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April 2003 Archives

Words from the News: tendentious; apocalyptic; kneecap; recuse; nickel-and-dime; vituperation; de facto; jihad

Words from Astrology: saturnine; lunacy (lunatic fringe); mercurial; siriasis; dismal; opposition; influenza (influence)

Unusual Eponyms: burke; boycott; ucalegon; grimthorpe; heisenbug (Bohr bug, mandelbug, schroedinbug); pooter; Murphy game

Tuchman's The First Salute: argosy; odious; rectitude; inveterate; sagacity; welter; hegemony; fractious; machination; labyrinth; abjure; obdurate; imbue; enmity; vainglorious; canny


Words from the News (Week of March 31, 2003)

Sometimes I am stunned to see the vigor of our language. Today is such a day, and our theme this week will be not content but a sense of how broadly that content is available to us. We present the richly mixed bag of words that appear in just a two-page spread of a newspaper today.


(And yes, this does simplify my task of finding illustrative quotations.)


tendentious – highly partisan; marked by a strong tendency in favor of a particular point of view


There was no way I could quickly quell the press criticism of me, even though it was based on factual errors and tendentious reporting.
– Richard Perle, For the Record,,Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003


apocalyptic – 1. portending widespread devastation or ultimate doom 2. wildly unrestrained; esp. in exaggerated predictions of a disastrous outcome


At Harvard, I was recently required to read a selection of feminist literature centered upon inflammatory and hyperbolic misinformation. [One piece,] by way of example, proffered the "factual" assertion that most sexual encounters are, for most women, nonconsensual. Sadly, neither this nor any related apocalyptic "fact" has been challenged in the course of my experience at Harvard.
– Letter to editor, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003


The dictionaries vary notably on this one. Putting it together:


kneecap (verb) – to attack someone by shooting in the knee.

The figurative use is of more interest (see quotation below), but I don't find that use in the on-line dictionaries.


Some cite "kneecapping" as a particular practice of terrorist groups. I'd think that that the word comes instead from the enforcement practices in organized crime, particularly loan-sharking.


Senate Demorcrats did score a tactical victory last week in amending the budget resolution to allow only about half of the president's proposed tax cut. No doubt Demorcrats hope to blame the incumbent presient if the economy fails to bounce back after the war, but kneecapping his solution opens a path for counterattack.
– Robert L. Bartley, The Loyal Opposition Digs a Hole, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003


recuse – to disqualify (as a judge) from participation in a decision on grounds such as prejudice or personal involvement


I would add that to be recused is not a finding of impropriety, and carries no stigma; it is the avoidance of even appearance of possible impropriety. If a judge in court has a personal interest in a matter brought before him, will recuse himself.


The second rule is straightforward: If the discussion should involve matters that have a direct and predictable effect on an abvisor's finincial interests, he is recused from taking part. Global Crossing was never a topic in my board. Had it been, I would have recused myself.
– Richard Perle, For the Record, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003


Today's word is may be familiar to USn's but perhaps new to our Brits.


nickel-and-dime – involving only a small amount: a nickel-and-dime job

But more particularly: to destroy by underfunding [as in today's quote]


We've documented how State [Department] and CIAΉ have bad-mouthed and nickel-and-dimed the INC² in recent years, dispersing only a small fraction of the aid Congress appropriated.
– Editorial, Unleashing Iraq's Opposition, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003


ΉCIA = Central Intelligence Agency

²INC = Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of Iraqi opposition groups

vituperation – sustained, harshly abusive language; invective


The hardline feminists who dominate "gender issue" discourse at this university … use the classroom as a platform for explicit vituperation against the stupidity, greed and dishonesty of men – as they see it.
– Letter to editor, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003


Our quote ending this week includes a Dutch word (previously defined in wordcraft), a Latin phrase and an Arabic word.


filibuster – [a previous word of the day. from Dutch]


de facto – existing in fact (implicitly meaning, not by planned result or by lawful authority): De facto segregation; a de facto state of war

(Contrast de jure as in de jure segregation: segregation imposed by law or by right.)


jihad – (by extension) a crusade or struggle of religious fervor. (original and root meaning: a muslim holy war or spiritual struggle against infidels)


Senate Democrats have chosen to ... filibuster against Miguel Estrada, President Bush's nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Their refusal to give Mr. Estrada an up-or-down vote amounts to a de facto constitutional change, requiring 60 votes [to close debate] instead of a majority for judicial confirmations. ...
       This jihad would be easier to understand if it had a political rationale, but in fact it hurts the party among Hispanic voters.
– Robert L. Bartley, The Loyal Opposition Digs a Hole, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2003



Words from Astrology (Week of April 7, 2003)

The ancients believed, as do many today, that we live our lives under the influence of astrological events. This week we'll explore some words tracing back to that sort of belief.


saturnine – 1. bitter or scornful; 2. melancholy; sullen; showing a brooding ill humor

(these characteristics believed to be determined by influence of the planet Saturn)


lunacy – insanity, especially when intermittently relieved by periods of clear-mindedness. by extension: great or wild foolishness; a wildly foolish act.


from L. lunaticus "moon-struck," from luna "moon." Recurrent attacks of insanity believed brought on by lunar phases. Lunatic fringe (1913) was apparently coined by Theodore Roosevelt.


mercurial – with the shrewdness, eloquence, or thievishness attributed to the god Mercury;

also, changeable in temperament or mood; temperamental; volatile


Partly from association with the element mercury, or quicksilver. The planet Mercury moves in the sky more quicksly than any other planet.


And who could forget Mercutio in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet?


A month before the first Model T [car] was produced, another great name of the industry was born: General Motors. The company was founded by William Crapo "Billy" Durant, a mercurial figure described by one friend as "a child in emotions, in temperment, and in mental balance."


siriasis – sunstroke; sudden prostration from exposure to the sun or excessive heat. also, a sunbath


The brightest star in the sky is Sirius (named from Gk. Seirios "scorching"), associated with heat because it rises in the heat of summer. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans said it brought fever in men and madness in dogs. For example, Homer's Iliad describes Achilles' armor:


all radiant as the star which men call Orion's Hound, and whose beams blaze forth in time of harvest more brilliantly than those of any other that shines by night; brightest of them all though he be, he yet bodes ill for mortals, for he brings fire and fever in his train.


Notice "Orion's hound". This star is in the constellation Canus Major ("the Big Dog"), which is why we call it the Dog Star and call that time of year the "dog days" of summer. The "dog" association apparently began with the ancient Egyptians (whose heiroglyph for the star was a dog), but the reasons for it are obscure.


Here are two familiar words with unexpected astrological origins:


dismal – c.1400, eventually tracing back to the concept of "unlucky days" : Latin dies "days" + mali "bad." Through the Middle Ages, calendars marked two days of each month as unlucky, supposedly based on the ancient calculations of Egyptian astrologers.


Query: was the Ides of March marked as an "unlucky day"?


opposition – c.1395, as an astrological term for two heavenly bodies exactly across from one another in the sky. The meaning "contrast, antagonism" first attested 1581; sense of "political party opposed to the one in power" is from 1704.


influence; influenza –

The Latin word influere "to flow into" (from in- "in" + fluere "to flow") flowed into English by two separate courses: one through French, and the other through Italian.


In Old French, influence meant an emanation from the stars that acts upon one's character and destiny. Influence in this astrological sense entered English ~1385; by two centuries later the English word had acquired its non-astrological sense.


In Italian, this influenza or star-emanation came to refer metaphorically to the outbreak of a disease caused (it was thought) by the influence of the stars. In 1743 an Italian outbreak of catarrhal fever (an influenza di catarro) spread as an epidemic spread across Europe, and the disease immediately came to be known in English as the influenza.



Unusual Eponyms (Week of April 14, 2003)

This week, let's do some unusual eponyms – persons' names which have become words.


to burke – to murder by suffocation (or another way that leaves the body intact) to obtain a body to be sold for dissection.

hence, to quietly kill, to suppress or dispose of: to burke a parliamentary question


After William Burke, of 1800's Edinburgh, who ran a lucrative business servicing the local medical students in this gruesome manner. His business ended with the smothering of one Mary Petersen, an eighteen-year-old woman of the streets who had been on intimate terms with some of the anatomy students to whom her body was assigned. This burst the bubble. Ironically, after Burke was led to the gallows, his body was dissected at a public lecture.



When a landowner in County Mayo, Ireland refused to lower rents after two years of bad potato crops, his tenant-farmers banded together and ostracized him. The local priest, who apparently helped organize that group-effort, anticipated that the peasantry would not understand the word "ostracize". He substituted the name of the reviled landowner, and his term quickly was picked up as a word for ostracizing.


The landowner's name? Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897).


ucalegon – a neighbor whose house in on fire

One source says that in ancient greek, "ucalegon" literally means Mr. What-Me-Worry?


Ucalegon was a Trojan elder at the siege of Troy. The Aeneid reveals that his house was next door to Aeneas', and was consumed by the flames when Troy was sacked. "I was roused from my sleep. Already Deiphobus' fine house had collapsed, no match for the power of the fire-god; already Ucalegon's next door was ablaze."


grimthorpe – to restore an old building badly, with lavish expenditure but without skill, taste or regard to its historic character.


After Sir Edmund Beckett, the first Baron Grimthorpe (1816-1905), an architect severely lambasted for his restoration of St. Albans Cathedral in England.


heisenbug – computer programming (software): a software bug that disappers or behaves differently when you try to examine or fix it. For example, the use of a debugger sometimes alters a program's operating environment significantly, and thus change the bug's behavior.


This word is a play on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (physics): the act of measuring a particle (e.g., a photon of light off it) also affects the particle. Programmers also speak of Bohr bugs (repeatable bugs) and mandelbugs (bugs that behave in chaotic, seemingly random manner).


Contrast schroedinbug: a bug that doesn't manifest until someone reading code or using it in an unusual way notices that it never should have worked, at which point the program promptly stops working for everybody until fixed. from the Schroedinger's Cat thought-experiment in quantum physics



pooter – a suction bottle for collecting insects. See picture. Apparently named after American entomologist F. W. Poos (1891-1987)


Murphy game – Any of various confidence games often having the services of a prostitute as a lure (see further note below). The identity of the original Mr. or Ms. Murphy is unknown


Now I should probably tell the story about oldest con games in the world: the notorious "Murphy game." I’m walking through Times Square when a skinny guy comes up and whispers in my ear, "You lookin’ for a girl?" There followed a quick negotiation in which he folded my two $20 bills and told me he would arrange everything with the lovely young lady in question, and then meet me. A half-hour later, my bud came in and told me sadly that the woman was nowhere to be found, so he was going to give me my money back. He handed me the folded-up Times and disappeared into the night.
            No matter how many ways I unfolded the newspaper, the bills were gone, and I was left with a learning experience, not least of which was: don’t put your money (or your faith) in a newspaper. They fold; they break your heart.
- New York Observer, April 20, 2003


My understanding (contrary to the dictionaries) is that the murphy game need not involve switching an envelope of cash for one stuffed with worthless paper (or something of the like, as above). The term includes, for example, a scam where the lady poses as a woman of virtue. At the very moment she and victim are in a compromising position, a burly middle-aged man walks in, irately clames to be the lady's father, asserts that she is in fact underage – but is eventually persuaded to accept a cash settlment to assuage his moral indignation.



Tuchman's "The First Salute" (Week of April 28, 2003)

This week presents a more loosely connected group of words, spreading our net wider – and perhaps hinting at the flavor of a historic time. We take our words from Chapter III of The First Salute by historian Barbara Tuchman, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize.


Tuchman tells of the rise of the Dutch as a commercial power, and struggle for independence from Spain. England supported the Dutch, piquing Phillip of Spain to retaliate by sending his vast Armada against England. The Armada's disaster marked the end of Spain as an international force.


Tuchman argues that Phillip was so heavy-handed as to practically force the quarreling Dutch states into union, strengthening them – and that Great Britain repeated that imprudence when dealing with its American colonies two centuries later. An interesting thesis.


argosy – a large merchant ship, or a fleet of ships;

also, a rich source or supply: an argosy of adventure lore


After a first exploratory venture in 1595, the second [Dutch] merchant voyage on the long and hazardous journey to the East Indies sailed in 1598 in an argosy of 22 ships, from which, owing to tempest, disease of the crews, hostile privateers and other dangers of the sea encountered en route, only 14 returned. Yet the cargoes of pepper and spices and Indian objects they brought home more than matched the losses, attracting other investors to enter the competition. In 1601, 65 ships – three times as many as took part in the second venture – set out for the same destination.


odious – hateful; unequivocally detestable


rectitude – moral uprightness; righteousness


Would we say that rectitude is not an entirely complimentary term?


The [Spanish] ruler, Philip II – that " odious personage," at Motley, classic historian of the revolt, cannot refrain in his Protestant Victorian rectitude from calling him – was himself too narrow and rigid to recognize as rebellion the trouble he was stirring up for himself; Philip could think only in terms of being ordained by God to root out Protestantism, and he rejected any consideration that might suggest an obstacle in the way of this task.


inveterate – Firmly and long established; deep-rooted; also persisting in an ingrained habit

[The dictionary lists these as two separate definitions. Question: how do they differ?]


sagacity – the quality of being discerning, sound in judgment, and farsighted; wisdom


The inveterate separatism and mutual jealousies of the cites and provinces of the Low Countries, in which each feared the advantages and influence that might be gained by its neighbor, could have permanently frustrated any united resistance to Spain if the struggle had not found a dynamic leader in William of Orange. By organizing his compatriots with political sagacity, William, came to focus and personify the revolt.


welter – a confused muddle; a chaotic jumble


hegemony – the domination of one state over its allies

(note: accent on either first or second syllable; the latter seems to be winning out)


fractious – apt to break out in trouble; unruly (often in the sense of "resistant to authority")


A longish quotation today; please pardon.


[The Dutch had] lapsed into such a welter of sectional rivalries and struggles as amounted to almost civil war. Constant bickering between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, between Catholics and Protestants, between the maritime and inland provinces, between nobles and commoners, between Amsterdam in its hegemony and everyone else had so far prevented common action in the revolt. Netherlanders were now beginning to realize that they must join forces if they were ever to expel the Spaniards. Joint action by the Dutch rebels was the one thing that the rulers could not overcome, and had confidently believed would never take place. In America the British, too, were to commit the outrages, by the Boston Port Bill and the Coercive Acts, that brought the fractious Colonies together.


machination – a crafty scheme to an evil end


labyrinth – something highly intricate or convoluted


abjure – to renounce under oath; forswear; to recant solemnly; repudiate

We've seen "abjure" before, but the quotation is too delicious to forego.


Through all the machinations and labyrinths of agreements ad disagreements by the Dutch cities and parties, the one great motivator of nationhood, a clear call for independence, was missing. The Calvinist party passed the momentous Oath of Abjuration that was the Dutch Declaration of Independence. All magistrates and officials were required to abjure the oath of allegiance individually and personally, which caused much anguish to those nurtured in lifelong obedience to a crown. The foreswearing so worked on the feelings of a councilor of Friesland that in taking the Oath of Abjuration he suffered a heart attack or stroke of some kind, fell to the floor and expired on the spot.


obdurate – stubbornly persistent in wrongdoing; also; showing unfeeling resistance to tender feelings


imbue – to inspire or influence thoroughly; pervade; (also, to stain or dye deeply)


Continued obdurate Dutch resistance was draining Philip's resources and, even more, his patience. He put a price of 25,000 golden crowns or approximately 75,000 guilders, a large fortune, upon the head of William of Orange, dead or alive. [But] the assassination of William failed to fulfill Philip's purpose, for William had imbued the revolt with a life of its own.


Note: Tuchman uses the former meaning of obdurate, but I think the latter is more common. As to the latter: compare callous, hardened. Callous denotes a deadening of the sensibilities; as. a callous conscience. Hardened implies a general and settled disregard for the claims of interest, duty, and sympathy; as, hardened in vice.. Obdurate implies an active resistance of the heart and will aganst the pleadings of compassion and humanity.

enmity – deep-seated hatred


vainglorious – boastful self-importance; "too big for his britches"; "having a swelled head"


canny – shrewd. (The dictionary gives a second meaning: "cautious; especially 'cautious in spending money,'" which is unfamiliar to me.)


Unlike most rulers who fear change because it is change, the Queen of England, bold and canny Elizabeth I, was willing to reverse the ancient enmity and offer alliance to the Netherland rebels. In 1585, she sent an expeditionary force of 8,000 under her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, to help the rebels withstand Parma's advance. Vainglorious, ambitious and bullheaded, Leicester was not a well-chosen agent.