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"-asterous" Pejoratives: poetaster, medicaster, grammaticaster, politicaster, witticaster (witling), philosophaster, criticaster, theologaster

Ethnic slurs of the Classical Greeks:  boeotian, sybarite, abderian, solecism, laconic, sardonic, corinthian

Words from Italian: irredentist (irredenta), dolce vita, inamorata (inamorato), peccadillo, punctilio, sotto voce, tramontane


"-asterous" Pejoratives


There's nothing that's quite so delicious
As a word that is perfectly vicious.
I'm always exulted
When someone's insulted
By verbiage aptly malicious.
– adapted from Chares Elster


We all love the well-chosen insulting, pejorative word. (pejorative: tending to disparage or belittle). A pretender to medical skill is a quack, even if he holds an M.D. degree; an unscrupulous lawyer is a shyster or a pettifogger. What do we call incompetents in other fields of endeavor? I give you this week examples with the handy pejorative suffix -aster, from Latin.


poetaster – a poet who writes insignificant, tawdry or shoddy poetry; an inferior rhymer; a rhymester


The word figures in literary history. From Marchette Chute, Ben Jonson of Westminster (1953):


Ben wrote a very informed satire of the Court. So informed was it that two other playwrights of the time, Marston and Dekker, were convinced they recognized themselves in two of the less-likeable characters. They promptly collaborated on a play satirizing Ben. Ben just as promptly fired back with The Poetaster: or, His Arraignment [1601], whose main character was the image of Marston, with Dekker in a more minor role. So Dekker['s] next play [was] Satiromastix, which translates to "the satirist whipped." The feud ended there, though. Ben was saved by the intervention of one Richard Martin, a lawyer with an actual sense of humor.


medicaster – a medical charlatan; a quack


Undeniably, some fringe-healers, confident of their own healing powers, have had a quota of successes when treating patients with stress-related disorders. The emotionally disturbed patient is more likely to respond to and have faith in an optimistic healer with impervious confidence in their own power than the average doctor who, like myself, generally is beset with any number of scientific doubts and reservations. But medicasters, even those as charismatic as Freda Dixon, must perforce be defeated when treating a terminal organic condition.
– Dannie Abse, The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas


grammaticaster – a piddling, petty, pedantic grammarian


Students, Chomsky replied, "ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions [and] absurdities"—should "know it and be inside it and be able to use it freely," because the standard language is "a real cultural system," an important part of "a very rich cultural heritage."
       Citing that answer, resolute grammaticasters will feel justified in continuing to teach They thought him to be me but He was thought to be I.
– James Sledd, University of Texas, in JAC magazine, 1992 [JAC won the 2000 Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial Achievement, from the Council of Learned Journals]


The -aster words could be useful in conversation, though they are extremely rare (some so rare that I cannot even find a modern illustrative quotation). In conversation the hearer would readily understand the meaning, by drawing the subject from the word's first part and the scornful putdown from voice and context.


Shall we resurrect these words? For example, wouldn't politicaster be a fine word to use during the US election campaigns?


politicaster – a petty politician; a pretender or dabbler in politics


Milton ventured to use the word "politicaster" to indicate the person who stands to the real politician in the same relation that the poetaster does to the poet. He is one of the large and ambitious families of the Would-Be's. He imitates what he is incapable of understanding. Let us adopt the term politicaster, and then enjoy the experience of expressing our heartfelt admiration for the honorable and quick-witted gentlemen who bear without reproach the grand old name of politician; a name "defamed by every charlatan, and soiled by all ignoble use."
– Samuel McChord Crothers, In Praise Of Politicians, reprinted in Wall Street Journal, January 5, 2004, from a 1910 collection of the author's essays


witticaster – a witling; i.e., a pretender to wit or smartness

I cannot quote witticaster, but witling quotes show the fine art of invective.


Ye newspaper witlings! ye pert scribbling folks! – Oliver Goldsmith.

Go, Wilberforce with narrow skull,
Go home and preach away at Hull.
No longer in the Senate cackle
In strains that suit the tabernacle;
I hate your little witling sneer,
Your pert and self-sufficient leer.
Mischief to trade sits on your lip,
Insects will gnaw the noblest ship.
Go, Wilberforce, begone, for shame,
Thou dwarf with big resounding name.
– James Boswell


philosophaster – a pretender to philosophy


Robert Burton, whom we will meet later, wrote a 1606 play titled Philosophaster. Make what you will of the fact that William Buckley owned a manuscript copy of Philosophaster.


We illustrate that word with a quotation critiquing the poet Wordsworth. You can also enjoy the same critique expressed in sonnet form.


Wordsworth, not when he was communicating it as a poet, but when he was merely talking about it as a philosopher (or philosophaster), said some very silly things.
– C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Two voices are there: one is of the
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times -- good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.
– James Kenneth Stephen (1859-1892)


criticaster – a mean-spirited, contemptible, carping critic

Personally, I think of an ill-mannered puppy yapping and nipping at the heels of his betters.


In selecting as the Novel of the Month Mark Twain's new story, A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, I am aware that I expose myself to many remonstrances. ... Mark Twain gets "directlier at the heart" of the masses than any of the blue-china set of nimminy-pimminy criticaster.
– William T. Sneed, Review of Reviews (London), Feb. 1890

He [Joseph Goebbels] set going a two-months-long campaign against the `alarmists and criticaster, the rumor-mongers and idlers, the saboteurs and agitators.'
– Hans Bernd Gisevius, et al, To the Bitter End


The Goebbels quote is noteworthy, in that 'criticaster' brings up so many google-hits in German that I cannot but believe it's also a German word. Can anyone advise?


theologaster – a petty or contemptable theologian


We recently met Robert Burton as author of the play Philosophaster. Today's quotation is from his 1621 masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Lewellyn Powys called this work "the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing," while the celebrated surgeon William Osler declared it the greatest of medical treatises. And Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure.


Note: Burton wrote part of this work in Latin, including this part, and I cannot tell whether this translation was done by Burton himself or by another.


Our annual university heads as a rule pray only for the greatest possible number of freshmen to squeeze money from, and do not care whether they are educated or not, provided they are sleek, well groomed, and good-looking, and in one word, men of means. Philosophasters innocent of the arts become Masters of Arts, and those are made wise by order who are endowed with no wisdom, and have no qualifications for a degree save a desire for it. Theologasters, if they can but pay, have enough learning and to spare, and proceed to the very highest degrees. Hence it comes that such a pack of vile buffoons, ignoramuses wandering in the twilight of learning, ghosts of clergymen, itinerant quacks, dolts, clods, asses, mere cattle ...



Ethnic slurs of the Classical Greeks


The classical Greeks, like any other ethnic group, used ethnic slurs upon their neighbors. This week we'll present some of those slurs that have come into English.


Yes, I can foresee you saying for some of these words, "That wasn't ancient Greek. It was coined by later speakers versed in the classics." Or, "That referred not to the ethnic group, but to the traits of a prominent person or mythological figure from that place. " Or, "That wasn't a slur. It was just descriptive, or the negative meaning came later." To all of which I respond, "Pooh! Let's not let quibbles stand in the way of the tale."


boeotian – a dull, obtuse person. The emphasis seems to be on rude ignorance and illiteracy (think "country bumpkin") rather than stupidity.


Boetia is a farming district in ancient Greece, whose inhabitants the urbane Athenians found thick and stupid, with no understanding of art or literature. Think "country bumpkin". Brewer gives another explanation: "The ancient Boeotians loved agricultural and pastoral pursuits, so the Athenians used to say they were dull and thick as their own atmosphere." But the slur seems unfair, since Hesiod, Pindar, and Plutarch all hailed from Boeotia.


It was called Boeotia; and in Hellenic minds the word 'Boeotian' had a quite distinctive connotation. It stood for an ethos which was rustic, stolid, unimaginative, brutal – an ethos out of harmony with the prevailing genius of the Hellenic culture.
– Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History

bliss is not conducive to invention: the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from from the realization that something is missing, from awareness of incompleteness.
– Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self


A reader notes: You may know the humorous story which started Mark Twain on his rise to fame, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.  Many years after Twain wrote it he learned, from Professor Van Dyke of Princeton, that the story was 2000 years old: it had been a fable in ancient Greece, with a Boeotian as the dupe. Twain relates how he learned of this, in his Private History of the "Jumping Frog" Story, in How to Tell a Story and Other Essays (1897).  But six years later Twain reported that Professor Van Dyke had been taken in. A bemused Professor Sidgwick had told him (Twain) that he (Sidgwick), impressed by Twain's frog story, had simply converted it to ancient Greek, apparently as an exercise for students. He never dreamed that anyone would mistake it for an authentic ancient-Greek original.


sybarite – a person devoted to pleasure and luxury; a voluptuary

[from Subaris (Sybaris), from the notorious luxury of its inhabitants]


[Ben] Franklin's personal habits aroused even greater ire in [John] Adams. Franklin lived the grand life of a sybarite, attended by nine servants, feasting daily frorn a table generously laden with unimaginable delicacies, in command of a wine cellar stocked with more than one thousand bottles, and borne about Paris and Passy in an elegant carriage driven by a uniformed coachman.
– John Ferling, John Adams: A Life

This is a deplorable street, a luxurious couch of a street in which the afternoon lolls like a gaudy sybarite.
Ben Hecht, Michigan Avenue

Why would there be 22,000 books on, for instance, the enigma of Richard Wagner? The supposed enigma is that a man who wrote some music that is sublime (Parsifal), some that is noble and romantic (Lohengrin), and some that is wise and gently humorous (Meistersinger) should have been an active anit-Semite, the seducer of a loyal friend's wife (Cosima Von Bulow) and at various times a liar, cheat, politician, egomaniac and sybarite. Why on earth not? There is no enigma in Wagner if you remember the Anything Goes Rule. The real enigma is that experienced people who must know that traits of character and talent have complex, shifting causes, can believe or pretend to believe, that a personality must be all of a piece morally.
– Richard Brown, Social Psychology


abderian – given to laughter; particularly, inclined to foolish or incessant merriment


But is the dictionary definition correct? The word abderian is too rarely used for me to glean its meaning from context. The sources agree that it comes from the Thracian town of Abdera, a town in Thrace, or from its prominent philosopher Democritus. [One says Abdera's "citizens were considered rustic simpletons who would laugh at anything or anyone they didn't understand".]


However, the stories about Abdera and Democritus don't really support a concept of "foolish merriment". In general they show the townsfolk as stupid or as subject fits of nutty emotion, and show Democritus as a worldly-wise man laughing at the follies of mankind, in an attitude of "Lo, what fools these mortals be."


I'll relate these various stories on our board, over the next few days. Here's one:


Richard Strauss based his last work, Des Esels Schatten ('The Donkey's Shadow'), on a 1774 satire set in ancient Abdera, Die Abderiten by Christoph Martin Wieland. The plot is a legal dispute over the question, "Who owns the donkey's shadow?" The renter of a donkey cooled himself in the donkey's shadow, whereupon the donkey's owner demands more money, claiming he leased the donkey, not its shadow. The legal dispute rages; the city and its citizens are sharply split on the controversy – and everyone forgets the donkey, who is neglected and dies of starvation.


solecism – 1. a word blunder: a nonstandard usage or grammatical construction

2. a social blunder: a violation of etiquette; an impropriety

[after Soloi, an Athenian colony in Cilicia where a dialect regarded as substandard was spoken.]


Let us ourselves resolve not to create such social solecisms. Never go out to dinner without the means to pay for it, in the expectation that somebody else will pick up the bill.
– Philip Howard, The Times, August 2, 2004

Mr Bush's idiosyncrasies are not necessarily an electoral burden. Some believe his folksy delivery and verbal solecisms play well with ordinary Americans wary of slick rhetoric and gilded vocabulary.
– The Guardian, Bush's campaign trail gaffe, August 5, 2004

Your garb and manner were restricted by rule: your air was often diffident, and altogether that of one refined by nature, but absolutely unused to society, and a good deal afraid of making herself disadvantageously conspicuous by some solecism or blunder ...
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre


laconic – saying much in few words; brief, pithy and brusque, almost to the point of rudeness

Lakonia's chief city was Sparta, and Spartan speech was short and to the point. Examples:


Philip of Macedon raised a great army, and sent a letter to the Spartans saying, "If I go down into your country, I will level your great city to the ground." In a few days, he received his written answer. When he opened it he found only one word:

. ."IF."


A Spartan, hearing another city phrased for its fair management of the Olympic Games, answered, 'Yes, they deserve a lot of praise if they can do justice one day in five years."


Current usage:


The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland [Maine]. With those three names, he used up a week's quota of words for Maine people. Down at this end of the state, you occasionally can wrest a whole sentence - "Yep." "Nope." - from the legendarily laconic natives. But don't bet on it.
– Denis Horgan, of Hartford (Conn.) Courant, in The Arizona Republic, August 15, 2004


A reader notes: I still remember example of laconic speech in Latin book I had in eighth grade. When the Persians invaded Greece, in a truce before the battle, the Persian representative, trying to intimidate the Spartans, said: "When our archers shoot, the light of the sun will be blotted out!" The Spartan said: "We will fight in the shade."


sardonic – disdainfully humorous; scornful and mocking


Once known principally as a GOP hatchet man, [Bob] Dole had rehabbed himself over the years to war hero and sardonic wit.
– Eleanor Clift, Newsweek, Aug. 27, 2004

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart welcomed John Kerry. "How are you holding up?" Stewart asked Kerry. "I understand that apparently you were never in Vietnam." The sardonic quip triggered laughter from both the audience and Kerry. "That's what I understand, too," Kerry replied, grinning and playing along. "But I'm trying to find out what happened."
Toronto Star, Aug. 26, 2004


A Tale of Etymology: Most sources still trace sardonic to an ancient Greek belief a plant called sardonion, native to Sardinia, caused the face to screw up and convulse in an expression resembling sardonic laughter. So said the classical Romans. (Virg. Ecl. 7.41; Pausanius)


But this Sardinia theory has been disproved. Sardonic appears in Homer (Odyssey xx. 302 σαρδάνιον), and in Homer's time the Greeks, as I understand it, had not discovered Sardinia. (Another objection, which no source mentions: Sardinia is not particularly isolated. Is it likely a supposed plant would be unknown on the mainland and identified only with the island of Sardinia?)


Some modern sources try to reconcile this, claiming that Homer's sardanion later changed in Greek, by influence of Sardonion "Sardinian" associated with the supposed Sardinian plant. This seems to me merely an attempt to preserve an old theory by explaining away contrary evidence. Perhaps this a-to-o change did occur in some Greek editions rather than later (the web is unclear), but I see no evidence that it was anything more than scrivener error or a pronunciation change over time.


My conclusion: the "Sardinia" theory is nothing but a folk etymology created by the ancient Roman writers. (PS: after concluding this, I found that Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics calls the theory a folk etymology.)


If sardonic is from Homer's σαρδάνιον, where does the latter come from? One theory cites Greek σαίρειν (in our letters, 'sairden'?) "to draw back the lips and bare the teeth", grinning like a dog. That makes particular sense when you note that the ancient Greeks did use a similar dog-term for nasty speech. Their word for "to strip off the flesh, as does a dog" (sarkos flesh), became their noun and verb for sarcastic speech (sarkasmo, sarkazein), leading in turn to our sarcasm.


Our final word of this theme has both positive and negative meanings.



positive noun: a fashionable man about town; a bon vivant; esp. a wealthy amateur yachtsman or other sportsman

negative noun: a debauched man devoted to the pursuit of pleasure

adj: as or like such a man, of either sort (also, an ornate type of architectural column)


[miscellaneous senses: corinthian race – one in which the contesting yachts must be manned by amateurs. corinthianism – harlotry. to corinthianize – to live an idle, dissipated life.]


I be but the prince of Wales, yet I am king of courtesy; … a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy, by the Lord, so they call me, and when I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.
– Henry IV, Part 1, act 2, sc. 4 (Prince Hal speaking)


The term led to the name of a popular alcoholic drink. Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1824) tells the adventures of Corinthian Tom and his sidekick Jerry Hawthorne. From this, the "Tom and Jerry".


Etymology: The ancient Greeks and Romans portray Corinth as a licentious city,¹ but this may be more slanderous than true, for Corinth was a major commercial rival of Athens, allied militarily with Athens' rival Sparta. Interestingly, though in English 'corinthian' refers to a man, the ancients viewed Corinth as a city of loose women.²



¹Note: Paul's Letter to the Corinthians refers to a different city, founded on the same site long after "Old Corinth" had been destroyed.


²Slightly difference between Greek and Roman views:

. . . .To the Greeks, it seems, almost any woman from Corinth was a loose woman. Dialogue in Aristophanes Lysistrata: "'She's a Corinthian.' 'Yes, isn't she. Very open, in some ways particularly.'" Some say that "Corinth", with a verb ending, was Greek slang for "to fornicate".

. . . .To the Romans, Corinth was a city of 'loose women' in the sense that it had numerous (and very expensive) prostitutes. Plutarch: "Aristophanês speaks of the unheard-of sums (amounting to £200 or more) demanded by the harlots of Corinth." Strabo: "There were no fewer than a thousand harlots in Corinth." Strabo says prostitution was part of the city's religious cult practices, but scholars doubt this, since sacred prostitution was a Middle East custom, not a Greek one.



Words from Italian


We've done themes of words from French, German, Greek, Latin, Russian and Yiddish, some of the more than once.

Why not Italian? Largely because although many English words are traceable back to Italian, the vast majority fall into one of three narrow groups: food terms, artistic terms (especially music; secondarily painting), and terms that came from Italian via French and are French in flavor.

But this week we will hono(u)r Italy.

irredentist – one who advocates the recovery of territory culturally or historically related to one's nation but now subject to a foreign government. (irredenta: such territory).
[The root term was irredenta, an Italian coinage from the phrase Italia irredenta, "unredeemed Italy".]

Question: How does irredentism differ from revanchism?


Beijing's muscle-flexing is a reminder that China is an irredentist power set on recovering territory it says was unjustly taken when it was weak and subjugated by colonisers, among them Western nations and Japan.
– Michael Richardson, Will S-E Asian States Be Forced to Take Sides?, Singapore Straits Times, Aug. 18, 2004


dolce vita – a lifestyle of appreciating and savoring the pleasures of life.
[Italian: dolce sweet + vita life. Typically in the phrase la dolce vita)]

I have composed this definition, for I believe MW and AHD misdefine the word. In essence they say it means "an indolent and self-indulgent way of life". I'd say the term stresses enjoyment, without implying (as they think) any puritanical judgment that enjoyment is somehow "wrong".

Consider how the word is used, and form your own opinion.

Reader's notes tend to agree that the word is vaguely negative.  It seem to have come not so much from Italian as from the movie by Fellini (1960) of that title, which also contributed the term "paparazzi" to the language.


Thomas Jefferson lives as an inspiration for anyone who dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness begins with freedom and opportunity for all. But there's more than work to Thomas Jefferson. In Italy they have la dolce vita, the sweet soulful life, in France there's joie de vivre, the art of joyous living; but what is the modern equivalent?" Miller time just doesn't have the same ring of sweetness, soul and joy."
– Michael J. Gelb, Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like History's Ten Most Revolutionary Minds

The New York City Police Department is preparing to mobilize a new tool to prevent chaos during the Republican National Convention - a fleet of sleek, stylish Italian scooters. Along with giving officers a taste of "la dolce vita," the scooters will allow the police far more mobility as they seek to control the protests or get to trouble spots.
– Mary Spicuzza, Calling All Scooters? Officers Will Patrol With a Putt-Putt-Putt, New York Times, August 27, 2004

Italian men end up staying at home with their parents well into their 30s. "I just don't see the point of leaving my parents' home," said Luca Orsenigo. [H]e is not ready to give up his dolce vita, yet. "Right now I am single, so why would I give up traveling, my bike, the car
, the clothes to waste money on rent?"
       His mother doesn’t seem to share his view.
– Claudio Lavanga,
What is keeping Italian men at home? Experts warn of population fall as most prefer mamma's cooking, NBC News, Aug. 20, 2004 (edited)


inamorata, inamorato – a woman (inamorata) or man (inamorato) with whom one is in love or has an intimate relationship.
[So says AHD. I'd say the word stresses the sex, not the love. An inamorata is a mistress; one would not use either term to refer to a spouse.]


British soccer continues to enslave the observer with all the appalling mesmerism of a hunting mongoose. It's awful, but you just can't look away. ... Last week, it emerged that English coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has been straying from the side of his fragrant inamorata , the improbably named Nancy Dell'Olio. His lover's oleaginous charms were insufficient, it seems, to keep Sven from leaping into the sack with curvy Football Association secretary Faria Alam.
– Annabel Crabb, Festival of the boot, The Age (Australia), August 1, 2004

“Is he a presentable sort of person?” the aunt inquired. "Presentable?—oh, very well. You wouldn’t see any difference," Captain Crawley answered. "Do let’s have him when you begin to see a few people; and his whatyecallem—his—inamorata —eh, Miss Sharp; that's what you call it—comes."
– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, ch. XIV


A pair of words whose meanings contrast but whose etymologies pose like problems.

peccadillo – a small sin or fault
punctilio – 1. a fine point of etiquette 2. precise observance of formalities

But do these words come from Italian? The authorities' etymologies cite both Italian and Spanish.¹ But the first English citations are 1591 and 1596 respectively, and I'd say those dates very strongly argue that the source was not Spanish. The English of the 1590s had very recently defeated the Spanish Armada, and I doubt they felt kindly to the Spanish or to their words.


Clinton also had the good fortune of governing a pre-9/11 America, in which an otherwise competent leader's lack of probity could be sloughed off by the masses as a peccadillo – the stuff of late-night comedy monologues, not consequence. That world, however, is over.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, Vietnam & Authenticity, National Review, August 25, 2004

In the early 1970s, American feminists came up with the shocking proposition that "sexual harassment" of women workers was not a "private peccadillo," but a significant obstacle to women's achievement of equality for which employers should be held liable. By 1977, it was a recognized claim.
– Kathleen Peratis, ONLY HUMAN: No Ifs, Ands Or Butts, The Forward, August 6, 2004

This principle will be put to the test with the arrest warrants issued against Ahmed and Salem Chalabi Sunday. The Iraqi people and the world alike will see this as a political move, which is why the Iraqi interim government must strive to deal with this sensitive matter with all the punctilio, diligence and decorum that the law deserves.
– Lebanon Daily Star, Chalabi cases will quickly test Iraq's legal system, August 10, 2004


¹Thus, for 'peccadillo' OED lists both Sp. pecadillo and It. peccadiglio, "small sin"; for 'punctilio' it lists both It. punctiglio and Sp. puntillo, "small point". Other authorities or similar, though some give only Spanish for 'punctilio'.
. . .Regarding 'punctilio': a few decades later the word punctuality, which previously had a different meaning, came to mean "exact promptness".


sotto voce – in soft tones, so as not to be overheard; in an undertone
[Italian, "under voice"]

Our first quote's rhyme shows you how this term is pronounced. The poem is tells the old fairy tale of a frog who is really an enchanted prince. Our frog-prince has found a maid to free him the spell, but he has not yet seen the maid – and does not know that she is exceedingly ugly.


"Fair maid," he said, "I beg you, / Do not hesitate or wince,
If you'll promise that you'll wed me, / I'll at once become a prince;
For a fairy old and vicious / An enchantment round me spun!"
Then he looked up, unsuspicious, / And he saw what he had won,
And in terms of said reproach he
Made some comments, sotto voce.
(Which the publishers have bidden me to shun!)
– Guy Wetmore Carryl, Grimm Tales Made Gay (1902)

More than 300 rapes have taken place in Delhi this year. Things have come to a stage where even the police admit, albeit sotto voce, that they have a limited role to play in dealing with the crime.
– Sachin Parashar, Times of India, August 23, 2004


Today's word literally means "from the other side of the mountain". It is used in three senses: it can mean Italy's cold dry northern wind from "the other side" of the Alps", or can have its literal meaning, or can mean "a foreigner". We illustrate all three.

The sense of "foreigner" seems to be mildly pejorative. Thus in the Oxford Edition of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), where the text reads 'tramontane' the editors' explanatory note says, "barbarian, originally used by Italians for foreigners 'dwelling beyond the mountains'."


I stood at the window on the first floor while they served drinks outside, watching the tramontane, which blows from the north, sculpt the ladies' skirts around their thighs.
– Helen Stevenson, Instructions for Visitors: Life and Love in a French Town

[At the end of the American Revolution, France] was prepared to consent to a long term uti possidetis; a diminutive United States would have existed, but Great Britain almost certainly would have retained Maine, northern Vermont, the Carolinas, Georgia, the tramontane West, and portions of New York, including New York City.
– John Ferling, John Adams: A Life

She had lived in many places – in Seattle, Texas, Germany (a stepfather in the military) – so that her speech was full of tramontane expressions like "y'all" and "fixin to git."
– William Finnegan, Cold New World : Growing Up in Harder Country


tramontaneadj: from another country; foreign (noun a foreigner; a stranger). [also, "on the far side of the mountains"; also, a certain wind]



What does uti possidetis mean, in that last quote? Tune in tomorrow, as we start our next theme.