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November 2003 Archives

Gallic Words: démarche; idée fixe; moue; tête-à-tête; jeunesse dorée; dégagé; passe-partout

The body, especially digits: dactylion; tragus; thenar; gular/gula; lunula; oxter (oxter pipes); minimus

Eponyms of Americans: Annie Oakley; John Hancock; Shermanesque; mae west; derringer; foley; sousaphone

Confusing doublets: indict/indite; cervine/cervisial; exigent-exiguous; fulgurate/fuliginous; risorial/rasorial (gibbet); congener/congeries/conger; antinomy/antimony


Gallic Words (Week of Nov. 3, 2003)


French has contributed heavily to our language. This week we'll look at some French contributions in which the gallic flavor still lingers.


démarche – 1. a course of action; maneuver 2. a diplomatic initiative, representation or protest


Moscow has repeatedly said that North Korea made a mistake by withdrawing from the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], because this démarche was fraught with dangerous consequences.
– Pravda, Oct. 14, 2003
While [Ambassador] Shiron did not register a démarche, or formal protest, with the Swiss government over the issue, he said he made it clear that Israel's elected government is the only body empowered to engage in negotiations.
Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2003


idée fixe – an idea that dominates one's mind; an obsession


So say the dictionaries. But I'd suggest that the phrase is more often used to mean simply any belief, principle or goal consistently held over time – without any concept of "obsession" or "monomania". See, for example, the second and third quotations below.


Notre-Dame rises tomblike from the water. The gargoyles lean far out over the lace façade. They hang there like an idée fixe in the mind of a monomaniac.
– Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

In any event, paradoxical as it sounds, the fact is that Frenchmen were to insist earlier than the Germans or Englishmen on this idée fixe of Germanic superiority.
– Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Granny raised me on the Southern idée fixe that ladies do not lie except in the interests of tact.
Florence King, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen


moue – a little grimace; a pout


Her voluble but disjointed account was accompanied by many a droll moue.
– Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

'I don't know much about' Baal began to protest, but 'Ayesha', who really was the most attractive of them all, or so he had commenced to feel of late, made a delightful moue. 'Honestly, husband,' she cajoled him. 'It's not so tough. We just want you to, you know. Be the boss.'
– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses


tête-à-tête – 1. a private conversation between two persons. adj. & adv.: without the intrusion of a third person; in intimate privacy 2. a sofa for two


The phrase need not have a romantic sense; for example, one may refer to a tête-à-tête of heads of state.


Libby MacAusland, an English major from Pittsfield, thrust her head into the tête-à-tête. "What's this, what's this?" she said jovially. "Break it up, girls."
– Mary McCarthy, The Group

Fondue for two can stimulate a romantic tête-à-tête.
– Susan Fuller Slack, Fondues and Hot Pots


jeunesse dorée – young people of fashion and wealth


At Aspern Airfield an "Aeronautical Parade" had drawn so many of the jeunesse dorée that their Rolls-Royces, Austro-Daimlers, Gr.if & Stifts, and Mercedes-Benzes overflowed the parking space.
Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914, by Frederic Morton


From the web: The term stems from the French Revolution, following the July 27, 1794 overthrow of Jacobin government and the arrest and execution of Robespierre. Louis Freron, who played a key role in that counter-revolution, organized gangs of fashionably dressed young toughs to terrorize the remaining Jacobins. French speakers called those stylish young thugs the "jeunesse doree," literally the "gilded youth."


Later, by the time the term was adopted into English in the 1830s, it was no longer associated with violent street gangs and simply referred to any wealthy young socialites.


The jeunesse dorée is dégagé.


dégagé – free and relaxed in manner; casual


If you went into Lynn and Sedley, and made your way into the `made robes' department, you would see me in a frock coat, walking about with a dégagé air and directing ladies who want to buy petticoats or stockings.
– W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage,, ch. CVI


passe-partout – a master key. by extension: something that allows one to pass or go at will¹

[French: passer, to pass + partout, everywhere]


...they appeared in considerable numbers, with a university degree or, more simply, attendance at a European university, seen as a sort of passepartout, the means to multiple opportunities at home. Many are the stories of the "beentos," the English-schooled young men, those who London in the last decades of colonial empire, who returned home to West Africa with an affected style that included dressing in English worsteds and starched collars...
– Raymond F. Betts, Decolonization (The Making of the Contemporary World)


¹For reasons unknown to me, the term also means a mat around a framed picture, or strong paper gummed on one side for mounting pictures.



The body: in the digital world (Week of Nov. 10, 2003)


OK, the topic above is a pun.


I was amazed to learn, when researching this topic, how many different words name specific familiar parts of the body. Let's look at some of them, planning to revisit this topic from time to time. For this week, we'll focus particularly, though not exclusively, at the hands and their ten digits.


dactylion – the tip of the middle finger


Consider the flap of skin on your ear. We all know the word "earlobe" for one part of it, but who would have thought there was a separate word for one of its bumps?


The fleshy bump on your ear, between the face and the ear cavity, is called the tragus. It has surprisingly many google hits, many pertaining to tragus-piercing.


The sources claim that 'tragus' comes from Greek 'tragos', means billy goat. Pending research, I fail to see the connection.


thenar – the fleshy mass on the palm of the hand at the base of the thumb


(some sources add: relating to the palm; sometimes applied to the corresponding part of the foot)


gular – pertaining to the gula or throat

gula – the upper part of the throat; the front part of the neck


(Recall our previous word of the day "gula", one of the seven deadly sins: the sin of gluttony or, more generally, excess.)


The word "gullet" is obviously related - yet it means the tube below the throat, connecting throat to stomach. How did the meaning descend from the throat itself? I cannot say.


fun word - but how would one ever work it into a conversation?


lunula (plural lunulae) – the white crescent-shaped part of the fingernail at the base of the nail

[Latin for "little moon"; akin to lunar]


oxter – the armpit


Two examples, each by by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt:


You may have The Lives of the English Poets under your oxter, young fellow, but you don't have them in your head so go home and read.
Tis: A Memoir

Refering to a newspaper, the Limerick Leader:
How many Leaders have you under your oxter? One, Uncle Pat. Take that Leader in to Mr. Timoney. He owes me for a fortnight now. Get that money.
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir


Oxter pipes are bagpipes, as their bellows are held and squeezed under the armpit. (Robert Smith, Buchan: Land of Plenty)


minimus – the little finger (or the little toe)


This word also has other meanings related to "small size", and is one of many words from Latin minimus least.


You would think 'miniature' comes from that source, but actually it does not. Its history is Latin minium red lead, --> minaiare to color red --> miniare to illuminate a manunscript. This, by confusion with minimus = small, came to mean a small illustration in a text, hence a tiny picture, a 'miniature'.



Eponyms of Americans (Week of Nov. 17, 2003)


Most eponyms come from characters in literature or greek legend. Some come from real people, most of whom are Europeans.


This week we'll present eponyms from people of the USA. I am curious how many of these are familiar to our readers across the ponds.


Annie Oakley – a free ticket or pass


Ms. Oakley was sharpshooter of renown, featured in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (1860-1926). The term come from comparing a punched ticket with one of her bullet-riddled targets.


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, CA, 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, TX, Oct 29, 2003

Article to mark the 50th anniversary of 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. [On a similar matter,] Ben-Gurion explained later that he had wanted more Hebrew names on the document.
– Elli Wohlgelernter, Jerusalem Post, April 30, 1998


In 1884 General William Tecumseh Sherman squelched a movenment to draft him for president, stating, "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve." His name is used eponymously in the press, though I do not find it in the on-line dictionaries.


Shermanesque – of an absolute, unequivocal refusal to run for office

(or sometimes, of any such refusal; see 3rd and 4th sample quotes)


many strategists and aides close to Daschle are just plain Shermanesque in their insistence that he will not be a candidate.
– ABC News, Feb. 28 2002 (2003?)

Chalabi denies that he wants to be his country's first democratically elected president. But his statements are something less than Shermanesque. In fact, they sound suspiciously like the carefully crafted formulations that American presidential candidates use when they're pretending not to be presidential candidates.
– Chris Suellentrop, Slate Magazine, April 9, 2003

Byrd, who is as fiscally conservative as any leader in House history, was still sounding anti-tax last week. But not in as Shermanesque a fashion as before. "My first reaction would be to live within our means. Let's see what the options are," he said.
– Martin Dyckman, St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, November 10, 2002

NATO in return should make "Shermanesque" statements ruling out establishing bases or putting nuclear weapons in the new member states.
– Jim Hoagland, The Washington Post, January 9, 1997


During the U.S. Civil War, Sherman was also noted for his thorough, scorched-earth conquest of Atlanta (as seen in the movie Gone with the Wind). So his eponym is also used to refer to that event:


Shermanesque – brutally thorough (of a conquest)


when the just-completed 2001 NBA Finals are remembered, it might be for the Los Angeles Lakers' Shermanesque march through the playoffs, their best-ever 15-1 record during the run and their efficient disposal of the Philadelphia 76ers.
– Salon On-line Magazine, June 19, 2001

This Shermanesque march over the Bill of Rights is fueled by cowardice.
– Marianne M. Jennings, Jewish World Review, Nov. 13, 2001


mae west – an inflatable life jacket, in the form of a collar extending down the chest.

(worn by fliers in World War II; illustrated in the seventh picture here.)

From the American actress noted for her (ahem) "full figure". I understand that in the same manner, "mae west" is also sometimes used as rhyming slang for "breast".


There we stood sweating like Hialeah horses under the hot Miami haze, strapped into orange Mae Wests, and moving like a colony of king penguins.
– John Edward Young, The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1997


derringer – a short-barreled pocket pistol

[Henry Deringer, Am. gunsmith of Philadelphia (1786-1868)]


The misspelling of his name, with the double-r, has become the accepted spelling. Competitors apparently created that misspelling his rights to the use of his own name, and it led to a lawsuit, Henry Deringer vs. A.J. Plate.


foley – during filmmaking, the adding of sound effects

[Jack Foley (1891–1967), pioneering sound effect editor at Universal Studios in the 1930s.]


The person who does this job is called the foley or the foley artist. atch the credits at the end of the next movie you see, and you'll notice foley artist credited.


Let's end this theme with a smile:


sousaphone – a large brass wind instument, much like a tuba but shaped so that weight will rest on a shoulder and it can be more easily carried in a marching band

[named for John Philip Sousa Sousa (1854-1932), the famous marching band conductor and composer, known as "The March King"]


Here is a picture of the sousaphone.



Confusing doublets (Week of Nov. 24, 2003)


This week we'll present seven pairs of easily-confused words. This being Wordcraft, however, our pairs will not be so commonplace as imply/infer or lie/lay.


We start with a pair half of which is familiar. Its history may also explain the oddity that we pronounce 'indict' without its c-sound, to rhyme with 'incite' rather than 'inflict'.


indict – to accuse of a crime or other offense

indite – to write down; describe


The two words have a common source in Middle English enditen, to accuse, write a document. That source in turn traces back to Vulgar Latin indictare, with the -dic- root for 'to say', as in 'dictation'.


In the spring of 1899 I became conscious of the fact that there was another Winston Churchill who also wrote books; apparently he wrote novels, and very good novels too, which achieved an enormous circulation in the United States. I proceeded to indite my trans-Atlantic double a letter which with his answer is perhaps a literary curiosity.
– Winston Churchill, My Early Life: 1874-1904


Today's words, each exceedingly rare, form an interesting pair.


cervine – pertaining to deer

cervisial – pertaining to beer


By Christmas all but one of Charlie Pienta's shotgun shells were used up in scaring off the deer, but still she kept coming back. Despairing of my ineffectuality, may wife reached a young man who had grown up hunting and who loved venison. Slim and politely spoken, he came and stood in the driveway, listening to Gloria's tale of cervine persecution.
– John Updike, Toward the End of Time, ch. i: The Deer [citation condensed]


exigent – requiring immediate attention; demanding; exacting

exiguous – scanty; sparse; meager


Construction on the new juvenile hall, already four months overdue, could come to a halt altogether today. ...The situation is made more exigent, the report state [sic], by overcrowding at the current juvenile hall next door.
– Tri-Valley (California) Herald, Nov. 4, 2003


... increasingly, the electorate is being turned off by candidates who believe they must engage in half-truths, innuendo and dirty tricks to get elected. ... From my vantage point, the campaign season has resembled one giant refuse bin, a lot of political garbage and exiguous substance.
– Donald V. Adderton, Delta (Mississippi) Democrat Times, Oct. 26, 2003


fulgurate – to flash, like lightning

fuliginous – sooty or of soot [a word little used since Henry James]


Linguists observe and analyze facts of usage; traditional grammarians are pledged to judge those facts. But "embedded in these disputes and complaints is a philosophic problem of the first magnitude. The problem of what to teach youngsters in English is first of all a question of value, not fact." (M. Bloomfield 1953). "At present we are at an impasse," Nunberg has written. "Both sides fulgurate, while in the middle the lexicographers and educators often counsel an enlightened hypocrisy: even if the canons of good usage have no real justification, it is best that people be aught to conform to them so as not to give offence to traditionalists."
– The Cambridge History of the English Language: Volume 6, English in North America [quotation abbreviated]


On the beach, masts and chimneys interlaced, and like a fuliginous shadow the figure of Albertine gliding through the surf, fusing into the mysterious quick and prism of a protoplasmic realm, uniting her shadow to the dream and harbinger of death.
– Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer


risorial – pertaining to laughter

a rare word, akin to 'risable' and to Fr. rire to laugh


rasorial – given to scratching the ground for food (as chickens do)

akin to 'razor', with the common concept of scaping. Here are some metaphoric uses:


They looked toward the door, saw only the paunchy guest of the evening moving toward it, in an unsteady rasorial attitude as though following a trail of crumbs to the great world outside.
– William Gaddis, The Recongnitions


The rasorial crew of Medicare auditors finished their quest for any improprieties that might grease his path to the gibbet, and found no cases – not one! – of unneccessary surgury.
– F. Paul Wilson, Implant


Bonus word: gibbet – a gallows (technically, of slightly different construction)


In the quote above, Wilson continues his bird-imagery by playing on gibbet/giblet


congener – something akin to or resembling another

congeries – a conglomeration; heap or mess

conger – a large, scaleless marine eel


The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets.
– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

The Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialised days of whatever sort in that congeries of colonies. Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out.
– Melbourne (Australia) Herald Sun, Nov 21, 2003

Fortunately, the conger eel lay dead and gutless in a bucket at the Cornish fish market the Tory leader was visiting in an attempt to escape his Westminster
– The Scotsman, UK, Oct 18, 2003


antinomy vs antimony

Our confusing-pairs theme ends with an interesting example. Both sample quotations are from the same work; both are very interesting in content, and in some usages even the author – or more likely the publisher – became confused and used the wrong word! What better proof that the pair is confusing?


antinomy – a paradox in which two contradictory principles are both correct

antimony – a brittle, silvery-white elemental metal


But is it acceptable to maintain that the soul, or the mind, is material? If it is a physical thing like stones or water, it must be determined by physical laws; it cannot be free. But how can we say that the soul or the mind or the will is not free? We are more certain of our freedom than of anything else ... If we accept the notion of a determined, material mind and soul, we are faced with the absurdity of morality, for if we are not free to act as we wish, then how can we be held responsible for our actions.

Again we have an antinomy. We can accept Democritus's assumption that our bodies at least … are part of the material universe, but we cannot accept that our minds and souls and wills are material and belong to that world. ... The tension built up by this antinomy, too, has proved to be fruitful over the centuries.
– Charles Van Doren, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present and Future, p. 40




[Guttenberg] invented four basic devices, all of them used in printing until the twentieth century. ... The second invention consisted of alloy of lead, tin, and antimony out of which the cast letters were made. ... Antinomy [sic] was needed to make the type hard so that it would withstand the making of a number of impressions. The mixture of lead, tin, and antinomy [sic] was used until very recently to make type.
– Charles Van Doren, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present and Future, p. 153