Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bandying words by the bay

Says You in San Francisco

Arnie Reisman was concerned. He called out to the moderator.

“Richard, we may have a problem with this word!”

Richard Sher strode over from the podium and huddled with Arnie and his two teammates.

“Two of us already know the word,” continued Reisman. ”If someone on the other team already knows it, that rather defeats the purpose.”

Sher turned to the other team. “Do any of you already know the word?”

The rejoinder was quick: “If we did, why would we tell you?”

Good question. Sher grinned and let the game continue. It if turned out to be a bust, the round could always end up on the cutting-room floor during editing.

The word was “strigil” and it was displayed in large letters in front of Benjamin Sher's scorekeeping station. The audience murmured while an octet on stage provided a musical interlude. In hushed voices audience members conferred over the word's possible meaning. My seatmate turned toward me and raised his eyebrows. I grinned back at him and nodded my head. Yes, I knew the word.

“Damon” and I were attending a San Francisco taping of Says You, the word game that is broadcast weekly on several National Public Radio stations. When I can, I routinely tune in to KQED on Sundays at 4:00 to get my fill of “words and whimsy.” Although based in Boston, Says You likes to travel about the country and record its shows in different venues. When I heard that taping sessions had been scheduled for San Francisco, I quickly snatched up a pair of tickets.

One of my math department colleagues is also a big Says You fan. We were both looking forward to the event when family obligations forced him to bow out. I was stuck with two tickets, but I was only one person. After a moment's thought, I took a shot in the dark and pinged an old college buddy. I hadn't seen him in ages.

To my surprise, Damon replied quickly to my e-mail with a phone call. No, he wasn't familiar with Says You, but he was curious. He quizzed me about the quiz program and decided it was worth the venture. He needed to be in San Francisco that weekend anyway to pick up his wife at the airport. My invitation had been serendipity. We arranged to rendezvous at the Little Star Pizza parlor in San Francisco and then attend the Says You taping at Presentation Theater on the University of San Francisco campus.

Back when we were graduate students, Damon and I used to see each other on a daily basis and hang out together. That, however, hasn't been true in more than thirty years. We've stayed in touch intermittently, but we live at least a hundred miles apart and we've been working at different schools for over twenty years. I tried to remember when I had last seen him in person, but I wasn't certain. Once again, though, we would break pizza together and bandy words.

Some friendships are resilient in the face of interruptions, while others simply fade away and are forgotten. As we noshed and chatted, it was clear that Damon and I had one of the resilient kind. How pleasant. We took turns bragging or complaining about our activities at our colleges, swapped family news, and generally did the kind of catching up that good friends do when they're on the same wavelength, as we indeed were.

Later, when Says You was under way and Arnie Reisman's team crafted bogus definitions of “strigil” with which to fool the other team, I scribbled in the notebook I had brought with me and showed Damon what I had written: “sweat scraper.” He frowned at me a bit skeptically, but kept his own counsel. Up on stage, Carolyn Faye Fox, Arnie Reisman, and Paula Lyons took turns explaining the meaning of strigil. (Lyons described it as a tool to “remove excess sweat from an athlete,” whereupon I grinned triumphantly at Damon. I had to be right!) The rival team tried to decide which of the proffered definitions was the true one, finding that they did not believe the one involving perspiration (“Excess sweat? What is excess sweat?), so they picked the wrong one. Sher polled the audience for its preference, and we noisily cheered for the sweat tool. Lyons then revealed that she had had the correct definition. (Arnie had bluffed by saying a strigil was used to separate nut meat from its enveloping shell. I forget what Carolyn Faye Fox chose for her bluff.)

In the pause between rounds, Damon asked me how I had known such an obscure word. I think he was humoring me, since he probably could tell I was bursting to explain anyway.

“Remember the movie Spartacus?” I asked. “In the Roman baths they used strigils to scrap off the sweat after soaking in the hot water.”

Damon gave me a slow smile, then said, ”Well, I guess I'm not as big a fan of gladiator movies as you are.”

I wrinkled my nose back at him.

My friends. They can be such bitches.


Sili said...

Persumably he was jumping to conclusions - like that guy at the opera.

I know I've seen the word before, but I'd certainly forgotten it by now.

The Brutal Gourmet said...

I recognized it immediately. I suspect anybody who took Latin will -- it comes up more than you would think...

Karen said...

I remember reading somewhere that athletes would oil themselves before their workouts, and that a special tool (the strigil?) was used to strip off sweat and oil before bathing. It'd make sense that the oil would make the tool more effective. And of course, since bathing was such an important social pastime for the Romans -- it was a forum for conducting business as well as social and business networking* -- it was probably considered rude to get into the communal bathing pool while still sweaty and/or dirty. I suspect Spartacus might not have gotten their history quite right.

*Shelton, Jo-Ann, As the Romans Did: a Sourcebook in Roman Social History, 2nd ed., copyright 1998, Oxford University Press.

Ploon said...

As far as I remember from Latin class (and period movies), it was by no means just for athletes, but for everyone. They didn't use soap in the baths: instead they would rub themselves with olive oil, in which the grime from the skin would dissolve, go to the hot room (calidarium?) to sweat it out, then the sweat and grime/oil would be scraped off with the strigil (providing for exfoliation too, I would expect), before taking to the bath.