Word of the Week! Harum-Scarum

I have had a rather rushed and chaotic week renovating a house we rent, just ahead of new tenants arriving. Thus, I’ve acted rather harum-scarum about this blog, and that gives me a good opportunity to share a favorite word often found in English Literature before 1900.

The OED Online shows a likely etymology as a rhyme made up of hare + scare. If you have walked up on a bunny and watched it flee wildly, going one direction, then another, you get a sense of the recklessness and panic of the resulting harum-scarum behavior. The term is not very old, and the oldest example (perhaps misheard by the writer) from the 17th Century is harum-starum!

Wild, rash, reckless, chaotic, running one way, then another! I frequently see it in Dickensian prose about a “harum-scarum fellow” one cannot trust to act calmly. Not long ago I chastised a friend about his undependable “harum-scarum friends,” knowing that a fellow English Major would get the reference.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image from Nick Park’s excellent 2005 film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, just because I could not resist.

Word of the Week! Doldrum

Sailing Boat alone

July marks the lowest ebb of my summer, at least when I do not escape Richmond’s continual sauna for more temperate climes. I feel like I’m a ship becalmed under a burning sun. In a word, in the doldrums. By August I’m gearing up for the semester ahead and the doldrums lie behind me.

Our word this week has a fascinating history, with the OED Online providing an etymology from the more familiar “dull” and the less familiar “dold,” meaning dim-witted. We no longer call a dull or boring person a “doldrum,” saving that term for dull moods, as when Carlo Marx, the fictional counterpart of Allen Ginsberg in Kerouac’s On the Road,  complains of times when he is not being creative as his “doldrums.”

I consider the nautical use of the word its most pow

erful. Every summer, for no reason I can fathom, I pack my sea chest and embark on a fictional sea voyage, usually by sail. It is not something I’d ever want to do in reality, but the specialized language of sailing, the rich history, and of course the many disasters compel me to read on. This year my pick is Joshua Slocum’s 1900 memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum was the first person, at least on record, to do so. He faced many dangers, from pirates, storms, to hostile native tribes, and I looked forward with delight to his traversing the Atlantic doldrums, an equitorial region where winds are calm or nonexistent.

Slocum sailed right through, to my great disappointment. Otherwise, the book is really fine reading. Yet to this reader the thought of being beca

lmed at sea seems worse than any storm. All one can do is wait for wind. Thus the term fits well with Carlo Marx’s, and other writers’,  fears of getting stuck.

May your doldrums be brief and a fair wind fill your sails, until the storms of Autumn arrive.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Creative Commons image from Flikr, courtesy of Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

 

Word of the Week! Tontine

This word was new to me, though as soon as I read the nomination, I knew it merited a post. The original meaning has changed to mean something sad, part of the passing of what Tom Brokaw called America’s “Greatest Generation.”

Originally, this term meant simply an annuity paid out to members, but as members pass away, each survivor received a larger share.  The original, as the OED Online notes, came from the name of “Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan banker, who initiated the scheme in France c1653.”  I have never heard of such an investment today, though I suppose they still exist, as do card games played according to the idea.

As for contemporary usage, thanks go to Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects, who ran across our word as a synonym for “last man’s clubs” for veterans. Usually the final survivor drinks a toast to fallen comrades, from a bottle of spirits set aside with great ceremony long before. Lee also recalls that there was an episode in the TV series M*A*S*H about a tontine that included Col. Potter.

There’s only a noun form, meaning either the type of arrangement or, as The American Heritage Dictionary adds, the members of a group who make it. So a correct usage would be, for the video I’m about to share, “a tontine, composed of the last living Doolittle Raiders, met at the Museum of the United States Air Force, where they opened a bottle of vintage cognac saved for many decades. They drank a final toast to their deceased comrades.”

PBS had an entire special about this event and the air raid on Japan that led to the tontine. It came as a very dark time in our nation’s history, early in the War and amid many US losses. It inspired everyone I met from that generation who spoke of it. So here’s a toast to our heroes. Their raid may well have spurred Japan into the hastily planned and finally disastrous Battle of Midway, an engagement that changed the entire course of the Pacific war.

At the time of writing, Col. Richard Cole, the last raider, is still participating in public events at the age of 102. His is the last goblet left standing upright in the case he built to hold the bottle and goblets for the members of  his tontine.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Video by “BCI2D” at YouTube and image from the CAF’s blog. Visit their museum to take a ride in a B-25 Mitchell, the type of plane used in the raid.

Word of the Week! Atavism

Here is a term that has been on my mind a lot, ever since some kids walking down the street, twenty years ago, spotted me and my manually powered reel mower.

“Look at that dude! He’s got one of them throwback lawnmowers!”

That’s a good working definition of an atavism. The etymology given by the OED, as you might guess, is the Latin atavus, either “a great-grandfather’s grandfather” or more generally, “an ancestor.”

For once, the OED’s entry appears really limited, providing no usage examples. It notes resemblance to an ancestor rather than to one’s parents, or the recurrence of a disease common in distant family history, but not in one’s recent ancestors. My favorite print dictionaries, old and new, provide little more.  So I will strike out into the atavistic thickets by myself.

I’ve seen our word, as noun and adjective, used both in science and elsewhere, to mean a “throwback,” something from an earlier time that has somehow erupted into the present. I write “erupted” because my sense of the term is not an historical or biological survival from an earlier epoch but something that emerges, like new. It calls the mind and eye back to an earlier time. Hence  Frank Norris’ description of the titular character in one of my favorite novels, McTeague: “His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient, like that of the carnivora.” Norris’ protagonist is a brute, a throwback to some imagined caveman past.

Consider nonhuman examples: I do not mean a perfectly restored 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang but one sold as new, presumably a zero-mile example found improbably on the premises of a Ford factory. Better still, imagine the faces of shocked workers when such a car appeared magically on the assembly line. That dream of car collectors would be in keeping with the biological idea of atavism.

My favorite pop-culture atavism appears at the top of this post.

I have been waiting a long time to use the Mountain Dew “Throwback” logo for something. I drank the stuff in high school. Somehow I lost the taste, but my fondness for Hillbilly kitsch has remained strong.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.