Lemurs and larvae: creatures of the etymological night

Vampires, witches, demons, and zombies? The Halloween season spooks us with many ghouls and goblins, but you might want to watch out for two other creatures lurking in the etymological dark: lemur and larva.

Zoologically, lemurs and larvae have little in common, but etymologically, they have several interesting connections. First, both words were first applied by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish Father of Taxonomy. Second, both derive from Latin words for ghosts. And third, if some etymological ghost-hunting is correct, lemur and larva have ravenous appetites.

Due to the slow yet humanlike movements of these nocturnal Madagascar primates, Linnaeus named lemurs after the Latin lemurēs, “spirits of the dead.” In ancient Roman beliefs, these baddies – whose incorporeal damnation, some accounts say, resulted from violent deaths they suffered or evil deeds they committed when alive – wandered the night to torment, and even drive mad, the living. In Latin, lemurēs appears in plural form, making lemur a modern singular. This word first appears in the English record in 1795, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records it.

The larvae were another species of night-prowling specter in Roman mythology. In Latin, the word means “ghost” but also, apparently due to associations with the spirits of the dead,  “mask.” As the Century Dictionary nicely sums it up, “The term was applied by Linnaeus in the sense that the larval stage of an insect masks or hides the true character or image of the species.” The caterpillar or tadpole are prime examples. Larva as such did first mean “ghost” in English, as the OED attests it in 1651, but, after Linnaeus used the term, its restricted entomological sense prevailed.

For the ancient Romans, the counterpart to the larvae and lemurēs were the Larēs, tutelary deities guarding over households, families, crossroads, and cities. Some, like Ernest Klein and Eric Partridge, have attempted to connect the very words Larēs, lemurēs, and larva. Klein, for instance, takes larva back to an Indo-European root for “to be greedy,” the same root eventually yielding lascivious and lust. (Larēs might actually be Etruscan origin, however.) Lemurēs Partridge sees as cognate to a Greek word for “greedy.” The sense, he notes, is of “jaws wide open,” as in a “devouring monster,” pointing to lamia, a mythical witch who sucked the blood of children. Trick or treat.

This Halloween, heed the etymologists. Get some of the good candy ready and watch out for any costumes with ringed tails or kiddos dressed up as caterpillars. They’re hungry.

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“Caucus”: a smoke-filled etymology

The next Speaker of the US House of Representative is courting the Freedom Caucus while the next President of the US is courting the Iowa caucuses. But the importance of the caucus to the American political process isn’t new. The caucus – a meeting of members of a political party or movement, especially to choose a candidate for election or to decide on policy – has long been an important part of the American political process. This is evident even in the history of the very word: some of the first records of caucus involve John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and possibly even John Smith and Pocahontas. But, like so much of American democracy, the origin of caucus is subject to debate.

"Captain John Smith." Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Captain John Smith has an important and complicated place in American history. We might add the origin of “caucus” to that legacy. “Captain John Smith.” Ink and ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Caucus

A significant and early citation of caucus comes from an entry John Adams made in his diary in 1763. In this entry, Adams writes that he learned the “Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.”  This private organization  – whose social meetings were even then associated with tobacco and drink, as his notes remark – was influential in pre-Revolutionary politics, including a possible role in the Boston Tea Party.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations before Adams’ own in 1763. They give us more insight into the place caucuses held in the colonies, not to mention the historic phonology of the word, especially in the New England region, where the OED concludes it arose:

1760 Boston Gaz. Suppl. 5 May The new and grand Corcas….The old and true Corcas.
1762 O. Thacher in  Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1884). 20 48 The connections and discords of our politicians, corkus-men, plebeian tribes, &c.

The word was “not novel” when English minister and historian William Gordon discussed it in his 1788 “History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of Americans.” He recalls it as early as the 1720s, though he admits he has “no satisfactory account” of its origins, which largely remains the case today.

But we do have a number of suggestions, some of which are more electable, shall we say, than others.

Caulkers

In Gordon’s own discussion of the word, he notes the Boston caucuses met at “the north end of town, where much of the ship-building business was carried on.” Noting this, philologist John Pickering in 1816 guessed the word originated in a cant term, caulkers, shortened from caulkers’ meetings. Pickering suggests ship caulkers and their vocational brethren were known for their political meetings and activities. Scholars have swiftly dispatched this derivation.

West-Corcus

Pickering is not alone in considering the locations of these meetings, though. In his excellent account of the word, storied American writer and philologist H.L. Mencken notes that the Dictionary of American English suggests caucus “may have derived from the name of a forgotten neighborhood” based on a reference in a Boston newspaper to a meeting in the “West-Corcus in Boston” in 1745. In an interesting thread on the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list, Professor Stephen Goranson finds some wind in this speculation, though he doesn’t fully explain why.

C.A.U.C.U.S.

Pickering surfaces again in 1943, thanks to the scholarship of LeRoy Barret, as we also learn in Mencken’s work. Barret cites an attempt by Pickering to derive caucus from the initials of six members’ surnames: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. With characteristic mordancy, Mencken dismisses this initialism in his account of the history of the work:

There is, furthermore, an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names, often without justification.

Kaukos

Another effort, from the Century Dictionary in 1900, looks to the drink John Adams noted. This origin takes caucus back, via Latin, to a late Greek word, kaukos, a “drinking vessel,” emphasizing the conviviality of meetings and recalling Platonic symposia. Historians, such as William Harris in his own informative piece on this problematic word,¹ have serious doubts about the record of kaukos in itself, not to mention the unlikeliness these colonial Bostonians would have adopted such a recondite word for their club.

The Powhatan cau′-cau-as′u

Some may doubt these secret politickers used Latin or Greek names, but they may have taken Native American ones. According to the OED, philologist and Algonquian scholar James H. Trumbull suggested in the Proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1872 that caucus has a

possible derivation from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, which occurs in Capt. Smith’s  Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a verb meaning primarily ‘to talk to’, hence ‘to give counsel, advise, encourage’, and ‘to urge, promote, incite to action’. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there appears to be no direct evidence.

Of all the etymological candidates for caucus, this one gets the most votes, though no nominee is ever perfect.

Caucus, then, may may come from the Algonquian spoken by the Powhatan peoples in what is now Virginia. The very political concept, too, may well have native roots. As the late Classics professor William Harris sums up in his: “And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word.”American English is indeed indebted to the very language of the peoples the colonists eradicated, to be frank. But so, too, in many complex ways we may struggle to comprehend or acknowledge, is American democracy.

¹ I did observe that Professor Harris states that Captain Smith married Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe. I felt the inaccuracy was worth noting.

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Home is where the haunt is

For word nerds, the real candy of Halloween is all the great words it gives out: werewolf, jack-o’-lantern,  samhainophobia.  But, as we so often see on this blog, sometimes it is the less unusual and more everyday word that can be the sweetest treat. Let’s have a look at just such a seasonal one: haunt. Its etymology really hits “home,” we might say.

There's no place like home.
“Haunted house.” Ink on paper. Doodle by (and happy birthday to) @andrescalo.

Haunt

The word haunt has been, well, haunting the English language since the early 13th century. But for all its spectral associations today, the word originally had nothing to do with ghosts.

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, the word’s earliest meanings refer to practicing some action habitually or frequenting a place habitually. This sense is preserved today in a noun form of haunt, as in an old haunt one used to visit often.

Now, Shakespeare has given us many spectacular ghosts, perhaps most dramatically in  Hamlet. But Shakespeare has also given us – or at least popularized – the spookier shades of haunt, as many maintain. For this usage, the OED first cites 1597’s Richard II: “Some haunted by ghosts they haue deposed.” In this sense, it is a ghost that is frequently and habitually coming back to a place.

Earlier in the century, it is worth noting, haunt was already shaping up to signify other “unseen or immaterial visitants,” as the OED hauntingly puts it, such as disease, memories, thoughts, or feelings. This the OED records in Richard III also in that very same 1597: “Your beauty which did haunt me in my sleepe: To vndertake the death of all the world.” This usage of haunt, of course, lives on today.

Following the development of its source verb, haunted first drapes on its white sheet, so to speak, as early as 1711. We eventually get to haunted houses and the ghastly lore of their former tenants. The Online Etymology Dictionary states haunted house is attested by 1733.

There’s no place like home

But haunt might actually have a deeper connection to houses. The word comes from the French hanter, whose meaning echoes haunt‘s early senses in English. According to French philologists Baumgartner and Ménard, the ghostly sense of hanter in French was spread in that language thanks to 18th-century English gothic and fantasy fiction. This suggests that the ghostly haunt is original to English, though the Online Etymology Dictionary notes this meaning may have been active in Proto-Germanic.

From here, however, the etymological trail goes cold. We do have plenty of suggestions, though. Most converge on a Germanic root that produced English’s very own home – in Old English, hām, whose form may look familiar in the derivative hamlet (but not Prince Hamlet). Scholars like Eric Partridge and Ernest Klein pointed to a Scandinavian cognate heimta, “to bring home,” specifically cattle. (To get more technical and speculative, the Proto-Germanic root is *haimaz, derived from the Proto-Indo-European*tkei-, “to settle,” “to dwell,” or “to be home.”)

Walter Skeat, however, wasn’t fully satisfied. In addition to heimtahis work cites the Breton hent, “a path,” a nasalized Latin habitāre, “to dwell,” and Latin’s ambitus, “a going about,” which he considered to be the likeliest explanation.

For etymologists, it might just be the “origin unknown” or “origin obscure” that proves most, er, haunting, of all.

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Some language, strong & “light,” on Slate’s Lexicon Valley

I am extremely happy to share that I have two posts up on Slate’s language blog, Lexicon Valley. Be advised: there is some strong language ahead.

One is a repost of a piece I did for Strong Language, “Something from nothing: A zero-fucks game.” As previously mentioned when I linked to it here, this post discusses an interesting innovation I’ve been hearing on an expression, giving zero fucks.

The other is a new piece and something of a change of pace for me. It’s a close reading of of Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party,” which I am certain is the most terrifying short story you haven’t read. Slate has titled it: “Graham Greene’s Vocabulary of Light and Dark Makes This the Most Terrifying Short Story You Haven’t Read.” 

Here’s a teaser:

For a story all about being afraid of the dark, the scariest thing in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party” may just be his lexicon of light.

Greene may be best known for novels such as The Power and the Glory or his screenplay for The Third Man. Though a short, early, and lesser-known work, his 1929 “The End of the Party” still displays the craft that made him a giant of 20th-century English literature. Here, what is most masterful is the way Greene develops a subtle but eerie language of light to illuminate the enveloping and ineffable terror of his story’s dark. The effect is a chilling chiaroscuro in words.

Head over to Lexicon Valley to read more.

If you’re hungry for some word history while you’re there, Forrest Wickman has a timely post for today, Back to the Future Day: “Great Scott! Who was Scott? The Origin of Doc Brown’s Favorite Phrase, Explained.”

Look for a new post later this week.

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What is the “quag” in “quagmire”?

Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at Vocabulary.com.

Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.

Chattering Teeth_Ink_Ballpoint_Sharpie_On_Paper_doodle
There’s been a lot of ‘chatter’ on “quagmire,” and not just from the chattering classes. “Chattering Teeth.” Ink, ballpoint, and sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Quagmire

Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.

Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”

Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.

Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?

Swamp things

As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.

Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.  The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.

Etymologically, we may not find terra firmwith quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.

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The secret of *nem-

Last post, we saw that the math in aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. But two other words I’ve recently covered, numb and nimble, may indeed be all about them, if we do some etymological accounting of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *nem-.

Crunching the etymological numbers.
Crunching the etymological numbers. “Calculator.” Ink and ballpoint pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

*Nem-

To review, both numb and nimble derive from an Old English verb, nim, functioning much like today’s take, which supplanted it in Middle English. For the ancient root of this nim, Indo-European scholars have reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *nem-, which meant “to assign,” “to allot,” or, like nim, “to take,” thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots’ gloss. (Compare the nominal use of take in English). This root evolved in some interesting ways across some of the Indo-European languages, eventually emerging in some other English words.  Let’s start with Greek.

Heaven and earth 

Angus Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics. A rare astronomical event, the Super Blood Moon, recently captivated us all. Both economy and astronomy derive from Greek: The former literally means “household management,” astronomy “star arrangement.” Ancient Greek had νόμος (nomos), with widely various meanings of “law,” “custom,” “usage,” and even “song.” But these, according to the great philological work of Liddell and Scott, were metaphorical usages of nomos’ earliest meaning: “a feeding-place for cattle” and, by extension, “pasture” and “food.”

How do we get from the earth to the stars? Nomos is formed from a verb νέμειν (nemein), also deriving from that PIE *nemmeaning “to deal out,” “distribute,” or “manage.” The connecting sense is of something allotted, as for a particular purpose, like a pasture or a dwelling, which one then must maintain, or something divided up in a particular way, as in a melody or a constellation.

The Greek nemein exacts further etymological dues, so to speak, in nemesis. In ancient Greece, this word named an important concept, personified in the form of the goddess Nemesis. Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicography is again helpful in defining the word (emphasis original): nemesis is “distribution of what is due; hence, a righteous assignment of anger, wrath at anything unjust, just resentment,” particularly “indignation at undeserved good fortune.”

In these days of extreme inequality, whose complexity and urgency Angus Deaton is measuring, some might say we could use a little nemesis in the historic sense of the word. Of course, we have plenty of nemeses in today’s sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates as a North American usage in the 1930s.

Ranging ranges

Now, let’s wander to ancient Rome. Certain people have a roaming allotment, shall we say; people whose flocks or herds graze far and wide for their pasture. We might call them nomads. The Romans did, originally referring to certain Arabic pastoral tribes, the Nomades, or Numidians. The name is ultimately num – I mean taken – from that Greek nomos.

Economists, we know, are quiet adept with numbers. The word number, from the Latin numerus and picking up a b (much in the way a word like numb did) as it passed into English from the French, might also derive from that PIE *nem-. The innumerable meanings of this derivative in English are simply too many in number to enumerate; you might never be number after that math.

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What is the “math” in “aftermath”?

We’ve seen some startling statistics in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College: There is a gun for nearly every person in the US, where we average about a mass shooting every day,  which we have taken essentially zero action on. Etymologically speaking, though, aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. Let’s do the math in the word aftermath.

meadow
“Math.” Sharpie and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.

Aftermath

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records aftermath at the end of the 15th century. Back then, it referred to “a second crop or new growth of grass after the first has been mown or harvested.” For, this math meant “a mowing” or “the portion of the crop that has been mowed.” It is found very early in Old English, taking the form of mæþ. As you may recall, the symbol þ, called “thorn,” represented the unvoiced th sound (as in thick) in Old English.

By the 1650s, the OED continues, aftermath was signifying “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, especially when that event is destructive or harmful.” By the 1670s, the word was more generally referring to the “unwelcome consequence or effect” of such an event.

This math is related to meadmeadow, and mow.  Indo-European scholars have rooted this family of words in a Proto-Indo-European root, *mē-, “to cut down grass or grain with sickle or scythe.” In the US these days, though, the Grim Reaper has swapped out his scythe for a gun.

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From “numb” to “nimble”

In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.

Numb

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.

Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nommeNim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED).  As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”

But where did that come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.

Nimble

Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”

We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.

Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it  related to.

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Rosary

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis has again grabbed headlines. As we learned after his historic visit to the United States, the Pontiff privately met with her and gave her two rosaries. Their sub rosa meeting raised many questions, including one for me: Why do we call it a rosary?

"Roses" Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Roses.” Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Rosary

When Catholics pray the rosary, they recite a structured series of prayers contemplating important events – or “mysteries” – in the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests this usage in 1531, though Catholic tradition originates the practice in a vision of Mary by Saint Dominic in 1214.

For most, rosary probably evokes its particular prayer beads. These help devotees keep count of the prayer sequence, thereby freeing their minds to meditate on those mysteries. The OED attests this transferred rosary by 1548.

An earlier citation of rosary provides important clues to the development of the word. The OED cites rosarie as early as 1387: a “coin made in imitation of the silver penny of Edward I (1272-1307) by European mints.” On one side of this counterfeit currency was a bust wearing a chaplet or garland, often made of flowers – especially roses. (Another counterfeit penny circulated in Ireland at this time was called a mitre, named for its imprint of this episcopal headgear.) 

Prayer “garden”

Rosary derives from the Latin rosārium. In Classical Latin, the word names a “rose garden,” with its root, rosa, meaning “rose.” In Medieval Latin, rosārium also named a “garland” as well as a “series of prayers” or the very “string of beads” we associate the word with today. A kind of garland wreathing the head, a chaplet also refers to a particular section of the rosary along with other devotional prayers aided by beads.  

So, why roses? Well, the OED records rosary used as a title for a “book of devotion,” especially including rosary prayers, in 1525. Medieval scholars note some important metaphors for art in the Middle Ages and antiquity. Writing, for instance, was likened to ploughing a field. Collecting poems or prayers, furthermore, was like cultivating a garden or arranging a bouquet. We see this in the etymology of the word anthology, which literally means “a gathering of flowers” in ancient Greek. Latin rendered this as a florilegium, meaning the same. So, a rosary is like a “garden” of prayers, as the Online Etymology Dictionary sums it up.

Of course, symbolic associations of roses in Catholicism certainly add strength to the connection between roses and Mary, prayers to whom constitute 53 of a rosary’s beads. Philologist Eric Partridge notes that Medieval Latin used rosārium for a “rose garland for crowning the Virgin.” The resemblance between a garland and a rosary – a string of beads does look like a string of flowers – may further strengthen the connection.

Today, many of us might have a different sort of rose in mind: Roseburg, home to a community college that was visited with a horrific mass shooting yesterday. This may leave many praying their rosaries, but we’re going to need a lot more than prayers to do anything about gun violence.

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