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December 2003 Archives

Science concepts: Hawthorne effect; synesthesia; Laffer curve; alpha male; hormesis

Words from Ogden Nash: afflatus; abattoir (mead); prognathous (bathos); guerdon; samaritan; gossoon; pergola; punctilio

Double-Dactyl Words: antepenultimate; tergiversate; teleology; supralapsarian; infralapsarian (logomachy); historiography; plenipotentiary

"BBC words": Boisterous Bumptious Coinages: sockdolager; hornswoggle; skedaddle; discombobulate; scalawag; lollygag (rambunctious); absquatulate


Science concepts (Week of Dec. 1, 2003)


This week we'll look at word that express interesting concepts from science.


I find no entirely satisfactory definition for our first word. But let's take what seems to be the best, from Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems.


Hawthorne effect – production increased not as a consequence of actual changes in working conditions introduced by the plant's management, but because management demonstrated interest in such improvements

[from the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Co., Cicero, Ill., where its existence was established by experiment by G. Elton Mayo]


Mayo ... tried to demonstrate that better work place hygiene would have a direct and positive effect on worker productivity. So he turned up the lights. Productivity went up, as predicted. Then, as he prepared to turn his attention to another factor, he routinely turned the lights back down. Productivity went up again! … a theme we will return to continually in the book, is that it is attention to employees, not work conditions per se, that has the dominant impact on productivity. (Many of our best companies, one friend observed, seem to reduce management to merely creating "an endless stream of Hawthorne effects.")
– R.H. Thomas/Waterman Peters, In Search of Excellence, pp. 5-6.


To me, the last sentence of todays quotation is what makes today's word more than a scientific curiousity.


synesthesia – a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when hearing a sound produces the visualization of a color


Julian Asher had a theory about the symphony concerts he attended with his parents. "I thought they turned down the lights so you could see the colors better," he says, describing the "Fantasia"-like scenes that danced before his eyes. Asher wasn’t hallucinating. He's a synesthete—a rare person for whom one type of sensory input (such as hearing music) evokes an additional one (such as seeing colors). Violins appear as a rich burgundy, pianos a deep royal purple and cellos "the mellow gold of liquid honey."

Almost any two senses can be combined. Sights can have sounds, sounds can have tastes and, more commonly, black-and-white numbers and letters can appear colored. For most of the last century, scientists dismissed synesthesia as the product of overactive imaginations. But in recent years they've done an abrupt about-face, not only using modern technology to show that it's real but also studying it for clues to the brain's creativity. "Synesthesia is not a mere curiosity," says retired neurologist Richard Cytowic. "It's a window into an enormous expanse of the mind."

Why do people develop synesthesia? The truth is that no one knows. It is possible that most of us not only have these connections but use them regularly, although at such a low level that we don’t realize it consciously. After all, we describe subzero weather as "bitter" cold, while a taste like cheddar cheese may be "sharp" and a color like hot pink "loud." " Maybe metaphor, abstract thought and synesthesia all have a similar neural basis," says [Dr. V. S. Ramachandran [of the University of California, San Diego].
– Anne Underwood, Real Rhapsody in Blue, Newsweek, Dec. 1, 2003 (excerpted)


Laffer curve – a graph of tax revenue as a function of tax rate, illustrating the theory that beyond a certain point, higher rates will reduce the tax revenue received (by discouraging economic growth).

And conversely, if rates are beyond that point, then reduced rates will increase revenue.

[Arthur Laffer (born 1940), American economist]


By 2001, however, Putin and his political party effectively controlled the parliament, and he got results. The government passed a new, simplified tax code for individuals and small businesses. It was an unmitigated success: "There was a classic Laffer curve response — more revenue was generated for the government because more people filed taxes rather than avoided them," says Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital in Moscow.
– Bill Powell, Russian Roulette, Fortune, Nov. 24, 2003


alpha male – a male in a pack of wolves, etc., to whom other members submit (in humans: dominant man; a man who controls the activities of a group and to whom others defer)


Lauri Stewart, community coordinator for the Independent Police Review Division, which serves as the intake center for police complaints, said too much police training focuses on the "aggressive, Alpha-male, dominating control" approach.
– Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian, Dec. 4, 2003

Some people never learn. You would think that a legal scrap is the last thing the BBC would want after its recent confrontation with Alastair Campbell, but now the corporation is on the verge of yet another fight with a famously implacable alpha-male: American novelist JD Salinger.
– David McAllister, The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2003


Today's word fascinates me. The dictionaries' definition is in incomprehensible medicalese, but the concept is simple: things that may be good for you in reasonable doses (such as exercise) can be bad for you in larger doses - and vice versa. There will be a long quote in explanation.


hormesis – an effect where a toxic substance acts like a stimulant in small doses, but it is an inhibitor in large doses.


Evidence is growing that most hazardous chemicals, as well as radiation, not only are harmless at low doses--but may actually do a body good. ... this mind-bending effect, called hormesis, is pure poison to the conventional wisdom in toxicology. It contradicts the idea that carcinogenic chemicals pose risk at any dose, no matter how low.

And if hormesis experts are right, the time-honored method for quantifying toxic risks at low doses has all the accuracy of a fun-house mirror. Here's the standard technique: Lab animals are exposed to megadoses of a toxin, causing pronounced effects that are readily measured. That yields guesstimates of the human effects at megalevels. To estimate the risk at low doses, regulators assume that the toxic effects fall in a straight line with the dose. Tumor incidence in rats vs. doses of saccharin, for instance, would be graphed on X and Y axes as a straight line. The handy line shows the purported risk at doses down to zero.

But scientists who go to the trouble of measuring actual toxic effects at low levels often observe a J-shaped "dose response" curve instead of a straight line. That means the risks many toxins pose at real-world levels have probably been exaggerated. The J-curve also suggests an idea that, at first blush, seems daft: Policies that foster small exposures to toxins might be better for public health than ones aimed at eliminating them.

Exercise fits the J-curve too. Moderate workouts are plainly beneficial--they can boost the immune system and lower the risk of heart disease. But overdoing it can suppress immune function and deplete internal stores of antioxidants, potentially leading to tissue damage from "free radicals."
– David Stipp, BRAINSTORM: A Little Poison Can Be Good For You, Fortune, June 9, 2003 issue 
The link will take you the table of contents, from which you can scroll down to "columnists" to see the full article. (You may also enjoy the feature article titled Taking on Viagra.)



Words from Ogden Nash (Week of Dec. 8, 2003 )


This week's will be words from Ogden Nash. All credit to hic et ubique, who graciously provided the words and the Nash quotes. Any errors of definition or commentary, however, are mine.


How many gifted pens have penned
That mother is a boy's best friend!
How many more with like afflatus
Award the dog that honored status!
I hope my tongue in prune juice smother
If I belittle dogs or mothers,
But gracious, how can I agree?
I know my own best friend is Me.
Versus (1949)


afflatus – a strong creative impulse, lit. or fig. born of divine inspiration

The etymology is a sweetly poetic image of inspiration, for afflatus comes from Latin afflare, to blow at or breathe on. It is a sibling of inflate and deflate.


A reader notes: Not entirely...considering it's also a sibling of "flatulence," which may or may not be poetic but is hardly ever sweet.


abattoir – a slaughterhouse


The Calf, from I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1935)


Pray, butcher, spare yon tender calf!
Accept my plea on his behalf;
He's but a babe, too young by far
To perish in the abattoir.
Oh, cruel butcher, let him feed
Antd gambol on the verdant mead;
Let clovertops and grassy banks
Fill out those childish ribs and flanks.
Then may we, at some future meal,
Pitch into beef, instead of veal.

Bonus word:  mead – a meadow

[A separate word, with a separate history, is "mead – an alcoholic beverage of fermented honey".]


One can alway make use of a well-turned insult to someone's appearance.


prognathous – having a lower jaw that projects forward


The Toucan; from The Private Dining Room (1952)


The toucan's profile is prognathous,
Its person is a thing of bathos.
If even I can tell a toucan
I'm reasonably sure that you can.

Bonus word: bathos – 1. triteness, commonplaceness 2. anticlimax: sudden shift from elevated matter to commonplace



guerdon – reward, recompense (noun and verb)

samaritan – one ready and generous in helping those in distress


Nash laments: If a celebrity does a good deed, the plaudits flow in the press. If an Ordinary Joe does a good deed, nobody notices.


We could guide old ladies across the street,
And stand old ladies a bite to eat
And give old ladies a lift to town,
And help old ladies knock the landlord down,
And a damn would be given by nobody.
I am, I've said, a kindly man,
Of less than modest wealth,
And I sometimes tire, as a person can,
Of doing good by stealth.
I frequently go without a meal
That an orphan may have his,
But the lonely inner glow I feel
My only guerdon is.
Oh, oft I've handed some hag in weeds
My final Camel or Tareyton,
But nobody chronicles the deeds
Of this Forgotten Samaritan.
– Many Long Years Ago (1931)


gossoon – a young boy (Irish; informal)

pergola – a frame structure with a latticework roof, to support climbing plants

punctilio – precise observance of the proper formalities; also, a fine or over-fine point of etiquette


The Eternal Vernal (excerpted); from Versus (1949)


Forgive this singsong,
It's just my spring song.
All winter like the blossoms
I've been playing possums,
But with April adjacent
I'm a possum renascent.
I'm a gossoon once more,
Not forty-five, but forty-four.
I where the herring do
In search of derring-do.
I crouch in a pergola
To catch me a burgola.
I woo nymphs like billy-o
With my well known punctilio,
Which unless I've progressed
Is the punkest tilio by actual test.
In a word it is spring,
And I can do any thing.



Double-Dactyl Words (Week of Dec. 15, 2003)


Anthony Hollander
Two bards in one
Worked their brains in a storm
Thinking up words for the
Line of this fiendishly
Difficult form.


Some of you may know of the verse-form known as the double-dactyl, exemplifed above. It requires, among other things, that one of the six-syllable lines in the second staza (typically the 3rd-to-last line) be a single six-syllable word that fits the meter.


This is one of the more difficult requirements of the form. In the interest of facilitating double dactyls, we'll devote this week to offering interesting words that meet this requirment.


antepenultimate – the third-to-last

(note: ultimate means "the last", and penultimate means "the next-to-last")


Higgledy piggeldy
Archangel Rafael,
Speaking of Satan's re-
Bellion from God:
"Chap was decidedly
Given to lewdness and
– Anthony Hecht


tergiversate – 1. to change sides; abandon a cause; apostatize 2. to equivocate; to evade by deliberate ambiguity


Another religious double-dactyl today.


Jesus of Nazareth,
Told of the plan for the
Saving of man,
Surveyed the world with a
Sigh and said: "Father, I'll
Do what I can."
– Jan D. Hodge


teleology – the philosophical study of purpose

[from the Greek teleos, perfect, complete; from telos, end, result]


A classic argument for the existence of God is that the world has clearly been constructed in a purposeful (telic) rather than a chaotic manner, and must therefore have been made by a rational being. This is the "teleological argument". As Auden put it, "A plan implies an architect."


One more day of DD-words on religion. They concern a dilemma on from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: if Adam and Eve were predestined to commit their Original Sin, then how can they be punished for what they could not avoid?


supralapsarian – one who holds that Adam and Eve's acts were fore-ordained; they could not have chosen otherwise

infralapsarian – one who holds that Adam and Eve chose their acts of their own free will


But since the latter remains a Calvinist espousing predestination, the differences "seem to have consisted simply in a divergent phrasing of the same mystery." (The Catholic Encyclopedia, orig. pub. 1907-1914)


Bonus word: logomachy – 1. a dispute about words 2. a dispute carried on in words only; a battle of words


Our illustrative quotation is from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary:


INFALAPSARIAN, n. One who ventures to believe that Adam need not have sinned unless he had a mind to – in opposition to the Supralapsarians, who hold that that luckless person's fall was decreed from the beginning.

Two theologues once, as they wended their way
To chapel, engaged in colloquial fray –
An earnest logomachy, bitter as gall,
Concerning poor Adam and what made him fall.
"'Twas Predestination," cried one – "for the Lord
Decreed he should fall of his own accord."
"Not so – 'twas Free will," the other maintained,
"Which led him to choose what the Lord had ordained."
So fierce and so fiery grew the debate
That nothing but bloodshed their dudgeon could sate;
So off flew their cassocks and caps to the ground
And, moved by the spirit, their hands went round.
Ere either had proved his theology right
By winning, or even beginning, the fight,
A gray old professor of Latin came by,
A staff in his hand and a scowl in his eye,
And learning the cause of their quarrel (for still
As they clumsily sparred they disputed with skill
Of foreordination freedom of will)
Cried: "Sirrahs! this reasonless warfare compose:
Atwixt ye's no difference worthy of blows.
The sects ye belong to – I'm ready to swear
Ye wrongly interpret the names that they bear.
You – Infralapsarian son of a clown! –
Should only contend that Adam slipped down;
While you – you Supralapsarian pup! –
Should nothing aver but that Adam slipped up.
It's all the same whether up or down
You slip on a peel of banana brown.
Even Adam analyzed not his blunder,
But thought he had slipped on a peal of thunder!


historiography – the study of writings and interpretations of history.

(Distinction: it is not the study of historical events. "When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians." (C. Furay and M. J. Salevouris). In other words, the study of how others have been inspired by Clio, the muse of history.)


For example, it's been suggested that Shakespeare's negative portrayal of Richard III is inaccurate, although doubtless pleasing to Shakespeare's Tudor audience.


Students of Clio may
Raise their objections to
Such a vile portrait as
False and absurd.
We simply shrug at the
Eagerly taking the
Bard at his word.
– Jan D. Hodge


plenipotentiary – adj: invested with full power and authority. noun: a diplomat having such power


US President Roosevelt, graduate of Groton School and Harvard University. HYPOTHETICAL HEADLINE: "Roosevelt to Skip Danish Summit Meeting; Send Subordinates"


Franklin D. Roosevelt
Shuns Copenhagen, sends
"Well!" quipped a minister
"Nothing is Groton in
Denmark, I see."


A reader notes: Funny how once you know a word, you see it in your reading. Under the Wire by David Paul Nickles considers how the invention of the telegraph affected diplomacy. A review notes:


     "Telegraphers were the original IT guys. With information zipping around the world in minutes rather than sailing around it for weeks, the telegraph proved to be, to put it mildly, revolutionary.

     It undoubtedly changed the conduct and culture of diplomacy. The culture of diplomacy was unabashedly conservative, aristocratic and antibourgeois. Separated from their seats of government by weeks of travel, envoys were necessarily accorded plenipotentiary status. They performed the functions of kinds --- and lived like them too.

     The telegraph changed all that. Because it allowed foreign ministries to centralize control of their diplomatic policy, telegraphy transformed ambassadors from autonomous statesmen into bureaucratic marionettes.

     Telegraphy hastened the speed of negotiations - with mixed results. The telegraph enabled statesmen to douse the flames of crises before they ignited into full-scale catastrophes; but it just as easily allowed governments to act on immediate passions and launch unnecessary wars. Mr. Nickles writes, 'Every incident seemed a crisis and every crisis called for a dramatic response.'"



"BBC words": Boisterous Bumptious Coinages (Week of Dec. 29, 2003 )

Let's take a week to enjoy some boisterous words that make you grin.


As Quinion notes, "The 1830s — a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US — was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns." Many of this week's words seem to be such US coinages, although the various etymology authorities often give wildly disparate dates.


sockdolager – a decisive, finishing blow

[1830, a flight of fancy from sock "hit hard;" and doxology, on a notion of "finality."]


This was the near-to-last word President Abraham Lincoln heard, before he was assassinated while watching the play "Our American Cousin." Assassin John Wilkes Booth (who knew the play well) waited for a laugh line, so that the audience's laughter would distract from Booth's gunshot. The line: "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap."



hornswoggle – to bamboozle; deceive.

[US 1829, according to most sources. A now-obscure synonym was honeyfugle or honeyfogle.]


In one building the Council on Wage and Price Stability is working overtime trying to persuade, pressure, hornswoggle businessmen to hold down prices and workers to restrain their wage demands.
– Milton Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (1979)

P.F. is going to hornswoggle the Democrats.
– Oregon Argus, May 12, 1860

Now we want the particulars of how much honey fugling and wool pulling was done.
– Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Aug. 14, 1862


Follow-up: Less than two decades ago a Brit author included both sockdolager and "honeyfuggle" among those "American words that remain firmly unborrowed in British English, though they are encountered often enough in magaines like Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker ... Without them one cannot hope to understand the novels of modern American novelists like Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow, or, for that matter the daily speech of most Americans."
– Robert Burchfield, The English Language (Oxford University Press, 1985)


skedaddle – to leave hastily; scram

[1861, US military slang]


Kofi Annan talks a brave game, but the U.N. has already cut and run, leading the most ignominious skedaddle since the first battle at Bull Run.
– Wesley Pruden, Washington Times, Dec. 16, 2003


discombobulate – to throw into a state of confusion.

[coined 1830s, 1894, or 1916, depending on which source you consult]


Last week this column argued that his [Al Gore's] endorsement made Howard Dean look unstoppable. Then a diabolus ex machina appeared to throw a weighty obstacle in the good doctor's path. The unearthing of Saddam Hussein has not only left Dr Dean looking visibly discombobulated; it has also ... solidified the party establishment's swirling fears about Dr Dean's anti-war insurgency.
– The Economist, Dec. 18, 2003

An inveterate skirt chaser is discombobulated; when, for the first time, he falls for a woman who is not half his age in the droll romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give".
– Gerri Pare, Catholic News Service, Dec. 10, 2003


Bonus: "Diabolus ex machina" [diabolus = devil] is punning on deus ex machina [god from the machine] – any sudden and artificial device introduced to resolve a conflict and end a book, drama, etc. In Greek and Roman theater, stage machinery would lower a god or gods onstage to resolve a hopeless situation: thus god comes from the machine.


scalawag– a scamp, rascal, or rogue; an amusingly mischievous child.

US; 1848. Earliest sense was of "undersized or worthless animal" (suggesting orgin in the Scotish island of of Scalloway, one of the Shetland Islands, as as allusion to the small Shetland ponies. Another theory traces the word to Scots scurryvaig, vagabond). It later came to also mean some disreputable person. After the US Civil War (ending 1865), it became a term of abuse specifically aimed at those white Southerners who were prepared to accept the measures imposed during Reconstruction, often because they would profit from them.


Yesterday we had an example quote concerning the movie "Something's Gotta Give". Here's another on the same subject.


As the pram-robbing perennial bachelor Harry Sanborn in "Something's Gotta Give," Jack Nicholson reprises a role he has perfected onscreen and off. A scalawag satyr who considers 30 the retirement age for women in his dating pool, Harry is catnip to the ladies. He's funny, accomplished, fabulously wealthy and a seemingly unobtainable romantic escape artist.
– Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 12, 2003


lollygag – to fool around; to spend time aimlessly; to dawdle or dally

[First appeared in US, mid-1800s]


Sarah Pekkanen, a freelance writer and mother of two rambunctious boys, finds a no-frills approach [to exercising] better for her. No lollygagging for this girl. She's up and out of the house before 6 to work out with her "Sergeant's Program" friends.
– Joanne Cronrath Bamberger, Riding Your Fantasy Life to Fitness, The Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2003


Bonus: The quotation deliciously illustrates still another word that fits this week's theme:

rambunctious – noisy, boisterous and disorderly

[US coinage 1830. Probably suggested by rum, boisterous, robust, and bumptious, say the sources, and i would add roisterous.]


absquatulate – to make off hurriedly, decamp, abscond. [with a guilty sense, as, "He absquatulated with the silver."]

[1833 mock-latin "to go off and squat elsewhere"]


"Murdered? Are you sure?"
Baines nodded. "No question about it. ... We are almost certain who did it ... A young lawyer who works for Mr. Hopkins, David Lasky."
"I know Mr. Lasky. What makes you think he did it?"
"Two things, Ma'am. In the first place, the D.C. police found incriminating letters in Miss Robinson's room. In the second place, David Lasky has absquatulated."
– Murder in the Executive Mansion, by Elliott Roosevelt (son of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt)


This word was common as late as the 1940's, the time in which Mr. Rooselvelt's novels are set (Mencken), but one almost never sees it today. The eminent William Safire recently made a rare use of this word - and used it incorrectly: "[This] is the penultimate (one more to go) volume in the set that no library can afford to absquatulate." New York Times Magazine, Dec. 8, 2002