Monday, December 31, 2007

There’s Jam on the Door Jamb

A jamb is a vertical post or piece that forms one side of a door, a window frame, or a fireplace. It always has one or more partners.

Jamb in Old French meant a leg, and it descended from the Latin gamba, a horse’s hock. (Thus, it is connected to the words gambol and gambit.)

A hock corresponds to the human ankle, but it bends the other way. Science fiction movies sometimes show aliens in the guise of humans, but with grotesquely-jointed legs.
[ reference The Arrival]

The word jamb has had a colorful and varied history.

• On a coat-of-arms, a jamb was a leg.
• In military history, it was armor meant to cover a good portion of a soldier’s leg.
• A jamb was the projecting wing of a building.
• It was a projecting column or pillar in a mine or a quarry.
• Also in mining, jamb signified a bed of clay or stone running across a mineral vein or seam.
• At one time, it was an angular turn or corner in a street or an alleyway.
• And in Nigeria, JAMB is an acronym for Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board.

SIDEBAR: Jamba Juice [on David Letterman]

SIDEBAR: Replacing a split door jamb

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Coin of the Realm, redux

Tom Phillips from Suttons Bay, Michigan, was looking for information on the phrase, “coin of the realm.” In its literal sense, it meant the legal currency of a given political unit. In its early existence, the word coin had multiple spellings, all deriving from a Latin word meaning corner or wedge [cuneus]. The coin was struck with a wedge-shaped device holding a die that imprinted image and inscription on a blank disc. In time, the word transferred from the die to the money itself. After many centuries, the spelling coin is now reserved for the money, and quoin has been allocated to the corner, angle, or wedge.

Ultimately, the phrase coin of the realm developed into a figurative sense: something valued or used as if it were money in a particular sphere. Here are some diverse examples:

• “Fear, of course, has been the coin of the realm for oppressive and dictatorial governments throughout history. Frighten the citizenry and they’ll practically beg you to take away their freedom.” [Future of Freedom Foundation]
• “Latte is the coin of the realm.” [Joseph Gallivan]
• “Credibility is the coin of the realm.” [Dana Blankenhorn, quoting George Schultz]
• “Scholarly books are the coin of the realm of knowledge.” [Peter Givler]
• “Information is the coin of the realm in the capital.” [Eloise Salholz]
• “On the web, English becomes the coin of the realm.” []
• "The MBA generally is recognized as the coin of the realm for graduate business education." [Stanley Gabor ]

In other coin-operated phrases, you may end up coining a phrase when you look at the other side of the coin and then pay someone in his own coin.

In his 1821 essay On Familiar Style, British writer William Hazlitt nicely brought the literal and figurative senses together:

“All provincial or bye-phrases come under the same mark of reprobation — all such as the writer transfers to the page from his fireside or a particular coterie, or that he invents for his own sole use and convenience. I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value. I am fastidious in this respect, and would almost as soon coin the currency of the realm as counterfeit the King's English.”

SIDEBAR: Coin of the Realm

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays, 2007

icon art by Dona Sheehan

When love of us called him to see
If we’d vouchsafe his company,
He left his father’s court, and came
Lightly as a lambent flame,
Leaping upon the hills, to be
The humble King of you and me.

Richard Crashaw
1613 - 1649

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Holy Season, part 2

Another Greek root meaning holy is hiero-, from hieros, sacred or holy. Let’s look at some representative samples.

• hierocracy: The rule of priests or religious dignitaries; government by priests or ecclesiastics
• hierodule: A slave (of either sex) dwelling in a temple, and dedicated to the service of a god. [Actually, they tended to be courtesans, a holy office at the time.]
• hierogamy: A sacred marriage.
• hieroglyph: A figure of some object, as a tree, animal, etc., standing for a word. [sacred carving]
• hierogram: A sacred symbol.
• hierograph: A sacred inscription or symbol
• hierography: A description of sacred things; a description of religions.
• hierolatry: Worship of holy beings or saints
• hierology: (1) ‘A discourse on sacred things’ (Webster 1828). Obs. (2) Hieroglyphic lore; the study of Egyptian records. Obs.
• hieromachy: A conflict of ecclesiastics.
• hieromancy: Divination from the observation of objects offered in religious sacrifices, or from sacred things.
• hieromartyr: In the Greek Calendar, a martyr who was in holy orders.
• hieropathic: Consisting in love of the clergy.
• hierophant: An official expounder of sacred mysteries or religious ceremonies, esp. in ancient Greece; an initiating or presiding priest.
• hierophobia: Fear or horror of sacred things or persons.
• hieroscopy: a kind of divination, performed by considering the victim, and observing every thing that occurs during the course of the sacrifice.

SIDEBAR: Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary

SIDEBAR: Hieroglyphic Ensemble [Go to June 26 on that site]

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Holy Season, part 1

The church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), once the most important church in the Christian Orient.

Perhaps only theologians or word phreaks will care, but a number of words are based on Greek roots that mean holy. Today, let’s focus on hagio-, from the Greek hagios, holy or saintly.

• hagiocracy: A government or sovereignty of persons esteemed holy.
• hagiographer: A sacred writer, especially one of the writers of the Hagiographa [Psalms, Proverbs, Job; Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther; Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles]
• hagiography: The writing of the lives of saints; saints' lives as a branch of literature or legend.
• hagiolatry: The worship of saints.
• hagiologist: A writer of hagiology; one versed in the legends of saints.
• hagiology: The literature that treats of the lives and legends of saints; also, by extension, of great men or heroes; a work on the lives and legends of the saints.
• hagiomania: Saintly madness; a mania for sainthood;
• hagioscope: A small opening, cut through a chancel arch or wall, to enable worshippers in an aisle or side chapel to obtain a view of the elevation of the host.
• hagiosidere: [1730] A plate of iron. . .which the Greeks under the dominion of the Turks (being prohibited the use of bells) strike on, with a hammer, to call the people to church.
• hagiotypic: pertaining to types of saints.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Kicking All Kinds of Butt

Aphrodite: Callipygian Venus

The Greek word for buttocks is pi-upsilon-gamma-eta. The upsilon is usually transliterated as a -y-, so we’d spell the base root as -pyg-. Let’s look at some of the words containing that root and check their meanings.

callipygian: Of, pertaining to, or having well-shaped or finely developed buttocks.
cytopyge: the excretory opening or anus of a unicellular animal.
dasypygal: Having hairy buttocks; rough-bottomed.
platypygous: broad-bottomed (of boats) Zoology Obs. rare having broad buttocks.
pygal: Of or pertaining to the rump or hind quarters of an animal.
pygobranchiate: a group of gastropods having the gills arranged round the anus.
pygopage: a monster consisting of twins united in the region of the buttocks.
steatopygia: A protuberance of the buttocks, due to an abnormal accumulation of fat in and behind the hips and thighs.
uropygial: Situated on, belonging to, the rump. Ornithology

Don’t confuse it with the other Greek root -pyg-, transferred to Latin as -pug-, which relates to fighting (impugn, repugn) and to the fist (pugilism, pugilist, pygmy).

See Shortchanged [September 22, 2006]

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

War of the Words, Trojan Style

In legend, the Trojan War started when Paris abducted Helen, wife of King Menelaus. Referring to Helen, Christopher Marlowe wrote, in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,
“Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”

The Trojan War introduced us to a large cast of characters, and some of them have lent their names to words still commonly used.

The Odyssey is one of the great epic poems of ancient Greece. It recounts the adventures of Odysseus as he returned home to Ithica after fighting in the Trojan War. It took him an incredible ten years. By extended use, odyssey refers to a long series of wanderings or a long adventurous journey. [See Odyssey of the Mind]

To hector is to act as a bully, to brag, bluster, or domineer. Oddly enough, it is taken from the name Hector, a hero in the Trojan War. For centuries, Hector was regarded as a heroic figure, a valiant warrior with a loyal streak a mile wide. But in 16th century England, his name began to be applied to hoodlums who roamed the streets of London. Shakespeare probably shares much of the blame. He presented Hector as a narcissist in Troilus and Cressida.

achilles heel
An achilles heel is a vulnerable spot--often, the only vulnerability in a person or a plan. Legend has it that Achilles’ goddess mother, Thetis, tried to make her baby immortal by dipping him in the River Styx. She held him by the heel so she could retrieve him, and that remained his only vulnerability. Sure enough, he died when an arrow [some say a spear] hit him in the heel. But before that, he killed Hector during the Trojan War.

trojan horse
Trojan is the adjective referring to Troy, and a trojan horse is something that destroys from within--something insinuated to bring down an enemy. In computer terms, it is software surreptiously inserted into a computer. It appears to be doing something legitimate, but it actually gives the perpetrator control of the invaded computer. Historically, the name refers to a hollow wooden horse, ostensibly abandoned by the fleeing Greek fleet, in which Greek forces, including Odysseus, hid themselves in order to enter Troy.

ADDENDUM: My son Michael reminds me that I left one out--Stentor. Stentor was a Greek warrior in the Trojan war, “whose voice was as powerful as fifty voices of other men.” The word stentorian thus means very loud, powerful, and far-reaching in sound, as a person with a stentorian voice.

SIDEBAR: The Trojan Band

SIDEBAR: McAfee Threat Center

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Monday, December 10, 2007


The word steep may have arisen from a Scandinavian word describing the process of soaking barley in order to make a malt.

As a noun, it means the soaking process, the liquid used in maceration, and the wild midday plunge taken by a stag in hot weather. Who would have known?

The adjective has meant elevated or lofty, having a high voice, brilliant (such as the eyes or stars), perpendicular and precipitous, arduous and difficult, violent or extreme, and excessive or extravagant. It’s all over the landscape.

The verb means to soak in water or some other liquid, to bathe or envelop as in a mist, to soak a weapon in blood, to deaden the senses, and to place in a sloping condition.

By the way, did you know that 8 1/2 bushels of good dry barley will, after forty-eight hours steep, swell to exactly 100 bushels? So says the 1896 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Better check that leaky storage shed.

The word steeple--a lofty tower forming part of a church, temple, or other public edifice (often serving to contain the bells)--is obviously connected. These days, a steeplechase is a man-made course supplied with artificial fences, water-jumps, and other obstacles to test horse and rider. Originally, racers picked out a distant church steeple and raced towards it, dealing with whatever obstacles intervened: ditch, fence, hedge, etc. The first one to reach the church was the winner.

SIDEBAR: The Steep Canyon Rangers

SIDEBAR: Steep cliffs on Mars

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Shadow Knows

Shade and shadow are linguistic brothers, both found in Old English and with relatives in the Teutonic language groups. Both express comparative darkness -- the lack of complete illumination. Later, in a figurative application, they came to mean spirits of the underworld.

Thanks to Latin and Greek roots, there are many words in English that lurk in the shadows. Here are a few.
• adumbrate: to overshadow, shade, obscure [L. umbra, shadow]
• macroscian: having a long shadow [Gr. skia, shadow]
• penumbra: a partially shaded area [L. umbra]
• sciamachy: fighting with shadows [Gr. skia]
• sciatheric: pertaining to a sundial [Gr. skia]
• sciomancy: divination by communication with the shades of the dead. [Gr. skia]
• sciurine: belonging to the squirrel family [literally, “shadow tail”]
• skiascope: instrument that measures refraction in the eye [Gr. skia]
• umbrage: displeasure, annoyance, offence, resentment [L. umbra]
• umbrella: portable shelter or protection [L. umbra]

Interestingly, in the 17th and 18th centuries, there seems to have been a preoccupation with fabled people in distant lands based on their shadow-casting characteristics.
• Amphisians: a name given to inhabitants of the torrid zone, whose shadows at one time of the year fall northward, at another southward.
• Antiscii: those who live on the same meridian, but on the opposite side of the equator, so that their shadows at noon fall in opposite directions.
• Ascians: inhabitants of the torrid zone, who twice a year have the sun directly overhead at noon, and then cast no shadows.
• Heteroscian: a name applied to the people of the two temperate zones in reference to the fact that, in the two zones, noon-shadows always fall in opposite directions.
• Macroscian: a person whose shadow is long, specifically an inhabitant of the polar regions.
• Periscii: the inhabitants of the polar regions, so called from the fact that their shadows revolve around them as the sun moves round.
• Sciapodes: a fabulous people of Libya “with immense feet which they used as sunshades” (Liddell & Scott). Move over, Emmet Kelly.

SIDEBAR: The Shadows

SIDEBAR: The sound of the Shadows

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Monday, December 03, 2007


A thimble is a bell-shaped sheath worn on the thumb to push the needle through resisting material while sewing. It is believed that the earliest thimbles were made of leather, although the oldest surviving thimbles are made of bronze or other metal. In modern times, they have been made of any material accessible to humans.

The word thimble is close in appearance to the word thumb, and that’s no accident. Thimble tracks back to the Old English thuma, thumb. The -le ending sometimes signifies an instrument or tool, as in handle and paddle.

In construction, a chimney thimble is a sleeve embedded in the chimney wall designed to accept the flue connector from an appliance.

Collectors of thimbles call themselves digitabulists, from the Latin digitus, a finger. [Pollicist, from the Latin word for thumb, might have been more appropriate.] A couple of other thumb words are pollical and pollicar, pertaining to the thumb.

SIDEBAR: The Thimbles

SIDEBAR: Thimble Collectors International

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