Monthly Archives: July 2012

Well, It Brought Me Good Luck

I was checking out the strange-looking London Olympics mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, today and got to wondering about the word “mascot.” I was surprised by what I found, especially as a fan of opera.

What do mascots have to do with opera, you ask? Well, it seems the word comes directly from an opera – an operetta, actually – entitled “La Mascotte” by the largely forgotten French composer Edmond Audran.  I had never heard of this one, as it’s a bit obscure and not even listed in my Grove Book of Operas, the standard reference.  I also had trouble tracking down a recording of it. The opera is about a farm girl who is believed to bring good luck to whoever she belongs to, as long as she remains a virgin (it’s a French comic opera, so you can imagine the scenarios . . .) It was quite popular in its day – which was the late 1800s – and led to the use of the Anglicized word “mascot” to mean something that brings good luck, which is what mascots were originally intended to do for sports teams.

The “mascotte” in the title is derived from a French slang term for witch, “masco.” The operetta is quite tuneful and lighthearted, not unlike the work of Offenbach– I’m listening to it now, a welcome discovery thanks to my curiosity about a word.

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He also invented the one-word name

Quick – what is the last name of the man who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper?

If you said “da Vinci,” you’re wrong. Actually, it’s a trick question. The man who painted these masterpieces had no last name. He simply went by “Leonardo.” He was the illegitimate child of a wealthy and respected gentleman, which helps explain why he was not honored with the family name. The moniker “da Vinci” means “from Vinci,” the area where he was born. This helped distinguish him from other Leonardos, and was a naming convention his father used as well. It is therefore improper to refer to him as “da Vinci,” which makes no grammatical sense (even though everyone will know who you’re talking about). The popular book and movie “The da Vinci Code” makes this error, basically translating as “The From Vinci Code.” A better, and correct, title would have been “The Leonardo Code,” which, to my mind, would have worked just as nicely. It is also acceptable to refer to Leonardo as “Leonardo da Vinci,” but that would have made for a long book title.

His contemporary, Michelangelo, also went by his first name. He did have a last one, which probably only art students know – Buonarroti. The famous Dutch painter Rembrandt may appear to be using his last name, but actually it is his first. His last name was van Rijn.

Ask your friends the opening question above and see if any of them get it right.

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Something that is eponymous is named after itself (for example, when the band Boston named their debut album “Boston,” it was eponymous). Since I’m on vacation this week and involved in many home fix-it projects, I got to wondering about the eponymity (I just made that word up – since anonymity is a word, I feel this should be, also!) of a few tool names. Who are Allen wrenches named after? Turns out they are named after a man from right here in Connecticut, William Allen of Allen Manufacturing in Hartford, who patented the wrench in the early twentieth century. What about Phillips screwdrivers? They are named after Henry Phillips, who developed them for the American Screw Company of Providence during the Depression. One of their first major uses was in Cadillac assembly.

Other words named after their inventors or developers are the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales, named after a German and Swede, respectively, who lived in the early eighteenth century, and the watt measurement of energy, named after Scottish engineer James Watt. Another one that most people are familiar with is the Richter Scale, as well as the Geiger counter. One that may surprise you, however, is the graham cracker, named after the minister who created it in 1829.

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Put it where???

I asked a coworker the other day to put something in the vestibule,  a small room that connects two other rooms. He, and a few others, didn’t know what I meant since they had never heard this word before. I suddenly felt like Henry Higgins. I suppose it isn’t used very often, and I suspect it is something I picked up in church when I was young. A vestibule is a small connecting room, ante-chamber or lobby, such as cathedrals often have. You may also have heard it in relation to the ear, usually in the form vestibular, as this part of the ear is a connecting area to several others. The word comes to us directly from Latin, where it referred to a courtyard.

Curiously, it has no relation to another church-related word, vestment (a ceremonial garment), though I was surprised to learn that one of the definitions of invest is to clothe or adorn. Both of these have the same Latin origin. However, the usual meaning of this word, to expend resources for gain, is unrelated and comes to us from Italian – another case of a word having several different meanings largely because it came to us from different languages or sources. You could argue that to invest in something results in one being adorned with benefits. Just because there is no recorded connection between words’ various meanings doesn’t mean that one isn’t there. It is even possible that vestments were once put on in vestibules, which, in the church setting, makes sense to me.

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