Word Surfing While the Stuffing Herbs Meld


Yesterday morning, listening to Alice's Restaurant, our annual Thanksgiving day ritual, I was having a conversation with L about, of all things, Ricky Nelson’s song, “The Garden Party”.  The lyrics seem to be about being disappointed by people and learning to go your own way.  At this point L said, “We expect icons to be paragons.”

L says stuff like that a lot, so I’m used to having to mull over what she says, and her remark made me think about the word “paragon”, its meaning and its roots.  “That’s an interesting word.  Para- means beside and –gon in words like ‘hexagon’ derives ultimately from –genu (knee) which has to do with angles.  So, are paragons ‘beside the angle’?

I am a word nerd; so much so that I was given a dictionary of PIE (proto-Indo-European) roots for Christmas one year.  Words to me are like a person standing at the end of a trail.  The trail disappears behind that person and the only way to know its origin is to follow it backwards, and wonder why the trail ended where it did.

Paragon is not derived from “beside the angle”; that’s the problem with off-the-cuff etymology.  The Online Etymology Dictionary told me:

“paragon (n.)

1540s, from Middle French paragon "a model, pattern of excellence" (15c., Modern French parangon), from Italian paragone, originally "touchstone to test gold" (early 14c.), from paragonare "to test on a touchstone, compare," from Greek parakonan "to sharpen, whet," from para- "on the side" (see para- (1)) + akone "whetstone," from PIE root *ak- "be sharp, rise (out) to a point, pierce."

I was half right, which - a college literature teacher assured us all – is wrong.

The problem was the consonant shift from the Greek –akone to the Italian –agone – perhaps…

A touchstone is basically a whetstone.  Assaying gold using a touchstone is simple in principle, but requires experience to be accurate.  A standard piece of gold of a known karat is compared against the piece of gold in question.  Gold is scraped off onto the touchstone, from each, and treated with acid.  The resulting change is compared to the standard.  Several phrases may have arisen from this process, like subjecting something to “the acid test” and comparing something to the “gold standard”.

The process goes back into antiquity; far enough back to be the unrecognizable source of modern words.

Without pointing to any specific examples, the word “paragon” is often added to the names of things that aren’t. Has anyone stayed here?  It might deserve the name.

Grand Paragon Hotel

Jakarta, Indonesia

We assign certain classes of people to the category of paragon; like OUR pastor, or OUR Senator or our favorite actor and then are crushed when we find out that they are just people, perhaps more flawed than most.

The recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct on the part of comedians, producers, congressmen, senators, talk show hosts and an Alabama candidate for the U.S. Senate, brings home the faulty concept of people being paragons of virtue.

Incidentally, there are a number of words which derive from the –ak- root; acute is from Latin acuere “sharpen” which is from acus, needle.  Accurate which sounds like might have that root did not.

And, agony which sounds like it might have come from “akone” is from another Greek root, "agonia", originally meaning a mental “contest” or “struggle” that ultimately took on its present meaning.

And that brings me back to the title and herbs.  One of my favorite herbs is tarragon.  So, acting like Toula’s father, Gus, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I thought tarra- derived from terra (earth) and –gon (sharp, maybe from the leaf shape).  Now, any linguist would shudder at the thought of combining a Latin root (terra) with a Greek root (-gon) but things happen. I was not only wrong, I was totally wrong.  Here’s the actual etymology:

“tarragon (n.)

Artemisia Dracunculus, Eastern European plant of the wormwood genus, 1530s, from Medieval Latin tragonia, from Byzantine Greek tarchon, from Arabic tarkhon, from a non-Arabic source, perhaps Greek drakon "serpent, dragon" (via drakontion "dragonwort"); see dragon. From the same source come Spanish taragona, Italian targone, French estragon (with unetymological prefix). Its aromatic leaves long have been used for flavoring (especially vinegar).”

French Tarragon

Artemisia dracunculus

I hope everyone had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat.

Views: 175

Comment by koshersalaami on November 24, 2017 at 6:58am

This is also why English spellings are so inconsistent - we often leave the original spellings from other languages.

i've learned in recent years that Hebrew is largely based on three letter roots. This really helps with Torah study because the roots help in figuring out further connections and meanings. 

Very cool exploration. 

Comment by Steel Breeze on November 24, 2017 at 7:11am

well,where i'm from tree is the number after two......so i guess i'm outa language discussions.....

Comment by alsoknownas on November 24, 2017 at 7:30am

Great piece to read here Rodney.

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 24, 2017 at 9:02am

Steel Breeze, that may have been the Katzenjammer Kids effect. "Tree time tree is nine.  Vot did you tink it vus?"

Comment by J.P. Hart on November 24, 2017 at 10:22am

As one prone to malaprop and diddy-bop, my bets on you, Rodney, a unique barrage of silver-gold linguistics, up from hardscrabble.

Comment by Anna Herrington on November 24, 2017 at 10:30am

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Rodney ~ and this is fascinating. I, too, would absolutely love to have a dictionary of PIE root words!! and I cringe already at the teasing by my family when I put it on my Christmas list  : )

Comment by Rosigami on November 24, 2017 at 11:38am

Good stuff, here, as usual, Rodney.
My Greek grandmother studied the English language all her life, though she never lost the charming Athenian accent she arrived in America with at age 14. She always had a dictionary nearby and was always proud and pleased to discover an English word with a Greek root. 

I notice you have presented L's very astute comment without discussion of where we are to go from here, given what is coming out from under the long-held shrouds of position and power.
I will say that my thoughts here would be to try and separate the art from the artists as much as seems feasible. Some offences are worse than other. Each viewer has the obligation to decide for him/herself what is tolerable in terms of continuing to accept the art as valid.
But I do see art as separate from politics. I believe politics to be a generally smarmy business to start with. 
And in the performing arts as well, especially those on positions to make decisions about what gets produced and who gets to perform. The performers themselves, whose work is the art, well, that's a different thing. In my opinion, anyway. I am certainly not saying that wrong actions and behaviors should go unpunished, unacknowledged, be excused or anything of the sort. But degree matters, as does remorse and amends. 

For example, I haven't been able to watch anything by Woody Allen objectively since those revelations about him surfaced. I don't wish to support him an any of his endeavors. 
I reserve judgement on Al Franken as of yet. If every member of Congress with such a history had to resign over misuse of power, position, authority I fear we would empty the halls and fall apart. As I said before, I think context, degree of poor behavior, present attitude, and willingness to make amends all need to be considered. 
Roy Moore should be prosecuted and certainly not allowed to serve the US until acquitted. We can't just be letting such people in willy-nilly.
That goes for El Trumpidore as well. 

Cripes. I wasn't going to "do" politics here anymore. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 24, 2017 at 1:16pm

Rosi, it is hard to stay away from politics, isn't it?

This morning one of the 24/7 channels, I believe CNN, had Ana Navarro and an ultraconservative Republican to talk about the present state of affairs.  The Ultra-right wing individual maintained that because members of the legislature should be above reproach it didn't matter what the person was accused of; in other words neither Al Franken, nor Roy Moore deserved to be in Washington.

Ana Navarro disagreed; there are degrees of heinousness. She quipped that if this trend continues the only people left will be women and that is not such a bad thing.

The ultra-right fellow said that Alabamans are willing to vote for Roy Moore just to keep the Senate seat Republican, and imagine that the Senate will never seat him, but he could not push the button to vote for Moore.  He just wouldn't vote.  There are limits to his tribalism.

About the art and artists, I went to see Rick Nelson shortly before he died.  He was very grateful to have an audience.  I thought then and still do that he had little talent, but if life isn't fair, the world of art is especially unfair.  Talented people are discovered long after they have left this sphere, and people without much talent succeed through hype, heredity, and blind luck.

We could have a discussion about, say, Salvador Dali vs. Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol, for example, about how much each of these factors had on their success, but it's done.

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 24, 2017 at 1:29pm

Rosi, your remark about not supporting Woody Allen in light of his "lifestyle choices" apply to others, as well.  Marlin Brando had some issues and Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14 y/o cousin.  Roman Polanski left the country to avoid prosecution.  One of the best done movies I have ever seen was "A Pure Formality"  which was directed by Polanski, and he acted in the movie along with Gerard Depardieu and a French actor that I don't remember.  I felt conflicted watching it, but I'm glad I saw it.

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 24, 2017 at 1:36pm

Anna, we did have a great Thanksgiving.  We went to our Fellowship and had a potluck with the other geographic orphans.  Twenty-seven said they would be there and forty-one showed up.  There were LOTS of leftovers.  There was key lime PIE, too.


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