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Turn, turn, turn

August 1st, 2011

BY JOEL HESS

In honor of this issue about turning points, let us consider the development of how we English speakers express the idea of motion around an axis.

We have a plethora of words for this concept, fine-tuned according to the specifics of the turning: around a vertical axis (spin, wind) or a horizontal one (roll, tumble); involving an axis within the turning body (twirl, rotate) or extraneous to it (revolve, orbit); with a circular motion (whirl) or a spiral one (coil, spiral) or a back-and-forth one (rock, sway); with a quick motion (swirl, eddy) or a slow one (meander); with a graceful motion (pirouette) or a maladroit one (pitch, lurch). A mere glance at some of the multifarious terms we can select from indicates just how ingrained and basic a movement it is: pivot, ring, gyrate, encircle, loop, surround, gird, circumnavigate, swivel, twist, curl, curve, arc, swing, wheel, pendulum, screw, corkscrew, swerve, veer, flip, reel, spool, scroll.

“Turn” has a long and honorable history in English. It first turns up, if you will, around 1300 as turnian, “to turn or rotate,” through the French torner, ultimately from Latin tornare, to turn on a lathe (tornus). This in turn (ha!) comes from an Indo-European root ter, “to rub [by turning],” also the origin of the word “throw” (as on a potter’s wheel). Over the centuries, the word has acquired a dozen or so different denotations, from a period of activity (taking turns) to an alteration (a turn in the weather), to a change of course (make a left turn), to a reversal of position or direction (turn your back), to the process of going sour (the milk turned). It combines with a multitude of words to form phrases that are consistently useful in our everyday conversation: turn out, by turns, at every turn, turn off, downturn, star turn, about turn, turn heads, turn to, turnover, U-turn, turn of the century, turn the tables on, turntable, turn one’s back on, turn tail, turncoat, talk out of turn, turn one’s stomach, turn the other cheek.

The phrase “turning point” first appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1817 or 1836, depending on which source is consulted); the figurative sense, oddly enough, seems to predate the literal one. Both senses are combined in a delightful double entendre in the name of the 1977 movie The Turning Point, one of the finest movies ever made about the world of dance.

“Spin” is likewise quite venerable in English; it comes from the Anglo-Saxon spinnan, which was introduced before the twelfth century. Other Old English words that denoted this type of movement include swifan, which gave us “swivel” and “swift,” and roccian, from whence “rock.” The Old English hweogol eventually turned into Modern English “wheel”; its Indo-European cognates include Greek kyklos, “circle” (“cycle,” “cylinder“), Latin circus, “circle” (“circus,” “circular”), Sanskrit cakra, “wheel” (“chakra,” an energy point in yoga), and Old English hring (“ring”). ”Rotate,” “roll,” and “scroll” come from Latin rotare, “to turn,” and rota, “wheel,” which also gave us “rotary,” “round,” and “rotund”; through French, “roulette” and “roué” (from the idea that such a person deserves to be broken on the wheel); and “rodeo,” the Spanish analogue to “roundup.”

Latin is also the source of spira, “coil, spiral” and curvus, “curve.” The phonesthetic triplets “swirl,” “twirl,” and “whirl,” though they look as though they ought to be related, in reality come from separate roots; “swirl” from Middle English, “twirl” and “whirl” from Old Norse. “Revolve” and its noun form “revolution” come from a Latin root volvere, “to roll,” as do a slew of similar words such as “involve,” “devolve,” and “evolve,” as well as “valve,” “vault,” “volt,” (the leaping movement, not the electrical unit, which was named after the scientist Alessandro Volta), and perhaps even “vulva.” “Coil” emanates from French coillir “to gather,” though its Shakespearean sense of “trouble” or “turmoil” (“shuffle off this mortal coil”) is listed as of unknown origin. Personally, I can easily see the link between spiraling, perhaps out of control, and Hamlet’s existential cares and worries, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the two senses stemmed from the same source.

“Twist” originally indicated a pair of strands of thread or rope that were wound about each other, and is related to both “twine” and “two.” “Wind” is from the Old English windan, meaning “twist or move with speed or force,” and is not at all akin to its short-I heteronym “wind,” which is a cousin to Latin ventus. “Tumble” is derived from a frequentative form of Old English tumbian, “to dance” (a frequentative is a verb that indicates continuous, recurrent, or repeated action).

Incidentally, drinking glasses got the name “tumbler” because originally they were blown with pointed or rounded bases, and thus were prone to tipping over. So who was the genius who figured out that this was not a particularly brilliant design feature and began to produce flat-bottomed glasses? Don’t you think he ought to have gone down in history? He’s at least as important as, say, Ted Turner in the grand scheme of things. I guess it just wasn’t his turn. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Turning Points Issue, Hess | Link to this Entry

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