Thursday, October 30, 2008

Crackpot


Carol from Traverse City, Michigan, asked about the word crackpot.

Crackpot shows up in 1883 in Broadside Ballad (Farmer): “My aunty knew lots, and called them crack-pots.” Earlier, in the 16th century, the term in vogue for an impaired intellect was crack-brain.

The immediate analogy is to a cooking or storage vessel that has been cracked, and thus compromised as a useful tool. The use of pot wasn’t much of a reach. At one point in history--starting around the early part of the 15th century--the human skull was referred to as “the pot of the head.” In Latin, that was olla capitis, and that term appeared in medical dictionaries and textbooks as a synonym for cranium.


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Monday, October 27, 2008

Backwards with Palin


This is not a political comment; words are my thing. It’s simply that when I was staring at a headline containing Governor Sarah Palin’s name the other day, I suddenly realized that I was looking at an old Greek root: palin-, meaning backwards.

Depending on the word and its nuances, palin- can signify the opposite of forward, a recapitulation, a retraction, or a revival.

Palindrome is one of the better-known words containing the palin- stem. One traditional form presents a sequence of words that reads, letter for letter, the same backwards as forwards: “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.” A palindrome is also a piece of music in which the second half is a retrograde repetition of the first half, and a number or date that reads the same in both directions.

Palinal (chiefly found in Zoology) means characterized by or involving backward motion, especially of the lower jaw in chewing.

Palingenesis is defined as regeneration, rebirth, revival, or resuscitation.

Originally, a palinode was an ode or song in which the author retracts a view or sentiment expressed in a former poem.

Palinspastic is a word applied to a map or diagram representing features (especially layers of rock) in what are presumed to be their original positions.

SIDEBAR: palindromes


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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Epiphany and Epicalyptry


Drew from Traverse City, Michigan, asked an interesting question: What is the opposite of an epiphany?

First, let’s deal with epiphany. In the ancient world, according to myths, epics, and religious works, an epiphany occurred when a god or goddess chose to reveal itself to a mere mortal. Above all, in the ancient world, it was meant to be evidence that the human hero or leader was worthy of knowledge, power, or credibility. It was a compelling endorsement of his or her mission, message, or destiny.

Epiphany came from two Greek terms: epi-, to, and phanein, to show. Thus, it was a manifestation, a deliberate and directed revelation, and an inspiring or instigative appearance.

In the Christian religion, The Epiphany is a specific festival: the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the person of the Magi. In the Western Church, the feast is celebrated on January 6. The account may be found in Matthew 2: 1 - 12.
Another important New Testament epiphany occurs in the account of Jesus’ baptism.

In time, epiphany was secularized and democratized and came to mean any flash of insight, any sudden intuitive realization. It no longer needed a god or goddess or a national hero; it had moved to the internal forum of everyman.

To get back to the original question: what is the opposite of an epiphany? Frankly, I’ve had difficulty finding a word endorsed by widespread usage. Jung used the term anti-epiphany. I haven’t dipped into his works since the 1970s, but at the risk of distortion and simplification, I have a hazy memory that it was a defense mechanism to prevent an overload of information and revelation. Some things it’s better not to realize; blocking--at least on a temporary basis--isn’t always negative.

So, let me approach the question from an etymological perspective. An epiphany leads a person to a burst of internal light. We need a term to metaphorically express leading a person to a dark cave. Let’s save the epi-, meaning to, and let’s add the combining form -calyptry, from the Greek kalyptra, covered and hidden as by a veil.

Thus, we have epicalyptry [ep´-ee-cal-ip´-tree], deliberate concealment from self or resistance to insight. Spread the word, folks. Let’s get it into dictionaries.


SIDEBAR: Epiphanies as discontinuous change experiences


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Monday, October 20, 2008

Fascism


Tony from Traverse City, Michigan, asks about the origin of the word fascism. It turns out to be only a little bit better than a stick in the eye.

Fascist comes from the Latin word fasces, a bundle of sticks. It was a symbol of the power of Roman magistrates, whose duty was to preserve and dispense justice.

A bundle of rods was tied tightly around an axe and carried before the magistrate by his Lictors. They acted as his bodyguards and as instruments of justice: they could beat an offender with rods if the magistrate so ordered, or they could behead the most serious perpetrators.

There was also a symbolic value to the fasces. They stood for strength through unity. You could easily snap a single rod, but a bound bundle was impervious. So, too, the Roman Republic -- a tightly-bound alliance of citizens and allies -- could face its enemies with confidence and power.

In time, the concept degenerated into the dark side of power: oppression, use of sheer force to impose will, and a system that crushed state-defined decadent individuals and organizations in order to promote a new national purity.

In our day, it has sometimes been watered down to become a synonym for a bully.


SIDEBAR: 14 characteristics of fascism



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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bogus


Tom Hagan from Indian River, Michigan, asks: “The word I’m asking about is ‘bogus.’ Merriam-Webster yields little other than pertaining to counterfeit money and the apparatus used to print counterfeit money (1825). I have to think that the origin of this word is based upon an acronym, the last two letters standing for United States. The third letter might well refer to ‘government’ and perhaps the second is ‘of.’ Tell me what the ‘B’ represents or tell me that my logic sucks and indicate where this word really began.”

Let’s see: the acronym B.O.G.U.S. = Bull**** of the Government of the United States? That’s about as convincing as the Ship High In Transit story to explain manure.

For the most part, acronyms (words formed from first letters of each word and pronounced as a word --NATO) did not exist before 1900, so we can rule that out. Sorry, Tom.

Originally, bogus was the name for a counterfeit coin, but no one is sure why. The first appearance in print, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was 1797 in a book called Band of Brothers: “Coney means Counterfeit paper money . . . Bogus means spurious coin.”

Another appearance in print is very detailed. We have an account from Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painsville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) in 1827. A group of counterfeiters was arrested in May of that year as a large crowd watched. When a confiscated machine used to stamp out phony coins was carried out of the building, someone in the crowd shouted, “That’s a bogus!”

Eber D Howe suggested that it was a shortened version of tantrabogus, a word he knew from his childhood and which in his father’s time back in Vermont meant any ill-looking object. Michael Quinion suggests that it might be linked to the old Devonshire dialect word tantarabobs, a word for the devil or any misshapen creature, making it a relative of words like bogy and boogie man.

Another theory traces "bogus" to "boko," which means "fake" in the West African Hausa language. Perhaps slaves brought it over, is the suggestion. Word expert Eric Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English) suggests that it might be connected to the 18th c. [1758] callibogus, an inferior beverage composed of cheap rum and spruce beer or other liquor or molasses. Callibogus is a tradition in Newfoundland.


SIDEBAR: The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.


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Monday, October 13, 2008

Mind and Heart: -phren-


Sérgio Castedo, MD, Ph.D., writes from Portugal:

“Words like schizophrenic, oligophrenic, etc., have the same origin and apparently derive from the Greek "phren", meaning mind. However, in medicine, phrenic also refers to the diaphragm (the phrenic nerve, for example, is the nerve controlling the diaphragm).

Is there an ancient connection between the two, that is, between the location of the diaphragm and the mind? I performed a search on the internet and could not find an explanation for this use of the same word for apparently such different concepts.

Any comments you might have on this would be very much appreciated.”
___________________________________________________________________

As often happens, extension of meaning accounts for the confusion. The Greek -phren- had a range of meanings, at first applying principally to the mind or will. But we must realize that the seat of the mind for some Greek philosophers was not the physical brain, but the heart. Their view of mind and emotion was cardiocentric.

Some ancient Greek theoreticians believed that an inflammation of the diaphragm was responsible for mental disorders, so the meaning encapsulated in -phren- was extended to the midriff, diaphragm, or area surrounding the heart. Thus, the seat of all the -phrenia or -phrenic words was the diaphragm, where, as you point out, the phrenic nerve is to be found.

Let’s look at some of the interesting -phrenic words.

• electrophrenic: involving or designating electrical stimulation of the phrenic nerves.
• gastrophrenic: pertaining to the stomach and to the diaphragm
• hebephrenic: relating to a form of insanity incident to the age of puberty
• idiophrenic: relating to a form of insanity which is caused by disease of the brain itself (1886)
• oligophrenic: of, relating to, or exhibiting mental retardation
• paraphrenic: relating to mental illness with prominent paranoid or other delusional symptoms; paranoid schizophrenia
• phrenic: supplying the diaphragm; of, relating to, or affecting the diaphragm; diaphragmatic
• quantophrenic: relating to undue reliance on or use of facts that can be quantified or analysed using mathematical or statistical methods; inappropriate application of such methods, esp. in the fields of sociology and anthropology (1956)
• schizophrenic: relating to a mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, usually with a withdrawal from social activity and the occurrence of delusions and hallucinations

[Source: Oxford English Dictionary]

SIDEBAR: Body and Spirit in Greek medicine and philosophy

Addendum: Matan Fischer, a medical student at Hebrew University wrote with this information: "Surprising or not, the same double meaning exists in Hebrew. The word for diaphragm [sa-r-e-fe-t] also means "thought,"' like in Psalm 139:23."


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Half A Loaf


It’s always fun to play with the deeper meanings concealed in words, and today the hidden treasure is bread.

It shows up, for instance, in the word bribe. Today, a bribe is money or a favor given to a person of some authority in order to influence his or her decision. The word started out in Old French as a piece of bread, particularly one given to a beggar. As time went on, it began to refer to a professional beggar, often unsavory, who lived on alms. From there, it became plunder or spoils, and it was applied to the person who received them. Somewhere in the 16th century, direction shifted, and it became an act of the giver.

A companion is a buddy, an associate, a comrade. Literally, a companion is someone with whom you share bread (L. com, together, and panis, bread). Comrade, by the way, means a chamber-mate, someone who shares a tent with you. We can see the early military contexts involved in companion and comrade.

Arto- was a Greek combining form meaning bread, and during intense anti-Catholic eras it was hurled as an epithet. An artolater was someone who worshipped the host; he or she practiced artolatry. Much earlier, the word artotyrite was applied to a 2nd century Galatian sect whose members were alleged to celebrate the Eucharist with bread and cheese (Gr. tyros). A less vituperative use showed up in artophagous (bread-eating). From the Latin, that has a cousin in panivorous (bread-eating).

A canister is a small metal container used to hold tea, coffee, and other food items, but it started out in Latin (canistrum) with a very specific meaning: a bread basket. You might keep your canisters in a pantry, a closet or small room in the kitchen used to store food items, utensils, and other cooking and eating aids. Originally, it was a storeroom for bread (panis).

People like restaurants that feature smorgasbords because they provide a rich variety of offerings -- something to please every palate. But originally, smörgås meant a slice of bread and butter placed on the table (bord).

SIDEBAR: bread recipes


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Monday, October 06, 2008

Workers of the World, Unite!


For some reason, a number of old combining forms used to designate a tradesman came up on last week’s show. Three of them were -smith, -wright, and -monger.

Germanic and Scandinavian languages gave us -smith. It means a craftsman or skilled worker, and it shows up in words such as blacksmith, coppersmith, goldsmith, gunsmith, ironsmith, locksmith, silversmith, and tinsmith.

Once again, Germanic languages produced -wright, the word for worker. Thus, we have boatwright, cartwright, millwright, playwright, shipwright, and wainwright.

Latin ultimately gave us -monger, but it differs from the others. It refers not to the artisan who makes something, but to the dealer or trader who sells it. It was used to form cheesemonger, costermonger, fishmonger, and ironmonger. It also has a pejorative cast to it, showing up in derogatory terms such as scandal-monger, rumor-monger, war-monger, and flesh-monger.

English also borrowed the combining form -urgist from the Greek (chemurgist, dramaturgist, halurgist, and metallurgist), along with -fex from the Latin: artifex (any art), aurifex (gold), and carnifex (a butcher -- earlier, an executioner).

SIDEBAR: Medieval Jobs


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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Upset


Two callers to my show promoted the theory that the word upset, meaning a victory by an underdog, was due entirely and originally to a horse named Upset that defeated the legendary Man o’ War.

The defeat is a matter of racing history. At the Sanford Memorial Stakes, held on August 13, 1919, Upset won by half a length after Man o’ War got boxed in by other horses.

The issue is, is that where we got the word upset referring to unexpected results in a sporting event, an election, or any other type of contest? This provides us with an opportunity to review a basic principle of etymology: precedence does matter. In other words, if someone claims that a term originated in 1919, but evidence shows that it existed earlier, the claim cannot stand.

A classic example is the belief that the word hooker, referring to a prostitute, originated with Civil War General Joseph Hooker and his lusty regiment. If true, that would put the origin somewhere between 1861 - 1865. But it shows up as early as September 1835 in The New York Transcript, and in 1845 in N.E. Eliason’s Tarheel Talk. The good General and his antics may have reinforced the use of the word, but it wasn’t named after him as legend would have it.

But I digress; back to upset. Meaning an overturning or overthrow, it dates back to 1822. That’s exactly what happens in an unexpected victory: the favorite is overturned, overthrown, defeated. The horse was named for this idea, not the other way around. Perhaps Upset, the horse, deepened the use of the word, but he didn’t invent it.

By the way, the same is true for Man o’ War. In 1449, it meant a soldier. By 1484, it was a commissioned naval warship. The name Man o’ War was chosen by its owner’s wife (Mrs. Eleanor Robson Belmont) to honor her husband’s service in World War I. It was meant to provoke the idea of a formidable opponent.

SIDEBAR: The story of Man o’ War


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