Lesson #387: Amok

Because you probably don’t live in isolation, you’re likely familiar with the phrasal verb “to run amok”. Our friends Messrs. Merriam and Webster have four related definitions for amok. The second, the one we know best, “in a wild or uncontrolled manner”, is of Malay origin and dates to the early 1670s.

However, the earlier (1665) definition,  “a murderous frenzy that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture”, is apparently a thing that still exists that is bound almost entirely to Malaysian culture, but has also shown up in cases in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. It’s a rare madness — and is therefore classified as a mental illness — where someone will just completely lose his (or her) mind and causes serious bodily harm or straight up murders someone for no reason.

I can’t be the only person to notice that all three of these places are islands, right?

You can read more on Amok here.

M-W definition here, Etymology here.


Lesson #312: Soap Operas

Soap operas are not for me; when a show starts getting too soap opera-y, I give up on it.* If every imaginable tragedy and disaster happens to you in the run of a show, if I watched at one time, I’ll walk away from it sooner than later. As with my tenuous relationship with science fiction, there’s only so much I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. If you can’t be clever in your content, I can’t be bothered. 

But soap operas are called soap operas because of…soap. I would never have imagined that to be true because that’s absurd. The spanish word, telenovellas, makes clear and obvious sense. Soap operas less so. But it actually does make sense. The term comes from the time of (one can assume overly) dramatic daytime radio programs that were sponsored by — you guessed it — soap companies. 

*see: Grey’s Anatomy — abandoned somewhere in the second season, Glee — abandoned a few episodes into its third season, and True Blood, which despite the presence of two very tall, impossibly gorgeous, often half-naked men, lost me a third of the way into the fourth season.

Lesson #300: Simon the Zealot

Simon appears in all four of the synoptic gospels (because he’s an apostle and even the ones you’re hard pressed to name offhand get a bunch of love in the gospels) and to distinguish him from Simon Peter is called “Simon the Zealot.” But that’s all fine and good in English. In English, that’s just something we all learned in church (or, if you’re me, a combination of the church I grew up in — which was not Roman Catholic — and the Catholic grammar school I attended).

Anyway, the Zealots* as a group have a very interesting history. And I love me some subversive histories. So what I find most interesting about this is that, according to Catholicism, Simon the Zealot is a saint, considered to be a man who was a strict follower of Jewish law. 

Originally, the Zealots were the leaders of a political movement bent on removing Roman rule from the Judaic territories by force in the first century CE. (See? My kind of history!) The Jewish revolt of 66 CE was lead by the Zealots. The ancient historian Josephus wrote a whole slew of things about the Zealots, whom he considered to be a distant fourth sect of Judaism at the time. 

Etymologically, the lineage is so far from useful. The word we use comes from the late Latin/Greek words zelotes, from c. 1300, which just means “one who is a zealous follower.” Even the etymological roots of the word zeal are both relatively new and of unknown origin. So basically, our usage of the word zealot to describe Simon is a modern addition, not something that was translated from the ancient texts into the Greek. It was some guy at a table going, “oi! There are two Simons…what do I do?!?” and someone else solving the problem by making up a word. Or something not-so-different.

I find it disappointing when my research ends poorly, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Facts are facts. And sometimes, they’re not very interesting. I started more-or-less wanting to know about Simon the Zealot (because sometimes random things like lesser known apostles pop into my head for no reason), but it turns out that once you threw in a revolution, I was far less interested in the person,** and more interested in the revolution and the etymology.

*Interestingly, religiously speaking, the Zealots were not backed by the Rabbinate; They were considered to be non-religious in the strict sense of the word and were condemned for their use of violence.

**As with Jesus himself, there is absolutely no definitive evidence outside of the gospels that Simon existed. There’s been some question as to whether the Simon of the synoptic gospels and the Simon of whom Josephus wrote in his history of the revolt, The Jewish War, are the same person.

Lesson #249: Jaywalkers

According to Mental Floss, the term jaywalker is derived from the early 20th century American slang term “jay”, which meant a foolish or naive individual. They say that “when such a pedestrian decided to ignore traffic signals and street signs, he was referred to as a “jaywalker.”

The Etymology Dictionary corroborates this, noting that word jay (actually a late 19th century term — 1888 specifically) meant “fourth-rate, worthless”. As for the term jaywalker, it suggests that the word, which appeared no later than 1912* and certainly derived from jay,  may have originated in Kansas City and may have had an implied air of “boldness or impudence.”

*Merriam-Webster says 1915. They also tell me that Bartok (whose music I find incredibly painful to listen to — like someone running their fingernails down a chalkboard) rhymes with jaywalk, which though true, is really, really random. I’m at a loss for an occasion in which one would ever rhyme those two words.

Lesson #233: Luthiers

Stradivarii have come up twice this week, for no reason at all. The article I was reading today questioned whether a Stradivarius really produces a higher quality sound than modern pieces. I don’t play the violin and, while I have no doubt that at some point in the course of my musical education I’ve heard a Stradivarius played,* I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t recognize the sound if I heard it.

Anyway, none of that is the point. I’ll leave it to the higher paid and better informed to argue the aural value of the Stradivarius. The point is the word luthier. Because I’m a smart girl with good deductive reasoning skills, even though I had never seen the word luthier before, I was able to gauge that it is someone who makes violins.** Turns out that’s only sort of half true.

According to Merriam-Webster, a luthier is “one who makes stringed instruments.” As I’d suspected, the word is French and is derived from the word luth, meaning lute, which is in turn derived from the Middle French word lut, which has the same meaning.

*Not likely live, but I’m a fan of Joshua Bell’s work and he plays a Strad.

**Even though the word implies a lute maker.

Lesson #195: The Reiver Trail

I always like when I discover that something I love is more clever than I first thought.

Today’s word is “to reive” which is a Middle Scots word meaning to steal. Incidentally, it is also where we get the word bereaved.

The reivers were the Scottish border clans who were proponents of Scottish independence and tended to launch raids on both sides of the border. They were essentially lawless…enemies of England, probably Scotland and pretty much everyone not in their clan. I am a descendant of the Armstrong clan — though in fairness, you have to go back to my great-grandmother before you get to the Armstrong branch of my family.*

Anyway today’s actual lesson is that there is, in the old reiver country of Scotland, the Reiver Trail. This has now been put onto my list of things to see. I’m always down for a little bit of revolutionary violence. And a little bit of learning about the history of my family way, way back when. My grandfather is an excellent source of information, but I imagine that the museums whose focus is such things are even better.

Now, back to my first statement in this post. Joss Whedon’s Firefly bogeymen are called “reavers” — fighters living on the edge of civilization (also eating people, but poetic license is acceptable when setting a (criminally underrated by the network) TV show in space). I suspect I have figured out why. I have always liked him because he’s clever.

*If you want to read more about the border reivers, here’s where you should go to read up on them. I recommend it; it’s a pretty cool bit of history.