Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Word of the day: zaatar

The word of the day, or of my day, is zaatar, or za’atar. Cue the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. Originally in the Middle East: any of a number of aromatic culinary herbs. The precise herb referred to is variously identified as thyme, oregano, marjoram, hyssop, or savory.

2. In Middle Eastern cuisine: a condiment made from any of these herbs (esp. thyme) singly or in combination, with dried sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt.
The British pronunciation: /ˈzaːtaː/. The American pronunciation: /ˈzaˌtar/.

The etymology:
Arabic saʿtar, ṣaʿtar, zaʿtar wild thyme, also a condiment made from this herb or similar herbs (see definition), probably < Syriac ṣatrā' (Aramaic ṣatrā'; > post-biblical Hebrew ṣatrāh savory, in modern Hebrew also satureia, thymbra). Compare Turkish zatar (probably < Arabic; the indigenous Turkish word for ‘thyme’ is kekik).
Got all that? No matter. If you’ve ever had hummus with a dark sprinkle of seasoning atop, you’ve tasted zaatar, or some version of zaatar. As a Wikipedia article explains, zaatar is a various thing. From what I’ve tasted, I’d describe the flavor as light and savory.

I looked into zaatar after a great lunch of falafel, salad, and zaatar-seasoned fries at Terre Haute’s Saratoga Restaurant. And now our household now holds a container of Sadaf Mix Green Zaatar: thyme leaves, oregano leaves, sesame seeds, salt, soy oil, sumac. The Saratoga no doubt makes it own.

[The ː symbol in /ˈzaːtaː/ marks extra-long sounds.]


A fine episode of Helen Zaltzman’s podcast The Allusionist, about hyperbolic indefinite numerals: “Zillions.”

Our household’s favorite hyperbolic indefinite numeral is eleventyteen, from Elaine’s father Burton Fine. What’s your favorite hyperbolic indefinite numeral?

Interview with a lexicographer

“Nobody gets rich being a lexicographer”: from an interview with freelance lexicographer Orin Hargraves (The University of Chicago Magazine).

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Liar, scary

“Why is the president lying? Because he’s a liar”: Bakari Sellers on CNN a few minutes ago.

And James Clapper, just now on CNN, on Donald Trump’s access to nuclear codes: “It’s pretty damn scary.”

Something has to change.


[While eating ice cream.]

“Whenever I call him, he says, ‘I’m with my two friends, Peace and Quiet.’”

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)

[Elaine says it’s an old line. But it’s new to me.]

Subway payphone, 1932

Ephemeral New York shows us what a New York City subway payphone looked like in 1932.

Thanks to the library

I wanted to determine the age of our piano from its serial number. The Internet? Useless, at least for our piano. But my university’s library had the answer, in the Pierce Piano Atlas (1965): 1908.

And now that I was in the library, I thought to look up the ghost word dord and see it in print for myself. The word was right there in the reference stacks, in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (1934):

[A real ghost: dord & co.]

Emily Brewster, Merriam-Webster lexicographer, tells the story of dord in a short video. So yes, back to the Internet. But sometimes only the library will do.

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)

[Our piano is a Beckwith Empire Upright. (It looks like this one). Ours is unrestored but stays in tune (for a good long while) and plays beautifully. It was a lucky addition to our household, acquired for the cost of moving. The movers said it was the heaviest piano they had ever handled. It’s possible to see a photograph of the dord entry online, but the thing itself is found only on paper.]

Monday, August 21, 2017


Artisanal eclipse viewers. We start with the finest cereal boxes — Cascadian Farms Granola or Grape-Nuts, your choice. Inside, a viewing surface made from a generous double-thick layer of Strathmore Ultimate White Wove 24 lb. writing paper, hand-cut to each box’s shape and size. On top, a sturdy square of Reynolds Wrap with custom-drilled pinhole, locked down with Scotch Brand packing tape. A second square, hand-cut, serves as viewfinder. Durable, lightweight. Slightly used.

Shipping not included.

[Well outside the path of totality, I found this eclipse to be No Great Shakes. Cue Miss Peggy Lee.]

Twelve more movies

[Five sentences each. No spoilers.]

War for the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves, 2017). Apes together strong! The apes and their planet (their planet?) are a fond memory for Elaine, who loved the movies in childhood. I was a willing partner. This film holds the attention, very well, briefly jumps the shark, or the primate (with the Colonel’s long speech), recovers quickly, but begins to leave the mind the moment one leaves the theater. With clear political overtones (internment camps, a maniacal leader who wants to build a wall) and generous helpings of Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, The Great Escape, and other films.


Little Men (dir. Ira Sachs, 2016). Art-minded Jake (Theo Taplitz) and theater-minded Tony (Michael Barbieri) have become the best of friends. They hope to go on to LaGuardia High School together (New York’s arts high school). Jake’s parents own the Brooklyn storefront that houses Tony’s mother’s dress shop, and now they’re going to raise the rent — not because they want to but because they have to. A sweet and sad picture of male friendship on the verge of adolescence, just as girls begin to complicate things (or not). With a special appearance by Owl’s Head Park, where I played as a little kid.


Blue Gold: American Jeans (dir. Christian D. Bruun, 2014). “In the least expected quarters, there they are: American mining pants.” A look at everyday, utilitarian apparel turned into the stuff of connoisseurship, in the United States, in Japan, and everywhere. Do people really pay hundreds of dollars for old 501s, and tens of thousands of dollars for ancient off-brand pants? Yes, they do, and right on camera. I still call my Carhartts dungarees.


Who Was Kafka? (dir. Richard Dindo, 2006). Kafka’s words, read by a narrator, and the words of Max Brod, Gustav Janouch, Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská, Dora Diamant, and others, read by actors. Archival photographs of people and places. Prague, beautifully filmed, fills the screen, skies, buildings, and not one person. Interiors, beautifully filmed, remain unidentified. Whether one knows knows something or nothing at all of Kafka’s life and work, there is just not enough here.


I Called Him Morgan (dir. Kasper Collin, 2016). Lee Morgan was a brilliant trumpeter who established himself in music while still a teenager, succumbed to addiction as a young man, and was brought back from the living dead by a woman who called him Morgan — and who shot him to death in a New York club when he was just thirty-three years old. (Shades of Frankie and Johnny.) The centerpiece of this documentary is an interview with Helen Morgan, the trumpeter’s wife and killer, taped just a month before her death by her adult-ed instructor (who had mentioned that he was a jazz fan). On-camera interviews with fellow musicians piece together Morgan’s story, with abundant performance footage and period photographs. Most moving moment: Wayne Shorter talking as he looks at a photograph of himself looking apprehensively at Morgan, whose head is bandaged after he nodded out against a hot radiator: “Lee, hey Lee, what you doin’?”


Journey to the Center of the Earth (dir. Henry Levin, 1959). Pleasant fun, in a movie that Elaine remembers from Saturday mornings in childhood. But I will admit that I liked the movie less as it began to abandon its focus on mysterious marks and rocky passageways for more colorful underground wonders. Underground and above, there are some nice Odyssey touches for those who love Homer. The strangest thing about this movie is not that the journey is to the center of the earth: it’s that the journey is led by James Mason, and that he brings along Pat Boone — who sings. And that Billy Wilder’s longtime collaborator Charles Brackett co-wrote the screenplay and produced.


Born to Kill (dir. Robert Wise, 1947). Lawrence Tierney plays Sam Wilde, an eerily Trumpian sort who dominates and destroys everyone in his way as he attempts to maintain relationships with two sisters (Audrey Long, Claire Trevor), one of whom he marries for her money, the other of whom he wants for other reasons. Elisha Cook Jr., who bears a more than slight resemblance to Donald Trump Jr., plays Sam’s friend Marty. This movie begins and ends with over-the-top scenes of jealousy and brutal violence. In between, nearly everything is magnificent squalor. Even a scripture- and hymn-quoting detective (a great turn by Walter Slezak) has his price.


Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016). A story of invisible women, African-American “computers” (mathematicians) working for NASA in the 1960s. The principals — Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer — are fine actors, and the movie’s blue and grey and tan workplace evokes the 1960s far more successfully than does, say, Mad Men. But Hidden Figures feels to me like a movie about black people made to appeal to white people. By means of righteous indignation, rhetorical charm, or stoic dignity, each of the three principals manages to win over a white authority figure who makes things right: one who knocks down a Colored Only sign outside a NASA bathroom (as black women stand and watch), one who gives permission to attend night classes on a white campus, one who grants a long-hoped-for promotion to supervisor. As Atticus Finch taught us, white people can be so good.


Un pequeño festival de Pedro Almodóvar

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Women! Men! Crises! Many! Along with gazpacho and sleeping pills, terrorism, a scene from Johnny Guitar being dubbed into Spanish, and a taxi stocked with all kinds of sundries for sale. An enormously funny film.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989). A variation on the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, I’d say. Marina (Victoria Abril) is an ex-junkie, ex-porn star, and actress. Ricky (Antonio Banderas), a patient at a mental institution, has been acting sane long enough to be released. Ricky forces his way into Marina’s apartment, determined to make her fall in love with him, marry him, and have his children. Funny and frightening, deliriously unhinged, and somehow, in the end, strangely normal.

Volver (2006). An ultra-melodramatic melodrama, with themes of betrayal and loyalty, and dark family secrets. The setting is La Mancha, with wind turbines everywhere. Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is the newly single mother of a teenaged girl. Raimunda’s mother, aunt, and sister are also important figures in the story that unfolds, a story I don’t want to even try to explain. Volver is my favorite of the five Almodóvar films I’ve seen.


Le Million (dir. Réne Clair, 1931). This sweetly charming comedy begins with some tricky set design and a happy ending: a midnight party that gives way to an extended flashback. The flashback begins with a dashing painter, his romantic rival, sexual intrigues, and angry creditors, and soon turns into the story of a missing lottery ticket, left in a jacket, and the various efforts to find it. The search leads to an opera house, some hilarious goings-on (my favorite moment: rugby, with crowd sounds), and, at last, back to the happy ending. As in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, live performance becomes the material of film, which can also take us behind the closed curtain and into the audience. That meta observation should not distract from this other observation: Le Million is one of the greatest film comedies ever made.

More Almodóvar and Clair to come, for sure.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen films : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more : Nine, ten, eleven — and that makes twelve : Another twelve : And twelve more : Is there no end? No, there’s another twelve : Wait, there’s another twelve : And twelve more : At least eleven more : And twelve more


Last Thursday’s local forecast for this Monday, as heard on an NPR station: “mostly sunny.” Was that a joke?