February 26, 2016

Words of the Month - Tried and True

        One common type of cliché or idiom is pairs of near synonyms that habitually appear together.  We really wouldn’t need both words for meaning, as the two words mean something similar and related, and sometimes even the same thing  — but they just sound so right and proper together.  (See what I did there?)
        Some of these pairs date all the way back to the twelfth through fourteenth centuries and include a word from Old English roots together with one from Norman French roots. 
Examples include
     right and proper
     law and order
     love and cherish
     safe and sound
     tried and true
     bits and pieces
     strait and narrow (now, alas, commonly misinterpreted as “straight and narrow,” which of course aren’t synonymous)
The theory is that during the period when French and English were both spoken in England (more linguistic info here), such pairings increased the chances of understanding.  It may indeed be true that the bilingual situation added impetus to the practice, but there are certainly lots of other common pairings, for example
     part and parcel - both words from French roots
     house and home - both words from Old English roots (more here)
     wit and wisdom - both words from Old English roots
And of course we have lots and lots of pairings that didn’t appear until long after the Norman Conquest.  So why are phrases of this type so common in English?  I don’t know.  It seems that English simply loves its coupled words.
        Some pairings are especially nifty because they include fossil words.  A fossil word is one that has disappeared from the language except in frozen phrases, such as
     vim and vigor  - People do sometimes now speak of vim, but only when they’re consciously taking it out of its accustomed phrase for humorous intent.
     spick and span
     kith and kin - Kith was, in fact, not a synonym of kin.  The phrase can actually be defined by another familiar clichéd pairing: friends and family.
     hem and haw - The hem is certainly uncommon on its own, although it appears as onomatopoeia whenever Dolores Umbridge clears her throat, but the haw, meaning “to hesitate” is throughly fossilized.
     beck and call - Although beck is no longer a word on its own, you can see its relation to beckon.
        Will narrow’s strait soon be a fossil, too?
        Interestingly, legalese seems to love its repetition particularly, perhaps because it’s thought to be more precise or to eliminate ambiguity?  Or perhaps just because it’s more pretentious!
     aid and abet
     cease and desist
     null and void
     pain and suffering
        There’s no exact term for these pairings, by the way.  They are examples of binomials, but binomials also include other sorts of customary pairings that aren’t synonymous, including “cap and gown,” “through thick and thin,” and “bacon and eggs.”
        I’ll go above and beyond and give you a few more binomials that are needlessly repetitious, but which just seem to go together so nicely.  Note how common alliteration is in helping these pairings sound good together.
     hide nor hair
     fast and furious
     ways and means
     lord and master
     hale and hearty
     prim and proper
     rant and rave
     trials and tribulations
     alive and well
     each and every
     fuss and bother
     odds and ends
     bag and baggage
     footloose and fancy free

[Picture: Baroque Fountain, wood block print by Douglas Percy Bliss (Image from The New Woodcut, Malcolm C. Salaman, 1930).  And no, there’s no connection with the day’s theme, but how do you make a picture of “tried and true”?]

February 23, 2016

Mythical I

        I is apparently not a very magical letter.  Something to keep in mind should you ever wish to minimize your exposure to magic: hide out in the I section of the library or something.  Just remember that you can never entirely avoid the possibility of meeting something magical.

imp - a small mischievous being, like a minor goblin.  Etymologically the word imp originally meant “shoot or sprig of a plant”, then “child or young”, and then “little demon”, as in “imp of the devil.”  They are often the familiars of witches. (northern European)

incubus - a demon who rapes sleeping women, this is, sadly, a monster present in various incarnations in mythologies around the world.

impundulu - a man-sized black and white bird that summons thunder and lightning with its wings.  It’s also vampiric, and is known to associate with witches.  (South African)
inkling - a small black spiky creature who looks rather like a humanoid inksplotch thrown upon the wall or floor.  The inkling can suck up the words out of books, and write words into the real world with its finger, thus transferring magic between the worlds in and outside of stories.  As libraries are its favored habitat, this is one you may not be able to avoid by hiding out among the I's.  (I made this one up in a story I never finished writing.)

[Pictures: A witch feeding imps, wood block print from an unknown source, 1579 (Image from ExecutedToday);
Inkling, illustration by AEGN.]

February 19, 2016

Mythical H

        H gives us some especially interesting creatures, and I haven’t yet made a block print of any mythical H beastie myself.  As I think of these possibilities I wonder which would be the most fun to draw and carve?  Which has the most life in my imagination?  Which could I do in a way that’s a little new or different?  Which is my favorite?  I just don’t know!
        Ulisse Aldrovandi is the man for illustrations of these creatures.  I don’t know what artists may have been responsible for the illustrations used in his various sixteenth century books of natural history (many of which were published after his death), but the illustrations are intriguingly poised between fantasy and realism.

hippogriff (or hippogryph) - front half eagle and back half horse, it can fly with magical speed.  From Ludovico Ariosto to J.K. Rowling, the hippogriff makes an excellent mount for the valiant hero.  (coined by Ariosto from a reference in Virgil)

hippocampus - front half horse and back half fish.  Hippocampi are especially associated with Poseidon, but some species apparently have wings, because really, isn’t everything better with wings?  I like the finny forefeet of Aldrovandi’s hippocampus even though technically it ought to have hooves.  A funny linguistic note is that in heraldry this creature is simply called
a sea-horse, while the actual natural seahorse gets the name hippocampus.  (ancient Greek and Phoenician)

harpy - front half woman and back half bird, these monsters represent the destructive power of wind, but their viciousness isn’t random.  The harpies are forces of retribution and punishment.  As with many female monsters, people have depicted them both as beautiful and as hideous - apparently men can never decide which is scarier in a woman. (ancient Greek and Roman)

hydra - The Lernaean Hydra, slain by Hercules, was a serpentine monster with seven or more heads, and each head, when chopped off, would regrow two or more heads to replace it - unless the neck was quickly cauterized to seal it.  I love the crazy lobster body of the hydra in the second of these two illustrations.  It’s certainly not what I ever imagined!  (ancient Greek)
        (And this concludes the classical portion of our H’s!)

hercinia - a bird with glowing feathers that lights the paths through the dark forests of southern Germany.  Because of their role as beacons and guides, seeing one is a lucky omen.  See my hercinia here.  (medieval European)

homunculus - miniature humanoid created by alchemy, previously discussed here.  (renaissance European)

hadhayosh - I don’t have a lot of information about this one, but it sounds interesting.  It’s a 52-foot-tall ox-like beast with brass skin, six horns, and a flaming mane.  (Persian)

[Pictures: Equus marinus monstrosus, from something by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1570;
Harpy, from the same something by Aldrovandi, 1570 (Images from University of Oklahoma);
Hydra, from Serpentum et draconum historiae by Aldrovandi, 1640 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);
Hercules Killing the Lernean Hydra, engraving by Franciscus Floris, c 1565 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

February 16, 2016

Underrepresented Love?

        Back in December two generations of our geeky family, including an assortment of brothers, sisters, children, and nephews, saw “Star Wars VII” together and enjoyed it very much.  I haven’t bothered to do a review of it, but I’ll just say that I’m cautiously optimistic about this new trilogy!  I was, however, disappointed that Han and Leia hadn’t lived happily ever after in the time since “Return of the Jedi,” and that’s when it hit me.  There are now seven full-length movies in this franchise, and we have been shown only a single instance in the entire known galaxy of a happy marriage: Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.  (It doesn’t end well for them, of course, but their relationship seems to be solid enough.)  When other groups are depicted in fiction in such disproportionately low numbers people object, and rightly so.  It’s crazy to show a universe (especially our universe) that includes only white people, or only straight people, or only one or two token women, for example.  We speak up loudly against underrepresentation in the media, tokenism, and the Smurfette syndrome, in which men come with a range of personalities, and then there’s “female,” a single adjective that consists solely in being attractive to all the other people, where people = males.  It may be an uphill battle, but the battle is underway.  There has been progress, so although there’s still a long way to go, it’s clear that somebody’s hearing the clamor.  Look at “Star Wars” in relation to race and gender: “A New Hope” includes one female and no non-white humans (as far as I can recall - there might be someone in the background somewhere), but each subsequent film includes a few more, until “The Force Awakens,” where two of our main characters are not white males.  This is great progress… But happy marriages?  After Owen and Beru’s slaughter launches Luke into his adventure at the beginning of the first Star Wars movie ever made, we never see another happy relationship on screen again.  In the neighborhood of Valentine’s Day it seems appropriate to make a fuss about this.
        Happy relationships are not a tiny, obscure minority.  They are common around the world, among every economic class, every race, in every neighborhood.  Sadly, not everyone lives in a happy relationship, of course, but everybody knows people who do.  So why is this particular demographic group so disgracefully, wildly underrepresented in fiction?  It’s true that drama requires conflict, so all sorts of conflicts are disproportionately common in fiction.  In our household we like detective stories, and I’m willing to accept that disproportionately unhappy families may be necessary in that genre to provide sufficient motives and red herrings to keep a murder mysterious.  But why can there not be solid relationships portrayed on the sidelines, at least?  And in a galaxy far far away, why should there not be more happily committed couples?  I think it’s time that champions of healthy romantic relationships step forward to demand more representation in the media!

[Pictures: Jack Sprat and His Wife, Rosie, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001;
Love Tree, linocut by Farah Shah, 2016 (Image from her Etsy shop Farah Shah).]

February 12, 2016

Mythical G

        G is another of those letters that, for some reason, hosts an unusually high population of mythical creatures.

griffin - winged and eagle-headed lion, previous post here. (ancient Greek, Egyptian, middle Eastern, central Asian, medieval European…)

gorgon - In Greek mythology the gorgons are three sisters with living snakes for hair and hideous faces that turn people to stone.  Medusa, of course, was the one who was famously killed.  Interestingly, images of the gorgon head were often used as protective talismans, and in some versions of the myth Medusa was said to be beautiful. (ancient Greek)

golem - a humanoid made of inanimate material, brought to life to serve and protect its maker, previously discussed here.  (Jewish)

grindylow - long-armed swamp creature that drowns unwary children.  It may be etymologically related to the swamp monster Grendel.  The best-known population of grindylows are those dwelling in the Black Lake at Hogwarts.  (English)

gargoyle - a grotesque creature made of stone or capable of petrifying itself, which dwells and camouflages itself on buildings.  Relatively recently discovered as a fantasy creature, the gargoyle originates with the fancifully carved water spouts on ancient architecture, especially medieval gothic cathedrals in Europe.  An old myth gives the origins of architectural gargoyles in the story of the gargouille, a fire- and water-spouting monster about which I’ll tell you another time.  Interestingly, the words gargoyle and gargouille, which both refer to throats (as in English gargle), may share an Indo-European root with gorgon.  (modern)

giant - an enormous, ferocious, extra-strong humanoid.  Not surprisingly, cultures all around the world have giants, and many of these giants represent the forces of chaos.  (universal)

ghost - the spirit of a dead human that remains on Earth, usually because of trauma, tragedy, or sin.  There are so many interesting synonyms for ghost that I will have to feature them as Words of the Month!  (universal)

ghoul - a monster that dwells in graveyards or deserts and consumes human flesh  (Arabian)

goblin, gnome - Similar in being small, ground-dwelling humanoids, goblins are mischievous at best and usually downright evil, while gnomes are more often neutral or benign.  A branch of gnomes have evolved into guardians of gardens, portrayed in plaster or plastic (or more recently in “classic resin”) with tall pointed caps and long white beards inspired by Disney’s depiction of the seven dwarfs in “Snow White.”  (northern European)

gremlin - Another recent discovery, gremlins were first encountered by Royal Air Force pilots in the 1920s.  These imps cause all sorts of mechanical mischief, and since being described by Roald Dahl in his first children’s novel in 1943 and several Warner Bros. cartoons, they have been identified as causing issues in every kind of machinery.  I wonder whether they evolved from some older species of imp during the environmental changes of the Industrial Revolution, or simply spontaneously generated from faulty wiring spitting sparks onto spilled motor oil.  (modern)

[Pictures:  Little Griffin, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010;
Gargoyles, scratchboard by John D. Maddin (Image from Scratchboard Fiend);
The Tread of the Friendly Giants, wood block print by Fritz Endell from Chimney-Pot Papers by Charles S. Brooks, 1919 (Image from Project Gutenberg).]

February 9, 2016

Moll's Snow

        Carl Moll (Austria, 1861-1945) was for a while a member of the Vienna Secession artists, who objected to the nineteenth century art establishment’s conservatism.  It’s hard to see these pieces as avant garde, but the most admired art at the time was epic historical scenes, so elevating small everyday glimpses into art was radical in its own, quiet way.  At the beginning of the twentieth century Moll made a number of wood block prints of his neighborhood in the Hohe Warte area of Vienna, as well as other areas he visited.  I’ve chosen to share a few today because the scene out my window, too, is snowy.
        All three of these pieces have a similar look, with their three basic tones: black, white, and a greenish-greyish midtone block.  The view of the stream has two midtones, sky and water, but the others only one, as far as I can see.  All three use grey for the sky, leaving

the snowy ground in white and black.  It makes for a particular kind of wintry feel - not the pure white of a storm, or the clear black night sky for contrast, but the dull, quiet grey of ordinary winter days.
        The sad background note is that Moll eventually (some years after these particular pieces) became a Nazi supporter and committed suicide at the end of World War II.  It’s a reminder that all humans have the capacity for art, the capacity to love their homes and appreciate beauty, even those humans who seem to give up so much of their humanity with their terrible choices.
Everyone has the capacity for creativity as well as destruction.  It also brings up that strange conundrum about how much a work of art stands separate from its creator, and how much our enjoyment of art, music, literature, or whatever else, becomes tainted by our knowledge of the artist’s personal flaws.  And how does it change when we're not talking about minor flaws, but major monstrosities?  Can you still appreciate these ordinary winter days?

[Pictures: Stream in Winter II, color wood block print by Carl Moll, 1912 (Image from Etchingfitness);
Hohe Warte, color wood block print by Moll, 1903 (Image from Galerie Hochdruck)
Hohe Warte, color wood block print by Moll, c 1910 (Image from Bilder-Gallery).]

February 5, 2016

Mythical F

        Today’s selection of fantasy creatures of F span the continent of Europe, and have in common that they’re all somewhat ambivalent in whether or not they’re “good” to humans.  Of course it’s terribly anthropocentric that we always define creatures’ moral value in relation to ourselves, but then, perhaps the only purpose of fantasy creatures anyway is to help us define ourselves.  Still, I like to imagine their existence independent of humans.

fairy - Are fairies cute and sparkly, or powerful and perilous?  I went through a long, deep fairy phase in my childhood during which I was constantly drawing pictures of fairy families, usually fairy royalty, and constantly flitting around the yard dressed in gauzy fairy gowns.  I still find fairies interesting, despite all the clichés associated with them, and I featured them in the Kate and Sam Adventures at the request of my daughter, who was also fairly fairy-obsessed for a few years.  One of my works in progress, inspired by the Tam Lin ballads, explores the darker side of the fairies and their unpleasant changeling habit.  Here are some previous posts on these beings: Fairy vs Faerie, Midsummer Fairies, Come Away…,  (mostly Celtic and British Isles)

faun - a humanoid who is a goat from the waist down, with goat horns.  They’re often half-human, half-bestial in personality, too.  The ancient Greeks recognized them as being different from satyrs (whom they pictured as more equine, and much more about the sex), but the Romans often conflated the two species.  Fauns are creatures of the wilderness and sometimes strike panic (derived from Pan) in travelers. (ancient Greek)

firebird - a beautiful glowing bird resembling a peacock with flame-colored feathers that continue to glow brightly even after they’re shed.  Young heroes who find one feather inevitably end up going in search of the whole bird, suffering assorted hardships along the way.  The firebird’s favorite food is golden apples.  (Slavic)

Frankenstein’s monster - previous post here.

[Picture: Among the Violets, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013.]

February 2, 2016

Mythical E

        Time for another edition of Mythical Alphabet!

elf - this might seem like a straightforward humanoid mythical being that everybody knows, but in fact elves are pretty complicated.  Throughout northern Europe and throughout the centuries there have been a wide variety of ideas about exactly what sort of being elves are, ranging from pagan gods to Christian demons, nymphs, or succubi, who might be malevolent, beneficial, or neutral, and so on.  Today’s English mythology has two primary versions of elves.  There are the small people, including Santa Claus’s helpers, akin to gnomes or brownies, often being woodland creatures, and often with little pointed hats.  Then there are the high fantasy elves, developed and popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, taller than human, with supernatural wisdom and beauty. (northern European)

echeneis - a tiny fish that can latch itself to the hull of a moving ship and stop it dead in the water.  There’s a picture, and a bit more about the possible natural basis of the echeneis here.  (medieval European)

elemental - an archetypal being belonging to a classical element: earth, water, air, fire.  Popularized by the renaissance alchemists, there have been various theories regarding the state of such beings’ souls, mortality, powers, and characteristics.  Paracelsus called them pygmies or gnomes (earth), nymphs or undines (water), sylphs (air), and salamanders (fire). (European)

enenra - a monster composed of smoke.  When it emerges from a fire it takes human form, but can be seen only by the pure of heart.  Unfortunately it’s unclear to me how malevolent they may be; there don’t seem to be a lot of stories about what they actually do.  (Japanese)




[Pictures: Untitled woodcut by Josef Váchal, from The Wanderings of the Little Elf by Josef Simanka, 1911 (Image from Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco);
Enenra, wood block print by Toriyama Sekien from Kojaku Hyakki Shui, 1780 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Erlkönig (Elf King), woodcut by Hans Knipert, before 1950 (Image from Dallas Museum of Art).]