Monday, April 30, 2007

Caveat Emptor

Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I have twinges of nostalgia for words that have passed out of currency and are now considered obsolete. It’s not so much the lost words themselves; it’s the word parts upon which they were built. A case in point is -empt/or-.

It comes from the Latin verb emere, to buy. That lead to the noun emptio, a purchase. Many of you will be familiar with the phrase caveat emptor, which means “let the buyer beware.” That is one of the few traces left today, and it’s not even English.

Here are some of the now-obsolete words that used this word part:

• coemption: The buying up of the whole supply of any commodity in the market.
• emption: The action of buying: chiefly in phrases, right of (sole) emption, etc.
• emptional: That which may be purchased
• emptitious: Venal, capable of being bought.
• emptor: A purchaser.
• emptory: A mart, market-place.

I propose reviving the word emptorial, defined as “of or pertaining to buying.” Thus, we would have emptorial frenzy, emptorial sprees, emptorial considerations and concerns, emptorial opportunities, emptorial compulsion, and emptorial trends or patterns.

The word is not a total invention. The word actually appeared in the 1922 edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, edited by Mawson. In that edition, it appeared under 795: Purchase.

I am also reminded of the word part onio-, which comes from the Greek oneisthai, to buy. It appears in the word oniomania, a compulsive urge to buy things. Evidently, even the Greeks and Romans had blue light specials: venditio cum luce caeruleo.

SIDEBAR: Food buying tips

SIDEBAR: Budgeting

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Ex- vs. Former

Should it be an ex-president or a former president? Are the two interchangeable?
Ron/Traverse City, MI

This is one of the many manufactured controversies that bedevil people and make their lives unnecessarily complicated. Both ex- and former are properly used as designations for persons who have previously held the office in question.

H.W. Fowler seems to be the culprit in this case. His A Dictionary of Modern English Usage contains this entry for ex-:

For such patent yet prevalent absurdities as ex-Lord Mayor, ex-Chief Whip, ex-Tory Solicitor-General (except in another sense than its writer means), see HYPHENS; & for alternatives, LATE.

Fowler was often an elegant writer and a dispenser of common sense, but there was a spasm of personal preference in this entry disguised as proper grammar. Even he admits that saying the late Lord Mayor should be avoided “because of the doubt whether it means that the person’s life, or his tenure of office, is over.” In modern America, unless you are fond of using the phrase of late instead of the word recently, late means dead in this context.

I acknowledge that one of Fowler’s points was to avoid ambiguous hyphenated terms, such as ex-Friend of the Library member. The single-minded among us could construe that to mean that this person is now a raving enemy of the library and a flaming book-burner, but the rest of us realize that ex- modifies the entire phrase, not simply the word to which it is attached.

So, many commentators have arrived at this compromise. (1) Use ex- for the immediate past office holder: ex-president Bill Clinton. (2) Use former for all previous holders of the office: former president Jimmy Carter. (3) Use late to indicate a recently deceased holder of the office: late president Gerald Ford.
My advice: relax. There are more serious things to worry about, such as shallow one-minute formats passing as presidential candidate debates. Shame on you, MSNBC.

SIDEBAR: H.W. Fowler, The King’s English

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Doug from Traverse City (MI) asked about the meaning and use of hubris. It comes from a classical Greek term, and currently it means pride and excessive self-confidence.

It was more than swollen ego in the old days. It was anger wrapped in insolence, and when it resulted in insulting, degrading treatment of another person, it was actually a crime. In Greek law, according to Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, hubris included all the more serious injuries done to another, and it was a grievous assault. It could lead to public indictment.

When anger and contempt lead to lesser injuries upon another, Liddell and Scott say that it was known as aikia, and the remedy was more likely to be private action. Variations on the word hubris historically included wantonness, lewdness, and restiveness on the part of overfed horses. I hate it when that happens.

Aristotle discussed hubris in his Rhetoric [1378b]:

“There are three kinds of slighting -- contempt, spite, and insolence. (1) Contempt is one kind of slighting: you feel contempt for what you consider unimportant, and it is just such things that you slight. (2) Spite is another kind; it is a thwarting another man's wishes, not to get something yourself but to prevent his getting it. The slight arises just from the fact that you do not aim at something for yourself: clearly you do not think that he can do you harm, for then you would be afraid of him instead of slighting him, nor yet that he can do you any good worth mentioning, for then you would be anxious to make friends with him. (3) Insolence is also a form of slighting, since it consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to yourself, or because anything has happened to yourself, but simply for the pleasure involved. (Retaliation is not "insolence," but vengeance.) The cause of the pleasure thus enjoyed by the insolent man is that he thinks himself greatly superior to others when ill-treating them.”

Number 3 gives the essence of hubris: shaming and humiliating another. Stick the knife in and twist it, baby.

St. Paul turned the whole concept on its head when he said that Christians should welcome shame and humiliation as a test of faith. In 2 Corinthians 12:10, he writes,

“Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The original Greek hubris was translated in this KJV passage as insults.

SIDEBAR: The Use of Greek Hubris as a Concept Applied to Contemporary History Events

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Brain Cramps

In researching word parts for the 2nd edition of my Word Parts Dictionary, one of the sources that I have gone through is Dorland’s The American Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 12th Edition (1923). It’s a delightful book, giving not only accurate Greek and Latin sources, but providing a glimpse at an earlier world.

One of the interesting sidebars if found under the entry “cramp.” It takes us back to a day when ergonomics was not much of a consideration. Here are some of the cramps that a doctor would look for.

• “auctioneers’ cramp: a professional neurosis affecting mainly the left side of the orbuicularis oris muscle.” I’m curious; does anyone know why that’s so site-specific?

• “compositors’ cramp: an occupation neurosis of the thumb and fingers of compositors, resembling writers’ cramp.”

• “hammermans’ cramp: a spasmodic affection of the muscles of the entire arm.” There must have been a lot of carpenters at work in the 1920s, as evidenced next.

• “hephestic cramp: hammerman’s cramp.” Obviously, the editor was showing off a classical education here. Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire, and he was the patron of blacksmiths.

• “seamstresses’ cramp: a neurosis of sewing-women, resembling writers’ cramp.”

• “shaving cramp: a neurosis of the hands of barbers resembling writers’ cramp.”

• “telegraphers’ cramp: a neurosis resembling writers’ cramp, seen in telegraphers.”

• “watchmakers’ cramp: a spasm of the finger muscles peculiar to watchmakers.”

• “writers” cramp: an occupation neurosis due to excessive writing. It is marked by spasmodic contraction of the muscles of the fingers, hand, and forearm, together with neuralgic pain therein. It comes on whenever an attempt is made to write.”

The message is loud and clear: mothers, don’t let your sons and daughters grow up to be writers. And we thought our age was dangerous because of Blackberry thumb.

Sidebar: Hephaestus

Sidebar: Blackberry thumb

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Eating Words

Q. At what point do words become a solid piece of the language? Everyone knows hola and uses it on a regular basis, but it's still considered Spanish.
Kate/Leelanau School,
Glen Arbor, MI

A. I don't think that there's a time limit for transference of foreign terms into English. When words stop being foreign and are considered just as English as anything else can be a slow process or a fast process. It depends on a number of external factors.

But I have noticed a few related things that take place when a word is fully assimilated. One is that these words stop appearing in print with italics or quotation marks when they are finally welcomed into the club. They also eventually lose any accent marks that we don’t use in English.

Another sign is that they stop being defined in parentheses; they are simply accepted as familiar, not treated as if they were illegal aliens.

Finally, when the assimilation process is complete, they will show up in an English dictionary filed alphabetically with all the other English words. An example would be bete noire. Those who know what it means treat it as if they were saying something like the bogeyman. Other assimilated terms include habeas corpus, genre, kimono, igloo, macho, heuristic, angst, gulag, klutz, paparazzi, and impasse.

To find more on the process, try using the search terms assimilation or borrowing.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kangaroo Kop

A caller asked about the term “kangaroo cop.” It joins Keysone Cop and Rent-a-Cop as terms of derision, but it’s a bit edgier and more sinister than they are.

It’s intimately connected with “kangaroo court,” a proceeding that is markedly unfair and self-serving. It’s vigilante justice and rush to judgment on steroids.

The term started in the days of the California Gold Rush, and the image of a kangaroo was meant to show erratic hopping from place to place. There is some disagreement on precisely what was doing the hopping.

One opinion says that it was an apt image for jumping to a conclusion. The judge--and the puppet jury, if there was one--knew the outcome before the trial began, and jumped to the verdict as soon as cosmetically possible.

Others say that because it was the Gold Rush, many of the trials involved claim jumping, and the point was to get the stake back in the hands that the judge deemed worthy. In Texas, this would have been called a Mustang Court, and it would have involved ownership of livestock.

A third theory says that it refers to the practice of itinerant judges. They were legitimately appointed, but they rode from town to town on a moment’s notice. The fact that they were paid based on volume and the amount of the fine would have made speedy justice desirable. Now they advertise on T.V. and have 800 numbers.

So, a kangaroo cop was an officer who would haul the accused to a kangaroo court. Years later, in Williams v. United States, Justice William O. Douglas would write this: "Where police take matters in their own hands, seize victims, beat and pound them until they confess, there cannot be the slightest doubt that the police have deprived the victim of a right under the Constitution. It is the right of the accused to be tried by a legally constituted court, not by a kangaroo court"

SIDEBAR: Tie me kangaroo down

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter, Step by Step

  • Ancient Babylonians and Syrians worshipped the goddess Ishtar.
  • Among Semitic worshippers, the same goddess was called Astarte.
  • When her cult spread to Europe, her name evolved into Ostara.
  • The name came into Anglo-Saxon as Eastre.
Her feast occurred during the vernal equinox, and since she was a fertility goddess, prolific symbols such as rabbits and eggs were part of the trappings.

Canny Christian missionaries incorporated some of the features into their celebration of the Resurrection.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Homophones: Phone Home

I came across two amusing items while working on the next edition of the Word Parts Dictionary.

We’re all aware of the disconnect that exists between sound and spelling in English. If you ask someone to spell the equivalent of the sound hear/here or the sound there/their/they’re, the first thing you’re going to hear is, “which one do you mean?”

Say sigh/koll/oh/gee out loud, and to a person we will all write psychology [Gr. psukho-, mind, + -logia, area of knowledge]. But another equivalent of that sound is sycology, the study of figs [Gr. sukon-, fig, + -logia, area of knowledge]. Everyone is aware of a word that shares the same root: sycophant. Originally, a sycophant was an informant rather than today’s abject flatterer, but the OED informs us that its origin is disputed. It may be related to an obscene gesture, “showing the fig.” That consisted of pushing the thumb between two fingers and holding them up. It sounds like the same contemptuous intent embedded in thrusting the middle finger straight up in the air as a display.

The other word with a disconnect needs a little wriggle room, but it’s close. Say fill/oll/uh/gist, and most of us will write philologist [Gr. philo- love of, + -logos, word]. A close contender would be phellologist, an expert in the substance cork [Gr. phellos, cork]. Some not-so-common words using this root are phelloderm, phellogen, phellogenetic, phellogenic, and phelloplastic (a cork model or figure).


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