Word of the Week: Crepuscular

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) and how about… crepuscular?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And yet here is a picture that is worth only one.

It comes from the Latin crepusculum, which means “twilight.” Webster’s fourth defines crepuscular, an adjective, first as “of or like twilight; dim,” and then as “active at twilight or just before sunrise.”

So two useful areas of literary composition represented. Twilightlike qualities evoke poetry, an end to toil and perhaps light brooding; activity at twilight brings to mind insects or, if you will allow me, graverobbers. Spanning the two, you could dream of crepuscular miscreants scuttling in crepuscular crevices, clawlike clavicles crinkling with craniums, capitates and coccyges. If you were so inclined.

That’s not all. With this word we also have a scientific component, as demonstrated in the picture above (which comes from the I’m-sure-you-check-it-every-day Earth Science Picture of the Day Web site). Those shafts of seeming divine whatever are known as crepuscular rays. It happens any time sunlight is partly blocked by clouds or other objects; scientists didn’t muddle around thinking of other words to name the phenomenon because that sort of thing is most obvious in the crepuscular hours.

Crepuscular rays, as seen from the International Space Station (Oct. 18, 2011).

Now. The interesting thing is these shafts of light, to an observer on the ground, usually appear to radiate from a single point, especially when they are seen from the side. In fact, these rays are parallel (see photo at right) to each other, because the sun is so large and so far away; the single-point thing is an illusion.

As the skeptic, astronomer and budding TV star Phil Plait wrote on his blog last year, it is the same idea that “makes railroad tracks or long roads appear to converge in the distance.”

As in,

These animals are crepuscular by nature, which means they’re most active during dusk and dawn.

via Deer out in full force in fall on rural roads | Other Sports | Sports | Ottawa Sun.

British upstart and Donmar vet Jamie Lloyd’s new production shows signs of rising sap, and features a great many moments of surprising verve, and a few deathly stretches of crepuscular indulgence.

via Theater Review: Cyrano — Vulture.

Everywhere the rich repertory of Moorish decoration is celebrated, using a surprising palette that at times echoes the freshness and gaiety of the surrounding garden; at other times—as in the ravishing library—applies more sombre, mysterious, crepuscular tones.

via A Magician from Memphis – WSJ.com.


Word of the Week: Parlous

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) and how about parlous?

So, parlous. Snug between parlormaid (one word!) and the Italian city Parma, parlous (PAR-luss), an adjective, is defined by Webster’s Fourth as “perilous; dangerous; risky.” I like this word because you can fit it into a sentence and it doesn’t matter if you are saying perilous or parlous, like this:

“Dadgum, Boys, drinkin’ ’nat-dare moonshine shore iss parluss.”

See? Fun.

Parlous apparently has its roots in a Middle English contraction of perilous, but it is interesting to contrast the accepted definition with two uses that Webster’s now says are archaic. The first is “dangerously clever; cunning, mischievous, shrewd, etc.” Like this:

“Dadgum, Boys, my cousin Clem’s oldest boy, LaVerne, shore iss a parluss feller; weren’t no pig in ’nat poke he solt me no how.”

The second switches parts of speech to adverb: “extremely, very.” Like this:

“Dadgum, Boys, parluss drinkin’ shore gives me uh noggin-pain.”

For some reason, this word is quite popular, even though the more common synonym perilous is close at hand.

  • Australia faces the parlous challenge of juggling trade relations with the three key economies of Eastern Asia, all of whom covet free trade.
  • I recently wrote two articles in which I discussed the parlous condition of roads, highways and byways in Nigeria.
  • Hedge fund clients pulled out more money than they put in over the past month in spite of a strong performance, in a possible sign of nerves that the parlous state of major economies could hit their returns.

Word of the Week: Obdurate


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) and how about …obdurate?

After a few weeks in the tall grass of Internet dictionaries, I propose a return to the comforting hearth-smoke of Webster’s Fourth and my sturdy, handwritten cards of vocabulary words. Obdurate (AHB-der-itt), an adjective, from the Latin obduratus (to harden), is defined as “not easily moved to pity or sympathy; hardhearted.” It is snug in the pages of my dictionary between obcordate, an adjective for leaf-loving botanists that means “heart-shaped and joined to the stem at the apex,” and O.B.E., an abbreviation for Order of the British Empire.

The adverb, naturally, is obdurately, and some wags think you can swing a verb out of the deal, especially if you draw out the last syllable into an “ate.” (Mitt Romney’s bumbling political style has obdurated me against him forever.) But Webster’s Fourth does not agree, and I think you end up sounding like a member of the O.B.E. For the noun form, go with obduracy over obdurateness or obduration or anything else.

Anyway, that is fun, right? Such a useful word. So many applications, probably some of them sitting not too far from you in the office.

Really, though, I picked this word because of its delicious versatility. The succeeding alternative definitions are “2, hardened and unrepenting; impenitent,” and “3, not giving in readily; stubborn; obstinate; inflexible.” Obstinate! Impenitent! Like the opposite of Indiana Jones’s penitent man. (Chop!)

Now. To be honest, I had a mind to pick callipygian, an adjective, meaning “having shapely buttocks,” partly in response to the choice of uxorious that was imposed on me some weeks ago. But I obdurately stuck to my guns. (Get it?)

Anyway, a Google search for callipygian is a M.N.S.F.W. misadventure in Kim Kardashian articles. Obdurate is far more durable. Observe:

  • From The Daily News! “More than 75 percent of MPs are in favor of parliament functioning normally but the BJP is being ‘obdurate and stubborn’ in holding up proceedings over the coal blocks allocation, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said Monday.”
  • The Financial Times! “Egregious recent examples of bad corporate governance suggest that some very old governance chestnuts remain as obdurate as ever.”
  • The Irish Post! “We’ve seen his side take commanding leads in both games but, obdurate as ever, Kilkenny have always charged back at them.”