"Ostensible," the Goodword of 1-7-06

A discussion of word histories and origins.
Jeff hook
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Location: East Orange, NJ, USA

"Ostensible," the Goodword of 1-7-06

Postby Jeff hook » Sat Jan 07, 2006 6:37 pm

Today’s etymology highlights “stretching” and “tone”:


...Word History: This Good Word was borrowed via French from Medieval Latin 'ostensibilis', an adjective from 'ostensus'. 'Ostensus' is the past participle of ostendere "to show", based on ob- "toward" + tendere "to stretch". (I get the image of an extended hand.)

Down at the root of today's word is a distant relative of English 'thin', the root *ten- "stretch", also seen in 'extend' and 'tension'. 'Tetanus' comes from Greek tetanos "stiff, rigid", the state of something stretched. When you stretch a string (Greek 'tonos'), you can produce a tone and a 'tenor' was once seen as someone who could hold (Latin 'tenere') a tone for a long stretch.

-Dr. Goodword...


I’d like to share with you a moment from Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 English translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” beginning at Fitzgerald’s line 460, in Book XXI, “The Test of the Bow.” You surely know the “story” of the Odyssey, although, if you know this epic poem well, you’ll agree that it’s much more than a story.

Odysseus, King of Ithaka, is assumed by all to have been lost at sea during his return from the Trojan War. Arrogant young suitors have been squandering his estate and disrespecting his son, while they’ve courted his wife, Penelope, who everyone believes to be a widow. He's about to wreak his revenge upon the suitors.

The Goddess Athena has disguised Odysseus as an aged, filthy, wretched beggar, so he can enter his own household unrecognized, to reconnoiter, and to plan his attack. He suffers all manner of insults at the suitors’ hands, but it's announced that Penelope will at last choose as her groom the suitor who can complete a feat routinely performed by Odysseus in his prime. The successful suitor must string the bow of Herakles, which was given to Odysseus by Iphitos, and which has been left in Odysseus' storehouse ever since his departure for Troy. The winner must shoot an arrow through the "haft-holes" of twelve axe heads, which have been lined up along a taut string. (Some think Penelope only suggested "The Test of the Bow" because she'd suspected the "stranger's" identity.)

The best of the suitors can't even stretch the string across the bow, and then "the ragged beggar" takes the weapon. He inspects it for damage while the suitors jeer him, assuring their doom. Homer says:

…But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow's look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow's note.

In the hushed hall it smote the suitors

and all their faces changed. Then Zeus thundered
overhead, one loud crack for a sign.
And Odysseus laughed within him that the son
of crooked-minded Kronos had flung that omen down…

Jeff Hook
East Orange, NJ USA

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Postby gailr » Sun Jan 08, 2006 10:31 pm

...he will tell you history and no lies...

Very nice, Jeff. Welcome to the agora.

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