Vermouth, Campari, and the Americano Way

In this month’s video we have a look at the Americano cocktail:

The word Americano in reference to the cocktail first appears in print in the 1928 book Ashenden: Or the British Agent written by Somerset Maugham: “He sat in the cool and drank an americano.” Cocktails often have a connection with secret agents (think James Bond’s vodka martini, shaken not stirred), and this novel fits into that mould. It’s the story of the adventures of a playwright-turned-spy named Ashenden set during WWI. Apparently it’s based on Maugham’s own experiences as a member of British Intelligence during the war, just as Ian Fleming drew on his WWII experiences for James Bond. Speaking of James Bond, the very first drink he orders in the very first James Bond novel, Casino Royal, is the Americano, so it certainly has its spy pedigree. In other Bond stories we find the famous super spy drinking a Negroni, so 007’s drink tastes certainly extended beyond his now-trademark martinis.

Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Although the caffè americano is supposedly connected with WWII, it doesn’t find its way into print in English until a 1964 issue of the Sunday Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica: “Cafe Americano or cafe Latino? The first is what it says. Mild American-style coffee.” The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase café americano being used in Central American Spanish at least as early as 1955. As for the Negroni, as I mentioned in the video, it was first used in print quoting Orson Welles: “Orson Welles, working in ‘Cagliostro’ in Rome, writes that he's discovered a new drink there—Negronis. It's made of gin, Italian vermouth and Campari bitters. ‘The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.’” Shortly thereafter, Ernest Hemingway used the word Negroni to refer to something that sounds an awful lot like an Americano instead: “They were drinking negronis, a combination of two sweet vermouths and seltzer water” (Across the river and into the trees, 1950). By the way, there’s a Negroni week to celebrate the cocktail and it’s history. This year (2017) it falls on the 5th to the 11th of June, so mark you calendars and raise a glass to Count Negroni, whoever he is. Here’s a picture of bartenders dressed as “Count Negroni” mixing a giant cocktail. 

As for the invention of vermouth, the other main ingredient in the Americano, fortified wines containing wormwood seem to go back thousands of years, but the best claim for the invention of the modern vermouth as we know it goes to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who introduced the drink in 1786 as a sweet liqueur more suitable for ladies. The Carpano distillery also invented Punt e Mes, used in the original Americano.

Antonio Benedetto Carpano

Antonio Benedetto Carpano

Vermouth and Campari are both classified as types of amaro, “bitter” in Italian. That word amaro comes from Latin amarus, which may come from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *om- meaning “raw, sharp-tasting”. The word amaro has as cognates two other liqueurs, amaretto and maraschino.

The etymology for America given in the video is by far the most widely accepted one, but there is an alternate suggestion that the Americas were not named in honour of Amerigo Vespucci, but after a man named Richard Amerike. According to this claim, Richard Amerike, an Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer, and sheriff of Bristol, was a backer of John Cabot’s expedition to the “new world”, which was subsequently named after him in gratitude for this sponsorship. The problem is there isn’t really any evidence for any of this, and so few have taken up the theory. By the way, his last name Amerike  is an anglicised spelling of the Welsh ap Meurig meaning “son of Meurig”, which is the Welsh form of the name Maurice, which comes from the Latin name Maurus. This in turn may be related to Greek mauros “dark” and/or to Moor, in other words inhabitant of Mauritania. But lest we lose our connection to the PIE *reg- root, Amerike’s first name, Richard, is made up of the elements ric “ruler” and harthu “hard”, so literally “hard or powerful ruler”.

And speaking of that root, and the Taler or Joachimsthaler coin, the other countries that picked up the coin also added that ric element to the name, not only the Holy Roman Reichsthaler, but also the Dutch rijksdaalder, the Danish rigsdaler, and the Swedish riksdaler. All of these names mean essentially “national dollar”. As for the American dollar, it’s colloquially known as the buck which is an abbreviation of buckskin, a common unit of exchange between Native Americans and Europeans in the early frontier days of North America.

The Creation of Create

This month’s video, part of the #CreateICG collaboration, is all about the word “Create”:

The spark of the idea of course came from those two base senses of the roots of the word create, “to grow” and “to cause to grow” or thus “to create”, both stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *ker- “to grow”. This seemed to be an apt way of thinking about the creative process, as both an active act of intentional creation and an organic process of growing. As we briefly touched on in the video, this etymology also brought up the related word creature, obviously meaning in its base sense “created thing”, which got us wondering if it was as a consequence of the novel Frankenstein and the movies it spawned that creature could be used in the sense of “monster”, especially under the influence of the phrase creature feature. Most of the dictionaries I checked didn’t list this sense, though the phrase creature feature is sometimes mentioned, and there is the sense of “a being of anomalous or uncertain aspect or nature” referring to creatures of fantasy or creatures from outer space. We did a quick Twitter poll and found that in British English the word creature was certainly not strongly associated with the meaning “monster”, with many citing the phrase “all creatures great and small” as a particular influence (as well as the TV series Creature Comforts) , but the results, though still negative were somewhat more mixed in North American and world English. So it would seem we might need to do a little more digging here. If you have any thoughts we’d be grateful to read them in the comments below.

Another possible word in the *ker- family might be sincere, though this has an uncertain etymology. Latin sincerus has the sense “clean, pure, sound”, and one suggestion for its etymology is that the first element is from Proto-Indo-European *sem- meaning “one” (also giving us the word same) and the second element is from *ker- thus giving us literally “one growth”, which would seem to make sense. Another suggestion, though rejected by the OED, is that it comes from Latin sine “without” and cera “wax”. But it’s appropriate enough that we bring the word sincere up in a discussion of creation, especially in light of the expression “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Indeed imitation and influence are essential parts of the creative process. As we say in the video, no one creates in a vacuum, ourselves included. So perhaps we should acknowledge here our own creative indebtedness to sources and influences, which are listed on the sources page. In particular, as is often the case, I took inspiration James Burke, famous for his Connections series and book, especially for the story of the development of artificial lighting technology (and its connection to the theatrical world) and for John Harvey Kellogg’s transformation of breakfast.

And speaking of connections, Mary Somerville’s great work On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was an attempt to present a connected view of the sciences as they were known at the time, an ambitious and immediately highly celebrated work.  As it happens, John Herschel, son of William, had just recently called for such work in a letter to William Whewell, who went on to review Somerville’s bestseller. Herschel stressed the need for “digests of what is actually known in each particular branch of science ... to give a connected view of what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished”. Four years later, Somerville’s book was published, coincidentally enough under the publisher John Murray who was also publisher and friend of Lord Byron, the father of Somerville’s student Ada Lovelace. You can read an excellent outline of Somerville and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences here if you want more information on the first “scientist”.

John Herschel

John Herschel

John Murray

John Murray

Somerville herself was well connected and knew many other great minds of the day, such as William Herschel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Georges Cuvier, Humphry Davy, and John Playfair. On the subject of connected people, there’s another chain of connections that ties Joseph Haydn, composer of the oratorio The Creation, in with John Harvey Kellogg and his cornflakes. You see the libretto of The Creation mentioned in the video, either written by or passed along by Thomas Linley to Haydn, was the first English text of the oratorio, and is now lost. A second (and by all accounts much improved) English text was written by poet Anne Home. Home’s husband was one John Hunter, a surgeon who was in part responsible for bringing the scientific method into medicine. Hunter was a teacher of the famous Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccination by using the less deadly cowpox to inoculate against smallpox, one of the most important contributions to medical science. The idea of inoculation against smallpox was initially brought into England from Turkey by aristocrat, writer, and all around celebrity Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She is perhaps most famous for her Embassy Letters, written while in Turkey as an ambassador’s wife. Lord Byron was deeply influenced by the Embassy Letters and seems to have been kind of obsessed with Lady Montagu herself, a woman who died well before he was born. Of course as the video demonstrates, Byron’s daughter was Ada Lovelace, mathematician and the world’s first computer programmer, who got harpist John Thomas into the Royal Academy of Music, who later taught Nansi Richards, who gave John Harvey Kellogg the idea for the cornflakes rooster mascot. So from creation to cereal, two words etymologically connected, in ten easy steps! Speaking of Kellogg, by the way, though Richards was punning on his name in Welsh, his actual name doesn’t mean rooster but is literally “kill hog”, an occupational name for a butcher. Odd name for a man who prescribed a bland vegetarian diet!

Anne Home

Anne Home

John Hunter

John Hunter

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

But getting back to Ada Lovelace’s tutor Somerville, and her admiring reviewer Whewell, in addition to inventing the term “scientist” Whewell was quite a coiner of scientific terminology, including a number of terms suggested to Michael Faraday for his work on electricity, such as ion, anode, and cathode. By the way, Faraday was another among the many admirers of Somerville and her work.  And Faraday brings us back to artificial lighting, so a small footnote or two on lighting technology—which does also tie into Somerville’s work too, as well to Haydn’s Creation. Of course Somerville included several sections on light and optics in On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Additionally that very same John Herschel, who called for a book like Somerville’s and whose father William (who was also a composer as well as a scientist) met Haydn, reported on the effectiveness of Thomas Drummond’s limelight. Drummond, by the way, after putting limelight to good use in surveying work, tried to get his invention into lighthouses, before it was taken up by the theatrical world. And one lighting technology I didn’t cover in the video deserves a brief mention here. Kerosene (a petroleum product) was invented by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner, and became a useful lamp fuel still used today. The word kerosene, which Gesner registered as a trademark in 1854 before it ultimately became genericized, comes from Greek keros meaning “wax”, related to that Latin word cera in that possible though unlikely etymology of the word sincere. Kerosene, by the way, is also sometimes referred to as paraffin, a word originally coined by German chemist Karl von Reichenbach in 1838 to refer to the waxy substance he extracted from wood tar, the very same waterproofer for ships that Archibald Crane was trying to replace with his coal tar. The word paraffin comes from Latin parum “not very, too little” and affinis “associated with”, because the substance was not closely related to other chemicals.

Abraham Gesner

Abraham Gesner

Karl von Reichenbach

Karl von Reichenbach

And a small footnote or two on meal terminology. As briefly mentioned in the video, the word lunch is probably related to lump. The word lunch was initially expanded to the form luncheon, before being abbreviated back to lunch, though there may also be some influence from the Spanish word lonja meaning “a slice (of ham)”. Another meal word worth noting is supper, which is sometimes used to refer to the last meal of the day. It comes into English from the Old French verb soper “to eat the evening meal” but comes ultimately from a Germanic root, which also gives us the words sip, sop, soup, and sup, so I suppose etymologically speaking you should sup your supper by sipping your soup and sopping it up! As for breakfast, French shows the same shifting mealtimes, with the word dejeuner (coming from the same root that gives English the word dinner) originally referring to “breakfast” and then “lunch”, with the phrase petit dejeuner (literally “small dinner”) being used to refer to “breakfast”.

And one final point to round off this blog. I briefly mentioned the etymology of chaos in the video, but I give a fuller treatment of it in the video on “Linoleum” if you care to give it a look. Our modern sense of chaos meaning “disorder” doesn’t arise until the 17th century. The word chaos stretches back through ancient Greek to a Proto-Indo-European root *gheu- meaning “to gape, yawn” which also leads to the word Ginungagap, the primordial void in the Norse creation myth. And speaking of Norse mythology, it also has something to tell us about the nature of creativity, in the story of the Mead of Creation, which you can hear about in our accompanying podcast (being released soon), which along with this blog post and video makes up our creative contributions to the #CreateICG collaboration. Give it a listen!

Fashionably Speaking

As it’s Halloween time, the latest video looks at the word “Costume”:

The main point behind this one is the interesting fact that costume and custom are essentially the same word, but came into English through different routes. Furthermore costume/custom show a similar semantic development to the two senses of the word habit. This kicked off the set of associations, but I also explore not only the interesting vocabulary of fashion, but fashion as a communicative language itself. The semiotics of fashion, that is the study of how fashion conveys meaning, is a large and very rich subject, of which I can only barely scratch the surface. Already this video was quite a long one, and there were a lot of interesting bits I had to leave out of the video.

First of all some side notes about the words custom and costume themselves. The plural form customs as in a duty that needs to be paid when importing goods comes from the sense a “customary tax”, and by further extension a customer is someone with whom we have customary business dealings. Costume was first used in English, in the periods of art history sense, by diarist John Evelyn, whom I’ve wanted to include in a video for some time as he’s one of those hyperconnected individuals, and is responsible for coining quite a few words and senses of words, and is just generally a very interesting person.

Now as for Halloween costumes and where we get the tradition of dressing up for this holiday, the ancient Celts in their harvest festival Samhain are said to have dressed up in scary disguises, either to blend in with or scare off other spirits who were believed to arise at that time of year. There’s also the English tradition of souling, going door-to-door in costume around All Souls Day carrying turnip lanterns representing the souls in Purgatory, and offering blessings or songs in return for soul-cakes. Similarly there’s the Scottish and Irish tradition of Guising, going door-to-door in costumes asking for handouts. And then there’s Mumming, an old  tradition of costumed dances and little plays performed at various seasons of the year. These various tradition seem to have served two purposes. For one, it relieves the tension from the fear of evil spirits or the souls of the dead. Another is the element of misrule and breaking of taboos which I mentioned in the video. Both of these elements highlight the use of jest and game to lessen the impact of very serious cultural realities. If you’re interested in more about these and other Halloween traditions, I covered many of them in last year’s Halloween video “Jack-o’-Lantern”.

Now getting back to clothing and fashion. One of the sources I looked at suggested that the wimple may have been influenced by or adopted from Muslim women, and thus brought to Europe from the middle east during the crusades. If anyone can provide more information on this I’d be grateful, but there certainly is a similarity between the wimple and the hijab. Sticking with head coverings, I mentioned the 18th century vogue for the wig. An interesting puzzle is the word wig itself. It’s actually short for periwig, which has the earlier forms perwike and peruke, and comes from French perruque and Italian perrucca. But before that the trail runs cold.

On the other hand, I can give some deeper etymologies of some other words mentioned in the video. As I said, jeans comes from Genoa. But where does the name for this Italian city come from? Well there are a couple of theories. First of all the Latin form of the name is Genua. Etymonline suggests it might come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “curve, bend” and would thus be cognate with Geneva. This root is presumably *genu- meaning “knee, angle”, and also gives us the words knee, kneel, genuflect, and diagonal. Another theory is that it’s related to Latin janua meaning “gate”, and thus also the Roman god Janus, as well as the month name January. As for denim from the city Nîmes, the French placename come from Latin Nemausus and ultimately from the Gaulish word nemo meaning “sanctuary”. This also seems to be connected to a Celtic god which the Romans referred to as Deus Nemausus, the god of a healing-spring sanctuary in the ancient town there. So if you think you look divine in those jeans, what with Nemausus and Janus, you may be right!

And speaking of jeans, I refer to them as an icon of contemporary fashion, probably the 20th century’s most enduring one. But to complete the look I suppose we could include T-shirts and sneakers. So as for the T-shirt, obviously named for its shape, it was originally designed as an undershirt to go with US military uniforms, but many servicemen began wearing just their T-shirts with their uniform trousers as a casual outfit during their off-duty hours, and when film star Marlon Brando appeared in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire dressed in a T-shirt, a fashion style was born.  And next the sneaker, an early example of which is the Converse All-Stars, which was also one of the first instances of a celebrity endorsement when basketball star Chuck Taylor joined their sales force in 1921, suggesting improvements to their shoe design, and his signature was added to the ankle patch on the shoes we now often refer to as Chuck Taylors or simply Chucks. The term sneaker by the way dates from the end of 19th century and is originally American, though it’s predated slightly by the term sneak. There are of course many other names for different varieties of casual soft-soled shoe including running shoestrainers, sand shoes, deck shoes, tennis shoes, and plimsolls, an eponym from politician Samuel Plimsoll who devised the plimsoll line, the water line markings on the side of a ship which showed the maximum load a ship could safely carry — the shoes took their name from the similarity of their appearance to ships with these lines on the side. And as for celebrity endorsements, they have since become quite the big deal with sneakers, and T-shirts have become an important canvas on which to display a variety of messages the wearer wishes to convey to the world, so again fashion as language.

In addition to T-shirts with political or social slogans (which became particularly popular starting in the 1980s), fashion can often be used to make political or social statements. To give just two such examples of statements calling for change, at the 1968 Olympics  African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up black-gloved fists during their medal ceremonies as an anti-racism statement. And the name of  19th century feminist Amelia Bloomer, who advocated against the restrictive clothing women were forced to wear at the time, became associated with bloomers, a kind of loose fitting split-leg garment, sometimes worn as more comfortable underwear and sometimes as trousers. Once again, the language of fashion and fashion as language. Let me know of any other examples of this kind of use of fashion in the comments below.

But getting back to the 20th century US military influence on fashion, one perhaps surprising example is the bikini, which inventor Louis Réard named after the Bikini Atoll where the US military conducted its first peace-time nuclear weapons test. Réard hoped his invention would cause a similar "explosive commercial and cultural reaction", and indeed it did. The placename Bikini, by the way is Marshallese for “coconut place”.

In the video I mentioned Beau Brummell’s influence on the men’s formal suit. Brummell was fond of wearing dark colours as opposed to the more brightly coloured outfits of preceding generations.  But we have another historical figure, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who by the way gave us the cliche novel opening “It was a dark and stormy night” (you may remember him from our “Beef” video), to thank for the habit of wearing black as formal wear, as in the tailcoat and the tuxedo. As for the invention of tuxedo itself, one story goes that Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, wanting a more comfortable formal outfit than the black tailcoat, took to wearing a short military style jacket. His American guest at the time, James Potter, brought the style back with him, and after wearing it at the fashionable resort of Tuxedo Park in New York, a style and its name were born. The place name itself, by the way, seems to come from Algonquian p'tuck-sepo meaning “crooked river”. On the subject of the tuxedo, the term Canadian tuxedo refers to wearing denim on top and on bottom, so jeans and a jean jacket for instance. And the term Canadian passport, according to Urban Dictionary, is another term for the mullet cut. I don’t want to think what all this implies about Canadians!

But while we’re still on the subject of men’s formal wear, the top hat is said to have been invented by John Hetherington, who supposedly first wore this shiny silk hat designed to “frighten timid people” on January 15, 1797, causing a riot with women fainting, children screaming, and dogs yelping, leading to his being charged with a breach of the peace! Unfortunately this story may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, the hat did become a major fashion trend of the 19th century, and already by 1814 we have the first recorded instance of someone pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, the French magician Louis Comte.

Another probably apocryphal hat story is about the invention of the bowler. Finding the tall top hat inconvenient when horse riding as it got caught up in low-hanging tree branches, wealthy British landowner William Coke commissioned a hat with a low round crown. The hat was manufactured by one William Bowlers. Of course it might just be the bowl shape of the hat that led to its name. But I’ll make the hat trick by relaying a third hat story. The fedora takes its name from a play, the only such instance of an etymology I can think of. In the play Fedora by Victorien Sardou, famous actress Sarah Bernhardt wore a soft felt hat while playing the title role of Princess Fedora Romanoff, and the hat became a popular fashion choice.

Speaking of fashion trendsetters, I mentioned Empress Josephine’s role in popularizing the empire waist dress, a neoclassical reinvention of the ancient Greek peplos. Another important trendsetter in the development of this type of dress was Emma, Lady Hamilton (or Emma Hart as she was known at the time), who was the lover of Charles Greville (whom you may remember as a friend of Erasmus Darwin in our previous video on him). Greville, tiring of his mistress, shipped her off to Italy to become the mistress and eventually wife of Sir William Hamilton, who was the English ambassador in Naples. While there Emma invented a kind of performance art she called Attitudes, posing in various alluring poses recreating scenes from Greek mythology, and wearing that type of ancient dress. The artist George Romney painted many of these scenes, and her fashion sense took Europe by storm. Well, I guess high fashion is all about attitude.

Speaking of ancient Greece, professional barbers or hair cutters go back at least as far as ancient Greece, where the barbershop was already an important location for conversation and gossip. The Greeks introduced the profession to the Romans who called the barber a tonsor, related to our word tonsure. During the middle ages barbers also served as surgeons — after all they already had sharp razors — and that’s the source of the barber pole, the red stripes reflecting the blood involved. The word surgery by the way comes through Latin chirurgia ultimately from ancient Greek kheirurgia meaning literally “hand work”. So some extra tidbits next time you’re gossipping with your barber.

Also in the ancient world, I briefly mention the toga, which connects nicely with our last video “Ambition” and the toga candida, the “whitened toga”, worn by political candidates in Rome, and indeed that’s where the word candidate comes from. Also worthy of mention is the toga praetexta, which had a purple border, and was worn, curiously, by both by young boys who were not yet of age and by magistrates, purple being a colour that signified high status, but more on this when we come to purple in our ongoing series of colour podcasts. Interesting too that the one exception to the rule that only freeborn males were allowed to wear togas was that prostitutes were required to wear them, an example I suppose of boundary crossing. They couldn’t wear the traditional stola, the dress of the Roman matron, and I suppose had something of the male freedom in terms of their status—in the sense that they were not restricted by the modesty of a respectable woman. The toga, though, showed that they also lacked the legal protection of a citizen woman, and that their bodies were essentially common property. 

In the video I highlighted the importance of France as the home of fashion by tracing the series of leaders from Louis XIV and his wigs, to Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, to Louis XVI and his wife and “queen of fashion” Marie Antoinette, leading up to the French Revolution, to finally the more reserved styles after the revolution with Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. I could perhaps add one other link to this chain, with Napoleon’s nephew and heir Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie de Montijo. She influence the work of designer Charles Worth, who is known as the father of haute-couture, and who founded the first great fashion house, the House of Worth.

And finally one last point about fashion as language. A friend once pointed out to me that someone mixing clashing styles of clothing was engaging in something like code-switching. Code-switching is a linguistics term that refers to when speakers of more than one language naturally switch back and forth between languages in the middle of conversation. It’s not a random phenomenon, but is indeed itself a communicative element of language — the choice of language at any one instant communicates something of importance in the discourse. Applying this to clothing is, I think, quite relevant, particularly in our modern, uncentred contemporary fashions. So feel free to add in the comments any other ways fashion is like language — I’d love to hear some other views.

Glossed in Translation

This week’s video is about the development of a country name that also became a common noun, “Japan”:

This video originates in the fact that the English name Japan appears to be an unrelated exonym to the native name Nippon, when actually they come from the same Chinese origin. By the way, the name is sometimes more fully given as Nippon-koku meaning “the State of Japan”, and this might be reflected in some of the early versions of the name in Europe such as Marco Polo’s Chipangu. There are conflicting stories as to who first started to use the phrase meaning “sun’s origin” to refer to the region. According the the American Heritage Dictionary, it was Japanese scholars who had studied Chinese who began to use the phrase around 670 CE (during the Tang Dynasty). Alternatively, Henry Dyer reports (see sources on the show notes page) that in 607 (during the Chinese Sui dynasty) the Emperor of Japan is supposed to have sent a letter to the Court of China with the greeting “A letter from the sovereign of the Sun-rise country to the sovereign of the Sun-set country”. However, another story claims that it was the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian of the later Tang dynasty who ordered the change of name. Of course the sun is an important cultural symbol in Japan, and one of the most important deities in Shinto religion and Japanese mythology is the sun goddess Amaterasu. The Emperors of Japan were held to be descended from her.

The European aruquebus first arrived in Japan in the hands of the Portuguese aboard a Chinese ship which came ashore on the island of Tanegashima in 1543. After a demonstration of duck shooting, the Lord of the island purchased the guns at great expense, and after a few initial technical hiccups, they started manufacturing and even improving on them. The European guns arrived in Japan during a time of civil wars called the Sengoku period from around 1467 to 1603, which ended with the Tokugawa shogunate and the ensuing Edo period, a time not only of isolationism but relative peace, and much has been made of the fact that the Japanese henceforth gave up firearms and returned to the sword, so that when in 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry led the US fleet to forcibly reopen Japan to relations and trade, they seemed to have little knowledge of firearms. You can read about this story in detail in Noel Perin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, or have a look at Jabzy’s excellent on-the-scene videos about Europeans in Japan and Guns in Japan. Of the Japanese improvements to the Portuguese arquebus, Perrin writes: “They developed a serial firing technique to speed up the flow of the bullets. They increased the caliber of the guns to increase each bullet’s effectiveness, and they ordered waterproof lacquered cases to carry the matchlocks and gunpowder in … Japanese gunmakers were busy refining the comparatively crude Portuguese firing mechanism — developing, for example, a helical main spring and an adjustable trigger-pull. They also devised a gun accessory — unknown, so far as I am aware, in Europe — which enabled a matchlock to be fired in the rain.”

Now there were a number of etymologies I didn’t have time to include in the video, but the words for the various goods that led the Europeans to Asia are quite interesting and instructive. First the word "lacquer", one of the main focusses of the video, which comes not from Japanese or Chinese but ultimately from the Indian language Sanskrit word lākṣā referring to a red dye (not black, you note), which becomes Hindi lākh, then Persian lāk, which becomes lacre in Portuguese, Spanish, and French to refer to a kind of sealing wax, before moving into English as "lacquer". The source and meaning of the word is somewhat debated. It might be a variant of Sanskrit rahk and thus come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “colour, dye”. Or it might come from Sanskrit laksha meaning “salmon” (and thus be related to English "lox") in reference to its colour. But I think my favourite explanation is that the Sanskrit word means literally “one hundred thousand” in reference to the large numbers of insects that are needed to produce the lac. Called lac insects, they infest a tree in large numbers and secrete a resinous pigment which is then harvested and processed to produce shellac — yes that’s where that word comes from, because the lac flakes are kind of shell-like in appearance.

Shellac also used to be used to make gramophone records and some kinds of hard candies (so beware, vegans, as they contain animal products). Shellac is a calque or loan translation of the French laque en écailles. And the slang term "to shellac" as in “to beat soundly” probably comes from the idea of “to finish (off)”. And on the subject of slang terms, "to be japanned" also has a slang sense, to be ordained into the church, in reference to the black coat of the clergy, reminiscent of the black finish on that japanned furniture.

Silk was another draw to Asia, along what is referred to as the silk road, an over-land trade route. Early on it carried silks from China to ancient Greece, and that’s a clue to the etymology of the word “silk”. Old English seolc comes from Latin sericus, from Greek σηρικός ‎(sērikós). Serikos is the adjective form of Seres, the Greek name for the people from whom the goods came from, presumably a group in China, and it has been suggested that the word might come from the Chinese word si meaning “silk”, in Manchurian sirghe and Mongolian sirkek, so from the trade good, to the name of a people, and back to the name of the trade good again, in an interesting parallel to the progress of Japan to japanning.

“Porcelain” has perhaps the most surprising etymology. It comes from Latin porcella “young sow”, the feminine diminutive form of porcus meaning “pig”, thus related to our modern English word "pork". The Italian porcellana was also used to refer to a kind of cowrie shell, probably because of its resemblance to a female pig’s genitalia. Yes, really. And the shiny finish of porcelain was reminiscent of the shiny shells, hence the name was transferred over. So think about that the next time you eat pork off of some fine porcelain!

And finally “spice”, which comes from Latin species meaning “kind, sort” and originally “appearance” as it comes from a Latin root specio “to see” from a Proto-Indo-European root *spek- “to observe” which gives us a large number of modern English derivatives, like "species", "spy", and "special". In the plural, Latin species went from meaning “kind, sort” to “goods, wares”, probably from the sense of a particular kind of merchandise, and eventually narrowed in meaning further still to the word “spice” as we know it today, perhaps an indication that it was the most particularly important trade good. Indeed the extreme value of spices from Asia would certainly support this. And contrary to popular myth, during the middle ages they never used spices to hide the taste of rotten meat. Spices were far too expensive to waste in that way and it probably wouldn’t work anyway. To coin a phrase, even a hundred thousand special trade goods can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s… well.

From the Sublime to the Romantic

This week’s video is on “sublime”, a word important to the romantic poets, but that also has deep roots in the ancient world and the middle ages:

It was the surprising etymology of sublime that kicked this one off, though the script is drawn in large part from my classroom teaching explaining the sublime and romanticism, as well as the importance of the medieval tradition to the 19th century. And working through this for the video, it seemed to me that there was a useful metaphorical connection to the idea of looking up, in both the sublime and in the gothic cathedrals of the high middle ages. Another important theme here is the drive to differentiate oneself from what went before. Most cultural movements do this sort of thing one way or another, and again there were various parallels there. Also, the ongoing language peeving today is useful to keep in mind in this context. Language is constantly changing, and current language trends are no different from the transformation from Latin into the romance languages. And finally, since this video was coming out close to Valentine’s Day, it seemed appropriate to look at the later development of the word “romantic” and examine what it also owes to the medieval courtly love tradition. This too involves a kind of “looking up”, with the male lover putting his beloved up on a pedestal and worshipping her in a quasi-religious/feudal way. This is of course profoundly misogynistic as it doesn’t leave her the capacity to be human, but forces a divine status on her which no human can live up to, but perhaps that’s another story. But in any case, this too also owes a debt to the classical world, as this model of love comes not only from the medieval troubadours from the South of France, but also from the Roman poet Ovid, whose works the Ars Amatoria and Amores (themselves, ironically, to a large extent parodying earlier cliches about love!) were very influential to the courtly love tradition. So in a sense, I guess, this counts as my Valentine’s Day video for the year! (You can see last year's Valentine's Day video "Cuckold" here.)

Perhaps the most common way people today hear this word is in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. The full expression is “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but one step”. The expression seems to derive from The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, the great 18th century English-American thinker and revolutionary (who certainly had an antagonistic relationship with Edmund Burke): “The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” Napoleon, one time great hero of the Romantics (until they became disillusioned with him), picked up on Paine and said “Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas” giving us our modern phrase. Again, it’s a question of high and low. 

And in addition to the psychological term subliminal, there are the scientific terms sublimate and sublimation, which are formed from the same Latin sources. Sublimate in chemistry means to change state from a solid directly to a gas, and comes from medieval and early modern alchemical terminology. Sublimation is used in (Freudian) psychological sense to refer to the process of converting an impulse into a more socially acceptable activity. Both of these have the metaphorical sense of raising something up.

In the video I indicated on screen (without going into it in detail) that the word lintel actually has two etymons, limen meaning “threshold, lintel, entrance” and limes meaning “boundary, path” (and also giving us the word “limit”). This is a case of the two similar sounding words coming together to produce the derived word. Interestingly both words seem to come ultimately from the same Latin source, limus “sidelong, askew, askance”, with the idea that limes refers to a cross path bounding two fields. But also interesting is that limen in Latin seems to refer indiscriminately to both the lintel at the top and the sill or threshold at the bottom of a window or door respectively. I already covered the etymology of the word “sill” in the video, but also from a Germanic source is threshold, related to the word thresh and from the Old English verb þrescan “to thresh, beat”, the idea being that a threshold is something you tread on. It comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root ‌‌*terə- “to rub, turn”, which has a great many English derivatives.

Jane Austen makes a only brief appearance in this video, but in a lot of ways she touches on a number of the different connections presented in the video. Her novel Northanger Abbey, in addition to satirizing the sentimental and gothic novels, also contains a discussion about aesthetics in which her heroine Catherine Morland learns about the categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque from her love interest Henry Tilney. And the title of Sense and Sensibility makes a pun on the different meanings — sense as in having good sense, and sensibility as in having a strong emotional reaction. And in Pride and Prejudice, when Charlotte Lucas agrees to the obsequious Mr Collins, she explains to the surprised Elizabeth Bennet that “I am not romantic, you know; I never was”, though probably in the broader sense of romantic meaning fanciful, sentimental, or idealistic. And it’s important to remember that Jane Austen was writing at the same time as many of those Romantic poets.

As for the Romantics themselves, they weren’t exactly a unified group. Though Goethe and Herder kicked it all off with their Sturm und Drang poetry, they wouldn’t really have thought of themselves as part of the Romantic movement, and in fact later on pulled back from some of their proto-Romantic ideas to what’s referred to as the Weimar classical school, a kind of compromise between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. And as for the English Romantic poets, the second generation (Shelley, Byron, Keats, etc.) though initially being inspired by the earlier (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), didn’t always look up to them (see what I did there?). Byron found Wordsworth’s use of everyday language and style to be facile and unsophisticated. That everyday language, by the way was part of Wordsworth’s definition of the ideal poet. He wanted to use the “plainer and more emphatic language” of the common man, but “purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust” (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads). So though the ideal poet is “a man speaking to men”, he qualifies this as “a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind”. Coleridge, who collaborated with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads but had no hand in the Preface, which was added later, called Wordsworth out in his Biographia Literaria for these and other contradictions and inconsistencies, so they didn’t always see eye to eye either. And of course Romanticism doesn’t really end with the Romantic period. In British literature, we’re accustomed to think of the later part of the 19th century as the Victorian period, but many of the elements of Romanticism continue into the later period, such as drawing inspiration from the medieval (think Tennyson, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites), and the distinction isn’t really made anyway in continental Europe.

Another of the elements of Romanticism that’s worth further discussion is their sense of history and time. In addition to the discovery and interest in ruins, as I mentioned in the video, there was an important literary component here. Macpherson began his Ossian forgery by collecting folktales from the Scottish Highlands, much as the Brothers Grimm would do in Germany some years later. And there was also a kind of cult of Shakespeare, a great reverence of the playwright, with such proponents as Johann Herder and August Schlegel (who translated Shakespeare into German), and the notion that one should go out into the English countryside to really read the Bard properly. Related to the Ossian poem, by the way, is the poetry of Thomas Chatterton — I used a painting of him in the video to  suggest the idea of emotion.

Though he wasn’t himself a Romantic — he was from the middle of the 18th century and committed suicide at the age of 17 — he was quite influential on the English Romantic poets. He is perhaps most remembered now for forging “medieval” romances under the pseudonym of Thomas Rowley, much like Macpherson did with the Ossian epic. No wonder then that Romantics liked him so much! Coleridge does something similar with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (perhaps his most famous contribution to the Lyrical Ballads), though he never claimed it was a genuine medieval poem, he just wrote it in that style.

As for medieval architecture, I emphasized the elongated proportions and verticality of the gothic architecture, but the other effect of this is on the light in gothic cathedrals. The advent of the flying buttress, which transferred the outward force of a wall downward to the ground, allowed for the gothic arches to be made very large, which meant they could put in large elongated stained-glass windows, and the gothic cathedrals would be constructed so that the high altar would be the brightest part of the church, while the nave, where the church-goers would sit, would be relatively dark. The symbolic implication of this is fairly obvious. Perhaps the most striking example of this sort of thing (though not actually a cathedral) is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

I mentioned gothic revival architecture, and used the example of the British Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster, as an iconic example. Pugin by the way, was technically the assistant architect to chief architect Charles Barry, though there’s some controversy as to how much of the work was Barry’s and how much was Pugin’s — Pugin was known as a pioneer of gothic revival, whereas Barry was more known for neoclassical architecture, for what it’s worth. (Oh and for extra connection fans, Barry was assisted in the quarrying of the stone for the building by geologist William “Strata” Smith, who you may remember from my previous video “Fossil”). But it’s significant that gothic revival style was chosen for the rebuild after the earlier building was destroyed by fire in 1834,  as it could be seen as a reaffirmation of the monarchy, which traces its origins back to the middle ages. This was then a rejection of the neoclassical republicanism associated with, for instance, the United States of America, whose government buildings like the Capitol are built in the neoclassical style.

The US specifically modelled themselves in that respect on the Roman Republic, with their Latinate terms like Senate and Congress. Canada too built its parliament in the gothic revival style as an explicit alignment with medieval monarchy and their British rulers.

The original Canadian Parliament Buildings were built in the mid 18th century in a highly ornate gothic style. After the original Centre Block burned down in 1916 (one hundred years ago to the day as I write this), it was replaced with a slightly less ornate but still gothic revival style building.

And finally, as for the period preceding Romanticism, I was playing a bit fast and loose, consistently using the term Neoclassical for simplicity’s sake, but in fact the 18th century is co-occurrence of a number of interconnected trends. Other terms used to refer to the period include the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. I suppose at their heart what they all have in common was an appeal to reason and rationality over pure emotion, a rejection of medieval religiosity in favour of human centred concerns, and an alignment with ancient Greece and Rome which were thought to embody these notions. In the video I used the images of Denis Diderot and his Encyclopédie to represent the rationality of the Enlightenment, a good iconic example. Diderot himself argued, as many at the time did, that reason was necessary to keep emotion in check, but of course there are many other figures and works reflective of Enlightenment thinking. I could no more cover this complex topic than I could give anything more than the cursory thumbnail sketch of Romanticism that I did through the lens of etymology, but hopefully this gives a new perspective (looking up or otherwise), to these complex periods.