Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hiatus v. lacuna

I expected that my return after nearly 9 months of silence would be with the word hiatus. An appropriate word. But I got inspired by the previous comparison of explain v. define. However, not to miss my return word, I give you:

Hiatus comes from the Latin for "hiare" for "to gape open". Of course, this began with a physical opening, but from clefts and fissures in organs and body parts to missing pages in manuscript, it came to be applied to the intangible c. 1613 as an interruption of an event or missing information in a sequence to just something anticipated which is missing. Meanwhile, its obvious comparison is lacuna, coming from the Latin "lacuna" for "a ditch, pit or hole", and although it also came to be applied to missing information in a sequence, this is an existing deficiency, of something that was never present.

There has been a hiatus in my regular blog definitions due to my overwhelming rehearsal schedule and the needs of two kittens. Yes in usage and yes in context. I apologize for the latter. Note that this is written in third-person, because I am not the gap but rather that the gap occurs to things relative to a sequence that I create. Arguably, I have been on sabbatical, but that's another word for another time when I've been away. There has not been a lacuna in my regular blog entries as that would imply that something was supposed to be there which was not. I try to write these as often as I can, but that does not presuppose that I am required to write them; therefore, it is only an anticipated lacking, not an actual lacking or deficiency. The third-party perspective is also required for lacuna, as I am not the deficiency, but the event or thing has the deficiency. Plaintiff's counsel's opposition to my motion had a lacuna in his argument which caused the Court to rule in my favor. Yes. Here the missing thing was required and therefore, the fictional argument was deficient. Perhaps the lacuna was due to a hiatus in his concentration? Yes, since there is no requirement that he has to continue to concentrate in order to write the motion--he could just be incompetent. So, hiatus is missing something hoped for and lacuna is missing something which should have been there.

Of course, both words apply to sentient activities (e.g., argument, thinking) and not just intangible activites of people (e.g., music, sleeping) or information created by people (e.g., pages in a book, assembly lines). There was a lacuna in the production line at the widget plant due to the daydreaming, a veritable hiatus of thought, by the worker. Ok, simple and easy, although it does appear that lacuna is applied more to the tangibles and hiatus to the intangibles. Let's try to flip them. An unexpected hiatus in the music occurred when the concert master broke a string. Ok. And, a lacuna in her acceptance speech was due to an uncontrollable emotional outburst. Ok, so they do work both ways, even if I did stretch the lacuna usage a bit. Was it really a deficiency, of something missing, or just a big pause? Maybe it is better stated that there was a lacuna in her acceptance speech due to censoring or a sudden interruption by the Emergency Testing System? Yeah, that works. This does tend imply that in a lacuna situation you don't get the missing part back, whereas in a hiatus, it resumes where it left off after the delay. A cliffhanger ending of a television series which is renewed next season is on hiatus, while the movie missing the second reel is a lacuna. A rain delay after the 5th inning is a hiatus when the game resumes; but a game ended by rain before the 5th inning had a lacuna until it was rescheduled (since, for those of you who are not baseball fans, the game could not have been a complete game, and will, therefore, be replayed). I remember when I learned this word in high school I used it to apply to the space on a page while you were waiting for the white out to dry, but kept writing the rest of the sentence after it. It was a lacuna in the text in the one truest sense. And although there is no formal requirement from the definition for there to be a sequence, the implied current usage seems to require continuity interrupted, rather than mere abstract existence of the missing element.

Can we use these words without superimposing continuity? She fell into the lacuna at the construction site and sued for her broken ankle. This is completely accurate from its Latin meaning and just dumb. The real question should be how do we know that something is missing unless we can see the stuff around it to infer where the thing should have been? Doesn't that require a degree of continuity? How else do you define the hole? The dentist discovered a lacuna in her tooth. Yep, again, just dumb. This word is "cavity", which is technically a lacuna, but would be absurd to use this way. So, I would venture that lacuna would require some degree of continuity. I have less of a problem requiring continuity of hiatus since that word comes from "to gape open" which itself implies action that changes, as opposed to a pre-existing condition.

So, now, let's see where the edges of usage are. We know the words apply to sequences created by people; can they be applied to sequences created by cats or computers. There was a hiatus in her drinking when I entered the room. Possibly, but only if my cat starts drinking again regardless of my standing there. This is a still a stretch to use this word, when the real word is "pause". So let's really have fun and see how absurd lacuna is with my cat... Yeah, I give. My cat had a lacuna in her bathing which left a bit of ungroomed hair behind her left ear. Bizarre, but technically correct. If a caterpillar could metamorphose into a butterfly without going through the chrysalis stage, would that be a lacuna? Theoretically speaking, maybe, but is it really a deficiency in an expected progression or just a different type of progression. The problem may be that I can't really expect anything out of my cat that a lacuna would arise. Does my cat have some responsibility that she could be deficient? She is starting to come when I call her, but it is not a duty; just a convenience for her for petting. So, if it is an activity, there must be sentience ascribed to the completion of that activity for the lacuna to have deficiency. Now, as for hiatus, anticipation inherently requires sentience, to hope for the activity to resume, which through a degree of anthropomorphism, I can ascribe more readily. She hopes to resume bathing/eating/sleeping after the brief hiatus caused by my presence. I get that scowl all the time, so I know that thought is there.

As for computers, since these activities are merely extensions of activities of people, there's more play with lacuna. The computer had a lacuna when compiling the computer code. Essentially, the computer is only doing the work it was programed to do, much like the production line at the widget factory, which could have just as easily been a malfunctioning robotic arm as a daydreaming assembly worker. There was a hiatus in the computer's processing due to a brown out. It still feels like an object rather than ascribing artificial intelligence or anthropomorphism. Anyway, no harm, no foul on either word.

So, let there be no lacunas to my blog--I don't want that kind of responsibility--and may the next hiatus be shorter!

Explain v. define

I am enjoying my time with the daughter of a friend, Julie, and we came upon this comparison.

Explain derives from the Latin "ex" for "out or from" and "planarum" for "a flat surface". So how does this get us to anything making sense, whether figuratively or literally? Well, perhaps, when we explain, we "flatten" out a problem so that both sides understand. Works for me. Define comes from the Latin "de" for "of or out of" and "finire" for "to finish", which is to say that define is the final thought on a word while this gives the implication that to explain is open-ended.

She tried to explain to her sister why she read her diary. Yes. Absolutely. Of course this would be something that would require lots of further explanation, and not be the end of the discussion. Many different reasons, possibly even evolving reasons as the discussion continues. She will be explaining reading her sister's diary for quite a while, as I doubt her sister will ever understand. Also, correct, both usage and in substance. As a result of reading her sister's diary, her sister stated the definition for what is private. Yes, because the definition is concrete and not subjection to interpretation. Plaintiff's counsel explained to the Court why the opposition to the motion was late, but the definition of the rule for timely filing was clear. Obviously, people can explain and define as well as other animates such as these beings exhibit human characteristics and certain tangibles such as these are activities of people. Inanimates do not explain or define. The wind does not explain the weather, nor does it define the air. Not even metaphorically. The wind may portend weather and describe the air, but even "define" is pretty sketchy. DD does a poor job of defining words, and leaves many usages for outside explanation. My kittens cannot explain their needs to me, except by scratching, mewing and purring, and even then, I don't have a definition of what these signals mean. Yes.

I am looking forward to explaining the usage of more words as I define the difference of various alleged synonyms. Thank you for your patience!

Monday, February 25, 2008


This Thursday, I will be performing in the world premiere of William Bolcum's Eighth Symphony, a work commissioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is a contemporary setting of selections of William Blake's Prophetic Books (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Jerusalem and America: A Prophecy). What does this have to do with "unctuous". In Part 1, "Rintrah roars", the tenors sing the line: Now the sneaking serpent walks in mild humility. The marking for that is "unctuous". I don't pretend to be a Blake scholar, nor do I really grasp a tenth of all the symbolism in these selections, but I do find this particular marking to be a riot. So, on that note (pun intended), I bring you: unctuous.

Unctuous derives from the Latin "unctus" for the act of anointing or smearing. It is related to "unguent", the thing that is smeared. And since this word developed c. 1350, its etymology is not so disjointed. From the oily or soapy feeling of the unguent, to having similar characteristics of a unguent generally (greasy or oily), to general characteristics which may be construed as slippery, and from there is just an easy leap to smug or suave, as a form of a slippery attitude.

Oatmeal soap is less unctuous owing to to the rougher texture of whole oats in the bar. Ok, but I don't think we commonly use unctuous to describe things that are actually slippery. Oil unlike ice is unctuous. Ice can't be unctuous since it isn't viscous, nor does it feel slippery until you are slipping. Oil is always slippery. And, sorry for the graphic reference, so is mucus. More often, now, unctuous is used negatively to describe people. Car salesmen have a reputation for being unctuous. Plaintiff's counsel's unctuous courtroom demeanor detracted from his credibility. Too easy. So, let's go back to the Blake excerpt. I think the serpent is a direct reference to the serpent from the Garden of Eden, and that this character would be "walking in mild humility", belies a certain slick character to try to seduce the listener. Whether the tenors can pull that off, I let you know after Thursday.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mnemonic; metronomic

In honor of the newest additions to my household, Mnemosyne and Metis, two adorable kittens that I rescued from a local shelter last week, I offer mnemonic and metronomic.

Mnemonic derives from the Greek "mnemon" for "of or relating to memory" and the adjectival suffix "ikos". By mid 1700s it emerged in its current form, so having successful made it through the Dark Ages, it still retains it original etymological meaning as a noun for "of or relating to memory" and as an adjective, for "something assisting in memory".

For those familiar with ABC's Schoolhouse Rock, mnemonic is easy to use. A catchy short song is an excellent mnemonic for learning odd lyrics about parts of speech and the evolution of a bill into law--and commercial ads! Accordingly, music is the mnemonic device of the previous example. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mnemosyne, the Titaness of memory, is the mother of the muses, and that music is one of the great mnemonics. And mnemonic is not just something that you remember or can remember, like a scene of graphic violence or nudity in a movie, but something that is intended to help you remember something. Every Good Boy Does Fine was a mnemonic sentence I was taught to remember the keys of the lines on treble clef. FACE was the equivalent mnemonic for the spaces on the treble clef. Fortunately, I don't need those anymore... Lists are an obvious mnemonic for all kinds of things, but aren't nearly as much fun as something set to music or with a cute rhyme.

Now metronomic comes from the Greek "metron", a combinative form of the pre-Indo-European "me" for "measure" and "nomos" for "rule or law". This is the same "me" which is the root of Metis, the goddess of wisdom, skill and cleverness, and mother of Athena, who took on those characteristics subsequently. It isn't quite a stretch that the "measure" of a person would also be these characteristics. So, metronomic, then, is the adjective of metronome, a mechanical (or electrical) instrument which clacks out a measured tempo (Italian for time), and therefore, having such a audible measured tempo as if my such mechanical (or electrical) instrument. Being a musician, I have a variety of metronomes, although I still prefer my original Seth Thomas from when I was 5. My electrical one once scared me in an airport when it got accidentally switched on and did sound quite a bit like a ticking bomb.

Although I practice certain passages with a metronome, my objective is to make my performance of the piece convey the meter without sounding rigid and metronomic. Bored pencil tapping can have inadvertent metronomic qualities. So can certain alarm clocks and kitten mewing, which may or may not occur at the same time. It does, however, come down to a simple fact that the metronome is an audible mechanism, even though my electronic one has a flashing light only option. [Ed note: this is not as useful as the clacking sound to force you to pay attention to the beat.] And a metronome is supposed to measure a rate of time, not time itself. Therefore, metronomic should be audibly and consistently repetitive. After a long family drive, "This Old Man" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" become so metronomic, it gave both parents (metronomic?) headaches. Tiresome and tedious also work just as well, but the idea is that the song became monotonous and overly accented to just those repetitive beats. The metronomic opening statement by Plaintiff's counsel nearly put the jury to sleep. Ok. That's accurate, if a little opaque on the meaning. But most people know what a metronome is, so that makes it easy to get from context that it wasn't the content of the speech, but the manner of delivery. Think incessantly droning but with a clipped tendency as from the pendulum suddenly swinging in the opposite direction.

Well, neither of the kittens is particularly metronomic, even if they do wake me at 5:00am, and neither are they prone to mnemonics, or even really quite remembering from their mistakes as they are only just 3 months old. But they are exhibiting some of the qualities of their namesakes, and that's good enough for me! Welcome to my home. I'll work on your vocabulary later... :-)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Imprimatur; Indicia

A few days ago this word came up on DD, and it remedially tickled my fancy. Obviously, not too much, or I would have done this entry sooner, but what do you expect? I'm a busy person like everyone else, and not everything is immediately fascinating.

Imprimatur comes from the Latin "in" "primere" for "press in" as in to print by pressing. It shares a common etymological root to the word "impress" and therefore to the word "press", for quite literally to print by pressing or imprint. When we finally get to the command form of the verb c. 1650, the word took on the derivative meaning of "let it be printed", and retained that meaning through to the present, although now as a noun for an official printing, and therefore, a sanction or approval as for the printing or something that could be printed.

The securing of license of a copyright is an imprimatur. Ding. Technically correct. Idiotic to say. What it doesn't tell you about the word is redundant in the licensing reference so the sentence sounds unnatural, almost forced, which in fact it was because the first sense of the word, the approval to print, is not how it is most frequently used. As I've discussed with other words, the fun is in taking it out of the literal element. That the corporate president personally typed the plan gave it the imprimatur to implement immediately. Plaintiff's counsel frequently believes that because he asks for evidence to be admitted in a motion that the judge will give it her imprimatur. Doesn't even need to be in writing to have the usage work, although the writing would be a better inference from the word. So, the word works with things that actually are in writing, or could have been in writing (e.g., theories, ideas, hopes, dreams). When a dictator remarks on his desire this is as good as an imprimatur to make the desire a reality.

Ok, now that I've exhausted imprimatur, it occurs to me that truly interesting word is indicia. This is really just Latin borrowed into English without modification, like alumni, but at least in my circles, indicia gets inappropriately used for imprimatur, and so although I have my rules against defining foreign words, I'll make an exception for clarification.

Indicia is the combinative form of "in" and "dic" for "to show or declare" from the Indo-European root "deik", and gives us common words like indicate and index, and even the reference to index finger. Therefore, indicia is a sign that shows or declares something. A dog tag is an indicia of ownership of the pet on your leash. And herein lies the rub. Indicia is plural, indicium (like datum and memorandum) is singular. Therefore, technically, it should be a dog tag is an indicium of ownership of the pet on your leash, but now we've become overly erudite. It is Latin, and as such, we should observe its gender and number forms accordingly, however, I don't hear many people use datum correctly, either among scientists or lawyers, so to avoid being corrected, make sure your signs are always plural. The judge's frequent nods were indicia of agreement with the arguments I was making. Whew. Her groans were indicia that the masseusse had found the right tension points in her shoulders. Sometimes you might hear someone speak of an imprimatur of approval, and this is the misuse that I referenced. Obviously, we know that imprimatur is itself an approval so this usage is inherently redundant, and makes imprimatur into a sign, which as we know is indicia. Indicia of approval is the correct phrase. Signatures on the contract were indicia that the parties approved the terms. I will note that indicia are acts, not specific words, which show or declare, so the terms of the contract themselves are not indicia of the intent of the parties, but rather the signing of the contract which are indicia of the intent to abide by the terms. The negative can also be a sign. Her mother's unwillingness to sign the permission form for the field trip to go rock climbing was an indicium of her fear that her daughter would get hurt. Hyper correct and very odd sounding, indeed.

Personally, I like the word indicia much more than imprimatur, but I'm going to be especially vigilant to use imprimatur as the approval and not the sign and to see how the singular of indicia plays among my friends.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Friable v. Frangible

This is perhaps not the most auspicious post to mark my first post of 2008, but these words came up recently on DD, and I enjoy using them. Since, they're not interchangeable, and it's about time I learned the real difference! Call me inspired. I'll take it where I can.

Friable comes from the Latin "friare" for "to rub, break, or crumble into small pieces". Pretty straightforward to the current usage of "easily crumbled or reduced to powder". Must be because this word originated c. 1560, and not in the Middle Ages. What I find interesting is that it is related to "fricare" for "to rub", which gives us friction, but I'll save that for another time. Unfortunately, unlike the common word friction, friable doesn't have an easy association. Instead, it sounds like a word used to describe a cooking style or something having to do with the clergy, and not something which is broken through friction into small pieces.

Now, frangible comes from the Latin "frangere" for simply "to break", and is just as straightforward for its current usage of "easily broken, capable of being broken, brittle or fragile", even though it originated in the Middle Ages c. 1400. And just like friable, frangible doesn't give it's meaning away too quickly. Sounds like a pastry, even though I know with the "ible" suffix it is an adjective. Oh, well. Sometimes good words just need to be memorized.

So, with two straightforward etymologies to usage, the distinction is also blessedly straightforward. Even though friable has as part of its meaning "to break", in common with frangible, the difference is breaking due to the activity (rubbing) versus breaking due to the composition of the item (brittle). It becomes more obvious with usage.

Dry cookies are friable such that even milk can't revive them, but the glass the milk is served in is frangible. Children's toys are engineered to break in a frangible, not friable manner so that the child doesn't have an opportunity to ingest small pieces. Salt erodes concrete with friable results, back to it original sand and rock components. Snapping a pencil demonstrates its frangible qualities as well as the writer's total frustration. Ok, now that we've gotten the obvious usages out of the way. Because we have activity and composition at issue in the etymology of the words, the common usage is with tangible things. Forced to live in the South for too long, even her steely composure could be rendered friable. Perhaps a little too evocative and esoteric at the same time. You have to know that friable implies a rubbing element to understand that her composure was rubbed away. Not sure this works. Lashing out at a 4 year old may be a frangible result of holiday stress. Unfortunately, this usage also only makes sense if you know the brittle implication of frangible to understand that under the stress, the person snapped. Again, not sure this works, since no one would really understand what you meant to say. Plaintiff's counsel rubbed me all the wrong way with his friable personality. Ok, so it's a pun and it uses Plaintiff's counsel. Yeah, alright, next time I'll keep that one to myself. Plaintiff's counsel's friable client of the case crumbled under cross-examination. That's really just fragile, as well as requiring a colloquialism to get the point across, so, no. Whereas my frangible witness was subject to be treated as a hostile witness. Either that, or he'd be removed by a court officer. Yeah. Still not getting the meaning of this word from context, and my usages probably wouldn't motivate my listener to look up the word either. Friable ideas eventually yield to reason. Maybe, but just barely. Frangible ideas don't withstand even basic scrutiny. Also, maybe, but it leads me to believe that friable is a more versatile word. But I think it comes down to these words must be used with physically broken things in order to give your listener an opportunity to understand the word from context. If your listener is erudite enough to understand some nonstandard usages, then have fun!