or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Up, Up and Away

As much as I hate to be picky....

Ha! Just kidding. I live for it.

Anyway, this morning I was reading Boingboing, as usual, and there was this headline:

Human-sized Wacky WallWalker scales Japanese skyscraper

and I thought, "How did they make a WallWalker climb a building?"

Do you remember Wacky WallWalkers? They were made of that sorta-sticky rubbery plastic, and were originally octopus-shaped; you'd throw them against the wall, they'd sorta stick, then parts of them would detach from the wall and flop down, only to stick against the wall again, and in this way they'd gradually make their way to the floor. Then you'd pick them up and throw them again (until eventually they became so encrudulated that you had to wash them, and they never did work as well afterwards, but they were cheap, so you didn't care). This was considered fun in the 1980s.

The Japanese WallWalker in the linked story is the size and shape of a person: they put in on the side of a building and let it scare people as it staggered downwards, until finally it just lost its grip and fell the rest of the way down, no doubt scaring more people.

The problem here is that a WallWalker can only go down. There's nothing in it to fight gravity. But "scale" means "to ascend".

The verb "to scale", in this context (not the "removing scales from a fish" sense), derives from Latin "scalae", "ladder", which led to such words as French "escalier", "staircase", and English "scalar", "graduated in size". Despite the fact that there's no direction inherent in these words--you can descend a ladder as well as ascend one--the fact is that the verb "scale" means "to climb up or over; to ascend; to rise in stages." It always has: an earlier source of "scalae", "scandere", meant "to climb". There's nothing in the word's history that would allow it to mean "to descend".

So. Headline? Wrong.

Latin "scalae" and therefore "scandere", by the way, come from Indo-European "skand-" or "skend-", which meant either "to leap" or "to climb". From these roots come an interesting and unexpected array of English words. The "-scend" words, for starters: "ascend", "descend", "transcend" ("climb beyond"), and "condescend" ("climb down to be with someone below"). Not, however, "crescendo".

As well, there's a small group of words with stairstep meanings: "scale", obviously, in a number of its senses (though not the "fish-scale" nor the "balance scale" sense, which are actually related and which come from Norse languages), and "escalade" (the scaling of fortifications in battle by means of ladders), and also "echelon".

The most interesting derivatives, the most unexpected ones, come from the "leap" sense of "skand-". It's a short move from jumping to tripping over something, and so in Greek, "skandalon" came to mean a stumbling block, and later a sort of snare. From this, English received two related words: "scandal", the public furor caused by the stumbling block of sinfulness, and "slander", the evil-intentioned gossip that stems from someone else falling into the snare of sin.


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