Ceilidh

In honor of the 42nd birthday (on 28th November) of my son Angus, who is a mixologist extraordinaire, I was going to ruminate on the origins of the word whisky, derived from either the Scots Gaelic usquebaugh or the rather lovelier Irish ditto uisgebeatha.  But a combination of linguistic ill-discipline and serendipity led me otherwise, to the reminder that the winter dancing season has now begun back home in Scotland, and that all over the nation, from Lerwick to Berwick, from Dunnet Head to Gretna Green, Scots will be enjoying the delights of the ceilidh (pronounced caylee), and which originally signified

an evening visit, a friendly social call.

Today, and for the past hundred years or so, the word has come to mean

a session of traditional music, storytelling, or dancing

all of which is these days often augmented (and often greatly improved by being so) with ample quantities of usquebaugh. Such gatherings are a lot of fun: most birthdays, bar-mitzvahs and even the coming holidays tend to pale beside a full-blown Highland ceilidh, though their hangovers are seldom so memorable.

 

 

 
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Jobs

As a modest lexical tribute to Steve Jobs, I thought it might be useful to remind ourselves of the origin of his surname-word - defined only in its singular form, of course - by noting that it is a word possessed of connotations considerably less stellar and uplifting than those attached to the  astonishingly gifted co-founder of Apple Computer.

As it happens the first sense of Job in English also stems from a surname. The Biblically-recorded patriarch of the land named Uz was named Iobe, and as the story has it, he was man revered for enduring poverty and privation. So legendary was his stoicism, indeed,  that his name - which since the 13th century has been given an affricative, and rendered as Job - has come to stand for a figure with endless patience and fortitude.

More commonly - though lexicographically a little more puzzling - the word job , without a capital initial, has also come to mean

A piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one's regular occupation or profession.

The first use of this sense is recorded in 1557. There is a continuing debate, however. It ranges around whether this word - of unknown origin, it has to be confessed - first strictly meant just a piece of work, or whether it meant a piece of the results of work. For there is sense, dating from three years later, 1560, where jobbe (as it was then spelled) came to be used to designate

 A cartload; the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time

Scholars are still searching for which of these senses (and there are many more) truly came first. It is part of the great joy of the lexicographic art that so many still feel compelled to track down just what a well-known English word really meant, at the moment it was first gathered into our language.

That small controversy aside, one thing is for sure, however: in the nicest possible sense, Steve Jobs himself was indeed a piece of work, unique and unforgettable. Appositely named, maybe, though with a hint of an enduring enigma about him also.

 

 

 
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Froward

This is a word much-disdained by spell-checking software - most brands insist the 'ro' should be an 'or'. But in just the same way that we bravely overrule the direction-Nazi inside the car GPS, so we should on occasion ignore the spell-checker. Most especially here, since froward is an ancient (14th century), respectable and rather beautiful-sounding word (it is pronounced with its first syllable rhyming with row, as in an argument). Moreover, its meaning renders it more than a little useful: it signifies

disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, difficult to deal with, hard to please; refractory, ungovernable; also in the wider sense, bad, evilly-disposed, "naughty".

We've had violent and dreadful weather in the American north-east this past few days, as Hurricane Irene has swept through ungovernably, from the Carolinas to Vermont. It would be entirely proper to describe our weather as froward, much as Lord Russell was once described as "froward, arrogant and mutinous." Nasty, bad, ill-disposed - Lords and hurricanes, all of a piece.

 

 
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Axolotl

In our tiny pond today there were red salamanders, by the score - a vision which prompted me to recall a smutty ditty we used to hum at school, about a salamander lookalike: I had a little axolotl, and I kept it IN a bottle. (The poem got worse from that point on, and bears no repeating.) But what a lovely word, axolotl - one of only four words that have found their way into the English language from - wait for it - the Aztec. (The others are weird and wildly unfamiliar: Nahuatl, teguexin and tule.) Axolotl is defined as

a batrachian reptile (Siredon pisciforme, family Proteidae) found in Mexican lakes, resembling a salamander in appearance but, like all the Proteidae,retaining through life the gills of its young state.

 

And why batrachian? Dictionary definitions are not supposed to include words more complex than the one being defined, and I venture to suspect that few will know what batrachian means. Well, your misery is over: it is from the Greek word for frog - and it signifies in this case that the axolotl is froglike and does not, like a salamander, have a tail.

 

 

 
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Canicular

At dawn there is a faint autumn crispness to the air here in western Massachusetts -  a reminder that we are now coming to the end of the dog days of August, the days that in the Northern Hemisphere are traditionally the hottest, laziest and most enervating of the year. Their popular name - the dog days - stems from the fact that Sirius, the dog-star, rises and sets with the August sun.

But these days also have a more formal name, to the religious and astronomically-minded. These are the canicular days, or

the days immediately preceding and following the heliacal (in modern times, according to some, the cosmical) rising of the Dog-Star (either Sirius or Procyon,) which is about the 11th August.

The canicular cycle is the ancient Egyptian period of 1,461 years of 365 days each (or 1,460 Julian years) - a period during which each of the 365 days would have passed through (or so the ancient Egyptians wrongly supposed)  all the seasons of a natural year.

 
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Quisling

The week's unfolding tragedy in Norway, in which a right-wing nationalist named Anders Breivik killed scores of innocents in Oslo and on a nearby island-retreat, brings to mind another extreme and widely condemned Norwegian, whose name, Vidkun Quisling, has become part of the English lexicon. Quisling - a prominent Norwegian politician since the 1920s - had views on Aryan nationalism and Norwegian exceptionalism, and a mistrust of Jews, that led him into an association with Hitler and to his eventual leadership of a pro-Nazi puppet government in Oslo for most of World War II.  The Times in London promptly condemned him in an editorial titled Quislings Everywhere - a comment so widely read that the word instantly became common currency, being taken to mean

a traitor to one's country: a collaborationist; esp. during the war of 1939-45

The parallels between the ultra-Nordic leanings of both Quisling and Breivik are startling - both serving as reminders of the capacity for extremism among peoples who believe themselves to belong to a racial stock displaying, as each would put it, purity.

Quisling - with the capital initial soon dropped - is a word fortunate in its sonorous appositeness, suggesting as it does a kind of slithery derangement. It was little surprise that the verb to quisle soon entered the English language, somewhat more so that a weird back-formed noun quisler was soon born - unneeded, since we already had quisling.

It seems doubtful that a word Breivik will ever enjoy popular currency. This young man's fate, if the courts find him guilty and sane, will most probably condemn him to prison for a very long while.  Vidkun Quisling, said by his supporters to be a gentle and intelligent man - and like Breivik, strikingly and disarmingly blond and handsome - was found guilty of treason in 1945, and shot.

 
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Hecatomb

With all those members of the Establishment currently falling on their swords in the Great British Phone-hacking Brouhaha - ten arrested so far, four major resignations so far, any number of sackings and a threat of a company, perhaps even a government, collapse - I am reminded of this wonderful Greek word for a mass sacrifice, hecatomb - a combination of the word for a hundred (hekaton) and oxen (bous). Originally it did indeed refer to the slaughter of cattle, but it is now extended

to the religious sacrifice of other nations; a large number of animals offered or set apart for sacrifice

It is said that Pythagoras, normally a placid and animal-loving sort of chap, offered up a hecatomb on discovering that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle was equal in area to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Whether the outing of Rebekah Brooks is an equally profound event we will not know for a while; but the consequences are beginning to sound rather similar.

Hypotenuse, in case you wondered, comes from the Greek for stretching under - since it is the long stretch opposite the right angle.

 
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Myrmidon

On how many tedious occasions do we encounter - more often back in Britain than here in America, I suspect - a functionary whose only true function seems to be officious?  Well, here's a term to employ to describe him, and without getting yourself promptly arrested.

Myrmidon, with an upper-case initial, is a long-forgotten word from ancient Greece which once signified

one of a warlike race of men inhabiting ancient Thessaly whom, according to the Homeric story, Achilles led to the siege of Troy.

All well and good - but hardly useful for describing an annoyingly efficient Constable Plod.  However, in today's English, and when spelled with a lowercase initial, the sibling-form of myrmidon has come to be

applied contemptuously to a policeman, bailiff or other inferior administrative officer of the law

which seems to be of far greater utility.

Far be it for us ever to suggest that an over-eager policeman might be an inferior officer of the law. But to term him a myrmidon! Why, he might even feel a little proud of himself - until, of course, he came home, removed his helmet and put down his truncheon, and turned to his dictionary...

 

 
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Mariolatry

In the normal scheme of things Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, would in early June, be starting to show signs - sickness at dawn, a craving for pickles, a slight bulge in the midriff - that she was expecting the famous baby that would be born at the end of December. That there was no acknowledged father, and since Mary was somehow proven to be still intact and inviolate, so there arose the story of the Immaculate Conception and the miraculous nature of Mary's maternal condition. To believers, the lady then swiftly rose to the level of a sub-deity - and there are those especially ardent admirers who, to this day, worship Mary, demand her recognition as a truly godlike creature, and pray to her with as much enthusiasm as they do to her esteemed son. By so doing, these super-keen people are said to be practitioners of mariolatry, or

the idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mary, attributed by opponents to Roman Catholics.

Mainstream Catholics, in common with most sensible Christians, take a dim view of the Mariolaters in their midst, and urge instead the rather more benign devotion to her memory displayed by the milder-mannered Marians. These men and women have tended to be regarded with a greater degree of tolerance - but also with some puzzled pity, it being generally difficult to explain the precise purpose of their attentions.

 
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Halcyon

I have little doubt but that someone, somewhere in the northern hemisphere will be looking up into the blue summer skies over the next few days and declaring from his deck-chair how blissful it is to be alive during such halcyon days. And in a sense he would be right to do so, in that the word, when appended to 'days', does signify moments that are

calm, quiet, peaceful and undisturbed

But otherwise he would be quite wrong.  Halcyon is the Greek word for kingfisher, and kingfishers were long thought to live in nests that floated on the surface of the sea. They did not breed during the stormy days of summertime, but waited for the traditional

fourteen days of calm weather, [which was] anciently believed to occur about the winter solstice

So halcyon days may well be calm; and the skies may well be blue; but they would also be perishingly cold - a time of year when kingfishers, unlike us,  have managed to come up with their peculiarly avian means of keeping warm.

 

 
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Snoek

A less-than-lovely little word, for a less-than-loved big fish. Britons, in particular, feel they have ample reason to shun

the snake mackerel, Thyrsites atun, of the family Gempylidae - a large marine food fish found in large shoals in colder parts of the Southern hemisphere oceans

since the wartime government bought millions of tins of it from the South African government during the hungriest years of the war, and tried every means available to get the British people to eat it. The oily, leathery and ancient-tasting mackerel-meat was near-universally reviled, and recipes for making it more palatable by boiling it in Algerian brandy or mixing it with coal dust  failed to find any takers. The tins were eventually stripped of their labels and the postwar catfood market found itself mysteriously flooded with inexpensive feasts for the family tabby.

In today's South Africa snoek paté can be found on many a menu in the costlier restaurants. But few are the visiting Britons who will try it.

 
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Run

It is official: RUN is now the word in the English language that has the most senses, the most definitions, attached to it. Hitherto, in the early editions of the OED, the word-of-most-meanings was SET, which occupied some 70 columns, with something like 140 meanings. But new lexicographical research indicates that RUN, to be in the 3rd Edition of the OED, will occupy many more. The verb-form alone has scores of definitions, ranging from the delightful

To go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time; to make one's way or cover the ground in this manner

to the rather more prosaic

To advance or proceed with (an idea, undertaking, etc.)

as in "Scout Tom Taylor took the suggestion and ran with it".

There are innumerable other meanings, all findable in the OED on-line: so many that one might say that they "run the gamut".

Trouble is - if you do say that, you might wonder what gamut means. Well, it derives from

the ‘Great Scale’ (of which the invention is ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo), comprising the seven hexachords or partial scales, and consisting of all the recognized notes used in mediæval music.

Such sweet music to us all.

 

 

 

 
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Apophthegm

What is it that distinguishes this unusual, Greek-originated word that means

a terse, pointed saying, embodying one important truth in a few words; a pithy or sententious maxim

from all other adages and aphorisms? Apart, that is, from that cunningly-placed first letter 'h', snuggled after that second 'p' in a manner that is the bane of many a spelling-bee victim? No - it is the use of the adjective 'sententious' in the OED definition. For an apophthegm is no common-or-garden maxim,  like 'all's well that ends well'. Instead, to be a true apophthegm you have to add a bit of bite, a slight whiff of enigma. 'Every little helps' is one such, used annoyingly by a British supermarket chain, to signify - well, what, exactly?
That every little purchase helps line the pockets of the swells who own it? Every little apple helps keeps the doctor from the door? Every little visit helps make you happy? You puzzle over it - and suddenly it is an apophthegm. If you remember how to spell it.

 
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Holi

This is the time of year when Hindus in India - less tempted than us by the spirit of Saint Valentine - celebrate the water festival which the OED like to spell Holee, and which is defined as

the great...carnival of the Hindoos, held at the approach of the vernal equinox, in honour of Krishna and                              the Gopis, or milkmaids.

Since the carnival involves much hurling of water, and of water-based dyes and powdered colours, it is a time to venture out only in your oldest clothing, since the revellers have no respect for the station or costume of those at whom they hurl. Quite the reverse, in fact: a high panjandrum in cashmere will simply attract them, in hordes.

 
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Pandemonium

I am writing this at the end of a day on which the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, found himself, his consort and his Rolls-Royce motor car under attack from a mob of furious students demonstrating in the streets of London. How appropriate, then, that I had already decided that this week's word should be

pandemonium

but had decided on it for a quite unrelated reason. This riotous day in London Town happens also to be the birthday of John Milton, the seventeenth century poet who coined the word in the first place, in 1667. Deployed today with a capital initial letter it still denotes what Milton intended: the abode of Satan. Offered up in lower case, it means a state of utter confusion, which London's West End seems, at the time of writing, still very much to be.

 
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Delope

So apparently similar to the fourteenth-century creation elopeto run away, especially to marry – yet etymologically quite separate.  While elope has some obvious links with the verb to lope, the additional letter ‘d’ creates the nineteenth century construction delope, a word that has its roots in the Dutch loop, for a gun-barrel, and is a  verb used solely in connection with the generally outmoded means of settling one’s honor, or gaining satisfaction, the duel.

It denotes a means of suddenly conveying mercy – since one who delopes aims his weapon at his opponent and then suddenly, as if on a disdainful whim, raises it high into the sky and lets off the round, quite harmlessly. (What happens if the other party is less chivalrously inclined passes unrecorded.)

Georgette Heyer, she of the thrusting bosoms and Regency bucks that peppered her immensely detailed historical novels, bears the blame for reintroducing this confusingly banal word to the language. It had gained brief currency in early Victorian times, but then sank into deserved obscurity until discovered and used with insufferable glee by Miss Heyer.

 
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Lobscouse

As I am about to start touring for my new book about the Atlantic Ocean,I am going to endeavor this autumn to note a few words I like that have some connection to the sea.

There are, it turns out, two words denoting foods offered to sailors at sea that begin, curiously, with lob - which, in the word lobster, comes from the Latin locusta, for locust-shaped. The two sailor-words are loblolly - a kind of stew, which has nothing to do with either lobsters or locusts, but is an onomatopoeia for the sound it makes when boiling; and today's word, lobscouse, which is vaguely similar in that it 'consists of meat stewed with  vegetables or ship's biscuit'. The diminutive, scouse, is the nickname once given to sailors from Liverpool, and now by extension to all Liverpudlians. The lob here also is the sound of bubbling, somewhat akin to the 'plop' of slow-boiling oatmeal.

 
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Boustrophedon

All too infrequently, during these recession months, am I allowed to travel in the very front of an aircraft. But whenever I do, I take great pleasure when one of the flight attendants delivers the food and drink in a curious zig-zag manner: handing the champagne to the lady in 1A, then the kir royale to the man in 2C, then the gin-and-tonic to 2A, the hot tea to 3C, and so on back and forth all the way down until she reached the curtain. The first attendant I spotted doing this told me, brightly, that her technique was based on a writing and ploughing technique known to the Ancient Greeks as boustrophedon - the word derives from ox and turning - and which is defined as written alternately from left to right and from right to left, like the course of a plough in successive furrows.

All fine and dandy, and fantastically interesting to Classicists maybe. But I wonder: what about the poor guy in 1C. He  seems to lose out, and probably wonders why he ever paid to sit in the front of the plane in the first place.

 
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Soum

I miss Scotland, and so when I came across the word soum, my heart promptly melted. This ancient word means

the amount of pasturage which will support one cow or a proportional number of sheep or other stock.

Would that it were so simple.  Dear Scotland having a charmingly perverse side, it also means its very opposite. It also stands for

the number of sheep that can be maintained on a certain amount of pasture. "A soum of sheep" varies, depending on the quality of land, between four and ten.

If that is unclear, then ask a Highlander to explain, especially if he's just had a wee dram...

 
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Throstle

This is the former name for the bird we now known as the thrush, the song-thrush or (an even less familiar term), the mavis. But unattractive the word throstle may be, it seems a positive joy compared to the Latin name owned by the poor creature: Turdus musicus, which sounds like something one might find in a Jonathan Franzen novel. This Latin also gives us turdine, which means thrush-like - and that still meaning the bird, not the infection.

 
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Dégringolade

With the Winter Olympics getting under way in (currently snow-free) Vancouver, it is perhaps reasonable to include a word for the terror or delight of coming down a slope at great speed. The French verb dégringoler can be dusted off: from it the English have derived a noun that is much more commonly used in the figurative sense, to mean

a rapid descent; deterioration, decadence; change from bad to worse

So, from a 1959 issue of the magazine Encounter (which underwent its own dégringolade when it was found to be taking money from the CIA) we have "...the hero...underwent a convincing but totally unsensational degringolade, taking, not to drugs or drink, but to an increasing sluggishness." We do not know what then happened to the aforesaid hero. Encounter, however, went bust.

 
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Amoretto

As we approach St. Valentine's Day, a nod to the romance industry. Our chosen word is of Italian origin, from the sixteenth century, and means very simply

a little love, a cupid

It claims common cause with amoret, which since 1651, and only in the plural, has signified

looks that inspire love;  love-glances; "love tricks, dalliances"

Neither word has anything to do with that sickly-sweet concoction Amaretto di Saronno, much of which will nevertheless probably be consumed during dinners-for-two in the middle of the month.

 
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Filibeg

On 25th January Scotsmen around the world will get together in inelegant scrimmages at which much haggis and even more whisky will be consumed, all to honor Caledonia's greatest poet, Robert Burns, born 251 years before on this very day.
Not a few of the diners will be wearing the filibeg - the skirted garment of tartan cloth known in English, and defined by the OED, simply as

the kilt
The Gaelic phrase feileadh-beag means, specifically, a little thing of pleats (or a thing of little pleats, no-one is quite sure).

Old-timers in Scotland like to think of the filibeg as the little kilt, a shorter garment that displays the knees in a manner never known to the warriors of long ago. A sudden breeze can run the risk of the wearer showing even more, of course, given the current fashion for wearing little, if anything, beneath.

 
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