Archives     Dictionary    HOME

February 2008 Archives


Homonyms of Everyday Words: pawl; toque (toque); wight; bight; greave; skerry; throe

Valentine's Day L-words: lickerish; licentious; lubricious; libertine; leer; lewd; lust; lascivious; lambada; lechery

Pregnancy, from Z to A: zygote (ectopic); chloasma; tocology; enceinte; gravid; midwife toad; parturient (parturition)

Logic, Reasoning and Thought: maieutic (Socratic, hebamic); chop logic; paralogism; sophism; induction; dialectic; hypercorrection


Unfamiliar Homonyms of Everyday Words


This week we’ll present words that sound just like more familiar words.


pawl [pronounced like pall] – a hinged bar whose free end engages the teeth of a ratchet wheel, allowing it to turn in one direction only


For example, a spring-loaded mechanism, held in place by a pawl, will release when the pawl is released. The pawl serves to ‘store’ the energy of the spring. Here’s one application:


No man alive could haul a crossbow’s string by arm-power alone and so a mechanism had to be employed. … The archer would place a cranked handle on the screw’s end and wind the cord back, inch by creaking inch, until the pawl above the trigger engaged the string.

– Bernard Cornwell, The Archer's Tale


One toke over the line, sweet Jesus, one toke over the line.


Readers from the marijuana era may recall this 1970 song by Brewer and Shipley. Today’s word, pronounced like toke, can mean either of two types of hats. Complicating matters, a third hat has the same spelling but is (I believe) pronounced tukue.


toque [rhymes with poke] – 1. the chef's hat, tall and white (more fully, toque blanche) 2. a certain small woman's hat, brimless and close-fitting


tuque or toque (Canadian; rhymes with duke) – a knitted cap in the form of a closed bag: one end is tucked into the other to form the cap


wight [pronounced like the color white] – a living being; a creature (obsolete)


For the first time, a woman has a serious chance to become President of the United States. So it is perhaps appropriate to quote an early women’s-liberationist, mocking those who deride the new as being “unnatural,” contrary to “Human Nature”. From Similar Cases, by Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman [1860-1935].


There was once a Neolithic Man,

     An enterprising wight,

Who made his chopping implements

     Unusually bright.

Unusually clever he,

     Unusually brave,

And he drew delightful Mammoths

     On the borders of his cave.

To his Neolithic neighbors,

     Who were startled and surprised,

Said he, "My friends, in course of time,

     We shall be civilized!

We are going to live in cities!

     We are going to fight in wars!

We are going to eat three times a day

     Without the natural cause!

We are going to turn life upside down

     About a thing called gold!

We are going to want the earth, and take

     As much as we can hold!

We are going to wear great piles of stuff

     Outside our proper skins!

We are going to have diseases!

     And Accomplishments!! And Sins!!!"

Then they all rose up in fury

     Against their boastful friend,

For prehistoric patience

     Cometh quickly to an end.

Said one, "This is chimerical!

     Utopian! Absurd!"

Said another, "What a stupid life!

     Too dull, upon my word!"

Cried all, "Before such things can come,

     You idiotic child,

You must alter Human Nature!"

     And they all sat back and smiled.

Thought they, "An answer to that last

     It will be hard to find!"

It was a clinching argument

     To the Neolithic Mind!


Today’s word, from Old English for "bend, etc.", was first related to a bend in a rope, then to coastline. (It is related to bow.)


bight [pronounced like bite] – 1. a loop in a rope; also, the middle, slack part of an extended rope 2. a bend or curve in a shoreline (or other); also, a wide bay formed by such a bend or curve


coastline: "The coast is everywhere scalloped with wide, sweeping bights separated from each other by capes," an Allied terrain study noted.

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


ropes: I could just drift, he thought, and sleep and put a bight of line around my toe to wake me.

– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea


Lopsang abruptly pulled her aside and girth-hitched a bight of rope to the front of her climbing harness.

– Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster


greave [pronounced like grieve] – leg armor worn below the knee

[usually plural, since you have two legs. from Old French for ‘shin’]


The book [XI of the Iliad] opens with a marvelous description of him putting on his armor: greaves with silver clasps, a magnificent breastplate covered in gold and tin and adorned with twin serpents of blue enamel, a sword decorated with silver and gold, and a shield of blue steel crowned with a terrifying Gorgon’s head – a warrior’s haute-couture dream.

Elizabeth D. Samet, Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point


I looked down the lists to the king. His squire was stripping him of his heavy armor. … They unstrapped the greaves from his legs and the guards from his arms …

– Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl


skerry [pronounced like scary]– a rugged isolated sea-rock; a reef


Off in the ocean to the north-northeast, he picked out a skerry where, in 1950, a boat heading in to Heimaey had lost its power and crashed on the rocks.

– John McPhee, The Control of Nature


throe – a severe pang or spasm of pain, as in childbirth


Throe is pronounced like throw; indeed, it was originally spelled similarly, throwe. Each word appears to come from Old English þrawan 'to twist, turn, writhe'. (The þ is an old letter, pronounced th.)


[The actors] simulated agonized death throes, rolling around on the ground, twisting their bodies into grotesque shapes and making hideous faces.
– Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth




Valentine's Day L-words


Ah Valentine’s Day! The time for a lad and a lass, for love and lust.


Ever notice how many such words, particularly the lusty ones, begin with the letter l? (Lusty lads leer lewdly at loose lasses. Not to mention lesbian and Lysistrata!) I wonder why. This week, in honor of the fleshy aspects of Valentine’s Day, we’ll enjoy l-words of that sort.


We start with one which also fits last week’s theme, in that it has the same pronunciation as a more familiar word.


lickerish1. lecherous, lustful, wanton 2. greedy; desirous

Licorice is from Greek for "sweet root" (glykys 'sweet' [as in 'glucose'] + rhiza ‘root’). Some pronounce the last syllable as -iss; some say -ish. ‘Lickerish’ matches the latter, -ish pronunciation of licorice.


Regarding actor John Todd, who played Tonto in the Lone Ranger radio program:

I contrived to spend most of whatever free time I had with him, transfixed by his lavish, sometimes lickerish, often riotous account of a life in the theater …

– James Lipton, Inside Inside


Alternative forms of lickerish are lickerous; licorous; liquorish; liquorous.


Today’s word emphasizes lack of moral restraint. The amorality is usually in a sexual context, but, as the first quote shows, it need not be.


licentious1. without the restraint of moral discipline (esp. in sex) 2. having no regard for accepted standards


[Article title:] Licentious and Unbridled Proceedings: The Illegal Slave Trade to Mauritius and the Seychelles During the Early Nineteenth Century

– Journal of African History, Jan. 1, 2007


It was the third daughter, Aysha, whom Jack liked most. … Although she was the youngest, she seemed the least innocent of the three: something in the way she looked at Jack, as she leaned over him to place a dish of spicy prawns on the table, unmistakably revealed a licentious streak. She caught his eye … and Jack giggled.

– Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth


Today’s word is related to lubricate. Our quote conveys its sense of sly evil, of snaky sexuality.


lubricious1. lewd; wanton; salacious 2. slippery smooth, with oil or grease; also, shifty or tricky


He began to tell us a strange story, from which … we learned that, to please the cellarer, he procured girls for him in the village … . But he swore he acted out of the sheer goodness of his heart … . He said all this with slimy, lubricious smiles and winks …

– Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose


libertine – a man who acts without moral restraint, especially sexually (also used as an adjective)


This word was not originally negative or sexual, but it has degraded over time. Akin to liberty, it originally meant a freed slave, then a free-thinker in religious matters, and then a free-thinker generally, “one who follows his own inclinations” (OED). (Shakespeare uses it this way sense, and you’ll still see it occasionally.) But at about the same time it came to mean "a dissolute or licentious person,” with the emphasis on sexual dissolution. The earliest quote in this sense gives the flavor: “The whole brood of venereous Libertines, that knowe no reason but appetite, no Lawe but Luste.” (1593)


Our quote, by a contrast, emphasizes the moral dimensions of the word.


"Remember," cried Willoughby, "… I do not mean to justify myself, but at the same time cannot leave you to suppose … that because she was injured she was irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, she must be a saint."

– Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility


Yesterday I pointed out that libertine was originally not a negative word, but has degraded over the centuries. It’s not an uncommon change. Here are four more words within our theme which have similarly degraded: they were not orignially negative and sexual.


leer – to look (at) with a sly, immodest, or evil expression (noun: the look itself)

lewd – crude and offensive in a sexual way

lust – intense or unrestrained sexual craving (also as verb)

lascivious – lewd, lustful


Leer is an old word meaning 'cheek', and to leer originally meant 'to look obliquely or askance'; that is, 'to glance over one's cheek'.

Lewd originally meant 'of the laity, the non-clergy'. The word degenerated to mean 'unlearned,' then 'vulgar and common,' then 'base, bad and vile;' and finally the current sense of 'sexually low and unchaste'.

Lust originally meant simply strong and vigorous desire, often positively. The word can still be used in this positive sense: lust for learning; lust for life. The word has two different adjective forms that make this distinction: lusty has positive sense of vigor (a lusty cry), while lustful stresses the negative sense of uncontrolled sexual desire.

The Latin forerunner of lascivious had the positive sense of 'playful', but early church writers used it as a scolding word, and by the time it came into English it had already become negative. In other languages the same root led to words that not sexual, or are neutral or even positive: 'yearn, play, frolic'; or 'desire'; or 'love'; or 'flattery'; or 'greedy' -- but also to a Greek word for 'harlot'.


Here’s a word you might not have expected in this theme! But it fits, doesn't it?


lambada – a fast, rhythmical, erotic dance, from Brazil, with close physical contact (also, the music used)


You’ll understand better by seeing the dance. So here’s a video clip.


Sao Paulo's current cultural explosion is the lambada – a lithe, lascivious Caribbean dance that first arrived in the 1930s and was banned by the then-government as obscene.

– Financial Times, Sept. 15, 1988 (thanks to OED for the quote)


[Most say that the name lambada is from Portuguese for ‘beating, lashing’. Some trace it to a Brazilian form of that word, which means ‘the wave-like motion of a whip,’ and indeed, that sort of motion seems to be characteristic of this dance.]


lechery – excessive and offensive indulgence in sexual activity


… Abel Ferrara's gritty [movie] "Ms .45" (1981), about a New York woman who, after being sexually assaulted twice in one day, goes on a shooting spree targeting lecherous men.

New York Post, Sept. 9, 2007


The dictionaries vary a bit on this one, and I think they have the slightly the wrong shading.


Some (Merriam Webster; Compact Oxford) speak of excessive sexual desire, but to me the word implies not just excessive wanting, but excessive doing.¹ (Action rather than mere contemplation, if you will –– and pooh to any wiseacre who argues that "excessive sex" is a contradiction in terms.) And I also think it requires that the excess be offensive and pathetic, with a sense of preying upon others. (Even if you feel that a married couple is spending ‘excessive’ bedroom time together, you wouldn’t say they were being ‘lecherous’.)


What do you think?



Pregnancy, from Z to A


A natural follow-up to our ‘love and lust’ theme is a ‘pregnancy’ theme. [As Ogden Nash says of June brides, “This year’s June is next year’s Junior.” Right about this time of year, too.] Our theme, like pregnancy, goes from Z to A, or more exactly, from zygote to accouchement. Our beginning word is from the extreme end of the dictionary.


zygote – the cell resulting from the fusion of egg and sperm [from Greek zugotos ‘yoked’]


My injury forces me to spend more time with my morn than I have since I was a zygote.

– Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts


We’ll try to keep this theme from becoming overly scientific, but please permit just a bit here.


     Pregnancy begins with a fertilized egg. This egg is called a zygote. Normally, the zygote attaches itself to the lining of the uterus. With an ectopic pregnancy, the zygote implants somewhere else. More than 95 percent of ectopic pregnancies occur in a fallopian tube. …

     An ectopic pregnancy can't proceed normally. About one in every 40 to 100 pregnancies is ectopic.

– CNN International - Dec 21, 2005


Bonus word:

ectopic – in an abnormal place or position. [Greek ektopos ‘out of place’]


Apart from the familiar terms ‘trimester’ and ‘morning sickness’, there are few words pertaining to the mid-months of pregnancy. Here’s one.


chloasma – a patchy brown skin discoloration

[particularly occurs on a woman's face from hormonal changes of pregnancy. from Greek for ‘green’]


Her face was showing the faintest hint of chloasma, plum blotches on her cheeks like she was blushing all the time. Mask of pregnancy, her mother called it. Ellen was four months gone.

– Michael Knight, Ellen’s Book, in New Stories from the South 2003 (Shannon Ravenel, editor)


tocology – the science of childbirth; midwifery or obstetrics


Recently, a Missouri legislator took advantage of the fact that this word is almost never used. He inserted, in a bill regarding services covered by medical insurance, permission for services from


"any person who holds current ministerial or tocological certification by an organization”


– thus allowing midwives to practice without collaboration with a physician. Apparently he was able to sneak it in because no one understood what the clause meant!

( Columbia [Missouri] Tribune, Midwifery play draws reprimand; 'Snuck-in' clause reaches [Governor] Blunt’s Desk, May 15, 2007)


Today’s word has two very different senses, each from the concept of ‘to gird; to encircle closely’.


enceinte1. pregnant 2. a fortification encircling a castle or town; also, the area protected


[a clothing designer specializing in maternity wear:] Rogan's customers, their bellies as round and fecund as poppy heads, are the flip side of easy-to-dress stick-thin supermodels. Rogan also makes wedding dresses (from $600), leaping genres in a single bound for the bride who's enceinte at the altar.

– Georgia Straight (Vancouver, CA), Feb. 11, 2004 (ellipses omitted)


May 13, 1565 Castel Sant'Angelo-The Borgo-Malta: The largest armada since antiquity, bearing the finest army in the modern world, had been dispatched by Suleiman Shah to conquer Malta. Turkish success would expose southern Europe to a wave of Islamic terror. … The Borgo was barricaded from the mainland by a huge, curving enceinte – a curtain wall studded with defensive bastions and teeming with knights and militia at their drill.

– Tim Willocks, The Religion, as serialized in New York Times, May 20, 2007


gravid – pregnant


A nice simile today.


… the wind blows great chunks of gray sky in off the Atlantic which come dragging in so low their bellies brush the masts and chimney pots, like gravid sows crossing a stubble field.

– Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men


Let’s face it: pregnancy is uncomfortable, and a woman can rightly think, “Men! They don’t have to lug this load around for months!” So our lady readers may appreciate an animal where the male carries the developing eggs, wrapped around his legs.


midwife toad – a certain genus of toad of Western Europe, in which the males carry a string of fertilised eggs


You’ll find the midwife toad on the Guardian’s list of World's Weirdest Amphibians. On that list I also liked the olm (a blind salamander with transparent skin that lives underground and can survive without food for 10 years) and the Chinese giant salamander (which can be 1.8m long, more than 5 feet).


I’d promised you pregnancy “from Z to A, from zygote to accouchement.” But since accoucheuse (midwife) has already been our word of the day a few years ago, I’ll just direct you to it, and offer a different 'pregnancy' word.


parturient – in labor; about to give birth (parturition – the action of giving birth; childbirth)


First used in reference to a saying of Horace: parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus, “The mountain has labored and brought forth a ridiculous mouse;” meaning “great labor but little result.”


And so it came about that at thirty-eight, after many years of experience as a student of child development and of childbirth in remote villages – watching … while old women threw stones at the inquisitive children who came to stare at the parturient woman – I was to share in the wartime experience of young wives all over the world. My husband had gone away to take his wartime place, and there was no way of knowing whether I would ever see him again.

– Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter, in Modern American Memoirs (Cort Conley, co-editor, and Annie Dillard, editor)



Logic, Reasoning and Thought


This week’s theme is Logic, Reasoning and Thought.


Our first word also fits last week’s theme of “pregnancy words”. Coming from Greek for midwife and to act as midwife, it can be thought of as “giving birth, or drawing out, to the student’s innate knowledge.” A good example might be a writing teacher, helping the student to bring forth the student’s own story.


maieutic – a technique in which a teacher (rather than giving information) asks a series of questions to draw out, from the student, ideas previously latent in the student’s mind

[A more common word for this is Socratic. A few sources also give hebamic as a rare word of the same meaning.]


Early in January Eliot returned to London, after spending a few days in Paris, where he submitted the manuscript of The Waste Land to Pound's maieutic skill.

– Valerie Eliot, in introduction to The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound


maieutic thinking is the kind of thinking characteristic of voice coaches, orchestra conductors, painting teachers, writing teachers, and so on. Maieutic thinking is intellectual midwifery. It is extractive, eductive, seeking to elicit the best thinking possible from one’s charges.

– Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education


We have a delicious word today, and I’m surprised how rarely it’s used


chop logic – convoluted, contentious and deceptive argument


The dictionaries have it as choplogic or chop-logic, but it’s more commonly written as two words, as above.


But how can one explain the hypocrisy, chop logic and outright lying now being mustered daily in defence of hunting with hounds?

– The Guardian, Dec. 28, 2000


Judge Jackson showed little patience for Microsoft's dismissive attitude toward the case and its wordplay about integrated products, and put the company's lawyers in their place after they played chop logic – what one newspaper called "compliance with a raised middle finger" – with his preliminary injunction …

– Wall Street Jourrnal, March 9, 1999


Honoring William F. Buckley, Jr., he of the elephantine vocabulary, who passed away yesterday, we quote his wisdom.


paralogism – an illogical argument, a fallacy, esp. one which the reasoner is unconscious of or believes to be logical (contrast sophism)


A good debater is not necessarily an effective vote-getter: you can find a hole in your opponent's argument through which you could drive a coach and four ringing jingle bells all the way, and thrill at the crystallization of a truth wrung out from a bloody dialogue -- which, however, may warm only you and your muse, while the smiling paralogist has in the meantime made votes by the tens of thousands.

– William F. Buckley, Jr., The Unmaking of a Mayor


Yesterday’s word paralogism means an illogical argument, made without intending or being aware that one is being illogical. In contrast:


sophism – a specious but fallacious argument, used either deliberately to deceive or mislead, or to display ingenuity in reasoning


Often used to describe the positions of a politician with whom one disagrees. I had a bit of difficulty finding a quote that wouldn't be political 'fighting words'!


I will now tell you what I do not like. First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury …

– Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787, concerning the then-current draft of the US Constitution


The word induction is much less familiar than its counterpart deduction, but I'd suggest that induction is much more important in real life.


induction – inferring a general law or principle from the particular instances observed

(contrast deduction – drawing a conclusion from a general law or principle already known or assumed; reasoning from generals to particulars)


induction, the process at the very heart of the scientific method … that sudden insight into the solution of a problem that psychologists sometimes call the “Aha” reaction. Great turning points in science often hinge on these mysterious intuitive leaps.

– Martin Gardner, The Colossal Book of Mathematics: Classic Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems


In any event, the problem was not to be solved by deduction from declared axioms, with the conclusion certain. Everyday problems respond to a different logic, based on induction and inference. [and much later:] The method of science is induction from observation and experiment.

– John McLeish, The Story of Numbers: How Mathematics Has Shaped Civilization


Today’s word has several meanings. I’ll give the two I think are most important.



– the tension between two interacting/conflicting forces

– the art or practice of reaching truth by the exchange of logical arguments


First sense: Soon, jazz had its own canon of masters, its own dialectic of establishment and avant-garde: Armstrong the originator, Ellington the classicist, Charlie Parker the revolutionary, and so on.

– Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Second sense [speaking of the Buddha]: … one of the greatest personalities of all time. … Perhaps the most striking thing about him was his combination of a cool head and a warm heart … He was undoubtedly one of the greatest rationalists of all times … Every problem that came his way was automatically subjected to cool, dispassionate analysis. … He was a master of dialogue and dialectic, and calmly confident.

– Huston Smith, The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions


We end our “words about logic” with one about the logic of language.


hypercorrection – a language misuse (spelling, pronunciation, grammar) made by analogy to a form that is thought to be “better speaking”


The classic example is the speaker who, having been told that his statement “John and me need to eat” should have been “John and I”, then carefully says, "OK, then give John and I something to eat.” Another example is an overdone attempt to avoid the mispronunciations of one’s ethnic group:


… without the hypercorrection of Negroes who make “again” rhyme with “rain.”

– Henry Louis Gates Jr., Colored People: A Memoir

Would another example be the British use of -ise rather than -ize, an in “civilise” rather than “civilize”?


As one authority puts it, “Sometimes people strive to abide by the strictest etiquette, but in the process behave inappropriately.”¹ But this is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!


¹ Bryan A. Garner, Dictionary of Modern American Usage (as quoted by David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster: and Other Esssays)