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May 2008 Archives


Of Politics and Politicians: reptilian; prevaricate; Punch and Judy show; bombastic; Grand Guignol; logrolling; earmarks (earmarking)

More Short Words: skep; knurl (knurling); cadge; plage; lido; ween (prate); ret; scutch

Beer, Glorious Beer: brewster; spile (shive); gastropub; rathskeller; estaminet; beer pong; malt

Glacial Geology: esker; cirque (cwm); kame; drumlin; sérac (crevasse); fjord; tarn


Of Politics and Politicians


With the US political season in active mode, we devote this week to words about politics and politicians. Not necessarily limited to them, mind you, but suitable descriptors of them. We start, of course, with one that also meets last week’s theme.


reptilian – cold-bloodedly treacherous (also, of course, relating to or resembling reptiles)


Throughout his career, his [Ken Livingstone's] real skill always been in political manipulation rather than administration. … there was always something reptilian about this town hall Machiavelli as he twisted his way to the top of London politics.

– Daily Mail, May 3, 2008


prevaricate – to avoid giving a direct answer to a question (note: unlike to lie, it has a sense of evasion and of stalling, delaying)

[Great etymology: from Latin for ‘to straddle’, which is in turn from varus ‘bent’ and either ‘bowlegged’ or ‘knock-kneed’. (Some cite Latin for ‘walk crookedly’.)]


As far as the Electoral Reform Society is concerned, the Labour party has stalled and prevaricated at every turn.

– The Spectator, Apr. 16, 2005


Barbara George, the first high-ranking Mountie found in contempt of Parliament for misleading MPs, now almost certainly will become a historic example for all bureaucrats and other witnesses who dare dodge, prevaricate, deceive or lie to parliamentary committees.

Ottawa Citizen, Apr. 11, 2008


For today’s term, the dictionaries give only the literal definition, so I’ve had to author the metaphorical one. Any corrections are cheerfully accepted.


Punch and Judy show – internal bickering that is low-spirited, vicious, destructive and endless

[After “that most tempestuous of puppet partnerships, Punch and Judy,” spouses in a traditional English puppet for children, who constantly bicker, battle and beat each other.]


… caricatured … Clinton as a woman with balls, Obama as "unqualified" and "grandiose," … Bill O'Reilly declares that Michelle Obama should be "lynched." How do we resist such a toxic Punch and Judy show … to the degree that many women feel that a vote for Obama "cheats" Clinton of her chance to break the glass ceiling, and many blacks feel that a vote for Clinton is a betrayal of the chance to break the race barrier?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Feb. 29, 2008


Is there anything to be done about the Punch and Judy show that is our House of Commons? They shout, they heckle. When an MP from an opposing party is speaking, the noise is worse.

– Diary Hugh Muir, March 21, 2008


bombastic – grandiose but with little meaning

[a stuffing made of cotton fiber was called bombast, from Greek bombux "silkworm"]


Hell hath no fury like a black pastor scorned. … Obama should have thrown Wright under the semi a long time ago. … Wright's apocalyptic rhetoric and bombastic verbiage have poisoned Obama's mantra of hope and change.

Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 2008


Grand Guignol – a sensational or horrific dramatic entertainment

[from the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. Guignol was the bloodthirsty chief character in a French puppet show resembling Punch and Judy.]


This word seems appropriate for gory "slasher" movies. More about it in a soon-upcoming theme.


The Grand Guignol between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has to end eventually …

– Wall Street Journal, Apr. 30, 2008


logrolling – (N. Amer.) an exchange of favors between politicians: “You vote for my project and I’ll vote for yours”

(sometimes, a like exchange between writers, artists, etc.: “You write a blurb praising my book and I’ll write one praising yours.”)


Urban lawmakers are normally happy to vote for crop subsidies in exchange for food-stamp votes from rural lawmakers. It is textbook political logrolling.

– San Francisco Chronicle, May 5, 2008 (I omit the details, so as not to be partisan!)


earmarks (earmarking) – “special spending projects that members of Congress procure for their home districts, often with little or no oversight” (Reuters, Apr. 30, 2008)


This quote should give you the flavor:


Rep. Don Young [of Alaska] offered a public explanation for a secret earmark that so angered fellow lawmakers that they called on the Justice Department to investigate it. [T]he 2005 earmark [in a $286.4 billion highway bill] shifted $10 million from a road-widening project in southwest Florida to a study that promised to benefit one of Young’s campaign donors. Even as Young defended the earmark, he didn’t offer an explanation for how it was inserted into the highway spending bill after the House and Senate both had voted on it.

– Boston Herald, Apr. 30, 2008 (ellipses omitted)



More Short Words


I'm feeling lazy this week, so we'll do a theme that's easy for me: short words.


skep – an old-style beehive: dome-shaped, and made of straw or wicker


And in Granny Weatherwax’s garden the bees rose out of their hives. The emerged like steam, colliding with one another in their rush to get airborne. The deep gunship hum of the drones underpinned the frantic roars of the workers. … The swarms spiraled up over the clearing, circled once, and the broke and headed away. Others joined them, out of backyard skeps and hollow trees, blackening the sky.

– Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies


knurl – a small protruding knob or ridge (also as verb)

knurl or knurling is also the name for something we see every day without knowing the word.

knurling – a surface of such bumps, to improve grip


It seemed that those trees would suit admirably … to serve as new masts and spars, once they were trimmed of limbs and stripped down. The limbs were not so low on them that the of the trees would have too many knots or knurls once they were cut to the right lengths. "Ya chose well, sor,” the carpenter allowed to Chiswick.

– Dewey Lambdin, The French Admiral


All of the bits … have chrome bit holders with a diamond knurl for fingertip control.

– Professional Tool & Equipment News, Feb. 1, 2006


cadge – to beg or sponge off of <cadge a free cup of coffee>


From Christopher Isherwood:


The only fault I find with badgers

Is that they’re such appalling cadgers.

If you ask one out to dine

He'll want a dozen of your wine

To take home. If he likes your prints

He'll bother you with clumsy hints:

"I say, who's that picture by?...

It's my birthday next July..."

Once, one asked me for my car - 

This was going rather far - 

So I said, "Wouldn't you rather

Take this ring? It belonged to my father;

It's set with diamonds." Calm and bland,

He thanked me and held out his hand.

I had an apoplectic fit:

The Badger walked away with it.


plage – the beach of a seaside resort

[ultimately from Greek plagios ‘oblique; slanting’; thence to Late Latin to Italian to French (‘beach; shore’) to English]


Now she took her hand away. She examined his face with a certain seriousness. She said: ‘All men are pigs, but some are lesser pigs than others. All right. I will meet you. But not for dinner. What I may tell you is not for public places. [N]ot at the fashionable plage.’

     Bond said: ‘Three o’clock then. I shall be there. Goodnight.’

– Ian Fleming, For Your Eyes Only (ellipses omitted)


['plage' also has a meaning used mostly in astronomy, but that is a separate word, with the same spelling but different origin. OED says, “In French the two words plage region and plage beach … have been confused since the 16th cent.”]


Yesterday’s word plage brought us the beach. Let’s enjoy another day in the water.


lido – a public open-air swimming pool or bathing beach

[from the Lido, a famous beach resort near Venice. The name, Italian for ‘shore’, is related to the word littoral.]


With 2008 racing from winter to summer … , mid-May finds us enjoying glorious weather and turning our thoughts to happy days at the local lido. … London's lidos … offer a new generation all the fun of the seaside in the inner city. … here's the skinny on the best in outdoor swimming London has to offer this summer.

– The Londonist, May 9, 2008


ween – (archaic:) to think; suppose; believe


Bonus word: prate – to talk idly and at length (typically about trivial matters); to chatter


The poem providing our quote is both witty and deep. Do take a moment, at the link, to enjoy it in full.


It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind. …


[The six “observe” by touch. They come away with six very different views, for each has "seen" only apart of the whole.] …


So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

– John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), The Blind Men and the Elephant


You may have heard of Ernest Rutherford (1871 –1937), who won a Nobel Prize and is considered the father of nuclear physics. He grew up in the wild frontier of colonial New Zealand, where his parents raised “a little flax and a lot of children”.


… he helped at his father’s flax mill in Brightwater where wild flax cut from aboriginal swamps was retted, scutched and hackled for linen thread and tow. He lost two younger brothers to drowning; the family searched the Pacific shore near the farm for months.

– Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb


ret – to soak (flax, for example) so as to separate the fibers [cognate with to rot]

scutch – to separate the valuable fibers from the woody parts (of flax, for example), by beating



Beer, Glorious Beer


I’m being visited by an out-of-town friend who regards beer with great partiality and erudition. So let’s spend a week enjoying that glorious nectar.


Every USn has heard of voyage of the ship Mayflower, carrying the Pilgrims to what later became the United States. It was beer that determined their landing site. As an early record notes, “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” And there is a second “beer” connection: the leader of these Pilgrim travelers was one William Brewster.


brewster – a female brewer


Sara [Barton] is one of England's few "brewsters (the old English word for a female brewer because in early medieval times women did the brewing).

– The Telegraph, Apr. 23, 2005


We’ve previously seen a story of a woman brewing behind her home. “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.” See the link for the upshot.


spile – a small wooden bung (peg) to plug a cask’s hole or to regulate the flow [also, the same for the hole in a tree tapped for sap]


Often a cask is stopped with a shive, which has a hole in it to accommodate the spile.


[R]eal ale shows complexity and a higher degree of drinkability than you will ever find in an over-chilled, highly carbonated lager or keg ale. [T]rue believers have a certain glazed look in their eyes. Because real ale undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask, it requires some careful attention from cellarmen who must replace the wooden bung or shive with a porous spile when the beer has reached optimum carbonation

The Age, Australia, July 4, 2006 (ellipses omitted)


A few days before he thought the sap would begin running, he and Robert would traverse the maple grove, drilling a hole in each trunk, inserting wooden spiles, and hanging buckets beneath the spouts to collect the sap.

– Jennifer Chiaverini; The Sugar Camp Quilt


gastropub – a bar where high quality food is served


"After all,” I said, “ a pregnant girl shouldn’t be forced to go to a bar alone, should she?” “I suppose not,” he said. “Would you settle for a slightly up-scale gastropub?"

- Emily Giffin, Something Blue (ellipses omitted)


rathskeller – a beer hall or restaurant in a basement

[German Rathaus town hall (Rat council)+ Keller cellar]


Every college campus has its beer hall, its rathskeller, its underground den of inconsequential iniquity-someplace where the philosophy majors can huddle in the corners hashing over eros and mortality while the athletes sit at the bar discussing fucking and sudden-death overtime.

– James Morrow, The Philosopher's Apprentice


Another kind of drinking establishment:


estaminet – a small café

(Seems to be used only for a café in France and the low countries. I get the sense of ‘small; informal; homey’, and am told that the term was more used around WWI, for the sort of place a young soldier could go to meet the local young ladies.)

[prob. from Walloon èstaminê, staminê cowshed, little café; prob. from stamen post to which a cow is tied at the feeding trough. But there are other theories.]


“Do you speak French, Blundell?”

The Superintendent grinned sheepishly. “Well, sir, not to say speak it. I could ask for a spot of grub in an estaminet, and maybe swear at the garsong a bit.”

– Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors


More on college beer practices, as in our last quote yesterday.


beer pong – a popular collegiate drinking-game, which has gone “mainstream” enough to have national tournaments. Play ping-pong with several part-filled beer cups on each side of the table, and when the ball lands in your cup, you must drink that beer.


I went down into the basement to rescue James Leer and found him at the Ping-Pong table, facing Philly Warshaw with a paddle in his hand. They were playing Beer Pong, a hazing ritual to which, in his wild days, Philly had subjected all suitors and young male visitors to the house, myself included.

– Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys


malt – grain that has been sprouted (to convert the seed’s starch into sugar) and then dried. The first step in brewing.


… beer is as sophisticated as wine. [W]ith wine you have red and white varieties based on the grapes used to make them. But with beer, for starters, you have dozens of kinds of malts. You have the pale malts, toasted malts, roasted malts. You have malts that give flavor like toffee and caramel and honey. Then you have hops. They contribute not only a degree of bitterness but can add flavors like citrus, apricot, even a jasmine. Then we haven't even begun to talk about strength. When you add more malt, you add more sugar, which brings a higher degree of fermentation and more alcohol.

– Newsweek (web), May 19, 2008



Glacial Geology


A state park I recently visited triggered the idea for a theme about the geology related to glaciers.


esker – a long winding ridge of sediment (often resembles a railroad embankment) deposited by meltwater streams under a retreating glacier

[Irish eiscir. Here’s another picture.]


Sometime after noon the hunters climbed a long, narrow hill of sand, gravel and boulders, deposited long before by the leading edge of the glacier broaching farther south. When they reached the rounded ridge of the esker, they stopped for a rest, and looking back, Ayla saw the glacier unshrouded by mists … for the first time. She could not stop looking at it.

– Jean M. Auel, The Mammoth Hunters


cirque – a bowl-shaped hollow (like an amphitheater), at the upper end of a mountain valley, esp. one an the head of a glacier or stream.


The glaciers are getting closer every day, millions of tons of pale blue ice bulging down through their U-shaped cirques

– Edward Abbey, Down the River


This word has some oddities. It’s pronounced ‘surk’. It’s from Latin for ‘circus’ (for the amphitheater-shape?) And its synonym is cwm, one of the few English words with none of the classic vowels.


kame – a conical hill of water-rounded sand or small stones, deposited by glacial meltwater


Pronounced like came, the past tense of to come. Our quote is a continuation of yesterday’s quote.


We come to a dome-shaped pile of rocks about twenty feet high. This, we learn, is a kame, a deposit left here by the retreating glacier. Some of us climb it – overcoming a kame – and let it go at that.

– Edward Abbey, Down the River


drumlin – an elongated hill, often tear-shaped, formed by moving glacier ice – the blunt end faces into the glacier (contrast kame, formed by meltwater). Common in Ireland, southern Wisconsin, New England, and parts of upstate New York.


A famous drumlin is Breed’s Hill in Boston, site of a famous battle in the American Revolutionary War. (It is misnamed as the Battle of Bunker Hill, because American colonel Prescott had planned to set his defenses there, but later decided that Breed’s Hill would be more defensible. It was here, by the way, that he gave the command, "Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.")


Hill Cumorah [in upstate New York] is one of the holiest sites in all Mormondom, and great multitudes make a pilgrimage here. To a Utah Mormon, accustomed to the eleven-thousand-foot peaks thrusting heavenward, Cumorah’s puny dimensions must come as something of a disappointment. It humps up no more than a couple of hundred feet above the surrounding cornfields. All the same, this modest drumlin is the highest landform in the vicinity. Somewhere on Cumorah, 175 years ago, Joseph Smith dug up the golden plates that launched the Mormon faith.

– Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (ellipses omitted)


Today’s picture will make clear why today’s word comes from French for ‘cottage cheese’! [Compare serum, which means ‘a watery fluid’ – like the whey of cottage cheese.]


sérac; serac – a pinnacle or sharp ridge of ice, among the crevasses of a glacier

(crevasse – a deep fissure or chasm)


Our quotes give a literal usage, plus a nice figurative one from Lawrence of Arabia.


The icefall was crisscrossed with crevasses and tottering seracs. From afar it brought to mind a bad train wreck, as if scores of ghostly white boxcars had derailed … and tumbled down the slope willy-nilly. … it is in the nature of seracs to move, the habit of seracs to topple.

– Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild


About [the sand flat], in scattered confusion, sat small islands and pinnacles of red sandstone, grouped like seracs, wind-eroded at the bases till they looked very fit to fall and block the road; which wound in and out between them, through narrows seeming to give no passage, but always opening into another bay of blind alleys. Through this maze Auda led us unhesitatingly.

– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph


fjord – a long, narrow arm of the sea, running up between high banks or cliffs. Glacially eroded.

Fjords can be strikingly beautiful. Common in Norway. Alaskan fjords can exceed 100 miles long and 5 miles wide.


An orphaned mountain goat kid is tugging at the heartstrings of a boat crew. Only three weeks old, the pure white kid with black button eyes isn't yet weaned so it hadn't eaten since Friday, when its mother drowned in the sea. It is likely to die from dehydration. The goat can't escape its predicament because the terrain in the fjord is too steep, Weber said. "This little guy is either going to die in place there or it's going to get rescued."

Juneau (Alaska) Explorer, June 2, 2008


Today’s paper reports that the kid made it and is recovering in the zoo, “bright, alert and responsive”.


Recall that a cirque is “a bowl-shaped hollow like an amphitheater, at the upper end of a mountain valley”.


tarn – a lake that develops in the basin of a cirque (more generally, a small mountain lake)


I prefer to quote modern usages, but this older one from Poe is too delicious to pass up.


I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling …

– Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher