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June 2005 Archives

'Hard words' from "River Horse": incarnadine; anadromous; palliate; cheval-de-frise; surreptitious; chandler (chandlery); vinegaroon

Less-known meanings of familiar words: fluke; clock; secular; sublime (or sublimate); anorexic; sophisticate; riddle

Weather words: heat island; pluvial (chott/shott, playa, sabkha, kavir); incus (bontide); graupel (couloir); isobar (isopiestic); undercast

Eating and Drinking: comestible; Barmecide feast (barmecide); borborygmi (abomasum, rumen, reticulum, omasum (manyplies, psalterium); amuse-bouche (amuse-gueule); degustation (degust); smellfeast; shot-clog; curate's egg



'Hard words' from "River Horse"

Kilpatrick (mentioned in last week's theme) runs through some of the terrible words a reader sent to him. "One of my readers sat down recently to read a book. She kept getting up. After a while she wrote me a cranky letter. She wrote: 'I am disgusted and appalled by having to look up a word every fourth or fifth sentence.' She enclosed a partial list of words she had stumbled over before she was halfway through the book."

As you can imagine, I just had to see that book. It is River Horse, A Voyage Across America, by William Least Heat Moon, telling of the author's crossing of the United States almost entirely by riverboat.

The book is not bad as all that. Its hard words are nowhere near so thickly seeded in the text, and often they are clear from context or do not distract. This week we'll enjoy some of them, starting with two today

incarnadine 1. of a fleshy pink color. 2. blood-red

anadromous migrating up rivers from the sea, to spawn in fresh water
Compare catadromous living in fresh water but migrating to marine waters to breed.
[from Gk., running up and running down respectively]


At its base is a kidney-shaped lake once known as Sinnipink, and later after the bodies of British mercenaries turned the water incarnadine, it became Bloody Pond.

the long efforts to reduce or eliminate filth [in the river[ are evident almost everywhere. Not long ago, most heeded state warnings and refused to eat anything from the river. Now many fish, particularly anadromous species spending most of their life in the Atlantic, are appearing again on tables.

A reader notes Macbeth: "The multitudinous seas incardadine, making the green ones red."


palliate 1. to mitigate 2. to extenuate
[i.e., 1. to make (pain or disease) less severe 2. to make fault or crime seem less severe, with excuses and apologies. from L. meaning 'to cloak; to conceal']


The [Hudson] river has futhered fatuous flight like this one from Henry Collins Brown in his inanely titled 1937 work, The Lordly Hudson, perhaps the biggest American river tome ever: "This book is written primarily for those whom a beneficent Providence has permitted to dwell on [the Hudson] banks or in its lovely villages. Yet a monograph of what is unquestionably the most beautiful river in the world is something mankind should not be without. It is not his fault that everyone cannot live along the river. This volume is, therefore, designed also, as far as may be, to mitigate, to palliate existence away from the Hudson, if that is possible. "


cheval-de-frise (pl. chevaux de ~) 1. an obstacle of jagged glass, spikes, etc. set into the top of a wall 2. orig. military: a defensive line of spikes, etc., to block advance of the enemy (e.g., cavalry)
[lit. horse of Friesland, because used there as a defense, compensating for lack of cavalry]

Our first two quotations illustrate these usages. Our third gives two more definitions, which are very interesting ("literary device"? "chastity belt"?), but I can't confirm them.


[from River Horse: During the Revolutionary War Pollepel [Island] anchored a cheval-de-frise to halt movement upriver of British ships, but, while those sharpened, iron-capped timbers must have looked formidable, the enemy somehow passed through without let.

a tall hedge of cactus reinforced the crumbling wall with a cheval-de-frise of bristling thorns
Bret Harte, The Crusade of the Excelsior, ch. viii

[review of a musical work titled Chevaux-de-frise:]
Gerald Barry's cheval-de-frise A fence of sharpened stakes defending a stockade, a knotty verbal device to impede too rapid reading, a teasing buckle to protect the chastity of its wearer and defy him who would violate it - the title means all these, and Barry's response is a tour-de-force of sustained ferocity: menacing, yet exhilarating, even cheery.
Robin Holloway, The Spectator, June 29, 2002


surreptitious taken 'on the sly', secretly or furtively, with efforts to avoid detection


1. chiefly Brit; usu. contemptuous: a small shopkeeper selling provisions, groceries, etc.
2. a retailer of specified goods or lines [typ. nautical], as, a ship chandler
3. a candle-maker or candle-seller [Note: This sense is the earlier.]

chandlery his shop

This definition combines several dictionaries plus my own thoughts. Readers, do you agree with me when I say 'chiefly Brit', 'usu. contemptuous', 'small' and 'typ. nautical'?


[short on fuel:] Feigning nonchalance, Pilotis tried not to let me see surreptitious glances at the fuel gauges. "We either find gas on the river now or we take a sixty-gallon hike for it" On the edge of the village Pilotis pointed to a boatyard and chandlery with a pump. As I hosed the gasoline in, the fellow asked where we were coming from.


A British reader notes: I have never thought of chandler as in any way contemptuous.


Our author's odyssey cannot begin before spring thaws the rivers, and must be complete before the late fall freeze. As the author muses over the tight limit looming over him, he indulges in a truly obscure word.


One of the sweet and expectable aspects of life afloat is the perpetual present moment one lives in and a perception that time is nothing more than the current, an eternal flowing back to the sea. But trying to cross the American continent in a single navigational season disrupted that pretty illusion and put a live vinegarroon in my contemplative cap.


What is a 'vinegaroon', or 'vinegarroon'? There is a memorable definition in a children's book from the Hardy Boys series: The Sting of the Scorpion by Franklin W. Dixon:


A scream rang through the house! "That's mother!" Frank cried. Both boys dashed into the kitchen. They found their mother backing away from a huge scorpion!" The horrid-looking creature, now poised on the kitchen counter, was brown and hairy and about six inches long. Mrs. Hardy, pale, stared at it with a shocked expression.
"Out of the way! I'll swat the nasty thing!" exclaimed Aunt Gertrude as she burst in brandishing a fly swatter.
"No, don't kill it!" Frank protested. "It's an interesting specimen." "Interesting, my hat!" sniffed Aunt Gertrude. The boys smothered grins, and then Frank turned anxiously back to their mother. "It didn't sting you, did it?"
"No but it frightened me out of my wits. When I opened the container, it crawled out on my hand! I had to shake it of in the sink."
"From what I read in the encyclopedia," Frank said, "I've a hunch this is
a whip scorpion called a vinegaroon, that's found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It's called that because it emits a vinegary odor when aroused, just as this one's doing." The boys managed to corral the scorpion back into the plastic container and delivered it to their science teacher at Bayport High.


Picture here (ugh). Ladies, how'd you like to have sons like that?



Less-known meanings of familiar words