August 2004 Archives
"-asterous" Pejoratives: poetaster, medicaster, grammaticaster, politicaster, witticaster (witling), philosophaster, criticaster, theologaster
Ethnic slurs of the Classical Greeks: boeotian, sybarite, abderian, solecism, laconic, sardonic, corinthian
Words from Italian: irredentist (irredenta), dolce vita, inamorata (inamorato), peccadillo, punctilio, sotto voce, tramontane
There's nothing that's quite so delicious
As a word that is perfectly vicious.
I'm always exulted
When someone's insulted
By verbiage aptly malicious.
– adapted from Chares Elster
We all love the well-chosen insulting, pejorative word. (pejorative: tending to disparage or belittle). A pretender to medical skill is a quack, even if he holds an M.D. degree; an unscrupulous lawyer is a shyster or a pettifogger. What do we call incompetents in other fields of endeavor? I give you this week examples with the handy pejorative suffix -aster, from Latin.
poetaster – a poet who writes insignificant, tawdry or shoddy poetry; an inferior rhymer; a rhymester
The word figures in literary history. From Marchette
Chute, Ben Jonson of
Ben wrote a very informed satire of the Court. So informed was it that two other playwrights of the time, Marston and Dekker, were convinced they recognized themselves in two of the less-likeable characters. They promptly collaborated on a play satirizing Ben. Ben just as promptly fired back with The Poetaster: or, His Arraignment , whose main character was the image of Marston, with Dekker in a more minor role. So Dekker['s] next play [was] Satiromastix, which translates to "the satirist whipped." The feud ended there, though. Ben was saved by the intervention of one Richard Martin, a lawyer with an actual sense of humor.
medicaster – a medical charlatan; a quack
Undeniably, some fringe-healers, confident of their own
healing powers, have had a quota of successes when treating patients with
stress-related disorders. The emotionally disturbed patient is more likely to
respond to and have faith in an optimistic healer with impervious confidence in
their own power than the average doctor who, like myself, generally is beset
with any number of scientific doubts and reservations. But medicasters,
even those as charismatic as Freda Dixon, must perforce be defeated when
treating a terminal organic condition.
– Dannie Abse, The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas
grammaticaster – a piddling, petty, pedantic grammarian
Students, Chomsky replied,
"ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions
[and] absurdities"—should "know it and be inside it and be able to
use it freely," because the standard language is "a real cultural
system," an important part of "a very rich cultural heritage."
Citing that answer, resolute grammaticasters will feel justified in continuing to teach They thought him to be me but He was thought to be I.
– James Sledd,
The -aster words could be useful in conversation, though they are extremely rare (some so rare that I cannot even find a modern illustrative quotation). In conversation the hearer would readily understand the meaning, by drawing the subject from the word's first part and the scornful putdown from voice and context.
Shall we resurrect these words? For example, wouldn't
politicaster be a fine word to use during the
politicaster – a petty politician; a pretender or dabbler in politics
– Samuel McChord Crothers, In Praise Of Politicians, reprinted in Wall Street Journal, January 5, 2004, from a 1910 collection of the author's essays
witticaster – a witling; i.e., a pretender to wit or smartness
I cannot quote witticaster, but witling quotes show the fine art of invective.
Ye newspaper witlings! ye pert
scribbling folks! – Oliver Goldsmith.
Go, Wilberforce with narrow skull,
Go home and preach away at
No longer in the Senate cackle
In strains that suit the tabernacle;
I hate your little witling sneer,
Your pert and self-sufficient leer.
Mischief to trade sits on your lip,
Insects will gnaw the noblest ship.
Go, Wilberforce, begone, for shame,
Thou dwarf with big resounding name.
– James Boswell
philosophaster – a pretender to philosophy
Robert Burton, whom we will meet later, wrote a 1606 play titled Philosophaster. Make what you will of the fact that William Buckley owned a manuscript copy of Philosophaster.
We illustrate that word with a quotation critiquing the poet Wordsworth. You can also enjoy the same critique expressed in sonnet form.
Wordsworth, not when he was communicating it as a poet,
but when he was merely talking about it as a philosopher (or philosophaster),
said some very silly things.
– C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times -- good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.
– James Kenneth Stephen (1859-1892)
criticaster – a mean-spirited, contemptible, carping critic
Personally, I think of an ill-mannered puppy yapping and nipping at the heels of his betters.
In selecting as the Novel of the Month Mark Twain's new
story, A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, I am aware that I expose
myself to many remonstrances. ... Mark Twain gets "directlier at the
heart" of the masses than any of the blue-china set of nimminy-pimminy criticaster.
– William T. Sneed, Review of Reviews (
He [Joseph Goebbels] set going a two-months-long campaign against the `alarmists and criticaster, the rumor-mongers and idlers, the saboteurs and agitators.'
– Hans Bernd Gisevius, et al, To the Bitter End
The Goebbels quote is noteworthy, in that 'criticaster' brings up so many google-hits in German that I cannot but believe it's also a German word. Can anyone advise?
theologaster – a petty or contemptable theologian
We recently met Robert Burton as author of the play Philosophaster. Today's quotation is from his 1621 masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Lewellyn Powys called this work "the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing," while the celebrated surgeon William Osler declared it the greatest of medical treatises. And Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure.
Our annual university heads as a rule pray only for the greatest possible number of freshmen to squeeze money from, and do not care whether they are educated or not, provided they are sleek, well groomed, and good-looking, and in one word, men of means. Philosophasters innocent of the arts become Masters of Arts, and those are made wise by order who are endowed with no wisdom, and have no qualifications for a degree save a desire for it. Theologasters, if they can but pay, have enough learning and to spare, and proceed to the very highest degrees. Hence it comes that such a pack of vile buffoons, ignoramuses wandering in the twilight of learning, ghosts of clergymen, itinerant quacks, dolts, clods, asses, mere cattle ...
Ethnic slurs of the Classical Greeks
The classical Greeks, like any other ethnic group, used ethnic slurs upon their neighbors. This week we'll present some of those slurs that have come into English.
Yes, I can foresee you saying for some of these words, "That wasn't ancient Greek. It was coined by later speakers versed in the classics." Or, "That referred not to the ethnic group, but to the traits of a prominent person or mythological figure from that place. " Or, "That wasn't a slur. It was just descriptive, or the negative meaning came later." To all of which I respond, "Pooh! Let's not let quibbles stand in the way of the tale."
boeotian – a dull, obtuse person. The emphasis seems to be on rude ignorance and illiteracy (think "country bumpkin") rather than stupidity.
Boetia is a farming district in ancient
It was called
– Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History
Boeotian bliss is not conducive to invention: the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from from the realization that something is missing, from awareness of incompleteness.
– Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self
A reader notes: You may know the humorous
story which started Mark Twain on his rise to fame, The Celebrated Jumping
sybarite – a person devoted to pleasure and luxury; a voluptuary
[from Subaris (
– John Ferling, John Adams: A Life
This is a deplorable street, a luxurious couch of a street in which the afternoon lolls like a gaudy sybarite.
Why would there be 22,000 books on, for instance, the enigma of Richard Wagner? The supposed enigma is that a man who wrote some music that is sublime (Parsifal), some that is noble and romantic (Lohengrin), and some that is wise and gently humorous (Meistersinger) should have been an active anit-Semite, the seducer of a loyal friend's wife (Cosima Von Bulow) and at various times a liar, cheat, politician, egomaniac and sybarite. Why on earth not? There is no enigma in Wagner if you remember the Anything Goes Rule. The real enigma is that experienced people who must know that traits of character and talent have complex, shifting causes, can believe or pretend to believe, that a personality must be all of a piece morally.
– Richard Brown, Social Psychology
abderian – given to laughter; particularly, inclined to foolish or incessant merriment
But is the dictionary definition correct? The word abderian
is too rarely used for me to glean its meaning from context. The sources agree
that it comes from the Thracian town of
However, the stories about Abdera and Democritus don't really support a concept of "foolish merriment". In general they show the townsfolk as stupid or as subject fits of nutty emotion, and show Democritus as a worldly-wise man laughing at the follies of mankind, in an attitude of "Lo, what fools these mortals be."
I'll relate these various stories on our board, over the next few days. Here's one:
Richard Strauss based his last work, Des Esels Schatten ('The Donkey's Shadow'), on a 1774 satire set in ancient Abdera, Die Abderiten by Christoph Martin Wieland. The plot is a legal dispute over the question, "Who owns the donkey's shadow?" The renter of a donkey cooled himself in the donkey's shadow, whereupon the donkey's owner demands more money, claiming he leased the donkey, not its shadow. The legal dispute rages; the city and its citizens are sharply split on the controversy – and everyone forgets the donkey, who is neglected and dies of starvation.
solecism – 1. a word blunder: a nonstandard usage or grammatical construction
2. a social blunder: a violation of etiquette; an impropriety
[after Soloi, an Athenian colony in
Let us ourselves resolve not to create such
social solecisms. Never go out to dinner without the means
to pay for it, in the expectation that somebody else will pick up the bill.
– Philip Howard, The Times, August 2, 2004
Mr Bush's idiosyncrasies are not necessarily an electoral burden. Some believe his folksy delivery and verbal solecisms play well with ordinary Americans wary of slick rhetoric and gilded vocabulary.
– The Guardian, Bush's campaign trail gaffe, August 5, 2004
Your garb and manner were restricted by rule: your air was often diffident, and altogether that of one refined by nature, but absolutely unused to society, and a good deal afraid of making herself disadvantageously conspicuous by some solecism or blunder ...
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
laconic – saying much in few words; brief, pithy and brusque, almost to the point of rudeness
Lakonia's chief city was
Philip of Macedon raised a great army, and sent a letter to the Spartans saying, "If I go down into your country, I will level your great city to the ground." In a few days, he received his written answer. When he opened it he found only one word:
A Spartan, hearing another city phrased for its fair management of the Olympic Games, answered, 'Yes, they deserve a lot of praise if they can do justice one day in five years."
The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in
– Denis Horgan, of
A reader notes: I still remember example of
laconic speech in Latin book I had in eighth grade. When the Persians invaded
sardonic – disdainfully humorous; scornful and mocking
Once known principally as a GOP hatchet man, [Bob] Dole
had rehabbed himself over the years to war hero and sardonic wit.
– Eleanor Clift, Newsweek, Aug. 27, 2004
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart welcomed John Kerry. "How are you holding up?" Stewart asked Kerry. "I understand that apparently you were never in
A Tale of Etymology: Most sources still trace
sardonic to an ancient Greek belief a plant called sardonion,
Some modern sources try to reconcile this, claiming that Homer's sardanion later changed in Greek, by influence of Sardonion "Sardinian" associated with the supposed Sardinian plant. This seems to me merely an attempt to preserve an old theory by explaining away contrary evidence. Perhaps this a-to-o change did occur in some Greek editions rather than later (the web is unclear), but I see no evidence that it was anything more than scrivener error or a pronunciation change over time.
My conclusion: the "
If sardonic is from Homer's σαρδάνιον, where does the latter come from? One theory cites Greek σαίρειν (in our letters, 'sairden'?) "to draw back the lips and bare the teeth", grinning like a dog. That makes particular sense when you note that the ancient Greeks did use a similar dog-term for nasty speech. Their word for "to strip off the flesh, as does a dog" (sarkos flesh), became their noun and verb for sarcastic speech (sarkasmo, sarkazein), leading in turn to our sarcasm.
Our final word of this theme has both positive and negative meanings.
positive noun: a fashionable man about town; a bon vivant; esp. a wealthy amateur yachtsman or other sportsman
negative noun: a debauched man devoted to the pursuit of pleasure
adj: as or like such a man, of either sort (also, an ornate type of architectural column)
[miscellaneous senses: corinthian race – one in which the contesting yachts must be manned by amateurs. corinthianism – harlotry. to corinthianize – to live an idle, dissipated life.]
I be but the prince of Wales, yet I am king of courtesy;
… a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy, by the Lord,
so they call me, and when I am king of England, I shall command all the good
lads in Eastcheap.
– Henry IV, Part 1, act 2, sc. 4 (Prince Hal speaking)
The term led to the name of a popular alcoholic drink. Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1824) tells the adventures of Corinthian Tom and his sidekick Jerry Hawthorne. From this, the "Tom and Jerry".
Etymology: The ancient Greeks and Romans
¹Note: Paul's Letter to the Corinthians refers to a different city, founded on the same site long after "Old Corinth" had been destroyed.
²Slightly difference between Greek and Roman views:
. . . .To
the Greeks, it seems, almost any woman from
. . . .To
Words from Italian
We've done themes of words from French, German,
Greek, Latin, Russian and Yiddish, some of the more than once.
Why not Italian? Largely because although many English words are traceable back to Italian, the vast majority fall into one of three narrow groups: food terms, artistic terms (especially music; secondarily painting), and terms that came from Italian via French and are French in flavor.
But this week we will hono(u)r
irredentist – one who advocates the recovery of territory culturally or historically related to one's nation but now subject to a foreign government. (irredenta: such territory).
[The root term was irredenta, an Italian coinage from the phrase Italia irredenta, "unredeemed
Question: How does irredentism differ from revanchism?
Beijing's muscle-flexing is a reminder that China is an irredentist
power set on recovering territory it says was unjustly taken when it was weak
and subjugated by colonisers, among them Western nations and Japan.
– Michael Richardson, Will S-E Asian States Be Forced to Take Sides?, Singapore Straits Times, Aug. 18, 2004
dolce vita – a lifestyle of appreciating and
savoring the pleasures of life.
[Italian: dolce sweet + vita life. Typically in the phrase la dolce vita)]
I have composed this definition, for I believe MW and AHD misdefine the word. In essence they say it means "an indolent and self-indulgent way of life". I'd say the term stresses enjoyment, without implying (as they think) any puritanical judgment that enjoyment is somehow "wrong".
Consider how the word is used, and form your own opinion.
Reader's notes tend to agree that the word is vaguely negative. It seem to have come not so much from Italian as from the movie by Fellini (1960) of that title, which also contributed the term "paparazzi" to the language.
Thomas Jefferson lives as an inspiration for anyone who
dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For
– Michael J. Gelb, Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like History's Ten Most Revolutionary Minds
The New York City Police Department is preparing to mobilize a new tool to prevent chaos during the Republican National Convention - a fleet of sleek, stylish Italian scooters. Along with giving officers a taste of "la dolce vita," the scooters will allow the police far more mobility as they seek to control the protests or get to trouble spots.
– Mary Spicuzza, Calling All Scooters? Officers Will Patrol With a Putt-Putt-Putt, New York Times, August 27, 2004
Italian men end up staying at home with their parents well into their 30s. "I just don't see the point of leaving my parents' home," said Luca Orsenigo. [H]e is not ready to give up his dolce vita, yet. "Right now I am single, so why would I give up traveling, my bike, the car, the clothes to waste money on rent?"
His mother doesn’t seem to share his view.
– Claudio Lavanga, What is keeping Italian men at home? Experts warn of population fall as most prefer mamma's cooking, NBC News, Aug. 20, 2004 (edited)
inamorata, inamorato – a woman (inamorata) or man (inamorato) with whom one is in
love or has an intimate relationship.
[So says AHD. I'd say the word stresses the sex, not the love. An inamorata is a mistress; one would not use either term to refer to a spouse.]
British soccer continues to enslave the observer with all
the appalling mesmerism of a hunting mongoose. It's awful, but you just can't
look away. ... Last week, it emerged that English coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has
been straying from the side of his fragrant inamorata ,
the improbably named Nancy Dell'Olio. His lover's oleaginous charms were
insufficient, it seems, to keep Sven from leaping into the sack with curvy
Football Association secretary Faria Alam.
– Annabel Crabb, Festival of the boot, The Age (
“Is he a presentable sort of person?” the aunt inquired. "Presentable?—oh, very well. You wouldn’t see any difference," Captain Crawley answered. "Do let’s have him when you begin to see a few people; and his whatyecallem—his—inamorata —eh, Miss Sharp; that's what you call it—comes."
– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, ch. XIV
A pair of words whose meanings contrast but whose
etymologies pose like problems.
peccadillo – a small sin or fault
punctilio – 1. a fine point of etiquette 2. precise observance of formalities
But do these words come from Italian? The authorities' etymologies cite both Italian and Spanish.¹ But the first English citations are 1591 and 1596 respectively, and I'd say those dates very strongly argue that the source was not Spanish. The English of the 1590s had very recently defeated the Spanish Armada, and I doubt they felt kindly to the Spanish or to their words.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, Vietnam & Authenticity, National Review, August 25, 2004
In the early 1970s, American feminists came up with the shocking proposition that "sexual harassment" of women workers was not a "private peccadillo," but a significant obstacle to women's achievement of equality for which employers should be held liable. By 1977, it was a recognized claim.
– Kathleen Peratis, ONLY HUMAN: No Ifs, Ands Or Butts, The Forward, August 6, 2004
This principle will be put to the test with the arrest warrants issued against Ahmed and Salem Chalabi Sunday. The Iraqi people and the world alike will see this as a political move, which is why the Iraqi interim government must strive to deal with this sensitive matter with all the punctilio, diligence and decorum that the law deserves.
– Lebanon Daily Star, Chalabi cases will quickly test
¹Thus, for 'peccadillo' OED lists both Sp. pecadillo
and It. peccadiglio, "small sin"; for 'punctilio' it lists
both It. punctiglio and Sp. puntillo, "small point".
Other authorities or similar, though some give only Spanish for 'punctilio'.
. . .Regarding 'punctilio': a few decades later the word punctuality, which previously had a different meaning, came to mean "exact promptness".
sotto voce – in soft tones, so as not to be
overheard; in an undertone
[Italian, "under voice"]
Our first quote's rhyme shows you how this term is pronounced. The poem is tells the old fairy tale of a frog who is really an enchanted prince. Our frog-prince has found a maid to free him the spell, but he has not yet seen the maid – and does not know that she is exceedingly ugly.
"Fair maid," he said, "I beg you, / Do not
hesitate or wince,
If you'll promise that you'll wed me, / I'll at once become a prince;
For a fairy old and vicious / An enchantment round me spun!"
Then he looked up, unsuspicious, / And he saw what he had won,
And in terms of said reproach he
Made some comments, sotto voce.
(Which the publishers have bidden me to shun!)
– Guy Wetmore Carryl, Grimm Tales Made Gay (1902)
More than 300 rapes have taken place in
– Sachin Parashar, Times of
Today's word literally means "from the other
side of the mountain". It is used in three senses: it can mean
The sense of "foreigner" seems to be mildly pejorative. Thus in the Oxford Edition of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), where the text reads 'tramontane' the editors' explanatory note says, "barbarian, originally used by Italians for foreigners 'dwelling beyond the mountains'."
I stood at the window on the first floor while they
served drinks outside, watching the tramontane, which
blows from the north, sculpt the ladies' skirts around their thighs.
– Helen Stevenson, Instructions for Visitors: Life and Love in a French Town
[At the end of the American Revolution, France] was prepared to consent to a long term uti possidetis; a diminutive United States would have existed, but Great Britain almost certainly would have retained Maine, northern Vermont, the Carolinas, Georgia, the tramontane West, and portions of New York, including New York City.
– John Ferling, John Adams: A Life
She had lived in many places – in Seattle, Texas, Germany (a stepfather in the military) – so that her speech was full of tramontane expressions like "y'all" and "fixin to git."
– William Finnegan, Cold
tramontane – adj: from another country; foreign (noun a foreigner; a stranger). [also, "on the far side of the mountains"; also, a certain wind]
What does uti possidetis mean, in that last quote? Tune in tomorrow, as we start our next theme.