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April 2008 Archives


Psychology Words: parapraxis; fugue; syntonic; neurasthenia; folie à deux; conation; Munchausen syndrome (factitious disorder, hypochondria, malingering)

Noble Eponyms: yarborough; mithridatism; orrery; Tupperware; pompadour; mausoleum; Solomon

Book: The Physician: coracle; metheglin (infuse, physick, cathartic); haysel; swath; hawk (as a verb, to hawk); aquiline (shagreen); rood

Mistaken Science: cataract; viper; remora; carotid; ether (Ethernet); toadstool; pituitary

Animals as Metaphor: owlish; leonine (Leonine verse); struthionine; albatross; ursine; waspish; coltish


Psychology Words


This week we’ll look at words of psychology and psychiatry. (I should have saved paranoia from last week!) Of course, there are dozens of familiar names of psychological disorders (psychosis; schizophrenia) or mechanisms (sublimation; projection). But we’ll try to concentrate those that are particularly interesting, or on other psychological/psychiatric areas.


We begin, of course, with a word that also fits last week’s para- theme.


parapraxis – a Freudian slip; a minor error, such as a slip of the tongue, thought to reveal a repressed motive

[para- + praxis, act, action]


Appropriately, our example-quote concerns a famous dictionary-maker.


The last episode in the series, about Samuel Johnson, was the best of all … . Only one parapraxis suggested a little lingering Scottish resentment. He pronounced Gough Square, where Johnson lived and wrote his dictionary, "guff". A good joke but not, I think, a deliberate one.

– NewStatesman, Sept. 2007


fugue [Latin fuga ‘flight’] – psychiatry: a pathological amnesiac condition; "a flight from one's own identity" (OED): one is aware of one's acts, but cannot recollect them after returning to a normal state. Loss of awareness of one’s identity, often with flight from one’s usual environment. (Usually from severe mental stress; may persist for as long as several months)


[Agatha] Christie was at the center of her own mystery in 1926 when she disappeared for 10 days. She claimed to have suffered a nervous breakdown and a fugue state caused by the death of her mother and her husband’s infidelity, but many people believed it was a publicity stunt.

– Connect Savannah (GA) (on-line), March 11, 2008


syntonic – highly responsive (emotionally) to the environment; having the responsive, lively type of temperament which is liable to manic-depressive psychosis

[from Greek for “high-strung, intense” and for “to draw tight” The word has another meaning, in electrical terminology: “relating to two oscillating circuits of the same resonant frequency”.]


Most often seen in the phrase “ego-syntonic”.


Anorexia is considered an "ego-syntonic" disease, meaning that it is "in sync" with the ego.

– Vibrant Life, Jan. 1, 2007


"They can be clinically treated," says Simms, "but they are ego-syntonic, meaning they usually are consistent with self-image. Those with such disorders often deny anything is wrong with them and blame others for their problems. As a result, they may not seek treatment.

– Medical News Today, May 3, 2005


neurasthenia – a psychological disorder characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness with vague physical symptoms (headache, muscle pain, etc.); originally attributed to weakness or exhaustion of the nerves


Now considered an outdated diagnosis – but is it anything other than what we now call “chronic fatigue syndrome”?


Quoting from Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, about some of the personalities of a woman with multiple personality disorder.


Helen was intensely fearful; Sybil Ann, listless to the point of neurasthenia. Marjorie was vivacious and quick to laugh. … Sybil Ann shrank into the consulting room. She didn’t speak to the doctor, but whispered. … Sybil Ann sat silently, staring into vacancy. It was as if she was erasing herself from the scene …


folie à deux – delusion or mental illness shared by two people in close association (siblings, spouses; etc.); ‘shared madness’


A distinguished biographer speaks of President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.


Over time, Johnson tacitly developed an anticipatory feedback system that discouraged views that the President would not receive favorably … The organization dynamics remind one of a phenomenon in psychology known as a folie à deux, in which strong, overbearing personalities are able to make others living under the same premises accept their own delusional systems.

– Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream


conation – the faculty of volition and desire; the mental processes directed toward action or change: impulse, desire, volition, and striving


I think therapy has made a philosophical mistake, which is that cognition precedes conation – the knowing precedes action. I don’t think that’s the case. I think reflection has always been after the event.

– James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy--And the World's Getting Worse


Conation, or drive, is about a person’s ability and energy to get things done. It is separate from intelligence, emotions, or personality type.

– Peter Vessenes and Katherine Vessenes, Building Your Multi-Million Dollar Practice


Munchausen syndrome – psychological disorder in which one repeatedly seeks medical attention for physical symptoms – knowing that he is fabricating or exaggerating the symptoms he tells of, or that they are self-inflicted


[After Baron Münchhausen (1720-1797). A book, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, collected tales the Baron had supposedly told of his fantastic, impossible adventures. The fellow who named the syndrome in 1951 explained, “[The patients’] stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful.”]


     Wendy Scott, who had one of the most severe cases on record of a syndrome in which people feign illness or make themselves sick to get medical treatment, died on Oct. 14. She was 50. Miss Scott spent 12 years traveling from one hospital to another in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, pretending to be ill so that she could become a patient. She was admitted to hundreds of hospitals and underwent 42 operations, nearly all of them unnecessary.

     Remarkably, Miss Scott recovered from the condition, called Munchausen syndrome, which many doctors consider untreatable. In recent years, she tried to help other people with Munchausen syndrome, communicating with them by mail, telephone and Internet.

     In the last year, Ms. Scott became increasingly ill but had difficulty obtaining medical care in London because of her notorious record.

– New York Times, Oct. 25, 1999


A related condition is Munchausen syndrome by proxy: an adult (usually the mother) knowingly gives the doctor false symptom for a child, either by making up a story or by inducing the symptoms (e.g., causing vomiting with ipecac). These conditions seem to be very attractive themes for those who write medical dramas for television.


Distinctions: Such repeated “faking” of illnes is called factitious disorder. The patient knows is he untruthful (unlike hypochondria), and has no recognizable motive for feigning illness (unlike malingering). Munchausen involves faking a physical illness, not a psychological one.



Noble Eponyms


Our “psychology” theme ended yesterday with a word taken from a nobleman, Baron Münchhausen. We follow it with a theme of words taken from names of nobles or royalty. 


yarborough –a hand, at whist or bridge (13 cards) with no card 10 or above: no 10, jack, queen, king, or ace (which is, by the way, an ungodly bad hand)

[The Second Earl of Yarborough, Charles Anderson Worsley (1809–1897), would pay £1,000 if such a hand occurred, against a £1 bet. He made a good deal of money at it, for the true odds are about 1800-to-1.]


     Mrs Clarke, a homely woman in a mauve two-piece, leaned forward. “Did you see my hand?” she said, spreading her cards. “Only three points in it. Almost a yarborough.

     The bald-headed Eric nodded sympathetically. “I have held such hands all my life,” he said.

– David Bird and Ron Klinger, Kosher Bridge


Oh, if one could only mithridatize oneself against boring people! This comes from Mithridates VI of Pontus (Mithridates the Great), a remarkable character of whom you’ve probably never heard. 


Mithridates was a formidable adversary of Rome, which needed three wars to subdue him (88-63 B.C.).¹ Mithridates must have had a remarkable mind, for he mastered almost two dozen languages! Pliny reports, “Mithridates, who was king of twenty-two nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue each of them, without employing an interpreter."


His name survives, in rare words, from his fear that internal enemies would poison him. Accordingly, he regularly ingested small doses to develop an immunity (a technique still sometimes used by those who deal with venomous snakes), and he concocted a general antidote said to be good against multiple poisons.²


mithridate – an antidote against poison, especially a confection formerly held to be an antidote to all poisons. 

mithridatism – tolerance or immunity to a poison, acquired by taking gradually larger doses of it. 


Here’s a jocular usage:


If you live long enough in Jersey City and expose yourself systematically to the stings of mosquitoes until the body becomes so impregnated with mosquito poison that those enterprising insects turn away their bills from you in disgust, you are mithradatic, have become mithradatized, and are the lucky possessor – or the victim – of mithradatism. After a course of mithradatization you can drink Pittsburg water and Brooklyn whiskey.

– New York Times, July 23, 1889 (ellipses omitted; note the variant spelling)


¹ Julius Caesar’s famous message, Veni, vidi, vici, was a succinct report of his later campaign against Mithridates’ son.
² Pliny’s report of this gave us our phrase “taken with a grain of salt”. Pliny lists ingredients and directs you to “pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt.”


orrery – a clockwork model of the solar system. 

[after Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery (1676-1731), for whom one was made]


In 1771, a college without an orrery was as behind the times as a modern university without a cyclotron. So, for £229 115. 6d., the College of New Jersey bought one of the mechanical planetariums from a Philadelphia clockmaker … But the glory of the New Jersey orrery was short-lived. … Somehow, as the College of New Jersey grew up into Princeton University, the once-famed instrument disappeared. Not until last year was it rediscovered in the dusty basement of McCosh Hall. … [T]he antique wreck still puzzles Princeton's learned faculty. … Princeton's astronomers have not yet discovered how to make it perform.

– Time Magazine, May 14, 1951


P.S. Apparently it still doesn’t work. The College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), which bought one a few years later, comments with some glee, “The David Rittenhouse Orrery is one of the University's most valuable artifacts. Penn rival Princeton has an older one - but theirs is damaged.” Daily Pennsylvanian, Sept. 9, 2006


In line with our “noblemen” theme, today’s word, like yesterday’s ‘orrery’, is named after an earl.


Tupperware – a range of plastic containers, etc., sold exclusively at ‘parties’ for potential buyers (proprietary name)

[after Earl S. Tupper, company founder. Sorry, folks, I couldn’t resist!]


Some interesting uses of this familiar word:


I drove home [from Thanksgiving dinner] with my trunk stuffed with about ten pounds of Tupperware'dturkey and stuffing and pie ..."

– Jennifer Weiner, Good in Bed


It was a shock. She looked awful. Haggard, frowsy, desperate, like some stressed-out Tupperware hostess or something. 

– T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain


"That blond strip club owner with the Tupperware breasts?"

– Shayla Black, Decadent


… women are buying vibrators at a ferocious rate … especially … in the conservative South, where women who routinely attend church with their husbands also congregate for "Passion Parties" … — … "the Tupperware Party of the new millennium." At these popular women-only affairs, sex toys and lingerie are sold in impressive quantities, along with detailed instructions.

– New York Times Book Review, February 5, 2006


A reader reports that pistols and other "plastic guns" (with frames of "space age" polymer rather than metal) are sometimes referred to by traditionalists as ‘combat Tupperware’. Thanks, Stu!


pompadour – a woman’s or man’s hairstyle (like Elvis') with the hair swept up over the forehead

[after Antoinette Poisson (1721-64), Marquise de Pompadour mistress of Louis XV of France from 1745-50, but first used as a hairstyle in the late 1800s. At her death Voltaire wrote, “It seems absurd that while an ancient penpusher, hardly able to walk, should still be alive, a beautiful woman, in the midst of a splendid career, should die at the age of forty”.]


The word seems to have a connotation of “vulgarly overdone”.


Sixty-something Elena Zanzibar, in a hot fuchsia suit with black piping and a triple strand of pearls around her neck, wore her hair in a Texas-sized pompadour. Numerous diamond rings sparkled on all of her plump fingers. Her papery eyelids were weighted down with false eyelashes. Her makeup was as colorful as if it had come from a child’s paint box.

– Nancy Martin, Murder Melts in Your Mouth


Morrie ran a comb through his dark, Brylcreemed hair, which swept up in the pompadour style of the time and ended in a ducktail at the back.

– Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One


mausoleum  1. a large stately tomb (or a building housing such tomb(s)) 2. a gloomy, usually large room or building

[from Mausolos, the name of a Persian king of Caria, died ~353 B.C. His tomb, to which the name was originally applied, was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.]


I walk across the yard, into my studio. It's like a museum, a mausoleum, so still, nothing living or breathing, no ideas here, just things, things that stare at me accusingly.

– Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife


Solomon – a very wise person. (adj. Solomonic). Wordcrafter note: I’d say this term often has the implication of “thinking outside the box,” finding a novel, creative solution.

[from King Solomon of ancient Israel c.970-c.930 B.C., famed for his wisdom


A thought about the situation of Tibet, as brought to the world's attention by the upcoming Beijing Olympics:


This was the first time that East Germany was competing in the yachting events. So how to reconcile with West Germany? The solution was Solomonic. East and West Germans competed as one national team. The common national anthem that they chose was neither the Deutschland uber Alles of the capitalist West, nor the Internationale of the communist East, but the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the words from Schiller’s An die Freude [To Joy]: Alle Menschen werden Brueder…” [All mankind will be brothers…]

– Manila Standard, Apr. 7, 2008



The Physician, by Noah Gordon


I’ve enjoyed The Physician by Noah Gordon. The protagonist, orphaned as a young boy in the year 1021, first works with an itinerant sideshow medicine man and then travels to Persia to study Muslim medicine. The book is thick with old-style words to set the mood, and I’ll doubtless mine it for future quotes. But for now, let’s give it its own theme: “Words from The Physician”. (Ellipses will be omitted.)


coracle – an ancient type of boat, small, light, rounded and maneuverable, made of wickerwork covered with a watertight material, and used with a paddle

[from Welsh. Used by the ancient Britons, and still used in Wales and Ireland.]


     ‘Have you lived in England long? You speak our language so well.’

     ‘I was born in this house. In 70 A.D., five young Jewish prisoners of war were transported from Jerusalem to Rome by Titus following the destruction of the Great Temple. I am descended from one of these. He won his freedom by enlisting in the Second Roman Legion, with which he came to this island when its inhabitants were little dark coracle men, the black Silures who were the first to call themselves Britons. Has your own family been English that long?


metheglin – a drink of fermented honey and water (also called ‘mead’), esp. when spiced or medicated


The traveling medicine-man peddles a potion to his audiences. He calls it the Universal Specific.


The barber-surgeon told them the Universal Specific was an Eastern physick, made by infusing the ground dried flower of a plant called Vitalia which was found only in the deserts of far-off Assyria. Yet when they ran low on the Specific, Rob helped to mix up a new batch and he saw that the physick was mostly everyday liquor. Any variety would have served, but Barber said he always tried to find metheglin, a mixture of fermented honey and water. ‘It’s a Welsh invention, chappy, one of the few things they’ve given us. Named from meddyg, their word for physician, and llyn, meaning strong liquor. It numbs the tongue and warms the soul.’


Bonus words:

infuse1. to pervade; fill 2. to instill (a quality) into 3. to soak (tea, herbs, etc.) to extract the taste or heal qualities

physic; physick – a medicine or drug, especially a cathartic (for constipation) (also, the art of medicine)


As a further example, the epitaph of Doctor Isaac Letsome:


When people's ill, they come to I;

I physics, bleeds, and sweats 'em.

Sometimes they live, sometimes they die.

What's that to I? I. Letsome.


haysel – haymaking season.

swath1. a strip (from the specific sense: a mowing-path the width of a scythe-stroke, or the cut grass or grain in such a path)


The village wasn’t large enough to support a tavern, but haysel was in progress and when he stopped at a meadow in which four men wielded scythes, the cutter in the swath closest to the road ceased his rhythmic swinging long enough to tell him how to reach Edgar Thorpe’s house.


Idiom: to cut a swath – to create a great stir, impression, or display


hawk (as a verb, to hawk) – to clear the throat noisily (to hawk up – to bring (phlegm) up from the throat)


Rob’s travel to Persia takes him through desert, and he takes his night’s sleep during a storm:


The wind carried sand and salt that burned his skin like flakes of hot ass. Thee air became even heavier and more oppressive. He dreamed. Then he awoke, hawking and spitting drily. There was sand and salt in his mouth and ears.


aquiline – eagle-like (usually referring to a nose like an eagle’s beak)

shagreen – an Eastern untanned leather with many small round protuberances, especially dyed green (also, shark-skin)


Meeting the local king, in the East:


The man was dressed in a plain red calico coat quilted with cotton, rough hose, shagreen shoes, and a carelessly wound turban. He was perhaps forty years old, with a strong build, erect bearing, short dark beard, aquiline beak of a nose, and a killer’s light still in his eyes as he watched his beaters pulling the dead panther.


Extra notes:

Webster tells us more about shagreen: “Used for covering small cases and boxes. The characteristic surface is produced by pressing small seeds into it hair side when moist, drying; then afterward, when dry, scraping off the roughness left between them, and then soaking to make the portions compressed or indented by the seeds to swell up into relief.” (slightly edited)


As I understand it, an aquiline nose is a strong and noble one. But apparently it used to mean “an hooked or Aquiline nose” (1646). Does the following suggest how the word might have gotten conflicting meanings?


Italian scientists have made a reconstruction of the face of the poet Dante and have found some surprises, particularly about the supposed shape of his famous aquiline nose. It was pudgy rather than pointy and crooked rather than straight, almost as if he had been punched. Popular conceptions of the face have always been dictated by artists’ renditions. [But] The team of scientists based their work on calculations made on Dante’s skull made in 1921, the only time it has been removed from its crypt.

– Reuters, Jan. 11, 2007 (text and picture)


rood – a crucifix symbolizing the cross on which Jesus died (esp. a large one in a medieval church, above the rood screen or rood beam)

[The term is also used as an old unit of measure.]


Rob had thought Aire’s Cross was so named because it marked a ford on the River Aire, but the priest said the hamlet was called after a great rood of polished oak within the church.



Mistaken Science


Surprisingly many ordinary words are rooted in the mistaken science of our predecessors. We’ll sample those words this week, beginning with one from last week’s The Physician.


A personal note: When I started to prepare this theme I expected difficulty in finding as many as seven words. To my surprise there are far more than seven; the difficulty was that so many are extremely common, everyday words: protein; leopard; hysteria; vitamin; oxygen; atom; lunacy; mammoth; disaster. Perhaps we’ll return to this theme in some future week.



1. a large waterfall [from Greek for ‘down-rushing’]

2. a medical condition in which the eye’s lens becomes progressively opaque, causing blurred vision


He was interested in Al-Juzjani’s lecture about the opacity that covered the eyes of so many people and robbed them of vision. 'It is believed such blindness is caused by a pouring-out of corrupt humor into the eye,' Al-Juzjani said. 'For this reason early Persian physicians called the ailment nazul-i-ah, or "descent of water," which has been vulgarised into waterfall disease or cataract. Most cataracts began as a small spot in the lens that scarcely interfered with vision but gradually spread until the entire lens became milky white, causing blindness.'


By the way, OED doesn’t share Al-Juzjani’s etymology. An obsolete meaning of cataract is “portcullis” (strong bars making a grating that descends to block the entrance to a castle). OED says the optical sense of cataract is “apparently a figurative use of the sense “portcullis”.


A certain snake was once believed to bear its young alive, rather than from eggs. Hence it was named from vivus "alive, living" (akin to ‘vital’) + parere "bring forth, bear".


viper1. a poisonous snake with large hinged fangs 2. a spiteful or treacherous person


In the second sense, usually used in the plural, as in our quote.


Important people suggested that the military be brought in to wipe out this nest of Nazi vipers

– Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One


remora – a certain fish, with a sucking disk it uses to attach itself to a ship or to a shark, whale, etc.

[The ancients believed the fish would retard a ship to which it was attached. Hence the name: re- “back” + mora "delay" (as in “moratorium”).]


In the main, the Arawaks [in the Caribbean] were simple fishermen. Sea turtles were caught with the help of the remora fish.. The fishermen would go out to sea in their canoes with the remora attached to a string swimming alongside the boat. When a turtle is spotted, the remora would dive towards the turtle and attach itself to the back of the turtle by way of the powerful suckers on its head.

– The Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), Oct. 27, 1998


I couldn’t control my buoyancy. I kept putting too much air into my jacket or too little, bouncing between ocean floor and ceiling in slow motion. Finally, when I had used up all my air, the guide offered me his extra breathing source. Mortified, I shared his air, clinging to his tank like a remora.

– New York Times, Apr. 8, 2007


It was once thought you could put a person into stupor by pressing on either of a certain pair of arteries. Accordingly, the plural of the Greek word for ‘drowsiness, stupor’ was used to give a name of those arteries. That Greek plural-word is karotides.


carotid – relating to the two large arteries carrying blood to the head and neck


[N]one of us thought Beck was going to survive the night. I could barely detect his carotid pulse, which his the last pulse you lose before you die.

– Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster


Today’s word comes from Greek aither ‘upper air’. In ancient and medieval times it meant the element that supposedly filled celestial space above beyond the moon. From about 1700 to 1900 it meant, in physics, a supposed all-pervading medium through which light and other electromagnetic waves traveled. Today this word has two air-senses (in addition to chemical ones).


ether1. literary: the clear sky; the upper regions of air (adj. etheric) 2. the internet [not in dictionaries, but see quote]

Derivative: Ethernet – the dominant system for connecting computers into a local area network (trademark, but sometimes used generically)


Experts say the Internet gives kids, and even adults, the false impression that what they send out into the ether is anonymous. [but v]ery little about what you do on the Internet is unfindable. … Kids can damage their reputations by posting embarrassing photos or videos of themselves and their friends.

– News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), Apr. 25, 2008


[T]oday's students scoff at the ordinary Internet access most Americans know. They crave speed to such an extent that they ,,, refuse to attend any college that doesn't offer it. Consider the suffering they endure when they go home for break and have to plug their PCs into plain old phone lines that are hundreds of times slower. "You go through ethernet withdrawal. … Your computer sits there and you don't want to use it. You eventually find other things to do."

Los Angeles Times, Ethernet Is Changing Dorm Life, Jan. 14, 2000


toadstool – an umbrella-shaped mushroom, typically a poisonous or inedible one

Toads were believed to be highly poisonous, but the word-authorities are coy about whether that belief led to the ‘toadstool’ name. As to the ‘stool’ part, I wish I could report that it refers to ‘stool = feces’, so that a ‘toadstool’ would be what grows from the droppings of the poisonous little beastie. Alas, the ‘stool’ seems to come from ‘stool = a seat’.


A poem by Oliver Herford:


Under a toadstool crept a wee Elf,

Out of the rain to shelter himself.


Under the toadstool, sound asleep,

Sat a big Dormouse all in a heap.


Trembled the wee Elf, frightened and yet

Fearing to fly away lest he get wet.


To the next shelter—maybe a mile!

Sudden the wee Elf smiled a wee smile.


Tugged till the toadstool toppled in two.

Holding it over him, gaily he flew.


Soon he was safe home, dry as could be.

Soon woke the Dormouse—"Good gracious me!


"Where is my toadstool??" loud he lamented.

—And that's how umbrellas first were invented.


A certain gland was thought to channel mucus to the nose. Therefore, in roughly 1615, it was named from the Latin for (as OED puts it) ‘glutinous mucus; phlegm’. Only later was it found that this gland is in fact the “master gland” that directs other glands. But the old name, from Latin pituita, has stuck.


pituitary gland – a small gland, at the base of the brain, whose secretions of which control the other endocrine glands

pituitary1. relating to the pituitary gland 2. of or secreting phlegm or mucus


The broad function of the gland can cause medical confusion.


pituitary tumors are often misdiagnosed because of the confusing array of symptoms they present. "Conditions such as osteoporosis, sexual dysfunction, depression, infertility, or growth disorders can be the result of abnormalities in the pituitary or "master" gland. Many times this association is overlooked. These types of tumors are generally not malignant, but they have many different and highly variable ways of making their presence known.”

– Science Daily, Apr. 29, 2005, quoting neurosurgeon at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago (ellipses omitted)



Animals as Metaphor


The human animal sometimes uses other animals as metaphors for their traits. This week we share some instances.

Sidebar: Our first quote describes the host of a weekly TV news-interview show. It comes from a novel by the son of William J. Buckley, who hosted such a show, The Firing Line. Did the novelist model his character after his father? I give you a bit more of the quote, so you can decide. 

owlish  1. like an owl, especially in seeming solemn and wise 2. (of glasses or eyes) resembling the large round eyes of an owl


Banion looked owlishly into the lens through his tortoiseshell eyeglasses. He seemed perpetually on the verge of smiling, without ever giving in to the impulse. He was in his late forties, but could have been any age. He had looked this way since his second year at Princeton. He had a round face that was handsome in a bookish sort of way.
– Christopher Buckley, Little Green Men


leonine – of or like a lion


Major ______ de Coverley was a splendid, awe-inspiring, grave old man with a massive leonine head and an angry shock of wild white hair that raged like a blizzard around his stern, patriarchal face.
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22


There is also Leonine verse, which Ambrose Bierce explains, with typical humor, in his Devil’s Dictionary:


Unlike a menagerie lion. Leonine verses are those in which a word in the middle of a line rhymes with a word at the end, as in this famous passage from Bella Peeler Silcox:

     The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades.
     Cries Pluto, 'twixt his snores: "O tempora! O mores!"

It should be explained that Mrs. Silcox does not undertake to teach pronunciation of the Greek and Latin tongues. Leonine verses are so called in honor of a poet named Leo [12th c., in Paris], whom prosodists appear to find a pleasure in believing to have been the first to discover that a rhyming couplet could be run into a single line.


Just for fun, here’s an extremely obscure word. 

But a useful one. Have you known someone who, faced with an unpleasant situation, “buries his head in the sand” like an ostrich? That is, refuses to face it, pretends it doesn’t exist? And thus, by letting it fester unattended, usually makes it worse?

Shouldn’t there be a word for it? Sure – and you’re about to meet that word.

struthionine – ostrich-like


We have nothing but contempt for the struthionine conduct of a Government that is unable to see and refuses to be taught.
– Ivor John Carnegie Brown, Having the Last Word

A large number of people have, in the face of bewildering events and issues, adopted a struthionine practice; that is, burying their heads in the sand (the adjective struthionine which I have used has a certain polite and esoteric aura, deriving from the Latin struthio = an ostrich).
– Earle P. Scarlett, Archives of Internal Medicine (1966) (as quoted in Managed Care Success: [etc.]by James W. Saxton and Thomas L. Leaman


albatross  metaphorical: a burden or encumbrance, particularly a marker of guilt, etc. (literal: a very large white seabird with long narrow wings) Etymologies given after the quotes.

Dare I give some recent political examples, if I strive for neutrality and list them alphabetically by candidate?


Hillary Rodham Clinton's albatross is not her sex, or her once-wayward husband - but her record on the Iraq war, a new book claims. 
– New York Post, March 12, 2008

[McCain’s supporters are] all white and nearly all male. Such has been the inescapable Republican brand throughout this campaign … For Mr. McCain, this albatross may be harder to shake than George W. Bush and Iraq, particularly in a faceoff with Mr. Obama. 
– New York Times, Feb. 17, 2008

But still, Wright for the past few days has hung like an albatross on Obama's neck …
– Black Enterprise, March 22, 2008


Etymology: The “burden” sense alludes to the bird in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge (1772–1834). “Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.” The “bird” sense is from Sp./Port. alcatraz ‘pelican’ (influenced by Latin albus ‘white’). That, in turn, is probably from Arabic, either al-ghattas‘sea eagle’ or al-qadus 'machine for drawing water, jar' (Greek kados ‘jar’), noting the pelican's pouch. [Notice that this was a false splitting. The Arabic al-, meaning ‘the’, was thought to be part of the word.]

An obscure meaning, in golf: one under par is a birdie and two under par is an eagle. A bigger bird for the greater achievement. So naturally, three under par is named for an even grander bird. It is called an albatross.


The Yorkshireman chalked up an albatross at the par-five 14th after holing a three wood from 248 yards. Garbutt said: "It's the first time I've ever had an albatross although I've had 11 holes in one.”
– Sportinglife, March 13, 2008


ursine – like a bear


The door opened to reveal two Russians, enveloped in a Chernobyl cloud of their own cigarette smoke. Banion coughed throughout the introductions. The older Russian was a Dr. Kokolev, the younger, a Colonel Radik. … Dr. Kokolev was jollier, in the ursine Russian way.
– Christopher Buckley, Little Green Men


[Yes, this is the same work I cited a few days ago, for owlish. So sue me! I liked the book, although I enjoyed the author’s Boomsday even more.]


1. like a wasp (sharply irritable, or showing irritation)
2. like a WASP (disparaging: of the power elite or the social elite of White Anglo Saxon Protestants)

For the former sense, we enjoy Shakespeare’s breathtakingly bawdy banter between Petruccio and Katherine. For the latter we use the another oft-bawdy source, the Harvard student-newspaper.


Petr: Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.
Kath: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petr: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
Kath: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
Petr: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
        In his tail.

Kath:. . . . . . .In his tongue.
Petr:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Whose tongue?
Kath: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
Petr: What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again,
        Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

– Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew

Pheasant Creek will have neither pheasants nor a creek, and Aspen Grove will have no trees at all, at least in the first few years of development. Once you’ve found a subdivision that sounds like a WASPish Connecticut country club …
– Harvard Crimson, Nov. 8, 2006


Now, on to today’s word, coltish. The dictionaries err. (To prove this, I’ve give far more quotes than usual, the first three are particularly clear.) They say define it as “energetic but awkward” or as “lively and playful; frisky”. But actual usage shows that the word is almost always used for an adolescent girl, with sexual implications. How odd, since a colt is by definition male.

coltish – with the enthusiastic awkwardness of youth (almost always applied to a female, with implications of budding sexuality)

  • Changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward graceful with the tart grace of her coltish subteens, excruciatingly desirable from head to foot … – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  • Seventh-graders – coltish legs, budding breasts that hardly bounced as they ran. ... most retained an endearing, child-like quality. Not yet women, but no longer girls. Innocent, at least for a while. – Michael Crichton, Next
  • … perhaps eighteen or nineteen years of age – gawky and coltish, all long legs and arms, but with the promise of stunning beauty to add graceful curves to the lean linens of her body. – Jim Butcher, Fool Moon 
  • … he saw the Wet Nurse hurrying toward him – a gangling, coltish figure with a peculiar mixture of brusqueness, awkwardness and decisiveness. – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Tessa, having grown into a coltish, freckle-faced girl … 
  • … [In a striptease joint] I watched as a coltish, ponytailed thing auditioned in sandals. … I was the only auditioning girl who bothered to work the pole …
  • I had outgrown my bicycle. My body was so long and coltish that my knees had begun to hit the handle bars …
  • I watched a couple of coltish women my age dangling on swings in the sunshine, kicking their tanned legs …
  • They're coltish and fashionable, some in short skirts with high boots … 
  • … he could only look at her as old memories and old needs tangled with the new. Time hadn't stood still for them. She wasn't the coltish young girl …
  • Red-headed with long coltish legs, she looked about fourteen in the photo. … She must be a real heartbreaker now.
  • Her legs were thin and coltish, and they scissored in the air as they tried to throw off her attacker.
  • One night Jeff and Sharla had a threesome with a coltish American starlet new to Paris