Tag Archives: language

not a grassy knoll

A trip to Dallas gives you the opportunity to visit the Sixth Floor Museum, an institution that “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historical Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”

Whenever anyone hears about the place, the initial reaction is something like “ooh, creepy.” But the thing is done so simply and respectfully that it’s worth fighting the ick factor.

The museum–no interior photography allowed, sorry–builds a narrative that leads up to and recedes from a re-creation of the sniper’s nest on the sixth floor of what was back then the Texas Book Depository building. From the outside, immediately below the cornice, there on the right, you can see the infamous partially-open window.

Down below there’s an embankment planted with grass, the “grassy knoll” that figures in some scenarios as the location of a possible second gunman.

It’s also the location of a big banner screaming “Grassy Knoll” in case you didn’t figure what it is.

Planting a big banner on an embankment doesn’t make it any more of knoll, however. From my imperfect understanding of landscape terms a knoll is a gentle bump on a flattish landscape. (There might be sheep nearby.) This instead is a grassy embankment beside a road that feeds into a highway. This is not a knoll.

grassy knoll

This, however, is a knoll, and quite a grassy one at that. (Image by Rosser1954 at the Wikimedia Commons.)

On the pavement right in front of the G.K., you can see one of the two white X’s that mark the locations of the limousine when it was struck by gunfire. It’s probably the most tacky or mawkish thing you’ll see on your visit.

Down on the plaza you can look up to the open window, across to the “knoll,” or down into a big water feature filled with winter leaves moving slowly in the breeze-driven water currents. You can trance out to the little epicycles that the leaves take through the water, or you can try to ignore traffic and reflect quietly on the events that took place here fifty years ago.

I’d guess that most Dallas residents aren’t so thrilled for being known for living in the city that killed JFK. But this is history, and I’m glad I came to pay my respects.

um, how do you pronounce that?

Am I the only one with problems with how to pronounce the Latin names for plants?

Last fall I was at a nursery and noticed a gorgeous stand of grasses in their demonstration garden. What was it, I asked?

“JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf purpurea,” the woman said.

I stared at her for a couple seconds. I’m sure my jaw was dropped and I looked pretty stupid. I worked backwards from the part I recognized, “purpurea,” and finally understood that she’d just told me that the plants were Aristida purpurea, purple three-awn.

To her credit she hadn’t actually said “JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf” for the genus name. Instead it was a very flat, American-style pronunciation that came out something like “Uh-RIS-tuh-duh.” I’d seen the name on paper a lot before that moment, but I’d never heard someone pronounce it. All along I was holding a very different sound in my head, something more like “Ah-ree-STEE-dah.”

In my undergraduate years studying music I was required to sing in the chorus. Two of the pieces we sang, Bach’s B-minor mass and Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes del Confessore, were in Latin. With Ancient Latin being a thoroughly dead language, Singer’s Latin–basically Latin sung as if it were Italian–was what I’d learned.

With the air tense with misunderstanding and purple three-awn blowing in the wind behind me, American Botanical Latin so rudely came face to face against my Singer’s Latin. Who was right?

I’d probably guess both of us and no one. Botanical Latin over the years has been studded with plant names honoring people and places whose names contain letters and sounds you’d never encounter old-school Latin. (Oerstedella schweinfurthiana, anyone?) And who’s to say pronouncing Latin as if it were Italian makes sense? Scholars now say that modern Shakespearean English is pretty far removed from the original Elizabethan pronunciations. It stands to reason that modern Italian is much further separated than that from its Latin source.

So, really, when you come down to it, we all talk with accents. And sometimes, to make ourselves better understood, we have to adapt to the ways the people around us say things.

Aristida purpureaLeft: The plant that started all this, Aristida purpurea, photographed by Stan Shebs, from the Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license [ source ].