Gorging on gorgeous phrases

…capacity for conjecture…
…this barbwire twist of my career…
…clamped to a book…
…a barely audible aria of whistling…
…bridal train of dust…
…a granary of learning…
…a dervish of vocabulary…
…toxin at one end and a tocsin at the other…
…the specter of the inspector…
…lack of budge in budget…
…our impatient patient…
…trying to be harmonic, not philharmonic…

I’m slowing my pace, enjoying the feast.


Holy Toledo!

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This morning, reading a reference to El Greco’s stormy sky over Toledo, I was taken back ten years.

Holy Toledo! somebody exclaimed. My son, in the neighborhood of eleven years old, asked “Why is a city in Spain holy?”

His grandpa stared—the laser beam—at him. “City in Spain?” He looked away, sighed, shaking his head. “Try city in Ohio.”

Now it was Collin’s turn to demonstrate incredulous. We had been reading about the Auto-da-Fé. If he knew anything, he knew that Toledo was a city in Spain. He’d never heard of Toledo, Ohio.

They both looked at me.

Steady, I thought, steady. I smiled.

You are both correct! Toledo is a city in Spain and a city in Ohio.

That neither of them knew both facts surprised me.  Americans, I think, tend to speak only English and be familiar only with America. But many classically-educated kids know details of the Peloponnesian War but not a rudimentary fact about their own state. (That, my friend, is not a theoretical example.)  

It makes me curious? Did you know both* locations of Toledo?



*Per Wikipedia, Toledo is a also district in Belize, a municipality in Brazil, a town in Colombia, and a city in the Philippines, in Uruguay, in Illinois, Iowa, Oregon and Washington.





Our beloved Latin teacher gave us so much more than Latin lessons. His knowledge base was so great that art, music, cultural analysis, poetry and word-perfect quotes co-mingled with Latin grammar and vocabulary. But the words. Oh, the words. Inevitably, in dulcet tones, he prefaced his remarks, “Now here’s a word you will need to know.” And I, silly girl who thought she had, ahem, an advanced vocabulary, would hear him pronounce a word I had never read, heard, seen, smelt or tasted.  Never ever.

It’s a wonder my eyes don’t permanently face backward, with all the mental eye-rolling I performed.  Hah! How could it be such an important word? I’ve never even heard of it!  Ah, the arrogance, the pure high-octane arrogance. <blushes>

You know what would follow: that word would crop up here, there and everywhere within days and weeks of my learning it.  But now I owned that word. It was mine.

And to this day it is a sweet delight to read a word taught to me by my beloved Latin scholar.

Palimpsest is one of those words. It means ‘a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next.’  Imagine a monk in a scriptorium with no skins to write on, but a vast library close by. He finds something he believes is obscure, scrapes the hide, and carries on with his copying.

Last night I found my old friend palimpsest in relation to a DOG (!) in Alexander McCall Smith’s novel Love Over Scotland.

…Cyril [Angus’s dog] was rapidly diverted from this agreeable fantasy to the real world of smells for a dog, and Drummond Place, though familiar territory, was rich in possibilities; each passer-by left a trail that spoke to where he had been and what he had been doing — a whole history might lie on the pavement, like song-lines across the Australian Outback, detectable only to those with the necessary nose. Other smells were like a palimpsest: odour laid upon odour, smells that could be peeled off to reveal the whiff below.



Words, Words, Words


The request to swap Margaret Ernst’s charming book In a Word put me into a panic. I loved this book and didn’t agree with my former self who had decided to list it on Paperbackswap. But I resolved to be brave, and also to quickly read it through—one more time—before I sent it off.

The flow of language, the roots of words, the vicissitudes of meaning: I find all these fascinating.

The ability to see the secrets behind the letters of words, their nuances, their humble beginnings, is one compelling reason to study a foreign language.

Companion is one of my favorite words. It comes from the Latin com (together) + panis (bread).  Thus, a companion is a person you share meals with. I know it. I love it. But I didn’t know that pantry is a place where bread was made or kept.

I could bore you with a list of stuff I learned. I could tell you that mistletoe is from an Old German word for dung, because it was believed that the plant grew from bird droppings.  I could go on with the word vogue which means to sail forth and comes from the swaying motion of a ship. Your eyelids could close listening to how calm comes from the Greek, burning heat, and how gossamer literally means goose summer. You could nod off to my voice noticing the relationship between climate, from the Greek word slope, and climax, from the Greek word ladder.  Then you would bolt upright in shock when you heard the origin of the word testify, and how the King James Version euphemistically says that an oath is taken by placing the hand on the thigh.

Let’s just stop one minute and focus.

Focus – straight over from the Latin meaning hearth, fireplace. I quote Margaret Ernst: In the days before we became nomads in the apartment-house era, the hearth was the focus of the home and home life. Now, like poor photography, we are out of focus. The word was first used in a mathematical sense in 1604 by Kepler, who likened the focus of a curve to the burning-point of a lens.

There are online sources to give you a joyful understanding of words.  Douglas Harper writes:

Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant 600 or 2,000 years ago. Think of it as looking at pictures of your friends’ parents when they were your age. People will continue to use words as they will, finding wider meanings for old words and coining new ones to fit new situations. In fact, this list is a testimony to that process.

One advantage print books have over online resources is that they are easy to browse. This is a perfect, ahem, bathroom book, given you are one that keeps books in bathrooms. Perhaps it is a perfect bedside book, one you can spend a few pages with before sleep. Although this is a fun little book, it is not nearly as extensive as the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.

Word of the Week: Susurration

Last week I read PD James’ autobiography, A Time To Be In Earnest.  I came across a word I have no memory of previously meeting: susurration.

In my response to this book I wrote:

This quote is representative of her prose. I love the sibilance and onomatopoeia of susurration, a word spell-check is unfamiliar with.


I stood for a moment in complete silence broken
only by the note of a song bird and the susurration
[a soft, whispering or rustling sound] of the breeze
in the wayside grasses. It was one of those moments
of happiness and contentment which give reality to death,
since however long we have to live, there are never enough springs.

I carried this delicious word around in the pockets of my mind, taking it out, turning it over and examining it while I drove to the post office or made my bed.

I am finishing up Russell Kirk’s autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, and lo! I found the down-pillow-of-a-word again!  He writes of Clinton Wallace, a hobo whom they took into their home and lives for the last six years of Clinton’s life.

Walking the roads most of his life, Clinton Wallace had picked up in public libraries or in the lonely rooms of old hotels a tremendous fund of miscellaneous knowledge. Once he startled Kirk, in connection with some mention of change of regimes, by remarking “Arnold Toynbee writes of the susurrus of silken slippers descending the stairs, and the tramp of hobnailed boots coming up.”

Quotes from Island of the World


I couldn’t put enough quotes in my review of Island of the World.  So here, with space to stretch and relax, are some I marked. I omitted longer sections and any spoilers.  All are from the pen of Michael O’Brien.

~  I’m giving away a copy of this book to one of my readers.  ~
Enter a comment here.

Language should be, he says, as fluid as love and as stable as marriage.

There are times when it is hard to resist the world that is so rapidly changing all around him.  It takes energy to resist, even if only within the privacy of his thoughts.

Life is strange. But God has the final word.

Life itself is the great surprise, and all that is within it is an unpacking of subsidiary wonders.

Europeans understand that flavor is not about sensory stimulation, it is about evocation. It is art and memory. It is reunion with exalted moments, and such moments are never solitary ones. In short, life without coffee is not really life.

The killers murder not only their immediate victims; they spread death into the souls of survivors.

Can you really see the future if you have not seen the past for what it was?

Can a dwelling place without books every truly be a home?

They like a bit of verse as emotional prompts on greeting cards or as page-filler in periodicals, but they do not dive deep. Perhaps they do not know the deep is there. The pace of modern life, television, subways, fast food–these all work against the sublime illuminating moment when the distance between utterance and reception is closed in an embrace.

They are enjoying the rather unusual experience of it all–the sensation of a time-tested and comfortable friendship that is only hours old.

It may be that he cannot always distinguish between his losses and blessings, and the release of tears reduces the pressure.

Truth is always embedded in beauty.

On Christmas morning, they awake to the sound of bells ringing throughout the city. This, doubtless, is illegal, but the government probably does not have the stamina to destroy Christmas utterly.

Is he alone? Yes, he is alone, and yet, not alone. Beyond all sorrows, he has the fire of Holy Communion with Christ, as well as friends and fishing and the central grace in his life–his mission to forgive.

We are born, we eat, and learn, and die.  We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.

The Final Christmas Card

Her name is Precious. 

When I was 13, she hired me to clean her house on Saturdays.  She was getting a break from vacuuming and dusting, but in reality she was giving me relief from the confusion and tension of my family life.  The highlight was eating lunch together.  She introduced me to oyster crackers while she told me the secret of her long marriage was growing up with her husband. She was 15 when she married Roy.  After two years as a Saturday maid, I took a “real” job at a store. 

When I got married, of course I invited Precious to my wedding, unaware that she had changed churches and no longer mixed with most of the folks attending.  She was so glad to be included.  Her wedding gift – a Presto Pressure Cooker – is a gift I continue to use 31 years later.

On one of their jaunts around the country, Roy and Precious visited us in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  Always radiant, she woke early and cleaned up my kitchen before showing me her daily floor exercises.  A stickler for good posture, she would urge me to “look up at the third story, Carol, and keep your shoulders back!”

Every year I look forward to receiving a Christmas card recycled into a postcard from Precious.  When I read her unwavering handwriting, I can hear her voice.  She let me know of Roy’s death, of her move to Mississippi, all with her own special grace.  And as she has aged, I always wonder while I wait, if I will hear from her this year.  In the funny way of friendships, we have no one else in common, no other link to each other.* 

This is the card I received this year:

“Merry Christmas” Carol and Curt & Family
and a Blessed New Years.
Since I was 89 on 9/11 old age is evident,
but the Lord meets every need.
Looking forward to Eternity w/ old friends
& am not sending cards in the future-
will see you in Heaven in God’s timing.
Rejoicing in Jesus,

* I reconnected with another friend from that era; after reading this, she emailed me to say she is also a Precious friend.