Sunday, January 16, 2011

Byah Byah Byah

Steady rain, a medley of cheerful conversations, a baby enthusiastically practicing “byah byah byah” at various speeds and pitches behind me. Sunday morning at Tom's. Every once in a while a new family member takes a stab at hushing or distracting the baby, but he's pretty determined. He's getting this “byah byah byah” thing down. No time for games or chit-chat.

Through the window, the crimson of the ConocoPhillips station glows against the gray rain clouds and dark juniper borders. What we used to call a Phillips '76 station -- is it a false memory, or did they used to call themselves Union '76 stations? -- All the single-name gas stations of my youth have amalgamated, it seems. Soon we'll have only ArcoMobilExxonConocoPhillips stations, and perhaps the company will simplify its name to “Gas.” That would be a novelty. Have you noticed that gas stations no longer tell you that they sell gas? When I was a kid, you'd see signs on the filling stations: “Gas” would flash in red neon. Now they don't have time to tell you what they actually sell. Getting the brand out is far more important: no marketer worth his salt would waste signage telling you what the product is. Keep practicing, little guy! Your “byah byah byah” skills are going to be in demand.

The head of a local environmental non-profit, the other day, a man raised in New York City, was enthusing about his strategy meeting with a regional consortium of environmental groups. They were rebranding the Northwest wilderness. Very exciting.

How I do love the internets! My friend and wonderful massage therapist, Neva Winter, drew my attention (on Facebook) to a mysterious new kind of joint motion: “innominate rotation,” mentioned to her by a doctor. What the hell? External and internal rotation, lateral and medial rotation, those we knew about, but innominate rotation? My Latin was good enough to recognize the meaning: “nameless rotation.” Now that was something I could not possibly leave alone. What was "nameless rotation?" It sounded like it should be one of the 99 names of God.

Google got me a ways. “Innominate rotation” was just “rotation at the innominate bone” -- not a kind of rotation, but just rotation at one particular joint. (Though due to the oddities of the configuration of the hip, it is an especially tricky and interesting example.) But the mystery had just shifted ground. Why was the hip bone called the “nameless bone”? Was it a euphemism, like calling the vulva the pudendum, the “thing to be ashamed of”? Somehow that didn't seem quite in the style of early skeletal anatomists. Google again.

I did find an etymology offered, in an early Nineteenth Century text on midwifery. The innominate bone, this text genially explained, was so called because it didn't resemble anything else, so there was nothing to call it. Hence “the nameless bone.”

I have a pretty good nose for false eytmology, and this reeked. Of course the hip-bone looks like things, it looks like all kinds of things. From one side, like an elephant's ear; from the other, like a brooding vulture. That was just silly.

The question had got beyond my research skills, so I put it in the hands of a higher power: I asked about it in a long (and utterly unrelated) comment thread at Language Hat, about the Lithuanian treatment of Polish 'w's. Within a few hours I had my answer, complete with quotations from the Greek and Latin, and further linguistic questions far beyond my competence. I summarized in my last comment there:

Ah, y'all are magnificent! Now this is an etymology I can believe in. Galen [2nd Century “Father of Anatomy”] threw up his hands and said "you know, the whatsit bones, everyone calls them something different!" and centuries of dutiful students solemnly wrote down "Whatsit Bones."

Before the internet it would have take me days of work to get to that answer. Fun work, sure: but I'm a massage therapist and a poet and a house hunter. My time is limited.

And finally, yet another reason to love the internets. Peter Stephens, the last of the Whigs: The old battles are the only battles worth fighting, the ones that never get won: Jefferson vs. Hamilton, Jackson vs. Clay, Douglas vs. Lincoln. You get clarity today only if you can see a political fight in those lights.

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