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September 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


So True Blood has wrapped up for the season by killing off a few dozen characters. Couple of nameless vampire zombies in the Moon Goddess Emporium, Nan Flanigan (too bad), Lafayette’s boyfriend Jesus (really too bad), that werewolf guy with the bad hair (Marcus), Marnie for the second time, Debbie van Pelt (the only remotely normal person on the show, even though she was a werewolf) and then, big finish, Tara with a shotgun blast to the head. Whoa. Is Tara really dead? I bet not. You know who is dead? That guy who showed up to visit Terry. Nobody else seems to have picked up on that. But Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi, is apparently coming back next year, so things are looking up. Russell Edgington is awesome. Incidentally, the annoying witch-groupie hippie guy gorily offed by Eric the first time they killed Marnie is now appearing in a MasterCard commercial playing a suburban dad with a kid in a shopping cart. Weird casting choice, given the popularity of True Blood.

Incidentally, speaking of commercials, our son (Michael Mercurio) appeared in a Tide Stain Stick commercial a few years ago. (He’s the soldier standing immediately stage left of the guy the drill sergeant is yelling at.) They recently started running it again, for which he gets paid again, which is cool. This commercial shows up on a lot of “my favorite commercial” lists, so they may be running it off and on for years.

Onward. So Borders Bookstores has bought the farm. It’s always sad to see bookstores close, but I was never a big fan of their aesthetic, a sort of crypto-hip we’re-not-really-a huge-corporation Whole-Foods-of-Books shtick. Not a Whole Foods fan here, by the way. It reminds me too much of food coops.

I have hated food coops since circa 1969. C’mon, I just wanna buy some bananas and go read a book, OK? I don’t want to go to a meeting, especially not with a bunch of weedy, whiny control freaks.

Elsewhere in the book biz, Barnes & Noble seems to be on the verge of being sold, or something, although most of the people interested in buying it are apparently just trying to get their grubby paws on the Nook. There have even been rumors that Apple is going to buy B&N, kill the Nook, and convert the stores into Apple Stores, or maybe Apple Book Stores. I think Apple should buy Amazon too, and shoot that godawful Kindle. Then run the B&N stores off the Amazon back-end.

When we lived on the Upper West Side, we referred sardonically to the giant B&N at 82nd Street and Broadway as “The Great Satan.” (After all, they did drive Meg Ryan’s little bookshop out of business, right? BTW, the store You’ve Got Mail used as the set for her shop actually sold, as I recall, over-priced pastries and insanely over-priced antiques.)

But in real life, Shakespeare & Company, a block south on B’way, was driven out of business by that evil B&N (although they retained branches in the Village and on the East Side, which is a funny way to be driven out of business). And Endicott Books across Columbus Avenue from us croaked when B&N moved into the neighborhood, but that’s because Endicott hired snotty idiots (favorite actual clerk quote: “Dylan Thomas biography? Have you looked in the music section?”) and shared a name with a chain of cheesy shoe stores. I liked Coliseum Books off Columbus Circle, but my absolute fave was The Strand. Nice to see they’re still around.

Continue reading this post » » »


Mom! Dad dropped the AOL in the toilet again!

Dear Word Detective: With the recent release of a number of “tablet personal computers,” my colleagues and I got to discussing the word “tablet.” The reason that tablet computers are called that is reasonably clear. Why, oh why, do we call some of our pills “tablets”? They are not slabs, nor is there much space to write on them. Can you clear up this conundrum? — Mark Wujek, Tokyo.

Hmm. Tablet computers? Land O’ Goshen, what will they think of next? My laws, I suppose such a contraption is possible…. Oh wait, are we talking about that iPad thing? Yeah, I played with one in an Apple store a few months ago and instantly wanted one. Fortunately, it was insanely expensive, so I dodged the Apple Zombies and left without one. The funny thing is that as soon as I left the store I stopped wanting one, and couldn’t remember why I ever had. People say it’s just the famed Apple Reality Distortion Field at work, but I swear there’s something in the air in those places. Maybe aerosolized psilocybin. That would explain everything.

I know, of course, that there are other tablet computers out there and have been for quite a while. I wish them well, but I don’t want them either. Part of my problem with “tablet computers” is that the name has always struck me as strangely clunky and unappealing (which is why “iPad” is brilliant). “Tablet” for me conjures up the iconic image of Charlton Heston waving the Ten Commandments on those big stone tablets, not a handy little notepad.

“Tablet” first appeared in English around 1300 (adopted from the Old French “tablete”) with the meaning “A smooth stiff sheet for writing on, usually one of two or more fastened together, originally made of clay or wax-covered wood, later of ivory, cardboard, etc.; a number of such sheets fastened together” (Oxford English Dictionary). That “tablete” was a diminutive form of the Old French “table,” which meant “table” as well as “slab,” “writing surface,” “plank” and other things of similar form and function. Not surprisingly, English also adopted the parent word “table” from the Old French, but it came ultimately from the Latin “tabula,” meaning “plank, table, slab, etc.”

Although “tablet” initially meant “writing pad” in English, other meanings began to appear by the mid-14th century, and “tablet” eventually encompassed just about anything flat, squarish and relatively small, from roofing tiles to flat ornamental jewelry (“He hastily drew from his bosom, where it hung suspended from his neck, a large flat tablet of remarkably beautiful onyx,” Thomas de Quincey,1832).

Given that “tablet” in English was being used for anything small, flat and rectangular, it’s not that surprising that it came to mean “A small, flat, or compressed piece of a solid substance, originally of rectangular form; specifically a measured quantity of a medicine or drug, compressed into a small disc or lozenge and designed to be swallowed whole; a pill” (OED). What is somewhat surprising is that this usage first appeared way back in the early 15th century and has been in constant use since then (“It is yet in use, to wear little bladders of quicksilver, or tablets of arsenic, as preservatives against the plague,” Francis Bacon, 1626). So folks have been gobbling (or wearing, I guess) “tablets” of medicine for roughly 500 years.

“Tablet computers” aren’t quite that old, of course, although one probably could have applied the term to an abacus, which is usually small, flat, and can be used to do fairly complex math. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of the term “tablet computer” in print to 1984 (“Shostak said battery-operated tablet computers will be available ‘within six months of this election’,” UPI Newswire), although Wikipedia points to a device called a Teleautograph (a primitive fax device utilizing telegraph lines) patented in 1888 as “an electronic tablet used for handwriting.” Um, OK.

Incidentally, “tabloid” was originally formed as a trademarked term for medicine tablets in 1884 by Burroughs, Wellcome, & Co., a British pharmaceutical company, by combining “tablet” with the suffix “oid” (usually used in scientific contexts to signify “having the form of”). By the 1890s, “tabloid” was in general use meaning “a concentrated version of something.” When newspapers appeared at the beginning of the 20th century having pages half the size of the standard “broadsheet” and featuring popular and often sensationalist news stories, the name “tabloid” for the journalistic genre was a natural fit (“Go into any bus or train or lunch room at any hour of the day or night and you see men and boys and women and girls taking and enjoying their tabloids,” 1901).


Chto delat?

Dear Word Detective: I looked up the word “list” (and “listing”) to sate my curiosity regarding boating, and low and behold “list” has a lot of meanings! Obviously, there is the meaning of putting things into an order of meaningful terms/names/what have you, but what about the others? Pieces of cloth, wood, and the term which I had originally sought, a damaged boat favoring one direction or another. Any insight into the when and why the list of definitions of “list” makes such a long list? — Wordgoblin.

Y’know, I read your question and immediately thought, “Hey, didn’t I just do a column that at least mentioned ‘list’?” I then spent the next hour racking my poor befuddled brain, trying to figure out what that column might have been. It turned out that the “list” I was remembering was the term “thick-listed,” an archaic synonym for “hard of hearing,” the subject of a recent column. So the good news is that I’m not crazy, but the bad news is that I wrote that column just two weeks ago and had completely forgotten it. Anybody seen the dog lately?

The list of “lists” is indeed an unusually long one. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists (sorry) eight separate “list” nouns, five “list” verbs, and one “list” adjective. Looks like somebody went a bit overboard on the recycling.

The oldest “list” in English is the “list” in the “thick-listed” I mentioned above. This “list” as a noun means “sense of hearing,” and appeared in Old English as “hlyst,” from Germanic roots. As you may have guessed, the verb form of this “list,” now obsolete, gave us our modern verb “to listen.”

Another “list,” also now obsolete, meant “craft or cunning,” and is distantly related to both “learn” and “lore.” Yet another “list,” a verb meaning “to desire, like, wish for,” is closely related to our modern “lust” and lives on in “listless,” meaning “indifferent, passive, inert.” But wait! There’s more! There was also a “list,” of unknown origin, that meant simply “”flank of pork.” And we mustn’t forget “list” meaning “a certain quantity of thread,” possibly remotely related to “leash.”

“List” in the familiar sense of “catalog of items; roll or row of names, titles, etc.” first appeared in English in the early 17th century and was used repeatedly by Shakespeare in both Hamlet and Antony & Cleopatra (“The leuies, The lists, and full proportions are all made Out of his subiect,” Hamlet, 1604). This “list” was was, however, an outgrowth of an earlier “list,” appearing in Old English from the French “liste,” that meant “strip, border, hem of cloth, band, etc.” and, in a more general sense, “border or delineation of land.” This “list” is generally obsolete except in the use of “lists” to mean a playing field (originally for jousting) or other area of land enclosed for a specific purpose.

The connection between the old “strip” sense of “list” and our modern grocery list goes back to the time when a collection of strips of paper, each with an item written on it, was used as a catalog of books, tax debts, etc., a practice that will be familiar to anyone whose computer monitor is festooned with Post-It notes.

That leaves only “list” in the sense of “tilt” to be explained, and this one is either a complete mystery or sort of weirdly cute. This “list” first appeared in the early 17th century as a noun meaning “the tilt or inclination of a ship to one side” (“The cargo shifted giving the ship a list to port,” 1881), and, strictly speaking, its origin is, as the (OED) notes, “obscure.” But the OED also suggests that this “list” might be a figurative use of “list” in the “desire, like, wish for” sense of “list” I mentioned earlier. In this usage the implication would be that the ship is “leaning” in the fashion of a love-smitten person “leaning” toward his or her object of desire. One small but possibly significant point in favor of this theory is that “list” in this “tilt of a ship” sense was, in its earliest appearances in print, spelled “lust” (“The Ship at low water had a great lust to the offing,” 1633).