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February 2004 Archives:

Horse Words: capriole; chevalet;  bidet; harridan; crock; caparison

More Horse Words: spavined; tacky; gambol (gambado); desultory; tattersall; cozen

Horse Sense: Terms of logic: Hobson's choice; negative pregnant; induction (deduction); boolean algebra; Ockham's razor; fuzzy logic; enthymeme; sorites; slippery slope

Characters from Greek Myth: protean; promethean; Orphean; syphilis; pandora's box; rhadamanthine;



Horse Words (Week of Feb. 2, 2004)


We'll enjoy some horse-related words, some unfamiliar, some familiar but with interesting equine aspects.


capriole – a playful leap or jump; a caper


In root this is a goat-word, not a horse-word, but it also means a leap by a trained horse, with a backward kick of the hind legs [from It capriola, somersault (via Fr), and ultimately from L capreolus, diminutive of caper, capr-, goat. Nice image, of a goat cavorting in somersaults]


Borumoter first took his gage at lil lolly lavvander waader since when capriole capriole covets limbs of a crane and was it the twylyd or the mounth of the yare or the feint of her smell made the seomen assalt of her (in imageascene all: whimwhim whimwhim).

–James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (I trust this example is clear?)


Frank Kermode, Shakespeare's Language, discussing the mourning at Juliet's "funeral" in Romeo and Juliet:

Of course we know Juliet isn't dead, and we know that the Nurse is sly. The absurdity of [her mourning] speech is followed by Friar Laurence's necessarily insincere exhortations. It is impossible not to see this as a deliberate flaunting of expectations – all this required what an Elizabethan called "a sudden rash half-capriole" of snit, a moment of poetic high spirits, and a taste for the unexpected.


By etymology, the next two words refer figuratively to a small horse.


chevalet – the bridge of a stringed instrument [from French; literally "little horse"]


bidet – this familiar word comes from the French for a small horse or pony; that is, one easily straddled


The next two words concern worthless or broken-down horses:More of this sort to come.


harridan – a scolding, vicious old woman

[probably from F haridelle, a gaunt woman, a worn-out horse, a nag]


crock – slang: something decrepit and worn out; also, to make weak or disabled ("crock up")

[Earlier, old ewe that past child-bearing; Norw. krake, sickly animal, and M. Dutch kraecke, broken-down horse]


caparison – ornamental trappings for a horse; more generally, richly ornamented clothing; finery. verb: to outfit in such trappings or clothing


Typically used for horses and other animals, but can be applied to people and things.


Because I am allegedly handling what Clyde calls "the tourist trade," I have been caparisoned in a costume of sorts.
– John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (Pulizer Prize winner)

Already during the reign of Charles VI contemporary paintings depict the mad King lying on his bed richly caparisoned in garments, the fabrics of which had made the wealth of Renaissance Florence.
– Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris (Knopf 2002)



More Horse Words (Week of Feb. 9, 2004)


Two more words from broken-down horses:


spavined – 1. old and decrepit; over-the-hill; marked by damage, deterioration, or ruin: a junkyard full of spavined vehicles 2. (of a horse) afflicted with spavin, a swelling of the hock (ankle)


tacky – 1. in neglected disrepair: a tacky old cabin in the woods 2. in bad taste or offensive: tacky clothes; a tacky remark [from tackey, an inferior horse]

Note: to nag (scold, complain, or find fault constantly; noun: a person who does so) and a nag (a horse, especially one old or worn-out) appear to come from two different roots.

We began this theme with a word (capriole) from a horse's leap. Here are several more leaping-horse words.


gambol – to dance and skip about in play; to frolic.

[French gambade horse's jump, ultimately from L. Latin gamba hock of a horse, leg and from G kampe a joint or bend]


gambado – a capering, leaping or gamboling movement (also, a low leap of a horse in which all four feet leave the ground)


I'll spoil your gay gambado!

He is the son of your Mikado!
– Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado


Some sources attribute gamble to the root that gave us gambol and gambado (the notion of frolic leading to that of financial speculation). But this view is not universal.


desultory – jumping from one subject to another, without order or rational connection; disconnected (desultory thoughts; a desultory speech; desultory shopping)

[lit. noun meaning "a circus rider who jumps from one galloping horse to another" from de- down + salire to jump, leap]


Finally, our last two horse-words (plus the first word of next weeks’ theme) pertain to horse markets, each an unsavory air about it.


tattersall – noun & adj. a cloth with a pattern of dark lines forming squares on a light background; the pattern itself [from Tattersall's, a London horse market and gambler's rendezvous, founded 1766 by Richard Tattersall]


cozen – to cheat; to defraud; to beguile; to deceive

[origin uncertain. perhaps M.E. cosyn "fraud, trickery" (1453), perhaps related to O.Fr. coηon "dealer," from L. cocionem "horse dealer." (Some speculate the source may be various generations of French cousiner, to defraud, as to claim to be a cousin in order to defraud - but is a swindler really likely to so claim; would he expect to be believed?)]



Horse Sense: Terms Of Logic (Week of Feb. 16, 2004)


The theme's title is a pun, and a link.  For our first word fits of this week's logic-word's theme also fits into the horse-words theme we've been pursuing.


Hobson's choice – an apparently free choice which is really not free, because when there is no real alternative

Thomas Hobson (c.1544-1631), Cambridge stable manager who let horses and gave customers a choice of the horse next in line or none at all; phrase popularized by Milton, c.1660.


Guy Wetmore Carryl's retelling of the tale of Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty:


In Charming's principality there was a wild locality
Composed of somber forest and of steep and frowning crags,
Of pheasant and of rabbit, too; and here it was his habit to
Go hunting with his courtiers in the keen pursuit of stags.
But the charger that he rode
So mercurially strode
That the prince on one occasion left the others in the lurch,
And the falling darkness found him
With no vassals left around him,
Near a building like an abbey, or a shabby ruined church.
His Highness said: "I'll ring the bell
And stay till morning it in!" (He
Took Hobson's choice, for no hotel
There was in the vicinity.)


negative pregnant – a denial (negation) of one thing that implies (is pregnant with) affirmance of another.


For example, if you are told, "You're a cheap, smelly drunk," and you angrily reply, "I am not cheap," your very denial implies that you admit to being smelly and a drunk.


Secretary Powell also said: "With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea, there is no plan to start a war with these nations." By the grammatical negative pregnant pause, the implication is pretty clear that when the Secretary of State says ... that there is no plan to "start a war with these nations," referring to Iran and North Korea, there is a different plan with respect to Iraq. As I say, it may well be justified.
– Senator Arlen Specter, speaking in the US Senate in the week of Feb. 11, 2002


induction (logic) – the process of deriving general principles from particular facts or instances

contrast deduction – reasoning from stated premises to a conclusion; that is, from the general to the specific


boolean algebra – a mathematical system for algebraic manipulation of logical statements (adj. boolean; contrast conventional algebra, which operates upon numerical quantities). Boolean algebra can demonstrate whether or not a statement follows from given premises, and show how a complicated statement can be reduced to a simpler, more convenient form.


Heavily used in computer science. Developed by the English mathematician George Boole c.1850.


A reader notes, "A BBC radio program that I heard last year stated that George Boole was friends with A. Conan Doyle, and was in fact the inspiration for his villain Dr. Moriarity."


Ockham's razor; Occam's razor – the philosophical rule that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex. Also called law of parsimony.

[after William of Ockham, English philosopher (~1285-?1349), who wrote, "Non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem;" a plurality of reasons should not be proposed without necessity.]

A reader notes that he has seen only Occam's razor, not Ockham's razor. Some dictionaries give the former as variant of the latter; other dictionaries list the latter as the variant of the former.

fuzzy logic – a multivalued logic developed to deal with imprecise or vague data. Contrast classical logic (manipulated Boolean algebra), where variables are either 0 or 1, black or white, yes or no, true or false. Fuzzy logic allows for intermediate values, "shades of gray", and is a means to draw logical inferences from imprecise relationships.


Because of the name, sometimes people sometimes people equate "fuzzy logic" with "imprecise logic". But fuzzy logic is not any less precise than any other form of logic, rather it is an organized and mathematical method of handling inherently uncertain concepts or data.


Fuzzy logic forms the basis for artificial intelligence systems, the kind of computer programming that mimics human intelligence. Its uses include the controls of household appliances (e.g., refrigerators; washing machines which sense load size and detergent concentration to auto-adjust their wash cycles), passenger elevators, certain automobile subsystems (such as ABS), cameras, and video games.


enthymeme – a "truncated syllogism" in which one of the premises is left implicit, rather than stated explicitly.


For example:

We are dependent; therefore we should be humble.

This man has perjured himself in the past. He is not to be trusted.

[Each omits the major proposition: "Dependent creatures should be humble," and "Those who perjure themselves cannot be trusted."]


sorites – a chain of enthymemes (and a fine way to hide unstated assumptions)

[Interestingly, from Gk for "heap". pronounced so-RYE-tes.]

We cannot trust this man, for he has perjured himself in the past. Since the witness cannot be trusted, we must disregard his present testimony. Without his damning testimony, the accusations against my client are nothing. Since the accusations against my client amount to nothing, let him be dismissed.


slippery slope – a dangerous and irreversible course: the slippery slope from narcotics to prison. [Wordcrafter note: I do not think this definition is entirely accurate, but can find no better. Comments?]

In logic, the argument, "If we do A as proposed, it will lead to B, and then to C …. [etc. to disaster]." For example, " If we forbid partial-birth abortion, soon all abortion will become illegal."


This word has the concept of "opening the door to disaster". So do two of next weeks woods:   "Promethean" (illustrated here) and "pandora's box".


[concerning the implications and dangers of cloning] There is, of course, the slippery slope argument, and it is certainly true that there have been many such slopes down which we have slipped, or joyously skied, in the past few decades. But unless we believe that we are not masters of our fate, that the Promethean bargain is completely uncontrollable, this is not a slope we need slip down, at least with proper regulation.
– Theodore Dalrymple, Cloning human cells is not the beginning of the slippery slope, Telegraph, Feb. 13, 2004



Characters from Greek Myth (Week of Feb. 23, 2004)


We devote this week to words from characters from Greek mythology.


protean – exceedingly variable; readily assuming different shapes or forms.

[The Greek sea god Proteus could change his shape at will.]


What accounts for al Qaeda's ongoing effectiveness in the face of an unprecedented onslaught? The answer lies in the organization's remarkably protean nature. Over its life span, al Qaeda has constantly evolved and shown a surprising willingness to adapt its mission.
– Jessica Stern, The Protean Enemy, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003


promethean (usually capitalized) – so boldly creative as to have a life-giving quality; inspiring.

[The titan Prometheus made man out of clay and gave mankind fire. He was subjected to gruesome punishment for stealing that fire from Olympus. His punishment was gruesome. His name means "forethought", from pro forward + perhaps a derivative from menos mind.]



[Architect Frank Lloyd] Wright was Promethean in his ambition and imagination. He attempted to relate his buildings to time as well as space. He incorporated earth, fire, water and air symbolically into his conceptions.
– George Gurley, Kansas City Star, July 28, 1996 (Acknowledgement: quotation taken from Webs. Dict. of Allusions)


The word sometimes has a dark connotation, somewhat akin to a Faustian bargain. See entry for "slippery slope" a couple of days ago.


Orphean – hauntingly beautiful or enchanting (literary)

[most dictionaries, if they list this word at all, give only "Of or pertaining to Orpheus, the mythic poet and musician". AHD notes that his "music had the power to move even inanimate objects," and by it he "almost succeeded in rescuing his wife Eurydice from Hades."]


Something was expected of me, some Orphean performance that would gain me access to the underworld where she was hidden.
– The Magus by John Fowles


syphilis – we all know this word, but what are its origins? Perhaps Greek mythology.


The 1530 poem Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus" ("Syphilis, or the French Disease"), by Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553), tells of the shepherd Syphilus, supposed to be the first sufferer. Sixteen years later Fracastoro's treatise De Contagione originated the use of the word as a name for the disease.

It's unclear why Fracastoro chose this name. Perhaps he took it from Greek sys + philosΉ loving. Or it may come from the tale in Ovid of Siphylus or Sipylus (the manuscripts vary), Niobe's impious son, whom Apollo was turned to stone.


ΉThe sources don't mention this, but I trepidate that the source might be phallos rather than philos.

Today's word, like the recent "slippery slope" (which see) and "promethean", has the sense of "opening the door to disaster.


pandora's box – a source of many unforeseen troubles

[Greek mythology: Zeus gave Pandora a box with instructions that she not open it. But she was overcome by curiosity and opened it, and all the miseries and evils flew out to afflict mankind.]


rhadamanthine – rigorously and uncompromisingly just

[In myth Rhadamanthus, because of his inflexible integrity, was made one of the three judges of the dead in the lower world, together with Aeacus and Minos.]


You can hear the heavy newspaper reviewers, the wits of the glossy magazines, and the deep voices of the academic quarterlies - those Rhadamanthine judges of the quick and the dead in the world of literature - searching their hearts for condemnation bitter enough to reflect the greatest possible credit upon themselves.

Robertson Davies, The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books


psaphonic– related to outrageous self-promotion [But a caution: today's "word" is an interesting borderline case. One can seriously question whether it is a word at all and, if it is, what that word means. ]


The story of Psaphon, perhaps one of the most obscure figures of Greek myth, is told only by Aelianus [Aelian] (2nd/3rd c.), himself rather obscure. Psaphon, in novel self-promotion, released birds that he had trained to call out his name, "Psaphon! Psaphon!" [Some net-sources say they cried out "Psaphon is a god!"]


Interesting, but has his name become a word? You won't find it in OED or in any of the other major published dictionaries (nor in Bailey's, by the way), and Ciardi says he "proposes" that word – thus indicating that no such word exists. On the other hand, you will find psaphonic listed in several of the more "personalized" dictionaries. (e.g., Novovatzky & Shea; Mrs. Bryne; Berent & Evans [all published in paper; I have personally checked the first two); on-line sources listed in one-look.) None give back-up; they may well be quoting each other.


If it's a word, what does it mean? Those dictionaries that list it say "____ one's rise to fame" – the blank being either "seeking" or "planning" "preoccupied with plotting". Unfortunately, definition this doesn't seem faithful to the myth. It misses the myth's concept of outrageous self-promotion. It is so broad that it would include, for example, even a diligent and virtuous aspirant, a self-aware Horatio Alger.


Ciardi however says, "Nor can I resist this opportunity to propose to the language the word psaphonic Of advertising (implying that it is for the birds)." This definition seems more true to the myth and more is in accord with the few usages I can find (quoted below) other than people playing displaying a word they have learned.



Psaphon's Birds: Puffers, flatterers. [citing Moore, "Rhymes on the Road: "To what far region have his songs not flown, / Like Psaphon's birds, speaking their master's name."]


What do writers hope for from those who comment on their work in public? ... [In] book reviews, ... "Praise is what we want, praise is what we want, praise is what we want." Martin Walser, one of the most intelligent essayists of contemporary German literature, ... Germany's cleverest chatterbox, knew very well what he was talking about when he bluntly declared that the prototype of the author was the Egyptian shepherd Psaphon who had taught the birds to sing his praises.
– Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself