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September 2006 Archives

Eponyms from the Ancient Greeks: apollo, Icarian, daedal, solon, pyrrhonism, Apollonian, Dionysian (fatuous), Zoilus, Zoilist (flyter)

Vibrant Verbs: simper, divagate, wamble, calumniate (obloquy), sunder, obnubilate, roister

Words of Double Meaning: confabulate (dowager), talus, vamp, slough, tump, mead, isinglass (bung)

The French Revolution: tumbrel, bastille (oubliette), sans culotte, ancien rιgime, franc-tireur, tricolor


Eponyms from the Ancient Greeks


Let's return to a favorite theme: eponyms, or words from the names of real or fictional characters. A few years ago we've had themes of eponyms from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and from the Muses. This week we look at more eponyms from the ancient Greeks.

apollo – a young man of great physical beauty


This also points to the central problem of bad Washington novels--their implausibility. In the typical novel, Washington is an electrifying place, a city of dark and mysterious intrigues, home to oversexed cupcakes and Apollos of insatiable virility and masterful cunning.
– Andrew Ferguson, National Review,
Jan. 23, 1995


From the tale of Daedalus and Icarus:

Icarian – soaring too high for safety; applying to ambitious or presumptuous acts which end in failure or ruin


In the view of some social philosophers and historians, space flight is an Icarian venture at its best—and an extravagance at its worst.
– Daily Telegraph,
Dec. 1, 1972 (credit OED for this lovely quote)


daedal – of ingenious design; or skillfully made, artistic


'What a daedal maze,' said Stephen, referring to the workings of his mind ...
– Patrick O'Brian, The Surgeon's Mate

... the best of the projects in the magazine were truly daedal: ingenious, cleverly intricate and diversified.
– Eric Kraft, Taking Off


solon – a wise lawgiver, or a legislator [often sarcastic]
[from Solon, an early lawgiver of


Markup sessions of the budget committees in both houses [of Congress] … were postponed until mid-month as the solons pondered how to spend the money.
– Insight on the News,
March 27, 2000


pyrrhonism – extreme skepticism; universal doubt
[Pyrrho, founder of a school of skeptics in
Greece, about 300 B.C.]

I'm fond of the first quote here.


Scepticism is a highly civilized trait, though, when it declines into pyrrhonism, it is one of which civilizations can die. Where scepticism is strength, pyrrhonism is weakness: for we need not only the strength to defer a decision, but the strength to make one.
– T.S. Eliot, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture

I have often been reproached with the aridity of my genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime; and the Pyrrhonism of my opinions has at all times rendered me notorious.
– Edgar Allen Poe, Ms. Found in a Bottle


Today's two words are often used together, and often to the denigration of the latter. I'll give a variety of quotes.

Apollonian – 1. characterized by clarity, harmony, and restraint 2. serenely high-minded; noble

Dionysian – of an ecstatic, orgiastic, or irrational nature; frenzied or undisciplined
[from Dionysos, god of wine and revelry]


… a tension between Dionysiac passion and Apollonian reason …
– Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes on
Reading and Life

Romantic notions of political creativity persist: In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg invoked Nietzsche's distinction between Apollo and Dionysus to explain Bill Clinton's "unheralded perseverance and political skill" in creating a new "political space" in
America. The notion of Bill Clinton as Tragic Artist, part Apollonian seer, part Dionysian wild man, lovingly remaking our "public space" may sound like mere fatuous punditry …
– Michael Knox Beran, National Review, Nov. 6, 2000

The Dionysian has definitively triumphed over the Apollonian. No grace, no reticence, no measure, no dignity, no secrecy, no depth, no limitation of desire is accepted.
– Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses


Bonus word:
– silly and pointless (noun: fatuity)


Zoilus; Zoilist – a carping, malignant critic [for origin, see quote]


One of the funnier sketches in Mel Brooks's spoof epic, The History of the World: Part One, shows mankind's first artist daubing a prehistoric mammoth on the wall of a cave. He stands back to admire his work. Along comes mankind's first critic, who unzips his animal skin and pisses on it.

There is a large grain of truth in Brooks's joke. One of the origins of modern newspaper reviewing - the cuttingest edge of criticism - are the "Zoilists" of the late-16th century. The name derives from Zoilus, the malignant critic of Homer. Zoilus was the man who dared say that the author of the Odyssey wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. It was the role of Zoilists (lovely word) to "carp" (another lovely word). Like their modern version, "flyters" (traders in literary insult), they had only one mission in critical life: to piss on the work of art. The only qualifications for the job were a full bladder and a brass neck.
– John Sutherland, The Independent,
Dec. 12, 1998


Bonus Word:
– obs. one who scolds; a scold.



Vibrant Verbs


This week we'll have some words of action, some vigorous verbs you can use.

simper – to smile in a silly, self-conscious, often coy manner


One of my friends used to simper at men and say things like "but you're so intelligent", which used to make me want to hit him and vomit over her.
Cambridge Evening News, Aug. 19, 2006


divagate – to wander about; to stray from one place or subject to another. (In other words, to ramble or to digress.)
[Can someone find out whether this is akin to diverge or to vague?]

This seems to be used more in the sense of rambling thoughts than physically rambling about. But OED give the lovely quote, "So does a child's balloon divagate upon the currents of the air."


Poets talk of maidens' eyes, and divagate endlessly upon them …
– John Crowley, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

But now we must divagate from our major themes …
– Chester G. Starr, The
Roman Empire, 27 B.C.-A.D. 476: A Study in Survival


wamble –  to move unsteadily or with a weaving or rolling motion (noun: an upset stomach)


You meet frequently for dinner, after work, split whole liters of the house red, then wamble the two blocks east, twenty blocks south to your apartment …
– Lorrie Moore, Self-Help


calumniate – to make maliciously false statements about
(noun: calumny – malicious falsehood made to injure another's reputation)


… he will again begin to calumniate me with all the venom at his disposal.
– George Orwell, Burmese Days

He has crowned the audacity of this debate by venturing to rise here and calumniate me. …I will read from the debate … to show what I said in response to that calumny …
– Senator Charles Sumner, U.S. Senate,
May 20, 1856


Let's carry the last quote a little further.


… he has alleged facts that are entirely without foundation, in order to heap upon me some personal obloquy. … no person with the upright form of man can be allowed, without violation to all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least, on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not a proper model for an American Senator. Will the Senator from Illinois take notice?

MR. DOUGLAS: I will; and therefore will not imitate you, sir. … I would certainly never imitate you in that capacity, recognizing the force of the illustration.


Bonus word:
– abusive public condemnation


sunder – to split apart (implies by violence: to wrench apart)


A single word from the white men [at a sale of slaves] was enough – against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties – to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings.
– Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself

Great Britain took advantage … to seize complete control of the Atlantic and thus to sunder the French forces in North America from sources of supply and reinforcement in France. Thus, the British were able to take France's possessions in North America.
– Chris Chant et al., Patrick O'Brian's Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey's World


obnubilate – to becloud; to obscure
[from L. for cloud; akin to nuance]

This very obscure word seems more often used to mean making obscure to oneself, not to others.


It is the pity of the world, Dr McAdam, to see a man of your parts obnubilate his mind with the juice of the grape.
– Patrick O'Brian, The
Mauritius Command

… how badly does the image of who we want to be obnubilate our sense of who we actually are?
– Herman Stark, A Fierce Little Tragedy (etc.)


Let's end our weekly theme with a vigorous verb of convivial celebration. Let the party begin!

roister – to celebrate noisily and boisterously


They drink his wine, devour his stores, break up the furniture for firewood, roister all night, and sleep all day.
– Bernard Evslin, The Adventures Of Ulysses

Let us have language worthy of our world, a democratic style where rich and well-born nouns can roister with some sluttish verb yet find themselves content and uncomplained of.
– Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes on
Reading And Life



Words of Double Meaning


This week we'll look at words that have two very different meanings, and I hope the comparison and contrast will make you smile. Let's start with a word that also fits last week's theme of vibrant verbs.

confabulate – [akin to fable]
1. to converse casually together; to chat
2. Psychology: to fill in gaps in one's memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts


The two proud dowagers, Lady Lynn and Lady Ingram, confabulate together.
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

It is not that they lie in the experimental situation, but that they confabulate; they fill in the gaps, guess, speculate, mistake theorizing for observing.
– Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained

Thus the coping strategies of the two hemispheres are fundamentally different. The left hemisphere's job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn't fit the model, it relies on Freudian defense mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.
– Oliver Sacks, et al., Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind


Bonus word:
– a widow of high social rank who has a title and property because of her marriage


talusΉ (plural taluses) – a sloping mass of loose rock at the foot of a cliff (also, a like slope of an earthwork or tapering wall)


Bricks had spilled down in a talus to the floor of the tunnel. Boxer half scrambled, half slid in, raising clouds of dust.
– Douglas Preston,
Lincoln Child, The Cabinet of Curiosities


talus² (plural tali) – the anklebone [also called the astragalus]


Hairston underwent surgery in November to remove the talus bone from his left ankle. He described it as a minor procedure during which he had a bone chip removed.
Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2005


Today's two meanings come from separate roots, so they are technically separate words with identical spelling and pronunciation.


vamp – 1. the upper front part of a shoe or boot 2. [abbreviation of vampire] a woman who uses sexual attraction to exploit men (verb: to so use)


It went with his elegant clothes, his shoes with woven vamps, the glaze of his hair.
– Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex: A Novel

Playing Lola calls for a woman alluring enough to seduce a man into selling his soul to the devil. Gillentine succeeded … in creating a vamp who prowls across the stage …
– Kate Mattingly, Dance Magazine, June, 2006

… first I must have a new dress. I can't vamp this man with these dirty rags I am in.
– Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer


slough – 1. a swamp or mire 2. a situation of lack of progress or activity
[rhymes with 'bough' or, in the
US, with 'glue']


Our electioneering racers have started for the prize. … Oh what a rare sport it will be! Through thick and thin, through mire and dirt, through bogs and fens and sloughs, dashing and splashing and crying out, the devil take the hindmost.
– John Adams, quoted in his biography by David McCullough

… the sloughs of abjection and misery …
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


slough – [rhymes with 'rough'] to cast off or shed skin or other outer layer; the item so shed [also fig., as in quote]


But here in the North I would slough off my Southern ways of speech.
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man


tump (noun) – a hillock; or a clump of trees, shrubs, or grass, esp. in a dry spot in a bog


Parts of our spongy tract [the definition of a 'novel'] seem more fictitious than other parts, it is true: near the middle, on a tump of grass, stand Miss Austen … and Thackeray … But no intelligent remark known to me will define the tract as a whole. All we can say of it is that it is bounded by two chains of mountains … the opposing ranges of Poetry and of History …
– E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel


tump (verb) – Southern US: to overturn, or to tip over


I've never myself been a true football fan; I just like watching the players tump over on the field.
– Kinky Friedman, Spanking Watson


We have already seen one definition of today's word.

mead – a meadow
mead – an alcoholic drink of fermented honey and water


Small-volume luxury food imports [to Greenland] probably included honey to ferment into mead, plus salt as a preservative.
– Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed


isinglass – 1. a gelatin obtained from fish; previously used to clarify wine


Leave the mead to ferment and when this has ended, put in a quarter of an ounce of isinglass (available from wine-making supply stores) and bung the cask tightly.
– Raymond Buckland, Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft


isinglass – 2. chiefly US: mica in thin transparent sheets, a heat-resistant substitute for glass


The fire roared and the flames winked yellow behind the little isinglass windows in the front of the stove.
– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I went out and saw the thin pools of water standing on the black ground, like sheets of isinglass.
– Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men


Bonus word: bung – the plug for a hole in a barrel, etc. verb to close with a bung



The French Revolution


This week we look at words that come from the French Revolution or are strongly connected with it.

tumbrel; tumbril – a two-wheeled cart, especially a farmer's cart that can be tilted to dump a load (used to carry prisoners to execution during the French Revolution)


[at a WWII amphibious invasion] Everyone knew now that just as sure as God made little green Japs, the Higgins boats ferrying in the first Marine waves might as well be tumbrels.
– William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War


bastille – a jail


Eugene Fidell … said that the government's actions in the case are "very disturbing." "This man has been held for three years — basically in a Bastille, and now it turns out he has not even been prosecuted with those things that he has previously been tarred with," Fidell said.
– Cox News Service, Nov. 23, 2005

The chairwoman said gravely that the matter would be referred to the Conference Arrangements Committee, where it will probably disappear like a dead rat in a Bastille oubliette.
– The Guardian,
Sept. 29, 2005


Bonus word: oubliette – a dungeon reached only by a trap door it its ceiling
[From French oublier 'to forget']


sans culotte – 1. a lower-class Parisian republican in the French Revolution 2. an extreme republican or revolutionary


… at worst the leaders made their decisions without regard to the people, and if some sans culottes later raised objections, such protest could be overcome …
– James M. Burns, Leadership


ancien rιgime — a political or social system that has been replaced by a more modern one

The Odessa Lawn Tennis Club … is an unlikely setting for the start of a revolution. However, the new guard in charge of the British game, having swept aside the ancien rιgime, is hoping that this weekend's Davis Cup tie here against
Ukraine will signal a fresh beginning.
— The Independent,
Sept. 22, 2006


franc-tireur — a sniper or sharpshooter, working outside the regular army


At least 150 Syrian soldiers … were cut to pieces by mortar and machine-gun fire amid the mines. When they reached the Lebanese positions, they began executing the Aounists as franc-tireurs — irregular partisans who had disobeyed the rules of war.
— The Independent,
July 9, 2001


tricolor — 1. a flag having three stripes 2. the French flag

There is a good deal of flap about the Iraqi and Kurdish flags, each a tricolor.


The Kurdish regional government has banned the use of the Iraqi flag on public buildings as a symbol of oppression under Saddam Hussein. Maliki has demanded the use of the national tricolor and said only parliament can decide on a new flag.
— Reuters,
Sept. 5, 2006

In Batman, repression approached ridiculous levels: because traffic lights matched the Kurdish tricolor, local authorities changed the green lights to blue.
— Telegraph,
Nov. 6, 2003