Monday, March 30, 2009


concupiscible [kŏn-KYOO-pĭ-sə-bəl]
adj. worthy of being desired; provoking lustful desires

[From Latin concupīscere ("to desire strongly"), from com- ("in association with") + cupere ("to desire")]

It's surprising to me that as pornographic and semi-pornographic images have become commonplace in modern society and clothing has become more revealing, a great word meaning "provoking lustful desires" remains as uncommon as concupiscible is. I don't know of any exact synonyms for it. Words like sexy, hot and desirable can be used for concupiscible, but none has that singular emphasis of provoking lust, the way concupiscible has. Yiddish has a nice word to describe a sexy woman, zaftig, but again that lacks the sense of provocation. Lustful and libidinous describe the traits of the person who lusts, not the features of the person who is the target of that desire.

In his famous sermon, The Image of God in Man, published 200 years ago, Robert South contrasted the Stoic view of what was sinful in man with the examples of Jesus, "who took upon him all our natural infirmities, but none of our sinful, has been seen to weep to be sorrowful to pity and to be angry:"
Now, though the schools reduce all the passions to these two heads: the concupiscible and the irascible appetite; yet I shall not tie myself to an exact prosecution of them under this division, but at this time, leaving both their terms and their method to themselves, consider only the principal and most noted passions from whence we may take an estimate of the rest.

In Act V, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure -- the last scene in the play -- William Shakespeare has Isabella give "the gift of (her) chaste body" to save the life of her brother, Claudio. Isabella describes the lust of Angelo, who holds Claudio's fate in his hands, as provoking lustful desires:
In brief, to set the needless process by,
How I persuaded, how I pray'd, and kneel'd,
How he refell'd me, and how I replied,—
For this was of much length,—the vile conclusion
I now begin with grief and shame to utter:
He would not, but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust,
Release my brother; and, after much debatement,
My sisterly remorse confutes mine honour,
And I did yield to him: but the next morn betimes,
His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant
For my poor brother's head.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


chaff [CHAF]
v. to tease in a good-natured manner; to engage in banter
n. banter

[Origin unknown, but probably from chafe ("to irritate; to annoy")]

From the saying, "separate the wheat from the chaff," which means "to separate what is useful or valuable from what is worthless," chaff is fairly well known. In that sense, chaff is "the husks of grains and grasses separated from the seed by threshing and winnowing." However, chaff has another meaning, "banter," which is unrelated.

Banter is "an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks; good-natured raillery." Besides chaff, we have quite a few nice synonyms in English for playful kidding, teasing and joking among friends. Here are some: badinage ("light, playful banter"); jest ("a bantering remark"); josh ("to chaff; banter in a teasing way"); persiflage ("light, bantering talk or writing"); rag on ("to subject to a teasing, esp. in an intense or prolonged way"); raillery ("good-humored ridicule"); razz ("to deride; make fun of; tease"); and ridicule ("to deride; make fun of").

In Love, Poverty and War, Christopher Hitchens quotes Evelyn Waugh from Waugh's work as a foreign correspondent for the Express newspaper, where Mr. Waugh described the playful banter at a bar in Sarajevo:
All over the lounge and dining-room they sat and stood and leaned; some whispered to each other in what they took to be secrecy; others exchanged chaff and gin.

In his novel Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh again employs chaff:
There was still a great deal of the schoolboy about Alastair; he enjoyed winter sports and sailing and squash racquets and the chaff round the bar at Bratt's.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


rumpus [RUM-pəs]
n. a noisy or violent disturbance; commotion

[Origin unknown]

It surprised me to find that the origin of rumpus is considered unknown. I would have thought it was related to romp ("boisterous play or frolic"), which has an accepted etymology: from Old French ramper ("to rear, rise up), of Germanic origin.

When I was a child, pre-Sesame Street, the most popular kids' show on public television was Romper Room. Although I don't hear it too often anymore, a room in a house set aside for rough play is called a rumpus room. Dictionaries tend to define a rumpus room -- the term first originated in 1940 -- as "a recreation room."

A gossip columnist in the Times of London, Adam Sherwin, on Thursday referred to a noisy commotion in the British House of Commons:
A rumpus in the computer room is the talk of the MPs’ den, Portcullis House. Evan Harris, the Lib Dem Member, was heard to complain loudly that an item of personal property had been destroyed. The object in question was a long-festering sushi lunch that had been disposed of.

In his book, The Wars of Watergate, Stanley Kutler quotes Bill Safire calling for members of Congress to make some noise after Senate Democrats required that Archibald Cox be appointed a Special Prosecutor, as a condition of approving Elliot Richardson as Attorney General:
Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire urged Congress to "raise the rumpus it is entitled to raise as a result of the Richardson confirmation double-cross."

Friday, March 27, 2009


encomium [ěn-KO-mē-əm]
n. a formal expression of high praise; eulogy

[From Greek enkōmion, en- ("in") + kōmos ("celebration")]

Originally an encomium was a Greek choral song honoring the hero of the Olympic Games and sung at the victory celebration at the end of the Games. The Greek writers Simonides of Ceos and Pindar wrote some of the earliest of these original encomia. The term later took on the broader meaning of any composition of a laudatory nature. While an encomium may be heaped on someone living or dead, if someone gives you a eulogy (it literally means "good word"), you are no longer alive. If the eulogy at a memorial service is given informally, it is not an encomium.

In this article from American Heritage magazine, Geoffrey C. Ward reviews Richard Goodwin's memoir of Goodwin's time in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. When he parted the Johnson White House -- over Vietnam -- Ward quotes Johnson's high praise for Goodwin from the memoir:
In reluctantly accepting Goodwin’s resignation, Johnson was lavish in his praise: “I know that the unique opportunity to serve your country during these years has been a blessing to you, for it has given you the means of applying your brilliant talents to the problems that beset your fellow men. It has also been a blessing for the country—for within the high councils of government you have articulated with great force and persuasion man’s hunger for justice and his hopes for a better life.” “It was the most extravagant and eloquent tribute I ever received,” Goodwin notes, “before or since.” He has every right to be proud of this encomium, signed by the demanding President for whom he labored so effectively, but the reader can’t help wondering if LBJ actually wrote it.

In his controversial book about Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens takes after the famous nun for her cordial relations with some vicious dictators and their families. Here, Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa praising Michèle Duvalier, the wife of Haiti's despot, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier:
'Madame President is someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions.' ... in her time, (Mother Teresa) had 'never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson for me.'

Hitchens suggests that the founder of the Missionaries of Charity was cozy with brutal killers like the Duvaliers, and never critical of their terrible deeds, because she personally gained from them; and they were kind to her in return, because she afforded them much-needed good publicity:
In return for these and other favours, Mother Teresa was awarded the Haitian Legion d'honneur. And her simple testimony, in warm encomium of the ruling couple, was shown on state-run television every night for at least a week.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


swarthy [SWORE-thē]
adj. having a dark complexion or color

[From German schwarz ("black"), earlier Gothic swarts]

Yiddish took the same root word from German and came up with shvartzeh, meaning black. The English swarthy, however, is descriptive of skin color, but isn't limited to black people of African heritage. Anyone who is darker-skinned than your typical white Brit, such as an Italian normally is, qualifies as swarthy. According to the dictionaries I've checked, swarthy evolved in English from swart, meaning the same thing.

The governor of Kal-ee-for-nee-uh's last name, Schwarzenegger, has, of course, schwarzen in it, meaning black. There seems to be disagreement as to what the -egger means. Arnold says it means "plowman," making his name translate as Blackplowman. Others have said -egger is "field." This maven on German names says the Terminator's name derives from "das schwarze Eck," meaning "Black-corner." No one apparently disagrees, though, that the first part of Schwarzenegger is black.

According to my dictionary, the word swarthy is first used in English in 1570. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare tried it out in Act II, Scene 6 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In this soliloquy, Proteus -- one of the gentlemen -- who left behind in Verona a possible lover, Julia, doesn't know what to do, after having fallen in love in Milan with Silvia, who is possibly the lover of his friend, Valentine -- the other gentleman:
I cannot leave to love, and yet I do;
But there I leave to love where I should love.
Julia I lose and Valentine I lose:
If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;
If I lose them, thus find I by their loss
For Valentine myself, for Julia Silvia.
I to myself am dearer than a friend,
For love is still most precious in itself;
And Silvia—witness Heaven, that made her fair!—
Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope.

In Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, a chaplain named Father Mapple, preaching to seafarers in the Whaleman’s Chapel, recounts the Biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Melville, here, uses swarthy to describe Father Mapple's dark-skinned forehead:
While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah's sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them. .

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


imbue [ĭm-BYOO]
v. to permeate or saturate; to impregnate or inspire, as with feelings, opinions, etc.; to cause to become impressed or penetrated.

[From Latin imbuere ("to moisten, stain")]

Imbue is etymologically related to imbibe ("to drink; to take in, as ideas"). In their figurative senses, the difference between imbue and imbibe is largely that imbibe is more of a reflexive verb. What I imbibe affects me. What you imbibe affects you. What I imbue permeates someone or something else. Someone else's ideas can be imbued in me. Another difference between them is that imbibe is (often) more transient in its effects. Sarah left the Obama rally inspired, having imbibed her candidate's promise of change she could believe in. Because anything which permanently impresses itself upon you affects who you are, what you believe and how you act, there is often a religious connotation associated with imbue that is lacking in imbibe.

In 1930, Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, succumbed to censorial pressures put upon Hollywood by the Catholic Church. The MPPDA agreed to institute a new Production Code Administration, to be headed by Joseph I. Breen, a former newspaperman and influential Roman Catholic layman. In his book, Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty explains the Victorian morality that Joe Breen wanted to saturate movies with:
Breen saw his errand in the Hollywood wilderness in grander terms than the concealment of skin and the deletion of curses. He wanted to remake American cinema into a positive force for good, to imbue it with a transcendent sense of virtue and order.

In his 1850 tract on how to teach Sunday School, author James Inglis explained how the Bible's lessons can permeate those being taught:
It is as needful to imbue our lessons with life, as to make them substantial. Yet different lessons must be taught in different modes. We must endeavour to imbue every lesson with its own spirit. Descriptions must be made picturesque, devotional lessons be filled with feeling, and where an object is to prove some great truth, clearness precision and good arrangement are what must be principally sought after.

In a November, 1994 New York Times column, William Safire wrote that the intellectual energy in Washington had shifted from the White House to Congress, following large Republican victories in the election held a week before. Yet Safire divorced himself in this column from one of the ideas being promoted by the new Speaker of the House to be, Newt Gingrich:
Libertarian conservatives like me recoil at the intrusiveness in Newt's call for a "voluntary" school prayer amendment. He's being inconsistent on his bedrock principle of individual responsibility: If parents want to imbue their children with spiritual values -- as more should -- the parents should take the kids by the hand to Sunday School and not fob off that family duty on educators employed by local government.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


perspicacious [pûr-spĭ-KAY-shəs]
adj. having keen mental perception and understanding; discerning; acutely insightful and wise

[From Latin perspicere ("to look through") from per- ("through") specere ("to look")+ ]

The spic in perspicacious, conspicuous and suspicious has the same root as the spect in common English words like inspect and respect. In all of them, the root means "to look."

Aspect is "a way in which something is looked at." To be circumspect is "looking around; cautious and careful not to take risks." Something conspicuous is "easy to look at; or easy to see." A conspectus is "a general survey, one which looks fully at a subject." To inspect is "to look into; to examine carefully." To introspect is "to look inside oneself; to reflect on one's own thoughts and feelings." To prospect is "to look forward; to search for something (as minerals)." To respect is "to look back at (in admiration); to feel or show deferential regard for." A suspect is "someone you look at from below."

In the New York Times's obituary of William F. Buckley, Douglas Martin credits the prolific author and founder of The National Review with perspicacity:
William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.

Monday, March 23, 2009


apotropaic [ap-uh-truh-PAY-ik]
adj. intended to ward off evil

[From Greek apotrópaios ("averting evil), combining apo- ("apart from") + -trope ("that which turns")]

In a pre-scientific age, the mysterious "evil" was credited with all sorts of misfortune: disease, storms, loss of money, mental illness, crop failure, war, etc. Much of religion, whether monotheistic or polytheistic, seems to have been created to explain evil and ward it off. Despite the fact that there are generally good scientific explanations for "evil" -- we know, for example, how and why hurricanes form and can predict with some accuracy where they will make landfall -- there are still morons all over the world who live by superstitions and ascribe "evil" to supernatural causes. Some wear amulets ("small objects worn to ward off evil, harm, or illness or to bring good fortune"), while others carry talismans ("a stone, ring, or other object, engraved with figures or characters supposed to possess occult powers and worn as an amulet or charm"). In voodoo, followers build small shrines of the occult to ward off evil. In Shinto, large gates (torii) are designed to keep out evil. In Islam, Muslims wear an "evil eye" in order to protect themselves.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens decries the application of euphemisms to bad actors, including supernatural demons:
In a media world where Bin Laden's murderous surrogates in Iraq can be given a homely moniker, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. As a novel about the Nazi era has recently reminded us, the Furies of antiquity were so much dreaded that they were sometimes apotropaically named "the Kindly Ones," or Eumenides.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


tautology [taw-TALL-uh-jee]
n. a logical statement in which the conclusion is equivalent to the premise; circular reasoning.

[From Greek tautologos ("repeating what has been said") from tauto ("the same") + -logos ("saying")]

There are other definitions of tautology -- it can be a synonym for redundancy, for example -- but the circular argument usage is the one which interests me.

This is from Wikipedia and explains tautology well: "It is formulating a description in a way that masquerades as an explanation when the real reason for the phenomena cannot be independently derived. The statement 'If you can't find something (that you lost), you are not looking in the right place' is tautological. It is true and can't be disputed, but conveys no useful information. Any argument containing a tautology is flawed and must be considered a logical fallacy."

I like this example: "The reason I'm not wearing any socks is because I don't have any socks on."

Julian Baggini, writing in the London Guardian:
The seven wise men who are supposed to have come up with the wise words inscribed at Delphi come close to being just as vacuous. For the injunction not to do anything to excess is also a tautology: an excess just is too much, and so by definition is already wrong. The difficulty lies in knowing how much is too much, not that too much is bad.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The War on Science

George Will is a brilliant columnist, a great debater and someone who normally employs an informed opinion to cleverly challenge accepted wisdom. Along with his colleague Charles Krauthammer, Will is perhaps the best conservative columnist/commentator on the American scene, today. Yet Will doesn't always "employ an informed opinion." When all or most of the facts don't support the conclusion he prefers, Mr. Will will cherry-pick those he likes and ignore the rest. That is not a terrible thing to do, insofar as he is trying to make the best case possible for his side of the story. It's not as if he is a character assassin, like this scapegrace or this shrew. But what his readers should know, is that when he quotes statistics or hard evidence which contradict accepted wisdom, Will might not be being completely honest.

Such was the case in his February 15, 2009 column titled, "Dark Green Doomsayers." He tried to shoot down the concensus on global warming by carefully choosing a few odd statistics out of context to make the case that there is good scientific reason to have serious doubts.

Fortunately, Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science" and co-author of the forthcoming "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future," took Will to task in this op/ed in today's Washington Post.

Here's an example from Mooney's piece:
Will also wrote that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." ... Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons -- 1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño -- study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it's far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven have occurred in the 2000s -- again, according to the WMO.


knavery [NAY-və-rē]
n. an instance of trickery or mischief

[From German Knabe ("boy") + ery]

A knave is "an unprincipled, untrustworthy, or dishonest person," and thus knavery is what he does.

Knave, rascal, rogue, scoundrel are disparaging terms applied to persons considered base, dishonest, or worthless. Knave, which formerly meant merely a boy or servant, in modern use emphasizes baseness of nature and intention: a dishonest and swindling knave. (When a word evolves to take on a negative implication, that process is called "pejoration" by linguists.)

Rascal suggests "shrewdness and trickery in dishonesty." A rogue is "a worthless fellow who sometimes preys extensively upon the community by fraud." A scoundrel is "a blackguard and rogue of the worst sort." A blackguard is "a thoroughly unprincipled person." A villain is "a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime." A scamp is "an unscrupulous and often mischievous person." A scapegrace is "a habitually unscrupulous person." A rapscallion is "a rascal." And a scalawag is "a scoundrel, especially a white Southerner who supported Reconstruction policies after the American Civil War.".

Some instances of knavery in the press:

The Nigerian Guardian:
The country has in some cases wasted huge resources in conducting fresh elections, on account of the ineptitude and knavery of the (Independent National Electoral Commission).

MWC News:
Bush-style reconstruction has failed dismally in Iraq, thanks to thievery, knavery, and sheer incompetence, and is now essentially ending...

A New York Times obituary of James "Scotty" Reston in 1995:
In 50 years as a reporter, columnist and editor for The New York Times, Scotty Reston saw enough pestilence and knavery to satisfy anyone's appetite for misery. But he never much liked it, and he never succumbed to it.

Friday, March 20, 2009


mountebank [MOUN-tə-bāngk]
n. a person who sells quack medicines, as from a platform in public places, attracting and influencing an audience by tricks, storytelling, etc.

[From Italian montambanco, from the phrase monta im banco ("one gets up onto the bench")]

Even though there are still today a countless number of people engaged in fraud, chicanery, trickery, graft, swindles and old-fasioned Ponzi Schemes, a la Bernard Madoff, my sense is that, at least in the advanced world, the age of the retail mountebank has come and gone.

Being a mountebank formerly was to be an independent, lone businessman. He arrived in a remote town by rail or stagecoach, called a great deal of attention to himself so that all suckers and shmegegges would come to hear his spiel. He sold his elixirs one by one to willing simpletons who had faith in God and wanted to believe in better days.

The retail mountebank's exit from the stage was not because we now live in a scientific age -- a fool and his money are soon departed, and a sucker is born every day -- it is that the great con artists can make so much more going wholesale. If you are hawking a baldness cure, you no longer need to show up in Hootervilles to reach your schnooks. You can film an infomercial, buy time late at night on cable, and convince the gullible that your cream will magically make dead follicles come to life. Even better, you can call a revival meeting and broadcast it.

Another factor that may have hurt the retail mountebank business was the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act. Before that passed, we had no FDA, no regulation of pharmaceuticals. A 19th Century mountebank could put together any sort of concoction he liked, regardless of its actual ingredients, and sell it as a cure for whatever ailments his customers wanted. But since 1906, most drugs come with a regulatory burden, and that has cut into the profits of retail prophets.

In the 20th Century would be pharmaceutical frauds moved into unregulated religion. They saw the money that 19th Century huxters like Marry Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, made. Religion became a lucrative alternative to alternative medicine. There was nothing scientific about faith healing or Ms. Eddy's "science." It simply had the benefit of being an unregulated open market for fraud.

Aimee Semple McPherson, who preached to millions in mass gatherings, was perhaps America's most famous faith healer after Mary Baker Eddy's day. In the 1930s, McPherson, a wholesale con artist, took her act to the radio. When she died during World War II, McPherson passed the torch to Kathryn Kuhlman, who went on TV and reached many millions more.

No living faith healer is better at picking the pockets of parishioners than the ever unctious Benny Hinn. He can tap someone on the head and heal blindness. He can reach under someone's clothing and remove a malignant tumor. He can knock someone off his feet and cure his carbuncles. Hinn is unusual in that he's not a woman, and he's an Arab who appeals to yokels from the Confederate states. Maybe because Hinn is rather effeminate in his dainty linen suits, his desperate dupes don't notice that he's not what he seems?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


pique [PEEK]
n. a feeling of irritation or resentment, as from a wound to pride or self-esteem

[From French pique ("a spear, pikeman") from piquer "to pick, prick, pierce")]

Although pique is often used as a noun, it has much the same meaning as a verb: "to affect with sharp irritation and resentment, esp. by some wound to pride." She was greatly piqued when they refused her invitation. Another definition of the verb is "to excite (interest, curiosity, etc.)." Her curiosity was piqued by the gossip.

Often pique as a noun goes with "a pique of resentment" or "a fit of pique." Normally pique is employed with individuals, but it works well with a country or a large group of people. It is not unreasonable to ascribe pique as the motivation for some of the irrational behavior of nations, leading to wars. When the pride of a country or a large group of people is on the line, restoration of honor after being piqued by the actions of outsiders might drive the offended party to fight. I sense the Palestinian cause is largely driven by a feeling of irritation or resentment, as from a wound to pride or self-esteem: in a word, pique. They don't attack Israelis thinking doing so will win a war. They send rockets into their neighbors' homes because they feel picked on (and in other ways mistreated) by Israel.

Based on its etymology, my guess is that pique came into usage as a noun from people who felt picked on. The words pike, pick, pickaxe and pique all have the same French origins, which likely came from Celtic sources before entering French.

In his review of the movie Phoebe in Wonderland, New York Times film critic Stephen Holden describes why Phoebe, the protagonist, exhibits a fit of pique:
The girl’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman), who is turning her doctoral thesis on “Alice in Wonderland” into a book, worries that Phoebe is resentful of the time she spends on the book. But as Phoebe increasingly gets lost in daydreams in which the people in her life become figures out of “Alice in Wonderland,” her behavior signals deeper problems. She injures herself making a daredevil leap from a catwalk above the stage; in a fit of pique she spits at a fellow student.

Here Julia Klein in today's New York Times uses pique as a verb, meaning to excite:
At the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, Bruce Shapiro has been an artist in residence. He specializes in “motion control” installations whose aim, he said, is to pique curiosity and inspire a sense of wonder.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Davis Fire Department needs to return to the status quo ante

To read my news column above, just click on it.


impudent [IM-pyə-dənt]
adj. shameless; brash; uninhibited; characterized by offensive boldness

[From Latin im- ("not") + pudēre ("to feel shame")]

The etymology of impudent is what makes it a fun word. The Latin verb pudēre ("to feel shame") is its root; that comes from pudendum ("the external genital organs, esp. those of the female; vulva"). In other words, the source of a person's shame is having one's genitalia exposed.

As it is normally used, impudent is synonymous with impertinent ("intrusive or presumptuous, as persons or their actions; insolently rude; uncivil; brash") and audacious ("recklessly bold in defiance of convention, propriety, law, or the like"); its noun form, impudence, is synonymous with effrontery ("shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity").

In her brilliant novel, Emma, Jane Austen described the benefit of impudence:
FRANK CHURCHILL came back again; and if he kept his father's dinner waiting, it was not known at Hartfield; for Mrs. Weston was too anxious for his being a favorite with Mr. Woodhouse to betray any imperfection which could be concealed.

He came back, had had his hair cut, and laughed at himself with a very good grace, but without seeming really at all ashamed of what he had done. He had no reason to wish his hair longer to conceal any confusion of face; no reason to wish the money unspent to improve his spirits. He was quite as undaunted and as lively as ever; and after seeing him, Emma thus moralized to herself:

"I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly. It depends upon the character of those who handle it."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


cutler [KUT-lər]
n. one who makes, repairs, or sells knives or other cutting instruments

[From Middle English cuteler, from Old French coutelier, from coutel ("knife")]

This week, the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, Jay Cutler, got into a public spat with his team's new coach, Josh McDaniels, after it was reported that the Broncos attempted to trade Mr. Cutler to another team:

"Cutler is upset that the Broncos tried to trade him for New England quarterback Matt Cassel last month and what he considers McDaniels's misleading answers to his inquiries about those discussions."

That got me thinking about cutler and cutlery. While cutlery is technically defined as "cutting instruments collectively, esp. knives for cutting food" or "the trade or business of a cutler," cutlery is normally used in a broader sense, as "utensils used at the table for serving and eating food."

Unless his family's name was changed, I imagine that Jay Cutler descends from an ancestor who "made, repaired, or sold knives or other cutting instruments." I love surnames like that: taken from an ancestor's occupation.

What are the meanings of some other NFL quarterbacks' last names?
Kurt Warner -- "someone who gave notice of danger, impending evil, or anything else unfavorable."
Jason Campbell -- "a man whose mouth inclined a little on one side."
Kerry Collins -- "a term of endearment applied to young animals."
JaMarcus Russell -- "red-haired, somewhat reddish; carrot-colored."
Tom Brady -- "handsome."
Tyler Thigpen -- "someone who begged for coins."
Drew Brees -- "Dutch: habitational name from any of the various places in France named Buré, or from a Dutch form of the personal name Brictius."
Matt Schaub -- "‘sheaf or wisp of straw’, hence a habitational name from a house distinguished by the sign of a sheaf of grain for a licensed brewer, or perhaps a nickname for a scrawny person or someone with straw-colored hair."
Tony Romo -- "snub-nosed."
Brett Favre -- "smith; craftsman."
Dan Orlovsky -- "Russian (Orlov) and Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic): patronymic from the nickname Oryol ‘eagle’."

Monday, March 16, 2009


votary [VOH-tuh-ree]
n. a person who is bound by solemn religious vows, as a monk or a nun

[From Latin vōtum, (vow, "a solemn promise, pledge, or personal commitment")]

The etymological roots of devotion are the same as in votary and vow. Essentially, a votary is a person devoted to God.

In a recent article in, the noted atheist Christopher Hitchens expressed his displeasure at the secular government of Pakistan for handing control of a part of that country over to a group of medieval men devoted to imposing Islamic law, as they interpret it, on the modern people of the Swat Valley:
In a wishful attempt to bring peace with the Taliban in Pakistan itself, the government has recently ceded a fertile and prosperous and modernized valley province—the former princedom of Swat—to the ultraviolent votaries of the one party and the one God. This is not some desolate tribal area where government and frontier have been poorly delineated for decades, as in Waziristan. It is a short commute from the capital city of Islamabad.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


gallimaufry [gal-uh-MAW-free]
n. hodgepodge

[From French galimafrée, combining galer ("to rejoice") + mafrer ("to eat much")]

In his review of A. James Gregor's book, The Two Faces of Janus: Marxism and Facism in the Twentieth Century, for the Hoover Institution, Arnold Beichman introduced me to gallimaufry, a synonym for hodgepodge I had never known before:
Because Marxism provides a self-styled scientific socio-political analysis as well as a gallimaufry of beliefs and insights, it appealed to intellectuals and, alas, still does.

I found a few other good gallimaufry quotes floating around, and all of them seem to use this word in place of hodgepodge. Colman McCarthy, for example, in the Washington Post:
Maran reports the daily jostlings and thrivings in a public school with 3,200 students, 185 teachers, 45 languages, a principal and five vice principals, five safety monitors, 62 sports teams and a gallimaufry of alternative programs, clubs and cliques.

Ezra Bowen in Time:
Today bilingual programs are conducted in a gallimaufry of around 80 tongues, ranging from Spanish to Lithuanian to Micronesian Yapese.

We have a long list of synonyms and near synonyms in English for gallimaufry, hodgepodge, assortment, mixture, jumble, combination, blend, etc. They include: agglomeration ("a jumbled cluster"); aggregation ("collection into an unorganized whole"); amalgamation ("the mixing or blending of different elements"); cluster ("a number of things of the same kind, growing or held together"); conglomeration ("a mixed coherent mass"); farrago ("a confused mixture"); hash ("a mess, jumble, or muddle"); medley ("a mixture of heterogeneous elements"); melange ("a mixture; medley"); mess ("a dirty or untidy mass, litter, or jumble"); mingle-mangle ("a jumbled or confused mixture"); miscellany ("a collection of various or unrelated items"); mishmash ("a confused mess"); muddle ("a confused, disordered condition"); olio ("a mixture of heterogeneous elements"); potpourri ("any mixture, esp. of unrelated objects, subjects"); and salmagundi ("any mixture or miscellany").

Like gallimaufry, hodgepodge has its etymological origins in cooking. Hodgepodge is alternatively spelled hotchpot. In French it was hochepot, which came from hocher ("to shake") + pot ("pot"). The French components have Dutch roots, but mean the same thing. In Law, a hotchpotch is "a mixing together, or throwing into a common mass or stock, of the estate left by a person deceased and the amounts advanced to any particular child or children, for the purpose of a more equal division, or of equalizing the shares of all the children."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Nick Watney of Davis is tied for first?

As a fellow Blue Devil, I root for Nick Watney every time he plays golf. The only odd thing about being a fan of his is when I say, "He's from Davis.... Well, not from Davis, from Davis High. Nick grew up in Dixon, and his family still lives there. I think he currently lives in a state without an income tax, like all rational golfers who make a ton of dough. So, as happy as I am for him, I can't really say we share the same home town. Just the same high school -- where, of course, he was a golf legend. At least reigning American League MVP, Dustin Pedroia, is from Yolo County.

This is a BBC report on the WGC event at the Doral Country Club near Miami:

American duo Phil Mickelson and Nick Watney hold a four-shot lead over the rest of the field going into the final round of the WGC-CA Championship. Watney had four birdies in his opening six holes but had to save par on the 18th to stay on terms with Mickelson. Watney took over at the top of the leaderboard from second-round leader Mickelson after racing to the turn in a four-under 32. Mickelson, who is chasing a win to help him close in on the number one spot in the world rankings, struggled on the front nine, sending his tee shot into the water at the fourth and three-putting for a bogey on the seventh. Watney suffered his first bogey of the tournament at the 11th before birdies at the 12th and 16th put him back into contention. Mickelson recovered his composure on the back nine with three birdies in a row from the 12th and although he drove left at the 17th, eventually ending up with his third bogey, he parred the last to finish with a 69.

EDIT (March 15, 2009): Watney finished in second place, one stroke behind Mickelson. For winning the World Golf Championship, Mickelson earned $1,400,000. For second place, Watney took home $820,000. Third place finisher, Jim Furyk, who was two strokes behind Watney, won $470,000. Tiger Woods, in his first stroke-play event since returning to competitive golf after recuperating from knee surgery last year, was tied for 9th and earned $142,500. The lowest payout, still mighty good for four days of golf, was $35,250, which went to 79th place finisher, Pablo Larrazábal. Larrazábal is a 25-year-old from Spain, who normally plays on the European Tour.


uxorious [ŭk-SORE-ē-əs]
adj. foolishly fond of, or affectionately submissive toward one's wife

[From Latin uxor ("wife")]

Almost four years ago, I went to the Yolo County animal shelter to find a new puppy. My sweet old dog, Moxie, whom I had named for the title character in Gregory McDonald's comic mystery, "Fletch's Moxie" -- one of many Fletch books, two of which became Chevy Chase movies years after I read the series -- had recently died of cancer. I didn't have a name in mind for the new doggy. I figured something would come to me when I saw him. By great luck, the cutest puppy in the history of the world (see picture below) was brought into a large cage just as I arrived. He was mostly black, but had white markings and a handsome pink spot on his little nose. While other dogs at the pound seemed nice, this beautiful puppy was the one for me. When I finally got him home, still without a name, I started looking over my large collection of biographies. I had recently read "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow, and thought Hamilton was a good dog's name. But in consideration that he might end up being called Hammy -- not all that kosher -- I opted instead for one of my favorite American heroes, Truman, after looking at the jacket of David McCullough's warm biography of our 33rd president.

Of the many lasting images I have of Harry Truman from McCullough's account, is that Harry had a deep, affectionate and undying love for his wife, Bess. He doted on her and treated her always as if her agreeing to be his wife was the most impossibly wonderful thing any human being had done for another ever. Thus, when I think of a doting husband, when I think of uxorious, I think of President Truman. I was not the first to use that adjective to describe the man from Independence. Here is a snippet from James McManus about Cassius Coolidge, the commercial artist most famous for his series of calendar paintings, Dogs Playing Poker, in which he describes Truman. McManus compares the Dogs Playing Poker paintings to Tennessee Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire:
But unlike Stanley Kowalski, throwing his muscular weight around in the original wife-beater T-shirt, Coolidge's dogs are cut from the same cloth as Harry Truman, the uxoriously buttoned-up Kansas City haberdasher who went on to become a judge and, by the time Streetcar opened, our most mainstream president. The dogs wear either flannel suits or handsome leather collars. Like Truman, they're upstanding gents, neither prudish nor overly macho. Their games are low-key male rituals, not make-or-break showdowns. While Coolidge was painting them, Truman's Monday night poker sessions with World War I Army buddies had a 10-cent limit. "A little beer or bourbon was consumed," his biographer tells us, "Prohibition notwithstanding."


uxoricide [uhk-SORE-uh-side]
n. the act of murdering one's wife.

[From Latin uxor ("wife") + -cide ("killer")]

A homicide detective in Chicago once told me that whenever a woman "disappears" for a week or more, chances are nearly 100 percent that she is dead and was a victim of uxoricide. As tragically common as wife-killing is, the word uxoricide is not used all that much. One hears the words fratricide ("brother-killing"), matricide ("mother-killing") and patricide ("father-killing"), but those crimes take place much less often than a man murdering his wife or girlfriend. It's no coincidence that many of the biggest celebrity trials of the last 20 years have been uxoricidal: OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, Scott Peterson, Phil Spector, etc. While there are cases of husband-killing, it's uncommon enough that we don't (as far as I know) have a word in English meaning that.

Friday, March 13, 2009


hortatory [HôR-tuh-tôr-ē]
adj. urging to some course of conduct or action; giving strong encouragement

[From Latin hortārī ("to exhort; encourage")]

While to exhort can be a rather placid verb meaning "to urge, advise or earnestly caution," its related adjective, hortatory, is often far less calm. Hortatory implies frenzy and action. I associate a hortatory speech with a military commander, exciting his troops to battle ferociously. I picture Adolf Hitler standing before a massive throng in Nuremberg waving his hands madly, urging Germans to do evil deeds.

In his review of A. James Gregor's book, The Two Faces of Janus: Marxism and Facism in the Twentieth Century, for the Hoover Institution, Arnold Beichman qualifies Giovanni Gentile’s fascist writing as that sort of a call to action:
Fascism had its theoreticians, and a distressing number of serious thinkers, the philosopher Martin Heidegger first among them, lent their support. But fascism in actual fact it had no intellectual basis at all, nor did its founders even pretend to have any. Hitler’s ravings in Mein Kampf, Giovanni Gentile’s hortatory article in the Italian Encyclopedia, Mussolini’s boastful balcony speeches, all of these can be described, in the words of Roger Scruton, as "an amalgam of disparate conceptions."

Even though I personally think of hortatory having a martial spirit to it, it can be and is used to qualify any strong encouragement, including urging a student to study harder, telling a congregant to pray more, exhorting a salesman to get out and meet with more customers. In a recent Washington Post article on its business page, hortatory was used in this latter sense, urging people in business to take necessary actions:
The Interactive Advertising Bureau is hosting its annual conference at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, Fl. While the setting and the weather are both pleasant, the gathering is occurring during the most pessimistic period for the ad industry as a whole in a decade, if not 60 years. So, in addition to the celebratory awards presentations and a few hortatory words from keynote speakers like Wenda Harris Millard, the organization also had a few house-keeping announcements.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


apodictic [ap-uh-DICK-tick]
adj. expressing absolute certainty; incontestable because of having been demonstrated or proved to be demonstrable

[From Greek apodeiktikós ("proving fully"), combining apo- ("separate") + deiktikós (able to be proved")]

When I was having coffee yesterday afternoon, the 1948 movie Key Largo came up. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, among others. Probably because I saw that film around the time I took a class on the director Howard Hawks, who directed Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946), I thought Key Largo was a Hawks film. I was sure of it. I said apodictically at Peet's, "Hawks directed that movie. I took a class on Howard Hawks when I was an undergrad!" Turns out, my apodicticity was misplaced. Key Largo was a John Huston film. Hawks had nothing to do with it.

In Aristotelian (or Socratic) logic, apodictic propositions are those which can be demonstrably proven. "Two plus three is five" is apodictic, because you could take two pencils in one hand and three in the other and put them together to show you have five. A self-evident proposition is apodictic: "I am bald." Dialectic propositions, by contrast, are not self-evident, but can be proved by argument. Wikipedia: "In classical philosophy, dialectic is a form of reasoning based on the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments, advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of such an exchange might be the refutation of one of the relevant points of view, or a synthesis or combination of the opposing assertions, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue."

In a 2005 piece in his magazine, The National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr. cites the misplaced apodicticity of the Bush Administration with regard to its claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction:
It's correct that there is political commotion mounting in opposition to the Iraq war. It is important to distinguish between two kinds. One, which is gaining attention, centers on misrepresentations. The so-called Downing Street Memo is cited. This records an exchange at 10 Downing Street on July 23, 2002, at which, it is said, the representatives of Mr. Bush made it clear that the president had resolved to proceed against Iraq irrespective of what the U.N. might do.

Rejecting that account, the Bush people have said that the invasion was not finally planned until after the appeal to the United Nations by Secretary of State Powell on February 5, 2003.

The revisionist line is saying that the war should not have taken place and that many who gave it support were deceived by apodictic claims from the White House that the enemy had weapons of mass destruction.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


chador [CHUD-ər]
n. the traditional garment of Muslim women, consisting of a long, usually black or drab-colored cloth or veil that envelops the body from head to foot and covers all or part of the face.

[Originally Hindi, to Persian chaddar, chādur ("veil, sheet")]

A few years ago, at a dog park in Davis, I recall a woman -- I presume it was a woman, but who knows what's under that kind of a garment -- walking through, wearing a chador, covering her from head to toe. A yappy small dog spotted this medieval picture passing by and ran up to her and barked deleriously, as if the pooch were protecting the rest of us from this alien who dropped in from 1,400 years ago. The lady under the black sheet was understandably frightened and let out one of those weird high-pitched cackles that only Arab women seem able to sound.

It's amazing to me that in a free country any woman would wear such a horrible, ugly and demeaning outfit. The only thing I can figure is that a woman who does so here is under the threat of violence from her husband or family, or she has been thoroughly brainwashed by her religion's moronic customs. In countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan (where the chador is called a burqa, but is the same thing), it's not just the threat of being beaten or killed by her husband or brainwashing; those terrible territories have religious police which enforce the strictures of their stupid cultures. They will arrest a woman if too much of her arms, for example, are showing in public.

The obvious intention of the Muslim men who designed the chador into their effed up religion was to oppress women, to keep them from freely participating in the public arena. That attitude, rife in almost all Muslim countries, derives from the idea that a man owns his wife, that she is his personal property, like a goat or a mule. Because of that, she cannot have her own ideas or make her own decisions. She cannot even be seen by other men, lest they might lust after her and threaten the property of her husband. What a total piece of shit the "modern" Islamic world is.

The tradition of women being completely covered from head to toe is not enforced in all Muslim countries. But even the most modern of them force women to wear a headscarf, known as a hijab (pronounced hĭ-JOB), in public. The word hijab (literally "cover" or "curtain") has the broader meaning of modesty, and in that sense applies to Muslim men and women. Of course, it is one thing to be modest -- to not dress like a whore -- and another to drape a woman in an oppressive sheet, so she cannot express herself or be seen by others.

In a recent article in Slate, the noted anti-Islamist Christopher Hitchens decried this practice:
It might also help if the Muslim hadith did not prescribe the death penalty for anyone trying to abandon Islam—one could then be surer who was a sincere believer and who was not, or (as with the veil or the chador in the case of female adherents) who was a volunteer and who was being coerced by her family.

The hadith (pronounced huh-DEETH) Hitchens refers to is "a report of the sayings or actions of Muhammad or his companions, together with the tradition of its chain of transmission." In practice, the hadith is "the way of life prescribed for Muslims on the basis of the teachings and practices of Muhammad and interpretations of the Koran." There is another Arabic word, sunna (pronounced SOON-uh and meaning "customary practice"), which is synonymous.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Going out of business?

Time Magazine has a sad, but not at all surprising story today titled, "The 10 Most Endangered Newspapers in America." It predicts that these 10 publications, which include 8 of the 50 largest in circulation in the U.S., will cease printing or fold completely in the next 18 months:
1. The Philadelphia Daily News. "The tabloid has a small staff, most of whom could probably stay on at, the Web operation for both of the city dailies."
2. The Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It could survive if its rival, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, folds. A grim race."
3. The Miami Herald. "... it is more likely that the Herald will go online-only with two editions, one for English-language readers and one for Spanish."
4. The Detroit News.
5. The Boston Globe. ", the online site that includes the digital aspects of the Globe, will probably be all that remains of the operation."
6. The San Francisco Chronicle. "The online version of the paper could be the only version by the middle of 2009."
7. The Chicago Sun-Times. "Its parent company, Sun-Times Media Group, trades for 3 cents per share."
8. The New York Daily News. "... no chance of recovering."
9. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The Star-Telegram will have to shut down or become an edition of its rival."
10. The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "The Plain Dealer will be shut or go digital by the end of next year."

The seven biggest reasons I believe newspapers are dying right now?
1. The horrible economy;
2. The loss of small retailers' display ads to electronic media;
3. The loss of big retailers' display ads to inserts;
4. The loss of classifieds to Craig's List and similar companies;
5. The failure of newspaper publishers to figure out how to make money off of the Web;
6. The widespread availability of free news on the Internet and 24-hour cable TV; and
7. The general decline in literacy in our country.

Most people 50 and older still read newspapers and read books and magazines for pleasure. Most people under 30 don't read anything they don't have to and don't mind being terribly uninformed about the world around them. While there are still best sellers, like Harry Potter, which attract young readers, most young Americans don't go to the library, don't read magazines and never buy a novel. This trend has hurt the profits of publishers (and writers) of all forms of the written word. But because so many technological developments of the last twenty years stole away all of the profits of newspapers, the decline in literacy has hurt these publications the most.

I trace the origins of the decline and fall of the newspaper empire to the development of large-scale inserts in the 1970s. If you look at a newspaper from the 1960s or before, you'll notice that it is covered in expensive display ads. Every page of a newspaper, save the traditionally clean front and back pages, was a profit center. Even large advertisers, like Sears, JC Penney and Woolworth's bought expensive display ads. You couldn't read an article without seeing their advertising. But when discounters like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Rite-Aid and Target began encroaching on their markets, the new advertising form of choice was the newspaper insert, over which the advertiser had more control. A full-color insert looks good on its shiny paper, and when a reader is perusing it, his mind is not distracted by the ads of other companies or newspaper stories on the same page. Inserts are much less profitable to the newspaper publisher. He cannot charge any premium for including a 12-page Home Depot mini-magazine. If the newspaper charged more than a delivery fee, Home Depot could simply get its insert delivered -- to more customers -- via the U.S. Postal Service. As big companies like Home Depot ran mom-and-pop shops out of business, newspapers uniformly paid the price. They couldn't get the huge chains to buy expensive display ads, and they lost at the same time the local merchants who still would.


pejoration [pej-uh-RAY-shən]
n. 1. depreciation; degradation; a lessening in worth, quality, etc.; 2. Historical Linguistics: semantic change in a word to a lower, less approved, or less respectable meaning

[Derives from Latin pēior ("worse")]

If you know Spanish, you know the word peor ("worse"), which of course is directly related to the English pejoration and the more common pejorative. Nobody in normal discourse uses pejoration to mean a decline in quality. If a house or car or any other asset has started to wear out, we describe that as depreciation. If less tangible assets, such as the environment or the quality of life have become worse, more polluted or less accommodating, we describe that as degradation. Yet, pejoration is a perfectly acceptable synonym for either of these and literally means the same thing in each case.

Where pejoration is more often used is in its technical linguistic sense -- the process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time. Silly, for example, used to mean "deserving sympathy, helpless or simple." It evolved over time to mean "showing a lack of good sense, frivolous." Hussy originally meant "housewife" but in time came to mean "a lewd woman." While bitch still means "a female canine," it evolved pejoratively to also mean "a shrew."

In linguistics, the opposite of pejoration is amelioration, where a word which once was negative or neutral takes on a more positive or at least less negative meaning. Mischievous, for example, evolved from "disastrous" to "playfully annoying." The physicist who coined the term "Big Bang" did so to disparage that theory. However, in time, Big Bang ameliorated into the accepted term by scientists who believe that was how our universe originated.

In a recent article in the Boston Globe, Erin McKean argues that bonus ("a good thing") is now undergoing pejoration. She says, "Recent events in the financial world have tinged the word with a hint of wrongdoing. To listen to the breathless speechifying on the subject, both in Congress and the talk shows, you'd think accepting a bonus were somehow shady, or even villainous. ... President Obama called the bonus payouts at banks receiving federal bailouts 'shameful' earlier this month, and Congress jumped on the bad-bonus bandwagon by limiting bonuses for executives at any financial institution receiving government funds."

McKean continues on the subject of pejoration:
English is littered with examples of words whose meanings were once positive - or at least neutral - which have turned negative through popular use. The process even has a name, "pejoration" (from a Latin word meaning "make worse"). Grumble, for instance, used to be synonymous with mumble, without a hint of discontentedness. A wench was once any girl; an idiot was at one time just an uneducated person, not one who couldn't be educated; and if you called someone sly, you meant they were skilled and clever. (It happens with names, too: Mickey Mouse is both a beloved cartoon character and a way to call something trifling or small-time.) It's too early to tell if this will happen to bonus, but it's certainly possible.

As a synonym for disparaging ("belittling; discrediting"), pejorative is much more commonly used in speech and writing than pejoration. A pejorative term implies contempt or disapproval. Opponents of the Iraq War, for example, used "neocon" as a pejorative in reference to that war's advocates. Yet self-described "neoconservatives" don't take that word to be an insult. In many instances, particularly with political labels, the terms can have a neutral or positive sense -- as when a person on the left uses the term liberal -- or a pejorative sense, as when Rush Limbaugh derides liberals. When you call someone a racist or an asshole, those are obviously pejorative. What differentiates them is that they don't have a neutral or positive sense, except when a person is intentionally being ironic.

Monday, March 9, 2009


The New York Times is reporting that surgery on Alex Rodriguez's torn acetabular labrum ("a ring of cartilage that surrounds the acetabulum, the socket of the hip joint") went well:
The surgery on the right hip of Alex Rodriguez was successful, his doctor said after it was completed on Monday, and Rodriguez was to leave the hospital in Vail, Colo., and begin rehabilitation immediately in Colorado. ... Rodriguez’s problems were discovered last week when complained of stiffness in his hip and went to Colorado to have a cyst in the hip drained.

While I part company with those who excoriate Rodriguez for having used steroids and consider his accomplishments in baseball ruinously tainted -- since they were almost all doing it, the playing field was never as pitched as the puritans perceive -- I have to wonder if this young, healthy athlete getting a cyst on his hip is related to having taken steroids (and probably other PEDs) without informed medical supervision?

About five years ago, Jason Giambi developed a tumor in his pituitary gland, another odd development for a young, healthy athlete. Giambi, too, admits to using steroids not prescribed by a doctor. I thought at the time it was probably more than a coincidence that that growth developed.

And famously Florence Griffith Joyner, who unconvincingly denied ever using steroids, died very young (supposedly from asphyxiation as the result of an epileptic seizure). I presume until proven otherwise that Flo-Jo harmed her prospects for a long life by abusing PEDs.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


tendentious [ten-DEN-shəs]
adj. having or showing a definite tendency; biased

[From Latin tendentia ("inclination, leaning") from tendere ("to stretch, aim")]

Tendentious and tendency are etymologically related to tenet ("principle, doctrine, dogma") and tension ("a stretched condition"). In Latin, tenet literally means "he holds." It is the third person singular of tenere "to hold, to keep, to maintain." My understanding of this etymological evolution comes from the idea that in order to hold something, one has to use effort, or stretch oneself. So to hold onto something too long causes tension; a belief you hold onto is a tenet; the direction of your tenets is your inclination or tendency; and when you have a clear bias, you are tendentious.

While the word bias can be neutral or even positive -- Mother Teresa was biased in favor of the poor -- tendentious seems only to be used in the pejorative sense. Here is an example, this from the outspoken Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., speaking at the inauguration of the D.C.-based think-tank, the China Studies Center:
To deal effectively with China, Americans need to understand it in terms of its own complexities and authentic aspirations. This is unlikely to be achieved by officials engaged in writing narrowly focused and highly tendentious reports mandated by Congress to justify the single-issue agendas of our military-industrial complex or, for that matter, our humanitarian-industrial complex.

Mr. Freeman has been in the news recently. President Obama nominated Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, "a center of strategic thinking within the U.S. Government, reporting to the Director of National Intelligence." That did not sit well with some conservatives, who believe Freeman's tenets are insufficiently democratic. Here is the take of the National Review to his appointment:
Charles Freeman is a career diplomat, a Saudi apologist, and a savage critic of Israel. He also argues that Beijing did not strike down the Tiananmen Square protesters with sufficient swiftness. Barack Obama proposes to make him head of the National Intelligence Council. It’s an abominable appointment.

EDIT (3-11-09): Chas Freeman, it turns out, will not be a part of the Obama NIC, according to this NY Times report:
WASHINGTON — Charles W. Freeman Jr., the Obama administration’s choice for a major intelligence post, withdrew his name on Tuesday and blamed pro-Israel lobbying groups, saying they had distorted his record and campaigned against him. Mr. Freeman had come under sharp criticism for his past statements about Israel as well as for his association with the Saudi and Chinese governments.

Obama to restore stem cell funding

From the March 7 San Francisco Chronicle:
President Obama plans to rescind limits on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells by signing an executive order Monday, fulfilling a campaign promise to frustrated supporters of the scientific work. White House aides confirmed Friday that Obama will announce a stem cell policy shift in an East Room ceremony. He is expected to lift restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush in August 2001.

Scientists in the Bay Area, one of the world's top centers of stem cell research and arguably the strongest in the nation, said they expect that Obama will allow the National Institutes of Health to support research on hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines that did not qualify for federal funding under the Bush policy.

Bush had agreed with religious and conservative groups opposed on moral grounds to the extraction of stem cells from human embryos. He limited NIH support to work on 21 embryonic stem cell lines that already had been created by 2001.

Scientists and disease advocacy groups had chafed at the Bush restrictions because they saw in stem cell research the possibility of cures or more effective treatments for a broad range of diseases. Embryonic stem cells retain the ability to transform into any of the specialized cell types that make up the body, such as nerve, muscle or skin cells. The hope is that such cells could provide replacement tissues for many illnesses, including spinal cord injuries and diabetes.

The early stage embryos are usually obtained from fertility clinics where clients have a surplus of embryos after completing their families.

This is great news. The objections to this research by religious nuts never made sense. Their argument centered on the idea that it is immoral to make use of a small collection of frozen cells ("cytoblasts") which are going to be thrown away, because if these cells were not thrown away and if they were implanted in a woman's uterus, they could in theory grow into a human being, and therefore it is worse to help actual, living, breathing human beings than to learn from a collection of cells that would be tossed in the garbage.

Despite the prohibitions put on science by the moronic Bush Administration, publicly funded stem-cell research in California, privately funded research elsewhere in the U.S., and government funded research in countries all over the world which don't hate science has been getting started. Nothing concrete has yet come out of these studies, but the hope remains strong that it will. The researchers, colleges, companies and countries which make breakthroughs in this field will lead the world over the next 100 years.

Considering the horrible state of America's K-12 education, compared with so many of our competitors, the worst thing we could do would be to hamstring our nation's great research universities with half-witted religious dogma. The only result of that would be that scientists would leave the United States and our greatest asset would be forever damaged.

There is no quicker path to the decline and fall of a great power than to turn against science.


turgid [TUR-jid]
adj. inflated, overblown, or pompous; bombastic

[From Latin turgidus ("swollen")]

If there is any place you would expect turgid language, it would be in an official government document. This, for example, was part of the preamble to the recently passed United Nations Resolution 62/154 on "Combating defamation of religions:"
Underlining the importance of increasing contacts at all levels in order to deepen dialogue and reinforce understanding among different cultures, religions, beliefs and civilizations, and welcoming in this regard the Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the Ministerial Meeting on Human Rights and Cultural Diversity of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, held in Tehran on 3 and 4 September 2007.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens blasted the resolution and its preamble:
The stipulations that follow this turgid preamble are even more tendentious and become more so as the resolution unfolds.

While turgid can mean "swollen, distended or tumid" to modify body parts, as in turgid lymph nodes or to describe landscape, as in a turgid putting green, it is mostly used to mean "overblown" as in language. It is an exact or near synonym for bombastic, grandiloquent, grandiose, ornate, over the top, pompous and pretentious.

Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday used turgid to describe the language in the new movie, Watchmen:
Everyone finds entertainment in different things. If you find turgid, violent, pretentious illustrations of illustrations entertaining, "Watchmen" is for you.

John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, is running a contest to pick a name for an upcoming book by disgraced Illinois ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose rhetoric Kass feels is bombastic:
My poor assistant, Wings, has just read thousands upon thousands of amazing submissions (literally) to our contest to pick a catchy title for former Gov. Rod "Dead Meat" Blagojevich's steamy, turgid, tell-all book due out in the fall.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


shibboleth [SHIB-uh-lith]
n. a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons; a custom or practice that betrays one as an outsider

[Hebrew "a torrent of water"]

I'm not sure how old I was the first time I came across the word shibboleth. However, I distinctly remember as a young child learning the shibboleth concept, with regard to Japanese soldiers in World War II. As the story went, it was difficult, yet important for American GIs to distinguish between a Japanese and a Chinese -- the former being our enemy, the latter our friend. Because it was hard for the Japanese tongue to pronounce the L in words like Leghorn and lollipop, but supposedly no problem for the Chinese, American soldiers, having captured an Oriental of unknown nationality, would require the captive to say one of those L words. If Leghorn came out Reghorn, the person was Japanese. Even though I now suspect this legend of my youth was apocryphal ("of questionable authenticity"), it was a good myth to introduce the shibboleth idea.

David Plotz, a writer and editor for and author of Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, recently discussed the word shibboleth in a Slate article:
When I was reading Judges one day, I came to a complicated digression about a civil war between two groups of Israelites, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. According to the story, the Gileadites hold the Jordan River, and whenever anyone comes to cross, the guards ask them to say the password, shibboleth. The Ephraimites, for some unexplained reason, can't pronounce the sh in shibboleth and say "sibboleth" instead. When an Ephraimite fails the speech exam, the Gileadites "would seize him and slay him." I've read the word shibboleth a hundred times, written it a few, and probably even said it myself, but I had never understood it until then.

In contemporary usage, a shibboleth is not limited to how a word is pronounced or mispronounced. A secret handshake can be a shibboleth, distinguishing those in the group from those outside. Also, a collection of jargon terms largely unknown to outsiders can serve as a shibboleth to distinguish insiders. A person, for example, who speaks about Pecota, Win Shares and Ultimate Zone Rating is one of a subset of baseball fans in the sabermetric community. (Sabermetric derives from the acronym SABR -- Society for American Baseball Reasearch + metric. A sabermetrician is one who uses advanced mathematical measures of baseball statistics to understand the value of various contributions to the game.) If someone mentions to me Derek Jeter's UZR, I know immediately from that shibboleth that he is a sabermetrician and not just a casual or old-school baseball fan.

Friday, March 6, 2009

If you can't beat 'em, kill 'em

News out of The Republic of Robert Mugabe:
HARARE, Zimbabwe: The prime minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, was hurt and his wife, Susan, fatally injured on Friday (March 6) in a car crash about 45 miles south of the capital, according to officials of Tsvangirai's political party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai was heading to his rural home for a Saturday rally when the crash occurred Friday afternoon. From his hospital bed in Harare on Friday, he told one of his aides that a large truck driving on the other side of the road had come toward his Land Cruiser, the middle vehicle in a three car convoy. "What he told me was that the truck went for his car," Dennis Murira, director of public affairs in the prime minister's office said. "That's how he put it."

The crash, coming less than a month after Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister in a tense and long-negotiated power-sharing government with his rival, President Robert Mugabe, stirred deep suspicions in his party, but most officials were careful to say not enough was known about the collision to make any accusations of foul play. "I was looking for someone to get to the site because I was very suspicious about the circumstances around the accident," Hendrick O'Neill from Movement for Democratic Change said in a phone interview. "Morgan has been a target for some time."

Tsvangirai has been the victim of multiple assassination attempts. He fled the country after he outpolled Mugabe in March presidential elections, fearing for his life. Forces loyal to Mugabe had begun a campaign of violence, attempting to intimidate the opposition prior to a June runoff election. Tsvangirai ended up withdrawing before that second poll because of attacks on thousands of his supporters.

I'd bet $1,000 that Mugabe ordered the truck driver to try to kill his rival, Tsvangirai; and I won't be shocked at all if that truck driver mysteriously dies in custody in the next few days. Mugabe surely doesn't want this guy around to testify, saying just why he steered his truck into the middle car of a convoy carrying Mugabe's enemy.

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

At the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, President George Bush the Elder proclaimed that “the Vietnam Syndrome is over,” that it was no longer the case that Americans were afraid to fight a full-scale war, that we can take a few casualties and the general public won’t get too upset with the president. If that was all “the Vietnam Syndrome” was, then Bush was probably wrong that the Persian Gulf War ended it. Given a justifiable cause, the American people would have supported a war effort the day after Saigon fell in 1975. But insofar as “the Vietnam Syndrome” is the fear of getting into a war in a remote place, where we were not attacked and where our vital interests are not at stake, I think that Syndrome lives on, well past Bush’s victory in the early 1990s.

No people, not the British, the Russians, the French or the Americans, want to get mired in a hopeless cause that needlessly costs the lives and limbs of its youth and wastes the money of its taxpayers. Even though things look much better today in Iraq than they did a few years ago, it remains the case that most Americans doubt that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth the huge price we have paid, with so little benefit to us. But at the very least, you can say that Iraq is an important player on the world scene, centrally located in the Middle East and swimming in the world’s most important commodity, oil. The same cannot be said for Afghanistan in any sense, and time will tell if what Bush the Elder termed “the Vietnam Syndrome” lives on as we get stuck in yet another costly quagmire.

If you’re much younger than I am (45), you probably have no living memory of the Vietnam War, and chances are your understanding of that tragedy in our nation’s history is thin. Although I was alive when the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed, when Lyndon Johnson ordered hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to take up the cause of South Vietnam, when the Tet Offensive took place, when Richard Nixon secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia and when the Pentagon Papers were published, I was too young to know any of those things were happening. I had family members who were protestors and even draft dodgers, but none served in that fight. My first contemporary memory of the Vietnam War was in 1973, when I was 9 years old, and we watched on TV the American prisoners of war who had been released en masse arriving back in the United States. Despite reading some histories, my own knowledge of Vietnam, much like that of my juniors, remains shallow. I know more about the U.S. Civil War and World Wars I and II.

Before picking up Daniel Ellsberg's 2002 work, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, perhaps the best book I’ve read on the subject is A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. That story is not a general history, but in 820 pages it does an outstanding job of explaining what we were up against in Indochina from the early 1960s on and just why our mission was doomed to fail. A character in A Bright Shining Lie (published in 1988) is Daniel Ellsberg. At the 1972 funeral of John Paul Vann at Arlington Cemetery, attended by a wide array of dignitaries from the military, Congress and the media, Sheehan describes Ellsberg, the insider who gave Sheehan and his New York Times a copy of the top secret history of the Vietnam War which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. This brief biographical sketch is a good launching point for Ellsberg’s memoir:
Daniel Ellsberg, the turncoat knight of the crusade, was sitting in the second pew just behind Vann’s family at the right front of the chapel. He had flown to the funeral from Los Angeles, where his lawyers were engaged in pretrial maneuvering. He was a pariah to those within the closed society of government secrecy, who had once considered him a valued member of their order. He was a traitor who had violated their code of morality and loyalty. Some resented the conspicuous seat he occupied in the chapel. He did not appear the pariah. He still dressed like one of them, as he had learned to do at Harvard. His suit was a conservative three-button model, a blue pinstripe with a matching striped shirt and an equally conservative foulard tie in a narrow knot. At forty-one he had let his hair grow from the crew-cut style he had worn when he had first met Vann in Vietnam seven years earlier. The frizzly, gray-black curls framed his high forehead and gentled the angular features of his lean and tanned face.

Ellsberg was a complicated man. The son of middle-class Jewish parents who had converted to Christian Science, he was an intellectual and a man of action. His mind has surpassing analytical ability. His ego was so forceful it sometimes got out of control. His emotions were in conflict. He was at once a florid romantic and an ascetic with a pained conscience. What he believed, he believed completely and sought to propagate with missionary fervor. He had benefited from the social democracy practiced by the American Establishment by obtaining an education that had qualified him for a position of eminence in its new state, the great web of military and civilian bureaucracies under the presidency that World War II had created. A competitive scholarship funded by the Pepsi-Cola Company had put him through Harvard. He had graduated in 1952 summa cum laude, and had been given a fellowship to continue his studies for a year at Cambridge University in England. He had then demonstrated his militancy by serving the better part of three years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. Harvard had selected him while he was still in the Marines to be a junior member of its Society of Fellows, the most illustrious assemblage of young scholars in American academia, so that he could earn his doctorate. From Harvard he had joined the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, the brain trust of the Air Force, and had helped to perfect plans for nuclear war against the Soviet Union, China, and the other communist states. He had been permitted to learn the nation’s most highly classified secrets His performance at Rand had been rewarded by a position in Washington as the special assistant to the Pentagon’s chief for foreign policy, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

In 1965 his intense desire for confrontation in the American cause had led him to volunteer to fight in Vietnam as a Marine company commander. When told he ranked too high in the bureaucracy for such mundane duty, he had found another way to the war. He had gone as a member of the new team (Gen. Edward) Lansdale had organized when Lansdale had returned to Vietnam in 1965 to try to reform the Saigon regime and devise an effective pacification program. Two years later, Ellsberg had gone back to the Rand Corporation from Vietnam dispirited by an unhappy love affair and ill from an attack of hepatitis. He had been discouraged too by repetitive violence of the war of attrition (Gen. William) Westmoreland was pursuing and by the unwillingness of the U.S. leadership to adopt an alternative strategy that he believed was the only way to justify the death and destruction and to win the war. The Tet 1968 Offensive had turned discouragement into disillusion. His inability to bring about a change had destroyed his faith in the wisdom of the system he served. He had concluded that the violence in Vietnam was senseless and therefore immoral. His conscience had told him that he had to stop the war. During the fall of 1969 he had begun covertly photocopying the top-secret 7,000-page Pentagon Papers archive on Vietnam and started an antiwar crusade with a public letter to the press demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam within a year. After the New York Times had published the secrets of the Pentagon archive in a series of articles in June and July 1971, Ellsberg had been indicted at the order of Richard Nixon, who intended to send him to prison for as many years as possible. Ellsberg, the man who had staked his life on a career in the service of power he had thought was so innately good, had come to see buried the friend he had also lost to this war.

It’s noteworthy that on the back jacket of Secrets, the blurbs advocating Ellsberg’s memoir all come from America’s more or less radical left: Seymour Hersh, Howard Zinn, Mike Gravel, Martin Sheen, Ben Bagdikian and John Kerry. The publisher may have chosen this group thinking that everyone in the general public associates the name Daniel Ellsberg with the radical left, only lefties will consider reading Secrets, and therefore these blurbs will attract the audience the publisher hoped to reach. However, Ellsberg’s book does not read in any way like a radical left manifesto, regardless of his current views on politics. He was a rather mainstream liberal, yet a committed Cold Warrior, up until the events unfolded as they did and it was the anti-war left which embraced him. What this book does quite well is show how events moved Ellsberg inch by inch to the breaking point, where he could no longer sit back and allow things to go on as they had been going. Thus when he began giving over the Pentagon Papers – he originally gave them to Sen. William Fulbright, hoping that Fulbright would introduce them into the Congressional Record, where they would be available to the public and press – it did not seem all that radical. It’s important to know that the Pentagon Papers were just a history of the war. Their revelation did not threaten our soldiers or harm our strategy. They simply made plain how badly the war had been going from 1945 to 1968 and how likely it was that the war would turn out a failure. That revelation did not hurt our war effort. It hurt the ego of Richard Nixon, who was then deluded by the idea that he could somehow win the war, or at least put off our loss so that his name would not be tarnished by the defeat.

Perhaps it is an overstatement, but Ellsberg concludes that there is a strong link from the publication of the Pentagon Papers to the end of the Vietnam War. In brief, he says that Nixon’s obsession with punishing him led to the break-in at his psychiatrist’s office, which then got the ball rolling on the later break-in at the Watergate hotel, that led to Nixon leading the cover-up these activities, the cover-up ultimately forced Nixon from office, and with Nixon out, a much more liberal Congress would no longer fund the war, forcing our departure from that conflict.

As I was reading Secrets, I kept wondering why Ellsberg had waited so long to write this book. After all, it came out fully 30 years after the Pentagon Papers were published. Regardless of his reasons for the delay, there is a benefit from that. Ellsberg retells the events as he knew them at that time, and fills in information that was then unknown to him or classified that is now available. He includes conversations from the White House tapes, for example, which only recently have been transcribed, and that illuminate the events of long ago. They are especially informative as to how Nixon and Kissinger viewed Ellsberg.

Although he participated in some anti-war demonstrations and other anti-war activities (like teach-ins), Ellsberg believes none of them had any material effect on ending the war. In fact, because they were led by radicals like Abbie Hoffman, the anti-war effort drove a wedge between mainstream America and the protests and rendered them largely useless, even when they attracted hundreds of thousands of young people.

A principal theme in Secrets is the concentration and abuse of executive power. Ellsberg explains how Congress was ill-informed and explicitly lied to, in order that the Johnson Administration could get the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed. As an insider in the Pentagon with access to all the relevant top-secret information, Ellsberg knew this at the time. Pretty much everything that members of Congress, including those on the intelligence committees with access to privileged information, thought they were basing their votes, was a lie. The Tonkin Gulf incident, as the Pentagon and the White House portrayed it, never happened. And unlike the poor intelligence which led to the Iraq War, the Department of Defense and the president knew the incident was a lie right from the start, but needed that myth to justify the build-up.

In a system of centralized power, everything rests on the decisions of the president. He takes all the blame or gets all the credit for a failure or a success. Ellsberg writes:
The concentration of power within the executive branch since World War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy ‘failure’ upon one man, the president. At the same time, it gave him enormous capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by means of force and fraud.

As President Obama faces tough decisions on Afghanistan in the coming months, he needs to know what his predecessors faced in Vietnam. If Obama decides that Afghanistan is the central front on the war on terror and that he has no other choice but to commit American lives and treasure there, its failure will be his failure. So much more than Iraq, Afghanistan shares common themes with Vietnam: Others before us have gone there and failed; it’s an out of the way place that holds no strategic or economic value; the people we are associated with are corrupt and unpopular; and the guerrillas we are fighting have safe haven among colleagues in neighboring countries.

What I wonder today is whether there is an analyst at Rand or in the Pentagon who has access to studies which would show just how bad an idea it is for us to keep up our doomed efforts in Afghanistan. And if they exist, will anyone in those institutions feel compelled to share them with the people and the press? If so, we will have a replay of Daniel Ellsberg’s arc of character in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.