28 March, 2014

Friday Ramble - Oscillate

Oscillate... the word doesn't turn up often in common parlance, but I like the sound of it, and it has an interesting history, possibly going back to the Latin oscillum, meaning "small mouth".  In a passage from Georgics, the poet Greek poet Virgil used the Latin oscillum to describe a small mask of Dionysus/Bacchus hanging from one special tree in a sacred grove and dancing about in the wind.  From the original Latin noun came a verb in the same patrician language describing something that moves back and forth like a pendulum, like a set of wind chimes or a child's swing. Thence came the verb scillti, which describes the action of rotating from side to side. At the end of all our wordy explorations lies the noun oscillation, first seen in 1658, and its verb form oscillate, both words connoting swinging movement of some kind.

The word's origins are both mythic and intriguing. When I see it in print or hear it spoken aloud, my thoughts wander off toward a carved wooden mask of a god, dangling from a tree in the ancient Roman countryside and swaying in the wind. Who would ever have guessed that vineyards and grapey Bacchanalian doings are associated with the simple act of something swinging to and fro in the breeze?

Why use the word this morning and honor it with a Friday Ramble? The weather here has been erratic in the last week or so, swinging (or oscillating) wildly between snow and rain, icy cold and mild temperatures, brilliant sunlight and whole days of murky twilight. There is rain in the cards for today, and there are sneaky swaths of black ice here and there, relics or remainders of last night's wild "toing and froing" between one end of the weather pendulum's arc (or oscillation) and the other.  We call such a sweep its "amplitude", arising from the Latin amplitudo (or amplus), meaning large. Thus there is largeness, breadth and fullness at work here and not just mindless flapping (or oscillating) about with both winter boots and umbrella.

2 comments:

Tabor said...

What an interesting and educational trip you have taken me on. I can see the mask swinging back and forth in my mind's eye.

sandra hagan said...

a wonderful bit of greek history. a beautiful sharing.