Meanings: Dessert”

March 2, 2015

The mnemonic I learned in school–and perhaps you, too–was that “dessert” had two s’s because it was sweet stuff, but “desert” had only one because it was just sand. Today there’s probably as much desert as ever (they cover about a fifth of the earth’s surface), but desserts are in decline.

Dessert decline“Only 12 percent of dinners eaten at home in the United States ended with something sweet last year,” significant decline over the past few decades, according to data from market research firm NPD group, and many restaurants don’t really want you to order dessert because their margins are smaller on desserts.

I’m happy to say dessert is alive and well at our house, though some of us eat fruit and some of us eat cookies. But where did that word come from? Here’s what says:

dessert (n.)Look up dessert at Dictionary.comc.1600, from Middle French dessert (mid-16c.) “last course,” literally “removal of what has been served,” from desservir “clear the table,” literally “un-serve,” from des- “remove, undo” (see dis-) + Old French servir “to serve” (see serve (v.)).

But now it looks like it’s the main course that’s clearing the table, not the dessert.

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How to Know What to Do

February 12, 2015

You don't know what to do?Our son, Robbie, is now a sixth grader at Mount Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine. He has the great good fortune to have Mrs. Latti as his principal teacher. She teaches the class science and math while Ms. Hopkins teaches them language arts and social studies. They are a team (the Magalloway 6th Grade Team), but when we have parent-teacher conferences we meet with Mrs. Latti.

We had such a conference on Tuesday, and I couldn’t help but notice this poster on the classroom wall. It’s Mrs. Latti’s standing directions to her class about what they should do when they aren’t sure what they should be doing. 6th graders are prone to such moments of uncertainty, but then aren’t all of us?  I’m glad Mrs. Latti is teaching them how to work through such moments.  (I don’t think that was any part of my 6th grade experience.)

I think the poster says it all — almost. That last direction takes some explaining.

“Reread the directions.” That often helps. “Take a deep breath:” don’t get frustrated; believe in yourself; you can do this.  If those don’t work, “ask a neighbor.” You’ve got friends: ask them for help, and be ready to help your friends when they get confused. “Ask another neighbor.” If the first friend can’t help you, ask someone else.

Mrs. Latti is teaching them confidence and self-reliance, and she is teaching them to work as a group, helping each other, even on projects where each person has to do his own work.

So what about that last instruction, “Get a Latti lamp”?  She wants them to know that she stands ready to help if they need her. They should turn to her only when they’ve tried to work themselves out of confusion themselves and sought the aid of friends if they are still confused. But if none of that works, they can turn to her. Across the classroom, on a shelf, are a dozen or so little electric lanterns she bought at the Dollar Store.  You go get one and turn it on at your desk. The light tells her you need her help, and it does so in a way that doesn’t distract others.

We all need a Latti lamp in our lives. But we shouldn’t use it until we’ve reread the directions, taken a deep breath, asked a friend, and asked another friend. What a great approach to learning.

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Meanings: Cheat

January 24, 2015

“This kind of gamesmanship goes on all the time,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor at Ithaca College who studies sports ethics. He was commenting on the Patriots’ deflated footballs in last week’s AFC title game, sign stealing, corked baseball bats and scuffed baseballs. “It’s certainly accepted as part of the culture that you game the system as much as you can, and if you don’t get caught, it ain’t cheating.”  (Tim Rohan, “Gamesmanship vs. Cheating,” New York Times, January 24, 2015, pB9.)

I dissent from that view however commonplace it may have become.  (I also wince at a professor saying “ain’t.  Mosher, by the way, has a B.A. in English and Journalistic Studies, and a Ph.D. in Sport Studies with Concentrations in Philosophy and Literary Criticism, both from U. Mass, Amherst. Such expertise….)

Games have rules; those rules define the game. Having all contestants adhere to those rules is what makes a game ‘fair.’  In professional football, there is a rule about the permissible pressure in a football. If someone deliberately altered the footballs so they didn’t adhere to that standard, that’s cheating, and there should be consequences.

I remember a faculty meeting many years ago where we were discussing student plagiarism. Some members of the faulty were upset at some recent incidents. Others began to talk about how murky s concept plagiarism is, how difficult it is to know dishonest plagiarism from honest borrowing. (In my view, the cases under discussion were far from murky.)  A member of the music faculty rose, someone who rarely spoke in faculty meetings, and said “in my field, plagiarism consists of three notes.” He sat down; he knew plagiarism when he saw it.

In the discussions of deflate-gate, I’m astonished that there isn’t more outrage and more talk of consequences being visited on the Patriots. No one seems to question that the Patriots should play for the NFL Championship next Sunday. After all, I’ve read many saying, the Patriots would have won even if they hadn’t cheated, so decisively did they defeat the Colts. Here, for example, is an exchange on NPR between Audie Cornish (host) and Tom Goldman, NPR Sports Correspondent:

CORNISH: Now, if a current NFL investigation shows the Patriots did purposely under-inflate the balls, will people be able to say that New England cheated its way into the Super Bowl?

GOLDMAN: I know you may disagree with this, Audie, but no. The Patriots dominated Indianapolis in all facets of the game, as they’ve done the past few games against the Colts.

So it’s OK if you would have won anyway? And it’s also OK if you don’t get caught?

The NFL and Patriots owner Robert Kraft have both issued statements. The NFL statement says that the goal of the investigation is to determine “the explanation for why footballs used in the game were not in compliance with the playing rules” and”specifically whether any noncompliance was the result of deliberate action.” But the statement is utterly silent on what consequence might follow if the footballs were found to be deliberately under-inflated by action of anyone working for the Patriots.  After pledging full cooperation with the investigation, Kraft’s statement makes it clear he expects the Patriots to be playing next weekend in the Superbowl: “Meanwhile, our players, coaches and staff will continue to focus on our preparations for Super Bowl XLIX and the many challenges we face as we prepare for the Seattle Seahawks.” He doesn’t even imagine the possibility of disqualification.  (“Meanwhile” = this investigation is to one side of the question of whether we should be playing.)

If the Patriots cheated, why should anyone watch?

The word “cheat,” by the way, comes from the legal term escheat. According to

cheat (v.) Look up cheat at Dictionary.commid-15c., “to escheat,” a shortening of Old French escheat, legal term for revision of property to the state when the owner dies without heirs, literally “that which falls to one,” past participle of escheoir “happen, befall, occur, take place; fall due; lapse (legally),” from Late Latin *excadere “fall away, fall out,” from Latin ex- “out” (see ex-) + cadere “to fall” (see case (n.1)). Also compare escheat. The royal officers evidently had a low reputation. Meaning evolved through “confiscate” (mid-15c.) to “deprive unfairly” (1580s). To cheat on (someone) “be sexually unfaithful” first recorded 1934.

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Our Far-Flung Alumni: Rock Scully

December 23, 2014

I note the passing of Rock Scully, Earlham ’63, whose obituary appeared a few days ago in the New York Times.  He was an alumnus I never met, alas.

Scully was a long-time manager of the Grateful Dead.  The Dead’s website, the obituary tells us, “praised Mr. Scully’s ‘central sweetness.’ It went on to say that if he conned you, ‘it was almost always in the service of a higher ideal and for the best of reasons.'”

In a statement, Bob Weir (core member of the Dead) said of Rock Scully:  “His mischievous sense of adventure made him a perfect candidate for the position of manager for a band with similar sensibilities and and an equally similar disregard for the way things were supposed to be done.”

Sounds like an Earlhamite to me.

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Meanings: “Stuff”

November 12, 2014

“Here’s how I define ‘stuff’,” writes personal productivity coach David Allen: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step” (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, 2001, p 17).  That’s an interesting definition: ‘stuff’ is not everything I own. A book I’ve read and enjoyed is no longer making a diffuse claim on me and so is no longer ‘stuff’. A book I’ve taken out of the library but haven’t yet started to read is ‘stuff’ especially if I think I should read it. A phone call I haven’t returned is ‘stuff.’ My unfinished bathroom is ‘stuff.’ To get properly organized, you have to wade through your stuff in some constructive way, turning stuff into accomplishments.

Allen’s definition isn’t the dictionary’s, which defines “stuff” as “matter, material, articles, or activities of a specified or indeterminate kind that are being referred to, indicated, or implied.” That’s broader, quite broad, actually. Allen’s definition gets at the emotional overlay. When we refer to something as “stuff” we mean to refer to the things that are nagging at us in some way, the things we haven’t dealt with. It gets at what we mean when we say ‘I can’t go have fun with you, I have too much stuff to do.’

Reading Allen (who I’m reading because he was praised by Atul Gawande), I found myself wondering where the word came from. I realized there are both a noun form (whatever we are talking about) and a verb form (putting something inside of something else). But what was the origin? provides this:

stuff (n.)   early 14c., “quilted material worn under chain mail,” from Old French estoffe “quilted material, furniture, provisions” (Modern French étoffe), from estoffer “to equip or stock,” which according to French sources is from Old High German stopfon “to plug, stuff,” or from a related Frankish word (see stop (v.)), but OED has “strong objections” to this.

Sense extended to material for working with in various trades (c.1400), then “matter of an unspecified kind” (1570s). Meaning “narcotic, dope, drug” is attested from 1929. To know (one’s) stuff “have a grasp on a subject” is recorded from 1927.

Quilted material under chain mail: of course! That image links the noun and the verb forms. You put stuff (whatever!) under chain mail, and that act is an act of stuffing. Hence we stuff a turkey or we have too much stuff in our closets.

However we consider “stuff,” there does seem to be more of it these days. The NGram makes the late 1940s and ‘50s look good doesn’t it? Maybe they were a simpler time.

Ngram stuff

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Meanings: “Clique”

October 3, 2014

I skipped over the questions that asked “Favorite PHS Memory” and “Worst PHS Memory.” They were asking about my years at Penfield High School (suburban Rochester, New York), 1960 to 1964. Do the math and you’ll see this is my 50th reunion year. We’re celebrating this weekend.

I didn’t answer the questions because I certainly didn’t want to write anything about my worst memory, and I do have a few. (I also certainly have some very good memories of friends and teachers, and of a few moments of triumph, including my high school’s first perfect score on an Earth Science Regents exam.)

One classmate wrote a single word in response to “Worst PHS Memory:” “cliques.” That word rocketed me back to the early 1960s. I can’t remember using or hearing the word since then, but that surely was the word we used often to describe all the smallish, exclusive sets of people who hung out with each other–and only with each other. There was a strong status hierarchy among these “cliques.” You were nobody if you weren’t in one of those special cliques.

Where did that word come from, I wondered. here’s the etymology:

clique (n.)Look up clique at Dictionary.com1711, “a party of persons; a small set, especially one associating for exclusivity,” from obsolete French clique, originally (14c.) “a sharp noise,” also “latch, bolt of a door,” from Old French cliquer “click, clatter, crackle, clink,” 13c., echoic. Apparently this word was at one time treated in French as the equivalent of claque(q.v.) and partook of that word’s theatrical sense.

So it is French in origin and derived from a sound. And may be derived from “claque.” Here’s the etymology on that:

claque (n.) Look up claque at Dictionary.com1860, from French claque “band of claqueurs,” agent noun from claquer “to clap” (16c.), echoic (compare clap (v.)). Modern sense of “band of political followers” is transferred from that of “organized applause at theater.” Claqueur “audience member who gives pre-arranged responses in a theater performance” is in English from 1837.

This method of aiding the success of public performances is very ancient; but it first became a permanent system, openly organized and controlled by the claquers themselves, in Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century. [Century Dictionary]

I had wondered whether the sound of a latch indicated a shutting out of some people, but apparently not.

The Google Ngram picture is fascinating, too:

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 9.32.55 AM

Over time, “clique” was most common in English right about the time I was in high school and its use declines sharply after that. “Claque” has never been a term as commonly used. And “cabal,” another term for a loosely organized group, shows a steady decline in usage.

Among my classmates I’ve seen that the “cliques” are less in evidence as we’ve gathered for previous reunions. But the memories linger, and that word summons those memories.

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Graham Spanier’s Responsibility

July 24, 2014

This week’s New York Times Magazine has a profile of Graham Spanier, the former president of Penn State who was dismissed or fired (there are opposing claims about which) as a consequence of the revelations that Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the PSU football team, was a serial child molester. Spanier is now under indictment for failing to do more to stop Sandusky. Sandusky will be in prison the rest of his life.

(I wrote earlier about the Penn State case here, here, here and here.)

In the print version the profile, by Michael Sokolove, is entitled “The Shadow of the Valley,” a reference to the Penn State campus being widely known as Happy Valley, and Spanier’s virtual house exile within this kingdom he once ruled. Sokolove mostly offers a portrait of Spanier today: once a 16-year, very successful, roundly liked and admired president, now a president laid low. (Online, the article is titled “The Trials of Graham Spanier, Penn State’s Ousted President.”) But Sokolove also raises pointedly the question of whether Spanier should be criminally prosecuted for his failure. Sokolove has quite critical things to say about the follow-up investigation of the Sandusky matter by Louis Freeh, which was commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees, and equally critical things to say about the use of that investigation by the Board, the NCAA, and the prosecutors. (Sokolove references positively the subsequent report by Dick Thornburgh that was commissioned by the Paterno family.)

The most surprising revelation is that Spanier himself was physically abused as a child: beaten repeatedly and cruelly by his father. The implication is that Spanier of all people would have done more had he even a glimmer of what Sandusky had done. Sokolove says that these beatings led Spanier to want to be apart from his father as much of every day as possible, and thus led to Spanier’s ferocious appetite for working hard.

The other wing of the case for not pursuing criminal charges against Spanier is that he was at a considerable remove from the Sandusky matter. True, he was copied on some key e-mails and true, he engaged in some conversations about how the case should be handled (all this, well before the fullness of Sandusky’s behavior was known), but (the article suggests), Spanier did as well as he could with what he knew and the time he had to devote to the matter. “The life of a university president is you have things coming at you all day long,” Spanier is quoted as saying. “It’s one crisis after another, one issue after another.”

Certainly someone in a position of responsibility at Penn State should have done much more, and much earlier. Early allegations against Sandusky were never pursued vigorously and they should have been. Every allegation of abuse or rape in a community should be actively pursued.

In the Penn State case, I suspect that Sandusky was protected by the cocoon of normalcy that leads most people most of the time to dismiss out of hand indications of predatory behavior. They simply can’t believe someone they know (someone who seems like such a regular guy) could be guilty of anything so heinous. Their eyes must be deceiving them. The rumors couldn’t be true. No one does anything because they can’t even imagine the possibility of such wrongdoing

One of the arts of leadership is to carry a double image of the people you work with. You need to simultaneously believe that the people around you are capable of much better performance than they are currently showing, AND also could be guilty of much worse behavior than you can bear imagining. Both possibilities are there all the time. It’s a burden to think that way, but you must. When there are glimmerings of evidence of the rare, horrible possibility, you must pursue them. (As someone himself abused, perhaps Spanier was not vulnerable to the cocoon of normalcy: he knew what people could do at their worst.)

Beyond the ‘cocoon of normalcy’ that leads most people to overlook predatory behavior when it is near them, I also believe that the culture of big-time athletics (especially football) at Penn State created a bias against seeing anything wrong. How could anything be wrong with the Joe Paterno-coached football program? It was the very paragon of virtue in Division One NCAA athletics. Football success allowed Penn State to prosper, but it also insulated the program from ever being scrutinized in the ways we should expect.

Spanier certainly bought into Penn State’s athletic culture. Before he became president—before he accepted those responsibilities—he had to know that the football program was beyond his ability to supervise. PSU Football had become a world unto itself even as it garnered money and reputation for the university. When Spanier became president, he accepted responsibility for what that might mean. In this case, it meant Sandusky and the lives he ruined.

Is Graham Spanier one who is responsible? I believe he certainly should have lost his position. Should he be criminally prosecuted? I don’t know enough to say whether I agree with Sokolove.

The question of whether Spanier should be prosecuted for actions he failed to take is an interesting one. Much more interesting for me is whether Penn State University and its peers among American universities can rescue themselves from the culture of big-time athletics, which steadily undermines the essential values of education and sometimes ruins lives. Also interesting is the question of how leaders can learn to see beyond the cocoon of normalcy.

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