Words that Sound Dirty – But Aren't: titivate; cunctation; decoction; pricket; cockshy; assize; testaceous
Words from The Raven by E. A. Poe: craven; mien; pallid; obeisance; censer; nepenthe; surcease
The Colors of Fall: filemot; brunneous; festucine; castaneous; ferruginous; pavonine; eau de nil; caesious; glaucous
Things That Go Bump In The Night: walpurgisnacht; doppelganger; chichevache bicorne (dungavenhooter); eldritch; bodach; pandemonium; cockatrice (basilisk, three-tailed bavalorus); arcanum (famulus, hodag, jackalope); necromancy (langsuir); phantasmagoria (lycanthrope)
Words that Sound Dirty – But Aren't (Week of Oct 7, 2002)
Some words are so familiar that use them without realizing that they sound as if they have a sexual meaning. "Joystick" is an example, and no doubt our posters will come up with others.
Only with less familiar words does the lusty sound register in our ears. This week we present some of those lusty-seeming words to titivate our speech.
titivate – to spruce up
The word in use, in a Barnes & Noble online ad:
"Titivate your classroom, coffee table, and conversation with this text."
One should not confuse this with titillate =
"excite", as did Mr. Alan Clark is speaking in the
My hon. Friend's remarks are making me extremely concerned. His argument is essentially populist. There is strong competition to supply what it is thought people want and to titivate [sic] them and attract their attention by various means. However, the business of the BBC has always been to present the truth."
A very interesting word, used in press today:
cunctation – procrastination; delay.
The etymology suggests that "cunctation" is not pejorative, but rather means wise delay to gain advantage. (But the word is too rarely used to check that suggestion against actual usage.)
Would one of our classicists care to tell us of the Roman leader known as The Cunctator?
The word in use, this very day:
Mr. Bush can see what would happen to his approval ratings and the fall
elections. Then he’ll know that cunctation is not always the best
or the safest policy.
– Nicholas von Hoffman, in New York Observer, October 7, 2002
A members writes: Quintus Fabius Maximus
(275-203 BC) was a Roman general who was appointed consul five times (233, 228,
215, 214, 209) and was made Dictator (supreme general) in 217. After
Another members writes: From Plutarch's life of Fabius: His slowness in speaking, his long labour and pains in learning, his deliberation in entering into the sports of other children, his easy submission to everybody, as if he had no will of his own, made those who judge superficially of him, the greater number, esteem him insensible and stupid; and few only saw that this tardiness proceeded from stability, and discerned the greatness of his mind, and the lionlikeness of his temper. [¶] But as soon as he came into employments, his virtues exerted and showed themselves; his reputed want of energy then was recognized by people in general as a freedom of passion; his slowness in words and actions, the effect of a true prudence; his want of rapidity and his sluggishness, as constancy and firmness.
”Decoction” does not have anything to do with “abridgement” or “bobbitry”.
decoction – concentrating a flavor by boiling down (or the concentrate made, as a herbal decoction)
[Norman Mailer] decocts
matters of the first philosophical magnitude from an examination of his own
ordure, and I am not talking about his books.
– William F Buckley Jr., National Review, Jul 2, 1968
pricket – 1. a small spike to hold a candle upright; a candlestick with that spike; 2. a buck in its second year, before the antlers branch
Shakespeare makes bawdy puns around this word in Love’s
Labour’s Lost, Act IV. Scene II, also playing on
Hol. Sir Nathaniel, will you hear an extemporal epitaph on the death of the deer? and, to humour the ignorant, I have call'd the deer the princess killed, a pricket.
The preyful princess pierc'd and prick'd a pretty pleasing pricket;
Some say a sore; but not a sore, till now made sore with shooting.
cockshy - the throw in a throwing contest, or the target aimed at
Since the Australian is probably the lowest educated English-speaking
person in the world, he obviously doomed to fill the role of a cockshy
[target] for all the petty moralists, religious fanatics and other humbugs who
infest the average social group. He is a prey to all purveyors of prejudice and
misinformation... it was no accident that skyrocketed the word wowser to a
position of enduring importance in our language.
– Sidney Baker, The Australian Language, 1945
Here is a malaprop by an 1867 author misled by the word “sounding dirty”: "Then there were the cockshy-men and the Aunt-Sally men, and the men who were not to be mistaken for tailors because they carried a thimble in their pocket"
assize - a session of a court
Eichmann was no ordinary criminal, and his deeds were not the subject of
the ordinary court of assizes.
– Michael A. Musmanno, New York Times, October 6, 1996
testaceous - reddish-brown or brownish-yellow, the color of bricks
also pertaining to shells; having a hard shell.
This word unhappily has been confined to scientific usage. In fact, its use as a color seems largely confined to the biology of beetles. Here is an example from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Chapter 9 - Secondary Sexual Characters in the Lower Classes of the Animal Kingdom
The male is generally much smaller than the female, sometimes to an extraordinary degree, and he is forced to be extremely cautious in making his advances, as the female often carries her coyness to a dangerous pitch. De Greer saw a male that "in the midst of his preparatory caresses was seized by the object of his attentions, enveloped by her in a web and then devoured, a sight which, as he adds, filled him with horror and indignation." In this species, as I may add, the male is testaceous and the female black with legs banded with red.
Words from The Raven by E. A. Poe (Week of Oct. 14, 2002)
craven - characterized by abject fear; cowardly. (noun: a coward)
Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which
mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us … no longer to
look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but
rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place
to live in …
– Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian
mien - bearing or manner, especially as it reveals an inner state of mind: "He was a Vietnam veteran with a haunted mien." (James Traub)
Looks sell books. It's a closed-doors secret in contemporary American
publishing, but the word is leaking out. Not that you have to resemble Denzel
Washington or Cameron Diaz, but if you can write well and you possess the haute
cheekbones of Susan Minot, the delicate mien of Amy Tan or the
brooding ruggedness of Sebastian Junger, your chances are much greater.
– Judged by Their Back Covers by Linton Weeks, Washington Post, July 2, 2001
pallid - 1. of abnormally pale or wan complexion 2. lacking intensity of color or luminousness 3. [metaphorically] lacking radiance or vitality; dull: pallid prose
Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head
rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily
men of violence. We speak of "touching" a man's heart, but we can do
nothing to his head but hit it.
– G. K. Chesterton
obeisance - an attitude of deference or homage; a gesture, such as a curtsy, expressing that attitude
The only business of the head in the world is to bow a ceaseless obeisance to the heart. – W. B. Yeats
censer - a vessel in which incense is burned, especially during religious services. related to incense. Not related to one who censors literature or who subjects misconduct to censure.
But Al-Murshid, who affects the beard and robes of a pious zealot, …
held a press dinner where he was photographed being led into the room by a
servant carrying a censer, waving the perfumed smoke before him as
if he were some ancient Oriental potentate.
– Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland in Newsweek, July 22, 2002
nepenthe – a drug mentioned in the Odyssey as a remedy for grief; hence 2. something that induces forgetfulness of sorrow or eases pain.
made earth like heaven; nor pride,
Nor jealousy, nor envy, nor ill shame,
The bitterest of those drops of treasured gall,
Spoiled the sweet taste of the nepenthe, love.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act III Scene IV.
surcease - (noun) cessation (verb, trans. & intrans.) to bring or come to an end; stop
Laughter is the tonic, the relief, and the surcease for
– Charlie Chaplin
The Colors of Fall (Week of Oct. 21, 2002)
It is autumn here, and as the woods and greenery break out in plaid around us, one's thoughts naturally turn to the glorious beauties of color.
This week we'll sample some unusual color-names that could vivify our speech, mostly ones you could use to describe the fall colors around you. (Recall testaceous (brick red), which we saw recently).
Let's begin with some leaf-words.
filemot – the yellowish brown color of a faded leaf
The word, which has many variant spellings, is an anglicized and corrupted version of feuillemorte, literally "dead leaf" in French.
The walls were paneled; each panel was
comparted like a modern office-desk, and each compartment crowded with labelled
folios all filemot with age and use.
– Ben Hur by Lew Wallace, chap. 3
Leaves may also be brunneous – dark brown. This color-name is chiefly used is biology (esp. birds, mushrooms, and shells), often in the form of brunneus.
festucine – straw-yellow. from Latin festuca = "stalk," or "straw"
I found confusion amid the dictionaries. Webster's defines festucine as "straw-colored; greenish-yellow", which to my eye is contradictory: straw is not greenish.
OED, the ultimate authority, says "festucine: straw-colored", which begs the question: What color is that? One OED quote implies greenish, but another denies greenish:
1646: "a little insect of a festucine or pale green, resembling ... what we call a grasshopper"
1874: "Her turquoise eyes suited her festucine hair" (one does not imagine that that woman had greenish hair)
I have resolved this in favor of the definition above, based on the word in (rare) use:
Sir Paul McCartney has scattered the ashes of
his late wife Linda, 56, on the family's southern England farm, newspapers
said. She died Sunday of breast cancer. The former Beatle and his
festucine-haired wife--whom he celebrated in song as "lovely Linda
with the lovely flowers in her hair"--were reportedly apart only one day
in their 29-year marriage.
– quoted on-line as being from the newspapers; source not given.
castaneous – chestnut-colored (the chestnut tree is genus Castanea)
ferruginous – the reddish-brown color of iron rust (recall that the chemical symbol for iron is Fe for ferrus)
pavonine – with the iridescence of a peacock's tail. (also peacock-like, in the manner of such words as canine, feline, etc.)
I donned mask and flippers and slipped into
the pavonine waters to feed the fish by hand. The immense
undersea world was enthralling: an aquatic version of the Hanging Garden of
– Christopher P. Baker, Travel Journalist, describing Australia's Great Barrier Reef
eau de nil – light green; literally, "water of the nile".
An unusual term, not listed in OED. The British Colour Council's Dictionary of Colour Standards 1938, rev. 1951, says this color was previously called "baltic".
You don't have to dabble for very long to
begin to realize that the world of smell has no reliable maps, no single
language, no comprehensible metaphorical structure ... We can visualize a particular
sightly milky green, imagine where it falls on a spectrum chart, look at its
neighbours and complementaries, and the finally say that it is, say, "eau
de nil" or "pale turquoise" or "jade." ... But
the best we seem to be able to do with smells is to evoke comparisons.
– Scents and Sensibility, Details Magazine, July 1992, by Brian Eno
[In Ireland's Glin Castle] The ornate
plasterwork on the ceiling still has its original eau de nil
– Eleanor S. Morris, Romantic Nights In A Knight's Castle (on line)
caesious - pale blue with a hint of gray
The dictionaries conflict on this word. Amid them, you can find it defined as
– a kind of blue (with gray or green),
– a kind of gray (with blue or green), and
– a kind of green (with gray or blue).
There is even a conflict between OED Reference ("bluish or grayish-green") and OED itself ("bluish or greenish gray").
The definition given above seems most consistent with sources that list the Latin "caesius" as meaning sky blue or heavenly blue. This Latin gave us the name of the chemical element caesium, from the color of that element's spectrographic lines.
You can see a stunning example of this color in a recent artwork titled Caesius Blue Persian.
glaucous – 1 a: of a pale yellow-green color; b: of a light bluish gray or bluish white color
Forgive my long-windedness here. This is a tangled tale of "glaucous", which oddly seems to mean two completely different colors: a blue-tinged white or light gray, or a greenish color. (The above is M-W Collegiate.) Our board notes sources that define this word as " green-yellow", as "pale yellow-green", as "blue-green", and as "blue-gray or gray".
The bluish-white/gray meaning ties in with ripe autumn fruits. Recall that red plums or red grapes will often have a waxy or powdery coating, whitish with a blue tinge, that can be rubbed or washed off. That coating is called "bloom", and fruits or other plants with bloom are called "glaucous".
By extension, "glaucous" would mean the color of that bloom: a blue-tinged light gray. This seems consistent with Greek glaukos = gray. Compare our word "glaucoma". Through 1705 that term referred to cataracts of the eyes (which was not then recognized as a distinct condition), and I believe that cataracts make the eyes a milky bluish-gray.
The morning was a bright one, and perfectly
still and serene, the lake as smooth as glass, we making the only ripple as we
paddled into it. The dark mountains about it were seen through a glaucous
mist, and the brilliant white stems of canoe birches mingled with the other
woods around it.
– Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods
The yellow/green meaning is sometimes called "sea-green", and may perhaps trace back to the name "Glaucus", a minor sea-god in Greek myth.
erewhile I slept / Under the glaucous
caverns of old Ocean / Within dim bowers of green and purple moss
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound
Loch Leven is a rather shallow loch, seldom
much over fifteen feet deep, save where a long narrow rent or geological flaw
runs through the bottom. The water is of a queer glaucous green,
olive-coloured, or rather like the tint made when you wash out a box of
– Andrew Lang, Angling Sketches (1891)
OED seems to straddle between bluish and greenish. It defines glaucous as "covered with bloom", and illustrates "bloom" by quoting Dr. Johnson's 1755 dictionary: "the blue color upon plums and grapes newly gathered". But OED also defines glaucous as "of a dull or pale green color passing into grayish blue".
Things That Go Bump In The Night (Week of Oct. 28, 2002)
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
– Scottish prayer
This week our USn's celebrate the Halloween holiday. In its honor, our them this week is words of witchery and of monsters found around the globe. Most days we will present both a witchery word and a specific monster or spook.
walpurgisnacht or walpurgis night – the eve of May Day on which witches are held to ride to an appointed rendezvous; also something having a nightmarish quality
St. Walpurgis, deemed a defense against witchery, was an 8th-century Englishwoman called from her abbey to go to the monastery at Heidenhelm, with her brothers Willibald and Wunibald. Lovely names, those.
Most people do not realize that they dwell inside an epistemological
inferno, a veritable Walpurgis Night of hollow ideas and relativistic
– Hebert London, Washington Times, Nov. 24, 1996
doppelganger – a spiritual or ghostly double of a living person
The word in figurative use:
Nathan Weinstein compiled an amazing scholastic record. He failed nearly
all his classes at every institution that he ever attended. After being
expelled from Tufts, a few months into his first semester, he managed to adopt
the transcript of another Nathan Weinstein enrolled at Tufts. Using his doppelganger's
distinguished academic record, he was accepted at Brown with fifty-seven
credits to his name.
– Martin Filler, reviewing Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings, in The New Republic, Sept. 13, 1999 (excepted)
Yesterday's doppelganger hailed from Germany, the land of the original Walpurgisnacht. Let's travel a bit to meet a pair of monsters indigenous to France. From Old French:
chichevache – an enormous cow that feeds on patient wives and virtuous women
bicorne – a two-horned monster that eats patient or henpecked husbands
Because of their respective diets, the chichevache was lean, constantly hungry and unhappy, while the bicorne was very fat and jolly. Folks, I don't comment; I merely report.
PS: Apparently Chaucer brought the word "chichevache" into English. I've not researched this fully.
A member notes: The dungavenhooter was an alligator-like reptile, mouthless but with abnormally large nostrils, common to the logging regions. My book says, "Concealing itself with Satanic cunning behind a whiffle bush, the Dungavenhooter awaits the passing logger. On coming within reach of the dreadful tail, the victim is knocked senseless and then pounded steadily until he becomes entirely gaseous, whereat he is greedily inhaled through the wide nostrils. Rum-sodden prey is sought with especial eagerness."
eldritch – strange; unearthly; weird; eerie.
The immitigable mountains and their stark, eldritch trees;
coasts where earth abruptly snapped off, never to be continued, or beaches
which gnawed it to bright dust and sucked it gently away. . . .
– Carolyn Kizer, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (1984), "A Childhood South of Nowhere," New York Times, April 9, 1989
And for the Demon of the Day, we cross the channel to Great Britain:
bodach – (Scottish Gaelic for 'old man') a small, vile beast of the British Isles who comes down chimneys to carry off naughty children.
The bodach, a small creature, would live in the chimney and only come out in the night when he heard the fussings of bad children. He would creep out to tweak the child's ears, nose and other uncovered extremities. The worst thing he could was induce nightmares by lifting the sleeping child's eyelids. It was said that the bodach would only bother naughty children, and in defense a child could put salt in the hearth, as the bodach would not cross salt.
pandemonium – 1. an utterly lawless, riotous place or assemblage; also (by extension) wild uproar or noise. 2. the great hall or council chamber of demons or evil spirits.
Coined by John Milton in "Paradise Lost" (1667) as Pandæmonium, the palace built in the middle of Hell, "the high capital of Satan and all his peers". from Gk. pan- "all" + L.L. dæmonium "evil spirit". Transferred sense "place of uproar" is from 1779.
The stock market was devastated by the worst one-day collapse in history
yesterday in a pandemonium of panic selling that shattered all
records and swamped stock exchanges around the country and overseas.
– Peter Behr and David A. Vise, Washington Post Staff Writers, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1987
Demon of the Day: cockatrice – a serpent, hatched from a cock's egg, having the power to kill by its glance. As far as I can tell, this is identical to the basilisk.
A member notes: The three-tailed bavalorus, a now-extinct beast half-animal and half-bird of the northwestern United States, had a large corkscrew horn, cloven hooves, and three tails: one barbed for fighting, one broad and flat to sit upon, and one a beautiful fantail used to ward off flies. Its undoing was the fantail, which it would sit and admire for hours on end, allowing its enemies to gain the upper hand.
arcanum plural arcana - 1. a secret; a mystery 2. specialized or mysterious knowledge
Friedman knows how to cut through the arcana of high tech
and high finance with vivid images and compelling analogies . . . a
delightfully readable book.
– Josef Joffe, The New York Times Book Review, reviewing The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas L. Friedman, Foreign Affairs columnist for The New York Times and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary
Demon of the Day: famulus – a sorcerer's assistant; also (non-demonically ) a private secretary or other close attendant.
The "weird sisters", the three witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth, each had a famulus, a familiar spirit. One of them was Greymalkin. "Malkin" is a cat, also a lewd woman. Query whether "Greymalkin" is also a pun on "merkin".
A member notes: hodag – given to weeping because of its extreme ugliness, the hodag has short legs, a spiny back, buck-teeth and a pointed tail.
A member notes: the jackalope, a creature almost unheard of outside its native America.
necromancy – communicating with the spirits of the dead to predict the future; also black magic; sorcery
An interesting etymology:
from Greek via Latin; note the Greek root necro = "dead", as in necrosis, necrophilia.
But when the Latin word came to mean "black arts", the spelling was influenced by Latin niger "black," and became nigromantia. This came into Middle English as nygromauncy, again with the "black" root. Modern spelling is c.1550 from attempts to correct this back to the original "dead" meaning.
Traveling to Malaysia for the Demon of the Day:
langsuir – a female vampire that preys on newborns. The langsuir wears a green robe, has long black hair, emits a whinnying cry, and can take on the shape of an owl. All in all, a terrifying creature.
phantasmagoria - a fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as in a dreams; a bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage
(pl. ~gorias or ~gories; adj. ~goric, ~gorical, or ~gorial)
May trace back to Greek agora = assembly
In the phantasmagoria of "Apocalypse Now," in
the brutalism of "Full Metal Jacket," the ravanchism of the Rambo
pictures and the operatic fevers of Oliver Stone's movies, the confusion of war
is still acute; its wounds are still raw.
– A. O. Scott, New York Times, March 1, 2002
Demon of the Day:
lycanthrope– a werewolf; a human being fabled to have been changed into a wolf.
(The first syllable is pronounced with a long-i sound, by the way.)