Word of the Week: Carbuncle

Yes, carbuncle.

I am still reading Daniel Walker Howe’s delightful and much-recommended “What Hath God Wrought,” (Oxford University Press, 2007), taking my time you might say. Or not (it’s 800-some pages). Anyway, I came across this fun bit:

Thomas Jefferson’s warning that large cities would constitute “great sores” on the body politic seemed well on its way to grim fulfillment. The most putrid urban carbuncle of all was the “Five Points” slum neighborhood of Manhattan, overcrowded with poor people from a variety of origins, native born and immigrant, notorious for its filth, disease, gangs, crime, riots, and vice. Charles Dickens, no stranger to urban wretchedness, expressed horror when he visited Five Points. “From every corner as you glance about you in these dark retreats,” he wrote, “some figure crawls as if the judgement hour were near at hand, and every obscure grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would how to be, women and men and boy slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.” Pages, 530-531.

Carbuncle, as the above passage suggests, is an evocative and versatile word. Webster’s Fourth reminds us that carbuncle can also refer to a type of gemstone, “a smooth, convex, deep-red garnet.” But Mr. Howe’s meaning, which is an especially popular, if nauseating, employment of the word, recalls the clinical context, i.e. “a painful bacterial infection (esp. Staphylococcus aureus) deep beneath the skin, having a network of pus-filled boils.”

It is an old word, with both meanings having a lot of currency dating to the 11th century, if the O.E.D. can be believed. Going back that far, the word might not refer to just a precious stone but “a mythical gem said to give out light in the dark.” Which led to its use in heraldry, as in this from the 15th century: “His sheeld was al of gold so reed And ther Inne was a bores heed A Charbocle by his side.”

So you end up with the curiosity that carbuncle can both be something marvelous and something malignant. My advice, though, as your attorney, is to never Google “carbuncle.” Some marvels are best left unseen.

Alarming facts about the carbuncle, medically speaking:

  • They can appear anywhere on the body.
  • They can be as big as a golf ball, or bigger.
  • They can be contagious.

Presuming you don’t have one on the back of your neck, or tucked next to your whatsis, you are most likely to come across “carbuncle” in senses similar to Mr. Howe’s assessment of the Five Points, hyperbolic reviews of architecture and the like.

He must be an eminent expert in sculptural art to feel qualified to use the critical terms “monstrous carbuncle” “grotesque attempt” and “general incompetence” to describe such a Romanesque work reflecting Baths heritage, created by Ben Dearnley whose was classically trained in Italy.

via Shame sculpture blocks the view of McDonalds | This is Bath.

But residents were scathing over the plans, calling the development a “concrete carbuncle”, which would “do nothing” for the approach to Salisbury.

via Hotel plans slammed as concrete carbuncle From Salisbury Journal.

“A carbuncle of industrial ugliness — some have called it — but others, myself included, prefer to think of it as a cornucopia of earthly and sometimes unearthly delights.

via Michael Sheens impassioned Richard Burton speech was finest display of Welsh pride – Features – Essential Wales – WalesOnline.

I should go easy with the accusations of hyperbole. It must be something of an accepted term. There is, in architecture circles, a thing called the Carbuncle Cup:

One, Strata SE1, won the Carbuncle Cup for worst building of the year. Are these towers dynamic signs of economic vitality, or tired gestures of developers, architects and politicans egos?

via Architecture: Debate the race for the sky | Art and design | The Observer.

Some combine the aspect of blight with the aspect for physical pain.

Fukushima Daiichi plant sits like a carbuncle on Japans northeast coast 240 km 150 miles from Tokyo. Its damaged reactors still seep radiation, although at a rate of 10 million Becquerel per hour for cesium versus about 800 trillion right after the disaster.

via Insight: Japans Long War to shut down Fukushima | Reuters.

Some seemed to include the word only for its funny sound.

It was around then, of course, that the authorities insisted on introducing that monstrous carbuncle on the grand old game, the epitome of gimmickry flim-flam, a third stump. It’s all been downhill ever since.

via The Spin | Are we living in a golden age of cricket writing? | Andy Bull | Sport | guardian.co.uk.

And you also get breathless political commentary, like this from Bill Moyers, who I can’t believe is still alive, and who fairly frothed at the mouth when he wrote:

The United States Senate — known as “the worlds greatest deliberative body” when I had a summer job there almost 60 years ago — is now a carbuncle on the body politic. A charnel house where legislation putrefies. And where grown men and women are zombified by a process no respectable witch doctor would emulate for fear of a malpractice suit.

via Bill Moyers: WATCH: End the Silent Filibuster.

I was thinking Mr. Moyers would be old enough to remember that the so-called “greatest deliberative body” blithely enforced a gag rule on antislavery petitions for decades before the Civil War. But I was mistaken. (Sorry.)


Word of the Weekend: Potlatch

Edward Curtis photo of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatc...

A Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Well, one day I decided to make my own crawdad. And I threw it in a pot, without the water, you see? And it was just like makin’ popcorn, you see?” via  “Raising Arizona,” (1987)

It has been said in this space that, blah, blah, blah, I am often confronted with circumstances and points of views that are utterly, palm-across-the-forehead new to me. But allow me to relate a moment when I happened across something and said to myself, Hey, that’s what I was going to say.

The other day, I was reading Daniel Walker Howe’s delightful and much-recommended “What Hath God Wrought,” (Oxford University Press, 2007), and in the discussion of the fur trade there was this reference to potlatches.

“…Native peoples drove shrewd bargains and received items of use and value to them — even though, in the Pacific Northwest, they sometimes destroyed their profits in spectacular potlatches to win prestige.”

The thing I wondered was, and without casting aspersions on my casserole-dish background, Is that where the word potluck comes from?

The answer is not as much fun as I hoped it would be, and it isn’t as straightforward as I like.

And it turns out that I am nothing like the first person to ask. A writer posed the question “What’s the origin of potluck?” a few years ago to the still-plugging-away-now Straight Dope:

Every so often somebody invites me to a potluck, especially during the holiday season. Thinking on it I decided that no one would call themselves lucky after tasting what I brought in my pot. Where does this term come from? After talking to some friends we concluded, without any true research, that it is derived from the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Indians. I’m not quite satisfied with this. Can you help me?

via The Straight Dope: Whats the origin of “potluck”?.

It is not a stretch to imagine the words are related: Potlatch, a traditional American Indian party, and potluck, a traditional Midwestern American party. And in both cases, the word can be the larger event or one of the smaller constituents.

An assortment of food dishes at a church potluck.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Potlatch, as Straight Dope and the O.E.D. tells us, is derived from various like-sounding Indian colloquialisms, e.g. the Chinook word potlac, which means to “give away.” With potluck it is exactly that, the luck or chance of what a diner will find coming out of the pot, that gave rise to the word.

Potluck is the older word, being traced to the 1500s in fine phrases like, “That, that pure sanguine complexion of yours may neuer be famisht with potte-lucke.”


In something of an art-imitates-life twist, the word potlatch has come to mean a potluck supper among white people in parts of Alaska. That is no joke.


For the record, Webster’s Fourth defines potlatch as a “a winter festival; a distribution or exchange of gifts during such a festival, often involving the squandering of the host’s belongings.”

Potluck, Webster’s says, is “whatever the family meal happens to be; whatever is available, with little or no choice.”

Incidentally, the word potboiler, defined as a “piece of writing, a painting, etc., usually inferior, done quickly and for money only,” apparently comes from the phrase “boil the pot,” as in you better start writing if you want to have anything to put in your pot.

Word of the Week: Practicable


So, [stuff deleted] and how about practicable?

This is a word that has lodged innocently in my brain for years without my ever having asked, Uhm, how is that different from practical, anyway?

I don’t know about you, but I associate practicable with the often-elegantly composed written orders given by latter-day generals. As in:

To Gen. So-and-So, On this date instant, move your troops hither over the river and through the woods thither.

And in my mind, these orders are frequently concluded with the qualification, “if practicable.” As I read along, merrily, I dismissed this as an 19th-century anachronism that 20th-century minds had neatly erased.


Of course, the truth is practicable has a meaning that is usefully distinct from the meaning of practical, though it took me four reference books to iron the whole thing out. For one thing, Webster’s Fourth rather unhelpfully uses practicable in its definition of practical and practical in its definition of practicable, and so I will save all that for a postscript.

Bryan A. Garner’s “Modern American Usage” is much more helpful. He writes that “practicable = capable of being accomplished.” Practical, he adds, is “manifested in practice; capable of being put to good use.”

Even better, the august Theodore M. Bernstein writes in “The Careful Writer,” “practicable is capable of being done; what is practical is what is capable of being done usefully or valuably.”

That is it, in a nutshell.

Speaking of nutshells, H. W. Fowler, in “Modern English Usage,” is worth mentioning if only for this pep talk: “Each word has senses in which there is no fear that the other will be substituted for it.”

He refines the point by saying, soothingly, “safety lies in remembering that practicable means capable of being effected” and practical is “adapted to actual conditions.” And he goes on to add an interesting, and telling, corrective example from an unknown-to-me source related to the long-contentious British involvement in Ireland.

“‘But to plunge into the military question without settling the Government question would not be good sense or practicable policy.’ …The policy was certainly practicable, for it was carried out; [but] the writer [meant] to say it was not suited to the conditions, i.e. practical.”

(Saints, preserve us.)

One famous example, and just as telling for our purposes, from our own history can be found at the Battle of Gettysburg. As you will no doubt remember, it was 1863 and the rebels had embarked on a raid of Maryland and Pennsylvania, for some reason thinking it would all work out.

Overview of the first day of the Battle of Get...

Map of the Gettysburg battlefield on July 1, 1863. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the rebels get to Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, they find the vanguard of the United States Army, the main body of which had skulked alongside the whole time. There is a skirmish, and while it is happening the rebel commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrives, wearing his impossibly tiny shoes. He can see hills in the distance, south of town, and realizes that if there were rebel troops on those hills, the enemy forces in front of him might be compelled to retreat.

So he sends an order to Gen. Richard S. Ewell, directing that he move his army to the top of what was known locally as Cemetery Hill — and here he adds the phrase of the day — “if practicable.”

Now, Gen. Ewell and his men have just arrived, and some sources say they all were worn down by the July heat. Probably they were keen to start frying up scrapple, picking sour apples and dancing a jig.

In any case, Gen. Ewell did nothing.

The United States Army, realizing what Gen. Lee had observed, quickly reinforced Cemetery Hill and the now famous elevations that string along farther to the south — Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. And so what you have is, instead of the rebels defending the hills, the rebels were compelled to attack them. This set the stage for the turning point of the war.

Richard S. Ewell, Confederate general in the A...

Richard S. Ewell, trying to remember where he put his dictionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is probably hard cheese to point out here that Gen. Ewell’s mistake was to have confused practicable — can Gen. Ewell move his troops to the hill — with practical —  do the actual conditions recommend such an action. Let me tell you, there was many a rye-fueled, slack-jawed argument about that after the war.

It did not help Gen. Ewell’s reputation that just two months earlier he had replaced Gen. Thomas Jackson, who was killed in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Gen. Jackson — his nickname was Stonewall, he had only one arm, he spewed Bible verses — was, to say the least, a hard act to follow.

Indeed, referring to Gen. Lee’s “if practicable” order, the historian James M. McPherson writes in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” (Page 654 of the Ballantine Books paperback, 1989)

Had Jackson still lived, he undoubtedly would have found it practicable. But Ewell was not Jackson. Thinking the enemy position too strong, he did not attack — thereby creating one of the controversial “ifs” of Gettysburg that have echoed down the years.


These words are both adjectives. Webster’s Fourth defines practicable as “of, exhibited in, or obtained through practice or action: practical knowledge; usable; workable; useful and sensible: practical proposals; designed for use; utilitarian.” Practical is defined as “that can be done or put into practice; feasible: a practicable plan; that can be used; usable; useful: a practicable tool.”

Updated, July 3:

He was to attack the high ground if it “was practicable.” But then, to add to the confusion, Lee reiterated his previous order not to bring on a general engagement until the rest of the army had arrived. This contradiction put Ewell in a dilemma.

via General Ewells Dilemma – NYTimes.com.

Word of the Week: Commonwealth

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness), incarnadined (reddened), [various, from last week] and contumacy (stubbornness) and how about… commonwealth?

I have for some time accepted the yarn that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth.

That is because, of course, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, or rather it calls itself a commonwealth. And long story short, I rise to a point of information here to say that saying so doesn’t make it so. In other words, sheep don’t have five legs either.

A thorny problem for me at the outset is that the meaning of the word commonwealth is a fairly squishy thing. Webster’s Fourth calls it “the people of a nation or state; body politic,” which is sweet-sounding and comfortable. And if I had my druthers, things would end there. (And this letter would be shorter.)

But Webster’s goes on to add that a commonwealth also is “a nation or state in which there is self-government; democracy or republic,” which seems didactic and unhelpfully broad.

It further adds that a commonwealth is “a federation of states,” as in the Commonwealth of Australia. And, tellingly, “any state of the U.S.; strictly, [those that] were so designated in their first constitutions.” And finally to something that brings us back to something like full circle: “a group of people united by common interests.”

Where does that leave us?

Let me start by raising a delightful trivia question: Which four of the 50 states call themselves commonwealths? (Answer* below.)

While you are thinking about that, a natural next step is to ask, What is the difference between a commonwealth and a state?

In other words, What the heck is going on here, anyway?

As you might have guessed, there is no difference — especially when it comes to the four states referred to above and listed below. All it means is that state legislators, sooner or later, started referring to the state as a commonwealth for some purposes, usually as a finger in the eye to the Brits (i.e., This state was established by the people, not by royally-appointed, tea-sucking half-wits).

As might be already apparent, the distinction in the United States carries with it no legal significance. Indeed, many agencies in all four of the states that use the word “state” in place of “commonwealth,” and I once knew a slick-haired blowhard from Virginia who bragged about Virginia hams and never said the word Virginia without tacking “the great state of” on at the front.

Point of pride is about all you get here.

In Puerto Rico, it is true that the government is organized along different lines than the rest of the states, but it isn’t any more commonwealthy than any place else. And that wouldn’t change if you called it a state or a territory. Or a five-legged sheep.

In fact, the State Department makes it clear (in its Foreign Affairs Manual, Volume 7) that the “term ‘Commonwealth’ does not describe or provide for any specific political status or relationship.” And six years ago, in a report on Puerto Rico’s status, the Justice Department referred to the island’s existing political arrangement repeatedly as a territory of the United States, amplifying its point thusly:

the term appropriately captures Puerto Rico’s special relationship with the united States. The commonwealth system does not, however, describe a legal status different from Puerto Rico’s constitutional status as a “territory” subject to Congress’s plenary authority under the Territory clause “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory … belonging to the United States.”

Never mind that during its elections last year, voters in Puerto Rico supported a nonbinding resolution to apply for statehood.

Still, as if to underline the confusion, the Stylebook sternly enjoins users from referring to Puerto Rico as “a territory, possession or colony,” adding that “Puerto Ricans are not immigrants or foreign-born.”

Point taken.


There are several other so-called areas of the United States not inside the border of a state. These territories are variously incorporated or unorganized; likewise with commonwealth, the distinctions are difficult (and perhaps unnecessary) to untie. These are: American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and several probably uninhabited islands: Palmyra Atoll, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, the Midway Islands, Navassa Island and Wake Island.

* The states that insist on being called commonwealths are Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Word of the Week: A Quiz!

“The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” by Rembrandt.

“The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” by Rembrandt.

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness), incarnadined (reddened), [various, from last week] and how about… contumacy?

So. A quiz. I won’t give the answer all at once; it dribbles out here in bits and pieces, a little like my stamina when I am in front of the TV watching an episode of “Friday Night Lights” and have been up since 5 in the morning.

One of these words describes a serious and not-a-little revolting medical condition. Without consulting the Internet or, really, your intellect, guess which one it is. You know, by gut feeling.

A) Contumacy; B) Asperity; C) Scrofula.

Astute readers will remember that I have mentioned contumacy before. Last month, “from my father’s yellowed notes,” I came across it on my way to homunculus, which is an odd mental street-scape, to be sure.

I revisit the word today, mostly out of respect. Contumacy is a noun, and it is all business. Webster’s Fourth defines it as “stubborn refusal to submit to authority, esp. that of a law court.” The definition goes on to add “insubordination” and “disobedience, but that definition had me at “law court.”

Contumacy is a sturdy little word, worthy of a WOW of its own. It is what buttresses the middle finger that is jutted indecorously at the Man. Or his minions.

In short, it is not a medical condition, though it may make the wearer more prone to one.

But I could not help think that contumacy sounded like one; it has a sterile and clinical clank to it.

Now, I got to thinking of contumacy the other day when I read this sentence, from James T. Patterson’s not-too-bad-so-far “Restless Giant” (Oxford University Press, 2005), a criticism of the proliferation of suburbs in the United States that deftly employs the word asperity:

“With characteristically cosmopolitan asperity, Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times complained in 1974, ‘There is [in these suburbs] no voyage of discovery or private exploration of the world’s wonders, natural and man-made.’”

For someone of my ilk, that has a delightful ring to it.

Now, leaving aside for the moment the “voyage of discovering” a splash of vomit on a subway platform and the “private explorations” engaged in by a certain class of transient, let’s take a moment to wonder at asperity. Webster’s Fourth defines it, blandly at first, as “roughness or harshness, as of surface, sound, weather, etc. or of circumstances.” Skip ahead to the more useful “harshness or sharpness of temper.”

Which leaves us, of course, with the fact that asperity also is not a medical condition. But I was thinking that it, too, sounded like one.

I mean, seriously: See what happens if you wake your wife up in the middle of the night and tell her the doctor called and has diagnosed her with a withering case of relapsing and remitting contumacious asperity. It’s an imaginary disease, and so there is no way she can have it; except that she might actually have it.

It was a lot of work to make a joke like that, I know. Which brings me, sadly, finally, to scrofula.

It’s a noun, and Webster’s Fourth holds forth thusly: “tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, esp. of the neck, characterized by the enlargement of the glands, suppuration, and scar formation.

This little nugget lodged in my clam shell at the end of W. L. Warren’s brilliant “Henry II,” which I bagged over the weekend. Apparently, in Mr. II’s time, it was believed the king could cure scrofula just by touching the afflicted. In theory, this was to demonstrate that the king was endorsed by God. But kings were pulling this scam long after minds broadened. Charles X of France was all handsy as late as 1825.

The best part of scrofula is that it sounds to me like a made-up medical condition. That seems like it could be irony.


Apropos of nearly nothing I add the word fisc, which is an obscure little gem that refers to a royal treasury. You might recognize it from the more modern fiscal. Initially, I felt fisc would be a fun letter D for this post, but I was thoroughly disturbed, and discouraged, after a few Google searches. There apparently are an enormous number of people who are desperate to learn more about “anal fishers disease”; it is almost enough to make a fella want to write a WOW for fissure.


  • Ecclesiastics would have men believe they will receive condign punishment and are not worthy to be counted amongst them that shall obtain the next world for their contumacy of monogamy, as opposed to the freedom of the polygamy found in nature, which is inherently pagan. via the comments section of Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand books, Ayn Rand Fountainhead, Rand Atlas Shrugged.
  • It never appalled him that his fellow country men and women, who perhaps voted for him during the presidential election, were being subjected to such terrible and man-inflicted asperity, such inhuman conditions and ill-treatments at the college. via Ikeja Police College: A reflection of national decay.
  • Scrofula in adults is most often caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. via Scrofula – PubMed Health.

Words of the Week: a Medieval Starter Kit

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness), incarnadined (reddened) and how about…?

Well, how about I start by telling you that I can just feel the disappointed glare of my wife as I contemplate this week’s entry.

For weeks now, all this has come naturally. There always seemed to be one word on the tip of my tongue, or an idea that in any event was difficult to suppress.

This week, an idea came to mind, but I recognized it as something that my wife would roll her eyes at.

And so I cast about for something else.

I briefly considered offering up some math definitions, to go with the precalc MOOC I am laboring through. I dug out from the back room my file of words, and flipped through the stack of old memos my father sent me not long ago. Apart from revisiting a few old jokes — “ecdysis = stripteaser”; “onomatomaniac… do you plead guilty?” — I met with no inspiration.

And so…

…I am left with a collection of oddities I encountered in the first pages of “Henry II,” by W. L. Warren (University of California Press, 1973). The first, perhaps, is that this moldy biography is still considered to be the last word on a very rich subject.

What piqued my curiosity initially was that I came across a few seemingly mundane words that have much more elaborate meanings in the context of the 12th century.

Chepstow Castle, in the marches of Wales.

Chepstow Castle, in the marches of Wales.

Take march for instance, which apart from its ordinary, tramping-around definition can mean, according to Webster’s Fourth, “a boundary, border, or frontier; a borderland, esp. one in dispute.” Wags think this maybe comes from the Old French marche or the Old High German marchon.

Initially, it referred to the border between the overlording English and the cantankerous Welsh, which was deliciously, and unrelatedly, actually marshy in places; but there also was an English royal office — warden of the marches — to manage the borderland with the allowed-themselves-to-be-colonized-by-wankers Scots.

And not to get all “Downton Abbey” on you — I haven’t watched Sunday’s episode yet, so (eek!) no spoilers!! — but the border territories, or marches, of any kingdom were traditionally governed by noblemen known as marquesses. Get it? Consider that girls were known as a marchioness and it will hit you. (See also marquis, in France and Scotland; and in other places, margrave.)

Because the prosperity of a kingdom depended on the security of its marches, marquesses were usually the highest-ranking (i.e. most trusted) nobility outside the actual royal family. So, after the king, you know, you have your big-eared dukes deigning to entertain square-shouldered marquesses, who both turn their noses up at fusty earls, who don’t like to be seen with — our republican sensibilities prevent us from going further.

Speaking of dukes, another word with a well-built foundation is cadet. You might be more familiar with this definition, from Webster’s Fourth, “a student at a military school.” But the word’s first meaning still is “a younger son who became a gentleman volunteer in the army to offset his lack of patrimony.” In other words, they call young officers cadets because that’s what they all used to be.

There is seignior and suzerain, two seemingly interchangeable terms that mean “feudal lord.” Seignior branches off interestingly into seigniorage, which on the surface means “something claimed or taken by a sovereign or other superior as his or her just right or due.” But which has a more common meaning in modern finance as “the difference between the face value of coins and the costs of their mintage.”

And suzerain branches off into suzerainty, which essentially is the relationship between a lord and his vassal. This has a more common modern meaning, too, for example in describing the legal relationship between the federal government and the various indian tribes.

The history of my dictionary app has a few further morsels of interest. There is castellan, “warden or governor of a castle,” or in the female form is chatelaine, which today is a kind of jewelry worn around the waist as a chatelaine herself might have worn a ring of keys to the castle. And seneschal, “a steward or majordomo in the household of a medieval noble”; and appanage, “money, land, etc. granted by a monarch for the support of his younger children.”

Come with us as we avert our eyes and head to the Web.

Word of the Week: Incarnadined

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness) and how about… incarnadined?

bookI am a good ways through “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” by Artemis Cooper (John Murray, 2012), the biography about the gad-about polymath and well-reviewed travel writer who died in 2011.

And it has been a revelation.

For one thing, I have learned that it is possible to write about a fascinating life without, you know, actually being fascinating yourself. This book, though warmly recommended to any fan of Mr. Fermor’s work, is nearly as desultory and dissipated as Mr. Fermor himself.

But, more important, it has revealed the subject in a stark and authentic light. He was, it says here, kind of a jerk. Well-loved, of course, and with admirable qualities; whose every book I have bought and read, eagerly, from cover to cover; and whose life, as aimless as it was, still furnishes the mother lode of my dreaming life — but nonetheless a jerk.

Incarnadined, a transitive verb (inn-CAR-nah-deened) defined by Webster’s Fourth as “to make the color of either flesh or blood,” crops up in a case in point.

(Photo credit: Joan Leigh Fermor)

(Photo credit: Joan Leigh Fermor)

Mr. Fermor was staying with friends — which is what he was doing, more often than not — at a castle in Ireland. The previous weeks had been a riot of parties — it was, as Mr. Fermor wrote to a friend, “a mixture of a night-club, the Hons’ cupboard* and the Charge of the Light Brigade, so tremendous was the pace, even for me, all day and all night.” But now it was quiet, and Mr. Fermor proposed to his friends that they attend the Kildare Hunt Ball as a lark. No one liked the idea, though the owner of the castle finally agreed. But first, she asked her butler for, as Ms. Cooper puts it, something to make “a tiresome evening a bit more bearable. A pill the size of a hornet arrived on a silver salver and Paddy, intrigued, asked if he could have one, too.”

To the ball we go. Mr. Fermor’s celebrated charisma, no doubt accustomed to consorting with alcohol, did not get on well with whatever was in the hornet-size pill. And he was no stranger to chemical enhancements; he once celebrated Christmas in Cairo with a Benzedrine-stuffed turkey. But at the Kildare Hunt Ball, Mr. Fermor did not exactly ride high in the saddle. The climax came after he picked out the tallest mug in the room and asked him, as Ms. Cooper writes on Page 281, “if it was true that the ‘Killing Kildares’ were in the habit of buggering their foxes.”

Bedlam ensued. “There we were, all slamming away at each other like navvies [‘an unskilled laborer, as on canals, roads, etc.’],” Mr. Fermor wrote a friend.

I was being dealt with by a half a dozen great incarnadined Nimrods;** Robert Kee came to my rescue, only to be brought down by Roderick More O’Ferrall, and the scarlet maelstrom surged over them and me.



Unsurprisingly, Mr. Fermor, himself incarnadined from a small gash in his head, was eventually rescued by a female acquaintance (not his girlfriend).

The verb comes from the adjective incarnadine, from the French incarnadin, snug in my dictionary appropriately between incardinate, “to attach a cleric to a particular diocese,” and incarnate, “endowed in a body.” It is tempting to think that Mr. Fermor meant that his assailants had been bloodied, but in reality I think he is referring to the red hunting jackets, above right, worn by members of the club.

In any case, this is just the tip of the boorish iceberg when it comes to Mr. Fermor. A few pages earlier (Page 278), Ms. Cooper diverts from her narrative to give a brief disquisition on sexual hygiene, noting that “his weakness for the sleazier pleasures of the night sometimes led to a nasty surprise for his more respectable girlfriends.” Ms. Cooper is herself so diverted that she quotes in full a letter Mr. Fermor wrote to one such unfortunate. Mr. Fermor, after examining his “fragrant and silent glades” for tiny livestock, concludes sheepishly that the “crabs of the world fly to me, like the children of Israel to Abraham’s bosom…”

(Yes, he really did.)


Mr. Fermor in 1966.

And so on. Mr. Fermor, when he isn’t cadging money from friends, swilling their wine and brandy, popping their pills, fornicating with their wives, sisters and daughters, was also a card-carrying member of a thoroughly irritating species: the writer unaware of deadline. He once, having been asked for a few thousand words on a well-known episode from his wartime service, turned in months late nearly 40,000 words.

Words, I will add, that have still not been published.

Unpublished is what you might say of the word incarnadine. It is the title of a recent collection of poetry, and it has a rich life in online role-playing games, apparently. But few writers have been seduced by its charms.

Except for one you might have heard of:

Macbeth: Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
“Macbeth,” Act 2, Scene 2, 54–60

* “Hons’ cupboard” refers to a secret childhood hiding place of the Mitford siblings, English aristocrats whose style and politics were the stuff of scandal in 1930s Britain.
** A nimrod is a foolish person, of course, but capitalized here I believe Mr. Fermor is referring to King Nimrod, a renowned hunter and a stout Babylonian king. It was his ill-conceived plan to build the Tower of Babel, which seems to indicate that Mr. Fermor was reserving similar divine judgment for his Kildare persecutors.

Epithet of the Week: You Unctuous, Otiose Punctilio of Orotundity

Lightning bolt!

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag) and how about…?

How about today I provide a leg up for the next time you are cut off on the sidewalk or bullied on the schoolyard or upstaged at the office? (Things that never happen to me, by the way.)

The theme for today’s word — really, epithet — of the week struck like a bolt of lightning as I was idly thumbing through the browsing history of my Android app for Webster’s Fourth. The catalog of words I had looked up over the past few days fairly bristled with gasps of indignity: unctuous, orotund, punctilious, didact, demagogue, and so on.

English: Photograph of Fowlers "Modern En...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought to myself, What prickly old head master’s diary have I been reading?

Almost apropos of nothing — don’t you think they should spell apropos as “a propos”? — I remembered that I had found a copy of H.W. Fowler’s famous “Modern English Usage” at the Strand the other day.

And after containing my squeals of schoolboy delight, I dived in. And quickly realized that Mr. Fowler himself surely bristles with indignity, prickliness and the rest, not to mention a near total lack of self-awareness. His entry on didacticism is an ironic marvel of xenophobia: “Why do we … allow the French to insult us with Londres & Angleterre?”

That’s a fair question, I suppose; but more on him, and that, another time.

Braised by the delicious first course of Mr. Fowler’s tart intellect and sizzling from my sniggering app history, I realized that I had been presented with the makings of a stinging rebuke.

To start with, there is unctuous, an adjective that is pronounced UNK-shoe-uss. For our purposes, we need to go deep into the definitions, drilling down until we strike the rich vein of “a smug, smooth pretense of spiritual feeling, fervor, or earnestness, as in seeking to persuade; too suave or oily in speech or manner.” But you can see that was worth the trip.

Turning to otiose, an adjective (OH-tee-ohse), helpfully, we can skim the pithy “ineffective; futile; useless; superfluous” right off the surface.

With punctilio, “observance of petty formalities” (punk-TILL-ee-oh), I admit I am reaching a bit, employing my snark’s license. But what is a snark’s license for, if not to be employed. A noun was needed, and one that was suitably insulting, after being bent to our purpose, was found. In any case, I wanted to save orotund for the end. Orotundity, “pretentious, pompous speech or writing” (ohr-oh-TUN-ditty), had too marvelous a sound as I said it to myself to not be the final, ironic hammer blow.

It’s a pretty good zinger, I think, to have been the product merely of chance and not a tea-addled, wig-crowned, Oxford-educated mind.

So, the next time you come under the thumb — again, this never happens to me — of some rascal, simply square your shoulders, take the pipe from your mouth and jab the stem at your adversary, trying not to spill your cognac as you say, with sharpness, “You, Sir, are an unctuous, otiose punctilio of orotundity, and I don’t mean maybe.”

Samuel L. Jackson, as the unctuous and tyrannical Joseph, uses the word with especial vigor as a way of keeping down all the other blacks and ensuring his own predominance.

via Django Unchained Reviewed: Tarantinos Crap Masterpiece : The New Yorker.

By then, no doubt all debates surrounding religious adherence and the Established Church will be as otiose as those now relating to the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

via The Coalition rides roughshod over the Constitution – Mail Online.

Footnote: For punctilio, too, I had to bend convention. I apparently am the only person in the history of the Internet (as defined by a minute and a half of searching Google) to use punctilio as a noun to describe a person, and not an event or practice. And yet, I pressed on. But for fun, I offer this:

Beneath a toilet water of punctilio and restraint…a deep smell came off Kelly, a hint of a big foul cat, carnal as the meat on a butchers block, and something else, some whiff of the icy rot and iodine in a piece of marine nerve left to bleach on the sand.

via Los Angeles Review of Books – Norman Mailer.

And still more fun, and appropriate, is this:

“One who sees through the orotundity and sesquipedality in purple prose will say something indicative of notable worth.”

via Goodreads | Quote by Anyaele Sam Chiyson.

Word of the Week: Termagant

“The Remorse of Orestes," by William Adolphe Bouguereau.

“The Remorse of Orestes,” by William Adolphe Bouguereau.

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf) and how about… termagant?

So, long story short, I was explaining the other day my first encounter with today’s word, termagant, a noun that Webster’s Fourth defines as “a quarrelsome, scolding woman; a shrew.”

And I totally cobbed up my explanation. Termagant (TERR-muh-gant), so they say, comes from the Middle English termagaunt, which is an “imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval mystery plays.”

When I made my explanation, I had remembered the word from culture-clashing anecdotes in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent “Christianity.” And so I incorrectly said termagant was an imaginary Christian deity, which is a gross violation of the, you know, whatever.

Xanthippe pours water over Socrates.

The mischievous Xanthippe about to douse Socrates. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was some time later when I realized my mistake, and upon reflection I remembered, for no good reason, another misogynistic word I had recently encountered, Xanthippe.

That is the name of Socrates’ wife, who according to classical tradition was “shrewish and scolding.” I happened at that moment to look up Xanthippe on the Google, and I realized two things: One, there are a lot of fun words in this phylum of morphemes, and two, and perhaps this is not surprising, some of these words have unfair origins.

Take Socrates’ wife — take her, please! — as an example. There is reason to think that she was, as Socrates himself is quoted as saying, “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” But Socrates apparently knew what he was getting into; he is said to have chosen Xanthippe because of her peculiar amiability, not in spite of it. He is supposed to have said, though not exactly with magnanimity, “None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me.”

Sadly, or perhaps typically, the nuances of Socrates’ endorsement have been lost to later generations. Thus handed the ball, generations of men, including bright lights like Shakespeare, were more than happy to run with it.

And it is in the spirit of my forebears that I here propose to present something of a boxscore for words like termagant and Xanthippe. Though, to maintain the putatively noble pursuits of this franchise, I will not dwell on the obvious examples (e.g. hag, bitch and she-devil), the overly technical (e.g. calumniator, vituperator and backbiter) and the unimaginative (e.g. witch, ogress and scold). Also scarcely worth comment are hellcat, bag, battle-axe, biddy, sorceress, vixen, hussy, nag, she-wolf, tigress and wench.

Where does that leave us?

“Death of Jezebel,” by Gustave Dore.

“Death of Jezebel,” by Gustave Dore.

For starters, Xanthippe is not even the most famous woman to have her name be co-opted into an epithet. The biblical Jezebel, for instance, was an ambitious and intelligent Phoenician princess who married Ahab, king of the strategic northern Israeli state of Judah.

On the face of it, Jezebel really ought to be an admirable figure. She was a graceful and beautiful woman, proven as a competent administrator, possessed of a thoroughly independent mind, and recognized, if behind the scenes, as the real ruler of the kingdom. Jezebel’s big mistake was to lend state support to the worshippers of a god known as Baal, who were fierce early rivals of the Jews. And it is the unflattering portrayal by Jewish scribes that survives today.

When Ahab died, the Baal star was no longer ascendant. After Jezebel’s son Jehoram captured the throne, he resolved to undo her spiritual patronage. The scene is set in Chapter 9 of Second Kings; Jezebel put “on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window,” possibly hoping to resume some of her former offices in the new regime. Jehoram, in a petulant act stripped from the pages of the Greek tragedies, not only has no interest in Jezebel as a possible queen, consort or counselor, he gets his court toadies to chuck her out a window — which reminds me of a potential future Word of the Week, defenestration.

Speaking of the Greeks, let us tumble from near-fiction to actual fiction. Mythology provides a rich biome of malevolent female entities, many of whom are summoned as sexual foils in paragraphs to this day.

The most famous, perhaps, are the sirens, “any of several sea nymphs, represented as part bird and part woman, who lure sailors to their death on rocky coasts by seductive singing.” These ladies are mostly harmless, so long as you don’t listen to them. They play a surprisingly brief role in “The Odyssey,” mostly to demonstrate that Odysseus was a vain and oversexualized pain in the ass.

“Aeneas and His Companions Fighting the Harpies," by Francois Perrier.

“Aeneas and His Companions Fighting the Harpies,” by Francois Perrier.

There are harpies, which in the classical sense are “loathsome, voracious monsters with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail, wings, and talons of a bird.” As terrible as that sounds, typically what harpies do is just snitch food from the picnics of heroes like Aeneas; though, sometimes they employ enough theatrics to ruin the whole party.

Far more serious are the Furies — Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These are beastly dames whose heavenly franchise is to “pursue and punish doers of unavenged crimes.” That sounds like a noble function, but they turn out to be busybody sticklers for often contradictory principles. One of my favorite paintings is of the Furies (top of the post) giving the business to Orestes, who had killed his mother (Clytemnestra) to avenge her murder of his father (Agamemnon) — a tangle of blood crimes that the Furies were not interested in sorting out.

At the peak of the mythical pyramid of female nastiness are the Gorgons, from the Greek gorgos, which means “dreadful.” These scraggly skirts had snakes for hair — which is pretty much standard equipment for supernaturally malevolent women in classical times — and were so ugly that they would turn to stone any fool dumb enough to look their way. Traditionally, there were three: Stheno, Euryale and the most notorious, Medusa, who was famously outsmarted by Perseus and turned to stone by a glimpse of herself in a mirror.

Apparently, this is a Spitfire LF Mk IX, MH434.

Apparently, this is a Spitfire LF Mk IX, MH434.

If the classics bring you down, there remains a rich trove of words from the succeeding centuries. Consider harridan, “a nasty, bad-tempered woman, esp. an old one,” probably from the French haridelle, which means “worn-out horse”; shrew, “a woman with a violent, scolding, or nagging temperament; a scold,” probably from the Middle English shrewe, which means “villain”; fishwife, named for the rough-hewn female operatives of medieval fish markets and defined as “a woman regarded as coarse and shrewishly abusive”; and spitfire, “a person, esp. a woman or girl, who is easily aroused to violent outbursts of anger,” which eventually lent its name to a World War II fighter plane.

In the same way I got my story wrong about termagant, and the balance of history got it wrong about poor Xanthippe, many of these slurs originate as compliments.

To wit, a crone, “an ugly, withered old woman; a hag,” was a stock female character in medieval storytelling. Often, she had supernatural powers; sometimes, she was cruel or vindictive. But always she was a wise old woman.

Virago, “a woman regarded as noisy, scolding, or domineering” is also defined by Webster’s as “a large, strong, courageous woman.” The idea is rooted in the Greek notion of virtue; any woman who was able to match a man in some way was said to have it. You do not have to be a student of humanity to see how such exemplars were eventually recast as pushy broads.

And so we are nudged to the Internet:

She seems defeated and completely under the thumb of her termagant mother Helen Ryan, an expert at barbed put-downs and connoisseur of funerals ‘Twelve I’ve been to this year. Twelve and it’s only August’.

via Old Moneys dowdy plot is offset by a resplendent Maureen Lipman | Metro News.

Bach is largely underplaying, but the character is such an unmitigated termagant, you half expect smoke to emit from her flared nostrils and the baying of wolves to accompany her entrances.

via We Love Soaps: TELENOVELA WATCH: UniMás Premieres Three Shows, And A Trio Of Villains In The Spotlight.

Carson lives with his recently divorced mother, Sheryl Allison Janney, a venomous, pill-popping, alcoholic termagant who informs her son that the only reason she didn’t abort him was her foolish hope that having a child would save her marriage. His father, Neal Dermot Mulroney, is a fatuous wimp who has neglected to tell his pregnant sweetheart, April Christina Hendricks, a local pharmacist, of Carson’s existence.

via ‘Struck by Lightning,’ Written and Starring Chris Colfer – NYTimes.com.

The real treat of this production is Carly Bawden’s Eliza, initially a sooty-faced termagant, all duckling mouth and strumpety hips, who becomes the swan of Higgins’s creation and ends it his equal.

via My Fair Lady: What a lady! Star Quality? By George, Elizas got it. And wouldnt a West End run be loverly | Mail Online.

Word of the Week: Homunculus

Homunculus (144287842)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and… how about?

Well — allow me to digress, again, a moment.

I came across a great word the other night while reading “Freedom From Fear,” by David M. Kennedy: homunculus. I mentioned it to my wife, and almost immediately said I would not make it a Word of the Week.

Homunculus (pronounced ha-MON-kew-less) is a noun, and Webster’s Fourth defines it as “a little man; dwarf; manikin.” And if I am honest, part of the reason I was uninterested in including it in this little enterprise is that dwarves, or whatever, are so often part of a distasteful Internet punchline. In short, I did not want to have to endure the crass pratfalls and pee jokes sure to come up in a Google search.

So I cast about for other words. And I had some good candidates. To wit, from my father’s yellowed notes I found contumacy, a noun that he defined as “stubborn resistance to authority — especially a willful contempt of court.”

Experiences from bank runs during the Great De...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, with a certain contumacy, I kept looking. And I encountered recondite — in Webster’s, “beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind or understanding; profound; abstruse” — in Mr. Kennedy’s book in a brilliant paragraph (seriously) about the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that also happens to make an enduringly interesting point about American history:

No observer has succeeded in pinpointing the spark that set off the roaring conflagration that swept and eventually consumed the securities markets in 1928 and 1929. Clearly, however, its sustaining oxygen was a matter not only of recondite market mechanics and traders’ technicalities but also of simple atmospherics — specifically the mood of speculative expectation that hung feverishly in the air and induced fantasies of effortless wealth that surpassed dreams of avarice.

Yet I was greedy for something better.

I passed over interregnum (“an interval between successive reigns”), which is the title of a chapter in Mr. Kennedy’s book; bathymetry (“the science of measuring the depths of oceans, seas, etc”), which I should have included during “Jaws” week; and cotomology (“the study of transpiration of water through a plant”), which is not in Webster’s at all.

And I came back to homunculus.

Louis McHenry Howe.

Louis McHenry Howe.

For one thing, it has comedy. The plural of homunculus is homunculi, which is one of those rare times when the joke of making a plural by evoking the latin-sounding -li is actually the right thing to do.

For another, Mr. Kennedy’s use of the word is maybe one of the best sentences in the first 104 pages. He is describing Franklin D. Roosevelt, and proposing that Mr. Roosevelt had over time transformed (sort of) his physical disability into a political asset.

Working from a small office at the family home in Hyde Park, N.Y., he used the time to carry on a vast correspondence, much of it cranked out over his forged signature from what amounted to a letter-writing factory run by his shrewd and faithful operative, a crater-eyed, gnarled, wheezing homunculus named Louis McHenry Howe.

“Crater-eyed”! That is brilliant.

So, over the course of a few hours, I came to realize that homunculus made an excellent choice. And despite its delightful sound and versatility, it is generally underused. Though it does provide a delicious zinger against the Trump.

  • We will confess it, Wonkers, Yr. Doktor Zoom is only doing this post in the hopes that he too may join the elect group of Wonkette writers who have managed to piss off diapered homunculus Donald Trump enough that he yelled incoherent cusses at them on Twitter. via 2012: Year Of The Short-Fingered Vulgarian.
  • In the earlier trilogy, the devious homunculus berated Hobbits as thieves for having made off with it, and pointed dark forces in the direction of the Shire. via LOTR Facts You Need to Remember for The Hobbit — Vulture.
  • Intel now confidently proposes to alter human potentialities through forensic intervention constructing a substitute homunculus component of a humanly vacuous automatic system via Intel Simmers Socials Secret Sauce.
  • Allied with theatre owner Henry Gordon Jago and pathologist George Litefoot, they discover Greel has disguised the cyborg assassin known as the Peking Homunculus as a ventriloquist’s dummy called Mr Sin, and that his experiments with the unstable zigma energy have not only bred rats the size of tigers, but threaten to destroy the whole of London. via Audio Review: Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang – Reviews – Ely Standard.