Daily Archives: June 17, 2009


OK, let’s play word association: I say corvette, you say… stingray? Probably. But before this was a brand of car, the most corvettes and stingrays had in common was their medium: the ocean. Corvette was, when the word hit English (from French), the name of a type of flush-decked navy ship with one tier of guns. And it did not get its name from a little crow, even though corvus was Latin for “crow” (time and tide have turned it into modern Spanish cuervo, which may sound curvy and tequila drinkers know will get you bent); corvette may have come from Latin corbis “basket,” which may have been a reference to a basket hoisted on slow Egyptian freighters, but that’s not sure. Now a corvette is neither slow nor a freighter; it’s a fast little escort ship. Which is fitting enough given that the car named after it is a fast little thing that in its days has probably picked up more than its decent share of escorts. It’s amusing that this rather feminine word (it does have the ette ending, after all) is associated with such masculine things as armed ships and muscle cars. But, then, the occupants of each tend to smoke a lot of cigarettes, too. And there is enough about this word that is racy, aside from the races the car gets into: it has that v-neck down the middle, and that ought to rev the octet under the hood.


What difference a phoneme makes. When the tongue is at the ready, tip touching behind the teeth, a hissing slurp of saliva starting, you can say sapid and the sense is savoury, but when the teeth bite the lower lip, the start of a pugnacious grimace or the first gesture of a foul or vile word, and in releasing you give nothing but a dry breath, the taste has evaporated to vapid. Like wine that has exhaled its vapour: that is how the Romans put it, vapidus. And it is now a member of two tribes, words that begin with stressed va (among which are vanish, vandal, and vampire, but also valid and valiant) and words that end with pid (such as stupid and lipid but also rapid and Cupid). The pid sits there like a sidewalk spinner sign, waiting for a dry breeze to disperse its message to passers-by; the v would seem to be like a tooth biting at the lip. But the breeze is dull and the bite is pavid; how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable it all seems now. The thrill of an avid diva is dampened with p. How tasteless.


Look at these little level letters, each one with an opening facing one way or another – left, right, up, down and down, right, down. Ready to receive opportunities as they come, perhaps, whatever is a-comin’ in. Ironically, the letters are without points, unless you accept the ends of the lines – the tines on the m, n and u and the open tips on the c, a and e. No v or w here, though the shape of the u in the original Latin was v. This in spite of the meaning of the Latin: “sharp thing,” from acuere, “sharpen.” Now in English it’s not the acumen that’s the sharp thing but the person who possesses it. The word may sound like some Japanese borrowing (like salaryman, or rather sarariman) to refer to men who are accurate – or who drive Acuras. Or, since it’s a flexible, pragmatic word and allows stress on either the first or the second syllable, it could sound like a Syrian spice plant. But a person with acumen, though he or she may indeed be accurate and spicy, is one whose mind is a sharp instrument. And these days the word’s most constant companion by a long chalk is business (other occasional pals are intellectual – redundant, that – financial and political). Perhaps this is because the word itself reveals its true sharpness when it, like a strong business, is fully capitalized: ACUMEN. (Write it in Latin style, pre-half-uncial, and you get even sharper vision: ACVMEN. All it needs is a K for the C and it’s like a yard of broken glass.)