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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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Tweeting through life.

Dear Word Detective: What is the root or origin of the word “desultory”? I searched your website for this word but nothing came up.– Matthew Chau.

Well, that’s because you hadn’t asked about it yet. But now you have, and future generations will have the answer at their fingertips and you to thank. Assuming they can read, of course. And have fingers, which may have atrophied, since all one needs for text-messaging are thumbs. We’re also assuming that my website will still exist and hasn’t been taken over by the evil Web Overlord Huffington, who probably will have transformed it into a Twitter feed pushing hot deals at Waffle House.

“Desultory” is an interesting word. In modern usage as an adjective, it means “skipping from one thing to another, uncertain, unsteady, wavering and lacking persistence” (“Persons of a light and desultory temper, that skip about, and are blown with every wind, as Grasshoppers are,” 1699). The “desultory” person is characterized by a rigorously un-rigorous, unmethodical approach to just about any task or activity (“Desultory reading is indeed very mischievous, by fostering habits of loose, discontinuous thought,” 1827). Not surprisingly, a hopscotch “desultory” approach rarely results in success in any task, making the word also a synonym for “disappointing” (“The temptation to desultory research must in every case be very great, and desultory research, however it may amuse or benefit the investigator, seldom adds much to the real stock of human knowledge,” 1886). Applied to a particular thing or event, “desultory” means “random” or “mediocre” (“The play was marred by Ms. Hilton’s desultory performance as Juliet”).

“Desultory” first appeared in print in English in the late 16th century with the same “hopping from thing to thing” meaning it has today (“The Crown, since the Conquest, never observed a regular, but an uncertain and desultory motion,” 1655). The root of “desultory” was the Latin adjective “desultorius,” an adjective based on “desultor,” meaning “a leaper,” from a combination of “de,” down, plus “salire,” meaning “to jump or leap.” That “salire” was an especially productive Latin verb, giving us such other English words as “insult” (literally “to leap at someone”), “salacious,” “saute” (via French, from the sense of ingredients being tossed about in the pan), “somersault” (via French again, from the Latin “to leap over”), “exalt,” “assault,” “resilient,” “salient” and others.

I said that the Latin noun “desultor,” the root of “desultory,” meant “leaper,” but that’s a bit like saying King Kong is a movie about a monkey. A “desultor” in the Roman circus (as held, for instance, at the Circus Maximus in Rome, where chariot races and other popular shows were presented) was an equestrian acrobat whose specialty was jumping from one horse to another (or standing astride two horses) while the creatures were in full gallop. This daredevil feat has been a frequent feature of circuses ever since, and the term “desultor,” meaning “circus horse-leaper,” while now labeled “rare” by the Oxford English Dictionary, was still in use as of the late 19th century (“Clowns and desultors in ragged jackets were hanging about,” 1880). As a metaphor for the kind of person who jumps from one task to another in mid-stream, the image of an acrobat hopping from one galloping horse to another is remarkably apt.

August 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


OK, enough already. We get it. Suffocating heat and humidity. Constant rain. Giant mutant bugs. Tropical-sounding birds and absurdly dense vegetation that grows a foot a week. Yellow-gray air that smells like sulfur and burns your throat. Lightning flickering on the horizon at 2 am. The lights dim ominously. Don’t look now, but I think somebody broke the planet.

On the bright side, great thanks to the anonymous reader who sent me a recertified IBM/Lenovo T60 ThinkPad from Woot. Apparently Lenovo released these packages to a number of outlets; Woot sold out quickly (which is the whole point of Woot), as did Newegg, but Newegg now has them back in stock for about $225. The consensus seems to be that it’s a great deal. I love this computer.

A thing of beauty.

Back in 2006-7, the T60 was the top of the Thinkpad line, selling for $2500-$2800 new. These things are built like tanks, extremely solid and close to indestructible, sporting a magnesium roll cage protecting the innards. This particular model comes with a smallish hard drive (60 gigs) and not really enough memory (1 gig), but more memory can be had for ~$25 for 2 gigs and the HD is easily swapped out if you really need more room. It comes with Windows XP, but I cured that with Linux. It runs like a top and has a dual-core Intel processor, which makes it snapper than my desktop, which is coming up on its tenth birthday.

Interestingly, it also comes with an IBM docking station, which is very, very cool. (The docking station alone goes for $209 on Amazon.) When the computer is in the dock, you have both VGA and DVI monitor connectors, serial and parallel ports, digital sound output and all sorts of other neat things. But what I really love about the dock is that it solidly holds the computer at a slight tilt, the perfect angle for typing. It’s actually reminiscent of using a portable typewriter. Combined with the legendary ThinkPad keyboard, this is a really great machine for writing. The screen resolution is 1024 x 768, again a bit outdated, but also perfectly suited for writing. It also has a built-in 56k modem for when civilization collapses next year and a tiny little keyboard light atop the screen for when the grid goes down. And, for some strange reason, a fingerprint reader. And Bluetooth.

By the way, if you’ve never used a ThinkPad keyboard, you really don’t know how good a laptop keyboard can be. I cannot believe folks seriously use those ghastly MacBook keyboards all day. They’re like tapping on glass. ThinkPad keyboards make you want to type. (I must really like them; I use an IBM UltraNav keyboard, essentially a standalone ThinkPad keyboard, with my desktop computer.)

Oh yeah, before I forget: at the foot of each entry here you’ll see a teeny-tiny Google +1 button you can click if you have a Google account of some kind. It’s the equivalent of a Facebook “like” button but more immediately useful to me, because the number of “+1′s” a post gets shows up in the Google search rankings, and about 70% of my traffic comes from people searching for a word or phrase on Google. So, if you are so inclined….

What else. Falling Skies is over until next summer, if there still is TV next summer. I’m gonna miss it. Yeah, it’s seriously silly in many ways (e.g., How come the aliens don’t seem to have heard of aerial reconnaissance?), but it’s good, goofy fun. Still, this business of shows being off for a year (or longer, in the case of HBO) drives me a little nuts. I guess it’s back to Pawn Stars and Law & Order (Original Recipe) reruns at lunchtime for me.

Continue reading this post » » »


It’s not a “peephole.” It’s art.

Dear Word Detective: I was looking at a map of Oxford, England and found a building called the “Radcliffe Camera.” I’d never seen the word “camera” used in context with a building other than perhaps “camera obscura.” It is a library and is circular. It was built in the 1100′s. Why is such a building called a “Camera”? — Gerald Weiland.

Words can be tricky little devils. My parents took me to London when I was a wee lad, promising to show me Piccadilly Circus. I’ll bet they knew the only animals there were pigeons. Note to traffic engineers: please stop trying to introduce the “circus” (aka “roundabout” or “traffic circle”) in the US Midwest. People here don’t get it and aren’t going to. They seem to think it’s some kind of audition for NASCAR. Throw texting into the mix and it’s more like a terrifying audition for American Nitwit.

According to Wikipedia, the Radcliffe Camera was built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library, named after John Radcliffe, the Royal Physician to William III and Mary II of England. (I said, a while back, that using the phrase “according to Wikipedia” produced in me the anxiety of a man skydiving with a parachute he bought on eBay, but this entry seems solid.) The Camera is said to be the earliest example of a circular library in England, and pictures show an ornate, and indeed perfectly circular, structure. There are two levels to the building, but the central atrium is open from the ground floor to the arched roof, which is where “camera” comes in.

The root of our English word “camera” is the Latin word “camera,” which meant “vaulted room,” which was filtered through Old French and also gave us the word “chamber.” While the earliest use of “chamber” in English was to mean what we today simply call a “room,” “camera” was used for a large room or building, particularly with a high, arched ceiling. Thus the Radcliffe Camera employs the original sense of “camera” in English.

More specific uses of “camera” in the 17th century included “chamber where a legislative or judicial body meets or deliberates.” This use persists only in the legal phrase “in camera,” which originally referred to a private meeting in a judge’s “chambers” (office), but today is used to mean simply “in private, away from public view.”

The 17th century also saw the use of “camera” in the term “camera obscura,” meaning literally “dark room.” It had long been known that light entering a darkened room through a small aperture would cast a faint reversed image of the view outside on the wall of the room, which could then be traced onto paper. Artists and scientists made use of this phenomenon to produce realistic renditions of nature and buildings, first employing actual darkened rooms, then portable versions of the setup, from small tents to, eventually, small boxes. With the development of photographic technology and improved optics in the 19th century, the “camera obscura” shrank still further and became known as simply a “camera.” Today anything capable of producing a photographic image, even digitally, is called a “camera,” so the camera in your cell phone is a direct descendant of an artist painstakingly tracing a faint image cast on the wall of a darkened room several hundred years ago.