I was on my way home from the World Congress of Logogustation. I looked out the airplane window. Little lines of frost were making a lacy pattern on the glass. I was in a position to peruse them at leisure, as we were in a holding pattern caused by a weather pattern. Funny, I was delayed by weather last year around this time, too… it’s getting to be a pattern.

The frost, anyway, was all I had left to look at. The movies and other entertainment were done and the monitor in front of me offered little more than a choice of test patterns. I’d read through the magazine the airline provided for its patrons: the science section on pattern recognition, the psychology section on behaviour patterns, the sports section with its analysis of defensive patterns in football, the puzzles in the back in their various grid patterns… There wasn’t a whole lot to look at beyond the seat upholstery pattern. Which, on inspection, held a spatter pattern from someone’s coffee… turbulence, perhaps? Over the top of the seat I could see a reflection on the head of an evident victim of male pattern baldness.

I glanced over at the passenger on the aisle side of me, a woman around 30 years old. Her lap was covered with a quilt that she had, with foresight, brought, and she was working on some needlepoint, resting it on a box that apparently held her needles and thread. Under the box I noticed a book of dress patterns.

“That’s an interesting pattern,” I said.

“Which one?” she asked. She held up the needlepoint and a corner of the quilt.

“That one,” I said, pointing with my left hand at the box, which was done in a sort of diamond pattern, with floral patterns winding in and around, rather like a Harlequin being eaten by ivy. She lifted the needlework and I saw a unicorn in the middle of the box lid.

She half-smiled and indicated the unicorn. “That’s my patronus. You know, Harry Potter. If some needlework is going seriously awry, I say, ‘Expecto patronum!'”

“Does it work?”

“It seems to,” she said. “Anyway, it’s quicker than a Pater Noster.” She looked at my left hand, specifically the ring finger. “Now, that’s a nice pattern.” She pointed at my gold and silver wedding band, which has poinsettias cut into it all around.

“My wife has one just like it,” I said.

“I really like that you’re not afraid to wear a ring like that. To think that guys used to not wear rings at all… so paternalistic. I’m so glad we’ve escaped those old patriarchal patterns.”

“It’s not surprising that patterns would be patriarchal,” I mused, “or that the patriarchy would have a pattern. Pattern does come from patron, which comes from Latin patronus, which in turn derives from Latin pater, ‘father.’ Pattern first meant a guide or example.” I indicated her book of patterns.

She looked at her unicorn, a vague queasiness downturning her mouth. “I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that. My unicorn is supposed to be a father figure now?” She looked at her various appurtenances. “And my sewing patriarchal, and my…” I sensed an aaagh might be coming.

“Naw,” I said quickly. “Meanings change. Established forms and patterns persist but are turned to new uses. Many of the words you now use meant something at least a little different, if not completely different, centuries ago. Think of it as co-optation. Or subversion. After all, you’re a patron of this airline.”

A little smile returned to the corner of her mouth. “And I wouldn’t want to be a matron of it.”

“Just to give you an example,” I continued, “do you like Gilbert and Sullivan?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, “The Mikado and Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance – some of my favourites.”

“You like their patter songs, then? ‘Modern Major General’ and all that?”

“Yes. …Wait. Are those supposed to be pattern songs?”

“No, but the word patter meaning ‘rapid speech’ comes from the rapid way people used to say certain prayers…”

Now she was really smiling. “Such as the Pater Noster!” She set her work on her box and patted it happily. “I think I see a pattern developing.”

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting
pattern after seeing it used to mean a model of a gun in a translation of a Chekhov short story.

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