Friday, December 25, 2009

Travels By Mouse

In 30 years of living in New York, I have yet to visit the Statue of Liberty. I was once in a place in New Jersey that had a rear view of the famous statue. It felt like I was being perpetually ignored. As a visitor, I tried to empathise with New Jerseyans who were perpetually treated to the rear view of the Statue of Liberty. Believe it or not, people actually a few people actually live there.

There are places I have visited more than once, such as the Brooklyn Museum. My favourite place there is the exhibit of 19th century American paintings. I particularly like landscapes. Posed portraits are of limited appeal to me. I like the kind of views that show the world as it was when photography was in its infancy.

My favourite 19th Century artist is Mary Casatt, (1844-1926) who is best known for her portraits of mothers and children. Although she was born in Pittsburgh, she spent a good part of her adult life in France. I used to show my children books of her paintings and tell them that they were their baby pictures. When one becomes a parent, her paintings have a particular resonance.

When I really want a beer, and it's the day before payday, there are brands that do the job even as they savage the palate. My particular favourite of this genre is Country Club Malt Liquor. I used to drink it in front of the laundromat on hot summer days when my clothes were drying. My wife thought I was trying to be helpful. There are a couple of other beers like it that deliver a pleasant feeling of numbness at a modest price. (A helpful tip for New Yorkers. It is not legal to drink alcohol from a paper bag. Two police officers supplied me with that information, which was confirmed by a judge.)

Similarly, when I can't afford museum tickets, there are web sites that of course do not charge admission. I like looking for music and art. But there is one past time that is like having a museum on the tip of your tongue. That is etymology. Unlike archaeology or geology, you don't have to dig. You only have to pick a word at random and look it up in an etymological dictionary. In the age before computers, the Oxford English Dictionary was the best resource for the history of any word in the English language. From the first known written usage through each shift of meaning in the history of a word as well as related words in other languages, the Oxford English Dictionary is like a museum. It used to be about 20 volumes. Now it comes in two volumes with a magnifying glass.

But when you can't get a hold of the Oxford Unabridged, there is another way to indulge your curiousity. is a searchable website where you can type in any word and get a history of the word which will give you a well grounded sense of its origins. I typed in the word "kiosk", which I had suspected was of Turkish origin. Instantly, the site served up the following entry.

"1625, "open pavilion," from Fr. kiosque, from Turk. koshk "pavilion, palace," from Pers. "palace, portico." Modern sense influenced by Brit. kushktelephone kiosk (1928)."

It turned out I was partially right. I am sure the Oxford Dictionary will give it a more thorough treatment, but that will tide me over for now.

In etymology, you get the feeling that looking at words is like looking at a family portrait of a big family reunion. The world seems interrelated and harmonious. Soooner or later it jumps off the page and affects how you see people. If you look closely, you never have to go to the museum, because it is all around you.

I hope my readers will check out the site Without leaving your home, you can travel the boundaries of the language you speak. The museum is always at hand. Even the day before payday. Sphere: Related Content

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