or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bubble, Bubble

I have today, as I had yesterday, a sentence from Salon.com, this time a little piece about olfaction (something which always interests me) and sex.

We've all heard about the pheromonic convergence of women in their menstrual cycles. Now there's more evidence that we're a steaming caldron of hormones that drive us to behave in all sorts of unconscious ways.

"Caldron". Isn't that nice? "Cauldron" is by far the commoner spelling of the word, but "caldron" is still a living part of English, and that makes me happy. I think it's nice to have two historically justified spellings of the same word. It gives writers more choice, and therefore it enriches the language.

A cauldron, of course, is a vast pot in which we boil things: often--particularly at Hallowe'en--things that don't want to be boiled, such as nutritious waifs.

One of the ways in which we define the nutrimental quality of food (waifs or otherwise) is by its calorie content. It may be tempting to assume, as Dave Barry does, that a calorie is a measure of how delicious a food is*, but in fact a calorie is a measure of heat; it's the energy provided by something as it's oxidized, by a flame or by a living organism. (It's defined as the amount of energy or heat required to raise one gram of water by one degree celsius at one atmosphere of pressure.)

So a calorie is a measure of heat and a cauldron is something you use to heat something up in, and so of course they're related etymologically; the usual spelling "cauldron" disguises this fact a little, but "caldron" makes it plainer. The two words initially stem from the Indo-European root "kelh-", "to warm", which gave Latin "calor", "heat", and "calidus", "warm". From these, English received "cauldron" (related to French "chaudiere", a kind of cooking pot, from which we also received "chowder") and its obvious cousin "caldera", a volcanic basin; the self-evidently French "nonchalant" (literally "not warm", which is to say "cool"); and a few other words which you can read about here in my discussion of the also related "chauffeur".

*He wrote, "Calories are little units that measure how good a particular food tastes. Fudge, for example, has a great many calories, whereas celery, which is not really a food at all but a member of the plywood family provided by Mother Nature so that we would have a way to get onion dip into our mouths at parties, has none."


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