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February 2007 Archives

Action words: verbs: asperse, bloviate, racket, scud, insidiate, thrum, eruct

The Vulgar Tongue: raphe, rantallion, ithyphallic, karezza, fiesty, manustupration, onanism

Eponyms again: priapic, procrustean, Jonah, Goliath, negus, sandwich

Miscellaneous Words: labile, percipient, wabbit, agalaxy, soporific, divagate, tzigane, zeitgeber


Action words: verbs


We'll take action this week. That is to say, we'll look at some verbs.

In yesterday's word aspergillum [a tool for sprinkling holy water] we saw a root that means 'to sprinkle'. That same root gives us today's word, which has both literal and figurative senses of sprinkling.

asperse – 1. to sprinkle 2. to spread false or damaging charges or insinuations against [more familiar is to cast aspersions]


Most of them have been accurate. Others have been lightly aspersed … with errors. One or two have been more seriously blemished.
– Guardian Unlimited,
Feb. 5, 2007

They curse, asperse, deprecate and detract but they will not utter the words that would make matters clear …
– St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
Feb. 29, 1996

International heritage disputes are private feuds writ large. Rivals contesting sovereign icons resemble siblings squabbling over parental bequests.
Europe asperses Africa as incapable of husbanding the treasures it lost to imperial conquest; Third World states outlaw Western heritage holdings as illegal or ill-gotten.
– John R. Gillis, Commemorations


bloviate – to speak or write verbosely and windily
[This word is almost entirely restricted to the
United States. (Quinion)]
Is it a slightly different use in the last quote, for 'putting one's foot in one's mouth'?


… each self-declared candidate is given time to bloviate among other serious candidates …
– Toledo Blade,
Jan. 24, 2007

The blogosphere allows people who previously had to interact with other people to bloviate anonymously.
– Newsday,
Feb. 11, 2007

Biden, who admits he has a tendency to bloviate, has made indelicate remarks before.
– MSNBC, Sen. Biden apologizes for remarks on Obama,
Jan. 31, 2007


racket [verb] – to make or move with a loud distressing noise (also, to lead an active social life)


Get out! … Take your family and run! Now! The renegade slave leader Nat Turner was coming with a band of vengeful slaves, rampaging from farm to farm, killing white men, women and children. George Henry Thomas, 15, piled into a carriage with his mother and sisters and racketed along dirt roads into the darkness.
– Smithsonian Magazine, March 2007, recording 1831 events in the life of Civil War General George H. Thomas


scud [verb] – to move fast in a straight line because or as if driven by the wind (noun, literary: clouds or spray driven fast by the wind)


The participants stood silent and motionless as dark clouds scudded overhead and ocean waves pounded the beach motionless below and behind the sidewalk where they stood.
North County Times, CA, Feb. 19, 2007


insidiate – to lie in ambush (for); to plot (against)

A very rare word but, in my judgment, a very useful one. OED lists it as "obsolete," but here's a recent example.


Underminers are saboteurs of the moment; they make statements like "That's a lovely dress. Lose five pounds and it will fit perfectly." … They lie in ambush to spring forward with negativity precisely when you most need to feel confident. They insidiate, pounce, and level your good feelings about yourself at crucial moments. And they justify these underminings with statements like, "I'm telling you this for your own good," or, "I'm entitled to my opinion."
– Michelle Beaudry, The Slam Club: How to Stop Miserable People from Making You Miserable (2001)


thrum – to make a continuous rhythmic humming sound [with the suggestion of suppressed power about to break fourth] (noun: the sound itself)
[The dictionaries have differing or further definitions. But what I've written seems to match actual usage.]

Authors of romance novels seem to love this word, as in our last pair of quotes.


And then at last the train thrummed to life and we slid regally out of Sydney Central. We were on our way.
– Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

A waterfall thrummed in the distance.
– Nick Nolan, Strings Attached

... he kissed her passionately while she stroked him. Her body thrummed with heat …
– Sherrilyn Kenyon, Night Play

… the denim tightened over his hips. A pulse thrummed in her throat.
– Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Heaven,


A reader notes: I once ran across an excellent definition that helped me remember this term … . It was described as a "throbbing hum", which was not only somewhat mnemonic, but (by the same dubious source) the combiniation of the terms was purportedly the origin of the term. True or not, it's helped me keep the idea of its meaning in mind.


Don Quixote explains today's term and its place and importance in the language.


     "Be careful, Sancho, not to chew on both sides of your mouth at once, and do not on any account eruct in company."
     "Eructing" quoth Sancho, "I don't know what you mean by that."
     "To eruct," said Don Quixote, "means to belch, but since this is one of the most beastly words in the Castilian language, though a most significant one, polite people, instead of saying 'belch', make use of the word 'eruct', which comes from Latin, and instead of 'belchings' they say 'eructations'. And though some do not understand these terms, it does not much matter; for in time use and custom will make their meanings familiar to all, and it is by such means that languages are enriched."
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Signet Classics edition)


eruct – to belch (literally, or metaphorically, as to eject in large quantities)


… slogans are eructed by politicians without a second thought …
– Europe Intelligence Wire,
Dec. 16, 2002

When the Avalanche [hockey team] should have erupted, it eructed.
–Denver Post,
June 3, 2001

… the SUVs and trucks, the coal-fired power plants, the deregulated industries, all eructing tons of carbon dioxide into the air …
– OnEarth,
June 22, 2005



The Vulgar Tongue


Controversy has erupted in the world of children's books. Reports the New York Times (site here requires subscription, but free copy is here):


The word "scrotum" does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children's literature, for that matter. Yet there it is on the first page of "The Higher Power of Lucky," by Susan Patron, this year's winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children's literature.


Per that controversy one of our members, who is a children's librarian, has suggested a theme of scrotal words. We'll broaden that theme a bit to naughty words, beginning with a scrotal one.

raphe– the seamlike union of two halves of a body organ (as the tongue)
[pronounced rā'. Greek rhaphe seam, rhaptein to sew]


Wei fitted an arrow to his bow, shot and wounded Ts'ao Ts'ao just in the raphe of his lip. He turned and fell.
– Guanzhong Luo, C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, Robert E. Hegel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The raphe is … a generally neglected part of male anatomy.
– Lisa Sussman, Sex in the City


Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue provides many of our words this week. Gross often has a witty way with his definitions, such as this one:

rantallion – one whose scrotum is so relaxed as to be longer than his penis, i.e. whose shot pouch is longer than the barrel of his piece. (See here.)

I find no useful quotation for this word. But one otherwise-forgettable website claims to be a "support group" for rantallions. How jocular!


Grose records that that a constable was sometimes called a thingstable, which he calls "a ludicrous affectation of delicacy in avoiding the pronunciation of the first syllable in the title of that officer, which in sound has some similarity to an indecent monosyllable." The monosyllable or venerable monosyllable is, of course, the "pudendum muliebre".

As you might expect, Grosse gives numerous synonyms, often with an interesting definition or explanation. I quote:

c**t – the chonnos of the Greek, and the cunnus of the Latin dictionaries; a nasty name for a nasty thing: un con miege.
Carvel's ring – Ham Carvel, a jealous old doctor, being in bed with his wife, dreamed that the Devil gave him a ring, which, so long as he had it on his finger, would prevent his being made a cuckold: waking he found he had got his finger the Lord knows where.
commodity – the private parts of a modest woman, and the public parts of a prostitute
Eve's custom-house – where Adam made his first entry
fruitful vine – has flowers every month, and bears fruit in nine months
hat – because frequently felt
ware – a woman's ware; her commodity

Other synonyms include bite; black joke; bottomless pit; cock alley; doodle sack; dumb glutton; man trap; Miss Laycock; money; mother of all saints; notch; tuzzy-muzzy; and water-mill.


ithyphallic – having the penis erect (typically applied to statues) (also: lascivious; salacious; obscene; lewd)


Fruits and vegetables advertise themselves with varying degrees of discretion. The red tomato makes no secret of its ripeness, but ready green beans dangle impotently under their leaves, and even the zucchini at its most ithyphallic has a way of greenly lurking, like a crocodile temporarily disguised as a log.
– Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14, 1998

Moreover, the Boy President's ithyphallic behavior continued in the White House as was made luridly clear with the 1998 national debut of Monica Lewinsky.
Washington Times, Oct. 10, 2003


Today's illustrative quotation is from Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), whom Time Magazine named one of the 20 most influential leaders of the last century. On a list that includes Churchill, Gandhi, FDR, Lenin, Pope John Paul II, Hitler, Thatcher, M.L. King, Walesa, Mao, etc., she is the only one who is little-known today.

Sanger insisted that each woman is "the absolute mistress of her own body". "Woman must have her freedom—the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she shall be a mother and how many children she will have." In an era when time "contraceptive information was so suppressed that it was a criminal offense to send it through the mail," Sanger fought a "decades-long battle to legalize birth control" (a term she coined). Her effects reached even farther, for when contraception finally became a fully-protected right in the
U.S. (1965 for married women; 1972 for all), it was on a the legal rationale – the right to privacy – that later became the basis for the right to abortion. Beyond this, "[Sanger's] crusade to legalize birth control spurred the movement for women's liberation." (Gloria Steinham)

With that introduction, we turn to today's word.

karezza – coitus reservatus; the male refrains from (not merely delays) ejaculation
[coined 1896 by Alice Bunker Stockham, from Italian for 'caress'. Dr. Stockham claimed that the bady requires two weeks to a month to recover from orgasm, and that frustration results if one 'drains the basin' before it has been replenished.]

     Thousands of well-intentioned people advocate continence as the one permissible means of birth control. Few of these people agree with one another, however, as to what continence is. Some have in mind absolute continence. Others urge continence for periods varying from a few weeks to many years. Still others are thinking of Karezza, or male continence, as it is sometimes called.
     [1.] Enforced continence is injurious; often highly so. Can anyone knowing the facts ask that we recommend continence as a birth-control measure? Few who advocate the doctrine of absolute continence live up to it strictly.
     [2.] Such continence as is involved in dependence upon the so-called “safe period” is not practical. It simply does not work. Women are learning from experience that the “safe period” is anything but safe for all women.
     [3.] In the same category as the “safe period,” as a method of birth control, must be placed so-called “ male continence” “Karezza”. Those who regard it as a method of family limitation are likely to find themselves disappointed.
     Summing it all up, then, continence may meet the needs of a few natures, but it does not meet the needs of the masses. To enforce continence upon those whose natures do not demand it, is an injustice, the cruelty and the danger of which has been underestimated rather than exaggerated.
– Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race, in ch. 9 (1920) (ellipses omitted)


fiesty – aggressive, excitable, touchy

Why, you ask, is this familiar word in our 'vulgar tongue' theme? Because it traces to an old word for farting.

Old English fisting, meaning "stink," led to four words for "a fart" or "to fart": fise, fice, and fist (all pronounced with a long i) and fizzle. Grose teaches that fizzle means "an escape backward" (one can see how today's meaning is related), and that a fice is "a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs."

One can understand that a farting-word could be used as a general insult (just as the other f-ing word is used), particularly when smell is involved. A small, mangy, smelly, no-account dog came to be called a fysting cur, later shorted to a fice or a feist. And still later, feist led to the word feisty to describe the personality of such a dog.


manustupration – masturbation [from Latin manus "hand" + stuprare "defile"]

Grose gives several terms for the same thing, including:
– to mount a corporal and four (Grose: " the thumb is the corporal, the four fingers the privates.")
– to box the Jesuit (Grose: "a crime, it is said, much practised by the reverend fathers of that society.")

A further synonym begins this week's theme: eponyms, or words from personal names.

onanism – masturbation (also: coitus interruptus; an interesting pairing of meanings!)
[from Onan in the Bible, Genesis, ch. 38. Onan's name is almost always used in the first sense, although in the bible he acted in the second sense. The Lord deemed his onanism a capital offense.]


And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.



Eponyms again


We return to one of my favorite themes: eponyms, or words that came from the proper name of a person, etc.

priapic – 1. phallic 2. overly concerned with masculinity
[priapism – persistent, usually painful penile erection, esp. from disease rather than arousal]
[ultimately from Greek Priapus, the god of procreation]

I'd thought this was a rare word, but it seems to be much more commonly-used than I had thought. Recent examples:


Like most women, I am ready to believe that John Prescott is a priapic old goat.
– Rachel Cooke, The Observer, March 4, 2007

Turtle eggs were once thought of as being a source of arousal, and arugula has been considered an aphrodisiac since the first century A.D. Rhinoceros horns are still so prized for their alleged priapic powers that the species has been hunted nearly to extinction.
– Richmond Times Dispatch,
Feb. 13, 2007

His cruder language suggested an interest that was more priapic than romantic.
– letter, Concord (NH) Monitor,
March 6, 2007


procrustean – acting with mindless and harmful disregard of natural variation or individuality
[Some dictionaries suggest ruthless means to produce conformity. I think of it more as an arbitrary, one-size-fits approach, disregarding individual differences. An attempt to fit all pegs, whether square or round, into square holes.]
[after Procrustes, mythical robber of
Attica who seized travelers, tied them to his bed, and to make them fit either stretched their limbs or lopped of their legs]


So the Chicago School economists put everything into their own Procrustean Bed no matter how well it fits or how badly it fails to fit.
– Hagerstown (MD) Morning Herald,
Feb. 18, 2007

     Greek mythology contains a story about an innkeeper [actually, a robber] named Procrustes, who took in travelers. … If he was too long for the bed, Procrustes chopped off his legs to the right length. If he was too short, Procrustes tied the traveler to a rack and stretched him to the right length. You didn't want to have to spend the night at Procrustes' place.
     When I thought about this story, I realized it pertained to how we have gone about educating our children. We have offered them a one-size-fits-all education, and if they didn't fit the bed we made for them, the consequences were sometimes dire. … we must discover alternatives to our Procrustean approach to educating.
– Paul D.
Houston, School Administrator, Oct., 2003


The traditional meaning of today's word is "a jinx" (see last quote). But the word has developed a new usage, not yet recognized in the dictionaries, which has become quite common and has persisted over the years. In fact, it seems to be the more common meaning nowadays. Our thanks to Mr Quentin Letts, British news commentator, for bringing it to our attention.

Jonah –
1. one who brings ill-fortune to those around him; a jinx
2. a prophet of doom and gloom


meaning 2:
the moralistic Jonahs attacking him represent old Conservatism.
– Quentin Letts, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13, 2007

Despite the recession predictions from certain Jonahs, I find that … consumers are ready to reach for their wallets and spend
– New York Times, May 6, 1990

Some Jonahs muttered darkly as they recalled another internet boom exploding only a few years back, but the cheerleaders were adamant: this time it was diffferent.
– The Independent,
Sept. 11, 2005

meaning 1:
Fear spread through the ship as people whispered about impending disaster and a Jonah on board.
– The Telegraph,
Feb. 16, 2004


goliath or Goliath – a giant
[after the Biblical character Goliath, whom David slew]


Albertus Magnus entered the shelter about a week ago, a Goliath of a cat whose girth made some of us wonder: If that's how big he grew as a stray, what if he'd been given free rein at the fridge?
Attleboro (MA) Sun Chronicle, Feb. 9, 2007


Today, two words (one familiar, one antique) for the price of one.

negus – wine and hot water with sugar and lemon juice and nutmeg
[from Colonel Francis Negus (d. 1732), who reputedly invented this drink]

sandwich – two pieces of bread with a filling between them. (verb: sandwich between: to insert between two people or things)
[John Montagu (1718-92), 4th Earl of
Sandwich, who ate cold meat sandwiches so he could eat at the gaming table rather than get up for a proper meal. In his honor, James Cook named the Sandwich Islands, now known as the Hawaiian Islands.]


I dare say your own hands are almost numbed with cold. Leah, make a little hot negus and cut a sandwich or two: here are the keys of the storeroom.
– Charlotte Brontλ, Jane Eyre



Miscellaneous Words


No theme this week; just miscellaneous words. We start with one that's used as a technical term in psychology, but deserves broader usage.

labile – liable to change; easily altered. (chemistry: easily broken down or displaced)

AHD says "open to change; adaptable; an emotionally labile person", which would seem a positive trait. But OED confirms my reading that the word implies instability. To demonstrate that reading, I'll present more quotes than usual.


What he could positively diagnose is that Anna Nicole was "labile: all over the place with her mood very up and down" right before her daughter's birth and well before her own death.
– Radar Online, NY,
Feb 23, 2007

Being an American you are doubly handicapped. Your womanly sentimentality is compounded by your American frivolity … You American girls are so audacious, animated … [e]specially compared to our serene, self-effacing English girls. Clearly, you have been encouraged to indulge your ebullient, labile emotions to an excessive degree.
– Connie Brockway, A Dangerous Man

… he [Shakespeare] wished to demonstrate in Romeo and Juliet how reckless, labile, and ephemeral the emotion of love is, especially in young people …
– Diane Ackerman, A Natural History Of Love

What I do know is that people who were already labile -- more upset, more unstable -- are now even more labile.
Washington Post, Oct. 28, 2001


percipient – 1. perceiving 2. having perception; discerning; discriminating


Last week's storm, which began around 2 am Wednesday morning, led some percipient professors to cancel classes early on at their discretion.
– Middlebury Campus (VT),
Feb. 21, 2007

[regarding the independence of the
United States:] "The only way to keep us from setting up ourselves is to disunite us," young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and … dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment.
– David McCullough, John Adams


also, as a noun: percipient – one who receives a telepathic impulse or message


This procedure can be used as a test of telepathy (a "sender" looks at each card while the "percipient" tries to discern its identity) …
– Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn't So


Today's word is often seen in the sense of "that wascally wabbit", but is rare in its original sense.

wabbit – Scottish: exhausted or unwell

Mothers, do you remember what it was like to have a newborn babe in the house?

"While Ian catches his mornin' nap, Mistress McKie, suppose ye join me in the kitchen. …" Neda looked down at her, compassion lining every feature. "Might that be a blithe pastime for a wabbit young mither?" "Aye." She rose to her feet, pressing her hands into the small of her back, stiff from too little sleep.
– Liz Curtis Higgs, Fair Is the Rose


Today, a very obscure word of new-motherhood. It is similar and related to a familiar word of very different meaning, which may help you remember it.

An ancient, knowing no astronomy, would see in the night sky pinpoints of light sprinkled in a dark background. He'd soon notice that those pinpoints are always in the same pattern, night after night, not moving relative to each other. Despite a few moving objects (the obvious moon [a non-pinpoint], a few planets, the occasional comet, and fast-flashing meteors), the general pattern is fixed points of light. Finally, the pinpoints are randomly scattered across the sky, not forming obvious patterns like lines, circles, etc., or grouping to make clumps or vacant areas, beyond what you'd see in a random scattering.
     But one anomalous object, though in a fixed position night after night, is not a pinpoint and is not matched by other like objects, randomly spread. It is a vague, irregular, milky-white band of light across the sky. The ancient Greeks called it galaxias or kyklos galaktikos, meaning "milky circle".
     Today we know that the stars are in fact not randomly scattered: they cluster. Each cluster has millions or billions of stars, but the clusters are so far apart that the ancient's naked eye could see only in our own cluster. Now as it happens, our cluster is disc-shaped, and we are out near the edge of that disc. So the ancient would see more of the disc (more stars) if he looked in one particular direction – along its plane, rather than above or below it – especially if looking towards the disc's center. In that direction he would see so many stars that they blend into a milky band, the one he called the kyklos galaktikos. And that is why we call such a clump of stars a galaxy.

In other words, our word galaxy comes from the word for 'milk'; it is cognate to lactation. It thus connects with new mothers, and with today's word.

agalaxy – failure of lactation; failure of the due secretion of milk after childbirth quote?:


soporific – 1. drowsy 2. inducing drowsiness or sleep (noun: a drug or other thing that makes one drowsy)


The debate, not yet half over, then settled into a soporific argument over figures, especially on the economy.
– Montreal Gazette, Mar. 14, 2007

I tipped my head back and felt the cold sea air on my cheeks. The rocking of the boat was soporific, the muted creak and hush of the wind in the sheets and the sails.
– Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl


divagate – 1. to wander or drift about 2. to ramble; digress


But he tends to be far too loquacious, and his arguments are far too likely to divagate from the essential point. I, on the other hand, write with a more relaxed, friendly style, supplying facts, and reasonably developing cogent arguments.
- ZDNet,
Dec. 10, 2004

But the short story concentrates her strengths; the very conciseness of the form doesn't allow her to dawdle or divagate.
San Jose Mercury News, May 5, 2004


tzigane (accent on 2nd syllable) – a Hungarian gypsy
[also seems to be used to mean 'gypsy music', though I don't find that definition in the dictionaries]


... a woman dressed as flamboyantly as a tzigane stepped out of the car.
– Jodi Picoult, Second Glance

I couldn't follow the words, but the melodies sounded like Hungarian tziganes. They were heavy and touching.
– Maya Angelou, The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou


zeitgeber – an environmental cue (as the length of daylight, or the temperature) that helps to regulate an organism's biological clock


Unfortunately, three's no wonder pill for jet lag. Instead, you can speed up the adjustment process by helping out the zeitgebers (don't you love it? It's German for 'timegivers') … the most important ones being meal times, sleep times and exposure to bright light.
– Isabelle Young, Lonely Planet Healthy Travel
Asia and India

A 'zeitgeber' can be as simple as the
6 pm newscast.
Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 11, 1988