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March 2003 Archives

Pleasant Conversation: eutrapely; persifleur/persiflage/quiz; causerie/causeur/causeuse; phatic; subtlist/subtilism; birkie; bridgebuilder

Epi- Words: epigone; epicenter; epicure; epicene; epiphany; epicrisis; epithet

A Hodge-Podge of Reduplicatives: higgledy-piggledy; niminy-piminy; namby-pamby; tuppenny-ha'penny; jiggery-pokery; hunky-dory; hugger-mugger

Words of the War: billet; cadre; frag; hydrophobic; inveigh; hubris; atavistic


Pleasant Conversation (Week of March 3, 2003)


eutrapely – pleasantness in conversation, one of the seven moral virtues that Aristotle enumerated. In the New Testament this word was used to mean 'reprehensible levity of speech'.


The are few quotations available other than from reviews of the book, by Erin McKean, in which I found this word.


This week we'll feature pleasant conversationalists. Sadly, fewer words are available for pleasant conversationalists than for unpleasant ones -- so do feel free to supplement our offerings.


(A reader asks:  "Where, in the N.T. would I look to find 'eutrapely'?"  An excellent question. My source is the book Weird and Wonderful Words by Erin McKean, of OED, which says that 'eutrapely' is so used but gives no cite. I'll e-mail her a note.)


persifleur – one who indulges in persiflage; a banterer; a quiz


(persiflage – light teasing; good natured or frivolous talk)


(quiz [in this sense] – chiefly British to poke fun at; mock)


This sense of 'quiz' seems negative, although 'persiflage' does not. Can our brits comment on whether 'quiz' is negative, and if so perhaps used to have a different overtone?


A raven sat upon a tree,
And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie.
Or, maybe it was Roquefort.
We'll make it any kind you please --
At all events it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree's umbrageous limb
A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
And spoke in words beguiling:
"J'admire," said he, "ton beau plumage!"
(The which was simply persiflage.)

- Guy Wetmore Carryl, The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven (a retelling of Aesop's fable)


causerie – informal discussion or chat, especially of an intellectual nature (also, a chatty piece of writing)


causeur – an easy talker, frequently witty, plesant to hear

causeuse – formerly meant a female version of the same; now means a small cozy sofa for two people to have a long chat


Until recently, the history of art, particularly that of literature, has had more in common with causerie than with scholarship. It obeyed all the laws of causerie, skipping blithely from topic to topic, from lyrical effusions on the elegance of forms to anecdotes from the artist's life, from psychological truisms to questions concerning philosophical significance and social environment.
– Roman Jakobson, On Realism and Art, (1921; translated), reprinted in Context on-line forum of literary criticism


"How are you? Lovely day, isn't it?" (smile; nod of head) We're familiar with talk and gesture that, though it doesn't really communicate anything, is the social lubricant to maintain our channels of communication. But the word for this familiar phenomenon hasn't entered everyday vocabulary.


phatic – relating to speech used to share feelings or to establish a sociable mood, rather than to communicate information or ideas


English on-line explains:  [The term was coined] by [Bronisław] Malinowski [1923], the anthropologist who studied the speech and customs of the Trobriand Islanders. He described such talk as a means by which 'ties of union are created by the mere exchange of words.' Typically, in New Zealand, such phatic communion centres on comments about the weather, on personal appearance, enquiries about health, or affirmations about everyday things.


For example:

Don't tell your friends about your indigestion.

"How are you?" is a greeting, not a question.

(apparently Arthur Guiterman, but sometimes attributed to Robert Benchley)


A reader notes with surprise that according to AHD, phatic, emphasize and empathy come from three different roots:

phatic: Greek phatos, phanai = spoken, to speak: e.g., aphasia: partial or total inability to speak or to comprehend speeh

emphasis: Greek phainein, to show

empathy: -pathy, feeling, suffering, perception (e.g., telepathy), from Greek -patheia, pathos


When I adopted this 'pleasant conversation' theme, several of my seven words came from a single compilation-book. But now, a check of OED reveals that one is not recognized, two others are not necessarily pleasant, and still others are pleasant but not necessarily conversation.


It's a sad thought that I can only find two words for pleasant conversation – plus an obscure Aristotelian word and a technical 20th-century coinage. So for the rest of the week, we'll stretch the scope of this theme just a bit.


subtlist (also subtilist) – one addicted to subtleties

subtilism – the quality or state of being subtle; subtlety


Not necessarily a positive word.


The rude, discursive Thinker is the Scholastic (Schoolman Logician). The true Scholastic is a mystical Subtlist; out of logical Atoms he builds his Universe; he annihilates all living Nature, to put an Artifice of Thoughts (Gedankenkunststuck, literally Conjuror's-trick of Thoughts) in its room. His aim is an infinite Automaton. Opposite to him is the rude, intuitive Poet ...

- Thomas Carlyle, 1829, discussing and quoting Novalis (pseudonym of Friedrich von Hardenberg). I glean that Novalis wrote in German, and Carlyle is quoting a translation.


birkie – a lively, engaging, intelligent clean-cut, confident person


So says J.N. Hook's The Grand Panjandrum, saying that English ought to adopt this Scottish word. In fact it is already in our English dictionaries, but with oddly varying definitions.


- a man, especially one who is spirited and energetic (AHD)

- a lively smart assertive person (Webst. Coll.)

- a lively or mettlesome fellow (Webster's Rev. Unabridged)

- a strutting or swaggering fellow” (Chambers Dict., as cited in World Wide Words)

- a smart fellow, a conceited fellow, or a sharp-tongued, quick tempered person, usually a woman (on-line source)


I'd like to take it as a complimentary term. Here are some usages, some of them complimentary:


Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
- Robert Burns, A Man's A Man For A' That (ca'd = called; coof = fool)

LADY KATE: It was at a tournament at Langholm. I was seated in the grandstand alang wi' umpteen ither lassies. Effie was beside me. She was my personal maid then. There he was, this young birkie, aboot tae ride in the lists, astride a muckle grey horse. I'd never seen sic a braw handsome figure.
– from Brodie the Broadsword by Alan Richardson, Winner of the 1975 SCDA Playwriting Competition

And this young birkie here, that ye're hoying and hounding on the shortest road to the gallows and the deevil, will his stage-plays and his poetries help him here, dye think.
– Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, ch. 23


bridgebuilder – a peacemaker; an arbirator; one who seeks to help opposing sides understtand each others positions, and to reconcile their differences


The word could have broader use. It appears largely in the religious context and into the bafflegab of government-body mission statements.


The vivacious non-denominational minister acts as a bridgebuilder between orthodoxy and new thought, between religions, races and languages.
Janet Heard, From pink to wed; The 'rebel' preacher who's in demand, Sunday Times (South Africa) 17 October 1999

ISPO, the Information Society Promotion Office of the [European] Commission, acts as a bridgebuilder between the Commission and the many European counterparts ...

– Website of the European Commission's Information Society




Epi- Words (Week of March 10, 2003)

This week we'll explore words using the Greek prefix epi-.


epigone – a second-rate imitator or follower (especially of a writer, artist or musician)

Pronounced with three syllables; the 'e' at the end is silent.

The Epigonoi were the sons of the Seven against Thebes, who imitated their fathers by attacking Thebes. Greek gonos 'child'


This patronizing habit of writing off Clare as an unsophisticated epigone began in his own lifetime -- indeed, to judge by the facts of that life, any dutiful gradgrind would have concluded that Clare couldn't possibly have amounted to much of a poet at all.
– David Barber, in The Atlantic on line, Dec. 9, 1999, on poet John Clare (1793-1864)

From 1883 to 1892, during Winston's formative schooldays, Winston was his father's epigone, pasting press cuttings and cartoons of Lord Randolph in scrapbooks.
– Jeanette Hanisee Gabriel, republished within The Winston Churchill Home Page (original publication unclear)


A reader notes: A better reference would be to the Greek epνgonos '(one) born afterwards'.


epicenter – the focal point, especially of a crisis (originally, the point of the earth's surface directly above the focus of an earthquake)


AHD's usage experts strongly approve the figurative use as focal point, in dangerous, destructive, or negative contexts. Approval is lower when the context is neutral or positive. Compare these two illustrative quotes:


Al-Qaida has changed, but it's still at the epicenter of anti-Western terrorism.
– Paul Haven, Associated Press, 3/6/2003

How did Silicon Valley reach this zenith? What transformed a former patch of apricot and prune orchards into the epicenter of global technology?
– Business Week, August 25, 1997


The term is also used specifically as the focal point from which a disease spreads:

 "According to the patients they all ate in the restaurant, which has been pinpointed as the epicenter for the disease." People's Daily Online (China), September 6, 2001


Time has been kind to today's word.


The greek philosopher Epicurus taught that pleasure is the highest good, to which life should be devoted, and that virtue is the greatest pleasure. Subsequent generations adopted the first precept and forgot the second, so that 'epicure' became a pejorative word meaning for 'one who gives himself up to sensual pleasure', especially the pleasures of food and sex.


But in our time the word, cleaned up, applies to fine dining. The earlier pejorative meaning still is valid, but is secondary.


epicure – one with refined taste, especially in food and wine. (With a sense of "over-refined'; contrast 'gourmet')


An epicure dining at Crewe
Once found quite a large mouse in his stew.
Said the waiter, "Don't shout
And wave it about,
Or the rest will be wanting one too."


epicene – having characteristics of both the male and the female, as an epicene angel

Also, in linguistics, a word having the same form for both male and female. AHD discusses the effort to create epicene pronouns, such as s/he and hisser.


This word, like 'epicure', has been cleaned up over time. The sources say it stems from Greek epikoinos 'common to many; promiscuous'. Considering the current definition, my guess is that this is another of the many cases where lexicographers are coy about sexual matters, and that 'promiscuous' is their euphemism for 'bisexual'.


What about Beckham's nail varnish?" growled Dennis Skinner, a reference to the pink fingernails sported by England's epicene football captain at the christening of Liz Hurley's baby.
– Simon Hoggart, At the end of the day, they were clutching at balls, The Guardian, July 9, 2002

He has a clear-eyed, epicene handsomeness -- cruel, sensuous mouth; cheekbones to cut your heart on -- the sort of excessive beauty that is best appreciated in repose on a 50-foot screen.
– Franz Lidz, Jude Law: He Didn't Turn Out Obscure at All, New York Times, May 13, 2001 (thanks to


epiphany – a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something

Originally (as I understand it), an appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being. The Christian Church used the term as referance to the advent of Christ.

from Greek for "manifest, conspicuous," which comes for from epi- = on, to + phainein = to show


The heroine experiences a bizarre epiphany while strolling on the shore: she comes to see a dying, beached whale as a symbol of her own mismanaged lie, and she begs, with a nearly religious fervor, that it (and presumably she) might be granted a second chance.
– Marianne Wiggins, reviewing in the New York Times, August 19, 1987

These small epiphanies are what I've come to think of as Eureka Moments, those times when all doubt melts away and a parent becomes certain she has discovered the perfect preschool for her child.
– Mona Behan, in Parenting, September 1995


Epicrisis is one of those unusual words which has two different pronunciations, with two different meanings.


epic΄risis – a detailed critical study or evaluation (some sources add 'of a literary work')

(accent on second syllable)


ep΄icri΄sis – medical: a secondary crisis; one following the primary of a disease

(accent on first syllable; secondary accent on the penultimate [= next to last])


A word with interesting variations The sources give three related meanings, which I list from narrowest to broadest. I'd think the first sense is the generally understood one, and that the last, broadest sense is completely obscure -- but I should admit that the sources neither confirm nor reject that thought.


epithet – a smear-name:

--- "He used the epithet 'communist' for everyone who disagreed with him."

--- "There is no place for racial epithets in a police officer's vocabulary."

AHD notes: "Strictly speaking, an epithet need not be derogatory, but the term is commonly used as a simple synonym for term of abuse or slur.” Which leads us to the more general meaning;


epithet (more generally) – a characterzing adjective or substitute-name, positive or negative:

--- Catherine the Great (adjective); The Great Emancipator for Abraham Lincoln.

Basically, a name "added on". We see this in the etymology: from Greek epithetos "attributed, added," from epi- "in addition" + tithenai "to put."


epithet (most generally but, I'd say, quite rare) – an adjective naming some particularly appropriate quality: a just man; a verdant lawn.



A Hodge-Podge of Reduplicatives (Week of March 17, 2003)


Phrases like "hanky-panky', 'legal eagle' and 'culture vulture' (and 'hodge-podge', which we'll take up later this week) are called reduplicatives, and many of them have an amusing, sardonic twinge. Out of the plethora of reduplicatives, we'll cherry-pick some special ones. Some have interesting histories; others, in honor of the current "Double Dactyl" thread on or board, are the rare gems that that pair three-syllable words.


higgledy-piggledy – in utter disorder or confusion.


In the controversy that raged when Darwin first published his theory of natural selection, prominent scientist John Herschel contemptuously dismissed the theory as "the law of the higgledy-piggledy." More recently,


Labour voting [in 1983] was tested to destruction by a higgledy-piggledy, amateur, undisciplined rabble of a campaign that put forward hundreds of wild policies.
– The Observer, Sunday May 20, 2001

Amsterdam is a higgledy-piggledy kind of place, and it beguiles by never being quite what it seems to be.
– Sarah Crown, in The Guardian, November 20, 2002


As to etymology, take your choice between two theories of how today's word arose.

Etymology on-line: "1598, probably formed from pig and the animal's suggestions of mess and disorder."

Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898): "A higgler is a pedlar whose stores are all huddled together. Higgledy means after the fashion of a higgler’s basket; and piggledy is a ricochet word suggested by litter; as, a pig’s litter."


niminy-piminy – affectedly delicate or refined; mincing

Early in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Jo makes a perfect and characteristically blunt use of the term:


I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits! – Jo


Gilbert and Sullivan used an alternate form in Patience and in The Grand Duke.


A most intense young man, / A soulful-eyed young man,
An ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical, / Out-of-the-way young man!
A Japanese young man - / A blue-and-white young man -
Francesca di Rimini, miminy, piminy, / Je-ne-sais-quoi young man!
– Gilbert And Sullivan, Patience ('Blue-and-white' is probably a reference to blue and white china.)

Jack Straw make a statement most of which was loudly cheered by the Tories, and by nobody else at all. "The vandals desecrated the Cenotaph and defaced the statue of Sir Winston Churchill ..." said Mr Straw in that faintly nerdy, niminy-piminy voice he adopts for the most serious matters.
– Simon Hoggart, in The Guardian, May 3, 2000


namby-pamby – weak, foolish or silly: She probably regarded us as a bunch of namby-pamby liberals.


AHD gives the origin from Ambrose Philips, a little-known poet whose verse incurred the sharp ridicule of his contemporaries Alexander Pope and Henry Carey. In poking fun at some children's verse written by Philips, Carey used the nickname Namby Pamby: "So the Nurses get by Heart Namby Pamby's Little Rhimes." Pope then used the name in the 1733 edition of his satirical epic The Dunciad. The first part of Carey's coinage came from Amby = Ambrose; 'pamby' repeated the sound with the initial of Philips's name.


tuppenny-ha'penny – British slang for anything inferior and trivial


The issue that we are discussing and which we should like to debate next week is the fact that we can pass an Act of Parliament about fundamental issues and next week any tuppenny ha'penny court in the land -- I do not mean that pejoratively -- can kick it into touch, send it across to the European Court and, however long it takes the European Court, the decision of this House and this Parliament is thrown into abeyance.
– Mr. Tony Marlow, House of Commons Debates, June 21, 1990


jiggery-pokery – some sources say "underhand scheming or behavior". Others say it must be dishonesty in words: "verbal misrepresentation intended to take advantage of you in some way".

Probably alteration of Scots joukery-pawkery, from jouk to dodge, cheat + pawk trick, wile. Think of it as a "cheating trick".


Before 1993, records were not routinely kept by British police forces of complaints about or recorded incidents of domestic violence. The true extent of "wife battering" was, therefore, an open field for speculation, guesswork and statistical jiggery-pokery.
– Neil Lyndon and Paul Ashton, Knocked for six: the myth of a nation of wife-batterers, The Sunday Times of London, Jan. 29, 1995


hunky-dory – (slang or informal) perfectly satisfactory; fine

Wordcrafter note: This would refer to a situation, not a thing. Thus you might say, "Nobody's angry; everything's hunky-dory," but not, "This portrait is a hunky-dory likeness."


An interesting etymology:

1866, Amer.Eng., popularized c.1870 by a Christy Minstrel song.

- perhaps a reduplication of hunkey "all right, satisfactory" (1861), from hunk "in a safe position" (1847) New York City slang, from Du. honk "goal, home," from M.Du. honc "place of refuge, hiding place".

- A theory from 1876, however, traces it to Honcho dori, said to be a street in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors could find the sort of diversions sailors customarily enjoy.

- I gather that Hunkidori was the name of a breath freshener introduced in 1868.


Warning: I have some trouble defining this one. Some sources emphasize on aspect, some the other.


hugger-mugger – 1. secrecy; concealment (adj. clandestine)

2. disorderly confusion; muddle (adj. disorderly; jumbled)

one-look says, "ritual accompanied by complicated and purposeless activity that obscures and confuses: He engaged in the hugger-mugger of international finance."


The origin of hugger-mugger is also secret and confused. Perhaps from Anglo-Irish cuggermugger, a whispered gossiping, cogair, whisper. Perhaps from Scot. huggrie-muggrie; from hugger = to lie in ambush, mug = mist, muggard = sullen.


In this confusion we turn to the ultimate authority, whose thoughts seem appropriate in this time of war. Shakespeare, Hamlet IV.5; King Claudius speaking:


... O Gertrude, Gertrude,
When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions. First, her father slain:
Next, your son gone; and he most violent author
Of his own just remove: the people muddied,
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers,
For good Polonius' death; and we have done but greenly,
In hugger-mugger to inter him: poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment



Words of the War (Week of March 24, 2003)


We live in remarkable times at the moment, and our words this week are taken from the press coverage of the military events in Iraq. Apologies for any bias, reflected here, by the authors of the illustrative quotations.


billet – noun lodging for soldiers, or an order for their lodging; verb to provide housing for soldiers


cadre – a nucleus of traind personnel around which a larger organization can be built. Typically used for a military or political group


A local contact told me that Saddam Hussein ... has also forcibly billeted troops and loyalist cadres in civilian homes in readiness for street fighting.
– Melik Kaylas, Beware of the Kurds, Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2003



frag; fragging – to wound or kill a fellow soldier by a grenade or similar explosive.

from frag, slang for fragmentation grenade


I understand this as limited to victimizing your fellow soldier, deliberately, and not covering accidents, or attacks on the enemy. But perhaps I'm mistaken:


The depressing neweekend news -- a firefight that caught our troops here, the American POWs there, the fragging of U.S. troops apparently by one of their own -- are all real things that happpened. But while the camera can record them accurately, the one thing it cannot do is provide the larger perspective.
– Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2003


An unfamiliar meaning of a familiar word:

Sharon Begley, Burning Oil Wells May Be Less Damaging Than First Thought, Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2003 (excerpted):


As Iraqi forces blew up an estimated 732 Kuwaiti oil wells at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, some scientists warned that the infernos could produce a pall of black soot that would reach the stratosphere, circle the planet and remain aloft long enough to trigger a mini-nuclear winter. Because oily droplets are hydrophobic (they don't mix with water), worst-case models predicted the smoke plumes would be immune to "cloud scavenging," or removal by precipitation.

Fortunately, "because of all the salt and sulfur in the plumes, many of the particles acted like cloud-condensation nuclei, which seed the formation of raindrops when they encounter a cloud."


inveigh – to attack with harsh criticism or reproach


hubris – overbearing pride or presumption


Inveighing against the president's commitment to mounting "a massive democratic revolution throughout the Arab world," Gary Hart writes, "The extravagance, not to say arrogance, of this epic undertaking is sufficiently breathtaking in its hubris to make Woodrow Wilson blush."
– Lawrence F. Kaplan, Democrats Against Democracy, Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2003


We end this theme with an overall reflection.


atavistic – from atavism: the return of a trait or behavior after a period of absence; throwback


... an age-old reminder about the reality of war. Under the armor there is still only the body, the flesh and blood and sinew of young soldiers. It makes no difference whether that armor is the shield of an ancient Greek soldier or the electornics jamming of a modern attach aircraft. A small cluster of young men gathered around their howitzer still look [sic] much as they did even in WordWar II.
            There is a far more atavistic element playing out in this war as well.
– New York Times editorial, March 29, 2003