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March 2005 Archives

Stupidity: unasinous

Words OED has only from other Dictionaries: epulose; queme; nexility; spermologist; antipelargy; furfuration; testiculose (cromulent)

Saints Preservèd: Lazy Lawrence; petrel; tawdry; shoddy; samphire (odds and sods); magdalen; magdalene; maudlin; tantony; bedlam; barmy

"Untranslatable" Foreign Words: mamihlapinatapei; saudade; gezellig; pochemuchka; kloshar; ilunga





Sometimes it seems that stupidity and foolishness pervade everything. Perhaps that's why we have so many words for it. To take a hundred-odd:

airhead; asinine; ass; bilge; birdbrain; birdbrain; blockhead; blunder; blunderbuss; bonehead; boob; booby; brainless; brute; butthead; chowderhead; chucklehead; chump; clod; cluck; clunk; daft; dimwit; dingbat; dingleberry; dingus; dip; dodo; dolt; donkey; doofus; dope; dork; drivel; dull; dumb; dumbbell; dumbo; dum-dum; dummkopf; dummy; dunce; dupe; fathead; fatuity; featherbrain; flibbertigibbet; fool; frivolous; fuzzyheaded; gaga; goof; goofball; goon; half-wit; headless; howler; idiot; imbecile; imbecile; jackass; klutz; knucklehead; lamebrain; light-minded; lout; lummox; lumpish; lunkhead; meatball; meathead; moron; mutt; muttonhead; nimrod; nincompoop; nitwit; noodle; numskull; oaf; obstinate; palooka; pinhead; prune; ridiculous; schlep; schlub; schmo; schmuck; schnook; senseless; sheepish; silly; simple-minded; sodden; stupid; thick; thickhead; thick-witted; tomfool; vacuous; woodenhead; yap; yo-yo.

This week we'll enjoy a few more sophisticated words in the same vein.

unasinous – being equally stupid.


Here were representatives of three different, unasinous points of view, each deeply opposed to the others, and yet all attacking her!"
– David Brin, Earth

So go your ways, you Uncivil Ecclesiastics, Inhuman Divines, Dedoctors of morality, Unasinous Colleagues, Egregarious air of Issachars, most wretched Vindices and Indices Academiatrum.
– Thomas Hobbes, in his decades-long debate with scientist John Wallis. (Hobbes may have had the better of the words, but Wallis had the science.)



Words OED copied from other Dictionaries


With the new week, we'll start a new theme. (We'll abandon the previous, incomplete 'stupidity' theme, but will perhaps parcel out 'stupidity' words will as occasional bonuses this month.)

What is our new theme? Ah, that will be revealed later. Suffice it to say that all the words will be such rare oddballs that I will not try to find quotations.

epulose – feasting to excess


queme – to slip in, to put in privately (e.g., to queme a thing into one's hand)
[Note: the term has other meanings, not mentioned here.]


nexility – pithiness, compactness of speech


Today's word, spermologist, is not what you might think.

spermologist – one who gathers seeds

This week's theme reveals a dirty little secret: dictionary-writers copy from each other. Even the Oxford English Dictionary includes several thousand words or meanings for which OED, having absolutely no example of the word actually being used in context, is relying solely upon other dictionaries. This week we are giving examples of such words.

Here are the OED citations for the words we've presented so far this week:

�.       epulose: 1731 in BAILEY vol. II. 1847 in CRAIG; and in mod. Dicts.

�.       queme: 1727 BAILEY vol. II, To Queme, as to queme a Thing into one's Hand, to put it in privately.

�.       nexility: 1656 T. BLOUNT fastness, pithiness, compactness of speech. [1721 N. BAILEY ]

�.       spermologist: 1727 BAILEY (vol. II), Spermologist, a Gatherer of Seed. 1755 JOHNSON, Spermologist, one who gathers or treats of seeds. [Hence in later Dicts.].


antipelargy – mutual kindness, esp. the kindness of an adult to his or her aged parent
[OED cites Blount's 1656 Glossary and Bailey's 1731 dictionary.]

This week's words demonstrate that OED was quite willing to include words or meanings on the sole authority of previous dictionaries or word-lists. It includes almost 5,000 entries where it cannot show the word in actual use, and relies dictionary-citations.¹

On the other hand, quite a few such words were omitted from OED. That raises an interesting question: Why were some such words included and others omitted? For example, was Bailey's dictionary considered an adequate source for some, but not for others – and if so, why?

More to come on that question.

¹Almost all of these are from sources that preceded OED or were concurrent. But a handful were added later based on later sources.


furfuration – the shedding of dandruff
Although OED coyly says, "The shedding of the skin in small branny particles," its supporting citations make it quite clear that we're talking about shedding from the scalp:
1706 PHILLIPS (ed. Kersey), Furfuration, the falling of Dandriff or Scurf from the Head, when it is comb'd. 1721 in BAILEY. 1854 in MAYNE Exp. Lex.

We've seen that OED's original editors trusted certain earlier dictionaries enough to include many words solely on the authority of those dictionaries.

Unfortunately, OED was not systematic in this. Its process for collecting such words was haphazard. This was been explained by the late Robert Burchfield, who was OED's chief editor for almost three decades, from 1957 to 1986:


[T]he pattern of admission was governed as much by the choice made by the readers as by any abstract principles adopted by the editors. If a reader made a slip for such an item it was likely to be included, with small regard for consistency in words drawn from other writers, in other parts of the Dictionary. Conversely a word that was not copied by a reader had little chance of inclusion since the editorial staff would almost certainly be unaware of its existence.
- Robert Burchfield, 'The Treatment of Controversial Vocabulary in the Oxford English Dictionary'', in Trans. of the Philological Society, 1973, pp. 1-28. (Reprinted in Burchfield, Unlocking the English Language (1989), p. 89.)


In short, though OED lacks some words that prior dictionaries include, its lack is not a principled exclusion. It is simply a matter of inadvertent omission. Those words are just as much "words" as those that OED included based on the same sources.


For today's word I give you OED's entry verbatim, trusting that all are adult enough to understand. A slight hint: 'cod' does not mean a kind of fish. Think 'codpiece'.

testiculose – So testiculous 1721 BAILEY, Testiculous, that hath great Cods. 1727 vol. II, Testiculose, that hath large Cods. 1775 in ASH.

What a shame that so useful a word has fallen into disuse. I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

Bonus word: cromulent – acceptable; legitimate


Miss Krabappel: "I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield."
Miss Hoover: "I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word."
– conversation, in episode of The Simpsons television show


'Cromulent' was coined in the television episode noted above, and now generates almost 40,000 google hits. OED has not yet accepted it. But OED editor Erin McKean includes it without reservation in her book Weird and Wonderful Words.



Saints Preservèd


St. Valentine's Day, St. Nicholas, St. John's wort – each of these is obviously based upon the name of a saint. This week will look at words, both common and unusual, that are based less obviously on a saint or other high figure in church history.

Note: Anyone tempted to groan at the pun, in my title for this week's theme, should be thankful that I did not title it "The Saints Go Marching In."

Lazy Lawrence – an idler
The term may simply be alliterative. But it may refer to St. Laurence, whose feast day falls in the hottest part of summer. It is told that when St. Laurence was burned as a martyr, he told his tormentors to turn him around, being too lazy to turn himself.

Authoress Maria Edgeworth incorporated Lazy Lawrence into a children's fable, Lazy Lawrence; or Industry and Idleness Contrasted, You can enjoy her fable online as the second tale of her book, The Parent's Assistant, or Stories For Children (link is to Guttenberg text).


petrel – a type of seabird

This bird often follows ships, and it flies very low over the water. Sailors named it for St. Peter, who walked on water. Here is the original account (excerpted):


The Petrel fly very near the Water. They are not so often seen in fair Weather; being Foul-weather Birds, as our Seamen call them, and presaging a Storm when they come about a Ship; who for that Reason don't love to see them. In a Storm they will hover close under the Ship's Stern, in the Wake of the Ship (as 'tis call'd) or the Smoothness which the Ship's passing has made on the Sea: And there as they fly (gently then) they pat the Water alternately with their Feet, as if they walk'd upon it. tho' still upon the Wing. And from hence the Seamen give them the Name of Petrels, in Allusion to St. Peter's walking upon the Lake of Gennesareth.
- Dampier, Voyage in The Roebuck (1703) [text appears about 50 lines above the fourth group of asterisks, reading "* * * * * * * * * * From my first setting"


tawdry – gaudy and cheap; also, by extension: sordid; sleazy: her tawdry past)
shoddy – badly made or done; also, vulgar and pretensious; also, amoral, sordid

St. Audrey has given us the word 'tawdry'. The story has several steps, starting with the miracle associated with the saint.

St. Audrey died in 679 of a throat tumor which she considered God's punishment. Some years later, when her body was moved to a new resting place, it was found to be miraculously completely pristine, free from all decay. Bede tell the story in a chapter titled "How … Her Body Suffered No Corruption in the Grave".


…in her [final] sickness she had a very great swelling under her jaw. It is reported, that when she was much troubled with the aforesaid swelling and pain in her jaw, she was much pleased with that sort of distemper, and wont to say, "I know that I deservedly bear the weight of my sickness on my neck, for I remember, when I was very young, I bore there the needless weight of jewels; and therefore I believe the Divine goodness would have me endure the pain in my neck, that I may be absolved from the guilt of my needless levity, having now, instead of gold and precious stones, a red swelling and burning on my neck." The body, when her grave was [later] opened, being brought into sight, was found as free from corruption as if she had died and been buried on that very day.
– Bede (673-735): Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book IV ch. xix (731)


Furthermore, and crucial to our tale, the body's linen wrapping, equally undercayed, worked miracle cures upon the ill. (Bede: "Besides, all the linen cloths in which the body had been buried, appeared entire and as fresh as if they had been that very day wrapped about her chaste limbs. It happened also that by the touch of that linen, devils were expelled from bodies possessed, and other distempers were sometimes cured.")

This legend became a natural marketing hook in the annual local fair commemorating St. Audrey. Vendors there sold cheap cloth to wrap around the neck, in St. Audrey's honor. These were of the low quality you would expect of fair vendors, and were called called St. Audrey's lace.

As to pronounciation, recall that the name the name 'St. John' is pronounced 'sinjin'. So too, "St. Audrey's lace" would have been pronounced 'sintaudrey's lace', which easily morphed into 'sin taudrey lace' or 'sin tawdry lace'. So this cheap lace became 'tawdry lace', creating the adjective 'tawdry'.

The word 'shoddy' (which is not a 'saint word') similarly changed from fabric to a perjorative adjective. 'Shoddy' originally meant a kind of cloth made from recycled wool rags with new wool added.


It's logical that the French gave St. Peter's name to a certain herb that grows on rocks by the sea. For St. Peter was a fisherman (Mat 4:18), and the name Peter is akin to the Greek for 'rock' (as in 'petrified'). (Thus, Jesus was punning when He said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." Mat 16:18)

The French called this plant herbe de Saint Pierre (literally, ‘St. Peter's herb’). In English it is called by the French name 'Saint Pierre', with an anglicized pronunciation.

samphire – a certain plant, growing on rocks by the sea, whose leaves are used in pickles


You will be surprised by what you can conjure up with those odds and sods in your store cupboard or fridge, plus one really fresh tempting seasonal thing. I'm often surprised by what can be sourced from around the world to satisfy the expectant diner. For example, samphire is now available from Mexico, months ahead of our native stuff.
- Mark Hix, The complements of the season, The Independent, Feb. 19, 2005


Bonus term: odds and sods(UK; informal) miscellaneous items


St. Mary Magdalen gives us two words.

magdalen; magdalene – a reformed prostitute; (also, a refuge for such women or a reformatory for prostitutes)
[The repentant sinner in Luke 7:37 {OED erroneously says "8:37"}.is generally understood to be a prostitute. It was long thought that the passage referred to Mary Magdalen; today, many denominations take a different view.]

maudlin – with shallow, mawkish sentimentality; also, in the drunken state of tearful sentimentality and effusive affection
[A shortening of the name of Mary Magdalen. She was generally depicted as weeping, and 'maudlin' originally meant "tearful", later evolving into its current meaning.]

I believe the Brits pronounce the name Magdalen as 'maudlin', as in this limerick referring to Magdalen and Trinity Colleges at Oxford:


There once was a Don of Divinity
Who made boast of his daughter's virginity.
They must have been dawdlin'
Down at old Magdalen –
It could never have happened at Trinity.


tantony – the runt of a litter; also, the smallest bell in a church; also, one who constantly, obsequiously follows after another

St. Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of swineherds, and the runt of the litter was called 'Saint Anthony's pig", later shortened to "t'antony pig". I'm not clear if 'tantony' can be applied to the runt of a litter of puppies, cats, etc.

And here is an account of how the "obsequious followe"r meaning arose, with a fine image of the little follower. "
The officers charged with the oversight of the markets in this city did divers times take from the marketpeople pigs unwholesome for men's sustenance. One of the Proctors of St. Antony tied a bell about the neck, and let it feed among the dunghills, and no man would hurt it, or take it up; but if any gave them bread, or other feeding, such they would know, watch for, and daily follow, whining till they had something given them; whereupon was raised a proverb, 'such a one will follow such a one and whine as it were an Antony pig.'" – Stow's Survey of London (1598 and later):


Polly (having lingered on the balcony long enough to recover her poise) re-entered the house. She was claimed almost at once by the stammering young Viscount Sutcliffe, who spent the rest of the evening following her about like a Tantony pig.
– Sheri Cobb South, Brighton Honeymoon


bedlam – a scene of noisy disorder and confusion. (root sense: a madhouse)
barmy – odd, eccentric, daft, extremely foolish
[also, the adjective form of barm – the froth on beer, or on a fermenting malt liquor]

England's first hospital for the insane (and, but for an earlier one in Granada, the first in all Europe) was The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem. Two wards for the non-violent insane were named for St. Bartholomew and Abraham.

Many inmates, if released as harmless, would wander the country as beggars, and quite a few perfectly sane beggars feigned lunacy to help their trade. Colloquially, folks called such a daft begger a bedlamite, tom o'bedlam, barmy or abram man – contracted forms of the names Bethlehem, Bartholomew and Abraham.

Note: I take this etymology from Ciardi. Other sources agree as to bedlam and abram man.

But most have other views for this sense of barmy. Some link it with the same meaning of balmy, sometimes deriving the former from the latter (OED), but sometimes deriving the latter from the former (OED Dict. of Etymology). Others derive barmy=daft from the barm=froth on beer.

I am persuaded by Ciardi's account, given of the parallel history of bedlam and abram men. But I've not been able to find data to confirm or refute.



"Untranslatable" Foreign Words


Last year a London-based translation service published a list of "the ten most untranslatable words," as determined by a poll of over 1,000 translators.

This week we'll examine some foreign words of that sort, both from that list and otherwise. Some will be from major languages, some from obscure tongues. As we view them we'll see various senses of what could be meant by "untranslatable". (PS: Data is limited. So if I have erred, forgive me and enjoy the errors.)

mamihlapinatapei – a shared glance of longing between two people, each knowing the meaning and each wishing the other will initiate something where neither is quite willing to make the move.

This word, cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "most succinct word", is from the Fuegian language of Tierra del Fuego at the extreme southern tip of South America. Credit here to They Have a Word For It by Howard Rheingold. I am unable to find any information on this word, other than obvious takings from the Rheingold book.


saudade (Portuguese) – roughly, "sorrowful longing". Depending on context, can have the sense of homesickness, yearning for someone, fond remembrance, melancholy and fond memories of gone-by days, lost love, and a general feeling of unhappiness.

More generally, a combination of feelings for something or someone that is not there, with you: missing, longing for, remembrance, a closeness that is no longer there. The absence may be permanent or temporary. Applicable in contexts from romantic to sentimental to physical. One can feel saudades of his/her homeland, when living abroad; saudades of a deceased person; saudades of a situation, a time, a toy, a feeling. One nuance: it is a positive-valued concept.

Etymology: probably from Latin for 'solitude'. Some say it came to life during the Great Portuguese Discoveries, expressing the sadness of those who departed in journeys over the unknown seas. Those who stayed behind—mostly women and children—also deeply suffered with their absence, and such state has almost become a "portuguese way of life": the constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that's missing.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to many, particularly to translator Neila Carneiro, and to the Brazilian consulate, for help on this subtle word. Further thoughts about this word will be posted shortly in our "Untranslatable Words" forum.


How to describe today's word? One source notes, "The most frequent translation of gezellig is 'cozy,' [but] being alone and wrapped up in a blanket on the couch while reading a good book is cozy, but not gezellig. Gezelligheid is not possible without the secure bonds of family [or] friendship."

gezellig (Dutch) – cozy, in the sense of being with people;
with comfortable congeniality;
with the homey, relaxed feeling of being with people with whom one feels a sense of "belonging", of being in a welcoming, sheltering and tolerant place

pochemuchka (Russian) – the inquisitive child who nags with constant questions
[from Russian pochemu "why". So the literal sense is something like "Mr. Why guy".]

You have mixed feelings about such a child, whose curiousity is laudable and adorable, but terribly taxing!


kloshar (or klloshar) (Albanian) - tramp, vagrant, homeless person; with the sense of 'loser'

I'm told that the word originates from the French word "clochard" which has the above given meaning.


I mentioned, as you recall, that a London-based translation service recently published a list of "the ten most untranslatable words." Here is the word rated the most untranslatable of all.

ilunga – a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time.
[from Tshiluba, a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo and in Zaire]

Or so they say. But I have my doubts, for a web-search reveals that 'Ilunga' is a reasonably common surname or first name. One would hardly take the above concept as one's name.