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October 2007 Archives


Disagreeable Sorts: vulgarian; lickspittle; Grobian (parricide); clodhopper; fussbudget; curmudgeon; Sassenach

What's our theme?: temulent; escarpment; kinesthesia (proprioception); agnate; mystagogue; internaut; nolens volens

Interesting Etymologies: redingote (dingo); sabot (sabotage); googol (googolplex); demijohn; ιtui/etwee (huswife); ostracize

Book: Extraordinary Popular Delusions: vis et armis; venial; pottage; sylph; undine; auditory; immure; endue; indue; circumjacent; gambol; rick; evolution; stultify; purloin; grimoire; prognosticate; irrefragable; coeval; diablerie; list of mancy words


Disagreeable Sorts


For this week's theme, let's look at various kinds of unpleasant characters.


vulgarian – an unrefined person, especially one flaunting newly-acquired power or wealth


To my mind, this quote offers a perfect picture of the concept.


In 1960 the premier of the Soviet Union came and spoke in the United States. Nikita Khrushchev was our sworn enemy, and a vulgarian--sweaty faced, ill educated, dressed in a suit just off the racks from the Gulag Kresge's. … He took off his shoe and banged it, literally, on the soft beige wood of a desk at the U.N., as he fulminated.

– Peggy Noonan (columnist), Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28, 2007


lickspittle – a fawning underling; a toady (but more commonly used as an adjective)


The origin of lickspittle is obvious, I assume?


"This is a lickspittle Republican committee, acting on the wishes of George W Bush."

– MP George Galloway (replying to US Senate committee's charges that he received potentially lucrative oil allocations by Saddam Hussein's Iraq), in BBC, May 12, 2005


grobian – a slovenly boor; a lout

Bonus word: parricide – the killing of [or the killer of] one’s own parent – usually the father – or other near relative


In The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian, two diners discuss with wry irony the sailing crew they have hired. (O’Brian also used grobian with different humor in Post Captain, our second quote.)


     ‘Indeed,’ said Jack as they ate their supper, I do not remember an easier, more satisfactory manning. We have a good third of our people seaman, … and many of the others look stout, promising material.’

     ‘There were many sad brutish grobians among those I examined,’ said Stephen, who was feeling disagreeable and contradictory …

     ‘Oh, of course there are always some odd fish … ; but this time we have very few downright thieves: only one parricide …; and after all he will scarcely carry on his capers here – he will scarcely find another father aboard. …’


Yet he was nowhere near being solvent, and … it seemed inevitable to him that others too should see him as Jack Aubrey, debtor to Grobian, Slendrian and Co. for £11,012 6s 8d.


Slendrian is not a word in English, but I gather that in German, schlendrian means something like “a lounger or loiterer”.


clodhopper – a clumsy, coarse person, esp. a rustic (also, a big heavy shoe)


As with lickspittle,, the origin seems obvious.


Their manager was a mute clodhopper whose sole project seems to be how much tobacco he could cram into his jaw.

– Dallas Morning News, Oct .18, 1991


How did a politician once derided as a provincial clodhopper transcend such narrow visions to become what his image-molders depict as a statesman?

– New York Times, Sept. 16, 1995, speaking of Helmut Kohl


What do Felix Unger, Henry Higgins, and Minerva McGonagall have in common?


Tony Randall, the sardonic actor … his signature role as the fussbudget Felix Unger in the classic television series "The Odd Couple" …

– New York Times May 19, 2004


Henry Higgins, the fussbudget linguist from the classic film "My Fair Lady" …

– Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2003


I am, I suppose, a fussbudget, although I prefer the term "nit-picker." Most of my adult life has been spent campaigning against apostrophe abuse,

– The Intelligencer (Doyleton, PA), May 30, 2004


When fussbudget Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) tries to teach [Harry Potter] to waltz, he's too mortified to blink.

– Buffalo News, Nov. 17, 2005


fussbudget – a person who fusses over trifles


curmudgeon – an ill-tempered person (typically old), full of resentment and stubborn notions


Wes was, as he put it, "an antisocial curmudgeon born in the wrong century," who had little use for modern society.

– Dean Koontz, Watchers


We end our “Disagreeable Sorts” theme with the Scotsman’s name for folks from that insignificant and unpleasant country to the south. <Wordcrafter has tongue squarely in his cheek.>


Sassenach – Scottish & Irish; derogatory: an English person (adj. English

[Scottish Gaelic Sasunnoch, Irish Sasanach, from Latin for 'Saxons']


It's amusing to discover that the Sassenach tendency to resent being ordered about by dynamic, talented and intelligent individuals from north of the border is nothing new.

– Independent (UK), Sept. 29, 2007



What's our theme?


This week, you're challenged to figure out what our theme is. I'll do my best to keep it suitably camouflaged.


(Suggestion: those of you who opt to post speculations here might want to do so in white type, so that anyone who wants to work on the puzzle alone can do so.)


Let the game begin!


temulent – drunken, intoxicated


The criminalization of uncoerced sexual intercourse as rape … undermines the gravity of true rapes. … Drew Douglas was once a student at Harvard University … He was expelled from Harvard and convicted in a court of law for having failed to understand – in his state of severe inebriation – what she might have said in her equally temulent condition.

– Columbia Spectator (a university newspaper), March 2, 2001


escarpment – a long, steep slope at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights

[from Italian scarpa 'slope', though French]


Though an escarpment can be a large area (first quote), the second quote is the more typical usage.


In this group of oases lay the true centre of Arabia, the preserve of its native spirit, and its most conscious individuality. The desert lapped it round and kept it pure of contact. ... South of the oases it appeared to be a pathless sea of sand, stretching nearly to the populous escarpment of the Indian Ocean shore, shutting it out from Arabian history, and from all influence on Arabian morals and politics.

– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph


At the foot of a towering escarpment, part of the rock had fallen into a loose tumble, overgrown by moss and lichen, small saplings jutting drunkenly from cracks in the rock.

– Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn


kinesthesia – the sense or perception that detects ones bodily position, weight, or movement

A similar term is proprioception, which stresses such perceptions from stimuli arising within the body.


Consider the task of a coxswain, the steersman who directs the rowers (typically eight of them) of a racing shell.


… sight is secondary; an experienced cox steers mostly by feeling, by kinesthesia. The hull of a rowing shell is only one-sixteenth of an inch thick or even thinner; it is a skin, a membrane through which the coxswain senses the river and its response to the boat. The water talks to the coxswain through the hull. Through specific touch points – backside on the seat, feet on the hull, hands on the rudder ropes – the steersman feels. … any shift in the set, pitch, or heading of the boat reaches the cox instantly. The coxswain reflexively balances these inputs … . Reason is too blunt a tool for steering; you steer an eight by instinct.

– Craig Lambert, Mind Over Water: Lessons on Life from the Art of Rowing


Etymology: Greek kinein to move + esthesia feeling; sensation.

The same roots are in "kinetic energy" (the energy of a body's motion) and "anesthesia".


By the way, "anesthesia" ("no-feeling") was coined in 1846 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, physician-poet (whose son, of the same name, became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). It was listed in Bailey's dictionary of 1721, but with a different meaning.


agnate – adj.: related on the father's side; noun: a person so related


Male agnates … are often entitled to a share of the inheritance, even if there are closer female relatives, under Sunni law, but they are likely to be excluded from inheritance under Shiite law.

– John L. Esposito, The Oxford History of Islam


mystagogue – one who initiates another into a mystery cult


Would this word serve as a derogatory alternative to "guru"?


This secret … is transmitted from generation to generation, but good usage prefers that mothers should not teach it to their children, nor that priests should; initiation into the mystery is the task of the lowest individuals. A slave, a leper or a beggar serves as mystagogue.

– Jorge Luis Borges, The Sect of the Phoenix (translated; grammatical error corrected), in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (New Directions paperbook)


internaut – one skilled in navigating and using the Internet; a netizen


The Internet knows no international boundaries. Internauts are logging on from Bangkok to Broadway.

– Carl A. Nelson, Import/Export: How to Get Started in International Trade


… public libraries are one of the few public meeting places that have continued to work. … Most public libraries … provide meeting rooms for community organizations … We hear much about virtual communities on the Internet, and such communities have their uses – but they do not replace physical gatherings. … Internauts eventually realize the need for more human contact and add real-world organizations to their virtual communities.

– Walt Crawford, Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change


It's time to reveal our theme this week. We've been presenting Camouflaged Animals: temulent, escarpment, kinesthesia (kine is an antique plural of cow), agnate, mystagogue, internaut, and today's word, nolens-volens.


nolens volens – whether willing or not [Latin "unwilling-willing"]


The nurses … disapproved, she knew (except the student), of her breast–feeding Stephen. They thought Sloan and her obstetrician, Dr. Turner, were balmy. But they too were impressed, nolens volens, by the evidence of the scales. The child was growing,

– Mary McCarthy, The Group


Nolens-volens is Latin for "unwilling-willing". There was a similar English phrase, will I, nill I, with "nill" being an antique word meaning "will not; unwilling". And this will I, nill I became shortened to a single term willy-nilly, with the same meaning as nolens-volens.


But take care using willy-nilly this way, for it has gained other meanings too. Will I, nill I could be taken to mean "I can't make up my mind," and willy-nilly was erroneously used in that sense too. (1883: "The willy-nilly disposition of the female in matters of love") With time it came to be an accepted meaning. Still later, willy-nilly evolved even further to also mean "without direction or planning; haphazardly."



Interesting Etymologies


This week we'll look at the interesting etymologies behind some words.


redingote –

for men: a long double-breasted topcoat with full skirt. [Wordcrafter note: I believe this can be for women too.]

For women: a full-length coat or dress open down the front to show a dress or underdress


The redingote is a very feminine body-conscious shape, curvy and close to the body until it flares out at the short hem.

– Boston Globe, Oct. 9, 1990


This word crossed and re-crossed the English Channel. In 1723, fashion-conscious French took the English term riding coat, giving it a French-style spelling and pronunciation: redingote. Almost seventy years later, English fashionistas took back this word in its Frenchified form.


By the way, redingote also fits last week's Camouflaged Animals theme:

dingo – a wild dog, native to Australia

Today's word comes from wooden shoes. A sabot is a wooden shoe of the sort you associate with the Dutch, made from a piece of wood shaped and hollowed out to fit the foot.


As you can imagine, walking in sabots makes a good deal of clatter. The French made sabot into the verb saboter, "to walk noisily," which evolved to mean "to botch up a job, as in 'murdering' a piece of music." Later, French trade unions adopted the word to their tactic of deliberately botching up a job.


In 1904 and 1905, the chief labor agitators of France felt the need of a weapon less in the nature of a boomerang than a strike, and in order to hit employers without hitting workingmen they advised the latter voluntarily to spoil their work, to turn in work of such inferior quality that it would be unsaleable. Thus they would get their wages, and the employer, instead of getting his profit, would get a dead loss. To those acts was promptly applied the name "sabotage" from the verb "saboter," which meant "to do a thing quickly and poorly; to botch a job." Typical instances of "sabotage" would be the act of a dissatisfied bakery worker putting ground glass in the dough.

– New York Times, May 17, 1909 (letter to editor; ellipses omitted)


The word was soon extended from 'botching up one's work' to 'botching up' – destroying – the employer's machinery or the like. As such, it was picked up in English press reports of French labor unrest.


sabotage – destruction of property to interfere with another's normal operations; more broadly, deliberate subversion


Today's words were invented on-the-spot by a nine-year-old boy. Kasner & Newman explain in their book Mathematics and the Imagination.


The name "googol" was invented by a child (Dr. Kasner's nine-year-old nephew) who was asked to think up a name for a very big number, namely, 1 with a hundred zeros after it. … At the same time that he suggested 'googol' he gave a name for a still larger number: 'Googolplex'. … It was first suggested that a googolplex should be 1, followed by writing zeros until you got tired. … but different people get tired at different times and it would never do …


googol – the number written as 1 followed by a hundred zeros

googolplex – the number written as 1 followed by a googol of zeros


“Googol” is also used to mean “a very large number or quantity”.


Peanuts comic strip from the 1960s, Lucy in red and Schroeder in blue:

Schroeder, what do you think the odds are that you and I will get married someday?

Oh, I’d say about “googol”” to one.

How much is a “googol”?





[Pianist Arthur] Rubinstein put on something of a show, making a grand entrance, lifting his hands high at the keyboard, always conscious of his audience. Rubinstein knew the value of charisma, an element he possessed in googol quantities. In an interview, he once said that the younger generation of pianists played better than he did, “but when they come on stage they might as well be soda jerks.” Nobody ever accused Rubinstein of being a soda jerk. He adored playing in public, and his audiences adored him.

– Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present


In 1997 the developers of a computer tool called BackRub decided to rename it. They were thinking of today’s word when they choose their new name Google (Perhaps you've heard of it?), and today their company headquarters is called the Googleplex.


The different spelling probably began as a misspelling, but was kept because the domain name was available only when misspelled as Another story is that Googol was intended but an early investor misspelled it on a check he wrote to them. With check in hand, they feared he might get cold feet if they asked him to correct it, so they simply changed the company name to match his check.


demijohn – a large bottle with bulging body and narrow neck (it typically holds 3 - 10 gallons and is encased in wicker, with one or two handles for carrying)

[From French damejeanne "Lady Jane," probably because its shape suggested a stout woman. I suspect "Dame Jeanne" may be the French equivalent of Jane Doe or John Q. Public. Other languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic) each have a similar word.]


… a demijohn of rough red wine passed from hand to filthy hand.

– Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944


… the man's body was tilted back to balance the weight of the demijohn he held to his lips and his throat jerked regularly as he swallowed. The crowd around his feet were chanting: 'Drink it, down, down, down, down.'

– Wilbur Smith, When the Lion Feeds


Recall that in old print-styles the letter s was often stretched tall and thin, and could easily be confused with an f. That may be part of how today's word evolved into a familiar, everyday term.


ιtui (or etwee; accent on second syllable) – a small case, usually ornamental, for small articles such as needles, toothpicks, etc.

A synonym is huswife, related to modern housewife.


"I can't stand it any longer. I've not had a decent smoke since yesterday noon. Excuse me a moment." And from a buff leather etui monogrammed in silver, he extracted one of his Maria Mancinis [cigars] – lovely specimen from the top of the box, flattened on just one side the way he especially liked it – …

– Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain


The plural etuis, etwees came to be thought of as a singular noun. (Why? Perhaps because in print the pluralizing s looked much like an f; in fact it was sometimes printed as an f, as estuife, estwefe. With s and f confused the plural estuife seems to end much like the synonym huswife, which is singular.)


In any event, plural etuis, etwees came to be thought of as a singular noun, spelled etweese. Then the unstressed first syllable dropped off, leaving us with tweese or tweeze, which first meant the case itself, and later the object in that case. The object, the tweeze, became a tweezer and then, probably because it is double-pronged, a tweezers.


ostrakon – Greek for potsherd (related to osteon bone and ostreion oyster)


By vote, ancient Athenian citizens could temporarily banish, for ten years, any citizen whose power or influence was considered dangerous to the state. The custom was named for the pieces of potsherd (ostrakon) used as ballots, and that name has come down to us as today's word.


ostracize – to exclude from a society or group


Poor Amber. Still so self-conscious …, still worried that if the girls whom she seeks to impress were aware of her humble beginnings, they might sneer at her, might ostracize her from the in crowd.

– Jane Green, Swapping Lives


Other ancient Greek cities had similar practices. In Syracuse they voted on olive leafs, and the practice is called petalism, from Greek for "leaf".



Book: "Extraordinary Popular Delusions"


Any book that's still on the bookshelves of popular stores, though published so far back as 1841, must have something special to recommend it. Such is the book I'm currently enjoying, Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The subject is interesting, the treatment light and accessible with nice touches of irony.


For a word-lover, a special treat is the older language. It's similar enough to today's English to be easy to understand (contrast Shakespeare), yet different enough to provide interesting terms – or usages of familiar words – that we don't

much see today. This week we'll enjoy some examples. Quotes may be lengthy (forgive me) to give enough context that you can enjoy Mackay’s entire tales, as well as individual words.


"… in Rome [in 1659] young widows were unusually abundant. It was remarked, too, that if any couple lived unhappily together, the husband soon took ill and died." The clergy learned why: when "great numbers of young women had avowed in the confessional that they had poisoned their husbands with slow poison," which mimicked the symptoms of a wasting disease, and thus did not excite suspicion.


Severe punishment of the poison-concoctress "did not put a stop to the practice, and jealous women and avaricious men, anxious to step into the inheritance of fathers, uncles, or brothers, resorted to poison." In 1719 Naples, "a hag named Tophania" supplied the same sort of thing. "[I]t became notorious all over Europe under the name of Aqua Tophania."


Tophania "contrived to elude the vigilance of the authorities for several years, [but] was at length discovered in a nunnery." When authorities demanded her, "the abbess, supported by the archbishop of the diocese, constantly refused … . The patience of the viceroy appears to have been exhausted by these delays. Being a man of sense, and not a very zealous Catholic, he determined that even the Church should not shield a criminal so atrocious. Setting the privileges of the nunnery at defiance, he sent a troop of soldiers, who broke over the walls and carried her away, vis et armis. The archbishop … threatened to excommunicate … . All the inferior clergy … took up the question, and so worked upon the superstitious and bigoted people, that they were ready to rise in a man to storm the palace of the viceroy and rescue the prisoner."


vis et armis – by force [The usual term seems to be vi et armis.]


A rare term. Here’s a fascinating example, which perhaps belonged in our recent "Domineering Women" theme!

Many males [of certain water-bugs] carried eggs, [and] Miss Slater found that the female, vis et armis, customarily lays them on the back of the unwilling male. Sometimes she has to struggle for hours to accomplish her fell purpose, but she does accomplish it in the end and her spouse is converted into an animated baby carriage. Says Miss Slater: "That the male chafes under the burden is unmistakable; in fact my suspicions as to the sex of the egg-carrier were first aroused by watching one in an aquarium which was trying to free itself from its load of eggs, an exhibition of a lack of maternal interest not to be expected in a female carrying her own eggs. An egg bearer remains quietly clinging to a leaf with the end of the abdomen just out of the water. If attacked, he meekly received the blows, seemingly preferring death, which in several cases was the result, to the indignity of carrying and caring for the eggs".
– Leland Ossian Howard, The Insect Book (1905)


You can see Mackay’s subject and style in the start of his preface, 2nd edition. (If you want less reading, look only at the blue parts.)


In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple, and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity. At an early age in the annals of Europe its population lost their wits about the Sepulchre of Jesus, and crowded in frenzied multitudes to the Holy Land: another age went mad for fear of the Devil, and offered up hundreds of thousands of victims to the delusion of witchcraft. At another time, the many became crazed on the subject of the Philosopher's Stone, and committed follies till then unheard of in the pursuit. It was once thought a venial offence in very many countries of Europe to destroy an enemy by slow poison. Persons who would have revolted at the idea of stabbing a man to the heart, drugged his pottage without scruple. Ladies of gentle birth and manners caught the contagion of murder, until poisoning, under their auspices, became quite fashionable. Some delusions, though notorious to all the world, have subsisted for ages, flourishing as widely among civilized and polished nations as among the early barbarians with whom they originated, -- that of duelling, for instance, and the belief in omens and divination of the future, which seem to defy the progress of knowledge to eradicate entirely from the popular mind. Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.


venial – (of a fault or offence) slight and pardonable.

[from Latin venialis "pardonable," related to venus "sexual love, desire"

pottage – a soup or stew (potage (one "t") – a thick soup

[lit. "that which is put in a pot"]


Notice also the two uses of "scruple", the first one not in the modern sense.


In a brief extract on the man who called himself Count Cagliostro (~1743-1790), we show a bit of Mackay's wit, meet demons to honor Halloween, display an antiquated usage, and echo yesterday's "nunnery" thought.


This famous charlatan was the arch-quack of his age, the last of the great pretenders to the philosopher's stone and the water of life, and during his brief season of prosperity one of the most conspicuous characters of Europe.


[When a young man] he became acquainted with the beautiful Lorenza Feliciana, a young lady of noble birth, but without fortune. Cagliostro soon discovered that she possessed accomplishments that were invaluable. Besides her ravishing beauty, she had the readiest wit, the most engaging manners, the most fertile imagination, and the least principle of any of the maidens of Rome. She was just the wife for Cagliostro, who proposed himself to her, and was accepted.


After their marriage, he instructed his fair Lorenza in all the secrets of his calling - taught her pretty lips to invoke angels, and genii, sylphs, salamanders, and undines, and, when need required, devils and evil spirits. Lorenza was an apt scholar: and thus accomplished the hopeful pair set out on their travels, to levy contributions on the superstitious and the credulous. [During their adventures] the Countess, as usual, exercised all her ingenuity to support her husband's credit. She was a great favourite with her own sex; to many a delighted and wondering auditory of whom she detailed the marvellous powers of Cagliostro. She said he could render himself invisible, traverse the world with the rapidity of thought, and be in several places at the same time.


[But eventually the end came.] Cagliostro and the Countess were arrested in 1789, and condemned to death. The charges against him were, that he was a freemason, a heretic, and a sorcerer. This unjustifiable sentence was afterwards commuted into one of perpetual imprisonment. His wife was allowed to escape severer punishment by immuring herself in a nunnery. Cagliostro did not long survive.


sylph – 1. an imaginary spirit of the air (later: 2. a slender woman of light, graceful movement: "Gwyneth Paltrow, in reality a sylph from Manhattan, plays a hideously overweight woman …" – The Independent (London), Sept. 9, 2006)

undine – a female water spirit

[each was coined 1658 by the alchemist Paracelsus, from Latin. "Sylph is perhaps from sylvestris ‘of the woods’ + nympha ‘nymph’; "undine" is from unda 'a wave' (as in undulate).]

auditory (noun) – archaic: an audience

immure – to entomb in a wall, or to similarly confine or imprison [from Latin murus ‘wall’]


For Halloween, here's a history of haunted-house hysteria. It occurred in Baldarroch, Scotland in December, 1838, not long before Mackay told the tale, and Mackay makes unfamiliar words easy to understand from context.


Enjoy! This is long by net-standards, but it's just a couple of book-pages of printed text.


On the 5th of December, the inmates of the farm-house were alarmed by observing a great number of sticks, pebble-stones, and clods of earth flying about their yard and premises. The shower of stones continuing for five days in succession, they came at last to the conclusion that the devil and his imps were alone the cause of it. The rumour soon spread over all that part of the country, and hundreds came from far and near to witness the antics of the devils of Baldarroch.


After the fifth day, the shower of clods and stones ceased on the outside of the premises, and the scene shifted to the interior. Spoons, knives, plates, mustard-pots, rolling-pins, and flat-irons appeared suddenly endued with the power of self-motion, and were whirled from room to room, and rattled down the chimneys. The lid of a mustard-pot was put into a cupboard in the presence of scores of people, and in a few minutes afterwards came bouncing down the chimney to the consternation of every body. There was also a tremendous knocking at the doors and on the roof, and pieces of stick and pebble-stones rattled against the windows and broke them.


The whole neighbourhood was a scene of alarm; and not only the vulgar, but persons of education, respectable farmers, within a circle of twenty miles, expressed their belief in the supernatural character of these events, and offered up devout prayers. The note of fear being once sounded, the visitors, as is generally the case in all tales of wonder, strove with each other who should witness the most extraordinary occurrences; and within a week, it was generally believed in all the circumjacent districts that the devil had been seen in the act of hammering upon the house-top of Baldarroch. One old man asserted positively the strange gambols of the knives and mustard-pots. It was also affirmed and believed, that a gentleman, slow of faith, had been cured of his incredulity by meeting the butter-churn jumping in at the door as he himself was going out -- that the roofs of houses had been torn off, and that several ricks in the corn-yard had danced a quadrille together, to the sound of the devil's bagpipes re-echoing from the mountain-tops.


The women in the family of the persecuted farmer also kept their tongues in perpetual motion; swelling with their strange stories the tide of popular wonder. The good wife herself said that, whenever they went to bed, they were attacked with stones and other missiles, some of which came below the blankets and gently tapped their toes. One evening, a shoe suddenly darted across a garret where some labourers were sitting, and one of the men, who attempted to catch it, swore positively that it was so hot and heavy he was unable to hold it. It was also said that the bearbeater (a sort of mortar used to bruise barley in) -- an object of such weight that it requires several men to move it -- spontaneously left the barn and flew over the house-top, alighting at the feet of one of the servant maids, and hitting her, but without hurting her in the least, or even causing her any alarm; it being a fact well known to her, that all objects thus thrown about by the devil lost their specific gravity, and could harm nobody, even though they fell upon a person's head.


Rumour continued to travel through all the Highlands, magnifying each mysterious incident the further it got from home. It was said, that when the goodwife put her potato-pot on the fire, each potato, as the water boiled, changed into a demon, and grinned horribly at her as she lifted the lid; that not only chairs and tables, but carrots and turnips, skipped along the floor in the merriest manner imaginable; that *shoes and boots went through all the evolutions of the Highland fling* without any visible wearers directing their motions; and that a piece of meat detached itself from the hook on which it hung in the pantry, and placed itself before the fire, whence all the efforts of the people of the house were unable to remove it until it was thoroughly roasted; and that it then flew up the chimney with a tremendous bang.


[Any skeptics] gained but few believers, as so many persons had, in the most open manner, expressed their belief in the supernatural agency, that they did not like to stultify themselves by confessing that they had been deceived.


At last, after a fortnight's continuance of the noises, the whole trick was discovered. Two servant lasses were alone at the bottom of the whole affair, and the extraordinary alarm and credulity of their master and mistress, and of the neighbours and country people afterwards, made their task comparatively easy. Being themselves unsuspected, they swelled the alarm by the wonderful stories they invented. They were no sooner secured in the county gaol than the noises ceased.


endue; indue – to endow with a quality or ability

[partly from Latin inducere ‘lead in’, reinforced by Latin induere ‘put on clothes’]

circumjacent – lying around; surrounding

gambol – to dance and skip about in play; to frolic [a previous word-of-the-day, here]

rick – a stack of hay, corn, or straw [among other meanings]

evolution – a pattern of movements [among other meanings, of course. from Latin ‘unrolling’]

stultify – 1. to cause to appear foolish or absurd 2. to render useless or ineffectual; cripple


More Halloween: demons. Mackay relates the strange tale that an old Jesuit told of the alchemist Agrippa. I particularly like the image of demons playing leapfrog!


One day, Agrippa left his house and, intending to be absent for some time, gave the key of his study to his wife, with strict orders that no one should enter it during his absence. The lady herself, strange as it may appear, had no curiosity to pry into her husband's secrets, and never once thought of entering the forbidden room: but a young student in the philosopher's house burned with a fierce desire to examine the study; hoping, perchance, that he might purloin some book which would instruct him. The youth, being handsome, eloquent, and, above all, highly complimentary to the charms of the lady, she was persuaded, without much difficulty, to lend him the key, but gave him strict orders not to remove anything.


The student promised implicit obedience, and entered Agrippa's study. The first object that caught his attention, was a large grimoire, or book of spells, which lay open on the philosopher's desk. He sat himself down immediately, and began to read.


At the first word he uttered, he fancied he heard a knock at the door. He listened; but all was silent. Thinking that his imagination had deceived him, he read on, when immediately a louder knock was heard, which so terrified him, that he started to his feet. He tried to say, "come in;" but his tongue refused its office, and he could not articulate a sound. He fixed his eyes upon the door, which, slowly opening, disclosed a stranger of majestic form, but scowling features, who demanded sternly, why he was summoned? "I did not summon you," said the trembling student. "You did!" said the stranger, advancing, angrily; "and the demons are not to be invoked in vain." The student could make no reply; and the demon, enraged that one of the uninitiated should have summoned him out of mere presumption, seized him by the throat and strangled him.


When Agrippa returned, a few days afterwards, he found his house beset with devils. Some of them were sitting on the chimneypots, kicking up their legs in the air; while others were playing at leapfrog, on the very edge of the parapet. His study was so filled with them that he found it difficult to make his way to his desk. When, at last, he had elbowed his way through them, he found his book open, and the student lying dead upon the floor. He saw immediately how the mischief had been done; and, dismissing all the inferior imps, asked the principal demon how he could have been so rash as to kill the young man. The demon replied, that he had been needlessly invoked by an insulting youth, and could do no less than kill him for his presumption. Agrippa reprimanded him severely, and ordered him immediately to reanimate the dead body, and walk about with it in the market-place for the whole of the afternoon.


The demon did so: the student revived; and, putting his arm through that of his unearthly murderer, walked very lovingly with him, in sight of all the people. At sunset, the body fell down again, cold and lifeless as before, and his conductor immediately disappeared. When the body was examined, marks of strangulation were found on the neck, and prints of the long claws of the demon on various parts of it. These appearances opened people's eyes to the truth; and the result was, that Agrippa was obliged to quit the town.


purloin – to steal

grimoire – a magician's manual for invoking demons, etc.

[French; alteration of of the word for ‘grammar’. It may be that Mackay's definition is inaccurate, that a grimoire is not just any spellbook, but a spellbook for invoking demons.]


Mackay is particularly scornful of fortune telling.


An undue opinion of our own importance is at the bottom of all our unwarrantable notions in this respect. How flattering to the pride of man to think that the stars in their courses watch over him, and typify, by their movements and aspects, the joys or the sorrows that await him! He, less in proportion to the universe than the all but invisible insects that feed in myriads on a summer's leaf, are to this great globe itself, fondly imagines that eternal worlds were chiefly created to prognosticate his fate. How we should pity the arrogance of the worm that crawls at our feet, if we knew that it also desired to know the secrets of futurity, and imagined that meteors shot athwart the sky to warn it that a tom-tit was hovering near to gobble it up! Not a whit less presuming has man shown himself.


Later, he tells one particular tale of prophecy, and deftly skewers it.


The … story has been often triumphantly cited by succeeding astrologers as an irrefragable proof of the truth of their science. … The only thing that detracts from the interest of this remarkable story is the fact, that the prophecy was made after the event.


prognosticate – to foretell, prophesy

irrefragable – indisputable; impossible to refute or controvert

[You'd think there'd be a word refragable, wouldn't you? A few dictionaries have it, but it's never been seen in actual use.]


There are dozens of special names for various types of divination. Mackay discusses augery: (from the flight or entrails of birds), and necromancy: (from summoning the spirits of the dead) for a bit, and lists 52 more:


Stareomancy, or divining by the elements.

Aeromancy, or divining by the air.

Pyromancy, by fire.

Hydromancy, by water.

Geomancy, by earth.

Theomancy, pretending to divine by the revelation of the Spirit, and by the Scriptures, or word of God.

Demonomancy, by the aid of devils and evil spirits.

Idolomancy, by idols, images, and figures.

Psychomancy, by the soul, affections, or dispositions of men.

Antinopomancy, by the entrails of human beings.

Theriomancy, by beasts.

Ornithomancy, by birds.

Icthyomancy, by fishes.

Botanomancy, by herbs.

Lithomancy, by stones.

Kleromancy, by lots.

Oneiromancy, by dreams.

Onomancy, by names.

Arithmancy, by numbers.

Logarithmancy, by logarithms.

Sternomancy, by the marks from the breast to the belly.

Gastromancy, by the sound of, or marks upon, the belly.

Omphelomancy, by the navel.

Chiromancy, by the hands.

Podomancy, by the feet

Onchyomancy, by the nails.

Cephaleonomancy, by asses' heads.

Tephromancy, by ashes.

Kapnomancy, by smoke.

Livanomancy, by the burning of incense.

Keromancy, by the melting of wax.

Lecanomancy, by basins of water.

Katoxtromancy, by looking-glasses.

Chartomancy, by writing in papers, and by Valentines.

Macharomancy, by knives and swords.

Crystallomancy, by crystals.

Dactylomancy, by rings.

Koseinomancy, by sieves.

Axinomancy, by saws.

Kaltabomancy, by vessels of brass, or other metal.

Spatalamancy, by skins, bones, &c.

Roadomancy, by stars.

Sciomancy, by shadows.

Astragalomancy, by dice.

Oinomancy, by the lees of wine.

Sycomancy, by figs.

Tyromancy, by cheese.

Alphitomancy, by meal, flour, or bran.

Krithomancy, by corn or grain.

Alectromancy, by cocks.

Gyromancy, by circles.

Lampadomancy, by candles and lamps.


Fortune-telling may be nonsense, but it has many willing customers, and it's good business.


Divination has held an empire over the minds of men from the earliest periods of recorded history, and is, in all probability, coeval with time itself. [In olden days] immense numbers of these fellows lived upon the credulity of mankind in that age of witchcraft and diablerie. [And so too in Mackey's time:] It is quite astonishing to see the great demand there is, both in England and France, for dream-[interpretation] books and other trash of the same kind. Two books in England enjoy an extraordinary popularity, and have run through upwards of fifty editions in as many years in London alone, besides being reprinted in Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dublin. There is a demand for these works, which are sold at sums varying from a penny to sixpence, chiefly to servant-girls and imperfectly-educated people, all over the country, of upwards of eleven thousand annually …. The total number during this period would thus amount to 330,000.


coeval – of the same age or date of origin; contemporary (noun: a person of roughly the same age; a contemporary)

diablerie – 1. black magic; sorcery 2. mischievous conduct; deviltry