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“I need words that are less obscure,” says a reader.

We are customer-responsive! So this week we’ll enjoy words taken from the current newspapers, words which, though they may stretch us a bit, wouldn’t sound odd-ball to an ordinary audience.

doughty – brave and resolute, stouthearted
[Some say it’s only used to be archaic or humorous. I disagree.]

We quote an article musing on two classics from the 1890s, Kipling’s Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book.
    The best-known story in "The Jungle Book" is "Rikki-tikki-tavi," … about the doughty mongoose who does battle with Nag the cobra. … Kipling not only conveys a vivid sense of danger and wickedness but also describes the appearance and defensive behavior of Naja naja, the Indian cobra, with as precise an eye as any herpetologist.
    – Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2008 (today)
The author illustrates by quoting Kipling:
    From the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss -- a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion-tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of.
Bonus word:
herpetologist
– a zoologist who deals with reptiles and amphibians
 
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pandit – a wise or learned man in India (often used as an honorary title)
[An alternative from has become more familiar to us: pundit. from Sanskrit for “learned, scholar”.]
    Although Kipling routinely (in every sense) invoked the Christian God in his patriotic verse, he himself was an atheist. This passionate champion of the British Empire was just as hostile to Christian missionaries as he was to Hindu pandits; if there was a religion he admired, it was Islam.
    – Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2008 (This is the article we quoted yesterday.)
 
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neuron – a nerve cell
synapse – the gap between two neurons, across which impulses are transmitted
[From Greek sun- together + hapsis joining]
    Evolution's recipe for making a brain more complex has long seemed simple enough. Just increase the number of nerve cells, or neurons. [T]he interconnections between neurons, known as synapses, until now have been regarded as a standard feature.
    . . .But in fact the synapses get considerably more complex going up the evolutionary scale. If the synapses are thought of as the chips in a computer, then brainpower is shaped by the sophistication of each chip, as well as by their numbers. The computing capabilities of the human brain may lie not so much in its neuronal network as in the complex calculations that its synapses perform.
    – New York Times, June 10, 2008 (ellipses omitted)

    U.S. scientists announced the discovery of a gene they call "nervous wreck". The gene governs the size of a synapse – the junction between nerve cell endings. The 100 billion nerve cells in the human make trillions of synaptic connections to neurons,, muscle cells and other cell types. Malfunctions at synapses are believed lead to various neurological disorders.
    – UPI, June 2, 2008 (ellipses omitted)
 
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quote:
Originally posted by wordcrafter:
neuron – a nerve cell

Interesting, WC. Though a medical word NEURON has many combined forms, almost all first surfacing after 1800. Originally from the root neuro-, the Greek meant a sinew or tendon, and also may have indicated strength. It is cognate with classical Latin nervus
Neuro- was earliest shown in words such as Neurology— of Greek origin in the 17th century; and in the 18th century and early 19th century in loanwords from post-classical Latin, e.g. Neurosis (1776), Neurotomy, and Neuralgia. Neuralgia appeared c.1830, from neuron + -algia, from algos "pain." The same word was used a little earlier in French— névralgie (1801).
Dozens of combining forms permeate the medical literature: neurocognitive, neuropathy, neurocutaneous, neurofilament, neurodegenerative, neurosis, and so forth.
I am perplexed, as I often am, and wonder what other words were used for these conditions between the Greek and Latin periods and the late 18th century.
 
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to kneecap – to hobble or cripple by one’s deliberate action
[Originally, referred to Irish terrorists’ tactic of crippling by shooting or smashing the knee. The dictionaries have only that definition, but I suggest that the figurative usage I give is now far more common.]
    Yesterday, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was sending up similar distress signals. … [G]oofy ideas like Ottawa Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's carbon tax tied to income tax cuts would be a loss/loss deal for Saskatchewan. "A carbon tax would kneecap the economy of Saskatchewan," Wall concluded.
    – Edmonton Sun, May 30, 2008
 
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Maybe over there but not over here. We are so close to the practice that it would be considered a metaphor in extremely bad taste. People might use it for shock value but I'd be very surprised to find a newspaper in the UK using it.
 
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quote:
I suggest that the figurative usage I give is now far more common

To follow on from Bob's comment, how can you justify such a sweeping statement? As Bob says, it's unlikely to be used in such a way in the UK, which is the country (with Ireland) closest to the practice. I can't ever recall seeing such a use, other than the Canadian source already cited.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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I've certainly never seen a UK example.


Richard English
 
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quote:
Originally, referred to Irish terrorists’ tactic of crippling by shooting or smashing the knee

I thought it was a Mafia practice. I never associated it with the IRA.
 
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OED:
1975
Daily Tel. 12 Aug. 2/7 Man ‘kneecapped’ in Carrickfergus.
1975 Observer 8 June 4/3 Ulster's gunmen have found they can get hold of Government cash by giving victims a ‘knee-capping’their grim colloquialism for a bullet in the legs... Kneecapping..has replaced tarring and feathering as the province's most common form of terrorist punishment... ‘This so-called kneecapping is really a misnomer, because the kneecap itself is rarely touched.’
MW: kneecapping Date: 1974: the terroristic act or practice of maiming a person's knees (as by gunshot)

The earliest use I've found is Oct. 7, 1974, in an article titled Irish terror stems from misguided tolerance.
 
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Yes, but none of those are metaphoric use. They all refer to the actual barbaric practice. It's metaphoric use that I have never seen. The example you cited is the first and only time I've seen it.
 
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The above is to the "Irish terrorist source".

As to figurative usage in the UK: It's hard to search for 'kneecap' as a verb, because you get many hits for the noun. I searched 2007 to date for 'kneecapped' and found the following (plus further hits in Australia and New Zealand):
The Economist: The first and biggest task confronting the new government is to rebuild an economy kneecapped by violence and propped up by central-government subsidies.
The Register: BT has sealed a critical security hole in the Home Hub that offered hackers full control of the router, which is in about two million UK homes. The firm's latest update has kneecapped part of the router's firmware called Remote Assistance ...

P.S. to Bob: laughing at simulpost.
 
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Manichean – viewing the world as a stark conflict between good and evil, “black vs. white”, with no shades of gray
[Not the standard definition, but I believe it’s the accurate one.]
    The ideology that motivates al Qaeda is that believers have a duty to carry out the excommunication (and execution) of unbelievers, or even of those who collaborate with unbelievers, or refuse to resist them. This ideology posits a Manichean world, divided into two camps: one practicing the terrorists' version of Islam, the other not. This is a fantasy, but a distressingly powerful one. Our vision is a pluralistic world with many peaceful and productive choices on how to order one's life
    – Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2008 (today); ellipses omitted
 
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erstwhile – former; at a previous time
    Robert Mugabe’s erstwhile diplomatic allies are deserting him in droves, yet the Zimbabwean president shows no sign of heeding their advice to abandon Friday’s presidential run-off election in which he will be unopposed.
    – Financial Times, June 25, 2008 (today)
This is a more common word than I’d thought, so I’ll supplement it with a more obscure one, also from today’s paper. That word is haphephobia. Wink

 
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miscreant – behaving badly or unlawfully (noun: one who behaves that way)

[originally meant “a heretic”. Thus mis wrong + creant believed (akin to credence and credit.)]
    When people don't R.S.V.P. by a reasonable date, the host should call the miscreant guests and ask them if they plan to attend.
    – Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2007 (today)
 
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Reviving a thread...
I heard the word manichean used today by author Scott Turow, referring to politicians. Indeed, it's an interesting word. I read about the history of Manichaeism (there seems to be alternate spellings of the word) in Wikipedia, and it's surely an old word. When Turow used it, he said it was a "fancy" word, but I'd consider it quite a useful one, too.
 
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