Words at Play

The Decameron

While reading part of Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers by Mary Dobson, I ran across this:

“The use of quarantine to prevent contagious epidemics from entering ports arose in the wake of the Black Death.  In 1377 the Venetian colony of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik in Croatia) detained travelers from infected places on a nearby island for 30 days – trentini giorni.  When this proved ineffective, the period was raised to 40 days – quaranti giorni – from which we derive the word ‘quarantine.’ ”

That passage made me think about other number words.  Here are some of them:

Giovanni Boccaccio’s best known work is The Decameron which is a book in which ten people tell ten tales each over a ten day period.  They told the tales to amuse themselves while they remained in isolation in a villa outside Florence which was suffering from an epidemic of the Black Death at the time (probably the epidemic of 1348).  Boccaccio liked Greek and used the Greek words for “ten,” and “day,” to form the word “decameron.”

The word decimal is derived from the Latin word for ten.  If you have a number like 43.4, you know that the .4 means 4/10.  In some countries a comma is used to designate a decimal value rather than a period, and a period is used to designate thousands, millions, etc. instead of a comma.

The Romans were very harsh when soldiers showed cowardice or deserted during a battle.  In fact, they would line the soldiers up, count from one to ten, and execute every tenth soldier.  Decimate – to kill every 10th person later took on the more general meaning “to annihilate.”

September, October, November, and December are now the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th months of the year, but at one time they were the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months of the year.  If you look closely at them, you can see that.  “Sept” is close to the Latin word septem, “Octo” in that form or in a slightly modified form is used to designate eight, “nove” is based on the Latin word novem, and “dece” is based on the Latin word decem.  Many other words such as septuagenarian, septet, octogenarian, octomom (Remember her?), octet, octagon (such as a “stop” sign), and decagon are formed similarly.

I went to a Catholic school for many years and was quite familiar with two types of worship services.  The first was Mass which was celebrated each day (said in Latin when I was a kid with Gregorian Chant thrown in as well).  The other was something call a “novena.”  Where I grew up novenas were said each Tuesday and were like Mass, but with a very specific purpose and for a specific number of Tuesday in a row.  The idea was to attend these services for nine consecutive Tuesdays and to ask Mary to intercede for us with her Son in order to get Him to help someone with a specific problem – often, but not always, a physical problem.  The word novena comes from the Latin (and Italian) word for “nine.”

How many quarts are there in a gallon?  It’s easy to remember if you associate the word quart with the number four.  A quart is ¼ of a gallon.

When we talk about triangles, quadrangles and such we are using the roots tri and quad which mean 3 and 4.  When we bisect something, we cut it into two parts.

The normal human voice can sing in a range of about three octaves.  What is an octave?  It is a range of eight notes.

An octopus has eight legs – or are they arms?

Very large numbers are referred to as millions, billions, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions, sextillions, and septillions.  Note that each word after millions is formed by using the roots for 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

— — — — —

 In my local Sunday paper there was an article in which Malcolm Wright talks about how his father used the term “Drunk as the Lord.”  Malcolm was quite surprised that his father would use such a blasphemous expression.  Later he found out that his father was not a blasphemer at all.

— — — — —

 “As drunk as Cooter Brown” is another common expression in some areas.  Just who was Cooter Brown?  As in many cases the facts or difficult to come by.

— — — — —


Tighter than Dick’s hatband” is an expression I’ve often heard used to indicate that someone is very drunk.  There seem to be many other uses for that expression as well.  Some of them are listed at the website World Wide Words.  If you go to the website’s homepage, you’ll find articles that will keep you entertained for many hours.  Michael Quinion, the site’s webmaster, is quite interesting, too.

— — — — —


Song titles can be deceptive.  For instance, the last time I hosted “Music on the Sunny Side” on WBRH here in Baton Rouge I played a song titled “Henry’s Made a Lady Out of Lizzie.”  I have heard the term “he made a lady out of her” to mean that a man married a woman with whom he was having an affair.  Another way I’ve heard it said is that “he made an honest woman out of her.”  I left it to my listeners to figure out what the subject of the song really was.

I first learned about this 1928 song while reading Great Lives, Great Deeds which is a Reader’s Digest compilation of biographies of famous people.  Here’s the script I used to explain the song’s origin:

In 1927 Henry Ford realized that sales of his Model T Ford were falling, so he reluctantly decided to radically redesign it. It would come to be known as the Model A Ford.  What follows is quoted from a Reader’s Digest book of biographies: “From the standpoint of popular interest, no other car has enjoyed such a dramatic unveiling, because no automobile maker with Ford’s reputation has ever made such a drastic change in his product.  The new Tin Lizzie, still the lowest-priced car, now had not only such fixings as four-wheel brakes and a windshield wiper, but the buyer had his choice of several different colors!  Tin Pan Alley celebrated the occasion with the smash hit song, ‘Henry’s Made a Lady Out of Lizzie.’ ”

This entry was posted in Books, Music, Words at Play. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s