September 2010


waiting for the bus haiku

In an earlier post (“The Trolley’s Smile”), we talked about the car card, a vehicle of advertising that has remained very much alive and well while the “cars” to whose sides it is affixed have evolved from their horse-drawn forebears:

bus exterior ad


And as public transportation has expanded its reach under ground with the development of subway systems in the world’s larger cities, the car card has followed, accompanied by two additional family members, one exterior to the car, and the other, interior.

Bus stops and subway stations typically offer the would-be commuter something to read while waiting for the arrival of the bus or subway train:

subway station interior

Unlike the car card with which the viewer typically has only fleeting (if repeated) contact, the time that the person waiting for the bus or train may spend in front of a billboard display can be long (and, for regular commuters, repeated as well). And to some extent, the waiter is held hostage in a way that the pedestrian who glimpses the mobile ad is not: the pedestrian can walk away, having no bus or train to have to catch, say, to work.

Even more constrained is the passenger once ensconced on the bus or train, a captive audience if ever there was one. Here, the sponsored messages must be brief, given the limitations of physical space available:

bus interior ads

though prime space can be rented for somewhat larger displays:


interior car ad

Whatever their size, taken as a group, such hard to ignore messages fall along a continuum of the baldly commercial (“Buy my product or service”) to the educational and purely pleasurable. Notable in the educational category were the series of math problems presented in bright colors in the cars of the Barcelona subway in the year 2000. These included such classics as the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, a problem that is simple enough to state but not so easy to solve without some thought: The city of Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad) consisted of three land masses divided by a river that at the time was spanned by seven bridges connecting the three. Would it be possible to plan a route that crossed each bridge once and only once?  Travelers unfamiliar with spoilsport Leonhard Euler’s 1736 solution were free to cudgel their brains over this at the risk, lost in thought, of missing their stop. Readers not fluent in Catalan, of course, had the additional challenge of figuring out what the problem was before attempting its solution.

As for the purely pleasurable (if math in Catalan doesn’t take you to the fair), the “Poems on the Underground” project in the London subway system (a.k.a. the Underground or Tube) has got to be a serious contender for first place. Begun in 1986, the project’s origins and purpose are perhaps best described by its founders (Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik, Cicely Herbert) in the introduction to their anthology (Poems on the Underground, now in its tenth edition):

“Anyone who suffers from an addiction to reading cereal box tops or bus tickets will understand the special appeal of ‘Poems on the Underground’. The programme began as an idea shared among a few friends: how pleasant it would be, we thought, to read a few lines by one’s favorite poet on the Tube, instead of advertisements for mints or temps. We were Londoners by birth or adoption, habitual users of pubic transport, lovers of poetry. We shared the conviction that poetry is a popular, loving are, and that the pleasures of rhythm and rhyme are part of common life. The Underground, also an inescapable part of our common life, had large numbers of empty advertising spaces. It seemed an entirely reasonable idea to propose filling the blank grey slots with poems, for the entertainment of the travelling public.”

With the support of the London Underground, those blank grey slots have been filled with a wide variety of poems, some old and some new, some very familiar and some less so. For example, commuters have had the opportunity to read the following:

Western wind when wilt thou blow
the small rain down can rain
Christ if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again.

(An anonymous lyric from the early 16th century that might well tempt you to get off at the next stop, hurry home, and hop back in bed after calling in sick to work.)

And the rather cheerier

                        Celia Celia

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.

 (Adrian Mitchell [1932 – 2008])

And for those who are fond of both poetry and math, Lars Gustafsson’s wonderful poem, “The Bridges of Königsberg” in his The Stillness of the World before Bach, is not to be missed.

missed the bus haiku

The suffix -phone (from Greek φωνή ‘sound [of the voice], voice, sound, tone’) is a very productive one, appearing in several senses. These include the following:
‘sound’ (as in homophone)
‘producing sound’ (as in xylophone)
‘transmitting sound’ (as in telephone)
‘monitoring sound’ (as in sphygmophone)
‘speaking a language’ (as in Francophone)
This multiciplicity of related meanings has occasionally resulted in what are essentially homographic homophones, i.e., words that are spelled and pronounced the same but have different histories and meanings. For example, a hydrophone is both (a) a medical device used in auscultation involving the amplification of a person’s organs through a column of water and (b) according to the OED, “An instrument devised to give warning by electricity to a port or fleet of the approach of a hostile vessel.”
The following link takes you to a short list of such words, each of which is accompanied by three examples or definitions, two of which are correct and the other of which is not. Can you spot the phonies?

If you look up the word gloss in an English dictionary, you get two  for the price of one (typically labeled gloss1 and gloss2)—or three for the price of one if you check the cross-reference to gloze. Gloss1 and gloss2 come from totally different, etymologically  unrelated sources but their paths have intertwined over the years, merging (for some at least) in the expression to gloss over.

Gloss1 is ultimately from (West) Greek glossa (γλῶσσα)  (‘tongue [the organ],’ hence  ‘language, hence ‘obscure or foreign word [i.e., obscure word in a language or word in a foreign language]’). In Late Latin, the borrowed term glos(s)a had the sense of ‘a word needing explanation’ and, by extension, ‘explanation for an obscure word’ (whence glossary, a collection of such words with their explanations, which generally consisted of more common synonyms in the language or, later, translations into a second language with which the reader was presumably more familiar). Late Latin glosa naturally evolves into Old French glose, though Antoine Furetière in his monumental Dictionnaire universel françois et latin of 1771 evenhandedly reports an alternative derivation: “The word glose comes, according to some, from Greek γλῶττα, tongue [langue], because a glose serves to explain a text, as the tongue makes the soul’s feelings [sentimens] known through the medium of the word. One can also, Macri says, derive this word from Latin glos, which signifies a husband’s sister, and is considered a sister under the Law, because a glose is like a sister to the text.”

Furetière glosses glose as an “explanation of some obscure words in one language by more intelligible ones in that language. Also, a commentary that one makes to explain more intelligibly and at greater length an Author’s text, whether in the same language as the Author or in another language. It’s also used familiarly to refer to certain critical comments or details that one adds in reporting events or news of the day [Se dit aussi familièrement de certaines critiques, ou additions qu’on fait sur les événements & histoires du monde].” About the verb gloser, he has this to say: “To add a glose to an Author, to the pages of a classical Author, where space has been left between the lines to receive the glose. In addition, [gloser] means to add something to a story one is relating to make it nicer [plus agréable] or more entertaining [plus divertissante].”

English gloze basically assumed these meanings when it borrowed the word from Old French at around the end of the thirteenth century adding some of its own, most notably ‘flattery, cajolery.’  (There is some controversy over the origins of both  flatter(y) and cajole(ry): flatter seems originally have meant ‘to smooth (with the flat of  your hand—i.e., to stroke’) and may reflect the same root, ultimately, as platitude; while cajole originally meant ‘to shriek like a [blue]jay, like a caged jay’ about whose derivation the OED concludes its discussion with an uncharacteristic punt: “But the working out of the history must be left to French etymologists.”) The notion that a gloss for a word appeared in the text below the word that needed explanation—between the lines, as it were—is a plausible origin of the expression to read between the lines, though other derivations have been suggested: from the practice of writing the intended message in invisible ink between the lines of an otherwise innocuous letter, or embedding the message so that to decipher it you have to read every other line of the text and ignore the rest.

In the mid-1500s, gloze underwent a sort of lexical mitosis resulting in the retention of the original gloze and the creation of it’s alter ego gloss (gloss1). The (now archaic) noun gloze (which for a time was spelled both glose and gloze before the latter spelling eventually won out) had the senses of ‘comment, note; flattery; deception’ and as a verb,  ‘to interpret, comment on’ and ‘explain away.’ Gloss1 assumed the classical sense of ‘marginal or interlinear notation to explain an unfamiliar word’ and, by extension, ‘definition, explanation’ in general, casting off its previous vernacular senses (now assigned to gloze). The spelling of gloss reflects both the classical Greek and Latin and quite possibly the influence of the “other” gloss, gloss2.

Gloss2 arrived in English more or less at the same time as gloss1, but on a different boat: Gloss2 (which as a noun means ‘shininess of surface’ and as a verb, ‘to cause a surface to shine’) seems to have come from Scandinavia/Iceland from nothing that lexicographers have been able to pick out for sure from the lineup of Germanic suspects but whose parent is pretty clearly an Indo-European root meaning ‘shine’ or the like, the source of such words as gold, yellow, glow, glass, glitter, glisten, and glide.

Some say that the smart money is on gloss2 as the gloss that shows up in the expression to gloss over, i.e., ‘to give a facetious or disingenuous explanation for something,’ to which may be compared gild the lilyto gild ‘to cover with a thin layer of gold,’ hence, ‘to give an often deceptively attractive or improved appearance to; to gloss or gloss over.‘  (Compare the definitions at and On the other hand, gloss1 has its backers too, and there are still others who prefer to hedge their bets. After all, by the time gloss over showed up in English (in the seventeenth century), gloze, gloss1, and gloss2 were all alive and well and living comfortably in the language, spelling was still a bit fluid, and  the written sources aren’t always all that clear about which word was actually being used, especially when the sense, then as now, was to explain something in its best light skipping over any of the unpleasant details. So, for example, lists gloss over under both gloss1 and gloss2 and, with the impartiality worthy of a latter-day Furetière, lets the reader make the call.