The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzo once advised letting “things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like,” but that was well before the invention of the modern soccer ball. The first balls were whatever was nearby and kickable, from hair-stuffed animal bladders to human skulls, and they didn’t spin at all predictably. ESPN Magazine ran a life-size photo of the oldest extant soccer ball, c. 1540, and it’s a cruel-looking thing made of two oblong pieces of crudely-sewn leather. The sport was banned by Scotland’s King James II in 1457, but this crusty, old ball was found stuffed behind paneling in the Stirling Castle bedroom of Bloody Queen Mary, who must have been a fan.
Greg Hill’s Weekly Column
The old Scottish poet Allan Cunningham once wrote about a time “when looks were fond and words were few.” That was when etymology, “the study of the origins and development of words,” wasn’t needed. Often confused with entomology, the study of insects, etymology tracks how words and their meanings have morphed over time. Words abound here in the Information Age, and we need all the etymology we can get. Consider the debate over “soccer” and “football,” for example. Many British sports fans take umbrage over Americans calling their sport “soccer,” when the game was originally organized in England in 1863 as the Football Association.
“The Wells Fargo wagon is a-coming” theme from “The Music Man” always resounds in the background as I drive home from the post office with freshly-arrived books. Several verses were required last week when some long-anticipated titles came, all of which I’d tried out at our library before ordering used copies through BookFinder.com. A persistent curiosity about ancient Babylon and the birth of books will be addressed by Paul Kriwaczek’s “Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization,” and for rainy evening reading, the excellent 1200-page Library of American edition “Raymond Chandler: Stories & Early Novels” is perfect. “1616: The World in Motion” by Thomas Christensen, a beautifully-illustrated, revelatory book that I can lose myself in for long stretches, topped my joy.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, that thick collection of concise explanations and curiosities is perfect for lazy, rainy June afternoons. The wanderings of Turkey’s fabled Meander River don’t compare to those in Brewer’s. For example, it’s difficult to look up “groat,” “the name given to all thick silver coins, from Middle Dutch ‘groot,’” which meant “thick,” without seeing “grog, “ the name given to the British seaman’s twice-daily drink composed of a half-pint of neat spirits mixed with a pint of water. No one called it grog early on, but in 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon cut the liquor in half.
Bill Bryson is among the best at putting words together informatively, expressively, and amusingly. His books, such as “Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” or “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” are all nonfiction and make great reading for active minds. An astute observer of past and current English language usage, Bryson’s also authored “Mother Tongue” and “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.” So I listen up when he says, “Language is more fashion that science, and matters of usage, spelling, and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.”