World Wide Words
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Agog Dharmachari Padmavyuha wrote, “I think you’re right about this ‘new’ usage of agog being confused with goggle, and I think it’s happening by way of agape (which has the same flavour of meaning as goggle, and which I suspect people are probably hearing in their heads when they use agog that way). I’m most used to it in agog with anticipation, which invokes the spirit of spaniels everywhere.” James McCrudden added, “When I was a child at convent school in the early 1950s in Australia I often heard teachers say to an excited pupil ‘here he is all agape and agog’. I later found that agape and agog was in common use. Sometimes aghast, agape and agog. It’s definitely not rare.”
Sic! Many readers, as unversed as I am in the esoteric jargon of cricket, were aghast (or perhaps agape or agog) at one item in the Sic! section last week. The primary reason for including it was the reference to a ball dissecting fielders. Terry Walsh commented, “Bizarre as it might appear to the uninitiated, to the cricket aficionado it is not only a poetic, but also a perfectly intelligible description of two different types of successful hit. I leave it to those better versed than I am to write with a translation, as, of course, they will.” Nobody has yet, which will disappoint all those readers who have contacted me to ask what the devil it could possibly mean.
Take a doughnut (not a traditional British one, but an American one with a hole in the middle). Lay it on a chopping block. Take a sharp knife and hold the blade vertical, positioning it so that its edge is exactly above the inside edge of the doughnut. Cut vertically downwards to split the doughnut in two. If you examine the cut ends of the pieces, you will find the smaller one has a cross-section like a figure eight or an infinity sign. You have just created an imperfect example of a lemniscate, a type of mathematical curve.
Lemniscates were named by the Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, who published a description of them in 1694. He took their name from the Latin lēmniscātus, decorated with ribbons, for no very obvious reason we can now understand except that perhaps the curves looked like ribbons tied into a bow. He is remembered for his studies of one member of the set in particular, now called the lemniscate of Bernoulli. The one in your doughnut (which is an approximation to the geometric shape called a torus) is the lemniscate of Booth, named for James Booth, a nineteenth-century mathematician of Irish birth who worked in the same field.
To attach Booth’s name to it is to deprive a Greek mathematician of the fifth century CE named Proclus of the credit for discovering it. He called Booth’s curve a hippopede, a horse fetter, because it looked like a device for hobbling a horse’s feet.
Outside mathematics, lemniscate frequently takes on mystical or occult undertones because of the associations of the infinity symbol with the Tarot and the teachings of the Russian spiritualist Madame Blavatsky.
The cosmic lemniscate, or sidewise figure-eight, the symbol of infinity, hovered like a halo above the Magician’s head, and about his waist was clasped a serpent devouring its own tail: the worm Ouroborus, a symbol of eternity. All things in all space and time — that was the grandeur of the concept for which this modern Magician strived.
God of Tarot, by Piers Anthony, 1989.
3. Part and parcel
Q From Malcolm Ross-Macdonald, Ireland: Has the parcel in the stock phrase part and parcel anything to do with the parcel handled by the Post Office? I recall resellers of war-surplus goods in the 1940-50s breaking their inventory into parcels that would have required a 3-ton lorry to shift.
A The Post Office kind of parcel (which Americans would prefer to call a package) is a very specific sense of a word that has had a large number of meanings down the centuries.
In its widest sense it can mean an amount or quantity of something, an extremely wide-ranging usage — you can have parcels of land, for example. The OED illustrates its variety over the past couple of centuries with these: parcel of work, parcel of weather, parcel of nonsense, parcel of spray, parcel of rogues and parcel of shares. It can mean a quantity of a commodity offered as a single transaction, a lot, so a tiny package of diamonds offered for auction and your three-tonner load of equipment are both parcels.
All of these in various ways perpetuate the first sense of a parcel as being a constituent or part of some larger whole, a portion or division. This reflects its origins: parcel has come to us via Old French from the post-classical Latin particella, a part or portion.
That makes part and parcel a tautology, since both words in effect mean the same thing. English loves this kind of doublet: nooks and crannies, hale and hearty, safe and sound, rack and ruin, dribs and drabs. Many derive from the ancient legal practice of including words of closely similar meaning to make sure that the sense covers all eventualities: aid and abet, fit and proper, all and sundry.
Part and parcel is a member of this second group — it appeared in legal records during the sixteenth century. We use it to emphasise that the thing being spoken about is an essential and integral feature or element of a whole:
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” “I believe that the energy we have as living human beings is still part and parcel of the universe at some level and makes a difference.”
Financial Times, 6 Jul. 2013.
US English has the mildly humorous variant passel — deriving from a nineteenth-century pronunciation of parcel and often preceded by whole — suggesting a largish group of people or things (passel of problems, passel of accusations, passel of experts).
• “While walking in AbbeyDore in Herefordshire,” wrote Pete Sinclair, “we saw a plaque over a gate at the church: ‘ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF CAPT R.C.B. PARTRIDGE, M.C. C. de G. KILLED IN ACTION SEPT 28 1918 BY FRIENDS IN SOUTH WALES’.”
• Gerald Etkind found this headline over a story dated 10 August on the website of the Athens Banner-Herald of Georgia: “Man asked to clean up after dog pulls gun.”
• I quote from an article in The Independent on 12 August about the Australian general election: “On the campaign trail and addressing a Liberal Party event in the city of Melbourne [opposition leader Tony] Abbott said: “No one — however smart, however well-educated, however experienced — is the suppository of all wisdom.”