Free Rice Words and Others XX
Bill Long 8/25/08
Beginning with Some "T's"
Several essays ago I talked about the tantalus, a British invention of the 19th century to allow homeowners to display their expensive liquor without the danger that the butlers or pantlers would sample it. On my way to torvity and tantivy today, my eye fell upon the tantalus cup, defined as a philosophical device (really a device to demonstrate certain principles of physics) to illustrate the nature of a siphon. Here is a web page that shows how it worked, with pictures. The Century tells us why it was actually called a tantalus cup. It says:
"The siphon is concealed within the figure of a man, whose chin is on a level with the bend of the siphon. Hence, as soon as the water rises up to the chin of the image it begins to subside, so that the figure is in the position of Tantalus, who in the fable is unable to quench his thirst."
Nice explanation--which is lacking from the linked web page.
A tantivy (origin uncertain) is a rapid or violent movement; a rush; a torrent. It can also be an adjective, where it means "swift" or "rapid." Dictionaries explain that it also has a historical meaning from a 1680-81 cartoon, denoting a High-church Tory, where about a dozen of the Tantivies were "mounted upon the Church of England, booted and spurred, riding it, like an old hack, Tantivy, to Rome." As an adjective it is similar to the biblical word gadarene. One might have a gadarene or a tantivy rush off the precipice of good sense--I think, for example, that is what John Edwards experienced with Rielle Hunter. Thoreau could talk about the "tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view." As an adjctive it was used by Arbuthnot: "This sort, however, is not in esteem with high tantivee scaramouches."
A Disgression on Scaramouch and Gobemouche
Truth be told, I gave the last quotation because of scaramouche. The word appears in our dictionaries as scaramouch, and it points to a "famous Italian zany of the 2nd half of the 17th century [Scaramuccia] who acted in England and died in Paris." In fact, as the OED tells us, Tiberio Fiurelli did a clever impersonation of the part when he brought his company of Italian players to London in 1673. The OED further says that the character was intended to ridicule a Spanish don. The French word, scaramouche, used in Moliere, is the form of the word from which the English word is derived. Thus a scaramouch was originally a "buffoon in Italian comedy and farce, a cowardly braggadocio who is beaten by Harlequin." In later usage it could be emplyed loosely as a term of contempt; a rascal or scamp. A 1694 quotation is especially vivid:
It makes the Laws cheap and ridiculous, the Solemnities of Jusitice a piece of Pageantry, the Bench a few Reverend Poppets, or Scharamouches in Scarlet."
"Scharamouches" (scaramouches) in Scarlet"--reminds me of the "dancing Itos" on the Jay Leno show during the OJ trial..
The word scaramouch reminded me of gobemouche, derived from the French gober (to swallow) and mouche (fly), which dentoes a person who "credulously accepts all news, however improbable or absurd." In other words, it is a person who has his mouth open so much in bewilderment or accepting astonishment that he could swallow a fly. The term was used this way in 1844: "The gobemouche expression of countenance with which he is swallowing an article in the National." Thus a gobemouche (pronounced GOBE mush) is a credulous person. One might have gobemouche travellers who believe every word that a guide says about the ruins before them; or gobemouche credulity; or, as a noun, a gobemouche who believes the story of the last person who talked with him/her.
Finishing with Torvity and Testo
Torvity is a much rarer word, even absent from the Unabridged, but it has a wonderfully useful dimension to it, once you think about it. Derived from the Latin torvus, which means grim, frowning, stern, wild or fierce, torvity is a grimness or fierceness of aspect. Torve, the underlying adjective, means "grim" or "fierce," is illustrated in this sentence: "He is supposed to have overlook'd this church, when finished, with a torve and tetrick countance." Tetrick? The Latin word underlying it, tetricus, means "forbidding harsh, gloomy." From 1772: "He had none of the forbidding, tetrical Spanish form of devotion." Or, in a moral guide from the 17th century, "It is not good to be too tetrical and virulent." So, returning to torvity, we can say that something might increase a person's natural torvity. Or, with a catchy classical allusion from 1825, we have: "Terrible John, with his countenance of Sabine torvity." The Sabines were the ones whom the Romans "raped" to get a supply of women for their men. So, torvity and tetrical--two wonderful words to express a grimness and harshness of manner or countenance. Just look around at our world today. Occasions for their use, like the spirits in the Gadarene demoniac, are legion.
There are tons of Italian words that have come into English. Originally it was musical or sculptural/artistic terms that came our way (rallentando, ritenuto, vivace, allegro; sfogato, morbidezza) but in the 20th-21st century it was all food. Testo is simply the Italian word for "text," and it can refer to the libretto of an opera, the text or theme or subject of a composition or, because he was responsible for the "text" in an opera, a narrator. From 1801: "When the words are well written, the song is said to have a good testo. Or, from the New Grove Dictionary of Music, "The testo part as normally set as recitative with continuo accompaniment and sung either by one or more soloists..In secular music the term was occasionally used for the narrator in dramatic dialogues and similar works."
That is enough for one more essay. And, guess what? There are still more words to explore, in the next essay.