Notorious RBG – Sunday Seven

Ruth Bader Ginsberg (March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020). The world lost a trailblazer and a true champion this week.

  • I pray that I may be all that (my mother) would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons.
  • Fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.
  • I would advise more listening, less talking.
  • I am optimistic in the long run. A great man once said the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle, it’s the pendulum, and when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will go back.
  • It helps sometimes to be a little deaf. When a thoughtless and unkind word is spoken best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.
  • You should speak in your own voice.
  • Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.

The Wind of Change

The Wind of Change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.We must all accept is as fact and our national policies must take account of it.

Harold Macmillan, The Wind of Change , 1960, South Africa
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII 
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

Roses are red, Violets are…blue?

I really enjoyed writing about the origins of flower names in a previous blog, “A Rose by any Other Name“, and since there are so many flowers with such pretty names I thought I would do one more.

Violets – We’ve all heard the Valentine rhyme with roses and violets, but violets aren’t really blue – they are violet!! Interestingly, the color came after the flower in this case – the flower is named after the Latin viola or a little violin.  The valentine poem we are all so familiar was first found in Gammer Gurton’s Garland which was a 1784 collection of nursey rhymes:

The rose is red, the violet's blue
The honey's sweet, and so are you 
Ilya Mashkov, Still Life with Camellia (1913)

Camellia  – When Carl Linnaeus standardized plant names in 1753, he named these flowers after Father Georg Joseph Kamel (1161–1706), a Jesuit missionary and naturalist. Father Kamel was a missionary to the Philippines where he became a plant specialist of the Philippine islands. Camellias are native to Japan and China, where they are known to exist since 2737 BCE. The flower is called Tsubaki in Japanese and symbolizes the divine.

Peony – this beautiful flower symbolizing romance and prosperity is named after Paeon who in Greek mythology was the physician to the Greek Gods. Paeon was a student of Asclepius, the God of medicine and healing. Asclepius was jealous of Paeon and threatened to kill him. Zeus turned Paeon into a flower to save him from Asclepius – and that’s how this flower got its name. Peonies are the national flower of China and are known as the king of flowers in China.

Pete Mondrian, Red Amaryllis with Blue Background (1907)

Amaryllis  – this flowers is named after a shepherdess in Latin poet Virgil’s work called the Eclogues which are a collection of 10 unconnected pastoral poems that he composed between 42 and 37 BCE. Amaryllis was in love with Alteo, and to get his attention she pierced her heart daily with a golden arrow for a month. The blood that dropped from her heart was red like the flower which came to be known as Amaryllis. Perhaps also because of the red color, the Amaryllis plays a starring role at Christmas time.

Bildungsroman

Now this is an interesting word.  I was wondering about its origin because it clearly does not sound like an English word. Like many other untranslatable words this one is also German – bildung literally means education and learning, and roman means a novel – and the word has come to mean a novel that focuses on the growth of the protagonist or simply a coming-of-age book.

The word was coined by German philologist Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770 – 1852) in the 1820s during the period of German Enlightenment. He first used the word when he was lecturing students at the University of Dorpat on the self-actualization that individuals realize as they navigate the journey from childhood to young adulthood. The book he may have been lecturing on was Johann Volfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), which now is considered the first novel of theis genre.

The first Bildungsroman: Goethe’s 1795 Novel

During the period of Enlightenment, the centuries old feudal system ended, and there was a burgeoning middle-class.  Artists and authors moved away from religious and aristocratic patronage and gravitated towards this middle class. This was a different, revolutionary era – individuals looked to themselves for their salvation, and personal journeys became of great importance. As a result, authors started writing narratives about personal, mainly spiritual, growth which eventually we now know as Bildungsroman.

When most of us think of American Bildungsroman literature, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer immediately come to mind. Another example is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Within the genre, there are subgenres –Erziehungsroman is the academic growth of the protagonist, Kunstlerroman is the realization of an artist’s potential, and Zeitroman is one in which the both the era and the protagonist develop together.  So there we have it – an in-depth look at a literary term we have all used when writing papers on Huck Finn!!

Mayflower

Methinks I see it now, that one solitary, adventurous vessel, the ‘Mayflower’ of a forlorn hope, freighted with the prospects of a future State, and bound across the unknown sea. I behold it pursuing, with a thousand misgivings, the uncertain, the tedious voyage. Suns rise and set, and weeks and months pass, and winter surprises them on the deep, but brings them not the sight of the wished-for shore. I see them now scantily supplied with provisions, crowded almost to suffocation in their ill-stored prison, delayed by calms, pursuing a circuitous route; and now driven in fury before the raging tempest, on the high and giddy waves. The awful voice of the storm howls through the rigging. The laboring masts seem straining from their base; the dismal sound of the pumps is heard; the ship leaps, as it were, madly from billow to billow; the ocean breaks, and settles with engulfing floods over the floating deck, and beats with deadening weight against the staggered vessel. I see them, escaped from these perils, pursuing their all but desperate undertaking, and landed at last, after five months’ passage, on the ice-clad rocks of Plymouth,—weak and weary from the voyage, poorly armed, scantily provisioned, depending on the charity of their shipmaster for a draft of beer on board, drinking nothing but water on shore, without shelter, without means, surrounded by hostile tribes.

Edward Everett, Plymouth, December 22, 1824

A Rose by any other name..

I am always intrigued by names and how they originate and get associated with things. I thought I’ll research a few of my favorite flowers and see how they got the name they did.

Tulip – this beautiful flower originated in Persia and Turkey and gets its name from the Turkish word for turbans. Men wore tulips on their turbans in this region, and Europeans thought the word tulip was for the name of the flower, and not the word for turban and started calling the beautiful flower tulip. It’s interesting because I also think the name looks like a turban – and some sources say that the name originated from the Turkish word for turban. Either way – it’s a perfect name for this much-loved flower.

Theofrastos Triantafyllidis (1881-1955), Still Life with gardenias and red book

Gardenia – this gorgeous white fragrant flower is named after physician and botanist Alexander Garden. It was named that not by Garden himself but Carl Linnaeus a Swedish botanist who formalized binomial nomenclature. Garden lived in Charleston, SC and had sent a magnolia to Linnaeus who felt the need to then name a flower after Garden and picked the cape jasmine and called it gardenia!!

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889

Iris – the name of this flower is from the Greek word – eiris – which is the name of the Greek Goddess of the rainbow. The flower is called that because it comes in all colors of the rainbow. It is also the flower that announces the arrival of spring by popping out of the ground sometimes through the snow.

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Dahlias, 1874

Dahlia – these flowers symbolize summer – and are also very important for Mexico which is where they originated. They were some of the earlier flowers taken to Europe from the Americas and did well in the German and Swedish summers – and were named dahlia after a Swedish botanist Andres Dahl. The Germans wanted to name the flower Georgina after German botanist Johann Gottlieb Georgi – and called it Georgina through the 19th century until they finally gave in to the Swedes.

Mughal, 17th Century, unknown

Marigold – this deep yellow flower which grows profusely all year long seems to be revered in almost all religions. Its name derives from Mary’s Gold – so named after Mary, the mother of Jesus. Marigolds were taken to Europe from Mexico and Guatemala in the 16th century – in Spain they were placed at the altar of Mary which gave them their name. Marigolds are also used in all Hindu religious ceremonies.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Carnation Lily. Lily, Rose (1885)

Carnations – the name sounds like and is derived from the word coronation – these flowers were used in ancient Greek crowns from which they get their name. Today these flowers are used for solemn occasions.

Lily – lilies get their name from the Greek word leiron which was what they called the while lily. Lilies are the oldest cultivated flowers in the world and were grown by the Cretes as early as 1580 BCE.

So many flowers… I could go on and on !!

Flotsam and Jetsam

While most of us may relate to them as the twin eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, these two very interesting words originate from marine debris and are related to the items that were once on a ship but are now in the ocean.

Flotsam and Jetsam, 1908, John Singer Sargent, watercolor on paper

Flotsam is debris or rubbish that is found floating around in the ocean that got there because of a ship accident or wreck. It was never deliberately thrown into the ocean from the ship. The word flotsam comes from the French word floter which simply means to float. The rule of finder’s keepers does not apply to flotsam found by a passerby – the debris still belongs to the owners of the ship that met with the unfortunate accident that cause the flotsam.

Jetsam on the other hand is debris that was deliberately thrown from the ship into the ocean – either to lighten the ship before an accident or for some other reason. The important distinction is that it was deliberately thrown. The word is derived from the word jettison which means to throw something from a plane or a ship. Since they chose to throw the jetsam, the rule of finders keepers does apply in this case – and a passerby that comes across the jetsam can keep it.

The Shipwreck, 1772 Claude-Joseph Vernet, (1714-1780)

The two words are most often used together and have metaphorically come to mean odds and ends, or miscellaneous items –  as in –“the war refugees carried the flotsam and jetsam of their life on their backs as they walked across the continent searching for a safe haven.”

(Images courtesy, NGA DC, Portland Museum of Art, National Museuem of Norway, & Tate Gallery UK).

Damocles, Gordium, & Sisyphus

Sometimes we hear or read a phrase that sounds like it has an interesting story behind it  – I started exploring a few such phrases that have their origins in Greek mythology.

Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles 1812

The Sword of Damocles – this means that while a rich and powerful person enjoys all the benefits and riches that come with being in that position, they also have to deal with the threats that come along  with it and live in fear because of those threats. The term originates from a story by Cicero  – Dionysius was the tyrant of  Syracuse and had a courtier named Damocles whose job was to constantly flatter Dionysius. One day Damocles made a comment along the lines of how much he envied Dionysius his rich and powerful position. So Dionysius gave him his throne to experience the riches and the power, but at the same time suspended a sword with a horsehair over Damocles’ head. Damocles was unable to enjoy any of the luxuries because he was terrified of that sword over his head, and begged Dionysius to let him become a courtier again.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot 1718-19

Cutting the Gordian Knot – this means to solve a very complex or involved problem with a bold and swift action. The story behind it is that in 333 BCE Alexander the Great was marching through Anatolia and reached Gordium where he was shown an ancient chariot with a knot tied to its yoke. Anyone who could untie the knot would become ruler of Asia. Alexander – the great warrior – swiftly sliced through the knot with his sword – thereby giving rise to the phrase “cutting the Gordian Knot.”  

Titian, Sisyphus, 1548-49

Sisyphean Task – this is a pointless and unrewarding task that never ends. The origin is the Greek mythology of King Sisyphus of Ephyra who was always offending the Gods with his clever tricks and by cheating death with these tricks. He was punished by Pluto and sent to the underworld where he was forced to push a huge boulder up a hill. Not only was this a difficult task, it was also endless because as soon as the boulder reached the top of the hill it would roll off to the other side and Sisyphus would have to start the task all over again – and ever since then a pointless, endless task is known as a Sisyphean task.

Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy – noahwebster.org).

Kafka – Sunday Seven

We started reading Czech author Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in English last week and I am still trying to understand what I am supposed to make of this book. On its surface it’s quite simple – if one allows for all suspension of disbelief – a salesman goes to sleep a normal human being and wakes up a bug  and seriously what kind of life did Kafka live to have such a wild imagination. I realize we are dealing with deeper issues like an existential crisis – but still what an imagination. I decided to find interesting quotes by Kafka for this week’s Sunday Seven.

  • A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
  • In man’s struggle against the world, bet on the world.
  • Slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life.
  • I usually solve problems by letting them devour me.
Kafka Sculpture in Prague
  • They say ignorance is bliss….they’re wrong.
  • God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
  • Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.

And my favorite:

  • How about I sleep a little longer and forget all this nonsense.