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30-Second Word Whoop: “Void”

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 11.03.42 AMArguably the most novel novel of all time is A Void by Georges Perec, as much a word game as an invention. The book is wholly void of the common letter E. Even more impressive: It was translated from French, also E-depleted. And it’s not even a bad novel.

I’m unsure I could write a sentence sans E let alone a 288-page book. Here is an E-less plot synopsis:

“As his country is torn apart by social and political anarchy, Anton Vowl, a chronic insomniac, falls off all radar. Ransacking his Paris flat, a group of his faithful companions trawl through his diary for any indication, for any faint hint, as to his location.”

PrEtty MEaty.

“Void” as a noun rings hollow. An an adjective it’s invalid or not binding. It feels fairly non-binding as a verb as well (to empty or to cancel), accompanied by a sickening whooshing sound. “Devoid” is even more depraved. Funny the verb and adjective are older than the noun, each deriving from Anglo-French circa the 1300s while the noun emerged — not in a vacuum — in the 1600s.

What’s with that “null and void” redundancy? Early legalese, from medieval times when lawyers paired words from different languages to cast out any ambiguity or to add emphasis. Other examples of linguistic doublets: “breaking and entering” (English/French), “fit and proper” (English/French), “lands and tenements” (English/French), “will and testament” (English/Latin), “have and hold” (English/English — gotcha!).

As depressing as it sounds, “void” has a playful side. In card games like bridge or whist it refers to a suit from which a player is dealt no cards.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 11.22.24 AM

A still from the 1943 Hitchcock movie Shadow of a Doubt in which Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo holding this “perfect” bridge hand, void of everything but spades.

Play your cards right, though, and “void” has a bright side. One can be void of malice or bacteria. Maybe not so much bacteria.

Constructions like “avoid” are less involuntary, even empowering. We actively avoid people, places and things that mean us harm. Though there might be a hint of passivity in avoidance.

If I could avoid my weekly margarita binge that fills the senseless void, I’d do less voiding of both bladder and bank account.

As you ponder the void, enjoy a dance break from 1980s South African sensation éVoid, whose thing is also wordplay:

30-Second Word Whoop: “Greek”

Greek Hoplites

Greek Hoplites (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

The Greeks have been taking a lot of guff lately about financial ruin and collapsing markets — clearly, the gods have not been on their side.

And yet we owe a lot to the ancient Greeks, apart from alpha leaders and utopian theories.

Not only has the age-old society been a pillar of myth, architecture, theater, philosophy, sport and yogurt  (ye gods, have you tried Ben & Jerry’s frozen Greek yogurt? To die a Greek tragic death for!), but also language.

Duh. You don’t need a higher education to associate Greeks with frat boys and sorority sisters, even if staring at those hieroglyphic Greek letters on buildings off-campus leaves one musing: “It’s all Greek to me” — aka anything incomprehensible.

In any arena, when “Greek meets Greek” it means one has met their match.  A Greek cross is one with four equal arms at right angles.

A Greek fire? Hearkens back to medieval times and refers to a secret weapon invented by a Syrian engineer and deployed successfully by the Byzantine Empire — especially in naval warfare, as the mixture mythically could burn in water. According to Wikipedia, “the composition of Greek fire remains a matter of speculation and debate, with proposals including naphtha, quicklime, sulphur, and niter.”

One of the most mysterious (to me) Greek derivations might have sprung at the dawn of the computer age, when impatient graphic artists and photo editors in the newsroom would suffer the time it took for artwork to “greek” — or materialize — on then-primitive 512-by-342 pixel, monochromatic  screens.

But only a media geek would know that — “geek” being not a typo for or even deriving from Greek but apparently stemming from the low German geck, an imitative verb rooted in Scandinavia meaning “to croak, cackle” and also “to mock, cheat.”

Somebody bail me out here.