Is Valentine’s Day for the Birds?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

What’s so happy about it? Well, the cards and the candy and the pledges of love to name a few. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the word valentine is associated with some pretty awful stuff.

First, there’s the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the shooting that took place in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1929. It seems bullets started flying when thugs associated with Al Capone dressed up as policemen and took out seven members of a rival gang.

In addition to that, there’s the story of St. Valentine, a priest in Rome and physician who died c. 269. According to the Dictionary of Saints (Delaney), he was beheaded in the city under Claudius the Goth on February 14 and then buried on the Flaminian Way, where a basilica was built in 350.

There is also another Roman saint named Valentine who is celebrated on this day, the former bishop of Interamna (Terni), located 60 miles from the city. Sadly, this St. Valentine had just as difficult a time as his namesake. He was “scourged, imprisoned, and then beheaded” by the order of Placidus, the prefect of Interamna.

If you’re wondering whether there were really two St. Valentines who lived so close to one another, you’re in good company.

“Many scholars believe the two are one and the same, and it is suggested that the bishop of Interamna had been the Roman priest who became the bishop and was sentenced there before being brought to Rome for his execution.”

So what does any of this have to do with cards and candy and love? Well, according to the Dictionary of Saints, “The custom of sending Valentines on February 14 stems from a medieval belief that birds began to pair on this day.”

I don’t know why a dictionary devoted to saints would have such information, but it is echoed in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints (ODoS) as well. “Neither of [these two saints (may be the same saint)] seems to have any clear connection with lovers or courting couples. The reason for this famous patronage is that birds are supposed to pair on 14 February, a belief at least as old as Chaucer.”

To be fair, this latter saint-oriented dictionary goes on to say that, on the other hand, “some authorities see the custom of choosing a partner on St. Valentines Day as a surviving element of the Roman Lupercalia festival, which took place in mid-February.”

I don’t know what the Paston Letters or the Lupercalia festival are, but I do know — and appreciate — dictionary snark when I see it, which is why I love this next line in the ODoS: “Whatever the reason, the connections of lovers with St. Valentine, with all its consequences for the printing and retailing industries, is one of the less likey results of the cult of the Roman martyrs.”

How very droll.

Note: For a related article on the symbolism of the heart, see “Getting to the Heart of It.”

A Shout Out—and Farewell—to Madeline Kripke, the “Doyenne* of Dictionaries”

I didn’t find out about Madeline Kripke until May 2, when my friend Mike emailed me a link to the story about her that ran in the New York Times

Wait … what? You haven’t heard of Madeline Kripke, either? It’s not surprising. It seems she kept a rather low profile. 

Ms. Kripke grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where her father was a rabbi and where her parents were friends of the investor Warren Buffett (and, according to the article, beneficiaries of his financial advice). After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College, she remained in New York in the 1960s, living as “a cross between a beatnik and a hippie.” Later, she worked as a welfare case worker, a teacher, and a copy editor and  proofreader. These occupations, however, had little to do with her calling.

Back when she was in the fifth grade, her parents gave her a copy of the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The gift “unlocked the world for her,” as she told the website Narratively. Dictionaries became her passion and, beginning with the Webster’s Collegiate, she accumulated an estimated 20,000 volumes over the course of her life. It was “one of the world’s largest private collections of dictionaries” and much of it was crammed into her Greenwich Village apartment.

As the article is careful to point out, Ms. Kripke was not an “indiscriminate amasser” of references. Rather, she “built a cathedral of the English lexicographic tradition, tens of thousands of carefully chosen items.” Among them were “a Latin dictionary printed in 1502, Jonathan Swift’s 1722 booklet titled The Benefits of Farting Explained, and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 1980 guide to pickpocket slang.

The comprehensiveness of her collection amazed many in the lexicographic world and, despite being self-taught, she was known for “approach[ing] her collection and study with the same scholarship and discipline with which her father approached religion.”

Ms. Kripke died on April 25 in Manhattan at 76 due to the coronavirus and complications of pneumonia. According to the article, she didn’t have a plan for her collection in the event of her death (her brother and some of her lexicography-expert friends are working on it). The word on the street was that Kripke hoped to transfer the collection to a university or, if she had her way, put it all in her own dictionary library, but she never got to build it. 

I wanted to end this issue of Alternate Incite with a remembrance of Ms. Kripke for two reasons. First, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m a dictionary collector myself, so I share her mania (although clearly not to the same degree). Moreover, I too have thought about opening a dictionary library and/or museum. (Perhaps I should get in contact with her brother ….)

The second and more important reason is that Ms. Kripke is a shining example of what Alternate Incite is all about: heeding the call—that impulse!—to create something significant and worthwhile, and to see it through to the end. Clearly, amassing a collection of 20,000 anything takes time, money, and commitment. It also takes the guts to do something a little unorthodox and “out there,” regardless of the slings and arrows the critics will surely throw your way (and if you see of the photo of her apartment that ran in the Times, you know there were some critics). It might also take a willingness to be inconvenienced, to suffer, for that which is bigger than yourself. This sounds dark, and maybe even depressing, but it’s not. If you’re truly heeding the call, it is, as I’m sure Ms. Kripke would report, a (mostly) joyous and pleasurable experience despite the discomfort. 

* Doyenne (n.) The eldest or senior female member of a group.

PS) This piece first appeared in issue #1 of Alternative Incite. If you’d like a copy, visit the “Publications” page.

Mystic Rhythms Indeed (RIP Neil Peart)


Although it pains me to type these words, I feel I must. Neil Peart, the drummer, lyricist, and one of the three essential elements of the illustrious (progressive rock) band Rush, is no longer among us.

It’s difficult for me to express the significance his passing, which is a rather odd thing to say given that I’ve never met him. In a sense, he is a stranger to me. On the other hand, Rush’s music has been a constant in my life, which makes me feel like I know him. Every day, I hear something that reminds me of a line from a Rush song, and when someone brings up a topic I’ve heard Neil speak about in interviews, I can hear his voice. Thus, it seems only natural that the news of his succumbing to cancer would nearly bring me to tears. (And some of the remembrances penned in wake of his death did.) We may not have known one another, but I can’t help but feel that, on some level, we were close. Alone and yet together like two passing ships ….

Given how important Rush is to me, I’ve been thinking of some way to mark the impact that Neil’s life and work has had on mine. Of course, Rush has been in constant rotation in my car (my favorite place to listen to music) since January 10, and yes, I’ve been air drumming to whatever album I’m playing with more emotion and vigor than usual, but I wanted to do something more. Therefore, I’ve decided to pay my respects to the “Professor” in a way I think he’d enjoy: with a Rush-related foray into the references that line the ever-expanding shelves of the Butter Lamb Reference Library.

But what to investigate? Rush offers so many potential threads for the reference enthusiast to pull. Yes, there are the words in the though-provoking lyrics, but there’s so much more! Intriguing symbols, rich album art, an endless array of intriguing  sounds (from a range of cultures and musical styles). It’s very tempting to take a headlong flight into the some of Rush’s more grand(iose) designs (i.e., 2112, Hemispheres) or dive into the high water of the countless literary allusions or references to the Natural Sciences hiding in the band’s lyrics. In the end, though, I decided to roll the bones (while keeping my bravado in check), but keep it simple. I chose to dig into the symbology of the drum, Neil’s instrument of choice. (And yes, I was fully aware that had I chosen not to decide, I would still have made a choice.)*

The drum, says J.E. Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols, is “a symbol of primordial sound, and a vehicle for the word, for tradition, and for magic. With the aid of drums, shamans can induce a state of ecstasy.”

I confess, I’ve never thought of Neil as a shaman, but there’s no question he used his drums to induce states of unparalleled joy, happiness, and even euphoria. He did for this Rush fan, and judging by the countless happy and smiling fans and massive amount of air drumming I saw at Rush shows, he clearly did the same for others.

Cirlot continues:

“According to [Marius] Schneider, the drum is, of all musical instruments, the most pregnant with mystic ideas. In Africa it is associated with the heart**. In the most primitive cultures, as in the most advanced, it is equated with the sacrificial altar and hence it acts as a mediator between heaven and earth.”

I, like most Rush fans, was well aware of Neil’s criticisms of religion. Maybe too aware, for it never occurred to me that the dedication and excellence he brought to the art of drumming were, for him, spiritual practices in their own right. I also never thought of Neil’s drum sets as altars, but there’s no question that, for Rush fans at least, his kits were sacred spaces at which he brought the mystic rhythms of heaven and earth together before sharing them with the audience — not unlike a priest performing Mass before a congregation. “We feel the powers and we wonder what they are,” indeed.

Maybe, I’m getting carried away here. Then again, maybe not. As ridiculous as it might sound, The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols, concurs that there is an undeniable association between the drum and “rhythmically produced sound [which] is sometimes equated with hidden sounds and forces of the cosmos.”

J.C. Cooper’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols hears the thud-thud-thud of the drum’s primordial percussivness too, and it testifies with a staccato style all its own.

Drum Sound; the primordial sound; speech; divine truth; revelation; tradition; the rhythm of the universe.

Truth, revelation, tradition: these words not only pertain to the cultural and spiritual role of the drum around the globe, they refer to Neil himself, to his work, and to the impact his band’s music had on fans. For I can tell you without hyperbole that whenever I saw Rush play, it was always something of a religious experience.

Rest in peace, Neil, and thank you for the music.


* Sorry

** Would it be fair to say, then, that in Africa the drum brings one closer to the heart?

Yawn … Not Boring at All

Yawn 2You’re in your car, stuck at a red light. The fellow driving the car next you tilts his head back, open his maw, and lets go of a massive yawn. Try as you might to avert what’s coming, it’s no use. You follow suit because, as everyone knows, yawns are contagious.

Now, just why yawns spread so easily is a mystery. So is the word’s definition, etymology, and lore. Of course, I know how to answer some of these questions, and I will do so now. I hope it doesn’t put you to sleep.

Definitions … and Synonyms

Yawn, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “something that yawns; a gaping opening or entrance” such as “a chasm or an abyss.” I know: that’s not really what we’re talking about, but you can see how it is related to the other yawn, an “involuntary, prolonged inspiration with the mouth wide open and the lower jaw much depressed, as from drowsiness or fatigue.”

Blakiston’s New Gould Medical Dictionary offers a similar description for yawn, “to open the  mouth widely” and then adds, “also called chasma.” But wait, there’s more! Blakiston’s goes on to define yawning as, “a reflex stretching of the muscles accompanied by a deep inspiration, occurring during the drowsy state preceding the onset of sleep”. It also notes, “also called hiant.” What? Where are these strange synonyms for yawn coming from and just how common are they?

Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary offers similar fare, but suggests that inspiration may not be successful or complete. That is, it defines yawn as “1) To open the mouth involuntarily, as in drowsiness or fatigue; 2) Involuntary act of gaping, accompanied by attempts at inspiration, excited by drowsiness.” Oddly, although in step with the aforementioned texts, Taber’s offers a separate (and somewhat unnecessary) definition for yawning: “Deep inspiration, gaping induced by drowsiness or fatigue,” and then offers yet another synonym: oscitation.

Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary doesn’t offer any synonyms, but it does extend its definition of yawning — “a deep involuntary inspiration with the mouth open” — by Yawn 3including the phrase, “often accompanied by the act of stretching.” (See what I did there?). It then suggests that readers compare yawning to pandiculation, or “the act of stretching and yawning.”

Somewhat notably, The Thinker’s Thesaurus goes beyond associating pandiculation and yawning to listing the former as a synonym for the latter. Perhaps the authors of this text need to think a little more about this relationship, as pandiculation does not necessarily include yawning, at least according to Webster’s Third International Dictionary.


Okay, so now that we have a clear definition of yawn, let’s look into the word’s etymology and see if it’s just as exciting and varied.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says yawn is of Germanic origin, but then adds “the Old English geonian is from an Indo-European root shared by Latin, hiare, [there’s your synonym hiant] and Greek khainein (meaning ‘gape’).” Early uses, says the ODWH, “included the sense [of having] the mouth wide open, gape,” while the senses of the current noun “date from the early 18th century.”

Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins puts it a little differently. It says “Yawn goes back ultimately to the Indo-European base ghei (or ghi), which also produced Greek khaskein ‘gape’ and Latin hiare ‘gape’ and ‘yawn’ (source of English hiatus). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology offers essentially the same information, as does Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, which is likely the source material for all the above.

I Dream of Yawning

Okay, so there seems to be a good deal of consensus about where yawn comes from. There is less agreement, however, about what yawns symbolize in dreams.

Theresa Cheung’s Dream Dictionary gets things rolling with the (rather dull) notion that, “just as in waking life, yawning is a sign of fatigue, but also boredom.” However, she kicks it up a notch, albeit with some mystery, when she notes, “It can also be a warning against hidden aggression within yourself or others.”

Why Cheung leaves it there I can’t say. Perhaps she was getting tired and just wanted the work of writing her dream dictionary to be over. Fortunately, others, such as the Watkins Dream Dictionary pick up the slack. In this text, yawning is said to be “indicative of weariness and involuntary communication.”

Yawning in a dream may be a sign of non-aggression (as with animals), or a sign that one wishes to ingest (oxygen, food, drink) or somaticize something (an emotional hurt, an already expelled scream, a trauma).

Somaticize is a psychiatric term meaning “to convert an anxiety into a physical symptom,” and it helps explain what Cheung was getting at when she associated dream yawns with hidden aggression. Tony Crisp’s Dream Dictionary takes a similar tack as it notes that, along with the boredom and fatigue, yawning in dreams may represent “the unconscious trying to say something,” as it belongs to a cast of movements associated with the self-regulation.

yawnI Ain’t Superstitious (I’m Just Tired)

I don’t believe I’ve ever yawned in a dream. I do, however, cover my mouth when I yawn (at least in public). I thought this was just good manners. As it turns out, the impulse to cover one’s gaping maw is a holdover from more superstitious times. But hey, don’t take my word for it. As the Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions explains:

Most people are familiar with the rule of etiquette that a person should cover their mouth when yawning but may be unaware that this has its roots in medieval superstition, when it was thought that evil spirits could get inside a person’s body when their mouth was opened too wide, though making the sign of the cross prevented this happening.

The text goes on to say that, elsewhere in Europe, it was believed that “yawning too long allowed one’s soul to escape.” In still other cultures, “a yawn may be interrupted as a death omen, which was to be countered by snapping one’s fingers.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, all this research and writing has made me sleepy ….

What Does a White Horse Mean?

Gustave_Dore_-_Death_on_the_Pale_HorseWant to know what was up with the white horse at the end of last night’s Game of Thrones episode? (Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking the season 8, episode 5 installment titled “The Bells”.) Me too, and so do a lot of other people. How do I know? Articles about it appeared in USA Today, Buzz Feed, Pop Sugar, and so on.

Most of these articles (I didn’t read them all. Who has the time?) say the horse is likely an allusion to the white steed mentioned in the Book of Revelations: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on it was Death.”

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a snippet of the USA Today article:

Arya is left on the ash-filled streets of King’s Landing among the dead bodies of people she tried to save, and she sees a white horse, who has also survived and found her. She rides the horse out of the city, seemingly with the intent to avenge those who died there.

On a show like “Thrones,” a horse is not just a horse. The steed might be an allusion to the Book of Revelations in the Bible. The ending of the episode seems to imply that Arya is now Death, and she’s coming for Dany.

Maybe. Maybe not. As tempting as the connection to the Book of Revelations might be, the symbolism of white horses is more diverse than one might anticipate. Thus, while the symbology references in the Butter Lamb Reference Library’s collection do reference the pale horse in Revelations, they also associate such beasts with “victory” or “mastery” of the passions by reason — and if you saw last night’s episode, you know why this notion is relevant.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. I’ve provided the following excepts from the BLRL’s symbol references that mention white horses. To be fair, what appears here for each text is just a fraction or snippet of a much longer entry, and as J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols warns, “The symbolism of the horse is extremely complex.” That said, it’s worth noting the moments of consensus in the following excerpts.

The Herder Symbol Dictionary:

The white horse in particular was regarded as a solar and heavenly animal; it became the steed of the gods and a symbol of force subdued by reason.

The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols:

According to the color of its coat, in Revelation, the horse is a symbol of victory (a white horse).

Black or pale, it is linked to the moon and water, and in the incarnation of the devil or the damned. White and winged (spirituality), it symbolizes self-mastery: the unicorn can only be captured by the virgin.

An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (Cooper):

The winged horse is the sun or the Cosmic Horse, as is the white horse, and represents pure intellect; the unblemished; innocence; light and life, and is ridden by heroes.

The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols:

With respect to light, the horse, primarily as a white horse, became a sun-like and heavenly animal, a steed of the gods, a symbol of strength harnessed by reason, or of joy and of victory ([horses have often been] depict[ed] on the graves of martyrs).

Dictionary of Symbolism (Biedermann)

In symbolic tradition, [the horse is] an embodiment of power and vitality … [however its] symbolic import often remains ambiguous, as we see from the gleaming white horse of “Christ triumphant” on the one hand and the mounts of the “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Book of Revelation) on the other. The early Church fathers found the animal haughty and lascivious; yet it appeared at the same time an image of victory (that of martyrs over the world).

Then we have the following from Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols:

[On the] bio-psychological plane … the horse stands for intense desires and instincts, in accordance with the general symbolism of the steed and the vehicle. The horse plays an important part in a great number of ancient rites. The ancient Rhodians used to make an annual sacrifice [of horses] to the sun …. The animal was also dedicated to Mars, and the sudden appearance of a horse was thought to be an omen of war.

An omen of war? Interesting ….

Mother’s Day, Mother, and More

Mother_and_child_an_image_of_a_sculpture_(4582636433)Yeah, it’s Mother’s Day. But do you know why?

Julia Ward Howe does … or at least she did. Howe is dead now, but the holiday she created lives on. Here’s the story, according to the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:

Shortly after she returned to Boston from Europe on a crusade for world peace in 1872, Julia Ward Howe (the American Poet who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) called for June 2 to be set aside for “Mother’s Peace Day” and, beginning with Boston, many cities and states adopted the tradition before President Woodrow Wilson authorized Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1915.

But wait, there’s more! The same source goes on to say that, in the United States, “the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1908, when Congress resolved that the second day of May be recognized as the national day to honor mothers.” It also notes that the original Mother’s Day — “what the British call ‘Mothering Sunday'” (which is the fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday)” — has been around since the 19th century, and is a day wherein “children customarily given presents to their mothers.”

Maybe. Brewer’s Dictionary of Twentieth Century Phrase and Fable describes Mothering Sunday a little differently:

In the United Kingdom … Mother’s Day … has become synonymous with the Christian festival of Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, when servants apprentices, and other young workers living away from home were traditionally given a day’s holiday to visit their mothers.

And for the record, Brewer’s says the first U.S. Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1914, not 1908.

Mmmm, okay. Those are some different takes on Mothering Sunday. Whichever one is right, I think we can all agree that, as Brewer’s notes on the end of its entry on this most important day, “The commercial potential of Mother’s Day is exploited to the full on both sides of the Atlantic by florists and others.”

And What about Mother?

Okay, so that’s the skinny on Mother’s Day. But what do you know about the word mother? If you’re anything like me, not nearly as much as you think you do.

To begin, the Oxford English Dictionary offers (at least) 15 senses of the term. Most you’re familiar with. For example:

“A female parent; a woman who has given birth to a child,” or “To attribute the authorship of something to a woman, to ascribe the origin of something to something else, as in ‘necessity is the mother of invention.'”

However, some you might not be, such as: “A term of address for an elderly woman of the lower class. Also used as a prefix to a surname of such a person.”

The etymology is in the same vein. Mother, says  Eric Partridge’s Origins, comes from Latin mater, which isn’t exactly front-page news. However, Partridge doesn’t stop there. He goes on to trace mater back to its Indo-European base mat, which he contends is an extension of ma-, meaning “breast.” Hence the word mama. From here it’s something of an etymological hop, skip, and a jump to Demeter, the Greek goddess of the fruitful soil, who is also known as the “mother of the gods.”

This association of “mother” with the source of life and with nourishment can be found in mother’s symbology too. As noted in Hans Biederemann’s Dictionary of Symbolism:

The essential association is with ‘wisdom beyond knowledge,’ benevolence, sheltering, sustaining, the giving of life, fertility, growth, nourishment, the locus of magical transformation and rebirth; all that is secret and hidden.

Wisdom beyond knowledge? Perhaps this is what we mean when we speak of a mother’s intuition.

Happy Mother’s Day!



No post on the Butter Lamb would be complete without a foray into the dream world. Let’s buckle up.

According to the Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

The mother may symbolize the unconscious, intuitive part of yourself. This, however, can take a positive or negative form. She may appear as a kindly mother or aunt, or as a place such as a cave, a church, or garden; all these images represent the qualities of growth, nourishment, and fertility. In her negative form, a mother  may appear as a witch or a dragon, and represent dark, destructive tendencies that devour and destroy.

The Watkins Dream Dictionary offers a slightly different take:

The mother, in dreams is often represented by a queen, a nurse, a servant, the Virgin Mary, or some other impersonal symbol such as the earth, or a fountain. These symbols protect the dreamer from the odium society might conceivably hold them in were they to undermine the maternal force too overtly.

Finally, The Dreamer’s Dictionary (Robinson & Corbett) offers the following:

As a rule, [dreams of] … mothers symbolize love. You will have to figure out the meaning of your dream by correlating the action with your parental attitude and other elements of the dream, but as a general guide: if the parent you dreamed of is dead and he or she spoke to you, you can expect to hear important news.; otherwise, a dream of your mother signifies happiness in love or personal affairs.

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


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.


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


3. Is the Term Paddy’s Day Offensive?

800px-Vasnetsov_RazvlechenieAccording to the website Irish, “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.


4. New Words: Hangxiety

I came across the following from the website

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.


5. 15 of My Favorite Dictionaries

I recently came across an article from 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, 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.




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.



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….


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.”


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.