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July 2003 Archives

People and how words affect them: gobemouche; dehort; quidnunc; philodox; shanachie

Deletions from Webster's Collegiate: strobotron; straw boss, legman; nephoscope; skibob; frutescent

Words from The Da Vinci Code: entresol, transmogrify (pagan, villain); scotoma (gaorgoyle); tadger/todger (heretic); effigy; hermaphrodite; oculus; Baphomet

Signs of the Times: pilcrow; virgule (diagonal, separatrix, slant, slash, solidus); macron/breve/diacritical mark; octothorpe; guillemets; grammalogue, tilde; lemniscate


People and how words affect them (Week of June 30, 2003)


What could be more fascinating that people, the variety of the human experience? This week we'll present odd words for everyday types of people, particularly concerning how they deal with words.


gobemouche – a silly and credulous person. Literally, from French swallow a fly; a person with mouth so wide open that a bug flies in. A gobemouche will swallow anything you tell him.


dehort – to urge to abstain or refrain; to dissuade.

In other words, the opposite of exhort: to urge or incite to action. Dehort is an obsolete term that would be very useful; I know of no other word conveying that meaning.

NOTE:  see Discussion Board, here and following, where we considered whether and how 'dehort' differs from 'dissuade'.


quidnunc – one who seeks to know all the latest news or gossip; a busybody

Latin quid nunc? = what now?


You can hide nothing from the quidnunc of Hanbridge. Moreover, when a quidnunc in the streets of Hanbridge sees somebody famous or striking, or notorious, he does not pretend that he has seen nobody. He points unmistakably to what he has observed, if he has a companion, and if he has no companion he stands still and stares with such honest intensity that the entire street stands and stares too.
– Arnold Bennett, The card: a story of adventure in the Five Towns, orig. pub. The Times Weekly, 1910)

"Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers, -- Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin.... Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating. History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers, -- nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other, -- her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit, -- that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forebears in forever, -- not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All, -- rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common."
– Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (thank you to a reader for this quotation)


philodox – a person fond of opinions, especially his or her own

A nice word I plan to use more.


shanachie (irish?/scotch?) – a person fond of telling the old tales and legends of the country

According to AHD, "shanachie" and "senile" are from the same root: sen = old. But remember: "senile" was not originally a pejorative term.



Deletions from Webster's Collegiate (Week of July 14, 2003)


Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is being given its once-a-decade update. We pause to honor some of the words that have been deleted to make room for the new.


strobotron – a gas-filled electron tube used especially as a source of bright flashes of light for a stroboscope (1937)


A reader adds two terms that have been made obsolete by changes in the workplace:


straw boss – a worker who acts as a boss or crew leader; an assistant to a foreman in charge of supervising and expediting the work of a small gang of workers


legman – 1. a reporter assigned usually to gather information 2. an assistant who performs various subordinate tasks, as gathering information or running errands


1938 Depression-era laws were meant to protect low-wage workers from toiling too many hours by guaranteeing the overtime; they specifically exempted most white-collar workers. The rules are so outdated (they refer to such jobs as "straw boss" and "leg man") that companies are at a loss to know how to figure out who qualifies for overtime.


That confusion has been a gold mine for trial lawyers, [who] troll through companies, looking for categories of workers they say were '"unfairly" deprived of overtime pay. Once they find a court to agree, they can extort millions in back pay from companies for huge groups of worker-plaintiffs.


nephoscope – a grid-like instrument for measuring the altitude, direction, and velocity of movement of clouds. Greek nephos = cloud


One site says the nephoscope is not necessarily grid-like. It explains "The grids in the grid nephoscope are used as reference in finding the speed and direction of the cloud. The vertical pointer in the mirror nephoscope is placed such that the image of a cloud appears in line with it and the center of the disk. The image is then watched" as the cloud moves.


skibob - a vehicle for gliding downhill over snow.


Resembles a bicycle, with skis replacing the bicycle's wheels.  Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words.


An interesting discrepancy in today's word:


frutescent – 1. shrubby (AHD); 2. imperfectly shrubby or somewhat shrubby (Web. Unabrgd)



Words from The Da Vinci Code  (Week of July 20, 2003)


I've just enjoyed The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, an enjoyable novel in which the author displays his crackling erudition on subjects as diverse as religion, history, art, mathematics, symbolism, and words. Each day this week we'll present a word and an etymology from that book, trying to avoid the words peculiar to religion. Some readers here may disagree with some of Mr. Brown's thoughts about historical Christianity, but I trust you'll nonetheless find them stimulating.


entresol – a mezzanine floor


Etymology for the day:


.. the famed Tuileries Gardens -- Paris's own version of Central Park. Most tourists mistranslated Jardin des Tuileries as relating to the thousands of tulips that bloom here, but Tuileries was actually a literal reference to something far less romantic. This park had once been an enormous, polluted excavation pit from which Parisian contractors mined clay to manufacture the city's famous red roofing tiles -- or tuiles.


transmogrify - to change into a different shape or form, especially one that is fantastic or bizarre.


[Regarding Rome in 325 A.D.:] Teabing chuckled. "Constantine was a very good businessman. By fusing pagan symbols, dates and rituals into the growing Christian tradition, he created a kind of hybrid religion that was acceptable to both parties."


"Transmogrification," Langdon said. "The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are undeniable. Egyptian sun disks became the halos of Catholic saints. Pictograms of Isis nursing her miraculously conceived son Horus became the blueprint for our modern images of the Virgin Mary nursing Baby Jesus."

Teabing groaned. "The pre-Christian God Mithras was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days. By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus. The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Originally, Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan's veneration day of the sun – Sunday."


An etymology:


Nowadays the term pagan has become almost synonymous with devil worship – a gross misconception. The word's roots actually reached back to the Latin paganus, meaning country-dwellers. "Pagans" were literally unindoctrinated country-folk who clung to the old, rural religions of Nature worship. In fact, so strong was the Church's fear of those who lived in the rural villes that the once innocuous word for "villager" – villain came to mean a wicked soul.


The book uses the fascinating word "skitoma" – but I can't confirm that word in any on-line dictionary. Can anyone confirm or correct?

NOTE:  a reader suggests that the word should be scotoma. Another reader notes that "scotoma", in medicine is a blind gap in the visual field. There are several different types of "scotoma", including even a "color scotoma", meaning color blindness in a limited portion of the visual field.


"Hold on," Sophie said. "[Da Vinci's] The Last Supper¹ is a painting of thirteen men."

"Is it?" Teabing arched his eyebrows. "Take a closer look. How about the one seated in the place of honor, at the right hand of the Lord?" As Sophie studied the person's face and body, a wave of astonishment rose within her. The individual had flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom. It was, without a doubt ... female.

Sophie could not take her eyes from the woman beside Christ. Although Sophie had seen this classic image many times, she had not once noticed this glairing discrepancy. "Everyone misses it," Teabing said. "Our preconceived notions of this scene are so powerful that our mind blocks out the incongruity and overrides our eyes.

"It's known as skitoma, Langdon. added. "The brain does it sometimes with powerful symbols.


An etymology:


Gargoyles had always terrified Sophie as a child; that was, until her grandfather cured her of the fear by taking her atop Notre Dame Cathedral in a rainstorm. "Princess, look at these silly creatures," he had told her, pointing to the gargoyle rainspouts with their mouths gushing water. "Do you hear that funny sound in their throats?" Sophie nodded, having to smile at the burping sound of the water gurgling through their throats. "They're gargling," he grandfather told her. "Gargariser! And that's where they get the silly name 'gargoyles.'" Sophie had never again been afraid.


tadger; todger – Brit. slang from the 1950s: penis (affectionately)


Teabing's eyes twinkled. "Oxford Theatre Club. They still talk of my Julius Caesar. I'm certain nobody has ever performed the first scene of Act Three with more dedication."

Langdon glanced over. "I thought Caesar was dead in that scene."

Teabing smirked. "Yes, but my toga tore open when I fell, and I had to lie on stage for half an hour with my todger hanging out. Even so, I never moved a muscle. I was brilliant, I tell you." Langdon cringed. Sorry I missed it.


An etymology:


Teabing: "The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by Constantine the Great. Jesus Christ was a historical figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspirational leader the world has ever seen. ... Understandably, His life was recorded by thousands of followers across the land. More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them. Constantine omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."


An interesting note," Langdon added. "Anyone who chose the forbidden Gospels over Constantine's version was deemed a heretic. The word heretic derives from that moment in history. The Latin word haereticus means 'choice.' Those who 'chose' the original history of Christ were the world's first heretics."


effigy – a likeness of a person, especially in the form of sculpture

Langdon, feigning to be Mr. Wren, got tripped up by this word.


"Now I realize this is an intrusion, but if you could afford me a few more minutes, I have traveled a great distance to scatter ashes amongst these tombs."

The altar boy's expression turned even more skeptical. "These are not tombs."

"I'm sorry?" said Langdon. "Of course they are tombs," Teabing declared. "What are you talking about?"

The altar boy shook his head. "Tombs contain bodies. These are effigies. Stone tributes to real men. There are no bodies beneath these figures. And I imagine Mr. Wren would know that. Considering it was his family that uncovered the fact."

An etymology, as Langdon conducts a jail seminar among prison inmates ("Culture for Convicts"):


"Historians don't generally put it quite that way, but yes, Da Vinci was a homosexual." Da Vinci was in tune with the balance between male and female. He believed that a human soul could not be enlightened unless it had both male and female elements."


"You mean like chicks with d___s?" someone called.


This elicited a hearty round of laughs. Langdon considered offering an etymological sidebar about the word hermaphrodite and its ties to Hermes and Aphrodite, but something told him it would be lost on this crowd.


hermaphrodite – a plant or animal having both male and female reproductive organs naturally [e.g. earthworm] or by anomaly [e.g., human]; generalized, something that is a combination of disparate or contradictory elements.


oculus – a round window, usually a small one (Latin oculus = eye)


 [In the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris is] a strip of brass that segmented the sanctuary on a perfect north-south axis. It was an ancient sundial of sorts. The sun's rays, shining through the oculus on the south wall, moved farther down the line every day, indicating the passage of time.


An etymology:


Entering the narrow, low-hanging walkways that bordered the [church's] courtyard perimeter, Langdon felt the familiar uneasiness he always felt in enclosed spaces. These walkways were called cloisters, and Langdon noted with uneasiness that these particular cloisters lived up to their Latin ties to the word claustrophobic.


Baphomet – sometimes used as a synonym for "Satan" or "the Devil"


In 1307 the Church – apparently as a political power play – brought inquisition against the Knights Templar. Among the charges were worship of the idol "Baphomet". Most dictionaries define "Baphomet" only as this specific idol; but some sources have a broader definition.


The origin of this name is very much disputed. The Da Vinci Code makes quite a point of identifying Baphomet with an earlier pagan fertility god having the horned head of a goat or ram.


Some etymologies (according to The Da Vinci Code):


The modern belief in a horned devil could be traced back to Baphomet and the Church's attempts to recast the horned fertility god as a symbol of evil. The Church had obviously succeeded, although not entirely. The cornucopia or "horn of plenty" was a tribute to Baphomet's fertility and dated back to Zeus being suckled by a goat whose horn broke off and magically filled with fruit. Baphomet also appeared in group photographs when some joker raised two fingers behind a friend's head it the V-symbol of horns; certainly few of the pranksters realized their mocking gesture was in fact advertising their victim's robust sperm count.


Friday the 13th: Working in concert with France's King Philippe IV, Pope Clement V devised an ingeniously planned sting operation to quash the Templars and seize their treasure. In a military maneuver worthy of the CIA, Pope Clement issued sealed orders to be opened simultaneously by his soldiers all across Europe on Friday, October 13 of 1307.


At dawn on the thirteenth, the documents were unsealed and claimed that the Knights Templar were heretics guilty of devil worship, homosexuality, defiling the cross, sodomy, and other blasphemous behavior. On that day, countless Knights were captured, tortured mercilessly, and finally burned at the stake as heretics. To this day, Friday the thirteenth was considered unlucky.



Signs of the Times (Week of July 28, 2003)


Most of us know that the symbols ! ? * and & are called:


! - exclamation point or exclamation mark

? - question mark

* - asterisk

& - ampersand


This week we'll consider such symbols that have more obscure names.


pilcrow – the sign


virgule – the / sign


also known as the diagonal, the separatrix, the slant, the slash, and the solidus


macron – the horizontal mark indicating the long pronunciation of a vowel, as in ā


breve – the curved mark indicating the short pronunciation of a vowel, as in ă


diacritical mark - a mark added to a letter to indicate a special pronunciation.

One source indicates that the macron and breve are called quantity marks.


octothorpe – the # sign, as on the telephone


Etymology: Notwithstanding AHD's speculation, World Wide Words cites the most likely origin. Ralph Carlsen of Bell Laboratories records that in the early 1960s Bell Labs introduced the # on new touch-tone telephone handsets. Since the symbol had many names, Bell Labs engineer Don Macpherson felt the need for a fresh and unambiguous name when explaining the new phones to corporate users. Macpherson invented "octothorpe" from octo (Latin for "eight") for the symbol's eight points, and added thorpe to the end because he was active active in a group that was trying to get the Olympic medals of the athlete Jim Thorpe returned from Sweden.


guillemets – the marks « and »

Guillemets are used in some languages, such as French and Russian, to mark the beginning and end of a quotation.


From the French name Guillaume = William. According to Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, "The word 'guillemet' is ... in honor of the sixteenth-century typecutter Guillaume [William] le Bé, who may have invented them." (cite taken from web)


Two for one today:


grammalogue - a word shown as a sign, such as & for "and"


tilde - the ~ sign


lemniscate - the or "infinity" symbol
[Latin lemniscatus adorned with ribbons, from lemniscus a ribbon hanging down]

Almost all usages of the word are for its alternate meaning: a particular mathematical curve, which happens to have that shape.