Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Horst in Dresden

Lately, on a Sunday morning, I went down to the Starbucks inside the Safeway near me, and an old man (I am about to be 72, so I mean really old; I guess he was in his eighties) asked if he could sit at my table with me. I said yes, and, contrary to what I usually do in such situations--I am not trying to pick up men in coffee shops--I started talking to him.

First I noticed that he had a European accent, so I asked him what his native language was. German.

Next I said I was reading a book about World War II (I forget which one now, most likely fiction). He said he didn't have to read about it, he was in it, and that was enough for him.

Turns out he was a boy in Dresden when the British and American Allies bombed the city in four different raids between February 13 and 15, 1945, killing an estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people. 

My coffee-shop acquaintance was not outside during the bombing, but his younger brother, whose name I don't know, and his older brother Horst, were. Horst was killed, his parents had to bury what little of him they could find, and Horst's foot, still in his boot, was not found until a week later.

When the younger brother went back to the house, his mother asked him where Horst was, and the boy said, "Dead, I guess." My acquaintance used this as an example of how inured people get to  violence around them during wartime.

Of course, the bombing became controversial in 1953, and my acquaintance, who emigrated to the United States as a boy or young man, had probably already come to this country. While the people analyzing the command decisions of the Allied military said that the bombing was a strategic necessity, critics said that the city of Dresden was not an important target and, as a historic and cultural treasure trove of European civilization, should have been spared. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

War Stories

I kind of collect World War II stories that I run across or that people tell me about.

First, my own family's. My dad flew a TBF Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber with squadron VT-15 off the USS Essex in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23-26, 1944. This battle was the largest naval battle of World War II and maybe the largest naval battle of all time.

By his actions and those of his mates, Japan "lost four aircraft carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers, and eleven destroyers," according to the Wikipedia article, Battle of Leyte Gulf. For his actions in battle, he and his entire squadron were awarded the Navy Cross.

He shipped home soon after V-J (Victory over Japan) day, so in the case of the Navy discharging personnel, this would have to be September 2, 1945, Japan's signing of the surrender document, when World War II in the Pacific ended.

I was born about nine months later, on June 1, 1946.

My dad was a small-town boy raised in Santa Barbara and he went on to matriculate at the University of  California, Santa Barbara, and, later, Berkeley, graduating in 1942. Then he enlisted in the Navy and became a pilot, fulfilling a life-long dream. Family legend has it that, when he was a little boy, his mother had to arrange his string beans into an airplane shape before he would eat them.

In later years, he saved his Navy Cross, but felt ambivalent about it, because it was a reminder of how many people he had killed. The only other thing I know about that he saved from the war, besides a stray ribbon bar or two, was his map of the Pacific on a silk scarf, which airmen carried in case the plane went down.

But he suffered from what we now know as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) until he died young of a household accident in 1970.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


My plan was to write a post on the word "snow" (done) and then maybe do a series of posts on related words: "blizzard," "ice," "winter," and so on. But, as you may know by now, my plans "gang aft agley," and, in this case, that is because the etymology of "blizzard" is somewhat unclear and I spent some time trying to figure out how to write this up.

One thing we're pretty sure of is that "blizzard" is an American, not English, word. And, we're not certain, but it may be onomatopoetic (favorite word of newby English students), which just means that the word sounds like what it describes. So a bee makes a buzzing sound as it flies from flower to flower, and a blizzard makes a "blizzing" sound as high winds and snows lash the prairie.

A blizzard, as defined by the National Weather Service, is "a severe snowstorm characterized by strong winds causing blowing snow that results in low visibilities," or, as I would amend it, "low visibility," and helpfully adds: "The difference between a blizzard and a snowstorm is the strength of the wind, not the amount of snow."

Now, in my opinion, this definition could be clearer. "Blizzard" is defined as a "severe snowstorm," but, if you look up "snowstorm"in the National Weather Service Glossary, that word is not listed at all. A dead end. The kind of dead end a word nerd hates most of all.

At any rate, the Oxford English Dictionary claims that, although the word had appeared in print earlier from time to time, "blizzard" came into currency in the Dakota Territory during the winter of 1880-1881. O. C. Bates, of the Estherville, Iowa, Northern Vindicator newspaper, used the word "blizzard" on 23 April 1870 to describe the harsh snowstorms of that fall and winter.

Now we hit the jackpot. The winter of 1880-1881 is the long winter described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her book of the same name, written in the 1930s and published in 1940. She uses the word "blizzard."

At the Big Slough on his farm, Pa observes that the muskrats have built the walls of their den extra thick and, soon after, at the general store in town, he encounters a Native American (or "Indian," as Pa calls him) who has come into town to warn the settlers of the impending harsh winter.

Pa decides to move his family into town, and it's a good thing, too. According to information in the National Archives, Eliza Jane Wilder moved to the town with her family, including her younger brother, Almanzo, who would become Laura's husband, and she reported that many families froze to death that winter.

One of Garth Williams's illustrations from the Long Winter.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Occasionally scraps of great poems pop into my head, seemingly at random: "Lhude sing cuccu," for instance, or "Whan that Aprille with his shores soote/The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote," or, lately, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?"

Nothing wonderful about that, except for how much I enjoy the rags and tatters left to me. These are some of the most famous lines in English and French literature.

And when I investigated the Villon line, "Mais où sont . . . ," I discovered that I would have heard it most recently when the dowager countess quotes this line to Mary, in French, during Downton Abbey's 2015 Christmas Special and series finale. She is consoling Mary about her lost love, and remembering a great lost love from her own past.

"Hmm," I thought, our word "snows" doesn't seem to have much in common with "neiges" or other Romance language words for snows, "nevi" (Italian), "nieve" (Spanish), "neves" (Portuguese). So, I wondered, are the words "snows" and "neiges" related or not?

Happens they are, and the link is hinted at in the German word for snow, "schnee."

According to the Wikipedia entry for snow, the word is from "Middle English snow, snaw, from Old English snāw (“snow”)" and is "cognate with Scots shaw ('snow'), West Frisian sine ('snow'), Dutch sneeuw ('snow')," and so on.

What can I say? Sometimes we word nerds just get to go all out.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Richard II and the First Angel Roof

Westminster Hall is the oldest surviving building of Westminster Palace. Once used for feasts, coronations, and, ironically, the deposition of King Richard II, it is now the meeting place of the British Parliament. The palace is in central London, on the north bank of the Thames River.

If you've visited Westminster Hall, you've gazed up at the beautiful late Gothic ceiling that looks a little bit like heaven, the first angel roof. In 1397, master carpenter Hugh Herland (ca. 1330-1411), working in oak, designed this angel roof for Richard II as part of a remodeling project.

The purpose of the remodeling was twofold. First, replace the original closed roof trusses with open trusses, making the space look bigger without changing to its volume. The ceiling spans more than 68 feet in all, but is now open in the center for over twenty-five feet of the span, from the end of one hammer beam to the other.

Second, populate this new heaven with angels in honor of Richard II (1367-1400). Carved wooden angel sculptures decorate the hammer beams and appear to be hovering between heaven and earth.

Richard II used the iconography of the angel to help support his ideas about the divine right of kings, a fact to which Shakespeare alludes in his play Richard II. In Act 3, Scene 2, the king says,

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

In 1377, during his coronation procession from the Tower of London to Westminster Hall in 1377, Richard accepted his crown from a mechanical angel (Richard II, The Art of Kingship, ed. by Anthony Goodman and James Gillespie, London: Clarenden Books, 1999).

In 1392, at the procession marking his reconciliation with the City of London, Richard again received his crown from a mechanical angel, as an eyewitness reports: “At his entry into Cheapside ... came two angels down from a cloud, the one bearing a crown for the king...and the other another crown, which was presented to the queen . . . ."

On September 30, 1399, Richard laid aside his crown in Westminster Hall in favor of the upstart, Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV.

Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster, London as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's ''Microcosm of London'' (1808-11).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Style Sheet Revisited

Writing, editing, and proofreading are as much a part of me as my fingernails. I write, edit, and proof, as part of the way my mind works. I can hardly help myself.

You would think, then, that, on beginning a blog, especially one about words, I would have started a style sheet first thing: just a few notes on how I handle things that come up all the time. Pretty much all publishing houses, newspapers, and corporations keep them to maintain consistency from one document to the next.

For instance, I use and firmly believe in the serial comma. With the serial comma, the reader--final arbiter of clarity--never has to stop and think about meaning. In this obviously English example from the Guardian Style Guide (cited in the Wikipedia entry on the comma), "he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea," the reader is not tripped up wondering whether he ate toast and marmalade or whether he actually ate toast and, separately, swallowed a spoonful of marmalade as if to disguise the taste of a bitter pill.

However, if you had assumed that I started a style sheet as a matter of course, you would have been overestimating me. About twenty-five posts in, I started keeping some notes on the back of a #10 envelope, which became a bookmark for a while and then drifted off into the stacks of printouts, bills, to-do lists, and other papers at my house.

Now, some 82 posts in, I bemoan my lack of methodical approach and think, every once in a while, that I have to go back and reread every post and come up with that style sheet, just for my own sanity. I can never remember whether I italicize words as words or put quotation marks around them; how I cite a book or article I am using heavily; or any of the other small matters that niggle at a writer's mind.

My father's mind worked much the same way mine does, and, from his position as a college professor of sociology, he corrected his students' papers like an English teacher. Once, as a kid, I asked him why the sign in a shop window had a misspelling on it. Not realizing that many people do not have his and my gift (or curse) for language, his answer was: "That's so you'll go inside the shop and tell the people inside that the word is spelled wrong."

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Sword in the Stone and Excalibur

The Matter of Britain, the body of medieval literature about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, is vast, and scholars spend their whole lives studying it. I am no expert; anything but. I am just a student of literature who loves a good story. Even better, a collection of stories that come together in a complex and imaginative way.

Sir Thomas Malory published the Morte d'Arthur in 1485. This book combines all the threads of the story that came before and becomes the source for our modern-day versions, including Howard Pyle's Story of King Arthur and his Knights (1903), T. H. White's Sword in the Stone (1938), and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon (1983).

My question is, when did the sword in the stone come into the story? And is the sword in the stone Excalibur?

The sword Excalibur, or Caledfwlch in the original Welsh, is part of the earliest Welsh legends about King Arthur. Excalibur is a compound of two Welsh words, meaning hard and breach or cleft. By the time Malory publishes, he says that Excalibur means "cut steel," a nice take on the original etymology.

From the Old French prose cycle of Arthurian literature, the Lancelot-Grail (dating from 1210 to 1230 or so), Malory gets the element of the Lady of the Lake, who hands Excalibur to King Arthur. (The Lancelot-Grail material adds other elements we consider crucial as well, including Lancelot's adulterous love affair with Guinevere and his quest for the Holy Grail.)

And from Robert de Boron's Merlin, published around 1450, Malory gets the sword in the stone and the gist of its inscription, "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England." De Boron states that the sword in the stone is not Excaliber.

In the de Boron work, the fifteen-year-old Arthur, heir to the late king Uther Pendragon but in disguise as the foster son of a nobleman, pulls the sword as a stand-in for the blade his foster brother Sir Kay forgot at home. And, because he is a generous boy and humble to a fault, he lets Sir Kay take credit for the deed. Sir Kay's father calls him on the lie and Sir Kay has the opportunity to confess his sin, repent, and return to God's grace.

In later tellings, and maybe because Malory includes the sword in the stone and Excalibur without reconciling the two, as it were, the swords can be mixed up with each other.