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August 2003 Archives

For your aMUSEment: Parnassus; uranic (chthonic); cliometrics; terpsichorean; euterpean (concinnity, diapason); calliopean; thalian

Sounds of Nature: poppling; psithurism; plangent (apercu, aper็u); tintinnabulation; ting; crepitate; sough (beck); croodle

Seeing Red: rubric (rubricate, red-letter day); red tide; cherry pick; red-pencil (blue-pencil); roborant (roberate); red herring; erythrism (albinism, leucism, melanism, xanthism, Flavism, vitiligo)

Words from Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado: equipoise; minion; ablution; condign; tocsin; effulgent; pooh-bah


For your aMUSEment (Week of August 4, 2003)


This week's theme is been words from the Muses. In Greek mythology's final development the nine Muses, living on Mount Parnassus (our first word), were Urania, Clio, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Calliope, Thalia (our other words), Melpomene, Polyhymnia, and Erato. You can find a good deal of information about the Muses here, with links to each individual Muse, but I can't vouch for its accuracy.


Parnassus –

1. the world of poetry or poets: a rhymester striving to enter Parnassus;

2. a center of poetry or artistic activity: Greenwich Village was once the Parnassus of the U.S.

3. a collection of poems or of elegant literature


uranic – of the heavens; celestial; astronomical

A further definition is "pertaining to uranium," but that is outside of this week's theme. Also outside the theme is this contrast word:


chthonic – of the underworld; of the earth; dwelling in or under the earth


The goddess sometimes appears with doves, as uranic, at others with snakes, as chthonic.
– Wikipedia: General features of Aegean civilization


cliometrics – the study of history using economic models and advanced mathematical methods of data processing and analysis


Nobel Committee's announcement of the 1993 the Nobel Prize in Economics, shared by Robert W. Fogel and Douglass C. North:
Economic historians often consider far reaching problems, the estimation of which demand an integration of economics, sociology, statistics and history. Robert Fogel and Douglass North ... were pioneers in the branch of economic history that has been called the "new economic history", or cliometrics, i. e. research that combines economic theory, quantitative methods, hypothesis testing, counterfactual alternatives and traditional techniques of economic history, to explain economic growth and decline.


terpsichorean – noun a dancer. adj. relating to dancing


Part of The Citizen's continuing programme to develop the city's dancing skills - keen floorburners will remember our sizzling salsa extravaganza and our foray into Morris dancing - Scottish dancing is the latest port of call in the continuing quest for the ultimate terpsichorean experience.
– Matthew Ford in The Citizen, as quoted elsewhere on-line 12.10.00

Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress [1937] ... is a rich film, containing beautiful songs and some of the greatest dance footage ever filmed (the "Fun House" sequence won its choreographer an Academy Awardฎ, but there are other terpsichorean gems besides) ...
– Michael Skupin, speaking to a convention of The Wodehouse Society, October 1999

Marvin and Marita, impoverished exponents of the dance, introduce the Clampetts to the art of terpsichorean.
– Plus's TV listing for an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies


euterpean – pertaining to music


When those we love love music, gift giving can become complicated. Sure, it seems easy enough at first. ... Too often, however, the tunester in our hearts has gotten there before us, and in these days of CD burning and Napster, that Euterpean fiend may already have all the rarities we can think of.
– Clea Simon, Boston Globe Magazine, November 26, 2000


And I couldn't resist a quotation where the writer, by showing off, gives us two bonus words:


we present our semi-regular CD blowout, in which we get to the point and step off, giving you a look at the current and vast cornucopia of Euterpean concinnity, the diapason of, uh... what were we saying?
–, April 22, 2000


concinnity – 1. harmony in the arrangement of parts with respect to a whole; 2. studied elegance and facility in style of expression


diapason – a full, rich outpouring of harmonious sound


calliopean – piercingly loud: a calliopean voice.

(that is, resembling a calliope in sound)


I like this word, but must admit that I cannot find a decent on-line example of its use. Mostly you'll find it in proper names ("Calliopean Society") or pre-1900 items.


thalian – pertaining to comedy; comic


Another rarely-used word, although the Star Wars TV show had an alien race called the Thalians. The script-writers must have had a sense of the comic.



Sounds of Nature (Week of August 11, 2003)

This week we'll enjoy some sounds, concentrating on the sweet sounds of nature.


poppling – the sound of rain falling on water


The sources give a variety of further definitions of 'popple':

tossing, bubbling, or rippling motion
tumbling flow over rocks
move like boiling liquid
noun: –  the sound of boiling liquid


psithurism – the sound of the wind rustling the leaves


A lovely concept, but a strange-looking word. I wonder if this is in any way related to the genus-name of parrots, Psittacus.


A reader notes: I'm almost certain that 'psithurism' comes from the Greek word 'psithyros', which means whisper.  A second reader confirms, from OED.  Thank you!


plangent – 1. loudly beating or reverberating: the plangent wave; 2. lamenting, plaintive.


A characteristic tone of plangent nostalgia is leavened by snappy, tart dialogue, quirky but surprisingly apt similes (one character is "as chinless and gloomy as a clarinet," another's eyebrows are "so plucked that they looked like two columns of marching ants") and aper็us that resonate with earthy wisdom.
– Sybil Steinberg in Publisher's Weekly, 8/6/2001, reviewing Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken


bonus word: apercu; aper็u – a discerning insight


A reader adds tintinnabulation – a tinkling sound, as of a bell or bells.


As long as we're talking about bells ...


ting – a light and clear metallic sound, as of a small bell

(verb: to give off that sound)


crepitate – to make a crackling or popping sound; crackle, as salt in fire; burning leaves or twigs


An Oklahoma court used the etymology of this word to conclude that where a statute provides special penalty for assault on a "decrepit" person, "decrepit" does not encompass the natural frailty and incapacity of an infant or a child.


Webster defines "decrepit" as "broken down with age, wasted and enfeebled by the infirmities of old age, feeble, worn out." The Latin origin is the word "crepose" meaning to rattle or crackle; stemming from the same origin is the English word "crepitate" denoting "cracking sounds." ... these words are commonly associated with infirmities brought on by age and wear.
– Herrington v. State, 352 P.2d 931, 933 (Okl. Cr. 1960)


A lovely word today, so let enjoy multiple definitions and quotations.


sough – [pronounced SOW or SUF] noun or verb:

- soft, low rustling or sighing sound

- moaning or sighing

- a soft murmuring or rustling sound, as of the wind or a gentle surf


My ear, too, felt the flow of currents; in what dales and depths I could not tell: but there were many hills beyond Hay, and doubtless many becks threading their passes. That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote.
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Ch. 12

Poetry is a form of writing in which the author attempts to disarm reason and evoke emotion, partly by presenting images that awaken a powerful response in the subconscious and partly by the mere sough and blubber of words.
– Pakistan Daily Times, Aug. 1, 2003


Bonus word: beck – a small brook


We end the week with a lovely archaic word, for which I'm finding several meanings.


croodle – to coo like a dove

also: to cower or cuddle together, as from fear or cold; to lie close and snug together, as pigs in straw; also: to fawn or coax


Secondary sources give a lovely meaning not found in any on-line dictionary:

croodle – to snuggle, as a young animal with its mother; to creep close, as small children around a fire or chicks under the hen's wings those first heats of youth, this little England ...looked at moments rather like a prison than a palace; that my foolish young heart would sigh, "Oh! that I had wings" not as a dove, to fly home to its nest and croodle but as an eagle, to swoop away over land and sea, in a rampant and self-glorifying fashion ...
– Charles Kingsley, My Winter Garden



Seeing Red (Week of August 18, 2003)

It seems natural to follow last week's "sounds" theme with a "sights" theme. We'll focus on the color red, with respite from the highly-unusual words we've had the last few weeks.


rubric – 1. a part of a book, such as a title, heading, or initial letter, set in decorative red lettering or otherwise distinguished from the rest of the text.

Presumably this is the source for:

2a. a title; a name; b. a class or category


rubricate – to mark in red. (also religion: to place in the calendar as a red-letter saint)


An aside: The term "red-letter day" originates with the tradition of marking holy days in a church calendar in red.


red tide – brownish-red discoloration in seawater, due to proliferation of certain plankton.


Toxins that red tides produce kill many fish; they accumulate in shellfish, which is why one must be careful of eating them at certain times of the year. There is some thought that red tides are stimulated by human discharge of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, in the area.


See links for further discussion, and for a dramatic photo of a red tide off Texas three years ago.


cherry pick – to unfairly select only the desired items


 [Under proposed legislation,] Medicare would have to bid against private plans. Democrats say Medicare won't be able to compete, because private plans will cherry-pick healthy seniors, sticking the government with sick beneficiaries who have the biggest medical bills.

- Mike Soraghan, Denver Post Washington Bureau July 15, 2003


Now that I have become an Assistant Editor at the OED, ... It has become clear to me that a poet can't simply cherry-pick the most elegant but obscure words.
– Giles Goodland, in Oxford English Dictionary News, September 2002


Reader comments:

> I understand the picking part, but why is it cherry-pick? What's so special about cherries?

> Just a thought: Oftentimes the cherry on the top of an ice cream treat, or other desert, is picked off and eaten first, as a delicacy.


red-pencil – to censor, cut, revise, or correct with or as if with a red pencil

(compare blue-pencil – to edit, revise, or correct with or as if with a blue pencil)


The British had seized control of the Mideast after World War I, taking it from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had been allied with the Kaiser's Germany. It was great fun for Churchill to be a master geopolitico, sitting in London red-penciling maps, but there was a catch: Nobody had consulted the Arabs.
– James Pinkerton, Another Winston Churchill, in The Cincinnati Post, March 15, 2003. An interesting column, musing on comparisons of Mr. Blair to Mr. Churchill


roborant – a strengthening, restoring drug; a tonic (adj: restoring vigor or strength)


Another form of this word is roberate: to strengthen; to corroborate.

From the same root are corroberate, robust and rambunctious.


But in what way are these "red" words? Their source, the Latin robus red oak (which grew from Indo-European reudh- red, ruddy), branched to mean both "oak" and "strength".


Elk antlers (Panti) are considered to be of great value in China traditional medicine as roborant and rejuvenating preparation.
– Hunting Cookery; E. Nikashina, compiler


red herring – something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand


Etymology: Herring was an extremely common food fish for England's poor. Red herring was herring preserved by salting and smoking it until it turned dry, hard and red.


How did the metaphoric sense arise? Almost all sources agree that because red herring had a strong smell, it was used to distract bloodhounds from the trail. (The sources differ as to who so used it: fleeing fugatives, citizens opposed to fox-hunting, or dog-trainers teaching the hounds to ignore distraction.)


But Quinion's fascinating article casts doubt that view of the etymology. Quinion points out that this metaphoric use of "red herring" does not appear in the record until 1884, long after both fox-hunting and red herring (the fish) were common.


erythrism – unusual redness of plumage or hair (in humans, often accompanied by a ruddy complexion). Coined 1864 from Greek eruthros red; caused by excessive red pigmentation


Here is a picture of an erythric leopard.


Of several terms for pigment abnormalities, the sole familiar one is albinism – whiteness due to absence of pigment. Some others, according to the web:

leucism – insufficient pigment, resulting in paleness

melanism – excess dark pigment

erythrism – excess red pigment

xanthism (also Flavism) – excess yellow pigment

I also find on the Web:

– excessive yellow: both xanthochroism and xanthochromism
excessive red: erythrochroism but not erythrohromism


Who said language has to be logical?


A reader adds: Interestingly, there is a skin condition, characterized by patches of unpigmented skin, called "vitiligo."



Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado (Week of August 25, 2003)

This week let's have fun with words from the the operetta The Mikado, byGilbert & Sullivan.


equipoise - 1. a counterbalance 2. equality of weight or force; hence, equilibrium -- said of moral, political, or social interests or forces


Oh fool, that fleest / My hallowed joys!
Oh blind, that seest / No equipoise!
Oh rash, that judgest / From half, the whole!
Oh base, that grudgest / Love's lightest dole!
Thy heart unbind,
Oh fool, oh blind!
Give me my place,
Oh rash, oh base!
- Katisha, an elderly noblewoman in G&S's Mikado, complaining that Nanki-Poo does not perceive her charms

What matters is the poetry ... its delicate equipoise, held between the sensual and the abstract ...
– James A. Winn, reviewing World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell, by Nicholas Murray, New York Times, July 9, 2000 (thanks to for this quotation)


minion – 1. an obsequious follower or dependent; a sycophant 2. a subordinate official.


It is consequently my degrading duty to serve this upstart... . And at a salary! A Pooh-Bah paid for his services! I a salaried minion! But I do it! It revolts me, but I do it!
– Pooh-Bah, in The Mikado

You failure, go to hell. You are too small to talk to the leader of Iraq, and those who will be swept away from the land of the Arab world are people like you. You are a minion and a lackey.
– Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, replying to Prince Saud, New York Times, April 2, 2003. [Note: Ramadan was captured August 20)

Before [a new Federal Communications Commission rule] even becomes effective, it's going to go to an appeals court as fast as the minion at a large firm can haul the paperwork over.
– Natalie Billingsly, quoted by Michael Bazeley, FCC Releases New Rules on Telecom, San Jose (California) Mercury News, Aug. 22, 2003


ablution – the act of washing oneself (or another person), typically as part of a religious rite.
(Typically used in the plural, as in performed his ablutions.)

The Christian practices of baptism and foot-washing are instances of ablution.


Gilbert strained this word a bit, to make a rhyme for "Executioner".


Young man, despair,
Likewise go to,
Yum-Yum the fair
You must not woo.
It will not do:
I'm sorry for you,
You very imperfect ablutioner!
This very day
From school Yum-Yum
Will wend her way,
And homeward come,
With beat of drum
And a rum-tum-tum,
To wed the Lord High Executioner!


condign – deserved; adequate (especially of punishment); suitable to the fault or crime.


However, if in a few weeks Davis seems a certain loser, muscular Democratic interests ... might successfully pressure him to resign. [Democratic] Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is a candidate to succeed him, would become governor, the recall would deflate and the Democratic Party's condign punishment probably would be to continue wrestling with the problems it has created or exacerbated.
– George F. Will, Recall and Ruin, Washington Post, August 12, 2003


tocsin – the ringing of an alarm bell (or the bell itself); extended, an alarm


Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is being heard throughout the whole universe; discover your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies.
– 1791 by Olympe de Gouges, a butcher's daughter and French Revolutionary. These words open her Declaration of the Rights of Women, challenging the inferiority presumed of women by the famed Declaration of the Rights of Man. For pushing such ideas she was convicted of treason against the Revolution, and was executed on the guillotine.


When relations with Great Britain disintegrated once again, Pinkney sounded the tocsin in fiery pamphlets, led a battalion of riflemen in the War of 1812, and suffered a near-fatal wound at the battle of Bladensburg.

- Stephen M. Shapiro, William Pinkney: The Supreme Court's Greatest Advocate, Supreme Court Historical Society, 1988 Yearbook


effulgent – shining brilliantly; resplendent; or as if shining


The sun, whose rays are all ablaze with ever-living glory,
Does not deny his majesty -- he scorns to tell a story!
He don't exclaim, "I blush for shame, so kindly be indulgent."
But, fierce and bold, in fiery gold, he glories all effulgent!
– Mikado

The musical excellence of the Vienna Philharmonic is so evident that you tend to discount potential weaknesses. One of them is contemporary music. ... its plush tone, so ideally suited to smooth and sleek Classical works or rich and effulgent Romantic ones, can lack a needed sarcasm, bite, harshness or angularity.
– James R. Oestreich, New York Times, Aug. 9, 2003


pooh-bah - a pompous ostentatious official, especially one who, holding many offices, fulfills none of them


After the character Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, whom we quoted above as saying, "It is consequently my degrading duty to serve this upstart... . And at a salary! A Pooh-Bah paid for his services! I a salaried minion! But I do it! It revolts me, but I do it!"


The letter was asking for financial support of The Republican, a newspaper published by Roland Wetzel, grand pooh-bah of the Grand Old Partyน in this county.

– columnist John Sonderegger, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 29, 2003


นNote to non-USA readers: "Grand Old Party", or GOP, is a name for the Republican Party in US politics.