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July 2008 Archives


US Independence Day: unremitting; manumission; John Hancock; consanguinity; hackneyed; sufferance; Benedict Arnold

Speeches and Orations: philippic; soapbox; jeremiad; panegyric; epilogue; homily; declamation (soliloquy)

Ancient Metal Elements (metaphorically): silver tongued; tin god; iron curtain; copper-bottomed; quicksilver; lead-foot; gold star

Lingo of Corporate Takeovers: golden parachute; pac man defense; staggered board; greenmail; poison pill; white knight

Oxymorons: tender offer; pianoforte; sophomore (sophomoric, sophomania); oxymoron; black gold; neoconservative (idiot savant); preposterous


US Independence Day


Today, July 4, is Independence Day in the United States, and our words this week will relate to the event commemorated. We begin, as is customary, with a word that also fits last week’s theme.


unremitting – never relaxing or slackening; persistent


The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of unremitting Injuries & Usurpations. 

– Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence 

(Congress’s redraft changed this to “repeated”.)


Why was the drafting assigned to so young a man as Jefferson, then only 33? John Adams told the story, years later.¹


The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draft … . The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not.' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'


¹ Jefferson’s recall differed. Interestingly, their careers had repeatedly intersected, not always amicably, and they even died on the same day – on the 50th anniversary of the original July 4th.


manumission – release from slavery

[from Latin manus hand + mittere to let go, send]


… the Revolution and the ideals that came out of it led directly to the abolition of slavery in the Northern states; … the voluntary manumission of 20,000 slaves by their masters by 1800; and the genuine antislavery sentiments of most of the nation's Founders …

New York Sun, August 30, 2006


[Alexander] Hamilton was one of the most ardent abolitionists of his generation. … He even proposed recruiting slaves to fight in return for their freedom. Hamilton was a driving force behind the New York Manumission Society, and in 1785 issued a then-radical proposal for gradual emancipation.

– Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2008


Here's a word we've used before, several years ago, but it fits this theme so well that we'll repeat it.


John Hancock – a person's signature


John Hancock was the first signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence (image can be enlarged). He made his signature there very prominent: large, bold, and florid, right in the top-middle of the signature block.


the governor-elect's [Arnold Schwarzenegger's] autograph is gaining value. … As for the outgoing governor's John Hancock, "I've been doing this for 23 years, and no one has ever asked me for a Gray Davis autograph," Stickel said.

Sacramento (California) Bee, Nov. 17, 2003


Purchasing Agent Sharon Page requested commissioners affix their signatures to the purchase order, and Ware was only too quick to offer his John Hancock. 

Amarillo (Texas) Globe News, Oct. 29, 2003


[Israel's Declaration of Independence:] Space was left by the 25 signers for the 12 council members stuck in besieged Jerusalem, or overseas. But when Warhaftig came to Tel Aviv three weeks later, he put his John Hancock not in the reserved spot, but next to Ben-Gurion's name.

– Elli Wohlgelernter, Jerusalem Post, Apr. 30, 1998


More from the US Declaration of Independence.


Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. … [but] They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.


consanguinity – relationship by blood or common ancestry (more generally, a close affinity or connection)


Adams’ later comment on the Declaration of Independence:


As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.

– letter to Timothy Pickering, 1822


hackneyed – stale and trite; used so frequently and indiscriminately that it has lost its freshness and become commonplace

[Did it have the same meaning as of 1822?]


sufferance – absence of objection rather than genuine approval; patient endurance (esp. of pain or distress)


Again, from the Declaration of Independence:


Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.


The word alter was put in by Congress, where Jefferson’s original draft had used expunge. Most of the changes by Congress were to tone down Jefferson’s angry vehemence.


Interestingly, most dictionaries don’t list today’s term as a “word”. At most they consider it a reference to the historical person, who was U.S. General in the Revolutionary War. He planned to surrender West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds, and he fled to England when his plot was uncovered.


Benedict Arnold – a traitor


The key phrase in today’s quote is John Kerry’s term, though the earliest reasonably-full quote I can find comes from the month of his spokesman.


John Kerry will repeal every tax break and every loophole that rewards any Benedict Arnold CEO or corporation for sending jobs overseas," a spokesperson in Kerry's California camp told me.

– CNN/Money, Feb. 25, 2004



Speeches and Orations


On the Independence Day holiday, before the advent of radio and television, folks would gather in the public square and be entertained by patriotic speeches. In that spirit, we follow our Independence Day theme by presenting various types of speeches and orations.


An angry, bitter speech can be called a tirade, a rant, a harangue (negative concepts do seem to develop multiple synonyms!), or a philippic.


philippic – a bitter verbal denunciation, scathing and insulting 


An eponym: from the name the Greek’s gave to Demosthenes’ speeches against Philip II of Macedon, 351-341 B.C. The Romans adopted the term for Cicero’s speeches against Marc Antony, 44-43 B.C.


His speech was brilliant, capricious, rambling, savage, predictable, astonishing - a sustained philippic against United States foreign policy since 1945. … his infinite desire to pour vilification on the US government and … the "pathetic and supine" British government. … he spoke in a croaky whisper about "the vast tapestry of lies …" and "the crimes of the United States ... systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless", and how "the invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law".

– The Independent, Dec. 11, 2005, re Harold Pinter’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize


This latest philippic from Noam Chomsky sets out to overturn every belief about their country Americans hold dear. The self-image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy, lighting the way for the rest of the world, is a lie, Chomsky says, and … aims to expose the rot of the shining city on a hill, from its foundations to its steeples.

– New York Times, June 25, 2006 (book review)


soapbox  verb; informal: to make an impromptu or unofficial public speech, often flamboyantly (noun: a temporary platform used while making that speech)


But most often used in the idiom on (one's) soapbox – speaking one's views passionately or self-importantly.


Some people love to get on a soapbox and pontificate about the perfection of whatever alternative fuel they happen to be using – they can make us feel useless and pathetic, not to mention guilty …

– Sophie Uliano, Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life


jeremiad – a speech expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom

panegyric – an oration or eulogy in praise of some person or achievement


A long but thought-provoking Independence-Day quote contrasts two different types of orations.


     As we celebrate the birth of the American Republic, can we all stop predicting its death? It's getting depressing.

     Barnes & Noble [has] so many books announcing the end of American power, wealth, influence, or just America itself. Patrick Buchanan told me "we are on a path to national suicide." Then Chalmers Johnson said that the "extinction that befell our former fellow 'superpower,' the Soviet Union ….. is probably by now unavoidable." And Naomi Wolf[‘s book:] "The End of America". I dare you – I double-dare you! – to find a recent book on America's future that does not predict a coming collapse. The causes are endless.

     As a historian, I find this trend fascinating. After all, none have ever lived in a period more prosperous, secure and stable than Americans do today. The U.S. is the wealthiest and most powerful country in all of history. There's never been a better time and place to be alive than America in the 21st century.

     So why all the decline theorists? 

     Here's my theory: Prosperity and security are boring. Nobody wants to read about them. The same phenomenon occurred in ancient Rome, the last state to acquire such a firm hegemony. By the second century B.C., Roman citizens were affluent and their empire no longer had any serious rivals. With the dangers past and the money rolling in, they developed a taste for jeremiads. If you had a stylus, ink and scroll you could hardly go broke telling the Romans their empire, culture and way of life were yesterday's news. Polybius blamed pandering politicians, who would transform the noble Republic into mob rule. Sallust claimed political parties had "torn the Republic asunder." Livy wrote [of] "the decay of the national character until we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies."

     The Romans may have been unquestioned masters of their world, but they sure didn't like reading about it. And when the empire actually did start its decline in the third century A.D., criticisms and predictions of collapse became noticeably thinner on the ground.

     The military dictators who led the empire on its downward spiral did not much like reading about their own shortcomings, and they had ways of making sure that they didn't have to. These were the days of the panegyric – an obsequious form of literature that praised the emperor and empire to the skies. When you start seeing those, it's time to worry.

– Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2008 [ellipses omitted]


epilogue – a speech at the end of a play, addressed to the audience [also: a short addition at the end of a book, often dealing with the future of its characters]


Shakespeare, speaking (inconsistently?) on epilogues:


No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse.

– Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream


[Rosalind speaks:] … 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue; yet … good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues.

– Shakespeare, As You Like It


homily  1. a talk on a religious subject, meant to be inspirational rather than giving doctrinal instruction

2. a tedious moralizing talk


Two very different senses, though you can see how one led to the other. Question: when the word is used in the second sense (as in the second quote), is it fair to say that it carries a connotation of being trite, of speaking in clichés?


I was watching a Cindy Blaine show the other day, all about reuniting long-lost daughters with their mothers, and it was so moving I had tears running down my face. At the end, Cindy gave this little homily about how our families are far too easy to take for granted and that they gave us life and we should cherish them. And I really felt chastened.

– Sophie Kinsella, Can You Keep a Secret?


From General Peckem’s office on the mainland came prolix bulletins each day headed by such cheery homilies as "Procrastination Is the Thief of Time” and “Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness.”

– Joseph Heller, Catch-22


declamation  1. vehement oratory 2. a speech marked by strong feeling; a tirade

[The verb form is to declaim.]


We illustrate by quoting from a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about the beginnings of the American Revolution.


George Johnstone, a dashing figure, delivered on of the longest, most vehement declamations of the night, exclaiming, “Every Machiavellian policy is now to be vindicated towards the people off America.” 

– David McCullough, 1776


A declamation can also mean “a recitation delivered as an exercise in rhetoric”. That sense is usually referring to a student’s recitation, but here is another example, from a book near and dear to my heart.


The rules state that the [US Supreme] Court “looks with disfavor on any oral argument that is read from a prepared text”; it is a time for argument, not declamation. Justice Frankfurter once said that the Court saw itself not as “a dozing audience for the reading of soliloquies, but as a questioning body, utilizing oral argument as a means for exposing the difficulties of a case with a view to meeting them.”

– Anthony Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet


Bonus word:

soliloquy – a speech of one’s thoughts when alone, or regardless of hearers, especially in a play

[Latin solus alone + loqui speak]



Ancient Metal Elements (metaphorically)


Seven of the metallic elements were known in antiquity (can you name them?), and it takes seven words to make up one of our themes. Seems like a match, doesn’t it? This week we’ll present these seven metals, used metaphorically.


Beginning with one that pertains to last week’s Oratory theme. 


silver tongued – having the power of fluent and persuasive speech; eloquent


The rabbi was so famous for his silver tongued biblical exegesis that he preached at four different synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath, and many Christians, including friars, priests, and noblemen, entered the Geto [sic] just to hear him. … Vistorini was sure that no few of the priests who came to listen did so in order to steal the rabbi’s words.

– Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize-winning authoress), People of the Book


tin god – a self-important and overbearing person (esp. a minor official)


He lacks the human touch. I’ve never seen such colossal conceit. The man has set himself up as a little tin god..

– B. F. Skinner, Walden Two


An egomaniacal, dictator type of man (whose woman … allows him to act like a tin god without the slightest resistance) …

– Pat Allen and Sandra Harmon, Getting to 'I Do'


iron curtain – a barrier that prevents free communications of ideas and information


The need to obtain patent protection, in turn, drives firms to throw up iron curtains around their research the moment they get close to a viable drug candidate.

– Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything


copper-bottomed  Brit.: thoroughly reliable

[from copper sheathing applied to the bottom of wooden ships, as protection]


In mid-2004, Mr Brown's allies believed he had a copper-bottomed promise from Mr Blair that he would resign that year.

– The Independent, Sept. 26, 2006


New technology has transformed the capacity of institutions to compile data on citizens. But those records can be traded, stolen and misused. Time and again, ministers give sincere assurances. Yet these promises can never be copper-bottomed and public anxieties can never be properly assuaged.

– The Guardian, Nov. 22, 2007 (ellipses omitted)


Anyone who has struggled to pick up a spill of mercury knows that it is a hard-to-catch silver-colored liquid: it flows; it is “quick”. 


Those qualities gave it its older names. The Greeks called it hydrarguros, meaning “watery-silver” (from hydrarguros we get its chemical symbol, Hg) and in Old English it was quick-silver. The old name is still used for the element, or metaphorically to refer to such a shifting character.


quicksilver – rapidly shifting and changeable esp. with the sense of elusive, hard-to-catch

[Wordcrafter definition; I’m not satisfied with what the dictionaries give.]


The heat of the day made a shimmer over the tar, and at the horizon was quicksilver, shining like water in a dream.

– Stephen King, The Stand


He turned in a circle, trying to catch the minnow of a thought that swam through his mind, too quicksilverto show itself clearly. 

– Jodi Picoult, Second Glance


High prices for gasoline make today's word a timely one.


lead-foot – a car-driver who drives too fast (also used as verb or adjective)

[from lead as heavy]


This term is quite common, but surprisingly, very few dictionaries include it. I give my own definition, plus some very-recent supporting examples:


“I was a lead-foot,” said Dan Ronan. “I would drive too fast, too hard, hit the brakes. I was down to 12 or 13 miles per gallon.”

– CBS 42 (Texas), July 14, 2008


So, he's taking aim at the lead-foot drivers with his radar gun.

WRCB-TV (Tennessee), July 17, 2008


Finally, police officers will continue keeping a watchful eye on Eineke Boulevard to make sure motorists aren't lead-footing it through the subdivision

Chicago Daily Herald, July 17, 2008


Our ancient-metals theme ends with gold, and we can choose among many “gold” terms. Let’s take a familiar one.


gold star  informal: a symbol of recognition for merit or effort; also, the recognition itself


Facebook has brought together friends from long ago, and anything that can make keeping in touch a little easier deserves a gold star in my book.

Dallas Morning News, July 11, 2008



Lingo of Corporate Takeovers


The world of corporate takeovers has developed some colorful lingo – often literally colorful. We’ll look at some of it this week. Our first example is, like yesterday’s word, a will be a “gold” term.


golden parachute – an employment contract providing that a key executive will be given lucrative severance benefits if the company is taken over


Johnson got the RJR Nabisco board to approve a set of antitakeover provisions … . The board also approved severance arrangements known as “golden parachutes” for each of the company’s top ten officers. Most large U.S. companies have similar pacts, which are often considered part and parcel of antitakeover contingencies. The only thing unusual about RJR Nabisco’s was their size: all told, they were worth $52.5 million. 

– Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco


What tactics can a company use to resist an unwanted attempt to take it over? One tactic is to think “eat or be eaten,” and attempt to gobble up the attacker. That strategy is named for a voracious monster. 


pac man defense – a stratagem, to prevent a hostile takeover, by which the target company tries to acquire the bidder


     But it was the Bendix affair in 1982 that really got people's attention. The head of Bendix, William Agee, launched a bid for Martin Marietta. Martin Marietta launched a "Pac Man defense" and made a hostile bid for Bendix. Then Bendix ended up being acquired by Allied Corp. 

     In the course of this, Agee bailed and took an expensive parachute with him. It was, at that point, the most expensive golden parachute ever: $4 million.

– Business Week, How Golden Parachutes Unfurled,, Dec. 12, 2005


To stagger is to astound or overwhelm, as with shock. But when a company’s board of directors is “staggered”, it isn't in shock; it is using a tactic to remain in control. 


staggered board – a board (of directors) whose members’ terms are overlapping, not coincident, so that only some directors (not all) are elected in any single election


[C]orporate governance rating agencies penalize companies that do not elect all of the directors each year. [S]taggered boards block takeovers. If the target has a staggered board, a bidder must win two proxy contests, conducted more than a year apart, to gain control of the board. No bidder in the modern era of takeovers has had the patience and persistence to do this.

– New York Times, Feb. 14, 2007 (ellipses omitted)


Another “color”ful term, combining green with blackmail.


greenmail – the practice of buying enough stock to threaten a hostile takeover, so that the company will pay you a premium price to buy the stock back and get you to go away (also, the money paid to you)


     You remember greenmail. [B]oards often bought out the stakes of investors who were threatening a takeover fight just to get rid of them. The buyout would be at a premium to the market price, allowing the investors enrich their pockets … regular shareholders didn't get the same deal. 

     Texaco paid in 1984 to fend off a takeover, while General Motors bought out Ross Perot's stake in 1986. The investors each reaped more than $100 million in profits. 

     But thanks to tightened board rules, a post-Sarbanes Oxley pro-shareholder sentiment, and in several cases, state laws outlawing greenmail, raiders now have to build a broad shareholder consensus to get their goals accomplished. 

– Forbes, Feb. 21, 2006 (ellipses omitted)


Although the dictionaries don’t note it, the term is also being used for a corporation's “go-away” payments beyond the takeover context.


It's not every day that a major corporation offers to pay $10 million in greenmail to encourage prompt settlement of a federal investigation. 

– eWeek, May 27, 2004


Richman shrugged. “If you have a strong case, take him to trial.” “Yes,” Casey said. ”But trials are very expensive, and the publicity doesn’t do us any good. It’s cheaper to settle, and just add the cost of his greenmail to the price of our aircraft."

– Michael Crichton, Airframe 


poison pill – an arrangement that an attempted takeover will trigger certain events – the events being ones that make the takeover less attractive. (The arrangement is made as an anti-takeover tactic.) E.g., issuance of preferred stock that is redeemable at a premium in the event of takeover.


The recent Microsoft/Yahoo confrontation provides an example.


Yahoo, the internet company that rejected a $44.6 billion bid from Microsoft, may find that a so-called poison pill in its bylaws isn't enough to defend against a hostile takeover. The provision is designed to increase the number of shares outstanding in the event of an unwanted offer, making a takeover costly.

 Yahoo’s poison pill may fail to repel Microsoft, Feb. 13, 2008


A colorful term to end this theme.


white knight – a friendly acquirer, sought out by a target firm to rescue it from an unwelcome acquirer


Is Alcan in search of a white knight? The Canadian aluminum producer has opened its books to mega miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, in an attempt to fend off a $27 billion offer from American rival Alcoa

– Forbes, June 20, 2007 





This week we’ll enjoy some oxymorons – or more precisely, oxyomora. Many will be familiar, and the intrigue lies in realizing that each is an oxymoron.


We open with one from the corporate-takeover world of last week’s theme. Despite the . name, there is nothing gentle or “tender” about a tender offer. On the contrary, it is the usual method used for a hostile takeover.


tender offer – a general, public offer to buy a firm’s stock at a premium price 


The offer is made directly to the firm's shareholders, though the firm’s management will often express its view. Our quote, from a novel, illustrates the conflict.


Centrus Corp.'s tender offer was, upon Lord's advice, rejected by the board of directors. However, all indications pointed to overwhelming acceptance of the offer by the shareholders … .

– David Baldacci, Absolute Power


The word piano is a shortened form of today’s word.


pianoforte – a piano

[from Italian, where piano and forte mean “soft” and “loud”. The instrument was so called because, unlike the harpsichord, its tones were not of unvarying loudness.]


Darwin on “instinct”:


If Mozart, instead of playing the pianoforte at three years old with wonderfully little practice, had played a tune with no practice at all, he might truly be said to have done so instinctively.

– Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species


Think of a 20-year old student: not as all-knowing as he thinks he is; sometimes learned, sometimes childishly foolish. Our name for him is of unclear etymology, but may be a combination of Greek sophos wise + mōrosfoolish. (You’ve already seen the “foolish” part in moron.)


sophomore – a student in the second year of college (or of a 4-year secondary school)

sophomoric – conceited and overconfident, but exhibiting great immaturity and lack of judgment


Remember how awkward it was to be young and trying to impress the opposite sex?


If she was interested in me at all, he thought (and God knows why she would be, he added gloomily to himself), I have undoubtedly put paid to that by exposing the full range of my sophomoric wit. 

– Stephen King, The Stand


A reader has drawn our attention to sophomania – unrealistic belief in one's own intelligence; delusion of superintelligence.


Yesterday we saw moron, “stupid”. Today’s word combines this with oxy- “sharp” (as in oxygen). 


oxymoron – a contradiction in terms (generalized from meaning of “a figure of speech combining two contradictory terms, for emphasis”)


OED tells us that oxymoronic first appeared in 1954. Oh yeah? When Of Mice an Men was published in 1937, a review called it “oxymoronic”.


George was small, wiry, tough, shrewd; Lennie was enormous, floppy-looking but Herculean, and a halfwit. George and Lennie were pals. Americans whose eyes are still smarting from the unhappy ending of the Wall Street fairy tale of 1929 may even overlook the fact that it too is a fairy tale. An oxymoronic combination of the tough & tender, Of Mice and Men will appeal to sentimental cynics, cynical sentimentalists. … Readers less easily thrown off their trolley will still prefer Hans Andersen.

– Time Magazine, March 1, 1937 (ellipses omitted. By the way; Steinbeck's dog ate an early draft manuscript of the book.)


black gold – crude oil; unrefined petroleum [Technically “petroleum” means the material in its unrefined state, but “black gold” emphasizes the “as it comes from the ground”.]


The greatest oil strike in the history of Southern California … ! The inside of the earth seemed to burst out through that hole; a roaring and rushing, as Niagara, and a black column shot up into the air, two hundred feet, two hundred and fifty––no one could say for sure––and came thundering down to earth as a mass of thick, black, slimy, slippery fluid. … Afterwards it was told with Homeric laughter how these women had been heard to lament the destruction of their clothing and their window-curtains by this million-dollar flood of "black gold"!

– Upton Sinclair, Oil!


The two roots in today’s word mean “before/behind”, which is an absurd and ridiculous contradiction in terms. 


preposterous – utterly absurd or ridiculous 

[from Latin prae "before" (as in “precede”) + posterus "after" (as in “post-date”).]


Since such a familiar word doesn’t need quotes to illustrate it, we’ll select quotes to amuse.


… 90 percent of the moving pictures exhibited in America are so vulgar, witless and dull that it is preposterous to write about them in any publication not intended to be read while chewing gum.

– Wolcott Gibbs


Take all your dukes and marquesses and earls and viscounts, pack them into one chamber, call it the House of Lords to satisfy their pride and then strip it of all political power. It’s a solution so perfectly elegant and preposterous that only the British could have managed it.

– Charles Krauthammer, Celebrities in Politics: A Cure


[H]anging over the lives of every little girl born in the second half of the 20th century was the impossibly curvy shadow (40-18-32 in life-size terms) of Barbie. That preposterous physique, we learn as kids, is what a woman looks like with her clothes off.

Anna Quindlen, New York Times, Sept. 10, 1994