Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Psephologist Goes Mano a Mano


Political consultant Peter Fenn appeared on CNN Wednesday afternoon (1/30/08) and spoke about the Democratic debate set for Thursday night (1/ 31/08). He noted that it will be down to two major candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Referring to the expected tussle, he said “It will be mano against . . .well . . . not mano.” At least he didn’t say womano.

Nay, nay, Mr. Fenn. Mano a mano does not mean man to man, a mistake appearing far too frequently these days. Rather, it means hand to hand, and it comes to us from the Spanish, which borrowed it from the Latin manus (as in manual labor). Two women can fight mano a mano. This atrocity belongs in the Museum of the Misused, along with thinking that “begging the question” is the same as “raising the question” or “asking the question.” It ain’t.

And now for something completely different. Mr. Fenn might be called a psephologist.

The ancient Athenians used to vote by putting a pebble in a ballot box of their choice. The Greek word for pebble was psephos, and that has led to several English terms.

psephism: a decree enacted by a vote of a public assembly, especially that of ancient Athens.
psephocracy: the form of government which results from the election of representatives by ballot; the system of government by elected representatives.
psephocrat: an adherent or advocate of government by elected representatives.
psephograph: a machine used for the automatic recording of votes. It was invented in the early 20th century by a young Italian, Signor Boggiano, to thwart ballot box stuffing.
psephologist: a political scientist who specializes in the study of elections; an analyst or forecaster of voting statistics and trends. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that Dr. David Butler, of Oxford University, invented the term in jest in 1952 on the suggestion of R.B. McCallum. ‘Taint funny, McGee.
psephology: the study of public elections; statistical analysis of trends in voting; the prediction of electoral results based on analysis of sample polls, voting patterns, etc.

In closing, I should mention that a few -pseph- words have nothing to do with voting.

Psephite is a coarse-grained rock.
• There was an ancient custom of assigning numerical values to letters. Two words that added up to the same sum were called isopsephic: equal in numeric value. There was mystical meaning behind the process. [See abraxis]
Psephomancy was divination accomplished by drawing a number of small marked pebbles from a jar, then interpreting their meaning. This was also known as lithomancy and pessomancy.

SIDEBAR: Psephos Election Archive

SIDEBAR: The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show

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Monday, January 28, 2008

In a Dither



If you have access to the Blondie comic strip, you are familiar with Mr. Dithers, Dagwood’s boss. Since to dither means to act indecisively, to waver between different courses of action, the name doesn’t quite fit the character. Julius Dithers knows exactly what he wants: more work from his employees for less pay.

Dither originally meant “to tremble, quake, quiver, or thrill.” It later developed the meaning “to confuse, perplex, or make nervous,” and Mr. Dithers certainly has that effect on poor Dagwood.

Dither is related to the word dodder, as in doddering old fool, a nasty reference to someone who shakes in frailty or has a tottering gait.

In computer graphics, dithering is the process of juxtaposing pixels of two colors to create the illusion that a third color is present. This reduces the number of colors needed to render a picture, and it speeds up the loading time. Dithering is also a term used by audio engineers.

SIDEBAR: Graphics: dithering

SIDEBAR: Dither fish

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

From the Trenches

  I am reading once again David Crystal’s The Stories of English, and when I came to a check mark in the margin on page 72, I found a word that had caught my eye before. It appears in this sentence: “And a whole new tranche of Danish words would become fashionable.”

The word tranche comes to us from the French, where it means to cut or slice. In the context above, it would be defined as a block or a set. In the world of investing, tranche is used to describe a security that can be split up into smaller pieces and subsequently sold to investors. As appearance and origin would suggest, it is related to the word trench.

Trench has taken on a few meanings through the centuries. Chaucer used it to designate a path winding through the woods. We use it to name a ditch. In military use, the long ditch sits behind a mound of dirt thrown from the excavation in order to protect soldiers from enemy fire. That’s where the garment called the trench coat received its name, as did the maladies trench fever, trench foot, and trench mouth. And, in the 16th century, it referred to horse colic.

A trencher was a wooden plate on which meat was placed and cut up, so there is a connection to the words above. Also related is truncheon and truncate/truncation.

SIDEBAR: the deepest ocean trench

SIDEBAR: The Tranche Project

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Something FISHY Going On


Since so many of our words developed from Greek and Latin terms, it is predictable that we often have two roots expressing the same concept. For instance, in Greek the word for fish is ichthus, and we find many words in English reflecting that spelling.

ichthus: A stylized representation of a fish in profile, consisting of a pointed oval extended by two lines at one end (representing a tail), used as symbol for Jesus Christ or Christianity. [Click here]
ichthyic: Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of fish; having the zoological characters of a fish.
ichthyolatry: fish-worship, the worship of a fish-god, as Dagon.
ichthyology: The natural history of fish as a branch of zoology.
ichthyomancy: Divination by means of the heads or entrails of fishes.
ichthyophagy: The practice of eating fish.
ichthyopolist: A seller of fish, a fishmonger.
icthyosaurus: A genus of extinct marine animals, combining the characters of saurian reptiles and of fish with some features of whales, and having an enormous head, a tapering body, four paddles, and a long tail.
ichthyosis: A congenital disease of the skin in which the epidermis becomes thickened and assumes a dry and horny appearance. (Also called fish-skin disease and porcupine disease.)
osteichthyan: Of, relating to, or designating the bony fishes (class Osteichthyes); characteristic of fishes of this class.
palaeoichthyologist | paleoichthyologist: A palaeontologist who specializes in extinct and fossil fish.

In Latin, the word for fish is piscis, so we find words containing the -pisc- root.

expiscate: To “fish out”; hence, to find out by scrutiny.
piscary: The right to fish in a particular body of water; a fishing right.
piscation: Fishing.
piscatology: The study or practice of fishing.
piscatory: A literary work portraying the lives of fishermen or anglers.
piscicide: The killing or slaughter of fish.
piscicle: A small fish.
pisciculture: The artificial or controlled breeding and rearing of fish; fish farming.
pisciform: Shaped like a fish; taking the form of a fish.
piscine: Of or relating to fish; of the nature of or characteristic of a fish or fishes.
piscivororous: Fish-eating; ichthyophagous.
piscose: Of a taste: fishy.
pisculent: Full of fish; that may be fished.

SIDEBAR: Go Fish

SIDEBAR: Save the Fish game

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Snow Place for the Frigid



Just like the Wolf Man each month during a full moon, the myth that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow--unlike any other group--keeps popping up.

If you’re tempted to believe the myth, I recommend Geoffrey K. Pullum’s 1999 book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. [ ISBN: 978-0-226-68534-2 or ISBN-10: 0-226-68534-9 ]

I thought of this as I was trudging along behind my snow thrower today. It occurred to me that English is no slouch when it comes to snow terms, especially if you live in the northern states. Aside from all the compound variations of the word snow--including attached descriptive adjectives--we have frost, sleet, ice, slush, powder, blizzard, dusting, flurry, hardpack, sneet, and so on.

And, of course, there are the hidden snow terms, thanks to Latin and Greek roots. Greek gives us chion-, and Latin chimes in with niv- and the occasional ninguid-. In fact, we once used the word ninguid to mean “covered with snow.”

• There is a mineral named chiolite that sports white translucent crystals.
Chionodoxa is a plant with blue flowers, but because it blooms very early, it is called “glory of the snow.”
• One species of hedychium (“sweet snow”) has fragrant white flowers.
Nival means snowy, resembling snow; formed from or in snow.
Nivated: produced or affected by nivation. [see next]
Nivation: erosion of the ground beneath and at the sides of a snow bank undergoing seasonal melting, resulting in the formation of a shallow depression.
Niveous: snowy, resembling snow; white and lustrous like snow.
Nivose: The fourth month of the French Republican calendar (introduced in 1793), extending from 21 December to 19 January.
Nivosity: snowiness; a resemblance to snow.
Nixious: snowy. *The Oxford English Dictionary points out that this is an interesting exception to a general trend. Normally, words are formed from the genitive stem [nivis] rather than from the nominative singular [nix].
Transnivean: being or living beyond the snows.

SIDEBAR: All about snow

SIDEBAR: McFly--Let It Snow

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Muddying the Waters



Nancy and Gifford Torbenson of South Bend, Indiana, ask whether the saying “your name is mud” is connected with Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilke Booth’s broken leg after Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. That’s a story that’s been going around for a while.

The thing to notice immediately is that the concept existed before Dr. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy. In other words, the saying did not arise from his predicament. Some would argue that his name intensified the cliché, but that’s not something that can be proved. Mud is not Mudd.

Aside from its literal meaning, mud has been used figuratively since 1563 to represent something regarded as base, worthless, or polluting. It later developed the meaning of dregs--the lowest or worse part of something. By the 19th century, it also signified a dolt, an idiot.

Jon Bee, nom de plume of author John Badcock, defined the epithet this way in his 1823 Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase: “Mud, a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier.”

Today, if your name is mud, you are discredited and in disgrace. Your name has been dragged through the mud and you are the victim of merciless mudslingers. Dirty work, this.

SIDEBAR: Muddy Waters

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Make Yourself Useful



A couple of matched roots are used to declare that something is useful. The Greek chresto- means useful, as does the Latin util-.

chrestomathic: Devoted to the learning of useful matters. [Greek chrestos, useful + matheia, learning]
chrestomathy: A collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language. [Greek chrestos, useful + matheia, learning]
inutile: Useless; of no service; unprofitable. [Latin in-, not + utilis, useful]
ophelimity: The capacity to satisfy a need, desire, or want. [Greek ophelimos, useful, serviceable]
panchreston: An explanation or theory which can be made to fit all cases, being used in such a variety of ways as to become meaningless. [Greek pan-, all + chrestos, useful]
polychrest: A thing adapted to several different uses. Now esp.: a homoeopathic drug used to treat a variety of diseases. [Greek poly, many + chrestos, useful]
proficuous: Profitable; beneficial, useful. [Latin proficuus, useful]
sideroachrestic: A form of hypochromic anemia in which impaired synthesis of hemoglobin renders treatment with iron useless. [Greek sideros, iron + a-, not + chrestos, useful]
utility: The fact, character, or quality of being useful or serviceable; fitness for some desirable purpose or valuable end. [Latin utilis, useful]

SIDEBAR: Useless Information

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Bearding the Lion




The word beard has many diverse meanings. As an American slang term of the 1950s, it came to mean a front man, someone who would conceal the real identity of the person placing a bet on a horse race, for instance--especially if the bettor was the trainer.

These days, a beard is a companion of the opposite sex who helps hide the reality that one party is gay. I’ve also seen it used for a person who acts as a smoke screen to hide the fact that his married buddy is having an affair.

Well, the tables are turned, because it’s surprising how many words are bearding for beard. Let’s look at some examples that derive from the Latin barba, beard, and the Greek term for the same, pogon.

barb: a beard-like appendage in various animals; e.g. feathers under the beak of a hawk (obs.), the wattles of a cock (obs.), a slender fleshy appendage hanging from the corners of the mouth of some fishes, such as the barbel and fishing-frog.
barbate: bearded or tufted.
barbellate: furnished with short, stiff hairs.
barber: a person who shaves or trims beards and cuts hair.
barbigerous: bearded.
rebarbative: repellant, forbidding, unpleasant.
pogoniasis: growth of beard by a woman; excessive beard growth, generally.
pogonic: relating to a beard.
pogonologist: a person who studies or writes about beards (pogonology).
pogonotomy: shaving.
Tragopogon: the plant Goat’s-beard. [Trag- is also used in tragedy: Goat Song]

By the way, bearding the lion, meaning to confront danger directly, comes from I Samuel 17:34-35: “And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock. And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered [it] out of his mouth; and when he arose against me, I caught [him] by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.”

SIDEBAR: The Beards [Lisa Marr]

SIDEBAR: The Beards [Hillbilly Italian Spaghetti Roots and Blues]

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Protocol: A Sticky Subject



The U.S. Department of State has an Office of the Chief of Protocol. It advises, assists, and supports the President of the United States, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State on official matters of national and international etiquette, ensuring that the accepted rules of conduct are observed.

In extended use, protocol is the accepted or established code of behavior in any group, organization, or situation. Most businesses have a protocol that employees are expected to follow, and research protocol is very important in the sciences.

In computer terminology, protocol is a standard procedure--a set of rules--for regulating the exchange of data between computers, or for regulating the transmission of data via a given communications channel.

In earlier use, protocol referred to the original record or minutes of a transaction, usually signed by a government official to signify validity. But it all began with the papyrus roll. Some of those rolls were attached to wooden rods or dowels, one at the beginning of the roll and the other at the end. In Greek, the word protocol broke into two parts: proto, first, and kolla, glue. The first part of the roll was glued to the left dowel, forming page one, as it were. That’s where official identification and date would often appear.

The dowel at the far right side (the end of the roll) had a name, too: eschatocol. In Greek, the eschat- part meant last, and -col, as above, meant glue. A fairly well-known word using the eschat- root is eschatology.

SIDEBAR: ancient book forms

SIDEBAR: Papal Documents [look under “documents in detail”]

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