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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 : 2004-06-20)

The spark for this article was the mention of the town of Potchefstroom in a radio broadcast. To us South Africans, the name is as familiar as Johannesburg or Durban, but when you look at it, by any standards it is an extraordinary construction; how on earth, I wondered, was it put together?

The late Eric Rosenthal, in his admirable Encyclopedia of Southern Africa, offered one explanation: “…derived from the Voortrekker Andries Hendrik Potgieter who, being the Chef - or Chief - of the Voortrekkers, settled beside the Mooi River (Afrikaans ‘stroom’)”. Rosenthal described this as “a rather far-fetched idea” and advanced another explanation so persuasive that it must be correct, “that the name is derived from a collection of pot-sherds found near the stream, in Dutch, ‘potscherf’, a name which appears on several old maps.” And that, to my mind, settles that: it’s the river of potsherds.

(Incidentally, Potchefstroom (founded in 1838) is quite an attractive old town, capital of the old Transvaal and known for many years as “The Old Capital” after the establishment of Pretoria as the “new” capital in 1855. But the Transvaal is gone now, the four provinces of the old South Africa having been replaced by nine new ones under the democratic dispensation in which we now rejoice.)

And what is a potsherd? The Chambers Dictionary defines it simply as “a fragment of pottery (also potshard).” The semantic trail continues, however, because “shard” exists on its own, meaning a “broken piece, especially of pottery.” Rudyard Kipling used the word in his poem Recessional, speaking of “the heathen heart that puts her trust/ In reeking tube and iron shard.” (The reeking tube must be a smoking gun-barrel, the iron shard some form of armour. Chambers supplies “a tough or hard sheath or shell, such as a beetle’s wing-case.”)

And here the trail becomes really interesting, even weird. Chambers attributes the “beetle’s wing-case” meaning to a misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s expression, “the shard-borne beetle,” which has been taken to mean “carried by a shard.” (The beetle’s wing-case is a modified forewing.)

But Shakespeare had something quite different in mind. Another meaning of “shard” is “a piece of cow-dung,” in which certain beetles have the habit of laying their eggs. Shakespeare intended “shard-borne” to mean “born in dung,” which is a bit of a let-down compared with the other airy image.

And now for a complete change of direction – well, not quite complete; there is a connection of sorts. Let the trumpets sound for one of the classic journalistic blunders of our time. I didn’t think I would live to see it happen, but verily, on 4th June 2004, it did.

The chaotic war in Iraq has accustomed us to the two main branches of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’ites. This last word must surely be treated with great care by typesetters and sub-editors in the English-speaking world, especially as the “apostrophe” in the middle suggests a missing letter.

At any rate, one of them finally got it wrong. A headline-writer announced in a local morning newspaper that “New Iraqi govt receives crucial backing from top Shi’ite cleric”, but he didn’t put it quite like that. He left the apostrophe in place, but filled in the missing letter.

No s*** - he really did.

Until next time, watch your spelling and punctuation. At some times more than others, they matter.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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