or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Altar Ego

Ask my mom: I started reading at the age of 3. Really actually reading. And since then, I've taken one of two tacks when bumping up against an unfamiliar word, depending on my mood at the time. Nowadays, most of the time, I head for the dictionary. If I want a quick-and-dirty answer and the computer's awake, I usually just check on Answers.com. If I want to flip through a book, I grab the Random House dictionary. If I want something in real depth, of course I head for the OED.

But sometimes, as I'm sure everyone does sometimes, I just gloss over it. Maybe I can get get a strong sense of it from the surrounding information, or maybe--and this is true occasionally--I just don't need to know right at the moment. I figure it will come back to me in the fullness of time. And that's what happened today.

I had seen the word "hecatomb" before, but I had never stopped to think what it literally meant. The look of it, of course, inevitably makes one think of "tomb", and it seems to mean "mass murder" or "obliteration" from its usual context. But when Christopher Hitchens used it in a Slate column, I finally got curious enough to look it up. (The sentence: "Ten years since the hecatomb of Srebrenica … surely a decade cannot have passed so quickly?")

It has nothing to do with tombs! Although both words come from Greek ("hecatomb" is so obviously Greek), they're unrelated; it's nothing more than an accident of spelling. ("Tomb" entered English almost unchanged from the Greek "tumbos".) "Hecatomb" comes from the words "hekaton", "one hundred", and "bous", meaning "ox" or "oxen" (my Greek is a little rusty). Originally it referred to the sacrifice of a hundred oxen to propitiate the gods, and later came to mean any mass slaughter. (Any lover of oddball or obscure words will recognize "bous" from "boustrophedonic", an adjective referring to a style of writing which moves across the page from left to right and then from right to left, alternating line by line, just as a team of yoked oxen plough a field.)


Answers.com (formerly Dictionary.com, with a wider ambit and therefore a new name), of course, has to make its money somehow, and so it puts ads on the page. They're fairly discreet, at least the ones I see; I block as many ads as I can, but text links still show up, which is fine, as long as I don't have to look at animated ones, which distract me so badly that I can't concentrate on the page itself.

Anyway. eBay.com buys ad space on Answers.com, but they have a hilariously indiscriminate text ad: just take whatever the potential customer is looking for and slap it into the ad. When I looked up "hecatomb" (before heading to the OED for more information), the ad on the right-hand side of the page read, "Great deals on Hecatomb. Shop on eBay and save!" Hey, just what I always wanted: a discount on a wide-scale and indiscriminate slaughter!


Post a Comment

<< Home