Saturday, December 30, 2017

Potencie, a proto–Y Word

Both consolatory and cheffy came close to being today's posted word.

Consolatory appears in an essay by Hannah Arendt, in a 2017 collection titled Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, edited by Deborah Nelson. This is one of those words that belongs to the days when recipes contained casual measurements (think of Elizabeth David's), and American schools taught students how to form the subjunctive tense.

Cheffy appears in a New York Times "best restaurants of 2017" articlette by Pete Wells about the Flushing, Queens, restaurant Guan Fu Sichuan—"[it's] probably the most cheffy Sichuan place in town . . . ." (See page D6, Wednesday, December 13.)  Like puppy, cheffy is an adorable word.  Cheffy has floppy ears. I'm ready to give it a loving home life.


Readers: A word more suitable, I believe, for your consideration, lives in an argument formulated by John Milton, in his Areopagitica.  In the year 1644, books, according to Milton,
contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
Although this quotation appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (under the fourth definition for potency), I found it in The Reader in the Book: A Study of Spaces and Traces, by Stephen Orgel (Oxford University Press, 2015). Apparently there is now quite a lot of work in the field concerning everyday readers of books in early modern culture.

(Flashback: Twenty-five years ago, a professor of English teaching a graduate level course on Shelley and his circle at New York University brought to class a triple-decker novel so students could see for themselves how readers "spoke" to one another in the margins of the book.  It was fascinating.)

Orgel's book quotes from a 2005 Cambridge University Press title by Heidi Brayman Hackel, who makes the obvious and yet profound point that the book in early modern England filled a role "as available paper."

Think on this, even on the fact of paper's availability in those years.

Marginalia represent such an appealing aspect of print culture. I like to imagine fleets of individuals making margin notes, exercising their status as free-thinking agents.

A bound book can be such a beautifully private, giving space.

Potencie, instead of potency, strikes me as open-ended. The -ie is as a dance step, or a liquid trickle; it suggests movement that may continue along its path, as long as nothing intervenes; whereas the terminal y in today's version of the word says That's that.

To me there is more hope in potencie than in potency.

Your snow, ice, and seedling wishes, here.
[Obverse of "Electra Lake, near Silverton," in Volume I: Early Durango, Nina Heald Webber postcard

collection, at the Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado.
The physical postcards are housed in the Center's archives.

Monday, July 3, 2017


The people in Laurie Colwin's writings read, take walks, soak in bath tubs, fly kites, listen to vinyl records with scratches in them, and actively pursue one another.  They do this despite having awkward or uncomfortable feelings.  They sally forth, come what may.  Conse-
quently they wind up feeling many, many emotions, sometimes simultaneously. Her Manhattan is intimate.

What has driven me to re-enter this blog, on the eve of Independence Day, is the "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir" chapter in Colwin's nonfiction collection Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen.

At a dinner party in London, Colwin and other unwitting guests are served a casserole "contain[ing] a layer of partially cooked rice, a layer of pineapple rings and a layer of breakfast sausages, all of which was cooked in a liquid of some sort or other."

She writes:  "We ate in perfect silence, first in shock, then in amazement, and then in gratitude that not only was there not enough to go around, but that nothing else was forthcoming. That was the entire meal."

To the friend who invited her to join the party, she asks afterwards, over pizza pies, " 'Is that some sort of Scottish dish we had tonight?', to which he replies, 'No, it is a genius dish.' "

Colwin's first impression of the man who had cooked the meal? He was "a glum, geniusy-looking person."

Geniusy touched off several words in me: gĂ©nial, genuine, gentian, genoise.  Also pleurisy, sinus, and dusy.

My guess is that geniusy stood as an abstract noun for many decades, possibly even centuries, before morphing (usage-wise) into an adjective.

A photograph from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress is an agency of the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
Shown above is a Schrafft's at the Parke-Bernet Building, 980 Madison Avenue.
Photographer: Either Samuel H. Gottscho or William H Schleisner (?).
Publication date: Friday, December 22, 1950.