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Words from Folk Etymology:  wedlock, helpmate, sweetheart, lapwing, bridegroom, stark-naked, maidenhead

Antiquated Words - Oddballs Only: catchpole; catchpoll, pismire, pissant, toad-eater, gandermooner, feague, stirrup-cup (deoch an doris)

Eponyms from Shakespeare: Caliban, Dogberry, benedict, Othello, Romeo, Prospero

Words with Religious Connection: imprimatur, voodoo, orthodoxy, votary, Jesuitical, hassock, ahimsa


Words from Folk Etymology


We've had some obscure words recently. This week we'll present some familiar ones that were formed by folk etymology.

Now folk etymology is a somewhat slippery term. (It can mean "a popular but mistaken etymology," or can mean "changes made to an adopted foreign word to make it more familiar to the adopting-language's 'ears'.") For our purposes folk etymology means changes in an existing word due to a mistaken popular understanding of its etymology.

By odd coincidence many words formed by this process relate to matrimony. So let's start there. Why is wedlock a "lock"?

The common Old English suffix -lác meant 'act of' (as in brýdlác nuptials, feohtlác warfare, wiflác carnal intercourse; etc.) Adding that suffix to wedd 'pledge' gave wedlác, literally 'pledge-making', which came to refer particularly to the marriage pledge or vow.

But in time most of these words vanished, -lác became obsolete and forgotten, and thus wedlác would sound odd to the ears of Middle English speaker. The -lac changed to a more familiar sound lock, which fit the meaning of the word (though not of this syllable). And thus was formed our word wedlock, the lock being often emphasized with bonds or bound.


surely he could scarcely avoid the gentle bond of wedlock.
– Isaac Asimov, The Up-to-Date Sorcerer


And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help fit for him. … And Adam gave names … to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help fit for him.
– Genesis 2:18, 20


God realizes that Adam needs a suitable partner, and so creates Eve to be a help fit for Adam.

From these passages, a spouse came to be called a help-fit, as if the term were a single word. (1673 Dryden: "If ever woman was a help-fit for man, my Spouse is so." 1718: "Socrates had the like Number of Helpfits ...")

OED calls this "a compound absurdly formed". Indeed. Normally the noun follows the adjective (a man of gentle birth is a gentleman, not a mangentle). It would make sense to say that Eve was Adam's "fit-help". But calling her a help-fit makes it seem that 'fit' is a noun ('fit of anger'), that she is one who helps to bring on a fit!

Language need not be logical, of course, but under folk-etymology the word-user casts about for a logical-looking explanation, and re-casts the term accordingly. That happened here. The second-syllable of helpfit changed to something that sounds similar but makes more sense.

I've played a trick on you, disguising the situation to spring the outcome on you. The original Bible phrase was not "an help fit for him," but rather "an help meet for him" (meet = suitable, fit). The term that arose was in fact helpmeet, which makes no more sense than helpfit. In fact it makes less sense, for helpmeet could be heard as helpmeat. What does Eve have to do with 'meat'? She is a mate, not a meat (or a meet).

And that is precisely the way the word changed. Helpmeet became help
mate, a familiar term.


General note on this theme: OED does not use the term "folk etymology", so sometimes it can be difficult to know whether a term is appropriate for this theme. I'm using my judgment.

The post on helpmate is an example. What I say does not quite track OED, which says that helpmate is just "from help + mate, probably influenced in origin by [the earlier helpmeet]."

But how can you tell whether the term is (1) a new combination, influenced by the old one (as OED says), or (2) the old combination, altered by folk etymology changing an element? Is there really any difference? And if not, isn't the latter a more detailed explanation?


If folk etymology is a change due to a reasonable but mistaken reading, it might be fun to look at a reasonable but mistaken folk etymology. Once again, we'll focus on the general topic of love.

The -ard suffix means 'one who', as in coward (one who cowers), sluggrad, dotard, dullard, drunkard, bastard¹, laggard, wizard (wise) and (in an alternate form) braggart.

In the same way, say many authorities, a person you adjudge to be sweet was called your sweetard. And if you say sweetard casually, an h sound creeps in as your tongue retreats from the t, and the final d become clipped. In other words, the last syllable resembles heart. That new sound also makes sense, the heart being the seat of love (witness Valentine's Day!), and your sweetard being the one who has your heart. Thus over time, sweetard mutated to become sweetheart.

This is a perfectly reasonable etymology for sweetheart, asserting a change by folk etymology. It is a story asserted by many authorities².

It is also perfectly false. For over a century it has been known that the supposed word sweetard has never existed, has never been found. Yet the old false story persists.

Sigh. Such is life. In truth, sweetheart is simply a combination of sweet and heart.


¹A note on bastardy: In Old French bast is a packsaddle, on which muleteers would sleep, so a 'child of the bast' is one not from the marriage bed. Compare German bank = bench, and bänkling, meaning 'bastard,' is ‘a child begotten on a bench, and not in the marriage-bed’.
²wikipedia, CBS News (
June 12, 2001), Bill Bryson, Francis Yvon Eccles, Henry Bett, Trevor Harley, Sidney Harris, and more, including several from the late 1800s.


Is it too great a leap from the 'marriage and love' words above to 'raising the young', and particularly to a bird that has an unusual, clever strategy for defending its nest?

The lapwing – a bird of the plover family – will flap along the ground, feigning an injured wing, to draw a predator away from the nest and nestlings. The Greeks' name for it meant "luring on deceitfully". Can you see the bird repeatedly leaping as if to fly, only to collapse amid a flap of wings? For this reason, Old English named it "leap and totter" or "leap and waver": they called it the hléapewince. The hléape syllable is from hleápan to leap, and the wince meant something like 'totter, waver', as in winken 'to wink'.

The wince did not mean modern 'wince' or 'wing', each of which came into the language later. At the time, the word for wing was fether.

But once the word 'wing' did come into the language, it was natural that winc in a bird's name should be confounded with wing. Hence the 'leapwince' became the lapwing.

(By the way: most authorities give a different explanation of why the bird was named 'leap and totter', but I prefer the minority view above. Reasons stated below.)


Most authorities, including OED, say the 'leap and totter' name referred not to he bird's nesting behavior (as did the Greeks' name) but "to its irregular flapping manner of flight". I am unconvinced. An odd in-flight motion (even if it exists, which I can't verify) explains only the wince 'totter' part of the name, and not the hléape 'leap'. And OED's early cites have often are refering to nesting behavior, but never to flight behavior:


1340: ase the lhapwynche … maketh his nest.
1390 GOWER: A lappewinke … is the brid [bird] falsest of alle.
1592: cry with the Lapwing farthest from their nest.
1606: will lye [lie] like a Lapwing.
1633: And left the Wood with the Lapwings policie; that they being busied in pursuite of them, the other might remaine secure within that Fastnesse.
1669 DRYDEN: draws me off, and (lapwing-like) flies wide.
1676: Be careful not to be deceived by their lapwing stratagems, by drawing you off from the rest to follow some men.


How far before and after her wedding ceremony can a woman be called a 'bride'? OED has a dry comment:


The term is particularly applied on the day of marriage and during the ‘honeymoon’, but is frequently used from the … public announcement of the coming marriage. In the parliamentary debate on Prince Leopold's allowance, Mr. Gladstone, being criticized for speaking of the Princess Helen as the ‘bride’, said he believed that colloquially a lady when engaged was often called a ‘bride’. This was met with ‘Hear! hear!’ from some, and ‘No! no!’ from others. Probably ‘bride elect’ would have satisfied critics.


What of the man getting married? In Old English he was the brýdguma, with the guma part being an old word for man. (A note as to the brýd part is below.¹) Over time guma mutated to gome, and brýdguma mutated with it: bridgume bridgom, bredgome. Then gome became obsolete and dropped out of the common language. At that point, to a person not knowing gome, brydgome would seem to be an odd word making no sense.

But brydg
rome would make sense, for grome was a term for "lad; man; serving-man". Hence the old brydgome mutated to brydgrome (and from there eventually to our modern bridegroom). This new brydgrome was not a perfect fit, since grome was a contemptuous term, but it made more sense than brydgome.

Note: today a groom is a man who tends horses, and some sources will tell you that that is what was meant by the groom in bridegroom. But that is mistaken: bridegroom obtained its r long before groom acquired its horsy sense.


¹ Sidenote as to the brýd part:
Old English brýd is the source of our word 'bride'. Many dictionaries say that it meant 'bride' way back then, and thus that brýdguma meant "the bride's man; the man of the woman getting married". It sounds as if the man was a mere appendage to the ceremony!

But be not deceived: in early compound terms ("bride-banquet") the brýd could just as well mean "wedding" as "the marrying woman", and indeed in a few cases ("bridal couple") it cannot to be referring only to the woman. The original brýd was a broader term which "had the force of ‘bridal, wedding’ (the primitive marriage being essentially the acquisition of a bride)". (OED) Thus the brýdguma was not 'the bride's man'; he was 'the wedding man'.


The wedding service having ended, the happy couple proceeds to their wedding night, which leads us to consider the term stark naked.

We start with the redstart, a bird named because it sometimes has a red tail and, please note, rear end. OED tells us this start is a word, separate from the usual start = 'beginning', which very long ago meant almost the opposite: 'the tail of an animal.'

Now English and other languages use their tail word to mean 'rear end; buttocks' (work one's tail off), and OED speculates that this old start also had the sense of 'buttocks'. This, says OED, is the origin of start-naked, meaning 'naked to the tail (buttocks)', that is, or totally naked.

After start in this sense became obscure, start-naked mutated to stark-naked, with stark meaning 'totally; completely', as in stark raving mad. (But it's fascinating that according to solid reports, start-naked was, even in the late 1800s, the form used in the southeast

Your Wordcrafter wonders though. If start meant 'buttocks', could start-naked have meant 'bare-assed', that is, 'mooning' rather that 'totally naked'?


Getting down to the serious business of the wedding night. With our last word we spoke of the tail, so today it's fitting to tell a head-tale.

The now-forgotten Old English noun had, hade, hod, or hede meant 'person, personality, sex, condition, quality, rank'.¹ It came to be used as a suffix, as in cild-hád childhood, and vanished as a separate word.

In Middle English the suffix was in the form –hede. Some of these –hede words are now forgotten (boldhede, biterhede, drunkenhede, fairhede); others survive, with the –hede suffix mutated to today's form –hood (falshede, knyghthede, manhede, wommanhede, faderhade [fatherhood]). And one more, relevant to our tale: maydenhede.

But this suffix –hede=condition could be mistaken to mean head a part of the body, particularly when (how to say this delicately?) the condition in question has bodily evidence. And by this confusion maydenhede = 'the condition of being a maiden' was assumed to mean, and came to have the additional meaning of, maydenhede = 'the part of the body that exists with but only with that condition'.

In time the two meanings evolved two different spellings reflecting their origins. The suffix of the 'condition' word evolved, like other such words, to give us our word maidenhood. And the body-part sense kept the reference to a body part, becoming our word maidenhead.

¹ The Old High German equivalent heit is seen in gesundheit 'sound condition; good health', and in the name of physicist Gabriel Fahrenheit meaning 'faring-condition' or 'condition of going through'; in other words, 'experience'.



Antiquated Words - Oddballs Only


We've spent a week tracing words with a particular kind of history. This week we'll be historical by looking at some interesting antiquated terms.

catchpole; catchpoll – a sheriff's officer, especially one who arrests debtors [also figurative, as in the dramatic final quote]
Interesting etymology: from older French that literally meant 'chicken chaser'! This antique term would seem appropriate today for such unsavory minor officials as dogcatchers and truant officers.


as reporter for a newspaper in a police court … I heard perhaps four hundred cases of so-called wife-beating. The husbands, in their defense, almost invariably pleaded justification, and some of them told such tales of studied atrocity and the domestic hearth, both psychic and physical, that the learned magistrate discharged them with tears in his eyes and the very catchpolls in the courtroom had to blow their noses.
– H.L. Mencken, Mencken Chrestomathy

worship a goddess called Anna Kuari ... it is necessary to offer human sacrifices. In spite of the vigilance of the British Government these sacrifices are still secretly perpetrated. The victims are poor waifs and strays whose disappearance attracts no notice. April and May are the months when the catchpoles are out on the prowl. At that time strangers will not go about the country alone, and parents will not let their children enter jungle or herd the cattle.
– James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (first publ. 1890)


Credit for this week's words goes to a fine browsing-book, Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk, who chooses his words so that he can then relate fascinating old customs, beliefs and practices from which those words arise.

pismire – an ant
pissant – insignificant, worthless, petty; contemptible (noun: a person of that sort)


He loathed the civilian bureaucrats-pismires who ran to and fro in a futile attempt to prove they had some purpose.
– John Jakes, North and South

You generals have all been educated at taxpayers' expense, and now you're not giving me any solutions for this damn little puissant country. Now I don't need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb.
– Lyndon Johnson, regarding
Vietnam, quoted in Geoffrey Perret, Commander in Chief [etc.]


Piss means … well, just what you think it means. And pismire and pissant each refer to ant-the-insect, mire being an old word for 'ant'. (see also here).

Huh? What earthly connection is there between piss and the active little ant? (Yet there must be a connection, since many languages combine the piss and mire roots.) OED says "on account of the urinous smell of an anthill," and AHD says "from the smell of the formic acid that ants secrete." But that strikes me as nonsense: to my 2007 nose, ants and anthills have no particular smell.

So what is the ant-and-piss connection? Kacirk mention "a clue", though not what I think is the answer, when he mentions


…the smell of urine that was once believed to mysteriously emanate from anthills, a clue to which involved a medical test employed by Roman physicians. In this procedure, a patient’s urine was dripped near an anthill; if a high sugar content was present in the urine, ants would be attracted to it and diabetes was the likely cause.


My guess? Olden dirt roads were trod by horses, cattle, donkeys and other domestic beasts, who would give the road regular doses of urine. They would concentrate their deposits in particular spots (presuming that they prefer, as dogs do, to do their business at spots where others have preceded them), and ants would prefer to build their nests in the nutrient-enriched (and urine-smelling) soil!

So though Kacirk speaks of a urine-smell "that was once ‘believed’ to ‘mysteriously’ emanate from anthills," the smell was not a belief but a fact, and not mysterious at all. Our ancestors were not superstitiously imagining the smell. We’ve forgotten that fact because, as animals no longer hoof it along our road, the modern nose is not exposed to their by-products.


toad-eater – a fawning flatterer, parasite, sycophant (also called a toady)

Toads were thought to be highly poisonous. A quack salesman, to demonstrate to his dupes – er, audience – that he could cure poison, would have his assistant (his toad-eater) eat a toad, go through entertaining contortions as if suffering an agony of poisoning, and then be cured by the master’s skill.


An election is the grand trial of strength, the decisive battle when the Belligerents draw out their forces in martial array when every leader burning with warlike ardour, and encouraged by the shouts and acclamations of tatterdemalions, buffoons, dependents, parasites, toad-eaters, scrubs, vagrants, mumpers, ragamuffins, bravoes and beggars, in his rear, and puffed-up by his bellows-blowing slang-whangers, waves gallantly the banners of faction, and presses forward TO OFFICE AND IMMORTALITY!
– Washington Irving, quoted in Andrew Burstein, The Original Knickerbocker

You know what a Toadey is? That agreeable animal which you meet every day in civilised society.
– Benjamin Disraeli, Vivian Grey


Gandermooner is on many wordlists, but did the writers know what it meant, or just speculate or copy from each other? They had few usage examples to work from, and they give inconsistent definitions and unconvincing (to me) etymologies.

That looks like speculation, so I feel free to offer my own speculation. (Detailed rationale to be set forth on the board, lest you be bored with it here.) The authorities teach that moon refers to a certain time one month long, but I think it refers to a certain once-a-month event.

gandermooner – a husband who strays each month, during the "time of month" when his wife is "unavailable"

An erudite 1889 slang-dictionary comments,

Gander, a married man … It may be remarked in this connection that geese or gheeze in Dutch slang means a young girl, any girl; also a lady of pleasure. It is very probable that there is an undercurrent of meaning in reference to these slang words in the nursery rhyme:–


"Goosey, Goosey Gander,
Whither dost thou wander?
Up stairs, down stairs,
In my lady's chamber."


I'm being careful not to claim more than I know here. Today's word is used in several old writings with the meaning "to make lively; to spruce up; to polish up."

It may have had a memorable related meaning, in the trade-slang of horse dealing. Grose's old glossary lists this sense, but I can find only one usage-example more or less on point. (Other glossary-writers note it too, but apparently just took it from Grose. It's the sort of thing that they – and I – would like to include it.) Admittedly, the meaning Grose gives is hardly one likely to used in writings valuable enough to be preserved.

feague – (of a horse) to put ginger up a horse's rear end, to make him lively and carry his tail well


Her noble protestant has got a flail,
Young, large, and fit to feague her briny tail;
But now, poor wench, she lies as she would burst,
Sometimes with brandy, and sometimes with lust.
A Satire by the Earl of
Dorset: A Faithfol [sic] Catalogue of Our Most Eminent Ninnies (1683) [written during the unrest regarding Charles II and James II]


Horse-dealers were notorious for shifty dealing. As Shakespeare noted in King Lear, "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath."


A man on horseback can "drive" home from the pub though thoroughly drunk, trusting his horse to know the way home. So why not take one last drink, what we'd call "one for the road'?

stirrup-cup – a drink handed to a man already on horseback setting out; a parting glass. Also called deoch an
doris, Gael. for 'drink at the door'.

By Scottish custom this drink is provided free of charge – which is key to a story told in Sir Walter Scott's Waverly, ch. XI. Here's a later retelling:


It was an old custom in Scotland for the landlord, as his parting guest stood at the door, to present him with a farewell drink called the stirrup cup. Now Luckie Jamieson had brewed a peck of malt, and set the liquor at her door to cool. Luckie Simpson's cow came wandering by, seeking what she might devour, was attracted by the foaming beverage, smelt, tasted, and yielded to the tempter. The unaccustomed drink mounted to the animal's head, descended to her legs, and affected her understanding in both directions, so that her guilt was apparent to the enraged alewife, who demanded of Luckie Simpson the value of the brew. Litigation ensued, the Bailie heard the case and then enquired of the plaintiff whether the cow, had sat down to take her drink or imbibed it standing. It being admitted that the cow had committed the deed whilst on her feet, the Court adjudged the drink to be a stirrup cup for which no payment could be demanded and dismissed the suit.
– John Marshall Gest, The Law and the Lawyers of Sir Walter Scott, in The American Law Register, vol. 54 (1906)



  originally: a misshapen mass in the uterus (thought to be caused by the baleful influence of the moon); a false pregnancy; also, from this: a monster

  more commonly: a born fool; a simpleton; or one given to absent-minded daydreaming (but coming to be used in the sense of "someone sentimentally love-sick")


Our last quote, long but lovely, illustrates the original sense, which today is uncommon.


It was a little pathetic, really. Sidonie, often impulsive but rarely stupid, was turning into a mooncalf.
– Liz Carlyle, The Devil to Pay

... this one might have provoked pity in anybody. He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everyone in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something of silver ... in one of his brown-paper parcels.
– Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Blue Cross, in The Complete Father Brown

I had no idea that it was there at all until I was in love so deep that it was a pain in my heart. ... I left soon after. I was afraid of giving myself away, though perhaps I had been gaping at her like a moon-calf for weeks before.
– Patrick O'Brian, Testimonies


And the original sense, from a tale told by a man who ages backwards:


     Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outside-in every part of me but my mind and soul-I grow young.
     There is no name for what I am. Doctors do not understand me; my very cells wriggle the wrong way in the slides, divide and echo back their ignorance. But I think of myself as having an ancient curse. The one that Hamlet put upon Polonius before he punctured the old man like a balloon.
     That, like a crab, I go backwards.
     For even now as I write, I look to be a boy of twelve. At nearly sixty, there is sand in my knickers and mud across the brim of my cap. I have a smile like the core of an apple. Yet once I seemed a handsome man of twenty-two with a gun and a gas mask. And before that, a man in his thirties, trying to find his lover in an earthquake. And a hardworking forty, and a terrified fifty, and older and older as we approach my birth.
     "Anyone can grow old," my father always said through the bouquet of his cigar smoke. But I burst into the world as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles around my eyes, darkening the white and then the gray in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession.
     A mooncalf, a changeling; a thing so out of joint with the human race that I have stood in the street and hated every man in love, every widow in her long weeds, every child dragged along by a loving dog.
– Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli



Eponyms from Shakespeare


This week we'll look at eponyms from Shakespeare. Unsurprisingly, many characters of so prominent an author have been used as eponyms. The surprise is how few of those eponyms have become well known. Often it is hard to tell if the name is being used as an eponym, or simply as a literary reference.

Shakespeare uses yesterday's word moon-calf three times, all in The Tempest and referring to his character Caliban, 'a salvage and deformed slave' (Dram. Personæ).

Caliban – a man of degraded bestial nature
There seems to be a sense of ‘ill-combined contradictory parts, as in our first two quotes.


the production turns out, like Caliban, to be an indefinable mooncalf: neither fish nor fowl.
– Atlanta Constitution, July 26, 1992

A tragic, ruined figure, Wenceslas emerges from the chronicles a kind of Caliban, half clownish, half vicious, a composite of half-truths and legends …
– Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, speaking of Wenceslas IV of Bohemia (1361 – 1419)

Sometime early that evening Oppenheimer climbed the tower to perform a final ritual inspection. There before him crouched his handiwork. Its bandages had been removed and it was now hung with insulated wires that looped from junction boxes to the detonator plugs that studded its dark bulk, an exterior ugly as Caliban's. His duty was almost done.
– Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb


Wouldn’t this be a useful word?

Dogberry – an ignorant, self-important official
[From the name of a foolish constable in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Note: I would add that he is typically of the police force or the like. Congressmen are often ignorant and self-important, but you would not call them Dogberries.]


Criminals … were becoming very clever indeed - so clever that the old Dogberries and flatfoots of the traditional British law had no hope of catching them.
– John Sutherland: Introduction to Armadale (Penguin Classics) by Wilkie Collins

The overall effect … was to allow a horde of petty functionaries to decide without any legal guidelines on one of the highest matters of state: precisely who in this civil war was loyal or disloyal. …
Stanton saw Turner’s role as one of scheduling trials by military commission rather that riding heard on the Dogberries unleashed across the land.
– Mark E. Neely, The Fate of
Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties


Today, another useful word that no one ever seems to use. (I can't find any example later than the 19th century.)

benedict – a newly married man; esp. an apparently confirmed bachelor who marries. [From the character of that name in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing.]


I allude, of course, to the periodic incursions made by Mothers-in-law into the homes of their helpless children. … I may add that, as a Benedict of ten years' standing, and having had the advantage of three distinct Mothers-in-law, my experience of these pests is very extensive.
– Punch,
Oct. 10, 1874 (letter)

Laura L. White, A Would-be Benedict, in The Overland Monthly, vol. VIII 1872:
Obadiah Fuller was courting the Widow Blain in earnest: he was unceasingly courting someone in earnest. The "sad satiety" of love had never come to him, because, ere he reached its fruit and flower, the untimely frost of a rejection by its over-sensitive object nipped his hopes, but the stolid insensibility which in nearly every case provoked the dismissal, also prevented and great degree of disappointment and suffering.


Othello – trade-name for a certain board game (generically, reversi)
Players take turns placing pieces which are black on one side and white on the other, each placing with his color showing on top. With certain moves, a play may "flip" some of his opponent's pieces, converting them from the opponents color to his own. So with a flip, the fortunes of the game can change quickly.

Why was the game was named for Shakespeare's tragedy? There are at least three different views. I find the first the most convincing.


When Japanese salesman Goro Hasegawa … invented his simple board game in 1971, his father, a Shakespearean scholar, duly noted that the appeal of the game was based on a series of 'dramatic reversals'. Perhaps, he suggested, it should be called Othello.
– Time, Nov. 22, 1976; cited by OED

referencing the conflict between the Moor Othello and Iago, who describes himself as "two faced"

or more controversially, to the marriage between Othello, who is black, and Desdemona, who is white, recalling the coloring of the game pieces
– wikipedia


Portia – a female advocate or barrister.
[from Portia, the name of the heroine of Shakespeare's Merchant of
Venice. And very rarely used, as far as I can tell.]


A female writer in the Great Bend (KA) Tribune, May 15, 1975:
Today I sit the bench as a pinch-hitting Portia in judgment of the woman who held a burglar at gunpoint until the police could answer her call: Madame, you threatened the life of a defenseless, underprivileged thief.


So far, all of our Shakespearian eponyms have been obscure words. There’s only one such eponym that is familiar enough to be used in everyday speech – as in the example below.

Romeo – a lover, a passionate admirer; a seducer, a habitual pursuer of women
[from the name of the hero of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet]

How odd. This definition, by OED, would encompass a female “lover” or “admirer” or “seducer”. But a Romeo is always a male, of course. Were the OED editors of the view that only a male can be a “seducer,” etc.?


All day long I hear my telephone ring
Friends calling giving their advice
From the boy I love I should break away
'Cause heartaches he'll bring one day
I lost him once through friends advice
But it's not gonna happen twice.

How can Mary tell me what to do
When she lost her love so true?
And Flo, she don't know
'Cause the boy she loves is a Romeo?
– The Supremes, Back in My Arms Again


from Prospero, the name of the magician in Shakespeare's Tempest:

Prospero – a person or thing like Prospero, esp. in being capable of magic or of influencing others' behavior or perceptions without their knowledge


He ruled the village like a whimsical Prospero. He didn't simply live in the village, he owned it …
– Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance

– Brian W. Aldiss, British author, speaking of H. G. Wells:
The Prospero of all the brave new worlds of the mind, and the Shakespeare of science fiction.



Words with Religious Connection


Religion has been a powerful social force in human history.

As such, it has contributed to our vocabulary. This week we'll look at words, with at least some relation to religion, which are valuable for their broader meaning.

imprimatur – official approval; sanction
[New Latin imprimatur, 'let it be printed'; Roman Catholic Church's permission to print a book. Often used, as in two of our quotes, to imply the material should not be taken at face value]


the security analyst … may modify substantially the figures in the company's annual statements, even though they bear the sacred imprimatur of the certified public accountant. He is on the lookout particularly for items in these reports that may meal a good deal more or less than they say.
– Benjamin Graham and Jason Zweig, The Intelligent Investor

But without [President]
Hoover's imprimatur, there would be no money for the land resettlement. The proposal that was the greatest boon to the Negro race since the Emancipation lay waiting and perhaps dying.
– John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great
Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

Even The Economist, that sober periodical, gave its imprimatur to Milken's accomplishments in November 1986.
– Connie Bruck, The Predators' Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders


voodoo – characterized by deceptively simple, almost magical, solutions or ideas; deceptive or delusive nonsense
[from Kwa (a Niger-Congo language), referring to a black religious cult practiced in the
Caribbean and the southern US, combining elements of Roman Catholicism with traditional African rites; characterized by sorcery and spirit possession]


In the old days, it used to be said that the Twentieth Century Motors trademark was as good as the karat mark on gold. … I suppose that like all social planners and like savages, they thought that this trademark was a magic stamp which did the trick by some sort of voodoo power and that it would keep them rich, as it had kept their father.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand (who uses this word repeatedly in this book)


Today's word is presented for the delicious quote.

orthodoxy – beliefs, ideas or activities considered traditional, normal and acceptable by most people

[contrast heterodoxy – the opposite; any opinions/doctrines at variance with the official or orthodox position
note also doxy1. a mistress 2. a sexually promiscuous woman]


"I have heard frequent use," said the late Lord Sandwich, in a debate on the Test Laws, "of the words 'orthodoxy' and 'heterodoxy;' but I confess myself at a loss to know precisely what they mean." "Orthodoxy, my Lord," said Bishop Walburton, in a whisper, "orthodoxy is my doxy; heterodoxy is another man's doxy."
– Priestley, Memoirs


votary – a devoted [almost religiously so] follower, adherent, or advocate

I rarely take my quote from a translation, but I could not resist the precise gradations in the second quote.


[Walt Whitman] was not the first major writer to create a deliberately eccentric image for purposes of self-promotion … but he set about it with an American thoroughness which was certainly new. … He reviewed his own poetry often, both anonymously and under pseudonym, wrote articles about himself and promoted biographies. He planted news stories. … He described his own body as 'perfect,' a theme taken up by his votaries, who compared him to Christ; actually he was an ungainly youth who became an ugly old man.
– Paul M. Johnson, A History of the American People

… Nily had a shining string or princely suitors, and around this string she had a second circle of dizzy, bewitched followers, and the a third circle of meek, humble votaries, and a fourth circle of distant admirers, and the fifth and sixth circles included me, a little weed that was occasionally touched unawares by a single extravagant ray, which could not imagine what its passing touch had done.
– Amos Oz (Nicholas de Lange, translator), A Tale of Love and Darkness


Jesuitical – (often lowercase) practicing casuistry or equivocation; using subtle or oversubtle reasoning; crafty; sly; intriguing


     "Well, it may be good now, All I mean is that I don't happen to like it much.
     "But is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?
     "Bridey, don't be so Jesuitical," said Sebastian, but I knew that this disagreement was not a matter of words only …
– Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited


hassock - originally, a compact tuft especially of grass or sedge (also known as a tussock)
then: a cushion for kneeling, esp. at church
and then: a padded cushion or low stool that serves as a seat or leg rest

[Hassock should not be confused with cassock. ]


she cooks and sews … darns, does the laundry, takeas splendid care of her husband, and looks after their five-room apartment, with its gemütlich mélange of plump hassocks and squashy chairs and cream-colored lace window curtains.
– Truman Capote, In Cold Blood


ahimsa – a Buddhist and Hindu doctrine expressing belief in the sacredness of all living creatures and urging the avoidance of harm and violence


The leaders started their speeches … "We have been slaves in our own country for too long. And the time has come to fight for liberty. In this fight, we do not need guns or swords. We have been so not need harsh words or hatred. With truth and ahimsa we will convince the British that the moment is right for them to depart."
– Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance