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December 2006 Archives

Phrases from Latin: mutatis mutandis, mea culpa, ceteris paribus, caveat emptor, sine qua non, vox populi, de gustibus

Graphic Words: tachygraphy, chirography, cacography, dittography, haplography, pantograph (heodolite), agraphia, steganography

Eponyms from Literature: Svengali, Faustian, Chicken Little, trilby, fedora, grandfather clock, waldo

Words from Heinlein: obstipate, hypergolic, caltrop, hemocyanin, lettre de cachet, heterodyne, atavism, contretemps, legerdemain


Phrases from Latin


This week we'll present phrases taken verbatim from Latin.

mutatis mutandis – (when comparing two or more cases) making necessary alterations while not affecting the main point; with respective differences taken into consideration
[Latin, 'things being changed that have to be changed'. Akin to mutate]


The memo set off alarm bells in the State Department and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And for good reason. Legal counsel there realized a memo justifying the torture of others could be used just as readily, mutatis mutandis, to justify the torture of American prisoners.
Washington Times, Jan. 11, 2005


mea culpa – an acknowledgement that one is at fault
[Latin, 'by my fault']


[His] response to all this has been a model of blame-shifting, obfuscation and patently insincere mea culpas, apparently justified by his view that [he] has more important things to do than administer his own organization.
– Wall Street Journal,
Dec. 14, 2006 (today)


ceteris paribus – other things being equal; if all other relevant factors remain unaltered


China-India … the world's two fastest growing economies that, ceteris paribus, are expected to become the world's second and third largest economies by 2020.
Asia Times Online, Dec. 6, 2003


caveat emptor – the principle that the buyer is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before purchase
[Latin, 'let the buyer beware']


Caveat emptor: with any cool new technology, there's always a thing or two to keep in mind before you buy. Flat-panel monitors are no exception.
– AV Video Multimedia Producer,
Mar. 1, 2004


sine qua non – an indispensable condition
[Latin, meaning 'without which, not'. This is feminine; sometimes you'll see masc. sine quo non; proper plural is sine quibus non.]


An effective Nato [sic] is the sine qua non of democratic multilateralism.
– Financial Times,
Dec. 14, 2006


vox populi – the opinions or beliefs of the majority
[Latin, ‘the people’s voice’]


And no matter what the vox populi says, PF Chang's has no business being in a book called "America's Top Restaurants."
Arizona Republic, Dec. 7, 2005


de gustibus – a matter of personal taste
[Not in dictionaries, but occasionally used as a word. From Latin de gustibus non est disputandum 'There's no disputing about taste,' or 'There's no accounting for taste.']


Some admirable people simply don't "get" P.G. Wodehouse. I concede this as incontrovertible fact, just one of those de gustibus things, yet somehow can't quite fathom the lapse in good judgment.
Washington Post, Mar. 30, 2003



Graphic Words


This week's theme of "graphic language' is not what you may think. One meaning of graphic is 'describing nudity or sexual activity in detail.' But we will instead be looking at some obscure words from the Greek root graphe writing.

tachygraphy – shorthand; the art of rapid writing
[Sometimes refers to a particular system devised by Thomas Shelton in 1641.]
[Greek tachy- swift]


Definitely shorthand. Not the most recent kind either, and older version. This is tachygraphy of the type that Samuel Pepys used in his diaries. Before the 19th century it was popular among lawyers and naval officers. Hopelessly arcane now, of course.
– Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House


chirography – handwriting; penmanship
[The word, once reasonably common, dropped out of use in the first few decades of the 20th century.]


My grandfather's chirography was horrid. It usually looked as if a spider that dropped into a bottle of ink was permitted to crawl over the paper. He himself could not read it half the time …
– P T. Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself


If chirography means 'handwriting', and the familiar word calligraphy means 'beautiful handwriting', then is there a word meaning 'bad handwriting'?

Of course.

cacography – 1. bad handwriting 2. bad spelling


For some of us, there is comfort in knowing that other great persons have also suffered from cacography. Napoleon, for example. His handwriting was so atrocious that notes he sent to his commanding officers looked like maps of the battlefield.
Also indecipherable was the script of the great newspaper editor Horace Greeley. He once fired a staff member who, whatever his shortcomings, had the wit to put
Greeley's note of dismissal to good use. Since nobody could make out the writing, the unemployed journalist was able to pass the note off as a letter of recommendation and promptly land himself another job.
– Smithsonian Magazine, August, 1999


Today's words name errors that can creep into a text that is copied and recopied by hand. You'll rarely see them outside of biblical or similar scholarship. Nonetheless, our final example will be a humorous tale, so bear with me.

dittography – a copyist's unintentional repetition of letter(s) or word(s)
haplography – a copyist's unintentional writing of letter(s) or word(s) once, when they should be repeated [This is the dictionary definition, but see below.]


Dittography or the repetition of a letter, syllable, word, clause or sentence. Once such an error was made, it was faithfully reproduced. In the Hebrew text of Lev. 20:10, the first five Hebrew words "If a man commits adultery with the wife of      " are repeated. The translators of the King James Version of the Bible incorporated the dittography in the English text …
–Gerald A. Larue, Old Testament Life and Literature (1968), ch. 32


Sometimes a speaker may erroneously add a sound (athelete for athlete) or omit a sound ('cause for because). There are technical terms for this, but as I understand it those terms apply only to additions or omissions in speech.

For writings, we look to today's words. Now dittography does not mean a just any old written error of addition: it specifically means repeating what went before. What about haplography: does it mean any sort of written error-of-omission, or is it specifically a failure to repeat?

Well, folks, that's not clear. The dictionaries are split but generally take the latter view; while actual usage seems to take the former view that haplology is simply omission of letters in a text. An example is the title which a web-author gave to this story:


"Freudian Haplography": A young monk, new to the monastery, is assigned to helping the other monks in copying the old canons and laws of the church by hand. He notices, however, that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript, so he goes to the abbot to question this, pointing out that if someone made even a small error in the first copy, it would never be picked up. In fact, that error would be continued in all of the subsequent copies.

The abbot says, "We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son." So he goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery where the original manuscripts are archived in a locked vault that hasn't been opened for hundreds of years.

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot. The young monk, worried, goes down to look for him, and finds him banging his head against the wall (his forehead bloody and bruised), crying uncontrollably and wailing, "We missed the 'R', we missed the 'R'.

The young monk asks the old abbot, "What's wrong, father?"

With a choking voice, the old abbot replies, "The word was 'celebrate'."


pantograph – a mechanical device for copying plans, diagrams, etc., on any desired scale. A stylus, tracing over the original, drives a pen that produces the copy.


It took him only a few months to master the basic skills [of surveying]. By the following spring he had learned how to use the pantograph and the theodolite, the dividers and the great steel chain.
– Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology


Bonus word: theodolite – a surveying instrument with a rotating telescope, for measuring horizontal and vertical angles


agraphia – inability to write (as a manifestation of brain-disease)

But here used in a non-medical context.


The earliest notes … show Scott … "much alarmed" by a sudden attack of agraphia, impotence to write the words as he should.
– Andrew Lang, Sir Walter Scott


"Everyone loves Veronica, I see. I'm sure any lover is very eager."

If you saw this message you might think nothing of it. But a very different message is hidden within, for those who know the secret of reading just the first letter of each word! This exemplifies the distinction between codes and cyphers, on the one hand, and steganography, which has become particularly important because computers make it easy to do.

steganography – secret writing by hiding the message in an apparently innocuous document or other matter


The aim of encryption is to scramble a message so that a third party cannot unscramble it … . The goal of steganography is to hide the fact that a message is being sent in the first place. … For example, to conceal a message in a digitized picture, you can change one bit per pixel … . The resulting color changes … are barely perceptible. … Unsuspecting viewers … have no clue that a steganographic message is present.
– PC Magazine, October, 2002

… the 9/11 hijackers may have communicated globally through steganography software, which lets users e-mail, say, a baby picture that secretly contains a 300-page document …
– Thomas L. Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11

… officials suspect that [the 9/11] hijackers and planners of the attacks used steganography … Steganography is virtually undetectable unless you know what to look for… Law enforcement officials have known for years that hackers and terrorists worldwide … have been using the technology. … Numerous developers and programmers have created software to detect steganography and to hide information.
… Steganography is not a new phenomenon. Herodotus … told of a messenger who shaved his head and then had a secret message imprinted on his scalp. Once his hair grew, he traveled to deliver the message.
– Black
Enterprise, Feb. 2002


Note: The dictionaries define steganography as 'cryptography', but that is inaccurate. 'Cryptography' is usually defined to mean the art of codes and ciphers (and sometimes, defined so broadly as to include steganography as well).



Eponyms from Literature


This week we present literary characters whose names have entered our language.

Svengali – a person who exercises a controlling influence on another, esp. for sinister purpose
[from Svengali, in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894), who controls Trilby hypnotically]

Wordcrafter notes: This is the dictionary definition, but to me one who has excessive (not controlling) influence can be a 'Svengali', as in the second quote. Also, a Svengali does not use force; he influences his victim's judgment. For example, though a mugger with a handgun has a "controlling influence" on his victim, he is not a Svengali.


The crucial factor in Hitler's Svengali act was his use of radio, a relatively new technology that he manipulated with sinister effect. … With radio, one speaker could address an entire nation at once, casting a wide, seductive net, invoking in listeners a sense of tribal unity and singleness of vision.
– Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Some of the most fascinating sections of the book deal with the Clintons's [sic] one-time political Svengali, Dick Morris …
– Washington Monthly, May, 2005


Faustian – of a "deal with the Devil": sacrificing moral values for power, knowledge, or wealth
Note: Most dictionaries just say "of or relating to Faust", which is spectacularly unhelpful, and then tell a bit about the man. I take my definition from the only dictionary that gives specifics. It gives further meanings, but in my view you're highly unlikely to run into them.


It's no secret that Aoun would like to emerge from Lebanon's political paralysis as president … . Many Lebanese believe that he made a Faustian bargain with Hezbollah in hopes of assuring his ascendance.
Los Angeles Times, Dec. 25, 2006


Etymology: The German Johann Faust, c1488-1541, a wandering astrologer and necromancer, was said to have sold his soul to the Devil. In the early 1800s Goethe made him the hero of his play Faust, which many consider many to be the greatest work of German literature.

Does the word Faustian come from the person, or from the dramatic character? The dictionaries say the person, but I disagree. The word came into English in 1876, long after the living Faust, when Faust-the-person was presumably far less well known than Faust-the-dramatic-character. Moreover, the earliest known usage seems to refer to a drama ("The sombre Faustian grandeur of this piece.") Hence, I conclude that today's word falls within our theme of eponyms from literary characters.


Chicken Little – one who constantly warns that a calamity is imminent
[from the nursery tale character: when an acorn falls on a Chicken Little's head, she runs to tell all her friends that the sky is falling. Folks, I didn't say our eponyms would be from great literature!]


He wanted the Principals Committee to decide whether al Qaeda was "a first order threat" or a more modest worry being overblown by "chicken little" alarmists.
– The 9/11 Commission Report


Today's word seems to be much more common in the British Commonwealth than in the US.

trilby – a felt hat with a narrow brim creased crown
[From the same novel as our recent word Svengali. Such a hat was worn in the stage version of that novel.]


Walter was the boss, there was no doubt about it. … The battered trilby which he always wore in contrast with the others' caps gave him an extra air of authority.
– James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small

Bond glanced up … A man in a rainproof and Trilby, middle-aged, nondescript, was inspecting the orderly hell through a pair of folding opera-glasses. Anyone examining him … was an object of suspicion to James Bond …
– Ian Fleming, Octopussy and The Living Daylights


Today's word is, like trilby, an eponymous hat from a late-1800s drama.

fedora – a soft felt hat with a curled brim and the crown creased lengthways
You may ask how a fedora differs from a trilby. The answer is, "I don't know."

Does this word come from title of a play (as the dictionaries say) or from the main play's character? You be the judge: etymology online explains, "from 'Fιdora,' a popular play by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) that opened 1882, in which the heroine, a Rus. princess named Fιdora Romanoff, was originally performed by Sarah Bernhardt. During the play, Bernhardt, a notorious cross-dresser, wore a center-creased, soft brimmed hat. Women’s-rights activists adopted the fashion. Men began to wear them with city clothes after 1924, led by
Britain's Prince Edward (Edward VIII), the most influential man of fashion in his day."


… he appeared tragically ill at ease as he stood awkwardly with the brim of his black felt fedora held in his two brawny laborer's hands out in front of his wide lapels. Poverty and hard work had inflicted iniquitous damage on both.
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22


Today's familiar word has a unique distinction. It is, insofar as I know, the only eponym to come from a song.

grandfather clock – a weight-and-pendulum clock in a tall free-standing wooden case
[from the popular 1876 song My Grandfather's Clock by Henry Clay Work (1832-1884), American songwriter]


My grand-father's clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a penny weight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopp'd short never to go again
When the old man died.


waldo – a mechanical agent, such as a gripper arm, controlled by a human limb
[From Waldo Fathingwaite-Jones, title character in Robert Heinlein's science fiction novella Waldo]


… each full-size dinosaur robot was controlled by up to 20 puppeteers, every one of whom was assigned to a part of a four-foot mechanism called a waldo …
New York Times,
June 6, 1993



Words from Heinlein


Yesterday's word was coined by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein.

Sometimes I wonder whether Heinlein kept lists of oddball words to deploy in his writings. This week we'll enjoy some of his words.

obstipate – to constipate severely

In The Number of the Beast, Heinlein has set the scene at a university party.


My musing was interrupted by a male voice in a high scream. "You overeducated, obstipated, pedantic ignoramus! Your mathematical intuition froze solid the day you matriculated!"
     I didn't recognize the screamer but did know the stuffed shirt he addressed: Professor Neil O'Heret Brain, head of the department of mathematics…. "Brainy" had spent his life in a search for The Truth – intending to place it under house arrest.


Following yesterday's quote, Heinlein uses a technical term figuratively, to describe two 'combustible' characters brought together at the party.

hypergolic – igniting or exploding spontaneously (without external spark) when the components come into contact [said esp. of rocket fuel]


Fights were no novelty at [her] parties. Her food and liquor were lavish, the music always live; her guests were never dull – I had been surprised at the presence of N.O. Brain. Now I felt that I understood it: a planned hypergolic mixture.


Heinlein scatters interesting words throughout his books, but unusual ones, and especially thoroughly oddball ones, tend to cluster in the early pages. (For example, in the first seven pages of The Number of the Beast you'll find both 'obstipated' and 'hypergolic' – along with 'cantilevering', 'amphigory', 'genetohematologist', 'hyperbole', and 'pheromone' – and the heroine comments, "Gosh, what big words you know, Mister," and "I like your hair-splitting games with words.") To me this evidences that Heinlein made a conscious effort to incorporate curiosities of vocabulary.


Heinlein defines today's word for us. From the same book:


"Show her the caltrop, Zeb."
     Zeb accepted a widget from my husband, placed it in front of me. It looked like jacks I used to play with as a little girl but not enough things sticking out – four instead of six. Three rested on the table, a tripod; the fourth stuck straight up.
     Zeb said, "This is a weapon, invented centuries ago. The points should be sharp … ." He flipped it, let it fall to the table. "No matter how it falls, one prong is vertical. Scatter them in front of cavalry; the horses go down – discouraging. They came into use again in Wars One and Two against anything with pneumatic tires – bicycles, motorcycles, lorries, and so forth. Big enough, they disable tanks and tracked vehicles. A small sort can be whittled from thorn bushes for guerrilla warfare – usually poisoned and quite nasty."


A current thread on our board is titled "Blue Blood". Today's word, from the same book, refers to blue blood of a different sort.

hemocyanin – a bluish, copper-containing protein with an oxygen-carrying function similar to that of hemoglobin


As my [sword-]point entered, Jake's saber cut the side of the neck almost to decapitation. Our target collapsed, bleeding at three wounds.
     I noticed the color of the blood with distaste. "Jake, what kind of creature has bluish green blood?"
     "I don't know."
     Sharpie came forward, squatted down, dabbed a finger in the blood, sniffed it. "Hemocyanin, I think," she said calmly. … "Alien. The largest terrestrial fauna with that method of oxygen transport is a lobster. But this thing is no lobster."


lettre de cachet – a warrant issued for the imprisonment of a person without trial, at the pleasure of the monarch


From Stranger in a Strange Land:

     "… you heard him say that there was another [officer] like him at large – with, so he says, warrants."
     "Doctor, I assure you that I know nothing of any such warrant."
     "Warrants, sir. He said, 'warrants for several arrests.' Though perhaps a better term would be 'lettres de cachet.'"
     "That's a serious imputation."
     "This is a serious matter."


heterodyne – to combine (radio waves) to produce a new frequency equal to the sum or difference of the two [Heinlein uses this figuratively]
atavism – the return of a trait or behavior after a period of absence; throwback [a previous word of the day, noted here]


We already have triplets. … Appalling sounds come from one end of each – in which they heterodyne each other – and even more appalling conditions prevail at the other end. … Mother's state can only be described as atavistically maternal. Her professional journals pile up unread, she has that soft Madonna look in her eyes …
– Podkayne of Mars


contretemps – an unforeseen event that disrupts the normal course of things
legerdemain – 1. sleight of hand 2. trickery, deception, hocus-pocus


At first I thought that my brother Clark had managed [this] malevolant legerdemain. But I soon perceived that it was ipossible for him to be in fact guilty. … This incredible contretemps, this idiot's dream of interlocking mishaps, is as much to his disadvantage as it is to mine.
– Podkayne of Mars