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Speaking its name will summon it...
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue thirty five of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee :)
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
Over the weekend I encountered this tweet, and learned that “bear” is a euphemism, supposedly, people were scared that if they said the actual noun, they would summon one:
“Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn't even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them.
So they came up with this word — this is up in Northern Europe — bruin, meaning "the brown one" as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear.
We know the euphemism, but we don't know what word it replaced, so bear is the oldest-known euphemism.”
Fun, huh? But is it true?
(Dear reader, I was less interested in whether or not speaking the true noun for bear would actually summon one; instead I was interested to find out whether or not the original noun had really been lost).
I googled my way to this XKCD comic, which appears to support the assertion that “bear” is indeed a euphemism. However, the suggestion here is that the original word is not necessarily lost: actually, we could reasonably guess it:
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a web comic is not the most reliable of sources; but it turns out, that in instance, it’s pretty solid.
Gretchen, the linguist featured in the comic is real-life linguist Gretchen McCulloch, and it turns out she collaborated with Randall Munroe (the creator of XKCD) on that comic:
If you too are a word nerd, you might also enjoy reading this rather more academic explanation of variant forms of the word for "bear".
Here’s a quick, dirty, (and likely somewhat flawed) summary from me:
We’ve essentially got two language camps here - people who are cool with calling bears by their “proper” name; and those who will only refer to them euphemistically.
Let’s deal with the “proper” name first:
The Latin word for bear is "ursus", from which is derived the name for the constellation Ursa Major (Big Dipper).
The French word for bear, "ours", is derived from the Latin.
The ancient Greek word for bear is "arktos", from which is derived the star name "Arcturus", meaning "guardian of the bear" (from its position behind the tail of the bear constellation Ursa Major), and the adjective and noun "arctic", meaning "north", again a reference to the northern constellation of the bear.
The Sanskrit word for bear is "rkshas".
Old Celtic had a similar bear word (*arto-), from which the Welsh word "arth" and the name "Arthur" are derived.
From these words in four separate branches of Indo-European (Italic, Greek, Indic, and Celtic), linguists have reconstructed the PIE word for bear as *rktho-, *rkto-, *rkso-, or *rtko-.
There is a suggestion that this PIE word for bear (*rkso, and its variants) means "destroyer".
So we’ve a bunch of folks who are comfortable using a noun which means “destroyer”. Then we’ve got a bunch of folks who are not.
In recent pre-historical and early historical times, bears are thought to have been more common in northern than in southern climes. If the bear's standard PIE name did mean "destroyer", we can see why it would not have been used lightly by anyone familiar with the bear.
This is possibly why different words for bear appear in the northern PIE language groups, including Germanic (which includes English, German, Dutch, and Swedish), Slavic (which includes Russian, Polish, and Czech), and Baltic (including Lithuanian, Latvian, and Old Prussian).
In Germanic languages, the word for bear is derived from the PIE word *bher- = "brown" - which effectively means the “the brown one”.
An alternative euphemism was deployed in the Slavic languages: the word for bear in Russian is "medved", and the same in Czech. In Polish, bear is a similar word "niedzwiedz", and in Old Church Slavonic, bear is "medvedi". All of these words mean something like "honey-eater".
The Baltic languages, make use of yet another alternative euphemism, calling the bear "lokys" in Lithuanian, "lacis" in Latvian, and "clokis" in Old Prussian, all of which are believed to be derived from *tlakis, meaning "hairy, shaggy".
And there my loves, you have it - far more than you ever needed (or likely wanted) to know about the etymology of the word we use for bears in various languages.
You’re welcome :)
Moar serendipitous finds:
“As president of rEvolution, a sports marketing firm, he’s installed a scoreboard, bleachers and a tunnel between the elevator and lobby to make his 100 employees feel like athletes emerging from a locker room into an arena.
To further entice his staff to come back, after many got comfortable doing their jobs from home during the pandemic, Mr. Rowady stocked an office bar with free beer and bourbon for on-site happy hours. Then there’s the full-size race car in the lobby.
Nevertheless, much of the team prefers to work remotely most days…”
I imagine that most days he sits in his race car, in the lobby. For company, he has a beer, or sometimes a jack and coke sweating in the cup holder he’s had specially made and installed in the car.
“Brroooom brrooooom brrrooooooooooom”; he vocalises the revs of the imaginary engine through his tears, and gazes at his name in lights on scoreboard, while Fleetwood Mac blares on repeat through the office speakers.
Dear reader I recognise that was cruel.
Again, poor John.
The article is fascinating though - John and other bosses like him are seemingly hell-bent on getting their people back to the office; but they don’t seem to have a compelling reason as to why that’s so important: Is the work not getting done? Are people not performing? Do they need to be in the company’s offices to do their work?
For clarity, I’m by no means anti-office. I recognise that for many people, their home environment is not conducive to getting work done; and also that some people infinitely prefer working in an office. That’s cool; I’m fully supportive of that.
But being in an office does not work for everyone.
And the notion that a scoreboard, bleachers, and race car, and free bar ought to entice people back is entirely wrong-headed. Those are things that John wants, I suspect that he’s never thought to ask what his employees want.
Zoologist Lucy Cooke says that our ideas about males and females are wildly out of date. You should definitely go read the whole article because it’s wonderful, but here are a few highlights:
A biologically accurate Finding Nemo, Cooke writes drily, “would have seen Nemo’s father, Marlin, transition into a female and then start having sex with his son, which might have made for a less popular family film”.
“We have this hangover from the [medieval] bestiaries,” Cooke says. “We look to the animal kingdom for moral guidance, we want them to fit these stereotypes, but they don’t.”
She’s scornful of evolutionary psychologists making money trotting out the “Darwinian” theory that males are competitive and aggressive, females are coy and monogamous.
“It’s complete bullshit. Using animals as ideological weapons is a dangerous game. You can find whatever you want in the animal kingdom. You could say look at the hamadryas baboon where the males kidnap the females while they’re still adolescent, then use systematic bullying in their harem to keep them oppressed, that’s a model for human behaviour, or you could look at the bonobos and say these females have overthrown the patriarchy through ecstatic same-sex frottage!”
The article also includes an excerpt from Cooke’s new book Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution & the Female Animal (it won’t surprise you to learn I’ve ordered a copy):
“A sexist mythology has been baked into biology, and it distorts the way we perceive female animals. In the natural world female form and role varies wildly to encompass a fascinating spectrum of anatomies and behaviours. Yes, the doting mother is among them, but so is the jacana bird that abandons her eggs and leaves them to a harem of cuckolded males to raise. Females can be faithful, but only 7% of species are sexually monogamous, which leaves a lot of philandering females seeking sex with multiple partners.
Not all animal societies are dominated by males by any means; alpha females have evolved across a variety of classes and their authority ranges from benevolent (bonobos) to brutal (bees). Females can compete with each other as viciously as males: topi antelope engage in fierce battles with huge horns for access to the best males, and meerkat matriarchs are the most murderous mammals on the planet, killing their competitors’ babies and suppressing their reproduction. Then there are the femme fatales: cannibalistic female spiders that consume their lovers as post- or even pre-coital snacks and “lesbian” lizards that have lost the need for males altogether and reproduce solely by cloning.
In the last few decades there has been a revolution in our understanding of what it means to be female, thanks to a new generation of scientists who are helping to redefine not just the female of the species, but the very forces that shape evolution.
Darwin’s theory of sexual selection drove a wedge between the sexes by focusing on our differences; but these differences are greater culturally than they are biologically. Animal characteristics – be they physical or behavioural – are both varied and plastic. They can bend according to a selection’s whim, which makes sex traits fluid and malleable. Rather than predicting a female’s qualities through the crystal ball of her sex, the environment, time and chance all play a significant role in shaping their form. Females and males are, in fact, far more alike than they are different. So much so, it can sometimes be hard knowing where to draw the line.”
For his project For What It’s Worth, Dillon Marsh created 1:1 scale visualizations of the minerals extracted from South African mines and placed them in photos of the mines themselves.
“Whether they are active or long dormant, mines speak of a combination of sacrifice and gain. Their features are crude, unsightly scars on the landscape - unlikely feats of hard labour and specialised engineering, constructed to extract value from the earth but also exacting a price.
These images combine photography and computer generated elements in an effort to visualise the output of various mines in South Africa. The CGI objects represent scale models of the materials removed from the ground. By doing so, the intention is to create a kind of visualisation of the merits and shortfalls of this industry that has shaped the history and economy of the country so radically.”
Self-taught artist Maria Prymachenko won a gold medal for her work at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris and Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian” after seeing her work.
You can see more of Prymachenko’s work at WikiArt.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
I lost myself in the very best possible way reading Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. In a time hopping, non-linear narrative, Kupersmith tells the story of the disappearance of 22-year-old Winnie, a Vietnamese American who arrives in Saigon in 2010 to teach English.
Interwoven with Winnie’s story are interconnected, supernatural tales which take place in the days and decades before and after her vanishing. We follow ghost hunters from the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co in 2011, encounter a schoolboy left on a mountain as the Japanese launch their coup in 1945, and meet a trio of childhood friends in the early 90s.
Kupersmith said that she wrote Build Your House Around My Body as a kind of revenge story and a way to process “the anger [she] had witnessed against women ... the kind of violence that was so accepted that it was just something ordinary”. She went on to say that she loves writing about ghosts because “they can claim all the agency and power that was denied to them while they were still alive”.
This one’s not for the faint-hearted, it’s dark, deliciously unsettling, and I loved it.
This fortnight, I also devoured The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. The novel opens in 2005, with our protagonist Tookie, a Native American woman who has been sentenced to 60 years in prison after her friend persuades her to steal a refrigerated delivery truck and bring her lover’s dead body back to her home. Thanks to the efforts of her tribe’s defence lawyer, she is unexpectedly released in 2015, and finds a job in a Minneapolis bookshop.
One of the store’s customers is Flora, a white woman who claims Native heritage. Tookie calls her “a very persistent wannabe”: a stalker of all things Indigenous. But when Flora dies suddenly in 2019, her ghost refuses to leave the bookshop. Alongside the puzzle of this haunting, the novel’s chronology moves forward, and we see both the pandemic, and the the murder of George Floyd through Tookie’s eyes.
This might sound like a lot (and it is a lot), but Erdrich weaves these plotlines deftly, and the result is a book that is simultaneously about injustice and oppression; and about love, acceptance, family, and belonging. It’s wonderful.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Once again, dear reader, I’ve been entirely too wordy within this missive, and as a result Substack is squawking about deliverability. As such, here are a couple of things which I’ve watched this fortnight and would recommend:
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Netflix) - a documentary created by Griffin Dunne (Didion’s nephew) which charts her rise and the impact her work has had.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Netflix) - Eliza Hittman’s coming-of-age film about a US teenager seeking to terminate her pregnancy.
Spaced (Netflix) - lovely, lightweight lunchtime viewing; I’ve really enjoyed revisiting this series from the late 90s / early 00s.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
Emceeing and attending WTSFest was an absolute delight. It was such a nourishing and positive experience - once again Areej did an incredible job - and it was an honour to be a part of it.
I’ve been taking Austin Kleon’s advice and intentionally spiralling out, and have found that it has helped me feel a little less anxious, and a little more calm - I’d highly recommend it.
What else? I’m now into the second week of my online short story course with London Lit Lab which I’m really enjoying. It’s forcing me to write words rather than procrastinate which is exactly what I need :)
On April 6th I’ll be running a training course in Brighton. You can find more details about the course, and book your spot here.
That’s all from me for now :)
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