Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Words from the Road

Snowshoeing at Breckenridge, Colorado
I just returned from a week of winter sport in Colorado, where there was a great deal more snow than there is in California (drought!).  In fact, we almost got snowed in, as even more snow arrived in the form of a winter storm on our last day.  We escaped just in time, with some harrowing  moments of almost zero visibility and completely obscured roadways due to blowing snow.

Photo from http://www.schweich.com/imagehtml/1440-11.html
Yes, it was a road trip, because road trips afford so much discovery.  For example, I had heard of the word Zzyzx, but I actually got to see the sign on Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, California, that bears the name Zzyzx Rd.  That road leads to the location of the original settlement of Zzyzx, founded in 1944.  Wikipedia says that the settlement was founded by Curtis Howe Springer, and he called it the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa.  He made up the name Zzyzx, apparently so he would have the honor of having coined the last word in the English language, when taken in alphabetical order.  The U.S. Board on Geographical Names made the name official in 1984.

Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Rafael_Swell
Another discovery was made as we drove through Utah.  This is high desert country, with many geological features to observe.  We passed one such feature, called the San Rafael Reef.  It is an approximately 75-mile long outcrop of sandstone that has been weathered into some spectacular cliffs, domes, and canyons. When we saw the sign telling us that this was a reef, we at first assumed it was the fossilized remains of what had been a reef back when, up to 270 million years ago, the area was under a shallow sea.  That was the only kind of reef with which we were familiar.  However, some research revealed that in Utah, the word reef refers to "rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like a coral reef" (from the National Park Service web site on Capitol Reef National Park). Interestingly, all dictionaries I checked, including the OED, define this sense of reef as something that occurs only in water.  However, there is also a sense of reef that means "a lode or vein of gold-bearing quartz."  This sense originated in Australia, but the OED provides an early citation that refers to mining in Montana, indicating that the mining usage appears to have made it to the U.S.  It may be that the mining sense and the ocean sense (which contains an implied sense of blocking travel or making travel hazardous) were combined in the Utah usage.

From http://www.vintagewinter.com/
Let us return to a subject mentioned above (in one of the above photograph captions) - snowshoes.  The snowshoes we are accustomed to seeing today, round or oblong and webbed, appear to have originated in North America, and the first instance of the term in English, according to the OED, dates from 1674 in the form snow-shoos.  A quick check of the Google Books Ngram Viewer (a fabulous tool that allows you to search Google's full-text book database for words and phrases) shows that most instances of snowshoe(s) come from North American books, though Google finds nothing before 1713.  Though the shapes varied quite a bit, all of the northern Indian tribes in North America used some sort of snowshoe.

From http://blog.artisanalcheese.com/the-fondue-blog/329
Finally, while in Colorado, we partook of a wonderful dish called fondue (it has been a favorite of mine for some time).  It is a delightful way to warm up after a day in the snow.  The word dates in English to only 1878, per the OED, but the Google Books Ngram Viewer finds it in a cookbook of 1808 "A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy, and adapted to the use of private families" by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell).  Wikipedia says that the term appears in 1699 in a cookbook out of Zurich, Switzerland.  Fondue derives from French fondre "to melt," related to such English words as foundry and fondant.  These ultimately go back to the Indo-European root *ghud, source also (per John Ayto) of ingot, another word with a "melt" sense.  With that, we have come full circle: from frozen water (snow) to melting. 
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