Every Word Tells a Story 8 - Harlequin, Halcyon and Hocus-Pocus
And on to Aitch...
After all the frivolities of the ‘F’ words, it may seem positively ‘hum-drum’ (boring or dull - comes originally from the monotonous nature of a hum ) to move on to H. But do not abandon your hopes yet as H contains as many historical nuggets as any other of its alphabetic siblings.
As we move on to our 8th letter, I do hope your curiosity about etymological origins has become a habit. Knowing where the words come from enriches our language, expands our vocabulary, entertains our senses and enlivens the mind.
The Sounds of 'H'
Among the various languages, H is like a recurring ghost- now you hear it, now you don’t. It is a silent occupant in a lot of words in the romance languages. When it does come in to play, it does so sometimes as a ghostly replacement for ‘j’ or an ‘x’, like caja (caha ) or Fajita ( fahita ).
The French even have a way of distinguishing the ‘H’ as a mute version ( h muet ) as in home and honneur or a weakly pronounced aspirated H (h aspiré ) as in harem, harpe and haricot . Many times you hear it when it ‘possesses’ another consonant in order to soften the blow. It has a gentle influence on ‘T’ and makes the ‘Th’ sound. These combinations with ‘h’ are called digraphs ( eg. ch, gh, th, dh, sh etc.)
When you do hear it in the weakly pronounced form, it is called a ‘voiceless pharyngeal fricative’ – a gust of air you make with your throat. I like this about ‘H’ it is not the bombastic brute of a consonant. It doesn’t have the arrogance of a ‘D’ or a ‘B’ or require tongue twisting, lip curling glossal gymnastics as in ‘C’ or an ‘F’. All it takes is a gust of air, a mere breath from the back of your throat to produce the ‘H’ sound. Altogether now, say ‘Huh’!
Arlechino and Columbina
The word Harlequin comes from Italian Arlechino and has its origins in Commedia dell'arte. It usually represents a comical, stupid and gluttonous servant character in the comedies popular in Italy during the early fourteenth century. Despite his stereotyping, he is often portrayed as an agile and nimble persona capable of acrobatics. The Harlequin provided the silly sidekick or servant role in the Italian comedies.
There are several origin stories for the Harlequin. In Italian comedies he is supposed to be a variant of the Zanni ( itself a variant of Gianni - a common country name) servant archetype. Most of the Italian noble houses of that era procured their servants from the Lombard-Venetian countryside . These servants developed into a stereotype of being a country-bumpkin, dark skinned, wearing patchwork loose outfits and being the butt of many jokes and jibes.
They started getting written into comedic plays as a comedic foil for the noblemen roles. providing light relief to the audience through their silliness and pratfalls. However, due to the timing required and the nimbleness they were often played by actors who required a lot of training and impeccable timing.
From Italy the Harlequin traveled across Europe and became comedic staple of that era and subsequent years in many countries including France and Spain . It became the traditional role of the comedic servant motivated by his gluttonous desire for food, fear of his master and a lustful desire for his love interest Columbina ( little dove) Despite not being the lead role, many of that eras actors fancied the Arlechino role for its versatility and connection with the audience.
Some others think the character has more sinister origins - a black faced messenger of devil that roamed the countryside - a trickster that chased damned souls back to hell. This is said to have originated from Dante's Inferno in which there is a devil named Alichino.
Thus we rapidly descend from Italian comedy to the fiery underworld of Hell. Altough sometimes watching a bad comedy is a pretty hellish experience itself!
The English word Hell representing the underworld comes originally from Old Norse word 'Hel' meaning hidden or a concealed place. ( Hellir in Norse means a cave or a concealed entrance).
It is no coincidence that the ruler of the Norse underworld 'Helheim' ( concealed world) or 'Nilfheim' ( world of mists) is the Goddess Hel. She is the youngest daughter of Loki and is made responsible for this lowest of all worlds by the great god Odin.She is tasked with receiving and ministering to the dead and the dying from all the nine worlds.
Half black and half flesh coloured often possessing a flesh less skeletal lower body, she is not a pretty sight. Interestingly, in Old Norse 'Go to Hel ' meant literally 'go to the Goddess Hel' or go to die!
This concept of greedy, black hued, feared female deity shares it concepts with the Indian Goddess Kali who has similar traits, an equally fierce demeanor and associations with death.
'Hellish' Idioms and Phrases
Idiom or Phrase
Deeply unpleasant place
Till Hell Freezes over
Snowballs chance in hell
Between Hell and High water
caught between two bad situations
On a destructive path/choice
Hell , yeah!
But of course!
The root 'hals' also occurs in Chemistry as 'halogen' or 'salt giver', (hals- sea or salt, - gen to give birth) which is the collective name for the elements Chrorine, Fluorine, Bromine and Iodine. These reactive elements combine with other elements to produce various salts ( Potassium Chloride, Sodium fluoride etc.)
Halcyon is in usage now as a nostalgia word of reminiscing about calmer and more idyllic days of the past. Even if they were not as calm as we may imagine. e.g.' Those were the halcyon days' It can mean happy or tranquil times.
The literal meaning is of the 14 days of calm weather the seas may experience during the winter solstice with nary a wind or swell.
The word has its origin in Greek and is also a name for the kingfisher bird. (Gr. alkyone ). This has its roots from the association with the sea - 'hals ' ( sea or salt) and 'kyone ' to conceive.
Coming back to our days of tranquility, the legend goes like this:
Alcyone was the beautiful daughter of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds. She was married to Ceyx, the king of Thessally. The happy couple shared an idyllic relationship and were so happy in matrimony. In private, they even called each other as 'Zeus' and 'Hera' - the king and Queen of the Gods. As with most Greek myths, the Gods don't approve of such frivolities. when Ceyx took a trip across the seas to consult an oracle, trouble brews. Although Alcyone wishes to accompany her husband, he prefers to travel alone with his crew.
Angered by such a transgression, Zeus quickly deploys some of his thunderbolts and causes a shipwreck, drowning the poor Ceyx. Restless Alcyone is visited in her sleep by Morpheus who appears in her dream as Ceyx and warns her of the tragedy. She visits the beach, searching for her lover, shocked and heartbroken. when she eventually finds his body, she is so overcome by her grief, she throws herself into the same sea in order to follow her beloved to the netherworlds.
By now, Zeus has perhaps considerably calmer and feels sorry for the couple. Instead of restoring them back to their original state, he turns them both into birds, namely the Kingfisher.
Poor Aeolus, who has lost his daughter to the wrath of Zeus, does his best to help her. So the legend goes that when the Kingfisher is ready to lay her eggs on her floating nest in the sea, the ruler of the winds calmed the surface to help brood the eggs.
The legend of Alcyone by the sea and her visitation by morpheus have been recorded by Ovid and Virgil. These have also formed favorite subjects for painters.
Ah, those were the halcyon days whence classical literature sparked creativity in artists! The artist/writer collaborations have always been a unique alchemy, none more so than during the pulp years, where 'hack' writers churned out potboilers full of sin and sensuality and the cover artists lured the readers in with sensational art...
I grew up reading an eclectic array of books, from the hardbound if careworn classics to the brightly coloured pulps I left no pages unturned. This developed into a fascination for the so called 'Hack' writers - those who can churn out book after book on spec, had no trouble with writers block and were thought to do it for the 'money'.
There was and still is a lot of demand for the written word, and there are many writers, some extremely talented, who have no illusions or delusions of grandeur and are happy to churn out short stories, articles, books, scripts to whoever chooses to hire them. Although implied is a derogatory manner, the term 'Hack' has an element of 1930s cool with a whiff of tobacco and bourbon and the clack clack of a typewriter in a smoke filled room.
Curiously enough, the term 'Hack' derives from the Horse drawn Hackney carriages that were popular in London. Cheap to hire, plenty around and does the job.
Many famous authors started their lives as hacks, to support themselves and their families. I think they probably did benefit from the relentless discipline of having to write to deadlines. Authors such as Anton Chekhov, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler and even the venerable Samuel Johnson all started their lives as hack writers doing low paid hack jobs.
Many now famous genre novelists ( Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg) started their writing journey with lurid pulps that were entertaining and paid well.
To me, writing is a skill that grows with practice. I have no qualms in hackery as long as you learn from that exercise. I feel with every word I type in every genre, my confidence perhaps grows in my ability to express an idea. There is no harm in practising one's skill especially if it also pays along the way.
However, many hacks suffer from a complex that theirs is not art and perhaps may even hide their craft for fear of ridicule.
Hacks formed perfect character studies of decadence. Many actors have portrayed frustrated hacks in film, the most famous of which is Joseph Cotten in The Third man. In this fantastic period thriller, He plays an American journalist in Vienna who famously quotes "I don't know, I am just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls..." ( see Trailer at 1:38)
"Hoc est Enim corpus meum" ( For this is my body..)
"Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei" ( For this is the chalice of my blood)
There are many magical terms used by magicians when conjuring up a trick. Hocus Pocus is one of them. While performing a sleight of hand, be it a card trick or pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, uttering hocus pocus gives the illusion of mystery.
The phrase has stood the test of time as with many other magical terms such as abra-cadabra, alakazam , hey presto or shazam each enticing the audience to believe words do have powers beyond imagination. But they do, don't they?
Hocus Pocus is said to originate as a corruption or parody of the Latin phrase priests utter during Roman Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist:
"Hoc est Enim corpus meum" ( For this is my body..)
Abracadabra also has an origin in the Aramaic language of Genesis.'ibra' meaning ' I have created' and 'kidibra' which means ' through my speech'.
Magic aside, all this talk about body and blood brings me to the dark act of murder or if you want to be classy, Homicide.
The word Homicide - the act of one human being killing another - comes from Latin ( homo - human, caedare- to cut or kill). The term applies to all killings whether justified or unjustified, intentional or unintentional. It becomes criminal homicide when it is unjustified, criminal, purposeful, knowing and intentional or due to extreme negligence - according to law dictionaries.
While murder is unpleasant business, the root -cide appears in many 'kiiling' words ... See if you can guess the murders!
QUIZ: Whose 'cide' is it anyway ?
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Severe cyclonic storms are called different names based on the region and ocean they originate in. The storms in Indian Ocean, Australia and South West Pacific are called Cyclones. those arising in North West Pacific are called Typhoons. It is only those that arise from the Atlantic Ocean and the North Eastern Pacific that they are called Hurricanes.
The name Typhoon is said to come from the feared Greek monster 'Typhon' who is the last son of Gaia. He attempts to destroy Zeus at the behest of his mother as the former had imprisoned all the Titans. As tall as the stars and with a hundred dragon heads and eyes flashing fire and brimstone, Typhon was capable of destroying cities and continents when angered ( which he pretty much was all the time). No wonder his name became synonymous with the destructive Typhoons.
Hurricane, however, comes from the Spanish word Huracán , for Caribbean storm God Juracán. This has originated from the Mayan Creation myths.
Huracán from Mayan mythology was responsible storms and turbulence, and for washing away the' wooden people' prior to the creation of 'maize people'. The latter are believed to be the precursors of humans. Huracan is also responsible for creating dry land out of turbulent waters.
So its no big leap of language that the storm God has come to represent a powerful force of nature.
Beaufort Wind Force Scale
Devised by Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort in 1805, this has now become the standard for calibrating wind force and is internationally recognised. An Irish born Naval officer, Beaufort observed that while naval officers measured and recorded their observation of sea conditions, they weren't doing so in a standardised manner and so went on to devise this.
The scale has since been much revised and extended but still carries Sir Beaufort's name in his honour.
Curiously, this scale was first used in recorded history during the voyage of the HMS Beagle that carried Charles Darwin on his evolutionary quest...
So lets part company on this turbulent, stormy note and you can rejoin me when we move to 'I'. Let me see what treasures I could dig up for our next alphabet.
© 2012 Mohan Kumar