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February 2013 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Way to go, Downton Abbey. Your show’s been staggering around on crutches since Matthew stood up from his wheelchair, and you blithely kick them away. This has not gone over well with either viewers or critics, quelle freakin’ surprise. The best analysis I’ve read (I’ve lost the source, sorry) is that the writers, having trod the well-worn path forged by Jane Austen, et al., had reached the point where Austen and the gang usually stopped, i.e., the happy ending/wedding.

But Fellowes & Co. forged bravely on, realizing too late they hadn’t a clue as to a proper plot beyond thwarted love, and wound up wandering in circles, spinning ludicrous subplots that went nowhere, and sporadically killing people. Literally in circles. Seriously, that’s the third maid canned for inappropriate romantic behavior, Daisy has unwanted suitors stacked up like incoming flights at LaGuardia, and why can’t poor Lady Edith get a boyfriend who isn’t a simpering wooden weirdo on wheels? (“Yes, you’re right, I am actually married … but my wife is in an asylum because she watched this show.”)

And now they’ve done away with arguably the most appealing character (Lady Sybil) and Matthew, who Slate dubbed “the Magical Middle-Class Guy,” the audience proxy and primary pivot in the arc of the show. Well done, chaps. That leaves Daisy the dramatic elbow room she’s always lacked, and the path is greased for another chapter in the treacle-sodden adventures of Bates and Anna. Perhaps they can open a Thomas Kincaide poster shop in town. But hey, no harm, no foul. Most of the audience probably shows up primarily to admire the furnishings and fantasize about how nice they’d be to their servants, so the fewer yammering actors in the way, the better. Not for nothing is PBS selling replica tiaras.

Yes, I know that Jessica Brown-Findlay and Dan Stevens, playing Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley, both declined to renew their contracts. But either Dan Stevens should have been replaced (it is a soap opera, after all, and that’s how soap operas handle such moments), or the entire series should have been rolled up and ended. But is life without Molesly, Little Jimmy, Thomas, et al., really necessary? Bewitched replaced Darrin and went on for another three years. It’s not too late to patch things up for next season. Why not go Full Gonzo and hire Charlie Sheen?

While we wait to see what lies in store for our plucky band, I recommend these two spirited and well done parodies made by the BBC back in 2011: Uptown Downstairs Abbey Part One and Part Two.

Oh well. It occurred to me the other day that if I ever won the lottery I’d probably watch a lot more TV. I see online discussions and I’m amazed that perfectly normal, intelligent people can actually DVR and watch 19 series episodes every week and be devoted fans of shows I’ve never heard of. But when you work at home, you really never leave the office, so there’s always a nagging feeling you should be doing something productive, which makes it difficult to really relax and veg out.

I’m also reluctant to watch any new series because I seem to cast a hex on whatever I decide to like and — bam — it’s immediately cancelled. Carnivale on HBO, The Event on NBC (I think), some weird thing about aliens in Florida a few years ago, and Last Resort on ABC have all fallen prey to my baleful interest. I started watching Law & Order UK on BBC America a while back, and in the third episode I saw they offed a major cast member. Seemed like a warning. Disheartening, to say the least.

For the moment, anyway, we’ve been watching The Americans on FX (an awful channel, judging from the ads they run), which centers on two KGB sleeper spies operating as a married couple with children in the suburbs of Washington in the early 1980s. The series was dreamed up by an ex-CIA agent and is predictably implausible, but does have some nice touches, such as a sly allusion to Soviet numbers stations and a plot involving an umbrella with a deadly tip, clearly modeled on the 1978 murder of Georgi Markov by Bulgarian and/or KGB agents in London. Note to the production designers, however: I seriously doubt that the Soviet embassy in DC in the 1980s actually decorated its walls with Bolshevik recruiting posters. But you can make up for that by showing the spies’ kids watching Rocky and Bullwinkle outwitting Boris and Natasha. Moose and squirrel forever!

OCD Update: OK, now we have our early 80s anti-hero crouched in the woods with a 21st century mini Maglight LED flashlight in his mouth, using what appears to be an early 2000s Kenwood transceiver and a small UHF Yagi antenna to communicate with somebody, hopefully somebody close by. Fifteen miles maybe, Moscow not so much. BTW gang, if you’re looking for authentic 1980s tech gear, eBay is full of it.

Here are some goats expressing their opinions.

As always, your support is deeply appreciated, which is to say that I spend every day obsessively scanning my incoming mail for those “You have a new subscriber” PayPal messages that keep us in peanut butter and cat food. So please consider subscribing.  And now, on with the show…

Hew and cleave

By the way, Hugh Beaumont played Beaver Cleaver’s father. Just sayin’.

Dear Word Detective: The words “hew” and “cleave” both have the same odd combination of meanings: “to cut,” or “to stick to.” Are they related? — Ken Lerner.

Um, yes and no. Next question. Oh, all right. No, they’re not really related in the sense of “having an etymological relationship” or “having some family connection that Cleave takes advantage of by borrowing Hew’s lawn trimmer.” The only attribute shared by “hew” and “cleave” is membership in the weird little club of English words known as “autoantonyms,” words with two opposite meanings (“auto” self, “anti” against, and “onyma,” Greek for “name”). Autoantonyms are also known as “contronyms,” “contranyms,” “antagonyms” and, sometimes, in a refreshing break from all those “nyms,” as “Janus words.” Janus was the Roman god of doorways and beginnings (thus “January,” the first month in the Roman calendar), and was depicted as having two faces (as doors can be used from two sides).

“Contranyms,” which is the simplest name for the breed, actually come in two flavors. Some are simply one word which has, over time and in a linguistic process called “polysemy” (Greek for “many signs”), developed two opposite meanings. The other kind of contranyms are homographs, two separate words that happen to share the same spelling, and are also antonyms, words that have opposite meanings. The result in both types of contranyms is a word which seems to have two meanings, but in the case of homographs, that’s because it actually is two separate words. “Hew” and “cleve” are actually good examples of the two kinds of contranyms. (However, the fact that the two opposite meanings of “hew” are essentially synonymous with the two opposite meanings of “cleave” is deeply spooky and ought to give us all the creeps.)

“Hew” is the first kind of contranym, the “gradual change in meaning” kind. We inherited “hew” from Old English (where it was “heawan”), and its basic meaning was “to cut or strike with a cutting tool or weapon; to chop, hack, etc.” Trees and the like have often been “hewed” with axes (or “hewn,” if a poet is doing the job), but the verb has also often been used in descriptions of battles in a depressingly non-metaphorical sense (“The front lines, hewing at each other with their long swords,” Sir Walter Scott, 1828).

But from day one, “hew” also had a more constructive meaning, that of “to shape, smooth, trim or form with an axe or a hammer and chisel, etc.” This sense is most often found today in the adjective “rough-hewn,” meaning something which has been shaped by chopping, etc., but lacks precise shaping and polish (“A long oaken table formed of planks rough-hewn from the forest … stood ready prepared for the evening meal,” Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819). But even such “hewing” required following a design for the finished product, and “to hew the line,” which first appeared in print in 1891, meant to cut closely along the line of a pattern. In a metaphorical sense, “hew the line” meant, and still does, “to stick to a plan and to obey instructions,” and “to hew” to something (e.g., your family, your principles) means to remain steadfast in your allegiance. So a verb which originally meant “to split apart” came to be its own antonym meaning “to conform, obey, adhere to.”

“Cleave” also means both “to split” and “to adhere,” but in this case the explanation is simpler, because the two opposite senses of “cleave” are actually two separate words and always have been. Both “cleaves” come from Old English and derive their base meanings from proto-Germanic roots. One “cleave” in Old English was “cleofan,” meaning “to split or separate,” especially by a blow from a sharp instrument. The past participle of this “cleve” is “cleft” (or “cloven”), meaning “split,” as in a “cleft palate” or the “cloven hooves” of a goat.

The other “cleave” was “clifian” in Old English, meaning “to stick, to adhere” (the same Germanic root gave us “clay”), and in literal use it’s essentially a synonym of “stick” (“Water in small quantity cleaveth to any thing that is solid,” Francis Bacon, 1626).  In modern English, this “cleave” is usually used in a figurative sense to mean “to remain faithful or devoted to” a person, cause, etc. (“We exhort you … to cleave for ever to those principles,” Edmund Burke, 1777). The two “cleaves” were originally clearly two separate words, but they had such a wide variety of forms that, beginning in the 14th century, they were commonly confused, which led to a common spelling, which only made things much murkier.

So in “cleave” and “hew” we have two (or three) words that are, in a sense, both double antonyms and double synonyms, and only by close attention to context can a reader or listener be certain of the meaning meant. That’s a prescription for bewilderment, and that potential for confusion is probably the reason that neither “hew” nor “cleave” is very popular outside of historical fiction today.


Don’t try this at home.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading through (and performing soon) an adaptation of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw.” There is a riddle in the play/novella, said by the young boy Miles: “One can possess me without seeing me. One can carry me without feeling me. One can give me without having me,” and the answer he gives to the riddle is “A cuckold’s horns.” From what I can find a “cuckold” refers to a husband who is aware of or allows his wife’s infidelity. I am still not sure the meaning of the term “cuckold’s horns” and how that is the answer to the riddle. I know that the term, in the story, shocks the governess to whom Miles is speaking the riddle. Any help? — Adie Williams.

Oh boy, a riddle. We love riddles (heads for the door). No, riddles are cool, being, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “A question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning.” Riddles have been around a long time; many ancient cultures revered riddles, and the word “riddle” itself can be traced back to an old Germanic root closely related to our word “read.” (The verb “to riddle,” meaning “to perforate with many holes,” comes from a different source, an Old English word meaning “sieve.”) The one riddle I can remember from my riddle-loving childhood is “What’s black and white and red all over,” which only works when posed aloud, since the answer is “the newspaper” and the whole thing depends on “red” and the participle of “to read” being homophones. It also depends on there being actual newspapers, so sic transit good riddle. Damn you, internet.

“Cuckold” is not a term that you run into very often, which is surprising since marital infidelity, if it doesn’t make the world go ’round (and we all hope it doesn’t), certainly keeps a flock of newspapers, several million websites and at least two “celebrity news” TV shows up and running. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cuckold,” which first appeared in English in the 14th century, as “A derisive name for the husband of an unfaithful wife.” The feminine equivalent of “cuckold” is the seriously obscure “cuckquean,” which appeared in the 16th century. The “quean” there is related to our English word “queen,” which originally simply meant “woman,” especially the wife of an important man.

The root of “cuckold” (and, by extension, “cuckquean”) is the Middle English “cokeweld,”  based on the Old French “cucuault,” which was “cocu” with the derogatory suffix “ault.” That  “cocu” is the French word for “cuckoo,” a little bird famous for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests (where, goes the cuckoo’s plan, they will be fed by the duped Mommy Bird). The cuckoo is also said, in folklore, to frequently change its mate, but the egg-swapping behavior, which is observably true, is probably enough on its own to justify “cuckold” as a description of certain humans’ behavior.

“Cuckold’s horns” is a derisive gesture many centuries old and found in most European cultures. The two common versions are holding one’s hands alongside one’s head with the index fingers simulating horns, and the one-handed form, in which the index and little fingers are pointed skyward while the other fingers are held down. Both versions are used to mock and denigrate a man behind his back by implying he is a cuckold; the common “V” gesture pranksters make behind the heads of friends in group photos is almost certainly derived from such “cuckold’s horns.”

Why horns? There are more than a dozen theories. Horns have been a symbol of marriage in many cultures, possibly referring to a wild animal being tamed. It’s also been suggested that the “horns” originally referred to horns given as trophies to Roman soldiers who excelled in battle. Since Roman campaigns often took men away from home for years, infidelity on the home front was nearly a given. It’s also been noted that a horned animal cannot see its own horns, making horns a good symbol of a wronged husband’s ignorance. Or the horn gesture may refer to a stronger man besting the husband in a battle for his wife’s affections. Whatever the source, “cuckold’s horns” remain one of the most widely recognized gestures around the world.