I feel like the Golden Dustman of "Our Mutual Friend", sifting through
the jumbled detritus of the dictionary, with an eye for the oddly
shaped, shiny item. In my haphazard searches, I have stumbled across a
few remarkable words and phrases. Sometimes the simple fact that there
is a word for something is surprising; or the word may suggest that
it has a certain meaning while meaning something entirely different;
in other cases, the etymology of the word is amusing.
Ablegate - here's a word of deceptive form that I ran across
on 10 July 1999 - it's not the opposite of "Cripplegate", but
rather a variety of papal ambassador! The correct way to analyze
this word is as ab-legate, where the ab- is the
Latin prefix indicating from and -legate is an
Ack Emma - is a British slang term for "a.m." as in
ante meridian. The phrase derives from a British signalman's
letter code, in which Ack stood for A and so on.
This is also where the word Ack Ack for anti-aircraft
(AA) fire comes from, as well as the origin of the companion term
Pip Emma (see PG Wodehouse, somewhere). Now that we know
three letters of the code, where's the rest?...
(08 September 2000:) Well, I just ran across the phrase
Tock Emma for "trench mortar", another phrase that originates
in the same code, so we're 4 down and 22 to go.
(05 June 2007): Here we go:
Ack Beer Charlie Don Edward Freddie Gee Harry Ink Johnnie King
London Emma Nuts Oranges Pip Queen Robert Esses Toc Uncle Vic
William Xray Yorker Zebra
Acrolith - you can get some of the meaning of this word
from its form; here acro- should be taken to mean
extreme rather than high while -lith refers
to stone. An acrolith is a statue in which only the
extremities (head, hands, and feet) are made of stone, while
the other parts are made much more cheaply, of wood, which is then
hidden by clever painting or the use of drapery. It is actually
common in archaelogical digs to discover a head, hands and feet
of a statue, and no "innards"; this is not because of some bizarre
underground creature that devours statuary, but rather the age-old
human practice of cheapness!
Aftermath can be derived from after mowth, and refers to
the second crop of grass or grain that comes up after mowing.
Strictly speaking, it refers to anything that comes after
something else; however, aside from being the title of a little-known
album by the Rolling Stones, it seems otherwise to be reserved
for use in newspapers when referring to hurricanes, wars, and
Amblygon is a triangle containing an obtuse angle, that is, one
of measure greater than 90 degrees.
Annie Oakley - a free pass or complimentary ticket.
Our research department was momentarily unable to explain how the
sharpshooter of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and
"Annie Get Your Gun" became associated with this idea! But then
we discovered the connection: one of Annie Oakley's tricks was to
toss a playing card in the air and shoot out the spots. The result
was similar to a complimentary ticket, which was typically punched
so that it could not be resold. Now there's an odd train of thought!
Anthrax is related to anthracite, the word for
hard coal. Both come from a Greek word meaning "coal". This
relationship can be explained by the most remarkable symptom
of a cutaneous anthrax infection: the formation of a hard black
cyst in the skin, suggesting a pellet of coal. Surprisingly,
the French term for anthrax is charbon, which has an
obvious relation to carbon.
The Apocalypse is the title of a book of the New Testament,
often styled "Revelations", whose name comes from the Greek
apo-kalyptein, meaning to take away the covering.
The same root occurs in the word eucalyptus, whose buds
are well covered, and in the name of Calypso, the
sorceress who kept Odysseus on her island for seven years, and
whose name might suggest hidden. The underlying Greek root
kalyptein goes forward to Latin celare (as in
conceal) and backwards to proto-Indo-European *kel
which has a fantastic number of derivations including hell, hole,
helmet, hill, hull, hall, color(!), occult, excel, colophon, column.
Authentish is a coinage employed by Gary Taylor,
a professor at Florida State University, and an editor of
the Oxford edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.
Presuming that a play "Double Falsehood, or the Distressed
Lovers", written in 1727 was, as its author Lewis Theobald
claimed, based on a lost Shakespeare manuscript based,
in turn, on the English translation of Don Quixote,
Taylor spent 15 years cutting passages he attributed to
Theobald, adding passages from the translation that he
believed were cut, and fabricating other passages out of
thin air. A New York Times article of 1 March 2006
states that Mr Taylor writes that the result may not
be authentic, "but it is at least, I hope, authentish."
Bacon cooler - a word which was explained, in passing,
while discussing a bizarre story in which a man, distraught
over a failed love affair, tinkered with the gas lines to
his four story brownstone house and blew it up, prompting the
neighbors to speculate immediately on the value of the
suddenly cleared land, and the number of law suits likely
to ensue. A "bacon cooler" is apparently a newspaper writer's
term for a news item bizarre enough that a man eating bacon
will stop in mid-reach so he can finish reading the story,
letting his bacon cool in the mean time.
Baily's Beads - are bright spots of light that appear
around the rim of the solar disk just before an eclipse. The
spots are roughly the same size, and look like a string of
pearls. Baily was a British astronomer [1774-1844].
Barmecide - no, this is not murder via the frothy
effluvia of beer making. It is the name of a Persian vizier
who supposedly put on a banquet for a beggar. At the banquet,
costly, but empty, dishes were brought out, and an elaborate
ritual feast was mimed, but the poor beggar got no actual
food. I don't know yet where this story comes from, though
I somehow remember running across it as a child. I have to
presume it's from the Arabian Nights;
Bathycolpian begins with the Greek root "bathy",
meaning "deep", and used in the name for Robert Beebe's
"bathysphere", a deep-sea submersible, and in the names of
various rarely seen fish. But "colpos" is a Greek word
meaning "breast", and so bathycolpian is used to mean
"deep bosomed", as in a woman with great cleavage.
beepilepsy is an involuntary spasm caused by the
beeping, buzzing, or vibration of a piece of electronic
equipment, especially equipment worn in clothing, such
as a cell phone or pager. Generally, the severity of
spells of beepilepsy decreases with time, but cases are
known in which, after two years of familiarity with a
given piece of equipment, the beepileptic spasms of one sufferer
still reliably amuse acquaintances and passersby.
A bishop is a sort of a captain of priests. The name comes
to English from its Germanic side, where the same word is
Bischof. But that word comes from the Greek episkopos,
whence we also get the episcopal used to descibe certain
churches. Now episcopal simply means "upon-looking" - but this
naturally suggests the true meaning, which is a watcher or guardian,
or literally, using the Latin form, supervisor, the
French form surveillor or the English
form overseer. In the days when the Roman Catholic church
was crumbling into sects, a great controversy arose over
the independence of every worshipper, or of the pastor, or of the
congregation, and various solutions arose, one of which was to have
a higher order clergy to keep a watchful though non-papal eye
on the behavior of each parish.
Not to be confused, of course, with Presbyterian churches,
where the oversight was done not by a higher-ranking clergy but
by elders, aka "old folk", the same sort of people who get
presbyopia, or "old eyes", that is, far-sightedness, probably
not really the best supervisors!
Bissextile - neither a swinger, nor someone who's 66
years old, this instead refers to leap years. But it really
is saying "two sixes". The explanation is, that back in the
really good old days of Roman times, the calendar year ended
with February rather than December. When an extra day was
required every fourth year, the 24th of February occurred
twice. The 24th of February happened to be the
"sixth calends of March", that is, the sixth day before the
calends (first) of March. (This is back when February had
30 days, but that's ANOTHER story). So a leap year was one
which had two sixth calends of March. The more I read about
calendars, the more bizarre and haphazard the whole business seems.
Bizonia, or Bizonesia or the Bizone, was
the informal name given to the region of Germany formed by
the 1947 merger of the American and British occupation zones. This
merger occurred following disputes with the Soviet Union over
the administration of its zone, and disagreements over the
Soviet's seizure of German production facilities that would otherwise
have been used to feed the population. The French had been given a
token occupation zone of their own, but refused to merge their
zone with those of the Americans and British until 1949, shortly
before the formal establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The establishment of Bizonia, which indicated that the
western allies were prepared to act without the cooperation
of the Soviet Union, and which ended expectations of the
rapid reunification of Germany, is regarded as a definitive step in the
onset of the Cold War.
Blue moon - I don't know why a blue moon is blue,
although a factitious folk etymology would be easy to contrive,
but the common definition of a blue moon is the second full
moon in a month. This only happens occasionally, and occurs
because if the moon is full on one of the first few days of
the month, there's just enough time for it to go through all
its phases, and become full again before the month is out.
This doesn't happen that often, just...once in a blue moon.
The New York Times Sunday Magazine of 31 January 1999
claims that the specific use of the term "blue moon" to mean
a month with two full moons was only coined in the early 1980's,
by an unidentified NPR commentator!
The most recent riposte in the controversy showed up in
the New York Times on 1 April 1999 (presumably not a hoax!).
This claims that in fact the first occurrence was in a
1946 article in Sky and Telescope, which in turn relied
on a mistaken reading of a 1937 Maine Farmer's Almanac.
Apparently, the Almanac used the term "blue moon" when four
full moons occurred in a season, defined as one of the
periods between an equinox and a solstice (you know,
technical winter, spring, summer and fall). Moreover,
when four moons occurred in a season, it was the
third moon that was called blue; this was because
the Almanac had traditional names for the
first, second, and last moons occurring in any quarter.
An article correcting this error is supposed to have
been printed in the March 1999 issue of Sky and Telescope.
The bird's eye lowdown on the caper is that, in fact,
if you go with the older definition, 1999 does not have
any blue moons, and the next one occurs in
February 2000. As they say, everything you know is wrong!
Brummagem - was neither the best friend of Beau Brummel,
nor a native of Brobdinag, nor the wife of Pantagruel. This word,
which means a cheap, tacky, poorly made item, is a corruption
of the name "Birmingham", from which, supposedly, a great
quantity of such trifles came at one time. This recalls the
words Bedlam, which derived from the slurred name of the
"Bethlehem" asylum, maudlin, which was a slurred version
of "Magdalene", and stepony, a sweet beverage made of lemon
and raisins, associated with the Stepney district of London.
Bugloss - is a word you might even find difficulty just
pronouncing. The suggested pronuciation is BYU-gloss, which
already indicates that the word is probably not about the unexpected
disappearance of insects. Instead, it is a kind of plant, member
of the borage family (whose very name is under etymological dispute).
It gets its name from its long hairy lance-shaped leaves, which suggest
the tongue of an animal - in particular, that of a cow. The etymology
of the name is hence from Greek "bous" (ox) and "glossa" (tongue).
The same plant, or its relatives, is also known as ox's tongue,
lingua bovina, and Langue de Boeuf. Another member
of the borage family has a Latin name of cynoglossum, and is
known in English as "hound's tongue".
Bugonia - is the myth or mistaken belief or misapprehension
that bees swarm on carcasses, or form hives in the dead bodies,
or are spontaneously generated by the rotting meat. The Greeks
seemed to think that bees arose from the bodies of oxen.
The etymology of the word comes from "bous" for "ox"
(compare "boustrephon" and "the Bosphorous" and "Bucephalus" and
"gon" for "generation" (compare "gonad").
Virgil in his Georgics describes the story of Aristaeus
and the discovery of bugonia, in his mind a useful technique
by which a farmer, short of bees, may make up a new swarm by
slaughtering an ox and waiting...
This idea even shows up in the Bible, where Samson poses a riddle
after seeing bees in the body of a dead lion.
Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong
came forth sweetness.
However, bees most certainly do not nest in dead meat. On
the other hand, a vast variety of flies do exactly this!
One variety in particular is known as the
drone fly. It looks and acts like a bee, and its maggots
indeed live in carrion. In fact, the maggots are known as
rat tail maggots because of the long appendage at the
end of the body, which is actually not a tail, but rather
a breathing tube necessary when the maggot has burrowed deep
into the rotting and liquefying meat. Presumably, the myth
of bugonia arose from observations of bodies of dead
oxen, infested with maggots and crawling with newly matured
Butter sounds like one of those irreducible words that
just can't be analyzed. However, it does have a derivation,
and a clear relationship to a family of words that include
bulimia, Bucephalus, Bosphorus,
boustrophedon, bugle, bison, bovine,
bucolic, buphthalmum and even the dreaded
bugonia. The common "etymological gene" is, of
course, the Greek root "bous" for "ox" or "cattle". Butter
gets its name from "bous" + "tyron" which means "cheese".
Of course, "cow cheese" doesn't sound silly to Greeks because
"goat cheese" makes more sense to them! We've mentioned some
"relatives" of "butter", and so we should explain that
bulimia means "ox hunger", Bucephalus, the name
of Alexander's horse, is best suggested by "bull-headed" (as
in "stubborn"), Bosphorus means literally "cattle
crossing", although it supposedly gets its name as the place
where Io crossed to Asia, after having been turned into an
ox by Zeus, boustrophedon refers to writing or printing
that goes left-to-right, then right-to-left on the next line,
and roughly translates as "as the ox plows", bugle gets
its name because its sound imitates the lowing of an ox,
bucolic refers to an idealized pastoral setting,
and buphthalmum is a flower also known as "ox eye",
although a person who is buphthalmic may need to see
a doctor - or a cosmetic surgeon.
A Caliper is a hinged device, something like a pair
of scissors or a compass, which can be used to measure size by grasping
an object. The separation of the ends of the long side of
the device can be displayed as a measurement on a scale on
the short side. The word is also spelled calliper, and
was originally used in the phrase caliper compass.
The word is related to caliber, derived from the
French calibre, meaning "size" or "measurement".
This word, in turn, seems to come from the Arabic qalib, which
described a shoemaker's wooden mold, and that word can be
traced to the Greek kalopodion or "wood-foot", which
described the same thing. An alternative, less interesting
but perhaps more plausible derivation suggests the Latin
phrase qua libra, that is, "what weight?".
CamelCase describes phrases (usually names) that are
written using internal capitalization to indicate the beginnings
of the constituent words. A further distinction is made by the
term sulkingCamelCase or lowerCamelCase, which
denotes the presentation of phrases in which the initial word
is not capitalized. The name CamelCase is inspired by
the similarity of the appearance of the internal capital letters
to the humps on a camel. The use of CamelCase is common in
trademarks and brandnames, where it helps to maintain the
readability of words that have been jammed together to form
a single entity; it is also a very common means of writing
identifiers for variables in computer programs. In some
computer languages the use of CamelCase is actually prescribed.
In Java, for instance, lowerCamelCase is to be used for
members and instances, while UpperCamelCase is used for
the names of classes. Alternative methods of naming variables
in computer programs begin with the primitive methods of
abbreviating the words, or simply running them all together,
or actually leaving spaces between the words (which was legal in
FORTRAN77 but not in later versions of FORTRAN), the use
of hyphens (dangerous because the hyphen is also the minus sign!)
and underscores (which some people avoid because of the awkward
placement of the underscore character on the keyboard).
When I was presenting some sample MATLAB programs to a summer
class of undergraduates, they all were made uncomfortable
by my use of underscores in variable names, and in their
own programs immediately reverted to CamelCase. "That's what
we were taught by our professors," they said. "Your way looks
care-about means something about which one cares, of course.
This bizarre business-speak formation occurred in an interview with
Bruce S Gordon, formerly of Verizon and now the president of the
NAACP, in an interview published in the New York Times Magazine,
10 July 2005:
(Gordon:) I'd like to find something that we as an organization care
about that he, too, cares about so that he can take the Bush
tenacity and direct it at that care-about.
(Interviewer:) "Care-about"? Is that a noun?
(Gordon:) Yes, and please attribute it to me in the future.
Cat Latin is incoherent talk. Latin shows up as
an archetypal foreign languange in other phrases, including
Dog Latin, bad or barbarous Latin;
Pig Latin, a simple children's code;
Thieves's Latin, a slang or argot used to disguise
Chaditude - the name of a campaign by Francois Tombalbaye,
president of Chad in the early '70's, whose explicit goal was
to replace European influences in Chad by native authenticity,
and whose implicit purpose was to destroy opposition to his rule.
Some of the simpler effects included renaming himself
"Ngarta Tombalbaye", changing various place names, forcing out
foreign missionaries, and requiring that applicants for
government jobs undergo traditional "yondo" initiation rites.
Compare with the similar concept of Ivoirite, which
was initially invoked to describe the common cultural identity
of all inhabitants of the Ivory Coast, but quickly degenerated
into a shibboleth used to denigrate the substantial
population of immigrants from nearby regions.
Chiasm - information from the left and right eyes goes back to
the visual cortex along thick optic nerves. About halfway along
this path, the nerves meet, and seem to cross. Actually, some
of the nerve bundles on the left go left, and some right; the
eyes are actually exchanging some information. This crossing
area is called the optic chiasm, and oddly enough, the
word derives from the X-shape of the Greek letter chi.
Chiasm or chiasmus was originally used for a sort of
inversion in literature, such as "He left Egypt; Egypt was left by
her;" and "Never let a kiss fool you or a fool kiss you".
Cinemacy, derived from "literacy" as applied to movies,
but intended to suggest a higher level of experience, understanding
and judgment than that exhibited by the passive idle viewer.
"In the case of the moving picture, the historian would
need to have basic 'cinemacy', as Professor Thorold
Dickinson liked to call it, to which he could add some reading
about the particular cinematic devices of different genres."
The Moving Picture and Historical Research, by Nicholas Pronay,
Journal of Contemporary History, 1983.
Circumjovialist is not a round, jolly person, but something
(any planet, in fact) that travels around Jupiter, whose variant
Latin name was Jove. This term for Jupiter's planets was
used back in the 1700's. (The word jovial itself has the same
derivation; it has come to mean jolly or companionable, but
originally meant godlike, enthused or inspired.)
Cockamamie is one of those words whose bizarre form makes
it seem like a loan-word from Mars. It's been a pet word of my
friend Jim Fink, partly because it sounds enough like a bad word
to get attention. While everyone understands that it means "crazy",
"deranged" or "off the wall", it would seem to have no etymology,
and to be simply an invented word.
However, there is reasonable evidence suggesting that
"cockamamie", in fact, derives from decalcomania, a word
describing the fad of using decals, which could be either
tattoos transferable from paper to the skin, or printed designs
that could be copied onto a wall, furniture or other surfaces.
Surprisingly, this fad supposedly reached its height between 1862
and 1864, suggesting (which is true) that the age of mass hysteria
has been with us a mite longer than is fashionable to suppose.
What was on those decals, and why they became so devilishly
popular, is left for a diligent researcher to discover and
report. In a note about the etymology, it is suggested that it
ended up being "cockamamie", because nobody on the East Side
could pronounce "decalcomania", let alone spell it!
Defenestration is the ejection of someone or something
through a window. Note the related cognates in German:
Fenster and French: fenetre which both mean "window".
This word attains its notoriety primarily because of a historical
incident known as "The Defenestration of Prague": In 1419,
followers of Jan Huss threw seven members of the town council out
the window of the New Town Hall, and onto the pikes of Hussite
Surprisingly, in 1618, there was a "Second Defenestration of
Prague", in which two vice regents of the emperor, and several
governors, were tossed out the window of Prague Castle during an
uprising. In this case, there is supposed to be a happier ending,
for the castle moat was full of straw and garbage. On the other
hand, this incident touched off the catastrophic Thirty Years War.
The word has recently been extended to indicate the removal of
the Microsoft Windows Operating System from a personal computer
in favor, typically, of Linux.
demijohn - is a volume measurement, and a barrel of that
volume. (People who laugh at anything will joke that a demijohn
is half a lavatory; people whose thoughts start and stop at the
dictionary will parrot that it is a large glass container often
wrapped in straw.) It might seem logical to guess that a demijohn
is a barrel that is half the volume of
a "john", but there is no such measurement, and the source
of the word is obscure. One guess is that the name derives
from dame Jeanne, supposedly a French name for the same
barrel size, although this just casts the question over the
English Channel. Traditionally, a demijohn is a standard
measurement for a barrel of wine, corresponding to roughly
24 bottles of wine, or about 627 fluid ounces.
Cash for the hard goods,
(From "Rock Island", in "The Music Man", by Meredith Willson.
Cash for the fancy goods,
Cash for the soft goods,
Cash for the noggins and the piggins and the firkins,
Cash for the hogshead, cask and demijohn,
Cash for the crackers and the pickles and the flypaper.
Deodand - it doesn't make you smell good, except maybe
in God's eyes. A deodand is an item of property that has been
directly instrumental in the death of a person. It is therefore
forfeited to the king or state, and then used in some pious purpose.
depeaked means to level out, as in
Many long lines occur when a large number of flights leave one
terminal at about the same time. Lines have been dramatically
shortened when airline schedules were depeaked.
USA Today, 15 July 2005
Dermagraphia - literally meaning "skin writing", which you
might think involved parchment, say. Oh, no. The sister of a friend
of mine came home from a reception with terrible itching on her back.
Her husband tried to relieve it by rubbing her back, but got concerned
at how red and irritated it looked, and sent her to the doctor. The
doctor asked about her symptoms, then laughed and traced her name
across her stomach. Within seconds, her name was traced out in angry
red raised letters on her skin. "You've been eating seafood, and
you're allergic to it!" he said. "Your skin has a primitive immune
response which has been excited, and any pressure on the skin will
cause it to swell up with histamines."
Dord - means "density" said the dictionary. It was a
mistake. What was meant was "D or d means density", but
somehow the spaces got omitted and a new word was briefly
coined, not that anyone was likely to have used it. I finally spotted
this mistake with my own eyes on 06 May 1999, in Webster's New
International Dictionary, Second Edition (a big old tattered
unabridged dictionary lying around in the ISU Mathematics Office).
This is an example of a ghost word. Another example is
foupe, which appears in Samuel Johnson's dictionary,
because he mistook an old-fashioned long s for an f
in an old spelling of soup.
Dvandva - refers to a kind of compound word formed by a
pairing of two words, neither of which is subordinate to
the other. The compound can be thought of as formed by
omitting the "and" that could naturally be used between the
two words. The term comes from Sanskrit, in which this form
of compounding is common, and is derived from "dva", which means
"two". Examples of dvandvas include "singer-songwriter"
Ecnalubma, a kind of vehicle, full of sick people, and chased
Elapidation is the destruction of a building by the removal
of the stones that form it. This etymology explains, as well, the
word delapidate, both sharing the root lapis for stone,
which also gives us lapidary and lapis lazuli. The
existence of the word suggests that back in the old days, it was
common practice to use neglected buildings as a cheap source of
building blocks. Throughout the realm of ancient
buildings, in fact, there are recognizable pillars and tablets and
chunks of facing removed from even more ancient buildings. On a
lighter note, we may suppose that the operator of a lithotripter
can be styled an elapidator!
The Eleventh Hour means "very late" or "at the last possible
moment". The phrase is actually used in a parable of Jesus in the
New Testament, where workers who came at the eleventh hour were paid
as much as those who had worked all day. Presumably, the measurement
of time was different in Biblical times, but the suggestion is that
the day time was divided into twelve hours, ending at sundown. In
any case, the phrase is liable to raise the puzzling question of
"why not the twelfth hour?" There is an annoying ambiguity that
means it's not clear whether there's a zeroth hour or a twelfth
hour in the day; what do you call the time from noon to one? The
first hour, surely. But then 1 to 2 is the second hour, and
11 to 12 is the TWELFTH hour. This is the same peculiar
detail that gives us a 20th century full of years beginning with
19's. And don't get me started on the year zero or not. My feeling
there is that year numbering was all done retroactively, and
fictitiously, so whether Dionysius Exiguus could count to zero or
not doesn't concern me one bit.
Endianness or Endianess: the note on the door made
perfect sense to me:
Files shock.tar and gulf.tar; you may need to worry about
The files where computer files of course, and were being transferred
from one computer to another. They contained numeric data, and
so the transfer would have to be done keeping in mind that different
computers have different conventions about the coding and decoding
of numeric data. To begin with, the "atom" of computer information
is the bit, a 0 or 1, but usually programs deal with groups of
8 bits, called a "byte", which can be used to represent an integer
between 0 and 255, or a character (simply by assigning an index to
each character, using for example the ASCII system). But bytes
themselves come in groups of 4, making what is called a computer
"word". And here is where some trouble begins. To start with,
you can represent a word by 32 0's or 1's, perhaps with a bar
to mark the byte divisions:
10010100 | 00110100 | 00011100 | 00100011
and you have to decide on how to number these bytes. For sensible
reasons, the bits are numbered from right to left, starting with 0;
this can cause no end of confusion because our convention learned from
reading left to right would put the first bit on the left. But the
next problem occurs when we want to store an object made up of several
bytes, in particular, a real number which uses a full word, or
There is a fairly standard way of converting a real number like
21.345 into a 32 bit binary code, and it's natural to think of that
binary code in terms of the equivalent 4 bytes. Let's say the number
21.345 can be represented (on paper) by the letters "AcGZ". To store
the value of the number, we need to put these letters into a computer
word. There are again good reasons for doing it left to right, or
right to left, and so we get the representations:
A | c | G | Z
Z | G | c | A
Now it doesn't matter which way you go, as long as you are consistent;
the problem occurs when sending information to another computer whose
convention is different. There are a number of such arbitrary
conventions in computer coding, in which humanity has come to a fork
in the road and gone both ways, causing pointless trouble later.
The choices in this particular case have been baptized "big endian"
and "little endian", inspired by the bickering factions in Jonathan
Swift's Gulliver's Travels, who differed over which end of an
egg should be broken before eating.
Endorse - which means to "authorize" or "approve" or
"recommend", comes to us from old English, via old French, from
Latin. The minute you realize that it's a "meaningful" word, you
realize that it means "on the back"and that we still "endorse"
a check by signing it on the "dorsal" or back side.
Epigram - literally "Upon-Writing" - Recently, 112 unknown poems
by the poet Posidippus were discovered in the papyrus lining of
a mummy. Posidippus was an epigrammatist who had begun the process
of regarding epigrams as an art form, suitable for collection in
a book. Originally, an epigram was a dedicatory or admonitory
verse "written upon" a column, a statue, the wall of a house, and
was necessarily brief (you try writing in stone!).
Esquivalience - n. the willful avoidance of one's
official responsibilities...late 19th cent.: perhaps from French
esquiver, "dodge, slink away."...This is an example of
a fake word, inserted into a dictionary to protect its copyright.
In this case, the word was inserted into the second edition of
the New Oxford American Dictionary, as described in The New
Yorker, 29 August 2005.
Example is hardly a weird word, but it's unusual in that
its explication is pleasing (at least it was to me). I was reading
"Barcelona, the Great Enchantress", by Robert Hughes, and he
expounded on "that singular piece of nineteenth-century urban planning,
the Eixample, or 'enlargement' of Barcelona into a grid of equal
squares". I realized, excitedly, that the Catalan word Eixample
was related to our English example, and that its meaning
exquisitely reminded me that the Latin roots must mean, more or
less, 'out-plenty'. In other words, or for example, or to fill
out my explanation, an example is something that expands or fleshes
out a discussion.
Expectorate might seem to mean "spit"; it actually
describes that horrid (or uniquely satisfying) experience of
mustering one's phlegm into a suitable hunk that can be
propelled up the throat and out into the world. This is
the function of medicines labeled "expectorants", since
a buildup of fluids and phlegm in the lungs can inhibit
breathing. The meaning of the word can actually be puzzled
out from its roots, since it comes from "ex - pector" or
"from the chest", which clearly does not describe spitting,
but does correspond to phlegm-flinging or "hawking".
Exude isn't all that weird, I supposed, except that
its meaning hit me a day or two after I had incorrectly filled
in a crossword puzzle with "exude" when "exert" was desired,
corresponding to the clue "put forth". I was walking down
the street, laughing about an advertisement for a new
local clinic called "The South Florida Center for Sweaty Palms"
when I recalled that the Latin for sweat is "sudor", and that
exude must come from "ex-sudare" mean "out-to sweat", or to emit
from pores, or simply to emit.
Futhark is the name of the runic alphabet, you know, those
vertical bars with little diagonal shoots here and there that you
find so often carved into rocks in Minnesota. But I just found
out that the alphabet gets its name from its first six letters:
"f", "u", "th", "a", "r" and "c". Why can't they name their
alphabet more sensibly, like ours?
Futilitarian describes a person who, for obscure reason,
obstinately persists in actions, relationships, or goals which,
to other observers, are obviously unobtainable or pointless.
As a friend pointed out to me:
Several years ago, I had a good student who insisted on using
Mathematica to solve a problem associated with his senior
project and ignored my efforts to get him to switch to MATLAB.
He would start a computation on a computer and have it run
for days. He taped a piece of paper to the monitor asking others
not to disturb the machine while it was chugging away. I decided
to do a MATLAB computation myself and got an answer in half an
hour - and I'm a lousy programmer. I would call him a
Galactagogue - here's a word with a pleasant rhythm, a
surprising definition, and a reasonable etymology. I really just
ran across this word while leafing through a dictionary on
09 June 1999. It means any substance that promotes the production
of milk. This might include the hormone shots given to mothers of
premature babies, as well as the stuff they use to make cows go
into hyperdrive. By the way, the fact that this word sounds like
galaxy is no accident. Just think of the fact that our
galaxy is named "The Milky Way". For that matter, agalaxy
refers to a condition in which a mother is unable to produce milk
for her baby.
Gang Week ...is actually a time in the Calendar of the Catholic
Church, more commonly known as Rogation Week, and more about
all this later!
Georgics is a poem by Virgil, published around the year 29 BC.
It is generally described as "pastoral poetry", which I was told meant
stories of shepherds and country living. But I never understood where
the name came from. Then I met a man from Greece named Giorgios, who
suggested I just call him George, and asked me if I knew the etymology
of his name. "Geo- you should recognize from geography and geology and
so on, just means earth. The -orge part is related to the erg in energy
and urge and surgeon (kheirourgos, hand worker) and litury and organ
and ergodic and allergy and argon (!), and just means "work". George is the name of a
farmer." And that's why Virgil's poem about living in the country is
Globish is a form of English based on a severely-restricted
vocabulary of about 1500 words, suitable for basic communication.
Globish was proposed by Jean-Paul Nerriere. Globish is related
to the Voice of America's Special English, which uses
a limited vocabulary of 1500 words, simple sentence structures,
and a slow speaking pace, to Simplified English, a form
of English developed for aerospace documentation and communication,
and Charles Ogden's Basic English, which used 850 words and
a simplified grammar, as described in his book Basic English:
A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar.
A Googleganger is another person of the same name, whose
records are intermixed with your own when you "Google" yourself,
that is, do an Internet search for web pages that mention you.
There is an odd thrill in discovering another person with the
same name; an urge to contact them, and ask them their favorite
music, their family history and so on. This is an inspired
takeoff from the German word Doppelgaenger, or "double
goer", a term used to describe a soul mate, a psychic double,
or another person with whom one's fate was intertwined.
Gorgeous is a word whose etymology demonstrates how
a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, though a
little more knowledge is often enough to set you right.
In this case, the root gorge- suggests "eating" or
"devouring", and so a folk etymology is obvious: gorgeous
means "edible beauty", that is, something so pretty you
are tempted to eat it. But that would be wrong. The fossil
record of words makes clear that the ultimate parent of
gorgeous is, indeed, the root gorge-, which does not
so much mean "eat" as it does "throat" or "narrow channel".
But the descent of meaning is something like the following:
gorge is taken to denote the throat, and then various
things around the throat get similar names. A gorget
is a piece of throat armor, and a gorgias was a neckerchief.
Then, the use of fancy, colorful neckerchiefs spawned the
word gorgayse, meaning "elegant", "dressy", or "showy", and
now the final step to gorgeous, meaning "beautiful"
or "captivating", is easy to anticipate.
A grampus is a whale; when I first heard this word in class,
I wasn't the only one who couldn't help laughing. It's just such
an odd sound. But it turns out to have an understandable origin
in the French phrase gran pisce or "big fish".
Greek Calends is a sort of joke that comes from Latin, and is
an indirect way of saying "never", since, unlike the Latin calendar,
the Greek calendar had no calends. As Wimpy says, "I'll gladly pay
you on the Greek Calends for a gyro today."
A gurgitator is a person who competes "professionally"
in an eating contest; the prime example is Takeru Kobayashi,
who has downed 50 hot dogs (with buns) in 12 minutes at the
annual Nathan's Hot Dogs challenge; there is, in fact, a
newsletter for competitors, called "The Gurgitator". The
word is a back-formation from "regurgitator" which has respective
Latin origins from the root "gurga" or "gurges", meaning
Himation is a strange word mainly because it looks familiar,
but you can't figure out what it's trying to tell you. And then
you can't even be sure how to pronounce it. It turns out this is
the name for a kind of robe that the ancient Greeks wore, both
men and women, draped over one arm and under the other. How that
makes for an acceptable garment is a question I haven't considered.
On the other hand, it also brings to mind another word that just
looks strange, Bagration. I think I ran across this as part of
the title of a musical piece, or the name of a military offensive,
but you could tell it was a word with a meaning. And yet, it looks
so much like bag ration that my mind shuts down...only to
discover that it's "merely" the name of a Russian general who fought
Napoleon. Of course, his real name is hidden in Cyrillic, and
what we have is just one of several possible transliterations.
A hotbed is a source of trouble, irritation, revolt, or unquiet.
But how did such a word arise? Because a hot bed is uncomfortable?
The word is actually a perfectly ordinary term from gardening. When
scraps of vegetables, grass cuttings, wet leaves, wood chips and other
such matter are heaped together and given some moisture, a natural
process of rotting begins which takes on some aspects of fermentation.
In particular, a considerable and steady amount of heat can be emitted
as the material decomposes. This is called a hotbed, and can
be valuable not merely for the fine rich organic matter that results,
but also for the protection from frost that the warmth gives to
plants placed near or even within the hotbed.
The Innominate Bone is the official name of the two bones
that make up the pelvic basin - and of course, the name means
the "unnamed" bone. This is a step up in self contradiction, beyond
unmentionables and the indescribable.
Illiterature seems like a joke word, but has a sensible
meaning, as used by Albert Friedman, in "The Viking Book of Folk
Ballads are songs or performances, not poems. They are
not literature, but illiterature.
His point here is that illiterature is the form in which
unlettered people store, as best they can, their culture.
Friedman's introduction to the book includes a very interesting
story that suggests the conflict between literature and
Sir Walter Scott thought to flatter an old Scotswoman from whose
singing he had taken down a number of ballads by showing her the
printed texts of the pieces she had sung to him. But the old
woman was more annoyed than amused. He had spoiled them altogether,
she complained. "They were made for singing and no for reading,
but ye has broken the charm now and they'll never be sung mair.
And the wars thing o' a', they're nouther right spell'd, nor
right setten down".
Insinnuendo is a joking combination of "innuendo" and
"insinuation", both of which have the meaning of an indirect
suggestion of an improper or insulting nature. I have heard this word
from time to time, intended either as cleverness, or as a
suggestion of illiteracy, but was shocked to run across it
in the venerable pages of Samuel Butler's posthumously
published novel The Way of All Flesh:
...I'm as young as I ever was. Old, indeed! There's many
a good tune played on an old fiddle. I hate his nasty
The novel was written in 1884, but not published til 1902.
It is always startling to come across evidence, in an old
story or poem, that some words or phrases go back far beyond
our own times. In this same book, Butler uses the word gay
to describe a woman who has many gentleman callers at all
hours, and who goes out a lot at night, and mentions that
the hero was only able to comprehend a particular idea after
it had dinged against his mind many times.
Inter means to bury. But the form of the word itself tells
us that, for it comes from the Latin roots "in-" and "terra" (earth);
thus, too, the movie "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" has
the Spanish title "Los tres entierros de Melquiades Estrada"
and the French title "Trois Enterrements", in both of which you can
pick out the relative of inter in a form that makes the "terra"
more obvious. Surprisingly, there seems to be no word "exter",
or at least my dictionary doesn't think so. Instead, we have
"exhume", from the Latin root "humus" for earth; it seems unfair,
or at least asymmetric, that the corresponding word "inhume" is
still in use. (By the way, the word "bury" comes from a Germanic
root meaning to hide.) Other ways of getting rid of remains
include being "enurned", "encrypted", or "entombed"; however,
one does not "engrave" the remains!
Kleenex Code is a program written to be used once and then discarded.
Such programs, of course, are usually not optimized, nor worth optimizing.
(Observed during a presentation by an Intel representative, 10 March 2012.)
Lakish came up when Marcus Garvie was trying to set up
a convection-diffusion problem for the density of algae in a lake.
He planned to take a satellite image of Lake Superior and use
the processed image with his program. But then he decided that
he had better use a lesser-known lake. But as he scanned over
the vast array of satellite images of lakes, he complained,
"There was always something wrong with every one of them.
None of them looked quite lakish enough." (Failing to find
a suitable actual Ur-lake, he took the Slartibartfastian
approach of designing his own, without, I suppose, all those
Lippitude simply means "soreness of eyes" or "bleariness".
It's a word of medical background, naturally, with a proper Latin
root. The only weird thing about it is its amusing form and sound.
Mall, the church of the new religion, has a curious etymology
that relates it to the word for hammer!. This word for an
enclosed shopping area was an extension of its use for a tree-lined
pedestrian walkway or shopping zone. Now you might recall a
brand of cigarettes named Pall Mall; there actually was a
place in London with this name; a site for the game of pall
mall. The object of this game was to strike a ball with a
mallet, aiming for it to go through an iron ring at the other end
of an alley (this makes it sound like a cross between golf and
that gladiatorial Aztec basketball game!) For some reason - perhaps
the noise of the crowd or the frequent beaning of spectators -
the game was thought to be unruly or even violent, and the word
pell mell was born here too.
The reason for the name of the game was that it came from France,
where it was called palemale which had in turn introduced
it from Italy, where it was called palla maglo, meaning
"ball mallet". The Italian word maglo and the English word
mallet both come from the Latin malleus
which means "hammer". So enjoy your shopping trip to the "Hamm"!
You wouldn't think that the first thing a cave man would say upon
encountering a Mastodon would be "Dig those weird ivories!",
but paleologists are a more refined species, and so they latched onto
the strange shape of the teeth of this creature, whose biting
surface reminded them of nipples, and came up with "breast tooth"
from the Greek Mazos and Odont.
"Mathiness: a series of fervent gestures that gives the impression
that mathematical ideas are being expressed, but doesn't deliver the goods";
Manyplies is a term for the third stomach of a ruminant, which
has a complex folded structure. In fact, manyplies and
multiplex are cognate words. The manyplies is also known
as the omasum or the psalterium.
Mountweazel is a word or item inserted into a dictionary
or reference work in order to protect copyright. Unlike
the other items in the work, a Mountweazel is intended to
betray people who copy data from reference works and republish
it as their own. The term derives from a fictitious entry
in the 1975 edition New Columbia Encyclopedia, which contains
an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain
designer turned photographer who published a collection of
photographs of rural American mailboxes called "Flags Up!",
was born in Bangs, Ohio, and died in an explosion while on
assignment for Combustibles magazine. See also
esquivalience. This information comes from an article
by Henry Alford in The New Yorker, 29 August 2005.
Murdrum was a fine paid under Norman law by the hundred
(a local community) if a person was slain and the slayer was
not produced. The fine could be avoided if the kinsfolk of the
murdered man came forward and proved that he was of English birth,
rather than Franco-Norman. (Presumably, the other members of
the community would put heavy pressure on the family to do this
and avoid the fine!) This plea was called presentment
Morton's Fork refers to a sort of logical wordplay or
paradox equivalent to "damned if you do, damned if you don't".
John Morton was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign
of Henry VII. In those days, an Archbishop was literally a
landlord, and had to come up with his income by taxing his
tenants. Morton was particularly relentless in requiring everyone
to pay, rich or poor. His argument was that if you were rich,
you were already spending plenty of money, and hence could spare
some for his taxes; if your were poor, then you were holding onto
your money, so you must have some to pay him. With this two-pronged
argument, he was able to catch everyone. Back in those days,
forks, if they were used at all, had two prongs. And so such
an argument has come to be known as Morton's Fork.
Namba - sometimes a definition is too funny for it even
to matter whether it is true. I got this from the New York Times,
and it wasn't April Fool's Day. Supposedly, namba is the
Japanese traditional style of walking, namely, the right arm
and leg swing forward together, then the left arm and leg.
Why this should be preferred one cannot imagine. The story
claimed that horses used in ritual archery were also trained
in namba. For training these horses, it was necessary to
tie a wooden board to both right legs, and another to both
left, so that the legs had to be moved together. How a horse
could possibly move in such a manner without collapse is
beyond my imagination. Of course, you don't have to be Japanese
or ancient to nambulate! I managed to get Michael
Lambert and Elvira Prologo to nambulate with me down the hallway.
It was quite a sight.
Nasturtium is a flower with a sharp smell, and its name comes
from two Latin words that together mean Nose Twister!
Neck Verse is a written passage, read aloud by a condemned
man to prove that he is literate, and hence can claim benefit
of clergy, that is, exemption from hanging. Usually, the
passage to be read was the first verse of Psalm 51.
Newark, New Jersey is thought of as a run-down crime-ridden
industrial unlovely city. One might simply assume it was named
for some count or duke or a hamlet in England. But instead,
the origin of its name goes back to a religious dispute.
In Colonial times, the New England Congregationalist church
only admitted members who had had a direct and personal
conversion experience, which was deemed to be the sign of a
covenant between them and God. Of course, these people had children,
and the children were deemed to be entitled to membership
in the church because they shared in the covenant of
their parents, except that they were not included in the
ceremony of the Lord's Supper. As these children grew up,
came of age, and themselves had children, a new issue arose, for
the question was whether the privilege granted to the children
should be extended automatically to grandchildren. In 1662,
it was decided that grandchildren should have the same
membership rights, a status derisively known as "the Half-Way
Covenant". Many of the member churches seceded over this
controversy. More controversy arose because the colony of
New Haven was forcibly merged into Connecticut, whose constitution
allowed the baptism of children irrespective of the
church membership of the parents. At this time, governor
Carteret of New Jersey was soliciting New Englanders to come
and settle, with substantial promises of religious freedom.
About thirty families took the offer and sailed up the Passaic
river to found what they called "The New Plantation of New-Ark
on the Pesayack", that is, the New Ark of the Covenant!
The Nocebo Effect is a counterpart to the "placebo effect".
In double blind trials of medicines, it is common for patients to
be divided into two groups, one given the actual medicine and the
other a chemically inert substance, such as a sugar pill. Both
groups must read an informed consent form setting out all the imagined
possible side effects of the medication. It is common, during the
trial, for patients who are receiving the sugar pill to report
many of the prescribed side effects; at the end of the trials, there
have even been cases in which such patients have complained of
Obliterate comes from the Latin ob literate;
the ob is a fascinating prefix responsible for
obstreperous, obnoxious, obstinate,
obstruction and other words that immediately suggest
its meaning of "contrary", "counter", "against". "Obliterate"
comes to its meaning of "destroy" via the idea of "wiping out"
or "wiping away" letters that are written.
The name of the osprey seems to derive either from the
Latin avis prede for "bird of prey", or more likely as
a corruption of its other name, ossifrage, which is clearly
derived from the Latin ossifragous for "bone breaker".
A Palimpsest is a manuscript written on "recycled paper".
Parchment, in particular, could be reused if the ink was scraped
or rubbed off it. This economizing has been a blessing for
historians who've been able to read the faint markings of the
older inscription. This was how an entire mathematical book of
Archimedes was discovered. The word comes from Greek roots
palin ("again" or "back") and psen ("rub").
The word palindrome is related, where dromos
is Greek for "run", and a palindrome is a word that "runs back"
as well as forward.
A Pants Squirrel can best be described by Amy Yasbeck,
TV actress and wife of John Ritter:
When I was a teenager, you'd take off your Jordaches really
fast at night, then jump up in the morning and put them back
on again. Somewhere at school you'd look down and see your
pants squirrel, yesterday's rolled-up underwear,
somewhere around your knee. Those Jordaches were so tight!
Paxwax means a neck ligament. The original Old English
word was apparently faxwax, with fax meaning "hair" and
wax having the meaning "grow". This in turn suggests
that the word fairfax means "fair-haired", and if I was
more sure of my old roots, I'd venture a guess as to the meaning
of colfax, and ask for your help with carfax.
Variant forms of paxwax include faxwax, packwax,
paxywaxy and fixfax; In fixfax, the fix
suggests "holding up" or "holding steady"; fixfax is also
Scottish dialect for the stocks, in which the head is "fixed".
A Penny Farthing was one of those very early bicycles that
had a large front wheel and much smaller back wheel. How these
things could be stable is hard to imagine! The name comes from the
fact that an English penny (large) placed next to an English farthing
coin (small) made a tolerable image of the relative sizes of the
A Penny Hang is noted as (Sailor's Slang) and after you
hear the description, the squalid practicality ensures that the phrase
can claim no more likely heritage. A penny hang was an
establishment common in port cities, and located in a cellar or
basement. It featured hooks in the walls, with ropes strung in
parallel from one side to another at about shoulder height. In
the late evening, drunk and exhausted "clients", who had spent all
their money, or were too boisterous to be allowed anywhere else,
would enter the penny hang, after paying a penny, and then drape
themselves over a rope, and attempt to sleep as best they could.
As a crowning flourish to the glories of this place, the proprietor
could come down in the morning and untie one end of the ropes, so
that the clientele who had not managed to wake up and stagger out
already would collapse together in a heap on the floor.
A Penstab is a bygone convenience for writers. Back when you
had to dip a pen in ink, it wasn't safe to lay your pen down on the
desk when you wished to pause, since ink remaining on the tip could
easily leak out. If you were lucky, your desk had a penstab, which
was a sort of inverted brush. You simply "stabbed" your pen into
the bristles, and it stood there, vertical and safe, with any
remaining ink safely absorbed.
Phantom Ring Syndrome, arises when one's phone is not ringing,
although one is sure that it is. In the now forgotten days of land
lines, this was a rare phenomenon. Now that cell phones are
ubiquitous and cell phone alerts obtrusive, the syndrome has begun
to flourish. Certain default ring tones are so distinctive that
when one sounds in a crowd, you can see many people searching
hurriedly for their phones, only to realize it wasn't theirs.
Again, cell phones appear on many TV shows, and merrily begin
to ring, and it is common for the audience to mistakenly think
the ring is theirs. But perhaps the eeriest form of this syndrome
arises in discreet users whose phones are usually set to vibrate only.
When the phone rings, the user experiences a physical throbbing
aside from the low buzzing sound. Many long-time users have now
found that they experience a spontaneously arising throbbing in
the same area of the body. The first few times, this is mistaken
for an actual call; for a while thereafter, the phantom signal
is simply annoying; however, the phenomenon can be so persistent
and pressing that users are sometimes driven to stop carrying the
phone entirely. Even then, the sensation of phantom ringing will
typically persist for weeks. Naturally, our top law firms have
begun investigating this malady to determine whether they can
pump yet more millions into their own pockets.
Pot Walloper - before the English Reform bill of 1832,
the right to vote was restricted to persons considered to be
householders, who in turn, qualified by owning a hearth. Such
an obtuse qualification system inspired this sneering nickname.
Plutonium most commonly refers to a radioactive chemical
element, named for a Greek god, as were Uranium and
Neptunium. Pluto was the god of the underworld, which
meant he was associated with grottoes, caves, mines, minerals
and buried treasure. But more importantly, the god of the
underworld was the god of the afterworld. If you wanted to
beseech Pluto, you could go to Eleusis, home of the Eleusynian
Mysteries, and there enter the Plutonium, regarded as an
entrance to the underworld.
Popeless; on the death of John Paul II, the New York
Times blurted out the word interregnum and then
earnestly defined this as "the popeless period". This
replaces my previous favorite papistogram, namely popable,
reminiscent of "potable", and a literal translation of
the Italian papabile, which means "having the ability,
reputation, and political support to be elected pope".
Preacher is a word that I would have guessed came from
some backwoods colloquialism; instead, it has a long history,
through Old English to French to Latin, where it has the
root prae-dicare, that is "to speak before", "to proclaim".
It may seem strange at first that from this same root we
also have the words predicament and predicate, while
predict has a very close origin in prae-dicere,
which is "to say before". While I can't quite explain the
difference between these two roots, it is interesting to
speculate that a "predicate phrase" is one that you
"say before" the thing it describes, or that, philosophically,
a thing has predicates if these are qualities you can
"proclaim" about the thing, or perhaps that "come without
saying" because they are implicitly "already spoken".
Presenteeism is the opposite of "absenteeism", and refers
to the attendance of work of people who would, in other circumstances,
stay home because of sickness or family emergencies, but who are so
fearful of losing their job that they feel compelled to show up rather
than be marked absent.
Protocol means customary rituals or formal requirements. The
word has its root in the Greek protokollon, which was
originally the first leaf of a manuscript that contained notes
describing its contents or purpose. The word proto
means "first", of course, but kollon has relatives in
the words "collagen", "collodion", and "colloid", where it
means "glue". The protocol was actually the first page,
which was glued onto the front of the manuscript.
Proud Flesh is a medical symptom that occurs in certain
cases of wounding. As the skin heals, there may be excessive
granulation, resulting in an abnormal growth of flesh.
Psilanthropy looks like a misprint. It is formed from Greek
words that mean "mere manhood". The "anthropus" is probably
recognizable, but you may not know that "psi" has the meaning
"mere" or "little" or "small". I don't know if the Greek letter
Psi got its name for being written small or having a small or
simple sound, but the name for the Greek letter epsilon is really
e-psilon, a soft or small "E" sound, as opposed to the hard or
long "E" in Eta.
Getting back to our definition, one of the many controversies
that rocked the early Christian world was the question of the
divinity, humanity, or combined character of Jesus. Those who
claimed that Jesus was merely human, with no inherent godhood,
were believes in psilanthropy. A related word that also looks
like a misprint is psilosopher, meaning a bad philosopher,
or one with little knowledge!
Pushback used to be a mysterious and meaningless operation
carried out by an airplane after disconnecting from the terminal
and before reaching the runway. Now, according to the usage in an
article in USA Today, it means "resistance", as in
"There was a pushback relating not only to ticket prices
but the overall consumer experience, from the ticket-buying
process and services fees to high-priced beers."
Quidnunc means a busybody or gossip. The words
quid nunc mean what now? in Latin, and are presumably
the equivalent of today's tsup?. By the way,
quiddity is lamely defined as whatness.
Rankle means to bother, irritate, disturb, or anger,
so where's the weirdness? Well, this word can be traced back
to the Latin dracunculus, that is, "little dragon", where
"Draco" means "dragon". It wandered into French as "draoncle",
meaning a festering sore, either because the sore looked like
a little dragon bite, or felt like one. Somehow, the initial
"d" dropped off, and the word became "rankle", and meant
a festering sore, then the painful feeling such a sore causes,
and finally any significant irritation or annoyance.
Reptation is a term used in the study of polymers.
It refers to a model of polymers in which each individual strand
is imagined to be constrained to remain within an imaginary
tube that follows the axis of the strand and is somewhat
wider than it. Deformations of the polymer are imagined as
changes in which each strand reptates, that is, moves
like a snake would, gradually drawing itself through and out of
the original tube. Reptation was originally used to describe
the motion of snakes, and borrowed for this chemical context.
The root word for reptation is the Latin reptare, meaning
"to creep", and it should be obvious that reptiles were
given that name because of their "creepiness".
Rewilding refers to a proposal to restore wild animals
to areas of North America from which they have been gone for
centuries...or millennia. We're not talking about the
Buffalo Commons here (just drive all those useless people
out of the Midwest), nor the restored Prairie, nor somehow
bringing back flocks of passenger pigeons, but rather elephants,
cheetahs and lions. This might seem like a pathetically
misguided attempt at the restoration of nature, but it is
passed off as an attempt at therapy - since it's all about us
anyway. So those elephants, cheetahs and lions will be carted
back here to cavort and propagate, and by communing with them,
we'll get in touch with our inner wildness and be healed.
I guess it gets you attention at parties or talkshows.
Rovescio is a musical notation meaning to play in
reverse or contrary direction. I'm not quite sure what is meant
by that. The reason I include this word is that it is defined
in my big dictionary as follows:
Rovescio: a rovescio.
Now what do you do? I was convinced I had found a classic
recursively useless definition or CRUD, until I realized
that perhaps this was an Italian phrase, a rovescio, and
was able to find the real definition! By the way, my dictionary
"defines" all the cardinal and ordinal numbers up to 100. I ran
across definitions for "eighty-third: the eighty-third item
in a sequence...", and that sort of well-meant bunk.
Sac and Soc is a phrase used in early English legal documents
associated with grants of land. Even the early English, or at least
the late Early English, seem to be unclear about the exact origin and
meaning of the phrase, but sac seems to indicate the right to
hold a court and make legal judgments, while soc refers to the
right of the owner to let out property under socage; that is,
a socman or socager would be allowed to farm a portion
of the land in return for a fixed payment. Thus, if the king awarded
someone a tract of land with sac and soc, that person could rent out
the land to others, and had legal jurisdiction over the inhabitants
of that area.
Sagination is the act of fattening up. Normally applied to
geese and 4H hogs, the word is certainly applicable in other
cases. The witch was certainly saginating poor Hansel. And
aren't there many well-known cases of autosagination?
Skimmington is an old custom in rural Britain, in which
the people form a mock parade to ridicule a nagging wife or an
unfaithful husband. One hopes such dear customs are kept alive...
over there. In some places, a long pole called a stang
was used, and the hapless victim was made to ride
the stang, carried by the townspeople.
Software Origami describes a practice of software writers,
in which new software is created from old, by renaming,
adjusting, extending, reworking, cutting and pasting, to form
a new product which still is recognizably a bent and folded
version of the original.
Solmization is the use of a set of syllables to denote
the tones of a musical scale. Such scales include the Great
Scale, the Guidonian Syllables (Ut/Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La), the
Fixed and Movable Do Systems, the Sol-Fa Syllables (Do Re Mi Fa
Sol La Ti Do).
Spasmodical is a journal which comes out "spasmodically",
in contrast to the more well-behaved "periodicals". A spasmodical
is the bane of librarians, who must bear witness as the last
dog-eared issue turns yellow and tattered on the "current" shelf
beside all the spanking fresh issues of the periodicals. This usage
was reported to me by Meg Geroch.
Suicidality is, clearly, the product of a clinical
need to denote the condition of being prone to suicidal
thoughts or acts; it seems odd when you first hear it, but
what other word might you suggest?
Supercilious means "haughty" or "disdainful". This was
hardly on my mind as I was reading an article in the New Yorker
about facial expressions by Malcolm Gladwell, and read
He lowered his brow, using his depressor glabellae, depressor
supercilli, and corrugator.
And I thought "supercilli - above the...little hairs?". In fact,
an etymological dictionary claims that the root is cilium
or "eyelid", but I believe cilia is hair all the same.
Anyway, the disdain in a supercilious look comes from the raising
of the eyebrows.
Tantony is the runt of a litter of pigs. By analogy, it
is also anyone who is a "tag-along", a needy, inquisitive follower.
The word comes from the slurring of "Saint Anthony", who was the
patron saint of swineherds, and who was normally depicted with a pig.
Since he was also the patron saint of lost or hopeless causes,
his name was popular for hospitals (a mixed blessing, if you ask me!),
so a tanton was an inhabitant of such a place (apparently,
in the old days, sickness was a calling, not a brief incident!);
there were also such things as a tantony crutch and a
tantony pouch which were items that were somehow dedicated to,
blessed by, or marked with an image of Saint Anthony.
Tawdry is something cheap, squalid or demeaning. It comes
from Saint Audrey (or Ethelreda!), who died of a throat
tumor, which she blamed on the fact that she wore fancy necklaces
when younger. In some kind of odd tribute to her, cheaply-made
lace collars were sold at the Saint Audrey's Fair. They were
so poorly made that the slurred tawdry became a synonym
for shoddy, tatty items.
Toussaint is just a personal name, and personal names are
allowed to be meaningless strings of babble, so I can't blame myself
for never wondering further about it, until I saw a passing reference
in A S Byatt's novelization of the movie Possession to the
name, with the comment that it came from the French for "All Saints",
as in "All Saints's Day". And I got to wondering whether the famous
Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture's name actually meant
"All Saint's Eve" ... in other words, "Halloween"! If only I'd had
The Tropics have the origin of their name in the Greek
word tropos, meaning movement or change. The
lines of latitude at about 23.5 degrees north and south mark the
furthest points north and south where the sun can appear to be
directly overhead at noon; this occurs at the summer and winter
(a word which itself means sun still). Once the sun
appears to be directly over the Tropic of Cancer or the Tropic of
Capricorn, it no longer moves in that direction, swinging back
towards the equator. The sun appears directly over the equator at
noon on the equinoxes. The tropics are the sweltering
sun-baked region bounded between these two lines.
Trucker Topiary, the rectangular tunnels carved into
foliage that overhangs a highway, roughly conforming to the shape
umop-episdn is a clever typographical way of describing
something which is topsy-turvy. I first saw it in an column
by Brian Hayes in American Scientist.
Vadium is not one of the more obscure chemical elements, but
rather, a pledge, often the surrendering of a physical asset until
some task is performed or loan is repaid. The posting of a pledge,
in turn, is known as vadimony.
Widual is an adjective referring to widows. Thus, after a
husband's death, a woman might don black and attend to her
Widdershins means "counterclockwise", that is, to circle an
object while keeping it always on your lefthand side. Mathematically,
this is the direction of positive rotation; a positive angle of rotation
is one which results in a counterclockwise movement. Traditionally,
moving around an object, particularly a church, in a counterclockwise
direction was considered unlucky. Supposedly, this was opposite
to the direction of the sun, though I cannot see any sense in which
the sun would seem to move "clockwise" around the earth except if we
imagine ourselves standing towards the North Pole and looking "down"
at the apparent direction of the sun. The etymology of the word seems
to be from the German "wider sinnig", that is, "opposed sense" or
"opposite sense", reinforcing the suggesting that this is the
other, less usual, direction.
Winsomeness, if you look it up, means attractiveness or appeal,
perhaps with an element of tentativeness or shyness. However, that's not
how it was used in the following statement, quoted in Slate magazine
on 07 January 2013:
Concerning 2012’s losses on gay marriage and pot, he warned that
evangelicals need to adopt a strategy of tackling social issues
"with winsomeness", or else they’ll continue losing.
Here, winsomeness has become "the quality of being winnable"!
Xanadu was made famous by its mention in Coleridge's
poem fragment "Kubla Khan", composed in a dream and left unfinished when
Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, itself now
a byword for philistinism. (And you thought Olivia Newton-John started
it all!) Since then, Xanadu has become a synonym
for a lost, dreamlike world, along with Brigadoon,
the land of El Dorado, Never-Never Land,
Oz, Shangri-La and Wonderland. Yet, there
really is a Xanadu; it's an ancient city in China,
whose name has been transliterated as Shangdu or Chengdu.