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September 2004 Archives

Terms of International Relations: uti possidetis, balkanized (narrowcasting), Munich, frogmarch, prisoner of war, illegal combatant (unlawful combatant), casus belli

Bizarre etymologies: nimrod, dupe, indri, dumbbell, grapefruit, gunsel, bizarre

Confusing Doublets, redux: solecism/solipsism, egoism/egotism, incommensurable/commensurate/commensal, venial/venal (venery¹, venery²), perspicuous/perspicacious , obscurant/obscurantist, hebetic/hebetude

Lifestyles, "On the street where you live": easy street, Park Avenue, Queer Street, Tobacco Road, skid row, Main Street, Acacia Avenue



Terms of International Relations


Last week's "Italian" theme began with such "intenational relaions" term (irredentist), and its final quote had another (uti possidetis). That subject this week's theme.

uti possidetis – the principle that unless otherwise stated:
1. upon a peace treaty, each belligerent keeps the captured territories then holds
2. when a political subdivision achieves independence, its international boundaries are simply the previous administrative boundaries (Black's Law Dictionary)

[Late Latin; literally "as you possess", or more fully, "as you now possess it".]

The second usage is far more frequent, though on-line dictionaries omit it. Yesterday's quote and the first quote today illustrate the former sense; we then illustrate the latter.


[In late 1944] Stalin was staking out claims to Eastern and Central Europe ahead of the Allied victory. The Soviets pressed ahead while planning for the outright military victory which would enable them to deal with the West from a foundation of uti possidetis.
– Christopher Duffy, Red Storm on the Reich: The Soviet March on Germany, 1945

... a presumption that often runs against self-determination … Uti possidetis arose from an international consensus that States created through decolonization should normally maintain the external colonial borders, regardless of the tribal, ethnic, religious, or political affiliations of those who had been colonized. The attraction of the principle lies in its promotion of stability, by disfavoring unpredictable and excessive fragmentation.
– Gregory H. Fox, Democratic Governance and International Law

The disputed islands and islets range from small to tiny, are uniformly unattractive, waterless, and habitable only with great difficulty [, but] they straddle what has been, since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, one of the most important and busiest seaways in the world. Yemen introduced the doctrine of uti possidetis ...: "[o]n the dismemberment of an empire like the Ottoman Empire, there is a presumption that the boundaries of the independent states which replace the Empire will correspond to the boundaries of the administrative units of which the dismembered Empire was constituted."
- Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague, Eritrea-Yemen Arbitration, Oct. 9, 1998


balkanized; Balkanized– fragmented into small and mutually hostile units
[From the political division of the Balkans in the early 20th century.]

The term originally was originally limited to political fragmentation of a region, but the broader use, illustrated below, now the more common. The dictionaries, particularly AHD, have given little attention to that expanded meaning.


Narrowcasting also deepens America's political and cultural balkanization. Mightn't the case for subsidizing nationally unifying media actually grow stronger as technological fragmentation proceeds apace?
– New Republic, Feb. 3, 1995


Bonus word: narrowcasting – the practice of "specialty" cable channels (or other media) geared to a specific group of viewers, such as physicians, businesspeople, or teenagers


How do we tell whether a usage is a cultural reference, or is a "word"? I have no answer. The dictionaries do not list what follows as a "word", but you can consider the citations and make your own decision.

Munich – shortsighted and often dishonorable appeasement of a tyrant

[After the Munich Conference of 1938. But sometimes used to refer to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes the Munich Olympics, Summer 1972.]


The analogy that came to most Americans' mind on Sept. 11 was Pearl Harbor. But the perpetrators, not surprisingly, see matters differently. … an online column by Abu Ubeid Al-Qurashi, an al Qaeda "activist," says the attack was another Munich. That's Munich 1972, not Munich 1938.
– James Taranto, Wall Street Journal on-line, March 12, 2002

The transition reflects a pendulum swing between the "no more Munichs" syndrome – no more appeasement of aggressors and dictators – and the "no more Vietnams" syndrome – no more plunging America into Third Word quagmires."
– Daniel Schorr, New Leader, Jan. 13, 1997

[Discussing Slobodan Milosevic:] The determination of the previous generation of American policymakers to allow "no more Munichs" led to the Vietnam War. The determination of this generation to allow ''no more Vietnams'' promises another Munich.
– William Pfaff, Democracies in Confusion, or How to Guarantee Another Munich, International Herald Tribune, May 6, 1999

And any move in this direction by a U.S. president would lead to conservative cries of another Munich.
– James Ridgeway, Looking Backward, Village Voice, July 29, 2004


I suppose this word isn't "international relations", but the first quote is, and the word is fun. Says Oxford:

frogmarch – to force (someone) to walk forward by pinning their [sic] arms from behind
[Why "frog"? The term originally (mid-1800s) meant to carry an uncooperative drunk, prisoner or the like face down, one person holding onto each limb. Hence, splayed out like a pinned-down frog.]


"At the end of the day it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."
– Joseph Wilson, disgruntled former ambassador, much-quoted in the press (2003)

The twins forced the sweater over his head, knocking his glasses askew. "And you're not sitting with the prefects today, either," said George. "Christmas is a time for family." They frog-marched Percy from the room, his arms pinned to his side by his sweater.
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


But Rowling gave what I think is a better definition. During an Oct. 20, 2000 interview on the Today show, she took questions from kids.


Dark-haired girl: My name is Rio, and in the first book, what did she mean by "they frog-marched Percy around the room"? Rowling: That's when two people stand on either side of the third person and they force them to walk along. It's like you're under arrest.


prisoner of war – a captured member a country's armed forces (or of an organized resistance movement, in certain circumstances)
(The specific circumstances: they must have a commander responsible for them; wear clear identification (as by uniform); carry their ams openly; and adhere to the laws of war)

Many think a POW is "anyone captured in war". This erroneous view is in essence what you'll find in OED, MW, AHD, Encarta, and on the Red Cross website.The Third Geneva Convention, at Artcle 4.A., defines that term as I have summarized, and is quite clear that only the military (and certain other that behave "like a military"), get POW status. Indeed, it makes sense that a captured soldier would have special rights beyond those of a civilian. For example, a soldier kills the enemy, within his job, cannot be charged with murder for those killings. (Article 118).

In the press, some very strong criticism seems to have been based on the mistaken notion that "POW" means anyone captured in war.


Molly Ivins (syndicated columnist in 114 newspapers), Love it or screw you: America’s double standards Jan. 24, 2002:
So we take the prisoners we've captured, and suddenly announce that they are not prisoners of war after all, because this isn't really a war we've been fighting. Therefore the prisoners are "illegal combatants," and we don't have to treat them in accord with the Geneva Convention on POWs. This is why a lot of people hate us. For the sheer bloody arrogance of having it both ways all the time. For thinking that we are above the rules, that we can laugh at treaties, that we can do whatever we want

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it considered al Qaeda fighters held by U.S. forces to be prisoners of war, "They were captured in combat and we consider them prisoners of war," ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen told Reuters.
– CNN, Feb. 8, 2002


Later, we'll talk about those who are not covered by Geneva 3 and the term "POW": non-combatant civilians, and combatant civilians who do not act "like a military". They have rights too, but their rights come under other documents, particularly Geneva 4 (whose title says "[for] "the Protection of Civilian Persons") and the U.N. Convention against Torture.


illegal combatant (or unlawful combatant) – one who is a combatant but would not, if captured, meet the standards of a prisoner of war

Geneva 3 deals only with POWs, and provides no name for with captured combatants who do no qualify as POWs. But the concept and term are long-recognized in international law. The U.S. Supreme Court explained it in 1942, in ex parte Quirin.


By universal agreement and practice the law of war draws a distinction between the armed forces and the peaceful populations of belligerent nations and also between those who are lawful and unlawful combatants. Lawful combatants are subject to capture and detention as prisoners of war by opposing military forces. Unlawful combatants are likewise subject to capture and detention, but in addition they are subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals for acts which render their belligerency unlawful. The spy who secretly and without uniform passes the military lines of a belligerent in time of war, or an enemy combatant who without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war by destruction of life or property, are familiar examples of belligerents who are generally deemed not to be entitled to the status of prisoners of war, but to be offenders against the law of war subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals.*


An important difference, between POW and non-POW rights, is in an interrogation. Think of the TV police shows where the interrogator says, "If you cooperate, and help me nail your superiors, I'll agree to a lesser charge against you." Such a tactic is forbidden when questioning POWs (Geneva 3, Art. 17: "Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be ... exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.") But is allowed when interrogating others, subject of course the general restrictions (i.e., the prohibition against torture).


*A number of writers (examples below) erroneously state that "illegal combatant" is merely a term conveniently inventioned by President Bush. They are wrong.


The United States created a non-existent legal phrase of "illegal combatant".
       – MP Jeremy Corbyn, speaking in Parliament 27 Nov 2003
President Bush's invention of such hitherto unknown categories as "illegal combatant"
       – Historian Chalmers Johnson, History News Network, June 14, 2004:
The Bush administration has gone so far as to invent the new category of "illegal combatant" to excuse its own refusal to treat enemies captured on the battlefield according to the Geneva convention.
       – The Morning Star, 28 July 2004


casus belli – an event that provokes or is used to justify war


Churchill certainly did not want war against Japan, but only American assistance in the fight against Hitler, which a casus belli in the Pacific would not necessarily assure; as we have seen, Hitler's perverse decision to declare war on the United States in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor solved problems of diplomacy which otherwise might have needed months of negotiation between the White House and Congress.
– John Keegan, The Second World War

On the way there was a fight between two of the tramps. They had quarrelled overnight (there was some silly casus belli about one saying to the other, "Bull shit," which was taken for Bolshevik-a deadly insult), and they fought it out in a field. A dozen of us stayed to watch them.
– George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London



Bizarre etymologies


This week we'll enjoy seven words, some familiar and some not, with etymologies that range from the curiously odd to the completely bizarre.

nimrod slang: an silly or insensitive jerk who is a petty annoyance

[Your humble wordcrafter drafted this definition, since AHD's definition seems to a poor match to the usages noted. No other on-line dictionary gives the slang meaning.]


Fulbrook proposed while they were scuba diving in Venezuela. "Do you love me?" he wrote underwater. "Of course, you nimrod," she wrote in response. "Will you marry me?" he then scribbled.
– Anna Jane Grossman, Loving Tribute, New York Post, September 12, 2004

Anyone who leaves a cell phone on ‘ring’ while in a movie theater and then takes a call without leaving is seeking only to display his perceived stature. Such individuals are known by various appellations. 'Nimrod,' 'pinhead,' 'moron,' and the always appropriate 'jerk' come most readily to mind.
- Larry Simoneaux, American Daily, March 30, 2003

Most of us can’t sing, and shouldn’t sing. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. If you go to your nearby mall, you will undoubtedly encounter one deluded nimrodwho sings along to the piped-in Musak while you’re waiting in line for a cappuccino.
– Michael Ventre, Rub-a-dub-dub, some songs for the, er, shower, MSNBC, Aug. 18, 2004


This slang meaning is now more common that the originially sense of "a mighty hunter", based upon a biblical character. ("The Queen ... hunts in a chaise with one horse, which she drives herself, and drives furiously, like Jehu, and is a mighty hunter, like Nimrod." – Johnathan Swift, The Journal to Stella, July 19, 1711.)

How did "mighty hunter" acquire its slang meaning? From the cartoons: picture if you will Elmer Fudd, with his shotgun and hunting garb, futilely hunts Bugs Bunny in the cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. Bugs, with classical precision, comments ironically comments, "Neh, I couldn't do that to the little nimrod." (wave file) An audience that didn't know the word would take it for the amused put-down that Bugs obviously meant. From there, the ironic sense acquired its own life.

Notes re Nimrod meaning "numbskull": the Bugs Bunny theory

Bugs first appeared in 1938. I don't have the date of the episode where he used "nimrod", but my sense is that he used it in many episodes. The first print-use I find is 1939, with the same sort of double meaning as Bugs has.¹

Some websites, apparently copying each other, dispute the "Bugsian origin" by saying that Jesse Sheidlower has found two cites that predate Bugs. However, I find no such claim by Mr. Sheidlower himself. He is quite reliable, and a note has been sent to him. But let's take it further.

Others argue that these Bugs episodes could not be the source of this sense of "nimrod", because the sense did not become common until much later, in the late 1980s or early 1990s. They are probably correct that it did not have much 1930s impact, since it is not mentioned in Mencken's work. But with all respect, I'd say that the later prevalence suggests that Bugs was the source. How could a minor 1930s usage, having died out, have suddenly revived fifty-odd years later, except via media-speak from the 1930s that remained in the public eye fifty years later?

Indeed, it looks like the Bugsian sense of "nimrod" revived precisely at a time Bugs himself was having a revival. In the 1980's his old cartoons were released on video, and he himself was a presenter at the 1987 Oscar Awards. When did his sense of "nimrod" come back into usage? The earliest I find is 1990, and indicates that the sense was not brand new.² You'll also find that usage in a 1994 mass-market movie, Pulp Fiction.³

My data is far from complete, but I conclude that Bug indeed brought the term into our language. Not in the 1930s, when the term didn't stick, but in the 1980s.

¹Lewis Copeland, Ten Thousand Jokes, Toasts and Stories (1939, reading the 1965 reprint), where item 6133 uses the word as Bugs does: "First Simple Nimrod-'Hey, don't shoot. Your gun isn't loaded.' His Partner-'Can't help that; the bird won't wait.'"
²Gordon Korman, Losing Joe's Place (1990): "As soon as a girl steps into a place like this," he told us as we sipped on our Cokes, "she divides all the guys into the nimrods and the cool people."
³John Travolta, as Vega: Jules, if you give that fuckin' nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, I'm gonna shoot him on general principles.


dupeverb: to deceive or swindle. noun: a person who is easily duped

This comes from a bird! The French word huppe means a certain small, elaborately crested bird, which we call the hoopoe. In Middle French the phrase du huppe ("of the hoopoe") became slang duppe, meaning a dupe, and passed into English with the same meaning.

Frankly, I'm betting that the French have a phrase tête du huppe (hoopoe-head) meaning "stupid", somewhat like our 'birdbrain'. One source seems to so indicate; can anyone confirm?

I welcome any input from those familiar with French, and they may be able to make something of these two items.


Son plumage, de couleur orange, semble compose d'ecailles metalliques. Sa petite tete, garnie d'une huppe d'argent, represente un visage humain. Il a quatre ailes, des pattes de vautour, et une immense queue de paon, qu'il etale en rond derriere lui.
– Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Antoine

From a website in French, as translated by Google:
The French name derives from Latin upupa, it would have been given in correlation with the cry of the bird "oupoupa". Then, the name of huppe was compared to the peak of feather particular to this bird. On this subject, written Buffon: "Thérée, king de Thrace, having been metamorphosed in huppe following several horrors, and in particular after Progné, its wife, and Philomèle, his/her sister-in-law, had made serve on her table her Itys son whom they had put in parts, this unfortunate father could form of another cry only louse, louse, which, in Greek, means "where, where", as if it still had sought or redemandé his son."


In Madagascar, locals were taking European explorers though the rainforst. One of the locals, spotting a lemur in the trees, pointed to it and exclaimed 'indri', meaning, "Look!" or, "There it is!" The explorers mistook this as the name of the primate, now known as the indri.

Similar misunderstandings are claimed as the basis of several other animal names, such as kangaroo and llama, and several place names, such as Canada, Istanbul, Luzon, Nome (in Alaska), Senegal and Yucatan. Those stories are disputed, but indri appears to be the real thing.

indri – the largest of the all of the lemurs. It is the only lemur with vestigial tail, and it is severely endangered. Picture here.


A dumbbell is a fine tool for exercise, but what does it have to do with a bell?

A church's bell ringer would pull down on a rope, causing the bell to swing and toll the hours. Since bells were heavy, bell ringers developed great upper body strength.

Their work also required a good deal of practice. (I presume this was, in part, to learn to time the pulls to match the bell's swing-period.) Apprentice bell ringers practiced on a rope and pulley apparatus that mimicked the action but which used a deadweight rather than a bell, thus saving money and avoiding noise pollution. In other words, it was a bell that was silent, or "dumb", and quite naturally came to be a "dumbbell". Gentlemen in the 1700s adopted the same apparatus for healthy exercise, and "dumbbell" became associated with weights for exercise.


But a moment! Some idle thoughts: What I've given you is the standard story, and it's interesting enough. But isn't it odd that the word first appears so late as 1711, though church bells are centuries older? If bell ringers needed a training apparatus, surely one was built, used, and given a name long before 1711.

The first known use of the word is by Joseph Addison in The Spectator of Thursday, July 12, 1711, copied below. Addison seems to be making an implied pun that the exercise dumbbell renders the ladies silent; that is, it renders the belles dumb. His very next paragraph also makes a witty analogy between an exercise method and the larger world. An idle speculation: could it conceivably be that Addison concocted the word 'dumbbell' as a term that would describe the apparatus and also make his word-play? That would certainly explain why no prior use of the word has been found.


For my own part, when I am in Town, I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb Bell that is placed in a Corner of my Room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require of it in the most profound Silence. My Landlady and her Daughters are so well acquainted with my Hours of Exercise, that they never come into my Room to disturb me whilst I am ringing.

When I was some Years younger than I am at present, I used to employ myself in a more laborious Diversion, which I learned from a Latin Treatise of Exercises that is written with great Erudition: It is there called the skiomachia, or the fighting with a Man's own Shadow, and consists in the brandishing of two short Sticks grasped in each Hand, and loaden with Plugs of Lead at either End. This opens the Chest, exercises the Limbs, and gives a Man all the Pleasure of Boxing, without the Blows. I could wish that several Learned Men would lay out that Time which they employ in Controversies and Disputes about nothing, in this Method of fighting with their own Shadows. It might conduce very much to evaporate the Spleen, which makes them uneasy to the Publick as well as to themselves.


grapefruit [etymology]

The grapefruit's origin is a mystery. It appeared suddenly, as if from nowhere, first noted around 1750 in the Barbados. It was long thought to be a mutation of the pummelo, which is of similar size. We now know that is a hybrid of the pummelo and the sweet orange.

Also a mystery is t
he name "grapefruit". It originated in Jamaica around 1810, but it is a ridiculous name. This fruit has nothing to do with the grape, is vastly different in size and color and every other way, and grows on trees rather than (grape)vines. Then why this name?


The usual claim is that it arose because the fruit supposedly grows in clusters, like grapes. Some at least have the good grace to admit that this is speculation [AHD: "Probably so called because the fruit grows in clusters"], but some drop the word "probably". None I've found gives the slightest support for the theory.

The theory strikes me as nonsense. It implies that the fruit was named by someone who'd seen it growing on the tree – but anyone who'd seen it would know that it does not grow in clusters. Like any other citrus, its fruits happen to be close together in some parts of the tree and spread out in others (see here and here). Where they happen to be close, leaves mix amid them (unlike in grapes), and the branching structure is completely unlike that of grapes. If you've seen it on the tree, you can't possibly think it grows in grape-like clusters.

Ciardi proposes another theory. The pummelo's botanical name is Citrus grandi, meaning "great citrus [fruit]." It would be natural to call the new pummelo variety a "greatfruit". But try saying that name a few times, with its consonant cluster. It sounds like "grapefruit", unless you make an extreme effort to enunciate, and it would easily have morphed to that form.

This suggestion is completely speculative, without attestation, but seems much more reasonable than the equally speculative "grape cluster" theory.


Anyone here a fan of The Maltese Falcon? That's the source of today's word.

gunsel – a gunman in the criminal world; sometimes used to mean any hoodlum


It was Jackie Newton, with some gunsel straight out of old Chicago. Jackie wasn't carrying anything, but the enforcer was packing a big gun. The gunsel was a bodyguard, a bonecrusher, a cheap hood. – John Dunning, Booked to Die (2000)

Nothing could have prevented Richard Nixon from accepting that nomination. If God himself had showed up in Miami and denounced Nixon from the podium, hired gunsels from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President would have quickly had him arrested for disturbing the peace.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail


Before Dashiell Hammett, the word had a very different meaning, that wouldn't withstand the censors. Hammett, tired of his editor's censorship, tweaked him by slipping 'gunsel' into The Maltese Falcon where the unwitting would think it meant "gunman". The new meaning caught on. Erle Stanley Gardner tells the story:


But he [Editor Shaw] left the word "gunsel" because Hammett had used it so casually that Shaw took it for granted that the word pertained to a hired gunman. Actually, "gunsel," or "gonzel," is a very naughty word with no relation whatever to a bodyguard, a gunman, or a torpedo. What happened? All of the writers of the hard-boiled school of realism started talking about a gunsel as the equivalent of a gunman. The usage has persisted.
– Erle Stanley Gardner, Getting Away with Murder, The Atlantic, Vol. 215  No. 1 (1965)


Before Hammett, gunsel was slang (from Yiddish 'little goose') for the passive member of a male homosexual pair; often a boy (catamite). It is still occasionally used that way. Here's how it was slipped into The Maltese Falcon.


Book: The boy's eyes were wide open and dark with wide pupils. Their gaze ran over Spade's body from shoulders to knees. "Another thing," Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: "Keep that gunsel away from me while you're making up your mind. I'll kill him. I don't like him. He makes me nervous. I'll kill him the first time he gets in my way. I won't give him an even break. I won't give him a chance. I'll kill him. "

Movie (screenplay; final scene a bit different):
Spade (violently angry): (He tosses his cigar away in disgust) Now think again and think fast. I told that gunsel of yours you'd have to talk to me before you're through. I'm telling you now, you'll talk to me today or you are through! (Throwing his drink to the floor.) What are you wasting my time for? I can get along without you! And another thing: Keep that gunsel out of my way when you're makin' up your mind! I'll kill him if you don't, I'll kill him!




I'd promised you "etymologies that range from the curiously odd to the completely bizarre". Bizarre itself is an odd term, for it means very different things in different languages. In Spanish bizarro (fem.  bizarra) means "strong; handsome; soldierly; gallant; brave", but in English and French (and apparently Italian too) the like term means "odd, fantastic".

Does bizarre have a typical, unremarkable etymology – or does it come from a scandal of incest, infidelity, infanticide and intrigue among the elite of 1790s Virginia? Doubtless you'd like to hear about the scandal first.

In 1789, when Julia and Nancy Randolph were 16 and 14, their mother died at Tuckahoe, the family estate. On Christmas Day that year Julia, married her 19-year old cousin Richard and went to live with him at his family's Virginia plantation, named Bizarre. Within the year Nancy's homelife became intolerable when father married a girl barely older than she, and by early 1791 she went to live in Bizarre with the pregnant Julia, Richard, and Richard's eligible brothers Jack and Theodorick.

All three brothers – including Richard, who perhaps found a pregnant wife less attractive – acted as young men sometimes will in the company of a pretty young lass whose motto is "I must be sought". In time Theo and Nancy became engaged; Jack became enraged (and became Nancy's lifelong bitter enemy); and Theo then became mysteriously ill, lingered for months, and died in February 1792, a few days after his 21st birthday.

Nancy liked to use such words as 'tautology' and 'ecclairissement' and she sometimes used them properly, but she seems not to have learned the meaning of 'chastity,' for in 1792 an ominous swelling of the belly distended Nancy's pleasing form. On October 1 her nighttime screams woke the household. The ladies rushed to her door and managed but a peek at blood-stained sheets before their ministrations were discouraged by Richard. Rumors spread immediately that the corpse of a white baby had been found buried nearby.

Richard was arrested for "feloniously murdering a child said to be borne of Nancy Randolph." It is unclear whether Nancy was also charged. Richard had excellent and prominent attorneys and, despite abundant public displays of an affection between Nancy and Richard that was more than brotherly/sisterly – and despite the revelation that Nancy had discussed abortifacients with Patsy Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter – the charges against Richard were dismissed. Whereupon Richard stiffed his lawyers on their legal fees.

As you can imagine, this story was quite the talk, and was called 'The Bizarre Murder'.

The word 'bizarre' appears in English long before Nancy Randolph. But was it a recognized word then, and if so, what did it mean? Was it the Spanish meaning (brave, soldierly, etc.), which then changed due to the Bizarre scandal? Or did it already have the French meaning of "weird"?

The authorities say the latter. And yet, "weird" would seem an odd name to give a plantation. Also, a reader's letter to Bill Safire states that English dictionaries predating Nancy's scandal give only meaning of "brave" or "handsome", much more suitable for a plantation-name.

It should be easy to check those dictionaries for pre-Nancy usage. Few are not available to me, but I do note that Bailey's dictionary (1772 edition) does not include the word at all. My very tentative guess is that our meaning of 'bizarre' comes from the 1790s Randolph scandal.

Acknowledgement: I liberally quote Bill Kauffman's review of a recent book on the scandal.



Confusing Doublets, redux


Several months ago we said, "This week we'll present seven pairs of easily-confused words. This being Wordcraft, however, our pairs will not be so commonplace as imply/infer or lie/lay."

We return to that thought and, as then, "We start with a pair half of which is familiar."

solecism – 1. a word blunder: a nonstandard usage or grammatical construction 2. a social blunder: a violation of etiquette; an impropriety
solipsism – the philosophical view that the self is all that exists, or is all that can be known to exist


The NBC network carries the Olympics in prime time, which is, given the time difference, anywhere between seven and twelve hours after they took place in Greece, while maintaining the absurd fiction that no one knows the outcome of events that are already aeons old in modern information-age time. I can think of no greater testament to American solipsism than this assertion of the assumption that nothing has happened until viewers in New York and Los Angeles have turned on their TV sets at 8pm.
– Gerard Baker, The Statesman (India), August 25, 2004


Yesterday's word solipsism leads us naturally to today's two words. Though they are often used interchangeably, and that use is quite proper, there is a distinction.

egoism – excessive concern for oneself (often with an inflated sense of self-importance)
egotism – talking about oneself too much; self-exaltation; self-praise; magnifying or parading oneself (in words or in action)

Our first quotation keys on the distinction between the two, in careful speech. Says MW, "Egoism is a state in which the feelings are concentrated on one's self. Its expression is egotism. Egotism is the acting out of self-conceit, or self-importance, in words and exterior conduct."


The NFL* draws a reasonable line in terms of what is an ``excessive'' celebration. The idea is to strike a fair balance. The idea is to permit players to naturally express their happiness, but not to the degree it becomes unsportsmanlike. Don't get so caught up in your egotistical self-praise that it becomes showboating, and showing up the opponent.
– Greg Cote, The Miami Herald, August 31, 2004
[*NFL = National Football League, the professional league in US football]

This is a typical act of seeking regional egoism of local politicians, who only think of the interest of their constituents, ignoring national real estate policy.
Local egoism runs amok, Joongang Daily, South Korea, Sept. 6, 2004

Poland joined an outcry Thursday against a French proposal to cut structural funds for new European Union members that have tax rates below the EU average. President Aleksander Kwasniewski said: "We should be able to benefit from structural funds, if not we will never be able to overcome the inequalities that exist on our continent. European leaders must renounce their egoism."
– EUbusiness, UK, Sept. 9, 2004


incommensurable – without a common measure on which to compare; "like apples and oranges"


How do you measure relative power? Realistically, it's hard to quantify the differences between, say, a chief executive and a Supreme Court justice. They wield power in vastly different ways. But we attempted the impossible — comparing the incommensurable — by creating a power scorecard.
– Elizabeth Macdonald and Chana R. Schoenberger, World's 100 most powerful women, Forbes, Aug. 20, 2004


commensurate – of corresponding size or degree; proportionate (can also mean "commensurable")


[Meetings] are ineffective. The most justifiable reason to loathe meetings is that they don't contribute to the success of our organizations. With so many demands on people's time, it is especially frustrating to have to invest energy and hours in any activity that doesn't yield a commensurate return. So the big question is why? Why are meetings boring and ineffective?
– Patrick M. Lencioni, Death by Meeting


commensal(zoology) of a relation where one species obtains benefits from another without damaging or benefiting it. (contrast parasitic, symbiotic; MW Unabridged says, "both species may be benefited.") [originally, "eating at the same table"]


The 560 acres of Muir Woods National Monument on the southwestern slopes of Mount Tamalpais symbolize a commensal relationship between man and nature.
– Marta Yamamoto, Berkeley Daily Planet, September 17, 2004


venial – forgivable; not heinous; pardonable

[A venial sin is often contrasted with a mortal sin, in Catholic religious doctrine.]

venal – corruptible; open to bribery

[Venal is related to vendor, with the underlying sense of "available for purchase".]

venery¹ – sexual love (adj. venereal)
venery² – the act or sport of hunting (adj. venatic; venatical)

[Each sense of venery comes, sensibly, from the root wen- "to desire, strive for". From that same root are win, wish, and venerate.]


Democrat turned Republican Terry Johnson wasted no time in gaining the endorsement of an influential GOP [Republican] club. Johnson was a Democrat [in his previous terms], a venial sin the club apparently was willing to forgive. "We enjoyed his great awakening[;] he just had to become a Republican," Niemeyer said.
– Michael Burge and Elena Gaona, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 28, 2004

While my companion eyed the tarte tatin and checked whether gluttony was mortal or just venial, I chose strawberry meringue.
– Zoë Strachan, The Scotsman, Aug. 21, 2004

The lack of system and order in our streets gives
venal traffic enforcers an opportunity to mulct unsuspecting motorists for imagined violations.
– Dante A. Ang, Manila Sunday Times, Sept. 5, 2004

On a sunny autumn afternoon like yesterday, this lush little course on the Netherhampton downs seems a world away from the venal business of race-fixing.
– Greg Wood, The Guardian, Sept. 3, 2004


That which is easily understood, vs. he who is good at understanding.

perspicuous – clearly expressed; easy to understand
perspicacious – having penetrating mental discernment, keen understanding

To remember which is which, it may help to associate 'perspicuous' with 'conspicuous'.


[H]er strengths - offbeat but perspicacious observations of modern life, the creation of luminously unusual, eccentric characters - have always been better shown in short stories.
– Katie Owen, reviewing a novel by Nicola Barker, The Telegraph, Sept. 15, 2004

The philosopher clarifies basic theoretical ideas and sets out conceptions of justice in a perspicuous form, so that people can see clearly the arguments for and against them, and can compare them to their own considered judgments about justice.
– Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, as intervied in Change, Jan.-Feb., 2002


Allow me to share an older quotation, on the subject of words. From Thomas Hobbes, A Brief Of The Art Of Rhetorick, Bk. III ch. II, Of the Choice of Words and Epithets:


THE Vertues of a Word are two; the first, that it be perspicuous; the second, that it be decent; that is, neither above, nor below the thing signified; or, neither too humble, nor too fine. Perspicuous are all Words that be Proper. An Orator, if he use Proper Words, and Received, and good Metaphors, shall both make his Oration beautiful, and not seem to intend it; and shall speak perspicuously.

Yesterday we had a word-pair about clarity. Today we have a pair obscurity. The dictionaries obscure the meanings in a tangle of inconsistencies between dictionaries and, sometimes, within a single dictionary.

To disentangle: just as "I see," can mean, "My eyes behold," or, "I understand," so too something obscure can hard to view, or hard to understand. Today's terms make that distinction.


obscurant – something that obscures to the vision, as a smokescreen [chiefly military] (adj: tending to obscure visually: obscurant clouds)
obscurantist – one who writes with deliberate vagueness, obscure to the understanding (adj: so written)*


Calif. Health And Safety Code: "Obscurant" means fog oil released into the atmosphere during military exercises which produces a smoke screen.

My mathematician friend insists the book is "a parody of math books." He couldn't make head nor tail of it, and said that Mr. Wallace is either an "obscurantist" or just showing off. The text is a thicket of symbols and equations. Mr. Wallace lists 37 abbreviations on pages 3 and 4, supposedly for convenience. It is not convenient.
– Dick Teresi, book review, The New York Observer, Nov 17, 2003


Also, our words have a second sense, in which they are synonymous.
obscurant; obscurantist – one opposing new ideas or social or political reform (adj: opposed to same)


Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity: "The term 'fundamentalism' came to denote an unduly defensive and obscurantist attitude which was anti-scholarly, anti-intellectual and anti-cultural."

William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance:
p. 184: "The fog of religious strife was, if anything, thicker than those of secular wars; obscurant theologians in Rome and hard-liners in the dioceses abroad saw the widening apostasy as an opportunity to stifle dissent."

p 119: "Then, in 1509, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Dominican monk who was also a converted rabbi, published an anti-Semitic book proposing that all works in Hebrew be burned. Reuchlin, dismayed by the possibility of such desecration, formally protested to the emperor. Pfefferkorn, he wrote, was an anti-intellectual 'ass.' Reuchlin's riposte so outraged the Dominicans that the order, supported by the obscurantist clergy throughout Europe, lodged a charge of heresy against him."


Andy Rooney missed the distinction, in Sincerely, Andy Rooney: "His booklet of black poems seems pretentious. I took little from a first reading. Anyone who decides to write poetry, should first master prose. I have not read enough of Ken Boulding's prose to know whether or not he had a license to write obscurant verse."


The sound of a word in one language might coincidentally also be a word, in another language, but with entirely different meaning. For example, to a Spaniard the sound [sē] (long e) means "yes," while in English the same sound means either "view" or "body of water" (see or sea).

Simalarly, Hebe in Greek was the goddess of youth, while hebes in Latin meant "dull" (like either a dull knife or a dull mind). Naturally, the English words derived from Greek Hebe and from Latin hebes have very similar sounds, but very different meanings.

hebetic – occurring at puberty [Gk Hebe=youth]
hebetude – mental dullness; lethargy [L hebes=dull] (adj: hebetudinous; hebate. verb: hebetate – to stupefy; to make dull)
Note: With minor exception, this is mental dullness only. You cannot speak of "a hebate knife".


These words look very useful, and I commend them to you. But each is extremely rare. Indeed, for hebetic I can't find a single decent quotation.


Messrs. Buecheler and Vahlen are hampered by two grave encumbrances: they know too much Latin, and they are not sufficiently obtuse. Among their pupils are several who comprehend neither Latin nor any other language, and whom nature has prodigally endowed at birth with that hebetude of intellect which Messrs. Vahlen and Buecheler, despite their assiduous and protracted efforts, have not yet succeeded in acquiring.
– A. E. Houseman, Commentary on Manilius

an epidemic of hebetude among young people who . . . are placing too great a reliance on electronic devices to do their thinking and remembering.
– Reader's letter, in The Weekend Australian, Oct. 2, 2001

Habitude has engendered hebetude; and familiarity, overfamiliarity.
– Paul West, A Stroke of Genius: Illness and Self-Discovery



Lifestyles, "On the street where you live"


Where you live can say much about who you are. This week's words tell of the streets where you and others live.

easy street – a state of financial comfort or security


When Bunny's Book Club chose my book, I knew I had it made, easy street, the sweet dreams of the saved. No more halving spicy poorboys, no more baldy tires, no second-hand paperbacks, obsolete WordPerfect or American beer.
– short story by R.T. Smith, in The Carolina Quarterly, Spring, 2003


If you move way up from easy street, you might even reach Park Avenue.

Park Avenue – the world of those who are ultra-rich in both money and social standing
The first quotation encapsulates it perfectly.


Katherine Cassavetes was extroverted, animated and status-conscious. The daughter of a Greek ship captain (a prestigious position within Greek society), she was a member of the Park Avenue high Greek aristocrcacy (where the family joke was that Aristotle Onasis was an unstart businessman without true 'style' or 'class').
– John Cassavetes, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (speaking of his mother)

[in a divorce:] A Park Avenue wife may successfully contend that she is used to a standard of living that qualifies her for both a property settlement and a generous living allowance.
– Marilyn Crockett, The Money Club: The Park Avenue Women's Guide to Personal Finance


Park Avenue in Manhattan has long been a fashionable and very expensive address. The dictionaries have not picked up the metaphorical sense, but Online Etymology notes "Park Avenue as an adj. meaning 'luxurious and fashionable'," dating from 1956. Indeed. The advertising world slaps the Park Avenue name on everything from real estate to automobiles to even dog carriers, to denote high-class luxury:


�.       Our Park Avenue Executive Suite provides big city luxury and style – Las Vegas Hilton

�.       the luxurious Park Avenue, Buick’s most elegant sedan – General Motors

�.       Park Avenue Pet Carrier: New York style and Park Avenue chic


You might rise from Easy Street to Park Avenue. But if things go ill you may find yourself on Queer Street ...

Queer Street – a condition of financial instability or embarrassment [but see below]


How should we take Gray’s protestations of poverty? If we accept his word, he is living on the crust of the breadline, a cul-de-sac away from Queer Street. He has nothing in the way of “worldly goods”, he says, except his books, his typewriters, a couple of televisions, various pieces of furniture and his honour.
– Alan Taylor, in The Sunday Herald, April 25, 2004

"You see, I've run rather short." "Yes?" said my father. "Well, I'm the worst person to come to for advice. I've never been 'short,' as you so painfully call it. And yet what else could you say? Hard up? Penurious? Distressed? Embarrassed? Stony-broke?" (Snuffle) "On the rocks? In Queer Street? Let us say you are in Queer Street and leave it at that."
– Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited


Where does the phrase come from? Some say a London street, site of the bankruptcy court, was informally called Queer Street, 'queer' being slang for 'in financial straits'. Others say that traders, in their books, would put a query (?) against the names of customers with suspected financial problems.

In boxing "queer street" is slang for "stumbling and groggy from a blow to the head'. It is often used to refer to the gay community, as in the recent book The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, by James McCourt.

Tobacco Road – a squalid poverty-stricken rural area or community
[From the 1932 novel Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell]


I was the second-to-the-last of 10 children. We were Tobacco Road looking folks -- big time poverty -- from Arkansas, who wound up in Salem, Ore., and then moved down here. We were crop pickers, following the crops around. The kids would all go to school and also pick out in the crops.
– Judy Phillips, small businesswoman, quoted in Stockton (Califoria) Record, Sept. 27, 2004

They managed graft on a scale comparable with that of their political bosses. The head of the Mexican police force managed to build a residence that makes the homes of Arab sheiks look like Tobacco Road.
– William F. Buckley, Jr., National Review, Mexican cant, June 29, 1984


The term is often used in a different sense, in sports reports, to refer to the collegiate basketball teams from Carolina.


skid row – a squalid city district, inhabited by derelicts, alcoholics. addicts and the homeless


Many of them are said to have a skid-row existence — living hand-to-mouth, sleeping in their cars, hiding out behind commercial trash bins or living in groups of 10 or 12 in low-rent apartments.
– Nancy Perkins, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, August 26, 2004

[in Philadelphia:] Franklin Square, the city's Skid-Row park where the homeless, the unemployed and the people of indigent leisure gather amid the adjacent flophouses, cheap hotels, missions, second-hand clothing stores, reading and writing lobbies, pawnshops, employment agencies, tattoo parlors, burlesque houses and eateries.
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


Main Street – typical, average Americans, taken as a group [see first two quotes]; sometimes limited to those typical of rural and small-town America [see last three quotes]

[Note: Dictionaries also give a meaning of "parochial, conservative, smugly-complacent mediocrity," sometimes as the primary definition or even the sole definition. But that negative sense (spread by Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel Main Street) seems to be rather infrequent in actual usage.


George Bush wants to help people on Easy Street. I want to help people on Main Street.
– Michael Dukakis, 1988 US presidential candidate opposing the first George Bush:

… the late president’s funeral did not take place in Arlington Cemetery alone. It took place in a living room in Los Angeles, in Grand Central Terminal in New York, in kitchens and offices across the United States. John F Kennedy’s casket did not ride down Pennsylvania Avenue only. It rode down Main Street.
– Newsweek, Dec. 9, 1963

Pain on Main Street: Rural Americans are bearing a disproportionate price on the battlefield in Iraq.
– Article title, Newsweek, Aug. 9, 2004

Drought is the quiet killer that slowly squeezes the life out of Main Street America.
– Max Baucus, USA Today, Sept. 23, 2004

I resented the sneers at Main Street. For I have known that in the cottages that lay behind the street rested the strength of our national character.
– campaign speech by Herbert Hoover, U.S. president 1929-1933


Acacia AvenueBrit; facetious: any middle-class suburban street.


In London, the straggling Acacia Avenue suburbs, often gone to seed, could be pulled down and rebuilt to intensive city density to give more people homes.
– Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, Sept. 3, 2004


So to put it all together:

If you strive to move up from Easy Street, you might even reach Park Avenue. But with things go ill you may find yourself on Queer Street, or fall even lower to Tobacco Road, or even to the depths of skid row. Isn't it better to be an ordinary fellow on Main Street, or on a suburban Acacia Avenue?