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September 2002 Archives

Phrases from French: je ne sais quois; savoir faire; bon mot; qui vive; beau monde; sangfroid

Anniversary of 9/11/2001: annus mirabilis (annus horribilis); nescient; ineffable; lachrymose; meliorism

This thing must have a name!:  finial (harp); pintle; escutcheon; gnomon; ferrule; keeper (billet); aglet (grommet); plunger; zarf (culacino)

Words from Characters in Homer's Iliad: stentorian; myrmidon; Cassandra; nestor; hector; chimerical (chimera); thersitical

Words from Russian Politics: stakhanovite; samizdat; apparatchik; Potemkin village; glasnost; gulag; bolshevik


Phrases from French (Week of Sept. 2, 2002)


je ne sais quois –something that cannot be adequately described or expressed.

circa 1656; literally, I know not what (pronunciation: zh&-n&-"sA-'kwä)(M-W)


BRITISH FIRM Pace Micro made a loss of £34.8 million on the year, compared to a profit last year of £24.5 million because the British market in set top boxes went through a "je ne sais quois" mode.
Mike Magee, performing deep and cogent analysis in The Inquirer, 08 July 2002


savoir faire – capacity for appropriate action; especially: a polished sureness in social behavior

1815; literally, knowing how to do (pronunciation: "sav-"wär-'far, -'fer) (M-W)


I’m taking only my toque blanche and my savoir-faire.
Philippe Gaertner, chef; comment on his departure for NYC as one of the 22 French chefs chosen to cook during Statue of Liberty’s centennial celebration

Simplicity is a pleasant thing in children, or at any age, but it is not necessarily admirable, nor is affectation altogether a thing of evil. To be normal, to be at home in the world, with a prospect of power, usefulness, or success, the person must have that imaginative insight into other minds that underlies tact and savoir-faire morality and beneficence. This insight involves sophistication, some understanding and sharing of the clandestine impulses of human nature. A simplicity that is merely the lack of this insight indicates a sort of defect.
Charles Horton Cooley, U.S. sociologist (1902)


bon mot –a clever remark; witticism

circa 1730; literally, good word. (M-W) (pronunciation bOn-'mO)


the wisecrack is to American culture what the bon mot is to British culture. Both are supposed to be amusing; both are aphoristic; both are a kind of protective posturing. The bon mot demonstrates how entirely at home within the culture the speaker is; it is designed to amuse a roomful of spectators. The wisecrack is the wit of the outsider; it is designed to amuse no one but himself. The wiseacre is a loner, contemptuous of his milieu, on the outside of the corrupt culture by choice. His wisecrack is an announcement of independence.
Jon Carroll, in Salon web-magazine, August 5, 1997


qui vive – (noun): alert; lookout; used in the phrase on the qui vive

1726; from qui vive?=”long live who?”, challenge of a French sentry (pronunciation: kE-'vEv) (M-W)


Of all members of the Royal Family, she has always been the one most on the qui-vive for lapses in due deference. All a friend had to do to earn Margaret’s ire was to refer to King George VI as "your father" or the Queen as "your sister". The miscreant would be sharply reminded of the full majestic title – "I take it you mean His Majesty King George VI", Margaret would say – and would mostly likely be crossed off the royal guest list there and then.
Royalty Magazine, on the Death of Princess Margaret


beau monde – the world of high society and fashion.

1673; literally, fine world. (pronunciation: bO-'mänd, -mOnd) (M-W)


Waugh ... was on the whole not much interested in their contradictions and paradoxes. He wished the beau monde to remain in the image he had formed, usually showing himself unwilling to listen, if facts were offered that seemed to militate against that image.
Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly, June 2001


sangfroid –self-possession or imperturbability especially under strain

1750; literally, cold blood (pronunciation: 'sän-'f(r)wä) (M-W)


A Letter to a Friend begins by a description — curiously blended between medical sangfroid and human sympathy — of (apparently) a case of rapid consumption [tuberculosis]
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, referring to a letter of Sir Thomas Browne



Anniversary of 9/11/2001 (Week of Sept. 9, 2002)

Our words this week progress to mark the anniversary of the World Trade Center Bombing, and perhaps tell a story, day by day.


recalling 2001:

annus mirabilis – year notable for disasters or wonders; a fateful year.


Was 2000 an annus mirabilis? No. It should have been, but it lacked the energy to live up to its millennial expectations.
Lance Morrow, Time Magazine, March 01, 2001


The phrase originates with John Dryden’s poem of that name, referring to the year 1666, in which London survived the plague and the Great Fire, and won naval victories over the Dutch. The poem brought Dryden the Poet Laureateship in 1670.


"Annus mirabilis" includes a year notable either for positives or for negatives (though it is usually used in the former sense). For negatives, "annus horribilis", or "terrible year" (recorded since the mid 1980's) came into popular use after Queen Elizabeth II used it to describe 1992 – when the marriages of her two sons Charles and Andrew broke down and Windsor Castle caught fire.


recalling Sep 10, 2001

nescient – lacking knowledge or awareness; ignorant


Nearly everyone speaks Mandarin because the language was taught in schools for more than five decades of KMT rule. Government officials treated Hokkien as a vulgar tongue spoken by the nescient lower class.
Taipei Times, March 13th, 2002


recalling Sep 11, 2001

ineffable – 1. incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable. 2. Not to be uttered; taboo


She was past weeping, wrapped in the ineffable solitude of grief.
Lady Mabell Airlie, on Queen Mary as she watched the funeral procession of her son King George VI


recalling Sep 12, 2001

lachrymose – weeping or inclined to weep; tearful; also causing tears


I oppose the lachrymose conception of Jewish history that treats Judaism as a sheer succession of miseries and persecutions.
Salo Wittmayer Baron, 1895–1989, Jewish historian and educator


recovering from Sep 11, 2001

The last of the words offered on this theme:


meliorism – the belief that improvement of society depends on human effort. (meliorist; melioristic)

May we be not just optimists or pessimists, but meliorists.


The State of California, which is always attracted to meliorist legislation aimed at better health, less discrimination, more conservation, and animal happiness ...
William F. Buckley, National Review, Aug. 30, 2002



This thing must have a name! (Week of Sept. 16, 2002)


What do you call the ornamental piece that screws into the top of a lamp to hold the shade in place?

the finial


Bonus: You screw that ornament onto a metal bar that runs above the bulb and then down on opposite sides of the bulb.What do you call that metal bar?

the harp


What is the little vertical post that runs through a door hinge?

a pintle

pintle: a pin or a bolt on which another part pivots (ADH)

derivation: diminutive of pin (M-W)


What is the decorative metal plate around a keyhole, drawer pull, or doorknob?

escutcheon – a thin metal plate or shield to protect wood, or for ornament, as the shield around a keyhole. (Webster)


What is the part of a sundial that projects a shadow?

gnomon – the style or pin, which by its shadow, shows the hour of the day (Webster's)


What is the metal tip at the top of an umbrella?

ferrule – a metal ring or cap placed around a pole or shaft for reinforcement or to prevent splitting.


When you buckle your belt, you thread the excess strap through a loop on the front part of the belt, just above the buckle. What is that loop called?

It seems to be called the keeper. For examples, see photos of a "belt with gold nailheads along the buckle and keeper" and a "Solid Brass Buckle with 2 Etched Keepers" (third picture). However, I found one photo of a belts with this same loop described as a "belt without keeper".


AHD gives us billet 4.b: A loop or pocket for securing the end of a buckled harness strap


What is the little plastic tip of a shoelace, without which it is a frustrating task to try to thread the shoelace through the hole in your shoe?

Bonus: what is that hole called?

aglet – a tag or sheath, as of plastic, on the end of a lace, cord, or ribbon to facilitate its passing through eyelet holes


bonus: grommet – a reinforced eyelet, as in cloth or leather, through which a fastener may be passed


What are the two buttons an old-fashion telephone receiver rests on? (They rise when you lift the receiver, triggering a dial tone.)

plunger – a machine part that operates with a thrusting or plunging movement


Coffee is sometimes served in a cheap and disposable white plastic cone, without a handle and too thin to allow one to hold it with hot coffee. It snaps into a holder that has a handle. What do you call that holder?

(Bonus: What is the mark left on the table by a moist glass?)


Our language seems to be in the process of co-opting the word zarf for this.

A zarf is "a metallic cuplike stand used for holding a finjan", and a finjan is in turn "a small coffee cup without a handle, such as is held in a cup or stand called a zarf". These terms come from the middle east.

On several sites on can find "zarf" more generally as any holder for a handleless coffee cup. In dictionaries sites, though, the closest I find to that broader use is Grandiloquent Dictionary (on-line): "zarf – a special sleeve for a coffee cup or a beer can". Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary (published; not on line) lists "zarf – a cuplike holder for handling hot coffee cups (Arabia)"

Bonus: culacino – the mark left on the table by a moist glass



Words from Characters in Homer's Iliad  (Weekof Sept 23, 2002)

We all know such words and phrases as trojan horse, achilles heel, and odyssey, which trace back to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. This week features less-familiar words that trace back to characters mentioned in the Iliad. We open with:


stentorian – extremely loud: a stentorian voice (after Stentor, a loud-voiced Greek herald in the Iliad)


there Juno stood still and raised a shout like that of brazen-voiced Stentor, whose cry was as loud as that of fifty men together.
Iliad, Book V


A personal note from Wordcrafter:

When student mumbled in uncertainty, Ms. Anderson, my old-maid eighth-grade teacher, would stand with arms akimbo, fix a baleful stare on him, and pronounce, "Stentorian tones, Mr. _______; stentorian tones."


Inconsistent definitions here:


AHD: a faithful follower who carries out orders without question

M-W: a soldier or a subordinate civil officer who executes cruel orders of a superior without protest or pity

The Myrmidons were the fierce tribe who accompanied Achilles, their king, to the Trojan War. By fable they were ants changed into men (Greek myrmex = "ant"), suggesting a swarming horde.


former Senator and governor Abraham Ribicoff, upon resigning the board of directors of Time-Warner: _
"I have never in my life been with a board so subservient to the chairman or the CEO. I think Steve Ross's contract is one of the most outrageous things that has ever happened. Nobody is worth that kind of money. You have a bunch of myrmidons on the board completely manipulated by Steve Ross, stooges to give Steve Ross anything he wanted."


Cassandra: one whose accurate warnings of doom fall on deaf ears

(note: AHD says "one who utters unheeded prophecies", omitting "accuracy")


After Cassandra, a daughter of King Priam of Troy. Apollo in infatuation with Cassandra bestowed upon her gave her the gift of prophecy, but when she spurned the god he converted the gift to a curse by fating that she would not be believed. Thus her curse was to know of future disasters and yet be powerless to prevent them.

The Iliad mentions Cassandra, but it is the Aenied that tell how she was helpless to warn her countrymen of the danger concealed in the Trojan Horse:


Yet, mad with zeal, and blinded with our fate,
We haul along the horse in solemn state;
Then place the dire portent within the tow'r.
Cassandra cried, and curs'd th' unhappy hour;
Foretold our fate; but, by the god's decree,
All heard, and none believ'd the prophecy." (Aeneid 2.323, Dryden translation)


The word is use, in a review of a biography of Rudyard Kipling:


The trajectory of his life matched the trajectory of the British Empire from its zenith to its final decades. He himself was transformed from the apostle of success to the prophet of national decline, a Cassandra warning of dangers that successive governments refused to face.


nestor or Nestor: a venerable and wise old man (AHD); one who is a patriarch or leader in a field. (M-W) After the character Nestor in the Iliad:


[S]uch was Agamemnon, with the beating turmoil in his bosom from the deep heart, and all his wits were shaken within him. ... Now to his mind this thing appeared to be the best counsel, first among men to seek out Nestor, the son of Neleus, to see if Nestor with him could work out a plan ... that might drive the evil away from all the Dannaans.
Iliad X, 9-19


(Lattimore translation. The Butler translation appears commonly on-line, but with an error: it ends with "see if between them they could find any way of the Achaeans from destruction", omitting the word "saving".)


hector (transitive): to intimidate or dominate in a blustering way

hector (intransitive): to behave like a bully; swagger


In the Iliad, Hector was the son of Priam, and the leading warrior defending Troy. On-line references confirm that his name is indeed the source of the english verb.


But the meaning has oddly mutated. In the Illiad, Hector is an admirable, noble character, a worth opponent. His name derives from Greek ekho, or "protect", and Homer often refers to him as Troy’s "protector". (Book XXIV 485-501 , after Hector's death [Ian Johnston modern translation]: Then Priam made his plea, entreating: "Godlike Achilles, I fathered the best sons in spacious Troy, yet I say now not one of them remains. But I had one left, guardian of our city, protector of its people. You've just killed him as he was fighting for his native country. I mean Hector. For his sake I've come here, to Achaean ships, to win him [his body] back from you.")


The word in use:


American vs. British Usage by Tina Blue, January 17, 2001: There is an unfortunate tendency among Americans to adopt a hectoring tone when they take it upon themselves to correct other people's grammar or usage.

Headline, Albany, NY TimesUnion, Wednesday, July 19, 2000 : Hectoring Hillary Charges of anti-Semitism are fueling a distracting and divisive hate campaign.

On-line article, 2002: There's something about the moralistic tone of the no-smoking campaigns that makes a lot of us want to reach for our fangs in defiance … I don’t like being hectored, lectured at or treated like a naughty child.


chimerical – merely imaginary; fanciful; fantastic; wildly or vainly conceived; as, chimerical projects. (M-W) Also: given to unrealistic fantasies; fanciful. (AHD)


M-W seems to have cribbed its definition from Johnson (1755): "imaginary; fanciful; wildly, vainly, or fantastically conceived".


Also chimera: a fanciful mental illusion or fabrication.

Chimera (greek mythology): a fire-breathing she-monster usually represented as a composite of a lion, goat, and serpent; from the Greek meaning "she-goat".

I stretch a bit to call this an "Iliad word". In Iliad Book VI, Glaucus proudly recites that he is the grandson of Bellerophon, who killed the Chimera.

The word in use:


The much advertised Soviet invasion of Western Europe was a fantasy . . . a fear widely recognized by posterity as chimerical.
Henry Kissinger, in 1994 treatise, as quoted by Col. Alan J. Parrington


The word in use:


"Princeton’s 'Smart Fans,' have railed at season’s end against thersitical cheers and jouncing the stands at basketball games."
– Princeton Spectator, Tuesday, March 3, 1998


thersitical – loud and abusive; foul-mouthed, scurrilous

An extremely rare word, not in AHD or M-W, from Iliad Book II:


Thersites still went on wagging his unbridled tongue--a man of many words, and those unseemly; a monger of sedition, a railer against all who were in authority … the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy--bandy-legged, lame of one foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it…with a shrill squeaky voice.


But reflect: Thersites is literature’s first common man to stand up against to abuses of the royalty. I view him as heroic. Homer (whose audience was the nobility, after all) gave him bad press, but put in his mouth a wholly valid argument ("We do all the work, and you get all the benefit"), to which the nobles can respond only by beating him.


[W]hat more do you want? Your tents are filled with bronze and with fair women, for whenever we take a town we give you the pick of them. Would you have yet more gold ... I or another Achaean has taken ...? or is it some young girl to hide and lie with? It is not well that you, the ruler of the Achaeans, should bring them into such misery. Weakling cowards, women rather than men, let us sail home, and leave this fellow here at Troy to stew in his own meeds [sic] of honour, and discover whether we were of any service to him or no.



Words from Russian Politics (Week of Sept. 30, 2002)


stakhanovite – a Soviet worker honored and rewarded for exceptional diligence in increasing production (AHD) from Alexei G. Stakhanov


I suggest that the word in use is not limited to Soviets, and means "an exceptionally hard worker" – with pejorative overtones of overzealousness. Comment?


Two business columnists, William Davis and Chris Huhne, are on the way out for no better proffered reason than that they think kindly of joining the euro. The rest is silence - or rather the sound of the Stakhanovite [Daily] Mail transferee Ian MacGregor, barking orders and making waves.
Peter Preston, Is the Standard Destined to Flag? in The Observer (Guardian), Sunday March 24, 2002


samizdat –an underground press (AHD). from Russian "self publish"

In computer jargon, the term means "any less-than-official promulgation of textual material, especially rare, obsolete, or never-formally-published computer documentation" (The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing)


In general, the military has maintained a virtual silence about problems with the new influx of female soldiers, and, in the ranks, negative comments about integration are considered "career killers." Those who don't "get it" talk about it in the barracks and on the Internet, which has become a haven for military samizdat about sex and other dicey matters.
Stephanie Gutmann, Sex and the Soldier, in The New Republic, February 24, 1997


apparatchik – an unquestioningly loyal subordinate, especially of a political leader or organization (AHD)

1941, originally in writings of Arthur Koestler, from Rus., from apparat "political organization," (ety on line)


...power in China still rests in the hands of a few octogenarians. So it made sense for them to choose as party General Secretary a man known as "the weather vane." Jiang is the consummate apparatchik, whose rise to nominal power rests almost wholly on his ability to read China's swirling political winds correctly. The 63-year-old former mayor of Shanghai perfectly mirrors the party line of the moment.
William R. Doerner, China Rise of a Perfect Apparatchik, in Time Magazine, July 10, 1989


Potemkin village – something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance: "the Potemkin village of this country's borrowed prosperity" (Lewis H. Lapham)

After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea. (AHD)


or: an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition (1937) (M-W)


The ...collapse of the Russian banking system, when millions lost their savings, ... precipitated a crisis that continues today. Most important, perhaps, the crisis revealed that the vaunted transition from a command economy to a market economy was a mere Potemkin village-an overused but sadly appropriate metaphor for Russia's reforms.
Russia's Fragile Union by Matthew Evangelista, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June, 1999


glasnost – an official policy of the former Soviet government emphasizing candor with regard to discussion of social problems and shortcomings. (AHD) a Soviet policy permitting open discussion of political and social issues and freer dissemination of news and information (M-W) from Rus. "publicity," used in a socio-political sense by Lenin, but popularized in Eng. 1985 by M. Gorbachev (etym. on-line)


Although each dictionary cites this word only as a particular Gorbachev policy, I suggest that the word in fact is not limited; it can be used for a like policy elsewhere. The word in use:


PM Goh ushers in e-mail glasnost: Cabinet ministers and senior officials have begun posting their personal e-mail addresses and direct phone numbers on the Internet in a bid to boost transparency and garner public feedback ... The Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong yesterday proved exceptionally efficient, personally replying to an e-mail within two hours of its being sent. ... Senior Minister Lee received two copies of the devastating ILOVEYOU computer virus among his inaugural batch of Internet messages.
Barry Porter (in Singapore), South China Morning Post, May 13, 2000


gulag – a forced labor camp or prison, especially for political dissidents; or a place or situation of great suffering and hardship, likened to same

GULAG-the Russian acronym for the Main Directorate for Places of Detention


What distinguished [tennis player John] McEnroe was less what he did than what he seemed capable of doing when he lost his temper. The anger was so black, so intense and so hard to fathom. Where did it come from? Though his parents, particularly his father, certainly leaned on their son to succeed, they were not monsters. They did not exile young John to some tennis gulag or make him hit 5,000 balls a day.
Hugo Lindgren, New York Times Book Review


Our weekly theme ends with a familiar word whose hidden story demonstrates the power of the aptly chosen word. AHD gives part of that history, and Asimov gives the final twist (each paraphrased).


bolshevik– An extreme radical: a literary bolshevik


AHD: Bolshevik, an emotionally charged term in English, is from an ordinary Russian word for "bigger, more." The name was given to the majority faction at 1903 congress of Russian communist leaders. The smaller faction was known as Men'sheviki, from "less, smaller." The Bol'sheviki, who sided with Lenin in the split that followed the Congress, subsequently became the Russian Communist Party.


Question: Who gave this group that name?


Asimov: Lenin had a sure touch for propaganda. He in fact rarely won a majority on votes, but when managed to get one at that meeting in Brussels, he immediately labeled his group the Bolsheviks, "the majority." Though his group won few subsequent votes, and was actually a minority, the name "Bolsheviks" stuck, adding to the prestige of Lenin’s followers.