Wordmaster: galvanize

The word galvanize is derived from a person’s name:  Luigi Galvani, a physician and physicist of Bologna. It’s an example of an eponym (a word that derives from the name of a person).

Galvani observed that the legs of a frog would twitch when brought into contact with certain metals. The twitching was the result of a kind of animal electricity—hence galvanize, “to stimulate into sudden action”.

Other eponyms include:

  • cardigan from James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868);
  • Hoover (i.e., a vacuum cleaner) from W.H. Hoover (1849-1932);
  • mackintosh from Charles M. Macintosh (1766-1843);
  • sandwich from John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich; and
  • silhouette from Étienne de Silhouette (1709-67).

Source:  The Penguin Wordmaster Dictionary, Martin Manser and Nigel Turton, eds., 1987.

Wordmaster: amiable, amicable

These two words, amiable and amicable, should be carefully distinguished.

Amiable is used to describe people or expressions and means “appearing pleasant, agreeable, and friendly”:  an amiable mood, an amiable smile.

Amicable is used to describe arrangements or agreements and means “showing friendly goodwill”:  The two sides reached an amicable agreement. They settled their differences in an amicable manner.

Source:  The Penguin Wordmaster Dictionary, Martin Manser and Nigel Turton, eds., 1987.


At 8:20 p.m., the body artist Chris Burden entered a large gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, did not look at his audience of 400 or more, set a clock for midnight, and lay down on the floor beneath a large sheet of plate glass that was angled against the wall. So commenced on April 11 [1975] a deceptively simple piece of conceptual art that would eventually involve the imaginations of thousands of Chicagoans who had never heard of Burden, would cause the museum to fear for Burden’s life, and would end at a time and in a way that Burden did not remotely anticipate.

As I read this entry from Roger Ebert’s journal, I am standing on a sidewalk in downtown Ottawa, waiting for a bus.

I arrived at the stop at 5:17 p.m. No one else is waiting; I’ve just missed a bus.

[Burden, lying on the floor,] was wearing a Navy blue sweater and pants, and jogging shoes. He let his hands rest easily at his sides and looked up at the ceiling, blinking occasionally. He could not see the clock.

The audience perhaps expected more. There was a pregnant period of silence, about 10 minutes, and when at the end of it nothing else had happened, there were a few loud whistles and sporadic outbursts of clapping. Burden did not react. At various times during the next two hours, audience members tried to approach Burden with advice, greetings, exhortations, and a red carnation. They were politely but firmly kept away by the museum attendants. A girl threw her brassiere at the glass; it was taken away by a smiling guard. At 10:30 p.m., when I left, the crowd had dwindled down to perhaps 100.

There are three bus routes I can take home at the end of a long work day. I prefer this one, because it drops me off closest to my door. On the other hand, it is unreliable during the afternoon rush hour. At other times of day, I never have a problem. But 5:17 p.m., and I’ve just missed a bus? It’s a bad sign.

I consider taking one of the other routes, and decide against it.

I stand. I wait.

At 1:15 a.m., I went to the pay telephone and called Alene [the museum’s publicist]. She said Burden was still on the floor. I said the hell with it and drove back downtown to the museum. Burden had not moved. […]

“He doesn’t move except for what look like isometric flexings,” Alene Valkanas said “He flexes his fingers sometimes, and once in a while you can see his toes flexing.” Burden seemed removed to a great distance. He was not asleep. There was no way to tell if he was in a meditative trance, or had hypnotized himself, or was fully aware of his surroundings. After an hour, I left very quietly, as if from a church.


Licensed to save

In August, I delivered a sermon at the United Church that my parents attend, in Peterborough, Ontario. This month, there’s a story in the news that has me thinking back to my sermon.

Here’s an audio excerpt from the introduction, with a portion of the excerpt transcribed below it:

The text we’re about to read [Mark 3:1-6] says that authority can be used in one of two ways. Authority can be used to do good, or to do harm. It can be used to save a life, or to take a life.

As I was writing this sermon, I gave it the working title, “007 and Jesus”. That’s rather odd; I assure you, there’s no mention of James Bond in the text I’m about to read.

The thing about 007 is that he was licensed to kill, just as every secret service agent with the double-“0” designation was licensed to kill. James Bond is viewed as a glamorous character:  evidently, if you have the authority to kill, that’s pretty cool.

Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t have a double-“0” designation. He wasn’t licensed to kill; he was licensed to save. In my books, that’s even cooler than being licensed to kill.

The text that I’m about to read stands as a warning to the Church, in this era and in every era. It warns that we are to do good, not harm, to the vulnerable people who are entrusted to our protective care. That, like Jesus, the Church is licensed to save.

Here in Canada, there’s a story in the news that has me reflecting on that sermon. Bishop Raymond Lahey, of the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, was arrested earlier this month:

Raymond Lahey was carrying on his laptop images of young boys engaged in sexual acts when he tried to re-enter Canada, according to a search warrant application released Thursday.

Some of the boys appeared to be as young as eight years of age, it states.

Father Lahey resigned as bishop of Antigonish the day after he was charged with possessing and importing child porn. The charges were not public at that point and he cited personal reasons for his decision.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Halifax said Thursday night that she could not say whether Father Lahey had been on church business during his trip.

The search warrant application reveals that multiple red flags went off after the 69-year-old cleric flew from London to Ottawa last month. He was singled out for secondary search at the airport for no fewer than five specific reasons, one of them repeated travel to countries known as sources of child pornography.


Wordmaster: cut to the quick

A person who is cut to the quick is one whose feelings have been deeply hurt. The expression provides an illustration of the original meaning of quick, which comes from the Old English adjective cwic, meaning “alive”.

A cut which penetrates the quick is one which goes through the skin and enters the painfully sensitive living flesh, as found beneath the nails.

Source:  The Penguin Wordmaster Dictionary, Martin Manser and Nigel Turton, eds., 1987.

A better illustration might be, cutting through a callous to reach the living, sensitive skin beneath. (But does a callous consist of dead skin? I dunno.)

Another example of quick meaning “living” immediately comes to mind:  quickening, the first time a mother-to-be feels her baby move inside her. The quickening indicates that the baby is alive — i.e., cwic.

Vancouver Olympics knit themselves a controversy

The 2010 winter Olympics, which begin about four months from now, will be held in Vancouver, B.C.

The local Olympic organizers have been working very hard to obtain the support of B.C.’s First Nation communities. The potential exists for international controversy because nearly the entire province is subject to unresolved First Nation land claims. (There are 203 First Nations in B.C., mostly quite small; fewer than 20 of them have treaties.)

Oops! The organizers have managed to offend the Cowichan nations by producing an Olympic sweater for Canada’s athletes to wear. According to the Cowichan, the sweater is a knock-off:

Authentic Cowichan Sweaters are produced by Canada’s West Coast Salish Natives in the Cowichan Valley. […]

No two sweaters are alike. The fleeces come in natural colors and shades of brown, black and white. As the black sheep matures, the wool changes from brown to gray with aging, like human hair. All of the dark shades in ‘Genuine Cowichan’ sweaters come from this unique black sheep and are not dyed. For over one hundred years Salish women have been knitting clothes and blankets for their families. The wool is carefully carded to prevent damage to the fibers and is still hand spun. The sweaters are hand-knitted with this pure, un-dyed, virgin wool. The natural oils are left in the wool of the authentic Cowichan Sweater to retain the water-resistant qualities of wool. […]

This is a gift that has been presented to royalty and heads of state.

2010 winter Olympics sweaterHere’s a photo of the offending sweater, modelled by one of Canada’s athletes. The geometric designs and the moose are typical of a Cowichan sweater. The Cowichan say that the colours are also typical of their designs (although the red is surely an exception).

Also relevant:  in 2005, Premier Gordon Campbell presented an authentic Cowichan sweater, adorned with the Olympic rings, to IOC president Jacques Rogge. It’s relevant because it establishes a pre-existing relationship between the Cowichan sweater and the 2010 winter games.

I don’t know whether the Olympic organizers, or The Bay, intended that anyone would mistake their sweater for a Cowichan. But it’s certainly true that corporations are not above the exploitation of traditional handiwork in pursuit of profit. (The sweaters may be worn by the athletes, but you can bet they’ll also be for sale at The Bay.)

This instance of transformation of a traditional practice offends me. In western terminology, we might label it “appropriation of culture”. It’s colonialism in a contemporary form.

“What would happen if Cowichan started marketing an Olympic lookalike sweater in response?” Hinkley wondered. “I imagine they would be all over us, spouting ‘trademark’ and ‘patent’ and all of this.” She asks anyone who feels snubbed by the Bay’s choice of sweater to wear their Cowichan sweater to Olympic events.

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