Anu Garg. Do you know that name? People in 171 countries do because they receive what the New York Times called “the most welcome, most enduring piece of daily mail in cyberspace.” I’m one of… More
When I first learned that Your Heart Is A Muscle the Size of a Fist was the selected book for Whatcom READS 2018 (five author events, March 8-10), I’d never heard of Sunil Yapa. Learning about talented, engaging authors is one of the beauties of a county-wide book club.
By now, Sunil, is back in the “little farmhouse” in Pennsylvania that he shares with his dad, “where I will let my beard grow long and try to write another book.”
Yapa, raised in Pennsylvania by a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, had not planned to be a writer. He’d majored in economic geography, taking classes at Penn State from his father, Lakshman Yappa.
“I assumed I’d follow in my father’s footsteps, kinda like taking over the family hardware store, but a month out of college I knew I wanted to write.”
After graduation in 2002, he and a friend took a week to come up with ideas for self-employment. No “regular jobs” for them. His friend wanted to buy luxury cars in Texas and sell them in New York. Sunil thought it would be fun to hawk posters out of the back of a truck. He prevailed.
So off they went, traveling for two-three months each year for ten years, all across the country, working twelve to sixteen hours a day, “selling posters of Britney Spears to 18-year-old girls.” Sunil earned around $10,000 per year––”enough money to live abroad, but not enough to live in the U.S.”
He went to Chile and began writing Fist, a novel about the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in 1999 which occurred when he was in college. “I wasn’t brave enough to go then,” but he was impacted by a picture of a woman bleeding from a baton beating. He wondered what prompted her to be in Seattle, fighting for policies affecting people she didn’t know.
He wrote the book in seventeen countries over six years. The first draft was 600+ pages. And his computer, containing the completed manuscript, was stolen from his hotel room in Chicago.
His response: for three months he propped himself up on his father’s couch, perfecting the art of Netflix-binging and watching almost every basketball game that aired. But the book pursued him, so he re-wrote it. He reduced the total number of characters from sixty-five (!) to seven and did not allow himself to use prior notes.”That would have been like taking dictation from an earlier, dumber self.” At the conclusion of his rewrite, Sunil concluded:
“Losing it––that writing by a clever young grad student–was a gift.”
One might wonder why a clever young grad student didn’t back up his manuscript.
In Chile, where he started and finished the Fist, there was no internet, so he stowed his laptop in the oven (yes, the oven!), and never had a problem with theft. When he returned to the United States, he didn’t want to overburden his father’s printer by generating 600 pages and then, as he traveled to Chicago, he thought a hotel room was a safe place to leave his computer.
The rewrite, which took six years, paid off. Sunil’s agent sent the book out on a Friday to twenty-five editors. On Saturday morning, his agent called. “Can you be in New York on Monday?” Lee Boudreaux, who had stayed up all night reading Fist, wanted Sunil’s book to launch her imprint for Little, Brown, and Company. She liked the dynamic plot, and the language—”urgent, dynamic, inventive, surprising, unforgettable.”
I also was enchanted by the book’s language (although I would have preferred less profanity). Consider this bleak but lyric passage in which 19-year old Victor is beaten.
He felt the batons battering him like hail, a shot to the kidneys that exploded like a star…He was glad to have done what he had done. To have wandered the world. To have loved his mother when she was alive. Even to have joined the people here today…he had raised his voice to a good and true human pitch..but now he knew all along…This had been the plan. To stomp the breath from his belly until he breathed no more. They wanted to erase him and all that he was from the face of the earth. And he was going to let them.
Violence is hard to write and hard to read. Fist is a novel, yes, but Sunil says “two-thirds of it happened. It’s important, to tell the truth.” Though he did not attend the WTO, he did the same kind of in-depth research as another Whatcom READS writer, Daniel James Brown (The Boys in the Boat).
As a librarian, I love that Sunil referenced his childhood in this way: “I love libraries. They were my refuge, my church.”
Sunil examined twenty archived boxes of photos, signs, handwritten testimonies, and amateur video and audio recordings in the basement of the library at the University of Washington. In one of the boxes, he found the title of his book on a woodcut by activist-artist Dalia Sapon-Shervin.
“There it was, Your Heart is A Muscle the Size of a Fist. Just right. And I was lucky. The editors let me keep it.”
The cover of the hardbound edition, issued in 2016 is bright yellow with bold, informal font. “I think the publishers chose yellow,” he said, “because nobody can remember the title or my name, but they do remember a yellow cover with a bold design.”
You might wonder why I chose to abbreviate the ten-word title of his book with Fist, one of the three nouns in the title. Fist identifies the protest, the principle storyline for the book, but the most important word in the title is Heart because this book is about empathy, courage, and love.
You might also wonder why I’ve called Sunil by his first name instead of the more usual, journalistically correct, last name. Because, after asking him questions at two events and having him sign my books, when I stepped to the microphone at the Mt. Baker Theater, he addressed me by my first name.
And don’t we all like to be recognized?
Several months ago, I was having lunch with two friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Both were retired librarians with new avocations: one is a potter, the other writes local history. The local historian, after learning that I had a blog, said, “Well, what do you write about?”
Unsorted past subjects flittered through my mind––the briefcase I stole from an Uber driver; Zyxt, the curious word, I found in the OED; a remembrance of author Brian Doyle. Before I could puncture the silence with something pithy my friend, eyebrows raised, offered, “Life?”
“Well, yeah,” I muttered. Undeterred by vagueness, she asked for the blog’s address.
Last week, following the examination of the first draft of Eyes Wide Open, a member of my critique group, said, “What’s the objective of your blog? What’s it about?
I said what one should not admit. “I’m not sure.”
I should think deeply about that. Or at least write an elevator speech to stave off palpable silences. Life. Hmm.
The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging says
“It’s perfectly fine to write about your life and experiences…and there’s no need to apologize for it…but if you want to take your blog to the next level, though, it helps to have some sort of theme to the majority of your posts.”
Level One is for me. I’m a dabbler. I go for whatever turns my head, catches my fancy, and then I stylize my sentences to avoid clichés that have to do with fancifulness and head-turning. I often land on words. Take, for example, the word “blog.”
I don’t like the word blog, but Peter Merholz, its creator, enjoyed the word’s crudeness, its dissonance, and its rough onomatopoeic proximity to vomiting. (Yes, he really made that connection.) Why didn’t Mr. Merholz, way back in 1999, keep his mitts off a noun that has such unpleasant sound siblings: bog, fog, agog, hog, clog? He couldn’t; the base word that he shortened was “Weblog.” Merholtz attributes its success to the creation of a new platform for publishing blogs:
“Blog” would have likely died a forgotten death had it not been for one thing: In August of 1999, Pyra Labs released Blogger, and with that, the use of “blog” grew with the tools success.”
Merholtz’s truncation of weblog took off and he has achieved the ultimate fame: he and his word are enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary.
But, I ask you, can a serious writer use the term blogger as easily as a guy with a chainsaw who’s a logger?
Apparently, lots of readers would rather read a blog––and writers would rather write them, than, say, chop a log––because there are over 2,000 Huffington Post bloggers who initiate constant conversations 24 hours a day.
I’ve accomplished neither the deep thinking nor the elevator speech, but I did come to the same conclusion as the individual inadequately designated as “Marty” on the Brainy Quotes website, who said, “I think the word ‘blog’ is an ugly word.”
If you’ve made the slog through this blog, thank you.
P.S. Anybody know a logger I could interview? After all, the precursor to blogs (columns–before they went digital) were printed on paper derived from wood.
About to check my field of vision, the ophthalmological technician, dressed in tall Frye boots, leggings, and a stylish, geometric-patterned sweater, spoke in a calm voice: “I’m going to tape your eyes open. I’ll be gentle,” she said as she stretched each eyelid to an unnatural height and positioned my chin on a cup, leaving me staring into a white, moon-like orb.
Even though the image of Svengali, whose pupil-less eye sockets terrorized me as a child, invaded my consciousness, I didn’t squirm and I followed the technician’s instructions to squeeze a button whenever I saw flashing lights in that strange capsule into which my head was thrust. The lights were star-like bursts, some up, some down, some in the middle.
Fifteen minutes later, she rewarded me with “Good job,” and a little aside: “Men can be such babies, especially those old guys whose eyebrows get all bushy. They’re the worst.” Then, she guided me through a labyrinth of small offices to one where I was instructed to wait for the ophthalmologist/specialist who would see if my orb-staring results qualified me for blepharoplasty and ptosis repair.
Definition to come––it’s something to do with one of the cosmetic miseries of aging.
I ended up waiting for twenty minutes, plenty of time to scrutinize the office where I saw…
…Pamphlets, like “Granulated Eyelids––what it is, how to treat it at home.” [Why, I wondered were eyelids an “it.”] And the alliterative “Flashers and Floaters–what they are, when to call your doctor.”
...Eyeball charts with words like carnucle, lacrimal puctum or bublar conjunctive which made me wonder why some words (eyebrow, eyelid) on the chart were unworthy of Latinate designations. My favorite terms were inferior meatus and turbinate. Sounded like a slab of sirloin ready to season up for the barbecue.
…and mysterious machines that I had time to explore via Google, right then and after the appointment. I began to wonder: when my regular eye doctor gets his new office next year, will he enter “ophthalmology equipment,” click on Dogpile.com and be beguiled by the money-saving ad “get a phoropter for only $799”? Will he check out the “Opthalmology Synergetics Instrument Kit” whose price is unlisted but is likely expensive?
Retinal cameras, bimodular indirect ophthalmoscopes, manual keratometers, tonometers––I learned about all of them. I don’t like words that have to do with sharp objects around eyes, so when I got to Slit Lamp, I was glad for an interruption: the doctor slid onto a stool to tell me in complicated language that meant: your eyelids aren’t droopy enough. Insurance is unlikely to pay. She’d submit it anyway, just in case. “However,” she said, “the surgery could be done privately in my office for $5500.”
No thanks. I don’t want to pay for blepharoplasty (plastic surgery on the eyelid to remove fatty or excess tissue, aka ptosis).
When I have my next regular eye exam, which also includes chin placement on sophisticated equipment, and I need a stronger prescription, perhaps I will purchase glasses as a droopiness distraction and cultivate a different image. Tortoiseshell, maybe, as long as they’re not made from the shell of real Hawksbill turtles as they were in the 1920s. Online, I saw one pair called “Brain Trust” and another hornrimmed variety designed for the “hipster-geeky look.”
Yeah. That’s me alright. A hipster-geeky septuagenarian. At least I don’t have Svengali eyes.
Two disparate topics, genealogy and porn, appeared together in a Time magazine article and yanked me away from researching my ancestors: a thrice-married great aunt, a well-known Kansas historian-journalist, and a Scottish boy who was kidnapped, transported in a ship’s hold, and sold as a slave to an East Coast family.
Teased by the magazine’s coupling, I wondered, what the strange bedfellows of genealogy and porn had to do with each other.Here it is: according to an ABC News study, porn sites are the most visited websites, with genealogy a distant second.
We all have a sense of what porn is, right? Some kind of pictorial or written depiction that aims to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings. And the effects? I like what one author said in The New York Review of Books: “No literary genre can match pornography for initial excitement and fast-arriving boredom.”
Since I don’t read or watch porn, I can’t attest to its excitement or boredom, but I can attest to the continuing excitement and fascination of doing genealogy. Pornography may have a stranglehold on number one, but isn’t it grand that genealogy beats out every other topic.
Never mind that sixty-years separated my initial spark of interest from my current serious pursuit. My interest began in the eighth grade, when Mr. Callaway, our social studies teacher, asked us to interview a grandparent and construct a simple family tree.
After school, I biked to my grandmother’s house, a few blocks away, where she lived with her two sisters, Anna and Jess. None of them, Louise (my grandmother, nicknamed Louie), great aunts Anna or Jess had married, each pursuing separate careers in different parts of California, and returning to the family home post-retirement.
I showed Gramma the family tree chart. She began to jot down birth and death dates for her parents, her two brothers, and her five sisters. Then, I interrupted her.
“Where were you born? What about the old, old people before you?”
“I was born in Louisville, Kansas in 1878. On Halloween, you know that,” she said, arising from her squishy, floral armchair, and disappearing into the back bedroom. She returned with a book and several typewritten pages.
“This book’s about Kansas. It was written by Aunt Carrie’s husband. We have a writer in the family,” she said, with proud emphasis on that last pronouncement.
I thumbed through the book. I was twelve and not particularly interested in history, but I did remember the author’s name: Noble L. Prentis. Then she handed me the typed pages which had lists of people, including a reference to a Scottish boy named Hugh who was kidnapped and brought to America. “I’m going to keep these items safe,” she said, “but you can have them someday.”
Next, I talked to Aunt Anna who had been a World War I nurse on the front lines in France. She showed me the journal she’d kept. “It’s yours when I die.”
I did not see any of these materials when the three sisters died and neither did my mother, Louie’s only daughter. In a sense, their disappearance was of no consequence then. Genealogical pursuits were pushed aside by the advancement of my life: college, marriage, raising seven children, and a career. Occasionally I’d fill in the blanks in my pedigree chart, the standard family tree form that genealogists use, but not until I was closer to the ages to Louie, Anna, and Jess had been, did I take up the subject with unfettered zeal.
And really, my genealogical work has been somewhat lackluster.
Genealogy—focusing on entering data on a pedigree chart—is the backbone needed for the broader subject of family history. I chase down the facts, but I’m more interested in stories, and the questions the biographic facts generate.
Did the thrice-married woman, known to me as “Aunt Paralee” discontinue the use of her middle name, “Lively,” when she married Harold Waddle, Sr, at turns a Hollywood stunt actor, a private detective, and the guy who played Santa Claus to his grandkids and their cousins? Paralee was a chatty, animated person, the party girl of the eight children.
Paralee’s reputation included being a poor handler of money, which may explain why she extracted the remaining money from her sister Louie’s bank account shortly after my gramma’s death. My mother refused to speak to her and was furious when I visited Paralee in the hospital when she was dying.
But, I liked Aunt Paralee—she had spunk—and years later I think of her with gratitude. She passed those typewritten pages I’d seen as an eighth-grader along to her grandson Bill. He and I have reconnected, shared information, and rejoiced in our heritage. Those notes allowed me to find out more about the kidnapped kid, Hugh Fraser. His story is recounted in a slender reprinted book The Fraser Clan in America (1915) by Deirdre Duff Johnson:
“More than two hundred years ago one morning, there walked along the streets of Paisley, Scotland, a small boy of seven years on his way to school. He was accosted by two men wearing long cloaks. They invited him to go with them to buy candy…One of the men picked him up and carried him along under his long cloak. The next thing the boy remembered he was on board a ship, seasick, homesick and heartsick bound for an unknown port. That little boy was Hugh Fraser, your ancestor and mine…Arriving at last in America…with the rest of the kidnapped crew, he was sold…Hugh Fraser was fortunate in falling into the hands of a humane man who was kind to him. When he arrived at the age of twenty-one, he married his master’s daughter Miss Peggy Cummins. Like Jacob of old he had served fourteen years for the love of his youth.”
I sometimes wonder why I research this family line. I am not biologically related to the Frasers and their descendants. I was adopted. My mother was not genetically related to them. She was adopted.
Still, their stories are my stories, my identity shaped, I believe, more by my familial connection than my genetic one and I’m happy to be associated with the second most visited category of websites rather than the most popular.
One of my favorite writers died recently—Brian Doyle: a left-leaning story grabbing unapologetic Roman Catholic and one heck of a mentoring inspiration to students, writers and the readers who loved his work.
Did you notice that there were no commas in that post-colon, descriptive paean? Doyle had a habit of running words together, defying grammar’s guidance with great craft and lyricism, so I copied him per Oscar Wilde’s observation— “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”
Doyle thought novels were like long dreams in which you ” take an idea out for a walk and the characters take over and you really run along behind them, typing as fast as you can.” After his first novel, Mink River (was published in 2010, his brother sent him a page full of commas and the note: “You might want to learn to use these.”
If you’ve ever heard Brian speak—and I did at one of the Chuckanut Writers Conferences—you know that a podium could not contain him. He moved across a stage, engaging his audience with relentless charm, boundless energy, and a rare degree of empathy.
He died of what he called a ‘big honking brain tumor,” diagnosed last November. There is more information in the obituaries listed below, but for now, I’d like to leave you with Doyle’s Last Prayer and the suggestion that you go to your local independent bookstore or library and buy Mink River, Ben Laden’s Bald Spot, The Wet Engine, Martin, Marten, or his newest, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Last Prayer by Brian Doyle
Dear Coherent Mercy, Thanks. Best life ever. Personally, I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened!
And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we could not have children but then came three children fast and furious! And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them!
And You let me write some books that weren’t half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment.
I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small.
But no man was every more grateful for your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago.
But hey, listen can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life—make him the biggest otter ever and I’ll know him right away, okay?
Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon. Remember—otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.
Links to Obituaries: http://www.opb.org/artsandlife/article/brian-doyle-oregon-author-dies-at-60/
A few weeks ago I blogged about the Oxford English Dictionary and I mentioned Ara Taylor as the only person I know who owns the print version of the OED. Is there anyone else out there with sagging shelves containing all twenty volumes?
Ara was prompted to use the OED a few decades ago when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (UW-SP) and took a class from Professor Leon Lewis whom she remembers vividly:
“He looked leonine, with a full mane of long black hair, and he paced like a lion in front of his blackboard. His delivery was rapid fire, like a slightly more focused Robin Williams. He had a dreadful way of keeping our attention. He’d spin around suddenly, point directly at one of us, and spit out ‘You! Present us the etymology of the word “x” by tomorrow.'”
This technique was not well received. Half of the class dropped out. Ara stayed. She described herself as “insulted,” when he commanded her to track down the word tic-tac-toe, but off she went to the library and its copy of the OED. That was the beginning of her obsession (that’s my word, not hers, and meant as a compliment) with the OED which led her to request it for a graduation present.
She’s used the OED throughout her life “in every way possible: as fascinating reading material. I’d open to a random word, which often led me on a hunt for related words. Sometimes for hours.” Also, “to deepen my writing” and to “inspire ideas.” She’s even used volumes to fetch books that were out of reach, give height to a chair, as ballast (she didn’t say for what!), and as a leaf press.
Professor Lewis required students to have an hour-long session with him, which accounted for 25% of their grade. Here’s how Ara described her experience:
“He was sitting at his desk when I entered and abruptly asked, ‘So, how do you like me?’ ‘I don’t,’ I replied. He rose from his desk, extended his hand, and said ‘Thank God! Congratulations!'”
She reflects: “Maybe I was the only student who’d ever been honest, but from that point on we had a wonderful if feisty instructor-student relationship.It wouldn’t be a stretch to say I loved that man.” Ara got an A in the class.
Lewis retired from UW-SP in 1994 and moved to Whidbey Island. Described in his obituary as a “charismatic teacher” and “an artist in the classroom who used provocative wit and comic improvisations to illuminate his main passions: word and language,” I think he would be pleased that he spurred one student’s life-long interest in words.
Because I was three days behind in the A-Z Blog Challenge, my wife suggested—just before I wrote X—that I cover three letters in one blog.
“Do you think there’s a word that has X, Y, and Z in it?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, thinking there must be one. But, nothing was listed in the Scrabble dictionary and my OED search was unsuccessful too. No cigar, no XYZ-word, and no shortcut with respect to my self-imposed deadline.
Today, I returned my library copy of Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED, and purchased a paperback edition. For grins, I turned to the Z’s. Zyxt leapt out at me. How had I missed it?! I went straight to my online OED. When I typed in Zyxt, what came up was see, v. I dug deep into layers of detailed etymology to finally find zyxt.
Shea notes that “it is the second-person singular indicative present form of the verb “to see” in the Kentish dialect. I went to the Britannica to find out about Kentish—one of four Old English dialects, this one spoken in the southeastern part of England where Canterbury is located.
Shea continues: “Given that in the new online edition it has been stripped of its headword status and moved to the middle of a heap of variant spellings of see, (aha!), it seems unlikely that it will ever return to vogue. I do not think that I will ever use it in conversation…However, it will always be a word I remember fondly, as it is the very last word defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Zyxt is also the last entry in Shea’s book, and it’s the last blog topic in my modest A-Z blog foray, so I am fond of it too.
Using this whimsical, multi-colored Y-alphabet letter encouraged me to find whimsical, multi-colored, or at least unusual words. How ’bout these from some of the sources I’ve used in the A-Z blog challenge?
Yirn v. “To whine; to pout, or show petulance by facial grimaces. Pronounced the same as yearn. ‘My husband is an idealist; he’s always yirning for something.'”—The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler
Ylem n. “The primordial substance from which all the elements in the universe were supposed by early philosophers to have been formed. Thought by the ancients to have been water, by the moderns to be hydrogen, and by the Chinese to be monosodium glutamate.”—The Superior Person’s Book of Words
Yarwhelp n. the bartailed godwit—Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary by Josefa Heifetz Byrne
Yex n. hiccup—Mrs. Bryne’s Dictionary
Yahoo. n. “There’s a good deal of the yahoo in every gang of adolescents that goes berserk, whatever their color…In Dean Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Yahoos are a tribe of brutes having human form and embodying all the vices of mankind.”—I Always Look Up the Word Egregious by Maxwell Nurnberg
Yorgan n. a Turkish quilt; yaffle v. to eat and drink, especially noisily and greedily; yava n. an alcoholic drink made from the roots of the Polynesian shrub Piper methysticum—Foyle’s Philavery by Christopher Foyle
Demonstrating that word excavations have a practical application, I will now yaffle a yogurt while seated on a yorgan with nary a yex of satisfaction.
According to the online Urban Dictionary, “X marks the spot” was a symbol pirates used to designate the location of treasure. Then the British Army appropriated the phrase and the X for executions. They marked a piece of paper with a black X and positioned it on the heart of someone sentenced to death. The officer in charge would announce “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would shoot the x.
Bear in mind that, like Wiktionary which uses volunteers, the Urban Dictionary relies on its users to add content. One can vote on a word or phrase by choosing, “Add it,” “Keep out,” or “Can’t decide.”
This edgy database called the Urban Dictionary kinda does and kinda doesn’t take itself seriously as in this March 2017 definition:
“An outlet for word addicts, who can be grouped into six main characters: the rarely creative, the hypocritically cynical, the politically irreverent, the sexually depraved, the religiously racist, and the sarcastically narcissistic. On a lighter note, the Urban Dictionary motivates us not to take life seriously—let’s laugh at our idiocies and idiosyncrasies, not to say, our frailties and fatalities.”
Back to X Marks the Spot. The Oxford English Dictionary, which I never tire of accessing for quotations indicating usage over time, quotes J. M. Barrie’s 1918 line from Echoes of War: “In the rough sketch drawn for to-morrow’s press, ‘Street in which the criminal resided’…you will find Mrs. Dowey’s home therein marked with an X.”
We know Sir James Matthew Barrie not for his short story collections (Echoes of War) or for his theatrical productions (What Every Woman Knows) or for his sentimental novels (The Little Minister), but for Peter Pan, first performed as a play in London in 1904.
The letter “X” (24th in the alphabet) marks the spot, so to speak, where I shorten my blogs because I have three to write in one day to complete the A-Z Blog Challenge. My wife suggested that I write a single blog spotlighting a word that contained X, Y, and Z. Great idea, I thought, certain that I’d run into one in our Scrabble dictionary.
There were no words, other than long scientific ones, that contained all three letters. (Prove me wrong, if you know of one!) The closest I could come was the noun xystus which can also be spelled zystus.
The OED defines Xystus like this: “Among the ancient Greeks, a long covered portico or court used for athletic exercises; among the ancient Romans, an open colonnade, or walk planted with trees, used for recreation and conversation.”
Wrestlers also used Xisti. (Xisti is one of the plurals of zystus): “Zystus was a Place where the Wrestlers exercis’d.”—Phillips New World of Words, 1706.
In 1871, F. W. Farrar wrote in Witness of History, “Philosophers…aired their elegant doubts in the shady xystus.”
I leave this shady xystus, this shadowy blog, for the letter Y.
Way back on April 5th, I talked about John Simpson’s The Word Detective, a memoir about Simpson’s time as an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, I found The Word Detective by Evan Morris, published in 2000 by Algonquin, a most charming book, right there on my very own bookshelf.
The Word Detective is a collection of columns from Morris’ newspaper and internet columns. The format is Q and A. I opened the book to page one. Doris A. from Toledo asked about the phrase “run amok.”
I’ve been thinking about that phrase myself. Lately, our pastor’s sermons, always ebullient, as she herself is, have contained the sentence “The spirit is running amok.” I think she means that God-driven spirituality is on a fierce upswing in our congregation. Perhaps so, but to my discredit, I visualized some kind of unholy ghost cyclone touching down on the Peterson’s pew to awaken a dozing spouse or swooping up (kindly, of course) the ever cranky Matthews’ toddler.
Evan Morris explains that amok comes from the Malay word amuck—“a state of murderous frenzy.” The story goes that inhabitants of Malaysia were given to bouts of depression and drug use, a combination leading to murderous rampages. “Anyone in the path of the person running amok,” Morris explained, “was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris.” The word was also applied to out-of-control elephants who attacked humans.
Morris observes that the meaning in English has become diluted as the centuries rolled by and has become a metaphor used “to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect and not necessarily chopping folks up.”
I feel much better now, but smile suppression will not work if I hear anything amok preached from the pulpit.
What I don’t feel better about—and now I’m quite serious—is my tardy discovery of Evan Morris. The Word Detective began 62 years ago as “Words, Wit and Wisdom”by Evan’s father, William Morris, an editor in chief at both Grosset and Dunlap and American Heritage Dictionary.His column appeared in newspapers all over the country and abroad. After writing for thirty-five years, he announced at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon, that it was time for him to quit—unless one of his six grown children were interested in assuming it.
Evan heard himself say he’d take a shot at it. He did. Eventually, he posted the column online. Hundreds of discussions are archived. He has taken on obscure and common words and phrases—malaprops and mondegreens, duck soup, kerfuffle, hara kirl, brouhaha, flesh out and flummoxed, Peck’s Bad Boy and the Pied Piper.
But now a great sadness. Unlike his father who chose to discontinue writing his column, Evan Morris is being forced to discontinue writing. He has advanced multiple sclerosis and stage four cancer. His last columns are witty and graceful explanations of his declining health and financial reverses. Take a look a look here at his website, Check out the archives, an amazing compilation of etymological dissections and whimsical digressions. Contribute to his site. I’m going to.
You might even want to contribute to his cause which can be done through PayPal or by sending a check, small or large, to Evan Morris, P.O. Box 1, Millersport OH 43046.
I’m going to.