Archives     Dictionary    HOME

April 2007 Archives

Coined Words: halitosis, blurb, ecdysiast, cromulent, dorgi, agnostic, scofflaw

Laws, Principles, and Rules: Murphy’s Law, Morton’s Fork, Parkinson's Law, Gresham’s law, Pareto Principle (80/20 rule), TANSTAAFL, GIGO, Peter Principle

Short Words: lek, ort, pyx (antiphon), erg, oda, nob, vig

Words from Games: taw, roquet, chukka (conk), pelota, cesta, oche, muleta, squidger, squop


Coined Words


For our next theme we’ll look at some coined words, most them familiar. In one sense, every word was “coined” by the first person to us it, but some coinages have very interesting histories.

Recall that last week’s word Listerine was originally a surgical antiseptic, later a mouthwash. The change came from a hugely-successful advertising campaign, one which illustrates the power of the well-chosen word, today’s coinage.

halitosis – bad breath [from Latin halitus breath + Greek-based suffix -osis]

Listerine began to advertise itself as a cure for “halitosis” in 1921, and kicked the campaign into high gear two years later – perhaps because a competitor was also calling itself a “halitosis” cure. By 1924 the word was on everyone's lips, halitosis-jokes abounded, and one wag noted, "The feller that thought up halitosis as a catchword for bad breath is now riding around in a pink limousine." Says one commentator, “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis." (James Twitchell, Twenty Ads that Shook the World)

Many sources say that the ad-men coined “halitosis”, but in fact it was obscure medical lingo (coined 1874,) which they stumbled upon and eagerly seized. They had already rejected marketing Listerine as a bad breath remedy (they didn’t even know it could be so used), because "bad breath" was an indecent phrase. But when they learned the word "halitosis" they saw that it would be a fine euphemism.

See our board here for the full story their deliberation, and immediately after for some of their early advertising copy.


blurb – a short promotional description of a book, film, or other product


I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you anyhow
I'd rather see than be one.


Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), author of these immortal lines, also liked to invent new words. In 1907 he created Miss Belinda Blurb to mock the customary rave reviews printed on books' dust jackets, explaining that he "had her pictured blurbing a blurb to end all blurbs, I fondly hoped." (When asked, he defined blurb as "self praise and making a noise like a publisher".)

His publisher reported, some decades later, how that word was sprung upon the world at large:


It is the custom of publishers to present copies of a conspicuous current book to booksellers attending the annual dinner of their trade association, and as this little book was in its heyday when the meeting took place I gave it to 500 guests. These copies were differentiated from the regular edition by the addition of a comic bookplate drawn by the author and by a special jacket which he devised. It was the common practice to print the picture of a damsel--languishing, heroic, or coquettish--on the jacket of every novel, so Burgess lifted from a Lydia Pinkham or tooth-powder advertisement the portrait of a sickly sweet young woman, painted in some gleaming teeth, and otherwise enhanced her pulchritude, and placed her in the center of the jacket. His accompanying text was some nonsense about 'Miss Belinda Blurb,' and thus the term supplied a real need and became a fixture in our language.


Regrettably, I am unable to provide you a picture of the buxom Miss Belinda.


H.L. Mencken explains how he came to coin today’s word.


Then [in 1940] I was inspired by a lady … designating her occupation as strip teasing, who requested “a new and more palatable word to describe this art.” As a help to her (or here public relations counsel)) I replied as follows: “It might be a good idea to relate strip teasing in some way or other to the associated zoological function of molting. Thus the word moltician comes to mind, but it must be rejected due to its likeness to mortician. A resort to the scientific name for molting, which is ecydsis, produces … ecydiast.

ecdysiast – a stripper-tease artist; a stripper
[ecdysiszoology: the process of shedding the old skin (in snakes, etc.)]

"Gypsy and Me" strips bare the life of what it meant to be the legendary ecdysiast's son …
– Jewish Exponent, Mar. 22, 2007

… new Alabama football coach Mike Price getting the ax for his misadventures with the Pensacola ecdysiast community.
– Salon,
June 12, 2003


cromulent – excellent; perfectly acceptable


He had a boundless passion for music and entertained many with his beautiful voice and perfectly cromulent sense of humor.
– Charlotte Observer,
Apr. 10, 2006


Coined on TV in The Simpsons:


Jebediah: [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna Krabappel: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to
Ms. Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

[and later:] Skinner: Yes, he's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance.


Two years ago this word had 40,000 google hits. Erin McKean of OED commented (late 2005), "So of course, cromulent hasn't really made dictionaries yet. It's kind of bubbling along at a low boil." Today it generates 192,000 google hits. I'd say it's become a cromulent part of our vocabulary.


Necessity can be the mother of linguistic invention. Two examples:

1. When two sisters raised dogs, and the animals presented them with the results of a romantic interlude between the two breeds, what would they call the pups? The sisters created an in-the-family term by blending the breed names. A rather ordinary family incident, but since the sisters are prominent ladies, the blended name has become known outside the family. Thus, Queen Elizabeth’s corgis and Princess Margaret’s dachshunds have given us as dorgies.

2. T. H. Huxley explained how he came to coin the term agnostic – one believes that nothing can be known concerning the existence of God.


When I … began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist …, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer … The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. … So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.


Today’s word was coined in a 1923 contest sponsored by an ardent Prohibitionist, Mr. Delcevare King of Quincy, Massachusetts (Harvard 1895). He offered a $200 prize for a word to describe “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor”, and received over 25,000 words.

The authorities thought the word was a flash-in-the-pan. Within months the new-words editor Funk & Wagnalls (Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly) commented that the term, "widely publicized several months ago as the term applied to those who violate the prohibition laws, is fast fading." Moral: don’t trust the authorities! But the winning entry has changed its meaning.

scofflaw – a contemptuous violator of laws, esp. of laws deemed silly or trivial

Tidbit: two entrants submitted the winning word, and the OED and many other sources identify them as Miss Kate L. Butler and “Henry Irving Dale.” But many contemporary accounts give the gentleman’s name as “Henry Irving Shaw,” and that view was taken by as high an authority as Time Magazine (Jan. 16, 1956).



Laws, Principles, and Rules


Our theme this week will be various laws, rules and principles that govern the practical world about us. But I’m not talking about anything so mundane as the Law of Gravity.

We’ll begin with a familiar one which, as two eminent physicists note in our quotes, may be the fundamental governing law of the Universe.

Murphy’s Law – if anything can go wrong, it will
[No one is sure who “Murphy” was.]


in any closed system disorder, or entropy, always increases with times. In other words, it is a form of Murphy's law: things always tend to go wrong!
– Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

Even at the world's soon-to-be largest particle accelerator … scientists need to be mindful of one of the most fundamental laws in the universe: Murphy's Law.a scant few months before the … collider … is slated to go online, a small but crucial part of the machine broke with a bang. "We were busy solving hard problems, and somehow an easy one slipped past us," said
Jim Strait of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois.
– National Geographic, DC -
Apr 13, 2007


Morton’s Fork – the principle that "you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t"

Named for King Henry VII’s tax collector, John Morton (c.1420-1500), who took the position that 1) if you’re living in luxury you obviously have enough money to pay taxes, and 2) if you’re living frugally, you must be saving your money, and so can afford to pay taxes.


Fred raced in to bowl the first ball which … I pushed through mid-wicket for three. [then] "That were a bloody awful delivery, weren't it?" he said quietly. This … was Fred's version of Cardinal Morton's Fork. If I said, "Yes, it was rubbish," I would appear cocky and disrespectful. If, on the other hand, I said, "No, I thought it was jolly good," I would brand myself a simpleton … .
– The Telegraph,
July 8, 2006

So Labour faces a Morton's Fork. It could obey the incoming hardline leaders of unions that are still its major financial supporters, in which case it will cease to be New Labour. Or it could brush off the new union bosses, lose their financial support and face conflict, including strikes.
– The Telegraph,
Aug. 23, 2002


I would think the second-quoted situation is more a Faustian bargain than a Morton’s Fork.


Parkinson's Law – the principle, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Coined by C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-93).


The Supreme Court embarks this week on one of its time-honored traditions: the bone-crunching finale. … But what is the explanation for the Court's delay on the abortion and right-to-die cases? … It is not simply that the Court observes its own version of Parkinson's Law: opinion-writing expands to fill the time remaining in the term. The Justices can and do act expeditiously once they have arrived at a decision … Yet the … abortion cases are the oldest on the docket. The next-oldest is the Missouri right-to-die case.
– New York Times,
June 25, 1990


Gresham’s law – the tendency of inferior products or practices to drive out superior ones

Most dictionaries give only this economic meaning: the principle that in financial markets, "bad money drives out good". That is, if two currencies are in circulation, one of them being debased, then this debased "bad money" will soon be the only one left circulating (because people will hoard the superior currency when they receive it, thus removing it from circulation).
     Why is the principle given this name? When Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558 her financial advisor, Sir Thomas Gresham, advised her of this principle, writing "that good and bad coin cannot circulate together". (Can anyone find the text of the letter?) Three centuries later British economist H. D. Macleod called it "Gresham’s Law", apparently in the mistaken belief that Gresham had been the first to recognize the law.


International co-operation is necessary to prevent a corporate Gresham's Law where bad companies from unregulated countries drive out good.
– Financial Times,
Oct. 21, 2004

[Samuel] Johnson posits a kind of Gresham’s Law for literature, in which the bad and cheap writing of the marketplace drives the good out of existence.
– Robert D. Spector, Samuel Johnson and the Essay


Today's principle may give you a new way of looking at the world.

80/20 rule or Pareto Principle – often, 80% of the result comes from 20% of the work or other input


Pareto found that 80 percent of the peas he harvested came from 20 percent of the pods. He also learned that 80 percent of Italy's land was owned by 20 percent of the people. … people have applied Pareto's Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, to all sorts of activities in work and in life:

·                   Eighty percent of a worker's productivity comes from 20 percent of the tasks.

·                   Eighty percent of sales come from 20 percent of salespeople.

·                   Twenty percent of employees account for 80 percent of absenteeism.

·                   Eighty percent of a manager's headaches come from 20 percent of workers.

·                   Eighty percent of decisions come from 20 percent of meeting time.
– San Francisco Chronicle,
Aug. 16, 2003

For years, Microsoft Corp. has blithely dismissed criticisms of its Office suite as a victim of the Pareto principle – that 80 per cent of its owners use only 20 per cent of its features. That's just the way people use their tools, they'd say.
– Globe and Mail,
Nov, 30, 2006

the secret is developing a research strategy that captures all the facts you need – and covers as little extraneous territory as possible. … the Pareto Principle. You may have heard of it as the "80/20" rule.recognize that you’ll typically get most of your "good stuff" from just a handful of books and magazine articles. … expect to get 80 percent of your notes from just 20 percent of your reading.
– David A. Fryxell, Write Faster, Write Better

Here are two terms, somewhat related in meaning and each an acronym (that is, made from initials). Neither is particularly familiar, and each, when used, is usually accompanied by an explanation of what it means.

TANSTAAFL – the principle, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch"
GIGO – the principle, "Garbage In, Garbage Out". In other words, if the inputs are nonsense, the results will be nonsense.

Insofar as I can tell TANSTAAFL, coined by Robert Heinlein, is not yet recognized by any general paper-and-cover dictionary. GIGO is recognized by OED.


The company [H&R Block] offers several ways to obtain a [tax] refund early, but if you use these services, read the fine print carefully and remember: TANSTAAFL.
– Motley Fool,
March 9, 2006

When a computer is mistreated or given imperfect data, it suffers from GIGO as it can create garbage alone from garbage. The sense of GIGO extends beyond the computer when there are failures in human decision-making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data
– The Tribune (India), July 6, 2002

Inspector Doherty shares with me," Delchamps said, "the philosophy that if you're going to use a computer, use the best one." "We are referring, Colonel, ... to the computers between our ears." ... "Computers, Colonel, are only as good as the data they contain," Doherty said. "You know what GIGO means?" Castillo nodded. "Garbage in, garbage out." "Right. So anything we put into our computers .. has to be a fact, not a supposition, not a possibility...."
– W.E.B. Griffin, The Hunters


Peter Principle – [coined by Laurence J. Peter] the principle that those in a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent (at which point promotion ceases). Thus each position is eventually filled by an incompetent.


He made a great cop. … But his front-line successes made him an undeserving victim of the Peter Principle. He was promoted to detective a few years ago but proved too impolitic and got on the wrong side of a deputy superintendent. In 1980 Watson was demoted back to patrolman …
– Time Magazine,
July 26, 1982



Short Words


A word doesn't have to be long to be obscure and interesting! This week we'll look at some short ones.

Ever been to a singles bar?

lek – an animals' "singles bar"; a place where animals gather to compete for mates (also: the gathering there; the competition there; and to lek: to so compete)


Peacocks are among the few birds that of a kind of market in seduction techniques, called a "lek," after the Swedish word for play. Some grouse, several birds of paradise, and manakins, plus a number of antelope, deer, bats, fish, moths, butterflies and other insects also indulge in lekking. A lek is place where males gather in the breeding season, mark out little territories that are clustered together, and parade their wares for visiting females.
– Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

Poorly-endowed peacock males form leks and together manage to win mates, despite their bigger competitors, through their collective displays.
– Perry Marshall, Bryan Todd, Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords


ort – a scrap or morsel of food left at a meal

What a great word! "Pardon me, but you have an ort stuck between your teeth."


A flask of water and a plate of bread, hard and tinged with blue mold, stood in the shadows near Beardsley's head; orts and bits of gluey, half-chewed bread covered the floor nearby.
– Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross

high jinks with Mary Kathleen's remains were not crimes in and of themselves, since corpses have no more rights than do orts from last night's midnight snack.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird



pyx – the container in which the wafer of the Eucharist is kept


Father Vaillant came back in his vestments, with his pyx and basin of holy water, and began sprinkling the bed and the watchers, repeating the antiphon, Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor.
– Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop


Bonus word:
– a verse or song to be chanted or sung in response


A reader points out an additional meaning of pyx: "A chest in a mint in which specimen coins are placed to await assay".


erg – a unit of work or energy
[coined 1873 by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, from Gk. ergon "work". Related words are urge and orgy.]



While straining in this way, focusing every erg of energy on his eyes, his bowels suddenly opened up ..."
– Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Oprah's Book Club)

he lunged at Vastor, whirling, hands clasped together to deliver every erg of power at his command into one last thundering punch ...
– Matthew Woodring Stover, Shatterpoint



Since yesterday’s word was related to “orgy" … Consider the practical difficulties of maintaining a harem. Where do the ladies reside when not "on duty"?

oda –the dormitory of the sultan's seraglio


It was a spacious chamber (Oda is
The Turkish title) and ranged round the wall
Were couches, toilets -- and much more than this
I might describe, for I have seen it all
But it suffices -- little was amiss;
'Twas on the whole a nobly furnished hall.
– Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto VI


nobBrit. informal: a person of wealth or high social position


The judge, In Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury, explains how he how politics brought him to his judicial position:

It was managed by a job (and a good job, too!)
It was managed by a job (and a good job, too!)
It is patent to the mob,
That my being made a nob
Was effected by a job (and a good job, too!)


vig – [short for "vigorish"] 1. the interest paid to a loan shark 2. a charge taken by a bookie, on bets


Indeed, America has a grand record of knocking over other nations. … The Europeans have been there, done that; they have lost their appetite … As for the Russians and Chinese, they lack charitable impulses. They liberate like the mob lends money; the vig sucks. But Americans are a generous if slightly naïve people, with a distinct messianic bent …
– Brian Haig, Man in the Middle



Words from Games


"Words from Games" is our theme this week. How about a short one, to honor last week's theme?

taw – a large choice or fancy marble, often streaked or variegated, being that with which the player shoots

Dickens and Clemens each use this word, speaking of an "alley" [alabaster] taw.


. . "Oh, never you mind what she said, Jim. That's the way she always talks. Gimme the bucket—I won't be gone only a minute. SHE won't ever know."
     "Oh, I dasn't, Mars Tom. Ole missis she'd take an' tar de head off'n me. 'Deed she would."
     "SHE! She never licks anybody—whacks 'em over the head with her thimble—and who cares for that, I'd like to know. She talks awful, but talk don't hurt—anyways it don't if she don't cry. Jim, I'll give you a marvel. I'll give you a white alley!"
     Jim began to waver.
     "White alley, Jim! And it's a bully taw."
     "My! Dat's a mighty gay marvel, I tell you! But Mars Tom I's powerful 'fraid ole missis—"
     "And besides, if you will I'll show you my sore toe."
     Jim was only human—this attraction was too much for him.
– Samuel Clemens, Tom Sawyer

'But enough of this, gentlemen,' said Mr. Serjeant Buzfuz, 'it is difficult to smile with an aching heart; it is ill jesting when our deepest sympathies are awakened. My client's hopes and prospects are ruined, and it is no figure of speech to say that her occupation is gone indeed. The bill is down--but there is no tenant. Eligible single gentlemen pass and repass-but there is no invitation for to inquire within or without. All is gloom and silence in the house; even the voice of the child is hushed; his infant sports are disregarded when his mother weeps; his "alley tors" and his "commoneys" are alike neglected; he forgets the long familiar cry of "knuckle down," and at tip-cheese, or odd and even, his hand is out. '
– Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers


Yesterday, the game of marbles. Today, another game in which the object is to hit your opponent's sphere with your own.

roquet – in croquet, the act of hitting another player's ball with one's own


She could have even deliberately come up behind me so she could roquet my ball into the briar patch, thus making sure I'd find the body.
– Donna Andrews, No Nest for the Wicket


Yesterday, croquet. Today, another game of mallets striking balls.

chukka – each of the periods into which a game of polo is divided [Sanskrit, 'circle' or 'wheel']
[also, a kind of high shoe, resembling a polo boot]


The trouble with Jeeves is that he tends occasionally to get above himself. ... he has a nasty way of conveying the impression that he looks on Bertram Wooster as a sort of idiot child who, but for him, would conk in the first chukka. I resent this.
– P.G. Wodehouse, Life with Jeeves


Bonus word:
– to break down, give out, fail, or show signs of failing; to die, collapse, or lose
[first used of WWI airplanes. perhaps related to conk slang for "nose" (1812) [seen as like a conch shell?], whence conk "to punch in the nose", whence conk "to hit on the head"]


From the game of jai alai (Basque jai festival + alai merry)

pelota1. the game itself 2. the ball used
cesta – a scoop-shaped wicker basket, worn over the hand, used to catch and throw the ball
fronton – a building where pelota is played


     The fronton where pelota was played was a large outdoor arena the size of a football field ... Members of each team took turns slamming the ball into the concrete wall and catching it on the rebound in their cestas, the long, narrow baskets strapped to their arms. Pelota was a fast, dangerous game. ...
     "Is it as dangerous as it looks?"
Tracy asked.
     "Baroness, that ball travels through the air at almost a hundred miles an hour.¹ If you get hit in the head, you're dead."
– Sidney Sheldon, If Tomorrow Comes

¹ Actually, that's a gross understatement. According to one web-source, "Slightly smaller than a baseball and livelier than a golf ball, the pelota … has been clocked in play at more than 185 miles per hour and can shatter bulletproof glass." Another: "Jai-alai is the world's fastest ball game. … compare: hockey slapshot [120 mph]; tennis serve [130 mph]; squash [120 mph]."


oche – the line behind which darts players stand when throwing


Darts may not be glamorous, but it's worth defending the oche as it gets smothered by the spread of the gastropub.
– Guardian Unlimited,
March 9, 2007


muleta – a short red cape, used by a matador to maneuver a bull during the final passes before a kill


You ... played with rhinos, with the jeep, letting them come up to horn range before you swerved, using the jeep as a bullfighter uses a muleta to turn a bull's charge.
– Robert Ruark, Something of Value


I'm sure you're all familiar with the great sport of tiddlywinks?

squidger – the larger wink used to propel or flip a player's winks (verb: squidge – to so propel)
squop – to cover and immobilize (another's wink) with one's own


A squopped wink cannot be squidged again until it is de-squopped.
– Time,
Sept. 14, 1962