a wonder I haven’t lost what remains of my sanity. I’ve come dangerously close on several occasions, mind you, but several good cups of tea and several dozen sugar cubes usually sets me right again. I realize that just to be here I had to slay whole forests.

Going back home and hiking in the woods will my chance to atone for all the paperwork I’ve done: “I am sorry, my arboreal friends, for taking so many of you down in my mad quest for a Cambridge MPhil!”

In the end, however, I can agree with Treebeard: “My home is deep in the forest near the roots of the mountains.” I do miss you all back in the Northwest, and hope to see you soon.

For now, however, my road (or rather rail) leads to London; I am hoping to go down on Friday, to visit a few touristy spots, and take some photos.

This week’s word: “hep-cat”

"I am hep?" probably not ...

Behold! This week’s word continues my recent series (that sounds quite serious, doesn’t it? to have a series, I mean) on slang; you can read it below, or look on pg. 16 on the left-hand side of the version posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site. A quick note though: “hippy” and “hipster” are cousins of “hep,” just in case you were wondering (now that you know, you are “hep,” ha …):

“Since we have been on such a slangy roll in this column, I thought we ought to continue it this week with “hip,” or, rather, “hepcat.” I must thank my friends James and Erica for suggesting it, in Grantchester, of all places.

By “hip” as an adjective, what is really meant is “hep,” a classic piece of mysterious American slang that has its roots in jazz (just like “cool”), when to “be hep” is to be “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to’, up-to-date [or] smart,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

Hence a “hip-cat,” or a “hep-cat,” is “in the know” as an avid aficionado of jazz, and all its hep derivatives, including swing. It appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) posthumously published novel (in 1941), The Love of the Last Tycoon, with the line, “Suddenly they were at work again – taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it.”

A “cool-cat,” incidentally, is much the same thing, defined as “an admirably fashionable or stylish person,” a fan of jazz and swing, says the OED. Now, how cats become cool, and learned to dance, is another matter entirely.

But the fact remains that cats and cool and dancing, along with dancing cool cats, became synonymous in the swing scene in early 20th-century America, so much so that Louie Armstrong could declare in 1932 that “All the cats were there,” and a May 23, 1942 issue of the Chicago Defender could say that “Perry Givens played a cool cat at the May dance Friday,” two of the earliest attributed examples of “cool-cat.”

As far as hep-cats are concerned, in 1938, the academic journal American Speech defined the word as a “guy who knows what it’s [the swing music is] all about.” As related by the OED, a 1940 issue of the same journal contains this anecdotal bit of speculation: “‘Tis said that back in the 1890s Joe Hep ran a saloon in Chicago… Although he never quite understood what was going on, he thought he did… Hence his name entered the argot as an ironic appellation for anyone who thought he knew but didn’t. The ironic sense has now largely disappeared … in … to ‘get hep to.’”

Your etymological columnist thinks that explanation is more than a little spurious, but it is interesting, and helps to illustrate how such theories make a sort of sense, even when nonsensical.  Technically, however, “hep” proper first showed up in written English in the Dec. 5, 1908 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with the line, “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

Yes, that is most puzzling indeed. I hope you enjoyed that hep slang, and if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”