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The Nature of Words
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The Nature of Words

by Laurel Stoddard, CET

 

As much as I enjoy the instant gratification of using a browser to look up a word, a geographic reference, a term of art, I do miss the tactile experience of the old unabridged dictionary, leafing through it, starting with a word I have in mind and finding myself somewhere else entirely. I have to laugh when I search a word on Merriam-Webster.com and see that it's in the bottom 10% of words in look up popularity. Perhaps that's my new calling: to bring that bottom 10% of words to light.

Even more delightful is pursuing the origin of one word and finding a new word when I do so. On my list of interesting words encountered is felucca, a small boat used in the Mediterranean. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a narrow, fast, lateen rigged sailing vessel chiefly of the Mediterranean area."

So what is a lateen? Lateen, a phoneticization of the French word latine, for Latin, is a triangular sail primarily used in the Mediterranean. It’s fastened between a short mast and a longer spar, thus forming a scalene triangle, rather than one of the isosceles variety. A scalene triangle is one in which each side is a different length and therefore all three angles differ, from the Greek skalenos, or unequal.

An isosceles triangle is one which has two sides (or legs) of the same length, from the Greek, iso- meaning same, and skelos, meaning leg. To complete our refresher of ancient and forgotten geometry, a triangle which has three equal sides is equilateral, from the Latin equi-, same, and latus, lateralis, side.

Also on my list is fedora, just because I wondered from whence came the name of that hat, plus it's poetic that felucca and fedora be in the same discussion.

The name of said hat, which is made of soft felt, has a curved brim and is worn with the crown creased lengthwise, is purported to have come about in 1885-1890, after Fédora, a play by Victorien Sardou, a French dramatist. Sarah Bernhardt, who originally played the title character, wore such a hat.

Once again, here's to reading, of books, plays, maps, whatever tickles your fancy. Continual learning strengthens our brains.


Laurel came of age in a small town in north Texas and ventured fewer than 30 miles, though worlds away, to attend a small Presbyterian liberal arts college, from whence she obtained a bachelor's degree in biology. Her first literary accomplishment was a letter, at the age of 5, to request that her parents allow her and her sister to open early just one volume of the encyclopedias that were awaiting Christmas morning. She remains passionate about words. Owner of On the Record Reporting & Transcription, she has worked in the industry since 1984.

 


 

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