One of my favourite Italian words is capolavoro. Literally it means ‘head work’ (capo ‘head’ plus lavoro ‘work’) or ‘chief work’ or ‘head of work’ or, more figuratively, ‘top work’. The English equivalent word is masterpiece, but come on, masterpiece is a mutton-and-potatoes kind of word, and capolavoro is cappellini alle vongole.
Originally, in English, a masterpiece was a particularly exquisite piece of work – a lock, for instance, or a cabinet, or whatever you had trained to make – to serve as proof that you were a master of your trade and worthy of guild membership: effectively, a craftsman’s equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. Since then, the term has broadened in use to refer to any utterly exquisite bit of artistic or artisanal work.
In Italian, the word capolavoro (pronounced ca-po-la-vo-ro, by the way) meant exactly the same thing as masterpiece did originally, and it has expanded to mean the same thing as masterpiece does now. Its etymological bits are different but it is functionally identical, though perhaps more delicious.
But what if your masterpiece is crap? A mess? What if it is, in fact, a masterwork of crappiness? Craptacular? Shambolic? What if you have shown the opposite of a Midas touch? Two words automatically suggest themselves.
One is messterpiece, and you will find it with a Google search – someone has already added it to Urban Dictionary, and it’s also used in some books and other materials for kids (with a slightly more positive angle). You knew it had to exist.
But the other, ah, the other one I am – of course – more fond of. Admittedly, it is what is sometimes called “macaronic”: a blending of two languages. Crap is not an Italian word – English got it from French, which seems to have gotten it from Old Dutch (I must object! Old Dutch potato chips are not crap, as any western Canadian knows!). And capolavoro has not been swiped into English – or not officially yet, anyway. But how can you not like crapolavoro, with its jarring juxtaposition of mellifluous Italian with brutish English and its vaguely abracadabra sound (remember, made from crapo and lavoro, not from crapola and voro, which would probably mean a crapola-vore, i.e., crapola eater)?
And there are so many things one could apply it to – certain movies come to mind, and definitely some bits of architecture, although which bits will forever be hotly disputed. Books and albums too. But, hey, do you have any examples you’d like to suggest?
To have been, or not to have been? As a friend of mine has put it, “What could it was?” We understand that the years add and the years subtract, and when we think of an old, greyed person we may think they are wisened, grown in knowledge and understanding, or we may think they are wizened, withered and shriveled.
Life is a feast. The question is, are you the one feasting – feasting your eyes and mind upon it, being nourished without diminishing it – or are you the one being feasted on – being eaten up and eaten away, or eating yourself from within like a hungry ghost as you crave more and more and eat up more and more and yet have less and less? Do you, when faced with some new view or fact or perspective, approach it with curiosity, hoping to learn, even if it means letting go of some things you thought were sure, or do you reject it as a threat to the world view you have built up, the position you have claimed for yourself, the cage you have so carefully constructed around you? It all comes down to a small shift in perspective – as little as from s to z or from z to s.
Well, historically, it also all comes down to coincidence. To grasp what is, let’s look at what was. And first of all, let’s look at what was was.
The English verb ‘to be’ is suppletive – that means that different conjugations use different unrelated forms. Whereas regular verbs are like I like, we like, she likes, he liked, suppletive verbs are like I am, we are, she is, he was. And that was is related to the German wesen and ultimately to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *h₂wes-, ‘dwell, live, stay’. It came to us by way of Proto-Germanic wesaną.
That was also sounds somewhat like wise. But wise traces ultimately to PIE *weyd-, ‘see’, also source of vision, video, view, and German wissen (‘know’) and English wit. A wise person is one who has seen and has sight (so to speak). And so a wisened person is someone who has seen some stuff – who was and who is and who has waxed in wit.
On the other hand, wizened, from wizen, pronounced with a “short i” (as in “wiz”), the word for someone who has short sight and who was more and is less, comes from PIE *wes-. But there are three kinds of *wes-: one meant ‘clothe’ (are you vested in years or knowledge? no, that is not what it means), one meant ‘sell’ (have you sold out? perhaps, but that is not the source), and one meant ‘eat, consume, graze’. It is that last one that became Proto-Germanic wesaną – but not the one that could was was. It’s another one of the same form, and it meant ‘consume’. And, although it seems unrelated (historically) to wither, it came to be a rough synonym for it. When you are wizened, the years have gnawed on you. Originally (and still, in some contexts) wizen has nothing especially to do with advanced years; things and people can shrivel quickly. But it looks so much like wisen and perhaps like wizard that we can easily be led down another path.
And which, by the way, is a wizard? Although we think of a wizard as like Merlin or Gandalf, an ancient greybeard, there is nothing that says the person must be wizened – only that you expect a kind of wide zen from them, in a way. And, of course, you expect them to be wise, which is where wizard comes from – it could have been spelled wisard. You might say knowledge is knowing that it sounds like [z], while wisdom is knowing that it comes from wise, not from wizen. There is wisdom in knowing the difference between some seemingly identical things.
So to be a wizard, you must be wise – open to seeing – and thus, in any mental or spiritual sense, you must not be wizened, consumed, eaten up, dried out. You may not be green in years, but you must not be a dry stalk that breaks at the first breeze. Your education must be ongoing, even if you wheeze as you walk your ways.
“The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”
And if your lifelong passion is caprices? Or is capricious? Then you have found the eternal and ever-changing – you have found language, and its words.
Words have such caprices as may curl your hair or get your goat – they caper, caprine, and may strut out of place like a captive capercaillie on Capri. When you wonder where they come from, you may find it doesn’t matter but still makes you madder. When you try to season your sayings, you may yet find the words unseasonal, as in Mark Turbyfill’s 1924 poem “Weather Caprice”:
Little unuttered words Hover about you, Definite and understood— Now suspended a moment, Figured with frost and cold. Audacious snow-flakes in spring!
Canadians know this well enough (though Turbyfill was from Chicago). But caprices can be good or bad, and sometimes both at the same time.
I must admit that the word caprice brings an unrelated, adventitious image to my mind, simply by dint of sound association: it makes me think of a particular cherry ice cream from my childhood, because that ice cream was called Cherries Capri, and why would I not associate Capri with caprice? Only later would I learn the meaning of the word caprice and learn of the island of Capri and the actual dessert named for it. Too late by then; some pairs of words are strangers on a train who lock eyes for a moment, never speak, get off at different stations, but never forget each other their whole lives.
But is Capri related to caprice? Perhaps. We’re not really sure because we’re not really sure where each of them comes from. Capri may be from Ancient Greek κάπρος kápros ‘wild boar’, or it may be from Latin capreæ ‘goats’, or it may even have been from the one and then shifted allegiance to the other. (And, while we’re with wildlife, the boreal grouse called capercaillie gets its name from Gaelic for ‘horse of the woods’, capull coille. Enough random animals yet? No, there will be more.)
And caprice? Well, when my friend Laurie Miller asked me whether capricious had to do with goats, I did a quick check on Wiktionary and said (somewhat to my surprise) it didn’t seem so… but now I sit here with a dozen browser tabs open and three reference books splayed on the floor (I put back the others already), and I find I cannot say for certain one way or another.
We know that caprice, which has been in English since at least the 1600s and came from French, which has had it for at least a century longer, came to French from Italian capriccio, of the same general meaning. Now, Capriccio is, for me, first of all the name of the first character I played in a mainstage production as a theatre student, a part I got (not the only one, and not the best one) because I was good with languages. The play was Sheridan’s The Critic, and my character was an Italian impresario named Capriccio Ritornello. But that’s neither here nor there (well, it was there, and it’s here now, but the point is that it’s not to the point). The thing is that if you look up capriccio on Wiktionary, it will tell you (citing L’Etimologico – Vocabolario della lingua italiana by Alberto Nocentini and Alessandro Parenti) that it comes from capo riccio, ‘curly head’, because “people believed that curly hair was a sign for a capricious and unruly character.” And if you’re still curious and you look up riccio, you find that it means not just ‘curly’ but, as a noun, ‘hedgehog’ and ‘urchin’ – indeed, riccio and urchin both come from Latin ericius, ‘hedgehog’.
But if you then leap over to the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find instead that capriccio is “apparently [from] capro goat, as if ‘the skip or frisk of a goat,’” and it suggests we compare capriole. And what is capriole? Well, it’s a caper – the dance kind (not the little green thing you eat with smoked salmon; that’s entirely unrelated, but just try and forget it now, eh?). And you might think that a dance leap would naturally connect to the leaping of a goat. After all, have you seen young goats when they’re having fun?
It’s a wonderful life. And the OED agrees that capriole is from capriola, ‘kid’ (the goat kind). But Wiktionary? It reckons that the dance kind of capriola is based on capra ‘trestle’ rather than capra ‘female goat’. I don’t know why; perhaps they’re just being capricious. I don’t wish to be captious (by the way, not related – it’s from Latin capere ‘take’, same as capture and others, including Italian capire ‘understand’ – capisci?).
But I digress. (I contain multitudes, OK? Or, to quote another part of Whitman’s poem, “Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea, I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phases.”) The question is, how do we get from the curly-haired urchin (who, yes, is a kid, but) to the goat? Well, my Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has some thoughts: in its entry for caprice, its etymology is as follows: “F, fr. It capriccio caprice, shiver, fr. capo head (fr. L caput) + riccio hedgehog, fr. L ericius; basic meaning: head with hair standing on end, hence, horror, shivering, then (after It capra goat), whim—more at head, urchin).”
So, in their view, it started as the hedgehog, and then – perhaps startled by the spines – jumped over to the goat. If you’re wondering whether etymology can get your goat, the answer is quite evidently yes. But words are fickle; they can turn on a whim. As the 17th-century author Aphra Behn wrote in “Love’s Witness,”
Slight unpremeditated Words are borne By every common Wind into the Air; Carelessly utter’d, die as soon as born, And in one instant give both Hope and Fear: Breathing all Contraries with the same Wind According to the Caprice of the Mind.
(And how could she rhyme wind with mind? Well… she could. But the wind has shifted, and the mind has changed. You see how it is?)
Words are free, for which let us be glad: we may be both profligate and cheapskate, revelling in the embarrassing riches of our endless lexical pocket change while still having cash to spare for any occasion. How much does it cost to use words as lavishly as Meghan O’Rourke in “Sleep”:
Pawnbroker, scavenger, cheapskate, come creeping from your pigeon-filled backrooms, past guns and clocks and locks and cages, past pockets emptied and coins picked from the floor…
When the coin of the realm is the endless shiny pennies of words, we can not only be prodigal but even look the gift horses in the mouth: How old is this word? Where does it come from? And the word’s value only increases when we do so.
So where, by the way, does this word cheapskate come from? I am married to a figure skater, and I know for certain that there is nothing cheap about skating. When we’ve made side trips in Sheffield to buy blades from the factory, and in Vienna to buy boots, for the sake of saving some dollars and getting the best selection, and when these are to be worn on ice that is created and maintained indoors even in the middle of summer, I do not put the word skate with the word cheap (except in the etymological derivation of cheap, which has to do more broadly with buying – see its German cognate kaufen). Indeed, if you want to skate well, the last thing you should be is cheap; you can save more money in lessons than you spend on skates by buying good-quality equipment.
But this skate is not that skate. There is some question of where exactly it comes from, but we know that the term cheapskate seems to date to the late 1800s, and the sense of skate meaning ‘contemptible person’ likewise. However, there’s a skite that’s been around somewhat longer, especially in Scotland, and it means much the same; we know it in blatherskite. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this unpleasant skate may be modified from that skite, though we have no etymological smoking gun.
But we do have some thoughts about where skite comes from. It’s likely connected to Old Norse, as many words in English and Scots are (especially originating in the northern parts of Britain). It happens that in some languages, over time, a [k] before a vowel such as [i] moves forward and becomes less of a stop and more of a fricative, and in combination with [s] can make [ʃ] – which is to say, “sh.” And the Old Norse word skitr from which skite might have come is also the source of Scots and English shite – and English shit. Effectively, calling someone a skite is calling them a shit.
Which seems perfectly sensible: cheapskate can be replaced in modern English with cheapshit (a word that is certainly current in essentially the same sense), and the negative uses of skate for a rotten person can likewise be turned to shit with no particular harm to the meaning.
I must be fair, of course: cheapskate is not vulgar, and it has gained some sense of quaintness by being old-fashioned; a person might even declare it as an almost endearing fault: “I’m a bit of a cheapskate, so I just walked there.” But there’s no question that in its traditional use as a direct synonym of skinflint, it isn’t at all far from cheapshit.
And no, no one likes a cheapshit. But many of us like being cheapshits when we can do so without scorning or hurting others. For we may yet, at the same time, be lavish, if we can lavish things that cost us nothing. Or, at the very least we may, with Meghan O’Rourke,
promise tomorrow I will be profligate, stepping into the sun like a trophy.
I just love a replete historical dictionary full of quirks and oddities, and by that I mean the Oxford English Dictionary. It is my lexical daily bread, and I would truly be a snake if I were devour its gifts without thanks. A snake? Sure, like this one, from a popular meme of a few years ago:
I think of that snacking snek in particular because the OED has given a gift of a term for just such a greedy ingrate as I would not want to be: maunche present.
This lexeme is not so much of the present, ironically; it is a thing of the past, not seen in the wild in about four centuries. But it is re-presented for us by the OED and so I am regifting it to you. Maunche present is, we are told, “A term of contempt (applied variously) for: a slanderer; a cheat, an impostor; a glutton.” Some of the presented quotations define it as ‘sycophant’.
The guts of it are conveyed by the shape of it. Present means ‘gift’ (which, by the way, is ultimately the same present as in “the present time”; in both cases it’s what’s set before you, from Latin præ ‘before, in front of’ and sens/sent-, present participle of esse, ‘be’). And maunche means… well, the OED says it probably comes from maunge, perhaps influenced by munch, but maunge comes from French manger ‘eat’ and means ‘devour greedily’, while munch refers more to the act and the sound of eating, and is thought to be at least partly imitative (“munch, munch, munch”) – but also partly to come from maunge. So this is feeding back on itself. And with what thanks, hmm?
Anyway, this is your little gift for today. There’s never a shortage of people to whom to apply it, locally and nationally. If you happen to see one, you can mutter under your breath “Maunche present!” Your hearers will likely think you’re saying “much presence” or “Mount Pleasant,” and they might be confused for long enough that you can make yourself absent.
Here’s the presentation I gave at the 2022 ACES conference in San Antonio, Texas, in which I talk about how nonfiction is driven by feelings, and how to work with them to make the structure as effective as possible.
Álamo is a Spanish name for a tree. The word is related, way back, to elm – you can see the resemblance, can’t you? So, of course, since words are faulty records of history, the tree it names is not an elm but a poplar – specifically, the cottonwood, and in fact several species of cottonwood, but most commonly the eastern cottonwood.
This tree is called cottonwood for a perfectly good reason: something of it looks like cotton – not its wood, but its seeds, or rather the little filaments attached to the seeds that help them be carried by the wind. In early summer the ground around a cottonwood is covered with a white cottony blanket, obscuring all below it. If you want to see the ground again, you will find that this cotton blanket burns rapidly and cleanly, vanishing like morning mist (but be careful – occasionally it ignites other things).
The eastern cottonwood is the state tree of no fewer than three states: Kansas, Wyoming, and Nebraska. But under the name álamo, it is most associated with a state that has as its official tree the pecan: Texas.
Remember the Alamo? Of course you don’t; you weren’t there. And yet, most people in the United States, many in Canada, and quite a few in other parts of the world remember the Alamo, or anyway remember something about the Alamo. It was, uh, a great American battle, like a huge thing with a lot of heroism, and in this big fort (was it a fort?), with great American heroes… Um… wait, was that where both Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett went to glory? Say, was that the battle where one of those guys drew a line in the sand with his sword? And the Americans… won or lost?
If you ever happen to visit San Antonio, Texas, you’ll have a chance to refresh your memory, as it were. A mere block away from the Riverwalk – a sunken riparian loop lined with Margarita-toting tourists perambulating a not-too-wide Disney-feeling stone path between restaurant patios and the shallow river (in which a few each week take accidental swims) – you will find the Alamo, or what’s there of it now. Just walk through the Hyatt lobby, past the Biergarten (“Prost, y’all!”), and along the brutalist sunken stream.
And then, up at street level, heralded by a Texas flag, past much open space and assorted visitors, there is the Alamo. Is it a large cottonwood, or a stand of them? It is not. It is stone buildings and stone walls. One of the buildings, a low, narrow, long one, is the oldest building in Texas, the long barracks. The long barracks doesn’t look like much on the outside, but when you get inside it, it looks like even less. However, it has a video and some historical displays on the wall. But there’s more. There are other buildings, and walled courtyards, and trees. In front of the oldest building in Texas is a large, ancient, gnarly tree. It’s an oak.
It has a well under it. The well is dry and its bottom is covered with coins and small bills. Maintaining memory takes money.
Beyond the big tree, next to the courtyard but not opening onto it, is the chapel.
The Alamo was originally established in the early 1700s as Misión San Antonio de Valero. Various buildings were erected, including a chapel, which was so badly built it collapsed within a few years. They started building a new one, but they never actually finished it. And before the end of the 1700s, the mission had stopped being a mission, for various reasons political and economic. It was abandoned for a while, and then used by various military groups and commercial enterprises. And somewhere in there, it started being called the Alamo, either because there were cottonwoods nearby or because for a time it was occupied by a cavalry detachment colloquially known as the Álamo de Parras Company, so called from the town of San José y Santiago del Álamo, near Parras in Coahuila. Which would mean that the cottonwood tree it was named after was in a village in what is now Mexico. Official memory sometimes carries things away.
The fame of the Alamo comes from the battle that happened there in 1836. Forces fighting for an independent Republic of Texas made a stand against the (also fairly new) Republic of Mexico, from which Texas was seceding. Americans, notably James Bowie and David Crockett, came to help Texas, but there was no official help from the United States of America, as it had treaties with Mexico and did not want to break them and engage in open war. At the time, the Alamo was a walled compound about the size of a city block, mostly open turf, and the chapel – or anyway, the walls and assorted other ruins that remained of it – was at one corner. The chapel was nothing much worth fighting for in itself – walls, no roof, rubble and dirt piled up the middle to make a ramp to the back wall – but it was worth fighting from, if you were going to make a stand at the Alamo.
I won’t recount the whole siege and battle; there are many websites that will tell you, and they mostly agree with one another. The siege lasted a week and a half from when General Antonio López de Santa Anna (yes, with a double n), the president of Mexico, arrived with his troops on February 23 – two days after his 42nd birthday – to when the Mexicans at last overcame the defenders on March 6.
The commander of the Texas forces was a 26-year-old American who had fled financial trouble and joined the Texas Army, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis. He wrote letters asking for help; he didn’t get much, but one of them, closing with a cry for “victory or death,” has become famous, and he at least got one thing he asked for (the latter). He is also said to have drawn on a line in the dirt with his sword on March 5, inviting any men who wanted to stay and defend to step across it and join him, and the others could try to escape (and exactly one did the latter). There’s a rather dramatic statue of this moment on the grounds of the Alamo now, over near the washrooms. But it probably didn’t happen that way. We can’t really know for sure; even the guy who escaped died not long after. If it didn’t happen that way, well, it should have. If we’re going to pay to maintain memories, they should be inspiring.
I say that Travis was the commander, but for a time he had to split the command with Jim Bowie. The already famous Bowie, 40 years old and known as a frontiersman, soldier, and skilled knife fighter, arrived in January 1836. In early February, when Travis was given command, Bowie – who outranked Travis – resisted and put it to a vote, and the men chose him. He celebrated by getting roaring drunk and causing havoc in the town, and so, to patch things up, he agreed that Travis would command the regular forces while Bowie took over command of the volunteers. However, partway through the siege, Bowie got so sick (no one says from what) that he was confined to bed, which is where he probably died, armed with pistols and a knife.
The Alamo combatant who is most famous now – though not mainly for the Alamo – was Davy Crockett (“King of the Wild Frontier,” as the Disney show theme song had it). Crockett was already 49 years old and had been a member of the United States House of Representatives; when he lost his seat in the election of 1835, he famously (and perhaps even actually) suggested to the people of his district that “they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.” When the Texas Revolution started, he went to the Alamo with some men and arrived two weeks before Santa Anna did. No one is sure exactly where, when, and how he died; it might have been in battle, surrounded by Mexican corpses, or it might have been by execution after being captured. There are contradictory accounts. Some people have very strong opinions on this matter, because social memories are battlefields, too.
The actual Battle of the Alamo was shorter than some Zoom meetings, and even more abusively scheduled. For much of the siege, the Mexicans had fired artillery regularly; on March 5, they stopped, and the defenders finally managed to get some sleep… until 5:30 AM on March 6, when the Mexicans woke them up by attacking. The last of the defenders of the Alamo were killed at the upper end of the chapel before 7:00 AM. The whole battle, in which 212 defenders and at least twice as many Mexican soldiers died, could have happened between one time I wake up, look at my clock, and go back to sleep and the next time I do the same.
It is not, by the way, that Santa Anna’s men took no prisoners. They did take a few; then they killed them all. As to the bodies of the defenders, including the famous ones, they burned them in a heap in the middle of the compound, like so much cottonwood seed (but slower).
When the forces of Texas met Santa Anna’s men at San Jacinto on April 21, the brutality of the Mexicans at the Alamo made “Remember the Alamo!” a rallying cry. The battle of San Jacinto, which was won in 18 minutes and made 43-year-old General Sam Houston a hero, resulted in the capture of Santa Anna, who was allowed to return to Mexico after he signed a peace treaty three weeks later. That secured the independence of the Republic of Texas, which lasted until 1845, when Texans voted to join the United States. Many of those who fought for Texas were Americans in the first place, like Taylor, Bowie, and Crockett. The USA as a country wasn’t involved in the Battle of the Alamo, but it benefited from it after the fact, sort of like how the Alamo benefited from someone else’s cottonwood tree.
If you go to the Alamo now, the dirt and rubble are gone. It was in a sad state for some time, at first abandoned and then used for commercial purposes. At length its cause was championed by preservationists and taken up by politicians, and then it graduated from a place where a thing had happened to an official construction of memory. The seeds of events had taken root.
The chapel is the main attraction, the iconic building. The famous bell-shaped top of the façade (once criticized as looking like a headboard) was added in the mid-1800s, about 20 years after the battle. Its roof was added in the later 1800s. When you go inside, you walk on a stone floor that was added about a century ago. There’s not a whole lot in there – some signs, a model of the Alamo in 1836, some plaques, other people in controlled numbers, possibly ghosts but you can see those only in your mind. The chapel is no larger than some people’s houses: about 4,000 square feet, nearly identical in area to the nearby gift shop, which is also in an old stone building – but while the chapel is the empty coop of the flown birds of official memory, the gift shop’s souvenirs are their caked droppings.
You expect the Alamo to be huge, but it’s not. History often happens in places that are smaller than you expect. Memory and history have a magnifying effect. The seeds of memory come with a lot of fluff, but that fluff helps it spread and grow. You never really burn it all off, but sometimes it does take root – and sometimes it ignites other things.
And at the end, what remains, what is carried on the wind, is the words. You can keep saying “remember” long after the memories are vanished.
Patrick Neylan, Eeditor of business reports. Permanently angry about the abuse of English, maths and logic. Terms and conditions: by reading this blog you accept that all opinions expressed herein will henceforth be your opinions.
The Economist "Johnson" language blog
In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world