Sunday, December 27, 2009


One of those words I used recently without really knowing what the heck I was saying. Sure, I probably use it more or less accurately in a sentence. "There was the usual cant about tolerance," for instance. I think I could easily substitute "claptrap" for "cant" in any sentence I would use it in, but it probably means something more like a rote answer or the party line. However, perhaps its definition and origins will prove more complicated...

So I'm pretty on the mark with this one. Princeton's wordnetweb has it as "buzzword: stock phrases that have become nonsense through endless repetition". It apparently often shows up in the context of religion or morality, where doubtless there are more platitudes than in many bodies of knowledge. I was interested to find a secondary meaning--well, there are many meanings of cant that have nothing to do with this definition, actually, but not all are to the point here-- that of "slang" or "argot", or specialized language intelligible only to those in a closed society. My particular interest comes from a post on argot and related words that I did some time ago and that I had to look up just to make sure I hadn't already covered this. (It's going to happen sometime here, and when it does, it will be deeply discouraging.) "Cant" should have been included in that post, but was not.

I wondered as I contemplated this word if it was related to "chant", and apparently it is. "Cant" comes from the Anglo-Norman, where it meant "singing" or "song". My guess is that our current usage of "cant" stems from the sing-song nature of droned phrases that no one is really listening to anymore--not even the speakers themselves.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


One of those words that I felt perfectly sure I knew the meaning of, if somewhat vaguely. However, a line in William Boyd's new novel Ordinary Thunderstorms made me suspect that I'd gotten the thing entirely backwards. Of course, I can't find the line to save my life now, but that's probably just as well, as it might lay my doubts to rest prematurely. It could, after all, have been a mere misreading.

Here's what I thought a boondoggle was--something you get stuck in, like a quagmire, or stuck with, like a piece of real estate in a swamp. But my reading of Boyd's sentence makes me think that a boondoggle is really more of a bonanza, a goldmine. Very far from my interpretation.

I have no idea where this word comes from--it sounds like something that came out of the South, which probably means it didn't. It's a great word, though, and I intend to use it more often. At least, once I know what I'm really saying...

Okay, neither what I thought it meant or what I thought Boyd meant are right, but I am sure Boyd did use it correctly in a sentence. It means "an unnecessary or wasteful project or activity". Coined by a Boy Scout scoutmaster, Robert Link, it refers back to objects made of braided cord or leather, which the scouts wore as kerchief ties, hat bands or other decorations. I am not sure if Link understood the satiric use of the word or not when he coined it. I'm guessing probably not. I don't have the sense that the Scouts were all that big on making fun of themselves.

A nice article from ZDNet actually vindicates me a bit, or at least helps me understand my miscomprehension. It mentions that the word was first used after the big government jobs programs that attempted to remedy aspects of the Great Depression. So there is a sense in it of massive projects, which, of course from some points of view are bound to look like a huge waste of time and money. We may have some boondoggles of our own in the near future, come to think of it.

The ZDNet article says that a distinguishing feature of a boondoggle is that at some point there is a realization that the project is not ever going to work, but that the project continues forward for a long time, despite this realization on the part of some. That site has a link to this article which lays out the etymology very well.

But to summarize. Sometimes, a boondoggle is only a lanyard. And sometimes, a boondoggle is a massive, incompetent endeavor by the State, the Military, or Big Business that is a huge waste of time and funds, benefiting no one.

Personally, I'll take the lanyard.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Until recently, I thought that 'treasure' was a somewhat antiquated word. Buried treasure, treasure chest--still not out of our common usage, but not what we'd refer to in everyday speech. We don't say, "I think I'll go check how much treasure I have in my checking account", for instance. Though we might still say, somewhat sentimentally, 'I treasure the moments I had with her.' But this kind of sentence still puts the actual word 'treasure' at one remove.

A few days ago though, I heard the word used in earnest. As new U.S. troops are mobilized for Afghanistan, I heard a couple of very serious types on the news shows evaluating the decision in terms of its cost in 'Lives and Treasure'.

So what is treasure, exactly? We all know what it means to us, of course. It's not an obscure word. But what does it mean to these experts who use the phrase 'lives and treasure' so gravely and so authoritatively?

Well, the first thing I learned may be obvious to those who still remember some of their Attic Greek, but I was surprised to learn that 'treasure' actually stems from the Greek word 'thesaurus', which originally meant both treasure and the place to store it. Our modern day 'thesaurus' seems to mean some sort of treasury, and it's interesting how often books of collected stories or poems have referred to themselves as treasuries, as if the idea of collecting samples of the printed word led fairly quickly to the idea of a book as a sort of storehouse of texts.

However, though I expected some sort of precise legal definition of 'lives and treasure' to float to the surface during my research, in fact, it seems to be very much one of those phrases that someone used and which then got picked up by others because it sounded solemn enough. For some reason, American talking heads seem to have been very fond of using it in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 'Blood and treasure' is an alternative form of the phrase.

I thought it would be interesting to see how far back the expression actually goes. Nothing conclusive came up, but I did like this site's imaginative and possibly even true linking back to a time just a bit further away from us than Gulf War I.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I first learned about the right of U.S. Customs to ban people from entering the country based on their moral turpitude awhile ago, after the strange case of Sebastian Horsley, who was detained and then sent home on these grounds, partly perhaps based on his tell-all memoir Dandy in the Underworld.

This seemed extreme, but the doings of a Horsley seem a bit remote from my daily life, and so I put this in the 'noted with interest' mental file. However, last night at a dinner party, I learned that a friend of a friend has also just been banned from the U.S.--for life--for being a bit too candid on the custom forms about some past indiscretions. As I happen to know a little about the nature of these 'crimes' and also know from personal experience what a kind and decent human being he actually is, I find this all more than a tad beyond the pale.

Be that as it may, the real question that came up for us was, what is moral turpitude. And for me, more specifically, where does the word 'turpitude' come from?

One of my friends was not even sure if moral turpitude was a good thing or a bad thing. He's well-read, it's just that it doesn't come up all that much in daily life. While not knowing its roots, I do know that turpitude is bad, and I'd sort of roughly take it as the opposite of moral rectitude. I don't know if the word is related to words like disturb, or turbulent, because I also have this idea that it relates to darkness.

Okay, enough guessing.

Right idea, wrong root. Turpitude comes through Middle English from French and further back from Latin. Turpitudo means 'ugliness', and its root is turpis, or base. So it would seem that this word, despite geographic migrations hasn't strayed far from its, ahem, base, at least in terms of meaning.

The alphadictionary folks make a good point though in saying that the term 'moral turpitude' is a bit redundant, as there really aren't any other forms of turpitude that aren't related to morality. They have, for instance, ruled out the possibility that the word is related to 'turpentine'. No, it's just general baseness all the way around.

As for what moral turpitude meant in the Horsley case, Slate Magazine dissects it for you here.

Meanwhile, my friend is inclined to take his 'banned for life' status here with a "que sera, sera" attitude. Luckily, the sponsors for his American trip were able to find a substitute destination for him.

He was sent to Rome, where the question of moral turpitude apparently bothers no one at all.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Graham flour--a guest request

I'd like to say that I don't do guest requests, but actually, it's because almost nobody asks me to. I suppose they (wrongly) assume that the window of ignorance is quite small here and I am only patching in a few holes. However, it is pretty certain that if they, or you, post in, I will find some aspect of the subject at hand that I am truly ignorant about. So ask away, if you feel so inclined.

A request to know more about Graham flour comes, of course, from my sister, also so surnamed, at least at birth. She's recuperating from surgery right now, and made the easily fulfilled request that I find out more. In Graham solidarity, I must do so. I don't mean the solidarity of siblings--I mean the solidarity of all people who have had to go by the nickname 'Graham Cracker' everywhere.

Of course, we all know Graham crackers. Nice, sweetish brown crackers with a perforation down the middle both lengthwise and widthwise, so that they easily divide into four. That whole concept is an interesting idea in itself--what's the point exactly?--and I can't offhand think of any other crackers that followed down this evolutionary trail. The evolved state of the Graham cracker--a la Pokemon, is the S'more, the delectable campside treat consisting of Graham cracker, Hershey's chocolate bar and barbecued smashed marshmellow. Sublime.

But wherefore art thou Graham, cracker? Would not a Miller cracker or a Smith taste as sweet?

I have some vague recollection that Graham crackers may originally have been some sort of health food concoction, but maybe I'm thinking of Kellogg's cornflakes.

I don't think I've actually eaten a Graham cracker in some time. Perhaps they are on the cusp of a comeback. At any rate, here now is their history and lore:

Well, first of all I did have this right--there is indeed a health food aspect to it. Graham flour, which seems to have been produced mainly for the purpose of making the cracker, was thought up by one Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister, in Connecticut in 1829. It was finely ground white flour mixed with coarsely ground wheat bran and wheat germ. So far so good, right? In the current era, none of us would say no to a little extra fiber, would we? I mean, if it was in a s'more or something.

But oh, dear. What was this health cure in aid of in 1829? The suppression of carnal urges, that's what. Sylvester and yes, John Kellogg, felt that eating bland foods could help control sexual desire. I'm pretty sure this is why the chocolate and marshmellow were added at some point, as, without savory food and without any sexual urges, what were sentient beings supposed to live for? Chocolate must have come as something of a compromise--or at least a gift from Divine Providence.

Okay, I'm making that bit about the chocolate up. I have no idea when the chocolate figured in. But in these, our degenerate times, Graham crackers are apparently often not even made of Graham flour! They use the very refined white flour that cousin Sylvester so deplored! What a slap in the face. I suppose I could attempt to start a back to basics movement, but the truth is, I don't really want to go there either...

To your good health, Julie! Though I'll leave that to you rather than Sylvester to define what that is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Although there is no real reason I should know the meaning of this word from conversation, it does fit the central premise of this blog rather well. When I was traveling from Milwaukee to my cousin's house in Wisconsin this summer, we passed an exit for Tamarack Street or Drive along the highway. It was strange to see the name there, because it was actually a name from my childhood and adolescence. Our street in Dublin, California was a mere block away from Tamarack Drive. I crossed it constantly, and walked it every day for four years to go to high school. Yet to this day I have no idea what 'tamarack' means. And let's just say that high school is a long time ago now.

I am surprised that I had no interest in discovering a meaning, though I suppose in my defense, the names and meanings in housing tracts are often senseless. Less defensible is that when I saw this sign in Wisconsin I was struck by the common naming and resolved to post about it, yet summer has turned into fall and I've been too lazy to summon up even the idle curiosity that would give me an answer.

Dublin, though a tract development, was originally a tiny Irish community. There is, or was, an old Irish church--old by California standards at any rate--with an old Irish graveyard. I am guessing that 'tamarack' is an Irish word, though this may well be wishful thinking--the street it led out to was, after all, Amador, and not an Irish word at all. But you don't see many Spanish placenames in rural Wisconsin, so I'll stick to my theory. Although it could really be anything, I am going to guess it is some sort of shrub, and probably a tree. Any guesses before we plunge in? No? Well, here we go...

Uh, no, not Irish. The best I could find was, "possibly Algonquin". But yes, it is a tree. It's a larch, which again I have no idea of, but it is a conifer--a pine--and that at least I do understand. It turns out that the reason I would come across the name again in Wisconsin is that it is an Eastern sort of tree, whose range extends into the Lake States. So what was it doing, naming a street in California?... I wonder if the actual tree has made it as far west as it's names. We've no shortage of pines out here, so it would have a lot of competition.

The funny thing about Dublin is that, unlike a lot of American towns that I have lived in, it did not have that divider strip between the sidewalk and the street, which are typically planted by the city with trees of some uniformity. By rights there should have been tamaracks, shouldn't there?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tenerife, Part 2

This is just a little side note, but I decided that I shouldn't let it pass.

Close readers of the last post may have noticed that one of the highlights--in my eyes--was that the capital of Tenerife is Santa Cruz, which also happens to be the name of my own metropolis. No big deal, really--I'm sure that pretty much any region the Spanish colonized has a Santa Cruz, as the name simply means "Holy Cross".

Or so I thought. Today, I was sitting in the break room, thumbing through one of our free local papers and came across this:

The sky's the limit when it comes to Cielo/Sky, a cultural exchange project between sister cities Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands and our very own Santa Cruz de California. The multivenue exhibition features artistic renderings of the sky through the use of countless media..

One of the venues up at the university was having an opening literally as I read the words, and there were two or three other sites that were hosting events as the night went on. I regret to say that I wasn't able to attend any of these events on such short notice, but I feel almost duty bound to try and check out all of these installations before the month that they are up runs out.

Anyway, I just find it a bit odd that I was prompted to write about an island on the other side of the world during the very week that our sister cities were attempting to forge a connection.

Must have been something in the air.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Whenever I get a couple hits within a few brief days on something that I don't really know much about--okay nothing--I think it's probably time to do a post here.

Tenarife first came up in my recent, totally non-sequential read of Adrian McKinty's The Dead Yard, second in the fabulous Michael Forsythe trilogy. This one begins with Michael in Tenarife, hoping for a for a little R&R. "And here his troubles began" would probably sum up this opening about right.

Michael soon leaves Tenarife, but I did not. Immediately afterwards, a current event popped into view. A sailing couple was last seen in Tenarife before disappearing into Somali pirate
waters. All too timely, alas. In the last couple of days this "ransom note" has appeared. Apparently these are not 'pirates' but a self-described 'voluntary coast guard' protecting Somali waters. Good luck, Paul and Rachel Chandler.


From the novel, I got the sense that Tenarife is a vacation destination for the Brits, particularly the football fans among them. It's definitely influenced by Spain, though whether or not it's a possession of Spain we will soon find out. I also learned that it is one of the Canary Islands, though whether the largest or smallest, I don't know. From the news of the Chandlers, I saw a map, so I do know that this island lies somewhere east of Africa. In fact, as it must be obvious, somewhere off the coast of Somali. So what else? I will now attempt to enlighten us.

Tenerife is indeed a Spanish territory, the largest of the Canary Islands and the one with the largest population. Wikipedia has quite an extensive and interesting article on it, which there is no point in my recapping in detail, but I will just mention a few things that caught my interest.

First of all, its capital is called Santa Cruz, which I suppose makes it a sister city to mine.

It has one of the largest active volcanoes in the world, El Teide, which, as is appropriate for a prominent volcano has its own legend. In the myth of the native people there, the Guanches, the devil tried to steal the god of light and sun, but his plans were foiled and he is imprisoned within the mountain. Locals set up bonfires to ward off the devil when the volcano erupts. The devil and his minions are supposed to appear as black dogs, which kind of sucks for any black dogs on the island. I'm guessing that at this point, there aren't many.

I should mention that El Teide is thought of as a gateway to the Underworld, which seems to be appropriate to this weekend, celebrated in many cultures as a time when the veils between the living and the dead are at their thinnest.

But that's not all! We also have the Auditorio de Tenarife, designed by one of the world's preeminent architects, Santiago Calatrava Valls. The auditorium reminds me just a bit of the Sydney Opera House. I'm sorry that I can't post a picture, as I am still in a transitional mode of my computer, but you can click through on Wikipedia and see what I mean if you want.

Okay! We've also got a reference from Pliny the Younger for our antiquities fans about an expedition here by King Juba who apparently named the fair isles not after canaries, but after some ferocious dogs or 'canaria' encountered there. I'm betting that canaries actually hail from there, but that's another post. Tenerife, by the way, stems from a native name for El Teide, namely Tene Ife, or 'white mountain'.

Well, there is much, much more, but I will conclude with this small piece of trivia, namely that Admiral Horatio Nelson lost an arm in the Battle of Tenerife in 1797. Although the Wikipedia article doesn't actually spell this out, I'm guessing that Tenerife was strategically important because it was a fueling stop on the way to Australia's infamous Botany Bay.

There's a wonderful picture that I would have liked to head this post, but as I can't at the moment, you might like to take a peek here.

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Monday, October 19, 2009


I heard this word in passing a couple of days ago. I was startled by it. It's not that I didn't know what the speaker was talking about. I assume they meant 'jeans' or 'Levis'. What struck me was that it was a word I hadn't heard for quite awhile, though it seemed to be much commoner in my childhood.

As a child I just absorbed it with all the other words for things. It's only now that I think "Dungarees? Where in the world does that one come from?"

For entertainment value, I suppose I should guess before researching. For some reason I keep thinking of one of those Australian songs we learned in childhood, "Waltzing Matilda", probably because it comes from the same era as 'dungarees' in my life, and partly because it contained a lot of strange words I hadn't heard before--swagman, billabong, etc. I don't think this word is Australian, though. So I'll hazard a wager on it being yet another word that the invading Europeans stole from the native peoples. I think they call them "loan" words.

Time to find out the truth...

Well, what do you know? We've got another entry from India, folks! Turns out that 'dungaree' is based on a rough calico sort of cloth that was originally made in Dongari Kilda in Bombay/Mumbai. It was a poorer grade, loosely woven kind of cloth, and was often used as sailcloth. Sailors then recycled old sails to make clothing from it. Hence, dungarees.

It's also no surprise then, since this all stems back to a kind of cloth rather than a kind of clothes, that in some places, like western America, dungarees were synonymous with jeans, while in others, like England, and maybe Australia, dungarees meant overalls, because presumably that's what the cloth was sewn into,

I was comforted but still perplexed to read through various blog posts and find that other Americans also remember dungarees as a common reference in the fifties and sixties, but not used so much now. It's a shame, really, because it's a nice word that's traveled a long way to meet us.

...a few notes of clarification. I misread when I called it Dongari Kilda--it's Dongari or Dongri Killa, which apparently means Fort Dongari or something like that, as the British replaced it with Fort George in 1769.

A couple of other fabric names that I've since gotten curious about: denim, that trusty American cloth actually stems from serge de Nimes, Nimes being the French town where this heavy serge was first made. And blue jeans, which are practically as American as apple pie. Sorry, friend--these hail from Genoa, and 'jeans' is a transposition of the French word for that fair city. Blue stems from the indigo that was used as dye for several of these fabrics, though, the significance of that I have as yet to, ahem, unravel...

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Over on Brian O'Rourke's blog, he's advocating that American men, well, man up and stop being so afraid of cider. All this somehow led me to think about grog, the rationed drink of the Royal British navy. None of that has much to do with cider, as I found out.

What is grog when it's at home, anyway? Well, that would depend on its home apparently. But the word does have a very distinct point of entry into our vocabulary, namely, August 21st, 1740. This is when the British Vice Admiral, Edward Vernon, decreed that rum would henceforth be diluted with water or small (weak) beer on board. Apparently on rations of straight rum, the sailors under his care had become just a bit drunk and disorderly.

Unfortunately, that shipboard water was often rank. Various additives were used to remedy this, and one of them was fruit, of the citrus persuasion. What happened seems to have been accidental--the Vitamin C in citrus ended up helping prevent scurvy, that shipboard plague, and Vernon's crew beat the curve, healthwise. Figuring that he was doing something right, other officers were quick to adopt his practices.

He was known, I hope affectionately, as "Old Grog". Although initially I hoped this had something to do with his being the inventor of this elixer, it happened rather differently. The nickname came fron the "grogram" coat he wore. What's grogram? Well, it's a coarse fabric that is the equivalent of the French derived grosgrain, meaning large grained. I was going to say, it stems from this, but apparently there is an old French 'grogram' as well. They all seem to mean "roughly" the same thing.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Okay, I think we all know what this means. It means something like 'a force that comes along and runs you down or tears you limb from limb'. Right?

I was having dinner with friends the other night and someone brought up this word, mentioning that 'juggernaut' stems from an Indian festival where the procession of the local god, in the form of a statue, would be wheeled through the streets, with the unfortunate side effect of, well, mowing down some of the devotees.

Fair enough. True or not, it wouldn't have roused my blogging instincts, except that someone asked, "India? But juggernaut's been around a long time in the West, hasn't it? Doesn't it have to with do Roman soldiers somehow?"

So I started thinking that the "-naut" part of the word "juggernaut" certainly sounds Western. Jason and the Argonauts, for example. And "astronaut" as well. But I am pretty sure the first person had it right about the Indian festival, because this sounded familiar. But "juggernaut" has got to be a hybrid.

Or does it?

Well, yes and no, but mostly no. I'll beg forgiveness in advance from any Indian or even Hindu knowledgable readers here for this cobbled together explanation, which they should of course feel free to correct. The source for "juggernaut" is Jagannath, or, more precisely, "Lord of the World", a title for Vishnu, particularly in the form of his avatar, Krishna. At a festival held in Puri (no, of course I don't know precisely where in India that is--must I do everything?) Krishna is drawn in a cart through the streets, and apparently western observers--I'm guessing British, since they were the colonizers--got the wrong end of the stick and thought that devotees threw themselves under the wheels in their devotion to the god, but apparently, it was more a case of devotees simply getting run over in the crush of the crowd.

So. Where are we? First, I can't find any indication that juggernauts had any connection with the Roman army at all. What I am curious about is where this friend got this idea. My hunch is that there is some confusion of words, maybe even with the fabled Greek Argonauts, which led her to think the word had reached the west a lot earlier than it did. I'm guessing that the "-naut" instead of the "nath" ending is simply a Western reaching for an approximately related sound. In reality, the word seems to have leapt the Hindi-English divide as recently as 1841, and it's revealing that "juggernaut" is used as a word for a big, heavy truck, the usage being "chiefly British".

I am a bit unhappy to report that our English word juggernaut may have taken a perfectly lovely Indian festival, and used it as a metaphor for the horrible. In one sense, we have it being used as a synonym for a steamroller, and in another extension, to mean a blind or destructive devotion to an institution that treats people like fodder.

We can end on a lighter note, though, surely. It's possible that one or two readers of this blog will be unhappy at my leaving out the most recent avatar of the word, Juggernaut of the XMen comics. It is possibly even a sign of hope and a changing attitude about juggernauts in general, that Juggernaut started out as a pure villain in the XMen comics, and then took on new and more complex roles for awhile. But like his Indian--born verbal counterpart, Juggernaut is finding that "villain" is a hard role to shake...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Copywriter, right?

After reading Nathanael Green's lucid blog post 6 Reasons Why You Need a Copywriter, I confessed that my idea of what a copywriter does had only become clear--or clearer--quite recently. He suggested that it might make a good post here, and whether or not it proves interesting to others, I did want to think about a kind of tangle of words that I was somehow caught up in, a situation which I'll assume is not unique to me, because, for better or worse, nothing ever is.

As Nate says on his blog, copywriting has nothing to do with copyrighting, which may seem obvious now it's spelled out, but perhaps is part of the problem. It's not that I thought copywriters were people who sat around crunching out copyrights all day, but I do believe that this second twin word lingering in the back of my mind may have lead me to think that copywriting was a more esoteric craft than it is.

(What it is I thought copywriters did I can no longer pin down, anymore than I can pin down a dozen other vague assumptions that I don't trouble to define.)

Copywriters write copy. Period. They write texts for others, often to help them sell something, though not always. (Hmm--perhaps the real word of ignorance here is simply "copy".).

At any rate, it's not hard to be a copywriter. If you can write, or more likely, type, you too can be a copywriter. Comforting, isn't it? Something to fall back on in these tough economic times. But there's a catch. (You knew there would be.) Writing copy doesn't make you a good copywriter. And if you want to get paid for your troubles, you'd better be a damn good one.

What does it take to be a damn good copywriter? Well, let me take my analogy from another medium--television. And not just television, but cable television. And not just cable television but a channel like QVC or the Home Shopping Channel.

I love these shows. I don't buy anything. I'm not even tempted to buy anything, because in my heart of hearts, I am not a shopper. But I love watching the host, or more likely the hostess, take one in a long line of very similar things--handbags, maybe, or jewelry, dolls, whatever and confer distinction upon it by their powers of description. "Look at these cute buttons!" she'll say, or "Doesn't Tanya look stunning in those peridot earrings?" (And, no, I don't know what peridot is--I only know that it is highly desirable--at least, I know it for the length of the show.)

It sounds easy, but you try it sometime. I once saw a hostess lovingly describe the front of a portable radio. If you think it's easy to lavish attention on a black plastic box capable of AM-FM reception in a new and inviting way, think again.

However if you think you could do that, and do it in the cold and less visually helpful medium of print, then, yeah, you should probably think of becoming a copywriter as one of your options.

If it works out, you can buy me a peridot ring to thank me. I know just where you can look for one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

heinous--or, how one word leads to another

Yep, I used this one recently. And, yes, I'm pretty sure I used it correctly. I'm even pretty sure I spelled it correctly. Does that mean I know what it really means?

Nope. Not a clue.

Here's my working definition: dastardly, low-handed, beyond the pale.

And here's what it really means:

Extremely wicked; evil and shocking. Flagitious. From the Old French heineaux, which relates to the modern French, haine, or hatred.

Uh-huh, uh-huh. So "hateable". Just what I thought, though I should have guessed that French connection... Wait a minute. Flagitious. Who the heck ever heard of that?

Well, apparently, I did. At least, I did read Edwin Abbott's Flatland at some point, so certainly came across this quote:

All faults or defects, from the slightest misconduct to the most flagitious crime, Pantocyclus attributed to some deviation from perfect Regularity in the bodily figure...

But I must have glided right over it, as is my wont.

Flagitious: Extremely wicked, deeply criminal, shockingly brutal or cruel.

And where does it come from, then? Why, from the Latin flagitare--to demand earnestly or hotly. In this, shall we say, heated aspect, it is related to "flagrant", a word I think we're all much more familiar with, which stems from flagrare , "to blaze, to burn".

Apparently, flagitium was an early Roman form of public humiliation, in which, in the most typical scenario, a debt-collector would gather a crowd around a person or their home and loudly shame them for not paying up.

Sounds a bit brutal itself.

"Flagitious" seems to have largely passed out of our daily speech, but one thing the word kept turning up in the course of my Googling was a girl grindcore band. From Japan.

If you're into that kind of thing, here's a good post about Flagitious Idiosyncracy in the Dilapidation. There's even a link to a download.

Call me naive, but somehow I don't think they researched the debt collecting practices of ancient Rome when it came time to thinking up their name.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Far Tortola?

It occurs to me that it's been some time since I've exposed my foggy yet all too quintessentially American lack of knowledge of world geography.

This is not because that knowledge has improved.

A week or so ago, a friend of mine departed for a vacation in Tortola. On Tortola, I must amend, as it soon emerged that Tortola was an island. I cleverly deduced that it was not an American possession, as she had some last minute scrambling to do about a passport. Among other things that came to light was that it was remote, without a lot of glitz, and possibly few amenities.

It was also a long way from California.

So, when I learned that there was a place called Tortola that I had not actually ever heard about, did I rush home to find my trusty atlas? Or at least rush to the nearest computer to home in on it with Google Earth?

Even though this is pure fodder for this blog, I did not. I said, have a nice vacation. See you when you get back. That was it.

As a mental space filler, I came up with a mental image of a lone, barren island, rising out of the water like the back of a whale, with maybe a few goat trails to roam upon.

It wasn't till another friend asked, where is Tortola, anyway? that I even began to think about the fact that I didn't have a clue. And that I had somehow been mixing it up in my brain with Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga, which, needless to say, I don't have a clue about either.

My friend posited that Tortola was in the British Virgin Islands, and this turns out to be right. And it is fairly sparsely populated. At least roughly 24,000 people on 21 and a half square miles of land would seem so to me. But that's all I got.

I suppose we should start with the name, as word origins are a popular feature of this blog, or at least I like to pretend that they are. There doesn't really seem to be a definitive answer, unfortunately. Some say that Christopher Columbus himself named it after the turtle dove. Another theory has it that after the Dutch settled it they named it Tor Tholen, after a small island off the coast of the Netherlands. And one I must say ingenious theory has it that as Columbus named the whole archipelago in honor of St. Ursula, the name may actually be a misreading of the inscription "ft. Urfula" or "St. Ursula", the old scripts being difficult like that.

Well, people, your guess is as good as mine. Okay, probably better.

Tortola, though my vacationing friend probably has not had recourse to this, is a tax haven. Its chief industries are 'financial services', and we can only wonder whether it too has been the site of some of the shell games of recent days that have played such havoc with people's savings.

If so, though, it probably shouldn't surprise us. Pirates, after all have hunkered down here before. The notorious Blackbeard actually used the west end of the island, a place called Soper's Hole, as a base to lie in wait in. Let's just say that it wasn't pretty for the trade ships that happened by.

Ironically, what finally drove the pirates out was not some benign force, but colonization in the form of sugar plantations, which were viable largely because of an active slave trade.

Slavery was abolished in Tortola in 1838. Oddly enough, many European residents chose exactly this point in time to leave.

Tortola was not done with the encroachment of western civilization yet though. (Come on now, you didn't really think it was?) In fact, an iconic name of American capitalism would grace these fair shores before too long. Laurence Rockefeller imagined tourists on its white, sandy beaches, and founded the Dix Resort here in the sixties. I suppose the 'financial services' industry was not long in following.

This is getting to be a rather long post, so I suppose I'll have to save the whereabouts of Tortuga for another day.

Besides, I'm an American. I have to get caught up on Mad Men before the new season starts.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Airports in recent years have learned how to put the 'travail' back in travel, so it can be refreshing to land in a smaller airport that, though still ever vigilant as to shoe bombs and Total War toothpaste attacks and the like, still manage to maintain a bit of whimsy about the whole ordeal. Last weekend, as my sister and her two young children and I were gathering ourselves after running the security gauntlet at the Milwaukee airport, we looked up to find that we were putting our shoes back on in the 'Recombobulation Area'. The word itself lightened the experience no end--in part, I think, because it humorously put us in solidarity with all the other travelers who had passed beneath this sign before us.

Of course, we all instinctively know what it means to 'recombobulate', even if we have never heard the word before. It means 'to put oneself back together again'. We know it because we have at least a passing acquaintance with the antonym discombobulate, which means something like 'to confuse, to take apart, to scatter'. I know that the 'dis-' negates the 'combobulate', and com is probably, 'with' or 'together' or something like that, but what's the 'bob' in aid of? I'm sure that 'bob' is not the root of this word, but it is a funny old sound in the midst of this very latinate sounding word...Shall we see where it comes from?

Hmm--I guess this is a first. Apparently, it's a made up word. posits it as a possible alternative to 'discompose', but, not satisfied with this, I found this interesting post by someone who has walked this path ahead of me...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

derring do

I just used this phrase in a Good Reads comment on Anthony Horowitz's Point Blank a little bit ago. Though I double-checked before posting, I did know it was 'derring do', not 'daring do', as I'm sure it has been spelled many a time. But I have no idea of where the phrase comes from. Nor, when I get right down to it, do I know what it really means. I know what I mean by it, which is roughly 'doing daring things'. But as I think about it,that's probably too easy. 'Derring' and 'daring' are probably not just variants of the same word. The only thing I can think of us is that derring might be from German or possibly the Nordic. The latter is probably only because I'm thinking of the word 'herring'. Well, before I drift too hopelessly out to sea, let's find out...

For once, I seem to have been pretty much right the first time round, which at first was a bit of a letdown. I guess it's actually more properly 'derring-do', but that's minor stuff--it still means something along the lines of 'heroic daring'. However, digging a little further often leads to more rewarding things, and it's certainly the case with this word or phrase. It is in fact, a word borrowed, passed along and variously shaped and misinterpreted by some of the brightest lights of English literature. It first finds it way into print in Chaucer's Troylus and Criseyde as 'durring don'--daring to do; becomes 'dorryng do' through the poet John Lydgate in a nod back to Chaucer; is misprinted later as 'derrynge do' and then misinterpreted by Edmund Spenser, who much like me (though in this one sense only) thought he was encountering a different word and took it to mean 'brave actions'-- though he too changed it a little to 'derring doe'--which Walter Scott then grabbed up for Ivanhoe, from which his version 'derring-do' then became part of the common parlance.

I pretty much lifted all that from, by the way, so have a look if you would like a fuller and very lively account of the above.

I was also pleased to learn that 'derring-do' is what the OED calls a 'psuedo archaism'. We like to think of those times when men were men and acted out brave feats of derring-do, except that, well, they didn't exactly. Or at least they didn't know that was what they were doing.

Chaucer, Lydgate, Spenser, Scott--great men and great writers--but not the most meticulous of spellers, I'm thinking.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

You say satrap, and I say Satrapi

I have no idea, of course, if the two words are anything other than coincidentally related. But the word 'satrap' has come up twice in the space of about five hours--first in the very opening lines of Xenophon's Anabasis, which I took a quick look at in the library today, and then on Yoani Sanchez's blog, where it caught my eye as I scrolled down to her post on Thugs and Caudillos. Here's the relevant quote:

And so I am worried about Honduras. I fear what happened will pave the way for the emergence of another figure invested with full powers. Beware! In the broad range encompassing satraps, the worst combination is when the figure of the caudillo and the armed thug converge in a single person.

But it's a third element that finally motivates me. Because in Yoani's blog, she most recently cites the acclaimed Iranian graphic artist, Marjane Satrapi--she of Persepolis fame. Wait a minute, I suddenly think--Satrapi?

My understanding of the word 'satrap', minimal though it is, is that it refers to some sort of minor, dare I say provincial, power. I think of it as the guy who's sent out to keep peace, mainly by squelching dissent, in the hinterlands. It's a bit awkward in the English language--how would one say it, anyway? Sat-trap? Sah-trop? Suh-trop?

But now, based on Marjane, I'm going to guess that it's of Persian origins. Let's see how close I am, and maybe even how to pronounce it...

Yep. It's a governor of a province in Ancient Persia, which has translated over time, and through Greek, Latin and old French, to mean any minor official or bureaucrat. That's maybe too easy, except that I would never have gotten the Persian roots if I had not realized that Marjane's last name must reflect it.

Why would anyone label themselves as coming from a clan of minor officials or bureaucrats? Well, as it turns out, they probably didn't. 'Satrap' comes from khshathrapāvan, which means 'protector of the province'. Has a nice ring to it, one that anyone would like to have associated with himself or his family.

Oh, and however they say it in in Iran, in English, the predominant pronunciation is 'say-trap'.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


If anyone reading this for some reason decides to write this kind of blog--and feel free, you poor misguided fool--here's a little clue that you've hit upon a word you should write about. First, you find yourself thinking about it in the middle of the night, and second, you start finding reasons why you should not post about it. Such reasons are usually ignoble.

I've used the word polemic, of course. Well, at least I've read it, and thought I could use it in a sentence if pressed. Polemic has something to do with argument--or an argument, at any rate. If I said, "I don't mean to be polemical", as I almost did recently, before I thought better of it, I would have meant, something like, I don't mean to be divisive, or maybe argumentative. But as usual, the more I think about it, the less I know. Does polemical really mean what I think it does? And where does it come from?

The thought I had in the middle of the night was: is it related to pole? Could it really be as simple as that? Because before that, I have to admit I hadn't a clue. And maybe I still don't. Let's find out...

Well, my understanding of the word is basically right, but my etymology was, in fact, too easy. Polemic, according to the Free Dictionary, means 'a controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific position or doctrine'. Okay, so far, so good. But it has nothing to do with poles or polar, all that. It comes from through the French polemique (sorry, can't do the accent marks) from the Greek polemikos, meaning 'hostile', which in turn derives from polemos, war.

Funny, it did cross my mind that it might have something to do with the Greek polis, city, or cit-state, which I'd guess it does. But I discounted that idea.

Hmm, I guess I should apologize when I'm being polemical. Good to know.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Screaming meme!

Meme? No I don't know what the heck it means either, but I've been tagged for one by Peter Rozovsky. This one is called the 4x4.

Not that I don't know what I'm supposed to do: it's kind of like a chain letter, though presumably without the dire consequences that befall anyone who breaks it. But where the word comes from, I don't know. I don't even know how to pronounce it. I've been assuming 'meem', but it could be me-me, which, given the fact that in the blogosphere they seem to be about revealing details of your life that you would otherwise neglect to tell, I can also make a case for. I think, though, that it has something to do with copying or replicating.

A friend at work today, oddly enough, was asking me what a meme was. She had been given an order for a book called something like "Meme: Virus of the Mind". This made me remember that I'd read some article about how everything we think is just a copy of something else. Earworms, those little phrases of popular songs that you can't get out of your mind, are apparently a form of meme.

Anyway. You can stick around or just scroll on down to my findings on this subject. Meanwhile I have an assignment to do:

Four places I'd like to go or things I'd like to do:

The truth about me is that I am really not much of a planner. There are a lot of places, whole continents that I've never even gotten near. But I am very amenable to suggestion, which is how I've gone on most of the major trips in my life. So, in the meantime, let's make this four places I'd happily go again:

1.) Paris

2.) London

3.) Dublin

4.) Bangkok

and four places I, quite shockingly, have never been:

1.) Washington D.C.

2.) Mexico

3.) Canada (except for the Vancouver airport)

4.) Most of the American south, New Orleans being the very recent exception.

Four places I've lived:

1) Santa Monica, California

2) Dublin, California

3) Denver, Colorado

4) Santa Cruz, California

Yeah, you got it right--I am only allowed to live in states beginning with C. Do not ask why.

Four places I've lived in the Santa Cruz area:

1) A condo complex. Highlight: it backed upon Neary Lagoon, which had been fitted in recent memory with a wooden walkway so that anyone could walk through or wheelchair through and see lovely birds and reeds and etc. Once they even grazed goats back there, complete with kids--fantastic.

2)Another condo complex. Highlight: A great park, right outside of my window!...Okay, that was more of a lowlight, as it turns out. If you have ever wondered about the predicability of human nature, just put a child on a great slide. But please don't put her or him on one directly outside of my window.

3)A restyled boarding house near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Make that The Santa Cruz Boardwalk! I let people think I left because of the screams from the Boardwalk--trust me, this is nothing compared to having a really fun slide outside your bedroom window.

4)A studio off Bay Street, directly on the road to the university. It's good so far. Today was graduation and I left the house this morning to discover that a huge flower stand had blossomed on the neighbors front lawn across the street, and gone by the time I got home from work. Kind of cool, really.

Four places I've been on vacation:

1) Gurnee, Illinois. I must say that my parents, though having traveled much themselves, particularly my mom, did not seem to have a grasp of the idea 'vacation'. So one of the first places that I really thought of as traveling was the ancestral haunts, right off of Lake Michigan. In all truth it was one of the better vacations ever. I had five older girl cousins I had never met, who seemed to have nothing else to occupy their time but entertain their rather shy younger California cousins. I could go on and on about this, but it would bore you.

2) England. First venture abroad. We slept on our friend's floor for an unconscionably long time at her dorm associated with the London School of Economics. It was really a fantastic beginning to travel. Thank you, Mary Ellen.

3)Bangkok. Yes, it was smoggy and crowded and hot. And you had to stop whatever you were doing in honor of the king, which I suppose could get a bit old. But so beautiful! Buddhas and gold plated temples and wonderful food, even from little hibachis out on the street.

4)the Southwest of France. This was one of the most felicitous vacations ever--and, as so often with me, not one I would have forecast as being so. Three middle-aged women and three boys from the ages of fifteen to about eight. But it was great. We stayed in a French chateau, my sister was inspired to cook fantastic things by night and drive us all through the region by day. A wonderful, wonderful place. And at least at that point, the people in that region were not so jaded with Americans as to be anything but polite to us. Even though on some levels, I'm sure we were trying. And thank you, Steph.

Four kinds of meals I like:

1) Going out to breakfast is one of my favorite things. There are lots of great restaurants in Santa Cruz, but I rarely find the time to go to any of them.

2) Dinner parties. I think this can be one of the most perfect configurations of human beings. Five to ten people sitting around a table in a private home, eating and drinking and holding forth. I feel unusually blessed on this score, considering that I am never the hostess. I like to host things, but I am not much of a cook.

3)Coffee and something sweet in the morning, and a decent newspaper, a good book review, or a great book.

4)I'm not really a foodie, but every once in awhile, I do love going out to a really great meal somewhere, preferably with many courses. Just don't ask me what I eat in between times.

Four books or movies that have taken me to places I would not have dreamed of:

1)Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. We were in Trieste. We might have gone to Rome. We might, in fact, have gone anywhere. But because I was such a huge fan of Rebecca West and in particular of this massive tome, we went into Yugoslavia before it fell apart. Thank you for that, Cicily Fairfield.

2)Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. We walked the moors on account of this book. It was not my dream, it was my aunt's. I read Wuthering Heights in the youth hostel looking over the Bronte graveyard. Because the mud kept pulling the heels of my shoes off, I was in a pretty foul temper on the entire trek up to the ruin which, as the plaque said, might have been the place that inspired the novel Wuthering Heights. I suppose in retrospect it's obvious that I wouldn't have traded a moment of it. Thank you, Kate, for putting up with me.

3)Angel's Flight, by Michael Connelly. I was reading this book when I was visiting my sister's family in L.A. once. My action-oriented brother-in-law suddenly got it into his head that I should see whereof Connelly was speaking of, so we went to downtown L.A., rode the funicular to the top of Bunker Hill, caught the beautiful building that featured in it and also in Bladerunner, and so on. The funicular failed a few months further on and killed a couple of people, and as far as I know hasn't been opened again. Thank you, Joe and Rudy, for letting me catch the experience in time.

4)I went out to the Martello tower in Sandycove while I was reading Ulysses. I did a lot of other things Joyce related during my stay in Dublin, but this may have been the best. I felt as I did it that it wasn't just for myself. Made me happy to climb up on to that roof. Thank you, Jamie Joyce.

Four works of art before which I have stood (or sat) either in deep relaxation, as close as I get to a meditative state, or with a profound sense of receptiveness:

1)As Peter knows, I could stand in front of anything by Piero della Francesca and feel simultaneously a richer and a humbler person for it.

2)Most operas. The latest being "Le Nozze de Figaro", done as the annual student performance up at UCSC. The words 'student' and 'opera' may make some people cringe, but it is always a wonderful, moving experience. For me, opera is the total package.

3)The Eiffel Tower. I know, I know--what a cliche. But it really is one of the most beautiful structures in the world.

4)Something I have not really stood in deep contemplation of, but would like to--the Ramayana murals at the Emerald Buddha temple in Bangkok. We were on the go, and couldn't really linger, but I would love to have made my way slowly around the walls and picked out all the details.

Four literary, scientific, artistic or political figures from the past whom I'd like to watch at work or meet for dinner and drinks:

You know, I don't think I could. I can't imagine the context. I'd be a sycophant or mum, or I would rise to the occasion and it would still not get me what I would want.

So here are the people I would like to give something back to, if only I could: Rebecca West, Laurens van der Post, Thomas Merton, and any of the Brontes--and that includes Branwell.

Four people I think might take it upon themselves to answer these questions (but I hope they'll do it only if they want to):

Brian O'Rourke

Liam Hoyle

Martha Silano

Gerard Brennan

Oh, yeah--almost forgot. What's a meme? It's a cultural idea or value or piece of information that is passed on between people non-genetically. It's a shortening of the Greek word mimeme (no not MiniMe, though I can't help reading it that way myself), which ultimately derives from mimeisthai, to imitate. It's called a 'meme' to correlate with 'gene'--in theory, anyway, the corresponding transmitter of genetic information.

I knew that there was a 'mimesis' root in all this! But the lack of an 'i' threw me off. Has anyone here read the great Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, by the way?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I'm sure that the one or maybe two people who follow this blog have been living under the impression that I have now pretty much cleared up all that pesky ignorance that plagued me for so long--hence the languors of late. No, my friends, it's far from the case. Outer life with its claims to importance has kept me from posting. There is, in fact, a backlog of ignorance waiting at the floodgates.

Awhile ago, Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders fame suggested that I post about the word 'rubric'. Now just why he assumed I would not know what the word 'rubric' meant, I don't know, but of course it's already obvious here that he was right. 'Under the rubric of' means something like 'under the heading of' or 'under the category of'. In other words you could plug it into a sentence where either of those phrases might fit and get away with it. But, like me, you would probably still be none the wiser as to the actual meaning of rubric.

As this actually came up awhile ago, I've had plenty of time to try and tease out an etymology. But I've failed. The 'ru-' beginning leads me to think of runes, or possibly Rome. and the -ic ending, well, I've got cubic and tunic, oh and tumeric, now that I think of it, and for some reason I again think of Roman transplants. But enough of all my clutching at straws. Let's find out...

Rose, where did you get that red? That's a Kenneth Koch title about teaching poetry to children, by the way. But it's also a clue. I wish I had Sucharita Sarkar's way with fonts, colors and sizes to emphasize both the answer and my embarrassment at not somehow finding the obvious clue in all this--'rub-'.

As in 'ruby'. Ruber is Latin for 'red'.

Rubric does mean heading. And it does sometimes mean also 'class', or 'category'. But the only reason it means these things is because headings and such were at one point, designated in bright red letters--particularly in Christian manuscripts.

'Red letter days' are probably a parallel development, I'm thinking.

Friday, May 1, 2009


This comes, once again, from Adrian McKinty's always enlivening blog, 'The Psychology of Every Day Life'. (I know, I know--you want the link. Just be patient will you?) The review is for Amira Lakhous's excellent novel Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in the Piazza Vittorio. The quote is:

"Suspicion falls upon the saintly Amedeo who has gone missing and who seems to be the only one keeping order among the fissiparous residents of the run down block of flats in the otherwise charming Piazza Vittorio."

So of course I have no idea what 'fissiparous' means. If someone had asked me without context, I would have hazarded two guesses as to the meaning--phosphorescent, as in soda, or piscene, as in fishing. As may be evident, I am not that good when it comes to blind guessing.

However, in context I will venture that it means something like 'combative' or 'retaliatory'. What are you all going to throw out there? Not asking you to make public your blind guesses, but think about it for a moment...

Okay. It doesn't mean anything like that. It means 'reproducing by fission' or 'Tending to break up into parts or break away from a main body; factious.'

As there is no reproduction involved in this novel that I can remember, I think we must take the second meaning. I would like to say that that 'p' in fissiparous really threw me. But as 'fission' itself is a mystery to me, even getting it right wouldn't have helped so awfully much.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

K Street

There's a small backlog of words I don't know piling up, but I thought it was time to take another tack, and go back to things in general I don't know, such as (see earlier posts), where in the world certain countries lie. Gotta mix it up a little from time to time, don't ya know.

I saw this headline on Slate Magazine tonight: "Obama's Botched War on K Street". Now it would be an easy enough thing to just click the link and find out from context what K Street is. I must assume it is not Wall Street, as that's already an easily understandable symbol, and I'm guessing it has to be in either New York or Washington, DC, but what in the world is it referring to? For one thing, I can't think of any sector of society that Obama is warring right now. The adversarial stance doesn't really seem to be his style. True, he sent the automakers home to retool, but I'd think that the simple word Detroit would have stood in there. The most recent controversy would lead me to think this has something to do with the CIA and the torture memos, so that would mean that K Street lies in Washington. The only other possibility that comes to mind is banking, as opposed to Wall Street, but as far as I an tell, he's been bending over backwards for them, not warring on them, so that is probably not right.

All right, all right. I don't have a clue what city K Street lies in. Time to click that link...

Okay, none of the above. 'K Street' refers to the lobbying sector and is based on a Washington, DC street where many lobbying firms have their offices. The Slate article calls Obama's war--yeah, it sounds familiar now--on lobbyists botched because it doesn't really make a distinction between good lobbyists and bad lobbyists. You can read more abouut both here, if so inclined.

Monday, April 6, 2009


I've got a couple of other blogs going, and in a perfect world, I would update one of them before I confess even more ignorance than people already know me to have. But the truth is that I would like the misspelled word of my last blog not to be the one to greet me every time I open the page, which I do a lot--not because I am so dazzled by my own writing, but because it's basically the way I see if anything new has popped up on some of the other blogs I follow.

Besides, recognition of ignorance comes on its own timetable, and not mine. In an ideal world--again--I would be so far from ignorant that I would only feel the need to post here about once a year.

Unfortunately, that's not the case.

I was having a conversation with my sister in which she was describing a situation of being overwhelmed or buried or burdened by something, and she asked me if 'consumed' was the word she was looking for. I said, "Maybe 'subsumed'?" So she asked, "Maybe--what does 'subsumed' mean, exactly?" And I said, "Uh..."

Yeah--I knew right away that a blog post was coming on.

Okay, I could probably use 'subsume' semi-accurately in a sentence--or at least interpret it semi-accurately in a sentence. The sub- prefix makes it easy to fake it. There's an 'under' aspect to it. I would probably use it to mean 'buried within', 'overwhelmed' or 'taken over'--as in, "his personality was subsumed in his father's overbearing one". We'll see shortly if I'm right about that. Meanwhile, there is also a more primary ignorance to be dealt with.

It occurred to me that there are a lot of '-sume' words--consume, subsume, resume, presume--and though with the rest I can more accurately define them, I still don't know what that '-sume' is all about. It has got to be some sort of very foundational root, like 'to be' or 'to know', but I can't find the common element. With, under, again, before--all attached to this suffix. So how does it work to make them say what they do?

Time to find out...

Okay--I was probably offering the word inaccurately to my sister, though it might have just squeaked by, depending on what we were actually saying. Probably not, though. "Subsume" means to include, or classify or incorporate something into--or under--a larger group or general principal.

I didn't come close to getting the '-sume' right, either. It comes from the Latin sumere, which means 'to take', among other things. I have to admit that at first, this didn't make things much clearer. But reading through the definitions, I was surprised to see how many idioms using 'to take' have passed into our present day language. So we can make these sort of rough matches: subsume--to take under. Consume--to take in. Resume--to take up again. Presume--to take for granted--or to take ahead of time.

Who knew that 'taking' was so fundamental to our language, and therefore our nature? Oh, sure--you all did. Easy to say that now.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Am I even spelling this one right? Well, we'll see.

Feduciary is the type of word that I can read in a sentence and probably puzzle out some sort of meaning for from context. It might not be the right meaning, but it works well enough for me to go on to the next sentence. There are a lot of words like this, frankly. Usually, like this one, they belong to a world that I don't have a lot of expertise in, and that I don't always feel obligated to get a whole lot clearer on. This word comes from the world of finance--I think--which is usually enough to make me pass right over it in itself.

I think that as I read, I more or less read 'financial' when I come across the word 'feduciary'. I also associate it with banking, or at least the world of financial institutions. It seems to imply a seriousness and authority about fiscal responsibility, which frankly is a bit laughable after all that's gone down in the last few months, and apparently, years. Well, let's see. And I off on the wrong track here?

Well, as some or all of you will already know, I would have lost the spelling bee on that one. Fiduciary, not feduciary. The funny thing is that I might have had a better understanding of the roots of the word if I'd just spelled it right. Because 'fiduciary' is all about trust, and in fact comes from the Latin word for trust fiducia. 'Fid' would have at least led me to relate it to 'fidelity' or 'faithfulness' rather than some vague associaion with words like 'federal' and 'federated'.

But fed- words will have to be another discussion. Fiduciary means more specifically 'of or related to holding something in trust for another'. Or a person can be a fiduciary, which means to be a person bound to act for another's benefit--in fact, a trustee.

So the financial aspect, though not crucial to the word, is not so far off, as one of the things we do most often hold in trust for another is money in some form. But I would say the meaning is at heart much more legal than financial.

I did find another definition of the word that has nothing to do with the legal or the financial, but obviously springs from the same initial concept. Fiduciary can also mean 'of, relating to or being a system of marking in the field of view of an optical instrument that can be used as a reference point or measuring scale.

So in the otherwise confusing field of view, you make some kind of steady mark that you can find your bearings by.

In other words, something you can trust.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Unlike many of the words on this blog, I do know what this word means. It means something like 'the whole kit and caboodle' the range, the spectrum. But it was only just now when I was checking to make sure that I was spelling it right--I wasn't--that I came across its own interesting origins. So here's the interesting testish part. Where do you think the word gamut comes from?

The way I had it spelled in my mind--apparently 'gamit', the way I first typed it-- it sounded like one of those Anglo-Saxon words that have mysteriously disappeared from our discourse: "I searched high and low, Squire, but the whole gamit of them hares has just disappeared." When it turned out to be, 'gamut' though, it started sounding a bit Germanic: "Wo ist der Gamut, Herr Schoenfeld?" "Der Gamut ist Kaputt, Herr Mann!"

Neither of these, however, was really on the right track. 'Gamut' is a Middle English word, but a much more ethereal one than I was thinking. It refers to a musical scale. The original word 'gamut' is taken from the Medieval Latin musical term 'gamma', or low G, which was the first note in the lowest hexachord (don't ask) and 'ut' which is the first note of the Medieval Latin scale. Don't quote me, but it seems like 'gamma' is our G (though it looks like its pilfered from the Greeks) and 'ut' is our 'doh', as in 'doh, re, mi..." 'Ut' apparently comes from being the first word in a Latin hymn to Saint John the Baptist, which ascended as it was sung in a scale like way. "Ut queant laxis resonare..." Well, you get the picture. And if you don't, I'm afraid that quoting more of the hymn isn't really going to help you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


In a recent comment here, Peter Rozovsky suggested that maybe my percentage of right guesses were higher than they should be for one who claims the ignorance that I do. However, I must say that since a large percentage of the words I post here are actually ones that I've used recently in a sentence, my accuracy probably should be about 90 percent. Which, I am very much afraid it isn't.

Here's an example. On another blog, I used the term "temporizing force", meaning something like calming, soothing, ameliorating. Or diplomatic. After the post, though, I found myself wondering. "Temporizing? Isn't that really something more like equivocating?" My doubts about my use of words so often spring up long after there is any hope of correcting them. So what does 'temporize' really mean? I'm sure that like me, you are waiting with bated breath...

According to the Free Dictionary, 'temporize' means 'To act evasively in order to gain time, avoid argument, or postpone a decision'. It can also mean 'To engage in discussions or negotiations, especially so as to achieve a compromise or gain time.'

So, though I certainly did not mean to accuse the commenter of acting evasively, I think that I was at least on track with this one. In this case, I was suggesting that the commenter might be the one to show the way to compromise, or to avoid argument. But the other more ambivalent idea is in the word too. Evasiveness seems to be somewhat central to its theme. But its roots in Old French and from thence back to Medieval Latin really are only about passing one's time, without reference to schemes and manipulations of it.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Yeah--I have no idea what this word means. It came up in a post from Adrian McKinty's blog, and though I feel I should be able to figure it out from context, i.e., 'pusillanimous Italians', in fact I get no help from this. Except it's supposed to be a negative stereotype, I think. Pasta loving? Organ grinding? Chianti swilling?

What I think it means is 'cowardly'. Which is odd, since the word I get it mixed up with is 'pugnacious', which if I'm correct, would be more or less its opposite.

Okay--let's see.

Hey, I was right! It does mean cowardly. It derives from the Latin
pusillus, meaning weak, and animus, meaning courage.

Looking through the quotes at, I noticed that Jack London had a liking for the word. Best quote:

"Why, you pusillanimous piece of dirt, you'd run with your tail between your legs if I said boo."

That's from Valley of the Moon.

I'm just waiting for the opportunity to say that to someone. Though, being more than slightly pusillanimous myself, it might be better if I tried it on a small child first. Or maybe a youngish dog.

Friday, January 23, 2009


This small Latin word has come up in two different contexts in the last week, a sure clue from the gods, or at least from the control panel of the simulation we are all living in, that it's time to do a little post about it. The first time was in a passing reference to Lincoln's assassination, when John Wilkes Booth is reported to have shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!", or "Thus always with tyrants!", a good thought unfortunately very misapplied to his particular situation. It turns out that it is also the motto of the state of Virginia, which frankly, I feel they might have wanted to change up a bit after Booth's misappropriation.

The other sighting was in a way with which I am more familiar, yet really fairly ignorant of all the same. This is when you cite a word or phrase and then say sic. Now the way I always more or less read this is to say to myself, this word or phrase is spelled or even perhaps grammatically wrong, but we all take the meaning anyway, and we are not going to clean up the original just to make the whole thing look better. I am afraid that whenever I see this, I also read the word 'sick' into it, so my gloss is something like 'this is the sickly version, but please take no offense here, as there is nothing we can do about it'.

I am not sure how this 'sic' squares with the first one, which means something like 'thus' or 'so'. I'll do a little check now, but please feel free to elucidate the whole thing further...

Apparently the second type of 'sic' does still mean 'thus' or 'so', but it's kind of an emphatic use, saying something like, yes, it looks wrong, well, pathetically so, really, but it's staying in. In other words, it's not a typo, it's deliberate, so don't get on my case about it,I know what I'm doing here...Yeah, short word with a lot of baggage.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Okay, I do already know what this word means. But that's not without getting it wrong in the first place. I was talking with some friends at work today. One said that when she read the galley for Angels of Destruction, the new novel by Keith Donahue, she found herself having to look up about two words per page. A couple of us asked, give us an example. 'Gravid' was the one she came up with. She asked, "Do you know it?" I guessed "Stagnant?"

I guessed wrong.

'Gravid' means 'pregnant.'

So the other friend asked, does that mean that we can say, "She is gravid?"

I'm guessing it does mean that, but that it has passed out of common usage. This is the point I will now explore.

I am still not sure why 'gravid' seems to have passed out of the common parlance as regards to human pregnancy. It does have its origins in the Latin "gravis" or heavy, and so means 'heavy with child', or in the last stages of pregnancy. But the examples I see of its use have little to do with women being pregnant at this point, or at least not until their pregnancy has been rendered either biological or medical. Many other species are cited as gravid with eggs or young, but it does begin to seem like a word that's being used to make pregnancy and birth, i.e., the bearing and delivery of new life into something very scientific and amenable to study.

Oh, I can'' wait to ask some friend who is showing, "Oh, how gravid are you?" I'm sure that will meet with a polite reply.

Keith Donohue, you are on my list. I read The Stolen Child and loved the premise and the writing, but it didn't totally fulfill its potential for me. But I'm sure that I missed much of the word play. I always do. I'll have to look at the new one more consciously.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

per se

A recent commenter on Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders mentioned that we semi-educated types often use the term per se incorrectly, attempting to sound more high-falutin' than we really are. Having just used the term myself in some post within the 24 hours preceding this, I was perhaps more sensitive than I might have been normally to this criticism--enough so that I feel a little frozen in even attempting to think of a sentence that I would use it in. So let me take a more lighthearted approach to this and give an 'example' of a way I might use the term in a sentence.
"It wasn't a crime, per se--my hand just happened to slip into her wallet as I was helping her across the street."

I am not a hundred percent sure that this is the way I do use it, but it's a starting point. I guess in my mind, per se means, in actuality, or as strictly or legalistically defined, or even more informally, 'as you might ordinarily define it yourself'.

So what's the root of this phrase? I'm guessing Latin. Legalistic Latin is the way I'm betting it's come down to us. Time to take a look...

per se: Latin for 'of, in or by itself, or oneself'. Intrinsically. Essentially.

So I think my sentence above is a little bit off, as I somehow felt it was. A better sentence might be "The fact that my hand slipped into her wallet as I was helping her across the street wasn't a crime per se--it was bringing it out again with that fifty and taking off down the street that put me on the wrong side of the law."

Now I'm curious about common misuses of the word. How do people most typically make mistakes with it?