“paradise” lost

Today I learned that a “paradise” is literally an enclosure, a place of confinement. The Greek word was originally used to refer to walled game preserves in Persia.


I’m going to let the OED speak on this one:

Etymology:  < Icelandic berserkr, accusative berserk, plural -ir, of disputed etymology; Vigfusson and Fritzner show that it was probably = ‘bear-sark,’ ‘bear-coat.’

A wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’; often a lawless bravo or freebooter. Also fig. and attrib. Now usu. as adj., frenzied, furiously or madly violent; esp. in phr. to go berserk .
There aren’t many English words that come from Icelandic, but those we do have are awesome.

Latin, German, and English: break it down, now.

One of the more common responses I get when I tell people that I study Latin (after “I didn’t know people still do that”) is “That’s great; it must be so much easier for you to learn other Romance languages.” Indeed, the ease with which one can pick up Spanish, French, or Italian (and also Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan) after gaining a firm footing in Latin is one of the more compelling arguments for keeping Latin programs in schools. I’ve also found that knowing Latin has made the study of German, which is not a Romance language, far easier for me than it would have been otherwise.

One skill that learners of Latin gain is to break down a new, confusing word (in Latin or in English) into components that might be more easily understood. This becomes an unconscious reflex and is very useful in studying German, which likes to make a single compound word where we would use an entire phrase in English. Flipping through my dictionary, I see die Suppenwürfelreklame, “an advertisement for soup-cubes” (die Suppe, “soup” + der Würfel, “cube” + die Reklame, “advertisement”). Perhaps a slightly more useful example is der Paarungsplatz, “mating ground,” or more literally, a “pairing-place.”

eine Suppenwürfelreklame- an advertisement for Knorr vegetable bouillon.

eine Suppenwürfelreklame

Beyond this skill, Latin vocabulary has also been extremely useful for memorizing German verbs, especially those with prefixes. Even though the German components typically do not resemble their Latin equivalent, the English translation of the German word is often composed of Latin derivatives. Confusing? I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to explain the relationship, and I thought a chart might help:

German word
English translation of German, given by dictionary German components Latin components of English translation Literal meaning of both German and English
übertragen transfer über (“over”) + tragen (“to carry”) trans (“over”) + ferre (“to carry”) “to carry over”
ausschließen exclude aus (“out”) + schließen (“to close”) ex (“out”) + claudere (“to close”) “to close out”
mitarbeiten collaborate mit (“with”) + arbeiten (“to work”) cum (“with”) + laborare (“to work”) “to work with”

It’s true, as they say, that the more languages a person knows, the easier it is to learn even more of them. The more connections our brains have between different words and ideas, the easier it is to recall that information. Latin provides a network of connections that exist alongside and behind our knowledge of English, making new language acquisition that much easier, even if the new language is not derived from Latin.

the post-human sublime

In a recent article for OnEarth magazine titled “After We’re Gone,” author Ginger Strand discusses her reaction to being asked to participate in the History Channel’s series ‘Life After People,’ which looks at all sorts of human creations going to ruin after we’re gone and can’t take care of them.

Reflecting on our fascination with imagining the world without us, Strand suggests,

“There’s a word for all this: sublime. The artistic term describes the awe we feel for things larger than ourselves. In the past, the natural world was sublime: mountains, waterfalls, the ocean, and the stars gave people a sense of insignificance in relation to the vast universe. But we have lost the faculty to be so diminished. We move mountains and harness rivers. We have unleashed the power of the atom, unraveled the secrets of our genome, and unbalanced the planet’s climate. What on this puny rock could be bigger than we are? Yet our seeming omnipotence does not satisfy us. We still yearn to see the natural world as supreme, but to do it we have to exterminate ourselves.”

(emphasis is mine in this and in the following quote)

I think it’s a convincing explanation of the meme, despite the fact that I personally still feel quite awe-struck by the natural phenomena she mentions.

Still, I can’t imagine what it was like to live in a time before a human had crossed the ocean in an airplane, or had successfully escaped Earth’s atmosphere. Even while I marvel at nature and the universe, I admit that there is always a feeling in the background of confidence, perhaps ownership. The history of human ingenuity and our constant leaps in technological innovation make it seem that nothing in unconquerable.

Greek and Roman authors loved to come back to ancient stories of humans overstepping their bounds and suffering the consequences: Phaethon’s sun-chariot, Jason’s Argo, Icarus’ wax wings. We are ingenious innovators and explorers, but we need to be reminded to dial back our ambitions from time to time, to consider what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of “progress.” But the “post-human sublime” meme, as Strand calls it, isn’t just a warning to watch our step moving forward lest we lose everything we’ve built, but a reminder that in the big scheme of things, what matters is what we do right now.

Strand concludes:

“The show–though it scared my nephews–was not despairing. Look at the world, it urged us. Human things are not all that matters. Grass matters. Falling water matters. They would matter if we were gone. In forcing us to imagine our own absence, it was calling our for presence, goading us to take up once more a right relationship to a world that must remain, for the foreseeable future, saddled with us.”

fer-, for-, ver-, per-

I enjoyed this column in The Jewish Daily Forward, “Fermisht but Not Fergotten,” in which the author answers a reader’s question regarding Yiddish words that begin with far– (often misspelled fer-), well known among the general public thanks to Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman” skits on SNL. I guessed correctly that it is related to the German ver– (because my German textbook explained that prefix to me this very morning) and to English for-. It’s also similar to Greek para-.

I will probably enjoy any article that addresses similarities among multiple languages, especially if I am currently studying at least one of them. I’d be grateful if you’d share ones you come across and enjoy!


In researching for another language post I’m writing, I came across the Wikipedia page for the Frequentative, a form of a verb that indicates repetition or intensity of the action. We see these fairly often in Latin: salio, salire is ‘to jump, leap;’ jump and leap over and over and we get the frequentative salto, saltare, ‘to dance.’ Video, vidēre means ‘to see;’ its frequentative form viso, visere means ‘to look at carefully’  or ‘to go to see, call upon.’ Interestingly, there is a further frequentative version of viso, visere: visito, vistare, ‘to visit, see often.’ Similarly, dicto, dictare (‘to repeat, dictate’) is the frequentative form of dico, dicere (‘to speak, say’).

As it turns out, we have frequentatives to indicate repetition in English, too. They often end in -le or -er. From the lengthy list Wikipedia provides, my favorites are sparkle (from spark), crackle (from crack), sniffle (from sniff), and flicker (from flick). Since we’re on the subject, remember that if you like any of my posts and you’re a Twitter user, you can tweet a link using the button below.

media consumption and creative balance

I am a huge consumer of media. Having internet access at work, at home, and on my phone makes it too easy to check news sites and blogs multiple times a day, to follow links and track down sources, to read tangential stories, to always seek more and more information about any given topic.

I like to think of my participation in the internet as a curatorial role—sifting through articles and blog posts and sharing the ones that appeal to me, particularly those that address topics commonly overlooked in major media outlets. This is my primary use for Facebook, day-to-day, and I’ve received positive feedback for what I share. But at a certain point, I spend so much time and energy sifting and consuming that there isn’t enough left to produce anything of my own.  I’ve become so accustomed to checking media outlets regularly that if I go a day without it, I get anxious that something very important has happened and I have missed it. I think my media usage is probably approaching addiction in this respect.

It’s so easy to look outward for knowledge, and there is so much entertainment and stimulation to be had out there, that I neglect my own ideas and creativity in the process.  In January I wrote a post on the need for balance between input and output in terms of creative expression, and I realize now that I have not been following my own advice. In the last year, for all I have learned about other people and their pursuits, I have only dabbled in creating my own art and music. I haven’t written anything that wasn’t purely academic since early February.

So, in an effort to correct the imbalance, I’m going to try to cut my media consumption fairly severely and to redirect that energy into creative pursuits. Sure, I will miss some good blog posts and news stories. There will be knowledge out there that I did not gain. But there is knowledge within, too, that can only be accessed by quiet introspection and by providing avenues for it to come out.

no apologies

But I will share this: Sorry I Haven’t Posted.

gender roles in Battlestar Galactica

The reboot of Battlestar Galactica is well recognized for its portrayal of nontraditional gender roles within its human and nonhuman societies. I’ve been watching some of the commentaries lately because they give special insight into the decisions that were made concerning gender roles on the show. Several of my nerd passions converge in this blog post, in which I bring you a transcript (with minor edits for clarity and relevance) of part of the commentary for Season 3, Episode 17, “Maelstrom.”

[Spoiler Alert! The commentary and I discuss events from the first three seasons of the show, but not after.]

Speaking: creator and executive producer Ron D. Moore and his wife, Terry Dresbach

Scene: Starbuck and Anders, getting dressed

Starbuck standing and Anders reclining behind her

Starbuck standing and Anders reclining behind her

Continue reading

giving thanks all year long

Now that we’re a comfortable distance from Thanksgiving, I think it’s a good idea to think about what we do throughout the year to tell others that we appreciate them and their work. My standing rule for myself is that for each time I go out of my way to offer constructive criticism, I have to do one act to demonstrate support and appreciation. So if I email a company to tell them they messed up in an ad campaign, I’ll also email a favorite blog to thank them for what they do. It helps keep me balanced. I don’t associate with any particular religious or spiritual tradition but I think it’s important to make sure I’m not putting more negative energy into the universe than positive.

Those who expose themselves to the public eye, whether by running a local business, giving an artistic performance, or writing a blog, will generally receive plenty of criticism for what they do. Lots of people are willing to take the time to write a letter to tell someone how much they suck, particularly if the person exposing themselves belongs to a marginalized group. Sady Doyle gives a little history of how this plays out in the feminist blogosphere in the post Why I Didn’t Delete Tiger Beatdown. She cites the recent harassment she has received as a result of her efforts with #Mooreandme, and also past incidents for which Kathy Sierra, Melissa McEwan, Amanda Marcotte, and Jessica Valenti were each intensely targeted. Not to mention what happened to Lena Chen.

I don’t have any illusions that my sporadic emails showing support and giving thanks are going to make the difference in whether people who do important work will continue to do that work in the face of all that negativity. But when I hear about the horrible treatment they receive on a daily basis, I can’t stand the thought of this happening without my voice doing its tiny part to counteract the onslaught. It might not be much, but it’s a teaspoon.