Archives     Dictionary    HOME

February 2003 Archives

Characters from Charles Dickens: pecksniffian; Micawber; Gradgrind; Fagin; Turveydrop; Uriah Heep; Pickwickian

Valentine's Day – ah, Love: cingulomania; typhlobasia; forepleasure; noeclexis; sphallolalia; limerance; vernalagnia/vernorexia

Love gang agley (gone awry): imparlibidinous; anteric; anaxiphilia; synechthry; anagapesis; liffy; artamesia; amplexus

Unexpected etymologies from animals: steward; pavilion; recalcitrant; halcyon; bugle; butcher; canopy; easel; pedigree; auspicious


Characters from Charles Dickens (Week of  Feb. 3, 2003)

This week, to celebrate the birthday of Charles Dickens on February 7, we'll look at some of his characters whose names have become words in our language.


pecksniffian – hypocritically benevolent; sanctimonious.

after Seth Pecksniff, a character in Dicken's Martin Chuzzlewit


Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities, and thus probably leads the world. Early in 1918, when a patriotic moving-picture entitled "To Hell with the Kaiser" was sent on tour under government patronage, the word hell was carefully toned down, on the Philadelphia billboards, to .
- H.L. Mencken, The American Language (1921)

a review of a TV drama, in The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2003 (excerpted):
When Sterling is forced to hold a news conference and the question about drug use is asked again, his response is, "It's none of your business." Yes, really. When reporters persist, he starts asking them whether they've ever used drugs. Finally he lectures them: "It's a silly question, and this is serious business." The whippersnapper! The jackanapes! The Pecksniffian dunderhead! Would a politician be able to get away with something like that?


As to whether one must capitalize 'pecksniffian' must be capitalized: I don't know, but notice that Mencken didn't.


Micawber – a kindhearted, but ineffective, incurable optimist

from the character Mr. Wilkins Micawber in Dickens' David Copperfield. The novel is partly autobiographical, and Micawber may be based on Dickens's ne'er-do-well father. He is always impoverished but optimistic, certain that "something will turn up".


Jack Beatty, The Atlantic, Feb. 1989, on the presidency of the senior George Bush:
Events might thrust crises before President Bush from which he could try to extract a "win." But this Micawberesque vision of foreign policy – something might turn up – is a formula for drift, not mastery.


Gradgrind – one interested only in cold, hard facts. (from the businessman of that name in Dickens' Hard Times. Though Gradgrind does not intend to be cruel, the education he imposes on his children laves them starved for affection and without a moral compass.)


A great many bricks of Gradgrind fact, whether laudatory or dismissive, are bound to destroy the fluid nature of human lives, yet facts are the stuff of biography.
– Elizabeth Hardwick, in the New Yorker, May 8, 1995


Fagin – an adult who instructs others (as children) in crime. (after Fagin, a character in Dickens' Oliver Twist)


Rosen was a fence for stolen goods, who directed 20-25 high school age youths in Garment Center thievery. His activities as a Fagin was [sic] the reason the police were in his apartment.
– Joe Goldstein, Rumblings: The Brooklyn Five,, Feb. 23, 2001


For today, Dickens' birthday, let's take a ridiculously obscure word. Today's quotation is a dialogue from Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott (Chapter 6: Polishing Mac).


Turveydrop – a perfect model of deportment; Turveydropdom; Turveydropian

(from Mr. Turveydrop, in Dickens' Bleak House)


 (Rose) "But gentlemen don't catch up ladies like bags of meal and poke them into carriages in this way. It is evident that you need looking after, and it is high time I undertook your society manners."
(Mac) "I'll behave like a Turveydrop see if I don't."
Mac's idea of the immortal Turveydrop's behavior seemed to be a peculiar one; for, after dancing once with his cousin, he left her to her own devices and soon forgot all about her in a long conversation with Professor Stumph, the learned geologist. Rose did not care, for one dance proved to her that that branch of Mac's education had been sadly neglected.


Uriah Heep – a man who is hypocritically humble. (after the Dickens character Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield)


Note: OED (1989) lists this not as a word, but as a character name "used allusively". (It adds Uriah Heepish.) It gives the example, "'If I may...' often issues from the lips of the Uriah Heeps." Listener April 4, 1974.


Only the pussy-whipped princelings of a press terrain soaked with feminist cant could mistake a stunted Uriah Heep like [presidential candidate Sen. John] McCain for a "real" man.
– Camille Paglia, Salon Magazine, March 15, 2000


We close the Dickens theme with Pickwickian,, after Samuel Pickwick, of Dickens' Pickwick Papers and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. This word has two completely different meanings, one being straightforward ("Pickwickian: simple and kind: a Pickwickian uncle"), but the other with very interesting variances in its shades of meaning, perhaps not properly captured by the dictionaries.


Pickwickian – (of a word) intended or taken "in a sense other than the obvious or literal one" (M-W) or "in an idiosyncratic or unusual way: a word used in a Pickwickian manner." (AHD)

But it seems more exact to define it as "used to mean the opposite of what it would literally seem". Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable gives:


In a Pickwickian sense. An insult whitewashed. Mr. Pickwick accused Mr. Blotton of acting in 'a vile and calumnious manner,' whereupon Mr. Blotton retorted by calling Mr. Pickwick 'a humbug.' It finally was made to appear that both had used the offensive words only in a Pickwickian sense, and that each had, in fact, the highest regard and esteem for the other. So the affront was adjusted, and both were satisfied.


I illustrate with two examples, the first of which is rather momentous.


Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, on the disputed Florida returns in the Bush-vs.-Gore presidential elections:
[Y]ou're supposed to get it in by seven days later. What if you don't? Now, anybody reading that would realize that's a deadline only in a kind of Pickwickian sense. It's not a real deadline.
– Mr. Tribe, arguing Dec. 1, 2000 in George W. Bush vs. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board

The attempt to create and maintain a system of legal rules may miscarry in at least eight ways. The first and most obvious lies in a failure to achieve rules at all, so that every issue must be decided on an ad hoc basis. ... A total failure in any one of these eight directions does not simply result in a bad system of law; it results in something that is not properly called a legal system at all, except perhaps in the Pickwickian sense in which a void contract can still be said to be one kind of contract.
– Lon L. Fuller, The Morality of Law (revised edition, 1969)



Valentine's Day -- ah, Love (Week of Feb. 10, 2003)

In honor of Valentine's Day this week, we will devote our weekly theme to obscure words of sweet romantic love.


And I do mean obscure. Forgive me for not even attempting illustrative quotations this week.


cingulomania – a strong desire to hold a person in your arms


typhlobasia – kissing with the eyes closed


Reader notes and comments:


Close your eyes and I'll kiss you,
Tomorrow I'll miss you

the Beatles


Somehow, that sounds better than "Let's typhlobasiate".


forepleasure – perhaps somewhat richer than foreplay, which usually refers to physical contacts, especially kissing and fondling. Forepleasure by no means excludes those, but it also includes such things as listening to music, reading poems or stories that stimulate affectionate responses, recalling earlier experiences, and even just quietly enjoying togetherness.


What a lovely concept. Special thanks to J.H. Hook, whose book The Grand Panjandrum I have quoted here.


noeclexis – The practice of selecting a partner based on intelligence and character without regard for physical attractiveness


sphallolalia – flirtatious talk that does not lead to amorous action


A reader notes:

When I was a teenager and, like most young male teenagers, was spending a substantial amount of my time in trying to persuade teenage girls to share my bed (or probably the back seat of my car) we had a name for those girls who promised a great deal but delivered less than expected.

            And it was not "Sphallolalia"!


limerance – the initial exhilarating rush of falling in love; the state of "being in love".


Limerance, unlike 'infatuation', does not carry the connotation of emotional immaturity.

In contrast to "loving someone", limerance implies obsessive thinking about the limerent object and acute longing for reciprocation.


Coined by Dorothy Tennov in her book Love and Limerance (1979; recently reprinted). It will be interesting to see if this word enters the vernacular.


vernalagnia or vernorexia – a romantic mood brought on by spring (also known as Spring Fever)



Love gang agley (gone awry) (Week of Feb. 16, 2003)

On our bulletin board we've been playing around with the word agley (= awry or askew), as in, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." So it seems appropriate to follow last week's theme, about romantic love, with a theme of words about love gone agley. We'll rely heavily on Depraved and Insulting English by Novobatzky and Shea.


imparlibidinous – pertaining to inequality of desire between two people


A state of affairs we know all too well. When you ask the woman of your dreams out on a date and she fleers at you, simply explain to your friends that the two of you were imparlibinous.


anteric – seeking vengeance for slighted love


In an anteric rage, Sarah decided that slashing the tires of her ex-boyfriend's pick-up truck just wasn't enough. So she set it ablaze and flung herself on top of it.


anaxiphilia – the act of falling in love with the wrong person


synechthry – the state of living together in a loveless marriage


Say N&S: Yes, it has a daunting spelling, but simply knowing that there is a word out there to encapsulate an all-too-common situation is worth something, isn't it?


"Insisting that they were staying together 'for the children's sake,' the Dorchesters spent twenty-five years gritting their teeth at each other in synechthry and raised a find brood, all of whom eventually graduated to loveless marriages of their own."


anagapesis – a loss of feelings for one formerly loved.


Again, I take Novobatzky and Shea's witty explanation.

This is a terrible yet useful word. Far all those who at one time or another have clumsily and ineffectually struggled to say, " I don't love you anymore," without having to actually say it, don't be fooled: "I love you, I'm just not in love with you" is a horrible thing to tell somebody. To avoid this and other clichιs, it is better to tell one's ex-to-be that one has been stricken with anagapesis – then get the hell out of there before he or she reaches for the dictionary.


liffy – to seduce a woman with promises of fidelity, and then desert her


N&S: "George wanted nothing so much as to be able to liffy every woman that he met."

A female reader feels that the words offered here are slanted toward men rebuking women. She muses, "I wonder if there is a word for Meg Ryan's great scene in 'When Harry Met Sally'.",


Though there should be, I know of no such word more formal than 'faking it'. But to redress any female/male imbalance, I'll offer two words today to end this weekly theme.


artamesia – sexual dissatisfaction in a woman due to the premature climax of her partner.

It is a beautiful thing that a word exists for this all-to-common occurrence.


We all know that woman has to kiss many frogs before she finds her prince. Or shall we say that she must endure repeated amplexus?

amplexus – the mating embrace of a toad or a frog

A technical word with fine potential for figurative use



Unexpected etymologies from animals (Week of Feb. 24, 2003)

This week we look at some familiar words that unexpectedly trace back to animals, and take on a new dimension when one knows the animal-imagery behind them.  Many of these words have strayed far from their original animal meanings.


steward – one who manages property or other affairs for someone else.  originally  pig-warden


'Steward" originally meant "the fellow in charge of the pigsty; the "sty warden". Anglo Saxon stigu sty, pigpen + weard = guard, warden combined into stiweard, the "sty warden". In Middle English stiward came to mean the household officer in charge of the cattle, and later the head manager of the manor. The usual etymological sources, perhaps being some what coy, will trace this back as far as stig = hall, without going farther back to the pigsty.


And yes, this is the ultimate source of the family name of the Royal House of Stewart.


Our quotation gives us an extra word.


[W]hat he said was so out of character that one can only conclude he was a doppelganger. [Gordon Brown] was prone to tinkering with the tax regime like a fussy mother seeing her offspring off to school. But that was forgivable - the price to pay for a cautious steward of the economy apparently immune to destabilizing rushes of blood to the head.
       Until, that is, this week.
– Edmond Warner, A doppelganger pops up on the Treasury bench, in The Guardian, April 20, 2002


pavilion – a large and ornate tent. But more commonly applied structures of greater permanence, as a light roofed structure (picnic pavilion), a solid but temporary structure (the French pavilion at the World's Fair), a sports/entertainment arena, or a building within a complex (as a hospital).


Originally: a butterfly

The Latin word for "butterfly", pavilion, also meant an awning or tent, stretched out like a butterfly's wings. (I do not know if it meant specifically an ornate tent, colorful as a butterfly.) Pavilion has come into French in the former sense (papillon = 'butterfly') but in English only in the later sense, pavilion.


[Though I will not yet predict that] the music in the new Disney Hall will rank among the world's supreme acoustical wonders ... The hall itself is close enough to completion that you can sense the intimacy of the place as compared to the Chandler Pavilion. It's not only a matter of smaller size; it's the contour of the room that seems to wrap itself around you.
– Alan Rich, The Site and the Sound, in LA Weekly (Los Angeles), January 16, 2003


recalcitrant – stubbornly, defiantly resistant to authority or guidance


Figuratively, "kicking like a mule".  From re- "back" + Latin calcitrare "to kick" from calx "heel." And of course, the mule is the animal notorious for kicking backwards. "Recalcitrant" conveys the image of a stubborn mule kicking back.


Our second quotation joins this word with one of our recent football-phrases.


"If the Americans get a unanimous Security Council resolution through, they would be in a much stronger position" to act against a recalcitrant Iraq, says Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.
– Peter Ford, The Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2002

President Bush faced hardened resistance in the United Nations on Thursday to a war against Iraq and threatened to lead a coalition against Baghdad if the global body failed to back him.
–  Evelyn Leopold and Randall Mikkelsen, Bush Threatens End Run Around Recalcitrant U.N., Reuters Oct. 3, 2002


halcyon – calm; quiet; peaceful; undisturbed; happy

often used in the phrase "halcyon days"


Traces back to the kingfisher bird.

The ancient Greeks believed that the time of the winter solstice, a bird built a floating nest upon the sea, and magically calmed the waters during its nesting time. This fable accounted for calm weather supposed to occur at that time of year.

The bird was called halkyon – the sources are somewhat confused as to whether this mean the kingfisher bird, or rather a mythical bird like the kingfisher (alkyon). The term halkyon also ties to hals "sea, salt" + kyon "conceiving".


It is a common lament that children today grow up too fast, that society is conspiring to deprive them of the halcyon childhood they deserve.
– Keith Bradsher, Fear of Crime Trumps the Fear of Lost Youth, New York Times, November 21, 1999


bugle – originally buglehorn, a horn made from the horn of an ox, from Old French. bugle = wild ox, and Latin buculus = heifer, young ox


bonus word:

butcher – from Old French bouchier = slaughterer of goats, and from bouc = male goat


canopy – originally, a screen against gnats or mosquitoes. from Greek konops = "mosquito, gnat" and konopeion = "couch with mosquito curtains".


bonus word:

easel – traces back to the Dutch word ezel, meaning "ass," the comparison being of loading a burden on a donkey and propping up a painting or canvas on a wooden stand. The easel served the artist as an ass, dumbly bearing the load.


We end with two words from birds:


pedigree – literally "foot of a crane".

On a genealogical chart, the group of lines branching from a person to his or her descendants looks rather like the footprint of a crane. Thus old manuscripts, putting the chart into text form, indicated "descent" by a forked symbol resembling a crane's foot. In Old French, "foot of a crane" is pied de gru – that is, 'pedigree'.


auspicious – literally, "bird omens".

The ancient Romans studied the flights of birds for omens to forecast the future. From the words avis = 'bird" and specere = 'to see', they formed auspicium = 'divination by observing flights of birds'. Our word auspicious means 'of good omen'; I suspect, but cannot confirm, that it originally meant 'full of omen' whether good or bad.