Monday, July 31, 2006

Not Mister Spock

Q. Someone was described as a coniologist in an article about volcanoes. Is that a fancy term for a volcano expert?

A. Not directly. A coniologist is an expert on atmospheric dust, so you can see the connection. A vulcanologist is the volcano expert. I'm always amazed at some of the titles that experts bear. There are pterylologists (feathers), pogonologists (beards), typhlologists (blindness), nosologists (diseases), and zymologists (fermentation). I suppose they have to study all those years just to learn how to pronounce their specialties.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Twists and Turns

A recent newspaper article about a northern Michigan family dedicating a memorial labyrinth to a deceased relative made me realize how widespread this practice has become.

In earlier centuries, such constructions were used as an aid to meditation, as a metaphor for the junction between human and divine. A classic example is found at Chartres Cathedral.

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek laburinthos. Originally, it meant a building consisting of halls connected by tortuous passages (Herodotus). Then it took on the secondary meaning of any spiral body, as a snail.

But the Labyrinth that nailed the concept in place was the one built by multitasking Daedalus in Crete for King Minos II. After the King’s wife Pasiphae had mated with a bull--thanks to a hollow wooden cow in which she hid, another construction of Daedalus--she gave birth to the Minotaur. He was housed in the Labyrinth, and every year seven young men and seven young women were sent into the Labyrinth as sacrifices.

One year, one of the selected victims was Theseus. Lucky for him, he had a dalliance with Ariadne, the king’s daughter. Receiving a promise of marriage, she secretly asked Daedalus for a map of the Labyrinth. It allowed Theseus to enter the Labyrinth, find and slay the Minotaur, and then escape with Ariadne in tow.

Unfortunately for her, he dumped her when they reached the Isle of Naxos. It seems that Theseus was full of bull, too.

Read about memorial labyrinths here.
Maze game here

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Thursday, July 27, 2006


During the Gold Rush, when entertainment was hard to come by, gamblers played a low-stakes dice game called Chuck-A-Luck. Three dice were involved, and a player would bet on various possible combinations: (1) all three numbers the same, (2) a certain total being achieved, (3) or one specific number showing up.

To insure that no one was palming dice or otherwise manipulating the toss, the bones were tumbled in a horn-shaped metal device before being cast on the table. The device was called a tin horn.

This game was too simple for the more sophisticated gamblers who preferred faro, so it was viewed with contempt. “Tinhorn gambler” was thus born, referring to a cheap, bragging lout who dresses flashily and pretends to be wealthy. Once that term was established, it led to tinhorn element (1886), tinhorn lawyer (1903), tinhorn Casanova (1959), and tinhorn paradise (1977).

A related contemptuous term is tin-pot, resembling or suggesting a tin pot in quality or sound, and therefore without solid worth, of inferior quality, shabby, poor, cheap. Tin-pot dictator and tin-pot politician are two examples.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Among the Betweens

Q. It drives me crazy to hear supposedly educated people misuse among and between. I actually heard a politician say, "Between Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, this country has its hands full." English 101, folks: between for two, among for three or more!

A. I learned the very same thing, and my teachers were rather merciless when it came to careless choice. I think it's a distinction that offers a clear and unmistakable message in many cases, but there's no doubt that this is a rule in transition.

And here's the other side of the coin, something we were never taught: that rule always was an over-simplification to make things easier on students.

The reality, as The Oxford English Dictionary reveals, is that "in all its senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two." The OED goes on to say that "[between] is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely…"

Even though the following examples follow the inflexible 2/3 schoolhouse rule, OED calls them erroneous:
  • the space lying among the three points;
  • a treaty among three powers;
  • the choice lies among the three candidates;
  • to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.
Substitute between instead, we are told.

So I think you may want to lighten up, unless simplistic rules act as a necessary coping mechanism for you. I know it's difficult to believe, but some of the rules that English teachers hammered into our heads were nothing short of grammar superstitions invented in the 18th century by people who thought that English was too unruly.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Coffee-Drinking Monkeys

Cappuccino is espresso coffee mixed or topped with steamed milk or cream. In Italy, it is considered a breakfast drink.

It takes its name from the color of a friar’s habit, specifically, a Capuchin friar. The cappuccio was the hood attached to the garment. In English, it is spelled capuche.

The patron of the order was St. Francis of Assisi, though Capuchins have long been an autonomous branch of the Franciscan Order. Their habit, floor length and chestnut in color, reflects the fact that St. Francis ordered his monks to wear undyed wool. With age, it turned the color of earth.

Before the variant that designates a type of coffee drink, it was used for the name of a monkey indigenous to Central and South America. The Capuchin monkey has a hoodlike tuft of hair on its head, so a reference to the cappuccio was entirely natural.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nobody Nose . . .

Q. This may sound a bit crude, but is there a technical term for nose-picking?

A. You mean like going through a proboscis catalogue at your plastic surgeon's office? No, I guess you mean booger mining, as my granddaughter calls it.

Believe it or not, there is such a word: rhinotillexomania. It may be an imaginative creation, but an article actually appeared in Volume 62 (2001) of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry using the word in its title: A Preliminary Survey of Rhinotillexomania in an Adolescent Sample by Chittaranjan Andrade, M.D., and B. S. Srihari, M.B.B.S.

Their conclusion was "Nose picking is common in adolescents." No elaborate scientific study needed, people; just look under any school desk in America.

A fixated publication, that Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. It had already run an article in Volume 56 (1995), entitled Rhinotillexomania: psychiatric disorder or habit? by
J.W. Jefferson and T.D. Thompson.

Nothing on amychopygomania, though.

Then a related question was called in:

Q. Snot isn't a real word, is it?

A. But if it's snot, what is it? Slang words or dialectical terms are real words, even if they don't fit comfortably in all social situations. Besides, snot (meaning mucus) has been spelled that way since Middle English (along with snotte), and derives from the Old English word gesnot.

An interesting sidebar: did you ever notice how many words relating to the nose begin with the letters s-n- ? We have snout, snuffle, snort, snore, sneer, snuff, sniffle, snoot, snootful, snivelling, sneeze, snub, snot, snot-rag, and snotcicle. It's no accident. There's an Indo-European root snu- that is responsible for many "nose" words (the ones just listed, plus terms such as schnoz and schnauzer). Nobody nose the troubles I've seen.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Fornication Station

In various parts of the human body, we find vault-like or arched structures. Each one is known as a fornix, from the Latin word for an arch or a vault. There is one in the brain, another in the uterus, yet another in the stomach, and so forth.

But the word fornix appeared much earlier in history as an architectural term. In many Roman structures, arched vaults were common features in basements and elsewhere. And since houses of prostitution were often established in some of these vaulted basements, the term fornix eventually came to mean brothel as well as arch. Horace spoke of fornix et uncta popina, which we might translate today as “the joint is a brothel and greasy spoon combined.”

The arches under the circus were a particularly favorite location for prostitutes. Loose ladies were ardent frequenters of the games of the circus and were always readily available to satisfy the inclinations that the spectacles aroused. These arched vaults were called fornices in the plural, and that is the source of our word fornication.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hobby Horse

Q. I know that a stamp collector is called a philatelist, and a bibliophile collects books, but can you give me a rundown on some other fancy names for hobbies?

A. As it happens, yes I can. A couple of years ago, I did a couple of articles for Barbara Crews and her About Guide to Collectibles ( One of the articles contained a list of hobby names that I made up because they seemed to be nonexistent. The other article contained verifiable names such as the following:

• aerophilatelist: one who collects airmail stamps

• arctophile: one who collects bear figures

• bibliophile: one who collects books

• cameist: one who collects cameos

• cervisiologist: one who collects beer cans

• conchologist: one who collects shells

• deltiologist: one who collects postcards

• discophile: one who collects phonograph records

• errinophilist: one who collects revenue or tax stamps (NOT postage stamps)

• ex-librist: one who collects bookplates

• exonumist: one who collects numismatic items other than coins and paper money

• fusilatelist: one who collects telephone calling cards

• helixophile: one who collects corkscrews <>

• heortologist: one who collects religious calendars

• iconophile: one who collects prints, engravings, etc.

• lepidopterist: one who collects and mounts butterflies

• numismatist: one who collects coins, tokens, medals, paper money

• philatelist: onee who collects postage stamps

• phillumenist: one who collects matchbook covers

• pupaphile: one who collects dolls or puppets

• succrologist: one who collects sugar packets

• vecturist: one who collects transportation tokens

• vexillologist: one who collects flags

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Context is Your Friend

Q. On your program, I heard you say that using context is just as important as using a dictionary, but I didn't catch the details.

A. Every time you look up a word that has multiple meanings, you must use context to decide which dictionary definition is most appropriate. You test the meanings one by one by seeing if they fit the sentence that sent you to the dictionary in the first place.

Using context to decipher meaning often makes a trip to the dictionary unnecessary. Context involves studying the ideas leading up to and following an unknown word. It demands attention and analysis. Watch for the following:

(1) WORD CLUES. The writer actually builds in a definition for a word and uses word signals such as X is/means Y, X is known as Y, that is, X is defined as, etc.
• The metal tip at the end of a shoelace is called an aglet.
• The practice of foretelling the future by consulting animal intestines was known as
• Skill in using one's hands or body is termed dexterity.

(2) PUNCTUATION CLUES. Instead of words to signal a definition, the writer may use commas, dashes, or parentheses.
• Lipomas (fatty tumors) are usually benign and thus not a cause for alarm.
• Duplicity, deliberate deceptiveness in action or speech, is one of the surest ways to destroy
a friendship.
• Appositives—words, phrases, or clauses placed next to a noun—often contain definitions.

(3) SYNONYMS. Watch for equivalent terms, either in clusters or in a connected sentence.
• Falciform swords were standard weapons in the Middle East. The sickle-shaped blade was
designed to behead enemies with a single blow.
• Beware of politicians who make nebulous and vague promises.
• Ostriches are probably the most familiar of the ratites. Such flightless birds have a long
history, dating back 135 million years to a huge flightless bird called Aepyornis.

(4) EXAMPLE. Watch for the signals for example, for instance, such as, and like.
• Pain is a useful warning signal, but most people rush to relieve it by taking analgesics such
as aspirins, barbiturates, codeine, and tranquilizers.
• Misdemeanors, for example, include drunkenness, disorderly conduct, small or petty thefts,
trespassing on private property, and loitering in a public place.
• Certain impediments may make a marriage invalid. For instance, being younger than the
minimum age set by law or already being legally married to someone else are impediments
to marriage.

(5) DESCRIPTIONS. Look for words that help you to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell.
• Dylan was emaciated. His clothes hung loosely from his frame, and his arms and legs could
have been used as toothpicks.
• An exoskeleton feels hard to the touch, cannot easily be squashed by applied pressure, and
offers a sort of armor by which a lobster, crab, or other creature can avoid the teeth, claws,
or tentacles of an enemy.
• It didn't take us long to figure out that he was a tyro at golf. He didn't know where to tee
off, he tried to use his putter as a driver, and he couldn't figure out how to start the golf

(6) CONTRAST OR OPPOSITES. Watch for contrast words such as but, yet, however, nevertheless, in spite of, and on the other hand. Watch also for negative signals such as no, not, never, and nor.
• People in authority should be careful not to hire mendacious aides. Assistants who are not
truthful will make their boss guilty by association.
• Some apartments are small and cramped and are no bargain. On the other hand, some are
• Some events or experiences do not happen only once. They recur.

So when you come across a word that you don’t know, train yourself to look at its setting, its surroundings--its context.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

2006 Bulwer-Lytton Contest Results

2006 Bulwer-Lytton Contest

If you’re not already familiar with it, treat yourself to the web site of the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, an annual literary parody that asks contestants to submit just the opening line to an imaginary novel.

The results for the 2006 contest have been announced, and I am pleased to say that my entry in the Romance Category garnered a Dishonorable Mention:

“Like a baleen whale inhaling krill--a collection of small marine crustaceans of the order Euphausiacea--or an anteater sucking up Formicidae-- characteristically having wings only in the males and fertile females and living in colonies that have a complex social organization--her lips sought out mine in a passionate kiss.”

Michael J. Sheehan
Cedar, MI

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Berry Good

Q. So, I'm walking through the produce section the other day, and I'm admiring the variety of berries available. Then it hits me: blueberry and blackberry make perfect sense, but boysen and straw? And what the heck is a cran?

A. Berry good; you were paying attention. I must admit that I never thought about this before, so it's been an education.

• Blueberry and blackberry, as you point out, are simply color descriptors.

• The cran- in cranberry comes from a German word meaning crane, the bird. My sources don't come up with a reason. Do cranes eat them? Does the bush resemble a crane perched in a marsh? Any grallatorial specialists out there who can help?

• The gooseberry is another puzzle. The Oxford English Dictionary leans towards the bird as a possible source, but there are twists and turns: “The grounds on which plants and fruits have received names associating them with animals are . . commonly inexplicable . . . .”

• The boysenberry gets its name from the American botanist, Rudolph Boysen.

• The straw- in strawberry refers to a straw after all. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might be because the plant runners looked like straw, but it hedges by using the word conjecture.

• The raspberry may refer to its prickly, scratchy stems (as in rasp file).

• The huckleberry probably started as the hurtleberry (small balls).

• Lingonberry comes from the Swedish lingon, mountain cranberry.

A fruitful subject, indeed.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ciceronian Style

Q. I came across a reference to someone's Ciceronian style. What does that mean?

A. It refers to an oratorical style perfected by the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.). Thanks to an aide of his (Tiro) who developed one of the first shorthand systems in history, an incredible number of his speeches have been preserved, so it's not difficult to extract the elements of his style.

He perfected what are known as periodic sentences, sentences that don’t fall completely into place until the very last word. (The term periodic came from the Greek word periodos, a racetrack or circuit.) His style includes elegance, lofty language, tripartite sentences (we shall battle on the land, we shall fight in the air, we shall win on the seas), the verb saved until the end of the sentence, and various rhetorical devices in the service of forceful indictments and parallel treatment.

Modern style is much different; we must go back to American orators of the 19th century to capture adapted versions of the Ciceronian style in our country. Today, many would see it as too ornate, too indirect, and generally boring (Like, I go, say it and sit down, dude).

Here's a quote from Hamlet (I.ii. 8 -14) which incorporates some features of the style:
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Naked as a Jay Bird

Q. What is the origin of the phrase "naked as a jay bird?"

A. You pose an interesting question, particularly because most experts don't have a secure answer. The real puzzle, of course, is that far from being naked, the bluejay is covered with brilliant blue and white and black feathers--a veritable riot of clothing.

Evan Morris (The Word Detective) and Christine Ammer (Cool Cats, Top Dogs, and Other Beastly Expressions) are two wordsmiths who at least tried to formulate an answer. Their speculations:

(1) In 19th century America, jay was slang for a hick, a simpleton, a gullible person. In that case, naked as a jay would refer to a completely vulnerable person, not to a bird. And we have another vestige of that meaning: to jaywalk. This referred to country bumpkins wandering around gawking at tall buildings and paying no attention to traffic signals.

(2) All perching birds, including jays, are born with hardly any down at all, making them quite helpless.

So "naked" turns out to be the easy part, expressing vulnerability. "Jay" is the problem. Human or bird? Take your pick. No one seems to know.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sincerely Yours

Anyone can be fooled by folk etymology. In essence, humans are fabricators; we would rather make something up or grasp at an off-the-wall explanation than admit that some things have been lost in the mists of history and that others are painfully prosaic in origin. So if someone can come along with an imaginative story that has even a shred of possibility to it, we bite.

One that fooled me until about a decade ago was the origin of the word sincere. The story given was plausible enough. In ancient Rome, sculptors worked in a lucrative trade. Private parties and public works used their services frequently and rewarded them handsomely. But occasionally an unscrupulous sculptor would botch a job and look for a quick fix. A popular ruse was to fill in a crack or a botched chisel mark with wax. It could be smoothed over and made to match the color of the stone by mixing in powdered rock. The catch was that on a very hot day on the banks of the Tiber, the wax would melt, and the owner would discover that he had been cheated.

All of this was validated by the alleged origin of the word sincere: sine cera, without wax. Actually, those are two legitimate Latin words. The story above went on to add that honest sculptors would advertise that their work was sine cera. No wax job here, domine.

And I think that analogical thinking further sucked me in. The word sinecure (any office or position which has no work or duties attached to it, especially one that yields a stipend) truly comes from the Latin sine cure, signifying an ecclesiastical benefice that comes without care of souls. That made without wax seem even more probable as an explanation for sincere.

As it turns out, the only wax involved was in my ears. Unabridged dictionaries reveal that the actual source was probably sim- (one, as in simplex, onefold) or sem- (one, as in semel, once). And the -cere segment owes its origin to crescere, to grow. This combination produced the Latin adjective sincerus--clean, pure, sound. The Oxford English Dictionary feels compelled to add this disclaimer: “There is no probability in the old explanation from sine cera, without wax.”

So, bite the wax tadpole, dude.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Straight From the Shoulder

Q. To give someone the cold shoulder – where does that come from?

A. There are differences of opinion on this one. The spurious folk etymology version says that in the Middle Ages, unwelcome guests were given a cold shoulder of meat rather than a hot meal; it was a sign that they were not wanted and should leave.

But for one thing, a meal with meat (even cold meat) was a luxury that most people seldom enjoyed; it certainly wasn't punishment. That story is bogus, though widespread, especially on the internet.

For another, it doesn't show up in print until 1816, when it appears in Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Antiquary. Not only does this late date eliminate a medieval source, but Scott uses it in the sense of a dismissive shrug of the shoulder, not a cold meal.

“The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”

Scott used it again in his 1824 St Ronan’s Well:

“I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally”.

After Scott used the phrase a couple of times, it caught on like wildfire and began to appear everywhere. He was, after all, the most popular novelist of his time. So the most probable explanation is that he took a Scottish metaphor and introduced it to the English-speaking world.

No shoulder to cry on here.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Days & Months of Our Lives

Q. Where did we get the names for the days of the week and for the 12 months?

A. All the days of the week were named after Germanic gods or cosmic objects.

  • Sunday: the day of the sun.
  • Monday: the day of the moon.
  • Tuesday: the day of the war god Tiu.
  • Wednesday: the day of Woden, swift messenger god.
  • Thursday: the day of Thor, lord of the sky.
  • Friday: the day of Frig, goddess of love.
  • Saturday: the day of Saturn, god of agriculture.

There are some matching problems with the names of the months, and you can blame the Romans for that. Since they had 10 months in their calendar and we have 12, there are now some inconsistencies permanently built into the names of the last four months of the year.
  • January: named for the god Janus, god of gates, doorways, and
    beginnings in general.
  • February: the month of purification, the name taken from the
    Latin februa, expiatory offerings.
  • March: named for Mars, the god of war.
  • April: named for Aprhrodite the goddess of love and beauty.
  • May: named for the goddess Maia, the mother of Hermes.
  • June: named for Juno, the goddess of women, marriage, childbirth,
    and the moon.
  • July: named for Julius Caesar.
  • August: named for Augustus Caesar.
  • September: the 7th month in the Roman calendar [septem = seven].
  • October: the 8th month in the Roman calendar [octo = eight].
  • November: the 9th month in the Roman calendar [novem = nine].
  • December: the 10th month in the Roman calendar [decem = ten].

Brief History of the Calendar

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Free on the Fourth

It’s the 4th of July, so let’s cover a few appropriate words, starting with freedom. Apropos of the holiday, the meaning that springs to mind is “exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty.”

The free- part of this word goes back to an Old English and Germanic sense. As opposed to a slave or servant, a free member of a household was related by kinship to the head of the household. Related words in various languages included endearment, love, and friend. The -dom suffix signified a state or condition. So it’s a homely and relatively uncomplicated word.

The word liberty tracks back to the Latin adjective liber, free, so we can see why freedom and liberty are considered such tight synonyms. Of the two, freedom is the more general and wide-ranging. Liberty focuses a bit more narrowly on the power to choose. (Complicating things, there was an unconnected Latin noun, liber, that meant either the bark of a tree or a book, since bark was an early writing material.)

Finally, there is independence, which Americans celebrate on this day. Originally, something dependent was hanging down, pendent, like a wasp's nest. This developed into the concept of having one’s existence contingent on someone or something else--in other words, being subordinate. The -in prefix happens to be the negative version, so something independent is not contingent on another; it is free.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Grin and Bear It

Q. My mother says that the Arctic got its name from a Latin word that meant bear, because there are polar bears there. And because there are no polar bears at the southern pole, it was named Antarctica (anti-) to show the absence of bears.

A. There are two parallel realities going on here, but they don't overlap all the way. The Australian Antarctic Division confirms that there are polar bears in the Arctic and none in the Antarctic, but that’s not how the continents were named.

The ancient Greeks knew about the Arctic and named it after the northern constellation —Makros Arktos (or Ursa Major, as we know it from the Latin), translated as “Great Bear” in English. The Greeks were big fans of symmetry, so sight unseen, they decided that there must be a similar cold land mass at the opposite pole: AntArktos, or opposite the bear.

Considering that it wasn’t until the 1820’s that organized exploration of Antarctica took place, that was pretty astute reckoning.

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Dona Sheehan's prints