In this sixteenth-century woodcut, an allegorical female figure of Arithmetic invigilates a counting contest between the honest but worried-looking yeoman abacist on our right who modestly uses the older system, an abacus on a counting table and a better-dressed, confident, smarmy algorist on our left who smirks as he uses apparently mystical signs and sundry new-figured claptrap to attain his sums.
An algorist was a medieval mathematician, sometimes a quack who used pseudo-scientific techniques to attempt alchemical results of a dubious nature, such as turning base metals into gold. But the algorist was also one skilled in work with the new numbers, a kind of accountant, so named because he used algorisms in his calculations. Not inherently a quack, he used algorisms, the then-new-to-Europe system of Hindu-Arabic numerals and he calculated by means of nine figures and the also-new-to-the-West concept of zero.
Note that Milady Arithmetic, by turning towards the algorist, bestows approval upon this new method of sums, and upon him who uses a pen and Arabic digits. Miss Addenda of 1506 also sports an upperclass robe whose skirt is embroidered with new silken numerals. Her title banner in Latin reads Typus Arithmeticae ‘image or figure of Arithmetic.’
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The abacus (Abacus, to rhyme with “have a cuss”) is a counting device but had earlier meanings and the most significant one was in Hellenistic Greek, or Koine, the common dialect of the Greek language spoken throughout postclassical antiquity, approximately from 300 BCE to 300 CE. It was chiefly Attic Greek with a few nuggets of Ionic (Island) Greek tossed into the mix.
In that feisty Koine street speech, ἄβαξ, ἄβακος abax, abakos named a flat board covered with sand or dust so that one could drawn letters and designs in the sand and then “clean” the board by wiping the sand off the board. Thousands of children learned their Greek alphabet on an abacus, the form the Greek word abax assumed when borrowed into Latin by the Romans. If drawing letters and shapes in sand with a stick or metal stylus sounds complicated, it was not, in a world without cheap paper. Certainly papyrus and parchment existed, but they were expensive media fit only for important scrolls and documents, too dear by far to waste on a mere child’s acquisition of literacy and numeracy.
An Etymon of Ancient Provenance
The Greeks likely encountered the word in their trade dealings with a Semitic people. Gleaming and winking provocatively from the Semitic word hoard is the Biblical Hebrew masculine noun אָבָק 'abaq ‘dust, sand, grit, powder.’ In Post-biblical Hebrew 'abaq could mean ‘sand used as a writing surface.’ Who better to have introduced Greek traders to an abacus than those ancient merchant sailors of the Mediterranean, the Semitic-language-speaking Phoenicians? Remember, ancient Greeks were deft borrowers — not so modern Greeks. What else did the Phoenicians give the Greeks? Their alphabet! Thence stems the Roman version with which alphabet this very page is graced. Then what is the ultimate provenance of the root word? Unknown. But it may have a reflex in two of the languages of ancient Babylonia, in both Sumerian and Akkadian, making the root easily 3,000 years old.
In Greek ἄβαξ abax had other meanings like wooden plank, hence side-board, sometimes a cupboard placed near a dining table as a place to set wine bowls, flasks, and culinary impedimenta not immediately needed at table. Abacus also named a wooden board on which to play certain “board” games. Much later, abacus referred to the upper part of the capital of a Greek column.
Beware A Horrid Plural Form
In English there are two plural forms: the clumsy American abacuses (a hideous, swamp-born sound — like a toad attempting to recite verse by Shelley) or, always preferable, the neat, Latinate British plural, abaci. Hard c, please, and the stress remains on the first syllable.
Even by Roman times, the abacus had mutated into a counting device. The Romans began to incise grooves and marks along the board, as well as shallow holes into which little counting pins fit, in order to make calculating sums quicker. Later appeared early Chinese abaci, called soan pan, with movable beads which slide strung on wires to speed calculation. By the way, our English word calculate comes from calculus, Latin ‘ small stone, pebble.’ The Latin verb calculare meant ‘to compute quantities using pebbles.’ By the middle of the Middle Ages, such large, wired, beaded abaci were in use from China to Britain.
Poets like the word abacus, as this poetic candle glows to prove. Here’s a snippet from “Colophon” by Aleister Crowley, a rather odd, wizard-like gentleman who was, in the apt phrase of British psychiatry’s rubber stamp, “A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT.” My own personal assessment of Crowley’s thought is that he was as crazy as a shit-house rat. There was clutter in his befogged noggin sufficient to occupy an entire convention of psychiatrists for years. But he was an entertaining fellow and a deft little phrase-maker, whatever his faults.
“Be thou mine as I am thine,
As the vine's ensigns entwine
At the sacring of the sun,
Thou the even and I the odd
Being and becoming one
On the abacus of God!”
But no more addenda now, for I calculate that we have attained the summit of our abacus treatment.
Copyright 2012 © William Gordon Casselman
Do you Wish to Learn How To Use A Simple Abacus?
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Reviews of my Book
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Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog "My Corner of the Universe" for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover's Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
"I admit it: I'm a word nerd. I love words: weird words, long words, obscure words, funny words. This book is right up my alley. With chapters like "Nautical Words," "Creepy Words," and "Edible Words," I have enjoyed every page of this book. And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it. My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: "What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names" (19). I'm sure I'll have another favorite sentence in a day or two. This book is just that good and just that entertaining."
Author Bill Casselman replies: "Thanks, Jenni!"
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
A Great New Review of My Latest Book!
October 26, 2011 Welcome to the Enchanted ForestBy WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest,Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
In the best of the spiritual tradition, Bill is the shape-shifter who constantly leads you to all the places you need to find in your soul. Every page is a new country, an invitation to an excursion into the wonderland of rich connections with the myriad of sources of what so often we unthinkingly wield as a prosaic tool.
Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you that this book is anything but pure gold. It’s simply not true, sadly, that all the world loves a lover. Particularly someone whose love is so boundless.
But Sir William is fearless. You don’t earn your keep as a medicine man if you have a thin skin. While I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could walk away from this book unmoved by its wit, its wisdom and the beautiful transparency by which the author celebrates the glorious romp of our almost unlimited linguistic exuberance, I have to sadly conclude that once in a while, you do meet someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, eh?
Read this book. Leave it on the sofa instead of the $%#!*$% TV remote. Maybe someone you care about will pick it up, even just for a moment, and fall in love with their heritage? Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog "Creativity Unlimited" of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
Tags: 365 things to look forward to, books, reading
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one. If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . . Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?"
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my new book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011 Dear Mr. Casselman,
A search for the origins of an improbable-looking word, paraprosdokian, led me to the first piece of your prose I have had the pleasure of reading, "The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe." I have just placed an order for Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, Canadian Words & Sayings, and As The Canoe Tips, and will add more of your titles as I finish these.
I have just retired from a 40-plus year career in book publishing, the last thirty years spent as director/editor of a number of university presses, attempting to sort the genuine writers from the "Lazy Con Artists of Academe." Sad to say, the latter have so over-bred the former that I could no longer see the rare gem in the avalanches of offal that daily swamped my office and desk. I visited your website and spent far too long there; it was a pleasure to meet a real writer through his work.. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman's Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the "profligate prof-lets." During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let's first book, "Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it."
I know I will enjoy your books. Keep up the good work.
University of New Mexico Press, among others
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