Words At Play


Back in the old days when Bob Edwards was the host of NPR’s Morning Edition, I would hear a man named John Ciardi (CHAR-dee) talking about words once a week.  He had a gruff voice, but his pieces about words were full of love for the English language.  It was hard to tell if he was being sarcastic, funny or both when you heard his pieces.  I remember being very upset when I heard that he had died.  I felt like I had lost access to something unique.  Actually, the world had lost something unique: a poet, etymologist, essayist, teacher, editor, and translator.

John Ciardi was born in Boston in 1916 to Italian parents.  His father was killed in an automobile accident in 1919, and Ciardi was raised by his illiterate mother who only spoke Italian.  Despite his family’s circumstances he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree before teaching briefly at the University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri—Kansas City).  During World War II, Ciardi became a gunner on a B-29.  After the war he became a professor at Harvard for a few years, and began a 30 year relationship with the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Ciardi had written poetry since about 1940, so it is not surprising that he was attracted to Dante’s Divine Comedy – one of the greatest poems ever composed.  While teaching at Harvard he began his own translation of Dante’s masterpiece into English.  His translation of Inferno was published in 1954, and the other two parts of the poem were published a few years later.  His translation is not considered the best at this point in time, but it received praise when it was published.  I’ve read it (actually Ciardi’s translation was my introduction to Dante) and compared parts of it to other translations I’ve read, and I think it definitely has its merits.  Since I am not a Dante scholar, as is a friend of mine, so I’ll leave it to her and others to make the final decision on the worth of Ciardi’s efforts.

Throughout his life, Ciardi taught at many universities, acted as poetry editor of the Saturday Review from 1956 to 1972, and wrote three books on the etymologies of words (I have all three).  By far he was best known to the public through is weekly segment on NPR for about ten years.  He died from a heart attack in 1986 at the age of 69.

I have recently discovered five pages of his etymological ramblings at the NPR website.  They are worth hearing, but I must warn you that you may not be able to listen to all of the segments on the first page because some require you to listen through Real Media.  The segments on the other four pages play through the NPR player and should begin when you click on them.

Browser's Dictionary

His writing style in his three books (A Browser’s Dictionary, A Second Browser’s Dictionary, and Good Words to You) is, at times, as acerbic as his radio broadcasts, but you will enjoy them immensely.  In a way his definitions are at times as irreverent as what you find in Ambrose Bierce’s A Devil’s Dictionary.  Here are a few entries from Good Words to You.  I suggest that you listen to at least one of his NPR broadcastss before you read the items below in order to get a feel for the tenor of his voice were he to read them to you.  For brevity I will only present a sample of each word or phrase.

apes in hell: to lead apes in hell  The semiproverbial punishment of women who die as old maids.  Defenders of women’s rights (of which I am timidly and warily one, though only timid and wary of the movements rhetoric, not of its cause) will not be pleased by the idea of this long-obsolete saying, but it is there, and it is too nearly Russian or Big Brotherish to revise history in order to advance present cause.

arty  Pretentiously mannered.  artful Resourcefully deceiving.  artificial False. Unnatural.  Ersatz.  Pseudo-Historic.  The story is variously told that when Sir Christopher Wren completed St. Paul’s Cathedral, Queen Ann inspected it and told him it was “artificial, aweful, and amusing,” at which Sir Christopher glowed with approval from on high.  The story was almost certainly invented by a later etymologist (all such are unreliable), but if it lies, it does so toward a truth.  In XVIII artificial meant “characterized by high art,” aweful meant (as it should indeed still mean) “inspiring awe,” and “amusing” meant “entrancing, having the power to seize upon the soul as the Muses do.”

disinterest  Active and principled impartiality in judgment, arbitration, or other dealings.  The essence of disinterest is impartiality, freedom from self-seeking or bias.  On a recent TV soap opera a wife was made to say, “I cannot have a baby because my husband is disinterested in me.”  It is true that most babies are the result of a strong personal bias, but she meant that her husband was uninterested in her.  He may in fact have had an active interest in making sure she did not spread her level of diction to another generation.

gather ye rosebuds while ye may  Carpe diem.  Seize the day, for it is fleeting.  Make hay while the sun shines.  Toward the difficulty of definition, gathering rosebuds may be said to mean the same as making hay, but the first is lightly delicate and the second bucolically lusty, the difference in tonality being critical.  The father of a venturesome teenage daughter who is about to leave the house on a date with a dashing high-school athlete may spend substantial emotional energy in wondering whether the man is gathering rosebuds or making hay, and categories aside, the possible difference weighs upon the fatherly mind.

illegitimis non carborundum   Don’t let the bastards grind you down. [Mock Latin]

matrimony  1. Marriage.  2. The condition of being married.  Historic.  In most societies matrimony has been conceived as the putative maiden’s rite of passage from virginity to sexual serviceability and so, by first causes, to motherhood.  But though daddy has his own connection to the concept, the same reasoning would make his involvement patrimony.  I know of no explanation for this strange survival, but let it illustrate how readily native speakers accept long-established absurdity in word formation.  So firmly is matrimony established that I have been able to find no lexicographer who has even questioned the propriety of the word.

not unlikely  Sort of likely but maybe not. [Double negatives of this sort were not unheard of before FDR’s New Deal rhetoric, but it is not undocumented that this form became not unusual because of FDR’s not unlavish use of it in his not unlenghhy presidency.  The form is, of course, a political straddle.  The person addressed must guess for himself what is likely, unlikely, and not unlikely; the speaker may later interpret his meaning to suit what he sees in his not unconsiderable hindsight.]

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