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Smatterings




Another confession, among the many I have made to you in this blog, dear readers. You know (so far) that I play Scrabble with myself, she and I scrupulously adhering to our correct pronouns. You know that I love palindromes. Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era? You know that off-rhymes (name and plane) are not, to this purist, rhymes. You know that my mother was a tragic poet. You know that I am against the indiscriminate use of the Oxford comma.


Here is the latest revelation. Born in Toronto, I was a rabid hockey fan in my early years. Go, Leafs. Montreal was despicable. Boo, Canadiens. Hockey, since you asked, developed from hundreds of years of ball and stick games, until a version played on ice emerged, in England and Holland, and then was refined and rules laid down in Canada in the 19th century.


However, life goes on and things change. No longer obsessed with hockey, the guilty pleasure I will reveal to you now is this: I absolutely adore watching snooker. Snooker, one of the family of games called billiards, was devised in the 1870's by British army officers stationed in India. It is the polar opposite of the fast, loud, sometimes violent game of hockey. Snooker is the gentleman's game (anyone who has trouble with the word "gentleman" should stop reading now). Snooker is quiet, elegant, often slow and measured, and extremely skillful, with shots mapped out many moves in advance, like chess. Snooker is a ballet of dexterity, strategy, geometry and psychology. The snooker commentator, unlike the excited, shouting hockey announcer (He shoots!! He scores!!) speaks softly in a British accent. Unlike the wild hockey fans, banging against the boards and roaring with joy, rage and excitement, the snooker fans must be absolutely silent. If someone's phone goes off, he or she may be asked to leave the building. The slightest sound can affect a player's concentration and make his shot go awry. When a player makes an amazing shot, or when someone wins the match, the fans do give rousing applause. But they never, never make noise during actual play.


We were watching a snooker game last week, and when one player made a modestly clever shot, the audience clapped lightly. My laconic husband, settled deeply in his easy chair, remarked quietly, "A smattering of applause." And this, of course, got me thinking. Are there smatterings of other things, or only applause? Are there smatterings of snow? Smatterings of rain? Of approval? Of salt in the soup? Wherefore, and from whence, "smatter?" Is there even such a verb? Can we smatter salt into the soup? Or is there only the noun "smattering?"


The Complete Oxford English Dictionary gives us several meanings. The first, listed as obsolete and rare is, "ready for smacking and kissing."  Circa 1475: " I wyll..geett me a lemman wyth a smattrynge face." Also obsolete and rare: "Given to prating or talking."  Circa 1529: " I warne you beware of to moche lyberte..[of being] To flatterynge to smatterynge..To claterynge to chaterynge." It took me a while to decipher this one. It seems to say "I warn you, beware of too much liberty… to flattering, to smattering. To clattering, to chattering."


Also not often seen today, but not listed as obsolete, we find "smattering" used as an adjective, meaning dabbling or imperfectly learned: From 1581: "Simple coniectures of some smattering writers concerning the matter of his traine." And from 1683: " I, who am but a smattering Novice in Divinity."  Now this use is interesting, because although smattering here is an adjective, it means (in the context of learning or knowledge) just a little bit, like the noun that we know. And a related adjectival use meaning slight, superficial or imperfect, from 1874:  "That smattering acquaintance with questions of religion, politics, and literature which the world calls ‘well-informed’." This use, a "smattering acquaintance" is familiar to us.


While we can often trace a word to another language, and to the movement of peoples, the exact origins of "smattering" are lost in the mists of time. It first appeared in English in the later 15th century. Its meaning as a slight or superficial knowledge may be related to the Middle English word “smatteren,” speaking indistinctly or babbling.  Some linguistic historians suggest that it comes from the sound of someone chattering, with similar words showing up in Middle German, smetern, meaning “to chatter,” and in Swedish, Danish and Dutch.


Rarely seen as a verb today, nevertheless a restaurant review in the Boston Globe in May 2023 tells us that, "Another version is dotted with oily little pepperoni cups and smattered with hot honey: simple and satisfying." Unfortunately, I was not able, without buying a subscription to the Boston Globe, to discover what delicacy was smattered with hot honey.


So there you have it. And may our soldiers, and the lonely, frightened, hungry hostages, wherever they may be, feel even a smattering of the enormous love for them that we hold in our hearts, may it strengthen them, and may they all come home soon.




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Thank you so much for leading us from the Canadian hockey fields to British halls of billiards, from the 15th century origins of "smattering" to its uses today. Thank you for giving us some fun escapism but also coming back to the painful present. Worldwide, there is a smattering of understanding of the reality in Israel. We all spend our days crying out for the safe return of our hostages. May they come home safe and sound in body and soul. Amen.

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Thank you, Nili, an erudite and faithful reader, with much more than a smattering knowledge of philosophy education, and a tireless worker for Israel.

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