Did You Know . . . ?

Rienzi, an early opera composed by Richard Wagner, is based on the 1835 novel of the same name by Edward Bulyer-Lytton.  As you may remember Bulyer-Lytton is also the author of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford which gave us the famous opening run-on sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

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Mozart and Salieri, a poetic short drama written by the great Russian author Alexander Pushkin in 1830, was the inspiration for Amadeus by Peter Shaffer.  It was also turned into a short opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897.  A translation by Alan Shaw of the University of Adelaide in Australia can be found here.

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The great actor Robert Duvall made his screen debut – an important, but non-speaking role – as Arthur “Boo” Radley in the 1962 film version of Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Sol Steinmetz, who died in 2010, wrote some fascinating books about words.  His last book, There’s a Word for It, is about words and phrases (some new, some from other languages) that came into our vocabulary between 1900 and 2009.  Not only does he give us new words for each year in between, but he gives us a brief history of each decade, and a snapshot of what each decade will be remembered for.  For example the chapter on the decade from 1920 to 1929 is titled “The Roaring Twenties.”  The decade from 1940 to 1949 is titled “World War II and Postwar.”  Here, picked at random, are some of the interesting words he catalogued:

1900: egocentric, escalator, hillbilly, motorcyclist, nonstop, ping-pong, radiology, side-step

1910: age-old, brain trust, chain store, keystroke, moron, Oedipus complex, pipsqueak, post-impressionism

1916: ambivalent, dagnab it, dysfunction, economy size, low-maintenance, one-nighter, photofinishing

1925: bail out, chewy, compartmentalize, motel, quiche, superstar, Tootsie Roll, Wheaties, zipper

1930: bass-ackwards, crooner, drive-in, freeway, gangbuster, Nazi, pistol-whip, PJs (= pajamas), whodunit

1939: Blitzkrieg, burger, counterspy, Disneyesque, moolah, name-dropper, pollster, self-image, soap opera

1945: atomic bomb, bebop, cold war, Kilroy, mobile phone, must-read (n.), pit bull terrier, retiree, sweet talk

1955: boogie, decaf, inner child, non-leaded, pinball, Sabin vaccine, sci-fi, weirdo, wire-tap (n.), zinger

1966: acid (LSD), barf, headcase, hippie, multitasking, personal computing, spacewalk, wheelie, zilch

1975: air-kiss, craftspeople, downsize, McDonaldization, mood ring, multiculturalism, rope-a-dope, salsa

1990: applet, cringeworthy, gangsta rap, malware, shout-out, smackdown, World Wide Web

Many words started out as nouns, and became verbs as well within a few years.  The noun “telecast,” which was coined in 1937, for instance, became the verb “telecast” in 1940.  Then words like “telecaster” and “telecasting” were coined.

Being a Harry Potter fan, I was surprised to see the word “muggle” listed as one of the new words of 1926.  But, whereas author J. K. Rowling used it to designate non-wizards (ordinary people), the word “muggle” was used in 1926 as a slang word for “marijuana cigarette.”

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While looking for a particular large print book one day, I ran across one that listed the print size as 11.7 points.  The question is, exactly what does that mean?  Is there a standard for point size in typography?  In fact, there is a standard.  Though the definition of a point has varied over the centuries, in this age of computers and computer printers 72 points equal one inch.  To understand how this is measured, assume that you have an upper case M and a lower case g together like this: Mg.  Measure the distance in 72s from the top of the M to the bottom of the g.  If, for instance, you get a measurement of 12/72, then the type is 12 points or 1/6 inch high.  So the book I was considering had letters that were approximately 1/6 inch high – quite large enough for my aging eyes.

By the way, do you know why we refer to letters as being “upper case” and “lower case”?  It’s because printers stored the letters they used for printing in separate containers or “cases” – one above the other.  The capital letters were in the upper case and the others were in the lower case.

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