or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gold Mine

I guess I thought that if I ignored my blog it would get bored and wander off, but no, it's still here, begging for my attention.

My friend Ralph sent me this photo a couple of months ago, and I am only just now getting around to doing anything about it:

I don't know. Do you think that someone thinks that that is funny, that they're making a pun of sorts? Or almost worse, that someone doesn't understand that the word "rape" occurs twice in the English language and that the two versions are etymologically unrelated to one another?

The "rape" that is a hideous crime is from (of course) Latin "rapere", "to seize, to carry off by force", which is why the painting "The Rape of the Sabine Women"

(a popular subject for art, this version by Pietro da Cortona) depicts them being lugged away by Roman brutes: the aftermath is presumably for us to imagine.

"Rapere" gave birth to another very common English word: "rapid", which is presumably what you want to be when you are snatching away something that does not belong to you. It's also the source of the rather antiquated "rapine", the violent seizure of another's property.

The other "rape", as in "rapeseed" is from an entirely unrelated Latin word, "rapa", "turnip", a variant of which you may actually have seen in English as part of the vegetable "broccoli-rabé", aka rapini, whose Latin name is brassica rapa.

True story: a few years ago Jim and I were travelling by train through Scotland and passing large fields of those shockingly bright yellow flowers you see at the top. A couple of women sitting close by us were wondering aloud, as we had been wondering between ourselves, just what those dazzling yellow flowers were. One of the women was getting up to buy something at the snack bar or use the facilities, and she said to her companion, "I'll ask the porter." When she returned to her seat, she said, "He says it's grapeseed."

Rape and rapeseed needed a new name, obviously, so in Canada the oil, which is used for cooking, is called canola oil (which you would think was a portmanteau of "Canada" plus "oleum", since it really is a Canadian oil, having been created in Manitoba in the 1970s, but is actually a sort of initialism for "CANadian Oil, Low Acid", the acid in question being erucic acid, which is thought to be bad for the heart and which rapeseed oil ordinarily contains in large quantities).

It may shock you (it did me) to learn that there is actually a third "rape" in English, an extremely uncommon word meaning "the leavings of wine-pressing used to make vinegar". This one is related to "rasp", coming as it does from French "râpe", that circumflex denoting, you may recall, the loss of an ess, meaning that its original form would have been "raspe".

Friday, August 03, 2012


Over on my other blog I quoted Lewis Carroll's illustrator as saying that he found a particular job to be "altogether beyond the appliances of art". And isn't that an interesting use of the word "appliance"? It's pretty much gone from the language altogether.

Nowadays, "appliance" means just about only one thing: a machine, usually large and immobile, that we use around the home, such a refrigerator or a clothes dryer, although there are also small appliances such as toasters. (We can also preface it with "dental" to mean braces and other orthotics.)

The suffix "-ance", from French (of course), is used to turn a verb into a noun: just as "contrivance" means "a thing contrived", "appliance" can be taken to mean "a thing applied", which was Tenniel's use: none of the things he might apply in the service of his art could accomplish Carroll's intention (although someone who drew a little girl dancing with a gryphon and a calf-limbed tortoise would, you might think, be capable of drawing anything).

Like "device", "appliance" has undergone a process called semantic narrowing, in which a word becomes more and more restricted in use, often as other words drift in to replace the older meanings. ("Hound" is a good example: it once meant any dog, from German "Hund", but now, means a very specific sort of dog, the hunting kind. You can have a basset hound or a greyhound, but not a Newfoundland hound, unless you jokingly say, "Get over here, hound.")

Not only the suffix of "appliance" is French, but the whole word: the stem, "apply", comes from the very old French verb "appliquer", which is still seen in English in the noun or verb "appliqué", most usually used to mean the decorative sewing of one kind of fabric onto another. And "appliquer" in turn comes from Latin "ad-", "to", plus "plicare", "to fold" (whence our "ply", as in "four-ply" and the verb "multiply"), which sounds strange until you take the sense as broadly as possible: to fold together is to bring two things in contact with one another, and from there a host of metaphorical association spring forth, as when you apply yourself to your work, apply sunscreen to your face, or apply your knowledge to the task at hand.