The names given to the feast by different European peoples throw a certain amount of light on its history. Let us take five of them—Christmas, Weihnacht, Noël, Calendas, and Yule—and see what they suggest.
I. The English Christmas and its Dutch equivalent Kerstmisse, plainly point to the ecclesiastical side of the festival; the German Weihnacht (sacred night) is vaguer, and might well be either pagan or Christian; in point of fact it seems to be Christian, since it does not appear till the year 1000, when the Faith was well established in Germany. Christmas and Weihnacht, then, may stand for the distinctively Christian festival, the history of which we may now briefly study. Continue reading “Christmas etymologies”→
II. Ch. 49, “The Hyena,” begins with this wonderful paragraph, which I will share in full:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life whIIen a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.
“The Hyena” is a fitting name for this chapter. Ishmael is recovered from near-drowning, his boat–Starbuck’s, Queequeg’s boat too—was left for dead by The Pequod.
Ishamael’s hyena-wail here points toward modernist literature’s realization that comedy and terror amount to absurdity.
III. At the end of the chapter, Ishmael again underlines Moby-Dick’s themes of death and resurrection:
Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.
A quiet ghost, our narrator.
IV. Ch. 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah.”
Ishmael’s largeheartedness extends not to Fedallah and the rest of his Filipino crew. They are the outsiders among a crew of outsiders, sanctified stowaways charged with Ahab’s secret mission before the crew of The Pequod proper. Ishmael firsts sees them as “phantoms” and extends his unfortunate exoticism in this episode, which culminates in his racist suggestion that “the Oriental isles to the east of the continent” are descended from devils mating with humans: “according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.”
V. Ch. 51, “The Spirit-Spout.”
I should’ve started a tally of hyphenated chapter titles in Moby-Dick.
Another chapter where our “quiet ghost” narrator Ishmael is able to inhabit the private thoughts of others—here, glimmers and glimpses of Ahab’s mind, but also full access to Starbuck’s consciousness: “Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.”
VI. Ch. 52, “The Albatross.”
The Pequod meets The Goney, a ship named for the enormous white bird, the albatross. Ahab bellows out to ask if they’d encountered the white whale Moby Dick, but The Goney, speeds away from The Pequod “at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name.”
Insulted Ahab bellows again, this time telling his crew to send The Pequod “off round the world!”
Ishmael worries in a final paragraph that again foreshadows the novel’s disastrous climax:
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
VII. Ch. 53, “The Gam.”
Here, Ishmael lays out how strange it is that The Goney refused to hail The Pequod: the whaling tradition of the gam. Ishmael claims that the word is not defined in dictionaries: “Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it.” So, our chronicler does his best:
GAM. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or more) Whaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.
The Oxford English Dictionary currently gives seven entries for gam as a noun or verb (and one for -gam the suffix).
They date from
n. In plural. Teeth, esp. large, misshapen, or irregular teeth (also gam teeth). Formerly also (occasionally): †jaws (obsolete).
n. slang. A person’s leg. Frequently in plural.
n. Amongst tribes in northern India: a headman, a chief.
n.colloquial. Originally: a social meeting among whalers at sea. Later more generally: a social gathering, a ‘get-together’; a chat, a gossip. Chiefly U.S. regional (New England) in the extended sense.
This definition cites Moby-Dick:
What does the whaler do when she meets another whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a ‘Gam’.
And then Mark Twain’s 1866 “Letter from Hawaii”—but also refers to a 1831 citation from something called Sailor’s Mag.
-1849 gives us gam as a verb, both transitive and intransitive:
(What is the nautical colloquial fashion look, and where can I get it?)
v.transitive. To perform oral sex on (a person, originally esp. a man).
This definition cites Moby-Dick’s later brother, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:
1973 T. Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow i. 35 Knowing Bloat, perhaps that’s what it is, young lady gamming well-set-up young man.
A frequently updated website, typically run by a single person and consisting of personal observations arranged in chronological order, excerpts from other sources, hyperlinks to other sites, etc.; an online journal or diary;
—and then notes that the term blog is in more common use than its etymon, or parent word, weblog.
The earliest quotation the OED gives in association with the etymon weblog is from 1993:
comp.infosystems.www (Usenet newsgroup) 10 Nov. (title of posting) Announcing getsites 1.5, a Web log analyzer.
This example though does not really point to the source of blog; rather, it’s an example of the OED’s first definition of weblog:
Usually as two words. A file containing a detailed record of each request received by a web server, frequently recording data that allows a variety of different aspects of the web traffic reaching that server to be analysed.
This definition differs from the second definition the OED gives for weblog, which is synonymous with the definition for blog above.
A quotation given by the OED under the entry for blog from 1999 points (somewhat humorously) to the sundering of web and blog into a new word:
[1999 http://www.bradlands.com (blog) 23 May (O.E.D. Archive) Cam points out lemonyellow.com and PeterMe decides the proper way to say ‘weblog’ is ‘wee’- blog’ (Tee-hee!).]
The OED attributes the PeterMe blog (by Peter Merholz) with a more direct citation for the word blog, dating from 1999:
For those keeping score on blog commentary from outside the blog community.
(A 1999 entry cited from the Edinburgh Scotsman cites the word with an apostrophe: ‘blog).
Blog as a verb, as well as bloggerand blogging all get citations going back to 1999.
The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following entry for blog:
1998, short for weblog (which is attested from 1994, though not in the sense “online journal”), from (World Wide)Web (n.) + log (n.2). Joe Bloggs (c. 1969) was British slang for “any hypothetical person” (compare U.S. equivalent Joe Blow); earlier blog meant “a servant boy” in one of the college houses (c. 1860, see Partridge, who describes this use as a “perversion of bloke“), and, as a verb, “to defeat” in schoolboy slang. The Blogger online publishing service was launched in 1999.
Weblog is of course a portmanteau of web and log, both of which are abstract and concrete, new and very old. In The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Joseph T. Shipley gives the root of web as uebh:
uebh(s): weave, move back and forth; objects woven or the like, as a honeycomb. Pers, baft: woven cotton cloth. Gk huphe: web. hypha: threadlike part of fungus
Shipley gives over a dozen other examples that generate from uebh including hymn, hymen, vespa, wasp, weaver, woof, waffle, wave, and gopher.
Shipley’s root for log is presumably leg I (he doesn’t list log in his Index of English Words). Shipley gives his definition of leg I:
leg I:gather, set in order, consider, choose; then read, speak. Gk, logos, logion, horologe, horology, lexicon.
Shipley gives leg I as the source of many words, but helpful to our etymology of blog are intellect, illegitimate, select, legend, sacrilege, sortilege, collect, and cull.
The entry for leg II is of course beneath the entry for leg I. Shipley points to this as the root of (among others) lax, laxative, delay, relay, languid, languish, lash, lush, profuse, leach, leak and lack. Any of these will fit into a proper etymology of blog too, I suppose.
The strongest and strangest literature usually has to teach its reader how to read it, and, consequently, to read in a new way. Jason Schwartz’s new novella John the Posthumous is strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth—entomology, etymology, gardening, the architecture of houses, the history of beds, embalming practices, marital law, biblical citations, murder, drowning, fires, knives, etc.—and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.
What is the book about? Was my list too choppy? Our unnamed, unnameable narrator tells us, late in the book: “Were this a medical, rather than a marital history—you might then excuse so conspicuous a series.” (His series, of course, is different from mine—or perhaps the same. John the Posthumous, as I’ll suggest later, is a series of displacements).
So, John the Posthumous is a marital history. There. That’s a summary, yes? Ah! But there’s conflict! Yes, this is a book about adultery, about cuckoldry! (“Cuckoldry, my proper topic . . .”). Adultery is threaded into the titles of the three sections Schwartz divides his novella into: “Hornbook” — “Housepost, Male Figure” — “Adulterium.” There’s something of a poem, or at least a poetic summary just there.
Do you sense my anxiety about writing about the book? Some need to deliver a summation? Perhaps I’m going about this wrong. How about a sustained passage of Schwartz’s beguiling prose. From the first book, the “Hornbook”:
The lake is named for the town, or for an animal, and is shaped like a blade.
Adulterium, as defined by the Julian Statute, circa 13 B.C., offers fewer charms, given the particulars of winter, not to mention various old-fashioned sentiments concerning execution. Mutilation, for its part, is more common—the adulterous wife, or adultera, to use the legal term, surrenders her ears or nose, and, on occasion, her fingers—with divorce following in short order. Some transcriptions neglect the stranger, or adulterer, in place of graves—a simple matter of manners, this, not withstanding the disquisition upon the marriage bed. Others relate ordinary household details—dismantling the chairs, and visiting the windows, and departing the courtyard.
A gentleman, remember, always averts his eyes.
Cuckold’s Point, near Brockwell, in London, is most notable for its gallows—the red sticks recall horns—and for the drowning of dogs.
Schwartz’s narrator’s sentences do not seem to flow logically into or out of each other. They seem to operate on their own dream/nightmare logic, as if the words of John the Posthumous were the concordance to some other book. The single line paragraph about the lake (source of its name not entirely determined; its shape best expressed in simile) shifts into a horrific legal history of adultery and then into Cuckold’s Point, a bend in the Thames that owes its name to a simile.
Simile is perhaps the dominant mode of John the Posthumous. Schwartz’s narrator condenses and expands and displaces his objects, his characters, his themes. Sentences sometimes seem to belong to other paragraphs, as if multiple discursive discussions wind through the book at once. Our narrator tells us that
The common wasp measures roughly two hundred hertz. This is well below the frequency of, say, a human scream. Anderson compares the sound of a dying beetle with the sound of a dying fly. (The names of the families escape me at the moment.) The common bee, absent its wings, is somewhat higher in pitch. (Carpenter bees would swarm the porch in August.) The true katydid says “Katy did” — or, according to Scudder, “she did.” The false katydid produces a different phrase altogether, something far more fretful. Wheeler concludes with the house ant and the rasp of a pantry door. Douglas prefers a hacksaw drawn across a tin can. (We found termites in the bedclothes one year.) A sixteenth note, poorly formed, may be said to resemble a pipe organ or a hornet. The children set their specimens on black pins.
Here, entomologists (note how Schwartz always pulls his language from his reading, his research) try to describe the language of insects. Interspersed we get images of mutilation and impalement (“The common bee, absent its wings”; “The children set their specimens on black pins”) along with interjections of insects infesting intimate domestic spaces (“We found termites in the bedclothes”). The passage also picks up the novella’s motif of sharp objects (“a hacksaw drawn across a tin can”). There’s something simultaneously banal and horrifying about the tone of this passage, its language a juxtaposition of scientific observation and cloudy personal recollections—all contrasted with “the frequency of, say, a human scream.”
Infestation, violence, and betrayal shudder throughout John the Posthumous, erupting in strange moments of deferral and transference: “When the horse becomes a house, furthermore, termites appear on the floor,” reads one bizarre line. “A woman says ‘dear’ or perhaps ‘door,’ and then two names—or perhaps only one,” we’re told. “Even the earliest primers compare the heart’s shape to a fist or to a hand waving goodbye,” the narrator points out.
At one point, the narrator laments: “how I regret these grisly, inexpert approximations.” In context, he’s working through a series of etymologies (linking shroud to groom and wishing that dagger had some connection to dowager), but the phrase—“grisly, inexpert approximations”—approaches describing the narrator’s program of deferral and displacement.
Etymology repeatedly allows the narrator (an approximation of; an attempt at) a basis of description:
The doorframe disappoints the wall, as the wall disappoints the door. The mullions divide the yard into nine portions. But portions—or, if you like, portion—is an unlovely word. Guest and host, for their part, issue from the same root—ghostis. Which means stranger, villain, enemy—though naturally I had believed it to mean ghost. And the figure in the corner, lower right, is neither my daughter nor her hat, but just a paper bag in the grass.
The passage is remarkable. We begin with the mundane but symbolically over-determined image of a doorframe, along with an equally mundane wall and door—all connected, bizarrely, with the verb disappoints, producing an uncanny effect. The mundane mullions that divide the yard reveal the perspective of our narrator. He is looking out. He seems to be trapped in a house, but the house is always displaced, shifting—it’s many houses. Portion leads him etymologically to ghostis (a root I’ve long been obsessed with), a word that condenses a series of oppositions—and, as the narrator points out, provides its own imaginary ghost. The final sentence shifts us again; it seems to belong to another paragraph. But perhaps not. Perhaps we continue to survey the wall, the door, the mullions—do we look out the window and see the figure that is not (and thus, in the realm of the narrator’s program of imaginative displacement, is, or rather, approximates) his daughter or her hat? Is it a photo on the wall? Both?
I’m tempted to keep on in this manner, pulling out passages from John the Posthumous and riffing on them, but maybe that’s a disservice to its potential readers, who I think should like to be assimilated by its strange strength on their own terms. Schwartz’s narrative doesn’t cohere so much as it enmeshes the reader, who must learn a new way of reading, of grasping (or releasing) his series of objects and histories and rumors and rituals.
The novelist and editor Gordon Lish (who has championed Schwartz) famously advised: “Don’t have stories; have sentences.” Great writing happens at the syntactic level, which cannot be separated from plot—the language is the plot. John the Posthumous embodies this aesthetic, creating its own idiom, composed from the real and the imaginary and the symbolic, an idiom that refuses to yield a straightforward calculus or grammar. The effect is wonderfully frustrating; the novel nags at the reader, confounds the reader, haunts the reader.
Haunt has its own strange etymology, likely deriving from the Old Norse heimta, “to return home,” through to Old French hanter, “to be familiar with,” popping up in Middle English haunten, “to use, to reside.” We can take it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kei — “lie down, sleep, settle, hence home, friendly, dear.” Etymologically, all houses are therefore haunted—the series of houses (all different, all the same) in John the Posthumous especially so. This is a horror story, a haunted house story, a story larded with killers and connivers and adulterers. Another passage (I promise just to share this time and withhold remarks):
In the cellar: a pull saw and a hasp, a jack plane, a wrecking bar, and a claw hammer. A tin contains a cap screw and a razor blade. A jar contains the remains of a carpet beetle.
I dismantle the chairs and place all the parts in a crate. I station the broom beside the garden spade.
The killer in the cellar, in folklore, is discovered by a mute child. The prisoner in the cellar survives a fire or a storm—but is later mauled by wolves.
There were fleas last year, and squirrels the year before that.
I feel like I’ve offered enough of Schwartz’s uncanny prose here to appropriately intrigue or repel readers. The vision here is dark and the prose imposes an alterity that the reader must work through. This book is Not For Everyone, but it might be for you—I loved it. Haunting, frustrating, and disturbing, John the Posthumous is one of the best new books I’ve read this year.
There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism 1. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations 2.—Venus, Frau Holda, her sexual delights—no, many come, actually, for the gnomes 3 , the critters smaller than you, for the sepulchral way time stretches along your hooded strolls down here, quietly through courtyards that go for miles, with no anxiety about getting lost… no one stares, no one is waiting to judge you… out of the public eye… even a Minnesinger needs to be alone…4 long cloudy-day indoor walks… the comfort of a closed place, where everyone is in complete agreement about Death 5. Slothrop knows this place. Not so much from maps he had to study at the Casino 6 as knowing it in the way you know someone is there… .
Plant generators are still supplying power. Rarely a bare bulb will hollow out a region of light 7 . As darkness is mined and transported from place to place like marble, so the light bulb is the chisel that delivers it from its inertia, and has become one of the great secret ikons of the Humility, the multitudes who are passed over by God and History 8. When the Dora prisoners 9 went on their rampage, the light bulbs in the rocket works were the first to go: before food, before the delights to be looted out of the medical lockers and the hospital pharmacy in Stollen Number 1, these breakable, socketless (in Germany the word for electric socket is also the word for Mother—so, motherless too 10 ) images were what the “liberated” had to take… .
From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, page 299. All ellipses are Pynchon’s
1Tannhäuser was a 13th-century German Minnesinger, a troubadour—a knight-poet. A bard, I guess. Is Slothrop a bard, a knight-poet—a knight-errant? Not sure. (He’ll later deny he’s on a grail-quest).
In German legend, Tannhäuser falls from grace when he discovers Venusberg, the underground home of Venus. He stays there a year, neglecting his betrothed and indulging in erotic delights. Teutonic Christian knight that he is, Tannhäuser leaves Vensuberg (Hörselberg) for Rome to beg forgiveness from Pope Urban IV, who denies him, saying absolution would be as impossible as his papal staff flowering in bloom. The staff does bloom—but not until Tannhäuser has disappeared back into the Venusian underworld (and his gal Lisaura has killed herself in grief).
Cf. the sonnet on pages 532-33 of Gravity’s Rainbow:
Where is the Pope whose staff will bloom for me?
Her mountain vamps me back, with silks and scents,
Her oiled, athletic slaves, her languid hints
Of tortures transubstantiate to sky,
To purity of light-of bonds that sing,
And whips that trail their spectra as they fall.
At weather’s mercy now, I find her call
At every turn, at night’s foregathering.
I’ve left no sick Lisaura’s fate behind.
I made my last confession as I knelt,
Agnostic, in the radiance of his jewel…
Here, underneath my last and splintering wind,
No song, no lust, no memory, no guilt:
No pentacles, no cups, no holy Fool…
The Tannhäuser myth connects to Gravity’s Rainbow’s Orphean motif, and readers may take note of the hero’s descent played against the mystical “blooming” of a staff…eh, what with the sexy phallic overtones and all.
And we can use the third line of Gravity’s Rainbow here to describe the bloom on the staff: “It is too late” (3).
2“Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations” — one problem with reading Gravity’s Rainbow only once or twice is that it is too full of great sentences and you’ll likely miss them. Pynchon continues to deflate what he has inflated (only to inflate it again)—sex will give over to death—or, an un-death (an un-sex) here. Slothrop inert, underground, in the tombs.
3Cf. Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day, wherein (briefly, too briefly), the heroic Chums of Chance take on “the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience [ETC.]”
4. “…out of the public eye… even a Minnesinger needs to be alone…”
5A perhaps puzzling line, if only because I think I get what everyone’s in “agreement about Death” here—Death as a kind of cozy promise that we all say “Fuck off” too in lieu of “long cloudy-day indoor walks” (and the horny expectations of underground sexbergs). I’m interested on anyone else’s ideas, of course.
6 The Casino Hermann Goering—Slothrop’s last “official” assigned post.
7 We privilege light over darkness; Pynchon inverts the image here: light is a violent “chisel”; darkness is a commodity to be mined.
The bulb becomes one of GR’s most powerful motifs, culminating in the late (and essential) episode “Byron the Bulb” (find Harold Bloom’s essay on Byron the Bulb if ye can).
“a bulb over his head burning all night long. He dreamed that the bulb was a representative of Weissmann, a creature whose bright filament was its soul” 426-27; “a theatre marquee whose sentient bulbs may have looked on […] witnesses to grave and historical encounters” 464; “The Story of” 647-55; “Someday he will know everything, and be just as impotent as before” 654; “electrical tidal wave” 665; “young Jack may have had one of them Immortal Lightbulbs then go on overhead” 688; screwed into Gustav’s kazoo hashpipe, 745
9 Laborers in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp who were forced to work toward producing V-2 rockets for the Nazis. Myth—Venus, gnomes, etc.—tips back into the horrific reality of slave labor. Pynchon seems to cast the Dora laborers as the preterite, grasping at their own spark of redemption by looting lightbulbs…and then reframes their preterite condition in the ironic quotation marks around “freedom.”
10 I don’t think the German word for electric socket, steckdose, corresponds so much to the word for “mother,” but maybe…it does? In any case, the etymology does seem to correspond to the concept of absence, or cavity, which permeates this episode of GR.
I looked for the root of “socket” in Josepth T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and while I didn’t find anything about mothers or Venus or lightbulbs, I did find a connection to another of Gravity’s Rainbow’s big motifs: Pigs!—-