Word Hoard

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Garrison Finish, Hobson's Choice, and Gurney's Absence

I'll begin at the end and start with the Garrison finish, the finish of a contest in which the winner rallies at the last moment to score the victory. This entry is appropriate given the close nature of a majority of this year's NFL playoffs. According to Anu Garg, it comes after Edward "Snapper" Garrison (1868-1930), a jockey known for hanging back during most of the race and finishing at top speed to achieve a thrilling victory.

Hobson's choice is a fun one; the option of taking what is offered or nothing, no choice. While the last entry didn't make it into my OED, Hobson's here. After T. Hobson (1554-1631), a Cambridge carrier who gave his customers a choice between the next horse or none at all. The story I heard was that he rented horses to students, and inevitably there were favorite horses who were chosen over others, thence wearing them out. So to solve this problem, he said they could have the horse closest to the door or none at all. There is a similar tale about Henry Ford and his Model T. From our false fount of wisdom Wikipedia:

Henry Ford is commonly reputed to have made the statement "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." Actually, Model Ts in different colors were produced from 1908 to 1914, and then again from 1926 to 1927. It is often quoted that Ford chose black because the paint dried faster than other colored paints available at the time, and a faster drying paint would allow him to build cars faster as he would not have to wait for the paint to dry. This theory is not supported by fact however.

Over 30 different types of black paint were used to paint various parts of the Model T. The different types of paint were formulated to satisfy the different means of applying the paint to the different parts, and had different drying times, depending on the paint and the drying method used for a particular part. Ford engineering documents suggest that the color black was chosen because it was cheap and it was durable.

So that is that.

I don't know why I was looking up gurney one day, but I was, and I went to my paperback dictionary and gurney was nowhere to be found. I noticed this absence even more when I was getting some dictionaries for my cousins for graduation at Barnes & Noble. If I remember correctly, maybe one out of three dictionaries had gurney as an entry. I guess most of them went from gurgle to guru. Fortunately, the OED has plenty of entries between those two, most of them coming from the ol' subcontinent. Anyway, our word apparently comes from T. Gurney of Boston, MA who patented a new cab design in 1883. It was first a two-wheeled horse-drawn cab with a rear door and lengthwise seating. Also a similar vehicle used as a police wagon or ambulance. Then in the Middle 20th century it became a wheeled stretcher used for transporting hospital patients.

This would explain why my Webster's Collegiate published in 1947 and last copyrighted in 1941 goes gurgle, gurglet, gurnard, and then gush. The 1965 version, that I also have, has these words in the aforementioned area: gurgle, Gurkha, gurnard, gurry, guru, and then gush. So 24 years gives us Gurkha, gurry, and guru, but not gurney. So if you're ever looking at dictionaries, see if it has gurney in it. Then you have to decide if it needs it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Faith . . .

Or should I say "benefit of the doubt." I saw this phrase in Blindside the other evening, and I think it deserves some closer examination. The Free Dictionary defines the idiom: A favorable judgment granted in the absence of full evidence, and to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either.

It seems to me that doubt doesn't have benefit to provide of itself, except to not be sucked into some untoward somethingorother. It also seems to me that "believing something good" and "favorably judging" is an other word for faith. I've always thought of faith and doubt as opposites, but the Latin root means waver. So I guess waver allows for back and forth, and catching doubt on the waver to the good would be capturing the benefit of the doubt.

I'm still conflicted with faith, which I think of as a firm thing, being so closely paired with doubt, which by definition isn't firm. The phrase then means that the good part of a wavering thing is when it is firm. A separate can of worms (Why is someone taking the trouble to can worms?) is the opposite of the phrase: detriment of the doubt, or maybe detriment of the faith.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Reverse Engineering Babel

Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, "Come let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, "Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11:1-9 NKJV emphasis mine.

Growing up, I was always taught that God confused language because the people blasphemed by building a tower so that they wouldn't drown in another flood; they had no faith in the Rainbow. Without going to any of the provided cross-references, my most recent reading of this passage reveals more ire with the gathering of people and the power they have when they can communicate clearly. (Generally, the passage seems a bit apocryphal too, but I'm not an authority, or even student enough, of the topic to make that judgement either.) Methinks God wanted to keep man down, and keep him separated too (cue The Offspring). Now there could be legitimate reasons for this like preventing disease, an excuse for circumscision in a desert environment, or populating all the corners of the earth. But it seems arbitrary to me, like the requirement of a blood sacrifice from Cain and Abel.

So, if God makes us impotent and separate by muddling our language, does clarifying our language empower and unite us? Speaking the same language sure would be a start to that end.

Don't get me wrong, I revel in the myriad grammars, phonemes, and lexicons. For example, there is a language that has a case that indicates the responsibility of an action. They have a different way to write the word for "I fell down." (and it was my fault) and "I fell down." (and it wasn't my fault). But what is so wrong about being powerful and united? I might forego some variety to that end. Sure someone said learning another language is like gaining a second soul, but what will I do with another soul?

What do you think?