Monday, September 08, 2008

Word note: maelstrom

The other day I was out for a walk just before sunset, and was rewarded with a sky full of swifts, flying as only swifts fly. Around here, I'm more used to seeing flocks of swallows with the occasional swift in it, but this was, as far as I could see, a very large flock composed entirely of swifts.

If you aren't familiar with them, swifts fly with their wings held apparently stationary for a while, and then flap like mad, and when they flap, it looks like they are using one wing and then the other, left and then right, rapidly. It doesn't look like it should work. But, of course, it does.

In with all this, they swirl and swoop and change direction a lot. So, all in all, to see a flock of them feeding is to see a wondrously turbulent sky.

I stood gaping, and tried to think of a word to describe this ballet mixed with tap dancing, done in the extra-dimensional stage of the air, and the word that popped to mind was maelstrom. It didn't seem quite right, though, because it's usually used for bad situations.

I still don't think it's quite the right word, but I looked it up when I got home, and was surprised to find that my guesses about the word origins, and therefore its meaning, were off base. Rather than being a variation on mal- something, i.e. bad something, it is (according to The Penguin English Dictionary, 2nd Edition) derived from the Dutch maalstroom, from malen to grind, and strom stream.

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