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June 2008 Archives


2008 Scrips Spelling Bee: tralatitious; guerdon; diener; piacular; torii; senectitude; tonneau

Knitting Lingo: knit (purl); Stockinette or Stocking Stitch (Garter Stitch, Ribbing); tinking (frogging); felting (spit-splice); stash (stash enhancement, stash diving, souvenir stash); UFO (BUFO, FO, WIP, SIP, KIP, KAL, LYS); cast-on (cast-off / bind-off)

Newspapers give less-obscure words: doughty (herpetologist); pandit; neuron (synapse); to kneecap; Manichean; erstwhile (haphephobia); miscreant

Words better known as negatives: exorable; evitable; vincible; regardful; corrigible (ruly); maculate (immaculate); gainly (gain, ungainly)


2008 Scrips Spelling Bee


As is our annual custom, we take this week’s words from the current Scrips spelling bee, whose 2008 contest has just been completed. We’ll select words which, though be extremely obscure, are interesting.


A very useful word today. Would that it were known. The dictionary definition might seem positive, but the usages seem to show that it’s meant in a negative sense.


tralatitious – passed along from generation to generation [Wordcrafter note: but not in the sense of an heirloom (complimentary) but rather in the negative sense of “dubious received wisdom; fossilized doctrine”.]


Among biblical critics a tralatitious interpretation is one received by expositor from expositor.

– W. Withington


… works like these are not simply unthinking assemblages of tralatitious data …

– Simon Swain et al., Severan Culture


It is high time that we free ourselves from this tralatitious error. Let us, without any preconceived notions, consider …

– John T. Ramsey et al., The Comet of 44 B.C.


This year’s winning word:


guerdon – a reward or recompense


Scarlett and Ashley, in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind:


She wrapped the bright lengths about his slender waist, above his belt, and tied the ends in a lover’s knot. Melanie might have given him his new coat but this sash was her gift, her own secret guerdon for him to wear into battle, something that would make him remember her every time he looked at it.


diener – an assistant in a morgue, pathology lab, or other death-oriented facility

(A responsible position but not the boss. Creepy overtones. Think of Frankenstein’s Igor?)

[German Leichendiener, literally “corpse servant”.]


So few dictionaries have this word – it’s not even in OED – that I provide a definition of my own writing, based on usages. For example:


“I'm qualified as a diener. I did that at night during nursing school.”

“You worked your way through LPN school as a morgue attendant?”

“Yes, removing bodies from crime scenes and assisting at autopsies.”

– Thomas Harris, Hannibal. (“Hannibal” is Hannibal Lecter; this book is a sequel to Silence off the Lambs)


Lynn had autopsied the mummified body and had her diener strip the bones of the dried flesh …

– Beverly Connor, Dead Secret


[Dr.] Marty Roberts entered the basement pathology lab. His diener, Raza Rashad, a handsome, dark-eyed man of twenty-seven, was scrubbing the stainless steel tables for the next post. If truth be told, Raza really ran the path lab. Marty … [had] come to rely on Raza, who was highly intelligent and ambitious.

– Michael Crichton, Next


piacular – making expiation or atonement (also, rarely: calling for expiation; sinful, wicked, culpable)


[in Hawaii:] To this day, at the edge of the volcano's broad, smoking crater, people leave piacular offerings of coins, flowers – even gin – to calm the angry goddess.

Miami Herald, Sept. 5, 1989


We’ve all seen this kind of Japanese-style gateway. But what do you call it? A torii. (When I saw the word I thought it was simply the plural of torus – a donut shape [further meanings in other fields]. I was mistaken: that plural is tori, with only one “i" at the end.)


torii – a Japanese gateway of light construction, often put at the entrance to a Shinto shrine; two posts and two crosspieces. [from Japanese for “bird’s nest”]


Our quote emphasizes the friendly, welcoming informality of a torii.


I rushed to … where the Gion Shrine stood. I climbed the steps, but I felt too intimidated to walk beneath the great two-story entrance gate with its gabled roof, and walked around it instead. Across the gravel courtyard and up another flight of steps, I passed through the torii gate to the shrine itself. There I threw the coins into the offertory …

– Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha


senectitude – old age; elderliness


During the first third of the twentieth century, a few scholars and popular writers challenged the assumption that older people were doomed to become “geezers”. In [1922] psychologist G. Stanley Hall hypothesized that "intelligent and well-conserved senectitude has very important social and anthropological functions in the world."

– W. Andrew Achenbaum, Older Americans, Vital Communities: A Bold Vision for Societal Aging



– the rear seating compartment, in a car with separate front/rear compartments (e.g., a London cab);

– the open area behind the front rear seats, in an open-top car (e.g., a two-seater sports car) or a pick-up truck


Here’s a memorable scene in a tonneau. I vaguely recall such a scene in some movie (James Bond?) Can anyone recall it?


     It was very hot in the car. The windows were all shut and the glass partition behind the driver's seat was shut all the way across. The smoke of Hugo [Candless]'s cigar was heavy and choking in the tonneau of the limousine.

     Candless scowled and reached out to lower a window. The window lever didn't work. He tried the other side. That didn't work either. He began to get mad. He grabbed for the little telephone dingus to bawl his driver out. There wasn't any little telephone dingus. He bent forward and banged on the glass with his fist. The driver didn't turn his head. Hugo Candless grabbed viciously for the door handle. The doors didn't have any handles-either side. A sick, incredulous grin broke over Hugo's broad moon face.
     The driver bent over to the right and reached for something with his gloved hand. There was a sudden sharp hissing noise. Hugo Candless began to smell the odor of almonds.
Raymond Chandler, Nevada Gas (1935)



Knitting Lingo


Today is World-Wide Knit in Public Day. To celebrate, one of our readers, a dear friend and an avid knitter, has gathered up a skein of knitting terms into a theme for us. I’m editing somewhat, but will let her voice ring through.


Over to you, CW!

There are a lot of interesting terms in knitting, as in any hobby. I’ll do my best to define some of the terms we use in my groups. Some are common, official vocabulary, and some are the adopted vernacular of rabid knitters of the 21st Century.


First, I’ll define the basic knitting stitches, Knit and Purl.


The knit stitch is often the first stitch knitters learn. It is what I always consider the “front-wards” stitch. The needle goes into the front of the next loop, and it forms a stitch where the “nub” of the former loop ends up on the back of the knitted work. A purl is the opposite of the knit stitch. It is what I consider the “backwards” stitch. For a purl, you put your needle into the loop from the back, and the “nub” is left on the front.


An interesting note: if you turn the work over after knitting a row, it looks like purl stitches from behind. And the corollary is true; if you turn over a purled row it looks like knitting from the back.


The word knit is related to knot; purl comes from an old word meaning “twisting”. (True, a purl produces a nub, facing you, which looks a bit like a pearl. But that’s coincidence, not the root of the word.)


For a very nice set of video clips demonstrating the stitches, check out knit and purl.


Knitting and purling can be mixed up with one another in a nearly endless variety of ways to create varying patterns in the fabric. Today, I’ll share some of the most commonly seen patterns of knitting and purling stitches.


Stockinette or Stocking Stitch is a pattern that is very smooth and even. All of the “nubs” are on one side of the fabric (generally used as the back). When knitting back and forth on straight needles, you need to knit one row, turn the work, and purl the next row to achieve this pattern.


Garter Stitch is a rougher fabric, with ridges on both sides. It is the same texture on both sides of the fabric, and is created, when knitting back and forth on straight needles, by knitting every row, regardless of direction. Because it only requires knowledge of one stitch, it is often the first stitch pattern beginners use.


Ribbed for your Pleasure? Ribbing is often taught very early in a knitter’s education. Ribbing is formed by alternating knit and purl stitches in a steady pattern, maybe 1x1 or 2x2 or sometimes 3x1 (3 knit, 1 purl), repeated across the garment. Stockinette curls easily, and ribbing on the edges will allow the fabric to lie flat. It’s also a springier fabric, and works well for the cuffs of socks or sleeves, and necklines and hemlines.


<CW still speaking>


I’ve talked about all of the positives of knitting, but today I will talk about the down-side. What do you do when you make a mistake? Ack! You’ve just spent 8 hours knitting up a sweater for your Sweetie, and you see that you’ve made a mistake in the pattern, say, 20 long rows previous to your awakening. Horrors! You need to either decide that it is a design feature, or you need to go back and fix the problem. Today’s terms deal with this “going back” process.


Tink – Tinking is when you un-knit. It is when you go, stitch by stitch, backward through your fabric, carefully taking each stitch back. It is time-consuming, but if you fear that you’ll lose control of your pattern otherwise, or if you only need to go back part of a row or just a few rows, it is worth it for the control you have.


Frog – Frogging is when you have made a very big mistake (like, for instance, knitting a sweater that turns out to look like it was designed for some mutantly-shaped alien) and you need to rip out most or all of the garment. This term comes from having to say “Rip it! Rip it!”


This term has also spawned (pun intended) variant phrases such as “frog-free zone” for people who hate to rip things out, and “go to the frog pond” for when you must intervene in a friend’s knitting. When you need to frog, it’s best to have a friend with you to wind the yarn back into a usable ball so that you don’t end up with a mass of knots.


When yarn sticks together


felting – Have you ever washed an all-wool sweater in the machine by mistake? You go to the washing machine or dryer to discover that your 2X sized sweater is now better suited for a toddler. That is what felting is. You knit the fabric, sometimes into the basic shape that you desire, and then you wash it until it shrinks and loses it’s stitch definition. Sometimes you want yarn to be loopy, with the strands to smoothly pass one another, stretching or relaxing to keep the wearer snug. Sometimes, however, you want the yarn to stick together, creating a solid fabric that will keep out the wind, or will keep the small bits with-in the bag from falling out.


Felting is a great process for re-using unwanted sweaters, too. You can felt (a.k.a. ruin) the sweater, then cut up the new, thicker fabric and sew it into something new, like a hand bag or a hat.


spit-splice – usually, a knitter needs several balls of yarn to complete a project. When one ball ends and another must be added, we often will use a splice to join the ends of the yarn, eliminating the need for either knots (NEVER!) or having to weave in the ends of both strands later (boring!). This works best with 100% natural fiber, preferably wool. After fraying both ends, the crafter will put both ends into her palm, facing one another, spit into her palm, and then rub the ends together until they are conjoined or felted. If you’re really good, you can achieve this and knit on, making the fabric look as if it’s all one enormously long strand instead of several distinct balls of wool.


The yarn in a knitter’s life tends to accumulate. We love the feel of the fibers, and we have a tendency to buy more than we will actually knit.


stash – this is what we call our extra yarn. My stash is kept mostly in neat plastic bins with snap-on lids. Some folks keep their stash in bags, in the closet, in dresser drawers or other obvious storage places. Some, however, are completely out of control in their consumption, and will end up hiding yarn in every spare bit of space, including cooking pots and inside hats.


There are many related phrases, including:

stash enhancement – shopping and buying more yarn

stash diving – finding yarn in your stash for the new project instead of purchasing new yarn

souvenir stash – yarn you bought on vacation that reminds you of the place, but which you can’t knit because, well, it reminds you of your vacation


Knitting rock-star Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, a/k/a the Yarn Harlot, talks a lot about stash yarn and what to do about having such a big stash. One of my favorite books by her is Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter.


P.S. by Wordcrafter: The above was CW, but I'm interjecting a comment. According to her link, "More than 50 million people in America knit." Personally, I'm skeptical.


Commonly used acronyms:

Knitting, like nearly everything else, has become a very web-friendly art. There is a large, worldwide online knitting community, and, like other online communities, we’ve got our own alphabet soup of acronyms. Sometimes we will pronounce these as if they are words, and sometimes we will say the letters. Today, I give you a smattering of knitterly snippets.


UFO – unfinished object – those projects that are languishing while you work on other projects (similar to BUFO – boring UFO)

FO – finished object – we celebrate these with great glee! Some of us who are short-attention-span knitters will have many UFOs on the needles at one time, and then suddenly, in a spurt of “finishitis” will achieve several FO’s in one weekend.


WIP – Work In Progress

SIP – Sock In Progress

KIP – Knit In Public – National KIP day is June 14, 2008 – this is used like its own word, as in, “Anyone want to KIP with me tonight?”


KAL – Knit ALong – this is when a group of knitters will all choose the same pattern to knit simultaneously and share their progress and challenges with one another along the way, often on a dedicated website for the purpose

LYS – Little Yarn Shop, or Local Yarn Shop

We'll finish the knitting theme with terms for starting and finishing a knitting project.


cast-on – this word can be a verb or a noun. Casting on is when you put all the original loops onto the needle at the beginning of your project. Your cast-on is that beginning row of loops. There are many ways to cast-on the yarn, including “long-tail”, “cable”, “single” and “knitting” styles.


cast-off (also known as bind-off) – this is how you get the loops off the needles at the end. Sometimes it means that your project is done, but often you will still need to do other “finishing”, perhaps even including picking up stitches, knitting or crocheting a border or edging, or sewing different pieces together for the final product. There are myriad ways to cast-off, including “knit”, “purl”, “suspended”, “crochet”, “three-needle” and lots of variations to achieve different effects (mainly stretchy or not).



Newspapers give less-obscure words


“I need words that are less obscure,” says a reader.


We are customer-responsive! So this week we’ll enjoy words taken from the current newspapers, words which, though they may stretch us a bit, wouldn’t sound odd-ball to an ordinary audience.


doughty – brave and resolute, stouthearted

[Some say it’s only used to be archaic or humorous. I disagree.]


We quote an article musing on two classics from the 1890s, Kipling’s Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book.


The best-known story in "The Jungle Book" is "Rikki-tikki-tavi," … about the doughty mongoose who does battle with Nag the cobra. … Kipling not only conveys a vivid sense of danger and wickedness but also describes the appearance and defensive behavior of Naja naja, the Indian cobra, with as precise an eye as any herpetologist.

– Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2008 (today)

The author illustrates by quoting Kipling:


From the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss -- a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion-tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of.


Bonus word:

herpetologist – a zoologist who deals with reptiles and amphibians


pandit – a wise or learned man in India (often used as an honorary title)

[An alternative from has become more familiar to us: pundit. from Sanskrit for “learned, scholar”.]


Although Kipling routinely (in every sense) invoked the Christian God in his patriotic verse, he himself was an atheist. This passionate champion of the British Empire was just as hostile to Christian missionaries as he was to Hindu pandits; if there was a religion he admired, it was Islam.

– Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2008 (This is the article we quoted yesterday.)


neuron – a nerve cell

synapse – the gap between two neurons, across which impulses are transmitted

[From Greek sun- together + hapsis joining]


Evolution's recipe for making a brain more complex has long seemed simple enough. Just increase the number of nerve cells, or neurons. [T]he interconnections between neurons, known as synapses, until now have been regarded as a standard feature.

     But in fact the synapses get considerably more complex going up the evolutionary scale. If the synapses are thought of as the chips in a computer, then brainpower is shaped by the sophistication of each chip, as well as by their numbers. The computing capabilities of the human brain may lie not so much in its neuronal network as in the complex calculations that its synapses perform.

– New York Times, June 10, 2008 (ellipses omitted)


U.S. scientists announced the discovery of a gene they call "nervous wreck". The gene governs the size of a synapse – the junction between nerve cell endings. The 100 billion nerve cells in the human make trillions of synaptic connections to neurons,, muscle cells and other cell types. Malfunctions at synapses are believed lead to various neurological disorders.

– UPI, June 2, 2008 (ellipses omitted)


to kneecap – to hobble or cripple by one’s deliberate action

[Originally, referred to Irish terrorists’ tactic of crippling by shooting or smashing the knee. The dictionaries have only that definition, but I suggest that the figurative usage I give is now far more common.]


Yesterday, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was sending up similar distress signals. … [G]oofy ideas like Ottawa Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's carbon tax tied to income tax cuts would be a loss/loss deal for Saskatchewan. "A carbon tax would kneecap the economy of Saskatchewan," Wall concluded.

Edmonton Sun, May 30, 2008


Manichean – viewing the world as a stark conflict between good and evil, “black vs. white”, with no shades of gray

[Not the standard definition, but I believe it’s the accurate one.]


The ideology that motivates al Qaeda is that believers have a duty to carry out the excommunication (and execution) of unbelievers, or even of those who collaborate with unbelievers, or refuse to resist them. This ideology posits a Manichean world, divided into two camps: one practicing the terrorists' version of Islam, the other not. This is a fantasy, but a distressingly powerful one. Our vision is a pluralistic world with many peaceful and productive choices on how to order one's life

– Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2008 (today); ellipses omitted


erstwhile – former; at a previous time


Robert Mugabe’s erstwhile diplomatic allies are deserting him in droves, yet the Zimbabwean president shows no sign of heeding their advice to abandon Friday’s presidential run-off election in which he will be unopposed.

– Financial Times, June 25, 2008 (today)


This is a more common word than I’d thought, so I’ll supplement it with a more obscure one, also from today’s paper.


haphephobia – fear of being touched


miscreant – behaving badly or unlawfully (noun: one who behaves that way)


[originally meant “a heretic”. Thus mis wrong + creant believed (akin to credence and credit).]


When people don't R.S.V.P. by a reasonable date, the host should call the miscreant guests and ask them if they plan to attend.

– Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2007 (today)



Words better known as negatives


Quite a few terms are much more familiar in their negative form (unprecedented; un-heard of) than in their positive form (precedented; heard of). We’ll look at some of them this week.


A bit from Comedy Central of last March (ellipses omitted) inspires our theme (you can see video or transcript).


     Remember how [Florida and Michigan] held their Democratic primaries early, ended up having all of their delegates stripped and not having their votes count? Funny story. Now that each Democratic delegate is as precious as a Gutenberg Bible stained with centaur tears — delegations from both states met recently to find a way to make their delegates count, even if it means taking legal action.

     In short, this election could come down to a lawsuit involving Florida. How precedented. How absolutely heard of.


Let’s look at our terms. For example, we all know inexorable (impossible to prevent, or impossible to persuade) and inevitable (certain to happen; unavoidable), but not their positive forms:


exorable – capable of being moved by entreaty

evitable – avoidable


[2000 article:] [T]hroughout last year, George W. Bush's nomination had the aura of inevitability. Now that Senator John McCain crushed Bush in the Republican primary in New Hampshire, [a] coronation at the G.O.P. Philadelphia convention has become both evitable and exorable.

William Safire, New York Times, Feb. 3, 2000


Sidenote: The above quote is of course wordplaying. Now evitable is sometimes used “straight”, without wordplay,¹ but not so with exorable, as far as i can find in recent use. When exorable appears, it is usually a mistake, where the author has substituted exorable for inexorable, or for execrable – extremely bad or unpleasant.


¹ The industrialization -- and dehumanization -- of American animal farming is a relatively new, evitable and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. – New York Times, Nov. 10, 2002


We're familiar with the word invincible.


vincible – capable of being overcome or defeated

[from the same root as Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici: “I came, I saw, I conquered."]


Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don't know because we don't want to know.

– Aldous Huxley


Nice quote.


We aren’t limited to words that use the in- prefix to form the negative. For example, regardless has a positive counterpart.


regardful – mindful of; heedful (word has a sense of respect and deference)


We must be especially regardful of local problems, local traditions and local pride.

– John W. Tuthill, former US Ambassador to the European Economic Community, speaking to American businessmen abroad (as quoted in his obituary in NY Times, Sept. 22, 1996)


incorrigible – not reformable (with the sense of depraved; delinquent; unmanageable; unruly¹)

corrigible – capable of being corrected, reformed, or improved

[from the same root as correct]


The current juvenile justice system is woefully ineffective. It fails to treat youthful offenders as if they are corrigible, educable or redeemable. And … the present system does more harm than good

Washington Post, Oct. 12, 1991


¹ By the way, unruly also fits our theme: ruly, the positive form, is a perfectly legitimate word, though a rare one. Oddly, AHD and OED conflict on that word. AHD says that ruly was simply created from unruly, but OED says the opposite, and dates ruly back to 1400.


maculate – stained; impure (less commonly, spotted or blotched)


[from Latin macula, spot. The negative form is immaculate 1. perfectly clean, neat, or tidy 2. free from flaw or mistake 3. pure; unstained; without sin]


… a decidedly maculate Congress …

Washington Times, Dec. 31, 1994


Miami enjoys an image as a city with a short memory and therefore as a great place to reinvent oneself … Miami has welcomed him [O. J. Simpson] with the open arms usually reserved for murderous dictators and drug profiteers who retire here to launder money and, more important, their maculate reputations.

Miami New Times - May 22, 1997


gain is an obsolete word meaning “straight; direct”, as in roads. It survives in the negative term ungainly – clumsy; awkward.¹ Once in a while you’ll find the positive form.  Interestingly, gainly is mostly used in an assertion that something is not gainly. But not always (last quote).


gainly – graceful, tactful (of conduct); or: graceful, shapely (of bodily form or movement)



She is six months pregnant and not as gainly as usual. (Telegraph, Nov. 16, 2002)


… the U.S. Congress. … Like the African wart hog, it was far from gainly but performed useful functions. (Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 12, 1990)


[pheasants, bred to be hunted:] As fat as turkeys and little more gainly, they make intermittent attempts to get aloft … but many of them waddle obliviously under someone’s tyres.

– Guardian Unlimited, Dec. 28, 2007


... the simple house is newly clad in gray shingles and offers a more gainly profile to the street.

Washington Post, March 17, 1994


¹As in the first lines of The Dachshund, by Edward Anthony:

Because I waddle when I walk,
Should this give rise to silly talk
That I’m ungainly? What’s ungainly?
I’m really rather graceful - mainly.)