Every Word Tells a Story 3 - Chocolate, Calligraphy and Catastrophe
The Art of Memory
The building of wider vocabulary is an active exercise in human memory. How does one remember a word and the context it is used in? Sometimes the meaning of the word itself may not be accurate but the context may be understood. Equally knowing a word does not necessarily assure its contextual usage.
It is impossible to memorise all the words in a language by ‘rote’ learning.
But there is another way. Many scholars of memory have studied the act of knowledge acquisition pre-writing. Long before the advent of papyrus and written alphabet, humanity has been communicating through oral tradition. Long before the internet, mobile phones and global positioning systems people travelled, told tales and passed information in a narrative format.
The oral story teller was skilled at his or her craft. They may embellish a few details. They may exaggerate, spice up the tale, introduce a bit of magic and mythology- anything to sell a story and make it memorable. Sometimes these exaggerated myths remain and the original tale or idea may be lost. However, there is no denying the power of a story to make a piece of knowledge memorable.
The Shadow of Ideas
In my quest to bring stories to words, you may encounter many truths and many myths. It may help you to expand and interconnect the word roots to discover meanings to other words or discover new words themselves. This is the kind of learning that excites me, the sheer jumping off from one to the other, marvelling at new ideas, new worlds and new images.
One of the scholars who studied the art of mnemonics and the magic of memory is Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Dominican Monk whose treatises in the art of memory have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. He was one of the first to link memory to images and advised on how to remember passages and words using spatial anchoring. His book De Umbris Idearum ( the Shadow of Ideas) expounds many new ideas on learning.
And one of his ideas is to have a person, a place, a thing, an event to link up to a new word or an idea.
So in our journey through the alphabet we come to ‘C’. There are several ‘C’ words to choose from ( careful!) but I am going with the ones that offer fascinating stories and fascinating roots. We first visit The Aztecs whose Nahuatl language yielded the word that will melt in our mouth, make our brain squirm in ecstasy and has given a lot of pleasure since its invention.
I do indeed, refer to the marvellous Chocolate.
This Aztecs believed Xocolatl was brought down from the heavens by the feathered serpent God Quetzalcoatl in the form of the sacred cacoa tree. The ancient mayans roasted, ground and made a paste of the cacoa beans. This produced a very bitter dark drink that they believed to have aphrodisiac properties. They drank this in copious quantities. To put a little kick to it, they flavoured it with chilli and cornmeal, fermented it and drank it for its health benefits. It was favoured by Aztec royalty and it is believed Montezuma drank several cups a day before proceeding to do his harem duties!
In fact, when Cortez pillaged and ransacked the royal palaces, it wasn’t silver or gold that was found in the royal palaces in copious quantities, it was piles of cacao beans, Montezuma’s own personal stash of brown-viagra!
The word ‘Xococ’ means bitter and ‘atl’ means water or a drink. It remained for many hundreds of years a bitter sugar free drink. It was left to the Europeans to sweeten this bitter drink and introduce it to French and Spanish royalty as a hot drink. For centuries this remained in the drink form.
The chocolate in its current hardened form didn’t arrive until the 18th century when the Industrial revolution brought mills that could squeeze out the cocoa butter and create the hard durable chocolate we all love and adore. The rest as they say is history.
I recently had a chilli flavoured chocolate mousse for dessert. Ahh.. the bitter sweetness fo the chocolate was enhanced by the capsaicin of the chilli peppers. My tastebuds all stood up and sang a celestial chorus! Whether it had Montezuma like effect on me would be telling.
I had always wondered whether the similar sounding coconut had any relation to cocoa. This wasn’t to be. The Portuguese, when they first came across coconut palms in India, thought the three dark spots on the shell and the hairy outer skin resembled ‘el coco’ - a bogeyman.
In Spanish speaking countries parents sing lullabies to their children and tell them to sleep or else ‘el coco’ will come to get them. Vasco Da Gama, after his voyages to India, brought with him the coconut to Europe and the portuguese name ‘coco’ stuck. For years prior to that it was simply known as ‘Nux Indica’ or the 'India nut' which was Marco Polo's original name for it..
So coconut has no roots in cocoa but a hairy, scary bogeyman!
I must admit the one in the photo looks rather cute. Awww.
Boogeymen, goblins and sprites have existed as long as human imagination itself.
German miners who were mining for silver, attributed the impurities present in the silver ore to the naughty goblin Kobold’ that lived underground according to German myth. They felt ‘Kobold’ was fiercely protective of its silver and corrupted the ore.
When the said impurity in the silver ore was found to be a new element , the scientists named it after the goblin itself 'Kobold’ became ‘cobalt’.
Who doesn’t appreciate the beauty that is Calligraphy. With the advent of computers, mobile phone and other electronic devices of communication and keyboards, the art of writing and penmanship is sadly becoming lost. Gone are the wonderful pleasures of writing a letter with pen and ink.
Although there is a quite a lot of niche interest in Calligraphy one hopes it is not a fading art form.
The Greeks had a word for beauty ‘Kallos’ ( presumably linked to the Sanskrit word ‘Kalyan’ meaning the same). This root has produced many words in English, Calligraphy meaning one of them. As you would have guessed by now, Calligraphy literally means ‘Calli’ – beautiful and ‘graphy’ writing. The latter suffix ‘graph’ or ‘graphy’ also crops up in ‘Biography’ ( writing about one’s life).
However, sticking with ‘Calli’ or ‘Kalli’ you may find Callisthenics, a branch of exercise that gives you ‘beautiful muscles’ ( Calli + sthenos).
I never my thought journey from Calligraphy with the root ‘Kallos’ will give me a new word that I never knew existed but will give me a much more erudite way to describe someone's sexy Gluteii.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you ‘Callipygian’ which simply means ‘beautiful/shapely buttocks’. There is a ‘Callipygian Venus’ statue where she lifts her robe to admire the shapely derriere.
For those who favour the male derriere, sadly modesty prevents me from showing my own off but instead I give you the picture of my nearest rival, Michelangelo’s David.
Don’t you agree that ‘Callipygian’ sounds much more civilised than ‘booty’?
Or does it?
You will find the same root in ‘Kaleidoscope’ ( Kal- beautiful, eidos- shape, scope- viewer)
The word camera comes from Latin meaning a ‘vaulted, closed chamber’. In fact, in legal circles the term ‘in camera’ is still used for closed discussions held in the Judges chamber.
When the original optical device which was the precursor of modern camera was invented, it was called ‘Camera Obscura’ or a ‘Hidden chamber’. The name then stuck through its subsequent incarnations.
Many believe that some Renaissance artists used a ‘Camera Obscura’ to trace their subject’s image and then colour it.
I am not sure if you did, but I certainly didn’t know that ‘apostrophe’ was ‘related to ‘catastrophe’!
They both take their root ‘trophe’ from the Greek ‘strephein’ (to turn). ‘Apostrophe’ means the accent of turning away – a mark showing where a letter has been omitted.
In the same vein, catastrophe means ‘down- turn’ the root katá – indicating ‘down’ perhaps meaning a dramatic ‘down turn ‘ of events. This is the same root as in cataclysm.
‘katá’ – yields a rich vein to mine. It is the same root that gives us the catapult. In its original form the catapult was an ancient instrument of war used to hurl darts or arrows. It then was used to throw stones and boulders. The current hand held ‘Y’ shaped version didn’t arrive till the 19th century. Catapult comes from katá and pállein to hurl.
Cataract, meaning waterfall, comes from the Greek word katáraktes meaning ‘rushing down’ which doesn’t take much explaining.
Before we get carried away with this logic, I must hastily include catamaran, which has nothing to do with Greeks.
This word entered English during the British colonial occupation of India. It comes from South Indian language of Tamil. The Indian peninsula offers thousands of miles of coastline for fishing. The humble fisherfolk of south India, use a crudely made raft by stringing several pieces of wood together and displaying nerve shreddingly great skills in balancing, set out into the sea to fish using these rafts.
These crude boats are called’ Kattu-Maram’ in Tamil which literally means’ Tie- wood (together)’ . These took on twin hulled shapes and entered into the English as Catamaran. If you ever travel to India, you could still see these boats setting out to sea and may be able to hitch a ride if you dare on these glorified surfboards. Don’t forget your life jackets though.
And finally, a word every self respecting writer shudders at. Cliché.
Cliché means the loss of artistic merit from a word or a phrase due to overuse.
No one wants to be a cliché or want to talk or write a cliché. Yet all around us we see clichés alive and well.
The word cliché comes from French clicher. This literally means stereotype.
This has an onomatopoeic origin and is linked to the printing press. When the printing plates ( which repeated the same letter or an image over and over again they made the noise’ clicher, clicher,clicher’. This repetitive pounding meant that the original may become faded and lose its initial attractiveness.
The word came to mean repetition or type over and over again. In modern Engliish this has now taken on the meaning of repetitive strain caused by words and phrases!
To Cut a Long Story Short
At the end of the day, to cut a long story short, at this time point in time, you took the words right out of my mouth... a picture is worth a thousand words .. so mark my words.. you can see the light at the end of this tunnel ( or is it a kaleidioscope!?)
Okay, okay I'm sorry to get an attack of Cliché -itis.
I solemnly promise not to succumb to that disease again. Now before I move on to 'D' I must revisit the Callipygean connotations that have been captivating me.
Have a wonderful New Year!
If you like this do read the other chapters and share with others who you think will love learning new words and new stories.
Thank you for giving me your precious time and do leave comments & suggestions if you can.
© 2010 Mohan Kumar