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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Felicitious Felinity (11)—Callow

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Felicitous Felinity.
A year ago on Round and Square (16 July 2012)—Asian Ethnicities: Korea (c)
Two years ago on Round and Square (16 July 2011)—La Tour de la France: Stopping Under a Fir Tree

[a] Untested RF

Once I get over the cliché-ish (and, I suspect, not always well-understood) phrase "callow youth," I start thinking of the deeper possibilities for this useful word. And, of course, my thoughts turn quickly to kittens. Callow and kitten have pretty much everything to do with each other. If we scratch the surface of today's meanings and begin to peel back the layers of etymology, there are several surprises in store. One definiton is "Birds. Unfledged, without feathers." Hmmm. I see some parallels. One of my favorite example sentences from the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1801.
[b] Dipt RF

Her young in the refreshing 
bath, Dipt down their callow 
—R. Southey, Thabala I. v. 259

It is not at all difficult to see how the jump can be made to a more general use of the term as "raw, untutored, unfledged." Imagine the callow dander of an inquisitive little kitten. Grizzled mom-cat figuratively rolls her eyes at the exuberant audacity of the young one. 

Into little holes in the wall they go, as did a cat I eventually named "Jessie." Back in the fall of 1988, just starting my work as a "resident head" in the University of Chicago housing system, I heard the cries of a kitten outside my window. With some work, I freed her from her hiding spot in the shadow of a Jeep tire and brought her into the vast apartment that I had been given by the University of Chicago. The whole point, I had been told, was to give us living rooms that could fit all sixty students in our "house." The place was big. I apparently had not checked out all of the sideboards.
[c] Exploratory RF

Well, callow, downy Jessica found a hole in the wall so small that I had not noticed it. The next thing I heard was a faint, persistent meow...from the second floor. To make a long and dramatic rescue story short, it took four days and about $1,000 of University of Chicago housing labor to restore the little tyke  from inside the wall to the now completely sealed apartment. My students from the Class of '92 were just moving in, and they witnessed the drama as they unpacked and started to make friends. They named her Jessica, and I always thought of her as the Callow (Tabby) Kitten.

Callow and kittens. They go together like tuna and salmon.
[d] Crannies RF

As for the rest of us, we have our nooks and crannies, too. I am not sure that adult stupidity can be called "callow," but there is plenty of it around us all of the time The fully-developed frontal cortex is supposed to take care of that, yet...the memories of callow (aging) "youth" show up in the strangest places. Even in the New York mayoral primary.

Oh, and one more thing. There is at least one etymological linkage to "callow" and "old people" like me. You see, a now obsolete meaning of the term is "bald-pated." I guess if we can use it for land (barren, devoid of vegetation), it can work with male pattern baldness. I understand this deeply.

For once, cats don't.

Definition of CALLOW 

American Heritage Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary**
**(Beloit College students and faculty: this is available through the library. Many other RSQ readers may find the link through a college, university, or local library). The "OED" is the best, by far, of any English language dictionary on the planet. Among mere mortals, the American Heritage is superior to anything else (I have loved it since I was a child, and my father taught me the many meanings of "culture"). I use the Merriam-Webster site because it is solid and everyone around the world can access it. Find your way to AHD or OED, though. The latter is even worth $295 a year (seriously). Words matter.
***  ***
Callow—youthful, indiscrete, prone to unreflective actions.
[f] Discretion...the better part of velour RF

Now we come to the little twist that I didn't tell you about in the introduction to this series. If your native language is not English, go to the comments section and give a rough translation that "works" for you. I am hoping to get a whole passel of approximations for "callow" in languages ranging from Bengali and Greek to Laotian and Turkish. And of course they will be approximations. Language doesn't have any exact equivalents. That would be boring (try to find a carbon copy for "three sheets to the wind," for sailing wind direction's and drunkenness's sake).

So what's a word that means something like "young, unschooled" in your native language?

And, if you really want to think about how to make use of vocabulary, use a sentence that you might actually speak or write.

          Callow, and yet oddly-defiant, little Ricky tested his father's electric shaver 
          first on his smooth cheeks...and then on his eyebrows. He had never before 
          realized how important those little patches of hair could be.

Callow. It's all about kittens, except when it's not.
[g] Unschooled RF

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