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Learned Vol. 5, Issue 1
This week: New year, new Learned! Wait, what? Don’t worry, all will be explained. But first, ever hear a word and think it was a word you knew only to find that it was, in fact, a totally different word? No? Oh. Uh, me neither. Anyway, on with the show!
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Say It Again, But Slowly
With Rivers of London (retitled Midnight Riot in the U.S.) Ben Aaronovitch gave us the best take on British wizardry since Harry Potterin the form of Peter Grant, police officer, apprentice wizard, and general go-to for the rest of British law enforcement when things get weird. And things do get weird. Author Aaronovitch has put his characters up against rogue magicians, the fae, a couple of ghosts, and even a deranged god, give or take a few chapters. But, the series is best known for the namesake rivers of London, each of whom comes with its own goddess, thereby taking the idiom of making the city a character to its logical conclusion. In other words, they’re fun books. I like them.
But let’s talk about that quoteup there. One reason I enjoy this series so much is that Aaronovitch has a habit of catching me off my guard and forcing me to re-evaluate words I thought I knew. And one reason I like them is that they challenge my vocabulary. In this case, I thought I knew the word ‘peripatetic.’ But the word I knew, or thought I did, doesn’t make any sense in the joke, no matter how hard I try to squeeze it in. So, it’s off to the dictionary we go:
From the New Oxford American Dictionary:
traveling from place to place, especially working or based in various places for relatively short periods
Huh. That literally describes my job. You would think I would know this word. And, I thought I did. Only, I thought it meant something along the lines of shrewd or cunning. To the thesaurus! “Shrewd” led me to a handful of entries, which I could narrow down to those that started with “per,” the idea being that since I was confused about peripatetic I could eliminate any words that didn’t bear any resemblance to it. As word-finding methodologies go, this one less than perfect, but it worked out anyway. There, in my list of results was “perspicacious.”
of acute mental vision or discernment
Huh. Well. Those are not the same at all. But I wanted to dive a little deeper. Namely, I wanted to know two things: are these two words related? And, how did I mix them up so badly?
Peripatetic is one of those words that seems to exist just for word nerds. The first entry in the dictionary is all about moving around, but the second entry (again from New Oxford) is one word: Aristotelian. As in Aristotle. That’s a bit of a jump, isn’t it? Well, not if you’re familiar with Aristotle’s practice of teaching on the hoof. As Word Origins The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z puts it:
the Greeks used it not simply for ‘walk around’, but specifically for ‘teach while walking around’ – an allusion to the teaching methods of Aristotle, who discussed and argued with his pupils and followers while walking about in the Lyceum
So here you have this grandiose, overly fancy word for itinerant that ties directly back to the father of modern philosophy (Greek to Latin to Old French to, finally, English in the 1600s for those taking notes) that has everything to do with a walk-and-talk to make Aaron Sorkin envious and nothing to do with being shrewd.
Perspicacious, as Etymoline tells us, appears at first to have some similar characteristics as it also comes from the 1600s and Latin. However, once we look past those coincidences, we see that the initial root comes from PIE and, most tellingly, stems from the root “per” meaning “through” and “spek” meaning “observe,” whereas the “per” in peripatetic is actually the Greek “peri” meaning “round” and “patein” which means “walk.”
Amazon gets vilified a lot these days and for pretty justifiable reasons. However, to give credit where it is due, I don’t think people have really come to grasp with just how much they have revolutionized reading as a pastime for many people through their Kindle devices and service. Besides the physical ease of reading multiple books for long periods, the fact that they have incorporated dictionary services into their ebook software is, by itself, a game changer. Don’t know a word? Simply tap on it and there’s the dictionary entry, no muss, no fuss.
Contrast this to when I was a young reader - seeing a word I didn’t know meant having to either stop where I was, find a way to mark my place in the book, go down the hall to my dad’s home-office, get the dictionary down off the shelf, find the word in question, read the (sometimes oblique) definition, then go back to my book and try to get back into the flow of the story Or, I could just skip it and carry on reading. Guess which one I did?
Now, on the face of it, I don’t think that guessing the meanings of words from context and just getting on with the story is a bad thing. In fact, it’s how those of us of a certain age were taught to read. We spent a lot of time with worksheets designed to get us to figure a word out from the way it was used and by what the words around it meant. And that is a very valuable skill. But it can also make us a little lax when it comes to making sure we really know the words we think we know.
So, all I can surmise is that somewhere along the way, I came across perspicacious, guessed what it meant, and carried on. Then, sometime later, I came across a similar looking word and shortcut my way to a mistaken definition. These things happen.
But that, in a nutshell, is the point of this 5th volume of Learned - we come across unknown words all the time. Maybe it’s a new piece of slang that the kids are using, maybe it’s an old word that someone has decided to dust off and re-purpose, maybe it’s just one we haven’t heard before, but, for whatever reason, here’s a word we’re not quite sure of so what do we do? We say it again, but slowly, and we figure it out.
Down the Rabbit Hole
This Reddit thread led me to this video by Adam Neely about Conlon Nancarrow with stops at this insane YouTube channel that makes the most bizarrely incredible piano music I’ve ever seen. Set some time aside and dive deep into impossible music.
From the Archives
It’s funny, although I’d had a Kindle for years at that point, I hadn’t really gotten into exploring all the social features Amazon was slowly baking into the devices and software. But, in the lead-up to Learned Vol. 2, Issue 27: Smooth Seas, (originally published September 30, 2019) I started doing just that, especially by highlighting bits of text and sharing them out on the interwebs. All of which led into this issue, which is all about word art. Enjoy!
And, not to put too fine a point on it, has done so without disenfranchising a minor but disproportionately vulnerable portion of the fan base.
Favourite Uncle is actually a short story in the Rivers of London universe. It stars Abigail, Peter’s cousin, who is a budding young investigator herself, like an urban Nancy Drew for the Harry Potter crowd.
Down the Rabbit Hole is likely to be a weekly feature. Back in Volumes 2 and 3 of Learned, I had similar sections and I kind of miss them, so they’re back! Don’t expect too much from them, they’re just a space for me to drop in a topic completely unrelated to Learned’s main feature.
It’s not lost on me that, although I quote from a book at the beginning of this issue, I didn’t do the Kindle quote feature. There are two reasons for this - one, I wanted to getting back to featuring some of the amazing work that shows up on Unsplash, and two, I hope that not every quote for this volume is going to come from a book and I wanted to keep the look consistent.