Monthly Archives: August 2022

divers

We once again spent some time at the beach, watching divers people in the water.

Yes, that’s punctuated correctly. Yes, it’s spelled correctly too.

What, do you dislike diversity? Then the English lexicon is not for you. Many a word, over the course of the years, gets diverted one way and another, until it has some number of forms manifesting some variety of sense. We see person and parson, victuals and vittlesvermin and varmint, and carmine and crimson. We even see it in to and too (yes, that’s right, they started out as the same word). So why wouldn’t we have divers and diverse

We do have them, anyway, both coming from Old French divers, from Latin diversus, originally from roots meaning ‘turned different ways’ – the same as also gave us divert. But does there seem something particularly pervers, I mean perverse, about this doublet? 

Well, yes, there’s the issue that divers is also the plural of diver (and is pronounced the same way as this divers). There’s also the fact that if you know French, you know that the word divers is not pronounced at all the same as how we in English say divers or diverse. (On the other hand, it is said the same as French d’hiver, ‘of winter’. I’m sure that signifies something.) But mainly, it’s hard to say why we would need two forms of this word. It seems like diversity for its own sake. Is it just that, contrary to a current popular usage, we may reasonably hold that one thing (or person) cannot be diverse? So we just have to have at least two?

I’d say there are two main reasons for having both (leaving aside the basic reason that we just do because historically it just happened that way – this is true, but nothing forces us to use both if we don’t want to). The first is that – for those who have become acquainted with divers in the wild – it has a quaint and old-fashioned air to it, the sort of word you see in texts that also have the old “long s”: ſeen in ſundry ſeaſons and divers manners (note that since the only s in divers is at the end of the word, it is not a long one – perhaps ironically).

The second reason is that whereas diverse carries an implication of considerable difference between the sundry parts, divers can mean simply ‘different’ or ‘various’ without implication of how different (the Oxford English Dictionary quotes Richard Chenevix Trench’s book The Fitness of Holy Scripture for Unfolding the Spiritual Life of Men: “We have the divers statements of St. Paul and St. James—divers, but not diverse”). It can also simply mean ‘several’ or ‘sundry’ or ‘a number of’ – so when I say there were divers people in the water, I can just mean that there were a fair few splashing about, with no particular comment on how different they were one from another.

You might object that most people don’t really know or appreciate this subtlety, and that’s true. But we don’t always write for most people. People are diverse, and certain subsets have exceptional inclinations and predilections. It’s OK, from time to time, to know your audience and know that they might find divers lexical charms on the necklace of prose to be welcome diversions.

empire

L’empire empire. The empire gets worse. It’s an empirical fact. Every imperialistic imperative ends in pyres and impertinence. You may think that the empire state is building, but all empires are stricken back in the sequel.

You may object that this is all wordplay, but if you object to wordplay, why are you here reading this? Anyway, many a truth may be expressed more engagingly with a bit of verbal titillation or scintillation. It’s not that lexical coincidences reveal truth; they just give the opportunity to make truth spicier.

And one truth that is lurking in all of this is that empire, like any empire, has claimed by association some things that do not pertain to it at all. Empirical, for instance, which always strikes me as referring to things seen in the empire of the world, comes from Greek ἐμπειρία (empeiría, ‘experience’), which is from ἐν (en, ‘in’) plus πεῖρα (peira, ‘trial, experiment, attempt’). It has no relation to empire, which comes from Latin in (‘in’ or ‘on’ or an intensifier) plus parare (‘make ready’ or ‘order’ – you see it in prepare as well, among other words). How do you get from ordering to an empire? Through an imperator: an emperor, a person who delivers imperatives (yes, also related).

And then there is French empirer, which means ‘make worse’ or ‘become worse’, from en (‘in’ or related prepositions) plus pire (‘worse’, from Latin peior, which shows up in English in pejorative). Although its first- and third-person singular present indicative conjugation is empire, it also is not related to the noun empire (which is spelled the same in French as in English). And yet.

We see empire in various places, some dating to when empires were seen as good things, others dating to when they were… not so much. The Empire State Building, in New York City, which in my heedless youth I processed as [Empire] + [State Building] rather than [Empire State] + [Building], is named after the State of New York, which is nicknamed the Empire State. Why is it nicknamed that? We’re… not entirely sure; there are ideas about who first called it that and why, and how the name caught on, but there’s nothing solid. We just know that it started somewhere and expanded somehow and by the mid-1800s it had taken over. And we know that people did not view empires badly at the time. It was, after all, the height of the imperial age: the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the French Empire, and on and on, each one a rapacious metastasis of commercial and military might – or, if you asked people at the time, a manifestation of the glorious spread of civilization.

As though civilizations were only the victors. International law of the time followed a principle that, if held to in small local matters, would mean that mugging was not only good but right and just, because clearly the person who is able to rob you of your wallet is smarter and better prepared and thus more deserving. But eventually what goes around comes around, and the colonial enterprises sclerose into bureaucratic enterprises as the active rapacity of the invader turns into the passive rapacity of the collector of unearned wealth. And by the late 1900s (that means 1980 or so – sorry), The Empire Strikes Back could be counted on to have a tinge of villainy in the very name. It’s not that we hate all things empire now; but, like an empire waist on a dress, empires seem old-fashioned, high-handed, and heading for a bust. Somehow in empire we are more likely to hear vampire than umpire now (neither of those words is related, by the way) – and perhaps also pirate (also not related, but it is related to empirical).

And yet. Humans being humans, there will always be someone somewhere wanting more and finding a way to get it. There will always be an empire building somewhere, in some state. But empirical observation of history tells us that, like the Roman Empire, they rise and fall. 

J.M. Coetzee, in Waiting for the Barbarians, wrote this:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

Mais quand même, l’empire empire.

meet-cute

It wasn’t quite a meet-cute. Well, maybe it was. You be the judge. It went like this.

I was new to town and, to make some connections and see some performing art, I volunteered to usher at a dance festival. I knew no one. I went to the opening night party and did what I could to impersonate an extravert. This mainly meant conversing briefly with anyone who took it upon themself to converse with me. I managed to initiate a few brief conversations, but I spent the rest of the time just looking around. There was one person who caught my attention, a striking young woman with red hair who was sitting alone in the middle of the action talking to no one. I thought about going up to her and introducing myself. But she was beautiful, she wasn’t smiling, and it seemed quite possible she would chew me up and spit me out. I was a scrawny dorky guy. My nerves failed me altogether.

But wait. Two days later, I showed up for my first shift ushering. The doors weren’t open yet; we were getting things ready. I was told to go help stuff programs (put inserts into the booklets). The front of the theatre, when it wasn’t being the front of a theatre, was (and still is) a cabaret bar called Tallulah’s, and so I walked up to what was normally a bar counter by a window to join the other usher who was already there stuffing programs.

Guess who the other usher was.

Yes. The heart-stopping red-headed woman. 

I was in a situation where conversation was expected, so I immediately made some kind of joke. I can’t remember what it was (the smart money says it was a play on words), but she seemed to think it was funny. She was very sweet and not at all carnivorous. We started talking. For some reason we got onto the subject of music and I mentioned my love for Arvo Pärt. She was very impressed, as she was also fond of his music, and she – like Pärt – was Estonian (on her father’s side).

Anyway, we got along well. Or at least I had the sense that we did. We chatted as occasion permitted all shift long (not during the performances, of course). I found out a few things about her; she found out a few things about me. And, naturally, at the end of the shift, I had a complete failure of nerve and did not ask her to meet me for coffee or anything of the sort. We went our separate ways and all I knew was her name. 

And this was before social media. In fact, it was August 18, 1997.

Which was also before such things as online sign-up for dance festival ushering. So the next day I went back to see about signing up for some more shifts. Anything to increase the chance of another meeting. And as the volunteer coordinator looked at his big open schedule book, I looked at it from the other side and was grateful that I could read upside-down, because I saw an open slot on the same shift as Aina Arro. I volunteered for that day. And you can easily guess that I didn’t mess it up that time.

And that, to put it as cutely as possible, is the story of how I met my wife in a gay bar. (Technically that’s true: Tallulah’s is a gay cabaret bar.)

But was it a meet-cute?

You know what a meet-cute is, right? The noun meet-cute, which dates to the 1950s, is formed from the verb phrase meet cute, which dates to the 1940s (if not earlier). The Oxford English Dictionary defines that as “(of two characters in a film, novel, etc.) to have an amusing or charming accidental meeting which leads to, or is followed by, romantic involvement.” It illustrates it with a quote from the play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by George Axelrod: “Dear boy, the beginning of a movie is childishly simple. The boy and girl meet. The only important thing to remember is that—in a movie—the boy and the girl must meet in some cute way. They cannot … meet like normal people at, perhaps, a cocktail party or some other social function. No. It is terribly important that they meet cute.”

So… was my meeting Aina cute enough? It was for us, to use the OED’s definition of the noun, “an amusing or charming first encounter between two people that leads to the development of a romantic relationship between them,” but was it amusing or charming enough for movie audiences? We didn’t bump into each other on a streetcorner, each weighed down with armloads of paper or pastries. We didn’t mistakenly take each other’s bags in an airport or train station. I didn’t go to serve her in a restaurant and accidentally pour wine or sauce all over her dress. I just saw her once, then saw her again, and it was in a thrown-together circumstance only inasmuch as we were both volunteering for a dance festival.

But what is cute, anyway? In Ireland, the word can be used to mean ‘clever, crafty, deceitful’, and in fact, cute is originally ’cute – that is to say, it was to acute as ’nuff is to enough: what is technically termed an aphetic form. So its first meaning was ‘clever’ or ‘smart’. And just as smart has gained senses relating to good appearance, cute has gained a sense of ‘attractive’ or ‘charming’ – or, increasingly, ‘pretty, in a childlike way’. Kittens are cute. But there are many people who are very good looking who you would probably not call cute.

And likewise, there are many charming circumstances that might also not be called cute. Seeing someone interesting, not having the nerve to talk to her, and then two days later being put to work right next to her? Well, mmmaybe. 

But I have the older definition of cute to fall back on. After all, reading the sign-up book upside down and picking out the next open spot with the person I wanted to “coincidentally” be put together with again was at least a little clever. Right?

It was smart, that’s for sure. We met 25 years ago, and we’ve been married for more than 20 years now. Ain’t we a cute couple?

Arisa

More than 80 years ago, in Riga, Latvia, a girl was born. Her mother wanted to call her Larissa. But her father thought too many girls had that name. So – perhaps influenced by the fact that their family name started with A – they called her Arisa. (The stress in Latvian is on the first syllable, and the name sounded the same with single or double s, so Arisa really was Larissa minus L. But in English-speaking context, Arisa is always said as you would expect, with the accent on the second syllable.)

A small digression here. You may not know where the name Larissa comes from; if you don’t, you’re in good company. In fact, you’re in a group that includes pretty much everyone. It’s a name that has been popular in some parts of Europe (especially eastern ones) for some time, since there is a Saint Larissa, who was part of a group of martyrs in a place that is now on the eastern side of Turkey. The name is Greek, and we’re not sure, but it was probably taken from the Greek city in Thessaly named Λάρισα (Lárisa, but usually rendered as Larissa). The name of that city is also of uncertain origin, but likely comes from λαρός (larós, ‘sweet, delicious, pleasing). This would all have been history unknown to the parents of little Arisa.

If you’ve done the math, you know that a war was breaking out just around when Arisa was born. That war and its sequelae led many people in the Baltic states to leave for another country. Arisa and her parents and younger sister escaped to Sweden. And then, after a few years, when Arisa was 10, they took a ship to Canada.

Arisa and her sister grew up in Toronto and environs. Arisa enjoyed the arts. She was excellent at drawing and painting. She loved ballet.

She danced avidly for as long as she could, even for years after she was married and had two daughters. And when she no longer could dance, she moved on, but she didn’t leave the arts behind. She designed and sewed clothing for herself and her daughters. When her older daughter became a figure skater, she made her costumes for her programs. She helped both daughters with their school art assignments. She shared her encyclopedic knowledge of dance, especially with her older daughter, who, along with becoming a professional figure skater, earned two degrees in dance studies.

And then that older daughter – Aina – met me, volunteer ushering at a dance festival. In 2000, Arisa became my mother-in-law. And with me as with everyone, she was unfailingly kind, conscientious, and giving.

She never stopped being interested and involved in the arts. She volunteered for arts festivals (including literary and film festivals). She joined us to theatre and dance. If you met her in her later years, you might not expect she had ever been a dancer, and she would never tell you she had, and yet she loved the arts avidly… just as you would never expect that her name was altered from the name of a saint named after a Greek town, and yet it preserved the euphony that had undoubtedly helped make it so popular (a euphony that has led to the name being created in other cultures quite independently). 

And you could never miss noticing that she had a certain flair.

She joined Aina and me to several theatre festival performances this year, complete with picnic lunches. We were looking forward to more with her. But, on short notice, she – and we – discovered that her season was ended. But at least we had what she had given us, which was so much. Like her name, she was always sweet… and more – and other – than you might expect.

sunset

Every sunset is a sunrise somewhere else.

As the sun sets on Toronto one day in early August, it’s rising on what remains of the Aral Sea and, in another minute or three, on the whole west coast of India. As it sets on Calgary, it has just lately risen on the African coast of the Red Sea. For every sunset and sunrise, there is a whole set of places in the world that are crossing the terminator line of the sun’s shadow at that moment, turning away from or towards the sun. They are bound and set so to do, as long as the earth is moving as it is.

Poets write about sunsets, from time to time. But that’s like singing a song about a painting. There is no conversion rate between images and words; the words carry sounds and ideas the images never could, but the images bring things words have no hope of tattooing in black on white with their abstract little lines.

We like the sunset because we are there for it (how much less often are most of us awake to see the sunrise!), and because it is there for us, at eye level, the sun’s rays passing at a flat angle through the atmosphere, skimming across clouds. At the last, as it is cut by the horizon, you can look at it for more than a moment. And you want to look at it, because it has contrast and colour: all the things that your eye seeks as a treat but that are too harsh during the day are there on a dessert tray at sunset, completed by the contrast between the daylight before and the nightdark after. During the day we take the sun for granted, we seek the shade, we don’t look straight at it, but when we have turned far enough away from it we pause and appreciate it just before we can’t see it, and then it is gone.

But of course it’s still there. It’s all just our perspective, on our spinning ride. Every second of every day, from the beginning of the earth through now to the very end of our planet, there is a shadow line, a set of sunrise and sunset. When it is our time at the line, we can enjoy it if we want. When I visit my parents in Alberta I like to go for walks and see the sun go down. Back in Toronto, though that’s where my favourite song about watching the sunset was written, I much less often see it – there are buildings in the way. So be it.

You know the word sunset, of course, and you can see its parts. Sun is a grand old Germanic word, not related to son though it sounds the same in English now. Set is not so much one word as a set of words, or rather two sets. One of those sets is related to sect and refers to groups and such things. The other is related to sit and refers to going down, putting down, being in place. You can easily enough tell in which set to set sunset. (There is a third Set, the Egyptian god of war, chaos, and storms. Sometimes that Set unsettles the sunset. But we can set him aside.)

It is tempting to use sunset as a metaphor. But if you must, remember this, set this down: on the earth it is always sunset and always sunrise and always neither, and what we experience at any time just depends on where we are… and we will come around to each again and again.