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September 2008 Archives


Terms with Numbers: 40 winks; eighty-six; paint-by-numbers; the 400; 23 skidoo (pie wagon); ninety-nine; quaver (demiquaver, semidemiquaver, hemisemidemiquaver, quasihemisemidemiquaver)

Learning New Words: peloton; tawse; Sitzfleisch; repechage; cloisonné; electronic ink; ruched

Portmanteau ("Blend") Words: splog; squiggle; galumph; blither; mocktail; cyborg; sexile

Personalities: loquacious; garrulous; voluble; scapegrace; misocapnist; crepe-hanger; pillock (haver)


Terms with Numbers


Yesterday’s ‘ad infinitum’ puts me in mind of numbers.


In some ways, numbers are like people. They can be proper, or at least discrete, but of them are are improper. Some are negative; some are positive. Some are rational; others irrational. They can be transcendental or even imaginary. They can be round or they can have a point – and those that have a point often repeat themselves!


Numbers appear in many idioms whose meaning wouldn’t be obvious from the meanings of the individual words. Interestingly, almost all those idioms use one-digit numbers, especially the lowest ones: First Lady, second fiddle, third rate. This week we’ll turn the harder group, and look at some of those that use other numbers.


40 winks – a short sleep (usually not in bed)


How easy it would be to put his head down on the desk and close his eyes and catch 40 winks.

– Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities


eighty-six – (orig. restaurant/bar slang) to refuse to serve (the item is out, or the customer is unwelcome). by extension: to throw out; to eject or discard; to get rid of


My girlfriend has a pair of shoes she adores [that] have begun to smell more strongly than a fish market. She won't get rid of them and its becoming embarrassing to take her out in public with her smelly feet. How can I tell her to eighty-six the shoes without hurting her feelings?

– OSU Daily Barometer (Oregon State University), Oct. 7, 2005


I recall reading that restaurants once had an elaborate number-slang, with numbers to mean “poor tipper” or “customer trying to sneak out without paying”, etc. But for the life of me I can’t find any confirmation. Can anyone help?


paint-by-numbersdepreciative: merely mechanical or formulaic (rather than imaginative, original, or natural)

[figurative, from “painting” by filling in a pre-printed outline, on which each outlined area is marked with a number indicating the color to be used]


… a trite movie-of-the-week emphasizing resiliency, resourcefulness and risk-taking -- a paint-by-numbers approach.

Baltimore Sun, May 4, 2007


the 400 – the highest society of a locality

[Coined by Ward McAllister (1827–1895), arbiter of New York City society. Supposedly “four hundred“ was the number of people who really mattered, or the number that Lady Astor’s ballroom could accommodate.]


Their sons attend the same expensive academies, their daughters are polished off at the same elite schools; their sons and daughters meet together at the assemblies of the 400, as well as at the summer resorts and winter resorts and spring resorts, and they intermarry and inter-divorce; and the caste of the great rich emerges.

– University [of California] Chronicle (1906)


Even as this has made for a somewhat fairer society than the world of the 400, it has added a note of desperation.

– James Fallows, What Did you do in the Class War, Daddy?, Washington Monthly, Oct. 1975


You might think the term “the 400” is now only a historical curiosity. But notice the Fortune Magazine rankings. Its ranks the largest corporations as the Fortune 100, the Fortune 500, and the Fortune 1000. But when it lists the wealthiest people, it lists the Fortune 400.


23 skidoo (or just ‘skidoo’) – scram; leave quickly

[slang, from the first part of the 1900s. Origin unknown – but I’m researching it now. More to come, I hope.]


The cop gave the bawling kid a nickel and told him to shut up. He dispersed the crowd very simply by telling them he’d send for the pie wagon and take them all down to the station house if they didn't twenty-three skidoo. The crowd scattered.

– Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (P.S.)


Bonus word:

pie wagon – a police van; a van used to transport prisoners to jail

[old slang; rarely seen]


ninety-nine – used by physicians to detect areas of the lungs that have become solidified, as from pneumonia. When the patient speaks or whispers, the sound is loudest in these areas, and the loudness can be noticed by stethoscope or by ‘a palm on the patient’s back.


“Ninety-nine” was the usual word spoken, perhaps due to an error. It is said that the test was first developed by a German doctor, who used "neun und neunzig" because the vowel sounds would maximize the effect. English doctors simply translated the German words into English, preserving the meaning but abandoning the sounds!


A. A. Milne, of Winnie the Pooh fame, used this term along with a nice pun on “bed”. He tells of a physician who, with typical medical arrogance, ignores his patient's floral preferences.


There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed

Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),

And all the day long he'd a wonderful view

Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).


A Doctor came hurrying round, and he said:

"Tut-tut, I am sorry to find you in bed.

Just say 'Ninety-nine,' while I look at your chest.

Don't you find that chrysanthemums answer the best?"


The Dormouse looked round at the view and replied

(When he'd said "Ninety-nine") that he'd tried and he'd tried,

And much the most answering things that he knew

Were geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).


– A. A. Milne, The Dormouse and the Doctor


In music, the is called an eighth-note in the US and a quaver in the UK. This gives us interesting (though perhaps impractical) names for subdivisions.


demiquaver – half a quaver; a 16th note

semidemiquaver – half a demiquaver; a 32nd note

hemisemidemiquaver – half a semidemiquaver; a 64th note

quasihemisemidemiquaver – half a hemisemidemiquaver; a 128th note


Not exactly terms you’ll find in everyday use, of course. But fun, and worth much more than a quasihemisemidemiquaver of amusement.


It is impossible for you to know in advance exactly where to set down the pickup head to catch a favorite hemisemidemiquaver, grace note, or tympani bang.

– Nicholas Rosa, Small Computers for the Small Businessman



Learning New Words


How many words does an average person know? Many! A youngster is a linguistic vacuum cleaner, sucking up new words at an incredible pace.¹


We adults are of course less voracious. Yet upon reflection I was surprised new words we adults come across, even those of us who already have large vocabularies. This week I’ll present words, new to me, that I’ve come across in the last few weeks. (And I mean “come across” – these are not words I dug up in a word-hunt through dictionaries, word-lists, etc.)


Here’s one I heard in a broadcast of the Olympics.  [The broadcaster used it in a rowing race, referring to the pack of coaches, etc., who bicycled along the riverbank, keeping abreast with the racing boats while shouting instructions.]


pelotoncompetitive cycling: a densely packed group of riders, sheltering in each others' draft. In a mass-start race, most riders ride in one large peloton for most of the race.

[from French for a rolled up small ball. A related word, peloter, means “to caress sensually; to cuddle”.]


… they did not even mount a serious challenge, attacking twice, but failing to make a significant breakaway from the peloton.

– The Times, Aug. 20, 2008


¹ The most sophisticated estimate [is that] an average American high school graduate knows 45,000 words. If proper names, acronyms [etc.] had been included, the average would probably be something like 60,000 words.
     Is 60,000 words a lot or a little? Word learning generally begins around the age of twelve months. Therefore, high school graduates, who have been at it for about seventeen years, must have been learning an average of ten new words a day continuously since their first birthdays, or about a new word every ninety waking minutes.

     Remember that are talking about listemes, each involving an arbitrary pairing [of sound with meaning]. Think about having to memorize a new batting average or treaty date or phone number every ninety minutes of your waking life since you took your first steps.

– Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (ellipses omitted)


tawse – a leather strap used for disciplining children

OED says that it is “used in Scottish and many English schools.” Ugh.


Academic standards were high and the teachers there took their job seriously. They were quite determined that we would master our subjects and any slackness was quickly followed by a few strokes of the leather `tawse’.

– James Herriot, James Herriot's Dog Stories (author’s introduction)


The chief use of friendship is to inflict pain. Our friends are so many lashes on the great tawse by which we are daily lacerated.

– Virginia Woolf, as quoted in Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee

Apparently the publisher censored this from Woolf’s manuscript.


Today, a delicious word. It’s from German sitzen “to sit” + Fleisch “flesh”; hence “sitting on your fanny”.


Sitzfleisch – the ability to endure or persist in some activity [Characteristically German?]

I would say this has two slightly-different senses.


1. plodding, unrelenting persistence at a task


The right-winger substitutes Sitzfleisch, unrelieved and unrelenting labor, for flashy outbreaks of genius.

– The Nation, June 21, 2004


[Paleontologist Harry] Whittington is meticulous and conservative … – exactly the opposite of anyone’s image for an agent of intellectual transformation. He is, by temperament, a man of ideas, but happily possessed of the patience and Sitzfleisch needed to stare at blobs on rocks for hours on end.

– Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History


2. the ability to sit still and tolerate something boring


Sitzfleisch is also needed for some O'Neill plays and nearly every Wagner opera.

– New York Times, Dec. 3, 1987


The school degree really tells you something: that it's sitzfleisch [the ability to sit still] that counts.

Boston Globe, Nov. 26, 1996


Here’s another word I picked up from watching the Beijing Olympics. An interesting root-meaning.


repechage (or repêchage) – a trial heat (esp. in rowing) where competitors who have lost a heat get another chance to qualify for the semifinals or finals

[from French, with literal meaning of “to fish up again”; re- + pêcher to fish]

[pronounce last syllable -shäzh; accent on last syllable or on first]


After the first round loss, now all the hopes for Rajiv would lie on the Repechage round.

– Times of India, Aug. 20, 2008


They cruised to victory in the repechage yesterday (Wednesday) to take their place in the six-team final.

– Kent News (UK), Sept. 11, 2008


The eight finished second in its qualifying heat, which meant it had to row in the repechage to try to win a place in the final.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 17, 2008


I picked up this word at an art show three weeks ago, when I asked an artist about the work she displayed.


cloisonné (pronounced klwaazonay) – a kind of decorative enamelwork: areas are outlined by metal filaments mounted on a backing, and are then filled in with enamel of different colors

[from French for ‘partitioned’; ultimately from Latin claudere to close, lock]


Annie examined the large cloisonné leopard in delight. … The exotic, intricate cloisonné design was worked gold and green and turquoise over black. The spectacular beast had brilliant green eyes and sported a jeweled collar.

– Jayne Ann Krentz, Wildest Hearts


Do you watch the newsstands? Just a few days ago a new term and technology came into popular-press use, when the current issue of Esquire Magazine hit the newsstands. Part of the magazine-cover in printed is electronic ink.



cover page, Esquire Magazine, Oct. 2008

(best seen with the “watch in high quality”, just below-right of the image)


As best I can tell, all prior use and definition of the term (and there is a lot of it) concerns the technological method, not the resulting product. So I’ll be the first to assay defining it in the ordinary way, in terms of what it presents to the user.


electronic ink – a coated substance, of paper-like thickness and flexibility, whose colors at each point can be changed (by electric stimulus) to produce changing text and images


This term was picked up while channel-surfing, from the show What Not to Wear.


ruched or rouchedwomen’s clothing: having prominent pleating, as a decorative feature


Notice these three illustrations. The dictionaries seem to say rouche is a kind of trim or edging. But the pictures show that the pleating may be part of the main fabric, rather than an add-on.


A recent example:


Conveniently, on the rack next door, I also spy a cotton dress with a trendy ruched top for just £17, reduced from £19.99.

– Mirror (on-line), UK, Aug. 28, 2008


Interesting etymology. Ruche traces back to Old French rusche “beehive” (often made of plaited straw), and some take it further back to Medieval Latin rusca “bark of a tree” (used for making beehives). I’m speculating that it may be akin to rustic, which would be an odd pairing of rustic simplicity with ruched sophistication.



Portmanteau ("Blend") Words


Sometimes a word is formed by blending two words together. For example, the word motel was formed as motor hotel. This week we’ll look at some of these “blend words”. We’ll begin with one which, fitting last week’s theme, is a word that I learned recently. In fact, just a few day ago.


splog – (from spam blog): a fake blog, without meaningful content, set up to attract hits to generate advertising revenue or Google-ranking


There is active advertising to be done on blogs, too. … Google's Adsense service will automatically place context-related ads on a blog page, splitting the click-measured revenue with the blogger. So far, so good. But Adsense has set in motion an ugly arms race online as robot bloggers -- clever computer programs -- have generated hundreds of thousands of spam blogs, or "splogs."


A splog, though unreadable, is seeded with words that will attract Google ads. A computer-user may be annoyed at finding himself staring at a screen full of gibberish but click on an ad anyway, allowing the robot blogger to harvest revenue. This sleight of hand has the Numerati hard at work getting their software to distinguish between a blog and a splog.

– Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2008, reviewing The Numerati by Stephen Baker


Isn’t splog a fun-sounding word? (Many blend-words have a funny sound to them: splog, smog, blotch, jounce, twirl, skuzzy, slosh and grungy.) So is today’s word. It was at first a verb, meaning “to squirm and wriggle”, but is now mostly used as a noun.


squiggle – a small wiggly mark or scrawl (verb: to squirm and wriggle)


noun use (aptly language-related): And the Hebrew – she didn’t even enjoy reading in her own language, much less struggling to decode the strange black squiggles that Mordechai was always trying to get her to remember.

– Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book


verb use (ellipses omitted): [Wal-mart founder Sam] Walton added the practice of leading his own company cheer. “Gimme a W!” he’d shout. “W!” the workers would shout back, and on through the Wal-Mart name. At the hyphen, Walton would shout “Gimme a squiggly!” and squat and twist his hips at the same time; the workers would squiggle right back.

– Bob Ortega, In Sam We Trust [slightly different etymology here? <wink> ]


Can the funny sound of a blend-word cause its meaning to change? When Lewis Carroll coined the word galumph, he apparently meant “to gallop in triumph”; "to prance about in a self-satisfied manner." But the word has a lumbering, clumsy sound, and perhaps that explains its newer meaning.


galumph – to move in a clumsy, ponderous, or noisy manner [in 1st quote, a noun]


the newer sense:

But, while you could never call her nimble, she chased around the [tennis] court with an energetic galumph

– Telegraph, June 25, 2008


Half a hundred elephants galumph around the ring and take a bow in unison.

– Time Magazine, Apr. 21, 1941


the older sense; still in use:

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

– Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky (1872)


The Triumphal Galumph of Dr. Seuss

– Washington Post (headline), Sept. 26, 1991


“He’s a blithering idiot!”


I’d long known the phrase, and had thought that the “blithering” was just a word to add emphasis, just like saying, “He’s a f_cking idiot!” Not so. To blither has a very specific and useful meaning, and is completely apt in that phrase.


blither – to make long and rambling talk, without sense; to blather (noun: such talk)


Some dictionaries it’s from Old Norse; some say from Scots, and some suggest a blending of blather and dither. But does it mean “too much talk” [blathering] or “too much talk and not enough action” [dithering]? All the dictionaries say the former, and they are probably right, but a few quotes include a sense of dithering. Here’s one.


… we stagger and blither our way toward the inevitable decision about Iran.

– National Review, Our Blithering World: Where’s the vision and leadership?, Feb.1, 2007


mocktail – [mock + cocktail] a cocktail with no alcohol


Ya Ya moved into a sparking new high-rise development. No one in Raleigh lived in a high-rise, and we found ourselves briefly captivated by the glamour. One by one, took our turns standing at the darkened window swirling a mocktail and pretending to be mesmerized by the glittering lights of North Hills.

– David Sedaris, Naked (ellipses omitted)


cyborg – [cyber- + organism] a person [or animal] whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal limitations, [or are controlled,] by elements implanted into the body


The dictionary definitions are a bit more narrow. I added the bracketed words, based on quotes such as this one.


The next time a moth alights on your window sill, it could actually be a spy - one of a new generation of cyborg insects with implants wired into their nerves to allow remote control of their movement. Researchers have already developed remote control systems for rats, pigeons and even sharks. Furthermore, animals' sensory abilities far outstrip the vast majority of artificial sensors. And if you can hide your control system within your cyborg’s body, it would be virtually indistinguishable from its unadulterated kin - the perfect spy.

– New Scientist, March 6, 2008 (ellipses omitted)


You won’t find this word much in the published press, but I gather it’s well-known, throughout the US, among those who attended college within the last decade.


sexile – to banish one’s roommate from the dorm room, so that one have privacy there for sex with one's partner


She explained to him that she couldn't sexile her roommate for a second night in a row …

– Laura Sessions Stepp, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both





What could be more fascinating than human beings, in all our endless variety? This week we’ll present some nouns and adjectives for describing various personalities in our lives.


loquacious – given to much talking; very talkative


Your friend the patrolman says a great deal. … I never suspected that he could be so loquacious or that he was capable of such perceptive comment.

– John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces


MW says that the word loquacious “suggests the power of expressing oneself articulately, fluently, or glibly.” I disagree: to me the word usually focuses on the high quantity of free and easy speech, regardless of its quality. But hey! I’m not the expert.


garrulous [noun form: garrulity] – talkative – usually in a negative sense of being long and rambling, wordy; or trivial; and tedious, tiresome and annoying


Typically applied to the elderly, with the condescending sense of “Well, we can be charitable toward the old fool.”


She isn't wicked: she's only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would due [sic] her all right.

– C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce


Still another on of the general concept of talkativeness.


voluble – talkative (stressing fluency or glibness; rapid and ready of speech)


[U.S football players] Upshaw and Shell also had adjoining lockers in the Raiders’ dressing room. Though Shell is quite intelligent, few writers ever discovered that because he was so quiet. Upshaw was not. Almost from the beginning, he was an articulate, voluble speaker. Writers and broadcasters gravitate naturally to players like that because they provide the needed quotes and sound bites …

– Pro Football Weekly, Aug. 26, 2008


scapegrace – an incorrigible scamp; a rascal. (Often with the semi-complimentary sense of “a likeable rascal”.)


Like many reformed villains …, the home secretary has decided to recast himself as a loveable rogue, a charming scapegrace.

– Guardian Unlimited, Jan. 30, 2001


Here's an little-known word for a very common personality. We all know this type of person. Many of us are this type of person. It’s nice to have a name for it.


misocapnist – person who hates tobacco smoke


As smoking in misocapnist North America is declining, cigarettes are cheap and plentiful in Korea.

– K. Lee Washington, A Jewel Amid the Yellow Dust


A no-nonsense, colorful word today.


crepe-hanger – a gloomy pessimist; a kill-joy

[originally, one who hung up crepe (black silk, formerly used for mourning clothes) as a sign of mourning. Also spelled with the hyphen omitted, either as one word or as two separate words.]


There are rules for almost anything you could name. Here is a set for how to avoid being popular. … Score on six and only your mother can love you. … 2. Complain. Take the negative attitude every time. Be a crepehanger.

– (Chicago) Suburbanite Economist, Feb. 28, 1971


     ”This is how we’re going to handle campaign contributions.”

     “What campaign contributions?” asked Peck. "Our money's drying up. We're damned near broke."

     "Peck," said Leon with a note of irritation in his voice, "you are an incurable crepe hanger.. Don’t worry. The money will come.”

– Robert Laxalt, The Governor's Mansion


pillockBritish: a stupid person; a fool, an idiot [orig. Scottish for “penis”]


Apparently an unkind word not to be used in good company, and used figuratively (“You stupid pillock!”) rather than literally. Can our British readers explain further?


[Iain’s adult son has insulted his lady friend.]

Iain tched … . You’re haverin’ love. I'm not angry with you, I'm angry with that pillock son I spawned.

- Katie MacAlister, Men in Kilts


My wife fled the minute she saw me and I was left standing in the middle of the room with a bunch of flowers in my hand, looking like a complete pillock.

Europe Intelligence Wire, Feb. 27, 2007


Bonus Word:

haver1. Scottish: to talk foolishly; babble. 2. British: to act in an indecisive manner.