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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #69 (article first published : 2005-10-1)

I have never been a great fan of travel-writing. The absence of imaginary characters and a plot seems to take all the fun out of reading the stuff, especially when you have been to the place under discussion. But sometimes it becomes a necessity, as when trapped in an airliner or a dentist’s waiting room. And there is no shortage of newspaper or magazine articles to tell you what it was like in this place or that, and why you should go there immediately. (Before the trippers spoil it, of course.)

In their efforts to entertain us, travel writers often squeeze their vocabularies to the limit, perhaps to relieve their own boredom. One curiosity I found in a magazine was the word “languish”. It cropped up twice in the same issue, presumably in pieces by different writers. One article was about Bath, Somerset, a famous spa since Roman times. The writer talked of “the Great Bath where the Romans languished in the 1,6 metre deep water.” The other chap had visited Zanzibar, if memory serves, where “heavily cushioned sofas invite lengthy languishing sessions.”

The only time I have come across “languish” has been in the expression “languishing in jail”, surely not the sort of experience our writers had in mind. The Chambers Dictionary gives “to become or be languid, inert or depressed; to lose strength and animation; to pine; to flag or droop.” I don’t think the Romans felt that way at all while taking the waters and no Zanzibari sofas would tempt me in that direction, however heavily cushioned.

As always with sloppy writing, it’s difficult to guess exactly what the writer meant. I think in these cases they both meant “lounge” – “to lie in a relaxed way, to idle.” That seems to meet their requirements, but perhaps “languish” sounds more glamorous.

Another curious usage came up in the magazine of a hotel group. The writer advised us to “cruise west …and up the salacious switchback curves of Long Tom Pass.”

Salacious? I must have missed something last time I was there. Chambers again: it means “lustful; lecherous; arousing lustful or lecherous feelings.” What was the writer driving at? I can only think that he meant “seductive”, but even that seems a bit lurid for a strip of tarmac.

Still loosely connected with travel, the word “main” has some interesting surviving meanings from earlier writers. Used in the phrase “Spanish Main”, it originally meant the mainland coast of the Caribbean Sea, but came to mean the Caribbean Sea itself. Now, according to Chambers, it can mean the sea in general. This transfer of meaning from land to sea is a little confusing. When John Donne wrote his famous lines “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” he obviously meant the mainland, not the sea. So meaning in this case, as so often, has to be determined by context.

Apart from its familiar meanings of “chief” or “principal”, some other, earlier, meanings of “main” survive. For example, it can mean “force” in the old-fashioned expression “with might and main.” Confusingly, in “main force”, it looks like a duplication but in this sense it means “sheer”. Quite a busy little word, one way and another.

To wind up this article, something completely unconnected. A writer in The Spectator mentioned the derivation of the word “apricot”. It evidently originated with the Latin word “praecox”, which meant “ripe before its time”, and could describe any fruit. From there it migrated to late Greek “praekokion”, to Arabic “al-birquq”, and finally to Portuguese “albricoque”. It then arrived in English as “apricock”, an earlier form of the word we know. What attracted me to this story was not so much the word itself, but the writer’s description of its derivation as “a long chain of Chinese Whispers”. Remember that childhood game? A very apt summary of how languages develop, I thought.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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