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July 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, this is very late, but there is an explanation.



In the first week of July our dear kitty Harry died suddenly. Harry would have been six this month, but he was the baby of the brood, the kitten who never really grew up, never lost his wide-eyed, innocent look. Harry was a sweet, sweet kitty, and his death was a horrible shock to us. We still don’t know what happened. He developed sudden difficulty breathing one evening, and we rushed him to the emergency vet, where he spent the night in an oxygen cage, and died the next afternoon. His sister and protector Phoebe is clearly bereft. She left her (and Harry’s) hangout on the second floor and climbed to the top of the tallest china cabinet in the dining room, where she stayed for almost two weeks.  She still won’t come upstairs. I know how she feels. Harry spent most of his time in my office and we had breakfast together nearly every day. He was very fond of buttered toast crumbs. I must have said, “What’s happenin’, Harry?” a thousand times over the years.

This is what I wrote back in 2004 about how Harry, Phoebe and Gus came to us:

Elsewhere in the news, I was wandering around the yard two weeks ago, and in the small wood that borders our northern field I found three small kittens, one orange, one brown striped, and one Siamese-looking,  mewing piteously.  So I gave them some food and water, but when I checked back later they were gone.  Oh well.

A few days later, elsewhere in the yard, the orange kitten emerged alone from the underbrush and began following me around, so I took him inside and gave him food, and a day later took him to the vet for a checkup.  But there was no sign of the other two, even though I searched over the next few days.

Harry took up residence in my office and gradually lost his shyness, chasing his ball and jumping up and down on my keyboard with glee.  But every few minutes he would stop playing, look around the room and start to cry.  He obviously missed his siblings, but there was nothing more we could do.

Exactly one week after Harry arrived, we were walking down the road late at night when we heard a crash in the underbrush and the two missing kittens came tumbling out a few feet away, meowing loudly.  My guess is that they recognized my voice as being that of The Food Guy.  I easily snagged the Siamese-looking one, but the little striped one bolted back into the bushes.  So midnight found me crawling through rusty barbed wire and poison ivy with a flashlight and a plate of Fancy Feast.  After a few minutes of discussion, Gus decided to come back to the house as well.  And Harry doesn’t cry any more.

Pictures of the kittens from those days can be found here.

I want to write more about Harry, and will link here when I do, but I’m not ready yet. There’s also the fact that Fuzzy Wuzzy, our enormous bobtail cat, is pretty seriously ill right now with a urinary blockage aggravated by veterinary incompetence.  Don’t get me started. And Harry’s brother Gus has his own problems, most likely a thyroid condition, still under investigation.

None of this comes cheap, of course, so if you’ve ever wondered when the right time to subscribe might be, this is as good as it gets.

Meanwhile, I discovered that it was possible to set up a Word Detective page on Facebook without actually being personally on Facebook, so you’ll see a link to that in the lower right column. You can’t “friend” me, but you can “like” the page, and every little bit helps.

And now, on with the show…

Whole cloth / Fabrication

Cloak of deceit.

Dear Word Detective:  I was just reading an old column of yours on the phrase “made it up out of whole cloth” to mean “lying” and wondered, given the textile reference, if there is any connection between “fabrication” and “fabric.” — Tim Maguire.

That sounds like the foundation of a bad pun, but it’s actually a good question.  Of course, that presumes that there is such a thing as a “good” pun, an assertion I would contest.  For some reason, probably born of a childhood trauma now buried in a cobwebbed corner of my psyche, I loathe puns. Feh.

Don’t mind me; I’m in a bad mood because I have to type this with an index finger badly bitten by an ungrateful cat.  Long story.  Where were we?   Yes, there is a family connection between “fabric” and “fabrication,” but the connection between “fabric” in the “cloth” sense and “fabrication” in the “lie” sense is very indirect, akin to that between two second cousins who  only met once, as children.

But before we proceed, we’d better take a moment to explain “to make something up out of whole cloth,” meaning to invent a story that contains not even a smidgen of truth.  “Whole cloth” has been used since the 15th century to mean a large piece of cloth in its original state, not yet cut up for sewing.  As a metaphor in use since the 19th century for a story completely invented out of thin air, “from whole cloth” carries the same sense of “starting from the absolute beginning” as is found in the phrase “starting from scratch,” which originally referred to a scratch or line drawn on the ground as the starting line for a race.

In the case of “fabric” and “fabrication,” the connection is a common root, the Latin noun “faber,” meaning a craftsman such as a carpenter or blacksmith.  The derivative “fabrica” meant “workshop” or “product,” and the verb “fabricare” meant “to make or build.”

That verb “fabricare” eventually gave us the English word “fabricate,” which appeared in the late 16th century with the meaning of “to make, construct or manufacture” anything that requires skill, but by the early 20th century “fabricate” had taken on the specific meaning of “to semi-finished materials into a finished product,” as one might “fabricate” bumpers from rolled steel.  (Whatever happened to steel bumpers, anyway?)  Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, that “make or construct” sense had led to the use of “fabricate” to mean “constructing” a story that was utterly untrue, which gave us “fabrication” meaning just such a lie.

The original meaning of “fabric,” when it first appeared in English in the late 15th century (derived via the French “fabrique” from the Latin “fabrica”) was, literally, “building”  (“A vaulted fabric without wood or iron-work, three stories high,” 1756).  “Fabric” went on to mean pretty much anything that could be built or manufactured, but settled down in the mid-18th century to being used in our modern sense to mean “textile, cloth.”  Interestingly, so complete has this narrowing process been that even figurative references to “the fabric of the universe,” etc., are usually based on this “textile” sense of “fabric” (“Faith in the Unseen and reverence for the Divine … are inwoven in the very fabric of our nature,” 1877).

So there is a connection between “fabric” and “fabrication,” but it has nothing to do with “whole cloth” and making stuff up.  Honest.


The noodle knows.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m reading about the famous 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, and it has repeated mentions of people referred to as “macaroni.”  It brings to mind other references from a decade or so before that, of it being a compliment to be told, “You look very macaroni.”  I looked up the definition, and — after wading through descriptions of pasta — it says the term was used for a while to refer to young men who affected foreign mannerisms.  Can you tell me how “macaroni” came to be used in this way?  I’m especially surprised that it was a compliment about looking or acting high-class, since — at least for those of us of Italian descent — macaroni is such a basic, down-to-earth food. — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Well, there you go.  Another gap in my education surfaces.  I was unaware that the Mona Lisa had ever actually been stolen, and that both Picasso and the poet Apollinaire were initially considered suspects.  It was eventually recovered, of course, and returned to the Louvre, but, according to Wikipedia, it’s been the target of attacks by aggrieved nutjobs ever since.  That explains why, when I saw it in Paris twenty years ago, it was behind bulletproof glass so thick that it might as well have been underwater.  Why can’t those crackpots just collect twine like the rest of us?

The Louvre employee who was eventually found to have stolen the painting was an Italian chap who felt that the painting belonged in Leonardo Da Vinci’s homeland, but I’m not sure that particular Italian connection is relevant to your question.  So perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning.

Macaroni is, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “A variety of pasta formed in short, narrow tubes, usually boiled and served with a sauce, esp. in Italian cookery; a dish consisting of this.”  The source of the word “macaroni,” which first appeared in English at the end of the 16th century, was the Italian “maccheroni,” which in turn was derived from the Greek “makaria,” meaning “food made from barley.”

But the fact that the word “macaroni” was known in English that long ago didn’t mean that the pasta itself was even remotely as popular outside of Italy as it is today.  In fact, non-Italians were likely to encounter it only on trips to Italy, and in the 18th century, wealthy young men who had been to Italy formed an exclusive “Macaroni Club” in London, adopting the pasta’s name as the mark of sophistication.  The general public was less than impressed, however, and “macaroni” soon became a slang term meaning “dissolute fop.”  This is the same “macaroni” found in the song “Yankee Doodle,” originally sung by British soldiers to annoy the American colonists by suggesting that the American bumpkins would think that sticking a feather in their cap would make them “cool.”  It’s possible that this is the sense of “macaroni” that you encountered in reading about the Mona Lisa theft.

But it’s more likely, especially given the date of the crime, that the “macaroni” in question was a later and sadly predictable use of the word in England as a derogatory slang term for anyone of Italian nationality or extraction.  This use first appeared in the mid-19th century and was still going strong in recent years (“The macaronis are shooting each other and it’s hard to tell who’s on whose side,” Elmore Leonard, 1985).  Given that the theft happened in 1911, it’s probable that this is the sense of “macaroni” you encountered.