Dept. of Word Lists

Daisy Chain of Thought

With this column we welcome Bob Greenman, author of Words That Make a Difference and More Words That Make a Difference, as a regular contributor to the Visual Thesaurus. Here Bob uses words from the latter book, with illustrative passages from The Atlantic Monthly, to muse on a great love of his life.

By a field of daisies, on a farm near the village of New Park, Pennsylvania, in my fifteenth summer, I found a black and white mutt, half beagle, half terrier, and we changed each other's lives. She had been walking along slowly in my direction on a dirt path and stopped at my feet. I kneeled and scratched her head, she looked at me, and we fell in love.

If you've never had a dog perhaps you don't understand that one really can be in love with one; and while marriage is not an option, or even an engagement, it is love. I was 15 at the time, but decades later, when my sister brought Daisy up in conversation, my wife said my eyes misted over. In human years, Daisy would be 56 this year.

What follows are scenes from my life with Daisy, incorporating words featured in passages in More Words That Make a Difference and accompanied by passages from the book that, in some cases, have no relation to the thematic thread of Daisy and me.

With no coaxing, Daisy followed me back to the house where I lived that summer with Mont and Clara McGinnis, while working on their 200-acre farm. It was Clara who suggested Daisy's name, a most appropriate appellation, appellation meaning  not merely a name given to something or someone, like Jim or Jane, but a name  that describes or identifies a person or thing.

Here's how Maurice Thompson, an Indiana lawyer, novelist and amateur ornithologist used appellation (a puh LAY shuhn) in the November 1884 Atlantic:

To begin with, the name mocking-bird is a heavy load for any bird to bear. Unmusical as it is, the worst feature of such an appellation is the idea of flippancy and ill-breeding that it conveys. To "mock" is to imitate with an ill-natured purpose, to jeer at, to ridicule; it was for mocking that bad children were made food for bears. Such a name carries with it a shadow of something repellant, and no poet can ever rescue it, as a name, from its meaning and its eight harsh consonants. It would indeed require some centuries of romantic and charming associations to make of it a name by which to conjure, as in the case of the nightingale. The bird, with almost any other name than mocking-bird, would fare much better at the hands of artists and poets, and might hope, if birds may hope at all, finally to gain the meed of praise it so richly deserves.

Appellation on a wine label is a different story. When appellation contrôlée (controlled name) appears on a French wine label, accompanied by the name of a region, it's the vintner's guarantee that the wine is an authentic product of that region. Eddie Rich, a 40-year veteran of Tops Wine & Spirit Merchants, in Brooklyn, N.Y., showed me a bottle of Perrin Reserve with Appelation Côtes du Rhône Contrôlee on the label, which means it was produced in the Rhone River region, an area of about 150 square miles.

But I digress. My college plan when I was 15 was to attend Cornell's veterinary school after first graduating from its college of agriculture, whose entrance requirements included having spent at least two summers on a farm.

Along with the hardest physical labor I've ever experienced, as Mont's farmhand,  I spent two days that summer with the local veterinarian, Thomas Brown. On the first day, I helped him dehorn cattle, castrate piglets, inoculate cows against brucellosis and deliver a breech-birth calf.

None of it was fun but I learned an awful lot in one day about what a farm vet does and by the end of the summer had decided I wouldn't be one. Too quiet a life. Too rural. Not enough people.

A week after my first day with Dr. Brown, however, I stood alongside him as he spayed Daisy on the operating table in his office. As I watched him make the abdominal incision, then spread Daisy's skin and expose her abdominal organs, a feeling came over me that I couldn't identify, until I realized — I was going to throw up. I took a couple of deep breaths, told myself this was no way for a future veterinarian to behave, and watched Dr. Brown excise Daisy's uterus and ovaries.

At the end of August, after my father had driven Daisy and me home from the farm, I greeted my mother with my fait accompli. I don't remember her reaction, but she must have liked Daisy, for she insisted her diet include fresh meat, which she cooked for her regularly.

Here's how the journalist Francis X. Rocca used fait accompli (FAY ta kahm PLEE), something already done, making opposition useless, in the July 2000 Atlantic. (In English, its literal meaning is an accomplished fact.)

Every time Hitler's actions embroiled Italy more deeply in a war that it was not ready to fight, Mussolini privately seethed; but he never had the courage to object or to opt out, until finally it was too late and Germany had become Italy's master. "Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli," the Duce complained. He approved the ill-conceived invasion of Greece in an attempt to impress his rival: "This time I will pay him back with the same coin. He will learn from the papers that I have occupied Greece. Thus the balance will be re-established." The resulting debacle eventually required German intervention, only confirming Italy's subservience.

Skip to my junior year at Emerson College, in Boston, where I am majoring in broadcasting (the obvious alternative to veterinary medicine) and where Daisy is living with me in an apartment shared with three schoolmates. Because you just don't leave an individual like Daisy alone all day as you might a dog, I brought her to school each day. The instructors never knew. As I entered the room with a group of students, Daisy took her place under my chair, and there she reposed for an hour until we left the classroom.

Nice word, repose. The very sound of it is soothing and calming, I think, the long "o" followed by the "z" making the word almost onomatopoeic.

Noun or verb, repose means to lie quiet and calm, and may refer to almost anything animate or inanimate: an antique car reposing in a museum; trees reposing on a windless day; a body reposing in a funeral home; a lion reposing at sunset.

The naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir used repose in the August 1899 Atlantic article about Yosemite National Park, in August 1899:

Benevolent, solemn, fateful, pervaded with divine light, every landscape glows like a countenance hallowed in eternal repose; and every one of its living creatures, clad in flesh and leaves, and every crystal of its rocks, whether on the surface shining in the sun or buried miles deep in what we call darkness, is throbbing and pulsing with the heartbeats of God.

In college, and before that at home, Daisy slept in my bed. I'd get into bed first and pull the covers up. Then Daisy would jump onto the bed, nuzzle under and lift the blanket with her nose until it covered her head, walk under it to the foot of the bed, turn around, then come back and put her head on her pillow as the blanket settled on her body.  No, we didn't share a pillow. She had her own.

And so, dear reader, when I encountered this passage from the article "Dogs and Men," by Henry Childs Merwin, in the January 1910 Atlantic, I knew exactly the pleasure Merwin felt.

Some persons object to having a dog on the bed at night; and it must be admitted that he lies a little heavily upon one's limbs; but why be so base as to prefer comfort to companionship! To wake up in the dark night, and put your hand on that warm soft body, to feel the beating of that faithful heart, — is not this better than undisturbed sloth? The best night's rest I ever had was once when a cocker spaniel puppy, who had just recovered from stomach-ache (dose one to two soda-mints), and was a little frightened by the strange experience, curled up on my shoulder like a fur tippet, gently pushed his cold, soft nose into my neck, and there slept sweetly and soundly until morning.

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "physical or mental inactivity; disinclination to action, exertion, or labour; sluggishness, idleness, indolence, laziness," sloth is a word one would prefer not to have applied to oneself, although Merwin uses it lightly, as a contrast to having enough concern for a sick puppy to forgo a night of restful sleep. As one of the deadly sins, sloth is usually applied to serious shortcomings in human behavior — the sloth of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security following Katrina; the sloth of a court system that allows someone to languish in jail for months before releasing him for lack of evidence; the slothful, belching, bay-windowed couch potato. And the animal called the sloth? Don't ask. It moves through trees at 15 feet a minute, can only drag itself along the ground, not walk, and eats so slowly that when it finishes one meal it's time to begin the next.

Skip two years after my college graduation. I'm visiting my in-law's chicken farm in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, where my wife grew up, and along a dirt path by the chicken coop housing thousands of chicks a live rat is squirming, its leg caught in a trap. Daisy unhurriedly walks over to the rat, grasps its neck in her jaws, lifts it along with the trap, shakes it once, drops the dead rat,  and nonchalantly steps back. Was this the placid, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly Daisy I had shared my bed with and who had never exhibited an iota of animalistic nature? I had just seen Daisy's instinctive terrierness. My goodness, she had acted like an animal! Her rat-killing was downright atavistic.

An atavism (the word derives from the Latin for ancestor, and atavistic is its adjectival form) is the reappearance of a behavior found in a remote ancestor. As originally used by scientists, it described human behavior that seemed a prehistoric throwback; today it usually describes any behavior that seems a return to any earlier time, and can describe both serious and light matters. Communal violence in India, corporal punishment in American schools, and not cleaning up after your dog on a city street have been described as atavistic behavior.

Here's journalist James Fallows in the November 1986 Atlantic describing his craving for good old American fast food:

Japanese food is varied and flavorful, and when accompanied by mounds of rice it can even seem filling. But for us it lacked staying power, because it had so little fat. A week or two after arrival we suddenly grasped what was wrong when we passed one of Tokyo's countless McDonald's outlets and, overcome by atavistic cravings, turned back and rushed in. We ate Big Macs and drank milkshakes, felt the grease on our lips and fingers, and carried a full feeling with us the rest of the day.

And here's Dean Acheson, President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state in the March 1965 Atlantic:

Some atavistic fear or urge, older than time, leads women to slander mice by believing that they harbor a lascivious desire to run up the female leg.

In her January 1933 essay,"Three Days to See," Helen Keller described the people, places and things she would choose to see if given three days of sight. The essay's point, though, was not what she was missing by being blind, but what most people who could see were missing by taking their eyesight for granted and not truly noticing the people and places in their lives.

My wife Carol and I read this moving and beautifully written essay, hoping it would provide us with a great passage with a word we could feature in the book. It wasn't until the final paragraph, though, that we thankfully encountered admonition, "a cautionary reminder," which is central to Ms. Keller's message.

I who am blind can give one hint to those who see — one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same method can be applied to the other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you through the several means of contact which Nature provides. But of all the senses, I am sure that sight must be the most delightful.

Helen Keller's essay in the Atlantic brought Carol and me back to an incident in the early days of our marriage, when I was still in college. One evening, on the train from Boston to New York to visit my parents, with Daisy asleep on my lap, we had an argument, a fight over something neither of has any recollection of. We do remember that we were really angry with each other. At a stop in Connecticut, we turned toward the aisle as two women, who appeared to be in their 40's, were passing us to exit the car. One of them leaned toward us and said, "May we?" pointing to Daisy. She was holding her companion's arm and directing it toward Daisy.

"Of course," we said, then realized that the woman petting Daisy and smiling sweetly was blind.

The moment was quickly over. The two women thanked us, and we watched as the blind woman's companion led her to the car's exit. Then turning back and looking at each other for a moment, Carol and I put our arms around each other and cried.

Further reading:

  • Henry Childs Merwin's Atlantic essay "Dogs and Men," is available in its entirety here. (Of the thousands of Atlantic articles that Carol and I read as we collected passages for More Words That Make a Difference, "Dogs and Men" was among the most memorable. After reading it some of you who have never owned a dog may be tempted to get one.)

  • Helen Keller's essay, "Three Days to See," is available here.

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 29th 2009, 1:05 PM
Comment by: CJP (Boulder, CO)
Sir, thank you for blending reminiscence with education - it was delightful!
Tuesday June 30th 2009, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Katherine S. (Brooklyn, NY)
Okay, I'm a weeper, granted, but I got teary at the end of this--and who knew you almost missed becoming everyone's favorite teacher to be a vet??? I've also never read the Helen Keller essay, so thanks for the post!
Wednesday July 1st 2009, 5:50 PM
Comment by: tom K.
Thank you for the reminder that carefully selected words signal care for your reader.
Saturday July 4th 2009, 9:50 AM
Comment by: NeilS (Birmingham, AL)
Thank you. I am a "dog person" also that cannot bear seeing a stray on the side of the road. If not for my wife I would live in a place where I could bring an unloved dog to my house and love it for the rest of its life. My dog Bear is 5 years old and I love him with human unconditional love, which still cannot hold a candle to a dog's unconditional love.

When I saw the syndicated photograph of an old man in a row boat reunited with his two dogs after the Katrina hurricane, I had to walk outside so no one would see my tears. I don't know where this emotion comes from. Your article brought out more of these "not so latent" feelings.
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 11:17 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Your writing is quite fascinating.

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