Issue 206, page 1

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Saints and days

St. DismasThis week, one of us was reading a crime novel in which a burglar said a prayer to St. Dismas before breaking into an apartment. This had us scratching our heads for a while but a brief consultation of the Catholic Encyclopedia revealed that Dismas is the name which the apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” gives to the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Christ. (The “bad” thief was called Gestas.) Accordingly, St. Dismas became the patron saint of criminals, particularly of thieves. His name is thought to derive from dysme, the Greek for “sunset” and, metaphorically, “death”.

Curiously, the city of San Dimas (of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure fame) in southern California takes its name from this saint. A 19th century landowner kept losing cattle to rustlers and named the area San Dismas in the hope that this might cause the cattle-thieves to repent. Over time, this pious intention was forgotten and the name became corrupted to San Dimas.

We wondered if Dismas might be related to dismal but it turns out that dismal comes from theblackletter (albeit in red ink) Latin dies mali meaning “evil days” or “unlucky days”. Sometimes inauspicious days are called black-letter days in an allusion to red-letter days. Medieval scribes would use a red pigment made from lead oxide (“red lead” or Pb3O4) to mark saints’ days; all other days were written in black so the term black-letter day is not very accurate as not all non-saint-days were bad. Since about 1600 black-letter has also been used for a type of script, also known as “Old English” or “Gothic” which, apart from occasional use in newspaper titles, has fallen from favor in English-speaking countries but is still seen in Germany.

There were three dies mali in the Roman calendar and by a strange coincidence two of these are our birthdays. Mike’s grandmother would always insist that we only ever have one birthday and that the yearly celebration of this date should be called one’s “anniversary”. (Any wonder Mike is such a pedant?) Granny never did convince many people of this - which is hardly surprising since birthday has been used to mean “the annual observance of one’s birth-date” since before the Norman Conquest. The origin of birthday is pretty obvious but anniversary is less so. It comes from the Latin annus (“year”) + versus (“turning”); in other words, it is that which returns every year.

Calendar itself derives from the Latin calendarium, “an account book”, and ultimately from calends, the name of the first day of Roman months. Monthly accounts were due on the calends and the word comes from the Greek kalein “to call” (i.e. it was when debts were “called in”). The Greeks themselves had no calends in their calendar, however. Thus, while the Spanish might procrastinate (from Latin pro- “until” + cras- “tomorrow”) until mañana (Sp. “morning” or “tomorrow”) and the Arabs until bukra fil mish-mish (“tomorrow, in the season of the apricots”), ancient Romans used the expression ad Graecas calendas (“on the Greek calends”), a humorous way of saying “never”.

While researching this column we came across a couple of words which have (undeservedly, we think) fallen into disuse. They are ereyesterday, meaning “the day before yesterday” and overmorrow, meaning “the day after tomorrow”. We don’t know about you but to us overmorrow has a distinctly hobbitty sound to it… “It will be my eleventy-first birthday on the overmorrow, young Frodo.”

Oh well, it’s time for us to call it a day:  it's a day.

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2006 TIERE
Last Updated 10/14/06 04:30 PM