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January 2008 Archives


Making and Using Words: neologism (inter alia); hapax legomenon; bahuvrihi; sniglet; inkhorn terms; meme; back-formation; portmanteau word (portmanteau)

The Sorcerer, by Gilbert and Sullivan: clarion (clarion call, knell, lay); escutcheon; comely; tush (pule); navvy; necromancy (nativity, puffery); nosology; philology

Eponyms again: Zamboni; Beretta (magazine, biretta); Jacuzzi (derringer); Quasimodo; axel; salchow; lutz

It’s a jungle out there!: lionize; porcelain; catspaw; cat; lapdog; gallium; boustrophedon

Short words (and similar doublets): shoat/stoat (ermine); muzzy/mazy; smelt/spelt; scruff/scurf (pendulous); quirt; tope; swale/sward


Making and Using Words


We’ve finished our theme of “newness words”. Is there a term meaning “a new word”? Of course – and we’ll use it to transition to our new theme of “words about making words and using words”.


neologism – a newly coined word or expression

[Greek neo new + logos word]


The National Cultural Ministry in Paris has actually prevailed upon the legislature to outlaw popular foreign terms. Talk shows, chewing gum, software, prime time and cheeseburgers inter alia will now be denoted by the terms causerie, gomme à mâcher, logiciels, heures de grande écoute, and … well, quelque chose (something or other) “à la fromage”. Ads using fashionable anglicisms will have to be translated, and scientific terms from the new global technology will have to find French neologisms if French scientists want to write or speak about them.

– Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (ellipses omitted)


Bonus word:

inter alia – among other things


hapax legomenon – a word that occurs only once in the recorded corpus of a given language, a literature, or an author

[Gk., lit. "once said"]


The Song of Songs, also called the Song of Solomon …, is less than three pages long. Almost no other book of the Bible has inspired such a wild variety of interpretations over the ages. … One reason there are so many radically divergent interpretations is that the dreamy song is a Bible translator's nightmare. Hapax legomenon is a Greek term for words that occur only once in a text, and the song has a higher proportion of them than any other book of the Bible.

– New York Times, Putting the Sensuality Back in the Bible's Love Song, Feb. 14, 1998


I can’t find any simple and complete definition of today’s term, so I’ll try to explain it.


A baseball is a type of ball; a cat-lover is a type of lover; in general, when a compound term ends with a noun, it means a noun of that type.


But there are exceptions. Sometimes it is a noun with a completely different meaning: a hatch-back is not a kind of back, and a sweet tooth isn’t a tooth! And sometimes it's not a noun, but as an adjective: we can speak of a high-fiber diet, a kick-ass speech, low-impact aerobics, and an upscale restaurant (but there is no such thing as a fiber diet, an ass speech, impact aerobics, or a scale restaurant.)


bahuvrihi – a compound word, ending with a noun, that does not function as a noun of that sort

[Sanskrit bahuvrihi 'having much rice', which in Sanskrit is a word of this type]


[from a website] Let's say someone calls you "dogbreath". You could get angry and let them win the verbal duel with this blunt challenge. Alternatively, you could parry and thrust with this line: "Is that the best bahuvrihi you can come up with?" and walk away, leaving the aggressor in mental and spiritual disarray with no dictionary to shield himself.


Though a workman is a kind of man and a bluebird is a kind of bird, a cutthroat is not a kind of throat, nor is a lazybones a kind of bones. Linguists call these bahuvrihi compounds, from the Sanskrit expression "having much rice."

– Steven Pinker, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language


It can get interesting if the noun’s plural form is irregular. For example, if a bigfoot and a sabretooth (each a bakuvrihi creature!) are in combat, and each is joined by its spouse, is it the bigfoots vs. the sabretooths? Or is it be the bigfeet vs. the sabreteeth?


sniglet – a humorous coined “word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should’

[The term “sniglet” was coined by Rich Hall, a cast member on the 1990 TV show “Not Necessarily the News,” on HBO. The quoted language above is his definition.]


Mark the agent has created a sniglet for … the time lapse between the moment babies get a shot and the moment they react. There’s the hiatus, then the crying: it’s a criatus!

– Judith Newman, You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: The Diary of a New Mother


You may recall that our quotation for neologism, a few days ago, dealt with French resistance to popular foreign terms. Back in the 1500s when English was changing rapidly, there were those who similar opposed Latinate terms coming into and “polluting” the pure Anglo-Saxon. (Their objection may not have been entirely linguistic, for at the time England was on very bad terms with the major Latinate, Catholic countries of the continent, France and Spain.)


They coined a beautifully contemptuous phrase for the words they objected to. Unfortunately, their position was so extreme as to be silly, their position and their coinage did not catch on. Pity, for it is a wonderful term for “highfalutin language”.


inkhorn terms – pedantic terms or learned borrowing from foreign tongues [From the days of quill pens, which unlike modern pens do not carry their own ink. An inkhorn was a small vessel for ink fastened to the clothing.]


Over the centuries grammar guides and style manuals have favored Anglo-Saxon pedigree. … This meme started in England in the sixteenth century, when "inkhorn terms" (Latinisms and foreign phrases creeping into the Anglo-Saxon lexicon) were disparaged as a vestige of the Norman invasion. … [But consider] the laughable lengths to which philologists would take this argument: William Barnes, in the nineteenth century, suggested that we replace the Latinate criticism with the Saxon deemster-hood, grammar with speechcraft, botany with worrtlore, and active with sprack. Ack!

– Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose


Bonus Word:

meme – an element of culture passed on by imitation or other non-genetic means


back-formation – a word that is formed from what appears to be its derivative


For example, liaise from liaison, and enthused from enthusiasm. These two are notable because they jar the ear, but many other words created in just the same way have become so familiar that you wouldn’t notice: edit from editor; peddler from peddle; donate from donation; emote from emotion; accrete from accretion; aesthete from aesthetic; televise from television.


The tender-hearted policemen in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance sympathize with criminals, who are after all human beings like the rest of us.


When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling,

When the cut-throat isn't occupied in crime

He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling

And listen to the merry village chime.

When the coster's finished jumping on his mother.

He loves to lie a-basking in the sun

Ah, take one consideration with another

A policeman's lot is not a happy one.


When constabulary duty's to be done, to be done,

A policeman's lot is not a happy one, happy one.


portmanteau word – a word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two different words, as chortle, from chuckle and snort

[portmanteau (plural portmanteaux)– a large leather suitcase that opens into two hinged compartments. French portemanteau, from porter to carry + manteau cloak]


Two recent examples in the press:


Hey, guess which relic from the 1970s is back. No, it's not polyester leisure wear. And it's not soft rock. It's stagflation. … when spiraling inflation joined forces with economic stagnation -- slow to no growth, combined with rising unemployment -- to create the portmanteau word economists still use today.

– Motley Fool, Dec. 18, 2007


"Debaucherism," a kind of spring break for working adults, was the defining North American travel trend of 2007, according to tourism analysts … . A portmanteau word combining debauchery and tourism, the hedonistic holiday concept has been taken up by travellers earning more disposable income … and wanting to get the most out of life before settling down … . Comprising primarily singles age 25 to 34, "debaucherists" are said to "travel ... to experience out-of-control fun, including drinking and non-stop partying." … Historic city tours are being supplanted by limo-driven tours to local strip clubs (Sinning in Vegas, Nev.). Room service will bring you food, but also erotic DVDs, velvet restraints and sex toys (Drake Hotel, Toronto).

Spring break for grown-ups, Montreal Gazette, Dec. 15, 2007



The Sorcerer, by Gilbert and Sullivan


One of our quotes last week came from Gilbert and Sullivan. This week we’ll take words from their operetta The Sorcerer. As the curtain rises the villagers are gathered and they sing in chorus, celebrating the betrothal of Alexis and his bride-to-be Aline.


Ring forth, ye bells,

     With clarion sound –

Forget your knells,

     For joys abound.

Forget your notes

     Of mournful lay,

And from your throats

     Pour joy today.


clarion – loud and clear (noun: a shrill war trumpet)

     [clarion call – a strongly expressed demand for action]

knell – the sound of a bell, especially when rung solemnly for a death or funeral

     [verb (of a bell): to ring solemnly]

lay – a short lyric or narrative poem intended to be sung


Alexis’s father congratulates him on his excellent match.


Yes, you are a fortunate young fellow, and I will not disguise from you that this union with the House of Sangazure realizes my fondest wishes. Aline is rich, and she comes of a sufficiently old family, for she is the seven thousand and thirty-seventh in direct descent from Helen of Troy. True, there was a blot on the escutcheon of that lady – that affair with Paris – but where is the family, other than my own, in which there is no flaw? You are a lucky fellow, sir – a very lucky fellow!


escutcheon – a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms

blot on one’s escutcheon – a stain on one’s reputation or character


But sometimes love is not so happy. Constance confides to her mother that she pines for Dr. Daly, the local vicar.¹ But Dr. Daly is an obtuse older man who has sadly resigned himself to bachelorhood. He is completely unaware of Constance’s feeling for him, and has no clue why she is so melancholy.


Poor little girl! I'm afraid she has something on her mind. She is rather comely. Time was when this old heart would have throbbed in double-time at the sight of such a fairy form! But tush! I am puling!


comely – pleasant to look at; attractive

tush – an exclamation, expressing disapproval, impatience, or dismissal

pule – to cry weakly or querulously; to whine, complain, whimper


¹ The daughter-mother conversation is amusing, so I’ll repeat it. Constance (red) speaks


I know not why I love him so;

     It is enchantment, surely!

He’s dry and snuffy, deaf and slow

     Ill-tempered, weak and poorly!

He’s ugly, and absurdly dressed,

     And sixty-seven nearly,

He’s everything that I detest,

But if the truth must be confessed,

     I love him very dearly!


My child, be comforted. To such a union

I shall not offer any opposition.

Take him – he’s yours! May you and he be happy!

But mother dear, he is not yours to give!

That’s true indeed!

             He might object!

                            He might!


But back to Alexis and Aline. Alexis believes that matrimony is “the panacea for every earthy ill,” regardless of class lines. He tells Aline:


Alexis: Still I have made some converts to the principle, that men and women should be coupled in matrimony without distinction of rank. … I have preached in workhouses, beershops, and Lunatic Asylums, and I have been received with enthusiasm. I have addressed navvies on the advantages that would accrue to them if they married wealthy ladies of rank, and not a navvy dissented!

Aline: Noble fellows! And yet there are those who hold that the uneducated classes are not open to argument! And what do the countesses say?

Alexis: Why, at present, it can't be denied, the aristocracy hold aloof.


But as we shall see tomorrow, Alexis is prepared to resolve that problem!


navvy – a laborer in the excavation and construction of a road or railway

[from navigator in the former sense of a one who builds a navigation (a dialect word for a canal)]


Alexis has decided to break this impasse by using a philter – love-potion – to cause all to fall in love. An excellent philter is available from “J. W. Wells & Co., the old-established Family Sorcerers,” a “most respectable firm.” Alexis [blue, below] interviews Mr. Wells [brown]:


     Good day – I believe you are a Sorcerer.

     Yes, sir, we practice Necromancy in all its branches. We've a choice assortment of wishing-caps, divining-rods, amulets, charms, and counter-charms. We can cast you a nativity at a low figure, … Our penny Curse – one of the cheapest things in the trade – is considered infallible. We have some very superior Blessings, too, but they're very little asked for. … But our sale of penny Curses, especially on Saturday nights, is tremendous. We can’t turn ’em out fast enough. …

     I believe you advertise a Patent Oxy-Hydrogen Love-at-first-sight Philtre?

     Sir, it is our leading article. (Producing a phial.)

     Now I want to know if you can confidently guarantee it as possessing all the qualities you claim for it in your advertisement?

     Sir, we are not in the habit of puffing our goods. Ours is an old-established house with a large family connection, and every assurance held out in the advertisement is fully realized.


necromancy1. witchcraft or black magic 2. predicting the future by communicating with the dead

nativity – a horoscope for the time of one's birth (among other meanings, of course)

puffery – hype; exaggerated praise, especially for promotion


Mr. Wells is truly a marvel!


For he can prophesy

With a wink of his eye,

Peep with security

Into futurity,

Sum up your history,

Clear up a mystery,

Humour proclivity

For a nativity – for a nativity;

He has answers oracular,

Bogies spectacular,

Tetrapods tragical,

Mirrors so magical,

Facts astronomical,

Solemn or comical,

And, if you want it, he

Makes a reduction on taking a quantity!

Barring tautology,

In demonology,


Mystic nosology,

Spirit philology,

High-class astrology,

Such is his knowledge, he

Isn't the man to require an apology!


nosology –the branch of medical science concerned with the classification of diseases

[nosos disease]

philology – the study of the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages



Eponyms again


We return to one of my favorite themes: eponyms, or words from people's names.


Zamboni – a machine used to resurface ice rinks

[Frank J. Zamboni (1901-1988) & Co., Paramount, California]


A proprietary name, but occasionally used in lower case. For example:


The ice itself will be thicker than normal NHL ice to accommodate the weight of the zamboni on the temporary surface.

– News 10NBC (Rochester, NY), Dec. 31, 2007


I knelt beside poor Paul and patted him down, finding his little Saturday afternoon special – a 6.5mm Beretta – tucked in the inside pocket of his windbreaker. I took the magazine out and emptied it, putting the rounds in my pocket. I cleared the chamber, replaced the magazine, and returned his piece.

– Nelson DeMille, Plum Island


Beretta – a pistol manufactured by the Beretta company

[The company was founded in 1526 by gunsmith Mastro Bartolomeo Beretta (1490 – 1565/68).]


The dictionaries do not have this definition,¹ but I think the word is not used solely as a trade name. You will find references to a “Beretta” (as opposed to a “Beretta pistol”), and I think the term would be used only for pistols (not for rifles or other items made by that company).


Bonus word:

magazine (in this sense) – 1. a chamber holding a supply of cartridges to be fed automatically to the breech of a gun 2. a store for arms, ammunition, and explosives

[French magasin, from an Arabic word meaning ‘storehouse’.]

¹ They list beretta only as a variant of biretta – a hat of the sort by Roman Catholic clergy: a stiff square cap with three or four ridges across the crown.


The last two words, Zamboni and Beretta are two product-name eponyms for Italians. Here’s a third¹, and like the others, it is arguably still a trade name.


Jacuzzi – (trademark) a large bath incorporating jets of water to massage the body


The term traces to an American father’s love for his son. Italian-born Candido Jacuzzi (c.1903-1986) was the youngest of seven brothers whose company made submersible pumps for industry. He son, born 1942, was in infancy crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, and received regular hydrotherapy treatments at hospitals. Candido adapted the firm’s pumps for a home-use bath to ease his son’s pain between treatments.


When he closed his own eyes a vision of a huge, sun-washed bathroom appeared before him, acres of gleaming marble, steam rising off a bubbling Jacuzzi, a blinding white pyramid of meticulously folded towels beneath a window filled with a blue-green sea.

– James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, Step on a Crack


¹ I could follow Beretta with another eponymous pistol, the derringer – “a small pistol with a large bore, very effective at short range,” says OED. [Invented by U.S. gunsmith Henry Deringer (1786-1868), but spelled with a double-r by competitors.] But since that was word-a-day here a few years ago, I’ll just mention it in passing, adding that a Deringer was used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.


Here’s an interesting confluence of culture and pop-culture.


Quasimodosurfing: a maneuver in which the surfer rides hunched at the front of the board with head down, one arm forward and one arm

[from the hunchback in Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), for the surfer's hunched position]


A little music, maestro:


Don't be afraid to try the newest sport around

It's catching on in every city and town

You can do the tricks the surfers do

Just try the Quasimodo and the Coffin too

Grab your board and go sidewalk surfin' with me.

– Jan and Dean, Sidewalk Surfin'


Our recent eponym Zamboni concerned ice for skating. Several ice-skating jumps are also eponyms: the axel, salchow and lutz, after skaters Axel R. Paulsen (Norwegian, 1885-1938), Ulrich Salchow (Swedish, 1877-1949), and Alois Lutz (Austrian [some sources say Swiss], 1898–1918 [but some instead name Gustave Lussi]).


To explain such things pictures may be better than words, so I'll link you to videos. Also, I’ve found that dictionary-writers often mis-define sports terms. (Are they non-athletic sorts who do not know the sport well enough?) I present offer my own definitions, offered tentatively but after research. They are for the skater who does his/her spins counterclockwise, as 90% of skaters do.


To put it simply: An axel is recognizable because it's the only major jump in which the skater skates forward as he/(she) jumps into the spin. In a salchow he skates backwards in a counterclockwise curve that helps start his counterclockwise spin. In a lutz he skates backward without that helpful curve; it's usually easy to spot because it begins with a very long skate straight backwards.


axel – skate forward on left foot on outside edge (thus curving left, into the spin); jump and spin. Do however many spins plus a half-spin, so that when you land you are going backward

salchow – skate backward on left foot inside edge (thus again curving left); jump and spin

lutz – skate backward without that helpful curve; jump off outside edge and spin


As I said, an attempted lutz is easily recognizable, because it's usually entered from a very long and straight backwards glide. But watch the attempt closely. The skater usually leans left (with only the left foot on the ice) to show the judges that he/she is on an outside edge, but a notorious cheat is to change to the inside edge at the last moment, converting the lutz into a much simpler flip.


From these links, a further click will give you videos of the axel, lutz and salchow. Especially helpful videos are at a double-click on the second axel image, and in the slow-motion lutz and salchow.



It’s a jungle out there!


It’s a jungle out there! Some people are catty, some are squirrelly, and some are dog-tired. This week we’ll present “animal words’, though not necessarily jungle animals.


lionize – to look treat (a person) as a celebrity

From an old fable of a monkey who wanted to pull some roasting chestnuts out of a fire, but didn't want to get burned. He tricked a cat into using its paw to get the nuts. So the cat got the burn and the monkey got the chestnuts. This fable also gives us the expression “pulling his chestnuts out of the fire”.


The Dillinger case was the crucial link between the public imagination and Hoover and his Bureau. … In reality, a talented agent named Melvin Purvis was the key figure in taking Dillinger. … But Hoover fought off any attempts by the press to lionize Purvis; his success in wresting the glory himself, noted Powers, "may well have been J. Edgar Hoover’s greatest public relations triumph.”

– David Halberstam, The Fifties


Today’s word, like many this week, is a familiar one presented for its etymology. Did you know it came from an animal?


porcelain – a white vitrified translucent ceramic


It sounds rather pig-like or pork-like, doesn't it? English got it from French, which got it from its Italian name porcellana, which means ‘cowrie shell’. The ceramic has the same smooth shininess as the shell.


But why is the shell so named? Porcellana is from porcella, ‘young sow’. Why? Because the shape of the orifice resembled the vaginas of pigs. I can offer you a picture of the former, but not of the latter!


catspaw – a person used to serve the purposes of another, as a dupe or tool (also, a light breeze that ruffles small areas of a water surface)


From the fable of a monkey who wanted to some chestnuts that were roasting in a fire, but did not want to burn his hand. He got a cat to reach in for them. So the monkey got the chestnuts and the cat got burned.


     “Did that woman have anything to do with the theft of the emeralds?”

     “How should I know? But to be frank, I don’t believe she did. I think she was just a plain fool. Deacon's catspaw. I'm sure the fellow put her on to find out about the stuff, but I don’t think she was wise to what she was doing."

– Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors


Today’s word cat is very familiar, but I’ll tell an interesting story comparing French and English.


To begin, note that we have familiar words for the male and the female of many common animals. Thus a horse is either a stallion or a mare, a dog is a stud or a bitch, and similarly for pig (boar/sow), a sheep (ram/ewe), a deer (stag/doe), and a chicken (rooster/hen).


In contrast, the word ‘cat’ is male or female, with has no ordinary word to specify a female cat. In recent times a word arose with that female meaning (the word is pussy). And that word later has acquired another meaning, a sexual one, which I need not specify.


Exactly the same thing happened in French, where the word for cat is chat (pronounced ‘shah’, with a silent final -t). There too the word chat means either gender, with no ordinary word to specify a female chat. The French, like the English created one. Their nouns have grammatical gender, and they used their usual gender-forms to convert chat to a feminine form, and to pronounce it. That gave them chatte (pronounced ‘shaht’, with the -tt- pronounced) as their word for ‘female cat’. And French chatte then acquired exactly the same further meaning as the English word pussy.


With that in mind, recall the old Peter Sellers movie A Shot in the Dark, set in France.


The title is a bilingual pun on A Chatte in the Dark!


Today’s word has a figurative sense that goes well with our recent word catspaw.



literal: a small pampered pet dog

figurative: a person who is completely under the influence of another


As head of the powerful Senate Select Committee on Intelligence he’d let the CIA get away with whatever it wanted. There did not seem to be any action too extreme … . He had been Carter Gray's champion or lapdog, depending on how one looked at it, for years.

– David Baldacci, Stone Cold


Some say the lapdog has a less-than-savory origin. “The lapdogs of Tudor Europe were … vital to human comfort and health … . Lapdogs attracted fleas from their owners' bodies, thus lessening the human diseases and discomfort spread by these scourges.” (D. Caroline Coile, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels)


I try not to repeat a prior word-of-the-day. But this one bears a tale worth the retelling for those who not with us when it appeared more than five years.


gallium – one of the chemical elements, with an unusual property. Mercury is the only element which is liquid at room temperature, but gallium is close. Its melting-point (under 86° F.) is so low that it will melt on a warm day, or even when held in the hand. It was discovered is 1875 by the French chemist Paul-Emile LeCoq.


LeCoq claimed that he chose the name gallium in honor of his country France, using its Latin name, Gallia. That’s what he claimed – but his name LeCoq means 'the rooster,' the Latin for which is gallus. Was LeCoq crowing just a bit with that name?


The web indicates that French dictionaries typically cite the 'rooster' etymology, while English language dictionaries give the 'France' etymology. OED, however, weighs in on the 'rooster' side.


You pays yer money, you takes yer choice. I personally don’t buy for a moment the story that Mr. LeCoq innocently did not have “rooster” in mind.


We’ll end the week of animal-words with seriously obscure term. The concept, though, is simple.


Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, describe- the Lilliputans’ writing: "But their manner of Writing is very peculiar, being neither from the Left to the Right, like the Europeans; nor from the Right to the Left, like the Arabians; nor from up to down, like the Chinese; nor from down to up, like the Cascagians; but aslant from one Corner of the Paper to the other, like Ladies in England."


But there’s another way to proceed. Consider: when you mow a lawn, you don’t cut each row north-to-south. You mow one row north-to-south, then return mowing south-to-north, and continue alternating direction in alternate rows. A farmer plows a field the same way.


And so did ancient farmers, whose plows were drawn by oxen. Thus the Greek term meaning “ox-turning” is used to name this sort of back-and-forth method, as used in writing.


boustrophedon – writing in which the lines run alternately from right to left and from left to right


The ancient Greeks originally wrote right-to-left, as in Hebrew and Arabic; later switched to boustrophedon; and finally settled on left-to-right writing around 500 B.C.


[question:] Most streets are numbered from one end with odd numbers on one side and even on the other so that No 1 is opposite No 2. However, some streets, particularly ones laid out in the Georgian period, go down one side in sequence and back up the other. When did the shift occur and why?


[answer:] Georgian suburban planning created the elegant squares and boulevards of areas such as Mayfair in London. Street numbering could either be alternate (odds on one side, evens on the other), or what is called boustrophedon … running the numbers up one side of the street and back down the other … But in Georgian squares boustrophedon numbering was more logical, that is, starting at 1, then 2, 3, 4, etc around the square, as there was no “opposite side”.

– The Times, Nov. 1, 2007



Short words (and similar doublets)


This week I was conflicted between two themes: “short words”, and “pairs of confusingly-similar words”. To resolve that, I decided to do both Our theme will be former, but some of the daily entries will also meet the latter: they will be a pair of similar-sounding short words. We’ll begin with such a pair that also continues last week’s ‘animal’ theme.


shoat – a young pig (just after weaning)


stoat – an ermine (a small weasel-like carnivore), in its brown summer coat. ("The ermine … [has] a very high metabolic rate which makes it a very effective and agile hunter. However, its slim body shape dictates that it must eat often to survive.”)


When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake – not a very big one. … They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

– Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove


A golden-headed duck, startled from its slumber in the reeds, paddled off downstream as fast as if a stoat were on its tail …

– Kate Furnivall, The Russian Concubine


By the way, ermine is a toponym; that is, a word from a place-name. The word ermine is derived from the Latin form of Armenia, where the animal is common.


Muzzy and mazy: similar sounds, somewhat similar meanings, but totally unrelated in origin.


muzzy1. mentally confused; muddled 2. blurred; indistinct


Phoebe felt muzzy and depressed as she sipped her first cup of morning coffee.

– Susan Elizabeth Phillips, It Had to Be You


mazy – like a maze, in design or complexity; labyrinthine

Our illustrative quote is from a poet’s opium dream.


And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale, the sacred river ran,

Then reach’d the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream


You probably think spelt and smelt are the past tenses of to spell and to smell. Well, they are – but they also are foods: a grain and fish. I wonder if anyone has ever made a meal of smelt and spelt?


smelt – a small silvery food-fish (Smelt also has another meaning, of course: 'to melt or fuse ores'.)


Oh, why does man pursue the smelt?

It has no valuable pelt,

It boasts of no escutcheon royal,

It yields no ivory or oil,

Its life is dull, its death is tame,

A fish as humble as its name.

Yet take this salmon somewhere else.

And bring me half a dozen smelts.

Ogden Nash


spelt – an ancient and hardy wheat, grown mostly in Europe


Spelt, an ancient whole grain and kind of wheat that's long been popular in Italy and Germany, is making a comeback among American consumers. The grain, which has a nutty flavor, contains significantly more protein than wheat. Among other benefits, some gluten-sensitive people have been able to eat spelt without experiencing digestive problems. The grain fell out of favor in North America decades ago because its tough hull, or husk, made it more difficult to process. But this tough hull also protects the kernel, as well as helps retain its nutrients and freshness. Spelt was reintroduced to the market in 1987.

– Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Feb. 1, 2007 (ellipses omitted)


Two body-words today:


scruff – the back of a person’s or animal’s neck

scurf – dandruff (or other skin-flakes formed as fresh skin develops below)

[from Old English for 'cut to shreds']


Interestingly, scurf is the source of the word scruffy, "shabby and untidy or dirty".


"So that’s your idea of gratitude?" he screamed. "So that’s how you feel after everything I’ve done for you? Everyone told me that crudeness and selfishness was all I could expect for lifting a cheap little alley cat by the scruff of her neck!"

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged


"What is it you wanted to see me about?” While Sir Claude tried to remember, the Queen had time to notice the thin reef of dandruff that that gathered beneath his coat collar, the egg stains on his tie and the drift of scurf that lay in his large pendulous ear.

– Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader


Bonus word:

pendulous – hanging down; drooping


quirt – a short-handled riding whip with a braided leather lash


More than once, according to Felice, the Captain had taken a bullwhip to his lady, and more than once, she had taken the same bullwhip to him-not to mention quirts, buggy whips, or anything else that lay to hand.

– Larry McMurtry, Comanche Moon


tope – to habitually drink alcohol excessively


The song Have some Madeira, M'dear, by Michael Flanders, tells how an old lecher uses alcohol to seduce a young innocent.


Unaware of the wiles of the snake in the grass

And the fate of the maiden who topes,

She lowered her standards by raising her glass,

Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.


Let that be a caution to all you good ladies among our readers!


Two kinds of land today, the swale and the sward.


swale1. moist or marshy low land 2. a shallow trough-like depression (as along a roadside) that carries overflow water¹

sward – an expanse of grass turf (also, the upper soil layer of soil, esp. when grass-covered)

[from Old English meaning ‘skin, rind’ (of bacon, etc.). Greensward means ‘grass-covered turf’.]


The issue began as a result of complaints from Balsam Road residents April and Joe Comazzolo, who say they have spent five years dealing with backyard flooding after a neighbour blocked a drainage swale that runs through the neighbourhood.

Welland (Canada) Tribune, Jan. 28, 2008


Now they … entered a new residential section that skirted a substantial wood with tall trees and paths through it. Blackthorne found it vastly enjoyable to be out of the streets, the well-tended sward soft underfoot, the track wandering through the trees.

– James Clavell, Shogun


¹ further meanings:

paralleling #1: a shallow depression on a golf fairway or green

paralleling #2: a trough between ridges on a beach, paralleling the coastline