The Music and the Sword

After finishing Joi Ito's post Reading the Dictionary, I was reminded that I actually did enjoy reading the dictionary, in same way Seymour Papert liked playing with gears. But, to Joi's point, I didn't set out from aardvark and press on until zebra. Instead, I realized today, the dictionary was my first true hypertextual experience.

The way I would read the dictionary was like this: if I was bored (I was bored a lot as a restless kid in the 80s), I'd flip my leather-bound copy of the Merriam Webster's open to a random page. Then, I'd scan down the page, looking for interesting words. Sometimes it'd be a new animal, or a particularly long word with strange syllables. My favorites, though, were short words that sounded like nothing else I'd ever heard. Then, I'd dig into the definitions and, most importantly, the etymologies. This is how I found forte.

I'd played piano a bit when I was really young. I was terrible at it, really awful. But I did enjoy picking up musical terms. I remembered learning forte, the Italian word for "bang really hard on the keys now." But this isn't the word I found in the dictionary. This forte comes from the Old French. Instead of pronouncing it for-TAY (that's the Italian), the dictionary said you should pronounce it FORT. It means "one's strength". Not "load music time, kiddo!"

Why the big deal with the pronunciation? It's in the etymology, the source of my love for dictionary reading. Forte (from the Old French and with the Old French sound) refers to a part of a sword between the middle and the hilt. This is the strong part, the part you want to use in battle. Its opposite, the part between the middle and the tip? That's the foible. Yup, that's right. Foible, just like you'd expect it to mean. A weakness. There are fortes (say FORTS) and there are foibles. Strengths, weaknesses. Good sword bits, bad sword bits.

There's a whole rich history baked right into the word. And the dictionary is full of these stories. The word "consider"? It means "with the stars". As in, when astrologers would consider, they would be with the stars. The dictionary was loads of these stories: conflicts, mutations, evolutions. Smashing together of cultures (ever notice that Anglo-Saxon words describe livestock, but French words describe meat? That's the Norman invasion right there.)

I was the weird kid who would "read the dictionary", just like Papert was the weird kid who played with gears. No one else saw what we saw in our obsessions, and, frankly, I never really understood why no one else thought the dictionary was as fascinating as it was. I eventually got a degree in Anthropology, and then an MFA Design and Technology. And the driving force behind both my degrees was my insatiable search for worlds with these amazing hidden stories.

It's my forte.

Copyright Mike Edwards 2006-2009. All content available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, unless otherwise noted.