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May 2005 Archives

"Colors of Spring" – and others: gamboge; cerulean; vermilion; coquelicot (nidgetty); virescent; primrose; purpure

Incommodating Eponyms: twiss; fontange; Oliver's skull; sacheverell; furphy; crapper

Words of the Law: specific performance; bright-line rule; safe harbor; stare decisis; fiduciary; standing; amicus curiae

The issue of using "Hard Words": rebarbative; fulgurous (obloquy, contumely); vertiginous (elegiac, mememto mori); satrap; nugatory; jactitation (jactant); antinomian (halakah)



"Colors of Spring" – and others

Quite some time ago we had a theme titled "The Colors of Fall". Today, as spring blooms, it seems appropriate to do a theme on the colors you will see about you in the season's awakening.

gamboge – a strong yellow color (some say strong reddish yellow)
[from the older form of the name Cambodia, where grew a tree yielding a pigment - also called gamboge - producing this color]

We illustrate with a Walt Whitman passage, so beautiful an image of nature that I must quote at length.


Among the objects of beauty and interest now beginning to appear quite plentifully in this secluded spot, I notice the humming-bird, the dragon-fly with its wings of slate-color’d gauze, and many varieties of beautiful and plain butterflies, idly flapping among the plants and wild posies. The mullein has shot up out of its nest of broad leaves, to a tall stalk towering sometimes five or six feet high, now studded with knobs of golden blossoms. The milk-weed, (I see a great gorgeous creature of gamboge and black lighting on one as I write,) is in flower, with its delicate red fringe; and there are profuse clusters of a feathery blossom waving in the wind on taper stems. I see lots of these and much else in every direction, as I saunter or sit. For the last half hour a bird has persistently kept up a simple, sweet, melodious song, from the bushes. (I have a positive conviction that some of these birds sing, and others fly and flirt about here, for my especial benefit.)
– Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (1892)


cerulean – pure, strong blue, the color of the cloudless sky
[Note: the dictionaries say "pure deep blue", but to me 'deep' would indicate a darkened color. Would you agree?]

vermilion - a bright red or scarlet


Every year, in mid-April, we stop the world and hike a short way into the woods to the banks of Cub Run. There, we find the largest crop of Virginia bluebells in the country—God’s glorious herald of springtime blankets the forest in cerulean splendor. It’s really my favorite day of the year.
– Elizabeth Foss, Arlington Catholic Herald, Apr. 28, 2005

Resplendent in their vermilion robes, the conclave chose the first German Pope for 1000 years.
Liam Rudden, The Scotsman, Apr. 23, 2005

The lingerie section of this proto-mall displays underskirts in colours that would make a flamenco dancer proud - vermilion, emerald, purple, crimson and blue satin
– Robin Gauldie, The Scotsman, Apr. 23, 2005


The ladies will appreciate today's spring color, for it has often been the fashionable shade.

coquelicot – poppy-colored: brilliant red with orange.


Jane Austen's letter to her sister Cassandra, Dec. 18, 1798:
I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your black velvet bonnet to lend me its caul, which it readily did, and by which I have been enabled to give a considerable improvement of dignity to the cap, which was before too nidgetty to please me. … I still venture to retain the narrow silver round it, put twice round without any bow, and instead of the black military feather shall put in the coquelicot one as being smarter, and besides coquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter. After the ball I shall probably make it entirely black.

on how James McNeil Whistler presented his 1884 showing in London:
The opening was limited to invited guests and was designed to attract the attention of reporters eager to document the doings of the rich and famous. Guests included the kind of wealthy Londoners whom the reviewer for [the newspaper] Queen described simply as "fashionable people." Queen, which was mainly interested in the clothes, noted that in the ladies' dress, the fashionable coquelicot was predominant …
            The fact that so many fashionable women wore coquelicot (poppy red) was probably intentional. Whistler often asked his lady friends to dress in colors that would harmonize with his designs, and one of the most vibrant "notes" that echoed through the installation was that rung by the bright poppy reds that dominate several of the most striking figure paintings ...
– Kenneth John Myers, Mr. Whistler's gallery: the art of displaying art, Magazine Antiques, Nov. 1, 2003


Bonus word: nidgetty – trifling or fussy
[Extremely rare. Basically, OED has only the above Austen citation.]


virescent – the light green of a newly-budded leaf (but see note below)
What a lovely color for spring! Once again, we have beautiful and striking quotations.


I do not recall ever seeing the aurora more active. … At first it was a sheaf of tremulous rays; then it became a great river of silver shot through with flaming gold. … It began to pulsate, gently at first, then faster and faster. The whole structure dissolved into a system of virescent arches, all sharply defiant. Above these revolved battery upon battery of searchlights, which fanned the heavens with a heightening lustrousness. Pale greens and reds and yellows touched the stately structures; the whole dark sky came to life."
– Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Alone

Between them stood a table covered with green baize, which, reflecting upwards a band of sunlight shining across the chamber, flung upon his already white features the virescent hues of death.
– Thomas Hardy, The Hand of Ethelberta, ch. 39


Note: The definition above is my own, for it seems to me that the dictionaries' definition ("greenish; becoming green") does not match how the term is used. In usage, the color 'virescent' is predominantly green – not a yellow shaded over towards ('becoming') green – and the green is modified by a lighter color (yellow or white) rather than a darker one (black, brown or blue). If you start with black, adding green until just before (or just after) the green dominates will not produce the color called 'virescent'.
            Put differently: the color 'virescent' is a green that has been yellowed or lightened, not darkened. If some other color (yellow, for example) has a greenish tinge, it might be called a 'virescent' yellow, but it is not the color called 'virescent'.


primrose – a pale yellow color
[from the plant of the same name, bearing spring flowers of that color]


In careless patches through the wood
The clumps of yellow primrose stood,
And sheets of white anemones,
Like driven snow against the trees,
Had covered up the violet, But left the bluebells bluer yet.
– A. A. Milne, The Invaders, in When We Were Very Young

… the design really springs to life in strong pastels. How about shades of yellow from pale primrose to deep golden yellow with sky blue, lavender and mint green centres?
– Kaffe Fassett, Family Album: Kniting for Children and Adults


purpure – purple
This term, now confined to heraldry, is the older form of our word "purple". The word has a fascinating history. The story is long; let's begin by noting how this color was associated with royalty, and how the r-sound at the end of purpure changed to the l-sound in purple.

Because dye of this color was extraordinarily costly to make, purpure cloth was associated with royalty and eventually reserved for royalty only.


[No one may] use or weare in any maner their appparell, or upon their horse, mule, or other beast, anny silke of the colour of purpure, ne any cloth of Gold of tissue, but onely the King [and certain close relatives].
– English statute, enacted 1533


The name first came into English in 893 as purpuran, but an ending with the l-sound, 'purple', soon developed, and by about 600 years later had supplanted the r-ending.


... consonants and vowels alter because of nearby sounds … Certain sound such as 'r' and 'l' are particularly susceptible to this process. For example, the word grammar has two 'r's and for some dialect speakers during the late Middle ages this proved just far too tricky. So they changed the first 'r' to an 'l' and grammar became glamour. …. Speakers also remodeled the Latin words marmor, turtur and purpur to marble, turtle and purple. (Compare the colour purpure in heraldry, which is conservative and retains the original 'r'.)
– Kate Burridge, Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language



So long ago as 1400 B.C. the Phoenicians of Tyre produced a fabled, extraordinary – and "fiendishly expensive" – dye. The art later spread to the Greeks and thence to the Romans; the Iliad and Aeneid each mention garments so dyed. The dyed cloth was "worth more than gold itself … In the third century A.D., a pound of purple-dyed wool cost around three times the yearly wage of a baker." Only royals could afford it

It was so expensive because the dye was extraordinarily difficult to produce. One problem was getting the shellfish extract. "It is no easy matter to extract the [shellfish's] organ," said Aristotle. Each shellfish yielded only a drop of extract, and "one ounce of the [final] dye required the sacrifice of around 250,000 shellfish. The shell piles of the Phoenicians still litter the eastern shore of the Mediterranean." Further, it took a sensitive hand to convert the extract to dye. The extract would change color, on exposure to air and light (from clear to "a whitish color, to pale yellow, green, blue, and finally purple"), and extracts from two different species had to be used properly together, one for the basic color, and another to modify it and provide color-fastness.

However, the color was not what we call purple. It varied "from bluish to a deep red," depending on the preparation and application. It could be "the color of clotted blood;" or "that precious color which gleams with the hue of a dark rose", or have a form with form with "black hue [with the] severity and crimson-like sheen which in fashion." (Pliny) Thus, throughout the ancient and medieval world, purpure could equally mean a shade of dark red or crimson, and indeed is steeped in associations with blood." Robert Browning (1855) recalled another shade:


Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes,
Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte's eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?


The shellfish, the dye, and the dyed cloth were all called purpura in Latin, from Greek porphura. In 893 the Latin came into Old English in the form purpuran, but meant only "royal cloth" or "rich cloth". It later became a color name used solely royal clothing – but the color signified was apparently not our purple but rather the crimson color typical of royal robes. By Chaucer's time it had become a general color term; I cannot tell you when or how the it came to mean the color we call purple.

Sources: Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, and, for the last paragraph, OED and Ronald W. Casson's essay in Color Categories in Thought and Language (C. L. Hardin, ed.)



Incommodating Eponyms

A handful of people, perhaps a mere half dozen, share a unique distinction. They were an Australian manufacturer, a French mistress, and (from Britain), a soldier, a plumber, a travel writer and a divine.

What did these diverse people have in common, that all the rest of the world lacks? Each of their names became a name (eponym) for the equipment serving one basic but unmentionable human function. I refer of course to the privy, the chamber-pot, the commode and the toilet. (I leave it as an exercise to readers to provide the distinctions between these four items.)

A caution: some of my evidences may not be solid. Some of my conclusions may not hold water. But I've been able to verify that all these people were connected to the subject, and for each at least one source stating that they became eponymous.


twiss – a chamber pot
For Richard Twiss, whose account of his travels in Ireland (1776) was condescendingly nasty to the Irish. A sample:

�.       The Irish species are only remarkable for the thickness of their legs, especially those of plebeian females.

�.       What little the men can obtain by their labour or the women by their spinning is usually consumed in whiskey, which is a spirituous liquor resembling gin.

The Irish were not pleased. A Dublin pottery capitalized on that displeasure by selling a chamber pot with Twiss's portrait strategically placed on the interior bottom, accompanied by this verse:


Here you may behold a liar,
Well deserving of hell-fire:
Every one who likes may p____
Upon the learned Doctor T____.


Thus the Irish had the last word – a word defined thus:
TWISS (IRISH) a Jordan, or pot de chambre. A Mr. Richard Twiss having in his "Travels" given a very unfavourable description of the Irish character, the inhabitants of Dublin, by way of revenge, thought proper to christen this utensil by his name--suffice it to say that the baptismal rites were not wanting at the ceremony.
– Col. Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)


fontange – a commode

The young duchesse de Fontange (Marie Angelique de Scorraille de Roussilles), was 'beautiful as an angel, silly as a goose", and led an active life. At 18 she became mistress of Louis XIV; the next year she delivered a his child stillborn, and in 1681 she died at age 20. Meanwhile she launched history's most extravagant hairstyle, which remained in style for over three decades.

The tale is that when her hair became disarranged during a royal hunt, she resourcefully she piled it upon her head and bound it up with fabric she had about her. (The saucy girl seems to have used her garter ribbons or lace from her pantaloons.) The king admired the upswept look, and the ladies of the court aped it and competitively elaborated it over the years into a pile of hair towering two feet or more, bound by ribbons and lace and called the fontange. The French also called the hairstyle (or the its supporting apparatus) commode, meaning 'convenient'; Brits called the hairstyle both a fontange and a commode.

Some say that when one needed a polite euphemism for the other form of commode (the one used for bathroom functions), one called it the fontange. (Facts on File Encyclopedia)

A bit of skepticism is in order, though, because OED's earliest cite for this sort of commode is dated 1851, well more than a century after the demise of the hairstyle. On the other hand, we can be sure that the fontange/commode hairstyle had not been forgotten: Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue mentions it twice. It seems curious that Grose would include a hairstyle in such a dictionary, but I can offer no explanation.


Oliver's skull – a chamber pot

This allusion to Oliver Cromwell, obviously from his detractors, was in slang use from the late 1600s to the late 1800s. My personal guess is that the "skull" alludes to the name of Cromwell's party, the Roundheads. Can anyone tell me whether a chamber pot was roughly the size and shape of the crown of an adult's skull?


A reader notes: I have an early memory of running around playing soldiers with my grandmother's chamber pot (empty and washed, I assure you) on my head as a helmet. Perhaps the Roundheads' helmets reminded Cromwell's detractors of a chamber pot?

Another reader notes: Pictures of a roundhead helmet (bottom left; click to enlarge) and another. Picture of three chamberpots (top left; note the scale given).
            There's a definite resemblance.


sacheverell – a chamber-pot

In 1709 preacher Henry Sacheverell published violent sermons against the Whigs' tolerance of religious dissenters. He became a hero to the Tories and of course was hated by the Whigs.

Sacheverell’s name became used to mean a stove-blower, the logic being (says Grose) that the preacher "made himself famous for blowing the coals of dissention." Grose also tells us that Sacheverell, like Twiss some years later, was portrayed in portrait on the bottom of chamber pots:


PISS POT HALL. A house at Clapton, near Hackney, built by a potter chiefly out of the profits of

chamber pots, in the bottom of which the portrait of Dr. Sacheverel was depicted.


At least one source reports that such a chamber pot was called a sacheverell.


furphy – Austral. informal: a far-fetched rumor [Wordcrafter: I would say "a latrine rumor"]


Reporter: Is it the case that the Indonesian legal system is based on the presumption of guilt?
Prof. Tim Lindsay (Director of the University of Melbourne's Asian Law Centre): No, that is completely false. … unless the prosecution can prove guilt, the person is innocent. So the common furphy that is being circulated in Australia in the media at the moment that people in the Indonesian system are presumed guilty until proven innocent is totally false.
– The World Today, April 29, 2005

Mr Herskope said rumours of 4000 job cuts were "a complete furphy”.
– Melbourne Herald Sun, April 23, 2005


John Hare Furphy (1843-1920), Australian blacksmith, founded John Furphy & Sons, a firm still growing strong today. In WWI the firm provided water and sanitation equipment for Australian troops in the Middle East. The word ‘furphy’ comes from the rumors that spread among the troops who gathered around that equipment – or from the men in charge of that equipment who, traveling from camped to do so, would spread the news from camp to camp.

The Furphy firm’s website proudly claims credit for this word, citing Compact OED. Another theory, less likely, is that the term comes from James Furphy, an Australian writer who authored tall tales. (Few note that James was John’s younger brother.)

But the question remains: exactly which Furphy products were involved? Furphy provided mobile water tanks for delivering water to the troops; it also provided latrine buckets. The company takes the genteel approach, attributing the term to "Furphy water cart operators ... renowned for spreading gossip." But Australian language authorities of the 1920s explained that "unfounded rumors seemed as a rule, to originate among the sanitary squad, or from conversation among men visiting latrines, caus[ing] the word to be used in this way." (Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.)


crapper – a flush toilet
[from Thomas Crapper (1836-1910), British manufacture of such products]

Much confusing and contradictory nonsense has been published on this matter, and copied uncritically on the web. It's amusing to note the source of the confusion.

Turn to two books by Wallace Reyburn, tracing the supposed history of the flush toilet and of the brassiere. Their very titles (Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969) and Bust Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling (1971)) ought to give a fair warning that the books are flights of fantasy, Reyburn giving free reign to his imagination and wordplay. For example, the bra history has such characters as Mr. Titzling, his German assistant Hans Delving, his competitor Philippe de Brassiere, and the female athlete Lois Lung. The toilet book tells that Mr. Crapper, to perfect his toilet, required "many dry runs" before reaching the "high-water mark" of his career.

But Reyburn wrote with the tone of serious history. Some later and sober authorities were taken in, and have relied upon Reyburn as if he were gospel. Conversely others, noting the fantasy element and the exaggerations, assume that nothing at all in Reyburn has any basis in fact -- indeed, that Thomas Crapper never existed.

As best I can detangle it, the truth lies somewhere in between. Thomas Crapper truly existed. The word "crapper", meaning toilet, comes from his name. He is also responsible for "crap" meaning "fecal matter", in that although the word "crap" predates him, it basically had only other meanings, the "fecal" sense being rare and obscure until Mr. Crapper came along.

My conclusions are contrary to OED. Here is my rationale:


Englishman Thomas Crapper truly did exist, and truly did manufacture toilets and other sanitary fixtures. You can see his factory pictured on the Thomas Crapper & Co., Ltd website.

'Crap' is a word of long-standing in England, but crapper first appeared after WWI, and first appeared in America. This strongly suggest it comes from American doughboys who, while stationed in England, became acquainted with the Crapper products.

Further, although 'crap' was used in English before Mr. Crapper, this does not prove that it has no meaning derived from his name. For until Thomas Crapper came along, the word crap was not particularly associated with dung. It had multiple senses pertaining to "rejected matter, residue" -- the earliest being "chaff from grain" -- and OED notes, "It is doubtful whether all the senses here placed belong to one word."

The specific "fecal" sense seems to have been barely in use before WWI. OED gives a 1846 source which mentions "the crappy (sh-ten) end of the stick", and "a crapping ken" (or privy). But apart from that OED has no "fecal" usages until 1925 (John dos Passos: "You don't want to shovel crap..all your life."). Until then, OED's examples of the "fecal" sense are merely dictionary definitions (not usage) of 'crap' or its forms, and OED's usage examples mean at most "useless dregs, not necessarily fecal".

In other words, just as crapper (meaning toilet) did not appear until after Mr. Crapper's career, so too the sense of crap as "fecal matter" was at most practically invisible before then.



Words of the Law


This week we review jargon from the sometimes-impenetrable world of law. These terms come from a US friend, and perhaps our UK friends can tell us if usage there differs.

specific performance – the remedy of having a contract enforced in accordance with its terms

A court typically will not order specific performance for a breach of contract; rather, a cash award usually suffices. For example, if I sue for goods which you have sold to me but failed to deliver, my remedy will be cash sufficient to buy those goods elsewhere.

Specific performance is used in exceptional cases where a cash award would not suffice, typically because the goods are unique ones for which no equivalent can be acquired for cash. For example, a painting by Van Gogh is unique, and if you sell it but fail to deliver it, the court may order you to deliver it. Real estate is the principal type of goods considered "unique". Thus, a court may order a defaulting home-seller to convey the home, rather than limiting the buyer to a cash award with which to purchase some other house.


[P]etitioners argue that they seek "to enjoin respondents' failure to reimburse the Plan." But an injunction to compel specific performance of a past due monetary obligation was not typically available in equity. Those rare cases in which a court of equity would decree specific performance of a contract to transfer funds were suits that sought to prevent future losses that were either incalculable or would be greater than the sum awarded. For example, specific performance might be available to enforce an agreement to lend money "when the unavailability of alternative financing would leave the plaintiff with injuries that are difficult to value." Typically, however, specific performance of a contract to pay money was not available in equity.
– U.S. Supreme Court, in Great-West Life v. Knudson (2002; Justice Scalia; excerpted)


The law often deals with broad general standards like "reasonableness", but sometimes it replaces or supplements them with simple direct rule telling what is permitted or forbidden. The rule may separate yeah from nay. Alternately, or it may carve out a clear permitted area (a "safe harbor"), leaving action outside that area to be judged by the broader but less clear standards.

Two terms, related in that they each deal with ways of providing clear, safe standards in the law.


bright-line rule – a legal rule of decision that tends to resolve issues, esp. ambiguities, simply and straight-forwardly, sometimes sacrificing equity for certainty

safe harbor – a provision (as in a statute or regulation) that affords protection from liability or penalty
(definitions from Black's Law Dictionary (8th ed.))


[The proposed statute] gives farmers who burn their fields a legal "safe harbor," saying they can't be sued under nuisance, trespass or other laws if they burn in accordance with state smoke-management rules.
– Betsy Z. Russell, The (Spokane) Spokesman Review, April, 2003

Edwards v. Arizona created a bright-line rule that once a suspect invoked the right to counsel, all further interrogation must cease.
– Douglas E. Wicklander, Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation

Justice Stevens, dissenting, in Thornton v. United States, (U.S Supreme Court, 2004) (excepted):
[T]here was a widespread conflict over the question "whether, in a search incident to arrest of the occupants of an automobile, police may search inside the automobile." In answering that question [in New York v. Belton], th[is] Court's basic rationale rested on an overriding desire to hew "to a straightforward rule, easily applied, and predictably enforced." I was persuaded that the important interest in clarity and certainty adequately justified permit[ting] an officer to examine the interior of a car pursuant to an arrest for a traffic violation. But with respect to the search of containers within the car, I thought "it palpably unreasonable to require the driver of a car to open his briefcase or his luggage for inspection by the officer."
            Whether one agrees or disagrees with that view, however, the interest in certainty that supports Belton’s bright-line rule surely does not justify an expansion of the rule that only blurs those clear lines.


stare decisis [L. "let the decision stand"] – the doctrine of precedent, under which it is necessary for a court to follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points arise again in litigation (Black's)

Consistency is a virtue. Justices Brandeis explained,


Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right. (1932)


He noted, "This is commonly true even where the error is a matter of serious concern, provided correction can be had by legislation. [But] stare decisis is not universal inexorable command. Whether it shall be followed or departed from is a question entirely within the discretion of the court."

Moreover, a rule of "consistency" can be difficult to apply. Consider sports. By the 1950s (after the government's Depression-era programs) the court had a broad reading of "interstate commerce". But in 1922 it had construed an statute regulating "interstate commerce", and concluded that that term and statute do not encompass professional baseball. What would the Court to do when sports again come before it?

The justices continued baseball's 1922 status on the ground of stare decisis,Ή but disagreed as to other sports.(following two quotes) Others said (final quote) that consistency required only that baseball, having been adjudicated, retain its prior status.


The difficult problem derives in relation to the appropriate compulsion of stare decisis. The most conscientious probing fails to disclose that Congress excluded baseball but included football. Conscious as I am of my limited competence in matters athletic, I have yet to hear of any consideration that "the business of providing public baseball was not within the federal antitrust laws," that is not equally applicable to football.

It would baffle the subtlest ingenuity to find a [relevant] differentiating factor between other sporting exhibitions, whether boxing or football or tennis, and baseball If stare decisis be one aspect of law, to disregard it in identic situations is mere caprice.

Respondents' contention is that stare decisis compels the same result [for football]. But [we] held the business of baseball outside the scope of the Act. No other business has such an adjudication.


Ή"The business has thus been left for thirty years to develop, on the understanding that it was not subject to existing antitrust legislation. [Any] application to it of the antitrust laws it should be by legislation."


fiduciary – one who is required to act for the benefit of another (within the scope of their relationship), who owes to the other the duties of good faith, trust, confidence and candor
            Examples: trustee, executor of an estate, corporate officer, lawyer acting for client

The classic statement of the role is by Judge Benjamin Cardozo, New York Court of Appeals (1928).


Many forms of conduct permissible in a workaday world for those acting at arm's length are forbidden to those bound by fiduciary ties. A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place. Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior. As to this there has developed a tradition that is unbending and inveterate. Uncompromising rigidity has been the attitude of the courts when petitioned to undermine the rule of undivided loyalty. Only thus has the level of conduct for fiduciaries been kept at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd.

Note: You will find punctilio discussed in the Wordcraft Archives here and here.


The concept of an amicus curiae may be seen as an exception to general notions of standing.

standing – a party's right to bring a legal claim or seek enforcement of a duty or right
[Typically, no matter how egregious the challenged conduct, one may not sue unless he himself has been injured by it.]


Have the appellants alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends? This is the gist of the question of standing." (Justice Brennan, 1962)


amicus curiae (L. friend of the court)– a person who, though not a party to a lawsuit, is permitted to file a brief because of his strong interest in the legal issue


Amicus curiae participation is a staple of interest group activity in the U.S. Supreme Court.
– Paul M. Collins Jr., Law & Society Review, Dec., 2004

From amicus brief filed by Mother Theresa, 1993:
INTEREST OF AMICUS CURIAE: Mother Teresa is the founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity. Much of the work involves providing charitable services to children and to poor families. Mother Teresa and the Missionaries have a special interest in the welfare of all children, born and unborn, and the familial relationship between children and their mothers and fathers.
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT: The unborn child possesses an inalienable right to life which must be recognized and safeguarded by any just society.



The issue of using "Hard Words"

How do you feel about "hard words"? As a word-a-day subscriber, you obviously enjoy them when presented as daily curiosities. But how do feel when in your daily reading, the author slips in a word that's unfamiliar to you or that hovers on the fringes of your understanding? Perhaps you have mixed emotions: intrigued by the new word, but annoyed that the author interrupted your understanding of what he's saying to you.

From time to time James Kilpatrick skewers authors for using words he deems overly hard. His columns provide most of this week's words. But Jesse Sheidlower, OED's editor for North America, takes a different view of hard words:


Robert Burchfield, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells of overhearing a guest at a cocktail party ask, "Why does Anita Brookner use hard words like 'rebarbative and 'nugatory'?" "One possible answer," opines Dr. Burchfield, "is that the famous novelist does not regard them as 'hard.'"
            Being a person for whom rebarbative is not a hard word seems to me to be a worthy goal indeed.


rebarbative – repellently irritating
            [OED's definition includes more. But I think it mistaken, as discussed below]
[From M.Fr for 'to face [an enemy]', literally 'beard-to-beard' [Latin barba beard]. So the concept is beard-to-beard, or what we'd now call 'in your face'. Compare our recent word cap-a-pie.]


Rebarbative is not in my dictionary but it reminds me of something between regurgitate and vituperative. My novel must be rebarbative.
– Flannery O'Connor, private letter, Feb. 28, 1959

The sequence had been a matter of perfect orchestration of naturally uncooperative elements. Roosevelt surgically removed rebarbative factions without leaving his fingerprints on the scalpel.
– Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom


I disagree with OED's definintion of rebarbative as "repellent, forbidding, unattractive, dull, unpleasant, objectionable". A stern judge is forbidding; a boring companion is dull; a plain-faced woman is unattractive; and rotting food is unpleasant and objectionable, but I'd think we would not call any of them "rebarbative".

Some further examples:


Venetia could be intolerant, over-critical, rebarbative. So can we all be at times.
– P.D. James, A Certain Justice

the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter …
– Philip Roth, American Pastoral


Today we have a lovely, vividly-descriptive word.

fulgurous – (lit. or fig.) flashing like lightning [conveys impressiveness]
[also fulgurant; fulgorous]


That erect form, flashing brow, fulgurant eye. – Robert Browning (1868)

But the Presidents whom most historians today regard as the nation's greatest – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt – came in for especially fulgurous obloquy and contumely.
– Paul F. Boller, Not So!: Popular Myths About America's Past

As Stephanie grew up she had repeated in her very differing body some of her father’s and mother’s characteristics —an interesting variability of soul. She was tall, dark, sallow, lithe, with a strange moodiness of heart and a recessive, fulgurous gleam in her chestnut-brown, almost brownish-black eyes. She had a full, sensuous, Cupid’s mouth, a dreamy and even languishing expression, a graceful neck, and a heavy, dark, and yet pleasingly modeled face.
– Theodore Dreiser, The Titan, Chapter XXIV


Do you agree with Kilpatrick about the second quote (which he treats as being from a newspaper)? He says, "Fulgurous! What an enchanting word! The adjective surely is clear in context, but would a more familiar word have been better? Colorful denunciations? Angry denunciations? Wrathful, fuming, furious, feverish denunciations? Howling, raging, roaring, passionate denunciations?"

Bonus words:
– strong public condemnation; or, the disgrace brought about by that condemnation
[L. ob against + loqui to speak]

contumely – insolent or insulting words or acts
[perh. fr. L. tumere to swell. The same root gives us 'thigh'; lit. 'the thick part of the leg']


vertiginous – (lit. or fig.) dizzying, disorienting; the feeling of looking down from a frightening height
            [Recall Hitchcock's movie Vertigo, starring James Steward and Kim Novak.]
[From L. vertigo, a turning or whirling round; giddiness, vertere, to turn; akin to the words reverse, subvert, and versus. A secondary definition of 'vertiginous' is 'rotating; turning'.]

Look at the wonderful variety of usages, especially the third quotation.


[E]ven in a market that rises overall, you can still get many vertiginous, one-day falls.
– Benoit Mandelbrot, The Misbehavior of Markets

… a G-string with some feathers attached behind it, quite like a rabbit's tail, a pair of fishnet stockings, pink shoes with vertiginous high heels …
– Melissa P., Lawrence Venuti, 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed

When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. All photographs are memento mori. Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing.
– Susan Sontag, On Photography

This was the home of creatures who could fly, and who had no fear of gravity. It was nothing to come without warning upon a vertiginous drop of several hundred meters, or to find that the only entrance into a room was an opening high up on a wall.
– Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

Sometimes you feel as though you have stood up too quickly even if you are lying in bed half asleep. You hear blood rushing in your head, feel vertiginous falling sensations. Your hands and feet are tingling and then they aren't there at all. You've mislocated yourself again.
– Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife


Bonus words (see third quote above):
elegiac – wistfully mournful for something past and gone
mememto mori – a reminder of mortality


satrap – a subordinate official; implies one given to tyranny or of ostentatious display [also: a provincial governor in ancient Persia]
[Ult. from Old Persian for 'protector of the dominion', after passing through Gk. and L ]
[Note: I'd say that "tyranny/ostentation is part of the meaning, though most dictionaries omit it. OED notes it and adds that "the sense 'domineering person' appears in med. Latin, and in all the Rom. langs."

In the press, a remarkably high percentage the usages are from the press of India.


It was followed on March 23 by an equally monstrous order by Martin Bormann, the Fuehrer's secretary, a molelike man who had now gained a position at court second to none among the Nazi satraps.
– William L. Shirer, Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich

However, there is no doubt that a reinvigorated team of ultra hawks, like Rice, Rumsfeld and Cheney, will be out to test the will of the world with their witches brew of more military adventures abroad. … For relatively easier manoeuvres in Iran and/or Syria, the neo cons will no doubt also be counting on a lot of help from their regional proxy and satrap, Israel.
– Karamatullah K. Ghori, Milli Gazette, India ("Indian Muslims' Leading English Newspaper"), Dec. 1-15, 2004


nugatory – 1. trifling; insignificant 2. of no force; inoperative or ineffectual

Here are one quote on the first meaning, and two on the second. We'll see 'nugatory' again in the future, within quotations used to illustrate future words.


Many Britons, like yourself, have quite forgotten that virtually all pianos are lockable. No doubt the key to your secondhand piano went missing long ago, but, since there are only about three variations on piano lock styles, you can order a replacement for the nugatory fee of 11.75.
– Dear Mary (by Mary Killen), The Spectator, Jan. 13, 2001

The peace agreements were thus effectively dead from the first moment. The media responded to these unacceptable facts by surprising them. An honest accounting … would have noted-indeed, emphasized- that the United States acted at once to render the accords nugatory.
– Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies

The writing was on the wall for Arafat last 11 September. But while his friends in Europe signalled business as usual and continued pouring cash down his throat -- still impervious to hard evidence of misuse and corruption - Arafat failed to understand that European posturings are nugatory. Washington is the only game in town, and Washington is at war with terror.
– Douglas Davis, The Spectator, July 20, 2002


You've heard today's term if you've seen the excellent movie Inherit the Wind. Spencer Tracy plays a defense lawyer, and as he examines a witness, the young prosecutor objects – and presents a fine example of the danger of using overly fancy words.

Tracy (jocularly): Haven't murdered anyone since breakfast, have you?
Prosecutor: Objection! This is an absurd piece of jactitation.
[Senior prosecutor turns; eyes junior queerly. Tracy lowers head, rests forehead on palm. Judge lowers head, removes glasses, rubs the bridge of his nose, looks up, speaks.]
Judge: Counsel, uh, uses a word with which, er, the court is not familiar.
Preening Prosecutor: Jactitation: a specious or false premise. In this case, as to the murder of known or unknown persons.
Judge (sighing): Objection sustained.

The further joke is that this whippersnapper misuses his fancy word and, by showing off, is himself guilty of jactitation.

jactitation – boasting, bragging, ostentatious display (also jactation)
[The dictionaries are all over the place on these words; I've put it together as best I can.]
[Further meaning: extreme tossing and turning in bed, as in disease.]

In old law, jactitation of marriage was a suit against one falsely claiming to be married to the person suing. "In order to prevent the common reputation of their marriage that might ensue, the petitioner prays a decree putting the respondent to perpetual silence thereafter." (1911 Britannica)

An irresistibly vivid quotation impels me to add a related, useless word.
jactant – boasting, boastful. "The jactant self-importance assumed by the cock-pigeon of the dove-cote." (Tait's Magazine, 1839)


Oddly enough, today's word 'antinomian' is not the adjective form of 'antinomy'. An antimony,' as we've seen, is a paradox in which two contradictory principles are both correct. (See wordcraft archives and dictionary). The adjectival form of this is antinomic or antinomical.


Such an antinomic pair are those two great sayings 'He that loveth not knoweth not God,' and, 'If a man hate not father, mother, wife, he cannot be my disciple.'
– Charles Kingsley (acknowledgement to OED)


'Antinomian' means something very differrent.

antinomian – of the rejection the moral law (after a religious sect, so named, which held that those who live in a "state of grace" are not subject to moral law)


… Bill Clinton's antinomian morality ...
– Linda Chavez, Jewish World Review, May 20, 1998

"Antinomic" means contradictory, or rather self-contradictory in our context. This is not to be confused with "antinomian," which denotes refusal to recognize the authority of moral law. While the Rav loved a good antinomy," he hated antinomianism, which espoused rejection of Halakha.)
Ronnie Ziegler, Introduction to the Philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik (university lecture)


Bonus word:
– the body of Jewish law supplementing scriptures; esp. the legal part of the Talmud