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August 2008 Archives


Painterly Terms: impasto; craquelure; cleavage; (line/reline (moating, weave impression); aqueous cleaning; pentimento; inpainting (overpainting, raked)

Shade and Shadow: Tenebrism (chiaroscuro); sombrero (somber, ranchero); skiamachy; ascian (harmattan, amphiscian, Periscian); squirrel; umbra (penumbra); gnomon (skiagraphy)

Eponyms Once Again: silhouette; Barbie doll; klieg light; ritzy; Raffles; Zelig; Icarusian

Gulliver's Travels and other Swiftisms: Lilliputian; Big-endian; Brobdingnagian (unit bias); senectitude; Laputan; yahoo; ad infinitum


Painterly Terms


Have you ever felt ignorant and uncultured while attending a museum of fine art? Here are some words you can drop.


Pasta,” such as spaghetti, lasagna, etc., is named for Italian for paste, and that same paste-word gives us today’s painting-word.


impasto – laying on paint thickly so that it stands out from a surface


Impasto is a key plot point in Daniel Silva’s recent novel Moscow Rules. Protagonist Gabriel Allon is a word-class restorer of Old Master paintings and, on the side, a reluctant agent and assassin for the Israeli government.


     “Would you like to tell me why you’re forging a Cassatt?” asked Sarah Bancroft. …

     “You’re going to sell it to Elena Kharkov.

     “Ask a silly question.” she leaned forward and scrutinized the canvas. “Watch your brushwork on the hands, Gabriel. It’s a bit too impasto.”

     “My brushwork, as usual, is flawless.

     “How foolish of me to suggest otherwise.”


But Elena is too knowledgeable, and she spots the forgery. Nonetheless she buys the painting! Much later:


     Gabriel took the phone from her grasp and asked how she knew the Cassatt was a forgery.

     “It was the hands.”

     “What about the hands?”

     “The brushstrokes were too impasto.”

     “Sarah told me the same thing.”

     “You should have listened to her.”


Men! Always thinking they know best!


Feel free to toss in today’s term when you can’t think of anything else to say about an old oil painting. It is certain to apply, for almost ever such painting displays it. How useful!


craquelure – fine cracks in surface of old paintings


Our two quotes, from the same source as yesterday, use this word in the contexts of restoration and forgery respectively.


So perfect was his mimicry of Poussin that it was impossible to tell where the painter’s work ended and his began. He even added faux craquelure, the fine webbing of surface cracks, so that the new faded flawlessly into the old.


     “Why are you baking the Cassatt?” 

     Just then the kitchen timer chimed softly. Gabriel removed the canvas from the oven and allowed it to cool slightly, then laid it faceup on the table. With Sarah watching, he took hold of the canvas at the top and bottom and pulled it firmly over the edge of the table, downward toward the floor. Then he gave the painting a quarter turn and dragged it hard against the edge of the table a second time. He examined the surface for a moment, then, satisfied, held it up for Sarah to see. Earlier that morning, the paint had been smooth and pristine. Now the combination of heat and pressure had left the surface covered by a fine webbing of fissures and cracks.

     “Amazing,” she whispered.

     “It’s not amazing,” he said. “It’s craquelure.”


The delightful Ms. Kristin Lister, conservationist at the Art Institute of Chicago, has generously provided several conservation terms. All thanks to you, Kristin!


cleavage – separation of paint layers

It’s hard to find a picture, amid the many for another type of “cleavage”! Here’s tenting at bottom right.


You’ve seen cleavage on old house-paint. It may lie flat (blind or flat cleavage) or pop up in a bulge called a blister. And you can easily spot tenting cleavage or tenting on a painting, where the paint lifts up in little tents. Kristen notes, “Often the canvas beneath has shrunk slightly and there is no longer room to set the cleavage down, unless the canvas is stretched lightly.”


What causes cleavage? A source explains, “… the surface layer … completes the drying process relatively quickly. The dry upper paint then retards the process by denying sub-surface layers access to oxygen. The complete drying of thick oil paint may take several years. The unevenness of drying creates stress within the paint structure that can lead to cracking and cleavage where paint peels away from the priming.”


A conservator can cause visible damage when he/she lines or relines a canvas (adds another layer of canvas behind it, for stronger support).


weave impression (or weave emphasis) – a damage (irreversible?) that frequently occurs with lining. During lining the paint is heated up and softened, and the weave of the canvas can be pressed into the paint, ruining the original texture of the brushwork. 

moating – another type of damage during lining. The impasto can be flattened by the process, often pushed down with a moat around it.


From the web-announcement of this restoration (ellipses omitted):


The main priority for treatment of the nearly 200-year-old oil paintings was to undo a conservation treatment the paintings received in 1967. The cause for concern was what conservators call a "dramatically enhanced weave impression." This means that the canvas threads became too clearly visible from the presentation side of the paintings.


Records show that a conservator in 1967 lined the paintings because they were at risk of flaking. The flat surface of the [lining] pushed out the threads from the back side of the canvas, flattening the topography of the back of the canvas and creating the enhanced weave impression on the front.


Imagine if you will a toddler with a smudged face. Mother wets her fingers at her mouth, and uses the wet fingers to wipe away the smudge.


Kristin informs me (if I understand her correctly) that professional art-conservators have a euphemism when they use the same solvent. They could hardly admit to it!


aqueous cleaning – when the conservator uses spit to clean grime from a painting


pentimento – a visible trace of the artist’s earlier version, showing through when the upper layers of the paint have become translucent with age. (In effect, the “painting behind the painting”, showing where the artist “changed his mind” and changed his work.)


The figurative usage is much more interesting than the literal one. I’ll give an example of each.


[Galway] is one of the fastest-growing urban centers in Western Europe. … Everything is fast, everything is changing, everything is growing. But in this vivacious town, the pentimento of an older Ireland shines confidently through the slick modernity.

Washington Post, Apr. 8, 2001


Restorers were guided by the surviving pentimento of the Italianate Garden's symmetrical plantings.

Boston Globe, Oct. 26, 2000


We take "pentimento" directly from Italian, and the etymology merits a note.

The peni- part refers to being sorry (as in “penitent” and “repent”), and is akin to “pain”.

the ment part: Is it:

––– "-ment" as an ordinary noun-making suffix (as in “refinement”), so pedimento means “sorry-ness”?

––– or “ment” meaning “mind” (as in “mental), so that “pedimento” means “sorry mind”? 

The dictionaries mention only the former, but I incline to the latter.


inpainting – “filling in” lost or faded areas, with new paint 

(overpainting – when the restorer gets carried away and paints on top of original paint passages, instead of just where a piece of paint is missing)


Gabriel had completed a restoration of the painting [several years earlier]. His work had held up well. Only when he cocked his head to create the effect of raked lighting could he tell the difference between his inpainting and the original.

– Daniel Silva, The English Assassin


Bonus word:

raked – slanted; oblique; coming in at an angle



Shade and Shadow


Our theme this week will be “Terms of Shade and Shadow”. A few will be ridiculously obscure, which seems apt, since “obscure” is related to our shadow-words. (It comes from an ancient root *(s)keu- "to cover, conceal", and the same root led to the Greek for “shadow”, from which in turn come some of this week’s words.)


To begin, a “shade-word” that also fits last week’s “painterly” theme (and what’s more, fits our recent “oxymoron” theme too). But since it has already been a word-of-the-day a few years ago (see here), I’ll give you an additional painterly shade-word.


chiaroscuro – the interplay of light and shade in drawing and painting; a work stressing that interplay 

[Italian chiaro ‘clear, bright’ + oscuro ‘dark, obscure’. Hence, an oxymoron.]


tenebrism – a style of painting in which most of the figures are engulfed in shadow but some are dramatically illuminated by a beam of light


In that painting, as in others, Rembrandt makes dramatic use of the chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadow.

Washington Post, Nov. 21, 1999


Another outstanding master of chiaroscuro was Rembrandt, who used it with remarkable psychological effect in his paintings, drawings, and etchings.

– Encyclopedia Britannica

Two examples of chiaroscuro: Rembrandt’s Denial of Peter, and Education of the Virgin by Georges de La Tour.


Here are familiar two words that come from Latin sub umbra “under shadow”. You can see the connection.


sombrero – a broad-brimmed hat, of felt or straw, typically worn in Mexico and the south-western US

somber – dark; gloomy; or fig.: melancholy; dismal (also, serious; grave)


The wooden figures of the saints, found in even the poorest Mexican houses, always interested [Father Latour]. … At [Mary’s] … left, … a saint wearing the costume of a Mexican ranchero, velvet trousers richly embroidered and wide at the ankle, velvet jacket and silk shirt, and a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero. He was attached to his fat horse by a wooden pivot driven through the saddle.

– Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop


Federal aviation investigators this morning are at the somber scene of the small plane crash at a shopping-center parking lot.

– Daily News Tribune (MA), August 13, 2008


Bonus word: ranchero – a ranch owner; a rancher


The roots of today’s word mean “shadow combat”.


The word is very rare, which seems a shame, because every sense of it names something which would be quite useful to have a word for.  I say “every sense” because the meanings you’ll find, in dictionaries and in actual usage, are … well, if not “all over the lot”, let us say “somewhat varied”. I’ll list several.


skiamachy (or sciamachy or sciomachy) – 

     1. sham fighting; a mock contest

     2. futile combat; “tilting at windmills”

     3. futile “argument” caused by misunderstanding of terms used

     4. contentiousness; “argument for the sake of argument”, at least on one side


I’ll let the quotes speak for themselves: an old one, followed by the most recent I can find, from 2004.


But pray, countryman, to avoid this sciomachy, or imaginary combat with words, let me know, sir, what you mean by the name of Tyrant.

– Abraham Cowley, A Discourse Concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell


He [Lockhart] knew little, and could have cared nothing, about those who became the objects of his satire. Exquisitely cruel as it often seemed, it was with him a mere skiomachy. Certain men and women were stuck up as types of certain prejudices or delusions and he set to knocking them down with no more feeling about them, as individual human creatures, than if they had been nine-pins.

– Andrew Lang, Life and Letters of John Gibson Lockhart


P.S. The Scanning Imaging Absorption SpectroMeter for Atmospheric Cartography (which measures trace gases in our atmosphere) was named SCIAMACHY. Someone had a strange sense of humor!


Another obscure word, again based on the Greek skia for “shadow”.


ascian¹ – an inhabitant of the tropics (where, twice a year, the sun is directly overhead, and so one casts no shadows)

[Greek a- “not; without” + skia “shadow”]


Traveling to Benin (formerly know as Dahomey), a west-African country just north of the equator.


The next day was a half Harmattan, which made the natives don warm wrappers … . We, un-Ascians, delighted in the cold, dry air,… throwing off the negativity of the humid plain-heat.

– Richard F. Burton, Mission To Gelele, King Of Dahome (1864)


Bonus word:

harmattan – a very dry, dusty winter wind, blowing from the Sahara over the west African coast 


¹ Related obscure words:
amphiscian – same as ascian 
[in the tropics, shadows fall north at one time of the year, south at another; amphi- = “both; on both sides”]
periscian – an inhabitant of either of the polar regions 
[shadows there revolve around them as the sun moves round; peri- = “around”]


After two days of hyper-obscure words, let’s take a familiar one, again from the skia sense of “shadow”. The ancient Greeks called a certain a familiar animal skiouros, or “shadow-tail”, and the word has come down to us as squirrel. How apt! Having learned this, I get special smile whenever I see a squirrel, thinking of it as a little “shadow tail”. Perhaps you will too.


Is “squirrel” pronounced with one syllable, or two?


A squirrel to some is a squirrel,

To others, a squirrel's a squirl.

Since freedom of speech is the birthright of each,

I can only this fable unfurl:

A virile young squirrel named Cyril,

In an argument over a girl,

Was lambasted from here to the Tyrol

By a churl of a squirl named Earl.

Ogden Nash


One more musing. The word squirrel came into English from French, after the Norman conquest of England. Of course, the English had had their own name for this beastie. They called it an aquerne (related to acorn), and the critter is so common that the word aquerne must have been familiar to all. 


Why did we lose that term? It seems odd, since Old English is the source of almost all our ordinary names for animals that were familiar in old England, such as cow, ox, horse, pig, sheep, bird, chicken, duck and goose. Insofar as I know, aquerne/squirrel is the sole exception. I wonder why.


There are names to distinguish darker, full shadow from adjacent partial shadow. (See note for how these can arise.¹)


umbra – complete shadow (with blockage of every part of every light source)

penumbra  1. a partial shadow (blocked from some but not all light sources and their parts) between regions of complete shadow and complete illumination. 

2. figurative extension: 

a. an adjoining region in which something shades off into lessened intensely [the penumbra of the downtown]

b. something that partially covers, surrounds, or obscures


… the penumbra of filthy air that so often hangs over Beijing. 

– New York Times, Aug. 1, 2008


Note: Penumbra is often used to mean simply “aura” [the penumbra of fear surrounding Saddam], which I think is erroneous.


¹ Park your car in your garage, headlights shining on the rear wall. You stand between the headlights, casting shadows right and left onto the wall, one from each headlight. If you are close enough the wall it will have a darker shadow directly in front of you, the area your body screens from both headlights. 
     A single light-source can give the same effect if it has significant length, like a fluorescent tube, since a shading object can be placed to block the all of the tube or part of it.


Let’s look at sundials.


gnomon or gnomen – the piece in a sundial that casts the time-indicating shadow [the relevant edge of that piece is the style]

[Greek gnomon ‘indicator, carpenter’s square’. Related to to know.]


Even if not the slightest other part of the creature be visible, this isolated fin will, at times, be seen projecting from the surface. When the sea is moderately calm, and slightly marked with spherical ripples, … this gnomon-like fin stands up and casts shadows upon the wrinkled surface, ..."

– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


Bonus word: skiagraphy – telling time by sundial 


By the way, gnomon has another meaning: the figure [blue in this illustration] obtained by cutting a parallelogram [red in the illustration] off the corner of a similar but larger one.



Eponyms Once Again


Our new theme of "Eponyms" begins with one more shadow-word. An early, 1801 quote used this shadow-word along with its older synonym.


Skiagrams, simple outlines of a shade, similar to those which have been introduced to vulgar use … under the name of Silhouettes.


silhouette – a profile or shadow-outline of the human figure, filled in of a dark color

from Etienne de Silhouette, the French minister of Finance in 1759, who, to replenish the treasury, exhausted by the costly wars with Britain and Prussia, … inaugurated the strictest economy. His extreme parsimony made him a choice subject for caricature; so that any mode or fashion that was plain and cheap – surtouts without plaits, trousers without pockets – was styled à la Silhouette; and profiles made by tracing the shadow projected by the light of a candle on a sheet of white paper being then much in vogue, having continued to bear the name. [Above definition and history is from Chambers' Encyclopaedia.] Within eight months, Silhouette was driven from office after he proposed harsh measures to fall on the nobles.


Do you remember the old song Silhouettes, by Frank C. Slay Jr. and Bob Crewe?


Took a walk and passed your house, late last night; 

All the shades were pulled and drawn, way down tight;

From within, the dim light cast two silhouettes on the shade.

     Oh what a lovely couple they made.


Put his arms around your waist, held you tight;

Kisses I could almost taste, in the night; 

Wondered why I'm not the guy whose silhouette’s on the shade.

     I couldn't hide the tears in my eyes.


Lost control and rang your bell. I was sore.

“Let me in or else I'll beat down your door.”

When two strangers who had been two silhouettes on the shade

     Said to my shock, "You're on the wrong block.”


Rushed out to your house with wings on my feet;

Loved you like I'd never loved you my sweet;

Vowed that you and I would be two silhouettes on the shade; 

     All of our days, two silhouettes on the shade.


Barbie doll – a blandly attractive but vacuous young woman

[from the doll]


It sets you up to be treated like a Barbie doll that he can control.

– Sherry Argov, Why Men Love Bitches


Luckily, the caller wasn't her ex-husband or his sickening Barbie doll of a wife calling about the kids.

– Lisa Jackson, Left To Die


The Barbie Doll itself is the product of a mother’s perceptiveness. Before Barbie the dolls that girls played with were typically infant-dolls or young-child dolls. But Barbara Hadler, as a young girl, enjoyed putting her dolls into adult role in her play. Her mother Ruth noticed this, conceived the idea of grown-up doll, and sold the idea to reluctant execs at Mattel, where her husband was a co-founder.


It seems to me that today’s word is most often used in the figurative sense noted below. Nonetheless, I’ve found no dictionary that gives anything but the literal meaning.


klieg light  1. a powerful carbon-arc lamp, used especially in making movies (It produces an intense light, and made it possible to shoot movies indoors.)

2. figuratively: intense and unpleasant scrutiny

[after brothers John H. Kliegl and Anton Tiberius Kliegl, German-born American lighting experts]


Two weeks ago, Albert Harris was a respected professor … who labored in obscurity. Then he wandered into the klieg light of media coverage, and his life hasn't been the same. His e-mail box is full of messages damning, some threatening, the 64-year-old prof. 

– News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), Feb. 24, 2008 (ellipses omitted)


[Senator Joe] Biden's megawatt grin illuminates the room like a klieg light, and soon his lyrical rhetoric has the crowd in a reverential hush.

– CBS News, Dec. 20, 2007


ritzy – elegant; fancy 

[after the Ritz hotels, established by César Ritz (1850–1918), Swiss hotelier]

Note: I’d say the word implies a smug superiority, “looking down one’s nose”. The dictionaries do not mention this.


The first dog-eared picture was of a society-type woman. Brunette. Thirty-eight or so. It appeared to have been taken at some sort of ball or ritzy dinner dance. 

– James Patterson, See How They Run


As long as we're talking about the world of the ritzy … 


Raffles – a ‘gentleman thief’; an educated or upper-class man who engages in discreet larceny [Wordcrafter note: perhaps it also means one who thus steals from the upper class?]

[Arthur J. Raffles, fictitious hero of English writer E. W. Hornung (1866-1921). I picture the sort of fellow who, in a movie, might be played by Cary Grant]


A raffles raider who targeted toffs' Highland holiday homes was jailed for five years yesterday. 

– Daily Record (Glasgow), March 12, 1997


     Dressed in a crumpled suit, the softly spoken man blended perfectly with other academics in a hushed reading room of the Welsh national library. The one thing that set him apart went unnoticed – a scalpel. It was only after the professorial figure returned the four ancient atlases he had been quietly perusing, politely thanking librarians for their help before leaving, that the true nature of his visit emerged. Under the pretence of studying the work of early map makers, the visitor had squirreled their works away, probably into secret pockets hidden in his clothing.

     The theft was one of a series of clandestine raids on libraries across Britain and Europe which is costing millions of pounds a year. Behind the phenomenon are a handful of skilled international thieves stealing up to £2m worth of maps a year. These Raffles of cartography are feeding a hunger among collectors, channelling maps from specialist and university libraries through London onto the open market.

– The Independent, May 18, 2002 (ellipses omitted)


The quotes for today’s word give the flavor more than the definition can, and they show why this word is more useful than you might imagine from the definition alone.


Zelig – a chameleon-like person always manages to be present everywhere

[after Leonard Zelig, hero of the 1983 movie Zelig by Woody Allen]


… he [Bayard Rustin] was like the Zelig of the civil rights movement -- there he was in India with Gandhi, there he is with LBJ or Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X. 

– Bennett Singer in Austin (Texas) Chronicle, Nov. 14, 2003


As the Kennedy administration took office in 1961, [Duane] Andreas became the Zelig of Washington – present for great events, rubbing elbows with the powerful, yet unknown to the public.

– Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant: A True Story


I had a word in mind for today, but today’s newspaper changed my choice, because a single sentence there presents us with three eponyms! We have the non-word the writer used by mistake, the fancy word he intended, and the name of that sort of error.


Recall the Greek fable of Icarus, who flew and fled from an island prison on wings made of wax, but flew too close to the sun, and fell to a watery death when his wings melted.


Mr. Obama's descent from his Icarusian heights earlier this spring reflects a shift in this race that has nothing to do with race.

– Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2008; Page A20, col. 1-2


Icarusian – flying too high to be sustained [used in the quote]

[Not a valid “word”, according to OED. ‘Icarian’ was probably intended. But it wouldn’t quite fit, because the author does not mean to imply ‘dangerously’ high or ‘ruinously’ high.]


Icarian – soaring too high for safety; applying to ambitious or presumptuous acts which end in failure or ruin (a previous word-of-the-day)


malaprop – ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound. [In my judgment, it must be a misuse in a failed attempt to be erudite]

[Mrs. Malaprop, character in a who was prone to such errors (i.e. "contagious countries" for "contiguous countries"). A previous word-of-the-day.



Gulliver's Travels and other Swiftisms


Those who know Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels (1726) may perhaps smile at my ignorance. As a youngster, I never happened to read it. And as an adult I never considered reading it, thinking that it a children’s book. I was mistaken, of course. The book is a wickedly biting satire.


Swift invented names for the various creatures and places that Gulliver visited, and many of those names have become "words". This week we’ll look at those words, as well as a few other Swiftisms.


On his first voyage, Gulliver is blown off-course to the land of Lillliput, much like our own lands but miniaturized. “The common size of the natives is somewhat under six inches high,” and “there is an exact proportion in all other animals, as well as plants and trees: for instance, the tallest horses and oxen are between four and five inches in height, the sheep an inch and half, more or less: their geese about the bigness of a sparrow.”


Lilliputian – very small in size; also, of trifling importance

[The term implies smaller than normal, I’d think. If something is expected to be small – a bacterium, for example – you wouldn’t call it Lilliputian.]


Italy’s government-by-coalition:] But he was only able to oust the centre-left because of the defection to his camp of two Lilliputian parties whose leaders will demand … the price of their support.

– Guardian Unlimited, Jan. 26, 2008


Awkward lilliputian keys … make this $1199 mini-PC hard to use.

Washington Post, July 18, 2007


In a poem I recall but cannot find, parodying Hiawatha, a women tells how she hates suburban cocktail-parties. She’d love to join the men’s conversations, which she finds substantive and interesting. Etiquette, however, dictates otherwise.


But I’m stuck here with the ladies,

Where the talk is all domestic

And the drinks are Lilliputian.


Speaking of trivia …


In politics, do you sometime feel that opponents are arguing over trivial matters? So too, the world of Lilliput was bitterly divided over the grave issue of whether one should crack an egg at its big end, or at its small end! (For a brief, witty account of that Big-endian/Little-endian violence, see Miss Manners, the noted etiquette advisor.)


Big-endian – a party in a long and vehement dispute over a trifling matter [his opponent is a Little-endian.]


Different experts [on Shakespeare] give us different answers. The one that would interest us most would be Shakespeare’s – and, not surprisingly, there are Big-endians and Little-endians who claim to have got inside the dome-like head, and to know his thoughts.
– E. A. J. Honigmann; Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies Revisited [etc.]


[At] the University of Chicago, President Hutchins in 1934 proclaimed the primacy of ideas over facts and suggested that the social sciences surely, and the hard sciences probably, were far too innocent of ideas. The humanists applauded. The scientists were, to understate the matter, offended. The resulting rage between the big-endians and little-endians almost tore the place apart for the larger part of Hutchins' 20-year tenure.

– Chicago Tribune, Aug 27, 1989 (ellipses omitted)


How sad that such useful terms have fallen into disuse. Doubtless you’ll display your erudition by dropping them into you own discussions of the US presidential campaign.


(There’s little danger of any confusion with the specialized meaning that these terms have in computer-programming!)


Gulliver’s first voyage gave us a term for “tiny; miniature”. His second gave us a term for “huge”.


Brobdingnagian – gigantic; immense; enormous

[Gulliver's second voyage leaves him shipwrecked in Brobdingnag, where everything is huge. A man was “as tall as an ordinary spire steeple, and took about ten yards at every stride,” and the 9-year-old girl who befriends Gulliver was “not above forty feet high, being little for her age”.]


[on overeating:] Paul Rozin found that serving sizes in France are considerably smaller than they are in the United States. This matters because most people have what psychologists call a unit bias – we tend to believe that however big or small the portion served, that’s the proper amount to eat. Rozin also found that the French spend considerably more time enjoying their tiny servings than we do our Brobdingnagianones. 

– Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (ellipses omitted)


Bonus Term:

unit bias – the tendency to think that a unit of some entity is the appropriate and optimal amount


Why does today’s word fit our ‘Gulliver’ theme? Simply because it was first used in a 1796 take-off of Swift’s work, entitled A Modern Gulliver’s Travels. It’s not common word, but interestingly, in the past decade or so it has been used much more than in the previous two centuries combined.


senectitude – old age; elderliness

[from the same root as senile and senior]


There are several questions that remain answered as I approach senectitude. Senectitude is 20 years older than you are, no matter how old you are.

– Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), Aug. 12, 2008


… his fortune is made back on earth giving television testimonials for laxatives, rheumatism medicaments, diapers and walkers. If those images are unsettling, please to remember the old saw that senectitude is not for the faint of heart.

– Nicholas von Hoffman, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 17, 1998


Gulliver meets the Laputans and their subject peoples, who are ridiculously impractical and always lost in thought. [My personal favorite. For those who wish, I’ve put some amusing Swift excerpts below.]


Laputan – absurdly impractical or visionary, especially to the neglect of more useful activity


[defending Paris against siege:] 

Inventions and ideas poured into the Government by the hundred. … One suggested the poisoning of the river Seine where it left Paris; another the ‘decomposition’ of the air surrounding the Prussians; another the loosing of all the more ferocious beasts from the zoo – so that the enemy would be poisoned, asphyxiated, or devoured. [etc.] … The Paris Press was particularly susceptible to the most Laputan projects, and a great clamour was aroused in the papers. 

– Sir Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71


[a critique of art-critics:]

… a solemn Laputan game whose object is to ratify the countercultural status of a given artist and thereby justify his (or her) prompt entry into the cultural pantheon.

– Time Magazine, May 31, 1999


From Swift:

“It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused. Persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper, gently to strike the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post.”


Such men make inattentive husbands, so it’s naturally that their wives “are exceedingly fond of strangers.” The ladies can indulge, “for the mistress and lover may proceed to the greatest familiarities before his face, if he be without his flapper at his side.” 


University researchers pursue wild projects. One “has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.” Another seeks “to reduce human excrement to its original food”. [Interesting recycling!] “I saw another at work to calcine ice into gunpowder. There was a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation.”


But at least one notion may be viable. It’s proposed “to tax those qualities for which men chiefly value themselves; the rate according to the degrees of excelling; the decision whereof should be left entirely to their own breast.” In others, a tax on sex. “The highest tax was upon men who are the greatest favourites of the other sex, and the assessments, according to the number and nature of the favours they have received; for which, they are allowed to be their own vouchers.” Would any man admit that he owed but little tax? 


In his final voyage Gulliver visits a land where the dominant creatures are intelligent horses, wise and calm, and the humanoids are inferior. (Sort of a “Planet of the Apes.) The latter are “the most unteachable of all animals: their capacity never reaching higher than to draw or carry burdens.” In temperament they have “a perverse, restive disposition”, and “they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful.” These brutish humanoids are called Yahoos, coining today’s word.


yahoo – a boorish, crass, or stupid person

Multiple short quotes show that it’s not quite as bad as the Yahoos in Swift.


It wouldn't be the first time some yahoo had called in a false alarm.

She just ups and decides to marry this paint-and-body yahoo.

Mr. Vice President, with all due respect, we are not at war, not yet, not unless you and the president listen to the yahoos," warned the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

All of the yahoos standing behind her were going to have to take her orders, do what she said, when she said it. Oh, yeah!

[from Ridley Pearson, Killer View; Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees; Joel C. Rosenberg, The Last Jihad; and Fern Michaels, Collateral Damage; ellipses omitted]


Our final term of this theme is from Swift, but not from his Gulliver’s Travels. It’s from his poem titled On Poetry(1733).


So, naturalists observe, a flea 

Hath smaller fleas that on him prey; 

And these have smaller still to bite 'em, 

And so proceed ad infinitum..

Thus every poet in his kind

Is bit by him that comes behind.


ad infinitum – endlessly; forever

[Latin, ‘to infinity’]