This week we present words derived from various swords and the like. Not the endless names of types of swords -- epee, foil, saber, etc. -- but words that trace back to swords.
spathe - a leaflike bract enclosing a flower cluster or spadix, as in the jack-in-the-pulpit and the calla. [Latin spatha = broadsword]
That's the dictionary definition. For those (including me) for whom this is clear as mud, consult this pair of pictures.
We return to our sword-theme. The top part of a sword blade, from its midpoint to tip, is weaker than the bottom half from hilt to mid-point. These weak and strong halves are respectively called the foible and the forte, and those meanings led to usages now more common.
foible – a minor weakness or failing of character
forte – something in which a person excels
[Note per AHD: forte should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian.]
claymore mine - an anti-personnel land mine that discharges blast fragments in a predetermined direction, set towards the enemy
after claymore - a large two-handed, double-edged broadsword, formerly used by Scottish Highlanders (the term is also used for another type of sword)
from Gael. claidheamh sword + mór great, large
I love the first quote here.
skean-dhu or sgian-dhu - a small black-hilted dagger tucked into the top of a man’s knee sock in Highland dress [from Gaelic, literally "black skean"]
Sometimes it seems that there is a specific, obscure word for every shape. At least three separate words mean "sword-shaped." Could this indicate the past importance of the sword?
gladiate - sword-shaped
(akin to gladiator. The gladiolus is a familiar flowering plant with sword-shaped leaves, and is also known as "sword lily".)
ensiform - sword-shaped (from Latin ensis sword; akin to Sanskrit asi sword)
xiphoid - sword-shaped
In anatomy, the main part of the breastbone ("sternum") is called the gladiolus, and the bottom part is called the xiphoid process, the xiphisternum, or the xiphoid.
Regarding the pronunciation of "forte," I have never heard anyone pronounce it anything other than "for-TAY" even when they are fully aware that correctly (technically, anyway) it's simply "FORT."
There was an old Laurel & Hardy exchange where Stanley referred to the two of them as being as comfortable "as two peas in a pot." The jarring nature of the word "pot," the source obviously of the humor here, strikes me as similar to, for example, "The proper use of the English language is my FORT." It's correct but it simply sounds totally off.
...except, as you point out, when it's called the "ensiform process" !
(Minor addition: the terminology I was taught had the sternum divided into three parts: the upper part was the "manubrium sternum" (the hand of the sternum); the main body was the "corpus sterni"; and the lowermost, pointiest part was the "ensiform process", also known as the xiphoid process, as above. All three do bear a vague resemblance to the shape of their namesake.
Why Latin, Greek and English should be mixed together like that was never made clear.)
swashbuckler – a swaggering or daring soldier, swordsman, or adventurer;
or a novel or drama dealing with a such a character
from swash heavy noisy blow + buckler shield
According to Word Detective, "swashbuckler" originally meant a braggart, bully or ruffian, a mediocre swordsman who compensated by making a great deal of noise, strutting through the streets banging his sword on his shield, challenging passersby to duels, and just generally acting like a lout.
seif dune – a sharp-crested sand dune with curved edges, often several miles long. (Up to 200 miles long and 300 feet high, say some sources; others give lower figures.) Runs in a series of parallel ridges; found in hot deserts and common in the Sahara.
From Arabic sayf (= sword). So the dune is a "sword dune".
"Saif" seems to be a common given name in Arabic; for example, the son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi is named Seif el-Islam Kadhafi, "Sword of Islam" Kadhafi. Westerners would not typically give male babies such first names as "Bullet," "Rifle," etc. It strikes your author as a notable cultural difference.
sword of Damocles - something that threatens imminent disaster
The term "sword of Damocles" is from a legend told by Cicero (106-43 BCE), Tusculan Disputations V. Perhaps our latin scholars tell me whether the following accurately translates Cicero's original.
Dionysius himself [the king of Syracuse in the time of Plato] was talking to one of his flatterers, a man called Damocles, who praised the monarch’s wealth and power, the splendors of his regime, the immensity of his resources, and the magnificence of his palace. Never, Damocles declared, had there been a happier man than Dionysius the king.
"Very well, Damocles," replied the ruler, "since my life strikes you as so attractive, would you care to have a taste of it yourself and see what my way of living is really like?" Damocles agreed with pleasure. So Dionysius had him installed on a golden couch covered with a superb woven coverlet embroidered with beautiful designs, and beside the couch was placed an array of sideboards loaded with gold and silver plate. . . There were perfumes and garlands and incense, and the tables were heaped up with a most elaborate feast. Damocles thought himself a truly fortunate person.
But in the middle of all this splendor, directly above the neck of the happy man, Dionysius arranged that a gleaming sword should be suspended from the ceiling, to which it was attached by a horsehair. And so Damocles had no eye for his lovely waiters or for the artistic plate. Indeed, he did not even feel like reaching out his hand towards the food. Presently the garlands, of their own accord, just slipped from his head. In the end he begged the tyrant to let him go, declaring that his desire to be happy had evaporated.
Reviving an old theme, because the point has been nettling:
Yes, but should we assume it's French? Why not Italian? I don't think there's much argument about how to pronounce forte-piano (FORTAY-PIANO), which can play loud or soft depending on how hard you strike the keys, as opposed to a harpsichord or organ where tricks are needed to change their volume.
Most words to do with fencing and duelling are from the French. Why should forte be different?
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
Dunno, maybe because this particular word (despite being in a swordsmanship thread) has to do with loudness and strength, not duelling?
EDIT: Never mind, I'm rehashing old ground. [How's that for mixing metaphors?] See Wordcrafters original post of 9/30, nine months above, referring to the AHD comment on this very subject.
Forte, referring to a part of a sword or a person's strong point, is from the French. Pianoforte (I've never heard of forte-piano before) is from Italian. Piano means soft and forte means loud. See wordcrafter's Sep 29 post above and the AHD's Usage Note. Also see pianoforte. Or, if you prefer, forte-piano.
I learned something today. Pianoforte is a noun referring to the instrument, and forte-piano can be a noun but more often is an adverb or adjective referring to musical direction. At least, that's what the AHD says.
If I may turn the conversation to playing cards, we derive "spade" from the Greek sword...
Spade (2) - "figure on playing cards," 1598, probably from It. spade, pl. of spada "sword, spade," from L. spatha "broad, flat weapon or tool," from Gk. spathe "broad blade." From same PIE base as spade (1).
Despite the initial admonition, I hope wordcrafter will indulge an interesting passage on foil/epee/saber:
If you wish to know about a fencer, go up to him as he faces a practice target. Pop a balloon behind his back. The foilist will immediately lunge at the pad. The epeeist will stand his ground, immobile but alert. The sabreur will swing round and assault you.
(from "By the Sword")