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November 2007 Archives sastruga; parhelion (sun-dog, paraselene, moon dog); rampike (rampick); fauteuil (piedmont); caracole; lucarne; gosport (slipstream, tandem)

Eponyms once again: Tommy Atkins; jerrican; BVDs; jaegers; Haussmannize; guyot; Mickey Finn; horsmandering

Book: The Sea: haulm; cackhanded; strangury; lour; etiolate; apotropaic; unctuous

About face: sclera; sinciput (spalpeen); nares; edentate; tragus; saccade; philtrum


This week’s words come the vocabulary-quiz site recently-created site I found it just recently, and hope that you vocabulary-lovers will it enjoy as much as I do.


I use its quiz format to present words from that quiz. (By the way, they are all words that I missed.) Answers follow.


sastruga – 1. absolution  2. wind-formed snow ridge  3. peace  4. chit-chat


parhelion – 1. landholder  2. sundog  3. fireworks  4. exaggeration


rampike – 1. eyeglass  2. custodian  3. standing dead tree  4. quicksilver


fauteuil – 1. armchair  2. toy  3. deluge  4. rendezvous


caracole – 1. irritate  2. half-turn  3. relieve  4. trim


lucarne – 1. coward  2. dormer window  3. stubbornness  4. fondness


gosport – 1. brute  2. speaking tube  3. yesteryear  4. goof


sastruga – (plural sastrugi) a long wavelike ridge of snow, formed by the wind, found on the polar plains

[Russian dialectal zastruga: za beyond + struga deep place into which one may fall]


The scene is in Antarctica:


     People have died a dozen feet from shelter, Cameroon had said. Use common sense. …

     Idiot. You’ve killed yourself.


     Dully, he noticed the sastruga, the small drift he had tripped over. The sastrugi's tops had been torn off and hurled into the stormy air but the icier underlayment still existed, slowly being abraded by the wind. He’d walked over them every day and watched their wavelike pattern …. Which way did they run? He tried to focus his mind …

     Yes. Yes! He remembered. Perpendicular to his path. And lower, smaller, in the lee of the dome. He could read them like sailors read the water, perhaps.

     He struggled back up, desperate now. He hadn’t much time. He was seizing up like the Tin Woodsman.

– William Dietrich, Dark Winter


parhelion – a bright spot in the sky, often in pairs on either side of the sun, thus forming a "triple sun". Caused by atmospheric ice crystals.


Shakespeare describes a parhelion in English history, just before the the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, 1461, in the Wars of the Roses. Edward (soon to be King Edward IV; shown in blue) speaks to Richard (green).


Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?

Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun; / Not separated with the racking clouds, / But sever'd in a pale clear-shining sky. ... / In this the heaven figures some event.

'Tis wondrous strange, the like yet never heard of.

– King Henry VI, Part iii; Act 2, Scene 1


This was a real event. "On the morning of the battle, no less than three suns were seen to rise in the West behind the Yorkist army. This caused some dismay among its soldiers. We now know this phenomenon as "parhelion' … Edward [not yet 18 years old!] went down on his knees to give thanks to God for this sign that the Holy Trinity … were coming to the aid of the Yorkist cause. Although not noticeably superstitious himself, he understood the fears of his men, and chose this method to reassure them. After the battle, he adopted the sun and its rays as one of his emblems." (Michael Miller, Wars of the Roses)


A parhelion is also called a sun-dog. (The same phenomenon with the moon is called a paraselene or moon dog.)


The sun shone again with a frosty light and huge sundogs stood guard on each side of it. And it was cold!

– Laura Ingalls Wilder, The First Four Years (Little House)


rampike – a standing dead tree or tree stump, esp. one killed by fire

[rampick – (of a tree or bough) partly decayed or dead; bare of leaves or twigs (obs. except dial.)]


The trail … is ragged and steep in places as it corkscrews down the northeast slope of Cache Mountain. Fire and beetle infestation have devastated the forest here, and rampikes stand like lifeless gray ghosts.

– John Zilly, Kissing the Trail: Northwest and Central Oregon Mountain Bike Trails


fauteuil – an upholstered armchair, usually with open sides


The long train was on the last leg of its journey from Moscow to Krasnodor … In one of its "soft" cushioned cars reserved for Soviet officials, a plant specialist, bored with watching the flat countryside, still only partly recovered in 1950 from the Nazi ravages of the "Great Patriotic War" [checked his specimens. Then] he sat back in his fauteuil to admire the approach of the Caucasian piedmont.

– Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants


Bonus Word:

piedmont – land lying or formed at the base of mountains (also adj. Etymologically, it means mountain-foot.]


caracole, caracol – a half turn to right or left performed by a horse and rider (verb: to perform same)


Interesting etymology. The word comes from Spanish caracol, snail, through French. Obsolete senses in English include 'a spiral shell' and 'a spiral staircase'.


Our quote appropriately deals with writer’s block, from which I’ve been suffering, and makes a nice figurative use.


Orlando, who had just dipped her pen in the ink, … was much annoyed to be impeded by a blot, which spread and meandered around her pen. … She dipped it again. The blot increased. She tried to go on with what she was saying; no words came. Next she began to decorate the blot with wings and whiskers, till it became a round-headed monster, something between a bat and a wombat. But as for writing poetry with Basket and Bartholomew in the room, it was impossible. No sooner had she said 'Impossible' than, to her astonishment and alarm, the pen began to curve and caracole with the smoothest possible fluency. Her page was written in the neatest sloping Italian hand with the most insipid verses she had ever read in her life.

– Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography


lucarne – a dormer window (OED says it includes any other window cut into a roof)


Each day, rather than settle on any old quote, I try to find an interesting or amusing one. But with the more-obscure words, it’s not always easy!


Shottesbrooke [church] was erected in 1337 … . Legend has it that [the] mason, pleased with his work, climbed the spire with a bottle, became drunk and fell to his death. The fine needle spire, its pure lines touched only by discreet lucarnes at the base, surely merited a mild intoxication if not a violent death.

– Simon Jenkins and Paul Barker, England's Thousand Best Churches


gosport – (in old airplanes with front-and-back [‘tandem’] cockpits) a flexible tube for speaking from front to back cockpit

[after Gosport, a port in southeast England, an embarkation point in WWII for the 1944 invasion of France]

Bonus words:

slipstream – the airflow driven backward by an airplane’s propeller or jet

tandem – one behind the other (as bicycle-riders, carriage-horses, or airplane cockpits)

[a pun on Latin tandem ‘at length’, which refers to a length of time.]


Two quotes (ellipses omitted) illustrate the practice.


The PT-19 Primary Trainer was monoplane with two open cockpits in tandem. It had no radio, so one-way communication between the cockpits was provided by a gosport, a long flexible tube that ran from the instructor's cockpit to the student's. In terms of audio fidelity, this device left something to be desired, especially with a nervous student who was uncertain what the instructor wanted. Short-tempered instructors were known to vent their frustration by sticking the mouthpiece of the gosport out into the slipstream. What happened inside of the poor student had to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

– Robert J. Goebel, Mustang Ace: Memoirs of a P-51 Fighter Pilot


Al sat in the front cockpit. He shouted at me through the gosport, a simple rubber tube about half an inch in diameter that ran between the cockpits. In the rear cockpit, the tube divided into two branches, one for each earflap of my cloth helmet. It was a one-way communication system: He yelled into the cone and I tried to figure out what he was saying. When I knew what he said, I nodded my head; he could see me in his rearview mirror. He called it his profanity strainer, but the strainer worked only when I was doing things right. When I really screwed up, he stuck the cone into the slipstream to wake me up.

– Norman J. Fortier, An Ace of the Eighth: An American Fighter Pilot's Air War in Europe



Eponyms once again


Our theme this week will be eponyms, that is, words from the name of a real or fictional character. I confess the theme was chosen partly to accommodate an oddball eponym I found, which will end the week!


Tommy Atkins – a British soldier


[May 1940:] [T]here was an impressive consistency of organisation and spirit in the British Expeditionary Force. The regulars had mobilised with Tommy Atkins’s traditional and cheerful indifference to the identity of the King’s enemies – or allies (“going to fight them bloody Belgiums” a Tommy had explained … in 1914) …

– John Keegan, The Second World War


Books of record-forms, issued to British officers of early 1800s, included helpful filled-in samples. These samples often used “Thomas Atkins” as a hypothetical soldier, typically a private; a “John Doe”. In 1883 the name slipped into popular usage, and soon after was spread by Kipling’s use.


jerrican – a flat-sided five-gallon container, usually metal, for petrol, water, etc.


Origin: In WWII a “Jerry” was a German, especially a German soldier. “The Germans had a very efficient five-gallon petrol can. The Eighth Army captured some of the cans. They were sent back to England, and the British started manufacturing them. They were called jerricans.” (Quote, from The Times, taken from OOED.)


Our quote honors Norman Mailer, who passed away yesterday.


Every day a ration detail of three men would trudge over to the hill on which the adjacent platoon of A Company was bivouacked, and return with a box of 10-in-1 rations and two five-gallon jerricans of water. The trip was always uneventful and the men did not dislike it, for the monotony of the morning was broken and it gave them a chance to talk to someone other than the men in their squad.

– Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead


Appropriately, we have a pair of underwear. Underwear eponyms, that is!


BVDs – men’s and boys’ underwear (originally, long underwear); a tradename

(almost never seen in the singular, BVD)

[from initials of Bradley, Vorhees & Day, the firm that made them.]


jaegers – woolen underwear; a trade name (among other unrelated meanings)

[The cloth was originally made by Dr. [Gustav] Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System Co. Ltd.]

Brits, is this term still in use?


When did it become cool for guys to wear their jeans around their knees, exposing their BVDs?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 10, 2005


ADA: Chilly enough I imagine. I hope you put on your jaegers. Did you put on your jaegers, Henry?

HENRY: What happened was this, I put them on and then I took them off again and then I put them on again and then I took them again off and then I took them on again and then I –

ADA: Have you them on now?

HENRY: I don’t know.

– Samuel Beckett, Embers


Today’s eponym comes from Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who administered a massive remodeling of much of Paris, 1853-1870, including reconfiguring the streets, creating green spaces, and building water and sanitary systems.


Haussmannize – to open out, widen, and straighten streets, and generally rebuild, after the fashion in which Haussmann rebuilt Paris


OED's definition (above) is the only one I’ve found, and makes it seem like a good thing. Others would disagree, for neighborhoods and their histories are destroyed. OED quotes an 1880s author saying, “These Attilas … of modern society …are rapidly achieving the Hausmannisation … of every mediæval city of Europe,” and, “Paris has fewer records of the feudal ages than London; and it is hopelessly Haussmannised.


A modern-day quote:


The face of Paris … was permanently reshaped during these years by a sweeping new wave of Haussmannization. Between 1954 and 1974, 24 percent of the buildable surface of the city was subjected to demolitions and redevelopment, and entire districts were razed and reconfigured in the name of urban renewal.

– Mark Lamster, Architecture and Film


Note: ‘Haussmannization,’ though a rare word, is a good deal more common than ‘Haussmannize’.


guyot – a flat-topped submarine mountain

[named by Princeton geologist Harry Hammond Hess. Princeton’s geology building is Guyot Hall, honoring Arnold Henri Guyot (1807–1884), a Swiss-born American geologist/geographer associated with Princeton. The building is flat-roofed. It’s unclear whether Hess named 'guyots' after the man, or after the building!]


As the sonar image grew crisper, he could make out a maze of gigantic seamounts and flat-topped guyots on the floor below. Deep canyons and troughs wound around these towering mounts. It reminded Jack of the Badlands of the American West …

– James Rollins, Deep Fathom


A review of Du Barry Was a Lady, in Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time:


Louis Biore is infatuated with the club’s sexy singer, May Daly, … but he accidentally drinks the Mickey Finn that he had planned to give May’s boyfriend. Louis passes out, dreaming that he is King Louis XV of France and that May is Madame Du Barry.


Mickey Finn – an alcoholic drink that has been deliberately adulterated with a strong sedative or purgative

[‘Mickey’ Finn, a Chicago saloon-keeper, late 19th- early 20th cent. who drugged and robbed his customers]


Note: This is from OED, with its first cite in 1928. But apparently there had been a successful revue called "Mickey Finn" in the previous decade, and before that a series of "Mickey Finn Tales" by an Ernest Jarrold. I’ve found it as far back as 1918, and this quote, though not the earliest, explains it well.


Ten Chicago waiters and bartenders were indicted here on chahrges [sic] growing out of an investigation of the manufacture and sale of "Mickey Finn" powders. It is alleged that the powders were used in foods of patrons who failed to tip.

Journal Six O'Clock (Lincoln, Nebraska State Journal) July 10, 1918 1/2


Today’s very-obscure word would be quite useful. But is it a word at all?


horsmandering – the act of a public official writing a books about his/her experience in office

[from the name of an 18th-century American judge who was one of the first public servants to use his records of a public experience as the basis of a full-length book]


I took this word from a thick 2004 word-book, which seems to have taken it almost verbatim from a 1952 word-book. And that in turn probably got it from a 1909 journal that comments on horsmandering as an interesting new word:


The books have been multiplying ever since the end of the war; and now we have the word— "horsmandering." When a public official vacates his high office and then sits down to write the story of his trust and how he fulfilled it, that is horsemandering.

America [Journal of Jesuits of the United States and Canada]


But I can’t find it in any dictionary, or in any particular usages. Query whether this is a real word, or just a case of one word-compiler copying from another at half-century intervals. Copying has been known to happen! Smile



"The Sea"


A reader wrote, “Hi, Wordcrafter. I'm just finishing a novel called The Sea by John Banville-- suggested by a book club member because the setting is the Irish seaside village she grew up in. Besides being a beautifully crafted and moving novel, it is the first I've read in years where I need a dictionary at hand! I've started circling the words he uses that I've never seen before. Should I pass my list along to you for one of your vocabulary weeks?” And I replied, “Laughing! Please do so ASAP; I'm suffering writer's block looking for a theme!”


Ginny, thank you for sharing your enthusiasm. We’ll start our “Sea” theme with an earthy word from Old English, a word I'd never heard of. Brits, is it more familiar on your side of the pond?


haulm1. a stalk or stem 2. the stalks or stems of peas, beans, or potatoes collectively


The thought occurs and at once there I am, in shirt-sleeves and concertina trousers, stumbling sweat-stained behind the mower, grass-haulms in my mouth and the flies buzzing about my head.


Today, a word whose sound that makes me smile.


cackhandedUK; informal: ham-handed, clumsy, awkward

OED speculates that it may come from cack, which means ‘excrement’ and, like the usual four-letter word for excrement, can be used as either a noun or a verb.


In fact it is a field no longer but a dreary holiday estate packed higgledy-piggledy with what are bound to be jerrybuilt bungalows, designed I suspect by the same cackhanded line-drawer who was responsible for the eyesores at the bottom of the garden here.


Since we’ve just now had a word rooted in “excrement,” today's word may be an appropriate follow-up. How embarrassing it can be when your room lacks private plumbing facilities.


strangury – a condition of slow, painful urination, caused by muscular spasms of the “plumbing”

[ultimately from Greek for ‘drop, trickle’ (or ‘drop squeezed out') + ‘urine’]


How inimical to our theme of “The Sea”!


There goes the Colonel, creeping back to his room. That was a long session in the lav. Strangury, nice word. Mine is the one bedroom in the house which is, as Miss Vavasour puts it with a demure little moue, en suite.


lour – (of the sky) to look dark and threatening (noun: such an appearance)

[Also, unconnected with sky: a scowl; to scowl]


There was open land to my right, flat and undistinguished with not a house or hovel in sight, and to my left a deep line of darkly louring trees bordering the road.


Today’s word ties into our recent word ‘haulm’. Author Banville uses it figuratively, which is much more interesting.


… the genteelly outmoded atmosphere that pervaded my dream of what was to come. The precise images I entertained of myself as a grown-up were imbued with that etiolated, world-weary elegance, that infirm poise, which I associated with the world between the wars. [ellipses omitted]


etiolate – to cause to appear pale and sickly; also, to make weak by stunting the development of.

[from the meaning in botany: to make (a plant) pale by preventing exposure to sunlight]

[from Norman French étieuler, to grow into haulm]


apotropaic – intended to ward off evil (an apotropaic amulet)


This strikes me as a very useful word, but I’d never heard of it.


Our quote concerns a cancer-sufferer who has been referred to a specialist.


The consultant’s name was Mr. Todd. This can only be considered a joke in bad taste on the part of polyglot fate. It could have been worse. There is a name De’Ath, with that fancy medial capital and apotropaic apostrophe which fool no one.


Note: Sweeney Todd is a fictional barber who murdered his victims by cutting their throats with a straight razor.


unctuous – excessively flattering or ingratiating

[Think ‘oily’. It comes form Latin for ‘to anoint’, as in the rite of extreme unction.]


He bowed to me, beaming, hands clasped into fists before his chest in an excessive, operatic gesture. … His look was unctuous yet in some way minatory. Perhaps I had been expected to tip him also.



About face


This week’s theme-title is a pun. We’ll be talking about words related to parts of the face.


sclera – the white of the eyeball


For the family visit, she … she moisturized her skin, and at the last minute, she put Visine in her eyes until the sclera were parchment white. Only her little grand-daughter … had noticed.

– Jacqueline Sheehan, Lost & Found


We get this from the Greek for ‘hard’, which in turn goes back their term for Greek for ‘to dry up, parch’. More body-words, from the same ‘hard’ and ‘dry’ roots, are skeleton and arteriosclerosis, ‘hardening of the arteries’ and sclerosis, the more general term for ‘abnormal hardening of tissues’.


I mention this last because it has a much more interesting figurative use, to mean “rigidity, excessive resistance to change”. It’s been used to refer to theater (old-fashioned and sclerotic), transportation (the traffic [gets] more sclerotic), and governments (sclerotic tax laws). And here’s a spin-off coined (apparently by German economist Herbert Giersch) in the 1980s:


Western Europe, where political business leaders have worried about their countries' loss of dynamism, failure to create jobs or cure unemployment - an ailment known as Eurosclerosis.
– New York Times, April 9, 1986


Here’s a famous sinciput:


sinciput – the forehead (also, the upper half of the skull)

[From Latin, meaning ‘semi-head’. A truly obscure word for the same thing is bregma. Compare occiput – the back of the skull.]


A fortunate accident happened to me when I was a very little boy. A good-hearted old Irish nurse took me up one day by the heels, when I was making more noise than was necessary, and swinging me round two or three times, d-----d my eyes for “a skreeking little spalpeen,” and then knocked my head into a cocked hat against the bedpost. A bump arose at once on my sinciput

– Edgar Allen Poe, The Business Man (excepted)


Bonus word:

spalpeenIrish dialect: rascal; scamp


nares – nostrils

Illustrated by two quotes with unusual perspectives. In the first, a fish insults a swan. In the second, we consider how the Invisible Man’s innards work.


     “Look,” said the Wart, “it is the poor swan with the deformed leg. It can only paddle with one leg, and the other side of it is hunched.

     “Nonsense,” said the swan snappily, putting its head into the water rand giving them a frown with its black nares. “Swans like to rest in this position, and you can keep your keep your fishy sympathy to yourself, so there.” It continued to glare at them from up above, … until they were out of sight.

– T. H. White, The Once and Future King


After he had done eating, … the Invisible Man demanded a cigar. … It was strange to see him smoking; his mouth, and throat, pharynx and nares, became visible as a sort of whirling smoke cast.

– H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man


edentate – toothless

[also refers to certain mammals, such as armadillos, that are toothless or nearly so]


Speaking of teeth: There have never been dentists on Santa Rosalia or any of the other human colonies in the Galápagos Islands. As would have been the case a million years ago, a typical colonist can expect to be edentate by the time he or she is thirty years old, having suffered many skull-cracking toothaches on the way.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos


(Would it be unkind to mention that the species homo sapiens is a good deal less than a million years old?)


It's noisy, and to block out the noise you stick your finger in your ear, palm forward. Your fingerpad presses against a stiff flap of cartilage. Who'd have thought that it had a name? This is not an easy word to work into a conversation!


tragus – the bump of cartilage in front of the ear-hole

[from Greek for "male goat", supposedly so named for the tuft of hair which grows there]


… the man with the cell phone repeated it with harried precision, his free index finger applied to the tragus of his other ear, keeping out the noise of the crowd …

– Liam Durcan, Garcia's Heart


Dictionaries conflict on today’s word. AHD has it as a horse-word (a sudden, violent check of a horse, by drawing the reins suddenly), but to Merriam Webster it pertains to the eyes. Neither mentions the other’s sense. For our theme, we focus on the eyes.


saccade – a brief, rapid eye-movement from one position of rest to another, either voluntary (as in reading) or involuntary


[His father lies, barely alive:] I sit down next to my father on his cot. I take his hand in mine and put it on the crown of my head. My father’s eye makes quick birdlike saccades up and down.

– Adam Davies, Goodbye Lemon (ellipses omitted)


Beep! A new [email] message had just arrived. The sender’s address was -- My God … He opened the message, and his eyes flew all over it in mad saccades, trying to absorb it as a gestalt. And then, his pulse racing, he re-read it carefully, from top to bottom.

– Robert J. Sawyer, Rollback


OED reveals why those two dictionaries conflict. A saccade is that eye-movement or, more generally, any “jerk or jerky movement” – whether “horsy” or not. Here’s an example of that broader sense:


I felt the corners of my mouth saccade. Hell, he had a gun. He could take whatever he wanted.

– Leo L. Sullivan, Life


This week quite a few readers have written asking me, “Are you going to do my favorite body-word?” Every one of them had the same favorite, and it’s one of my favorites too. How curious; I wonder why so many of us like it.


philtrum – the vertical groove from the base of the nose to the upper lip

[from Greek philein "to love; to kiss"]


Even when he was clean-shaven, a five o'clock shadow stippled his face, especially on the philtrum between nose and mouth.

– Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper's Wife


A friend of ours is a paramedic. When one of her patients is about to faint, she pinches the patient's philtrum – the fleshy part between the upper lip and nose. That prevents the faint from happening.

– Joan Wilen and Lydia Wilen, More Chicken Soup & Other Folk Remedies