Daily Archives: May 3, 2011

Abbottabad

You know where Abbottabad is, right? The small city northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden had his compound – incognito for half a decade – and where he was ultimately tracked down and killed.

As soon as I saw Abbottabad in print (as opposed to hearing it being tripped over by newsreaders), my spidey-sense started to tingle. Well, OK, more like my lingua-sense – this is etymology, not entomology (or arachnology).

Oh, yes, it’s a pretty word, isn’t it? With its double letters, all of its consonants ascending (like the peaks around Abbottabad), its three a’s, three b’s, two t’s, one o, one d forming an interesting pattern… It’s vaguely reminiscent of a popular tongue-twister or any of a few different vocal warm-ups for actors.

But it’s not the prettiness of the word that caught my attention the most. What did grab me led me to this poem:

I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air

The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show

To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream

The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss

And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay

I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right

And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon

Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow

Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears

I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart

How do you like it?

Not very good, is it?  I mean, it describes what by all accounts is a rather nice place, almost like a Banff of Pakistan. But it’s doggerel (and who ever heard of a welcoming hiss?). It reads as though it was written by, um, some dilettantish army officer, say.

Indubitably. Major James Abbott, to be precise.

He was a British Army major. He founded the town in 1853. (Curious as to what he looked like? You may like this painting.)

I figured that the town was named after a British guy named Abbott. You see, abad means “dwelling place” or “town” or, I suppose, “abode”, or such like (as opposed to bad in place names like Marienbad, which is German for “bath”). And given the history of the region and the surprisingly British form of the first part… well, I guessed right. (Yabba-dabba-doo! Not bad, eh, bud?)

Now, going by the constituents, the stress should be on the first syllable, which would make it singable to the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. In fact, in Urdu, the second syllable has disappeared altogether. However, if you look in Wikipedia, you find a pronunciation guide that puts the stress of the English name on the second syllable, making it sound like part of a sentence: “I picked up some groceries, but by mistake Abbottabad apple.”

Well, pity, if so. I like it better with the stress on the beginning. Then, for instance, I could say “Abbottabad, Abbottabad, Abbottabad, that’s all, folks!”

pessimal

I was commenting today, apropos a certain situation that had occurred, that there may not have been a possible optimal result, and that what was left was debating whether we had managed the least pessimal result.

Ah, one doesn’t want to be pessimistic, but, in the absence of efficacious pessomancy (divination by means of pebbles), one has to perform a calculus, not necessarily to the last decimal, but at least to avoid decimation… What will prevent pessundation (destruction) to the extent possible? And do you simply get depressed, or do you get on a pess (church kneeler, also hassock) and petition? Il faut peser les choses… (one must weigh matters…)

And as you watch each mile pass, wondering whether you will leap or miss, you may feel like a sap if you smile, for how could it be as simple as all that? But somehow you must impel your ass and hope not to make the same slip as you have before… If only you didn’t feel so mixed up…

I think pessimal is an underused word. It’s the nice opposite to optimal, after all, and pessimum to optimum, just as pessimist is to optimist. But somehow the optics of optimal are worth opting for, while pessimal just gets a pass – or at best is used piecemeal. Pity, since we spend so much time in our lives trying to find the lesser of two (or more) evils.

The word even looks fairly right. You can see the ss like the cartoon symbols of foul smell from some fetid mess. (And they give that nice hissing sound that allows one to express disapproval quite effectively even in the saying of the word.) Its p is like a thumbs-down, too. I can’t account for the i and the l, though – they’re like flowers growing through the pavement.

And what is its source? Latin, of course. Pessimus means “worst” and is related to peior “worse”, which gives us another word, pejorate “make worse” – the opposite of ameliorate.

But let us always remember that things can always be better, and that’s a good thing. To quote as I often do from Laurie Anderson’s “Language Is a Virus,” “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” To start with, even when things are pessimal, your email may go pss… and deliver you a delicious word.