Category Archives: Word of the Week

Word of the Week, 9/12-9/17/11 – history

his·to·ry n., pl. -ries.  1. a statement of what has happened.  2. a systematic, chronological account of important events connected with a country, people, individual, etc., usually with an explanation of causes, effects, etc.  3. a known past.  4. all past events considered together; course of human affairs.  5. the branch of knowledge or study that deals with the record and interpretation of past events.

make history,  a. to influence or guide the course of history.   b. to do something spectacular or worthy of remembrance

[< Latin historia < Greek  historía ]

~ selectively adapted from The World Book Dictionary

History is one of those words that seems loaded with additional little meanings.  We use it in the context of “a history” (as in between two combatants), case history, product history, personal history, family history, etc.  It appears in the jargon of fields and professions that have little to do with the history that is taught in schools.  In general, it is confidently used to refer to the past.

But, what past, or whose?  From an academic standpoint, history is more confined to a particular type of study and a specific type of culture.  For example, history does not extend to the earliest origins of homo Sapien or human remains–that’s anthropology.  Nor, is it the historian’s primary function to research the past through material objects–that’s archaeology.  History is the study of the past through documents.  There is often overlap with these fields and each informs the other.  Many specialists have experience with the study of one or two of these other fields in addition to their own.

History is researched through the documentation of past cultures and, where applicable, through oral histories.  In other words, it is the study of past cultures through their own language, written and composed, by themselves about themselves.  Through these texts, historians compile evidence to interpret what happened in the past.  History, counter to stuffy history teachers all over (does anyone recall Professor Binns of Hogwarts), is not so much the study of facts; while there are many possible wrong answers (watch any film Hollywood has done of a past event), there is rarely one “right” answer.  A historian is always taking someone else’s word for what has happened; so, a nihilist can argue that we cannot really know anything about the past, but that is an extreme, even dangerous, point of view that defies logic and human reason.  There are facts for which historians are totally confident: George Washington existed, was a general for the Continental army and the first president of the United States of America.  But, once one considers his motives and moral outlook, for example, one relies upon sources, assembles evidence and makes an argument.  Here again, other fields may well inform one’s interpretation.

As humans go through stages of developing and relying on texts, there is a desire to record the present to remember it for the future.  These chronicles are some of our earliest sources and many of them include “origin histories” that the culture has created about itself with a mix of collective memory and creation myth.  Some of these eventually leapt from fabled chronicle to written works, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Our earliest evidence of Gilgamesh comes from the kings lists–a style of chronicle that records the major events of a king’s reign–but, ultimately the tale transitions from the lists to a mythic history recorded on clay tablets, written in cuneiform–a written language type that was created by a triangular stylus tip pressed into soft clay which was then fired to harden it.

The first history written in the western tradition is written by the Greek Herodotus, roughly 450-430 BC.  His Histories are the first example of a researched and elaborated prose narrative about a past event.  Why does he write it?  As John Burrow writes in A History of Histories,

As was to become customary, at the beginning of his work Herodotus tells us why he wrote it.  It was, he says, “so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds–some displayed by the Greeks, some by the barbarians–may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.”  In other words his history was a monument, a marker set down against the oblivion with which time threatens all human deeds.  He was successful beyond all reasonable expectation.  We are still reading his account of his great theme…

~ John Burrows, A History of Histories

Herodotus proved to be a trendsetter.  Thucydides and Xenonphon and plenty of other Greeks also wrote histories–reasoned, researched, elaborated histories of their contemporary version of modern history.  The Romans adopted up the practice as witnessed by Livy, Polybius, Julius Caesar and Tacitus, to name but a few examples.  It will be borne proudly into the medieval period with the early vanguard of Gregory of Tours and Bede, continued by Einhard, later Oderic Vitalis onward to William of Tyre, Froissart and Machiavelli–I am leaving out hundreds of historians (based on what has survived and been researched) from the medieval period, contrary to many erroneous assumptions about the “Dark Ages”.  In the Enlightenment age, history will start to acquire rules of operation that signify its transition into the modern field, today–but, its scope is far more extensive, not to mention interesting, than that of the Enlightenment.

Herodotus also provides us the first reason motivation to record a history–a monument to remember peoples that would otherwise be forgotten.  It is not, however, the only reason.  History can be written to find facts, as narrative storytelling, as a model for human experience, as a moral or strategic example or an exploration of change.  It is the mental excursion into a foreign culture, separated from us by geography and chronology.  This is why it is so important!

As history teaches us something about the past, it teaches us something about the world.  It is something applicable in every age and generation.  History helps us to understand cultures and societies.  It explains how the present emerges from past decisions.  It teaches us that other people are different, but comprehensible if one chooses to make the time.  It is absolutely essential in an ever-shrinking world that operates, increasingly, in close contact.

From the study of history, students learn essential skills.  History teaches critical reading skills, challenging students to ask about a primary source’s perspective and bias, or the quality of a secondary source’s research–skills that have become even more necessary for citizens discerning which chain e-mails, blogs, news reports or tweets are reliable sources.  It also teaches recognition of cause and effect–an essential ability for every citizen, granted the privilege and tasked with the responsibility to participate in government by the people, to recognize that today’s realities are the effects of past causes and are often tied to government action or inaction.

History is arguably one of the most important subjects we, as a society, ask students to study–it is also often one of the worst and most unimaginative taught in our schools, today.  There are a variety of reasons for this and thus no easy fixes, but it would certainly help if more people recognized the importance and the value of the subject.  The precise memorization of dates is not as necessary as was once believed, but the practice of investigation is extremely important.  I have written on this aspect of history, that of the process, before and encourage one to follow this link to read about detective work and prosecution as a metaphor for history and how I have introduced the subject to my classes.

We get our modern word history from the ancient Greek, as seen in the definition at the top.  It meant “a learning by inquiry, inquiry… knowledge so obtained, information… an account of one’s inquiries, a narrative, a history,” (Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott–the “Middle Liddell” edition).  The word does not mean “his story”, implying a misogynist field of interest, and increasingly the field has expanded techniques to wring the most amazing insight from sources about peoples previously though to be left out of history (deliberately or accidentally–usually both) or beyond the purview of history.  It still means inquiring, today!  This means exercising on one’s curiosity through attainable skills.  It is incumbent upon teachers and parents to kindle this curiosity and instruct students in the skills of this field of inquiry.  History is the one of the most important gifts we give to the future.

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Word of the Week, 8/29-9/4/11 – grammar

When I want to free myself from a particularly obnoxious person at a cocktail party, all I have to do is tell him that I’m a grammarian.  Without fail, he’ll lower his head and sidle away, mumbling into his shirt collar, “I never did well at that in school.”  When I like the person and want to continue the conversation with her, I say I’m a linguist

When you know the meanings of words and don’t know what a sentence says it’s because you don’t know the GRAMMAR of the sentence, the structural system that puts words together in meaningful units and indicates the relationships between units.  Put another way, the grammar of a sentence tells you who does what to whom.

~ Max Morenberg, Doing Grammar, 2nd ed.

Grammar is a sine qua non of language, placing its demons in the light of sense, sentencing them to the plight of prose.  

~ Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

The word grammar, is of early Greek origin.  It is related to the word “gramma, -atos, -to” that which is drawn and that which is written, a written character, letter, and it is also related to “grapho” representation by means of linesa drawing, painting picture and writing, the art of writing, a writing.  In other words, for the Greeks, grammar meant representation in images and words–isn’t it interesting to note that in this early phase there is little to differentiate painting/drawing from writing?  (Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell & Scott–the “Middle Liddell”)

In classical Greek and Latin, the word’s definition was refined and “denoted the methodical study of literature”:

[Grammar] = “philology” in the widest modern sense, including textual and aesthetic criticism, investigation of literary history and antiquities, explanation of allusions, etc, besides the study of the Greek and Latin.  Post-classically, grammatica came to be restricted to the linguistic portion of this discipline, and eventually to “grammar” in the [modern] sense.  In the Middle Ages, grammatica and its [Roman] forms chiefly meant the knowledge or study of Latin, and were hence often used as synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class.  As this was popularl supposed to include magic and astrology, the [Old French] gramaire was sometimes used as a name for these occult sciences.  In these applications it still survives in certain corrupt forms, [French] grimoire, Eng. GLAMOUR, GRAMARVE.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

Today, grammar refers to the study of language, its inflectional forms or means of indicating the relationships of words in a sentence and with the rules for employing in accordance with established usage.  It is “the scientific study and classification of the classes, forms, sounds, and uses of words of a particular language” and “the systematic study comparing the forms and constructions of two or more languages; comparative grammar.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  The word is often used interchangeably with syntax, which is more narrowly concerned with “the arrangement of words to form sentences, clauses or phrases; sentence structure… the patterns of such arrangement in a given language.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  It is more specifically the “part of grammar dealing with the construction of phrases, clauses, and sentences.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  

The other words that have grown from the common  root shows just how weird the links in history and linguistics can be.  Going back up to the OED’s definition, consider the connotation of grammar with learning and education.  At a certain point, alchemy and astrology really picks up interest in the high Middle Ages and becomes one of the major pursuits of learned types (read In Alchemy’s Defense).  As a result, the word that means the system that puts words together into meaningful units is related to other words in modern western languages that reference the occult, mysterious fascination, alluring charm, magic spells and enchantments!  (The World Book Dictionary)

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, quoted above, apparently appreciates the connection between the two words as her grammar book revels in the Victorian era gothic in her instruction manual:  “This is a dangerous game I’m playing, smuggling the injunctions of grammar into your cognizance through a ménage of revolving lunatics kidnapped into this book.  Their stories are digressions toward understanding, a pantomime of raucous intentions in the linguistic labyrinth.”

Grammar was part of the Liberal Arts program in the Middle Ages through the Early Modern era.  In today’s liberal arts system, subjects have realigned themselves and the humanities has been vastly downgraded, tragically.  As the internet reveals, the English language has a greater number of executors and executioners.  Without a proper understanding of grammar, rhetoric, logic and explanation are lost as writing collapses into a jumble of words or even merely letters, today.

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Word of the Week, 8/22-8/26/11 – fasces

fas·ces  | ‘fæs,ez | ·plural  n.  (in ancient Rome) a bundle of rods with a projecting ax blade, carried by attendants (lictors) of chief magistrates as a symbol of a magistrate’s power.

• (in Fascist Italy) such items used as emblems of authority.

~ The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

lictors:  attendants of the higher Republican magistrates; they carried the fasces, a bundle of rods encasing a double-headed axe, the former symbolizing the power of scourging, the latter of decapitation

fasces: they symbolized the power of higher magistrates (see above).  Twelve lictors carrying the fasces had accompanied the kings; in the Republic the twelve fasces alternated between the two consuls on a monthly basis.

~ Livy, The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5, translated by T. J. Luce (from the “Explanatory Notes”)

1st-century BCE bronze figurine of lictor with fasces (British Museum's Romans Gallery: The Republic

Fasces is a Latin word, referring to a bundle, fagot, packet or parcel.  In a certain context, it referred to a soldier’s kit.  It is, however, most typically used in reference to a bundle of ferulae (rods) with an axe in the middle.  The origin of the physical fasces are difficult to trace, but it had a ceremonial role in the Roman government.  One theory from Roman times was that they were introduced by the Etruscans, their predecessors on the Italian peninsular (although it is unverified in the archaeological record).  The civic role of lictor, also traced back to the Etruscans, was the position that carried the fasces before different magistrates.  Titus Livius (Livy) describes the (most likely) mythical founding king of Rome, Romulus, as establishing the role of the lictors to give himself a regal appearance:

[Romulus] thought that the rustics would feel bound to observe the laws if he made his own person more august and imposing by adopting various insignia of power, both in his dress and particularly by the addition of twelve lictors to accompany him in public.  Some think he took this number from the number of augural birds that portended his kingship.  I myself incline to the opinion of those who believe that, just as the attendants and other paraphernalia of office were borrowed from the neighboring Etruscans, who gave us the curule chair and the toga praetexta, so also the number twelve was borrowed from the lictors the Etruscans furnished to the man they elected king of their league, each of the twelve Etruscan peoples contributing one lictor apiece.

~ Book I, Ab Urbe Condita, Livy (T. J. Luce’s translation)

Note, that in this description he does not mention fasces; is this deliberate, accidental or coincidental?  We don’t know, of course.  Later, in Book II, he does address the fasces.  Book I covers the history of Rome under kings.  Book II begins his “history of a free nation in peace and war… the election of annual magistrates and greater obedience to the commands of law than to those of men,” which is the subject of the rest of Ab Urbe Condita; Rome as a Republic.  He writes:

One might more correctly say that the birth of liberty was owing to the annual nature of the consuls’ tenure than to any lessening of the power the kings had possessed.  The first consuls enjoyed all the rights and insignia of the highest office: they were only forbidden to hold the fasces at the same time, lest double intimidation of the people should appear to be their aim.  By agreement with his colleague Brutus was the first to hold the fasces, and he proved thereafter to be as keen a guardian of liberty as he had been its initial champion.

~ Book I, Ab Urbe Condita, Livy (T. J. Luce’s translation)

The fasces was, thus, a symbol of authority, with the obvious connotation of justice vis-à-vis the ability to punish in scourging and executing.  The latter point is particularly the case once Rome becomes a Republic.  As Livy explains, this symbol, because it would have been the symbol of a king’s powers of intimidation before the Republic, was not one the consuls were allowed to carry in an era of Roman liberty.  The lictors, however, did carry the fasces in the Roman Republic.  C.T. Lewis in his Elementary Latin Dictionary explained it, thusly:

Twenty-four lictors, with the fasces, walked in a single file before a dictator [a temporary role alternately assumed by the consuls in time of emergency--usually military], twelve before a consul, six before a praetor

[Lictors] scourged or beheaded condemned criminals

In other words, separated from the context of a single ruler, it implied order and punishment meted for crimes committed against the law–not meted out of vengeance or whim by a tyrant (a Greek word, distinguishing a single-ruler from a democracy).

The symbol of the fasces was employed liberally in American iconography.  For example, the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives explains that there is a fasces located on either side of the flag in the U.S. House: “The bronze fasces, representing a classical Roman symbol of civic authority, are located on both sides of the U.S. flag.  The original Roman fasces consisted of an axe within a bundle of rods, bound together by a red strap.  The fasces were carried before the consul and were used to restore order and carry out punishment of the courts.”

Bronze fasces on either side of the flag in the U.S. House of Representatives

Additionally, it is expounded that, “The U.S. adopted the fasces as a symbol of the authority of Congress in part due to their symbolic relationship with Republican Rome, which the founding fathers consciously referenced in the formation of the United States.”  This suggests to me a “Livian” influence among the Founding Fathers, but the website continues with this: “The form of the fasces also symbolically refers to the philosophy of American democracy. Like the thin rods bound together in the fasces, the small individual states achieve their strength and stability through their union under the federal government.”  (These quotes come from the Office of the Clerk website.)

The fasces is seen in a number of American structures and designs.  Notably, the fasces is seen on our currency, which has historically been one of a nation’s most important canvases for self-representation.

The eagle on the back of the quarter is clutching a fasces.

There are also claims that the eagle on the backside of the dollar bill is gripping arrows that are meant to represent a fasces.  This seems difficult to affirm as there are no arrows in a fasces, nor is the eagle gripping an axe.  A pamphlet describing our monetary symbolism, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, confirms that the arrows are representing war across from the laurels of peace in the other talon.

The war-like symbol of the arrows gripped in the talon of eagle is sometimes considered a fasces.

One of the more interesting suggestions of a Roman fasces appearing in American iconography is on the sides of Abraham Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.  According to the National Park Service, sculptor Daniel Chestor French, included “the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair [to] prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.”  There is no axe and the NPS does not suggest that French intended it to be a fasces.

Bound staves appear on the Lincoln Memorial.

If it is a fasces, it would appear to be one in the latter definition of the Office of the Clerk: the states bound by unity in the Federal government.  Of course, given the association of fascism with the fasces, it is not hard to see how some would react to the imagery in the Lincoln Memorial.  However, the association with fascism is pretty recent.

The English word, fascism, comes from the Italian word fascismo, which is first known in 1921.  The Italian government under Mussolini used the fasces as its symbol.

Symbol for the volunteers in the Italian government of Mussolini.

The Spanish government under Franco also made use of the fasces, as did the Nazis in their iconography.

The fasces appears on the left, opposite the eagle and swastika standard (borrowed from the Roman army)

These governments employed the symbols very recently in our collective history.  So, wannabee-clever conspiracy-theorists, who point to the U.S. government, or Lincoln more specifically, as an oppressive regime in the fascist tradition through fasces-iconography are simply ignorant.  Of course, having said that, the imagery is not likely to be employed in more recently introduced symbols because of its popularity with the fascist regimes–despite the obvious incongruity in their use of it, given the origins!  While it has been usurped as fascist imagery, it is more appropriately the symbol of just, representative governance.

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Word of the Week, 8/15-8/20/11 – endgame


The last possible phase of a game of chess, although quite often games end in the middlegame or even in the opening.  Many attempts have been made to classify just when the middlegame finishes and the endgame starts.  Considerable simplification is necessary, but the queens being exchanged is certainly not a sufficient (or necessary) criterion.  The key concept is that in an ending the king ceases to be primarily a liability to be guarded, but becomes a fighting unit, and the main battle revolves around the creation and advancing of pawns.  This does not mean that the king is not subject to any attack, or that complex tactics cannot occur, however, but just that the need to activate the king overrides the dangers.

~ The Mammoth Book of Chess, Graham Burgess (FIDE Master and Chess World Record Holder)

One of the beauties of chess lies in how well it functions as a metaphor for human reality, right down to the pieces who are human characters.  Despite its apparent order and rules is a “black and white jungle”–chaotic and deceptive, often at the mercy of the creative force that pushes the pieces–just as with life which, despite rule of law and laws of nature, is difficult to calculate.  It is the dichotomy of order and lawlessness that makes it both compelling and apt in describing life.

The endgame is the perfect case study of this concept.  On the one hand, the definition is clear: the last possible phase of a game of chess, but sometimes this occurs in the middlegame or even the opening–especially when inexperienced players try their hand.  The transition from the middlegame to the endgame defies classification.  Considerable simplification is necessary but no set criteria for that exists.  The key turns on the king’s activity: the transition from merely being a liability to being activated.  (Chess players use the word activation to mean a piece is in play from its starting position–sometimes only that it is free to move from its starting position.)  In other words, the other hand of the definition is the inherent ambiguity surrounding entry to what constitutes the last possible phase of a game of chess.  Working backwards from the end to the point of transition from the middlegame to the endgame preoccupies many of the most astute scholarly, historical minds.  I will develop this essay to consider the obvious example of one of history’s most dramatic examples of endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall in U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match.

Life has its many checkmates and it is often in global events, such as politics or war, when the comparisons are most frequently made.  In chess, the game ends when the opponent’s king is in checkmate.  This means that the king has been put in check–meaning that in the next move the other side would capture the enemy king–which often happens with some frequency in the game, but in mate the king cannot escape.  Defense and offense are often interchangeable by this phase of the game, differentiated perhaps only by one’s willingness or astuteness to exploit advantages gained or blunders made.  This is different from earlier phases in the game where advantages are being sought and balance is often kiltered to one side or the other.  For example, in David Shenk’s The Immortal Game, A history of chess, he explains the chess problem set forth in al-Adli’s 9th century book about chess, which introduced the world’s first known chess problems:

White to move; White to checkmate in three moves

Black has an extremely strong position, but it is white’s turn.  If it were black’s turn, the next move would be checkmate for the white king.  However, as the caption explains, white can checkmate the black king in three moves.  The only pieces left on the board are the kings, both rooks for each side, one pawn for each side and one knight for each side.  The kings can move one square in any direction and capture opposing pieces except for the opposing king.  The rooks can move as far as they choose horizontally and vertically, but no diagonal movements or piece-jumping.  The pawns can move forward only, except when there is an opposing piece ahead of them diagonally, in which case they may capture that piece.  The knight moves up two squares and over one (an l-shape on the board) and is the only piece that can jump other pieces.  The key for white in the above scenario is that it must keep the black king in check with each move or it will lose.  The solution follows:

White knight to h5+ (check to black king).

Black rook captures the white knight to defend the king (Rxh5)

Again, white forces check to the black king: White rook captures the black knight on g6 (Rxg6+)

The Black king defends itself and must capture the white rook that threatens it (Kxg6)

White gets checkmate: White rook moves behind the black pawn and diagonal to the black rook--nothing can take it, but the king cannot escape: checkmate!

White’s defense is keeping up the attack; if in a move  white fails to check the black king and compel black to defend, black can return to the offensive, winning in one move.  The reason white is so confident in victory is simple: with each checking move, black has only one option, so white is assured victory with these moves and assured defeat if it makes any other.

The above is an example of an endgame scenario, although we have to acknowledge that it began before we joined the action.  The ambiguity of its start, if not its end, is one of the characteristics that differentiate the endgame from the opening.  Chess openings are set moves, often anywhere from ten to fifteen moves long and sometimes longer.  They are compelling pieces of a chess player’s development, because, “every game has an opening, and therefore certain opening principles are important to every game,” as Bruce Pandolfini states in Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps.  The primary purpose is to set the board in one’s favor and create an advantage for oneself in the middlegame and endgame.  But, as Pandolfini goes on to say, “Too many players study the opening almost religiously, by rote, and misuse the versatile and adaptable tools it puts at their disposal.”  This highlights another key difference between openings and endgames: openings follow a prescribed, even if adaptable, path, whereas endgames function without prescription, based only on the tools, strategy and applied tactics of each player.

The middlegame is the phase in which the player either a) seeks to exploit the advantage created in the opening, or, b) seeks to regain the advantage after blundering in the opening.  In Weapons of Chess, An omnibus of chess strategy, Pandolfini explains the principles of progression and how one uses the tools at one’s disposal: “Weapons of Chess is mainly about strategy, with emphasis on the middlegame.  Strategy means abstract thinking and planning, as opposed to tactics, which are the individual operations used to implement strategy.  Tactics are specific; strategy is general.  Tactics tend to be immediate, strategy long-term.”  The middlegame’s conclusion, the transition to the endgame, is obviously as muddled as the endgame’s commencement.

All of these features point to the unique nature of chess as compared to other games, especially in the case of the endgame.  Firstly, there is no element of chance or luck, unless you wish to consider an opponent’s blunder luck (and I prefer not to because it is based on the consequence of the other’s foresight or lack thereof not the random rolls of dice or drawing of cards).  Secondly, unlike most games which require some minor amount of calculation or little at all, chess requires foresight.  Thirdly, it is not necessary to deliver a smothering, systematic extermination of the opponent to win as in the case of Risk or Monopoly; the opponent’s king must be checkmated, regardless of any other piece captured.  Finally, it is a game that pits one mind versus one other mind; one vs. one; there is no team in chess while the game is on.

It is often the case for inexperienced players and those with limited acumen or study, that the endgame begins well before one identifies that one is in the midst of it.  The ineffective chess mind is often oblivious to the nuances and moves in game being played, but without retraining it is easy to reinforce mediocrity and failure.  Jeremy Silman, author of The Amateur Mind, Turning chess misconceptions into chess mastery, describes this in his introduction to his chess problems:

“We don’t have to go over this game, I already know where I went wrong.”

I’ve heard this line from students for many years now, and in virtually every case, I find that their view of the game’s errors was based on an opening mistake or a major tactical blunder.  When I point out subtle errors (which are far more common and more important than mere blunders), they are often amazed to find that I’m criticizing moves and ideas that they were proud of in the actual game.

~ The Amateur Mind, Jeremy Silman

I find this most interesting when one considers the evaluation of history, personal or global.  By the point at which Nixon gives his “I-am-not-a-crook” speech, he is already in the endgame.  What triggered that transition from middlegame to endgame probably varies based on one’s perspective or involvement in Watergate.

Observe, again, the value and ease of the game as a metaphor.

The Cold War over 32 black and 32 white squares

During the Cold War, competition of every kind, particularly head-to-head competition, stood in place of pitched battles (for the most part).  The Cold War was the ultimate chess match: two powers waging bloodless (for the most part) war.  Of course, much of this was hinged on the perception of the spectators, and how the two powers created that perception.  Chess matches, along with international sporting competition, music or dance presentations and the space race, were important battlefields in this war for supremacy of two combating ways of life.

Much like their more athletic counterparts, youngsters with an aptitude for chess were identified at a young age and groomed in the weapons of chess as early as possible.  Their training included various methods of psychological warfare.  Josh Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer, written by his father, and himself the author of two books: Josh Waitzkin’s Attaching Chess and The Art of Learning, in the latter book describes his encounter with such trained chess players:

The competition for the top of the American scholastic chess ranking was stiffened by a tremendous influx of Soviet immigrants.  As the Soviet Union fell apart, many of the powerful Russian players looked for opportunity in the west…  Many of these new rivals were armed with a repertoire of psychological “tricks” that presented serious challenges.

One of the more interesting tactics was implemented by a Russian boy whom I had trouble with for a period of months before I caught on to his game.  He was a very strong player so our clashes were always tense, but for some reason I tended to make careless errors against him in the critical positions.  Then one day, an old Bulgarian Master named Rudy Blumenfeld approached my father in the Marshall Chess Club and asked him if we were aware of what this boy was doing to me.  We were not.  He explained that in the climatic moments of the struggle, when I had to buckle down and patiently work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process.

~ The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin

Many Soviet chess masters would become defectors to the U.S., unable or unwilling to proscribe their creativity and expression for the state.  Bobby Fischer would have his mental breakdown in part because of his own pawn’s role in the global chess match.  But, these are not the most compelling associations I have with chess and the Cold War.  That is reserved for the moment when the world looked around and realized, without a doubt, that the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match was in the endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall: Endgame

Here we must return to our earlier theme of the endgame’s ambiguous nature, particularly in identifying its beginning.  By the time the Berlin Wall falls, the endgame has already begun, but it is in this move that there can be little doubt the Cold War will end one way or the other.  Within a few days of East and West Germans meeting atop a concrete symbol of division that had carried every threat of a very hot war, not only was the endgame known, but that inevitability that often creeps in for those who can calculate that far ahead grew stronger and indicated that, not only was it the endgame, the winner was known, too.

Below are two news reports from November 1989.  The first, is a Special Report from Peter Jennings and colleague Barrie Dunsmore, reporting the East German announcement that its people will be able to leave at their choosing and visas would be granted.  The second is ABC News “Nightline”, the following day, with the journalists wondering aloud if this is really the beginning of the end of the Cold War; the conflict they have spent their entire professional lives covering.

Dunsmore’s comments regarding Gorbachev are worth considering.  Is it Gorbachev’s rise that marks the transition from middlegame to endgame?  An older player in the game, say Kruschev or Stalin, would certainly not have allowed East Germany’s defection from the program.  Or, is the key move the establishment Poland’s Solidarity movement; Pope John Paul II’s visit behind the Iron Curtain; the Hungarian uprise; the election of Ronald Reagan; the election of Margaret Thatcher; or, is it something more subtle, maybe even earlier?

Historians will debate this for many years still to come.  The ambiguity of the move is perhaps one of the finest analogies between chess and life.  It prompts me to wonder and to ask if the popular uprisings in Muslim countries signal the plays of an endgame in Muslim-West relations.  There are similarities, certainly, but the differences are significant and provide strong caution against over-stretching the parallels.  Clearly, there are moments on the board and in life when the endgame is more clearly identified after the end is known and the king is dead.

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Word of the Week, 8/8-8/12/11 – Dixie

Dix·ie (dikse), n.  1. the Southern States of the United States; Dixie Land.  2. a lively song about the South, written in 1859, sung during the Civil War,  and still popular. –adj. of or having to do with the South of the United States; Southern.  [American English; origin uncertain]

~ The World Book Dictionary

Most likely, the term is simply a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland that separated the slave states from the free states…

By the 1830s the term Mason and Dixon had come to figuratively denote the boundary between the slave and free states.  Somewhere in the transition from meaning the boundary to denoting the southern states, Mason was lost and all that remained was Dixie.

~ Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, David Wilton

David Wilton, author of the book Word Myths, explains that the earliest written record of the word Dixie is found in the song, Johnny Roach, written by Daniel D. Emmett in February 1859.  Astonishingly, to modern sensibilities, Emmett was a black-face performer from Ohio.  Emmett also authored the more popular song, Dixie’s Land, which he first performed in April 1859.  (See the YouTube video below.)

Wilton reports that Emmett claimed that the word was already in use when he requisitioned it for his songs.  It was a term he picked up as a traveling showmen, saying “Dixie’s Land” referred to the Southern States.

The term beget another song that became a rallying tune among Confederate troops and sympathizers.  If Wilton is correct in tracing the origin back to the Mason-Dixon Line dividing the North from the South, or the free states from the slave states, it made a logical nickname for the CSA.

 The association with this cause gave rise to several other words, most notably:

Dix·ie·crat  n.  1. one of those Democrats who opposed first the civil-rights program of the Truman Administration and later the civil-rights plank of the 1948 platform of the Democratic Party: The Dixiecrats took four states from him [President Truman] in ’48, but he was elected, nevertheless (Newsweek).  2. a later follower of the Dixiecrats.  [American English < Dixie + (demo)crat]

 ~ The World Book Dictionary

Wilton also addresses several false eponymous origins for Dixie:  1) It has been suggested that the word is a reference to Manhattan slave owner, Johan Dixie (also spelled Dixy), a benevolent slave owner whose slaves were sold down South either because he died or because the law in New York changed–the origin suggested by references to how good life had been in “Dixie’s Land”; no evidence exist to support this claim.  2) In 1951, Mitford Mathews uncovered evidence of a musical performer, named Dixey, who performed in Philadelphia–Mathews suggests a connection between Emmett and the artist, but as Wilton points out, this does not agree with Emmett’s explanation and no other evidence exists.

Other false origins include a link to the French dix (ten) which appeared on bilingual monetary notes printed by the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana and dispersed throughout the South.  Wilton has found no evidence that the bills were referred to as dixies, nor that the term was associated with the banknotes in the region before modern times.  Another false origin, dating back to the late 19th century, is in reference to a game of tag played in New York, but there is no evidence to support these claims; in fact, the evidence provided in the game’s song lyrics suggests that it was in use after the Civil War.

A Google image search of Dixie brings up artwork incorporating Confederate flags and slogans (or photographs and magazine covers of the country band, the Dixie Chicks).  The term remains a loaded one, frequently conjuring up the country’s oldest divisions, repeatedly renewed through Supreme Court decisions, political machinations, regional events and civil protest.

One of my strongest associations with the word, comes from an interview from a former Washington Redskin–the first, in fact, to break the color barrier on the team, which was the last organization in the NFL to do so.  The team’s owner greeted him gruffly and asked him to join the room in singing “Dixie“.

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Word of the Week, 8/1-8/5/11 – caisson

cais·son (ka’son), n.  1. a box for ammunition.  2. a wagon to carry ammunition, especially artillery shells.  3. a watertight box or chamber in which men can work under water, as in laying foundations.  It has an open bottom, the water being kept out by the high air pressure maintained within it.  4. a watertight float used in raising sunken ships: Huge steel tubes, or caissons, drop to the ocean floor and the powerful air jacks raise the hull above the water surface (Wall Street Journal).  5. a vessel in the form of a boat used as a floodgate in dikes.  6. Architecture. a coffer. [<French caisson or casson < Italian cassone < cassa < Latin capsa]

~ The World Book Dictionary

1. A box for ammunition.  2. A wagon to carry ammunition, especially artillery shells.

The word caisson comes to English from the French, in which it meant a large wooden chest, in the 18th century.  It first applied to a chest holding ammunition and bombs, and was extended to apply to the wagon that carried the cases.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the word’s appearance in English as of 1704.

In the U.S. Army, the “Caisson Platoon” is the nickname for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active regiment in the Army.  Today, most people know them as The Old Guard.  They are the unit assigned to defend the capital region in a case of emergency, though they also serve overseas.  The Old Guard still pulls caissons, but today’s horse-drawn caissons do not pull ammunition cases, instead they bring flag-draped coffins to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.  (The Old Guard site has more information and additional information on their caisson horse adoption program.)

3. a watertight box or chamber in which men can work under water, as in laying foundations.  It has an open bottom, the water being kept out by the high air pressure maintained within it.

Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y. ~ Library of Congress

The architectural caisson is in use in English as early as 1753 to build piers and bridges, such as the Blackfriars bridge in the London river, the Thames (OED).  The chamber is watertight–as an ammunition box must also have been–and an air pocket is created in it while it is lowered to the river floor so that a foundation can be dug and laid.

The most famous use of architectural caissons in the United States is in the making of the Brooklyn Bridge, which crosses the East River in New York City.  The famous German-American engineer, John Augustus Roebling, the inventor of the wire-ropes used in his suspension bridges, designed the Brooklyn Bridge.  It would be his last project as he would die from tetanus contracted during the building from a freak accident that crushed his foot.  His son, Washington A. Roebling, would complete project, but it would steal his health.  It was in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, that “caisson disease“, also known as “the bends” was first seen.  Today, we know more about decompression sickness, which was caused by the caissons rising too rapidly.  Suffering from this illness, Roebling would see the project finished from his bed and his wife would take an active role in its completion acting as an intermediary with the foremen at the site.  (Primary references are the Library of Congress,; and PBS–this film being my first introduction to the Brooklyn Bridge and the concepts of caissons in construction–

4. a watertight float used in raising sunken ships: Huge steel tubes, or caissons, drop to the ocean floor and the powerful air jacks raise the hull above the water surface (Wall Street Journal).

The USS West Virginia - April 1943 after being refloated before complete rebuild

Raising ships with a caisson is an evolving technology.  According to the U.S. Navy’s website of the Nomenclature of Naval Vessels, a caisson is the following:

CAISSON  –  A watertight structure used for raising sunken vessels by means of compressed air.  Also the floating gate to close the entrance to a drydock.

During the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia was sunk by seven torpedoes and two bombs.  Through the efforts of the crew, it avoided the fate of the USS Oklahoma which capsized, and sunk to the ocean’s floor on its hull.  On May 17, 1942, the USS West Virginia was pumped with air, raised and taken to the Puget Sound in Washington and repaired so it could be returned to duty.  70 bodies were found by repairmen, including a calendar kept by men who were trapped below decks in the sinking; the last day scratched off was December 23.  (The ship’s history has been collected and digitized at

Another, more famous instance of the U.S. Navy raising a ship was the USS Maine.  Believed to be sunk by Spanish mines near Cuba, and thus igniting the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy raised it from the shallow waters of Havana Harbor and sunk in deeper waters.  The New York Times reported on July 6, 1911, that on the previous day the great caisson was in place around the USS Maine and the delays experienced previously were due to the debris and the need to pump mud out.  (It was also found that the explosion that sunk the Maine was caused by an internal incident–not a Spanish mine.)

 5. a vessel in the form of a boat used as a floodgate in dikes.

Overview of three out of the four WWII caissons in the dyke construction at Ouwerkerk , NE

We again see an example of these in WWII, when Churchill commissions the building of pontoon bridges that were used later in the war and eventually employed to plug in dykes in the Netherlands:

Winston Churchill in 1942 orders the design of an artificial stand-in harbor on a stormy deep sea coast, able to receive ships and discharge material of the allies on an Atlantic coast…

In total 212 of these Phoenix caissons are being constructed for the purpose of the Mulberry harbours in Normandy.  Of those 212 a number stayed behind in England because they were no longer required in France in 1944.  These have been used in a later stage after the war in order to close openings in the dykes amongst others in Walcheren near Rithem where two of them still can be distinguished as they raise out of the sand (beetles), as floats of a pontoon bridge…


A great word for some fun historical exploration!  Use it this week in a sentence!

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Word of the Week, 7/25-7/30: ballad

ballad |’bælad| • n. a poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas.  Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the folk culture.

• a slow sentimental or romantic song

~ The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

There is a rich tradition of ballads in American history.  Many, especially those born out of the working experiences of slavery, the Industrial Revolution and the frontier, are homegrown.  But, many are also the musical heritage of our immigrant population.  Regardless of origin, for years, these songs and stories were the principle form of entertainment, as well as a way to capture community history and folk lore.

Early Americans of the colonial era brought ballads with them from the Old Country.  Many of the songs collected in Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, originally published in 1965, by Jean Ritchie, are English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish.  These were preserved in the Appalachian hills by generations of American communities while songs of Native American origin and newer American songs were added to the corpus.

The Library of Congress (LOC) was responsible for the preservation of many old American and immigrant songs before they were lost to history.  (Some of which are available online in digital collections at this web address.)  This is largely thanks to the efforts by the LOC staff and field teams, such as Alan Lomax (who wrote the original forward for the aforementioned Jean Ritchie book) and his brother who worked for the LOC’s Archive of American Folk Song in the early days of sound recordings during the first part of the 20th century.  The LOC has retained personal notes and internal documents, such as this one, which shows some of the methodology used to help preserve this part of American History.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1971), aka the OED, defines ballad more broadly than the smaller Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words does, and shows the many evolutions the meaning of the word took:

*1. A song intended as an accompaniment to a dance; the tune to which the song is sung…

2. A light, simple song of any kind…

*3. A popular song; often spec. one celebrating or scurrilously attacking persons or institutions…

*4. A proverbial saying usually in the form of a couplet; a posy

5. A simple spirited poem in short stanzas, originally a “ballad” in sense 3. [above] in which some popular story is graphically narrated.  (This sense is essentially modern: with Milton, Addison, and even Johnson, the idea of song was present.)…

*Archaic terms no longer used.

(One may also find “ballader” or “balladist” for one who composes ballads, as well as many verbs and descriptives which are derived from the word.)

In its earliest forms, ballad is also written as “ballade” (although this word is also used to describe a particular form of poetry, which is how Geoffrey Chaucer used the word), but was pronounced the same.  The earliest written evidence of the word ballad in the context of a sentimental or romantic song is in 1498 (meaning 2. in the excerpt).

Many of these songs are preserved in the older song books of the Girl Scouts and other camping song books because the music is perfect for a campfire–sans TV, radio, internet or Ipod!–as many are sung in rounds and are often easy to accompany with a guitar or hand motions.

The stories that are preserved in the ballads are essential ingredients to our cultural past, ranging from the Early Modern era into our current era.  It is, however, interesting to note that the older songs have often inspired future musicians, many of whom gave the songs new life stilled played, today.

Here are some examples:

The first two are from Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.  Born at the end of the 19th century, he has to be one of the first generation of recorded artists who made a living with his music: his worn southern voice and his 12-string guitar.  He grew up in the deep South and spent some of his time as young man in Texas–including jail time.  Most of the music he did not write himself!  These were already embedded in his regional culture when he was “discovered” by LOC people including Lomax and his brother.

The song below is alternately know as “Black Girl” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

The song will be best known to modern audiences thanks to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s Unplugged concert:

Another famous song from Leadbelly’s repertoire is the “Midnight Special” which was a song from a state pen just south of Houston called Sugarland.  While the song was around before Leadbelly and his stay in Sugarland, he does make the song his own, having sung it many ways before settling on his own version with some of his personal color embellishing the verses.  The title of the song refers to a South Pacific train that left Houston just after eleven’o’clock in the evening, headed for San Antonio and beyond.  Its lights flashed the cells and its whistle taunted the inmates.

I first encountered the song as it was done, rather well, I think, by Creedence Clearwater Revival–a band heavily influenced by traditional American music–that remains one of the best known, today.  They used Leadbelly’s version of the song:

The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, also borrowed liberally from folk tradition, as did Led Zeppelin, and many of the musicians who contributed to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? to name a few more and round out the selections.

Jean Ritchie includes the song “Hangman” in her book with the following description:

According to the notes on Child ballad number 95, in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the earliest known versions of this song have a girl as the victim, the song having apparently originated as, “The Maid Freed from the Gallows.”  It concerned a young woman who fell into the hands of corsairs, and each member of her family in turn refuses to pay ransom; then her lover comes and pays down the required fee.  In our family variant as in most others from America and England, it is (more properly!) a man who is being hanged, for what reason the song does not say.  Aside from this change and the omission of motive, the story line is the same, the true love showing up on cue “for to take you home so we can married be.”…

Led Zeppelin’s is likely based on an old English version, although they were also highly influenced by American Blues, as were many English artists (the Rolling stones and Eric Clapton leap to mind).  The version, below, has lyrics:

Songs of the Wild West, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, includes a song, “The Cowboy’s Lament,” more popularly know as “The Streets of Laredo,” about a dying cowboy found by the singer.  Here, it’s sung by Cash:

Finally, I’ll finish up with some selections taken from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack.  The music was arguably as popular as the movie, given that a concert series followed the Coen brothers’ movie (a Deep South variation of Homer’s Odyssey with a less noble hero).  While some of the songs are younger than some of these others, there inspiration was in the ballad tradition:

Hope this was fun!

NOTE: In addition to the dictionary sources and the song books already referenced, I used The Life and Legend of Leadbelly by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell.

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Word of the Week: augur

augur (verb) To predict or foretell, especially from signs or omens.

Every delegate found a copy of that letter under his door the next morning; this generated wild rumors, huge resentments, a divided convention, a divided Republican Party, and a augured a defeat in November.

~ William F. Buckley, Jr.

The Lexicon, A cornucopia of wonderful words for the inquisitive word lover

This is an old word that I arguably first appreciated when I encountered it in my Latin historiography class on Livy’s history of Rome (a very long volume of 142 books, only 35 of which we still have today, and for which ancient Romans created “Cliff Notes” versions, summarizing each book).  For example, in the following excerpt, Romulus and Remus have just defeated their murderous grandfather, Numitor, and went to a sacred place to discern signs of the will of heaven:

Priori Remo augurium venisse fertur, sex voltures; iamque nuntiato augurio cum duplex numerus Romulo se ostendisset, utrumque regem sua multitudo consalutauerat: tempore illi praecepto, at hi numero auium regnum trahebant.

Livy, Chapter 7, Book I

The Latin Library,

If your Latin is a little rusty (or non-existent), I will give you T. J. Luce’s translation of the passage on page 10, from the Oxford World’s Classics series,  Books 1-5:

To Remus augury came first, legend says: six vultures.  After this had been reported to the people, double the number appeared for Romulus.  Accordingly, the supporters of each man hailed their candidate as king, one side claiming sovereignty because of the priority of time, the other because of the number of birds.

C. T. Lewis, in his Elementary Latin Dictionary (the small one that fits in your book bag), provides the following definitions:

augurium, i, m. [augur], the observance of omens, interpretation of omens, divination, augury

augurius, adj. [augur], of an augur, of the profession of augur

auguro, avi, atus, are [augur],   to act as augur, take the auguries of, consult by augury

auguror, atus sum, ari, dep. [augur], to act as augur, augur, predict, foretell

These particular signs are generally observed in the activity (flight, singing, feeding; occasionally in sacrificed avian entrails) of birds, as in the case of Romulus and Remus to whom vultures appear while they are in a sacred location.  Different birds might suggest a different divine patron.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), explains the Latin words by suggesting Latin roots: avis (bird) + gar from Latin words garrire (to talk) and garrulus (talkative).  It is always difficult to precisely dig up origins for buried words, so origins are often left in the realm of speculation.  The OED identifies several words from the same derivation with related meanings in the English language:

  • Augur, n., first appears in 1549
  • Augur, v., first appears in 1601
  • Augural, adj., first appears in 1598
  • Augurate, v., (meaning to predict from omens), first appears in 1741
  • *Augurate, v., (meaning to perform the duties of augury), first appears in 1678
  • *Auguration, n., (meaning the practice of prognostication by means of augury), first appears in 1569
  • Augured, ppl. a., (meaning foretold, foreseen, anticipated)
  • *Augurer, n., first appeared in 1400
  • Augurial, adj., first appeared in 1646
  • Auguring, ppl. a., first appeared in 1606
  • *Augurism, n., first appeared in 1590
  • *Augurist, n., first appeared in 1630
  • *Augurize, v., first appeared in 1596
  • Augurous, a. rare, first appeared in 1600
  • Augurship, n., (meaning the office or term of office of an augur), first appeared in 1618
  • Augury, n., first appeared in 1374, used by Chaucer in Troylus: “I have eke foundyn, by astronomye, by sort, and by augury eke truly . . That fere and flaum on al the toun shal sprede.”
Many of these early appearances in the English language are translations of Latin and Roman texts; one, augurous, appears in a translation of the Illiad (1600).  [* The word is now obsolete in English.]
Now, don’t confuse augur with auger (a drilling or boring instrument or a plumbing tool)!

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