Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Whenever I read something by Noam Chomsky . . .

. . . and begin to get too annoyed, I remember that I was briefly friends with his daughter Avi at Berkeley, that she was a really nice person, and that she loved her father very much.

Maybe that shouldn't matter, but somehow, it does.

At the very time that I met Avi, I knew of her father only for his linguistic reputation, which both amazed and delighted her. I was waiting outside a classroom for a lecture by Martin Jay, and she was doing the same thing. She first struck up the conversation, introducing herself. In turn, I introduced myself, then asked:

"So, your name is 'Chomsky'? Are you related to Noam Chomsky?"

Her face took on a secretive look. "Shhh . . ." she shushed.

Disconcerted, I whispered, "Uh . . . are you?"

She nodded, then whispered that she preferred to keep quiet about it because of people's responses to her father's political views. I gazed at her for a moment, reflective, then told her:

"Well, you've finally met someone who knows nothing of your father's political views. I only know of him by his reputation as a linguist."

She seemed to relax, and we studied together a lot that semester. Naturally, I found out about her father's political views during those sessions. In the context of Berkeley's political spectrum, his politics seemed nothing out of the ordinary.

I also learned one other thing from Avi: the meaning of the word "steep" with reference to making tea.

"Let it steep," she remarked after pouring boiling water into a teapot.

"'Steep'?" I echoed. "What do you mean? Pour it out?" I knew of "steep" only as a sharp incline. Did she want me to tilt the teapot?

She was amused at what I didn't know.

But you know what? I was half right. We checked a dictionary and discovered its etymology.

See for yourself:

steep (v.) "to soak in a liquid," 1390, of uncertain origin, originally in ref. to barley or malt, probably cognate with O.N. steypa "to pour out, throw" (or an unrecorded O.E. cognate), from P.Gmc. *staupijanan.

Of course, it's not the same "steep" as the one that I already knew:

steep (adj.) "having a sharp slope," O.E. steap "high, lofty," from P.Gmc. *staupaz (cf. O.Fris. stap, M.H.G. *stouf), from PIE *steup- "to push, stick, knock, beat," with derivations referring to projecting objects (cf. Gk. typtein "to strike," typos "a blow, mold, die;" Skt. tup- "harm," tundate "pushes, stabs;" Goth. stautan "push;" O.N. stuttr "short"). The sense of "precipitous" is from c.1200. The slang sense "at a high price" is a U.S. coinage first attested 1856.

From this etymology, I suppose that I ought to have imagined Avi wanting me to beat the tea. But I wasn't educated enough to be that ignorant.

Anyway, I lost contact with Avi after that semester. She became involved in activist politics on campus, and I began working at Stephens Lounge, serving tea, where my newfound knowledge of 'steeping' came in handy.


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