“They sure made a mess of Mesopotamia,” Daryl said, blowing steam off his chai. “A hippopota-mess.”
“And traded peace for a mess of pottage,” Jess added, a bit of whipped cream from her polysyllabic latte on her nose.
Daryl, Margot, Jess, and I were discussing Stuff Happens, a play we had just seen by David Hare about the US invasion of Iraq. “Interesting,” I said, “that someone in the play referred to the area as Mesopotamia in the present, as we’re doing. I mean, it’s still there – the area between the rivers, meso ‘middle’ and potamos ‘river’ – but usually you see the word Mesopotamia somewhere near the word ancient. Civilization and years B.C. show up often with it too.”
“Interesting, too,” Margot said, “that everyone says it ‘mess-o,’ even though the same prefix in other places is said differently – mesomorph and Mesozoic, with ‘me-zo,’ for instance.”
“Both of which are said with ‘mess-o’ in England,” Jess pointed out. “And can be said as ‘mez-o’ in North America.”
“Which would seem to be a happy medium,” I chimed in.
“Well, it’s a rare medium that’s well done,” Margot said, which Jess parried with “You speak as though you have a stake in it.”
“Anyway, if we’re going to be particular,” I said, “we can’t forget meson, which can have ‘s’ or ‘z’ and ‘ee,’ ‘eh,’ or ‘ei.'”
“Well,” Daryl said, with a pause for a sip, “there’s sure a whole pot of them.”
“And perhaps that’s a reason that it doesn’t seem to carry a very strong associative effect from word to word,” Jess said. “I mean, Mesopotamia, what does it make you think of? Not mesons or mesomorphs or the even more ancient Mesozoic period, and probably not a hippopotamus either.”
“Since they don’t have them there,” Margot interjected, dunking her teabag.
“A mess of petunias, perhaps,” I said.
“I’d like to tame ya,” Margot replied.
“It makes me think of ancient civilizations, and friezes of battles and bearded kings,” Jess said. “National Geographic kinds of things.”
“Ziggurats,” Daryl added. I pulled out my little black book and made a note to do a tasting of ziggurat.
“Cuneiform,” Jess said, relishing evey phoneme.
“Hittites,” Margot said.
“Et in Akkadia ego,” I added.
“You can’t be Assyrious,” Margot shot back.
“Babylon,” Jess said. “The moment you bring in Babylon you have a huge variety of associations, all the way from hanging gardens to figure skaters.”
Daryl looked up. “Figure skaters?!”
“Tai Babilonia,” Jess explained. It occurred to me that not too many people now would have heard of her; her world championship in pairs skating was in 1979. (But she did get back in the news a couple of weeks ago doing a PETA promo stunt at Rockefeller Rink.)
“But Sumer is icumen in!” I punned.
“In some area” – or did she say “Sumeria”? – “but not here,” Jess replied. “I think Ezra Pound’s parody of ‘Sumer is icumen in’ is more appropriate for today’s weather. ‘Raineth drop and staineth slop, and how the wind doth ramm!'”
Daryl knew the poem too. “‘Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us, an ague hath my ham!'” He raised his coffee to toast the weather.
“Well,” I said, raising my decaf, “we’re a long way from Mesopotamia now. It may not be confined to the impossibly distant past, but it’s nowhere near here.”
“And we’re nowhere near its temperature,” Jess said, raising her fancy coffee. “But I’ll take Canada anyway. And our freezes don’t last as long as their friezes.”
Margot raised her tea. “Stone cold either way.”