Momentous Monday: Stand up and sing

Two hundred and six years ago today, September 13, 1814, events in Baltimore, Maryland, wound up having a significant impact on America culture, particularly sporting events, but I’ll get back to that.

The thing is, though, that countries have this habit of having national anthems, which are the big patriotic sing-alongs that precede important events, like sporting matches </sarcasm>. I suppose they also show up at important governmental ceremonies and on holidays related to independence or important military events.

But this whole national anthem thing is so important that only one country on the planet does not have one: Cyprus. The short explanation of why: When the UK gave Cyprus its freedom, the new country did create a flag and all that other folderol, but the majority population still considered themselves to be Greek, and so the public voted for just staying with the Greek anthem.

Of course, the Greek National Anthem in its full form is also the longest anthem in the world, which is why it’s usually shortened for sporting events and the like. When played in the shorter version, Uruguay steps into first place when it comes to length — well over six minutes.

On the other end of the spectrum is Uganda’s national anthem, weighing in at a whopping nine measures — although listening to it, I’m not sure how they’re counting. In any case, it weighs in at just under a minute and twenty seconds.

Not all anthems have lyrics, though, and currently four countries do not: San Marino, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Spain.

Others have lyrics, but share a melody. One example: Estonia and Finland, although Finland’s version is at a more leisurely tempo.

The other example will be much more recognizable to English speakers: Liechtenstein and the United Kingdom — although this one is also a triple threat, because most Americans will recognize the melody as the decidedly non-anthem tune My Country ‘Tis of Thee.

This is not the first time that the former colonies will steal a British tune for a patriotic song, by the way.

At least most people outside of the U.S. don’t assume that this tune is the anthem. Not so much with Australia, which quite often has the decidedly non-waltz tune Waltzing Matilda mistaken by foreigners as its national anthem. The real one is the much less fun Advance Australia Fair, while the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, is the royal anthem of Oz, but not the national anthem.

To be honest though, if you click the link and listen, the real Australian national anthem is pretty damn inspiring.

My favorite anthem story, though, is how Mexico’s came about — whether the tale is apocryphal or not. In 1853, the Mexican government had put out a call for contest entries to create a national anthem. Of course, this happened under a president who, Santa Anna, who was unpopular in the U.S. because he’s the one who kicked ass at the Alamo but also unpopular in Mexico because he lost half of the country’s territory to the U.S. despite the Alamo.

Although he had entered and lost before, poet Francisco González Bocanegra was finally coerced into trying again when his girlfriend basically took him to her parents home and locked him in a bedroom with a quill, ink, parchment, and lots of inspirational photos and whatnot from Mexican history.

He had insisted that he wrote love poems, not patriotic odes, but maybe he wound up writing a love poem to Mexico, and that resulted in his lyrics, set to music by a composer he would never work with again, becoming the Mexican Himno Nacional.

At least his was somewhat based in the revolution that began on September 16, 1810 with the Grito de Dolores and a Catholic priest ringing his church bell and calling out to his parishioners words to the effect of, “Won’t you free yourselves from 300 years of oppression?”

And so, they did.

That’s why el 16 de setiembre is Mexican Independence Day and why el 5 de Mayo is no big deal — kind of the same reason that July 4 is American Independence Day, but September 13 is no big deal, either.

So by most commodious vicus of recirculation we return to Howth Castle and environs… name that reference, and did I say Howth Castle? I meant we return to the opening paragraph of this article.

Two hundred and six years ago today, September 13, 1814, events in Baltimore, Maryland, wound up having a significant impact on America culture, particularly sporting events, and now I’m back to that.

It was during the U.S.’s first war as an independent nation, and it was a battle against Canada, acting as a proxy to get back at us for having been not nice to Daddy, aka the UK. Canada was only our younger step-sibling, though, still basically living at home, and although we had been friendly with his mother, France, she’d definitely gotten way too friendly with the locals in the meantime.

Hell, we didn’t even speak the same language anymore. But Canada had to get cocky and wound up burning our capital city down in 1812, and that was not fun. It looked bad until what was basically a very obscure but ultimately decisive battle in the harbor outside of Baltimore.

Baltimore was protected by Fort McHenry, and despite the best efforts of a spoiled teen who had not yet learned his manners, we somehow managed to defend the place.

Watching the entire time from jail across the bay, some poet named Francis Scott Key took notes, wrote lyrics, and came up with this whole thing about rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air and so on.

What most Americans don’t know is that we only ever adapted the first eight lines of the song to become our national anthem over a century later, and that there are 28 more which are… not as pleasant or encouraging.

On top of that, the melody came from The Anacreontic Song, which was basically a frat boy drinking tune technically written in North America, but while the colonies were still a part of the UK.

Also, unlike a lot of national anthems, it is notoriously difficult to sing, despite every Joe and Jane Schmoe in the ballpark being expected to sing along anyway. This does not always end well.

So… a song based on a minor battle from a largely forgotten war with what is now our closest ally, with lyrics dashed off from prison and set to a frat boy drinking tune, and with the verses that no one knows being just really, really wrong… and that becomes our national anthem?

Nah. We can do better, and we can pick something not at all related to war. Just as Waltzing Matilda is often thought of by outsiders as Australia’s anthem, I have a much better idea for the U.S., because it’s a song that touts our virtues without being bellicose, and it’s just a beautiful melody that anyone can sing.

And that song, of course, is America the Beautiful, which I’m sure that a lot of foreigners already thought was our national anthem as well. Or maybe not. They tend to not be as ignorant as Americans when it comes to stuff like that.

Or just go with Arlo Guthrie’s take on his father’s song. Which, actually, is the most inclusive version and doesn’t involve war at all.

Speaking of national anthems, I have to include this little bit here from an amazing young YouTuber who goes under the name of KestrelTapes, and who is just such a ridiculously talented musician that it boggles my mind.

No, really — being a keyboardist myself, his skills just astound me. Beyond that, though, is this whole layer of comedy he drops on top of it, because I have not seen somebody this able to be so deadpan while making serious art since Keely Smith or Buster Keaton.

This is the face of someone who really knows what the hell they’re doing, and if he wants to, his career is going to take off like a rocket one day. He just so happens to have his own take on national anthems, so I’m going to close with hit here.

Talky Tuesday: El-Al

No, the title of this post does not refer to the Israeli Airline, although it does allude to that part of the world. It’s just that the suffix –el and the prefix al– are often, but not always, clues that words in English and Spanish came from either Hebrew or Arabic respectively.

Hebrew and Arabic both use roots with prefixes and suffixes to indicate things like gender, number, case, part of speech, and so on. In the case of Arabic, “al” is a prefix that means “the.” Interestingly enough, in Spanish, “al” is the combination form of the preposition “a”, which means “at” or “to”, and the masculine singular definite article “el”, which means “the.”

So the phrase “el hombre” in Spanish means “the man,” while “al hombre” indicates giving or moving something to or at the man. The article “el” in Spanish bears absolutely no connection to the Hebrew suffix “-el”, though.

Let’s look at Arabic first. From 711 CE to 1492 CE, much of Northern Africa and most of Spain was under Muslim rule. As a result, the Arabic language and culture left a huge influence on the country, even after the Reconquista.

There are a lot of Spanish words that came from Arabic because of this, of course, but here I’m only going to look at a few of the “al” words. I find these a bit amusing if only because if you use them in Spanish with the definite article, you’re redundant. “El Alhambra,” for example, would be the the Red Fortress.

  1. Alcalde: al-qadi, the judge; Spanish for mayor. The feminine form is la alcaldesa. Originally, they were sort of assistant judges, but eventually became more municipal officers until the word took on the modern sense it has now.
  2. Alfombra: al-ḥánbal, a ceremonial tapestry. In Spanish, it means carpet, and if you watch awards shows in Spanish language media, you’ll hear the phrase “la alfombra roja” all the time: the red carpet. Now, since a tapestry is normally something hung on a wall, I have to wonder whether turning them into carpets wasn’t a little FU response by the Spanish once they threw off Muslim rule — “We’re going to turn your pretty wall hangings into something we walk on.” Hey, it’s not impossible.
  3. Algodón: al-qúţun, probably flax. The word is Spanish for cotton but, despite the similarity in sounds, there is no known connection between the Arabic and English words.
  4. Alhambra: al-Ḥamrāʼ, the red fortress, which describes the building in Granada, Spain It really is an architectural wonder, and must have been an amazing place to be during its heyday.
  5. Almoháda: al-mujadda, a word which means the same in Arabic and Spanish, and something I’m sure that all of us appreciate a lot more right now, if only it means we can stay in shelter and follow or increasingly vivid dreams. Una almoháda is a pillow.

As for English words that came from Arabic, here are a select few:

  1. Alcohol: al-kuḥl, which originally referred to kohl powder, which was used as an eyeliner. It was via the distillation process that the Egyptians used to create kohl that the word alcohol eventually came about. but eventually to any distilled or rectified spirit.
  2. Algebra: al-jabr, the reunion of broken parts, which is kind of what algebra does with its equations. Specifically, this referred to reducing fractions to integers in calculations. –
  3. Alkaline: al qaliy, referring to calcined ashes, which were the original source of alkaline substances, which is the current source of an ineffective fad Or, at least, misidentified. While the diet can have positive benefits, it has nothing to do with altering alkalinity in the body. Rather, the diet focuses on fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables, which is healthy regardless.

But I do digress. Onward!

The Hebrew suffix –el, which means god, is appended to names to create an attributive phrase. A lot of these names were applied to archangels in Hebrew tradition, and I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the more famous ones, many of which are very common first names in the Western World.

Just remember that in the original, the emphasis would be on last syllable so that, for example, the name Michael would be pronounced Mika-EL. Also, the name of the country Israel itself is an example of one of these words, from yisra-el, meaning “god contends.”

Yisra is derived from the word “sarah,” meaning to contend, and Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled — or contended — with an angel of god.

To derive the female versions of these names, general just add an “a” — Daniel, Daniela, etc.

  1. Ariel: ari-el, lion of god. The Angel of Nature, Ariel is depicted as either male or female, depending upon tradition. They protected and healed animals and plants, and punished those who injured nature. Ariel was also the chief of the choir of angels known as the Virtures.
  2. Azrael: azar-el, he who helps god. Although not explicitly stated as such in Jewish tradition, Azrael is one of the Islamic angels of death. He’s not necessarily a malevolent angel, more of a civil servant, although not to be confused with the completely fictional Aziraphale from the book and minseries Good Omens. Okay, not that the other angels aren’t completely fictional as well, but… oh, you know what I mean.
  3. Daniel: din-i-el, god is my judge. Daniel is an angel in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, but not elsewhere in the Bible. He is, however, the quite human star of the Book of Daniel, where he is most famous for surviving being thrown into the lion’s den — an incident that happened because he happened to be good at his job and incorruptible, and it made the other satraps jealous and angry, so they set him up.
  4. Gabriel: gever-el, god is my strong man. One of only two archangels named in the Bible, he appears three times: The first is in several mentions in the Book of Daniel as Gabriel arrives to explain one of Daniel’s visions to him and to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, Gabriel shows up to both Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, and Mary, wife of Joseph, to let the former know that his wife was going to give birth to John the Baptist, and the latter know that she was going to give birth to Jesus, good luck explaining that one to Joe, apparently.
  5. Michael: micha-el, who is like god? The other archangel mentioned in the Bible, and one that I have an affinity with even though I consider myself to be a Catholic atheist. That might sound weird, but the idea is that I appreciate the trappings and customs of the religion of my mother (except for the kiddie-diddling) while believing in none of it. For me, though, St. Michael, the archangel depicted slaying Satan, is above all a symbol for each of us defeating our own dark sides. Since the two are always depicted together, they are sort of a Catholic yin-yang.
  6. Nathaniel: netan-el, gift from god. There’s no Jewish tradition of any angels named Nathaniel, but that hasn’t stopped modern woo culture from plowing on ahead and creating their own. He does show up in the Bible, though, as Nathanael, one of the Apostles, but is only mentioned in the gospel of John and nowhere else.
  7. Uriel: uri-el, light of god. Not an official archangel, although he possibly hung out with cherubim guarding the east side of Eden wielding a flaming sword after Adam and Eve were kicked out.

And there’s just a short survey of words and names that came from Arabic and Hebrew into Spanish and English. There’s a long list of English words that came from Arabic but don’t start with “al,” as well as a bunch of English words that came from Hebrew but don’t end in “el.”

The point is that English really is a melting pot of a language that loves to absorb words from other languages and cultures, and don’t let any schmuck ever tell you otherwise — especially not as you read that previous sentence with words born from Latin, French, German, Saxon, Greek, and Yiddish in it. Capisce?