or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Now, I don't know about you, but sometimes a song will get into my head and it will play there for hours and hours and hours. I don't mean bad things, television commercial jingles or catchily hateable pop songs or whatnot. I mean a song that I actually like and have (usually) been listening to recently. Part of it will just lodge in my brain on an infinite loop. Yesterday, it was the song "Effington" from Ben Folds' newest album, Way to Normal, and more specifically the end of it, which goes

I want to live in Effington.
I want to die there too.
Please bury me in Effington
in Effington, in Effington, in Effington, in Effington, in Effington!

So that ran for three or four hours, occasionally interspersed with other bits of the song, and then for some reason it was replaced by the chorus to an Erasure song, "Love the Way You Do So", which runs

We shall lie [Harmony]
Side by side [A Rhapsody]
Here and now [Melody]
Talk in turn
Love the way you do so

(Those words in brackets are actually sung: they're not stage directions or anything.) After an hour or two of this, I naturally began to think about the word "rhapsody" and where it might have come from. After guessing from previous experience that it was very likely to be Greek, I began to think about all the other "rh-" words I could think of, and I came to the precarious conclusion that very likely every word in English, apart from one or two annoying but inevitable exceptions, that begins with "rh-" is from Greek.

And what do you know? It is in fact the case.

There are, of course, exceptions. There have to be: this is English we're talking about. "Rhine" and its adjectival form "Rhenish" aren't among them, though. They are from German, but they nevertheless stem from Greek "rhein", "to flow", which is also found in "diarrhea" and "rheostat". (This means that the German name for the river is "that thing over there that flows", which seems to suggest a certain lack of imagination.) Even words you'd think couldn't possibly be from the Greek actually are: "rhubarb", for instance, is a compilation of "rhu", which was the Greek word for the plant, and "barbaros", "foreign".

I did find three that don't fit the mould, though. There might be others: I try to be thorough but, as Bernard Black would say, I'm not Wonder Woman. "Rhatany" is a kind of South American plant: its name in Quechua is "ratania", and though there is no connection to Greek, I am willing to bet that the spelling was modified into its current English form by someone who thought there ought to be a connection, because it is also called "rattany" (no relation to rattan, which comes from Malay "rotan"). "Rhodomontade" is an occasional spelling of "rodomontade", which is another name for braggadocio or gasconade: the "-h-" wasn't originally there, and I suspect it's for the same reason as the "-h-" in "rhatany", which is to say that someone deliberately inserted it in imitation of the Greek. ("Rodomontade" is named after Rodomonte, the boastful Saracen in Orlando Furioso.) The third word is "rhebok" or "rhebuck", which is a contrarian spelling of Afrikaans "reebok", and once again I think the "-h-" is a deliberate alteration.

Since you are not too likely to use these words in daily conversation--you might not even run across them in an ordinary lifetime (except here, of course)--I think it would be safe for you to assume that any words you find that begin with "rh-" are from the Greek in one way or another. Rhabdomancy, rhetoric, rhea, rhizome, rhythm and rhyme: Greek to the core, each and every one.

In fact, let's go one step further. If you discount compound words such as "dunderhead" or "barhop"--if, in other words, the combination "-rh-" occurs naturally and isn't shoehorned together--then whenever you see the two letters side by side, they very likely indicate a word of Greek origin. Hemorrhage, scirrhous, dirham (the unit of currency in Qatar, and derived, believe it or not, from "drachma"): Greek, Greek, Greek.

Just for the record: no, really, seriously, the song fragment will run over and over again for hours and hours and sometimes more hours. Occasionally it will still be in there rolling around when I go to bed. It doesn't bother me, it isn't a plague nor an earworm. This is just the way my brain works. I kind of like it, actually. (And now "Effington" is probably stuck there for another while.)


Blogger D.J. said...

Weirdly, I've been listening to Way to Normal all week. The one I can't get out of my head is "The Frown Song."

Also! While I was poking through Ben Folds' Wikipedia page, I discovered he'd released another one of those odds-and-ends albums, this one called Supersunnyspeedgraphic, and I'd missed it. One of its tracks, "Rent a Cop," is pure genius -- not jut for the lyrics, but because it would fit perfectly on an Adam Ant album alongside "Goody Two Shoes." --Well, except for the subject matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008 12:38:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Oh, "Rent a Cop" is a great song, isn't it? Also "Sports & Wine" from his first album, the plaintive and uncommonly pretty "Mess" from "The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner", and my all-time favourite, "The Ascent of Stan", which, according to the playcount in iTunes, I have listened to 90 times. (That's almost certainly an understatement.)

I'm not a total Folds fanatic--every one of his albums has at least a couple of duds on it, and "Fear of Pop" is a complete load of crap, start to finish--but I really do like him. Mostly. (The duds on "Way to Normal" are "Errant Dog" and "Brainwascht". Just don't like 'em.) Dang but he can play a piano!

Friday, December 12, 2008 1:37:00 AM  
Anonymous ihemiola said...

...and our football team!


Saturday, January 10, 2009 12:51:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I just keep listening to that album. I don't know what it is about it. I skip over a few songs most of the time (there are only so many times I can listen to "Hiroshima", even though it's a very good Elton John parody), but I find I want to listen to it pretty much every day. It's like being back in the early 1980s when I'd just latch onto one album and play it endlessly, like Kate Bush's "The Dreaming" or "Heartbeat City" by The Cars. Is this exposing too much of my musical taste? I'll stop now.

Saturday, January 10, 2009 4:33:00 AM  

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