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Seaborn: Well, shiver my shabby timbers

Posted: November 1, 2017 - 1:11am

"Use it up, wear it out;

Make it do, or do without."

- New England maxim

One of my favorite pastimes is learning the origin of words. As a low-level student of German, Latin, French and a smattering of tourist Turkish, I'm always looking for that "connection" between words my Latin teacher told us about. How passionately she believed that "veni, vidi, vici" stuff she made us memorize. "By knowing Latin," she said, "you will always be able to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word."

Well, Mrs. Kelliher, you were right - sort of. I did figure out "venture" and "advent" came from "veni" (I came), "victory" was a derivative of "vici" (I conquered) and now that I think of it, "video" must have come from "vidi" (I saw), the middle word in Caesar's famous speech.

But you can't imagine the language explosion that's taken place since your words rang "ex cathedra" to an entranced student in the rear, left corner of the classroom. You'd be amazed to learn my current edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary contains 4,500,000 more words than were in the edition we used way back when. I've tried to keep up - honest. I adjusted when my son became a "Mess Specialist" in the Navy. (I figured they had managed to inspect his room before they swore him in.) Actually, the use of mess as "disorderly" is the newer meaning of the word. It's primary meaning refers to meals prepared in one place and sent to another, and stems from the Latin word, missus, "to send," as in "message." So, assigning my son to the kitchen and, incidentally, making him a fine chef to this day, was fine with both of us, but I did have to work at not thinking he was on perpetual KP.

I've also struggled to become "with it," as my embarrassed kids lost no opportunity in telling me, and I've tried to absorb at least some of the modern custom of "political correctness." You know, short people are "vertically challenged" - that sort of thing. But when politically or whateverly correct words are used to camouflage or deliberately alter what everyone knows is the real meaning of a word, I'm afraid I'll just have to remain "without it" or perpetually incorrect.

Case in point: Some time ago, in a segment on one of the morning talk shows, a guest was describing the latest trend in home decorating she called, "shabby-chic."

I almost spilled my coffee on my "pre-abused" couch, the brazen lady's term for any old item you can't afford to replace. She even said, as if becoming "trendily correct" was uppermost in all our minds, we could make our new furniture look antiqued by scratching it with a nail for that "old-world" feel. She has a precedent.

A little more linguistic research reveals the root (Latin) meaning of the word "graffiti" (a relative of graph and graphite) is the scratching of pottery before it is fired to give it that "old-world" feel. (Caution: that relic you just bought at the museum may have come from the "shabby-chic" generation, too.)

Now, I've heard of "early marriage style," and the "eclectic family collection" (everyone else's cast-offs), and I've settled happily for both myself, but "Shabby-chic" just sounds like that other oxymoron, "pretty awful," to me. Somehow, finally having the resources to buy something new and pretty, and then committing graffiti on it would be like wiping tar on a white, satin dress.

My advice for those who want that pre-abused, old-world, Shabby-chic feel? Shop at a flea market or, like most of us, keep what you already have. Or you could follow the example of the father of seven who said, "Instead of furniture, we got children."

P. S. If I had the stomach, I'd write a sequel to this column on those "holey, pre-abused" jeans everyone who is "with it" seems to be wearing these days. We used to wear them, too, but not because they were "in style."

(Barbara Seaborn is a local, free-lance writer and author of As Long as the Rivers "Run: Highlights from Columbia County's Past.")

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