or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, August 04, 2008


Jim and I are planning a trip to St. John's, Newfoundland, next month. It's where I was born, and I'd like to show him around, give him an idea of where I came from.

We were talking about Newfoundland food, and naturally the talk came around to "fish and brewis", which is something that more or less defies description; you can read about it here, because it has its own Wikipedia page (hardly anything doesn't these days). Salt cod? Yes, please. Scruncheons? Yes please! Hardtack, soaked and boiled? No, not so much that.

Anyway, we don't have to eat it while we're there. (And won't.) But I was telling Jim about hardtack, or Hard Bread, and how the company that makes it for sale, Purity, also makes a similar product, Sweet Bread, in a nearly identical package. Sweet Bread is a kind-of-hard but still crumbly biscuit: you can snap it in half laterally with your hands, and spread it with butter or jam or what have you, and it's really good. If, on the other hand, you mean to buy Sweet Bread but accidentally buy Hard Bread, well, good luck to you, because Hard Bread is like a dun-coloured brick. It will break your teeth. You could lash a bunch of them together and use them as a boat anchor.

This website, NewfoundlandlerShop.com, has both kinds for sale, along with lots of other Purity products, most of which found their way into our home when I was young, and a fair number of which we'll probably be bringing back home from our trip. They make delicious candy, including sublime peanut-butter kisses the likes of which you have never tasted (assuming they're as good as they used to be; it's been a while). They also make hard candy. "Peppermint knobs," I said wistfully. Jim replied, "Sounds dirty!" I was scrolling through the hard candy, and I said, "Now, this really sounds dirty; Climax Mixture!"

Seriously. Climax Mixture. With a name like that, it's got to be good.

And then, of course, as you will have surmised already if you know me at all, I wondered where the word "climax" came from.

First guess: Greek by way of Latin. It looks Latin, but it sounds Greek, what with that long "-i-" and all.

Sure enough, it's Greek: "klimax", which literally means "ladder", from the verb "klinein", "to slope", "to lean". Latin turned it into a rhetorical term, the high point of an oration, and eventually (in 1918), British birth-control advocate Marie Stopes used it to mean the high point of the sexual experience.

"Klinein" comes from Indo-European "klei-", "to lean", and it broadened to give English a fair batch of words, most of which are pretty obvious but some of which will surprise you, maybe, a little.

First, all the "cline" words and their offshoots; "decline", "incline", and "recline", plus the noun forms "proclivity" and the less common "declivity" and "acclivity". An incline is a slope on a hill, and the Greek word for "little hill" turned out to be "clitoris".

"Climate" turns out to be related to "climax"; imagine! "Climate" comes from Greek "klimat-", "slope", and by extension "surface or region of the Earth".

"Clinic", meaning "medical establishment", is also related, even though it's hard to imagine how; as it turns out, the Greek word for "bed" was "kline", and the genitive form of the word was "klinikos". As to how a word meaning "to slope; to lean" could have been transformed into "bed", well, it's a short step from "to lean" to "to lie down".

Now for the seeming oddities. Several English words starting with "l-" come from "klei-", because "kl-" easily becomes "hl-" over time, and eventually the "h-" can drop away altogether. So we have "ladder", which of course was the original meaning of "klimax", plus "lean", which was the original meaning of "klinein" and "klei-"; both words came from Germanic words beginning with "hl-". And finally, a word that also came from such a source; "lid", because it leans over, and finally falls atop, the cooking pot.


Blogger Frank said...

If you're going to St. John's, you should hook up with the Bookninja!

Monday, August 04, 2008 10:38:00 PM  

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