Know Your Words

Gendarme, Socialism, and More: It’s Last Week in Words

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1. Words New to Me: Gendarme

1280px-France_in_XXI_Century._Air_policeA few days ago, I came across the word gendarme in The Oxford Book of Death. Here’s the context:

Aversion to death is necessary to the survival of the species, rather in the spirit of the French proverb to the effect that fear of the gendarme is the beginning of wisdom.

The what is the beginning of what? The context here doesn’t help. So I hit the dictionaries. Here’s what I found in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

1. A member of a body of soldiers especially in France serving as an armed police force for the maintenance of the public order.

2. Police officer.

And the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

I. (Chiefly plural) In the older French army, a horseman in full armor, having others under him; later a mounted trooper. Now historical

2. A soldier, who is employed on police duties, especially in France

2. figurative: Projecting pieces of rock, which are called gendarmes; apparently from their … stopping travelers 1883.

Okay, so gendarme = French police office, sometimes on horseback. And the word’s etymology? Partridge’s Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English explains it like this: Middle French-French gendarmes (plural): gent, people + de, of + armes, weapons.

Now I get it: Fear of the people of weapons just may be the beginning of wisdom.

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2. What Does “Socialism” Mean?

This is the question asked by a recent article in The Fort Worth Star Telegram and, depending on where you get your news, the answer could be everything from a government that tosses people in gulags for no reason to healthcare for all.  I won’t deprive you of the joy of reading that piece. Instead, I thought I’d hit you with some dictionary definitions of the word so you can judge for yourself. That said, it should be clear to anyone with a solid head on their shoulders that the socialism called for by some of our more progressive legislators does not include the government taking over the means of production.

1. Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means production and distribution of goods. 2 a. A system of society or group living in which there is no private property. b. A system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state. 3. A stage of society  in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done. – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

1 a. A social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively and political power is exercised by the whole community. 1b. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 2. The building of a material base for communism under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxist-Leninist Theory. – American Heritage Dictionary

A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be regulated or owned by the community as a whole; policy or practice based on this theory. Socialism has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state Communism, and social democracy; however it mainly applies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market…. – Oxford English Reference Dictionary

An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists. – Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

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3. Is the Term Paddy’s Day Offensive?

800px-Vasnetsov_RazvlechenieAccording to the website Irish Central.com, “every March 17, a minority of people complain that the term “Paddy’s Day” is offensive.”

I have no doubt that this is true, but I have never heard anyone use the phrase “Paddy’s Day” in place of  St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m an active participant in the day (my daughters are Irish dancers). Nevertheless, here’s the argument/rationale:

It seems that some people see the “Paddy” in “Paddy’s Day” as derogatory, connecting it with “Paddy Wagon,” or “Plastic Paddy.

“However, to those who say “Paddy’s Day” and see no problem with it … “Paddy” in this case is simply the logical abbreviation of the Irish word Pádraig.

According to Wikipedia:

Pádraig (Pádraic or Páraic) is an Irish male name deriving from the Latin Patricius, meaning “of the patrician class,” introduced via the name of Saint Patrick. Patrick is the English version, via Old French.

Diminutives include Páidín (Anglicised as “Podge” and “Paddy”); the latter Anglicisation is often used, sometimes pejoratively, as a term for Irish people as a whole.

Okay, so there is some relation between Paddy, Pádraig, and St. Patrick, but I still think “Paddy” sounds stupid and would never say it. That said, I don’t expect this kerfuffle to end any time soon. As noted by Irish Central, this article from 1994 (!) article from the Baltimore Sun, this debate has been raging for a while.

For more about St. Patrick, check out this previous Butter Lamb post: Facts and Legends about St. Patrick.

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4. New Words: Hangxiety

I came across the following from the website iNews.uk

I didn’t see the original article, and I’m not sure who the singer Charlotte Church is, but it seems she wrote an article in for the Guardian in which she vowed to never again experience “hangxiety.”

Hangxiety, it seems, is a new word for “the feeling of overwhelming guilt, stress, and worry you experience the day after a drinking binge.” Although the word is not yet recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, it is registered in the Urban Dictionary.

There you go. Use it at will.

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5. 15 of My Favorite Dictionaries

I recently came across an article from BookRiot.com titled “15 of the Best Dictionary Apps for Your Every Nerdy Need.”

Putting aside the question as to why a site named “Book Riot” would publish an article about 15 of the best dictionary apps rather than 15 of the best dictionaries (I mean, where’s the love?!?), I thought, “Hey, since I don’t traffik in apps, I should produce a list of my 15 favorite dictionaries. So that’s what I’ve done. Check ’em out at the links provided! [Note: the links here are to Amazon.com, but if you can, please purchase any of these books at a local bookstore.]

The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art

A big book with a lot of beautiful art and very thorough definitions. If you’re into classical mythology and everything related to it, this book is for you. Surprisingly, I find myself going to this book a lot … and that’s okay with me.

A Dictionary of Symbols

J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols is kind of the gold standard of symbol dictionaries. Like the aforementioned Dictionary of Classical Mythology, it has thorough definitions, cool artwork, and I simply love flipping through its pages.

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places

This book is just freaking wild. Such a cool idea and pretty wide ranging. From fiction to myth to movies, if there’s an imaginary place you’ve heard of it’s in here.

Dream Dictionary from A to Z

Do you have crazy dreams (or even not so crazy dreams)? Do you want to know what you might be dreaming about? If you answered yes to these questions, get your hands on the Dream Dictionary from A to Z. I have several dream dictionaries, but I prefer this on because it’s the biggest, the best organized, and the most complete.

Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto)

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins is great because it frequently offers contrary opinions about word origins, and the differences or discrepancies from other sources often ad an element of fun and mystery to the source of the words we use every day.

Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of English Language

Dictionaries like to “borrow” information from authoritative sources and, when it comes to etymology, Partridge’s Origins seems to be that authoritative source.

Wicked Words

When it comes to controversial words, there’s no better book than Wicked Words. It goes the extra mile when providing information on the controversy. It’s simply a great read.

A Dictionary of the Old West

Do you like the Old West? If you do, get this book full of Old West slang and western neologisms.

Psychiatric Dictionary

Detailed, thorough, authoritative, and all kinds of interesting.

Oxford Dictionary of Journalism

In this world of “fake news” and disappearing newspapers, this book provides some insight into how journalism works and the things reporters have to deal with and think about. It also helps if you’re interested in reporting, like I am.

Isms: A Compendium of Concepts, Doctrines, Traits, and Beliefs

There are a lot of wacky beliefs out there. This book chronicles them all. A fun read.

Oxford Companion to Philosophy

If you’ve ever wanted a big, fat philosophy reference, this is your book. It leaves no philosophical stone uncovered. An impressive work.

One Letter Words

From the dust jacket: This dictionary “illuminates the more than 1,000 surprising definitions associated with each letter in the English alphabet.

Dictionary of Modern War

Sinister in its way, this tome provides some interesting insights into a wide range of military-speak, and provides some detail on some of the weapons (missiles, etc.) that have been used over the decades.

Dictionary of Science and Creationism

A fantastic resource for understanding what the hell creationists are talking about and helpful in refuting their faulty premises. It’s also just an interesting book and is one of those dictionaries that one can’t believe exists but does.

 

 

 

Know Your Words

Blurb, Cognitive Overhead, and More: This Week in Words

Welcome to the Butter Lamb’s first (and hopefully not last) installment of This Week in Words. The aim here is to dig in to the words and word-related news I’ve come across in the past week.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that this more topical approach differs from my usual and somewhat random way of writing about whatever word has been piquing my interest. This is not an accident. A few weeks ago, I promised some different kinds of posts … and then right back to doing the same old thing. This is my attempt to rectify that.

Enjoy.

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1. Word Histories: Blurb

BlurbMarch 7, 2019 was World Book Day in the United Kingdom.* To celebrate, Merriam-Webster published a fun history of the word “blurb” on its website, which you should read.

I won’t steal MW’s thunder, but it seems the word was coined by the humorist Gelett Burgess at the annual dinner of the American Bookseller’s Association in 1907. Seven years later, Burgess officially defined the word in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed.

Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.

Blurb, v. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.

This got me thinking: Who else had weighed in on this word? To my dismay, neither Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary nor William Lambdin’s Doublespeak Dictionary bother to define blurb, but the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory does. Unfortunately, the definition in this latter text isn’t very sarcastic or snarky. It reads:

A brief description of the contents of a book printed on the dust jacket. Often couched in enthusiastic and, at times, extravagant terms. The word is believed to have been coined by the American author Gelett Burgess who defined it as “a sound like a publisher.” Earlier the term “puff” was used, probably after [the character] Mr. Puff in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s satire, The Critic (1779).

I don’t know about you, but I find it oddly comforting that people have deemed blurbs untrustworthy since the early 20th century.

* Apparently, we in the US of A celebrate World Book Day on April 23 … you’d think everyone would celebrate “world” book day on the same day, but what do I know….

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2. New Euphemism: Cognitive Overload

ScrewheadOn March 7, 2019 The Atlantic published an article, “The People Who Eat the Same Meal Everyday.” As its title implies, the piece investigates the people content to eat the same thing (mostly for lunch) day after day and explains their reasons (i.e., rationalizations?) for embracing dietary monotony.

Full disclosure: I am one of these people. In high school, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch almost every day, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Why? Because I liked it that way. But I digress….

At one point in the article, readers are introduced to a computer engineer in New York City who explains (defends?)  her tendency to eat the same thing for lunch this way:

… she noticed that when her company brings in catered lunch, she always picks a salad when it’s available. She came to think of this default selection as reducing her “cognitive overhead”—a way of not expending mental energy on something that wasn’t a high priority for her…. She says she took inspiration from tech moguls such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who essentially automated their own daily attire decisions.

So, in other words, this engineer was merely trying to simplify her life by not thinking too hard (or perhaps thinking at all) about what to have for lunch. I get that. We all have a lot to think about these days. But why must she go so far as to use this overly technical term rather than admit she couldn’t be bothered?  Is this the fear of appearing “lazy” run amok? To twist not thinking about something into reducing cognitive overhead is to suggest one can boost efficiency through mindlessness. Is this really where we want to go? If you don’t want to think about something then don’t, but don’t try to disguise it as some kind of “productivity hack.” Own it.

One could register a similar complaint about the phrase “expending mental energy,” but I’ll let that one go. I don’t want to add to my cognitive overhead.

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3. What Is a Manifesto?

József_Borsos-_The_Dissatisfied_Painter_(Crisis_in_the_Life_of_a_Painter),_1852Speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, you may have caught wind of the statement he released on Facebook about messaging and privacy on the social media site. The statement, which took the form of a 3,000 word Facebook post, was repeatedly referred to as a “manifesto.”

Really? A manifesto? I’ve always deemed manifestos to be something more significant and far-reaching, a document that presents a person’s ideas or outlook on a particular matter and then ties it into a larger philosophy or vision. (I’m thinking here of Marx’s Communist Manifesto or the document issued by the Unabomber, aka: Ted Kaczynski.)

Then again, I could be wrong. I admit I have no idea what makes a manifesto different from an opinion-editorial or even an essay, so I decided to look into it. Here’s what I found.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines manifesto as “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.” Hmmm, I guess this applies to Zuk’s statement. (Can I call him Zuk?) Still, as far as definitions go this seems kind of “thin,” so I checked the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to see what it had to offer. Its definition largely agreed with that of Merriam-Webster.

A public declaration by a sovereign prince or state, or by an individual or body of individuals whose proceedings are of public importance, making known past actions and explaining the motives for actions announced as forthcoming.

Okay, that’s a better definition and it seems I’m still wrong. I can accept that. Now if you wouldn’t mind, sit tight while I pen my forthcoming manifesto concerning the need to reconsider the definition of manifesto.

PS) In case you’re wondering, the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories notes that English manifesto “is an adoption of the Italian word from the verb manifestare, which comes from a Latin verb meaning to “make public.” The Latin word manifestus, meaning “obvious” is the root of the word.

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4. Neologism Watch: Allokataplixis

Winslow_Homer_-_The_Guide_and_Woodsman_(1889)(1)A neologism is a fancy term for “new word” and, this week, I came across an article in Aeon that gives birth to the word allokataplixis, or “the heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place. The author (Liam Heneghan, a professor at DePaul University) even goes so far as to explain how he came up with it — by joining the Greek words allo, meaning “other,” and katapliktiko, meaning “wonder.” I like it!

Now, who will coin a word that captures that special type of indigestion you get from eating too much “road food” (e.g., crap from gas station convenience stores).

Should you want to read more about Prof. Heneghan’s “new word for the feeling when travel makes everything new,” check it out here.

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5. Words New to Me: Surcease

skeleton-endI bet this happens to you: you come across a new word (or at least a word that’s new to you) in a book or magazine and, once it is lodged in your brain, you begin to notice it everywhere. That happened to me this past week with the word surcease.

If you’re new to this word too, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it this way:

1. To leave off, stop, cease from some action (finally or temporarily); to
come to an end
2. To come to an end, be discontinued; to cease
3. To desist from, to discontinue; to give up a course of action; also, to refrain from
4. To put a stop to, bring to an end; to stay (legal proceedings)

Interestingly, Partridge’s Short Etymological Dictionary of the English Langue traces the word’s history back to sedere, the Latin word for “sit”:

Latin supersedere, in its legal sense “to stay” becomes Old French/French sureoir, past participle sursis, whence, influenced by cease, the English “to surcease,” to desist.

I know: that’s not particularly helpful, but it’s all I can find on the word. So if it’s okay with you, I’m going to surcease with this foray into the word’s etymology.

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Well, that’s it for this week. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and look forward to another installment of TWIW in roughly seven days.

Know Your Words

What Is a Crisis?

Bank_run_during_the_Showa_Financial_CrisisAccording to Google News, the following things are in “crisis”: Venezuela, modern Science, American cities, truth, intellectuals, and, of course, the southwestern boarder. But what exactly is a crisis?

To find the answers to these questions, I thought I’d see what the books along the BLRL’s shelves. Here’s what I found.

I was surprised to learn the word crisis is first and foremost, a medical term. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first sense of the word,

The point in the process of a disease when an important development or change takes place, which is decisive of recovery or death; the turning point of a disease for better or worse.

Similar definitions appear in the BLRL’s several medical dictionaries, such as the American Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which defines crisis as, “The turning point of a disease for good or evil.”

With the medical stuff out of the way, the OED goes on to define crisis in a more familiar fashion,

A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning point; a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.

For me, that last sentence is of the utmost importance, as the word applied seems to hint at the notion of manufacturing crisis, a now regular component of our present difficult, insecure, and suspenseful times. In the medical sense, the moment of crisis seems to be more obvious, objective, and definite — “a turning point” (for better or worse). This implies that there’s an event, that something is happening or has happened to alter the outcome. The same cannot be said for political crises. If you don’t believe me, just look at the hub-bub over the boarder. One fellow keeps flapping about a “crisis,” that we’re experiencing something significant, and that we need a wall to keep it at bay. His opponents, on the other hand, contend that nothing is different, that no change has taken place, and thus the purported crisis is a fiction. It can’t be both.

Speaking of fiction, crisis is also a literary term. The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines the word as, “The point in a story or play at which the tension reaches a maximum and a resolution is imminent. There may, of course, be several crises, each preceding a climax.”

József_Borsos-_The_Dissatisfied_Painter_(Crisis_in_the_Life_of_a_Painter),_1852

But wait, there’s more. If we can stay with the fiction angle for a bit, it’s worth pointing out that there’s something called a psycholeptic crisis, which the Psychiatric Dictionary defines as an

Eruption of irrational unconscious elements into consciousness … which is essentially the feeling of a catastrophe, namely the end of the world. Epileptics often have ideas of impending destruction.

Hmmm, I wonder if this has any bearing on our current political “crisis” along the border.

The Etymology of Crisis

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says “crisis once referred to the turning point of a disease. It is medical Latin, from Greek krisis ‘decision,’ from krinein ‘decide.’ The general sense ‘decisive point’ dates from the early 17th century.

Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, offers a slightly different explanation. Crisis, it says, is “the Latin translation of Greek krisis, a sifting, from krinein, to sift.” Origins, goes on to say that, “Medical critical goes back to Late Latin criticus, in grave condition, and Middle Latin criticare, to be extremely ill.”

Interestingly, Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology offers yet another (slightly) different answer. It says crisis comes from “Latin crisis, from Greek krisis a separating, discrimination, decision, from krinein to separate, decide, judge.” It goes on to say, “The sense of decisive moment, is first recorded in English in 1627 as a figurative extension of the original medical meaning.”

I’m not sure what “medical Latin” is, or how it might differ from regular Latin, but the Latin word crisis is not found within the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary (which I contend is far too big to fit in anyone’s pocket). Instead, it offers discrimen, meaning “separating line; division; distinction, difference, crisis, risk.” Neither critical nor criticare are there either. Criticus is, however, it is defined as a “literary critic.”

It seems my ability to research Latin words is in crisis.

Know Your Words

Somnus, Where You At?

Somnus_god_cardI fell asleep on the couch sometime around 11:00 pm and woke up at 2:26 am. It’s now 4:06, and, despite feeling tired, I can’t seem to get back to sleep.

This waking up on the couch in the middle of the night happens to me a lot, but then I usually shuffle off to bed, lay awake for about 30 minutes or so, and then fall back asleep. Not tonight, though.

Is this inability to enter the land of nod insomnia or just plain sleeplessness? Is there a difference? Since I have the time, and nothing better to do, I thought I’d look into it.

Insomnia, all my general dictionaries, seem to agree, is defined as something akin to “prolonged or abnormal inability to sleep” or “abnormal wakefulness; sleeplessness.” These dictionaries are also in agreement about insomnia‘s origin — a combination of the Latin words in-, not and somnus, sleep.

Things get a little more interesting, and a lot more specific, in the psychological dictionaries. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines insomnia as:

Inability to fall asleep or to maintain restful sleep, the condition usually being chronic. Initial insomnia (also called sleep-onset insomnia) is difficulty falling asleep; middle insomnia is waking in the middle of the night and having difficulty going back to sleep; and terminal insomnia is waking up at least two hours before one’s normal waking time and being unable to fall asleep again.*

The Psychiatric Dictionary (6th Ed.) splits this sleepless hair a little more, and then goes on to give the insomniac even more to stress over.

Insomnia disorder consists of difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep at least three times a week for at least a month. The loss of sleep produces significant daytime fatigue or impaired occupational or social functioning.**

Great, so in addition to incessantly mulling why I can’t fall asleep, now I add worrying about how lack of sleep affects my social functioning! Thank you Psychiatric Dictionary!

Virgil_Solis_-_Iris_Somnus

Things get a little more pleasant and poetic (or at least less stress-inducing) in the classical dictionaries, which I turned to to investigate Somnus (capital S), the Roman god of sleep (hence somnus, the Latin word for sleep). According to the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art,

[Somnus is] the son of Night and the twin brother of Death, with whom he dwells (according to Hesiod) in the eternal darkness of the farthest West. Thence he sweeps over the land and sea, bringing sleep to men and gods, since he has power over all alike, and could lull to sleep even Zeus himself…. Sleep is represented in art in various forms and situations, and frequently with the wings of an eagle or a butterfly on his forehead, and a poppy-stalk and a horn, from which he dropped slumber on those whom he lulls to rest.

I’ll take this kind of talk over that harsh, clinical business any day. Plus, now I know who to petition when sleep remains elusive. Or, at least I think I do. The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology doesn’t have an entry for Somnus, but it does devote some text to Hypnus (also spelled Hypnos), his Greek double.

The personification of sleep, he was the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus [brother of Gaea (earth), Tartarus (underworld), Eros (love), and Nyx (night)] … and the twin of Thanatos (Death). Homer made him an inhabitant of Lemnos (an island in the northern Aegean Sea). Later his home became more remote; in the Underworld according to Virgil, or in the land of Cimmerians, according to Ovid, who described a magic place where everything was asleep. It was often claimed that he had wings, traveling fast over land and sea and lulling humans to sleep.

Cimmerians sounds nice.

The time is now 5:41 am.

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Notes:

* For the sake of thoroughness, I thought I’d mention that the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology traces insomnia back not to Latin, but to Greek insommus, sleeplessness, from in-, not + somnus, sleep + -ia, indicating a condition or quality.

** The Psychiatric Dictionary goes on to list several types of insomnia after it’s initial entry for the term. They are:

Childhood-onset, or idiopathic, insomnia, which begins before puberty and persists into adulthood.

Learned insomnia, which is defined as “difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep based on psychological reasons, such as insomnia that begins during a period of stress but continues after the stress itself has disappeared.”

Rebound insomnia, which is the “worsening of sleep beyond the baseline level if insomnia following immediately upon discontinuation of medication that was used to treat the insomnia in the first place.”

Know Your Words

Accountants: We’ve Got Your Number

Generic accounting
Apparently, the generic images of accounting are just as lame as the definitions.

I hate to be there bearer of bad news, but there is turmoil in the accounting profession. The bean counters and statement jockeys (?) are pissed, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Spreadsheets are being deleted, No. 2 pencils broken, ties loosened and top buttons unbuttoned. What has caused this uproar? A definition.

Perhaps you caught wind of this, for it was all over the news in recent weeks: accountants are unhappy with the Oxford English Dictionary‘s (OED) definition of accountant.

According to the website Accountancy Daily, accountants are much more than bean counters and spreadsheet jockeys (which no one ever calls them). To change this perception, they’re encouraging their comrades to sign a petition urging the OED’s editors to “‘update the definition of accountant to bring it in line with modern-day approaches to the role.'”

According to the aforementioned article, “the OED’s definition of accountant currently reads, ‘a person whose job is to keep or inspect financial accounts.’” Mr. Gary Turner, the co-founder of the cloud-based accounting platform Xero, would like it to be changed to “‘a person whose job is to keep or inspect and advise on financial accounts.'” Turner’s aim is simple. He wants the OED’s definition to “‘better reflect how much the role of an accountant has changed in the last two decades.'”

Naturally, the Butter Lamb had to look into this. Kerfuffles like this play right into the BLRL’s wheelhouse and gives the library a chance to flex its referential muscles.

But let’s start at the beginning. I looked accountant up in the (Compact) Oxford English Dictionary and was met with the following definition: “One who professionally makes up or takes charge of accounts; an officer in a public office who has charge of accounts.”

Okay, that is not very descriptive. Maybe Mr. Turner has a point. Although there are no accountants at the BLRL, it’s clear this definition falls far short of what an accountant does … probably.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why there’s such a focus on the OED. In addition to there being a host of other well-known dictionaries both in-print and online, there are a host of dictionaries devoted to the subject of accounting out there. Shouldn’t the definitions in these books carry some weight here, or at least be used to inform the discussion?

Surprisingly, the BLRL has one of these dictionaries (or in this case a “glossary”), in its collection: the Running Press Glossary of Accounting Language. So, with the aim of righting this vocational wrong, I cracked its cover and hoped for the a worthwhile definition to share. Much to my surprise, what I found, “one skilled in accounting,” was actually worse than the one I found in the compact OED. Yikes.

To be fair, the Running Press Glossary Accounting Language was published in 1978, so it’s not exactly hot off the press. Hence its lackluster definition. I am happy to report, however, that the book somewhat redeems itself with its more vigorous and expansive definition of accounting, which the bean-counter brigade might approve of. It reads:

The classification, recording, and interpretation of business transactions so that periodic statements can be prepared to indicate either the historical results of these transactions or the financial condition of the business.

That’s better, right? Maybe the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary could borrow some of this verbiage, or perhaps similar words from the many other dictionaries devoted to the subject, for its updated definition.

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Note:

Apparently, the Running Press Glossary Accounting Language is available as an e-book here.

Know Your Words

Coward or Dastard?

Dastard!Ever since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I’ve been mulling how a person could bring himself to do such a thing. How twisted, lost, empty, and or monstrous can a person be? I mean, hate is one thing. Going on a murderous rampage is quite another … isn’t it? Are those two things closer than they used to be?

I’ve also been wondering, albeit to a lesser extent, what word most accurately describes the kind of person who perpetrates such acts of terror. The word that keeps coming to mind is coward and, indeed, those responsible for terrorist acts are commonly labeled as such. In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis referred to the synagogue shooter as a coward the day after the incident. I understand why. The killer gunned down 11 people who ranged in age from 54 to 97 in a house of worship. Clearly, he sought out a target that wouldn’t put up much of a fight. (Even if you agree with this lunatic’s ideology you have to admit there is absolutely nothing courageous about ambushing unarmed seniors.)

Yet, despite knowing why Mattis used it, the word coward, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “A reproachful designation for one who displays ignoble fear or want of courage in the face of danger, pain, or difficulty,” still seems somewhat lacking in this particular context. Although heavy on shame, there is nothing sinister in the OED’s definition, nothing that speaks to the shooter’s inhumane and unjust acts. Put bluntly, it addresses neither the shooter’s intent to kill nor the defenselessness and vulnerability of his victims.

To see if I could find another, more expansive definition of coward, I checked the other references at my disposal. The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd Ed.) parrots the OED’s definition mentioned above. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary does the same and then adds the senses “lacking courage; timid” and “proceeding from excessive fear or timidity (e.g., a coward cry).” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) offers “One who shows disgraceful fear or timidity” and Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines coward as, “one who shows ignoble fear: a basely timid, easily frightened, and easily daunted person.”

Strike one.

To see if the word somehow lost a sense of inhumanity or maleficence I hit up the etymology texts on the SDCL’s shelves. All are generally in agreement that, as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology puts it:

Coward, which before 1250 was couard, [is] borrowed from Old French coart, from coe “tail,” which comes from Latin coda, dialectical variant of cauda “tail.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps [it is] a reference to the tail in its allusion to an animal “turning tail” in fright or to the habit of a frightened animal of drawing the tail between the hind legs.

Strike two.

As interesting as that is, it wasn’t much help, so I  tried another approach and began investigating the synonyms of coward to see if there was a related term that captured the sense of evil and malignancy. It turns out there is. The word I was looking for is dastard and, according to Webster’s Third International Dictionary, it is defined as “one who carries out malicious or sneaky acts without exposing himself to danger.” Webster’s Third also includes dastardly under it’s list of synonyms for coward and notes, “dastardly is used in references to situations and personalities blending utter cowardice with the treacherous or outrageous.”

Nailed it.

Curious to see what other dictionaries had to say about dastard, I consulted the (exasperated-sounding) Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. The former offers, “One who meanly shrinks from danger, especially one who does malicious acts in a skulking way,” whereas the latter gives the curt (but nonetheless charming) description, “a mean, sulking coward.”

Really nailed it.

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Postscript:

1) If you’d like to donate to Tree of Life synagogue or support the survivors & victims’ families, see the information here.

2) Interested in what other synonyms for coward (or cowardice) might have escaped me, I looked between the covers of the Dictionary of Uncommon Words (DCW) and The Thinker’s Thesaurus (TT), both of which contained some real gems. Among them are:

Invertebracy: The state or quality of being without a backbone, hence, metaphorically spineless; lack of strength or character. (DCW)

Poltroonery: Cowardice, cowardly behavior (DCW/TT)

Pusillanimity: A cowardly, irresolute, or fainthearted condition (DCW/TT)

Recreancy: Cowardice, treason, or disloyalty (DCW)

Retromingent: Urinating backwards. According to the TT, “it has taken on a slang meaning — cowardly — in addition to being used as kind of a general, all-purpose insulting way to describe a person.

Know Your Words

Toxic: Poison Is Just the Beginning

Beelzebub_and_them_with_himYesterday, CNN reported that Oxford Dictionaries selected toxic as its word of the year.

Strictly defined as “poisonous,” Oxford Dictionaries says that its research shows that “this year more than ever, people have been using ‘toxic’ to describe a vast array of things, situations, concerns and events.”

I agree, the word has been getting a lot of use lately, but I wondered: Is it really “strictly defined” as “poisonous”?

Kind of. The Oxford English Dictionary does indeed define the word as “of the nature of a poison; poisonous.” However, it also defines toxic as “caused or produced by a poison; due to poisoning.” The American Heritage Dictionary offers much the same, but rephrases things a tad differently: “Capable of causing injury or death, especially by chemical means.”

Not to be outdone, Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) echoes these definitions by associating toxin with “exhibiting symptoms of infection or toxicosis (aka: a pathological condition caused by the action of a poison or toxin),” and then adds a more modern, and dare I say contemporary, take on the word: “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.”

That’s zeitgeist-y, for sure, but it still falls a little short, which is why I took a minute to see what a medical dictionary had to say about the term. As suspected, I came across the following in Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (27th edition):

Toxin a poison; frequently used to refer specifically to a protein produced by some higher plants, certain animals, and pathogenic bacteria, which is highly toxic for other organisms. Such substances are differentiated from the simple chemical poisons and the vegetable alkaloids by their high molecular weight and antigenicity.

If that wasn’t enough, the entry then goes on to list a variety of conditions (e.g., anthrax toxicosis) caused by those aforementioned plants, animals, and bacteria. How’s that for thorough?

Okay, so that’s what toxic means, but where does the word come from? To answer that question, I turned to my etymological dictionaries, all of which tell pretty much the same tale about the word’s origin. Here’s how the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins puts it:

The etymological meaning underlying toxic is of “poisoned arrows.” It’s ultimate source is Greek toxon “bow,” which also gave English toxophily “archery.” From it was derived toxikos “of bows and arrows,” which formed the basis of a noun toxikon “poison for putting on arrows.” Latin took this over as toxicum “poison,” and the medieval Latin derivative toxicus gave English toxic.

Yet, while several books spoke of toxic’s etymology only one, Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary (6th Ed.), gives the 4-1-1 on some cool, toxic terms. Among them are:

Toxicomania, a craving for poison (aka: drug dependency)
Toxicophobia, a fear of poison
Toxiphrenia, or schizophrenia  associated with toxic, delirious reaction.