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September 2003 Archives

Eponyms from Drama: dundrearies; lothario; scaramouche; Mickey Mouse; shylock; thrasonical; ignoramus

Euphonious Words: asphodel; cerulean; cuspidor; gossamer; numinous; vellicate; mellifluous

Verbs: Let's have some action!: pullulate; nettle; jugulate; truckle; deracinate; flummox (gumshoe); periclitate

Morgan words: morgen; fata morgana; homorganic; morganatic; morganite; morgan; morganize

Swords: spathe; foible/forte; claymore mine (skean-dhu; sgian-dhu); gladiate-ensiform-xiphoid; swashbuckler; seif dune; sword of Damocles


Eponyms from Drama (Week of Sept. 1, 2003)


Our last word, "pooh-bah," comes from the name of a character in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. This week let's enjoy some further eponyms -- words from names -- taken from dramatis personae.* Some will be familiar words, but unfamiliar histories.


It suprises me that very few of Shakespeare's characters have become eponyms in our language. Romeo is the only common one; as a quiz for our readers, what are other eponyms from Shakespeare's characters? I'm aware of three, only one of which is in reasonably common use.


dundrearies – long, flowing sideburns

from Lord Dundreary, witless, indolent chief character in Our American Cousin (1858) by Tom Taylor of England. Actor E. A. Sothern played the role wearing such whiskers.


US President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching this play.


*Bonus word: dramatis personae – the characters in a drama or play

(Some sources include the actors as well; some include the characters in a story, not merely a drama for the stage.)


lothario; Lothario – a lady-killer (in the romantic sense: a man who seduces women)

After Lothario, a principal character in The Fair Penitent by Nicholas Rowe


Interestingly, the sources date the play to 1703 but the eponymous word to 1756. I find it hard to believe that the play remained popular for 53 years, or that the word suddenly popped up fifty-odd years after the play ended its performance run. I'd suspect that even before 1756 the word was in spoken use, and perhaps in written uses not yet found.


scaramouche; scaramouch – a cowardly buffoon


[This comes from the name of a boastful, cowardly stock character name in the Italian commedia dell'arte. He is a burlesque of a Spanish don.]


Let's follow yesterday's comic character, Scaramouche, with another one.

Mickey Mouse –

1. unimportant, trivial: a Mickey Mouse operation; a Mickey Mouse course;

2. irritatingly petty: Mickey Mouse regulations


After the Disney character


A government body which helps sixth-formers find university places is said to have criticised Chester College in a national newspaper by claiming it offers 'Mickey Mouse' degrees. Academics at the Parkgate Road campus are furious after reading an article in The Sunday Times. The article states: "Less prestigious universities are forced to adopt more desperate measures, offering what critics call 'Mickey Mouse' degrees that require low grades."
– Chester Chronicle, Aug. 22, 2003 [edited]


Since no one's progressed on the Shakespeare quiz, let's put one of those words here, saving the others for a future thread to quiz a future audience.


From the character Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice; it is relevant to the quotations to know that the character is jewish:


shylock – offensive:

a ruthless moneylender; a loan shark

verb: to lend money at exorbitant interest rates.


[U.S. envoy] Dennis Ross amuses himself on his visits like a Shylock, deriving pleasure from imagining how he will slice three percent from the body of the victim.
– Al-Hayat al-Jadida (official Palestinian Authority newspaper), as quoted in Jerusalem Post 17 September 1998; refers to proposal to set aside part of the proposed Palestinian land as a nature reserve


We are fighting and struggling with an enemy who is Shylock. We must know that he is Shylock.
– Othman Abu Gharbiya, Yasser Arafat's Adviser on National Political Guidance, in radio interview on Voice of Palestine, 15 March 1997


thrasonical – boastful, bragging, vainglorious

[After Thraso, a braggart soldier in the comedy Eunuchus by Terence, ~195-159 B.C.].


Shakespeare has some fun with thrasonical.


HOLOFERNES: ... his humour is lofty, his discourse peremptory, his tongue filed, his eye ambitious, his gait majestical, and his general behavior vain, ridiculous, and thrasonical. He is too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it were, too peregrinate, as I may call it.

SIR NATHANIEL: A most singular and choice epithet.
– Love's Labours Lost, Act 5, Scene 1


What could be worse than a thrasonical ignoramus?


ignoramus – an utterly ignorant person; a dunce (some sources add the concept of posturing: "a vain pretender to knowledge")

Originally a word of law: when a grand jury considered the prosecution's evidence insufficient, its verdict was L. ignoramus "we do not know" (which is cognate to our ignore). Sense of "ignorant person" came from the title role of George Ruggle's 1615 play satirizing the ignorance of common lawyers.



Euphonious Words (Week of Sept. 8, 2003)

Many years ago Wilfred Funk propounded a list of the most beautiful words in English. Others have also selected their loves. This week we'll please our ears with some of the choices.


asphodel – a flower of the lily family, with white, pink, or yellow flowers clusters of flowers.


[note: The asphodel of the early English and French poets was the daffodil. Our word daffodil is believed to come from the Dutch de affodil = "the asphodel".]


Though we're speaking of beautiful words, whether or not they name beautiful things, here is a picture of the asphodel.



cerulean – sky-blue


But that definition rather begs the question, for a blue sky can range from light pale blue to rich strong blue. Which do we mean? There seems to be some confusion. Thus, One-look's "quick definition" is:



noun: a light shade of blue

adjective: of a deep somewhat purplish blue color similar to that of a clear October sky


And as the boy went back to eating, Gomez stared through the shade trees at the cerulean water and sky.
– Darragh Johnson, On the Shore, The Sounds Of Spanish, Washington Post, Sept. 1, 2003

Turquoise and deep cerulean tones wash the sea in dazzling contrast to the crystal clear waters near coves and bluffs.
– Smita Iyengar, Cultural Crossroads, Financial Express (India), Aug. 31, 2003


Funk's selected "beautiful words" are all lovely in meaning, typically flowers and such gentle animals as "bobolink", "fawn", and "oriole".


James Joyce focused more on the pretty sound of a word. (Or at least he seemed to, to the extent one can ever tell what Joyce was thinking.) He stated that to him, the most beautiful word in English is cuspidor.


cuspidor – a spittoon; a receptacle for spit

(including the "receptacle" of a drinking fountain or in a dentist's office)


The explosive increase in cigarette smoking after 1910 can be attributed in part to the public-health campaigns of that era against the chewing of tobacco and its inevitable accompaniment, the cuspidor. Most of those who gave up tobacco chewing no doubt turned instead to cigarette smoking. The ashtray replaced the cuspidor, and lung cancer replaced tuberculosis as the major lung disease.
– Elaine Casey, History Of Drug Use U.S., The National Drug Abuse Center (1978)


Today's word comes not from Funk's list of beautiful words, but from a list by Willard Espy.


gossamer – noun: 1. a film of cobwebs floating in air in calm clear weather; 2. something light, delicate, or insubstantial: the gossamer of youth's dreams

adjective, by later extension: extremely light, delicate, or tenuous


[probably from goose + summer, a period of mild autumn weather when goose was in season and such webs were often seen in the air]


The paper, edges rounded, looks like the skimpiest gossamer but is surprisingly sturdy, even silky to the touch. The unbound, dog-eared pages are filled with faded black Tibetan script bursting with wisdom on religion, philosophy, poetry and enlightenment.
– Ron Csillag, Quest begins for sacred Buddhist texts, The Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 6, 2003


Funk put luminous on his list. I'm going suggest a modification.


numinous – suggesting the presence of a god; spiritual, divine; inspiring awe and reverence


Our culture is not much concerned with the numinous, but in language we preserve many of the marks of a culture that is.
– Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say (thanks to for this quotation)

The tiny village church shimmered under the Andalucian sun. Here, surely, there would be a heaven-haven of peace. Not so. A bevy of scantily clad tourists were encamped on the front two pews, chewing bocadillos, swigging beer and camcording altar and shrine. Here was secularity run rife, a defiant rejection of respect and a two-fingered salute to the numinous and spiritual.
– David Bryant, Doff your cap to the numinous, The Guardian, August 30, 2003


Bryant muses, "However, there is more to holiness than a mere acknowledgement that human intellect is limited. Interwoven with it is a healthy dose of awe; what Rudolf Otto called mysterium tremendum, an awe-filled mystery that leaves us trembling. St Augustine encapsulated it. 'What is this which gleams through me and smites my heart without wounding it? I am both a-shudder and a-glow; a-shudder in so far as I am unlike it, a-glow insofar as I am like it.'"


Russell Rocke in his Grandiloquent Dictionary (not the same as the website by that name) highlights words he considers euphonious. Among them is today's word, the concept being less sweet than the sound.


vellicate – to move with spasmodic convulsions; to twitch

[Rocke adds another definition, which I'm not able to confirm: to pull off; to pluck, as: Women villicate their eyelashes.]


Edmund Burke (1729–1797): Why Smoothness is Beautiful:
There can be no doubt that bodies which are rough and angular, rouse and vellicate the organs of feeling, causing a sense of pain, which consists in the violent tension or contraction of the muscular fibres. On the contrary, the application of smooth bodies relaxes; gentle stroking with a smooth hand allays violent pains and cramps, and relaxes the suffering parts from their unnatural tension ... The sense of feeling is highly gratified with smooth bodies.


Dorothy Parker opined that the most beautiful words in the english language are "cheque enclosed". But lets return to Funk.


mellifluous – flowing sweetly or smoothly, as with honey: a mellifluous voice

[From L. roots meaning honey and flow]


It's the end of the 1920s, and the beginning of the end for silent movies. All very well for the mellifluous Gene Kelly, not so good for the adenoidal Jean Hagen.
– Stefan Kanfer in Sept. 2003 Reader's Digest, listing the funniest movies and synopsizing Singing in the Rain



Verbs: Let's have some action! (Week of Sept. 15, 2003)

This week we'll put aside the rarefied and look at some words of emphatic action.


pullulate – 1. to breed rapidly or abundantly. 2. to teem; swarm: a lagoon that pullulated with tropical fish.


Bruce Tattersall, a London barrister who was president of the debating club while Mr [Robin] Cook was secretary, said yesterday: "I don't understand why he has chosen to live in Merchiston which is positively pullulating with students."
– The Telegraph, Sept. 11, 2003, concerning Mr. Cook's efforts to prevent students, presumably rowdy, from moving into the flat (apartment) above his own


nettle - to goad or provoke, as by constant criticism; also, to annoy, disturb, esp. by minor irritations


But Clark would rather nettle and belittle the gentle (and more realistic) Lewis.
– Ed Cullen, reviewing a performance of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys in The Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Advocate, Sept. 10, 2003



jugulate – to cut the throat of;

also, to check or suppress (disease) by extreme measures


The latter meaning would seem to cry out for metaphorical usage, but I have found only one example, hardly from the mainstream press.


The various programmes implemented to jugulate the [1996 employment] crisis ended with the results mentioned in the following table.
– Official website of the Government of The Republic of Benin.


I assume that jugulate traces back to the jugular vein.

[A reader notes: Not exactly. Latin "jugulum" = 'throat'. "Jugular" is the English form of the derived adjective. "Jugulate" comes from a derived verb, "jugulare", with the same meaning.

So the two English words came from two separate, but related, Latin words.]


truckle - to act servilely or submissively to another


Today's quote points out how the selection of a word, from alternatives, is an editorial coloring.


... the practice of what some call assassination, others, targeted killings. The difference between the two terms triggered a vigorous exchange in Great Britain a month ago. What is the correct term to designate what the Israelis have been doing — reaching out to the West Bank for figures it judges guilty of terrorism or terrorism planning, and killing them?
       The term "assassination" is displeasing, and friends of Israel in England objected to its use by the BBC. The encounter came when a correspondent of the Independent newspaper, charged that the BBC had truckled to Israeli criticism, altering the use of the word assassination to "targeted killings."
–William F. Buckley, Jr., Words and War, National Review, Oct. 16, 2001


[A reader notes: Truckle comes from a word for a "small wheel," leading to "truckle bed" (a low bed, on wheels) and then, since such a bed was for servants to sleep on, to the verb "to truckle" for subservience. Truculent, truck (in the sense of the vehicle) and truck (in the sense of to deal with or "have truck with") come from three completely different roots, none the same as "to truckle".]


deracinate -

1. to pull out by the roots [from Latin racine = "root"]

2. to displace from one's native or accustomed environment


Like jugulate, the first meaning of deracinate invites metaphorical use.


Och, and the girls whose poor hearts you deracinate,
Whirl and bewilder and flutter and fascinate
Faith, it's so killing you are, you assassinate, —
Murder’s the word for you, Barney McGee!
Bold when they're sunny and smooth when they're showery, —
Oh, but the style of you, fluent and flowery!
Chesterfield's way, with a touch of the Bowery!
How would they silence you, Barney machree?
Naught can your gab alley, learned as Rabelais
(You in his abbey lay once on a spree).
Here’s to the smile of you
(Oh, but the guile of you!)
And a long while of you, Barney McGee!
– Richard Hovey (1864-1900), Barney McGee (extract)


flummox – to confuse, perplex, bewilder


Bonus word: gumshoe – (slang) a detective


 [V]irtually all the file-sharing services are now considering a revamp of their system that would flummox industry gumshoes. ... "We’re going to win," says Grokster CEO Wayne Russo. "The technology always wins."
– Newsweek, Sept. 22, 2003, on the recording industry suing 261 who had used Internet file-sharing services to download tunes

The discovery of only three comet-sized objects in the Solar System's shadowy Kuiper belt has flummoxed astronomers over the origins of short-period comets. ... recurring comets with short runs such as Halley's comet were believed to come from the Kuiper belt. ... If the Kuiper Belt doesn't contain enough objects to explain the comets we see, then where do they come from?
– New Scientist, Sept. 3, 2003


periclitate – to endanger


Globalization, which periclitates human rights and fundamental freedoms, is the crossroad on which human rights education is to have its birth and being.
– Human Rights Education: The Promise of the Third Millenium? by Upendra Baxi, former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University; President of the Indian Society of International Law.



Morgan words (Week of Sept. 22, 2003)

Those who participate in our board know that Morgan, one of our founding members, is going through very difficult times with a poise and grace that inspire us all. We'll devote a week to words in her honor.


The root sense of "morgan" is "morning".


morgen -- a unit of measurement of land area, still in use in South Africa, equal to just over 0.85 hectare (2 acres)

[from Dutch and German, with the sense "area of land that can be plowed in a morning."]


fata morgana - a mirage in the literal sense; that is, an optical phenomenon that creates the illusion of water

Named for the legendary sorceress Morgan le Fey,  who was King Arthur's sister and his enemy.


homorganic - used to describe speech sounds that are formed at the same point in the vocal tract.

Examples are the bilabials "p," "b," "m," and "w," which are all formed using both lips pushed together.


morganatic - usually used for describing a special kind of marriage involving royal folks - adj. Of or pertaining to a legal marriage between a person of royal or noble birth and a partner of lower rank, in which no titles or estates of the royal or noble partner are to be shared by the partner of inferior rank nor by any of the ofspring of the marriage.


Read that Edward VIII proposed such an arrangement re Mrs. Wallis Simpson but was nixed by both houses and his mother - and hence his abdication of the throne "for the woman I love".


morganite – a rose-colored gem variety of beryl. [1911; after financier J. P. Morgan ]


morgan - unit of inferred distance between genes on a chromosome


Our final "morgan-word" has two very different meanings, each from a historic event. The first definition comes from OED; only a few other on-line dictionaries include it at all, and those few have it wrong. The second meaning is far more common in the google-seaches, but I've not found it in any dictionary.


morganizeΉ – says OED: to assassinate secretly in order to prevent or punish disclosures [Wordcrafter note: I believe the word includes "to kidnap" for the same purpose.]


After the notorious 1826 case of William Morgan, in upstate New York. Morgan, a disgruntled Freemason, announced that he would publish a book describing the activities of the Mason's secret society. The Masons kidnapped him to prevent publication, and held him at Fort Niagara (which is very need the home of our friend Morgan on this board). Soon after he disappeared, never to be seen again; presumably he was murdered. The kidnappers were tried and given minimal punishment.


The affair sparked strong resentment of secret societies, and the resentment coalesced into a major political party in New York and nearby states. It became a force in national politics, and even fielded a presidential candidate in 1928, before it eventually melding into an older party.


morganize² – to acquire control of an entire industry, for profit

[after financier J.P. Morgan]


He recapitalized so many bankrupt railroads -- Morganized them, as wits said -- that by the 1890s he controlled one-sixth of America's railway system.
– Ron Chernow, biographer, on Time Magazine website.


Another website adds: Morgan had morganized about one-sixth of all the tracks in the nation. The extent of Morgan's power can be better appreciated by the fact that nearly 60 percent of the companies traded at the time on the New York Stock Exchange were railroads.


Note: For more on the William Morgan affair, see -- but note that when you click the link your browser may change the open- and close-parenthesis in the URL; you'll have to correct them manually. Or see mason publications.



Swords (Week of Sept. 29, 2003)

This week we present words derived from various swords and the like. Not the endless names of types of swords -- epee, foil, saber, etc. -- but words that trace back to swords.


spathe - a leaflike bract enclosing a flower cluster or spadix, as in the jack-in-the-pulpit and the calla. [Latin spatha = broadsword]


That's the dictionary definition. For those (including me) for whom this is clear as mud, consult this pair of pictures.


The top part of a sword blade, from its midpoint to tip, is weaker than the bottom half from hilt to mid-point. These weak and strong halves are respectively called the foible and the forte, and those meanings led to usages now more common.


foible – a minor weakness or failing of character


forte – something in which a person excels

[Note per AHD: forte should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian.]


"He loved anything that was free," sighs the 25-year-old woman as she recalls her former boyfriend's main foible. "We only ever went to places that didn't cost anything, like factory tours and housing shows. Once while visiting a beer factory, he said, "Isn't this great -- it's all you can drink for the beer and even the snacks are free!"
– Geoff Botting, To date on the cheap, all you need is brains, The Japan Times, Sept. 14, 2003

The outside-half from New Zealand was prepared to run himself, but his forte was delivering sweet little passes to his centres ...
– Rugby report in The Observer, Sept. 28, 2003


claymore mine - an anti-personnel land mine that discharges blast fragments in a predetermined direction, set towards the enemy


after claymore - a large two-handed, double-edged broadsword, formerly used by Scottish Highlanders (the term is also used for another type of sword)

from Gael. claidheamh sword + mσr great, large


I love the first quote here. It also gives us a bonus-word.


In "the braw yawnie", two very large men in vests and kilts circle each other, each one trying to out-yawn the other. The sport dates back to a long-running feud between the MacGregor and Macpherson clans in the 14th century. The MacGregors had been tipped off that the Macphersons were going to mount a raid ... The MacGregors knew they would be outnumbered and they had scarcely a decent claymore between them, let alone a skean-dhu, so they devised a sneaky plan. As the Macphersons burst roaring into their encampment they all stood up and, in unison, gave a great big yawn. The invaders were so astonished at this mass display of nonchalance that they turned and fled.
– Oliver Pritchett, Another view, The Telegraph, Sept. 10, 2003


and just today, an hour ago:

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu escaped with minor injuries while his Cabinet colleague B. Gopalakrishna Reddy and a paty MLA Ch. Krishnamoorthy sustained injuries when suspected naxalites blasted a claymore mine when his convoy was entering the ghat section of the road near Alipiri in Tirupati of Chittoor district on Wednesday evening.
– Claymore attack: Naidu, Minister hospitalised, The Hindu [India's National Newspaper], Oct. 1, 2003


Bonus word:

skean-dhu or sgian-dhu - a small black-hilted dagger tucked into the top of a man’s knee sock in Highland dress [from Gaelic, literally "black skean"]


Sometimes it seems that there is a specific, obscure word for every shape. At least three separate words mean "sword-shaped." Could this indicate the past importance of the sword?


gladiate - sword-shaped

(akin to gladiator. The gladiolus is a familiar flowering plant with sword-shaped leaves, and is also known as "sword lily".)

ensiform - sword-shaped (from Latin ensis sword; akin to Sanskrit asi sword)

xiphoid - sword-shaped


In anatomy, the main part of the breastbone ("sternum") is called the gladiolus, and the bottom part is called the xiphoid process, the xiphisternum, or the xiphoid.


swashbuckler – a swaggering or daring soldier, swordsman, or adventurer;

or a novel or drama dealing with a such a character

from swash heavy noisy blow + buckler shield


According to Word Detective, "swashbuckler" originally meant a braggart, bully or ruffian, a mediocre swordsman who compensated by making a great deal of noise, strutting through the streets banging his sword on his shield, challenging passersby to duels, and just generally acting like a lout.


Portland's standards are high. We want a mayor who's a bit of a swashbuckler, prepared to step in and be a hero, as needed, whether that calls for killing a freeway, enticing a department store to locate here, or strong-arming a deal to save the Portland school year.
– The Oregonian, Sept. 5, 2003


seif dune – a sharp-crested sand dune with curved edges, often several miles long. (Up to 200 miles long and 300 feet high, say some sources; others give lower figures.) Runs in a series of parallel ridges; found in hot deserts and common in the Sahara.


From Arabic sayf (= sword). So the dune is a "sword dune".


"Saif" seems to be a common given name in Arabic; for example, the son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi is named Seif el-Islam Kadhafi, "Sword of Islam" Kadhafi. Westerners would not typically give male babies such first names as "Bullet," "Rifle," etc. It strikes your author as a notable cultural difference.


sword of Damocles – something that threatens imminent disaster


North Korea has always been the sword of Damocles hanging over Japan. Now, many Japanese feel that North Korea is aiming its sharpest and most lethal dagger at Japan's heart - its nuclear weapons programme.
– Views of veteran Japanese journalist Yoichi Funabashi, recounted by Felix Soh, The Straits Times (Singapore), Sept. 21, 2003


The term "sword of Damocles" is from a legend told by Cicero (106-43 BCE), Tusculan Disputations V. Perhaps our latin scholars tell me whether the following accurately translates Cicero's original.


Dionysius himself [the king of Syracuse in the time of Plato] was talking to one of his flatterers, a man called Damocles, who praised the monarch’s wealth and power, the splendors of his regime, the immensity of his resources, and the magnificence of his palace. Never, Damocles declared, had there been a happier man than Dionysius the king.


"Very well, Damocles," replied the ruler, "since my life strikes you as so attractive, would you care to have a taste of it yourself and see what my way of living is really like?" Damocles agreed with pleasure. So Dionysius had him installed on a golden couch covered with a superb woven coverlet embroidered with beautiful designs, and beside the couch was placed an array of sideboards loaded with gold and silver plate. . . There were perfumes and garlands and incense, and the tables were heaped up with a most elaborate feast. Damocles thought himself a truly fortunate person.


But in the middle of all this splendor, directly above the neck of the happy man, Dionysius arranged that a gleaming sword should be suspended from the ceiling, to which it was attached by a horsehair. And so Damocles had no eye for his lovely waiters or for the artistic plate. Indeed, he did not even feel like reaching out his hand towards the food. Presently the garlands, of their own accord, just slipped from his head. In the end he begged the tyrant to let him go, declaring that his desire to be happy had evaporated.