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Last Saturday, after enjoying a production of the above operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan, I contemplated a theme of words from that work. To my surprise, we've not done one before. But way back in 2002 we did one of my favorite themes (you can enjoy it here), from a parody that transmuted the Pirates into Xena, the Warrior Princess. That theme's words came from the Xena version of the "Major General's" song from Pirates.

We're long overdue for a theme from the original Major General's song. For those unfamiliar: the fellow explains that he is a near-perfect major general, since he is erudite about practically everything. All he lacks is a rudimentary understanding of military matters!
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
    I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
    From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
    I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
    I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
    About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news –
    With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

    I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
    I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
    In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
animalcule – a microscopic organism (e.g., an amoeba or a paramecium)
    Malaria's cause is known: a tiny animalcule injected by a mosquito's sting. But no one knows what makes the disease so hard to cure.
    – Time Magazine, Jan. 13, 1947

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    JANet was quite ill one day.
    FEBrile trouble came her way.
    MARtyr-like, she lay in bed;
    APRoned nurses softly sped …
You see the pattern. It's called an acrostic¹ – a poem or puzzle in which the first letter in each line form one or more 'hidden' words (or similarly the last letter, or the first-and-last, or some other pattern)

I gather that acrostic puzzles were something of a craze in Victorian England. (Even Queen Victoria supposedly composed one, posted below.) The Major-General continues in his song:
    I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
    I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,


¹ Greek akron end; head; extremity + stikhos line; row; line of verse
The strikos 'line' is interesting: it is related to Greek verbs for 'go' and 'walk', and to English 'stair'. I wonder if it's connected with 'stretch'?
 
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Here's a double-crostic attributed to Queen Victoria. To view the solution, Newcastle coal mines, paint over it.
    A city in Italy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .NapleS
    A river in Germany. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .ElbE
    A town in the United States. . . . . . . . .WashingtoN
    A town in North America. . . . . . . . . . . .CincinnatI
    A town in Holland. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . AmsterdaM
    The Turkish name of Constantinople. . . .StambouL
    A town in Bothnia. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . TorneA
    A city in Greece. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . LepantO
    A circle on the globe. . . . . . . . . . . . . . EcliptiC
 
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    I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
    I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
    I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
    In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
A little word-play by Gilbert underlies a line that, at first glance, makes no sense.

Heliogabulus was one of the worst of the Roman emperors – even worse than Caligula and Nero – and was a thoroughly depraved human being .¹ Why would one say an elegy for such a man? An elegy is a funeral lament for the dead or (more generally) a song or poem of wistful mourning for some past good thing, now irretrievably lost (an elegiac lament for youthful ideals").²

The answer is that Gilbert is using a different sense of elegiac, to mean a certain verse form.

elegiac – a verse form composed of couplets (two-line units) in which the first line has six feet and the second line has five, all of dactylic meter (DUH-duh-duh).


¹He was decadent, sexually perverted, sacrilegious and eccentric. Says one historian: "He had a passion for everything that disgraces human nature." … "leading his unspeakably disgusting life" … "vices which are of such a kind that it is too disgusting even to allude to them". (B.G. Neihbur). The only good thing about his life was that it was brief (203-222 A.D.).
² OED defines elegy as "a song of lamentation, esp. a funeral song or lament for the dead," but I think that lamentation is overly broad. A lamentation can bemoan current bad conditions, but an elegy looks back, in sad nostalgia, to regret loss of previous good things. For example, one could lament today's economic turmoil, but one could not elegize it.
 
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Heliogabulus was one of the worst of the Roman emperors – even worse than Caligula and Nero – and was a thoroughly depraved human being

After that tribute I just had to look him up! Big Grin He's also known as Elagabalus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, apparently. See the Wikipedia article.


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.
 
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Glad you enjoyed, arnie!
    I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
    I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
    I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
    In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
    I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
    I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
    Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
    And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
fuguemusic: a contrapuntal [counterpoint] composition in which a short melody is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others
[Latin fuga ‘flight']
(A separate meaning in psychiatry is fugue – a pathological amnesiac condition; a flight from one's own identity.)

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Surely the Major General means hum the theme of the tune, and not the multiple voices with counterpoint.

Unless of course he also knows Tibetan throat singing...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Throat_singing


RJA
 
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    I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
    I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
    Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
    And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

    Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
    And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform:
    In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
cuneiform; cuniform – the ancient writing of Persia, Assyria, etc., made of wedge-shaped or arrow-headed elements, typically pressed into clay (also adj.: wedge-shaped)
[from Latin cuneus "wedge". Note: Some etymologists believe that the cun root for "wedge" is the origin of a one-syllable word, beginning with cun, for a certain triangular or wedge-shaped part of the human anatomy.]

By the way, part of the humor here is that many of the Major-General's "accomplishments" are easy ones, even trivial.
  • "I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies." What could be easier? Raphael painted normal-sized paintings; Dow did miniatures, and Zoffany was noted for massive canvasses busily filled with vast numbers of people and objects.
  • "And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform." There's not much detail to remember. Caractacus fought naked. (He led the British resistance to the Roman conquest, 43 A.D.)
  • "I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical." Typically taught to students at age 14.
  • "I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!" How hard is it to remember "Brekekekax koax koax"?
 
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I agree on the "simple tasks" idea, and to arrange their names to fit rhyme and meter shows the poetic genius of W. S. Gilbert.
 
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"I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical." Typically taught to students at age 14.

Maybe so, but forgotten by this student at least at age sixteen.


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.
 
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Some etymologists believe that the cun root for "wedge" is the origin of a one-syllable word, beginning with cun, for a certain triangular or wedge-shaped part of the human anatomy.

In Latin cuneus 'wedge' is related to cunnus 'female pudenda' and cuneo 'to fasten with a wedge; squeeze'. The usual etymology of the English word, is from PIE *gwen- which yields Greek gunē and Russian žena '(old) woman'. The English reflexes are queen, quean, and possibly quaint. Latin c from PIE *k is related to an h in English, cf. centum, hundred, canis, hound. The word for rabbit in Latin has two diminutive suffixes. Many terms for the female genitalia are derived from small, furry animals. For example, French minou 'pussy cat' pulls double duty, much as does the English term pussy, German Muschi (older word for cat, nearly displaced entirely by its newer meaning).


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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    In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
    When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
    When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
    And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat", …
We've already seen mamelon (a word which, like cuneiform, merited a sexual note). And ravelin? It's a technical term of the architecture of building a fort.

ravelindefensive fortification: a position, having walls at a sharp angle, constructed outside the main fortress wall and beyond the fosse (that is, beyond the moat or ditch running along the front of the main wall)

The left diagram here shows a ravelin at A, with the fortress at the far left. In this picture the ravelin is again at right. It is built low so that, if it is taken, it will not menace the main fortress.

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Originally posted by zmježd:
In Latin cuneus 'wedge' is related to cunnus 'female pudenda' and cuneo 'to fasten with a wedge; squeeze'. The usual etymology of the English word, is from PIE *gwen- which yields Greek gunē and Russian žena '(old) woman'. The English reflexes are queen, quean, and possibly quaint.


Pokorny has the English word from *geu- "to bend, curl", if I'm reading it right. This is where he lists Old Norse kunta.

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Pokorny

Interesting. I wonder from whom I got the *gwen- etymology. (I'll have to look around.) It's an interested set of words under *geu-d- (and *geund-). I particularly like the Old English cytwer 'weir for catching fish' and cot 'den of thieves, rude hut'.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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OED's earliest cite for our final word is dated late 1887. How in the world could they have missed Gilbert's use in Penzance, which was first performed almost eight years earlier, on the last day of 1879?

Gilbert's point with this word that the Major-General is talking baby-talk. (Well, his further point is that he's desperate for a rhyme!)

gee – a word of command-word to a horse, used (in different localities) used to direct it to turn right, to go forward, or to move faster.

hence gee-gee – a child-word for a horse (as in "See the moo-moo, honey? See the gee-gee?")

later shortened to gee – a child-word for a horse
    In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
    When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
    When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
    And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat", …
    When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
    When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery;
    In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,

    . . . .[pauses, struggling to find a rhyme]
    You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

    For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
    Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
    But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
 
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later shortened to gee – a child-word for a horse

I've only ever heard gee-gee.


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.
 
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"Gee-gee" is not only a child term for a horse; the gee-gees is used in England as a slang term to mean a (horse) race meeting. I don't know if there's any truth in this (I doubt it, actually), but apparently the mayor of Chester in 1539, one Henry Gee, started horse racing there, thus giving us "gee-gee". See this article.

The long gap between the sixteenth century and its first known appearance in print at the end of the nineteenth century makes me doubt this etymology, particularly since gee is used as a word of command to a horse, but I throw it in for what worth.


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.
 
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