Griffonage, Chins, and Satchmo

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July 9, 2022 by libroshombre

   There’s plenty that you and I don’t know.  As expressed by Donald Rumsfeld in his typically tortured manner, “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.”  Sometimes called the Wisdom Paradox, it was articulated more elegantly by Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don t know.”  For example, many ardent grammarians don’t know the difference between autological and heterological words.  Recently Anu Garg explained on his A.Word.A.Day blog that autological words “exhibit the property they describe.”  For example, the word “short” is short and the word “noun” is a noun.  Heterological words don’t apply to themselves, like “hyphenated” (contains no hyphens) and “monosyllabic (contains five syllables).     

            A personally apt expression, “griffonage,” came to my attention this week.  Webster’s defines griffonage as “careless handwriting, a crude or illegible scrawl.”  In high school I devised a handwriting style that was difficult, but not quite impossible, for teachers to decipher, figuring that when it came to grading, they’d likely be tired and would give me the benefit of the doubt on close calls.  It was a deal with the devil, particularly for my secretaries and longsuffering wife.  The “Woodfoolery: Fooling with Words Since 2009” blog is another recent discovery, and its topic was “The History of Griffonage and Bad Handwriting.”  Griffonage “does have a link to the mythical beast, the griphon.  A griphon was a mythical creature from Greek legends which had the head and wings of an eagle paired with the body and hind quarters of a lion … The word gives us Old French grifon (bird of prey) and it entered English around 1200. The griphon was named for its hooked beak in Greek.  Griffonage entered English from French griffonner (to scribble or scrawl). It had evolved from Middle French grifouner (to scribble) from griffon (stylus) and -age (act of, e.g. sabotage). Griffon itself has roots in griffe (claw).”  Moreover, “cacography” means “griffonage.”

            Humans certainly have produced a lot of worthless and misleading information.  We were taught that a good rule of thumb for spelling is “I before E except after C,” but tell that to your neighbor Keith who received eight counterfeit beige sleighs from caffeinated weightlifters.  And do you really need to know that stomach rumbles are called “wambles,” or that the human body contains enough fat for seven cakes of soap?  However, perhaps Alaskans should know that polar bears are cross-breeding with brown bears producing offspring and are known Outside as “pizzleys.”

            Still, there’s many things that are unfamiliar to most that are worthy of better exposure.  My spouse and I enjoy BBC game shows in which witty Brits contest verbally, including “QI” which focuses on unusual words in the news and is hosted by comedian Stephen Fry.  Recently Fry asserted that “Elephants and humans are the only animals with chins.”  Wondering “could this be?” inspired a quick search that revealed an Atlantic Magazine article from 2016 titled “No, Really, Other Animals Don’t Have Chins.”  Ed Yong wrote that “the critical point here is that a chin isn’t just ‘the bottom bit of the face’ or ‘the front part of the lower jaw. It’s specifically a lump of bone that protrudes forward from the lower jaw … When you stroke your cat’s “chin,” you’re stroking its mandible. You can call it a chin, but that’s a colloquialism; it doesn’t bear upon the evolutionary question of why humans and humans alone have that forward-jutting bit … “The elephant lower jaw does have a forward-jutting bit that certainly looks pretty chin-like. Then again, their lower jaws are really weird. Elephants have lost the front teeth of their lower jaw for some reason, leaving a vacant space that creates the illusion of a bony promontory. They also have a fleshy lower lip that doesn’t mold to the contours of their front teeth like ours, but instead sticks well forward, tapers to a point, and acts as a mobile appendage to oppose the trunk. So that front bit of the jaw has a clear function: it acts as an anchor and platform for this unusually mobile lip … For these reasons, it is generally agreed that whatever the biological situation occurring on the front of the elephant lower jaw, it is fundamentally different from the condition in humans.”  To be fair, every elephant possesses a glabella (the space between eyebrows), and a columella nasi (the fleshy part between the nostrils).   

            Many of us challenged spellers need to know about Marvin Morrison’s “Sound-It-Out Speller,” a reference book at our library.  In it Morrison explained that he has “always been a bad speller and have experienced many long, frustrating dictionary searches that have ended without the needed word.”  As an adult, he fruitlessly “set out to find an easy way to look up words … While I was looking out of a train window one cold, gray winter morning in 1981, the issue came up one more time.  After wrestling with it for a while, I became very angry at the vowels.  And, all of a sudden, lightning struck.  Kick them out.”  The resulting speller does just that, so that the correct spelling of “psychology” can be found by looking up either SKLJ or SKLG, and “sequence” is found under CKWNS, SKWNS, CQNS, SQNS, CKWNTS, SKWNTS, CQNTS, and SQNTS.

            Another worthy bit of information is the iron-bound bond that existed between Louie Armstrong and some neighbors who took him in when he grew up in New Orleans.  In “Satchmo and the Jewish Family,” librarian Bruce Raeburn, the Director of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, wrote, “Look at any picture of Louis Armstrong relaxing with an open shirt collar and you are very likely to see a Star of David hanging around his neck. Where did that come from? It’s an expression of his lifelong gratitude and devotion to the kindnesses shown him by the Karnofsky family when he was a seven-year-old boy in New Orleans.”  They were Jewish neighbors in the same poor part of town, but the Karnofskys were a little better off.  They fed Armstrong and hired him to help them “collecting refuse (bottles and rags mostly) and delivering coal to the prostitutes in Storyville.  He usually accompanied Morris or Alex, two of the Karnofsky sons, on the junk wagon and played a tinhorn to attract customers. One day they passed a pawnshop and Louis saw a burnished B-flat cornet on sale for five dollars in the window. Five bucks might as well have been a million, but Morris advanced him two dollars and he saved the rest at 50 cents a week until he could raise the money to buy the horn.”  And by that simple act of kindness cultural history was made.  “Louis said later, ‘I came up the hard way, the same as lots of people, but I always help the other fellow if there’s anyways possible.’ After he made it, he kept a bankroll that could choke a gator, precisely to make good on that promise. He learned that from the Karnofskys.”

            That old Greek Socrates knew lots of things, some right and some ultimately proving wrong, but he accurately stated that, “To know, is to know that you know nothing.  That is the meaning of true knowledge.”  That’s why there are limitless vistas of fascinating learning to explore and learn in this old world, including the collective names for zebras (a dazzle), hippos (a bloat), and librarians (a shush).

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