Saturday, February 28, 2009


diffident [DIFF-uh-dənt]
adj. lacking self-confidence

[Derives from Latin diffīdere, dis- ("absence of")+ fīdere ("trust")]

The fīde in diffident is the same root in words like fidelity and confidence. It means, of course, trust or faith. Thus, to be diffident is to not have faith your own abilities.

Diffident is often used to mean shy ("a wish to escape notice"), timid ("lacking courage"), bashful ("fear of being noticed") or cautious ("aware of the possibility of danger"). I'm sure those uses meet various dictionary definitions. Most who are diffident are also shy, timid, bashful and cautious. However, just because someone is chary ("cautious or careful") or quiet doesn't mean he lacks confidence in himself. My recommendation is to limit diffident to describing someone who lacks personal confidence. Someone who is "characterized by shyness and modesty" is demure. A person who is "insincerely shy" is coy. And the guy who is "ashamed" of himself is abashed.

In Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg describes a scene where he is doing something which contradicts what he had been taught was right, and so he was not at first confident in his actions, but over time his assurance grows:
For the first half hour I was diffident about discarding secret documents, but before long I was throwing them into the bag with abandon.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Badvice: Personal Services Coordinator

Lexicon Daily Readers — turn to other sources for good advice; turn to us for badvice.

Dear Lex: I'm 27 years old and live with my parents, who are both in their mid-50s. A few months ago, my dad was forced to quit his job. The problem is, I have proof that my father is cheating with an ex-co-worker. I did my own investigating and was able to get names, numbers and photos. My mother has her faults, but she doesn't deserve to be cheated on. I want to confront him and give him an ultimatum — this girl or us. What do you say?
— Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stucko: Forget about your parents. They’re losers. Don’t you be one, too. Your mother’s a cold fish in the sack, and your dad is an infidel for dropping his line in somebody else’s river. Focus on yourself. You’ve proven you have what it takes to be a personal services coordinator. Consider this your first case. You can make a bundle catching men in flagrante delicto and solving problems of a domestic nature. All you need is to get the word out that you have a talent collecting names, numbers and photos and you’re willing to do what it takes to get the job done. That can be your avenue out of Loser Lane.

Dear Lex: My 66-year-old husband suffers from both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The diseases have advanced to the point that simple tasks are extremely difficult if not impossible. Consequently, we have to constantly endure thoughtless and hurtful comments from friends, neighbors and even family accusing him of being lazy because they see me doing the lion's share of physical labor around our home. Millions of people are just like my husband. Is there help out there? Why isn't more being done for these people?
— Frustrated in Elgin, Ore.

Dear Frusty: Back in the day, before whitey ran roughshod over this continent, the red man always pitched his tepee near a chasm, such as the Grand Canyon. The reason was to take care of cases like your old man. The time comes when the groove is gone and no drops are falling from his rain dance. You need to hire a good personal services coordinator – see above – who will take Mr. Arthritis to the nearest cliff, feed him some potent peyote and push pops painlessly over the precipice. Problem solved.

Win, Place, Show?

You're out of milk?


chimera [ki-MEER-uh]
n. a grotesque product of the imagination

[Derives from Greek chímaira ("she-goat")]

In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a monstrous creature of Lycia (on the southern Turkish coast, east of Rhodes), composed of the parts of multiple animals: the body of a lioness; a tail that ends in a snake's head; and the head of a goat on its back.

In contemporary usage, a chimera is anything that people irrationally fear.

In Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg classifies John Kennedy's claim that in 1960 the United States was dangerously behind the Russians in the nuclear arms race as an irrational fear:
The missile gap favoring the Soviets had been a fantasy. There was a gap all right, but it was ten to one in our favor. … The specter of a deliberate Soviet surprise attack suddenly appeared, with the new estimates, to have been a chimera.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Badvice: Plugged-In

Lexicon Daily Readers -- turn to other sources for good advice; turn to us for badvice.

Dear Lex: I have been married six years and I am worried about my husband's relationship with our 5-year-old son. My husband is very stern and has an unwavering view of right and wrong. I disagree with many of his ideas about parenting, and our relationship suffers as a result. My husband and my son do not talk, play ball or anything else I expect a father and son to do. The only thing my husband does consistently is criticize, yell and belittle. He often calls him a "baby" and tells him he acts like "a girl." My son gets upset, and my husband taunts or spanks him instead of comforting him. I admit I baby him, but I justify that because I am compensating for my husband's harsh behavior. My son has recently begun saying he doesn't love his daddy, doesn't care about him, wishes he were not home, etc.

What do you suggest I do?
-- A Concerned Mother

Dear Connie: You were a complete idiot to marry this dirtbag. However, there is a clean way out -- Life insurance. Make sure you'll get at least a million dollars when your man dies. Anything less and it ain't worth the effort. A lot of wives are afraid to eighty-six the losers they married. But if you follow my outline, you can buy an upgrade next time you hit the husband store.

Here's the deal: Look on e-Bay and buy yourself a 40 year old hair dryer, one that works, with a long extension cord; and then plan a hot date at home for just you and hubby. One of your yenta friends can take care of junior for the evening.

On date night, plug that dryer in a socket near your tub and fix the best pasta dinner you can cook. Sauce it up with meat and cheese and have a quality bottle of tequila to go with the meal. Before your husband gets home from work, strip off all your clothes, put on nothing but a terrycloth robe and greet the monster at the front door with a wet kiss. Once you get him fed, turned on, and drunk, fill the bath and help your soon-to-be-former husband out of his clothes. Then get into the tub with him. After a few minutes of fooling around, tell the bastard you have a big surprise for him and get yourself out of the bath. Before he can react, toss that plugged-in old hair dryer in the tub.

You won't need to worry again about him abusing your boy, and you can spend some of the loot on a shrink if you feel guilty about electrocution.

Dear Lex: A few months ago, I received two marriage proposals. I have not given a response to either man.

My family adores "Chet." However, since his proposal he has been dodging me. He's even making plans to buy a house with a male friend. He's smart, goofy and very protective. He just doesn't seem to have any initiative when it comes to planning a future. The other man, "Dennis," is a couple of years older. He adores me and treats me like a princess. He is very prepared for his future. He even told me a few days ago that if I accept his proposal, I can start looking for a house. The only problem is, my family doesn't like him and isn't aware I've been seeing him.

So here I am with these two great guys who love me. I love them, too, but it isn't fair to string them along. Which one should I pick?
-- Confused and Torn

Dear Tornie: First, Chet's gay. Even though that can be a good thing when it comes to picking out the drapes and not leaving his dirty underwear on the floor, the chances you come home after work on a Tuesday night and find him naked in your bed with a man dressed up to look like Marilyn Monroe are about 92.3 percent. With AIDS and all, you don't want to go that route. If you gotta marry one of these turkeys, then go with Dennis, the straight guy. However, it's probably the case that your family is right about Dennis and there is something wrong with him that you can't see, yet. To protect yourself, just in case things go bad down the line, make sure you got a million dollar life insurance policy on Dennis and keep an old hair dryer around with a long extension cord.

The Rest Room


ghat [got]
n. a broad flight of steps that is situated on an Indian riverbank and that provides access to the water especially for bathing

[Hindi, derives from Sanskrit ghatta ("embankment")]

My eternal image of India is not the Taj Mahal or Mahatma Gandhi in diapers or a Hindu god. What pops into my mind when I think of that land of 1.1 billion people is a teeming mass of noisome humanity -- dirty, crowded streets with endless traffic; sweat-soaked trains packed to the brim; hundreds of women in saris huddled together washing clothes in filthy rivers. Even with half or a third of its current numbers, India would be overpopulated. It's a place devoid of privacy. In America, even in New York or San Francisco, we can get away from others outdoors. Or we can disappear into the privacy of our own homes, the calm of a bath or a shower. In India, great ghats are built to permit thousands of people easy access to rivers, like the holy Ganges, so they can bathe. The ghats are also used by Hindus to launch small funeral pyres, where they cremate their dead.

In Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg describes an experience he had with his fiancé in 1966, while on vacation from his duties in Vietnam, on India's most famous river:
We went out on the Ganges in a small boat past the burning ghats where bodies were cremated.

Fast Food

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


affable [AFF-uh-bəl]
adj. easy to talk to

[Derives from Latin affābilis, af- ("in the direction of") + fā- ("speak") + bilis ("fit for")]

What I like about the word affable is its narrowness. It's not broadly a synonym for friendly ("inclined to approve, help, or support") or cordial ("courteous and gracious"): Affable is limited to describing someone who makes you feel comfortable in conversation with him.

We have dozens of words in the friendly family, some broad, others narrow: affectionate ("displaying warmth, loving"); amiable ("having or showing pleasant, good-natured personal qualities"); amicable ("friendly or peaceable"); compatible ("capable of existing or living together in harmony"); conciliatory ("acting to gain someone's friendship or goodwill"); congenial ("agreeable, suitable, or pleasing in nature or character"); courteous ("having or showing good manners; polite"); gregarious ("fond of the company of others; sociable"); harmonious ("marked by agreement in feeling, attitude, or action"); hospitable ("receiving or treating guests or strangers warmly and generously"); irenic ("tending to promote peace or reconciliation"); solicitious ("expressing care or concern"); and sympathetic ("having harmony of feeling between persons of like tastes, opinions, dispositions").

In Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg describes a scene where he was scheduled to meet with Henry Kissinger at Richard Nixon's home in San Clemente, but instead was shunted off to Kissinger's aide, whom he found easy to talk to:
General (Alexander) Haig and I went off to the other side of the house and had lunch. Haig was very affable.

Davis Pensions


contretemps [KON-truh-tahn]
n. an awkward or embarrassing little situation

[From French contre ("against") + temps ("time")]

When words come into English from French, as contretemps obviously did, and they are not anglicized, it's almost impossible to use them unpretentiously. You can either mispronounce the word, say counter-TEMP; or you can pronounce it correctly and sound like a fool who thinks a French accent makes you a sophisticate. Either way, it's not a winning situation. What's most important, then, is to not overuse these terms and never use them incorrectly.

Contretemps should be used to mean "an awkward or embarrassing little situation." Most dictionaries define it more broadly, as "an unfortunate accident; some bad luck; a hitch." My recommendation is to use it only in its narrowest sense. Going into a job interview with your fly open is a contretemps. It's a small embarrassment. Walking across the street and getting hit by a speeding car is "bad luck," but not a contretemps. Discovering that the restaurant you planned to take your girlfriend to is closed is "a hitch," but not a contretemps. Accidentally calling your girlfriend by your wife's name is a contretemps. Getting hit by a stray punch in a barroom brawl is "unfortunate." Double-dating with a couple that likes to French kiss in front of you is a contretemps.

In the Huffington Post, film critic John Farr described a contretemps ("an awkward situation") in the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
Making a contact sport out of trading hurtful barbs, George and Martha snap at each other constantly in front of their stunned guests. As the night wears on, the bitter contretemps between the squabbling pair gets progressively uglier-especially when blowsy, gin-soaked Martha mentions the couple's "son."

Monday, February 23, 2009


paladin [PAL-uh-din]
n. any knightly or heroic champion; any determined advocate or defender of a noble cause

[Derives from Latin palātīnus ("imperial functionary"), originally taken from Palātium Hill in Rome]

Before I get into the usage of paladin, let me digress a moment on Palātium (aka Palatine), its original root word/name. Palatine is the name of one of the Seven Hills of ancient Rome, where aristocrats (and later the emperor) built large homes. The emperor's house was known thereafter as his palace.

When Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BCE, the Romans conquerors renamed all of ancient Israel and Judaea Palatine (or Palestine) after the famous hill in Rome.

Palātium has spawned a few other related English words: palatine ("having royal privileges"), palatial ("suitable for a palace; stately; magnificent") and palace ("the official residence of a king, queen, etc."). The similarly spelled palate ("the roof of the mouth; the sense of taste") and palatable ("good-tasting") don't come to English from Palātium. They come from the Latin palātum ("the roof of the mouth").

To understand how paladin came to be synonymous with hero, you need to know that the circle of tweleve men (that is, the palace officials) around Charlemagne were that Frankish emperor/king's palaisins or palatins (paladinos in Italian, which became paladins in English). Much like King Arthur's fabled Knights of the Round Table, the paladins of Charlemagne (supposedly) fought on his behalf. Among other things, Charlemagne is famous for spreading Christianity (by force), defeating the pagan Saxons and the Muslim Saracens. In Christian literature (largely written in Italian) which sprang up after Charlemagne died in 814, the paladins are prominently featured in epic romances, saving chaste women and doing any number of heroic acts for the sake of good. It is significant that there were twelve paladins and one king, as a parallel to Jesus and his twelve apostles in Christian mythology.

In the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, Stanley Kutler describes the Court as a hero, in the case New York Times Co. vs The United States, in which the Court ruled that the government could not restrain the Times or any other paper from publishing the Pentagon Papers, which had been illegally given to them by Daniel Ellsberg, a former official in the Defense Department who worked on a part of the Papers:
The Supreme Court's decision legitimated the media's assaults against governmental secrecy and its self-assumed status as the people's paladin against official wrongdoing.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


adamantine [ad-uh-MAN-teen]
adj. impenetrably or unyieldingly hard

[Derives from Latin adamas ("hard"), same origin as diamond]

While adamant is a relatively common word in contemporary English -- "Sen. Boxer was adamant in her opposition to the agriculture appropriations' bill" -- adamantine is seen less often. As adjectives, they are essentially synonymous.
Adamant is generally used to describe attitudes or opinions, but can be applied to physical objects which are "too hard to cut, break, or pierce." Adamantine is more commonly applied to physical objects, situations or personalities which are implacable, inexorable, inflexible, intransigent or obdurate. Yet it can be used interchangeably with adamant in modifying an opinion or an attitude which is unbreakably hard.

In Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris describes Teddy Roosevelt's perception of a picture of Woodrow Wilson in a magazine in 1902, ten years before Roosevelt would lose the presidential election to Wilson:
Pale eyes absolutely lacking in self-doubt, an unfurrowed brow, haughty nostrils, long cruel mouth over a tremendous jaw -- features both intellectual and tough, adamantine in their cold, smooth power: it was the beaky professor who had visited with him in Buffalo the day after his inauguration.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


noisome [NOY-sum]
adj. disgusting or offensive, as odor; noxious

[Derives from annoy, which came from Old French anuier ("to molest; harm")]

The noi- in noisome is an aphonic variation of annoy -- that is, the first syllable was originally mouthed but not pronounced. In time, the first syllable was dropped altogether. Understanding that, it's easy to see how a disgusting odor can be annoying and hence noisome.

We have a number of good synonyms in English to describe bad smells, but only stinky and smelly are commonly used. A few other adjectives I can think of are: acrid ("unpleasantly sharp, pungent, or bitter to the taste or smell"), effluvial ("having odorous fumes given off by waste or decaying matter"), fetid ("having an offensive odor"), foul ("grossly offensive to the senses"), frowzy ("ill-smelling"), funky ("having an offensive smell"), fusty ("having a stale smell"), gamy ("having the odor of game, especially game that is slightly spoiled"), malodorous ("having an unpleasant or offensive odor"), mephitic ("offensive to the smell"), noxious ("harmful or injurious to health"), putrid ("in a state of foul decay"), rancid ("having a rank, unpleasant, stale smell or taste"), rank ("having an offensively strong smell"), reeky ("having a strong, unpleasant smell") and rotten ("tainted, foul, or bad-smelling").

In Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris described a populist (and racist) senator from South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, as being like the mythical Paul Bunyan, unfamiliar with taking a bath:
Bunyan's noisome figure, more interested in piling up dirt than stargazing, duly made every major newspaper in the country.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Barack inflation


gainsay [gān-sā]
v. to deny; contradict; speak or act against

[Derives from Old English gegn ("against") + say.]

The Old English gegn is also the root of again, which normally now means "one more time," but can also mean "in the opposite direction." In that latter usage, it's easier to see the connection between again and against.

There used to be a handful of other words in English which had gain- as their prefix. Save gainsay, the others all disappeared from our lexicon. These included gain-taking ("taking back again"), gainclap ("a counterstroke"), gainbuy ("redeem") and gainstand ("to oppose"). Gain ("profit; increase") and gainful ("profitable") have an unrelated root that comes from Old French gaaing ("to till; earn; win"). The Spanish verb ganar ("to win; earn; gain") has the same origins.

In Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris quoted Teddy Roosevelt using gainsay to mean contradict:
Facts, which I cannot gainsay, force me to believe that the conservation of our national resources is the most weighty question now before the people of the United States.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


postprandial [pōst-PRAN-dē-əl]
adj. after a meal, esp. after dinner

[From Latin post ("after") + prandium ("meal")]

In olden times, my sense is that there were more ritualized activities before and after a feast. One of those involved men going off to smoke postprandial cigars, while their wives did whatever the hell it is women do -- yack? -- after eating. Maybe that explains why postprandial is no longer a common word. Instead of a large gathering of family and friends at meal time, now people eat by themselves as they watch TV and smoking cigars is considered insalubrious ("not healthy").

In Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris describes Teddy Roosevelt's postprandial activity at a Governor's Conference dealing with environmental protection:
It was the duty of the Governor's Conference, (Roosevelt) said, to formulate a national philosophy of conservation based on efficient use of finite resources and scientific management of renewable ones. ... He stayed with (the governors) through Andrew Carnegie's postprandial paper on the conservation of ore.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Gamaliel [guh-MAY-lee-ull]
n. any great teacher

[Hebrew name]

The only person I've ever heard of with the name Gamaliel is Warren G. Harding, the G. standing for Gamaliel. Until I came across this passage in Edmund Morris's biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, where powerful Senator Mark Hanna (a political opponent of Teddy Roosevelt's) explained to the president proper protocol, it never occurred to me that a Gamaliel was anything but a name:
Hanna: You had better pass around the room, Mr. President, and shake hands with each one.
T.R.: All right, I was just wondering which was the best way to get at them.
Hanna: You will have no trouble.... They are all anxious to see you.
T.R.: (bowing to Hanna) I have sat at the feet of Gamaliel.

Laughter warmed the room as he made his circuit.

Two days later, the committee came out of conference and expressed almost unanimous support for the President. As an endorsement, it was neither binding nor, indeed, expressed with any particular enthusiasm. But clearly Gamaliel had laid down his staff.

Where Gamaliel came to mean "great teacher" is from the Christian Bible. (There was a different, unrelated Gamaliel mentioned in the Torah, Numbers 10:23, "And over the host of the tribe of the children of Manasseh was Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur.") According to the Acts of the Apostle (Paul), Gamaliel was Paul's teacher. Though it is not mentioned in the Bible, this Gamaliel was also supposedly the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel:
I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009



sifflation [sif-FLAY-shun]
n. whistling; esp. expert whistling

[Derives from French, sifflotemont ("whistling") or siffler ("to whistle"); the fla- comes from Latin "to blow"]

As far as I can tell, sifflation is not a real word in English. It does not appear in any dictionaries I own -- including unabridged dictionaries -- and it doesn't appear in on-line English language dictionaries, including dictionaries published in England. However, it is a word that appears a handful of times in books, written (I am sure) by Anglophones who also know French and likely assume that their readers can figure out what they meant.

Here is where I came across sifflation, in Edmund Morris's biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Rex:
On March 4, the political season whistled to an end, literally, with some sifflation from the rostrum of the House of Representative Frank B. Fulkerson (R., Missouri).

When I Googled sifflation, I was directed to the word sufflation ("the act of blowing up or inflating"), which I sensed was not what Morris meant, though I recognized it having that same root fla-, meaning blow. Guessing that it might be a French word, I searched French-English dictionaries until I came across sifflotemont ("whistling") and siffler ("to whistle") and realized what Morris meant.

Another book, Maids in a Market by Clotilde Graves (published in London in 1894) confirmed for me that sifflation must have meant whistling in 19th Century Britain, and probably never crossed into the American lexicon and has since disappeared from the British:
Fanny whistled -- sifflation was an accomplishment of hers which Lady Jane profoundly disapproved of.

Monday, February 16, 2009


culm [kulm]
n. inferior anthracite coal; or the waste from anthracite coal mines; slack

[Derives from Middle English colme, meaning coal]

Granted, culm is not an everyday term. If you don't work in a colliery ("a coal mine and all its buildings and equipment"), you don't need to know what it means. Yet coal is a hugely important and impactful fuel for the global economy and environment. Coal is the largest source of fuel for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as the largest worldwide source of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and the major contributor to an increase in global average temperature and related climate changes.

As a synonym for anthracite, culm makes up one of the three principal categories of coal: the other two being lignite and bituminous.

Anthracite is high-grade hard coal. It is 92-98% carbon. Bituminous is the middle grade of coal. It is softer than anthracite and harder than lignite. Bituminous coal gets its name from an ingredient in it, bitumen ("a mixture of organic liquids that are highly viscous, black, sticky, entirely soluble in carbon disulfide, and composed primarily of highly condensed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons"). Lignite is a soft brown fuel, the lowest rank of coal. It is used almost exclusively as a fuel for steam-electric power generation. Lignite's carbon content is approximately 60%.

I came across the word culm in Edmund Morris's biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Rex:
For eleven weeks, the sheriff of Schuylkill Valley, Pennsylvania, had patrolled the environs of Shenandoah in anticipation of violence. He and his fellow officers sniffed the carbonic gases leaking from untended mines, and avoided the perpetual flames wavering along dark slopes of culm. Valley after anthracite-packed valley seemed to be smoldering with discontent.

The anthracitic word culm has a homonym culm which is completely unrelated. That word -- same pronunciation and spelling -- means "the stem of a grass or similar plant." It came to English from Latin culmus ("stalk, reed"), which originated from the Greek kalamos.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


embonpoint [awn-bawn-PWA]
n. excessive plumpness; stoutness

[From French meaning in + good + condition]

If you feel like you don't know enough descriptive nouns for round-mound, fatso, lard-ass, corpulence, obesity, heavy, husky, rotundity and so on, add embonpoint to your list. Other than its awkward French pronunciation, which is mimicked in English, the most interesting thing about embonpoint is that it literally means "in good condition." Today, when someone is overweight, he is considered in bad condition. Not so when embonpoint was coined.

In his biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris referred to the body of our fattest ever president, William Howard Taft, who served Roosevelt as Secretary of War, as embonpoint:
Alice, now twenty-one, and Taft were an odd couple to send halfway around the world on a steamer named, significantly enough, the Manchuria. But her floaty-hatted, butterfly charm and the Secretary's jovial purposefulness, as palpable, yet unbruising, as his embonpoint, had captivated huge crowds in Honolulu.


doyen [doy-ENN]
n. the senior member in age or rank of a group, class, profession, etc.

[Derives from Old French doien, from Late Latin decānus ("chief of ten").]

Doyen has the same etymology as the common English word dean ("the head of a faculty, school, or administrative division in a university or college"). Its direct origins are from Roman Catholicism -- remember that England was a Catholic country until Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533. In Latin, a decānus was "the head of a group of 10 monks in a monastery." That usage, however, was borrowed from the Roman army, where a decānus originally was "a commander of 10 soldiers" and later was extended to civil administrators in the late Roman Empire in charge of at least 9 others. The Latin decānus came from Greek dekanos, which itself is from deka ("ten").

On National Public Radio for years I had heard their plant and gardening expert, Ketzel Levine, referred to as The Doyen of Dirt. At least that's what Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition Saturyday, called Ms. Levine. What I didn't ever give thought to when Ketzel was on the radio was, what's a doyen?

A variation of doyen is doyency ("seniority"). In his biography of Theodore Roosevelt called Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris employed that term:
Jusserand and Von Sternburg, both still in Europe, were unable to attend the President's annual Diplomatic Reception on 8 January. ... "Germany" was slashed off the top in pencil: so much for the former doyency of Theodor von Holleben.

Friday, February 13, 2009


selvage [SEL-vij]
n. the edge of woven fabric finished so as to prevent raveling, often in a narrow tape effect, different from the body of the fabric

[From late Middle English self + edge]

Selvage the noun can also be used in verb form. To selvage is "to finish a fabric so as to prevent raveling." Raveling itself is an odd word. To ravel ("to become disjoined thread by thread or fiber by fiber; to fray") means largely the same thing as to unravel ("to separate or disentangle the threads of a fabric"). The only difference is that unravel is used metaphorically as well ("to separate and clarify the elements of something mysterious or baffling").

I came across selvage in Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and mistakenly thought it was a typo for salvage ("to save damaged material for further use"). Coincidentally, as Wolfe employs it, the uses are not far apart:
This in turn made him think of how second-rate his clothes were. This old gray pinstripe suit that had come back just a bit... shiny... from its last trip to the cleaners... the buttonhole in the front that was frayed and needed selvaging...

I'm sure selvaging is widely known by people who work with fabrics. Here it appears in a column called Simply Quilting:
The first thing I want you to do is find the selvage edges. These are the outside edges that run the length of the fabric and are usually one half to three quarter inches wide. Cut off the selvage.

Monday, February 9, 2009


desiccated [DESS-i-cāt'd]
adj. lacking spirit or animation; arid; dehydrated

[Derives from Latin ("removal") + siccāre ("dry")]

More than anything else, to me, desiccated and desiccate ("to dry out") are spelling challenges. They get that confusing double-c in the middle from their Latin root siccāre. If you don't know that, the orthography is a mystery. There are a couple of other English words which have a siccāre root: siccative ("causing or promoting the absorption of moisture; drying"); and exsiccate ("to dry up or cause to dry up"). Siccative can also be a noun ("a drying agent"); and exsiccate has related forms, exsiccation ("the act of drying up"), exsiccative ("causing dryness"); and exsiccator ("one who dries something up").

Although desiccated literally means the same thing as dehydrated, it tends to be used in a less literal sense. A person who is desiccated is generally someone who is lacking vigor, as opposed to moisture. A person who simply needs more water is dehydrated or parched.

Its figurative sense was how a book reviewer in The Economist recently used desiccated in describing how the physicist Paul Dirac, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered antimatter, was misperceived:
To many of his colleagues, he appeared uninterested in anything other than mathematics. They were astonished when he married. Yet he was far more than a desiccated calculating machine, as Graham Farmelo's biography shows.


sedulous [SEJ-uh-lus]
adj. persevering and constant in effort or application; assiduous.

[Derives from Latin sēdulus (“painstaking”), which came from Old Latin (“without”) + dolō (“guile”)]

Eskimos allegedly have 50 or more words for snow. That makes sense -- it's what's all around them. In English, we have a plethora of words that mean hardworking or a steady effort. I wonder if that's not due to the Anglo-Saxon penchant for labor. Sedulous is joined by arduous ("requiring great exertion; laborious"), assiduous ("constant in application or effort"), determined ("resolute; staunch"), diligent ("constant in effort to accomplish something"), earnest ("serious in intention, purpose, or effort"), exigent ("requiring much effort or expense; demanding"), industrious ("working energetically and devotedly"), indefatigible ("incapable of being tired out"), laborious ("requiring much work, exertion, or perseverance"), operose ("involving much labor; industrious"), painstaking ("careful and diligent effort"), persevering ("remaining constant to a purpose, idea, or task in the face of obstacles or discouragement"), persistent ("enduring in spite of opposition, obstacles, discouragement"), steadfast ("firm in purpose"), studious ("disposed or given to diligent study"), unremitting ("never slackening; persistent") and untiring ("not ceasing despite fatigue").

A book reviewer in The Economist used sedulous to describe the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was the Poet Laureate of the United States (1949-50) and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (1956):
She was sedulous, pernickety*, quietly determined; she would work on poems for years.

The sedulous Miss Bishop also won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the only American ever given that honor. Here is an example of her work, One Art:
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

* Pernickety is a variation of persnickety ("excessively fussy about details").


conspectus (kun-SPEK-tus)
n. a general survey of a subject, especially a book which surveys a topic

[Derives from Latin con ("together") + spec ("to look at")]

In college, many of my classes, especially those I took my first two years, were called "survey courses." As opposed to an in depth study of a narrow aspect of a subject, we surveyed the broader topics in the subject area. I mention this because, despite that exposure to general studies and textbooks which themselves surveyed their fields, I don't recall ever before coming across the word conspectus. Yet it perfectly captures what most undergraduates encounter their Freshman and Sophomore years. One example of a conspectus I took as a Freshman was Sociology 1. I never again had a class in that department, but because my professor, Dr. Richard Applebaum, introduced me to ideas from the broad spectrum of sociology, I have a solid idea of how interesting the scholarship in that department can be.

My first encounter -- or first that I recall -- with conspectus came recently in The Economist:
This book, from one of France's shrewdest interpreters of the Muslim world, provides a highly readable end-of-term conspectus of the subsequent violent encounter between America and the jihadists.

A related word, and the only other I know of which ends in -spectus, is prospectus ("a document describing the major features of a proposed project in enough detail so that prospective investors may evaluate it.") Prospectus derives from the Latin pro ("forward") + spec ("to look"). Not only is prospectus -- in my experience -- more common than conspectus, but I had the personal experience, working in real estate development, of regularly putting together prospectuses for investors in my company's projects. Also, prospectus has a number of related words which themselves are even more common: to prospect ("to search for mineral deposits"); prospecting ("searching for minerals"); prospective ("likely or expected to happen"); prospector ("a person who searches for minerals"); and prospects ("expectations of success").

A Man in Full

Before writing this essay, I looked on Amazon to see what others had to say about A Man in Full. Considering I finally read the book five years after I bought a used copy and eleven after it was published, I assumed a lot had already been said. It wasn’t that I didn’t have my own opinion. It was more that, after slogging through all 742 pages of it, I had more opinions than I knew how to handle. Some good, some bad, some fluctuating.

What I noticed - in briefing through a dozen or so of the 898 reviews on Amazon - is the tendency to thoroughly recap the plot. Why do that? A synopsis spoils the story for those who haven’t read it – a novel needs to unfold fresh to be fully savored – and it’s a waste of time for a person who’s read the book and is looking at reviews to see if others share his take. The only real value I see in detailing the plot is when the reviewer is not recommending it and needs to inform his reader as to what happens in order to understand why the books fails.

My principle interest in writing a review is to answer the question, Why should you (or should you not) read A Man in Full?

The brief answer is: it’s a fun ride, occasionally awkward and uncomfortably long, but ultimately enjoyable. It’s Tom Wolfe. It’s richly drawn characters, whose lives are in conflict and at crossroads and whose perspectives and sensibilities change as the circumstances of their lives change. It’s also caricatures, included to heighten the drama and decorate the scenery. It’s getting inside the lives of people you might not know in real life, but feel at some point in the book they really exist and you care what happens to them. It’s drama, albeit artificial in the amount of coincidence it takes for the characters’ lives to intersect as they do. And it’s even a book about philosophy, about valuing what is valuable and discarding what is not.

No novel written in the 1980s better captured the zeitgeist of that decade than did Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. But of course, that was the author’s goal. Tom Wolfe had been, up to that time, a popular non-fiction writer who, in long-form magazine articles and in books, tried to paint a picture with words which said, “This is what life is like for these people living in this place at this time.” Wolfe lives in New York and he set out in Bonfire to say that in fiction about his home town. Critics deemed his style journalistic fiction.

With A Man in Full, Wolfe set out to paint a picture with words saying, “This is what life is like for these people – a very wealthy real estate tycoon and everyone in his orbit – living in Atlanta and its environs in the late 1990s.” Allowing for the fact that much of his take is satirical, that his focus is mostly on a rich upper crust and not ordinary Atlantans, and that his exposition of race and race relations in the book is itself more caricature than nuance in order to serve the needs of his plot, Wolfe succeeds. By the end, you can comfortably say, “I sense what life was like at that time for these people in that place.”

The book takes excursions to other locations, so we get, short stories – each of which could probably stand on its own – graphically detailing, for example, how thoroughbred horses are managed in a breeding barn, what life is like in a real, yet decrepit California prison, the bleak reality of warehouse work in a freezer, and how banks twist the screws on defaulted borrowers who’ve gone upside down on their loans.

A Man in Full falls short on a few details – for example, the author mistakenly states that Vacaville is in the Napa Valley, and he once calls Contra Costa County Livermore County. Also, in trying to capture the argot of various subcultures – particularly the lingo used in prison and in hip-hop – it feels both clichéd and off the mark. I don’t fault Wolfe for trying to capture the essence of this language. His mistake was in going on with it for too long.

Many of the Amazon reviewers focused on how the story plays out in the end. Because I don't want to spoil the story, I can't explain why I think they are wrong. However, suffice it to say that you might find the denouement abrupt. I don't think that's a shortcoming of the book. Wolfe's intention was to tell this story of cosmopolitan Atlanta and complete the arc of the lives of his characters. The way the story ends does not detract from that at all.

Midway through A Man in Full, I wasn’t sure where the plot was going and wasn’t sure I wanted to know. That was because for awhile Wolfe gets bogged down in a long detour set outside of his main character. "Get on with it," I was thinking. "If this hadn't been penned by Tom Wolfe, but instead by an unknown, his editor would have slashed a couple hundred pages from this novel."

However, by the end, when the plot brings together all the players, I was happy to have gone along for the ride. Because it is long, and it takes time to get to know the characters and know what their motivations are, you feel invested in the book and eager to find out where their lives are going. It is, after all, a fun ride.


arrant [AIR-unt]
adj. downright; thorough; unmitigated; notorious.

[Derives from Old English erraunt, which came into English as errand ("a short journey to perform a task") and errant ("wandering"), which was first applied to vagabonds, as an errant rogue, an errant thief, and hence passed gradually into its present and worse sense, notorious, and in time came to mean thorough or downright, in a bad sense and unmitigated, as an arrant coward.]

Most of the time arrant is used as a negative intensifier ("an adjective which serves to strengthen a perjorative noun"). Examples of that would be, "He's a complete fool" or "He's an arrant idiot." Looking over recent news stories that is how most journalists employ arrant.

From the DuBois (PA) Courier-Express:
So what will Surra do for $95,000 a year, plus benefits - and another pension eligibility atop those aready earned as a teacher and an 18-year legislator? The job never existed until last week, when Gov. Ed Rendell created it - with complicity of the Legislature, which grants such sweeping authority to governors in exchange for its own slush funds. Surra's sinecure is arrant cronyism.

Putting arrant together with nonsense is the most popular usage. Here is an example of that from the North Andover (MA) Eagle-Tribune:
Did you know that former President Bill Clinton was behind a drug running operation based out of a rural Arkansas airport? ... Were you aware that President George W. Bush personally planned and ordered the attacks on 9/11 in order to launch our country into a global war for the purpose of enriching his Big Oil buddies. ... That President Obama is a secret Muslim who, now that he's president, plans to wage jihad on God-fearing Americans? ... All of this is arrant nonsense.

Here's another example of that, from a music review in London's Guardian newspaper:
The power of great songs lies not in their having precise meaning. Most don't. Many great songs are arrant nonsense when their words are written down.

Yet another common use of arrant in the press comes when writers mistakenly use arrant in place of errant ("erring; or wandering off course"). Here's an example of that from the Jackson (TN) Sun:
The 6-foot-5 Memphis native's most impressive play might have been an alley-oop against Cumberland. Hinton reached up to snatch an arrant pass above his head to finish the dunk.

Despite the fact that arrant is mostly used in the negative (when it is used correctly), it doesn't have to be. Here's an example from Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, where Wolfe uses arrant to mean unmitigated:
In spite of himself, Charlie could feel himself weakening, feel himself trying to believe all this arrant flattery pouring out of this slick black lawyer.

Like so many English words, Arrant is a surname, too. I wonder if people originally earned it by being notorious, the way someone named Gardener took his name from his occupation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


chiaroscuro [kee-ahr-uh-SKYOOR-oh]
adj. the distribution of light and shade in a picture; in painting, the use of deep variations in and subtle gradations of light and shade, especially to enhance the delineation of character and for general dramatic effect.

[Italian chiaro bright + oscuro dark, from Latin obscūrus + clārus]

I can't think of a painting that I love which does not, in some way, play with light and dark and shades for dramatic effect. For my tastes, a painter who does not incorporate chiaroscuro into his work is a lesser craftsman, if a craftsman at all.

Although the word chiaroscuro is ordinarily used in reference to classical art, the strong contrast of light and shade is seen in photography and in everyday occurences where a limited light source only partially illuminates what you are looking at.

Here's an example of using chiaroscuro in common discourse, from Tom Wolfe's novel, A Man in Full, where we hear the thoughts of a 47-year-old banker, debating in his mind whether the 53-year-old woman he is dating, who had been dumped by her 60-year-old husband for a new trophy wife, is beautiful enough for him:
The light from the stage created soft, indistinct highlights, which made her look roundish, as if she were made of ice cream. But that was just the play of light and shadow, the distortions of chiaroscuro.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Stimulus Plan


ululate [UHL-yuh-lāt]
v. to howl like a wolf; or to hoot like an owl

[Derives from Latin ululātus, to howl, shriek, imitating the sound of an owl]

Ululate, as its Latin etymology says, was originally onomatopoeic. That is, Romans were imitating what they thought owls sounded like. By the time ululate made it to the English tongue, the pronunciation didn't sound much like an owl. For that, we have the noun hoot ("to utter the characteristic cry of an owl"). Hoot as a verb can also mean "to cry out or shout, especially in disapproval or derision." If something is so trifling ("of very little importance; insignificant") that a person wouldn't even bother to shout his derision, he says, "I don't give a hoot."

Ululate has a noun form, ululation ("a howling sound"), which I came across recently reading the novel, A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. In a prison scene, some convicts were making a ruckus ("a noisy commotion"):
Conrad didn't know if it was his imagination or what, but the cheers that followed seemed like brutal cries, and a strange mad ululation spread throughout the pod as Beat Box thrummed his a cappella electric bass.

Ululation has a long list of near synonyms, most of which have imitative origins: bark ("the explosive cry of a dog"); bawl ("a loud, bellowing cry"); bay ("a deep, prolonged howl"); bellow ("the loud roar of a bull"); growl ("a deep guttural sound of anger"); howl ("a loud, protracted, mournful cry"); moan ("a prolonged, low, inarticulate sound of suffering"); roar ("a loud, deep cry or howl"); squall ("a loud and violent scream"); wail ("a prolonged, inarticulate, mournful cry"); woof ("the deep, gruff bark of a dog"); and yowl ("a long, distressful or dismal cry").

Friday, February 6, 2009


vizard [VIZ-urd]
n. a mask; disguise.

[Derives from visor -- the front part of a helmet]

I came across vizards in Shakespeare. A vizard in the Bard's time, though less common even then, was used synonymously with mask. Vizard of course is related to visor. To this day, if we were to describe the bill on the front of a knight's helmet, we would call it a visor, just as we call a topless baseball hat a visor, named for its bill.

The word mask came to English from Spanish. In Spanish the word for mask is máscara. Literally, that means more (más) face (cara). The other two common English words which derive from the Spanish máscara are mascara ("eye make-up") and masquerade ("a party, dance, etc. of people wearing masks"). While masquerade balls were at their zenith in Shakespeare's time, that word never appears in his plays, though it had entered English (by way of French) in 1597, 19 years before he died (and 7 years before Edward de Vere, thought by many to be the author of the plays, died).

Here are a few vizard occurences in Shakespeare:

From Henry IV, Poins is plotting in an apartment in London with the Prince of Wales and Falstaff:
Tut! our horses they shall not see: I'll tie them in the wood; our vizards we will change after we leave them: and, sirrah, I have cases of buckram for the nonce, to immask our noted outward garments.

The protagonist Macbeth in Macbeth, replying to some cheerful words from Lady Macbeth after he laments his condition in life:
So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you: Let your remembrance apply to Banquo; Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue: Unsafe the while, that we Must lave our honours in these flattering streams, And make our faces vizards to our hearts, Disguising what they are.

Ford, a gentleman in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is talking with his wife, and another woman named Mrs. Page and a Welsh parson named Evans. Mrs. Page suggests that their children should be dressed in costumes to represent "urchins, ouphes, and fairies, green and white." Evans says he will teach them how to act out their parts. Ford replies:
That will be excellent. I'll go and buy them vizards.

An ouphe according to The Works of William Shakespeare by J. Payne Collier (1844) is an oaf. "(Ouphe) is variously spelt in our old writers ofe, auf, and ophe, as well as ouphe. The modern orthography is oaf, and it generally means a dolt or a blockhead."

As I noted above, Shakespeare employed the word mask more often than he did vizard, to mean the same thing. Mask, of course, can be a verb or a noun. Here's an example of Longaville in Love's Labour's Lost using mask and vizard interchangeably:
You have a double tongue within your mask, And would afford my speechless vizard half.

Here is Brutus in Julius Caesar employing mask as a verb:
O, then by day Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough To mask thy monstrous visage?

Although vizard has faded from our contemporary vocabulary, Vizard lives on as a surname. There are 181 Vizards with listed phone numbers across the country. In New Orleans, there is a well known restaurateur/chef named Kevin Vizard. His restaurant, appropriately, is called Vizard's. Mask, too, is a surname. In California alone, there are 133 Masks with listed numbers. There are 205 people in the U.S. listed with the last name Mascara.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


conjure [CON-jər]
transitive v. 1. to summon (a devil or spirit) by magical or supernatural power; to influence as if by magic; 2. to call to mind; evoke.
intransitive v. 1. to perform magic tricks, especially by sleight of hand; 2. to practice black magic.

[Derives from Old French conjurer, to use a spell, from Late Latin conirre, to pray by something holy, from Latin, to swear together]

In most contemporary uses, conjure is used in association with a magic act, even if the performer is not a magician. Here is a recent example from Marketwatch:
Bankers who can create multilayered collateralized securities can certainly create special stock grants, defer compensation, conjure synthetic pay structures or even pay the government back early.

Also common is to use conjure as a synonym for "bring to mind," even when that doesn't involve any kind of magic trick. This example comes from a news item regarding on the job injuries:
For most of us, the words 'emergency medical services' conjure images of paramedics, firefighters, and police officers rendering care and transporting patients to the hospital by ambulance.

In its most common noun forms, conjuration and conjurer, the word is always associated with magic or the occult ("matters involving the influence of supernatural powers"). Conjuration is a magic spell or the act of calling on spirits to perform magic. One who engages in conjuration is a conjurer.

The conjuration of the ghosts or souls of the dead for the purpose of divination is called necromancy. A séance is "a meeting in which a spiritualist or conjurer tries to communicate with the dead."

Conjuration is often associated with repelling negative spirits away and protecting an individual, a place or a group. In Christianity and in Islam, conjuration (especially as black magic) is considered evil. For keepers of these faiths, conjuration is a form of devil worship, because conjurers summon demons or other evil spirits in order to cause harm to people or things, to obtain favors from them, or simply to enter servitude to such beings.

Despite the objection of traditional Muslims, conjuration is common in the Middle East, particularly in the Arabian peninsula and Iraq. It is practiced to settle personal grudges, for healing, for personal enhancement and for foretelling the future. The western image of a fortuneteller comes from this part of the world, by way of the Gypsies.

Capitalizing on its popularity, some TV shows and satellite channels in the Middle East are dedicated to conjuration. Viewers phone in to ask the resident conjurers to aid them in some way -- by showing them how to make charms, for example, or how to conjure by themselves. Though it is obvious that what is going on is conjuration, the conjurers tend to portray themselves as men of religion to add an air of respectability.

Islamic imams, worried about TV conjuration, have condemned the practice, proclaiming these shows are even more dangerous than going to a conjurer, because they teach viewers how to conjure, which makes them lose touch with their faith. The imams say that when Dajjal ("the false prophet in Islam who will arrive on Earth before Judgment Day") arrives, Muslims who have practiced conjuration will not be able to differentiate between the false prophet and the true prophet.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


sublime [sə-blīm']
adj. 1. elevated or lofty in thought, language, etc.; 2. impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.; 3. supreme or outstanding.

[Latin sub (up to) + limen (threshold)]

The etymology of sublime suggests the word might have originated pharmacologically -- the sublime being up to the threshold at which a drug or a drink brings on a feeling of awe. It could also be the point at which a natural high takes hold.

A different word, subliminal ("existing or operating below the threshold of consciousness") has the exact same Latin roots. However, the prefix sub takes on a different spin, "beneath" as opposed to "up to."

My introduction to sublime came studying the Ottoman Empire in college. The sultan's government in Istanbul was commonly referred to by foreign diplomats as "the Sublime Porte." That name (translated from Turkish) came from the grand (sublime) gate (porte) at the entrance to the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Grand Vizier (prime minister) held court and met foreign diplomats.

A hundred years ago and more, every major government had its own metonym ("nickname"). Whitehall, for example, is the street in London where many ministries of the British government are located. Therefore, Whitehall is used interchangeably with the government of the United Kingdom, particularly its civil service. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located on the Quai d'Orsay (a pier on the Seine); thus, Quai d'Orsay is the nickname by which the French foreign ministry is known. Wilhelmstrasse is the metonym applied to the German Foreign Office, because that is the street in Berlin where Germany's Reich Chancellery and Foreign Office are located. Foggy Bottom is a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and thus is the nickname for the U.S. State Department.

An adage of Napoleon Bonaparte, said following his retreat from Moscow in 1812 was, "there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous." ("Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas.") The idea is, you go one step too far, and what was a brilliant adventure becomes a humiliating defeat. Crass as it sounds, I think of this adage when I see women with artificially enhanced chests. Done just right, they look sublime. But a bit too much silicone stuffed into there and it's completely ridiculous.

In pop music, there was a popular Southern California band called, "Sublime." While I don't think their music ever "impressed with a sense of grandeur or power," they were good at what they did. Sublime was often referred to as a Ska Punk band, I think because the boys in the group looked like punks. However, their music had none of the power, speed or anger of punk rock. It had sort of a latter day Jimmy Buffet-esque beach-feel to it that a lot of the early 1990s Ska revival bands had, attracting an audience familiar with cannabis.


epithet [EP-uh-thet]
n. 1. a word or phrase applied to a person to describe a quality: “Richard the Lion-Hearted” is an epithet of Richard I; 2. a characterizing word or phrase firmly associated with a person or thing used in place of an actual name, title, or the like, as “man's best friend” for “dog;” 3. a word, phrase, or expression used invectively as a term of abuse or contempt, to express hostility, etc.

[Derives from Greek meaning something added; epi (upon) + thet (to put)]

I would guess for most of its history, epithet was primarily used in its first two senses: a descriptive phrase, like "the Great" in Alexander the Great; or as a characterizing phrase. Today, however, its common use is only with the third, meaning a slur.

It's unfortunate that we don't employ epithets in the first sense for our contemporary leaders. We had two recent presidents named George Bush. Once the second one was in office, he was distinguished primarily by his middle initial, George W. Bush, and his father was called "former President Bush." Now that they are both out of office, the latter designation doesn't clarify which George one means. A reasonable epithetic distinction could be made by calling them George Bush the Old and George Bush the Dumb. No one would have trouble figuring out which epithet applied to which George Bush.

Before looking this up, I didn't know that epithet could be used to mean "a phrase used in place of an actual name." There is another word, metonymy (pronounced mi-TON-uh-mee), very close in meaning. A metonymy is a metaphorical name: "the bottle" for "hard liquor" or "Washington" for "the U.S. government." There is yet another word, synecdoche (pronounced si-NEK-duh-kee), which can also be used for metonymy. A synecdoche is a usually figure of speech in which a part of a term is used for the whole ("society" instead of "high society") or a larger group is used for of its components ("use your head" for "use your brain"). However, another type of synecdoche is the same as the second sense of epithet. Using "lead" for "a bullet" is a synecdoche, a metonymy and in its second sense, an epithet.

As epithet is commonly used today, to mean a slur ("an insulting or disparaging remark"), it is almost always modified by "racial" or "ethnic" or by some other class of people prone to take offense. "Honkey" is a racial epithet. "Chink" is an ethnic epithet. The Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune recently reported this story:
MANATEE COUNTY - A Bradenton man was shot in the calf Thursday while riding his bicycle after a person yelled out a racial epithet.
Most epithets used to disparage, while vulgar, are not considered bad enough to bleep out of television shows. "Nigger" probably comes the closest. Most daily newspapers will replace "the n-word" with "a racial epithet," rather than spell out that obloquy ("a strongly condemnatory utterance; abusive language"). As such, an epithet is not generally a swearword ("a profane or obscene word"). Calling someone a dumb Pollock might be more offensive than calling him a shithead, but we allow ethnic epithets to be heard on the public airwaves, while we delete expletives ("exclamations that are profane, vulgar, or obscene") in order to assuage people who believe cursing should never be countenanced in the public square.

Monday, February 2, 2009


mandrake [MAN-drāk]
n. a plant with a forked root, resembling a man, thought to have magic powers; a narcotic prepared from its root.

[Derives from man + dragon]

Before I came across one of the strangest conspiracy theories, which claims that Jesus did not die when he was crucified, but instead was high on an anaesthetic herb called mandrake that makes a person who takes it appear to be dead, the only connection I had to the word mandrake was from one of those "who reads this stuff?" comic strips which is never, ever funny, called Mandrake the Magician. It's a very old strip, going back 75 years. Its hero -- to be played in an upcoming movie by the extraordinarily creepy illusionist Chris Angel of cable TV fame -- is a magician who hypnotizes people who then have hallucinations. (I'm not kidding.) I guess the inspiration for the strip came from its creator ingesting mandrake and then hallucinating.

So speaking of the Creator... Last night, after getting home from a Super Bowl party, I was flipping the dial and came across a Discovery Channel program called, "Jesus: The Complete Story," which apparently first ran in 2001. I'd never seen it before. The 15-minute segment I watched dealt with the mystery of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. As opposed to what the Christian Bible proclaims -- that Jesus died on the cross, was buried and then rose from the dead as the resurrected Christ -- some people apparently believe that his death on the cross was all a hoax, pulled off with an elaborate trick using this herb/drug mandrake, which was historically administered with a vinegar potion.

Before I explain the theory, take a look what is written in Matthew 28 about the resurrection, where Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, discover that the body of Jesus is not in his tomb:

"Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you."

The Discovery program didn't, in the part I watched, get into details about the conspiracy. However, a website called The Mandrake Connection (which may have been the source for the TV producers) lays it out. It says that Jesus was upset that he had very few followers and therefore very few people were hearing his message "that the peoples of the earth should treat rich and poor alike with the love and respect." However, if, before he was inevitably executed, he could pull off an elaborate illusion, in which he was thought to have died on the cross and then magically reappear, everyone would believe he was the anointed one and would thus accept his teachings.

The Mandrake Connection hypothesizes that Jesus was conspiring with his friend Lazarus and a handful of others to pull off this hoax. It first reworks the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead in John 11 -- "Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. ... And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go." -- claiming that Lazarus was never dead, but he had been experimenting with mandrake and only appeared to be dead. The reason Lazarus was experimenting was because he and Jesus wanted to figure out the exact right amount of potion Jesus should drink in order to not feel any pain from the crucifixion, but not overdose and kill himself. Everyone, including Martha and Mary, thought Lazarus had really died. Only Jesus knew that his friend was in a drug-induced coma.

So once Jesus, using Judas as his foil, convinces his enemies to execute him at the appropriate time, he is nailed to the cross, presumably with a modest dose of mandrake in his system. Mark 15 explains: "Then someone ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink, saying, 'Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to take Him down.' And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last." The Mandrake Connection argues that it was one of Jesus's conspirators who fed him a mandrake potion in that vinegar, making it soon appear that he was dead.

The theory goes on to say that the tomb where Jesus's body (still alive) was taken was guarded by others involved in the conspiracy. So when his tomb was found to be empty, his guards knew he had awakened from his mandrake high and run off.

Of course, this Mandrake Connection theory is insane, but to most non-believers perhaps no more insane than the Easter story. What struck me (as a non-believer) in reading it was that the author takes very seriously the words of the Christian Bible, as if they really tell the story of an historical event. He simply thinks the historians (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) fell for an elaborate hoax and therefore their conclusions are off, but in the main the Mandrake theorist accepts the words in the Bible as having actually been spoken.

That is the first place I part company from this conspiracy. The Bible is not history. It doesn't retell actual historical events the way history books as we now know them do. The Bible is a book of mythology, designed to impress a theological point of view on its readers. What Christians call the Old Testament was an oft-revised Jewish mythology that evolved constantly over hundreds of years. Their new testament was first written long after Jesus, if he ever existed, is said to have died on the cross. Its stories and words and quotes were massaged for hundreds of years until they served the needs of the Church which had a point of view it wanted expressed in the pages of its Scripture. When earlier versions of the Christian Bible did not meet the needs of the Church, the Bible was changed to serve the Church's purposes. If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, but in order to make the story work that he was in the line of David and had to be born in Bethlehem, the story was changed. If the early Church wanted to make clear to their Roman overlords that Christianity was no threat to Roman rule, they inserted the words, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" into the mouth of Jesus.

The second respect in which I part company with the Mandrake Connection -- and all wacky conspiracy theories -- is with regard to its complexity. Never mind that this theory is concocted out of thin air with no substantiating evidence. Just consider that, if the resurrection of Jesus did not happen as the Bible stories claim it did, there are far more obvious and simple solutions to proffer. For example, maybe Jesus never lived at all. Or maybe he was killed on the cross and the story of his tomb being found empty was a myth added by the Church. Or maybe there was confusion as to where his body was taken, and thus it was not surprising that the wrong tomb was found to be empty. Or maybe he died just as the Gospels say and he was taken to the correct tomb. But then a rumor was floated years later by those who had heard his story and they conjectured that he had been resurrected in the manner told in the Gospels. It could be any of those possibilities or something else quite simple. It need not involve a cockamamie conspiracy using a magic potion which, if used in the right manner, makes someone appear dead when he is only in a coma.

Despite my skepticism, I should note that mandrake was a plant known in Biblical times. It is mentioned in Genesis 30: "Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes. And she said unto her, Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? and wouldest thou take away my son's mandrakes also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with thee to night for thy son's mandrakes. And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son's mandrakes. And he lay with her that night." And then again in Song of Solomon 7:13: "The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved."

Sunday, February 1, 2009


inure [in-YOOR]
transitive v. to make accustomed or used to something painful, difficult, or inconvenient, as "inured to drudgery and distress."
intransitive v. to become of advantage, as "policies that inure to the benefit of employees".

[Derives from prefix in-, "in" + obsolete ure, "use, work," from Old French uevre, "work," from Latin opera, "trouble, pains, exertion," from opus, "work."]

When I was maybe in the 5th grade -- playing a word game called Mad Libs with Damien and Paul Rossi, who attended Catholic school -- I recall them asking me to come up with an adverb to complete the Mad Lib. I had no idea at the time -- thanks to my public school education -- what an adverb was. In contrast to St. James, West Davis Intermediate School didn't teach grammar. We never parsed sentences. We barely learned what nouns and verbs were. Almost all that I know now about language I picked up extramurally, some of it watching Schoolhouse Rock: "Conjunction junction, what's your function?".

But one thing I never learned was the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb. Inure is of interest to me because it has two distinct meanings, one transitive, the other intransitive.

Looking this up, a transitive verb is a verb that requires both a direct subject and a direct object. A transitive verb is incomplete without its direct object:

The basket holds ... ; The basket holds two loafs of bread.
The principal picked ... ; The principal picked a new hall monitor.
The acrobat broke ... ; The acrobat broke his leg.

By contrast, an instransitive verb can not take a direct object. For example, "I slept, you complained and he died."

Intransitive verbs can take prepositional phrases which act as adverbs: "This plant has thrived on the south windowsill." The prepositional phrase "on the south windowsill" acts as an adverb, describing where the plant thrives.

An intransitive verb can also be modified by a noun phrase: "The train from Sacramento arrived four hours late." The noun phrase "four hours late" acts as an adverb, describing when the train arrived.

Some verbs, including inure, mean different things when used transitively or intransitively.

Transitive: "Betty should leave her clothes on."
Intransitive: "Betty should leave."

Transitive: "The agriculture bill inured the farmers." (It hardened them.)
Intransitive: "The agriculture bill inured to the benefit of farmers." (It paid them.)