Many tempting ideas present themselves to us daily. What makes them so enticing is the burning desire they create from titionis, “firebrand,” from intitiare, “to set on fire.” They titillate us from titillare, “to tickle.” When we finally make an attempt at them, we do so from the Latin ad, “to” or “towards” and temptare,” “to try,” “feel out,” or “test.”
A classic case from Greek mythology of one tempting fate is the story of the King of Lydia. Befriended by the Gods, he betrayed them, stealing their nectar and ambrosia and testing their divinity, serving them the flesh of his own son. For his deeds he was doomed to stand forever thirsty and hungry in a pool of water up to his chin. Whenever he bent to drink, the water would recede. His efforts to reach toward fruit hanging from a bough directly above, caused the wind to carry the branch away from him. His name was Tantalus, and his name would forever be linked to “provoking desire and creating expectations without fulfillment.” That’s what makes things out of our reach so tantalizing. You and I are clearly above it all, being as one with Oscar Wilde who could “…resist everything except for temptation
Who wants to be a millionaire? Your path to fame and fortune begins with the Latin via, “road.” — the first step via, “by way of” that special 800 number. Soon you come to a critical juncture, what the Romans called a trivium, from tri, “three,” + via, — creating the intersection of three roads where one and all gathered to share the latest gossip. The very mastery of such trivia allows you to continue.
Fortunately, you are already familiar with certain aspects of your trek from obvium, “that which you previously had met on the way,” from ob, “against,” + via, making your choices obvious. Removing them from your path, simply obviates them. However, the obstacles in your way become more and more devious, from deviare, taking you down another road, de, “away from” your itinerary. Never once deviating from your goal, you are soon laughing all the way to the bank. The glitzy pianist, Liberace, coined that phrase back in 1954 in response to scathing reviews of his sold-out performances. His original statement had him ironically “crying,” not “laughing.” But when it comes to money, laughing is the American way, and knowledge is trivial.
Time to step out and party a bit, an occasion to put on the dog — affect some sophistication and urbanity.
It all began back in the 11th century with King Boleslaus II of Poland who began the tradition during a war with Russia.
Concerned about the increasing incidence of infidelity on the home front and its impact on troop morale, he legislated that children born of such trysts be taken to the woods to die and the offending women be obligated to nurse puppies in their stead. They were also required to take these dogs wherever they went, resulting in their appearing publicly with them on their lap.
The practice, however, proved so commonplace and ultimately so popular, that it also became fashionable, giving birth to the concept of the lap dog.
Lapdogs were the rage in America after the Civil War, especially King Charles and Blenheim spaniels, imperious looking dogs very distant from the mutts most people knew.
Seeing these snooty dogs pampered by their pretentious owners inspired the charge of putting on the dog which began as college slang at Yale in the 1860s and has been hounding us ever since.
It’s the stuff of which legends are made, or at least fables. Prior to 1425, things fabulous were “mythical” or “legendary” from the French fabuleux and the Latin fabulosus, “celebrated in fable.” Not until 1609 did they also became “incredible.”
“Incredible” was the reaction of teenagers the world over to the Beatles. Breathlessly, they reduced fabulous to fab in the 1950s, making it the vogue around 1960, concluding with The Fab Four, the early nickname of the greatest pop rock group ever.
There’s been lots of talk about “The fifth Beatle.” Guesses as to his identity range from manager Brian Epstein to Stu Sutcliffe, an early member of the group who missed out on all the fame and glory.
On September 11, 1962, The Fab Four took its final form when Ringo Starr joined John, Paul, and George, replacing Pete Best on the drums, making Pete probably — dare we say it — our “best” bet for number five.
“Yeh, yeh, yeh,” you say, a common corruption of “yes” (also “yeah”) since the 1920s and a component of their song “She loves you,” which for 14 years was Britain’s all-time best-selling 45 r.p.m. record. You do remember 45s, don’t you? Fabulous!
Mary Wilson, Diane Ross, Florence Ballard, and Barbara Martin grew up in the poverty stricken Brewster Housing Projects of Detroit. But they were primed for success, — “made ready or prepared from the first,” thanks to the Latin prime, “first” which also helped make them into the Primettes, sister group of the Primes.
The Primes went on to become the Temptations. Mary left to get married, Diane became Diana, and with the other two created the Supremes, from the Latin super, placing them head and shoulders above the rest.
Their supreme accomplishment came in October of 1966 when they became the first female vocal group to top the LP charts. Anybody remember LPs?
The Supremes was a tough act to follow, “a performance so outstanding, no one could hope to meet or exceed it” — a standard set in the early days of vaudeville, when the best act was traditionally saved for last. The Supremes were the best, la crème de la crème — a French expression from the mid 19th century, long before our tastes became homogeneous both in milk and the arts, the cream long since having been skimmed off both.
Oh for the days when they reigned Sup.
Americans have always preferred things top-drawer (c.1900). It was, after all, where they kept their most precious objects. When it comes to describing things first rate, however, they’re at anything but their consummate best.
For awhile, they enjoyed being A1 (c.1830s), thanks to Lloyd’s of London’s Shipping Register which ranked the condition of ships by letter — A1 being the highest attainable rating.
A century later, excellence took a novel turn with the introduction of new nighttime attire. Considered both the height of fashion and somewhat risqué, it took on very special meaning during the twenties as the cat’s pajamas.
Soon all things feline came to embody excellence — everything from the cat’s meow to his whiskers, tonsils, roller skates, and galoshes. Other animals then followed suit, joined to incongruous body parts or articles of clothing, resulting in the bee’s knees, the gnu’s shoes, and the elephant’s instep, and — of course for that day when pigs will fly — the pig’s wings.
Things of the first water, however, remained “unblemished,” diamonds having been rated first, second, or third water since 1820. But only if you were the eel’s ankles or the sardine’s whiskers.
Into the stretch, coming round the bend they’re neck and neck. Wait! Out of nowhere “It’s a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a Hearty Hi-Yo Silver . . .”
It’s a Garrison finish, a spectacular come-from-behind victory at the last possible moment, against all odds! Shades of old Snapper Garrison, a 19th century American jockey, known for winning in this manner.
A real show of horsepower. That’s what it is! Thanks to one James Watt, whose name adorns our monthly electric bills as watts, kilowatts, and wattage for which we pay handsome premiums.
It’s he who also provided the standard for our cars, coining the term horsepower to indicate the output of his new steam engine — a unit of rate of work equal to the raising of 3,300 pounds one foot high in one minute.
Watt arrived at his figure by calculating that a strong dray horse averaged 2,200 foot-pounds per minute working at a gin. He then increased it by 50%, arriving at 3,300 foot-pounds which ever since has equaled one horsepower or 745.7 watts.
“Who was that Horse? Who was that masked man?”
Oh for the simpler days, when things were just large, king-size, or jumbo.
Jumbo was the name of one of the largest elephants ever— six and one half tons of pure pachyderm and the prize property of the London Zoo. Sold to P.T. Barnum, Jumbo went on to become the feature attraction of the greatest show on earth. His fame was such that when he died in a railway accident in Ontario in 1885, people the world over shed copious tears on his passing.
Jumbo also had his moments as a metaphor, but it too passed from the language, joining gargantuan — from the giant of medieval lore popularized by Rabelais; colossal ( from the Greek and Latin for a “giant statue”) — for the enormous representation at Rhodes of Helios, the sun god, striding cross the harbor, ships passing between his legs; and titanic — from Greek mythology and the twelve gigantic children of Uranus and Gaea.
Desperate to find ways of stretching hyperbole further, we adopted the love child of huge and tremendous — humongous (late 60s) and his sibling, humongo(id). Finding humongous too big to manage, some reduced him to mongo, as in “Man, this has given me a mongo headache!” Big time relief came with “Small is Beautiful,” from the title of the book by E.F. Schumacher (1978)
Consider this a slight digression into fowl territory and an effort to make things ducky.
Lord love a duck!… “Good heavens” (c. 1917). Look, at the ease with which he takes to water and how troubles just roll off his back.
In the early 19th century, he was a duck of a fellow, “a lovely or fine example,” and when ducky, a real “sweetheart .”
But as easily as he ducks into water, we’ve been ducking (late19th C.) to get away from someone, keeping out of sight by copping or doing a duck (c.1889), or by just ducking out — thus “evading responsibility.”
We finally became responsible during the 1970s, by having all our ducks in a row, lining them up — “arranging our affairs in a business-like manner.” Unfortunately, sitting ducks have long been an easy target, individually or all in a row, increasing the likelihood of their ending up as duck soup (c.1902). This makes it a “breeze,” an “easily accomplished task,” thanks to T.A. Dorgan, the noted cartoonist and wordsmith.
Have we been playing ducks and drakes (19th C.) all along — just “wasting your time foolishly?” Can a duck swim? “Emphatically yes” (c.1892).