Monthly Archives: September 2010

butterfly /’bʌtəˌflaɪ/

So I just got back from the movies. In an age of digital downloads, large screen TV’s, and on-demand video, I still prefer the big-screen cinematic experience. Sure, having a 60-inch LCD and a Panasonic surround sound DVD player is a great way to watch films at home, but even then, I tend to do that after seeing them at a local theater. It’s just that sitting in the fifth row and enveloped in sound lets me fall into the story rather than just be a viewer sitting on the couch.

This evening’s escape was The American with George Clooney and the stunningly attractive Violante Placido. Set in Italy, it tells the story of a hit man trying to quit his profession. Visually it’s engaging, and it runs as a slow pace, which is exactly want the movie needs.

Placido and Clooney in the movie the American

Placido and Clooney

About 30 minutes or so into the narrative, there was a close-up shot of Clooney who, during a conversation, turns up the corner of his mouth in a rare, semi-smile. Just like Clint Eastwood in his earlier movies. It was at that point that I realized what I was actually watching: a Spaghetti Western. Just like the westerns of the 70’s, the film is set in Italy; instead of horses, there are cars; and Clooney plays Eastwood.

The giveaway was during a later scene in a bar where folks are watching Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I was almost expecting Clooney to turn to the camera and give a little wink! He didn’t – of course – but it was enough to confirm my suspicions.

Spaghetti Western

Called simply Jack, Clooney has a tattoo on his back of a butterfly and Placido calls him affectionately Mr. Farfalle – the Italian for butterfly. If it had been set in France, presumably he would have been Monsieur Papillon.

The word butterfly first appears around 1000 AD in the works of Aelfric of Eynsham, where it’s written as the Old English buttorfleoge. The word fleoge referred at that time to any winged insect, which in turn derived from the hypothesized Old Teutonic *fleugan meaning “to fly.” The prefacing buttor referred to our modern meaning of butter – churned and creamed milk.

The jury is still out on why the butterfly has that name. One suggestion is that butterflies would fly through windows and land on pats of butter, which would seem reasonable if that was typical butterfly behavior. However, it isn’t. Think quickly: when was the last time you saw a butterfly sitting on butter? My guess for most folk is never.

A second – and to me a little more plausible, is that it refers to the buttery color of some butterflies. That has the advantage of at least having some truth even today. There are, of course, some non-butter colored examples, but there is a ring of possibility about it.


A third is based on a Dutch synonym, boterschijte – literally “butter shit,” which refers to the color of butterfly feces. I can’t say that I have spent any time checking this assertion out empirically, and I can also say with some certainty that I don’t intend to be checking out butterfly shit in the near or distant future. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating derivation and as such I would so like it to be true.

Shakespeare appears to have been the first to use it in a figurative sense as meaning:

A vain, gaudily attired person (e.g. a courtier who flutters about the court); a light-headed, inconstant person; a giddy trifler. (OED).

In his King Lear (1605), he writes;

So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news…

The motion of butterflies as they flit from place to place was the inspiration for another metaphorical use of the word in 1890, where an article in Chamber’s Journal said, “A ‘butterfly’ man rests for a moment to wipe his streaming brow, when the warder’s stern voice bids him proceed with his work.” This use refers to a person or persons whose periods of work or occupation of a place are transitory or seasonal. It appears that this use was also transitory and it is currently rarely used in this manner.

What is still commonly used since its first appearance in 1908 is to describe the fluttering feelings in the stomach caused by stress or tension. By 1944, this reference had become fairly common, as evidenced by an article in an edition of Word Study:

“The expression some aviators use to describe their condition before taking off. They have ‘butterfly stomach’, they say, so marked is the fluttering in the Department of the Interior.”

These days, it’s typically used as part of the phrase, “I have butterflies in my stomach,” with that body part being a common companion to butterfly itself.

It’s also interesting to follow the historical development of butterfly in that the Latin papilionis gave rise to the French papillon, retaining that intial “p” sound, whereas the Italian word became farfalle, with the “p” being substituted by an “f.” This is an example of a process that can happen in languages whereby a specific sound can become weaker and result in a change in how a word is pronounced. In this case, the harder voiceless plosive sound, /p/, loses its explosive quality to become a hissier fricative sound, /f/.

Similar examples can be seen with words like the Latin pedis becoming foot (/p/ to /f/); the Latin pater becoming father, and going back a little more, the Greel pyr became fire. These types of change fascinated the German collector of fairy tales, Jacob Grimm, who went on to realize that there was a general tendency for words to change in this way over time. This notion became knows as “Grimm’s Law.” Jakob also went on, along with his brother , Wilhelm, to establish one of the worlds’ definitive collections of fairy stories and legends.

Finally, a more recent use of butterfly metaphor is in the phrase, the butterfly effect. The specific use of this phrase is usually taken to have originated in 1972 when meteorologist Edward Lorenz presented a paper entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly‘s Wings in Brazil Set a Tornado in Texas? The notion is that small events can have very large consequences, and that there is an element of unpredictability built into the universe.

Oh, and The Butterfly Effect is also the name of a movie from 2004 starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart. Despite the fact that it’s Kutcher, the film is surprisingly good and well worth renting. Kutcher is also the most followed personality on Twitter. Who would have thought that one tweet could cause a storm of interest.

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symbol /’sɪmbəl/

The recent kerfuffle regarding the non-burning of the Koran is an object lesson in the more depressing aspects of human nature. Ironically,  one of the very things that makes us human and distinct from animals that simultaneously makes us intolerant and aggressive. That’s the ability to use symbols.

The Koran

A Koran

In modern usage, the OED defines a symbol as:

Something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition.

Language is an example, par excellence, of symbolic behavior. When we use the word “dog” to stand for a four-legged animal that barks and wags its tail when happy, the word itself is just an arbitrary collection of sounds. There’s no inherent relationship between the word and the object it represents, which is why different languages can have different words for the same thing. Thus, the French have a “chien, ” the Spanish have a “perro,” the Turks have a “kopek,” and the Chinese have a “gau.”



In a different example, very young children play with boxes and use them as cars, boats, houses, hats, and any other number of objects, simply because they can.  Little Frank can use a stick as a sword, an airplane, a wand, or a guitar; a chimp uses a stick as… well, a stick. Some folks might want to debate this on the basis that some studies seem to suggest that chimps demonstrate evidence of symbolic understanding, but it’s hardly overwhelming and of limited magnitude when compared to the almost limitless symbolism that rattles through the brain of homo sapiens.

As an extension of the ability to use objects symbolically is the tendency to create taboos – and more specifically, taboo objects. This is no more obvious than in religious mythology. For Christians, a small piece of bread – called a “host” –  can be magically transformed into the body of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, abuse of a consecrated host is viewed as being a mortal sin, which ranks as an 8 or 9 on the “Sin Scale” and can lead to the desecrator ending up spending the whole of eternity burning in the flames of Hell: All for messing with a piece of bread. In less enlightened times, offenders could be tortured and beheaded for host desecration – which is relatively mild when compared with eternal damnation.

John Martin, 1841, "Pandemonium"

And pity the poor pig, an animal that for no particular reason whatsoever is shunned by Jews and Muslims as being unclean. Not for them the guilty pleasure of a freshly made hot bacon sandwich with a dash of Worcestershire sauce.  Meanwhile, for Hindus, anything that comes from the humble cow is to be avoided. Other taboo foods include bats (non-kosher), cats (too cute), fungi (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness say they “excite passions”), rabbits (OK for Sunni Muslims, not for Shias), lettuce (according to one branch of Islam, the lettuce is evil), and humans.

The thing about taboos is that they carry with them an awful lot of emotional baggage. Not only do humans have the capacity to create symbols but they also imbue them with powerful feelings. Symbols are also, for the most part, culturally specific, and difficult to understand from an outside perspective. Although it’s easy to pass them off as “primitive” or “stupid,” even the “sophisticated” cultures have their quirks. Your average American would almost choke if you suggested putting cat or horse on the menu at the local bar, yet other countries have no taboo against it. After all, what’s the difference? Why should we be OK to eat pigs and sheep and cows but balk at horses?

And how about flag burning? Take a large piece of cotton, paint some stripes in red and white across it, and them dab some stars in the corner. Now set fire to it. It’s just painted cloth, right? But it was only four years ago that there was a vote on whether or not to criminalize the burning of the US flag. So how “civilized” or “sophisticated” is a country that wants to lock people up for setting fire to something akin to a bed-sheet? And next time you’re on a trip that involves flying to a hotel, try asking to sit in seat 13 or book a room on the 13th floor. There’s a good chance you’ll be unable to do either of them because even in the 21st century, the number 13 is taboo in many countries.

It’s really, really, really hard for people to see past symbols. Once a symbol takes on a taboo status, all reason goes out of the window and the emotions take over. Be it a piece of colored cloth, a collection of pieces of paper bound together, or a ham sandwich, someone, somewhere, is going to hold it in reverence and even be prepared to kill others to maintain that sacred state.

In fact, the word symbol was originally used strictly in a religious sense to refer to;

A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian church, or of a particular church or sect; a creed or confession of faith, spec. the Apostles’ Creed.

This use can be traced back to Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, who was born around 208 CE. He used the Latin word symbolum to refer to the baptismal creed. This was because accepting baptism was a mark that differentiated a Christian from a heathen, and the word symbolum means “mark.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage

In fact, it can traced further back to the Greek σύμβολος meaning “mark,” “ticket,” or “token.” This in turn comes from the prefix, sym-, which means “together” followed by bolos meaning “a throw.” So the underlying notion is of things thrown or put together, which can then be compared using a token. This evolved over the centuries to refer to a token (or symbol) that can be compared with another object (or sign).

In 1590, Spenser used the word in The Faery Queen in its current sense of a representation:

That, as a sacred Symbole, it [sc. a blood-stain] may dwell
In her sonnes flesh.

Shakespeare also used it in Othello in the sentence, “To renownce his Baptisme, All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin.”

Yet paralleling this was its continued use to refer to any object regarded as sacred, especially the bread and wine of the Christian eucharist as representing the body and blood of Christ:

After the prayer..the symbols become changed into the body and blood of Christ, after a sacramental, spiritual, and real manner. (John Evelyn, 1671, Letter to Father Patrick).

And from 1620, the word was already being used to refer to any “…written character or mark used to represent something; a letter, figure, or sign conventionally standing for some object, process, etc.” (OED). Certainly in the worlds of physics and mathematics, the prime meaning of symbol is as an element in an equation.

Bu the psychological reality of symbolism is so ingrained into ourselves that we forget it’s there. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to identify something as symbolic is that symbols can become transparent and, in a sense, disappear.  And when a symbol is also taboo, it is extremely hard to see past it, which in turn makes it almost impossible to diffuse the emotional component. Knowing and understanding that the “Old Glory” is in reality a bundle of colored threads doesn’t stop some people from feeling angry when it’s burning. And knowing that a Koran is just a bundle of printed pages doesn’t stop some people from going on a riot and killing people.

But cheer up! It is possible – with a little willpower and perception – to see through symbolism, and even ignore it altogether. Once, when asked about what his The Old Man and the Sea “meant,” Hemingway said;

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.

And Freud came out with the classic;

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Sigmund Freud

Sometimes, a cigar...

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dunce /’dʌns/

Way back in 1988, a relatively unknown professor of Physics became an international celebrity by writing a book that few people have actually read but many people cite as a “classic” of popular science writing. The professor was Stephen Hawking and the book was A Brief History of Time. Prior to the release of this best seller, Hawking had already made a name for himself in the world of Physics in the field of cosmology – the origin and development of the universe – and he had been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1982. However, it was the Brief History that catapulted him to world-wide recognition.

Physicist Stephen Hawking

Physicist Stephen Hawking

By the beginning of the 21st century, his fame became obvious: He began to appear on TV. His “acting” career includes guest roles – either as himself or a cartoon – in The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Family Guy, and many others. He also “sang” on Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking” from their final album, The Division Bell.

Considered as a genius and successor to Einstein, Hawking has garnered a string (theory?) of academic awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Hawking receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

However, his latest book, released only a few days ago, has already caused him to lose the respect of a number of people throughout the world, and not because of his stand on theoretical physics but his attitude to God. Or lack of.

Hawkins and Mlodinow The Grand Design

The Grand Design

You see, in his latest work, co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking has suggested that as far as the creation of the universe is concerned, God isn’t necessary. The offending passage seems to be the following:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the universe going.

Suddenly, Hawking – to some – went from hero to zero faster than the universe is expanding. For years, it has been OK for Hawking to comment on the universe as a physicist but now he is treading on the toes of theologians, and that upsets them because scientist are not allowed to talk about religion. The theologians, however, feel quite at home to pretend to be physicists and denounce Hawking as being at best, “mistaken” or at worst, “an agent of Satan.” Neither of the arguments is backed up by any reference to alternative theories but that’s not something to bother theologians.

One blogger was more charitable when he said, “I do suspect that Dr. Hawking might actually be clever, since you probably don’t get to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a seat formerly occupied by Sir Isaac Newton) by being a dunce.”

Now here’s an interesting word: dunce. In cultural imagery, it evokes a picture of some hapless child standing in the corner of a classroom wearing a tall, pointed hat with a “D” on it. Talk about The Scarlet Letter!

So where does the word comes from? It turns out to be an eponym, a word coined from the name of an actual person who lived in the Middle Ages.

John Duns Scotus was born in 1265 in the village of Duns close to the northern border with England. He went to study at Oxford University in 1288 and was ordained as a Franciscan monk in 1291. Unlike Hawking, Scotus was keen to find a place for God in the universe and wrote on Natural Theology- a branch of theology that seeks to prove the existence of God by rational and natural means, without resorting to revelation of faith. His proofs were similar to those of theologians who opt for the “First Cause” solution – that because all effects demand a cause, there had to be a first cause, and that first cause was God. it also ties into the other common notion that “something cannot come from nothing”; a premise many modern cosmologists eschew by saying that there is no such thing as “nothing” – there is only “something.

John Duns Scotus

Although he died in 1308, his influence and ideas continued into the 16th century, with his supporters initially being know as “Scotists” but eventually becoming “Dunsmen” or “Dunses.” In 1530, William Tindale wrote an article called An answere vnto Sir Thomas Mores dialoge in which he said;

Remember ye not how..the old barkyng curres, Dunces disciples & lyke draffe called Scotistes, the children of darkenesse, raged in euery pulpit agaynst Greke Latin and Hebrue.

These 16th century critics of Scotus accused the Dunses of being pedantic and unchangeable, seeking to stick rigidly to old ideas rather than listen to or accept new ideas. One of those critics, the Catholic writer Richard Stanyhurst, penned the following in 1577;

Duns, which tearme is so triuiall and common in all schools, that whoso surpasseth others either in cauilling sophistrie, or subtill philosophie, is forthwith nickenamed a Duns.

This pejorative meaning of the word dunce is the one that is used today, as the OED puts it, “One who shows no capacity for learning; a dull-witted, stupid person; a dullard, blockhead.”

During the 17th century, there was a brief flirtation with the use of dunce as a verb meaning “to puzzle, pose, prove to be a dunce” or “to make a dunce of.” However, after a first appearance in 1611, the last example offered by the OED is a mere 50 years later, after which it fell into obscurity. The Corpus of Contemporary American shows no examples of dunce as anything other than a noun – or as part of a noun phrase such as “dunce cap.”

Sometime between 1711 and 1726, the popular satirist Jonathan Swift came up with this epigraph;

When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.

The phrase provided the inspiration for the title of a novel by John Kennedy Toole called The Confederacy of Dunces, which was published in 1980, a full 11 years after the author had committed suicide, and has gone on to become a modern classic.

The Confederacy of Dunces

The Confederacy of Dunces

So what about the dunce‘s cap? Well, that makes an appearance in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, first published in 1840, where he says, “And on a small shelf, the dunce‘s cap.” The use of a pointy cap is culturally very old, with the earliest being traced to the Bronze Age and as far back as 1400 BC. During the Inquisition, penitents would have to wear the capirote, a pointed hood that is used even today by Spanish Nazareno priests during Holy Week. In mythology, wizards and witches use pointed hats, as do dwarfs and gnomes. So the pointy hat for dunces could be from any of a number of sources.

Priest wearing capirotes

Nazareno priest in capirotes

And the practice of sending a child to the “dunce‘s corner” continues even today. An article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper on 5th January, 2010, describes how many schools are moving away from using this as a form of punishment. They say that, “health and safety chiefs have warned that the practice is cruel, describing it as a ‘stress position’ that could breach a child’s human rights.” The recommendation is that instead of damaging a child’s self esteem and humiliating him or her in public, an unruly child should instead be made “to explain to the class why he is interrupting the lesson.” Gosh, now there’s a deterrent to some 17-year-old knife-carrying thug.

Oh my self esteem!

Still, the fact that the dunce‘s corner is being discussed at all means it is still around, even though Dickens isn’t.

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nightfly /’naɪtflaɪ/

Asking people about their favorite books, music, and movies is always a fun way to indulge in some amateur psychoanalysis, Freudian or otherwise. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) used the concept when it started the show Desert Island Discs back in 1942. Its originator, Roy Plomley, hosted the show for 43 years until his death in 1985 at the age of 71. The concept was, and still is, that the guest had to choose eight pieces of music that they would want to have while cast away on a desert island.

Desert Island Discs

The show is still being broadcast by the BBC and is the second longest-running radio show in the world after Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, which has been on the air since 1925. As a sign of the times, Desert Island Discs is now available as a regular podcast, tipping its hat to the MP3 generation.

I’ve tried to identify my own eight but failed miserably. Not even eighteen. The best I’ve been able to do is come up with as a “Top Eight albums” – and even that changes with my mood. However, in that eight is usually Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, his first solo offering distinct from his residency with Steely Dan. Released in 1982, Fagen described it as a collection of songs about;

“…certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

Fagen has since used his personal visions in 1993’s Kamakiriad, and his 2006 offering, Morph the Cat. Not one to rush out new albums, the current turn out rate suggests he’ll release the next one around 2019 – pre-order now to avoid the download rush!

Donald Fagen, The Nightfly, 1982

What’s etymologically interesting is that the use of the word nightfly to describe the character in the album’s title song seems to be the first instance of being applied in such a fashion.

It’s first ever recorded use is in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

Here the word has the literal meaning of, as the OED puts it, “a flying insect which is active at night.” Ultimately this comes in the first part from night, a tremendously old word that appears in many of the Germanic languages (c.f. Old Frisian/Middle Dutch/Middle Low German nacht, Old Saxon and Old High German naht, and Old Icelandic nátt.) Classical Latin gives us noct and nox (c.f. nocturnal meaning “at night), and Ancient Greek has nύξ meaning “night” and personified as Nyx, goddess of the night and mother of Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep).

Ultimately, we can trace the word back to Sanskrit nak or nakt, and digging even further back, Shipley (1984) and Mallory and Adams (2006) suggest the Proto-Indo-European form, *nekut, meaning “dark,” “night,” or even “death,” and “die.”

In turn, fly comes from Old English fléoge, a winged insect, cognate with Middle Dutch vlieghe, Old High German flioga, and probably ultimately from the verb *fleugan, meaning “to fly.”

The word was transferred to the angling world in 1799 to refer to an artificial fly used in night fishing. The meaning remains to this day, as demonstrated in Auckland, NZ’s Sunday News, 23rd June, 1996; “Select night flies that are the shape of crayfish, cockabullies, smelt or any locally common surface food.”  [A cockabully is a small New Zealand fish, the word itself possibly coming from the Maori word, kokapuru, meaning “small fish.”]

The Ginger Pearl - A night fly

In Donald Fagen’s song, the word appears in the following context:

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use.

The meaning here is closer to that of a night-flyer, which, according to the OED, refers to “a person who or animal (esp. a moth) which flies by night.” The word is first recorded in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in the sentence;

I knew one fellow, that while I was a prisoner in Newgate, was one of those they called then Night-fliers,..who by connivance was admitted to go abroad every evening.

In this context, it refers specifically to a prisoner who was released each evening – which sounds something of a recipe for trouble – and in return for freedom would reveal the details of the activities of other criminals. An earlier stool pigeon?

With the invention of the airplane, pilots became night flyers: “What the night flyer needs… is the power to change his vision quickly from the illuminated cockpit and instrument panel to the outside world and back again.” Science, 10th March, 1939.

Horror writer, Stephen King, penned the short story, the Night Flier, a story that involves a man who flys a plane by night but also a vampire – another type of “night flier.”

Clearly Fagen uses the word – unhyphenated – metaphorically, as Lester is the DJ who works the night shift, playing Jazz and listening to calls from the sleepless, the lonely, and the disaffected.

And the album is on my top eight list. So go ahead, Dr. Freud, make of that what you will.

Mallory, J.P. and Adams, D.Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press: New York.

Shipley, J.T. (1984). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Words. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Wordle: nightfly -etymology

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