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Rants from the Relic - Drifting from topic to topic

by Doug Luthanen

Miss Delores Wood taught Latin during my stint in ISD696. Only a small part of the syllabus involved conversational Latin while most of it focused on the structure of language and vocabulary. Not Latin vocabulary as much as how Latin influenced English. Seems nearly half of English words are derived from Latin.

Miss Wood loved Latin-based English words and opened each of the 350 of her classes I attended with a new (to me) arcane word like, well, “arcane.” Some days’ classes opened with Latin phrases like ex post facto, et cetera, post hoc ergo propter hoc, or exempli gratia while she stood tall at her desk and applied hand lotion against the Minnesota winter aridity of Memorial HS.

Miss Wood was transparently enamored of Latin and unabashedly dismissive of the utilitarian words of English like “that,” ‘the,” “but” et al referring to them as “Anglo-Saxon grunt words.” I think “grunt” is another of those words.

Among those 350 words and phrases she taught us, two popped into my head as I prepared to write this installment. “Rebarbative” and “desultory.” Why “rebarbative” was retrieved from my memory drawer, I don’t know. I doubt I have ever used it in the six decades since I first heard it, but it is a fun word to pronounce. It has an interesting history and would be apt all too often these days -- but it’s a pedantic-sounding word. I can’t think of a time I’ve heard it or seen it written. The other, “desultory,” is the one that triggered this column.

I approached this column desultorily, i.e. (another Latin phrase courtesy of Miss Wood) without a plan or purpose. Expect me to drift from topic to topic with jarring segues.

A few weeks ago, I assisted Ely HS music teacher Karl Kubiak in a kinesthetic struggle to force a resistant grand piano out of storage and onto the stage at Washington Auditorium. Grand pianos, while able to assist skilled musicians with evoking profound emotions in audiences, themselves have no soul -- only mass. But with Karl’s youthful enthusiasm and my weary muscles we wheeled this stubborn unit into place where for 45 minutes I introduced the Ely HS band members to music theory.

And that got me to thinking about Mom who had taught music there 60 years prior and had performed on that stage many times. As had Dad with his comedy sketches. My sisters had played in the band on that stage and thousands of Ely kids had received their diplomas right there. My interaction with that hall involved sneaking into the empty room by the lights of only the exit signs back in my HS days and playing that grand piano to the appreciative silence of 800 or so upholstered, empty, folded seats.

And that brings us to the penultimate non-sequitur of this month’s column. The Kingston Trio released a barbed novelty record in 1959 called “The Merry Minuet.” Attached to its lilty melody are dark lines like “there’s strife in Iran” and “someone will set the spark off.” They seem all too applicable to today’s world tension. As we approach the season of peace, we can hope that memories we’re making today will become fond recollections tomorrow. We can hope.

Here comes the final topic leap. The photo is of Miss Wood touring Pioneer Mine circa 1966 shortly before it closed on April 1, 1967 and Ely’s change began. And “rebarbative?” It has come to mean “unattractive, unpleasant.” Seems there would be uses for it these days. Miss Wood explained that when the barbarians (see that “barb” in there?) invaded Rome, they came with ugly beards (“barber?”) as they savaged the clean-shaven Romans. Unattractive indeed.

Enjoy your days whether designed or desultory.


Doug Luthanen grew up in Ely and graduated from Memorial High School in 1967. He wrote a weekly viewpoint column for the Northwest Arkansas Times for four years and is an occasional contributor to The Ely Echo.

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