Measured Extravagance

2001-01-05 - 12:08 a.m.

I went trolling for helices today. That is, I decided to look up the word "helix" in the dictionaries I had on hand.

In my 1959 Webster's New World pocket dictionary, the word "helix" is not listed.

In my 1996 Collins Robert French dictionary, "helix" is not listed, but "okapi" is, as is "double declutch."

In my 1955 College Edition of Webster's New World Dictionary (which I actually did use in college 35 years later), I got distracted by the headers: "heather - heavyweight", "Heb. - hedge garlic", "hedgehog - heigh-ho"," height - heliogravure", "heliolatry - hello" - the heck with hacking away at hexameters, I'm just hop around old dictionaries for the rest of my days. There's more tantalizing, tongue-tingling possibility in an unknown header ("hound's-tongue"!) than in most Harlequins - and I like romance novels! (Actually, I don't believe there's any hound in Bela (as in Fleck), the wonderful fluffy chow-and-retriever-and-other-stuff pooch who's given me my most recent sighting of a hound's-tongued dawg. But I digress.) Also saw "heinie" defined simply as "A german soldier: term of contempt used especially in World War I." That's not how I hear it used these days... which is one of the reasons I bought a 1955 dictionary in 1989 (or thereabouts). (I also once bought a pocket 1928 Book of Common Prayer with someone's inscription from the mid-1940s for similar tactile and anthropologicalish motivations. That one didn't survive the habitat-hopping, helas.)

Anyway, there were indeed helixes to be found in the CE-NWD:


helix: [ L., kind of ivy, spiral; Gr. helix , a spiral, anything spiral-shaped < helissein, to turn round] 1. any spiral, either lying in a single plane, or, especially, moving around a cone, cylinder, etc. as the thread of a screw...

And there's more! That's just the tip of the mollusk! It's sentences like that that make me occasionally wish I'd retained how to diagram a sentence (I taught myself how during freshman high school English out of sheer boredom). Just think of what an interesting creature the definition would be by the time we finished dissecting and reassembling it. Diagramming sentences: the Mr. Potato Head of grammar. Come to think of it, it's not an accident that "diagram" and "grammar" contain similar-looking elements, is it? Hmmm... [sound of pages being flipped] diagram: diagramme, diagramma < diagraphein, to mark out by lines, draw; dia, through, across; graphein, to write.... grammar gramer, gramaire, grammatica, grammatike < gramma , something written, letter < graphein, to write....


And from my beloved Harrap's (1982) (which also lists "houppelande" and "Sassenach", amongst other triple-quid words): helix la hélice, la spirale, la volute, le hélix (de l'oreille), l'hélice, le colimaçon.

I think that's a good set of words to help one along to bed. There's something pleasantly dreamy about les spirales et les volutes to encourage a good drifting off...

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