Archive for the ‘Words’ Category


March 18, 2012


People who like Robert Frost’s poetry have read about it. Our friends up North in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, are living through it.

This is Mud Time. That’s what we call it here. But in over in Russia, it’s Rasputitsa.

That’s the time of year, in both spring and fall, when heavy snow or rain make the unpaved roads of that vast country impassable.  Rasputitsa did much to defend Russia from invading hordes led by Napoleon and Hitler, sucking horses’ hooves, wagon wheels, truck tires, and tank treads into gooey mire.  People of Russia – at least those who’ve been allowed to learn their country’s true history – must have an appreciation for Rasputitsa, even as they hunker down and eat borscht until their roads dry up.

If you think ”Rasputitsa”  sounds like the surname of that shadowy figure Gregory Rasputin, you’re right.  But the word itself probably came from the Russian root “put,” which means “road” or “way.”  A “rasputye” is a place where roads converge. “Rasputitsa” came to mean “muddy road season.”

Some people mistakenly believe that Rasputin’s surname means “licentious.” That’s not true, though the guy who is popularly called “the mad monk” was almost certainly that, in his dealings with women of the Court and elsewhere in St. Petersburg.  A similar Russian word, “rasputny” does carry that meaning, and its noun form, “rasputnik,” describes a man who might be described nowadays as a lecher.

Nicholas II

Rasputin is a common name in Russia. But as for the man himself – he was a mysterious character who held mesmeric sway over Alexis, the hemophiliac son and only male heir of the hapless Czar Nicholas II.

Rasputin arrived in St Petersburg from Siberia around 1905. An itinerant preacher, he had a reputation of being able to heal people through prayer. Doctors of the Imperial Court had been unable to help the lad, who was great grandson of Queen Victoria. Rasputin was able to make Alexis feel better, every time the boy hurt himself or began to bleed. It was probably through some form of hypnosis. He may also have used leeches, and he said to stop using aspirin – a good move because aspirin is an anticoagulant that made matters worse.

The Czar called Rasputin as “our friend” and a “holy man.” The trust that built up for him gave the guy a lot of personal and political influence at the court. Local nobility and the Orthodox Church leaders couldn’t stand him, of course, but had a hard time of it because he became an official of the Czar’s administration.  He was accused of many things – unbridled sexual predation, undue influence over the royal family among them.  These allegations were largely accurate.

Czarina Alexandra, of German-Protestant descent, thought God spoke to her through Rasputin.  Rasputin spoke of salvation as depending less on the clergy and the church than on seeking the spirit of God within. He also claimed that yielding to temptation – which for him meant sex and alcohol – was needed to proceed to repentance and salvation.

During the years of World War I, Rasputin’s drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and willingness to accept bribes and having his critics dismissed from their posts showed what kinds of guy he was.  He became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court. The unpopular Czarina was accused of spying for Germany.  Rasputin was against the war effort; he claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not be successful until the Czar personally took command.  The bumbling Nicholas did so, with dire consequences.


While Nicholas was away at the front, Rasputin’s influence over Czarina Alexandra increased. He persuaded her to fill governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. He also cohabited with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favors.  At that same time, Russia’s economy was declining rapidly. Many people blamed Alexandra and Rasputin. A group of conspirators finally murdered him in December 1916 after several attempts – he had been poisoned, shot, beaten, and finally drowned in an icy river.

You know the rest of the sorry history. Russia withdrew from the war, the Bolsheviks seized power, the Czar abdicated and was eventually murdered in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. There followed nearly a century – and counting – of profound evil, mass murder, plunder, pillage and assorted human tragedy wrought by Lenin, Stalin and so many of their successors.

Gregory Rasputin is a bit player on history’s grand stage. But was he really? Nicholas, the wrong man to come to power at an especially wrong time, probably would have screwed things up anyway.  Still, I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different had the imperial court’s doctors been successful in treating the poor little Czarevitch, and if Gregory Rasputin remained out on the steppes, just conning peasants out of their money and their honor. Rasputin may well have influenced the history of the world much more than he deserved to. We’ll never know.

If this story and era are of interest to you, I recommend Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. The author also had a hemophiliac son, and he decided to research the story of Russia’s last imperial family. It is a good read.

So next time your car is bogged down in the mud of a northern New England spring, remember that it’s just Rasputitsa.  You’ve got it bad for the moment, but it could be worse. Warm days will come, the roads will dry, and you’ll be on your way to the gorgeous scenic vistas of the Green Mountain and Granite States. They’re worth the effort.

And one final editorial comment. The Ipatiev House, a grand edifice in a backwater town in the Urals, remained standing until 1977 when bozo Russky premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered it destroyed, lest it become a revered place and shrine to the Romanovs.  Like most bad guys throughout history, Brezhnev was a craven coward.  He would have fled from a fistfight with Granny Clampett. But what he most feared was the light of truth.

No matter how painful the truth may be – truth from history or in the present day – we must never fear it.  And we must never cease our search for it.

Truth will set us free. It still has not yet set the people of Russia free. But it may yet – and let us hope it does.

Blondes, Brunettes, and Redheads: The Story Behind the Words for Hair Color

February 23, 2012

(This is taken almost verbatim from the e-newsletter “Daily Writing Tips.”  It covers some of my favorite subjects – particularly etymology, of course!)

The conventions for referring to hair color are tousled. Why is it that we refer to someone with light-colored hair as a blonde (and, rarely, a blond) but we call someone with red hair a redhead? Why are blonde and brunette spelled two ways?


Blond and its feminine form blonde, both from the Latin word blundus (“yellow”) by way of French, may have in turn come from a Frankish word that could be related to Old English blondan, “to mix,” which shares its origins with blend. Blond is usually employed as an adjective, the term as a noun for a man with blond hair, by contrast, is rare. Because blonds and blondes are more likely to be fair-skinned as well as fair-haired, the term is also associated with light complexion.

The presence of both masculine and feminine forms for blond/blonde and brunet/brunette is due to their French (and ultimately Latin) roots, as it were, as opposed to the Germanic origins of black and red, the words for the other major hair colors, which have a neutral form.

Normally, English might have jettisoned one gendered form for blond/blonde. However, the venerable theme in popular culture of the blonde-haired woman as more sexually attractive and available (as well as flighty, shallow, and dimwitted), as compared to females with hair of another color, has caused the noun form blonde and brunette to endure.

The numerous terms for variations in blond hair, not necessarily in order of darkness, include sandy, strawberry, and dirty. Towhead (the first syllable refers to its resemblance to tow, flax or hemp fibers used for twine or yarn) describes a person with yellowish and often unruly hair.


Brunet and brunette, from the gender-specific diminutives of the French brun (“brown”), mean “brown haired.” (Brun and its diminutives originally also referred to a dark complexion.) As with blond and blonde, the male form is rarely used on its own as a noun, though the masculine and feminine variations persist probably because of the same double standard in association of hair color with female sexuality and with personality characteristics as mentioned in reference to blondes above. (Dark-haired women are stereotyped as serious, sophisticated, and capable.) Words for shades of brown hair, from darkest to lightest, are brunet/brunette, chestnut, walnut (the last two as compared to colors of the respective nuts), golden, and ash.


  Redhead is yet another term for hair color used as a noun; in contrast to the colors mentioned above, it is not gender specific, though as blonde and brunette  are much more common in usage than blond and brunet, it is more likely to refer to a woman than a man.

Variations in red hair, listed in alphabetical order rather than according to depth of color, include auburn, copper, ginger, and orange. (Auburn derives ultimately from the Latin word albus, meaning “white,” but thanks to the influence of brun, the French spelling — auborne — changed, as did the meaning, to “reddish brown.”) The prevailing — and long-standing — cultural stereotype about redheads is that they are hot tempered; the hair color has also been associated with a high libido.

Alone among descriptions of people with general hair tones, a black-haired person is never referred to by the word black alone.

Hair-color categories are arbitrary — strawberry blond is sometimes considered a type of red hair, and auburn might be classified as a type of brown hair — though a system called the Fischer-Saller scale, devised for anthropological and medical classification, assigns alphabetical letters and roman numerals to various grades of hair color.

So: Is it true blondes have more fun?

What’s in a Name?

December 9, 2011

Callista, Calista. A politician’s wife and a well-known actress/main squeeze of well-known actor both sport that lovely name. It’s from the superlative of the Greek word “kalos,” meaning “good” or “beautiful.” So someone with that name is, to her parents and her beau, anyway, the “most beautiful.”

“Callista” was the word that started the Trojan War. Eris, the goddess of strife, was angry that she was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Everybody else from Olympus was there. Eris inscribed “Callistae” – the dative form of the word, which meant “to the fairest” – onto a golden apple and rolled it into the banquet hall.

Orlando Bloom as Paris with Diane Kruger as Helen

Naturally, all of the big three celebrity goddesses claimed the apple.  Zeus – this must be why he got to be Zeus, the most high – didn’t get sucked into making the decision. Zeus told Hermes to bring the ladies to Prince Paris of Troy, who was known for his taste in women.  The Judgment of Paris would settle the impossible issue. Aphrodite, goddess of love; Hera, wife of Zeus; and Athena, goddess of wisdom, played the bachelorettes.

It was no evening gown or swimsuit competition that they held, up there on Mount Ida. The girls did their K-Street best to sway him. Athena promised Paris strength and knowledge. Hera promised wealth and power.  Aphrodite promised that he’d marry the world’s most beautiful woman. Guess who won the golden “to the fairest” apple?

Problem was, that most beautiful woman, Helen, was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta.  Away she went, spirited off to become Helen of Troy. She was the one with “the face that launched a thousand ships;” they sailed off to get her back for her hubby.  It was the original quagmire, taking ten years, but back she came to Sparta.

Callista, Calista. And now you know the rest of the story.

An Act of Pure Evil

September 6, 2011

In writing my blog and posting on Facebook I have tried to avoid the political realm. This time I would like to make an exception.

The Bret Stephens column in the Wall Street Journal of September 6, 2011 struck a chord with me. I think that his central point is worth repeating here, and pondering as we look back on September 11, 2001. That day has its own sobering meaning for me; I flew out of Boston early that morning to attend a trade show in Atlanta.  I began the day one airline terminal distant from the mass murderers.

Stephens takes issue with the way that we – or most of us in America, anyway – have come to remember and refer to September 11, 2001. As someone who works every day to use our wondrous English language as effectively as possible, I agree with him when he writes, “An act of evil has been reduced, in our debased parlance, to a ‘tragedy.’”

He also rightly points out that while 9/11 was a day of monumental loss, it was also a day of extraordinary love and giving. He cites the first responders, the heroic and courageous “Let’s roll” passengers of Flight 93, the volunteers, emergency crews, and those inside the buildings who helped others and managed to save individual lives.

Earlier, on my Facebook page, I posted a link to ESPN’s beautiful story of the man in the red bandanna, Welles Crowther, Boston College lacrosse player. He is credited with saving at least a dozen people that day. If you have not yet seen it, find it on YouTube.

Stephens says that our remembrance of September 11 should largely be to reflect on, and be thankful for, those selfless people. Agree. If we all strive to emulate them, in ways large and small, our world will be a better place.

He goes on to remind us of a deeper danger here, and I believe he’s correct.

He compares the September 11 attack to the one on Pearl Harbor. In 1941, a comparable number of Americans lost their lives. While the nation mourned, it also responded. The day became a “bookend” in a war that was fought with a clear purpose and righteous resolve.  But 9/11 is an event that has no corresponding bookend; we don’t know whether we’re early, late, or somewhere in between in a similar book. In short, 9/11 has become an event unto itself, somehow disconnected from everything that still flows around it.

This way of looking at 9/11/2001has brought about our coming to refer to “the tragic events of 9/11” rather than calling that day what it was, a monstrous act of evil and of war.  Quoting Stephens’ final paragraphs:

“There is something dangerous about this. Dangerous because we risk losing sight of what brought 9/11 about. Dangerous because nations should not send men to war in far-flung places to avenge an outrage and then decide, mid-course, that the outrage and the war are two separate things. Dangerous above all because nations define themselves through the meanings they attach to memories, and 9/11 remains, 10 years on, a memory without a settled meaning.

None of that was true in 1951. We had gone to war to avenge Pearl Harbor. We had won the war. We had been magnanimous in victory. The principal memorial that generation built was formed of the enemies they defeated, the people they saved, the world they built and the men and women they became. Our task on this 9/11 is to strive to do likewise.”

Once again, I agree. American greatness does not reside in its presidents, congress people, actors, CEOs, or athletes.  On September 11, 2001, we saw once again that such greatness lies in ordinary people like you and me who, in times of dire need or extreme peril, performed supererogational acts for their fellow human beings.

My favorite John F. Kennedy quote says that countries define themselves not by the men they produce, but by the men they honor, the men they remember.

Let us resolve to do more than remember, this September 11 and on every one to follow. Let us strive to live our lives as the kind of Americans whom the heroes of September 11, 2001 died to save. If we do, we can still build a world that is another principal, fitting memorial to them.