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.