Lemmas in Your Domicile

Some years ago, Dr. Steve and I took a couple of years of Latin in high school, partly because teachers said it would expand our vocabularies. If you know a little Latin, you get the meaning of “agriculture” or “ domicile” even if you never heard of them.

As it turns out, everyone has heard of agriculture. And domicile? I’ve yet to encounter a situation where you could speak the word without sounding like a pompous ass. Now, then:

Our word for today is “lemma,” which does not refer to a small northern rodent falsely accused of suicidal migrations off seaside cliffs.

“Lemma” comes from the Greek (for “husk”) rather than Latin. In publishing, it means a subhead or subject title, as distinct from “Boldface Italics,” which refers to an unruly mob in Palermo.

In forensics, polemics, and bickering, “lemma” means an assumption accepted for the sake of argument – ie, a proposition assumed to be true in order to test the truth of another proposition.

So nobody uses that, either.

Like domicile, lemma is a word you never say whose sole purpose is to make people feel ignorant.

True, one often finds oneself on the horns of a dilemma. I’m not sure where the horns came from, but a dilemma presents exactly two choices, both of them bad. And as if that weren’t sufficiently discouraging, this week’s Economist is talking about “trilemmas.”

Wise-Ass Oxford exhibitionists.

Their current issue carries an article about currency exchange systems, like the gold standard, the Bretton Woods agreement, or floating exchange rates. In preparing that essay, the editors realized that no such system will ever quite work. All attempts seek three goals – a fixed exchange rate, free movement of capital, and sovereign independence of monetary policy – but the fact is, you can achieve any two of these but not all three. (eg, under a gold standard you meet the first two criteria but not the third.)

Likewise, in designing a healthcare system, you want to control the three C’s – Cost, Coverage, and Choice – and you can achieve any two of these but not all. People will be furious, and none of them will want to hear about trilemmas.

So chalk up another unusable word – trilemma. Feel free to forget it entirely.

Unless it shows up in the news. Larry Ellison might decide that a three-masted trilemma could win the Americas Cup.

Titular Traps & Trappings

This is one of those non book reviews you find only on The Horse, where we throw up our hands at the thought of reading, much less analyzing, the millions of books being published willy-nilly these days. It’s beginning to look like Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, with an infinite number of books in random order.

So here are two novels, both by Tom Rackman: The Imperfectionists and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. We’ll have to assume the novels are good because we don’t intend to read them, and we don’t want to be surly. What we wanted to note here were the titles, and the author’s explanations for them.

We’re wondering, why would anyone launch into reading a novel born in an aesthetic universe where these pass for acceptable titles?

Well, I’ll tell you why, says the author. He just penned a thousand-word guide on how to arrive at such brilliant names for your books that everyone thinks your fictions are nonfiction rehashes of the Cold War. To would-be novelists with too much time on their hands and too little imagination, here indeed are the keys to the kingdom.

Rackmann explains how he kept a separate sheet for possible titles as he wrote his latest novel. By the time he finished his first draft, he had two possibilities. After the third draft, the sheet was “crammed with contenders.”

No, Dear. On your best day ever, it might have one, conceivably two “contenders” along with three dozen feeble stabs, fleeting epiphanies, and neurological spasms.

And good reasons marshaled in defense of a bad title don’t help. Rackman gives three “levels of meaning” for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, each one worse than the others, but the fact is,

Titles can’t be written, certainly not reasoned out. They happen.

The more reasons you can give for your title, the fewer its embers in your Kindle. The more explanations you have for its virtues, the more your publisher (if any) will insist on an alternative.

Rackman concedes that his publisher was uncomfortable with the repellent non-fiction titles he had chosen for his fictions. He’s also aware that some of his elders and betters have accepted title changes – that The Last Man in Europe became 1984; Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby; and Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird. But he’s not going to be bullied out of his reasons and his levels of meaning.

Think of some of your own favorite titles.

One of mine appeared on the cover of an oral history about Jews immigrating to Pittsburgh early in the 20th century. Volunteers set about interviewing the old timers while they were still around to interview; and one of the immigrants , a grandmother bursting with reawakened memories, exclaimed:

By Myself, I’m a Book!

You can’t write that title. It has to happen. And imagine Lynne Truss’s problem, trying to concoct a gripping title for a book on the importance of punctuation in the English language. She didn’t write it; her genius was to recognize what she had stumbled upon in a description of the panda. Then all she had to do was mispunctuate it:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I don’t lay claim to hall of fame titles for any of my books, but one of the better ones appears on a volume of light verse – and it’s not easy to find a name for a hundred or so poems in a bunch. Its title:

If instead of apes we had come from grapes, we wouldn’t just yet be wine.

That was simply the last two lines of a poem called “There’s the Bell,” which thus became the book’s title poem. Good or bad, for me it was a breakthrough – I never had a title poem before.


This from an ad, of all things, for Bauman Rare Books on Madison Avenue:

“My books are water. Those of the great geniuses are wine.

“Everybody drinks water.”

– Mark Twain


And a reminder from three quarters of a century ago that detective stories need not be one-dimensional genre fiction. Archie Goodwin, sent by Nero Wolfe to size up a diamond theft in a dance and fencing studio, meets the owner and his wife:

“He was small and thin but wiry looking and had black eyes and hair and a moustache which pointed due east and west. He looked and acted harassed, and as soon as he shook hands with me darted off somewhere. His wife, in spite of her New York clothes and hair-do, looked like one of those color pictures in the National Geographic entitled, Peasant Woman of Wcczibbrcy Leading a Bear to Church.”

— Rex Stout,
in Over My Dead Body


Finally, from Barb, who has been rummaging around in the annals of etymology:

In 1770, English explorer Captain James Cook landed in Australia and asked the Aborigines what they called the large marsupials indigenous to the continent. He was told “kangaroo”, which, unbeknownst to Cook, is Aborigine for “I don’t know”.

– Joe Green

“That’s Me Told, Then.”

I like reading Jenny Diski, an expert in not much of anything but always interesting in terms of her original takes and quirky turns of phrase.

She is a British born boomer who came of age, and out of a fractured home, in the 1960s and did everything that her generation was presumed to be doing (drugs, free love, socialism, communes, protests, riots) though, in truth, few had the nerve.

Last week she was writing about aging and reviewing various books on the subject in the London Review of Books (She mentions India Knight’s In Your Prime: How to Age Disgracefully)

Says Jenny Diski:

“I’m of the cohort which lived inside a gilded bubble when young, and made a proper song and dance about it … but is now clearly thinking of itself as old, and you can be sure this won’t happen quietly.”

Last year, at age 66, she referred to herself as old in a newspaper piece and was immediately taken severely to task by a Swedish nurse who works with people in their mid-80’s “who think of people your age as young and who never refer to themselves as old.” At the same time, she notices how store clerks and her hair dresser treat her as old or otherwise largely beside the point.

“That’s me told, then, every which way,” she concludes.

“People are going to be cross with you for declaring agedness too soon as well as too late, but it’s not that easy to identify the right moment. According to Scientific American, we ought to be able to sniff out where we are at.”

The principal book she is sniffing out is Lynne Segal’s Out of Time, which devotes a good deal of attention to the so-called war between generations. As Jenny Diski sums the party line, “Our pensions, the medical expertise and equipment, the time and energy needed to care and cater for a disproportionately large aged population: all this, the young have been told, is coming out of their earnings and limiting their wellbeing.

“Those who become ill or develop age-related conditions are to blame for failing to keep themselves bright and sparky … dependency with increasing age becomes something about which the old should apologize.”

Since oldsters have been paying into Social Security and Medicare all of their long lives — and working and scrimping to raise their kids and their kids — neither Diski nor Segal is buying these “political lies and half-truths.”

Nor does either blame the young for being angry; they blame the media for uncritically perpetuating distorted statistics and political cover stories — ideological excuses for the congressmen who have been misappropriating all those Social Security and Medicare contributions for all those years and misusing the money to solidify their own power.

Yes, the incomes of seniors increased slightly over the past decade – but from what level? Twenty to thirty percent of them live in poverty.

There’s more, though much of it – for both author and reviewer – is preoccupied with demolishing prissy confusions and squirmy attitudes concerning sex and health for aging women, none of which lends itself to tidy summations here by an ignorant male writer. Get the book.

Or don’t. Chances are, it won’t be on the final.

Atwood on Eggers

Margaret Atwood may be the most honored novelist, poet, and short story writer of our time, so when she really likes a book, it’s worth paying attention. In the November 21 New York Review, she enthusiastically discusses Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. An excerpt:


The outpouring of ideas is central in The Circle, as it is in part of a novel of ideas. What sort of ideas? Ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy.

Dissemination of information is power, as the old yellow –journalism newspaper proprietors knew so well. What is withheld can be as potent as what is disclosed, and who can lie publicly and get away with it is determined by gatekeepers: thus, in the Internet age, code owners have the keys to the kingdom.

Historical Footnotes

300 B.C.

You’re not going to believe this, but it’s true. Ptolemy’s wife was named Bernice. Also spelled Berenice, but we know.

Their son was the Ptolemy who later built the famed library of Alexandria.

The first head librarian, Eratosthenes, was also the first scholar to calculate the earth’s circumference. He found to his astonishment that it ended not three feet from where it began.

909 A.D.

The Abbey of Cluny (or Clugny) in France was built in 909 and became the center of a farflung monastic order that eventually produced four popes. It was not until 1658 that Blaise Pascal was able to prove that four popes beats a straight flush.

(Note: farflung is the past tense of farfling, now obsolete.)

One of the early Cluniac monks, Raul Glaber, was none other than Rudolf the Bald.

1413 A.D.

There’s an old castle in Herefordshire built by, though not named after, Sir John Oldcastle.

A carousing companion of Henry V during the king’s earlier days as prince of Wales, Oldcastle provided at least part of Shakespeare’s template for Sir John Falstaff. And, like Falstaff, he soon fell out of favor with the king.

Oldcastle was a leader among the Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe who wanted to reform the church. Convicted of heresy in 1413, he escaped from the Tower of London and organized a march to capture Henry at Eltham Palace in Kent. The marchers were routed by Henry’s troops, but Oldcastle escaped again, remaining at large for four more years until he was apprehended by the bishops, hanged, and burned.

Well, what would Jesus do?

Shakespeare left that part out of the play.

In Praise of Gibberish

I feel I’ve been left out. Maybe you have, too.

All these years, I’ve been writing and speaking but never yet speaking in tongues.

People start jabbering in what sounds like a language, but you can’t understand what they’re saying – and neither can they, and they don’t care. It’s God’s language, or the language of angels. It’s divine, and that’s all that matters.

The setting is usually a Pentecostal, Evangelical, or other Charismatic religious service. The congregation really gets into it – everyone talking at once – and afterwards they all feel great.

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. T. M. Luhrman, a Stanford professor of anthropology, attended such services in the southern U.S. and in Ghana and wrote about it last week in the Times. She had come away impressed with genuine glossolalia but also tipped off by a Pastor on how the real thing could be faked.

Just say, “I should have bought a Hyundai” 10 times very fast, and you’ll sound like you’re speaking in tongues.

That’s my only hope – faking it. I mean no disrespect, but why should we non-religious people be left out in the cold?

If you’d like to join the fake glossolalia movement, “I should have bought a Hyundai” is a good start, and for convincing variety we should supplement it with a few other passages. But remember, you need to mash syllables unintelligibly, as Catholics sometimes do when they try to say the Rosary too rapidly to work off their penance after going to Confession – “thykingdomcomethywillbedoneonearthasitisinheaven.”

Uttered in this fashion, you might use a list of ingredients from a can of refried beans or the last names from the roster of a bowling league.

I thought we might find some glossolalia in the Notre Dame fight song, though not in the first line – “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame” — which could easily blow your cover. Skip to something like, “Wake up the echoes cheering her name / Sending a volley cheer on high / Shake down the thunder from the sky.” And pray they won’t fumble.

People might recognize “Notre Dame,” so it would be wise to substitute the fight song of Milsaps College in Mississippi. They use the same music as Notre Dame, as does the East Freemantle Football Club in West Australia, which really is God’s country, so the rhythms should be about right.

From Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, we might try, “…the pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns …”

Holly suggested (from no source in particular): “Yvonne Goolagong a piggy wan in a Vera Wang, Eminem”

And William Cullen Bryant wrote lots of colorful, lyrical gibberish which some of us had to memorize in high school. Take any dozen or two words from anywhere in “To a Waterfowl”:

“Seekest thou the pashy brink
of reedy lake or marge of river wide?
or where the rocking billows rise
and sink on the chafed oceanside?”

I’d suggest starting with “reedy lake” and ending with “rise and sink” — and repeat without a pause. Another possible source of fake tongues would be advertising slogans. Here’s one from a 60-year-old paean to cigarettes:

“LS/MFT…LS/MFT…Lucky Strike means fine tobacco.”

Or take a fragment from a Pepsi Cola jingle of the same vintage – “…hits the spot, twelve full ounces, that’s a lot…twice as much for a nickel, too…”

We often indulge in political satire here at The Horse, but you won’t find any references above to Capitol Hill, our age’s Tower of Babble. That’s because what they’re doing is the exact opposite of Speaking in Tongues.

Instead of voicing the language of angels as a way of partaking in heaven, certain members of Congress (Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, a couple of hundred others) are trying to make outrageously harebrained gibberish sound as if it were rational. That’s their way of telling the rest of us to go to hell.

Elegy for a Precocious Mouse

Here lies the late, great mouse Precocity. RIP.

Twice he had eaten the bait, left his mocking spoor strewn about my desktop, and left the trap unsprung.

Clearly a genius IQ for a mouse (12), but in me he met his match (13?).

In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sanctus (out of his hole to become a holy ghost).

Non Domino’s, non Nabisco, et cum spiritu tuo – Fritos, & peanut butter laid him low.

Let he who enters my study unbidden be of good cheer and good manners.

But he who defecates upon my desk is doomed.

Jif is irresistible, apparently.

Services Thursday at the Department of Refuse Collection, no pets allowed.

Switchback English

Some passages in English reverse the field repeatedly and get you coming and going. This, for example, was a front page headline in the New York Times a few years ago:


Is that good or bad?

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Three lefts sometimes do. I once thought you could sort out switchback expressions by charting each positive and negative reference as a “Yes” or a “No” and then counting them up. To wit,

BAN (no)
ON END (no)
ACTION (yes)

This would give the “yes” vote a 3-2 majority, so the ruling would favor affirmative action. But if “affirmative action” is taken as a single, redundant affirmative, then the tally is even at 2-2. So much for that theory..

I yearn for a simpler time when, as James Thurber recalled it, his enigmatic friend Christabelle (who had promised her butler that she would write him into her next novel as the uncharacter of a nonbutler) would respond to someone’s assertion by saying,

“That’s not unmeaningless.”

Belated Rave Review

Thirteen years ago, Tim Weiner, then a reporter for the New York Times, wrote about the street names in Mexico City. I saved the article, e-mailed it to a few friends, and recently came across it once again – an excerpt is reprinted below.

(Weiner has since left the Times and has won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for his writings on national security issues.)


Mexico City: This is not a place where people live on 88th and Third, as in Manhattan, or 35th and P, as in Washington. This is a place where people live on Heart and on Soul. They live on Forest of Light, Mirror of Water, Forest of Miracles, Garden of Memories, Tree of Fire, Forest of Secrets, Sea of Dreams.

Surreal street names can reflect hard realities:

Work is long. Love and Happiness are short. Good Luck crosses Hope, then hits a dead end.

Intersections become works of imagination: the Volga River flows into the Nile, Beethoven meets Bach, the Himalayas cross the Alps.

And Comprehension ends in Silence.

(Ed Note: That’s none other than Juan Sebastian Bach. The Times showed the street sign. There’s further background in the first comment.)