With apologies to Al Gore


The term “internet” has been around since the early to mid-seventies, even though the medium it eventually came to define didn’t enter the public consciousness until two decades later. The word was originally not capitalized as it should be now, and is shortened from “internetwork,” a reference to the interconnected computer networks that comprise what we now know as the Internet. The term is also thought to have gained popularity from frequent reference to “internet protocol” in the early days of networked computing, which defines how packets of data travel over the network (and, incidentally, is what the “i.p.” in your IP address stands for).

Other terms soon came on the scene that built off of the interconnected network symbolism, most notably the concept of the “web” that appeared in the early 1990s, and later the “website.” I don’t know if anyone else has used it before, but if not I’d like to coin a new term today: cobwebsite, to refer to a website that has not been updated in a while. Cute, huh?  (I just looked this up on the web – it appears I’m not the first!)



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Those daffy, self-centered flowers


Daffodils were originally called affodills, which is a variation of the medieval Latin name for the flower, affodillus.  Nobody can seem to account for how the “d” came to be added to the front of the word, except that perhaps it sounded too good to resist. It may have derived from a kind of lazy spoken contraction when the name is preceded by the word “and,” such as in this sentence:  “In the field were many tulips and affodills.” What we now call “daffodils” are actually a flower that goes by the botanical name of narcissus. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection in the water. Not realizing it was his, he pined over himself to the point of death. The flower which bears his name is said to have sprung up where he died, and people who are self-centered are called narcissistic. The tale is in the Roman poet Ovid’s classic work, Metamorphoses.

The plural of the flower, incidentally, is narcissi. As for that early bloomer the crocus, both crocuses and croci are acceptable for the plural (but people will look at you funny if you say croci). Personally, I think the plural of daffodil should be daffodilli. It just sounds right.

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The son also rises


Where did we get the word Easter? Almost every other Germanic language derives its word for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the Latin word for passover, pascha, such as Paques (French), Pasqua (Italian), Pascuas (Spanish), and Pascoa (Portuguese). Only German gives Easter a name similar to the English one: Ostern. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, our word for Easter is derived from the same base as the word east, as is also true in German. The reference here is to the part of the sky that the sun rises in. It is not hard to see the connection between this image of dawn and Christ’s resurrection. We can take this even further and note that the “sun rising” and the “son rising” are homophones, and this may have also contributed to the association of Easter with the dawn. This is even more plausible when you consider that the words for son and sun are not homophones in the languages that base their word for Easter off of pascha, but they are in English and German (sohn and sonne).

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A bit of 10-43*


In the early days of police band radio, it took the transmitting device a fraction of a second to fully power up. This  would often result in the first word spoken being partially cut off if the user didn’t remember to pause first after pressing the button. To solve this problem, the attention word “ten” was spoken first, followed by a “ten code” that identified the nature of the transmission. The codes were created by a state police employee from Illinois district ten, from which they take their name. They were adopted by citizens band radio enthusiasts in the seventies, and made popular by police shows on television and the hit song “Convoy” in 1975. The official list of codes ranges from 10-0 (“caution”) to 10-99 (“wanted”), with the most recognized and widely used one being 10-4 (“acknowledged”). While many of the codes are still in wide use, regional variations in meaning have resulted in confusion, reducing their effectiveness. Also, radio technology long ago eliminated the loss of initial syllables, and it has been recommended in recent years that the codes be abandoned in favor of plain language. They did this with the” Convoy” song title, which could have been called “10-59” (“convoy”).  But that never would have been a hit.

* 10-43 = “Information”

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God of doors


The name of the first month of the year comes to us from ancient Rome. Janus was not only the first of the Roman gods, but also the god of beginnings, of  gates and doorways, of transitions and of time. Depicted as having a face on both sides of his head, he looked to the past and to the future. This is why in Shakespeare’s play Othello, Iago, a two-faced character if ever there was one, invokes the name of Janus when one of his duplicitous plots fails: “By Janus, I think no” (I.ii.33).

If the gateway to Janus’ temple in Rome was closed, it meant Rome was at peace; if open, Rome was at war. The gate was usually open.

We see a few other uses of this name in English, most notably in the word janitor, a door-keeper. Another occurrence of this word root came to me completely by surprise as I researched this article. One of my favorite opera pieces is the “Chorus of the Janissaries” from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, set in a Turkish harem (it’s a rousing, infectious number – check it out!). I always wondered what “Janissaries” were, but never bothered to investigate. They were door-servants to the Turkish sultan, taking their name from Janus, the god of doorways.

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The works


Besides being the name of a cartoon penguin, “opus” is a word used to refer to a creative work, usually musical and of considerable scope (as in a “magnum opus”). The term comes from the Latin word for work. Musical compositions are given an “opus number,” such as Beethoven’s Opus 125, also known as his Ninth Symphony. In this usage, the word is usually abbreviated as “op,” a common sight on classical music recordings.

Of particular interest is the plural of this word: opera, meaning works. This is why compositions that include music, dance, scenery and costumes are called operas, as they combine works form various disciplines in the arts. Other common words from this root are operate (as in surgery, or medical work), and the operating system of your computer, which makes it work.

While we’re talking about music and operas, why do we yell “bravo!” at the end of a particularly fine performance? This word comes from the Italian for “good.” If you really like a performance, you can yell “bravissimo!,” which expresses approval in the extreme (“most excellent!”). Or you could just yell “excellent!” or “awesome!,” but you’d likely get some unwelcome stares for your faux pas (French: false step).

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The resolution


This New Year’s Eve, while you’re singing “Auld Lang Syne” (Old English for “old long-since”) and drinking champagne (named after the province in France where it is made), perhaps you’ll make a resolution (first practiced in the mid-1800s). When we normally speak of resolution, we usually mean the degree of detail in a photograph or a television set (actually, the word refers to the separation of something into component parts). Modern flat screen TVs that are “1080p” have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels – the more pixels, the more detail and greater resolution. We can also find resolutions to problems.

At this time of year, however, the word takes on a different meaning. We make resolutions, meaning things that we are determined to do (or not do, as the case may be). While this practice of reflection and intention at the start of a new year has been around for over a century, the popular use of the word in this context dates back to Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece:

“Then Love and Fortune be my gods, my guide!
My will is backt with resolution:
Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried;
The blackest sin is clear’d with absolution”

So test your resolve and make some resolutions, for the sake of auld lang syne.

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