Language Lover

RoyBlountSphinx

Here’s the answer to a question that has probably been puzzling you for some time. What do the Sphinx and the sphincter have in common? Well, they share a root in the Greek verb sphingein, to squeeze. The Sphinx, if you recall, punished those unable to solve its riddles by strangling—squeezing the air out of them. And if you’ve ever been eight months pregnant, desperately searching for the nearest ladies’ restroom, you’ve done a little squeezing yourself.

This post is in honor of Roy Blount, Jr., whose birthday it is today, and thanks to whom I discovered this etymological nugget. I first became acquainted with Roy Blount, Jr. through listening to NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” a humorous and intelligent Saturday morning current-events quiz show to which I am sufficiently addicted to plan my weekend cooking blitz for its time slot. Blount is one of the participants, and I said to myself, “Who is this smart, funny man with the sexy, crumbly, Southern-accented voice?” and I immediately added him to the list of Guys I Admire, which includes my husband and son (at the top, naturally), Gregor Mendel, and Hektor, hero of Troy, among others.

Blount was actually born in Indiana, so he must have picked up his Southern accent in high school in Georgia. Besides the vast amount of work he does for radio and numerous periodicals, he’s written plays, screenplays, and song lyrics, and is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction about (to name a few subjects) sports, politics, gender relations, domestic animals, poetry, and hair. The first book of his I opened was Alphabet Juice, a book hard to describe but a must-have for the bookshelf of any language-lover. Therein Blount explores from A to Zyzzyva (a class of weevils) words that intrigue, excite, or annoy him, contemplating in the process multiple dictionaries, Indo-European roots, and popular culture. Happy Birthday, Roy! How’s this for a birthday present: a “roy blount” as a meme for “curious word or phrase worthy of investigation.”

Answer: A cow.

Autumn Equinox

In Greenwich, England, tomorrow at 3:09 am marks the official turning of the year, the end of the long days of summer light: for the first time since March 20th, the day and night are of roughly equal length, and we in the Northern Hemisphere begin the movement into darkness.

However, because of the time difference, the Western Hemisphere actually celebrates the coming of fall TODAY at 11:09 pm EST. You all can begin to party early.

Equinoxia

Season of Life 1

Each year Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian offers a performance in celebration of spring festivals in various cultures. My daughter and I attended as part of a homeschoolers’ outing, and I took along my sketchbook. The homages to the season were skillfully woven together with music, dancing, brief dramatic episodes, and rapid costume and prop changes by the very small yet impressive multi-talented cast. It was lively and engaging, but really tough to sketch and make notes! More like a series of scrawls. Since these fill a spread of my sketchbook, it’s too big for one post, so just the left side today: Passover, the Maypole, and Hana Matsuri.

SeasonOfLifeL

Let My People Go

Passover begins at sunset today. In celebration I post here a page of my daughter’s Main Lesson book from our Stories of the Hebrew People block.

And after the sun goes down, in Jewish households all over the world a child will ask the first of the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all other nights?

TenPlagues

Night

From my series of doorway/window paintings. More on those later, I hope.

Really, this poem properly belongs to Valentines Day…

Night

Wild Nights

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Emily Dickinson

Demons Out! Happiness In!

OniWaSoto

In the northern hemisphere, early February is the season of festivals of light, spring, and beginnings, because of its placement approximately mid-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Candlemas and Groundhog Day are but two examples. Another is the ancient Celtic festival Imbolc, named for the pregnancy and lactation of ewes, and celebrated with the lighting of fires in anticipation of the returning sun. In Japan the festival of Setsubun marks the beginning of the spring season, and this year, according to the old lunar calendar, it falls on February 3rd.

Given the numerous Japanophiles in our household, we are moved to celebrate Setsubun. First, we eat special sushi rolls containing seven ingredients—seven being a lucky number—in complete silence, while facing the auspicious direction for the year (in 2010 it’s sort of south-southeast) and making a New Year wish. After dinner we eat one roasted soybean for each year of our lives so far, pondering the memorable events. This alone keeps certain of us busy for some time. Then we toss the remaining soybeans out into the darkness and shout ONI WA SOTO! FUKU WA UCHI! to chase away wicked demons (and wary neighbors) and bring happiness. Some people (not us) also hang a fish head on the front door. Depending upon the kind of demon, I bet this is pretty effective.