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July-Aug. 2002 Archives

Words from Yiddish: golum; Miss MacKenzie; chacham; tsatske; mensh

Words from Politics: gerrymander; mugwump; jingoism; chauvinism; carpetbagger; watergate; know-nothings; genocide

Personalities from Literature: Panglossian; Ozymandian; quixotic; munchkin; Horatio Alger; Simon Legree; Pollyanna

Words for funny uses of words: malaprop; spoonerism; mondegreen; paronomasia (antanaclasis, syllepsis); rodomontade

Gilbert and Sullivan: Battle of the Sexes: quiddity; incubus; abjure; chary; popinjay; philtre


Words from Yiddish (Week of July 29, 2002)

All credit here to Leo Rosten, our primary source.


golum or goylum – 1. a robot 2. a simpleton; fool 3. a clumsy person; a clod; someone who is all thumbs 4. a graceless, tactless type 5. someone who is subnormal.


Examples: "He looks like a golem." "He is as slow-witted as a golum."

from Hebrew "matter without shape", or "a yet unformed thing". [Psalm 139.16]


Mary Shelly, in authoring Frankenstein, may have gotten the idea from the golem legends.


When the scientists at the great Weizmann Institute in Israel built their first large electronic computer, they dubbed it Golem I.


Miss MacKenzie – a female who will "do it"; a young lady who is loved by all.


An obscure one here. This bit of Yiddish-American slang has long since fallen out of usage, but you'll enjoy the derivation.


Yiddish has a heavy component of German, and German for do it or make it sounds much like "MacKenzie". Hence young gentlemen (and I use the term loosely) had a code to privately discuss the interesting subject of whether a lady was of also "loose terms". To discuss the "lay of the land", if you will.


PS: I'm no german-scholar. Any corrections would be cheerfully appreciated


chacham – a clever, wise or learned man or woman; but sarcastically: a fool, a wise guy; one who tries to be clever but suffers a downfall.

Similarly chachma: a wise or profound saying or action; but derisively: a foolish move or performance. The negative meanings are by far the more common, and (says Rosten) "No word will more swiftly establish you as one who knows Yiddish." The ch sounds are the aggressive, reverberating Scottish kh.



A proudyoung chachem told his grandmother that he was going to become a doctor of philosophy. The bubbe smiled proudly: "Wonderful. But what kind of disease is 'philosophy'?"

Wife to husband at night: "Get up, Max. I'm freezing. Close the window; it's cold outside!" Sighed Max, "Chachem! And if I close the window, will it be warm outside?"

Amid a frightful storm at sea, the captain asked one of the passengers, a professional magician, to distract the frightened passengers. The magician gave a dazzling performance, making cards disappear, turning scarves into flags, and for his grand finale presented a parrot who, he announced, "will now perform the greatest feet of magic in the history of prestidigitation."

All eyes turned to the parrot; drums rolled; trumpets blew -- and suddenly a tremendous wave smashed the ship in two. The passengers found themselves thrashing in the water, clinging to bits of flotsam. As the parrot floated by, one man fixed a cold stare on him and said bitterly, "Nu? Was this chachma?"


tsatske – a delicious word, pronounced to rhyme with "pots the". Diminutive form tsatskeleh. If you can't do the "ts" sound at the start, then change each of the ts's to a ch and say "chotchke".


1. A cheap plaything, trinket or geegaw, as "Give the baby a tsatske to keep it quiet." But the more important use, by extension: 2. A cute but inconsequential female; a sexy but brainless broad; a dumb blonde; the female equivalent of a "boy toy".


As the fur salesman was wrapping up the mink coat for a gentleman and his pretty young lady friend, the tsatske suddenly asked if the mink would be damaged if she were caught in the rain. "Lady", he replied, "did you ever see a mink carrying an umbrella?"


After yiddish words of negative connotation, it's time for the highest compliment yiddish has to offer.


mensh – (rhymes with "bench") 1. An upright, honorable, decent person. "Come on, act like a mensh!" 2. Someone of consequence; someone to admire and emulate; someone of noble character. "Now, there is a real mensh!"


The finest thing you can say about a man is that he is a mensh. Jewish children often hear the admonition: "Behave like a mensh!" The most withering comment one might make on someone's character or conduct is, "He is not or did not act like) a mensh!"


It has nothing to do with success, wealth, status. A judge can be a zhlob; a millionaire can be a momzer; a professor can be a shlemiel, a doctor a klutz, a lawyer a bulvon. The key to being "a real mensh" is nothing less than character: rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous. Many a poor man, many an ignorant man, is a mensh.



Words from Politics (Week of August 5, 2002)

This week's theme will be "Words from Politics". Your author speaks as a  US'n.


gerrymander – to divide (a state) into districts for the choice of representatives, in an unnatural and unfair way, with a view to give a political party an advantage over its opponent.


Coined in May 12, 1813 when Massachusetts Spy reported that the legislature, under governor Elbridge Gerry, created a strange, salamander-shaped district. gerry + salamander = "gerrymander".


"An official statement of the returns of voters for senators give[s] twenty nine friends of peace, and eleven gerrymanders." A famous political cartoon, by showing that district as a reptilian beast, made the word "gerrymander" into an unforgettable image.  Click here for more etymology.


mugwump – a political turncoat.


The dictionary gives a complimentary definition: "a person who acts independently or remains neutral, especially in politics." But Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary 1911) makes clear that whatever he thought of political independence), the word was used as a negative. He wrote: "MUGWUMP: In politics one afflicted with self-respect and addicted to the vice of independence. A term of contempt." And that pejorative use is heard the old joke that a mugwump is a person sitting on the fence, with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.


The word's history confirms that it is a derisive term. Paraphrasing quinion: Mugwump, originally the Algonquian Indian word meaning "great chief", was brought into English as a humorous term for a boss, bigwig, grand panjandrum, or other person in authority. It hit the big time during the 1884 presidential election, when some in the Republican party refused to support their party's nominee, changed sides. The New York Sun labeled them little mugwumps. Almost overnight, the sense of the word changed to turncoat. Later, it came to mean a politician who either could not or would not make up his mind on some important issue, or who refused to take a stand when expected to do so.


jingoism – Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy.

from a doggerel song which was popular during the Turco-Russian war of 1877 and 1878. The first two lines were as follows: We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.


chauvinism – fanatical patriotism; or "absurdly vainglorious or exaggerated patriotism."

from Fr. chauvinisme (1843), from Nicholas Chauvin, soldier, possibly legendary, of Napoleon's Grand Armee, notoriously attached to the Empire long after it was history. Popularized in Fr. 1831 through Cogniard's vaudeville "La Cocarde Tricolore"


To have a generous belief in the greatness of one's country is not chauvinism. It is the character of the latter quality to be wildly extravagant, to be fretful and childish and silly, to resent a doubt as an insult, and to offend by its very frankness."
– Prof. H. Tuttle.


Do you consider jingoism to be the same thing as chauvinism? Some sources do, but my read is that jingoism adds the element of bellicose, aggressive behavior. Your thoughts?


carpetbagger – An outsider, especially a politician, who presumptuously seeks a position or success in a new locality. A generalization of the original meaning: "scornful appellation for Northerners who went South after the Civil War seeking private gain or political advancement is first attested 1868, Amer.Eng., formed from carpetbag, 1830, a traveling bag made from carpet fabric."


The term is highly negative. For example, only opponents of New York Senator Hillary Clinton, a recent New Yorker, would call her a "carpetbagger".


watergate – Effective at noon on this day, 28 years ago, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States.


The word watergate is used to refer to that specific political scandal. But has anyone heard it used to refer to political scandal generally, much as "Waterloo" has become a general term, as in "He met his Waterloo"? I could not find that usage of watergate in a dictionary, but it seems familiar to me. Some google work produced this example from the nationally syndicated column Media Beat of last June:


Instead of viewing the best Watergate reporting as a model to build on, for the most part the biggest media outlets soon regarded it as a laurel to rest on. Before his retirement, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee acknowledged as much in an interview with author Mark Hertsgaard about a dozen years after President Nixon's forced resignation. "The criticism was that we were going on too much, and trying to make a Watergate out of everything," Bradlee said. "And I think we were sensitive to that criticism much more than we should have been, and that we did ease off."


know-nothings – those who take a reactionary political position based on bigotry, ignorance, and emotion.


[Kansas Rep. Pat] Roberts also fumes that you critics of farm spending are "agriculture know-nothings" who "complain about agriculture with your mouths full." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1/26/95


As immigration increased in the 1840's US, many nativist secret orders arose. They met any inquiry from managers of the older political parties with the response that "they knew nothing" -- hence the Know-Nothings. By the early 1850's they were organized nationally under the official name "American Party", striving to elect only native-born Americans and to agitate for a 20-plus year residence qualification for citizenship. They were anti-catholic, viewing the Pope as a powerful foreign prince with political control over a large following.


For a time it seemed as if the Know-Nothings would be the main US opposition party. They won more than 21% of the 1856 popular vote -- but that marked their high point. Like the Whigs before them, they split and splintered over the slavery issue, and by the 1860 election they were no longer a national force.


genocide – a word notable for variations. Note the confusion of whether it includes targeting a religious group or a political opposition.


Genocide is the attempt to exterminate:
– a an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group (AHD); or
– a racial, political, or cultural group (Merr.-Webster); or
– a national, racial, religious, or ethnic group. (; or
– a racial, religious, political, or ethnic group. (


This equivocation traces back to the original United Nations "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" of December 9, 1948. Genocide as defined there refers to "a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such". The UN record claims that political groups were omitted because one's political affiliation is "mutable" -- but that carries no water, for the same could equally be said of one's religious group. The true reason for the omission is that the USSR rejected any legal restraint on its right to go after internal political opponents.


The US did not ratify this UN Convention until 1967.



Personalities from Literature (Week of August 12, 2002)

This week's topic: personalities described by naming an eponymous character in literature. We'll leave out characters from the bible, ancient Greece, Shakespeare or Dickens, since each of those could be big enough for to be a weekly theme of its own.


Panglossian – excessively optimistic; of the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds.

From Dr. Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's Candide (1759). Dr. Pangloss is notable for his incurable, absurd optimism, regardless of circumstance, and his constant refrain, "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."


Engagement in the world on the basis of these values, not isolationism from it is the hardheaded pragmatism for the 21st Century. Why? In part it is because the countries and people of the world today are more interdependent than ever. That calls for an approach of integration. When I spoke about this issue in Chicago in 1999 and called it a doctrine of international community, people hesitated over what appeared to be Panglossian idealism.
– Speech by Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sunday 7 April 2002


Ozymandian – huge or grandiose but ultimately devoid of meaning; an ironic commentary on the fleeting nature of power and the enduring power of human egotism. (M-W Dict. of Allusion) From the lovely sonnet (1818) by Percy Bysshe Shelley.


The word, though not yet in any word-dictionary I could find, is in use -- most recently in today's Pacific-edition issue of Time Magazine:


Glenn Murcutt's tallest building is three stories high-and that's at the big end. But he joins some giants in architecture this week as he becomes Australia's first [winner of the] Pritzker Prize, the architectural equivalent of a Pulitzer ... The events of Sept. 11 may have made many feel queasy about skyscrapers, but more than that, the Pritzker committee seemed to appreciate Murcutt's eschewing of Ozymandian edifices for architecture that "touches the earth lightly," as his credo goes. Big, whether in egos or buildings, is just not au courant.


quixotic – caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality. 1791, from Don Quixote, romantic, impractical hero of Cervantes' novel (1605).


The author of 'Lonesome Dove' is out to save his Texas hometown -- by turning it into the world's largest used bookstore. He is buying up commercial buildings and filling them with used books -- hundreds of thousands of used books gathered from all over the country -- as part of a quixotic scheme to turn this sleepy rural community into a mecca for book lovers. His dream is to create an American version of Hay-on-Wye, the legendary British book town that draws visitors from all over the world.
– New York Times 12/7/97, Larry McMurtry's Dream Job by Mark Horowitz


munchkin – 1. A very small person. 2. (Informal) A child. 3. (informal) A minor official.  from the Munchkins, diminutive creatures in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

Also: (computing) a teenage-or-younger micro enthusiast hacking BASIC or something else equally constricted (Free On-line Dictionary of Computing).  Googling shows frequent use of "munchkin" to mean a breed of cat.


[on a Sunday in August 1983] Barbara Honegger, a special assistant in the Justice Department's civil-rights division, published a guest editorial in the Washington Post, attacking the president on women's issues. On Monday she quit her job. On Tuesday a Justice Department official memorably dismissed Honegger as "a low-level Munchkin"
– Newsweek, May 13, 1985


Horatio Alger – (1925) resembling the fiction of Horatio Alger in which success is achieved through self-reliance and hard work (MW)


The White House and Congress are trumpeting their determination to bring economic opportunity to the people of Africa. But ... Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank, said the farm bill belies the "Horatio Alger" ethic that the U.S. encourages poor countries to embrace.
– Warren Vieth, Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2002


Simon Legree – a brutal taskmaster. [After Simon Legree, a cruel slave dealer in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.]


But to me, it seems to have come to be broader, meaning not just a taskmaster but rather any villain of the "Snidely Whiplash" sort of the old silent movies. As in this quotation form Lance Morrow, writing in Time Magazine:


Enemies picture Newt [Gingrich] as the Simon Legree of school lunches and Medicare, the golfing partner of capital gains, the Churchill from K Mart, the nerd pistolero of the punitive right, the all-purpose villain.


And to end this week's theme on a high note:


Pollyanna –  (1921) a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything (M-W)

Etym. online: 1913, in allusion to child heroine of Eleanor Hodgman Porter's novels "Pollyanna" (1913) and "Pollyanna Grows Up" (1915), noted for keeping her chin up in the darkest situations.


Strike up the band for the song performed by Doris Day:


Who's the most popular personality?
I can't help thinkin' it's no one else but me
Gee, I feel just about ten feet tall, ... havin' a ball
Guess ya might call ... me ... a Pollyanna

Everybody ... loves a lover
I'm a lover ... everybody loves me
Anyhow, that's how I feel
Wow, I feel ... just ... like ... a Pollyanna
I should worry, ... not for nothin'
Everybody loves me, ... yes they do
And I love everybody
Since I fell in love with you .



Words for funny uses of words  (Week of August 19, 2002 )

This week we'll talk about terms for various humorous mis-uses or twistings of words: malaprop, spoonerism, mondegreen, paronomasia, and rotomontade.


malaprop – ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound.

1834, from Mrs. Malaprop, character in Sheridan's play "The Rivals" (1775), noted for her ridiculous misuse of large words (i.e. "contagious countries" for "contiguous countries"), her name coined from malapropos (1668), a borrowing from Fr. mal ΰ propos "badly for the purpose," from proposer "propose."


The synonym malapropism derives form malaprop, and not vice versa).  Other examples from the original Mrs. Malaprop:  "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." "He is the very pineapple of politeness.”  "If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!"


Some notes, qualifications and questions:

– some dictionaries say (correctly, I think) that a "malaprop" must be an unintentional misuse of a word
– In The Rivals, Mrs. Maloprop is particularly funny because she comes to grief in her failed attempts to use fancy, "highfalutin'" speech. I'd think the key requirement of a malaprop (though not required by the dictionaries' definitions) is that it's not just an unintentional misuse, but rather one where speaker's attempted pretentiousness backfires on him or her: the very misuse punctures the attempt to seem erudite.
– By the definition, "malaprop" requires misuse of an actual word. In the example below Ellen Goodman accuses George Bush of malaprop, where Bush has not stated the wrong word -- he has rather stated a word wrong. It seems that Ms. Goodman is mal apropos in her use of the word "malaprop".


[W]hen President Bush told CIA workers that the enemy not only "underestimated" America, they "misunderestimated the will and determination of the commander in chief, too," not a word was uttered. When he uttered his favorite malaprop three times in three sentences, not a titter was heard.
– Ellen Goodman Washington Post Writers Group 2001 (possibly mis-using the word?)


spoonerism – The transposition of usually initial sounds in a pair of words

from the name of the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), a kindly but nervous Anglican clergyman and educationalist, who was famous for such mistakes. Some examples, all committed by (or attributed to) dear Reverend Spooner:


Is the bean dizzy? ['dean busy']
The Lord is a shoving leopard. ['loving shepherd']
It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.
Let me sew you to your sheet.
We all know what it is to have a half-warmed fish inside us.
When the boys come back from France, we'll have the hags flung out!


mondegreen – A series of words that result from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric. For example, I led the pigeons to the flag for I pledge allegiance to the flag.


Kids don’t just say the darndest things; they hear the darndest thing.  Sylvia Wright (1917-81), writing in 1954, recalled in that in her youth she had heard a folk song, The Bonny Earl of Murray, with the couplet: "They had slain the Earl of Moray/And Lady Mondegreen." – but years later learned that in fact no harm had come to the lady. The actual lyrics, she found, were "They had slain the Earl of Moray/And laid him on the green."


From this she coined "mondegreen".  The Oxford English Dictionary does not include mondegreen, but plans to include it in the next edition.


paronomasia – punning, or a pun.

Dates from 1577; the adjectival form is paronomastic or paronomastical


So says MW – but Glossary of Linguistic Terms distinguishes, and states that paronomasia is one of three separate types of puns:

Paronomasia is the use of words that sound similar to other words, but have different meanings. (Casting my perils before swains) (The end of the plain plane, explained)

An antanaclasis is a pun in which a word is repeated with a different meaning each time. (Your argument is sound, nothing but sound.)

A syllepsis is use of a single word so that it ties to two (or more) other words the sentence, but has a different meaning for each of them. (There is a certain type of woman who'd rather press grapes than clothes.)


rodomontade or rhodomontade – 1 : a bragging speech 2 : vain boasting or bluster.

from Italian Rodomonte, character in Orlando Innamorato by Matteo M. Boiardo Date: 1612 (MW) [Admittedly not a perfect fit in this weeks theme]


For this lover of great literature understood not one sentence out of twelve, and his favorite part was that of which he understood the least - the inimitable, mouth-filling rodomontade of the ghost in HAMLET. … What took him was a richness in the speech; he loved the exotic, the unexpected word; the moving cadence of a phrase; a vague sense of emotion (about nothing) in the very letters of the alphabet: the romance of language.
– Across the Plains by Robert Louis Stevenson



Gilbert and Sullivan:  Battle of the Sexes (Week of August 26, 2002)


This week we feature words you can find in Gilbert & Sullivan, all coming from passages about "the battle of the sexes".


quiddity – 1. The real nature of a thing; the essence. 2. A hairsplitting distinction; a quibble. (wordcrafter note: I’d emphasize #2)


Situation: In Patience, an aesthetic, poetic sort of young man has captured the ladies’ attention – much to the distaste of the man they used to adore. ("The damozels used to follow me wherever I went; now they all follow him!") He plots his counter-attack.


I'll tell him that unless he will consent to be more jocular--
To cut his curly hair, and stick an eyeglass in his ocular--
To stuff his conversation full of quibble and of quiddity,
To dine on chops and roly-poly pudding with avidity--
He'd better clear away with all convenient rapidity.
Sing "Hey to you-- Good-day to you"-- And that's what you should say!


incubus – 1. An evil spirit supposed to descend upon and have sexual intercourse with women as they sleep. 2. A nightmare. 3. An oppressive or nightmarish burden.


The judge in Trial by Jury tells how he rose to his current august position.


But I soon got tired of third-class journeys, and dinners of bread and water;
So I fell in love with a rich attorney's elderly, ugly daughter.
The rich attorney, he jumped with joy, and replied to my fond professions:
You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy at the Bailey and Middlesex sessions.
At length I became as rich as the Gurneys-- an incubus then I thought her,
So I threw over that rich attorney's elderly, ugly daughter.
The rich attorney my character high tried vainly to disparage---
And now, if you please, I'm ready to try this Breach of Promise of Marriage!


abjure – to renounce under oath; forswear; to recant solemnly; repudiate: abjure one's beliefs. to give up (an action or practice, for example); abstain from


The heroine in Princess Ida recognizes that women are vastly superior to men. She therefore founded a women's college at which


Each newly joined aspirant to the clan /
Must repudiate the tyrant known as Man.
They mock at him and flout him / For they do not care about him,
And they’re 'going to do without him' – if they can!


When the needs of both biology and drama dictate that they cannot “do without”, Ida laments the failure of her noble endeavor:


SHE: Oh, I had hoped to band all women with my maiden throng, and make them all abjure tyrannic Man! You ridicule it now; but if I carried out this glorious scheme, at my exalted name Posterity would bow in gratitude!
HE: But pray reflect — If you enlist all women in your cause, and make them all abjure tyrannic Man, the obvious question then arises, "How is this Posterity to be provided?"
SHE: I never thought of that!


chary – 1. Very cautious; wary: was chary of the risks involved. 2. Not giving or expending freely; sparing: was chary of compliments.


The Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe had been pompous and domineering in speaking to women – unaware that those women were powerful fairies with great magical powers.


Oh! Chancellor unwary / It's highly necessary
Your tongue to teach / Respectful speech-- / Your attitude to vary!
Your badinage so airy, / Your manner arbitrary,
Are out of place / When face to face / With an influential Fairy.

A plague on this vagary, / I'm in a nice quandary!
Of hasty tone / With dames unknown / I ought to be more chary;
It seems that she's a fairy / From Andersen's library,
And I took her for / The proprietor / Of a Ladies' Seminary!


popinjay – A vain, talkative person. (AHD) A trifling, chattering, fop or coxcomb: `To be so pestered with a popinjay –Shak. (M-W)


Yeoman of the Guard tells of a jester (“merryman”) gloomy with unrequited lover for a lady who scorned him. She instead loved a high-born lord -- but when the lord would have nothing to do with her, she recognized her mistake, and begged forgiveness.


I have a song to sing, O!
Sing me your song, O!
It is sung with a sigh / And a tear in the eye, / For it tells of a righted wrong, O!
It's a song of the merrymaid, once so gay,
Who turned on her heel and tripped away
From the peacock popinjay, bravely born,
Who turned up his noble nose with scorn
At the humble heart that he did not prize:
So she begged on her knees, with downcast eyes,
For the love of the merryman, moping mum,
Whose soul was sad, and whose glance was glum,
Who sipped no sup, and who craved no crumb,
As he sighed for the love of a ladye!
[BOTH ] Heighdy! heighdy! / Misery me--lack-a-day-dee!
His pains were o'er, and he sighed no more,
For he lived in the love of a ladye!


philtre or philter – a love potion; a magic potion or charm. (v. to enchant with or as if with a philtre.)


ALEXIS. They have invented a philtre, which, if report may be believed, is simply infallible. I intend to distribute it through the village, and within half-an-hour of my doing so there will not be an adult in the place who will not have learnt the secret of pure and lasting happiness. What do you say to that?
ALINE. Well, dear, of course a filter is a very useful thing in a house; but still I don't quite see that it is the sort of thing that places its possessor on the very pinnacle of earthly joy.
ALEXIS. Aline, you misunderstand me. I didn't say a filter--I said a philtre.
ALINE (alarmed). You don't mean a love-potion?
ALEXIS. On the contrary--I do mean a love potion.