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February 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


One question: am I really supposed to mow the lawn in February? It certainly seems to be growing. And when I took the dogs out yesterday, I was absent-mindedly brushing away a fly circling me for a full minute before I realized that a fly was circling me. That ain’t right. I’ve also just realized that my computer is operating, for some unknown reason, with a UK dictionary and wants me to spell “realized” as “realised.” I must fix this, as I have lost a big chunk of my formerly crackerjack spelling ability in recent years and thus may not notice subtle changes in the colour of my prose.

Speaking of losing my mind, right after I was diagnosed with ms a few years ago, I came across a book called something like “Cognitive Impairment in Multiple Sclerosis.” Cheery, right? Bad enough you can’t walk and can’t see half the time, but it turns out you can’t even sit quietly and think convincingly. The book had been written by a guy with ms and proved to be absolutely unreadable, which sounds like a joke, but I think it was because he was simply a horrible writer, not because he had cognitive problems. I also tried to read “Blindsided” by Mr. Meredith Vieira (Richard Cohen), who has ms and seems like a really nice guy, but I had to give up because his writing style reads like the voice-over on a network news report, bland, shallow and impersonally descriptive, which makes sense since he is/was a network news producer.

I had, back then, gone through six hours (!) of cognitive tests at OSU, the verdict of which was that I had developed some quite peculiar gaps in my mental hedgerows. I am unable, for instance, to add long columns of two-digit numbers in my mind, something I used to do routinely in my job at the Catplex. My short-term memory is dodgy, and I tend to misplace the dogs. I also tend to get turned around downtown, which is pretty scary since our town consists of a gas station, post office, one traffic light and not much else. I can never remember which way the high school is. Thank heavens I don’t go to high school.

Sunday in the Park with Treacle.

All of which brings us, inevitably, to Downton Abbey (not to be confused with Downtown Abby, who hangs out in the high school parking lot on weekends). I swear to god that if there were anything else on TV I would never watch this show. But Storage Wars and Shipping Wars and Hoarders have all started to blend together quite disturbingly in my dreams, so we tivo Downton and watch it in small chunks during the week. I think we’re about two weeks behind at this point. I don’t want to flog this thing too badly, because the only alternative is Dog the Bounty Hunter, but someone in the Guardian the other day called it “the Epcot Center version” of England, and that seems about right. In a bit of classic Disneyesque all-your-tie-ins-are-belong-to-us behavior, PBS apparently tried to open a tawdry online gift shop (“Lady Mary knotted pearl necklace and earring set”) on the coattails of the show without permission of the producers and got itself smartly slapped down.

The New York Times runs about one article per week about the show, the most cringe-worthy being one on the rage for Downton-themed viewing parties among the Manhattan elite. (Small world, indeed. I went back to look at that article and noticed that the accompanying photo features John-John ex-squeeze Christina Haag, with whom I worked many years ago.) Now that the huffy Brits have put the kibosh on cheesy Downton swag, I’m sure there are already clandestine tiara-parties on the Upper East Side where far pricier baubles are traded like Tupperware in Des Moines. It’s nice to know the 1% haven’t lost their childlike taste for dress-up, isn’t it?

So, anyway, a biggie in the ms cognitive whammy department is emotional lability, which means that your emotional reactions to small things tend to be hugely out of proportion. Some people, for instance, foam at the mouth and throw things when it rains. I, on the other hand, weep at stupid things on TV. It’s totally involuntary, and the weird thing is that I often don’t feel especially sad, happy, melancholy or even mildly moved when it happens. But if there’s a kid giving his mom a handmade card in an insurance commercial, I start blubbering. It’s mortifying. And infuriating.

And it’s especially infuriating when I watch Downton Abbey, because the show is shamelessly wrenching your amygdala at every possible opportunity with soaring strings and portentous little speeches embedded in a plot so cornball and dialogue so stilted that the part of my brain that still has some standards is begging me to change the channel to My Name is Earl. But no, there I sit, sniveling over some improbable subplot involving implausible characters whose names I can’t remember from week to week. It makes me want to foam at the mouth and throw things.

Onward. In addition to the TWD Facebook page, we now have a TWD Google Plus page, which can be reached by clicking on that big red thing in the right column. Bonus points for anyone who can tell me what G+ is for. It seems to be a cross between Usenet and Twitter.

As always, we depend on the kindness of readers for our kibble, so please consider subscribing. Think of it as a tiara for your mind.

In the pink

Close, but no bugle.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of “in the pink”? My father, born an Englishman, claims that the color of the jackets of those who hunt fox on horseback with their hounds (never “dogs,” if you please) is called “pink,” not “red,” in the hunting jargon, and supposes that to be “in the pink” is to be in fine hunting form. One is inclined not to doubt one’s own father of course. But it does seem sensible to “trust, but verify” in such matters. — Leslie R. Weatherhead.

Yes it does. Parents and other trusted figures do sometimes unwittingly pass along erroneous information. A high percentage of the questions I answer, in fact, come from people who have been told, at an early age, a colorful story about the origin of a word or phrase by their parents, grandparents or other presumably sober people, only to begin to doubt it many years later.

As you can probably tell from the tilt of that paragraph, the story your father offered to explain “in the pink” is not, in fact, completely true. It is true that the bright scarlet of the jackets traditionally worn by fox-hunters is called “hunting pink,” as are the coats themselves (“She loved to see him thus, superb in his pink, on his great black horse,” 1936). But there is no evidence that the phrase “in the pink” arose in the sport (around which I am sorely tempted to put quotation marks) of fox-hunting. “In the pink,” meaning “in fine shape, at the peak of condition and health,” actually follows quite logically from the evolution of the word “pink” itself.

Although we think of “pink” today as a color most often described as a pale red, sometimes with a slight purple tinge, the use of “pink” as the name of that color is relatively recent, first appearing in the mid-17th century and only becoming widespread in the 1800s. “Pink” prior to that was simply the popular name for flowers of the genus Dianthus, small blossoms with notched petals, often with dark stripes on a bright pink background. “Pinks” were enormously popular flowers from the 16th century onward. The name “pink” is a bit of a mystery, but probably comes from the “pinked” (notched) petals, “to pink” being an old verb of uncertain origin meaning “to cut, notch or pierce” (found today only in the “pinking shears” used in sewing).

The “Pink” flower was so popular in 16th century Europe that “pink” soon took on the broader meaning of “something excellent; the peak of perfection,” much as we might call a high-end coffee maker “the Rolls Royce of cappuccino machines.” Shakespeare was, as far as we know, the first to use it in print in this sense, in his 1597 play “Romeo & Juliet” (“Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie”). By the early 18th century “pink” was being used to mean “the most perfect condition or degree of something; the highest or most desirable state” (Oxford English Dictionary), and by the early 20th century “in the pink” meant “in perfect condition” and specifically “in perfect health” (“‘I am in excellent health, I thank you. And you?’ ‘In the pink. Just been over to America,’” P.G. Wodehouse, Inimitable Jeeves, 1923). So “in the pink” evolved quite seamlessly from a small, colorful flower, and no foxes were harmed in the process.


Seems like Only-Yesterday-Day.

Dear Word Detective: Most people know that the word “anniversary” deals with years, due to its root word, “annum.” But I constantly hear people talk about a six-week “anniversary” or a seven-month “anniversary.” These phrases are incorrect, but I cannot come up with a word that works in that instance. Certainly using fractions of a year (“our 3/10s anniversary”) is ridiculous, so what is the correct word, or words? — Gary R.

Good question. I was going to wait until the first anniversary of its arrival in my inbox before answering it, but we’ll just call this the ten-month anniversary, OK? Seems more appropriate. I have, by the way, email archives dating back to 1994 on my computer, which comes in handy when I need a good question and don’t have a recent one handy. I used to feel guilty about answering queries ten years late, but I figure it’s like the person just found that wallet they lost back in 2001, assuming they’ve kept the same email address for ten years. Hey, I still get a lot of mail from AOL accounts.

Onward. You’re correct about the roots of “anniversary” and the apparent logical problem posed by using it for any denomination of time but whole years. You are far from alone in finding such usage odd and awkward, as I discovered when I Googled variations on “Is there a word for a six-month anniversary.” There seems to be a large and vocal community of outrage seething about the usage of “anniversary” to mean less than one year. (Incidentally, I think we should popularize the term “Community of Outrage,” which we can then refer to by the acronym “COO,” which will drive the seethers nuts.)

“Anniversary” first appeared in English in the 13th century, and was based on the Latin word “anniversarius,” meaning “returning yearly” (from “annus,” year, plus “versus,” a turning). The first uses of “anniversary” were in the church, and “anniversary days” were usually dates with particular religious significance, e.g., the days of martyrdom of saints, etc. The use of “anniversary” for the yearly marking of any past occasion dates to a bit later, and such dates were previously known as “year-days” or “mind-days,” times when a notable occasion or person is “brought to mind.”

The use of “anniversary” to mean a date marking less than one year’s passage of time started to attract the attention of lexicographers in the late 1960s, but such use was, at that time, largely oral and rarely found in print. With the advent of the internet, of course, more previously purely oral usages began to appear in print. Bingo, here we are speaking of “two-week anniversaries” and yadda yadda yadda. (Yes, that’s an oral usage meta-joke.)

There have been, among those disturbed by the “hijacking” of “anniversary” to celebrate the fact that Danny and Debbie have been dating for a month, new words suggested to fill the gap. Since the need is felt most keenly when the interval observed is a multiple of months, we have “monthiversary,” “mensiversary” for Latin lovers (“mensis” being Latin for “month”), and “lunaversary” (“luna,” Latin for “moon,” the waxing and waning of which is the basis for our months). To the folks who came up with those inventions, I can only say, “Nice try, good luck with that.” But seriously, “lunaversary”? It sounds like where you’d go to study the invention of weird new words.

The bottom line on “anniversary” is something I seem to say way more often than once a year: language changes, and words change their meanings according to how real people use them “in the wild.” Does anyone truly not understand what “six-month anniversary” means? Of course not. So we don’t need a new word. The word we have has simply broadened its meaning from “The day in any year which agrees in date with a particular day in a former year” (Oxford English Dictionary) to “A day which marks the passage of a specific period of time from the date of a notable occurrence.” Just as “decimate” no longer means “to kill one out of every ten people” and “nice” no longer means “stupid” or “wanton,” the word “anniversary” has simply made itself a bit more useful.