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May 2007 Archives

More Game/Sport Words: crapshoot, debonair, bandy-legged, well-heeled, stymie, screwball, hat trick

Words of the Theater: greenroom, claque, proscenium (terrane), histrionic, wing it, dramaturg

Words from Arabic: hagira, loofah, minaret (masjid), giaour, dura mater (pia mater, arachnoid mater, meninges), feinghee, kismet

2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee: coryza, Schuhplattler, tournure, genizah, punaise, Belial, calenture


More Game/Sport Words


Last week we presented words used in games and sports. This week we'll see some words of broader use that originate in the game/sport worlds.

crapshoot – a risky enterprise


If you've knit for a three-year-old, then you understand. Just because he says he wants purple mittens, and you believe you have knit purple mittens, there is no reason to believe that the three-year-old in question will believe that these are indeed purple mittens. It's a total crapshoot.
– Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, At Knit's End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much


From medieval French falconry. Hawks of the best temperament, pound and noble, were said to be de bonnne air, "of good air".

debonair – pleasant and affable in outward manner or address


My thesis title was "Oliver St. John Gogarty: A Critical Study." ... I chose Gogarty because of my admiration for him. If I read him and wrote about him, some of his charm, talent and learning would surely rub off on me. I might develop some of his flash and dare, his flamboyant air. He was a Dublin character, and I hoped I might become a debonair, hard-drinking, poetic Irishman like him.
- Frank McCourt, Teacher Man: A Memoir


bandy-legged – with legs that curve outward at the knees
[Bandy was a 17c. Irish game, precursor of field hockey. "Bandy-legged" means "legs curved like the sticks used in bandy".]


She was a kind of monster, cross-eyed, bandy-legged, poor in flesh and spirit.
– Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People (quoting Georgette Leblanc, Souvenirs: My Life with Maeterlinck)

Commanding the most aggressive division in this corps was Philip Sheridan, a small, bandy-legged man whose only distinctions in the prewar army had been pugnacity and a handlebar mustache. The pugnacity served him well once the war gave him a chance.
– James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era


well-heeled – well-off financially

From cock-fighting. A cock equipped with an artificial spur on its foot was called "heeled". From there, in the
U.S. the term came to mean "armed with a gun," and then "armed with money".


Root's death stunned Burnham, stunned Chicago. Burnham and Root had been partners and friends for eighteen years . … On Sunday Burnham attended … his burial in Graceland Cemetery, a charming haven for the well-heeled dead a few miles north of the Loop. On Monday he was back at his desk. ... The challenge ahead looked more daunting than ever.
– Erik Larson, The Devil in the
White City


stymie – to impede, obstruct, frustrate, thwart (a person, an activity, or a project)

[From golf, where a stymie is a ball on the putting green that blocks another player's line between his own ball and the hole.]


The New South Wales Department of Planning has refused to comment on reports that an endangered flower species could stymie housing development in the Queanbeyan area. It's understood the … Small Purple Pea is listed as a threatened species and is known to live in the Queanbeyan region.
– IBN News,
Australia, May 5, 2007


screwball – whimsically eccentric (noun: such a person)
[from an oddly-behaving pitch in baseball, which curves in the opposite direction of a regular curveball]


Kathryn and Ross Petras' book pulls the demanding divas, screwball stars and celebu-twits off their pedestals …
– Fort Worth Star Telegram,
May 20, 2007

They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons …
– Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


hat trick – three goals or other major achievement by player in a sport; hence occasionally, a threefold feat in other activities
[originally from cricket; common in football (soccer) and in ice hockey]

Czech: hattrick (same in Danish, Dutch, Slovak)
Estonian: kόbaratrikk
Finnish: hattutemppu
German: der Hat-Trick
Norwegian: hat trick (same in Polish,and in Portuguese (Brazil), Swedish)
Romanian: hat-trick
Russian: хет-трик


… the values promulgated by today's mass market. Happiness, in their terms, equals wealth, stardom, and thinness. Since few can achieve this rare hat trick in life, most people are left unhappy, and that's not right.
– Allen Rucker and Michele Scicolone, The Sopranos Family Cookbook



Words of the Theater


greenroom – a waiting room or lounge for the performers, when they are offstage

You might forget this word, but you'll never forget this story that Phyllis Diller tells on herself in our second quote!


When we weren't working, we hung out in the dressing rooms or the greenroom and talked or just gawked at each other.
– Ellen Burstyn, Lessons in Becoming Myself

Early in her career, she and Tony Randall were guests on a television variety show. Chitchatting in the greenroom before the show, Randall used a word that was completely unfamilliar to Diller: fellatio. Not wanting to reveal her lack of sophistication, but well aware of Randal's classical training as an actor, she said: I haven't read much Shakespeare.
– Mardy Grothe, Viva la Repartee [etc.]


claque – 1. a group of people hired to applaud or heckle a performer; a "rent-a-crowd" 2. a group of sycophantic followers (esp. in politics)
[from Fr. claquer "to clap"]


Outside the windows Drumont's claque, paid at forty sous a head, hooted and jeered.
– Barbara Tuchman, The
Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914

[Lyndon Baines Johnson] went public only after it was all done, and even then, when he dealt with the press, he was the private man, calling in a small claque of reporters whom he knew and trusted.
– David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest


proscenium – an arch framing the opening between the stage and the auditorium; also called proscenium arch.
(A secondary meaning of proscenium is "the part of a stage in front of the curtain".)


Our second quote makes lovely metaphorical use of proscenium as the "opening" into the special world presented on stage.


... the curtain rises to show an actor before an enormous screen, and on either side of the proscenium other screens light up, flashing ever-changing images from Lincoln's life. They fade to grey, then light up again, then fade, only to light up again with more colorful images. Some multimedia effect or another is never more than a few moments away.
– Andrew Ferguson,
Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

Geologists are inconsistent drivers. When a road-cut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, a road-cut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane.
– John McPhee, Annals of the Former World


Bonus word (defined by a reader):
terrane – "an accretion that has collided with a continental nucleus, or 'craton' but can be recognized by the foreign origin of its rock strata" (from Wikipedia). It's as if the plate
Hawaii is on was subducted beneath a continental plate, but Hawaii itself was scraped off and added to the coast. California is made up of many different terranes


histrionic – theatrical in style; 'stagey';
hence histrionics – exaggerated emotional behavior calculated for manipulative effect

I suppose all acting is "faking it." Certainly today's quote, of which I'm fond, concerns "faking it".


… I am quite sure that the only things Lois knew about love was how to spell the word and how to make the physiological adjustments traditionally associated with the idea. She did not spell very well, but she made those adjustments with great skill and relish. The relish was nature, but the skill was art, and ars longa est. I knew this despite the very expert and sustained histrionics of which Lois was capable. I knew it, but I succeeded in burying it out in the back yard of my mind … I didn't really care, I suppose, so long as nothing happened to make me have to face the fact.
– Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men


wing it – to attempt a task without sufficient preparation, and be forced to improvise

A reader points out to me (thanks, Susan!) that this comes from the theater, where a thespian might be suddenly thrust into a role on short notice, without time to learn the lines. How does this relates to the "wings" of a theater? OED's quotes give two different explanations:

– the artiste frequently received the assistance of a special prompter … screened … by a piece of the scenery or a wing
– refreshing his memory for each scene in the wings before he goes on to play it


… even America's newest literary darling, Bret Harte, had stumbled badly at Harvard in June. Invited to write and deliver a poem …, Harte had showed up late, his poem unfinished. He had tried to wing it with some other verse he'd brought along; the verse was blatantly irrelevant to the occasion …
– Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life


(By the way, though wing and a prayer might seem related, it is a later phrase from WWII aviation.)


Theater companies in continental Europe routinely employ a "dramaturg" on staff. British companies have only recently started the practice, and the understanding of what a dramaturg is to do – that is, the English meaning of the word "dramaturg" – is evolving; indeed it is intensely debated. (Mary Luckhurst, Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre)

Let me see if I can approach the concept:


Dramaturgy can be described as 'preparing the text for performance'. A dramaturg will normally be involved in detailed research for the production, bringing an intimate knowledge of the script to the production process. They will have gathered material that will help the rest of the production team to understand the piece better ... During the development of a production the dramaturg … may also be a resource for actors, designers and technicians... their task is to help the production remain in line with the original vision
– Peter Maccoye, Essentials of Stage Management

A dramaturg is a person with a knowledge of the history, theory, and practice of theatre, who helps a director, designer, playwright or actor realize their intentions in a production. The dramaturg … is an in-house artistic consultant cognizant of an institution's mission, a playwright's passion, or a director's vision, and who helps bring them all to life in a theatrically compelling manner.
Oxford Enyclopaedia to Theatre and the Performing Arts


But to me the best definition is a New Yorker cartoon where a man in open vest parts the curtain, looks out to the audience, and asks hopefully, "Is there a doctor of literature in the house?"



Words from Arabic


Arabic has given us many common, ordinary words, such as apricot, syrup and chemistry, that do not look particularly Arabic. This week we look at some less-familiar words, from Arabic, that retain a Middle-Eastern flavor.

Muhammad's flight from
Mecca to Medina, in 622 A.D., is called the Hagira, from hajara "to depart". (The Muslim calendar begins in this year, equivalent to our year 1.) Hence:

hagira – an exodus or departure
Some dictionaries define hegira as a flight to escape danger. t is often used this way (see first quote), but "from danger" need not be an element (see second quote, perhaps familiar from a few days ago).


He [Douglas Sirk] left Germany in 1937 to protect his Jewish wife and, after a difficult hegira, established himself in Hollywood.
– New Republic,
Dec. 5, 2002

Invited to write and deliver a poem …, [Bret] Harte had showed up late, his poem unfinished. He had tried to wing it with some other verse he'd brought along; the verse was blatantly irrelevant to the occasion, and the press that had kept track of his great eastward hegira several weeks earlier pronounced him "A Fizzle."
– Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life


loofah – a scratchy bath-sponge, made from the fibrous insides of the fruit of the loofah plant (seems to be rather popular nowadays)
[from lufah, the name of the plant in Egyptian Arabic (botanical name Luffa ζgyptiaca)]


Sloughing off dead skin with a loofah or exfoliating shower gel allows a self-tanner to work on fresh, new skin. Your tan will look more even and will last longer.
– MSNBC, May 25, 2007

The loofah's abrasive texture tones your skin, stimulates healthy circulation and leaves your skin soft and smooth with a rosy glow.
– Greeley (CO) Daily Tribune,
Apr. 26, 1976 (advert)


Today's word comes from Arabic through Turkish. Its cognates in Arabic include manarat "lighthhouse", manar "candlestick", nar "fire", a rather nice progression.

minaret – a slender tower of a mosque, with a balcony from which a crier (the muezzin) calls Muslims to prayer


… there is a God, there has always been. I see Him here, in the eyes of the people in this corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find Him, not the white masjid with its bright diamond lights and minarets.
– Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner


Bonus word:
– a mosque (also musjid)


giaour – an infidel; a non-Muslim, esp. a Christian
[from Persian "fire-worshipper," originally applied Zoroastrians]

In our thought-provoking first quote, where Zorba recalls his youth, the term is used almost affectionately. But in general it is a term of contempt, as in the other quotes.


The hodja came to me. 'Listen, young Roumi,' he said to me. 'Come with me.' 'No,' I said. 'Where d'you want to take me to?' 'There's a pasha's daughter whos's like spring water. She's waiting for you in her room. Come, little Roumi!' But I knew that at night they murdered infidels in the Turkish districts. 'No, I'm not coming,' I said. 'Don't you fear God, Giaour?' 'Why should I?' 'Because, little Roumi, he who can sleep with a woman and does not, commits a great sin. My boy, if a woman calls you to share her bed and you don't go, your soul will be destroyed! That woman will sigh before God on judgment day, and that woman's sigh, whoever you may be and whatever your fine deeds, will cast you into Hell!'
– Nikos Kazantzakisw Zorba the Greek

You are a usurer and a money-lender. All Armenian swine are usurers and money-lenders. You unclean giaours are responsible for the wretchedness of our people.
– Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

The Turks at this day count us no better than of dogs, so they commonly call us giaours, infidels, miscreants, mave that their main quarrel and cause of Christian persecution.
– Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy


Notice that in the last quote Burton equates giaours with 'dogs', in the figrative sense. Is it this that caused Lewis Carroll to think it meant 'dogs' literally?

Carroll did have that misunderstanding, for whatever reason, and it shows up in his famous poem Jabberwocky. In the
Alice books, Humpty-Dumpty explains some of the poem's odd words. But when Carroll had privately published the first stanza some years earlier, he had different explanations:


The first stanza appeared in 1855 in 'Misch-Masch', one of the private handwritten magazines Carroll produced for his brothers and sisters. It was presented in a mock-scholarly way 'as a curious fragment' under the heading of a 'Stanza of Anglo-Saxon poetry' and accompanied by a set of pseudo-philological notes and a 'translation': ... GYRE, verb (derived form GYAOUR or GIAOUR, 'a dog'). To scratch like a dog.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Penguin Classics edition)


dura mater – the outermost membrane (of three) enveloping the brain and spinal cord

Latin loan-translation of Arabic umm al-dimagh as-safiqa, "thick mother of the brain." Says Klein, "In Arabic, the words 'father,' 'mother,' and 'son' are often used to denote relationships between things." Wonder if this is where Saddam Hussein got his "Mother of all Wars".

The dura mater is the toughest and the outermost of three such layers. The other two are the the arachnoid mater and the pia mater. The three collecively are called the meninges (singular meninx).


While common for pituitary tumors, surgical access through the nose is rare for tumors inside the brain because surgeons must go through the dura mater, the tough membrane that covers the brain and contains the cerebrospinal fluid.
–, NC, May 25, 2007


Like our recent word giaour, the next term is a usually-contemptuous word for "someone not of our kind".

feinghee – a European (term used in
[from Old French Franc + Arabic. ethnic suffix -i. Why did the r-sound move so that FRanc became FeRingee? Because the fr- sound is not possible in Arabic.]


The thing stands thus, sahib, and I tell you this because I know that an oath is binding upon a Feringhee, and that we may trust you. Had you been a lying Hindoo, though you had sworn by all the gods in their false temples, your blood would have been upon the knife and you body in the water.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four, ch. XII

I … had the happy idea of presenting one of my own pistols on the spot to the Kahn's son …. He shouted with delight, and his eyes shone as he handled the weapon – I was off to a good start.
     Then once of the courtiers came forward, and I felt a prickle up my spine as I looked at him. … "I can kill parrots with a sling," he said. "Are the feringhee pistols good for anything else?"
     Sher Afzul damned his eyes, more or less, for casting doubt on his fine new weapons, and thrusting one into the fellow's hand, told him to try his luck. And to my amazement, the brute turned straight about, drew a bead on one of the slaves working in the garden, and shot him on the spot.
– George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman: A Novel


A reader sent me the following. Based on it, I question whether feinghee is truly from European Franc (as my sources state) rather than from hingi rang.


'rang' is colour in hindi/hindustani and phirangi means roughly some one of a different colour literally. it is still used in hindi with a whiff of the pejorative. but it is interesting that europeans (white) were called franks by the turks. iam not sure if rang is of sanskrit origin or it came to hindi by way of arabic. will check on that. the sound is phir not phr which is most def. skt


kismet – fate; fortune; destiny
[from Arabic qisma, portion, lot, from qasama, to divide, allot]


On the other hand, maybe it was kismet, running into him like that ... Maybe it was good that he had seen her with another man …
– Gigi Levangie Grazer, The Starter Wife



2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee


The semifinals and finals of the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee were held last week, and broadcast on ESPN, no less. This week we'll look at some of the words the contestants had to face in the day's rounds.

Now many of the words that day are, frankly, not very interesting. (I mean, granted that pschent is a difficult word to spell – but is there any interest or utility in a word that means "the double crown of ancient
Egypt, combining the white crown of Upper Egypt with the red crown of Lower Egypt"?) Fortunately, we can find some good ones among them. For instance, here's the last word missed, the word on which the second-place finisher stumbled.

coryza – a runny nose, as with a cold (or more exactly, the inflamed nasal membrane that causes the runny nose). Greek koruza, ‘nasal mucus’
[Some sources, such as AHD, define it as the cold itself. But the word refers to the nasal symptom, not to the underlying disease.]


The headache … had never completely gone away. He'd been ascribing the lingering throb to anxiety, but now there were new symptoms. He had a vague sore throat accompanied by mild coryza. There was still a chance it was all psychosomatic, but he was still worried.
– Robin Cook, Contagion


Here's a fun one.

Schuhplattler – a lively Bavarian and Austrian folk-dance, with slapping of the thighs and heels
[the roots are German for shoe and slap]


You can occasionally see wild birds going through their courting dances. In Germany and Austria there is a folk-dance that mimics this bird ritual! It's called Schuhplattler, or shoe-slapping, and it is an imitation of the male Austrian auerhahn, a grouselike bird that beats its wings loudly and rhythmically against its body and on the ground.
– Rick Luttmann and Gail Luttmann, Chickens In Your Backyard: A Beginner's Guide


Today's word has an interesting pair of meanings, each of which we'll illustrate.

tournure – 1. graceful manner or bearing 2. a woman's bustle or other padding "to give shapeliness" to her waist or hips


… good breeding and personal superiority of whatever country readily fraternize with those of every other. The chiefs of savage tribes have distinguished themselves in London and Paris, by the purity of their tournure.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures

A pair of women whose paint & tournure advertised their ancient calling peered at me & crossed themselves.
– David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas


genizah – a repository for Hebrew documents and sacred books that are no longer in use (e.g. old and worn), but must not be destroyed


     Francesca took a deep breath. There was a certain, indefinable scent, she noted. Not just the old calf-leather bindings or the parchment – but something more, something indefinably mysterious, almost mystical. Like incense on an altar. "How old are they?"
     "They range from good first editions of early twentieth-century classics … to medieval Latin and Hebrew manuscripts dating back to 1210."
     "Actually, Uncle Alex," Marius interrupted, "we had one scroll that was a Greek translation of the Bible dating from 900 A.D."
     "Ah, yes. How could I forget? That was a find! Marius got it from an Egyptian trader who'd found it in the genizah in Alexandria ... but that's a different story. We didn't have it long. Museums all over the world began contacting us as soon as the rumor got out."
     "Genizah?" Francesca inquired.
     "Hebrew books, which contain the sacred name of G-d, cannot be thrown away when they get torn or old. They must either be buried in a cemetery, or put in a safe resting place, usually the attic of a synagogue. Such a repository is called a genizah, and it is a gold mine for rare-book hunters.
– Naomi Ragen, The Ghost of Hannah Mendes


These are not common words this week. Today's is particularly rare – but fun.

punaise – a bed-bug


Robin suddenly and brilliantly announces … that the gardener will allow us to have a picnic in the hen-house. Everybody says The Hen-House? Except Vicky, who looks enchanted, and Mademoiselle, who also screams, and refers to punaises, which she declares will abound.
– E. M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady


Belial – the spirit of evil personified


… Alaska, where the Sierra Club has long been considered a netherworld force and [Jack] Hession the resident Belial.
– John McPhee, Coming into the Country


Today we have a once-common term for a heat-induced fever or delirium. Famous works used it thus, and (like 'fever') it can also be used figuratively to mean 'passion'.


If this were all, it would be rather dull. But Samuel Johnson's old dictionary (perhaps influenced by mariner's tales) gave a too-narrow but striking definition, from which have come two rare but beautiful figurative usages. Johnson wrote:

calenture – a distemper peculiar to sailors in hot climates, wherein they imagine the sea to be green fields, and will throw themselves into it

On this basis, sometimes the term is used metaphorically to mean the self-destructive urge, such as the urge, when at a great height, to throw oneself off:


Few can look down from a great height without … vertigos and that aerial calenture which prompts them to jump from the pinnacle on which they are standing.
– Wellsboro (PA) Agitator, Jan. 10, 1888

'Tis but the raging calenture of love.
… To walk, plunge in, and wonder that you sink.
– Dryden, The Conquest of
Granada (1670)

Oh what spiritual Calenture possesses you, to make this hard shift to destroy your selves?
– John Donne, Pseudo-Martyr [etc.]


And sometimes it evokes our mental magic which transform the mundane into something transcendent and magical. Literature? Hope? Love? As Hamlet reminds us, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."


[The theater-spectator is] passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, … in the days of Anthony and Cleopatra. … He … can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. … There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in ecstasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field.
– Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare

It were not easy to overestimate the astounding sensation which was caused by this story [Byron's The Vampyre] … which promised infinite possibilities in the way of that sensation and melodramatic calentures which the period craved.
–Montague Summers, Vampire: His Kith and Kin

Isn't life, after all, pretty much a matter of imagination? Do we not lend to many things, to many happenings, in order that we may enjoy them more, charms which they do not really possess? … some calenture of the brain at all times
– G. Allison Phelps, Tides of Thought


Literal ('heat fever'):


I had several men died in my ship of calentures. – Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

… I was continually sick, being thrown into a violent calenture by the excessive heat of the climate … – Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe


Figurative (passion):


John presumed she was a cold fish, but Ian saw a fire and vitality that were vigilantly banked. There was passion bubbling just below the surface …. He wanted to be present when all that pent-up calenture came tumbling out.
– Cheryl Holt, Complete Abandon

The calentures of music … – Lord Byron, Don Juan