Pages 1201-1220 II
Bill Long 6/1/06
In Honor of the Kids Who Spell
Tonight will be the finals of the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee. I call it the "Kids' Bee," in order to distinguish it from the one in which I participate in mid-June in Cheyenne. Sooner or later the adult bee will get a lot of attention, but that is not the reason I spell. I spell, actually, because I love words and the thoughts and pictures created by words. I wish the kids well, even though I am not a tremendous fan of the bee for kids--believing that one of the major benefits of such a bee is to understand concepts and not simply to memorize the spelling of words. I think that kids at age 12 or 13 are simply not in the position of being able to (or desiring to) understand most of the words which they cram into their minds. I am not a "crammer;" unless you consider studying all my life is cramming.
Today I will only go through about a handful of words in these pages, stopping and looking more closely at a few of them because of the real life stories that lie behind them.
I love the series of synonyms or similar words that the Century lists. Something spinous is "spiny; spinigerous; spiniferous; spiniform; spinose." You get the idea. The Century only lists the scientific meaning: "having spines, sharp or pointed." But the OED shows that the first usage of spinous in a scientific sense only appeared in 1668, while the figurative use of spinous antedates that by a generation. Used figuratively, spinous means "resembling or suggestive of a thorn or thorns in respect of sharpness or aridity; unpleasant and difficult or unprofitable to handle or deal with..." From 1638: "This I take to be the true and genuine meaning of this passage (of Scripture)...nor needeth it any spinous Criticisms for its explication." The term was usually used in the 17th and 18th centuries in the context of religious contentions. One could have "spinous questions" or "spinous difficulties" or the "spinous and confused cavils of Sophisters." I rather like the term. "They still had one spinous matter with which to deal, and all had been trying to avoid it for months..."
A spinthariscope is an obsolete scientific instrument. Invented through an accident in 1903 by Sir William Crookes, the spinthariscope (an instrument in which the rays emitted from the metal radium are evidenced by the production of tiny sparks--also known as scintillations. The Greek word for such sparks is spintharis) became popular to exchange as gifts by the English nobility and, later in the 20th century, became a toy for children in small chemistry sets. The accident leading to the discovery is described here. Crookes spilled some radium, which was very expensive, while observing the fluorescence that alpha rays from radium produced on a zinc sulfide screen. When he inspected the screen under a microscope, he saw not a uniform glow, which he expected, but individual flashes of light (the scintillations or sparks) each produced by the radium particles. The spinthariscope was a way to view and record these sparks. The word "spintharis" occurs in The Homeric Hymn to Apollo. Wasn't it great that scientists 100+ years ago knew Greek? Unfortunately the spinthariscope became very difficult to use, and it was soon replaced by other instruments which measured radiation emissions. Like the bamboo pole in the pole vault, the spinthariscope had its day, but now is largely forgotten--except in the dictionary and in the deep memory of those who believe that bringing alive the past makes us live more fully.
Spondylitis is an inflammation of the vertebrae. The Greek word spondylus, meaning a joint or vertebra, lies behind this. The basic word in English is spondyle or spondyl. Spondyl also has an attested meaning of a "joining of two pieces," as is evident in this florid description from the 17th century Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor: "Great Sir, the circles of the divine providence turn themselves upon the affairs of the world so that every spondyl of the wheels may mark out those virtues which we are then to exercise." I guess we would call it a "spoke" of a wheel today. The Century also introduces us to spondylalgia, a pain in the spine; spondylarthritis, an inflammation of a vertebral articulation, spondylolisthesis, the displacement forward of the last lumbar vertebra on the sacrum; and spondylexarthrosis, a dislocation of the vertebrae. This last word for dislocation, exarthrosis, is a wonderful one when pronounced. You can almost feel the dislocation in the pronounciation. I like the word. Instead of saying to someone today, "Don't get bent out of shape," why not say, "Don't become exarthrotic about it." See if you still have a job after saying this word.
But I must pause here for a second, because the words are threatening to get away from us. The only word which the Collegiate has is spondylitis. Fine. Inflammation of the vertebrae. But, according to this medical web site, the most common X-ray identified cause of low back pain in adolescent athletes is a stress fracture in one of the bones. "Technically, this condition is called spondylolysis." If the stress fracture weakens the bone so much that it is unable to maintain its position, the vertebra shifts its place. This condition is known as spondylolisthesis. I guess the Collegiate, ever short on space, decided it had to limit its word offerings, and chose the term spondylitis.
Let's conclude this essay with a rumination. The dictionaries which have spondylexarthrosis, a dislocation of the vertebra, do not have the word exarthrosis as a stand-alone word. But they do have words that are seemingly much less useful, such as exareolate, meaning unmarked by an areola; exarillate, having no aril (a botanical term variously applied to the accessary coverings or appendages of seeds); exarate, which has three meanings--something that is "free" ("The chrysalis..differs..in being 'free' or 'exarate'), something that is plowed up, and something that is written down. It comes from the Latin exaratus, meaning to 'plow up.' I could go on at quite some length here, but it seems to me that some further effort should go into reclaiming exarthrosis. It would not occasion a dislocation of our language.
I think, at this time, I need a digression. OOps, one more little benefit thrown your way. A synonym for spondylalgia (vertebral or spinal pain) is rachialgia. The Greek word lying behind it means a "ridge" or "rib." That's enough for now.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long