Daily Archives: October 13, 2010

retsina

Retsina, as Tony Aspler points out, is an anagram of nastier. And, you know, that just about says it all.

OK, OK, millions of Greek people – and some non-Greek people too – like the stuff, even if others among us find it more suited for floor polish. I mean, seriously, wine flavoured with pine resin? It was a try-once thing for me.

But we’re not here to talk about the taste of retsina. We’re here to talk about the taste of retsina (you see, the italics there mean I’m referring to the word qua a word, not to its referent!).

Admittedly, anagrams are a part of the swirl-and-sniff of a word, and if they seem apposite – or even if they seem ironic, like stainer, which doesn’t really go for a white wine like most retsina is – then the taste of the word surely retains them. But there’s so much more. Say it: “re-tsi-na”. See how it stays at the tip of your tongue? If you’re among the many who use a retroflex /r/, then, yes, it starts more in the middle of the mouth, but even then probably towards the tip, in anticipation of the next consonants: /ts/ and then /n/.

Ah, that /ts/: a tasty pair, slightly sternutatory but anyway with a sense of salivation. English speakers usually say it across a syllable boundary, but in many other languages – including Greek – it’s an affricate and is all at the start of the syllable. Does it seem odd to start a syllable with /ts/? We start syllables all the time with just a slight change from that – move the tongue back a bit and you have “ch”.

One common way for an affricate to come about, by the way, is for a stop to occur before a vowel that causes the tongue to peel more slowly away from the palate. This is well-known in the development of Latin: for example, tio, originally /tio/, became over time /tsio/ (and then in some languages that borrowed the words went on and replaces the /tsi/ with a single “sh” fricative). But the same affricate can come about through other means, even from a /z/ or an /s/ in some cases. And that is what makes the etymology of this word a bit sticky.

It’s likely you’ve noticed the resemblance between retsina and resin. It’s for real: the words are cognate. The question is whether Greek retsina was borrowed from Latin resina or developed from ancient Greek ρητινη (rétiné), both of which meant “resin”. (Modern Greek for “resin” is ρητσινι, just one letter different from our word du jour.) The problem with the Latin source is that there isn’t any surviving Latin example of resina referring to resinated wine; the problem with the Greek source is that it would require an unusual morphological development – it would be expected to end in η, not α.

But no need to whine about it. Either way, we know what it is and we generally know what it comes from. And if you’re mixing grapes with sap, well, heck, that seems a bit less natural than some unexpected or unattested derivation, doesn’t it?

You gotta wonder, though, who came up with the idea of adding pine resin to wine. It’s not as though it leaches from the barrel – it’s added in small pieces to the crushed grapes and is filtered out with the skins. Seems to me a smarter thing to do with sap would involve boiling it, skimming it, and pouring it on your pancakes. But I guess if the Greeks don’t have maples… Well, they still don’t have to drink the stuff.

abracadabra

The magician has sawn in half the box in which his lovely assistant lies. Now he turns to the top half, from which her head protrudes, looking on expectantly. A lively tune by Steve Miller bounces and zaps in the background. This rabbit-grabber, who goes by the sinister name of El Maestro del Cadáver, raps his wand on the box and commands it in Spanish to open: “¡Abra!” And open it does, to reveal his assistant’s top half clad in nothing but an amulet with a paper scroll inside it. The assistant surveys her bust, folds her arms and, shooting El Maestro a look that could kill, says icily, “A bra, cad, a bra.”

Well, that’s what today’s word makes me think of. But mostly it makes me think of the Steve Miller song – “Abracadabra” (“Abra, abracadabra… I wanna reach out and grab ya”). And, of course, in the world of Harry Potter, the killing curse: Avada Kedavra.

This word is the quintessential magic word – or, anyway, the quintessential magic-trick word, the word you use to go with a little hocus-pocus. It has a bit of the incantatory quality to it in the rhyming, /æbrə/ and /dæbrə/, with an epenthetic syllable /kə/ giving it a feel in the same vein as thingamabob or tickety-boo with a taste of ka-ching, kaboom, and all those other words that cock before firing. The rolling /r/ gives it the necessary flourish for magic. The shape of it looks a bit like a film strip of a fancy trick with cups and balls. Even the fingers, typing it, may seem to be performing a little magic gesture, a dance that loops around and back with a central epicycle under the left hand – how sinister!

You may be interested to know that this word once was used as an actual charm – to be used in an amulet to drive sickness out of the body, written on a piece of paper in a triangle:

A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
A B
A

It was mentioned by a Roman physician in the 4th century AD. But where did he get it from? A congeries of conjectures have been conjured forth. Some think it comes from the beginning of the alphabet, an abecedarian invention. Some think it’s related to Abraxas, a gnostic name for the supreme god. Various ideas have been put forth about origins from Hebrew, Aramaic, or related languages: perhaps from berakah “blessing” and dabar “speak”, perhaps from ab “father”, ben “son”, and ruakh akadoskh “holy spirit”, perhaps from Chaldean abbada ke dabra “perish like the word” or Aramaic avra kehdabra “I will create as I speak” – certainly J.K. Rowling seems to have been aware of one or both of the latter two. We do, however, run up against the absence of abracadabra from Jewish texts before the middle ages, which is a gap of several centuries.

But, really, if you take a set of basic sounds arranged in a reasonably straightforward way, regardless of where you got them from, you are likely to have many coincidences between your constructed word and plausible phrases in several other languages. You can conjure etymologies out of thin air with a wave of your word-wand… all the while leaving the real origin obscured in the mists of time.