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. 

Frosting, Still Life, Chariots

photo by Donna Boucher, used by permission
~  When I’m in a car, I muse on metaphors.  I see pleats in geography, accordions in foothills, belts in highways, down comforters in clouds.  On Sunday, the fields were white with frost, a typical late November morning.  My mind was groping for the right trope: sheets of chocolate cake with buttercream frosting. 

It was an aha! moment.  Frost → frosting.  Ice → Icing   Sweet!
Schindler’s List (*now* we may watch the movie) is a haunting read.  People dodged death one afternoon even though it was likely they wouldn’t escape the next morning.  “An hour of life is still life.”  To hold hope so tight… 
A Commandant’s morning routine was to go outside, stretch, pick up a rifle and pick off a prisoner.  The choice of victim was so random, mindless, unpredictable.  The recent Tacoma police shooting is yet another random, rattling, needless killing.   
~  Here is a hymn snippet: On the first Sunday of Advent while singing Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates we came to these lines.

A Helper just he comes to thee,
His chariot is humility.

We all have heard of Chariots of Fire.  You may know Psalm 20, “Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”  Chariots are often dazzling, splashy, flashy ways to arrive and leave.  But a chariot of humility?  What does that look like?  And why would a King of Glory ride in a chariot of humility?

This picture is challenging me. 

I naturally want my arrival to be noticed, a few more ta-DA moments, please!  Even in thinking about how I could choose the transportation of humility, I tend to romanticize the idea.  Any thoughts about chariots of humility?     



This fun list is taken from a list found in A Passion for Books : A Book Lover’s Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Love and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books.  This book is warmer than a down comforter, cuddlier than a teddy bear, more fun than a trampoline, and meets all the daily minimum requirements for your vitamins. 


Bibliobibule          One who reads too much
Biblioclast            One who tears pages from or otherwise destroys books
Bibliographe         One who describes books
Biblioklept            One who steals books
Bibliomane           One who accumulates books indiscriminately
Bibliomaniac         A book lover gone mad
Bibliophage           One who eats or devours books
Bibilophile             One who loves books
Bibliophobe           One who fears books
Bibliopole              One who sells books
Biblioriptos            One who throws books around
Bibliosopher          One who gains wisdom from books
Bibliotaphe            One who buries or hides books



This was our membership.  Burley called it that.  He loved to call it that. […]  The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given.  There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up.  What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing.  Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come.  In the long, anxious work of the tobacco harvest none of us considered that we were finished until everybody was finished.

The membership includes the dead.  […]

What will be remembered, Andy Catlett, when we are gone?  What will finally become of this lineage of people who have been members one of another?  I don’t know.  And yet their names and their faces, what they did and said, are not gone, are not “the past,” but still are present to me, and I give thanks.

 Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

When we are members of one another, remembering involves re-membering.

When one of us is cut down, it’s as if we have been dis-membered. 


Literally, Be mindful again.

Fun with Words

Every home needs a good encyclopedia of  Word and Phrase Origins.  This is the one in our house. It is a handy reference when you wonder how the phrase there is more than one way to skin a cat came into being.  I looked up bought the farm this morning. Before you knew it I was reading Bodleian Library, poppycock, lollygagging and lose face to my breathless audience.

If you assembled the right group of people – I like to call them word birds, but some say word nerds – (and I dare say some of you qualify, eh?) you could spend a jolly good time passing the book around, randomly reading an entry, laughing and talking about it. Add a glass of wine or steaming cup of tea, a plate of scones in the middle of the room, and you have the makings of a party I would want to host or attend. 

“Put the book down, Carol.” the once booming, still-strengthening voice of my husband brings me back to life.  We have details to deal with.  Each one on its own is minuscule, but combined they can a force to reckon with. Remember cleaning the grout?  I’m easily distracted today, but word and phrase origins is one delightful distraction.