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.

Sunday Seven – Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa is considered one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th Century. She was a nun and a missionary who dedicated her life to helping the orphans in Calcutta (India). She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, and was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta after her death in 1997. On this Mother’s Day Sunday, I want to dedicate my Sunday Seven to her quotes.

  • A life not lived for others is not a life.
  • I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create ripples.
  • Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.
  • If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.
  • It is a kingly act to assist the fallen.
  • Peace begins with a smile.
  • We fear the future because we are wasting today.
  • Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.

For the love of trees – Sunday Seven.

Have you noticed how beautiful and lush trees look at this time of year? I love going for a walk on the trail near my house and walking amongst the trees – a sense of calm washes over me when I am with the trees. I decided to do this week’s Sunday Seven about trees and what they mean to different people.

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit. Nelson Henderson.

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. Khalil Gibran.

Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking. Wangari Maathai.

When you’re outnumbered by trees, your perspective shifts. Jessica Marie Baumgartner.

What a joy it is to see, trees dancing in the rain! Charmaine J. Forde.

Things that can’t move, learn to see. Louise Glick.

Believe me, for I know, you will find something far greater in the woods than in books. Stones and trees will teach you that which you cannot learn from the masters. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Be like a tree, let the dead leaves drop. Rumi.

(Image – Gustav Klimt, The Park, 1910 or earlier. MOMA)

JMW Turner and the Sublime

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming
Before it seeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
             JMW Turner (1812)

The master of sublime was born on this day in 1775. Joseph Mallord William Turner was an English painter of the Romantic style, and is well known for his landscape paintings in which he captures the sublime.

Sublime, according to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) is a concept which instills fascination mixed with fear when one is in the presence of something larger than oneself. Sublime evokes the power of God and of nature. Turner was a master of instilling his paintings with this concept of sublime – reflecting the British Romantic interest in the awe-inspiring power of nature.

In The Slave Ship (1840), one of his most celebrated paintings, Turner evokes sublime both through the power of nature as seen in the powerful and turbulent ocean and the impending typhoon, and the power of God who is all powerful and sees all of man’s deeds. The shipowner has just emptied a number of sick and old slaves into the ocean for the purpose of collecting insurance for lost cargo, but as the ship moves further into the ocean the typhoon may drown the ship – such is the indiscriminate power of nature that renders all men helpless in its wake.

Here, we are in the presence of an all-powerful, angry, and disapproving God, the bright and fierce sunshine is symbolic of an angry God who will dole out justice to the slave owner when he sails his ship into a typhoon. As a viewer we are left in awe – fearful and inspired in equal measure by the emotions Turner evokes in this painting.

Amphora – yes the @ sign has a name

The symbol @ is so commonly used today that most of us don’t even notice it. I’ve heard it being referred to as “at the rate of” and I didn’t think that that was its actual name. Which got me wondering on what its real name was, and how did it end up in our email addresses.

The origin of the symbol again goes back to the ingenious medieval scribes looking to make their job of scribing easier by finding shortcuts.  They may have used the symbol for the Latin word “ad” which means toward. It’s first known use though is where it was used to represent the words “each at” and the e and a being joined together to form the symbol. 

Ancient clay jars called Amphoras

Its first documented use, from where it also gets its name, was in 1536 when a Florentine wine merchant Francesco Lapi used the symbol @ for units of wine sold in clay jars or Amphoras. With this its use in commerce started and merchants started to use it to tell the price of each unit of the item being purchased – 10 loaves of bread @ $1, meaning total cost of $10. Its use in this manner in commerce continued until 1971, and perhaps it was this exclusive use in commerce that made it a good option for use in emails.

An Italian Merchant uses the @ symbol in 1536 (courtesy MOMA website)

The typewriters of 1800s did not even include the symbol in their keyboards. It was not until 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was looking for a way to start sending emails outside of his host environment, and into another host environment that he noticed the barely used @ key on the keyboard of his computer. He realized it was barely used which made it easier for him to choose it. He used it to separate his name from the host network name – and changed the history of the barely used Amphora.

With this decision, the @ symbol was rescued from obscurity, and a life in history books. By using it as the bridge between individual and host network names, he made it the most important part of how humans connect and interact with each other in the digital world.

He Said What ‽

Sometimes an exclamation mark just does not suffice – neither does just a question mark – the two have to be used together for full impact of the incredulity and shock expressed by the question. For those times we have the interrobang. A perfect example of when an interrobang is required is when one girlfriend says to another – “He said what‽” or when you ask your family, “Who ate the last piece of cake‽”

The interrobang was first used by advertising agency owner Martin K. Specter when he used it in a TYPEtalks magazine article in 1962. The term itself is a combination of the Latin word for a rhetorical questions interrogatio, and the printer and proofreader’s slang for the exclamation mark, bang. The Remington typewriter included the interrobang key in its typewriter in 1968 – but sadly this very useful punctuation mark did not really gain much traction after the 1960s.

Interrogati+ Bang ?!

With its balance of excitement and outrage, and the prevalence of social media in our lives, I am surprised the interrobang has not caught on more, it seems to be a match made in heaven. Perhaps the time is right for the interrobang to rise again and take its rightful place in our shockaholic world.

The 27th Alphabet

The beauty of language is that it is always changing – it molds itself to fit the needs of the times. Over the ages, as we have gone from using scribes who wrote and copied everything by hand, to the printing press, and now to word-processing tools, it is not just language – the alphabet too has changed.

The much loved and decorated ampersand is one such character that was once an alphabet and is today considered punctuation (in Unicode) and a symbol. In fact it was, for a while, the 27th alphabet of the English language.

Ampersand traces its origins to the Roman scribes.

The ampersand traces its origin – as does so much else – to Ancient Romans, specifically Ancient Roman scribes. The scribes would write in cursive in order to speed up their work and when they wrote et – Latin for “and” – they started joining the two letter together and formed the ligature &. So the e and the t – hastily written started to look like the symbol or glyph &.   

The ligature was then adopted by the printing press – in fact the Gutenberg press had 292 such glyphs. For years, the glyph & was the 27th letter of the alphabet – so when students recited the alphabet they would end with X, Y, Z and per se and – which literally translates to (the character) & by itself (is the word) and. The “and per se and” got corrupted and started to be pronounced as ampersand – and the name stuck even when it was removed from the alphabet (sometime in the mid to late 19th century).

Ampersands are most commonly used today in names of companies – AT&T, Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry’s, H&M are some that come to mind instantly.

Next up….. Interrobangs!!

Happy 250th – Mr. Wordsworth

Ten thousand I saw at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance

William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770 and remains one of the world’s most beloved. He was from the Lakes District region of England, and it was here, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that he wrote the Lyrical Ballads in 1798.  This collection of poems stared a literary, cultural, and artistic movement known as Romanticism. There is no doubt that nature, particularly the landscape of England, was his muse – we can see that from his words, “Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher.”

The landscape that inspired Wordsworth

The world has paused and one of the beneficiaries of that is nature – and as we look around at the resilience of nature and its ability to recover, we are inspired. We gain an awareness of how steadfast nature is, and its profound and extraordinary impact on us. Wordsworth knew well and loved the landscape he grew up in, and wrote over and over again about its ability to move him.  One such poem is “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1978” or “Tintern Abbey” for short.


Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

English landscape artist JMW Turner (left) also found inspiration in the abbey, as did Welsh artist Edward Dayes.