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Alaskan Range: Fartlek

Ugsome, cumshaw. xerophytes, fartlet...

Columnist and librarian Greg Hill relishes an exuberance of words.

As subscriber to A.Word.A.Day, I receive daily emails, each containing an interesting word. Lately they’ve been unusually intriguing. I’ve learned that “ugsome,” comes from the Old Norse word “ugga” (to fear), “cumshaw” (a gift or tip) is from the Amoy Chinese words “kan” (to be greateful) and “hsieh” (thanks), and “xerophytes” (plants adapted to dry environments) comes from the Greek “xero” (dry).

A.Word.A.Day host website, wordsmith.org, was created in 1994 by Anu Garg. Born in India and coming to English as a second language, Garg appreciates English on a different level than native speakers. He revels in all languages’ playfulness; a few weeks ago, for example, he wrote “If you hear the words slut, bra, sex, or fart in my speech, you may wonder what’s on my mind … Welcome to the wonderful world of Swedish.” One of his featured words was “fartlek” an example of “false friends, words that are spelled the same in two languages but have very different meaning.” “The Swedish “fart” means “fast,” “lek” means “play,” and “fartlek” is a training method for athletes “that involves intense activity interspersed with low effort.” For the record, in Sweden “slut” means “final,” “bra” means “good,” and “sex” means “six.”

Upon first reading “fartlek,” my imagination went immediately to my old copy of Benjamin Franklin’s “On the Choice of a Mistress and Other Satires and Hoaxes” that I’d been recently perusing. “Playful” certainly described Dr. Franklin, whose famous almanac saw its sales boosted by his prediction and long-standing assertions of the demise of Titan Leeds, his major almanac competitor. “When challenged by the very much alive Leeds,” Wikipedia notes, “Franklin insisted that Leeds had in fact died, but that he was being impersonated. When Leeds actually died in 1738 Benjamin Franklin publicly commended the impostors for ending their charade.”

Among his other mischievous literary escapades, Franklin wrote a letter advising a young friend “On the Choice of a Mistress,” published an editorial “On the Relief of Virgins” under the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood,” and under the guise of Prussia’s Frederick the Great and claimed England for that country based on its being settled originally by Anglo-Saxons in “An Edict by the King of Prussia.” He distributed them all widely, including “Fart Proudly, or “A Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels.”

The Wikipedia article on the latter says “Franklin believed that the various academic societies in Europe were increasingly pretentious and concerned with the impractical.” Though he never formally presented, his proposal was for a prize to go to the first person to “discover some drug, holesome (sic) and not disagreeable … that shall render the Natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes.” Franklin concluded that compared to his proposal, the others “scarcely worth a FARThing.” And he made sure that his friend Joseph Priestly, the chemist famous for his work with gases, received a special copy.

A related article, “Unconcealed Flatulence in Public Libraries,” appeared last week in another email subscription, PubLib, a public library discussion listserv where librarians compare professional notes. This posting elicited some humorous responses and suggested actions, Franklin was cited several times, and memorable euphemisms were suggested, including “boop” and “frack.” I’ll spare you the details, though the poor librarian writing it concluded with “sometimes they just don’t pay me enough.” The poster’s intent was serious, however: when should library users’ personal habits compel librarians to ask them to not persist or leave? The general agreement was that an individual’s right to use the public library ends when their behavior seriously impacts other patrons.

Free use of a fully-stocked public library is one of the rarest privileges known to mankind. Only a tiny fraction of those alive today enjoy it, and public librarians struggle keeping their buildings, as well as their collections, fresh, safe, and inviting. We loathe disenfranchising anyone, and yet won’t hesitate when someone disrespects the rights of others, including those of the library staff. That’s why, as Anu Gard might put it, the vast majority of visitors can follow their own sense of fartlek to consuetudinarily experience the ne plus ultra of calm, friendly intellectual exchange when they visit their library.

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