Category Archives: Grammar

Obscurities: Petrichor

Obscure 19Today’s obscure word is one which describes something most of us know and love, but which most of us have probably never even thought about naming: Petrichor. It’s used to describe that delicious scent hanging in the air after rain has fallen on dry ground. The word entered the English language in the 1960s, and is a combination of the Greek terms “petra,” which means stone, and “ichor,” which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

I grew up quite aware of nature: We would sit outside on porch swings to soak in the atmosphere of a spring or summer rain, sometimes curled up in blankets and usually silent as we listened to the rain pattering off tree leaves, or grass, or hitting the steaming asphalt of the street in front of our house. I could recognize the smell of approaching rain; I could recognize the signs of a coming tornado (that’s Kansas for you!) and could feel the crackle of electricity in the air prior to a lightning storm. Just before lightning strikes, there’s ominous silence, as if all energy has suddenly been diverted to that interaction; after it releases, the sounds of nature pick up again where they left off.

One sound I miss that was associated in my mind with those spring and summer rains is the chirping of cicadas in the evenings. We don’t really have such insects here in Switzerland, though I still have the sounds of crickets chirping at night, and the rain dancing across the forest and housetops, and the smell of Petrichor hanging in the air.

Rain 2

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, Grammar, Obscurities, Writing Prompt

History Undusted: Bells

Recently, my husband was catching up with the articles on my blog, and he made the cheeky comment that I’d written about everything except the history of bells. Now, I know that’s not true – there are other things out there I still have yet to discover – but I took up the challenge; hence, this post. The history of bells, or of anything, for that matter, is an audacious title; as Mark Twain once said, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” At best, such an online article can skim the surface of any historical topic; my purpose is not to give an extensive report – it’s to whet your appetites to search out history for yourself. I “undust” it for you – it’s up to you to grab it by the horns and hang on.

Every country has their favourite bells: Americans have the Liberty Bell (“At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.” – Allen Johnson); the Brits have Big Ben (it’s the actual name of the bell, not the clock tower) and other, regional celebrities; the Russians have the Tsar Bell, in Moscow; the Polish have the Sigismund, located in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. but where did they come from originally? What was their original purpose?

The oldest known bell is from around 2000 BC, from Neolithic China, and it was made of pottery tiles. As far as historians can deduce, the bell has always been associated with two social functions: As a signal for messages, such as when a work day would begin or end, and for calls to religious ceremonies or as reminders for specific times of day for various rituals. The sound of bells have always been associated with divinity, likely because it was a sound unlike any natural sound known to the people who heard them ringing out over a great distance – they could hear them, but not see the source of the sound. In ancient times, when most people were both uneducated and superstitious, it’s not hard to follow such reasoning.

Bells can range from tiny jingle bells to several tonnes; the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was the largest bell ever made, in 1484, for King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy Pegu (Lower Burma), and weighed 327 tonnes. It was placed in the temple of Shwedagon Pagoda and stolen by the Portuguese – whose ship promptly sunk under the weight of the bell.

Today, church bells still ring out across Europe, calling parishioners to church services, as well as ringing out on the hour to mark the passing of time. They ring out in special ways for various celebrations, whether weddings or holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter.

16th century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell - Wikipedia

16th-century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell – Wikipedia

Certain kinds of bells hold special value: Ship’s bells are like catnip to divers – they’re the primary method of identifying ships, as their names are engraved on the bells even long after the painted names on the hulls have succumbed to the sea; they are a wreck-diver’s trophy of desire, and always hold special place in their collections. An interesting link between diving and bells is that the first actual diving bells – the rigid chambers designed to transport divers from the surface to the depths and back – were shaped like ringing bells; the air would be trapped in the upside-down chamber, allowing a person to be underwater and still breathe. The first description of its use is recorded by Aristotle in the 4th century BC; the most famous diver from that period is Alexander the Great.

 

English has many idioms associated with bells: Alarm bells ringing (or set off alarm bells, or warning bells going off – i.e. your mind is warning you about a danger or deception in a particular situation); to be as sound as a bell (to be healthy or in good condition); when something has (all the) bells and whistles (extra or entertaining features or functions that aren’t necessary, but nice-to-haves); Hell’s bells! (an expression when one is surprised or annoyed); something rings a bell (i.e. sounds familiar); saved by the bell (i.e. a difficult situation is ended suddenly by an unforeseen interruption); with bells on (i.e. if you go somewhere or do something with bells on, you do it with great enthusiasm or energy); to bell the cat (i.e. undertake a difficult or dangerous task); something to be as clear as a bell (i.e. clearly understood); pull the other leg/one – it has bells on it (i.e. you don’t fool me); one can’t unring a bell (once something has been said or done, you can’t unsay or undo it); the final bell (the end of an event or, euphemistically, a life). I’m sure there are more – if you know of one, please leave it in the comments below!

There is also a powerful experience written by Corrie Ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor, about the Bells of Forgiveness – you can read her story here.

If you’ve got an hour to spare, BBC has an hour-long “History of Bell Ringing” video on YouTube.

So there you have it: Bells, undusted, to pull your rope cord and get those bells ringing in your head, to find out more for yourself!

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Filed under Articles, Grammar, History, History Undusted, Military History, Quotes, Research

Wordless Wednesday #65: Cats & Commas

Cat & Grammar

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August 14, 2019 · 6:32 PM

A Rabble of Animals

Collective Noun - Murder of Crows

Did you know that a group of vultures has a sense of humour? Or at least the people who decided to name them did (likely back in the 16th century, when a slew of collective nouns emerged): While hanging out and doing nothing, vultures are called a committee. When feeding, they’re called a wake. There’s irony in them thar’ varmints.

Some collective nouns are common sense, and others simply common, such as packs of wolves, flocks of birds or herds of cattle; but did you know that lice flock, and sea urchins form herds, too? If I say swarm, you might think of flies or gnats or even minnows; but you could use the same word to describe a group of eels.

Worms bed, dotterels trip, cheetahs form a coalition, and Hippopotami bloat. Rhinoceroses either crash or form a stubbornness, while skunks stench and squirrels scurry. Jellyfish smack, brood or fluther, while oysters bed and goldfish glint or create a troubling. Butterflies flutter, swarm or kaleidoscope; caterpillars army, while grasshoppers cloud.

There are some fun combinations: Crows murder (they also gather as a storytelling or a parcel), Flamingos flamboyance, guillemots bazaar, gulls screech (don’t they, though?), and hawks kettle (flying in large numbers) and boil (two or more spiralling on an updraft). Hummingbirds charm, as do Magpies (unless they murder), and owls and rooks hold a parliament – I’d trust them to do so more than most politicians. Peacocks muster, ostentation and pride, while penguins tuxedo or huddle (I kid you not). Young penguins gather in a Créche, just like human toddlers, and seagulls squabble.

Starlings form beautiful murmurations and chatterings, while swifts scream and tigers ambush. I’d love to see a zeal of zebras, but not so much a prickle of porcupines. Whales pod while trout hover and stingrays fever; snails walk, frogs knot and, believe it or not, rattlesnakes rhumba! Elephants gather as a memory, while deer gang and bucks clash, and gnus form an implausibility. Running into a mob of kangaroos might be quite pleasant, but not an intrusion of cockroaches!

There are hundreds more such collective nouns; English is an ever-changing language, but some things are just too good to allow them to go the way of the Dodo, so add a few more colourful expressions to your language, and enjoy the idiosyncrasies of English!

I’ll just add that, by now, my grammar-checking program is having a nervous breakdown.

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Filed under Articles, Cartoon, Grammar, Humor, Lists, Nuts & Bolts, Research

Wordless Wednesday #54: Punctuation

Punctuation

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October 31, 2018 · 5:32 PM

Wordless Wednesday #51: Punctuation Matters

Punctuation Matters.jpg

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August 1, 2018 · 11:43 PM

Obscurities: Flumadiddle

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Wiktionary,  Flumadiddle(s) is something completely nonsensical or ridiculous; utter nonsense; cheap, worthless frills.   According to Dictionary.com, it is an Americanism that arose in the 1840s as a combination of flummery, meaning “complete nonsense,” and diddle, meaning “to fool with.”  It’s also the name for a savoury dish from the region around Cape Cod; click here to see the recipe.

I think it’s a word well worth rescuing from obscurity!  In fact, it’s probably more relevant than ever in our modern “culture” (I use that term cautiously, as what some people consider culture, others consider flumadiddle).  IMHO, flumadiddle could be applied to most television series, political speeches, internet “information”, and even many news articles.  So add it to your vocabulary, and have fun!

Obscure 1

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Filed under Etymology, Grammar, History, Obscurities, Writing Prompt

Wordless Wednesday #36: Wordly Wisdom

Alliteration 1

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November 9, 2017 · 1:01 AM

Obscurities: Nyctophilia

English is an amazing language, full of words even most English speakers have never heard of.  I love finding obscure words – there are websites full of them.  I’m going to do my part in saving them from extinction by using them as often as possible… because sometimes, it’s just fun to confuse people!

Nyctophilia is such a rare word form that not even Wiktionary has an entry on it yet (though they do have “nyctophile”).  It’s close to my heart, as I am a pure (can I make up my own word, please?) nyctophilite.  I’d do everything in the dark if I could.  I do fitness at night when the rest of the world has gone to bed, and I usually go to bed after the sun has risen; our exchange student used to call me a half-vampire.  I fold clothes, clean house, and walk around our house in complete darkness, and I’m even teaching myself to crochet without looking so that I can do that in the dark, too.  There’s just something about darkness that I find restful, and peaceful.  My favourite hours are in the night, and I avoid strong light as I have sensitive eyes.  I’d be perfectly happy to live in the arctic circle for the winter months, except for the cold.

Are you a fellow nyctophilite?  Or do you have nyctophobia?

Obscure 8

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Wordless Wednesday #31: Kidnapped

Kidnapped

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August 16, 2017 · 5:48 PM