My Words are Growing Roots! – a guest post by Ryan Shafer

 The Meadville Public Library had a book sale yesterday at the Barco-Duratz Center on Chestnut Street. Anyone was welcome to walk into the big room lined with tables and shelves that were heaped with books, grab a brown paper bag and fill it up for only two dollars.

Of course, Renee and I were there. Where else would we be? A bag of books for two dollars is right up there with buried pirate treasure or the chance to ride sidesaddle around Meadville on a partially-domesticated ostrich. Anyway, we came away with some interesting finds: a couple of good novels by Brock and Bodie Thoene; classic children’s books like “The Wheel on the School” and “The Wind in the Willows”; a biography or two; a book full of great poems and instructions on poem-writing, and more.

ImageMy personal favorite, though (and I have just cracked it open and read a few pages) is a book by Wilfred Funk, Litt. D. I have NO idea what a “Litt. D.” is. I assumed it meant he has a doctorate degree in “Litt”, but unfortunately, “Litt” is not a subject taught at any of the schools in America that I have attended, so that threw me into a real funk.

(Eventually, by logistical deducement and some ever so clever endeavors, I had it. It must be the name of another person who co-wrote the book with Wilfred! Obviously the “D” must be for “Davenport”, but again I was stumped. Was it a man or a woman? “Litt” could be “Littwald”, “Littwila”, or even “Littimore”. Using rationale, I threw out “Littwald” because I had never heard of that name. Then I erased “Littimore” because I wanted no more of it. Then everything fell suddenly into place. Of course! With a name like “Littwila Davenport”, I would certainly abbreviate my name too! The glaring reality of this simple truth almost embarrassed me.)

All that aside, the book is called “Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories.” Even the small amount I have read is fascinating. Dr. Funk begins his book by saying, “We are apt to think vaguely that words just happened and were always so. We have no sharp feeling that they were born much as babies are born…Words truly are little windows through which we can look into the past.” He goes on to describe how many of our English words came to be. Let me share a few of the more interesting ones with you.

“Derive.” Latin “de” and “rivus”, meaning “away from river”. The first English use of this word was describing literally changing the course of a river to another riverbed.”

“Humor.” Long ago, philosophers thought that there were four different liquids or “humors” in the human body that contributed to personalities and character traits. These “humors” were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Yep. Too much blood and you tended to be of a sanguine personality (the Latin for “blood” is “sanguis.”) Too much phlegm and you were of a slow, dubious nature. A generous portion of yellow bile would make you “bilious”, while an overdose of black bile contributed to a melancholy outlook on life. (By the way, the Latin meaning for “chole“, from which we get “choleric“, means “bile.” The Latin meaning for “melancholia”, from which we get the word “melancholy”? “The state of having too much black bile.”
So simply speaking, my wife suffers from a double whammy of too much blood and yellow bile. I have been diagnosed with the opposite disease of unhealthy amounts of phlegm and black bile. I want a second opinion. I would like to have a slight change of “humor.”

“Macadam.” This crushed stone mixture we use to build driveways and roads is the brainchild of one John MacAdam, a Scotsman who, after surveying the terrible state of the roads in his country, came up with the idea of using crushed rocks to pave roads.

“Mentor.” Did you have any idea that our “mentoring” was born out of Greek mythology? Well, not our mentoring exactly, but the word itself was. While out in battle, the hero of Homer’s poem “Odysseus” charged his friend Mentor with the care of his house and wife Penelope. Things did not go well in the house while he was gone, so the gods and goddesses got involved. One of them took the human form of this man Mentor and whispered some good advice in the ear of Odysseus’s son Telemachus. So today a person who gives wise advice is a “mentor.” Sorry I just told you that.

“Sandwich.” John Montagu was the fourth Earl of Sandwich in the 1700s. He was a very disreputable sort, overtly immoral and given to heavy gambling. This word “sandwich” was born during a long gambling session in which the Earl refused to stop for dinner, instead demanding his roast beef between two slices of bread so he could eat and keep playing at the same time. Wow.

“Muscle.” This is from the Latin word “muscalus”, meaning “little mouse.” Amazing. I have a little mouse in each upper arm. Some of us will have infant mice all of our lives. But we have all seen men with rats.

That is all for now. Just wanted to let you in on this latest scintillating discovery in my reading. Oh and the original meaning of “scintillating” is “to give off sparks”, so please wear fire-retardant clothing as you read this. Too late now? I apologize.

(Thank you Wilfred Funk for a great unique book!)

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2 thoughts on “My Words are Growing Roots! – a guest post by Ryan Shafer

  1. Haha!! I remember when we were younger how many times you were scolded for the loud unmannerly way you’d clear your throat to get rid of those “unhealthy amounts of phlegm”. 😉 Great read, I’ve missed your humorous writings.

  2. I love this. Recently, I was researching the Greek and Roman pantheons and was surprised to find the amount of words derived from their names. “Volcano” from Vulcan (god of fire and blacksmiths). “Cereal” from Ceres (goddess of agriculture). And my own hypothesis…”hermeneutic” from Hermes (god of religion and mythology). Not sure about that last one, but it would make sense.

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