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September 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


So there’s this spider who lives by the light over the door to our house that we use most of the time. (There are three doors to our house, which is not surprising, given that there are six — count ’em — doors into the kitchen.) Anyway, this is one very ambitious spider. Every evening she spins an elaborate, perfect web to catch bugs coming to the light. In contrast to the resident spiders in previous summers, who were satisfied with compact webs in the corner of the doorframe, this one spins webs that cover the top two-thirds of the door, so to enter or exit after dark requires crouching down to nearly knee-level, which is even less fun than it sounds.

Every morning the remnants of the web hang in tatters, torn by the larger insects (moths, mostly) who are caught but then break free, and I knock the whole thing down with a broom. The spider at that point is elsewhere, probably asleep in the doorframe. Then, as evening falls, she’s suddenly there again, sitting in the center of a  perfect new web. The door itself is mostly one large glass panel in a wooden frame, so if there’s nothing on TV I can wander over there and wave to her.

Like any red-blooded American boy, I actually dislike and fear spiders, but living in the country has made me very reluctant to kill anything. There are millions of assorted creepy-crawly things living within ten yards of this house, and there’s a good chance they all know each other. Besides, she’s just a little spider with one little spider-life.

Onward. I’m still in the process of reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which is not surprising since it’s 760 pages long and I read maybe 15 pages a night. Then I think about it, and often re-read bits. Occasionally I have dreams based on parts of the book. It’s an exceedingly odd book, often somewhat hard to follow because Pynchon shifts narrative viewpoints, frequently without notice. But I’ve found that the best approach is to just keep going, because things usually become clear (or clearer) down the line. Pynchon is a remarkable writer, and between the jokes and digressions are passages of truly amazing beauty. Reading him is a bit like listening to Bach; every so often you finish a section and find yourself wondering How in the world does he do that? The story of Franz Pökler (an engineer on the project developing the V-2 rocket) and his daughter, who is allowed to visit once a year and may actually be someone other than his daughter, perhaps a different child every year, is both deeply disturbing and hauntingly sad. Much of Pynchon’s work, not just this book, has a subtext of elegiac sadness to it.

Anyway, having read a few of his later books, I definitely prefer GR, as it’s known among the Pynchonitarians, of whom there are useful thousands online maintaining wikis, timelines and very handy glossaries. (One of my favorites is a guide called “Some Things that ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow.” That says it all right there. You can never be absolutely sure.) I keep reading people saying they gave up on GR halfway through, but I think I’m the sort who finishes it and then reads it again.

By the way, not only does my little b&w Nook let me make the print bigger, but it completely removes the intimidation factor from huge books.

Continue reading this post » » »


And that was after he shot all the fish in his pond.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about one of the uses of the word “fence.” As referring to an enclosure or barrier, that’s easy enough since I have one around my yard. It’s also French for sword fighting. No problem there since I watch all those old swashbuckler movies on late-night cable. But how did it come to refer to the sale of stolen goods? My dictionary is of no help. — Wm Watkins.

That’s an interesting question. We don’t actually have a fence around our yard, but we do have about an acre of wild raspberry bushes, a/k/a nature’s razor wire, on one side of us. I let them grow up a few years ago when one of our neighbors developed a major rage problem, shooting at all sorts of inanimate objects (e.g., rocks) for hours on end. I figured the thorns would at least slow him down if he ever went completely postal. He eventually moved away, fortunately. No fence, no matter how good, would have made that loon a good neighbor.

“Fence” is a fascinating word. The first interesting thing about “fence” is that we use it in all sorts of ways, from the wholesome white picket “fence” around Beaver Cleaver’s house to the seedy “fence” who buys stolen iPads, and, as a verb, to mean both “to build a fence” and “to dance around waving swords while wearing a big tea-strainer on your face.”

We also use “fence” in all sorts of phrases and idioms, from “good fences make good neighbors” (popularized, but not coined, by Robert Frost), to “fence sitter” or “on the fence” meaning a person who refuses to take a position in a controversy, to “mend fences,” meaning “to make peace with an opponent.” Yet we also describe a pointed but restrained argument with someone, especially when one party tries to avoid admitting something, as “fencing” ( “For several months … diplomatists fenced among themselves,” 1855).

The second interesting thing about all these uses of “fence” as both a noun and a verb is that they are all the same word, and that word is, oddly enough, not really “fence.” Our modern word “fence” is really just an aphetic, or cropped, form of the word “defense” (or, in the British spelling, “defence”). “Defense” entered English in the early 14th century from the Old French “defense,” which was derived from the Latin “defendere,” meaning “to protect; defend.” (“Defense” actually entered English twice from Old French, the second time as “defens,” but the forms later merged.) The form “fence” developed in the 14th century meaning “the action of defending,” but by the 15th century “fence” was beginning to assume its modern meaning of “barrier” or “enclosure.”

The use of “fence” to mean “use of a sword in combat,” especially in a formal duel, arose in the 17th century, and was actually the earliest use of “fence” as a verb. In “fencing” great emphasis is given to blocking the strikes of the opponent (as opposed to simply wading in and slashing away), and “to fence” is thus derived from the sense of mounting a proper “defense” to the jabs and so forth of the other fighter. The use of “fence” in the “argue” sense is from this highly stylized form of sword fighting, and debaters often use the jargon of fencing (“thrust,” “parry,” etc.) in describing the verbal action.

The use of “fence” as criminal slang to mean a person who buys stolen goods dates back to the 17th century (“Habberfield … was considered the safest fence about town,” 1812). This use also rests on “fence” in the old “means of defense” meaning. A “fence,” by buying “hot” goods from a thief, provides a defense for the criminal by relieving the miscreant of the burden of holding the evidence (and quite possibly being caught with it) until a buyer can be found. Once stolen goods are “fenced,” it becomes much harder to prove theft; thus, in this case, a good fence makes life easier for a very bad neighbor.


 My back pages.

Dear Word Detective: I saw an old piece of yours from 2000 about the origin of the term “goon.” I don’t own an etymological dictionary, so I am just wondering if this term could not actually be derived from a shortening of the term “dragoon.” Dragoons were essentially armed thugs on horseback hired to keep people in line and to squash rebellions. Perhaps it’s just one of those convergent terms that seem to fit the picture. — M.

Sheesh. So I’m sitting here thinking, “Gee, ‘from 2000′ isn’t really old.” Yeah, right. That column is old enough to get married in certain states. The upside is that now I don’t feel so bad about covering some well-trod ground again. After all, there were people barely alive back then who have just learned to read in certain states. So this is for you, kids. Consider it a wedding present.

As I wrote way back then, when “goon” first appeared (the earliest print use found so far was in 1921), it did not carry its modern meaning of “thug” or “strong-arm man,” a plug-ugly who is hired to shape public opinion by beating people up. A “goon” back in 1921 was simply a simpleton, an oafish but not necessarily malevolent person. The modern “hired muscle” sense of “goon” arose in the labor struggles of the 1930s, when “goons” were dispatched by company bosses to intimidate union organizers. (“Goon” was also used during that period, albeit less frequently, to mean union activists who threatened or intimidated non-union workers.) This use of “goon” arose almost certainly as a way to label the opposition’s “goons” as violent morons.

The origin of “goon” in the original “doofus” sense is uncertain, but it seems connected to “gony,” a term applied by sailors to large and not-very-bright seabirds such as the albatross. “Gony,” also used by landlubbers since the 16th century to mean “simpleton,” may be related to the Scots “gonyel,” also meaning “fool.” One other possibility, raised by Hugh Rawson in his great book “Wicked Words,” is that “goon” in the “thug” sense is actually a separate word based on the Hindi word “gunda” (hired thug), which was frequently spelled as “goondah” in 1920s British newspapers.

As for “dragoon,” there appears to be no connection between that word and “goon.” The noun “dragoon” today is almost always found in historical accounts, because the common meaning is “mounted infantry,” and soldiers on horses are pretty thin on the ground in this age of drone warfare. But from the 17th century through the early 20th century, dragoon battalions were among the most elite, and feared, units of European armies. The word “dragoon,” which appeared in English in the early 17th century, refers to the type of carbine, a short musket, originally carried by the troops. This weapon was known as a “dragon” in French because its muzzle flash when fired reminded onlookers of a fire-breathing dragon. The English adopted the term from the French, who used it to mean both the weapon and the horse-mounted troops who carried it.

Not surprisingly, “dragoons” tended to be very fierce fellows, and the verb “to dragoon,” which in the 17th century meant “to attack with dragoons,” quickly came into more general use meaning “to compel by force, to harass” or “to persecute or oppress.” Eventually, “dragoon” came to mean simply “to compel forcefully” without overtones of menace or violence (“He wasn’t to be dragooned into doing or not doing anything,” 1861). It’s probable that the presence of the word “drag” in “dragoon,” although unrelated to our common English verb “to drag,” contributed to the modern kinder, gentler “dragoon” (“Goldman’s trading arm had been dragooned into finding and dumping their most dangerous assets to naive institutional investors,” 2012).