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January 2007 Archives

Types of Writing: amphigory, tushery, prolix, aphoristic, apothegm, sententious, gnomic

Colo(u)rful Words: purple prose, silver-tongued, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, white paper, blue book, green card, white noise

Words from the Crimean War: thin red line, balaclava, cardigan, mamelon, Nightingale, raglan, anabasis, katabasis

Obscure Water-Words: anadromous (grilse), catadromous, phreatic, vadose, bilge, sparge, clepsydra, natant, aspergill; aspergillum, aspersorium


Types of Writing


This week we'll examine some words for types of writing. The first of them is beloved by the on-line word-hounds, but is very rare in actual print usage. Heinlein is the only person who uses it often so the term fits last week's theme of Heinlein words.

Our word means 'nonsense', but in what way? The poem Jabberwocky is masterpiece of deliberate nonsense, very different from some sloppy writing that is intended to be serious but is in fact a bunch of nonsense. In my reading, the dictionary definition of today's word refers to the first type of nonsense, but the actual usage refers to the second.

amphigory – 1. (OED) a burlesque writing filled with nonsense; a composition without sense, as a Latin ‘nonsense-verse’ 2. (actual usage) rubbish, twaddle, poppycock, in writing or speech


On the Spanish Civil War, who, after having read Orwell, could still take seriously Malraux's histrionic amphigory?
– Quadrant,
Oct. 1, 1997

But to assert that something physical was created out of nothing … is not to make a philosophic or any sort of statement, it is mere noise, amphigory, sound and fury signifying nothing.
– Heinlein, To Sail beyond the Sunset


ΉIn Time Enough for Love, Stranger in a Strange Land, To Sail beyond the Sunset, I Will Fear No Evil, Star Beast, and Assignment In Eternity


tushery – poor writing, characterized by affected choice of archaic words (the sort of writing in which the characters say "Tush, tush.")
[used (coined?) by Robert Louis Stevenson]


"Damned" is a tushery, nowadays about the softest expletive in the American lexicon …
– William Buckley, Gettysburg Times, May 22, 1987

Any natural wording, anything which keeps the mind off theatricals … and not pestering the reader with frills and festoons of language, is worth all the convoluted tushery that the Victorians can heap together.
– Ezra Pound, Translators of Greek: Early Translators of Homer


Here's an example of tushery in action.


… a style which hurtles us towards an absolute empyrean of tushery. The … dinner party … detail about 'seats veneered with tortoiseshell and ornamented with costly embroideries' and 'hyssop for the finishing lavation', is hardly more tolerable than hearing Arbaces exclaim, 'Queen of climes undarkened by the eagle's wing, unravaged by his beak, I bow before thee in homage and in awe' or Ione's retort, 'Thou ravest!'
– The Spectator,
Aug. 29, 1998


prolix – (of speech or writing) tediously lengthy
[Latin prolixus poured forth, extended]


… prolix posturing, as defense lawyers stalled trials in order to be able to bill more hours.
– Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell:
America and the Age of Genocide (winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

Wintergreen determined the outcome by throwing all communications from General Peckem into the wastebasket. He found them too prolix. General Dreedle's views, expressed in less pretentious literary style, pleased ex-P.F.C Wintergreen and were sped along by him in zealous observance of regulations. General Dreedle was victorious by default.
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

While his scholarly, often prolix, text sadly lacks compelling visuals, it makes up for this somewhat with thorough research and a wealth of facts.
– The
Japan Times, Jan. 13, 2007


If prolix means 'tediously lengthy', what's an opposite? There are several – so many that we'll double-up for a bit – and interestingly, most of them have an uncomplimentary color. Here's the one that's probably the most neutral or positive.

aphoristic – marked by aphorism (a tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; an adage)


"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." So begins one of the finest novels in the English laguage, Pride and Prejudice. … She [Jan Austen] set both theme and tone in that tartly aphoristic first sentence: this is a world in which personal relationships are based more often on gain than on love and respect.
– Anna Quindlen

Warren has an aphoristic style of preaching. Remarking on opposing political inclinations, he said: “People ask, ‘Pastor Rick, are you right wing or left wing?’ I’m for the whole bird. One-winged birds fly in circles.”
Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph, Dec. 31, 2006


In the noun form, an alternative to aphorism is apothegm.
apothegm – a short pithy instructive saying; a maxim


If you would forgive your enemy, says the Malay proverb, first inflict a hurt on him; and Lily was experiencing the truth of the apothegm.
– Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth


How about further opposites of 'prolix'? You may recall our previous word-of-the-day, laconic ["saying much in few words", with a negative aura of "brusque, almost to the point of rudeness"]. Or you might use today's word, a variant of aphoristic with negative overtones.

sententious – characterized by maxims or pointed sayings – but often in the bad sense of 'addicted to pompous moralizing'
[Latin sententia 'opinion'. English sententia – an adage or aphorism. Akin to 'sentence'.]


A person of gentlemanly bearing, small abilities, and sententious wisdom.
–1883; taken from from OED. I love this quote!

a dreadful piece of sententious moralising
–The Observer,
Jan. 14, 2007


One more aphorism-related term.

gnomic – in the form of short, pithy maxims or aphorisms – but with a sense of enigmatic; ambiguous
[gnome – a pithy saying that expresses a general truth or fundamental principle; an aphorism. Greek gignoskein to know]

The odd gnomic remark can be forgiven, but after a while there's just no let up from sayings of the "a rolling kumquat gathers no nuts in May" school of wisdom.
– Independent,
Jan. 7, 2007



Colo(u)rful Words


Here's one more term describing a kind of writing. It also starts our new theme: color words.

purple prose – prose that is too ornate
[Why 'purple'? Perhaps for the alliteration, as in our first quote.]


The writing eventually dissolves into puddles of purple prose … . To wit: "... she threw herself into my arms, and we cried there in the pool of golden light surrounding our daughter." And, "I thought that I had cried myself out downstairs, but hot tears coursed down my cheeks, spilling into her hair."
– Toronto Star,
Jan. 21, 2007

I've got a very high threshold for purple prose, and I thought at first I was going to like this book: it's full of the lush, chewy writing that normally enchants me. … - but then I realised all he was doing was clubbing me to death with it …
– Scotsman,
Jan. 5, 2007


We've talked about styles of writing. Here's a colorful style of speech.

silver-tongued – with the power of fluent and persuasive speech; eloquent


Diplomacy is the skill that matters, the silver-tongued art of opening doors.
– Times Online, Jan. 31, 2007 (today)

I took myself down to the Tally Ho Tavern
To buy me a bottle of beer,
And I sat me down by a tender young maiden
Whose eyes were as dark as her hair.
And as I was searching from bottle to bottle
For something un-foolish to say,
That silver-tongued devil just slipped from the shadows
And smilingly stole her away.
– Kris Kristopherson, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I


'Black Friday' (or "Black Monday', 'Black Tuesday', etc.) has long meant 'a day of catastrophe in the financial markets'. But we'll give the new meaning that arose about two decades ago.

Black Friday –
U.S.: the day after Thanksgiving [Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November], traditional start of Christmas shopping. Retailers' sales jump; they often offer special promotions.


Don't assume that the best deals are on Black Friday. … retailers typically offer even steeper discounts as you get closer to Christmas … "Black Friday" is THE most maddening shopping day of the holiday season. Shoppers should be prepared to deal with heavy traffic and packed stores.
– NBC4-TV,
Los Angeles, Oct. 2, 2006


'Black Friday' has a more recent spin-off.

Cyber Monday –
U.S.: the Monday after Thanksgiving holiday, when online retailers supposedly have a surge in purchases


While Black Friday is the official kickoff of the traditional retail season, the story goes, online retail really takes off the following Monday. Just one problem: It's not true, at least for many online retailers. Contrary to what the recent blitz of media coverage implies, Cyber Monday isn't nearly the biggest online shopping or spending day of the year.
– BusinessWeek,
Nov. 29, 2005


white paper – UK: a government report of information or proposals on an issue (sometimes, similar non-governmental reports). Less extensive than a blue book


This white paper is designed to help identify the regulatory compliance issues that impact business continuity planning …
– Forbes,
Jan. 27, 2007


blue book –
UK: a report bound in a blue cover and issued by Parliament or the Privy Council (obsolete?) U.S.: 1. a blank notebook with blue covers, for the answers to examination questions 2. a periodically issued price list (as of used cars) (also further US meanings)


UK: … the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs … refused to consider the request made by the Turkish Parliament last April to reconsider the "Blue Book", a 1916 parliamentary report … that documents the systematic, deliberate and politically motivated nature of the Armenian Genocide.
– PanARMENIAN.Net, Nov. 23, 2005

US: A 1946 essay examination on the bible, written on eight pages in a blue book while [Martin Luther] King was a student ,,,
– Florida Times-Union, FL - Jan 12, 2007

US: A Lido Beach man filed more than $420,000 in fraudulent Medicaid claims … officials began investigating … after receiving an anonymous tip that he drove the Hummer, which has a blue book value of about $28,000 …
– Newsday, Jan. 18, 2007


green card – US, but migrating to the British Isles: a permit allowing a foreigner to live and work permanently in the US
[The form (Form I-551) was adopted in 1977 and interestingly, it has never been colored green. Its predecessor was green, however.]


The US Green Card is a coveted identification card that allows immigrants to live and work in the United States and eventually apply for US citizenship.
– Reuters South Africa, Jan. 14, 2007

Skilled migrant workers will have to earn a minimum of about €55,000 per year to qualify for the Government's new green card system … The Government announced the introduction of legislation for a new green card system for skilled migrant workers last June.
– The Irish Times,
Oct. 5, 2005


white noise – 1. constant background noise; esp. one that drowns out other sounds 2. meaningless or distracting commotion, hubbub, or chatter
[The technical sense is "noise containing many frequencies with equal intensities" -- and there is even a 'pink noise'. But the extended meanings are much more practical.]


She said she tried earplugs and machines that generate "white noise" to mask street sounds, all to no avail.
– Sun-Sentinel (FL), Jan. 28, 2007

Free from the white noise of websites, the endless pinging of the email inbox, we can devote the entirety of one instant to one topic …
– Montreal Gazette, Feb. 3, 2007



Words from the Crimean War


The Crimean War (1854–1856) was the first war which, due to the telegraph, was reported 'live' to the public. Perhaps that is why surprisingly many terms come to us from that war, almost enough to fill our topic for this week. We'll begin with a term that that also fits last week's theme of "color words".

At the Battle of Balaclava a British regiment, having too much front for too few men, formed its line only two-deep rather than the usual four-deep. The Times correspondent wrote, "The Russians on their left drew breath for moment, and then in one grand line dashed at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses' feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel." No one really knows how thin red streak changed to thin red line.

thin red line – a small but valiant line of defense standing between victory and defeat. ["thin blue line" is also used, when referring to police.]


We are engaged in a global war on terror, and our thin red line has never been thinner.
– Telegraph,
July 22, 2004

And be thankful for the thin red line of firefighters who risk their own lives to help keep the heat from threatening ours.
– LA Weekly, Aug. 12, 1998

President Bill Clinton announced Wednesday the funding of the 100,000th new police officer … "In making America's thin blue line thicker and stronger, our nation will be safer," Clinton said.
– CNN,
May 12, 1999


Yesterday we mentioned the famous Battle of Balaclava, named for the village of Balaclava (Balaklava). That village and battle, which will come up repeatedly this week, have become a word.

balaclava – a close-fitting woolen hat covering the head and encircling the neck
[During the Crimean War, knitted balaclavas were sent over to the British troops to help protect them from the bitter cold weather.]

Apparently this word is rare in the
U.S. (it would be called a ski mask) but quite familiar in British Commonwealth countries, typically in a criminal context.


A dangerous prisoner … was busted out of Hammersmith Hospital yesterday by balaclava-clad gunmen. [He] was taken to the hospital after collapsing in prison at Wormwood Scrubs. When the rear doors of the ambulance were opened at the hospital the prison officers were met by two men wearing balaclavas, one who was carrying a handgun.
Ealing Times, UK, Jan. 9, 2007


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.


The suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade, famed in Tennyson, took place at the Battle of Balaclava. The charge was led by Lord Cardigan, who became a sweater.

cardigan – a knitted sweater or jacket that opens with buttons, etc. all the way down the front [a "Mr. Rogers" sweater]
[from James Thomas Brudenell (1797-1868), 7th Earl of Cardigan, who set the style, supposedly wearing one while leading the Charge of the Light Brigade]


Remember Jimmy Carter in his cardigan sweater, preaching to us about keeping the thermostat down?
Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 23, 2007


Today's rare word became a bit more prominent with the siege of Sevastopol, the decisive confrontation of the Crimean War. As part of that siege, the French first captured a fortified hill they called the "Mamelon" -- which comes from French for 'nipple'. (Think mammalia.)

mamelon – a rounded hillock; a rounded elevation or protuberance


… this they took in the same fashion, only to find that they had still a third knoll left, far the steepest of the three. This was none other than the mamelon mentioned … which had been captured over their fire by the volunteer storming party in the night.
– Xenophon, Anabasis (trans. Dakyns)

Standing … 105 metres above the surrounding plains, Hanging Rock is an extinct volcano of a sort known as a "mamelon" (the French word for nipple).
– The Age (
Australia), Jan. 22, 2007


Gilbert & Sullivan fans may recognize this word, but I'll save that reference for a Gilbert & Sullivan theme.


Ten times more Crimean War soldiers died from illnesses (typhus; typhoid; cholera; dysentery) than from battle wounds. Florence Nightgale became prominent for the work she and her nursing team performed in the battle theater. She returned to Britain a heroine and, according to the BBC, was arguably the most famous Victorian after Queen Victoria herself. In 1860 she established the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St Thomas' Hospital.

Nightingale – a nurse [but it seems to have a different sense; see quote below]
Nightingale ward – a hospital ward with two long rows of beds and a central station for the nurse in charge


… the life-size dolls on which decades of young Nightingale nurses had learnt to blanket bath …
– Lucilla Andrews, No Time For Romance

In the 1960s the rigid discipline and hierarchy of the Nightingale ward — elaborate uniforms, cloistered student residences, fussy matrons, many of whom had forgone marriage to follow their calling — began to look outdated. … One result of the new thinking was the Salmon report of 1966 … to bring "efficiency" into the hospitals. … Many modern nurses work as if in a factory, clocking off the minute their shift is complete. The Salmon ideals became grim reality only quite recently, when the older generation of Nightingale nurses retired or resigned …
– Sickened by the nurses who don't care, The Sunday Times,
Nov. 23, 2003


More clothing, apparently somewhat in fashion nowadays.

raglan – an overcoat or other garment with the sleeve going right up to the neck, so that there is no shoulder seam
[pictured here and here]
[after Lord Raglan (FitzRoy James Henry Somerset), the top British commander in the Crimean War. Confusion over his order led to the disasterous Charge of the Light Brigade.]


The silhouettes that clothingmakers have designated as the spring and summer trends will have you trying on raglan-sleeved jackets, tulip skirts and trapeze dresses.
– St. Petersburg Times,
Jan. 20, 2007

Look for raglan-sleeved jackets, which don't have shoulder seams. Instead, the top of the jacket flows down onto the arm.
– Sidelines Online (TN),
Feb. 1, 2007


I began this Crimean War theme stating we have "almost enough to fill our topic for this week." To complete it we go to an earlier war, to a word we mentioned a few days ago by citing Xenophon's Anabasis.


Both statements bear witness to the undeniable anabasis women have led, charging into the American workplace.
Bucks County (PA) Courier Times, Jan. 7, 2004


anabasis – an advance, esp. a military one
[from Xenophon's Anabasis, reporting the advance of Cyrus the Younger into

One dictionary, Merriam Webster, oddly states that anabasis can mean not only an advance, but also the opposite, "a difficult and dangerous military retreat". But as best I can tell this is error: the proper term for such a retreat is katabasis. Why this confusion? Perhaps because Xenophon's work, though titled Anabasis, gives little space to the advance (the anabasis) and devotes the larger part to the retreat (the katabasis).

(To be scrupulously complete, I should add that in medicine anabasis and catabasis (with a c) can also mean, respectively, the onset and decline of a disease.)



Obscure Water-Words


Our transition to our new theme repeats the ana- and cata- prefixes we saw yesterday. Anadromous is used far more often than catadromous, perhaps for the reason given in our first quote. Our final quote is a pretty metaphor, but did the author confuse the two words?

anadromous – migrating 'up', from the sea to fresh water, to spawn (e.g., salmon)
     [grilse – a salmon that has returned to fresh water after a single winter at sea]
catadromous – migrating 'down', from fresh water to the sea, to spawn (e.g., most eels)


Wetlands are … spawning and resting grounds for anadromous fish.
– Longview (WA) Daily News,
Feb. 9, 2007

As everyone saw last summer, this resulted in low water conditions and a run of pathetically small and thin grilse returning to most of our rivers.
– Glasgow Daily Record,
Jan. 19, 2007

Whether caused by global warming or galloping affluence,
Alberta’s fly fishermen are becoming increasingly anadromous: after a summer in fresh water, schools of them are drawn down to the salt water.
– Brooks Bulletin (
Canada), Jan. 16, 2007


phreatic – of or relating to groundwater
[Greek phrear well, spring. Related words are brew; ferment; fervor, from the sense of 'to bubble; to boil'.]


Last night … there was a phreatic or steam-driven explosion, producing ash clouds 1.5 km from the summit.
– Arab Times,
Oct. 5, 2006

Here, a phreatic passage, formed ages before by water under great pressure, cut laterally through thehlimestone cavern he was following.
Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston, Still Life With Crows


vadose – of or relating to water just above the phreatic water, in the zone of aeration
[Akin to wade. Of particular concern as to water pollution.]


Water percolates from the soil-moisture zone through the unsaturated (vadose) zone to the water table.
– Encyclopedia Britannica


Of course, percolate is a familiar word. But note that it doesn't apply only to fluids: it can mean "to spread (an idea or information) through a group of people". For example, today's New York Times asks, "Does 'Style,' by definition, percolate downward from the upper class?"


bilge – 1. the rounded low part of a ship’s hull, curving to meet the vertical sides; also, the area it encloses.
thus: 2. the dirty water that collects there.
thus: 3. nonsense; rubbish.
(## 2 and 3 also called 'bilge water')


media everywhere will be flooded with 'impartial' write-ups, ads, self-annointed pundits parroting PR bilge like it's news, freebies, podcasts, you name it, and all devoted to trying to convince us to buy Vista.
Canada, Jan. 29, 2007

Albert Edwards, a contrarian strategist at Dresdner Kleinwort, dismisses the excess-liquidity argument as "lies, rhubarb, poppycock, bilge and utter nonsense".
      .Which is to say, he disagrees with it.
– Economist,
Jan. 29, 2007


sparge – a sprinkle (verb: 1. to spray or sprinkle 2. to introduce air or gas into [a liquid])


If you've ever had your cheeks sparged, you know it's no laughing matter.
– Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jan. 20, 2002

Husbands, fighting to keep afloat, called their wives, but in the black bowl of sky, and blacker sea, no one could identify another, and soon their chins flipped up and disappeared in a sparge of foam.
– Charles Johnson, Middle Passage


Sadly, this perfectly good word is almost never used outside of technical areas, such as brewing and environmental science.


clepsydra – a clock that marks time by the flow of water through a small opening (sometimes called a water glass)
[from Greek for 'water thief', the 'thief' part being the same root as in kleptomaniac.]

We'll give usage examples both figurative and literal.


Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for …. the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.
– John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat

Problem was, after years of use, the water wore the hole larger, so the clepsydra gradually became less and less accurate. Which is why you seldom hear the word these days unless you happen to own one, and if you do, that probably explains why your wife keeps telling you she's sick and tired of waiting on street corners for you when she could be inside, buying something.
– What if we spelled all words phonetically?, Newton Kansan,
May 12, 1999


natant – floating or swimming in water [Wordcrafter note: I think it has the implication of 'lying flat'.]
[from Latin for 'to swim'. Think of the more-familiar word natatorium – an indoor swimming pool.]


… these -natant leaves, as they lie on the water surface …
– John Ruskin, Proserpina. Ariadne Florentina. The Opening of the Crystal Palace

[reviewing a play] Frank, let's face it, is an emotionally stunted zombie these days. An excellent swimmer, he only seems happy -- and free -- when in water. … "On a Clear Day" is … a sincere if predictable tale of post-natant redemption, swimming with, as well against the tide.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 2, 2006


aspergill; aspergillum – an instrument, such as a brush or a perforated container, for sprinkling holy water
aspersorium – 1. an aspergill 2. the basin or other vessel for holy water


The open bottle … flew from its perch on the seat beside him and smacked against the glove compartment, scattering brandy as it swung through the air like an aspergillum.
– Michael Chabon, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection

They dipped the aspergillum in the copper bowl and sprinkled objects and people – the pylon, the cable, the pulleys, Zorba and me, and, finally, the peasants, workmen and the sea itself.
– Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek