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As is our annual custom, we take this week’s words from the current Scrips spelling bee, whose 2008 contest has just been completed. We’ll select words which, though be extremely obscure, are interesting.

A very useful word today. Would that it were known. The dictionary definition might seem positive, but the usages seem to show that it’s meant in a negative sense.

tralatitious – passed along from generation to generation [Wordcrafter note: but not in the sense of an heirloom (complimentary) but rather in the negative sense of “dubious received wisdom; fossilized doctrine”.]
    Among biblical critics a tralatitious interpretation is one received by expositor from expositor.
    – W. Withington

    … works like these are not simply unthinking assemblages of tralatitious data …
    – Simon Swain et al., Severan Culture

    It is high time that we free ourselves from this tralatitious error. Let us, without any preconceived notions, consider …
    – John T. Ramsey et al., The Comet of 44 B.C.
 
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This year’s winning word:

guerdon – a reward or recompense

Scarlett and Ashley, in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind:
    She wrapped the bright lengths about his slender waist, above his belt, and tied the ends in a lover’s knot. Melanie might have given him his new coat but this sash was her gift, her own secret guerdon for him to wear into battle, something that would make him remember her every time he looked at it.
 
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diener – an assistant in a morgue, pathology lab, or other death-oriented facility
(A responsible position but not the boss. Creepy overtones. Think of Frankenstein’s Igor?)
[German Leichendiener, literally “corpse servant”.]

So few dictionaries have this word – it’s not even in OED – that I provide a definition of my own writing, based on usages. For example:
    “I'm qualified as a diener. I did that at night during nursing school.”
    “You worked your way through LPN school as a morgue attendant?”
    “Yes, removing bodies from crime scenes and assisting at autopsies.”
    – Thomas Harris, Hannibal. (“Hannibal” is Hannibal Lecter; this book is a sequel to Silence off the Lambs)

    Lynn had autopsied the mummified body and had her diener strip the bones of the dried flesh …
    – Beverly Connor, Dead Secret

    [Dr.] Marty Roberts entered the basement pathology lab. His diener, Raza Rashad, a handsome, dark-eyed man of twenty-seven, was scrubbing the stainless steel tables for the next post. If truth be told, Raza really ran the path lab. Marty … [had] come to rely on Raza, who was highly intelligent and ambitious.
    – Michael Crichton, Next
 
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piacular – making expiation or atonement (also, rarely: calling for expiation; sinful, wicked, culpable)
    [in Hawaii:] To this day, at the edge of the volcano's broad, smoking crater, people leave piacular offerings of coins, flowers – even gin – to calm the angry goddess.
    – Miami Herald, Sept. 5, 1989
 
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We’ve all seen this kind of Japanese-style gateway. But what do you call it? A torii.

(When I saw the word I thought it was simply the plural of torus – a donut shape [further meanings in other fields]. I was mistaken: that plural is tori, not torii.)

torii – a Japanese gateway of light construction, often put at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. two posts and two crosspieces. [from Japanese for “bird’s nest”]

Our quote emphasizes the friendly, welcoming informality of a torii.

    I rushed to … where the Gion Shrine stood. I climbed the steps, but I felt too intimidated to walk beneath the great two-story entrance gate with its gabled roof, and walked around it instead. Across the gravel courtyard and up another flight of steps, I passed through the torii gate to the shrine itself. There I threw the coins into the offertory …
    – Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
 
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senectitude – old age; elderliness
    During the first third of the twentieth century, a few scholars and popular writers challenged the assumption that older people were doomed to become “geezers”. In [1922] psychologist G. Stanley Hall hypothesized that "intelligent and well-conserved senectitude has very important social and anthropological functions in the world."
    – W. Andrew Achenbaum, Older Americans, Vital Communities: A Bold Vision for Societal Aging
 
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tonneau:
– the rear seating compartment, in a car with separate front/rear compartments (e.g., a London cab);
– the open area behind the front rear seats, in an open-top car (e.g., a two-seater sports car) or a pick-up truck

Here’s a memorable scene in a tonneau. I vaguely recall such a scene in some movie (James Bond?) Can anyone recall it?
    . . . It was very hot in the car. The windows were all shut and the glass partition behind the driver's seat was shut all the way across. The smoke of Hugo [Candless]'s cigar was heavy and choking in the tonneau of the limousine.
    . . . Candless scowled and reached out to lower a window. The window lever didn't work. He tried the other side. That didn't work either. He began to get mad. He grabbed for the little telephone dingus to bawl his driver out. There wasn't any little telephone dingus. He bent forward and banged on the glass with his fist. The driver didn't turn his head. Hugo Candless grabbed viciously for the door handle. The doors didn't have any handles-either side. A sick, incredulous grin broke over Hugo's broad moon face.
    . . . The driver bent over to the right and reached for something with his gloved hand. There was a sudden sharp hissing noise. Hugo Candless began to smell the odor of almonds.
    – Raymond Chandler, Nevada Gas (1935)
 
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