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.

________________________________________________

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.

________________________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________

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.

Know Your Words

Of Enemies and Intertextuality

T2C,_Fred_Barnard,_Darnay_leaving_the_courtroom_to_be_executed_the_following_day_(III,11)

You know Trump’s penchant for referring to the media as the “enemy of the people” is reckless (at best). [For more on why it’s reckless, see our previous post about rhetoric.] You know that adherents of ideologues throughout history have used that phrase to ignite ire in the hearts of their followers (Nazis, Marxists/Leninists, etc). But did you know there’s a word (from the discipline known as Cultural Studies) that refers to the phenomenon wherein a commonly used phrase dredges up the cultural baggage of those people and/or movements who used it in the past?

That word is intertextuality and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, it is defined as:

… a theory of meaning and meaning production. It holds that all texts (in the widest sense of the term – e.g., written works, films, art, etc) are composed of other, pre-existing texts held together in a state of constant interaction. It means that there are no original texts, no complete texts, and no singular texts: all texts exist within a state of partiality and inter-dependency with other texts. This is not simply a fact of language, but a necessary precondition.

The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory credits Julia Kristeva with coining the term in 1966 as a way of “denoting the interdependence of literary texts, the interdependence of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all this talk of literary terms, and texts is kind of high-brow and smacks of intellectualism. This isn’t exactly Trump’s forte. I mean, he doesn’t even read.

I agree. It seems somewhat outside his grasp. He does, however, have advisors and maybe even a speech writer on his staff (although I wouldn’t want to cop to having that job), and one or two of them are likely aware of it. If that’s the case, the President’s use of “enemy of the people” would be an example of what’s known as “obligatory intertextuality,” which occurs when “the writer deliberately invokes a comparison or association between two (or more) texts.”

And what about the audience (those hearing the president’s words)? What if they don’t understand or catch the reference to the earlier uses of the term?

In this regard, intertextuality is like the Washington Post in that, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.* In other words, for those that understand the phrase’s cultural significance, they get the full force of it, with all its cultural baggage. If they don’t, then they take it at face value.

This brings us to another intriguing term that’s been getting a lot of play lately: dog whistle.

Know Your Words

Of Noise and Seasickness

Are_Enchanted_with_the_Delightful_Prospect_Off_the_BarAt the beginning of his essay “On Noise,” the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer writes:

The super abundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and rumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and course quality.

Wow. Dumb people aren’t bothered by noise because their brain tissue is rough and course. Just wow. How is this dude a renowned philosopher? And while we’re asking questions, what is noise anyway? It seems to be one of those words that is difficult to define, yet something we “know” when we hear it.

This hasn’t stopped lexicographers from trying, though. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines noise as:

1) Loud outcry, clamor, or shouting; din or disturbance made by one or more persons
2) Common talk, rumor, report; evil report, slander, scandal, etc. (Obsolete)
3) A loud or harsh sound of any kind; a din
4) A sound which is not remarkably loud
5) An agreeable or melodious sound. (Now rare)
6) To make an outcry, to talk much or loudly about a particular thing.

Clearly, not all of these definitions1 (e.g., 2, 4, 5, and 6) apply to the way Schopenhauer uses the word noise in the excerpt above. This makes sense, however, as there is more than one kind of noise. It’s also not surprising (and perhaps a good example of how dictionary makers “borrow” from one another), that many of the other dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves offer the exact same definitions of noise, save for the addition of  engineering’s use of noise to refer to any interference that reduces the clarity or quality of a signal.

That said, as if to reduce the “noise” and/or enhance the clarity of the word’s definition between its covers,  the first definition for noise in the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) reads, “A sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct, or disagreeable.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) takes a similar approach and bolsters its entry for noise with a sense that reads, “sound: especially one that lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably unpleasant.”

I get the feeling that ol’ Schopenhauer would approve.

And speaking of music, I thought it’d be worthwhile to see what my music dictionaries would have to say about noise, so I  hastily opened their covers, some of which uttered an audible crack.  Much to my dismay, of the five on the shelf only two — the Lectionary2 of Music (Slonimsky) and the Music Theory Dictionary (Lee) — had anything to say on the matter. The former defines noise as:

A collection of tonally unrelated simultaneous sounds of different frequencies and intensities, meaningless to musical or even unmusical ears…. White noise is an integral assembly of sounds of various frequencies.

Putting aside the phrase “unmusical ears,” the Music Theory Dictionary cranks it up to 11 and, in addition to offering an (acoustical) definition of noise, “A sound with partials of irregular proportion,” [What? – Ed.] provides a nice definition of what’s commonly known as “experimental” or “noise” music:

The attempt to increase the material of music by including noises to reflect the complexity of modern life. Accomplished through the use of six families of noises to be reproduced mechanically, i.e. (1) booms, thunderclaps, explosions, etc. (2) whistles, hisses, etc. (3) whispers, murmurs, etc. (4) screams, screeches, etc. (5) noises obtained by percussion on metals, wood, etc. and (6) voices of animals and men, shouts, shrieks, groans, etc.

Given his displeasure at hearing “hammering” in his vicinity, it’s safe to say Schopenhauer wouldn’t care for the noise music and its sounds “obtained by percussion on metals, wood, etc.” I’m also willing to bet that our esteemed philosopher wouldn’t care much for the sounds at the root of the word’s etymology. I know I wouldn’t. I can’t take hearing them now.

If what I just wrote isn’t clear, just listen …

According to Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the word noise was adopted by Middle English speakers from Old French noise, meaning noisy, strife, din, which is derived from Latin nausea and the noise “made by a ship full of [seasick] passengers groaning and vomiting during bad weather.”2

Eww. Etymology is gross.

_________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. Some of these definitions (2 and 6) pertain to gossiping or “raising a stink” about a particular issue in the news that “sticks in your craw.” One (4) pertains to seemingly any noise at all that isn’t music, as in “My Rice Krispies make noise when I pour milk over them,” and the last (5) seems to reference the idea of “making a joyful noise.”
  2. Is “Lectionary” a word? I can tell you the spell check in the old Word Press ain’t too keen on it. Thus, I looked it up. The short answer is yes, it is. A lectionary is “a book or a list of lections for reading in a divine service.” That seems like a rather haughty title to give your book, but … you know … to each his own I guess. So what’s a lection then? Lection refers to “a version of a passage in a particular copy or edition of a text; a variant reading” or, in other words, a selection from a larger passage. Now we know.