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AWADmail Issue 274

September 30, 2007

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages


From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: RE: A new book: The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two

Thanks for your kind words and for making my upcoming book among the top 20 on Amazon.com earlier this week.

Bookstores in more than 20 countries have listed the book already.

I hope you'll find the book worthwhile. I look forward to your comments.


From: Subha Deivanayagam (arasi14 hotmail.com)
Subject: toponyms

Even today, many in South India add the name of their ancestral village to their names. My husband is C.N. Deivanayagam, where the C stands for Chettikulam, the village where his grandfather was born and brought up.


From: Gordon Walker (gordonwalker roadrunner.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--artesian

There is a city here in Orange County, California called Artesia, where they once had artesian wells. There is also another city here called Fountain Valley.


From: David Harnasch (dharnasch web.de)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--hessian

First, let me tell you how I love your project -- it's the first mail I read every day! But you misspelled something today: The state is called Hessen in German.

    A number of readers wrote about this. In English, the state is really spelled as Hesse. It's a case of a name used by the outsiders vs. a native name, similar to Munich/München. For more, see exonym.
    -Anu Garg


From: Patrick Brandt (pbrandt utdallas.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--hessian

Looking over today's word, I can think of another definition of hessian that I need to keep straight in my own work. I teach both American politics and social science statistics. In the former, Hessians are mercenaries for the British in the American Revolution. In my latter work, it is the general term used for the second (partial) derivative of a likelihood function that is central to statistics. In this application the negative, expected, inverse value of the Hessian (variously capitalized in the literature) is very important: it provides an estimate the variance around statistical parameters in likelihood based inference.

Keeping my "Hessians" straight may seem hard: they both generate(d) explaining variance in my outcomes of interest.


From: Brenda Seabrooke (seabrooke verizon.net)
Subject: feedback: hessian

When I was in high school, my future husband went to Europe on the Coast Guard training ship, the Eagle. On a side trip to Paris, he bought a present for me. This was in the days when Paris dictated fashion for the western world. He brought the present home with him when he had summer leave. He wanted to see me open it.

With a sly smile, he handed me a box that proclaimed Paris Original on its cover. Inside was a dress made of a hessian or burlap bag decorated with buttons and bows.

The next day, not one to let a good joke pass, I put on the Paris original. It was as short as the shortest mini which hadn't been invented yet -- hems were mid-calf then. In a pair of red satin heels to match the red bows, I drove to his farm and modeled my Paris original for his amazed parents and sister, the only time I ever wore it.

I would like to say I still have the Paris original but my mother sewed the neck and sleeves shut and used it to hold pecans picked up in the yard, the only proper use for a hessian/burlap bag in Georgia.


From: V. Balakrishnan (vbalki physics.iitm.ac.in)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--brigadoon

Physicists, too, can often be evocative in their terminology. A kind of evanescent event that is localized in time (rather than in space) is called an "instanton". Nice to know that an instanton with a long recurrence time is a brigadoon!


From: Jim Mica (jmica ithaca.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--brigadoon

You first featured this word in 2001. I remember because I was moved to do some research on the etymology:

From this side of an incredible late summer Tuesday of terror what I have to say seems pretty piddling. I'll say it anyway, however, if only to remind myself of what was once important.

The August 31st AWAD was brigadoon, with a small 'b', implying that the proper noun, Brigadoon, has now become a common one. The entry for the day notes that Brigadoon comes from the play of the same name by Lerner and Loewe. It goes on to say the play is based on the story Germelshausen by Friedrich Gerstacker. The entry disappointed me because it didn't give any notion of why Lerner picked the name, but it also intrigued me by giving a German story as the source of this Scottish play. I immediately set off to do some research.

One of Lerner's biographers (Edward Jablonski) says that Brigadoon comes from a bridge (or "brig" in Scots) over the Doon River; a Scottish river celebrated in the poetry of Robert Burns. I even came across a photo of the bridge. This seems pretty straightforward, but the "source" of the play is less so.

Broadway plays have often been based on prior works, but Lerner always claimed that his source was the works not of Gerstacker but of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. He claimed that Barrie provided the inspiration, but the story line was his own. When the play opened, one critic noted the similarity to Germelshausen, and the Dean of New York critics at the time, George Jean Nathan, most stridently announced that Lerner had all but committed plagiarism. Indeed, Nathan spends about one quarter of his writeup of the play for "The Theatre Book of The Year: 1946-1947" on the similarities between Brigadoon and Germelshausen. He concludes: "Mr. Lerner has blandly attributed the similarities to 'unconscious coincidence'."

Some twenty years later, in his autobiography, Lerner allowed as how Nathan took after him so viciously because he had beaten out Nathan in vying for the affections of an actress in the play. When Gene Lees investigated the story for his 1990 book "Inventing Champagne: The Worlds of Lerner and Loewe", he interviewed the actress in question. She claimed that Nathan had never shown any interest in her. In the end, whether he wanted the girl or not, Nathan seems to have had the final say and his assertions about the play's source have been accepted as the truth.

2007 addendum: It seems to me that, no matter the source of Lerner's plot, he should be credited with coining Brigadoon. Whether Nathan is right or not, he shouldn't be the one allowed to own the history of the word.


The great men in literature have usually tried to bring the written word into harmony with the spoken, instead of encouraging an exclusive language to write in. -John Erskine, novelist, poet, and essayist (1879-1951)

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