Friday, February 20, 2009


"Mull" in "mulled wine" does not mean "steep", as many people seem to think, myself included. At least that's according to the OED. I had had the notion of spices steeping in wine. Of course mull can also mean to moot coram se ipso.

The spiced meaning of mull is "not easy to connect satisfactorily", as the OED says:
[Of obscure origin.
It is not easy to connect the sense satisfactorily with that of mull v.1 It has been suggested that the vb. is f. mull n.1 applied to the powdered spices used in mulling; but there is no evidence of such a specific use of the n. Another unsupported conjecture is that the original sense may have been ‘to soften’, ‘render mild’ (cf. Du. mul soft) of which mull v.2 might be another application. Quite inadmissible is the notion, which appears in all recent Dicts., that mulled ale is a corruption of moldale (mould n.1) funeral banquet.]

trans. To make (wine, beer, etc.) into a hot drink with the addition of sugar, spices, beaten yolk of egg, etc.
I particularly like "quite inadmissible is the notion ...". In those days, PF (pussyfooting) was not the fashion. In my experience, PC is three-quarters PF.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

To ? or not to ?

Russian has no copula - or to put it more cautiously, Russian speakers don't need one "in the present tense", of all tenses.There are no everyday "This is really that" expressions to reinforce talk about "existence", "timelessness of being" and so on.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that there has never been a widely-known Russian Philosopher of Being. The major work of such a person, ? и время, would probably not have wowed the literate community. I bet Heidegger goes off in Russia like a damp squib.

Come to think of it, copulation itself requires no copula. You just put two people next to each other, and off they go. I can cite Burroughs in support of this: "Me Tarzan, you Jane".

"To be" is not meaningless though, in English say, since it is needed as an enzyme to bring things together that are conceived of as ontologically inert. I wonder whether evidence exists that static, "building block" world-views are associated, in a statistically significant way, with languages in which a copula plays a prominent part. This could take the form of a comparative frequency chart of schools of ontology, and the languages in which the philosophers involved publish.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Conflicting standards

DIN standards can have annoying side effects. Many of you will have experienced having a loop of your bathrobe get caught on the handle of a door when you pass from one room into another. At least this occurs here in Germany, since people still wear bathrobes and most doors have handles, not knobs.

DIN defines a standard average person of certain dimensions and proportions. When this person's arms are hanging, he (sorry, ladies) raises his hand slightly to (un)buckle his belt. Since he does this several times a day, if he gets lucky, this is considered to be a natural height for his hand to be at. Doors have to be opened and closed many times a day, even when your luck runs out. So the height of door handles and belts was standardized to the same value, for convenient living. This is why larger belt loops, as on a bathrobe, get caught on door handles.

The information about belts and doors comes from a fat DIN standard volume I once had to consult for some other reason. The justification for the slightly raised hand was a tad different from the one I just gave, but this is the way I was able to remember it. You sometimes get caught even when you're lucky.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A categorical mistake

There was a brief obituary in the Sunday Times "Intl Culture" a few years back, of the American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. It related an anecdote about his being accosted in the subway by a policeman for some minor infraction. During a mild argument, the policeman said to the philosopher "You shouldn't do that, you know. Just imagine if everyone acted like that!". The philosopher replied testily:
Who do you think I am, Kant?
at which he was hustled off to the police station.