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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"Putting on the Ritz" and Other Eponyms

The Associative Meaning of Words

Studying the origin of a word adds to its usefulness in the same way that knowing the history of a place adds meaning to its vista. Before it was a hallowed cemetery, a famous speech, or an epic battlefield, the word Gettysburg referred only to a quiet Pennsylvania town, named for its first English settler, Samuel Gettys, and dating back well before the Revolutionary War. Likewise, most American school teachers know that Columbine is a high school in Littleton, Colorado. Fewer know that the school was named for a small flower in that region. The simpler meaning of the words Gettysburg and Columbine took on unforeseen complexity by events later associated with those words.

Like historic landmarks, many commonly-used words have stories behind them. The fact that such words typically carry their current meaning regardless of whether or not we know their stories is no different, I suppose, than a young school boy thinking Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is where he must have lived before moving to Washington DC.

After a few years with only patches of time for writing here at Patterns of Ink, I don’t mean to venture back with a professorial series on word association or the origin of words (etymology). In fact, the purpose of this post stems from the post which is to follow. I began writing a piece about my father-in-law who yesterday celebrated his 80th birthday, and something in that post triggered these thoughts as a preface of sorts.

The remainder of these thoughts about a tiny etymological category called eponyms, sometimes called “people words.” Eponyms are common words that  come from a person's name. True eponyms are not proper nouns like Gettysburg, even though that geographic name can be traced back to a man named Gettys; eponyms are names  no longer capitalized, like boycott which was once proper names (in this case, Charles Cunningham Boycott) but whose proper use shifted to mean something entirely else. (I realize that placing “entirely” before “else” sounds much more awkward than placing it afterwards and saying “something else entirely," but I will leave it as is for effect.) Because Charles Cunningham Boycott was once the victim of non-violent economic isolation,  more than a hundred years later, such actions are still called boycotts. The word is now used with no need for knowledge of its history and is therefore a true eponym according to the Alpha Dictionary's explanation of eponyms and non-eponyms.

Sometimes eponyms come from the royal title following a person’s name. This is true of the Earl of Sandwich, who fancied eating slices of cold beef between two pieces of bread while playing cards, now such menu items are called sandwiches.
Likewise with cardigan sweaters, “ named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army Major General who led the "Charge of the Light Brigade," immortalized by Tennyson, during the Crimean War. It is modeled after the knitted wool waistcoat that British officers supposedly wore during the war.” This may explain why cardigan sweaters were the manly garments of choice for men’s fraternities and “varsity letter” clubs in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

There was once a man named César Ritz who became famous for his extravagantly decorated and furnished hotels designed to serve the upper echelon of world travelers. His last name soon became so associated with such finery that it became an adjective: ritzy. Much later when Nabisco (the NAtional BIScuit COmpany) patented a new kind of fancy cracker that could be used for hors d'oeuvres and the like, it is no wonder they chose the name Ritz. Whenever we have the desire to live like the rich if only for a night, we’re “Putting on the Ritz.”

That song, written by White Christmas creator Irving Berlin in 1929, has gained popularity through the years with the help of Hollywood’s finest, like Clark Gable and Fred Astaire. Decades later, it was given new life—literally—in Mel Brook’s  Young Frankenstein and its latest cover prompted a flash mob in Moscow, where it sounds like they are not saying "Putting" but  "Putin on the Ritz."

Something tells me that President Ronald Reagan would never have envisioned such a sight just two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall. At this Youtube link you can spend much time watching various covers of  "Putting on the Ritz.". After you've had your fill of this song at the screens and links above, come back to the subject at hand...

If a man named César Ritz had not had such fine taste in hotel interiors or if his name had been  Walter Lebowski, odds are that the hotel chain of that name would not have have become a fancy adjective nor inspired Irving Berlin's song (nor even the cracker).

To the scores of Walter Lebowskis out there who may come upon this post in a Google search, I mean no disrespect to your name. The same would be true of my own name, Tom Kapanka. Ritz sounds ritzy and inspires a song, Lebowski and Kapanka do not. It's that simple. Discussing it further is probably as pointless as saying, "It's a good thing Columbus sailed in 1492, because that year rhymes so nicely with "ocean blue," and how else would we ever remember the date."  Much of language transcends science--even art-- and some things are best left to the mystical realm of the unknown.

This ends our brief lesson on eponyms, which is merely a preface to a single part of a future post
which pays tribute to my father-in-law on his 80th birthday. In the meantime, go put on a cardigan sweater, make a little ham sandwich on a Ritz cracker and watch that Moscow flash mob "Putin on the Ritz" again... unless you wish to boycott it because of Putin's recent controversies in the Snowden matter.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

A Kansas Rainbow...

A few months back, I wrote a piece called “Parched” based in part on the dry, feral land I’ve seen in Kansas where once fertile farms had been. Like all poems, the metaphor was meant to be taken beyond the obvious, and without saying much more…

I will say, however, that I was in Kansas yesterday, making a brief stop at my wife Julie’s folk’s house for the night. It is from this place near Waverly, that I have learned nearly all I know of Kansas and heat and horses and the struggles of farmers through the 20th Century. I have stood in the place where the picture below was taken for thirty-five summers in a row, since the summer of 1978 when I first flew from Michigan to Kansas to visit Julie.

It was in the summer of 1980 that we were married here, a summer that saw temperatures exceed 110o F for the entire month of June. On our wedding day, June 28, the temperature was 114o F. When we arrived at our reception, a large but not air-conditioned building, dozens of candles, not yet lit, were lying flat on the tables, wilted in the heat, holding their 12” tapered shape, their wide end still secure in the star-shaped glass candle holders, but otherwise limp and unable to be stand tall for lighting. We removed them from the tables. I wish the photographer had gotten a picture of that sad sight, soon forgotten as our guests arrived, fanning themselves with our wedding programs. It was hot …. But I digress…

 (You, Tom, digress? Never…)

The point I was making was that I had all of those dry, hot, and callused Kansas images in mind when I wrote “Parched,” and then yesterday, for the first time in my 35 years of visiting here in Kansas, a passing rain fell leaving behind only damp grass and this rainbow. It is only the second rainbow that I’ve seen in several years. The other one was last September at our school (seen here). I’m not a mystic, and I won’t attempt to add anything to the beauty of this rainbow, but I immediately thought of “Parched” and that Scripture itself tells us that the first rainbow was a promise from God, formed at the end of Noah’s epic struggle. I suppose that is why rainbows always inspire such hope… hope that the storm has passed and bright days lie ahead.

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