Category Archives: Word of the Week

Word of the Week, 10/10-10/15/11 — kiss

kiss /kis/ verb … 1. verb trans. Press or touch (esp. a person’s lips or face) with slightly pursed lips to express affection, sexual desire, greeting, etc., or reverence. OE btransf. Of a bird: touch lightly with the bill in a supposed caress. LME.

D.H. Lawrence She leaned forward and kissed him, with a slow, luxurious kiss, lingering on the mouth.  L. Cody She did not like being kissed.  G.Vidal He kissed her averted cheek and left the room.

verb intrans. Of two people: exchange a kiss or kisses. ME.

H. Fast When had they last kissed or embraced?

3fig. averb intrans.  Usu. of two things: touch lightly. ME. bverb intrans Touch or brush lightly against. LME.

R. Graves My arrow kissed his shoulder and glanced off.

4 Billiards & Snooker etc. Cause a ball to touch (another ball) lightly…

5 verb trans. Bring into a certain state or position by kissing; take away, remove from, by kissing.

6. verb trans. Express by kissing.  Also with cognate obj., give (a kiss)).

Tennyson We will kiss sweet kisses, and speak sweet words.  W. Maxwell Bedtime came and I kissed my mother good night.

~ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Everyone knows the word kiss.  It is a word of Germanic origin.  Julius Caesar did not kiss Cleopatra any more or less than he kissed his wife–in Latin he kisses is basiat from basio, basiare (there are a few other words, actually, but students of the Romance languages will recognize basio best).  Kiss originates in Old English (cyssan), Old Frisian (kessa), Old Saxon (cussian–Dutch: kussen), Old High German (kussen–German küssen) and Old Norse (kyssa).


Kissing affectionately

What is really remarkable about this word is the range of meanings associated with it.  There is the primary action of affection or love-making, involving a certain intimacy, familiarity or friendship.  This is, in fact, one of the primary expressions of love ranging from a platonic peck to a full-bodied, amorous make-out session.  The slang borrowings, however, most often operate by exploiting the implied intimacy of the kiss.

cities,couples,dates,embraces,embracing,Europe,European,flirting,flirts,Fotolia,hugging,hugs,kisses,kissing,love,people,Photographs,relationships,romances,Valentine's Day

Kissing amorously

Some of the slang phrases simply take on a characteristic likeness to kissing with other actions, such as “kissing the cup” which is to take a drink, but not of water or milk, this often refers specifically to drinking alcohol.  Similarly,  “kiss the book” refers to taking an oath, sealing it by kissing a Bible or a holy relic.

alcohols,Austrian culture,Bavaria,beers,blond hair,blouses,drinks,European cuisine,females,German culture,glasses,iStockphoto,lederhosen,Oktoberfests,Photographs,studio shot,traditional clothing,traditional culture,wheat beer,women

Kissing the cup

In most other slang instances we see the word being employed in varying ways to create homage or subservience.  “Kissing the ground” was a employed in the case of royal or religious personages, or done for religious reasons.  In other instances, this is extended to losing the race, “kiss my dust,” defeat, death or submission, “kiss the ground” and “kiss the dust,” and, finally, various versions of “kissing a person’s backside,” ranging in meaning from a voluntary (brown-nosing) to a demanded (kiss my…) submission to one’s actions.  None of these slang expressions work without the intimacy of the original definition.  But, while they all share some sense of submission, they do so for slightly different reasons.

Kissing the ground

As an act of homage–which when enforced is easily equated with forced submission–it is a gesture of respect based on perceived worthiness.  The object or individual to whom the homage is being paid is regarded as holier, for example, than the individual who approaches and in many cases may not be touched or addressed without this act of homage.  This is similar to submission created by the other expressions, but more ritualistic and less crass.  In the case of athletic competition, for example, “kissing one’s dust” is what 2nd place through last place do behind the winner.  In more crass slang usages, there is still a perception of worthiness between two individuals, but it is based on hostility between the two, or a mutual perception of inequality.

dust”]accomplishments,athletes,blurry,competitions,finish lines,motions,people,racing,runners,sports,track and field,victories,winners

What makes the crass expressions coarse, is the usage of a word that we use in intimate situations to define power relations between two people as opposed to love and affection.  Because of its prior use in homage for centuries in Western Civilization, this application has precedent but the old usage does not survive today except perhaps in rare instances in which someone kisses another’s hand, but even this gesture we associate more with its proper definition than with slang.

Americans,African descent,brides,celebrations,couples,grooms,kissing,love,people,romances,special occasions,weddings

Kissing another's hand

All in all, I much prefer the proper definition, which is to say I enjoy it immensely.  In fact, I’ll sign off by kissing the cup to the kiss!


Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

Word of the Week, 10/3-10/7/2011 — janissary

janissary (noun) A member of a group of loyal or subservient troops, officials, or supporters.

When it was finally clear that Carmine DeSapio had been thrown out by the ideological janissaries and the playboy reformers, there were still the conventional and highly poignant rituals to go through.

~ The Lexicon, A cornucopia of wonderful words for the inquisitive word lover, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

The term janissary originates in Turkish and comes into English through Italian and then Middle French: yeni new+ ceri soldiery > Turkish yenicery > Italian giannizzero > Middle French janissaire.  (The World Book Dictionary)  The Turks originated further east of the Muslim empires as nomadic tribesmen.  As warriors they harried these empires, eventually were paid to aid in the defense of Muslim polities before conquering their employers and setting themselves up as sultans.  The first wave of Turks to take over were the Seljuks, followed by the Ottomans.  The Ottoman Empire introduced highly functional gunpowder weaponry (with accompanying tactics) and the janissaries.  It would be the Ottomans who finally defeated the lonely city-state of Constantinople, a mere shadow of the old Eastern Roman empire founded by Constantine and fitfully maintained by his Byzantine successors, and the Ottomans who would come knocking on the gates of Vienna, further by far than any of their predecessors since the Muslim forces faced Charles the Hammer Martel in Poiters nearly a thousand years earlier.

The Ottomans needed manpower to “build up slave forces to supplement, subdue and replace free Turkish warriors.”  It had already been part of tradition to use slaves, but Ottoman forces upped the ante by expanding from the original target regions beyond the realm in the Caucasus or Central Asia, through the devshirme tax on Christian populations in the Balkans–the first systematic recruitment of slaves for the army and the first attempts from within the state.  The janissaries were formed from these recruits–not for an elite cavalry as had been previously done with slaves, but for an elite infantry, armed with firearms and combined with artillery.  In contrast to the garrisoned janissaries, the cavalry was turned into a “landed gentry” for the purposes of settling the frontier and fortifying the empire.  (Ira M. Lapidus, “Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires,” The Oxford History of Islam, ed. Jonathan Esposito)

Although the janissaries were slaves from outsider populations, they were raised in strict devotion to the sultan and united in their upbringing through the “Ottoman way.”  Through this means, they also created a ruling caste, but one that assured the diffusion of power among its elements as only new slaves could be elevated to positions of power–children of slaves were ineligible.  In this way, they were the instruments of the sultan, loyal first of all to him and united by his guiding hand through education.  (Ditto.)  All of these features made the Ottoman armies a devastating force in the Middle East and Europe, particularly as Europe struggled to keep up with the superior arms and fire power of the Ottomans.  The development of European arms is crucial in turning the tide and becomes a major tool in imperialism–not truly achieved until the 19th century.

In fact, Muslim forces were superior in virtually every respect until that time period.  It was only with a break in continuity and through internal squabbling that the First Crusade was able to gain its rather pathetic toe-hold in the Holy Land, and it was held for less than a century.  The Muslims completely forget about the Crusades until 19th and 20th centuries, because it was such a negligible moment in their history.  Every time the western forces could line up and get a good and proper charge into their enemies they stood pretty favorable odds of winning, but it was so easy for their enemies to avoid being lined up for such a charge that the advantage was rendered irrelevant.  Most of the time, the Crusaders were undermanned and cut down on their way to and fro, where they could not be fully armored and were always vulnerable.  Insufficient manpower–well-documented and disproving any ideas about a medieval origin for colonialism in the Holy Land–frequently left large gaps in city and fortress defenses which wiped the Latin presence off the continent with relative ease.  These forces progress to an even higher level with the janissaries.

As indicated by the Buckley usage above, the term refers, today, to a loyal subject, often with a negative connotation.  As the old bogey man of the Western World, the janissaries were for centuries seemingly impervious because of their Spartan-like upbringing and their superior weaponry and tactics.  Today, it is seldom, if ever, employed in a laudatory manner in English.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

Word of the Week, 9/26-9/30/2011 – idiot

idiot –

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Ralph is an idiot.

idiot –

An epithet that describes anyone but you.
It is a statistical certainty that there is someone out there in the planet who considers you an idiot. That person doesn’t matter, of course — he’s an idiot.

idiot –

A person who occupies a position or opinion opposing your correct one.
People who think x are idiots.
~ Urban Dictionary, (online, *language and content warning)
Idiot is a word deeply embedded in the vernacular, but is much older than most people realize.  Today, we use the word to reference deficiencies in mental acumen, although the implication from some of the above samples, in fact, mock those who use the word.  Idiot, though frequently used in the ways described above by the contributors to the online Urban Dictionary, has a more particular, though related definition.

idioteia – private life  or business, Xenophon, Plato  uncouthness, want of education Lucian; and

idioteuo – to be a private person, i. e. to live in retirement, Plato, Xenophon:–of a country, to be of no consideration, Xenophon.  II. to practice privately, of a physician, Plato  III. to be unpracticed in a thing.  From

idiotes – a private person, an individual,  II. one in a private station, opposed to one taking part in public affairs, Herodotus, Attic Greek; opposed to strategosa private soldier, Xenophon.   2. a common man, plebeian, Plutarch.  3. as Adj., id- Bios (life) a private station, homely way of life, Plato.  III. one who has no professional knowledge, as we say ‘a layman’, Thucydides; opposed to a poet, a prose writer, Plato; [as opposed] to a trained soldier, Thucydides;  [as opposed] to a skilled workman, Plato.  2. unpracticed, unskilled in a thing … 3. generally a raw hand, an ignorant, ill-informed man, Demosthenes.

idotikos – of or for a private person private, Herodotus, Attic Greek.  II. not done by rules of art, unprofessional, unskillful, rude, Plato:–Adv., … i.e. to neglect gymnastic exercises, Xenophon.

~ Greek-English Lexicon, [Middle] Liddell & Scott

It enters English from the Romance languages.  It comes from the Greek with two understandings: 1) a private person as opposed to a public person, or, in other words, someone who is not participating in democracy, either by choice or status; 2) an unskilled or untrained individual incapable of a professional trade–typically, thus, a common man (who could not vote).  In Latin, the word is streamlined to mean an uneducated man, an outsider or a lay person (Elementary Latin Dictionary, C T Lewis).  By the end of the sixteenth century, “idiot” was a legal designation for someone “deficient in mental or intellectual faculty”, but it was already used thus in the written vernacular English as of 1300 (OED).

The legal definition is a tricky thing.  It is always dangerous labeling people as “deficient” before the law, because it usually impedes their legal rights.  For example, a speech disorder might make one sound as though he is mentally slower, but it does not necessarily reflect their mental acuity, and in fact might cloud the perception of a person who is perfectly competent.  Also, at various times, the criteria has been deliberately discriminatory, assessments based on race, ethnicity or poverty.    On the other hand, a definition that can legally protect someone who is not capable of fully understanding the consequences of his actions,  someone who requires special care and someone who needs reasonable societal accommodations (such as sidewalk ramps for wheel chairs) in order to function, is an important legal designation–and idiot is no longer an appropriate application.  Of course, we do not use idiot as a legal definition, anymore, precisely because it is an unscientific definition of someone’s capabilities and denigrates people unfairly and unwisely.

The Romans, whose government was a more limited republic than Athenian democracy (and which also governed a much larger territory and population than that of Athens), largely abandoned the private, as opposed to public, connotation.  Personally, I think this is its most valid modern application today: an idiot is a person who chooses not to pay attention to public life–that is, the government’s actions and the politicians who promote or refute those actions.  As such, I guess it would make labeling politicians as “idiots” a complete misnomer, but that does not mean that all politicians are smart or competent, just that they are involved–and, not necessarily for the right reasons!

1 Comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, 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.

1 Comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week