The way we see things

Lava Bread, by any other name…

May 26, 2011 by Glyph Admin

Somewhat of a culinary and linguistic oddity, lava bread contains no lava and is not bread and the ‘lava’ in question is not the molten rock that flows from an erupted volcano... Like lava, though, it does flow on rocks and like bread, it is edible. But neither of those comparisons will get us much closer to discovering what lava bread actually is. Nor why it bears that name.

Let’s start with the linguistic side of things. Lava is actually a variation of the word “laver”, a type of seaweed, scientifically porphyra umbilicalis. Bread is the English translation of the Welsh “bara”. Originating in Wales - or in Cymru (pronounced [ˈkəmrɨ]  ( listen), as the country is called by its natives - Bara Lawr or Bara Lafwr is often eaten at breakfast. A Wales native himself, Richard Burton is said to have described laver bread as “Welshman’s caviar”; a younger Welsh actor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, is said to have eaten laver bread as a health food while growing up there.

The use of the word ‘laver’ for this type of seaweed may come from Pliny’s mention of a sea plant, though it is unlikely that he was referring to porphyra umbilicalis. Laver needs to be thoroughly washed, as many as 5 times, to ensure that none of the sand caught up in it remains, which has given rise to the belief that ‘laver’ may be associated with the French laver  [laVAY], to wash. Also, according to Oxford’s Reference Dictionary, it is archaic, a washing or fountain basin; a font. Etymology: ME lavo(u)r f. OF laveo(i)r f. LL (as LAVATORY)  In any case, laver is awash in minerals, vitamins and protein, and contains no sugar or cholesterol. 

Indeed, not known much outside of Wales in the English-speaking world, the health benefits of laver are well-known in Japan, where it is called nori (海苔), and commonly used in dishes from sushi to soup, as well as in Korea, where it is called kim or gim (김).

Back in Wales, on the culinary side of things, lava bread is primarily eaten at breakfast. After it has been adequately washed and boiled for several hours, it is often puréed, rolled in oatmeal and cooked in bacon grease. It is also eaten as an appetizer with cockles (small clams). 

There are a myriad of family recipes available on the web, including everything from lamb to baked beans. Food writers have described the taste of laver as being “like olives with marine undertones” but I beg to differ. Olives? No. Marine undertones? More like marine overtones. A kind of sea-spinach flavor, in a nice way. My cat was sure we were cooking up fish. 

Next time you’re in Wales, do try lava bread, in whatever form. And bon appétit! – Enjoy your meal! – or Mwynhewch eich bwyd!in Welsh.  It is truly delicious. Here’s another Welsh expression that might come in handy: “Bytwch, mae pob gair yn damaid”  - Eat up, every word is a bite.   

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Linguistics, Etymology, Multiculturalism

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Summertime in Rome: Cantaloupes and wolves?

May 24, 2011 by Glyph Admin

Folk etymologies may eventually be proven to be inaccurate, but in lieu of concrete evidence to the contrary, they have a way of filling in linguistic knowledge gaps, like superstitions do for inexplicable physical phenomena.

For example, take the word ‘cantaloupe’. Though it is unclear if this fruit has its botanical origins in Africa or Asia, it is said to have been imported from Armenia to Italy, and seems to have taken its name from the papal estate on the outskirts of Rome called Cantalupo in Sabbina, where it was originally grown in Western Europe.

In fact, there are no fewer than 10 different towns in Italy called Cantalupo; if we translate the parts of the original Italian word literally into English, we get ‘sings’ (canta) and ‘wolf’ (lupo), or less literally ‘singing wolf’. Speculation has it that these communities were named when wolves once roamed the peninsula, referring to locations where the howling of wolves could often be heard.

Despite its alleged origins, it is interesting that though the word ‘cantalupo’ can be found in Italian dictionaries, in Italy the fruit is simply known as ‘melone’, ‘melon’ in English translation. The etymology of melon is much clearer:

Old French melon, from Medieval Latin melonem, from Latin melopeponem (“type of pumpkin”), from Ancient Greek μηλοπέπων (mēlopepōn), from μῆλον (mēlon, “apple”) +πέπων (pepōn, “ripe”) (from Wikipedia).

melone e prosciuttoCantaloupe is one of 2 ingredients of a favorite antipasto in Italy, and in Italian restaurants in the U.S., called ‘melone e prosciutto’, ‘prosciutto’ being a type of cured ham.

The etymology of antipasto is also much easier to trace: ante meaning before in Latin, pasto also from Latin, pascere “to feed”, ‘pasto’ now meaning ‘meal’.

Regardless of what you call it, Cuvumis melo is a visually and gastronomically delectable fruit that can be enjoyed in season from June to September in the Northern Hemisphere.

Buon appetito ! 

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Linguistics, Language Factoids, Etymology

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A 94th birthday; Octavia and other socio-linguistic tidbits

April 22, 2011 by Glyph Admin

Recently at a neighborhood eatery in Seattle (St. Cloud’s) that features live music played by Tom Bennett and the Rolling Blackouts on Monday nights, an elegant woman named Octavia had come, it was announced, to celebrate her 94th birthday. We all cheered, applauded and raised our glasses as Octavia - who had donned a very becoming hat for the occasion - soaked it all in, smiling coyly and sipping her cocktail.  At Octavia’s request, the band played ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’, the accordionist leading the way. Octavia was clearly enjoying herself. And I was enjoying repeating her regal sounding name: Octavia. Julius Caesar’s great-niece, Mark Antony’s 4th wife.

Mark Antony and Octavia

Mark Antony and Octavia, 39 BC. Laureate head of Antony and draped bust of Octavia right. Octavia was one of the first Roman women to have coins minted in her image.

She was also the sister of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, who was also known as Octavian.

August is the 8th month in our current system, the Gregorian calendar, though in the Roman system October was the 8th month. An ‘octave’ is a series of 8 notes, an ‘octopus’ has eight tentacles – the root of those words being octus, the Latin word for 8 that has also given rise to the Spanish ocho, the Italian otto, to list two of the closest derivations.

Not a common name today, in the past sometimes children were given the name Octavio or Octavia – or other equivalent translations in European languages – precisely because they were born in the 8th month. When I lived in Italy, I was told that at the turn of the last century, boys and girls were also often given this name if they were the 8th child born – and, more surprisingly as well as much harder to verify, that the birth of the 8th child would hopefully mark the midway point in birth order, 16 children being the desirable, if elusive, goal.

I shared this cultural tidbit with my dining companions who seemed somewhat incredulous. I decided to see if I might get lucky and, perchance, an American born in Bremerton, Washington in 1917 might have a similar story – Octavia seemed approachable enough. It couldn’t hurt to ask.

And, in fact, it turned out to be true; the much feted, glowing and clearly joyous Octavia, though not Italian, had indeed been the 8th child in her family. She had had 7 older brothers. Her younger fellow diners – grandchildren maybe? – were quite happy to have heard the story for the first time.

Thanks Octavia! I would like to have spoken with you at greater length but am grateful to have participated in the celebration in a small way – and to have another cross-cultural story to share.

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Linguistics, Language Factoids, Etymology, Multiculturalism

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The origin of the word “tsunami”

April 11, 2011 by Glyph Admin

The recent tragic events in the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan have brought the world closer together through a global outpouring of sympathy and support. It seems eerily fitting that the word now generally accepted by the international scientific community for the geological event would be Japanese, literally "harbor" (tsu, 津) and "wave(s)" (nami, 波).  The Japanese term has been adopted because, in fact, very few other languages have native expressions for the phenomenon, one exception being Tamil [see map below]. According to various internet sources, in Tamil the occurrence is referred to as ஆழிப்பேரலை “aazhi peralai,” aazhi meaning “destruction” and peralai meaning “big wave(s)” in English translation. However, today, even in Tamil the transliteration for tsunami, சுனாமி, is the prevalent term used by native Tamil speakers.

Tamil Distribution

Tamil is spoken in the state of ‘Tamil Nadu’ in southeastern India. It is also spoken in the Union Territory of Puducherry, Northeast Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

In the case of the March 11 tsunami that hit Japan, the literal expression “harbor waves” seems to belie the massive destruction the waves actually caused; the simple words themselves – “harbor waves” – might evoke an almost soothing image of a coastal scene, a harbor, seagulls, the rising sun...

It is worth noting, though, that the Japanese use of this particular Chinese character for harbor or port appears primarily in the expression tsunami and is not found in the term commonly used for harbor or port which is  港 – pronounced “minato” in Japanese; 港町 “minato-machi,” for example, means “port town” in English.

Even without an in-depth knowledge of Japanese linguistics, non-Japanese speakers today are painfully aware that the Japanese term tsunami has come to mean destruction and devastation far beyond its literal translation. When describing the March 11, 2011, tsunami, the Japanese call it  大 津 波, o-tsunami, or “(the) great tsunami”; for a people used to the more typical, if destructive, event, the term tsunami on its own failed to capture the scope of devastation and loss they have been experiencing – and the world witnessing – since March 11, 2011.

Our hearts and best wishes go out to all those whose lives continue to be affected by – and threatened by – tsunamis in Japan and throughout the world. 

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Linguistics, Language Factoids, Etymology

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Touch keys, music and drugs?

February 17, 2011 by Glyph Admin

When Eminem sings about a “pound of weed 6 days up out the week” [title track from the album “Encore” by Eminem] or the Wu-Tang Clan talks about “hash with that purple 8” in the song “Flight of the Killer Bees” [from the album “Wu Music Group Presents Pollen The Swarm Pt 3”], chances are neither is referencing the touch keys on our computers, feature phones, smartphones, ATMs and payment keypads for this symbol: #.

While # is “pound” in American English, it’s “hash” in the U.K. If you are a speaker of American English and a pleasant, if automated, voice politely asked you in a British accent to “please select the hash key,” would you hesitate, confused, but smile nevertheless at that cunning British sense of humor?  Would you as a speaker of British English find the request to “hit the pound key” an incomprehensible reference to the American obsession with weight?

A different kind of musical reference is also associated with #: sharp, a rise in a musical note of half a tone. In French, the # key is called “la touche dièse” [roughly pronounced dee-EZ], “the sharp key.” The Japanese, on the other hand, transliterate the English musical term; “sharp” becomes “shyaapu” or  シャープ in katakana, the Japanese writing system used for transcribing loan words from other languages.

If thinking about “pound” and “hash” has made your head spin, you might try relaxing by listening to a piece of music – be it from Eminem, Wu-Tang Clan or Beethoven – in a “sharp” key and resting your head on a Castilian Spanish #, an “almohadilla” [approximately, almoah-DEE-ya] or “little pillow.” The Catalan word for the # symbol, “coixinet” [coy-shee-NET], also translates to “little pillow”; both the technological and literal translations in Spanish and Catalan, might come in handy on your next trip to Barcelona!

If, on the other hand, you’re finding all of this #-talk a bit hard to swallow, perhaps it’s time to leave the “starting gate” – the English translation of Italian word for # key, “cancelletto” [cahn-chel-LET-to] – to head to the Chinese character #, which is “water well” in English. Korean words often have two forms, one pure Korean, another Sino-Korean. In the case of #, Koreans choose to use both:

"우물정자를 누르세요" translates to “Water-well [pure Korean], water-well [Sino-Korean] character please press.”

Chinese Character for Water WellChinese character for “water well”

Transliteration: “jing” as pronounced in “jingle”

In fact, to me # most resembles what we write at the beginning of a TIC TAC TOE game. And just as the results of playing TIC TAC TOE are fairly predictable  – and boring – the outcome of pressing # is much the same, regardless of what you call it: endless waiting only to be told to press another key… perhaps *, this time around? Are you seeing stars yet? Or do you call those asterisks? “Please hold…

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Linguistics, Language Factoids, Etymology

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The Etymology of Opposum

January 14, 2011 by Glyph Admin

An animal better known in the United States as road-kill rather than as an exotic zoological attraction has recently joined the ranks of non-human German celebrities:  a possum, or, more correctly, an opossum. Heidi the cross-eyed opossum may get her cuteness from her marsupial parents, but the English term for her common animal name comes from Algonquian, a North American language family. The literal English translation of the Powhatan term ‘apasum’, sometimes transcribed as ‘aposum’, is white animal or white beast.

 “To play possum,” a common American idiomatic phrase, means to lie perfectly still, as if dead, which is a natural, physiological defense mechanism for opossums. In the Southern United States, we also have the expression “to be treed like a possum,” usually referring to being in a position from which we cannot easily extract ourselves. This comes from opossums taking refuge in trees while being chased by hunting dogs; yes, I’m afraid it’s true, many of Heidi’s relatives throughout the Americas have been served up in stews. In Mexico, el tlacuache—the Spanish translation for opossum from the indigenous language Nahuatl—appears in many traditional folktales, while the animal’s actual tail is eaten as a folk remedy to improve fertility. Please steer clear of soup pots in your international travels, Heidi!

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Linguistics, Etymology

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Money Talks

December 24, 2009 by Aaron Schliem

Throughout recorded history and around the world, the words that human beings have chosen to refer to money, financial transactions and states of richness and poorness reveal much about our history and idiosyncrasies.

The word "money" itself, comes from the Old French "monaie", which in turn derives from the Latin "moneta". The Latin makes reference to the temple of Juno Moneta in Rome, where a mint was located in antiquity ("Moneta" comes from "monere" which means warn, watch, give advice, make remember).

When we look at the Latin word for money, "pecunia", which derives from "pecus" ("cattle"), an earlier value system comes into focus. The cow as a core unit of value is revealed in the English word "fee" (from the Old English "feoh" meaning "cattle, property, money"). Interestingly, the word "capital", which appears in many European languages, and word "cattle" itself do not come to us from early words for the cow. Both are from the Latin "capitalis", which means "principal". Meanwhile, in Welsh the word "da", which is generally used as an adjective meaning "good", can be used as a noun to refer to "cattle" and "goods".

The cow is not the only animal to find its way into our monetary lexicon. The root of the Russian word for money, "деньги" ("den'gi"), and the Turkmen equivalent of the penny, "tenge", is the Turkic "tän'gä", which literally meant "a squirrel's fur".

The need for more portable units of exchange with greater value density led to the use of shells and metal coins as forms of money. Naturally, languages evolved to accommodate these new units and their legacy is found in modern words.

Since early in human history, cowry shells haven been used as symbols of status and as a form of money. The earliest evidence of their use as currency was during the Shang Dynasty in China (1765-1122 BC). In fact, so important was their use in China that the shape of the cowry shell was used in creating the pictograph for money, "貝" ("bèi"). This pictograph is retained in the modern character for "wealth" – "財" ("cái"). The cowry, which due to the convenient hole in each shell were organized and transported on strings, even influenced a parallel design convention for early Chinese coins. The importance of the cowry is even alluded to in English when we are "shelling out money".

With the emergence of metallic coins, we see the historical root of many contemporary words that refer to the raw materials and processes used in making coins. The use of the word for "silver" to refer to money in a general sense is common in many languages including Spanish ("plata"), French ("argent"), Indonesian ("perak"). We also see the act of measuring metallic coins by weight reflected in the modern English words "spend", "expenditure" and "pound" (as in "pound sterling"), all of which are descendants of the Latin word "expendere" ("to weigh"). The Chinese currency, the "yuan" ("元"), relates to the shaping of coins, the original meaning of the word being "round". Similarly, the origin of the Indian rupee, the currency and also the Hindi word for "money", can be found in the Sanskrit word "rupah", meaning "shape, likeness, image". Cousins of the rupee include the Russian "rouble", the Indonesian "rupiah" and the Maldivian "rufiyaa".

In the modern world the core concept of coins and bills has been established as an agreed conduit for commercial interaction. But such standardization cannot slow language down. It has merely shifted the focus of linguistic innovation. We see the emergence of money-related words that demonstrate the effects of industrialization, human migration and cultural imperialism. For example, it is hardly coincidental that "Kohle" (coal) should be a slang word for money in Germany, where industrialization has been a critical economic driver for the last 100 years. Hand in hand with industrialization we see tremendous acceleration in the movements of people, The voice of the Spanish Romanies can be found in Latin America's use of the word "luca" to refer to bills. Similarly, in Puerto Rico, the evidence of US political domination and of the Puerto Ricans' resistance to cultural assimilation is reflected in the island's money words. Despite the use of US currency as its official monetary system, Puerto Ricans have retained Spanish names for the "penny" ("chavo"), "nickel" ("vellón), "quarter" ("peseta"), and dollar ("peso"). However, 150 years of US rule does not come without its price. The "dime", a 10-cent coin, is nothing other than the phonetically equivalent "daim".

Regardless of your current state of wealth, whether you are "plein aux as" (French: "full to the aces") or "fauché" (French: "reaped"), "forra'o" (Spanish: "wrapped") or "al verde" (Italian: "in the green"), if you take the time to look you are sure to find words that will link you to the origins of money in human society while revealing what is unique about your language's particular path through history.


Sources & Reference

BBC h2gs

History of Money by Glyn Davies

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