Monday, March 27, 2006

Everything's Coming Down Roses

How's this for a painting?? If you heard this week's episode of "A Way with Words," then you'll recall our discussion of the word Heliogabaline, used by David Foster Wallace in his marvelous essay on English usage. It's an allusion to the wild-and-crazy Roman emperor Heliogabalus, who supposedly invited a bunch of guests to dinner and hid a massive amounts of rose petals behind a false ceiling, then let them fall -- smothering some of his guests. Heliogabalus became a darling of the Decadent Movement in the late 19th century. Here's the 1888 painting I mentioned, which depicts that scene. It's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Click on the painting for a closer look; it's spectacular.)

Oh, and Wallace's use of Heliogabaline? It's perfect: "The truth is that most US academic prose is appalling -- pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipidelian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead." Anybody disagree?

By the way, that David Foster Wallace essay is something that every language lover should gleefully dig into and savor once a year -- that and George Orwell's prescient piece, "Politics and the English Language."

Because You Never Know When You Might Need It

By the way, if you still haven't found your way to Omniglot, here's another reason to hurry on over: Where else are you going to learn how to say "My hovercraft is full of eels" in Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and a host of other languages?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Cool Latin Palindrome

Nothing like a cool Latin palindrome to make your day, eh? I love this one about moths. It goes:

in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

Which translates into the haunting English words:

"We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire."

And speaking of Latin, do check out our show this week. It's all about Latin -- with lots of laughs besides.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Search of A Word

I've been thinking about all the black-and-white things I've been posting here -- this anserine bird, these scacchic pieces below, and of course, the impossibly cute Butterstick the panda. I'm musing about a good word for anything that's similarly black-and-white. That's why I was reminded of piebald.

I'd like to propose the word melanoleucine. The panda's scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca (literally, "cat-foot black-white"). And I like the sound of melanoleucine. As in, "Hey, want to stop by the deli and pick up some of those melanoleucine cookies?"

Plus, pandas are pretty darn cute. (Haven't had enough of a panda fix yet? Try Pandafix.)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Do You Have Unmet Vocabulary Needs?

Some funny made-up words involving food in this recent Washington Post article. My favorites are culinary bling-bling, flexitarian (we do need a better word for "semi-vegetarian," although I'm not sure I like this one), and outsaucing ("Use of canned, powdered or frozen sauces"). Also, from a publicist trying to explain why Heinz keeps coming out with new ketchup flavors: unmet flavor needs.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Finally: Clothes for REAL women!

Or women like me, anyway. (Although I'd really like some big OED-on-CD-ROM hoop earrings to go along with this little get-up.)

Today's Word: Piebald

Piebald (PYE-bahld) means "patched or spotted, particularly in black and white," as on an animal. Piebald is from pie, an old word for magpie, the name of a bird with that kind of coloring. The bald in piebald alludes to white fur, hair, or feathers, on the head (as in a bald eagle). They're also related to the word skewbald, which the OED describes as applying to animals, particularly horses, that are "Irregularly marked with white and brown or red, or some similar colour." Magpies--like this one--also inspired at least one other word. More about that a little later.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Word for the Day: Scacchic

All kinds of scacchic thrills and chills here in San Diego right now, because the U.S. Chess Champion will be determined here this weekend. Oh, and scacchic? It means "of or pertaining to chess." Pronounced "SKACK-ick," it's from the Italian word for "chess," scacchi. May the player with the best scacchic skills win!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

And Speaking of Speed Bumps

Just remembered another term for those teeth-rattling interruptions in the road: chatter bumps (not to be confused with goose bumps, of course). As Double-Tongued Word-Wrester points out, a chatter bump is a "small depression in a roadbed, usually occurring in series and creating a corrugated or rippled surface." Also known as a washboard.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Today's Word: Anserine

Speaking of geese, if you want to describe something "goose-like," you can always call it anserine. It's from Latin anser, meaning "goose," and is pronounced either "ANN-suh-ryn," or "ANN-suh-rinn" (as in "I just left a message on your answerin' machine"). Incidentally, Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines cutis anserina as "a transitory localized change in the skin surface caused by elevation of the hair follicles as a result of contraction of the arrectores pilorum muscles, a reflection of sympathetic nerve discharge. Called also goose flesh."

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Today's Word: Horripilation

Speaking of hairy: Need a synonym for goose bumps? Try horripilation, (hoh-RIP-uh-LAY-shun), from Latin horripilare, "to bristle with hairs." The "bristling" in horripilation is the linguistic kin of the "shaking, shuddering" words horror and abhor, while the hairy stem -pilat- in horripilation is related to that hair-remover also known as a depilatory. By the way, anybody here speak a language that invokes some other kind of image for this besides "goose bumps"?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Does "Bloody" Pass Your Personal Taste Test?

I'm not bothered by the word bloody, but it seems the Brits are. (Also, I hadn't been aware of this use of the term fruity, which the OED says can mean "full of rich or strong quality; highly interesting, attractive, or suggestive," sort of like "juicy" or "spicy.") So, do you think bloody is too fruity a word?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Are We There, Yeti?

I'm so pleased that they're referring to Kiwa hirsuta as the yeti lobster. I'd worried after seeing news reports saying the critter was "just shy of 6 inches long--about the size of a salad plate."

I mean, you remember what happened with the baby panda at Washington's National Zoo. Reporters kept writing that he was "the size of a stick of butter" at birth. This inspired the baby bear's many worshippers to call him "Butterstick," despite the zoo's insistence on his official Chinese name, Tai Shan, which means "Peaceful Mountain." Happily, though, as the Washington Post reports, the name "Butterstick" has stuck.

Hey, I'm all for calling him "The Stick"--that is, when we're not calling him "that furry little black-and-white cookie of cuteness." I'm just not sure it's a good idea for lovers of all things homarine to call the blind white lobster "Salad Plate." (Anyone have a better idea?)

UPDATE: I just looked at the National Geographic pic again, and realized that in the text it's being called a yeti crab, not a lobster. In which case, the creature would not be homarine, but cancrine (as in the astrological sign Cancer). But the AP story the other day said it was a "lobster." So, is this a crab or a lobster? Or do they know? And is the one in the photo a boy or a girl? Wah! Inquiring minds want to know, and we want to know nownownownownow.

Another Shaggy Lobster Story

An even prettier pic of that hairy white homarine creature from National Geographic. Scientists have christened it Kiwa hirsuta, Kiwa being a Polynesian goddess of shellfish, and hirsuta, of course, being Latin for "shaggy."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Today's Word: Homarine

Is this the coolest-looking animal or what? French explorers just announced finding this blind, whitish crustacean at a depth of 7,540 feet some 900 miles south of Easter Island last year.

All of which is a great reminder that if you need to describe, say, a strong handshake and want a synonym for "lobster-like," the word you want is homarine (HAH-muh-ryne). It's a relative of that word often seen on French menus, homard.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

By Any Other Name, It's Still a Bump in the Road

And about that page with a German term for "driving around when you've arrived too early"? It also includes a photo of a street sign with a Swedish word for "speedbump," which apparently causes certain American visitors no end of hilarity. Here's another pic.

Naturally, I'm now pondering terms for various "bumps in the road." An Aussie pal tells me that where she comes from, speedbumps are sleeping policemen. Then there's the English term thank-you-ma'am for a hollow or ridge in a road--inspired by the fact that, as the OED notes, hitting one "causes persons passing over it in a vehicle to nod the head involuntarily, as if in acknowledgement of a favour." (Which is, I suppose, sort of like the sunken fence called a ha-ha, because of what you say when you nearly trip over it.)

For that matter, I'm also fond of the French term for "pothole": nid-de-poule, or "hen's nest" (and am very glad I'm not the only one who thinks about such things).

Martha Barnette's . . . Ortkontrollfahrten?

Okay, so it's a different kind of "ort," but still. Leave it to the Germans to engineer an oh-so-efficient automotive word like this. Hat tip to Erin, who also knows from dresses.

That's Okay, I'll Sit in The Dark

And speaking of Grant Barrett's read-'em-and-weed article about dictionary-making, the New York Times has a piece today about something similar happening in the classic text, Janson's History of Art:
. . . As with all renderings of history, deciding who made the cut and who did not often came down to the mundane realities of publishing: page counts and deadlines. "There had to be tradeoffs," said Frima Fox Hofrichter, chairwoman of the history of art and design department at Pratt Institute, who wrote the chapters on the Baroque and Rococo.
Other factors, such as politics, are cited as well. But it kind of makes you look at deadline-less, paperless Wikipedia in a whole new way, eh? Not to mention "Whistler's Mother," which didn't make the cut in Janson's new edition.

Not Your Grandma's Scrabble

How did I manage to miss, until now, the 2004 documentary "Word Wars"? Sort of like "Spellbound," only with adult (mostly male) contestants, this look at the world of competitive Scrabble is cleverly presented, often hilarious, a little disturbing, and a good reminder that when it comes to utter nerditude unleashed, you really can't make this stuff up. Not to mention you'll learn things that might come in handy during your next Scrabble game, like the fact that a jerrid is a kind of wooden javelin. More about the film here.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Today's Word: Anatine

Speaking of ducks, if you need a single term that means "like a duck," the word you want is anatine (ANN-uh-tyne). It'll come in handy if, for example, you ever need to describe a funny walk, or Aku Ankka, the popular also-ran in Finnish elections.

Required Weeding

Fascinating article by Grant Barrett in Lost magazine on all the real words that aren't in dictionaries. Often lexicographers must weed them out or decide against including them in the first place (as happens with the vast number of chemical names):

For lexicographers, cutting entries is an act of desperation brought on by a goat rodeo of printer's signatures, page counts, and paper costs, of trim size and product lines, and by a second-guessing of previous editorial decisions. More entries mean more costs. To cut costs, you must control the number of entries. So editors in charge must ask themselves, Which of the children shall we apprentice to the knacker-man so that we can afford to support the rest of the family?
Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

If It Runs Like a . . .

See, if you're not reading The Lexicographer's Rules, then you're not learning fascinating things like, for example, the enormous number of Finns who vote for the Finnish version of "Donald Duck" in national elections.

Latin Words of the Week

Was brushing up on some Latin this afternoon and came across this gem: Disce quasi semper victurus vive quasi cras moriturus. "Learn as if you were going to live forever; live as if you were going to die tomorrow." Works for me!

And Today's Golden Pineapple Award Goes To . . .

. . . daz, who points out in one of the comment sections below that if you disregard the tilde, pinacoladaism is an anagram of dipsomaniacal. Enjoy the award, daz. The Golden Pineapple doesn't get doled out to just anybody!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

It's Raining . . . How's That Again??

One more thing about rain: You've heard "It's raining cats and dogs," of course. There are several proposed explanations for this phrase, but the most likely, I think, is simply that it alludes to an "improbable cacophony." That's because there's a veritable torrent of similarly noisy and improbable phrases in other languages. Czechs say, "It's raining wheelbarrows." In Slovakia when it rains hard, "tractors are falling." In Greek, "it's raining chair legs." In Gaelic, "it's throwing cobbler's knives," and in Danish, "it's raining shoemakers' apprentices." (Go figure.)

The wonderful site Ominglot has dozens of such phrases, including the Haitian Creole expression for such rain, which translates as: "Dogs are drinking in their noses."

Friday, March 03, 2006

Today's Word: Ostrobogulous

Many of you wrote to say how much you enjoyed this week's show about weird words. One of my favorites: ostrobogulous. The OED says it desribes "something that is slightly risqué or indecent." It adds that ostrobogulous can be "applied arbitrarily to things which are bizarre, interesting, or unusual in some other way."

I learned this term from Erin McKean's ostrobogulous--and I mean that in the best possible way--book, Weird and Wonderful Words. You can also learn an ostrobogulous new word every day from her free e-newsletter, "Erin's Weird and Wonderful Word of the Day." I mean, doesn't it do your heart good to know that oggannition is a synonym for "snarling, growling, grumbling"?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

If You Like Piña Coladas, And Gettin' Caught in ...

Speaking of what you call it when it rains while the sun's still shining, doesn't it make your day to know that some folks refer to this phenomenon as pineapple rain? Made my day, anyway. Elsewhere in the U.S., people say the wolf is giving birth or the devil is beating his wife. To see where these expressions are used, check out the map from this uber-cool Dialect Survey. (And hey, my apologies if you now have that piña colada song stuck in your head. I find that the best way to get rid of an earworm like that is to stop what I'm doing, and just sing it at the top of my lungs. You might try it.)