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Thursday, 28 February 2013


News: I may have just started another book.  It's actually already in second draft, but a publisher is interested.  I will say no more until it's a bit more solid.  That has slowed me down a bit for a couple of days, but now I am up and running, which beings me to the cursor.

The cursor we all know best these days is the little blinking thingummy on our computer screen, which runs along, showing us where we are on the screen. To a generation of engineers and physicists who are now mainly retired, the last generation to wield the slide rule, the cursor of their youth was a small slide with a hair-line on it, that was used to read off the results of complex sums, back in the days before calculators became the standard thing to use.

This is a slide rule. The cursor is the plastic thing with a vertical line on it. Just
for the record, I own two slide rules: one was used from 1959 onwards, but I
bought the other one for $2 at a sale in 1980, when they went out of fashion.
Literally, a cursor is a runner, and the word comes to us from the Latin. In that tongue, 'to move rapidly' is currere, from which we get a variety of words like curriculum, but Latin is an inflected language, and what is currere at one point in the life cycle of the word, at other times appears as cursum, which gives us terms like cursor and course — whether it is a race course, or a course of study. Oddly enough, the Latin 'curriculum' has had both meanings, changing from a small race course to a syllabus to be followed, though a currum and a curricle are both carriages.

Other related words include 'cursitate', which means to run hither and thither, rather like formicate, but without the need for ants to be involved, and the cursitor, who was a medieval court clerk, who wrote things, of course, in a cursive or running style, rather than in an uncial style.

But back to 'cursor', aside from its meaning as a slide on a slide rule or similar instruments, the normal medieval university would have had an entirely different sort of cursor, who was a student with a bachelor's degree in theology, to whom fell the task of giving preliminary lessons on the Bible to the new students. In zoology, the cursores were the running birds that we now call the ratites (which led me recently, through a research paper on dinosaurs, to explore the acetabulum).

A current in the ocean or in a stream moves rapidly, and this word also comes to us from the Latin currere as well, and current events are events that are still developing rapidly. But given the way that computers can reduce us to bad language, is a cursor anything to do with a curse? It seems not, for 'curse' is just an isolated Old English word, found nowhere else, a mystery term, unrelated to anything at all. It does not even relate to the English dialect term 'cursen', which means to christen or baptise.

That leaves us just a couple of possible relatives to consider. First, the dried grapes called currants have nothing to do with this family of words, for they are just the raisins of Corinth, somewhat corrupted over the years. That disappointed me, since I once wrote, for a competition, the world's worst multiple choice question, on an aspect of sedimentary geology gone badly awry, which ran something like this:
What is current bedding?
(A) a leaky water bed.
(B) an electric blanket.
(C) your present partner.
(D) sleeping with a sultana.
Now I find the currants are an entirely different family from the sultanas. Ah well, you can't win them all.

What, though, of the currency we hand out to pay for our electric current or our currants, or to meet the needs of the curriculum? That word is in the same word family, because currency flows from hand to hand, and as we all know, it flows much to fast, and runs out all too often.

That's why I am back writing books: they pay for our travels.


  1. Liar. You're back writing books because you can't NOT write books. :) The current currency is just a perk.

  2. I concede that some may be tempted to assert that there is a modicum or verisimilitude in your hypothesis, but I could not possibly comment.