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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-05-14)

Omitted from the last column in this series for reasons of space was a curious word – “defenestration.” It looks like a medical term, perhaps for some kind of minor surgery, and that wouldn’t be a bad guess. A “fenestra” (Latin for “window”) is one of two openings between the middle and inner ear, each covered by a membrane. However, it isn’t the kind of thing one would want removed; in fact a surgeon would go to a lot of trouble to make an artificial opening if a fenestra became blocked. Defenestration is another matter altogether. It means the act of throwing somebody out of a window. The dictionary describes the word as “formal or jocular”, but one can’t help wondering what kind of people the English are to need a word for such an activity, formal or otherwise.

This train of thought was helped along by a word I haven’t seen before – “curtilage”, which also sounds as if it could have a medical meaning. It’s related to “cartilage”, surely?

Wrong again: a curtilage is a garden, or simply an “area of land attached and belonging to a dwelling-house” (Chambers). It’s a contraction of the Old French “courtillage”, which is related to “court.” That derives ultimately from Latin “cors” or “cohors”, an enclosed space, and the related word “hortus”, a garden. The Greeks had a very similar word with the same meaning.

The Greeks also supplied the origin of the word “cartilage”, which means a kind of gristle that forms the skeletons of certain fishes, including the sharks and rays. The original source is the word “kartallos”, a basket.

So much for medical muddles. In the wider scientific field, our local journalists are still busily getting things wrong. A recent news photograph showed an American tourist striding along the rim of a volcanic crater, none other than Krakatau. You may remember that its eruption in 1883 blew up an entire island, set off a 15-metre tsunami that killed thousands in low-lying areas nearby, and made a noise that reverberated around the world for nine days. Now a new cone is pushing its way up from the centre of the old crater at an alarming speed. The caption writer for this picture attributes this movement to “the same teutonic forces” that caused the earlier eruption.

The word he wanted was “tectonic”, meaning “relating to structural changes in the earth’s crust.” “Teutonic” means Germanic. (It derives from the Latin “Teutones”, a German tribe.) Two World Wars did some damage to the popular image of the Germans, but to blame them for Krakatau’s re-emergence is a little unfair.

Classical mythology was next on the block. A letter to our newspaper’s editor, signed by four professors, a doctor and someone else, suggested offering “a true sop to Cerebus.” The last word doesn’t exist. What they wanted was “Cerberus”, the name of a three-headed dog that, in Greek mythology, guarded the entrance to Hades. Aeneas, a Trojan prince said by Vergil to be an ancestor of the Romans, was conducted by the Sibyl of Cumae to the Underworld. She threw a drugged sop, a morsel of sodden food, to the dog to put him out of action while they passed. So the phrase came to mean a propitiatory offering to something dangerous or evil, in this case the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Who am I to argue with that?

One last slip-up came in the correspondence columns of the august Daily Telegraph, no less, where a writer referred to one of Queen Victoria’s daughters as “Princess Lousie.” Poor girl – as if she didn’t have enough to put up with.

And for the next ten thousand years or so, keep away from low-lying ground in Indonesia – that volcano needs watching.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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