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April 28, 2017  |  Friday words, 2017-04-28  |  3590 hit(s)

I've spent some quality time editing tech materials these last few weeks, which involve terms like event bus, Inversion of Control, and the Retry pattern. Such terms all make sense for the intended audience, but we like to concentrate here on words that are interesting to, you know, civilians. So let's have a look.

Today's new-to-me word actually came from a post on one of the editorial Facebook groups I follow. Jake Poinier a.k.a Dr. Freelance asked whether, without looking it up, we knew what the word zemblanity means. Not me, dang. So of course a body wants to find out.

Well, fun. The easy way to define it is to say that it's the opposite of serendipity, in a very precise way. Where serendipity refers to an a) accidental b) good outcome, zemblanity refers to a b) bad outcome that is a) not accidental—an "unpleasant unsurprise." Sad! Somewhat to my surprise, Urban Dictionary has a couple of good examples, like this one:
He knew that something was wrong, but still he decided to ask. The answer to his question confirming his thoughts. She was dead. It was pure zemblanity.
UD also provides a definition that suggests more clearly the inversion of serendipity: "The inevitable discovery of what we would rather not know."

The term was coined by the writer William Boyd in 1998, apparently inspired by a passage in Pale Fire by Nabokov.

But wait, there's more. Both serendipity and zemblanity are toponymic: they derive from the names of places. Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka. Horace Walpole coined serendipity in the 18th century based on a fairytale about the "Three Princes of Serendip," who "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." (That's the OED quoting Walpole himself, I believe.) Zembla ultimately refers to a set of islands in the Arctic owned by Russia. Nabokov and then Boyd turned this into metaphor; here's Boyd:
Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla.
... and from there, Boyd derived zemblanity. Your homework this week is to think of situations that would qualify as, um, zemblanitous.

And speaking of arctic! I was reading an article in the New Yorker about 19th-century fascination with polar exploration, when Kathryn Shulz, the author, mentioned in passing the derivation of the word arctic. Not so self-evident, is it? Me, I'd never thought about it.

Good story, though. In ancient times, a few Greeks left their warm and sunny homeland and ventured to the north, so they had an idea of the existence of these far-away lands. One of their names for these distant lands was Arktikus, meaning "of the bear." Polar bears? No. Astronomers that they were, the Greeks were referring to the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which points to the North Star. (And which itself is in Ursa Minor.) "Go toward the bear, young man," no one in Greece apparently ever recommended. Because c'mon, it's cold up there.

Antarctica, of course, is anti-arctic. Opposite the bear, so to speak.

Today's bonus etymology is from a Merriam-Webster blog entry, where I learned an etymology that seems obvious in retrospect: companion, meaning someone you break bread (pan) with (con).

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