Thursday, January 14, 2016

January 14, 2106--Pithy

I don't know what compelled me to stay up late enough to watch all of the Golden Globes. Probably masochism.

With the exception of a few smartalecy barbs from the host, Ricky Gervais, I found it to be excruciatingly boring. And, of course, in my snarkiness, having seen only one or two of the movies and TV shows nominated, I disagreed with most of the awards.

Hung over the next morning, doing our own postmortem, ahead of the E channel's acidic Fashion Police, Rona and I, since we agreed, wondered out loud about why it was such a snore.

"I think mainly because the winners--and they have an endless series of categories including one for actors who were in a single episode of a TV series or movie made for television--in their acceptance speeches were so bland and unclever."

"Good point," Rona said, "It's almost as if their PR people told them to be intentionally bland so as to avoid controversy and not offend anyone or any 'demographic' that might then boycott their films. Like they did to Marlon Brando when he refused his Oscar to protest our treatment of Native Americans."

"For me, in the past, where I do a lot of my living, one of the things I used to look forward to were the pithy remarks of the winners. Some were even memorable like in 1974, when David Niven was presenting an Oscar, a naked man streaked across the stage. Nonplussed, Niven quipped, 'Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.'"

"It's true, presenters and winners were often witty and pithy."

"To change the subject," I said, "Pithy is such an interesting word. It has a sound close to the way I understand its meaning. Not onomatopoetic exactly, but something close to that."

"I agree. I wonder about its etymology. For example, does it share a common root with pith helmet or a pit?"

"Google's the way to find out," I said. And sure enough it does have an ancient and interesting history. It goes back to at least the year 900 and the modern English version derives from a number of ancient languages including Proto-German and Old English. The common roots all originally meant the soft, spongy center or core of plant stems."

I rattled out, taxing Rona's patience, "And, further, Google says, as you suspected, that too explains pith helmet. It was originally made from the dried center of an Indian swamp plant, the Aeschyonomene aspera. Not to be found in your Maine garden. And pit indeed shares a similar history, as the hard core or stone found in the center of many fruits."

"So a pithy remark," Rona said with caffeine surging in her system, "pierces to the core of something."

"One more meaning of pith, which would reenforce what you said, is when it is used to describe piercing the spinal cord in order to kill."

"Ugh. I think it's time to change the subject again. It's bad enough I'm still recovering from the Golden Globes."

"Where this all began."

"On the other hand," Rona said, "Isn't the history of language and the creation of words about as interesting as it gets?"

"What did you say?" I was still fanatically googling.

"How interesting language is. Perhaps the most remarkable of human creations."

"Do you know what the 23 oldest English words are?"

"They probably include mother."

"It says right here that they may be as much as 15,000 years old. From the time of the last Ice Age."

"Is mother on the list?"

"No surprise, with a prescient nod to Martin Buber, I and thou are. And also there's we, hand, hear, bark, fire, and ashes."

"And mother?"

"Of course. Then there's spit as in to spit."

"What a life they must have had back then."

"Pretty basic. Fire and ashes."

"I wonder what Ricky Gervais would have to say about that."

"Spare me."

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