Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Weighing one's words

The public scales in the Dillon gymnasium as viewed from my locker


Photographic evidence of the shifting of tectonic plates

There is a unique convenience about the placement of my gymnasium locker, and it is this: it is situated along an aisle immediately next to the industrial or medical-sized scales provided for the gym's health-conscious clientele. It is not that I look forward to weighing myself, or have frequent opportunity to rejoice in the results of such activity. The scales are instead a most comforting geographical landmark. When I stumble groggily into the cavernous locker room in the early morning and start walking down its long corridor, animated only by the power of brute habit, the scales signal to me that it’s time to turn left, and that if I do so and keep walking, I’ll eventually find my own locker--or else walk into a wall beyond it. But this also means, of course, that as I am dressing after my swim and shower I cannot be unaware of people from time to time weighing themselves.

What has struck me over the years is that there is a definite repertoire of weighing styles, and that these styles are identifiable even from the partially occluded rear view afforded by the circumstances. Most of the six a.m. crowd are fairly serious jocks, and therefore I am a frequent witness of the Confident Style. They step right up on the platform with insouciance, quickly adjust the sliding weights, and confirm with satisfaction the unvarying perfection of their avoirdupoids. There is also a Timorous Style. These guys tip-toe onto the scales in the apparent but vain hope that the technique can circumvent the Law of Gravity. Not infrequently one witnesses episodes of the Litigious Style. Through body language and sometimes actual articulate speech obscene in content, the litigious weigher announces his diagnosis of the faultiness and unreliability of the apparatus, which must certainly be reported, and soon, to some vaguely denominated authority.

For probably obvious reasons the Monday after Thanksgiving was a big weigh-in day, and I had the opportunity to observe the whole stylistic register, including one not yet mentioned—the Resigned or Hang-Dog Style. The hang–dog weigher does not contest the laws of physics, but for the briefest moment, before shuffling off in hang-dog resignation, entertains the mad possibility of their momentary suspension on this one occasion.

On Monday I, too, stepped onto the scales. Now, while this blog aspires to the dignity of the truthful and the candid, it cannot stoop to the vulgar sensationalism of the tell all. This golden rule determines that I should not dwell on the dull, torpid numbers on the slide-bar, but should concentrate on the more lively and engaging aspects of my experience, which were of course philological. For the first time, apparently, I noticed that our gymnasium’s scale has a name, and a rather peculiar one. His name is DETECTO. With this observation, if I can put it this way, the scales fell from my eyes, if not from under my feet. I realized that the ruthlessness of this machine was actually its rooflessness.

For what detecto has to mean in Latin is “I remove the roof”. There obviously was a terrific old Indo-European root having to do with covering things up. This gave us eventually the Sanskrit sthághati and the Greek stégo. As with so many activities in life there are good and less good reasons for covering things up. For example, you might want to keep the rain out of your house (good). You might want to conceal a crime from the police (bad). Either way you were doing this *d/t-a/e-g/ch* thing. In Latin the verb was tegere, “to cover up”, with a past participle tectum, “thing covered up” or simply “covering”.

The thing most in need of covering up being your abode, it was natural that the word tectum came to mean “roof.” Indeed, the word could stand for the whole house, as when we speak of “a roof over my head”. When in doubt I always reach across my desk for Gustav Körting’s Lateinisch-romanisches Wörterbuch, where (at #9414) all the modern Romance versions are conveniently anthologized: tetto (Italian), teg-s (Provençal), toit (French), techo (Spanish), tecto, teito (Portuguese). All these techy-feelies are child’s play; less obvious perhaps is the common Indo-European ancestry of the non-Romance words Dach (German) and the nearly identical thatch (English).

English thatch, incidentally, illustrates the interesting tendency of words to move on in meaning from the generic to the specific—when they are not doing precisely the opposite, that is. Thus a thousand years ago in dismal Britain any roof covering was a thatch (and any roofer a Thatcher); but soon enough thatch meant specifically the artfully deployed vegetable stems and stalks that account for the essential cutesiness of Anne Hathaway’s cottage.


If you were fortunate enough to live in sunnier climes than those of the Tyneside or the Norfolk fens—as for example in Spain, Italy, or Languedoc, you covered your house not with twigs but with ceramic tiles, which as Latin tegulæ were actually the same thing, namely “roof”. Because a tegument or (annoyingly) an integument was any kind of sheathing, veiling, or prophylactic covering, as it still is in medical terminology and literary critical lingo. Think of it as body-thatch. It was inevitable therefore when modern paleontologists discovered the remains of a dinosaur that was not merely roofed, but tile-roofed, that wondrous beast must needs be the stegosaurus.

Naturally there is only one way to get to the bottom of all this, and that is to engage the services of somebody whose powers of penetration can blow the lid off this whole caper. That would be a de-roofer, or as old Julius used to say a de-tector: a private eye, a shamus. De-tectors are not without a certain thatch of their own, and it comes in two varieties.

The Sherlock


The Guy Noir

As for my friend Detecto at Dillon Gym, let him continue to keep his nose out of my uncovered business.


ADDENDUM on 12/02/2010

Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche announces with immoderate pride its inclusion in "The Top English Professor Blogs of the World"--or maybe it's "of central Jersey". Anyway, I got this e-mail badge, which I add to a rapidly burgeoning collection of prizes that includes not merely the ten-dollar (Monopoly money) "Second Prize in a Beauty Contest" mentioned in an earlier post but also the "Third Runner Up" ribbon in the Tractor Pull (youth division) of the Baxter County, Arkansas, County Fair in 1952.