Thursday, April 19, 2007
A Whatchamacallit By Any Other Name
Standing on the sidewalk in the center of the small Italian town where we live, I was speaking to Franco on the cellphone. Unable to find parking, he was waiting for me in the car. He also was double parked. In that moment I wasn't privy to either of these details.
“What?” he repeated, the decibel level alerting me that he wasn't as joyful as I prefer him to be. “What are you saying?”
“I forgot a part of my glasses,” I repeated, covering my free ear to shut out the din of traffic. “The thing that goes over your ears. The handle,” I finally mumbled without conviction.
“What? I can't hear you.” Decibel level higher. Franco is fluent in English but it was the end of a long day of Saturday shopping. The ambient noise wasn't helping.
“Uh, the thing on the side, you know,” I said, knowing that he didn't. “The thing.” On the other end, there was a kind of exasperated splutter followed by a mild, definitely non-English expletive, and then silence. You can only push an Italian temperament so far.
Ten minutes earlier I had gone into a local shop to have my reading glasses repaired. The thing, the handle, the whatever -- that part of the glasses I now knew I didn't know the name of in any language -- had fallen off. When I opened my glasses case, however, I realized I had forgotten the crucial segment.
Minutes later, Franco pulled up in the car and I climbed in. I avoided the laser-like gaze turned in my direction. “What is the Italian word for those things that go over your ears?” I asked, in exasperation.
“Stanghetta,” he said, with the ringing confidence of a descendant of Imperial Rome.
“Ah. I don't think we have a word for that in English,” I added, even though I sensed this wasn't the time to compare and contrast languages.
The drive home was rather quiet.
Some days later, the glasses fixed, I sat down at my computer. My mission was to track down the elusive word. After checking several sites, including Encarta, Wikipedia, an Indiana University library page, information and opticians' sites, I had collected a sampling.
The term I myself had mumbled, the humble “handle,” popped up often. “Arm” and “leg” also are popular. Inelegant, but at least they were familiar territory. It was on the scholarly and historical sites that I faced strange stuff. There I first spotted the alarming “rigid sidepieces.”
I rehearsed this new lexicon, revisioning the noisy conversation with Franco. “I forgot one of my rigid sidepieces.” Oh yes, that certainly would have worked!
Finally, I unearthed what seems to be an official choice. “Temples.” The nomenclature of opticians. In my memory I returned to the sidewalk, shouting into the cellphone, “I forgot one of my temples.” I probably would have had to walk home.
I did uncover some stray facts. Apparently, most now agree that eyeglasses were invented in Italy in the 1200s, although Sir Francis Bacon also gets a nod. (For various historical accounts, see here, here, and in Italian here.) But the Italians only invented the lens, not the handles-legs-arms-rigid sidepieces-temples-whatever. That ingenuity didn't occur until the 1700s. It is attributed to an Englishman, Edward Scarlett.
Once I learned of Mr. Scarlett, I decided to continue my inquiry by checking with a British friend. Perhaps, being the inventor of the you-know-what, the English might have the authoritative word for them. Perhaps it just never made it across the Atlantic to the colonies. I picked up the phone.
“Hi Lesley, an odd question, but what do you call those things on a pair of eyeglasses that sit on either side of our heads?”
“Arms,” Lesley said promptly. “Or sides. Darling,” (talking to her husband, not me), “what do you call the sides of eyeglasses?”
I heard darling say confidently, “Arms.”
“Yes,” Lesley said, to me again, “yes, arms, I think. Opticians would say spectacle sides. Or they might refer to them as frame sidepieces or frame sides... interesting... I don't know, really. They don't call them ear sides.” Then, with affirmation, “Yes, arms is the most common reference in England.”
And they say the British and Americans are different.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato