Text Tuesday: Wicked Words

0925180847In the past few months, I’ve added at least 50 new books to the SDCL’s collection and some of them are real gems. To highlight these terrific texts, I thought I’d create a new feature on The Butter Lamb: Text Tuesday. Welcome to the first installment.

This week’s text is Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson (1989). That’s a long title and it’s a subtle indicator of the wordiness one finds between its covers. That’s not a complaint, for in addition to being rightly described as a “treasury” (defined in one sense as “a collection or supply of excellent or highly prized writings, works of art, etc), the book should be treasured for its breadth and thoroughness. (The entry for fuck is 10 nearly 10 fucking pages!)

The one part of the title I might quibble with, though, is the word “unprintable.” Yes, some of the words in the book certainly were unprintable at one time. Some still are. I’m not sure, however, if that descriptor applies to every entry in the book. There are plenty (e.g., cad, cadger, cannon fodder, carpetbagger, cesspool, charlatan, cult, etc … and that’s just the words that begin with C!) that don’t seem all that wicked and/or offensive.  Then again, I could be wrong. Maybe cad was an unprintable and wicked word back in the day. What do I know?

Speaking of the words, Wicked Words does a fine job of listing “all the classic disparaging terms” for men and women, people of particular nationalities, and those (un)fortunate enough to have a denigrated occupation. Or, to put it another way, Wicked Words contains all of the classist, racist, and sexist terms your chud of an uncle uses on Thanksgiving after he’s had one too many bottles of Michelob. This is NOT what makes the book shine. What does is Rawson’s scholarship. To see what I mean, check out the following excerpt from the book’s introduction:

The messages conveyed by “bad” words are of three types: the profane, the obscene, and the insulting. Each represents a different form of abuse. Profanity abuses sacred belief: it is irreligious, by definition and by origin, coming from the Latin pro (before, outside) + fanum (temple). Obscenity abuses the body, the temple of the self: It derives from the Latin obscenus, probably from caenum (filth). Obscenity includes pornography, from the Greek skatos (dung, shit) + logy (the science or study of). Insult abuses other individuals, typically in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, political persuasion, sex, mental abilities, or physical peculiarities. It comes from the Latin insultare (to leap upon).

Damn. To paraphrase Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, “Bet you’ll never look at insults the same way again.”

Any knucklehead can put together a list of blue or naughty words, and then offer a clumsy, haphazard definition for each. Rawson, thankfully, takes the time to give his readers so much more: rich definitions, etymologies, and examples of usage from literature, news sources, and more. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Check out the following entries of some words that, while maybe not (or no longer) “wicked,” were at least new to me.

Note: I’m just offering brief snippets here. To see the entries in their entirety, check out the book.

Clinchpoop. A boor. (This 16th century term of contempt is obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) In theory, clinchpoop probably should be reserved for drunken mariners and other seagoing boors.

Gascon. A braggart, one who indulges in extravagant boasting. This is an ethnic slur, alluding to the inhabitants of Gascony in southwestern France. They were regarded as great boasters from at least the 18th century.

Goth. A rude, uncivilized person, especially one who goes out of his way to destroy artworks and other hallmarks of high culture. The Goths, a Germanic people who descended on the Roman Empire in the early part of the Christian era, were divided into two main branches, the East Goths, or Ostrogoths, and the West Goths, or Visigoths. See also Barbarian and Vandal. [Note: Rawson says nothing about people who dress in all black, listen to sad and dour music, and are obsessed with finality and death.]

Hockey (hocky). Variously: semen, excrement, nonsense. The origin of this term is not known; it may come from hokum. If its meaning of nonsense really is the original one, then hockey is an exception among words of this sort, which ordinarily evolve in the opposite direction. Hockey seems fairly euphemistic, nevertheless, it has been tabooed in some square circles, especially in the southern United States.

Mossback. An extreme conservative or, as an adjective, one who acts that way. The epithet first appeared as mossyback during the Civil War when it was applied to the Southerners who fled in the woods or swamps to escape conscription into the Confederate Army. Some of them seemed to have remained hidden so long that moss grew on their backs.

Pelican. An old car or jalopy, a big eater or glutton, a tough woman or prostitute. The last sense is the least common and may have been limited to New Orleans, the largest city in the Pelican State.

Xanthippe and Socrates

Runnion (ronion, ronyon). An old insult for a woman that warrants revival if only because no one is sure exactly what it means. Lexicographers have more or less thrown up their hands at this. The Oxford English Dictionary simply calls it “an abusive term applied to a woman.” Samuel Johnson treated the different spellings as different words, defining ronion as ” a fat bulky woman” and runnion as “A paltry scurvy wretch.”

Tout. An aggressive purveyor of frequently erroneous information, especially at a racetrack; as a verb, to solicit or to sell in a pushy way. The word is underworld slang from the 18th century (a tout originally was a lookout) and it has never escaped its seamy origins.

Xanthippe. A bad-tempered woman, a scold; from the name of the wife of Socrates, who got such bad press from ancient writers that her name became generic for “shrew.” [Ouch – Ed.] It has been suggested that 1) because of Xanthippe, Socrates didn’t really mind having to take hemlock, [Again, ouch – Ed.] and 2) the poor woman may have been driven around the bend by having a philosopher for a husband.


Do you know of a reference text I should feature on Text Tuesday? Is there one from the SCDL’s collection that you’d like me to feature in a future installment? Let me know!

The Good and Bad of Ambition

Today in church, we were treated to a reading from the Book of James (chapter 3) that began with these lines:

Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.

735px-Paradise_Lost_25This got me thinking. Isn’t ambition a “good” thing (read: socially approved)? In our fame-obsessed, money-hungry, and power-mad culture, ambition is celebrated and deemed an asset. (E.g., It’s no surprise Amanda is a success, she’s always been such an ambitious young lady.) Moreover, why does James qualify his use of the word with the adjective selfish. Is there another kind of ambition that’s more generous or kind?

To answer these questions, I compared the definitions of ambition in the oldest and most current dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves to see if the word’s meaning had changed over time. In the oldest, Donohue’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1914), ambition is defined as “desire of preferment or power,” which to my ears, sounds somewhat negative and not too flattering.  Yet, interestingly, the same text defines ambitious as “aspiring,” which has a much more positive ring to it.

In the SDCL’s most recent dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003), ambition is defined as 1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power  2. the object of ambition (e.g., her ambition is to start her own business) 3. a desire for activity or exertion (e.g., I feel sick and have no ambition.). Obviously, these definitions provide a more complete picture of the word’s positive and negative aspects. However, once again, the text’s definition of ambitious, “having a desire to achieve a particular goal: aspiring,” is rather affirmative.

In a search for more information about this word and how it’s used, I turned to the etymological dictionaries. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH):

Ambition came via Old French from Latin, ambitio(n), from ambire “to go around” (as in to go around canvassing for votes). The related late Middle English word ambitious is from Old French ambitieux or Latin ambitiosus, from ambitio(n). The sense progression in Latin moved from going round generally, to going round to canvass votes, to seeking honor, to ostentation, and finally to keen desire. The sense “desire for honor” was adopted first in the modern languages.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology agrees with with the ODWH’s assessment, as does the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, but the latter adds this beneficial little nugget:

When the word was first borrowed into English, via Old French,  ambition, it had distinctly negative associations of ‘greed for success,’ but by the 18th century it was a more respectable emotion.

Penguin Dict of ProverbsThat helps, but perhaps the best overview of ambition‘s duality can be found in the Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs, which offers a list of sayings celebrating ambition‘s “value,” warning of its “dangers,” and cautioning “against over-ambition.” I won’t list them all (there are a lot of them), but here are a few samples from each category.

Ambition’s Value:

  1. Ambition makes people dilligent
  2. He who aims for the moon may hit the top of the tree; he who aims at the top of the tree is unlikely to get off the ground.
  3. Nothing crave, nothing have
  4. He begins to die that quits his desires
  5. Hitch your wagon to a star.

Ambition’s Dangers:

  1. Ambition loses many a man.
  2. He who opens his heart to ambition closes it to repose.
  3. Desire has no rest.
  4. Every ambitious man is a captive and every covetous one a pauper.
  5. High places have their precipices.

Against Over-Ambition:

  1. Better be first in a village than second at Rome.
  2. Seek that which may be found.



PS.) In the interest of thoroughness, it’s worth noting that Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary contains a definition of ambition too: “an overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.”

Pardon the Delay ….

pocket ed
This “vest pocket” edition of the New Webster’s Dictionary (approx. 3 by 5 in.) is one of many new texts in the SDCL’s collection.

Greetings Friend:

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this site. I apologize. That said, it gives me great pleasure to announce that good things are happening behind the scenes here at the Smith Dictionary Collection of Laurel!

Chief among them is that I’m getting closer to opening our doors to the public. Well, they’re actually open now, should anyone want to stop by for a visit, however, this is something of a “soft rollout.” In the near future, I’ll be shouting about our existence from the rooftops and (trying) to put ourselves on the map in all sorts of creative ways.

I’m also happy to announce that the SDCL’s collection has been growing by leaps and bounds! Over the past several months we’ve added more than 50 dictionaries to the collection on topics ranging from so-called “wicked” words and the Old West to bookmaking and modern warfare. I’ve also filled in (what I refer to as) the collection’s “chronological” holes and procured some specimens that reflect some of the past currents in the history of dictionary publishing. Even better, I’ll be adding a new feature to the site wherein we showcase some of these thrilling tomes so our readers can appreciate them as much as I do!

Finally, because I’ll be making more of a ruckus about the SDCL’s existence, I’ll be posting a lot more often on a wider range of subjects. Hopefully, this will give folks interested in coming by a better idea of the books and information they’ll find here.

Stay tuned!

The Origins of Nightmare

vamp-booksI used to have this recurring dream:

I am in my middle school library, sitting a large table in the back of the room, far from the circulation desk. The table’s surface is covered with large books, all of which have the same brown covers, like those you’d find on bound volumes of periodicals or academic journals. I am going through the books one by one and, aside from the librarian — a woman who looks a lot like the kind-hearted old woman who served as the librarian at my grammar school — there is no one else in the room.

Being the only student in the library doesn’t bother me. I am focused on the contents of the books, which I’m going through page-by-page. I’m looking for a specific bit of information. What that information is I don’t know, but there’s the sense that I’ll know it when I find it.

Suddenly, the lights go out and the nice old librarian turns into a ghoulish vampire who really want to bite me. Stricken with terror, but able to keep my wits about me, I (somehow) know that the only way to get the lights back on and make the librarian return to her old self is to get the book I’m currently looking at into the book-return slot at the circulation desk. Because I’m at the far end of the library, and there is a veritable sea of other tables and study carrels between me and the circulation desk, the room becomes something of a maze. The tables aren’t much of an obstacle, but the carrels are tall and hard to see around, which the librarian/vampire uses to her advantage.

Nevertheless, I keep moving, making my way toward the circulation desk. The vampire is stealthy and quick, but always seems a step too slow. However, knowing that doesn’t diminish my fear. I make it to the desk and slide the book through the return slot. The lights come back on and the librarian becomes a human again. Relieved, I saunter back to my table, sit down, and begin going through another book. Then, just when I’m finally able to relax, the lights go out again….


Nightmare 2It’s been some time (20 or more years!) since I’ve had this dream, but I’ll never forget it. I would wake up trembling, covered in sweat, and breathing heavily. Given this physical reaction and the sense of terror the dream produced, I’ve always referred to it as a nightmare. Recently, however, I learned that word — nightmare — used to mean something very specific, and it didn’t involve looking through books at a library.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a nightmare was originally defined as “A female spirit or monster supposed to beset people and animals by night, settling upon them when they are asleep and producing a feeling of suffocation by its weight.” (The OED cites the first use of the term to be around 1290.)

Obviously, the term has evolved from this very specific definition, but if you read more modern definitions closely,  it’s clear some residue from this early definition remain. For example, OED’s second definition for nightmare reads: “A feeling of suffocation or great distress felt during sleep from which the sleeper vainly endeavors to free himself; a bad dream producing these or similar sensations.”

Similarly, the definition of nightmare in Donohue’s Standard New Century Dictionary of 1914 (the oldest 20th century dictionary in the SDCL’s catalog) states: “A feeling of suffocation during sleep, accompanied by intense horror; some oppressive or stupefying influence.” Likewise, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2004) offers the following:  “A frightening dream, often accompanied by sensation of oppression or helplessness.”

Suffocation, oppression … indeed, the Latin root of oppression, oppressus, means to squeeze or suffocate. Thus, the spirit may no longer get a mention, but its presence lingers.

Nightmare Etymology

The etymology of nightmare is more forthcoming, however. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories traces it back to Middle English, noting that the term “initially referred to a female evil spirit thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers; it’s based on night (Old English neaht, niht is Germanic in origin, related to Dutch nacht and German Nacht) and Old English maere ‘incubus’.”

As usual, the Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) offers a slightly different take.

The mare of nightmare is not the same word as mare, “female horse.” It comes from Old English maere, which denoted a sort of evil spirit or goblin, which sat on sleepers’ chests and gave them bad dreams. That is what the compound nightmare meant when it emerged in the early Middle English period, and the metaphorical application to the bad dream supposedly caused by this incubus is not recorded until the mid-16th century.

Putting aside the mention of goblins (?), it’s clear from the OED that the first appearance of this “metaphorical application” is recorded long before the 16th century … assuming you agree that 300 years is a long time.

But wait, there’s something else going on here …

NightmareAlthough I have no reason to doubt that the Old English word maere refers to “an evil spirit” or “incubus” — indeed Eric Partridge notes much the same in his etymological dictionary of modern English, Origins (he traces incubus to Old English mara) — I think it’s worth pointing out that, according to the Dictionary of World Folklore, an incubus is a masculine evil spirit, or to be more precise: “a demon in the form of a man who visits the beds of sleeping women to have intercourse.”

This is significant because, as noted in the initial definition of nightmare from the OED, it specifically mentions a female spirit or monster. The female version of the incubus, according to the Dictionary of World Folklore, is a succubus, and it’s guilty of the same nighttime shenanigans, only with men instead of women.

Other definitions of succubus report the same. By way of example, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines succubus as, “(in folklore) a female demon thought to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men.”

How strange then that there would be a gender-based anomaly between the word’s etymology and its original meaning. I suppose it’s possible that “incubi” is some sort of catch-all term for these male and female demons. Interestingly enough, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language doesn’t specify a gender to the demon in its definition incubus (like it does for succubus).

Nightmare Indigestion

Whatever the reason behind this shift from female to male might be, I am aware of one book — On the Nightmare (published in 1951 by Ernest Jones, M.D.) — that seems hell-bent on giving credit where credit is due.

The word nightmare … was more particularly used to denote a female night-fiend, night hag, or as she was also called, a night-wytche. The word … comes from the Anglo-Saxon neaht or nicht (=night) and mara (=incubus or succubus). The Anglo-Saxon suffix a denotes an agent, so that mara from the verb merran, literally means ‘a crusher,’ and the connotation of a crushing weight on the breast is common to the corresponding words in allied languages…. From the earliest times the oppressing agency experienced during sleep was personified, more often in a female guise; it was depicted as being either extremely attractive or else extremely hideous.

All of this work on Jones’ part may be for not, however. Despite his exhaustive etymological efforts, it seems more recent texts don’t even mention the gender of these nightmare-causing evil spirits at all.

61aS-s3RljLFor example, in the Webster’s definition from 2004, one of the entries reads, “Folklore An evil spirit believed to haunt and suffocate sleeping people.” The same can be said for psychological references, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, which you would think might have some interest in the history of the word.

Nightmare 1) A terrifying or extremely upsetting dream or, figuratively, an event or experience resembling such a dream. 2) An evil spirit believed to torment and suffocate sleepers. [From night + Old English maere, an evil spirit or incubus]

It’s as if the authors just assume people know what an “incubus” is (or trust their readers will look it up). One finds something similar between the covers of the Psychiatric Dictionary (Campbell), which, although it contains an entry for nightmare, doesn’t even mention the term’s origins. It merely describes the experience of the phenomenon and what such a bad dream might mean in regard to one’s insecurities. Borr-ring.

Sadly, even Teresa Chung’s Dream Dictionary from A to Z, a book brimming with intriguing insights about the activities, creatures, and objects that populate our dreams, steers clear of the nightmare’s fabled origins. Instead, she picks it up in the 19th century, when:

Many people … still blamed nightmares on indigestion; it was only with the publication of Freud’s ideas that they became seen as the expression of unfulfilled wishes and sexual anxiety. Jung described them as part of humankind’s “collective unconscious” and said the helplessness we feel in nightmares is a memory of the fears experienced by primitive peoples. Today, most dream interpreters believe these disturbing dreams are sent to warn the conscious mind that something is being blocked or ignored.

Chung’s book doesn’t even include entries for incubus or succubus. Lucky for her — and us — Jones’ book more than picks up the slack. In addition to incubi and succubi, he goes on to discuss the (psychological) relationship between the nightmare and a host of other figures, including the Devil, vampire, werewolves, and witches. He does not, however, mention anything about vampires working in libraries.

What Is a Hero?

The_heroine_of_MatagordaA few months ago, I got fed up with my respectably empty office job and submitted my resignation.  I can’t tell you I regret it — the job was simply awful — but given that I’m writing this on a weekday morning at 9:30 am, it’s clear that I didn’t think it through.*

Anyway, when I began to sheepishly spread the word about this rash decision, my brother was one of several people to respond to the news by saying, “You’re my hero!”  This wasn’t the reception I was expecting, largely because I didn’t feel very heroic. In fact, I initially tried to keep this nugget of news under wraps, as I figured folks would be all “judgey” and say things like, “We’ll, that was stupid!” and the ever popular “Are you fucking nuts?” (Granted, I have since learned that some of the folks who know about this have said stuff like this, just not to my face.)

Be that as it may, the use of the word hero in this context prompted me to wonder about the word’s meaning and how its use has changed over the centuries. To learn more, I dug into the references. Here’s what I found:

Definitions (Poetic and otherwise):

A hero, says the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, is defined as:

1. (In mythology and legend) A man of great strength  and courage, favored by the gods  and, in part, descended from them, often regarded as a half-god and worshiped after his death.

2. Any man admired for his courage, nobility, or exploits, especially in war.

3. Any person admired for his qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model.

4. The central male character in a novel, play, or poem, etc., with whom the reader or audience is supposed to sympathize; protagonist; often opposed to villain.

5. The central figure in any important event or period, honored for his outstanding qualities.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a similar definition, but one of its entries stands out due to its rather poetic description:

A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connection with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.

I’ll admit it, I love that phrase “greatness of soul.”

Beyond the definition of hero, the texts of the Smith Dictionary Collection of Laurel are generally in agreement about the word’s origins. Hero comes from the Greek work heros, which in ancient times, applied to men of superhuman ability or courage and to demigods. Initially, the English term hero was used to refer to this Greek concept. It wasn’t until the 16th century, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, that use of the term was expanded to mean a “brave or otherwise admirable man.” As for the literary application of the word, that didn’t happen until the next century.

And what about the word heroine, the term for a female hero? According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, this term made its way into English sometime before the 17th century and traces its origin to Greek (via French and Latin) heroine, the feminine form of heros.

Fairy Tales vs. Folklore:

Interestingly, the Dictionary of World Folklore (DWF) ignores gender in its entry for hero, noting that, this special person “is usually portrayed as a human living in conditions similar to those hearing the tale. He or she is not bound to actual time or place.” [Emphasis mine.]

It seems, however, that this timelessness only applies to fairy tales, which place the hero in a situation “[dissociated] from the known [wherein he or she is forced to] overcome difficulty to reach a position of secure, socially acceptable success.” To accomplish this, the hero “attaches to him or herself a sense of the potentialities of life, a positive vision of change and human success in a fundamentally benevolent universe. The hero may be virtuous, clever, lazy, or foolish, but in the end he or she secures the prize.”

In folk tales, on the other hand, the attainment of that “socially acceptable success” doesn’t seem to be an issue. These heroes, which tend to me male warrior types, are more apt to reflect the “ideals and preoccupations” of the folk who gave birth to the tales.” For example, the “American folk hero Davey Crockett,” who “embodies the virtues of the hard-working pioneer: brash, powerful, coarse-mannered, and humorous.”

The_heroes;_or,_Greek_fairy_tales_for_my_children_(1908)_(14766975824)Heroes and Drugs:

The name of the drug heroin also comes from the Greek word heros and is thought to allude to the the substance’s “aggrandizing effects” on the brain of the user. – Oxford Dictionary of Psychology

Heroes and Hero Worship:

More psychology, this time from the Psychiatric Dictionary: From the psychoanalytic point of view, hero worship is defined (or maybe explained) as “a product of the need of the great majority of people for authority which they can admire, to which they can submit, and which dominates and sometimes even ill-treats them.” The need for such an  authority is simply the longing of each person for the ideal or perfect father.

It’s a Bird … It’s Superman … No, It’s a Streaker on a Plane!

You are now free to move about the cabin … with your clothes on.

By now you’ve probably heard about the nude man who ran down the aisle of a recent Alaska Airlines flight. There’s no word yet on why he did it, or what kind of answer he expected to his repeated shouts of “How do you like my pecker?” but what’s really interesting, at least from a linguistic perspective, is that almost none of the news coverage about this incident referred to the man as a streaker.

I say “almost” because, according to Google News, there is a headline from the International Business Times that reads, “Alaskan Airlines Flight Disrupted by Streaker,” but when you click on the article, the headline on the website reads, “Naked Man Runs Across Alaskan Airlines Plane Before Being Tackled.”

Hmmmm. Is there some kind of prohibition on the use of the word streaker that I’m not aware of? Maybe there’s some code among newspaper editors to avoid the use of slang. Then again, maybe the news organization steered clear of this slang term because it wouldn’t have translated to its international audience. Whatever the case, I think it’s worth beating a hasty retreat to the bookshelves to get a good look at where this word comes from and expose its history to a wider public.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so, my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include anything about running naked in public in any of its definitions for streak. However, after consulting Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, I learned that the verb streak was occasionally spelled streek. (More on why this is important a bit later.)

However you spell it, Partridge has this to say:

By specialization, ‘To scurry stark-naked through a public place or assembly ostensibly as a form of protest against some grievance, or trying to prove a point, or out of sheer exhibitionism’; when streaking, the verbal noun., and streaker, one who does this, both noun and verb were, by 1975, colloquial terms and, by 1976 part of standard English. It was a phenomenon of the early 1970s, with subsequent echoes.

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins defines streak as, “To run naked in a public place, outdoors or indoors, where a large number of people can see you,” and suggests the term streaking originated a few years earlier. It does not, however, provide any proof for this claim.

The word streaking was first recorded in 1973, but the practice of streaking probably began among college students a year or two earlier on campuses in California. In the most famous example of streaking, a nude man streaked across the stage of the televised 1974 Academy Awards ceremony.

Well, now I have some idea why the word began to enjoy wider usage in 1975. As for first use, though, this is where the importance of the alternative spelling I mentioned earlier comes in to play. The fifth listing for streek in the Oxford English Dictionary reads, “To go or advance quickly; to go at full speed; to decamp.”

The naked truth of the matter, of course, is that this definition of streek has nothing to do with the streak defined in Partridge’s Dictionary or Slang or the Facts on File Encyclopedia, but it’s interesting to catch a glimpse of how the two words might be, in some distant way, shape, or form, related. After all, if you found yourself discussing the nude man who “advanced quickly” down the aisle of a recent Alaska Airlines flight, people would still grasp your meaning.

Going “Back to Basics” (No, I Don’t Think So)

Credit: Merriam-Webster

As noted in the Dictionary of Euphemisms and other Doubletalk, “Euphemisms are in a constant state of flux. New ones are created almost daily.”

For proof of that, I suggest you look no further than the erstwhile head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who recently signed a memorandum outlining a “back-to-basics” process for reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) under the Clean Air Act.

I won’t bore you with the legalese of Pruitt’s memo (you can read that for yourself on the EPA website) or parrot the objections of its critics who contend that the administrator’s aim is to weaken this piece of landmark environmental legislation (you can read them for yourself here, here, here, and here). I will simply point out that Pruitt’s clever use of the phrase “back to basics” to sell the proposed changes to the NAAQS review process looks like modern political euphemism of the finest order.

According to Merriam-Webster, the idiom “go back to basics” means “to return to a simpler way of doing something or thinking about something,” generally for the purposes of making improvements. Therefore, in terms of the standards that underpin the Clean Air Act, to go back to basics would mean taking the simplest and most straightforward approach to regulating air pollution under the law to improve public health. The Pruitt memo proposes the exact opposite by calling for:

  • Limits on the type of scientific data the EPA may consider.
  • Increased industry representation on EPA scientific advisory boards.
  • Consideration of economic impacts in matters pertaining to human health.

Call me crazy, but it seems like the goal here is not to simplify and improve, but to hamstring, obfuscate, and, eventually, weaken.

Euphemism is derived from the Greek words euphēmos, meaning “auspicious” or “sounding good,” and phēmē, meaning “speech.” When you put those together, the result is an explanation of the term not unlike the one found in the (aptly named) Faber Dictionary of Euphemisms: “The use of a mild or vague or t periphrastic  expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth.”

In closing, it’s worth pointing out that this phrase, “back to basics,” does not appear in any of the Laurel Dictionary Collection and Museum’s dictionaries of doubletalk, doublespeak, or euphemism. Moreover, I got squat when I searched “‘back to basics’ and ‘euphemism'” on  Google as well. This means the SDCL is leading the charge to place “back to basics” on list of modern political euphemisms. I plan to start the campaign soon, just as soon as I’m finished spending more time with my family.

Oh, Rats!

Alberta_Department_of_Public_Health_Rat_Poster_(26497442131)I used to have these neighbors (we’ll call them Jim and Janine), who were always asking me to call the cops and report the purportedly suspicious things our neighbors were doing.

For example, Jim was convinced that the people living in the house next to his were pumping sewage from their basement into the street. And what was his evidence for this outrageous claim? A brown stain on the curb in front of his house. Why the single mom and her teenage daughter who occupied the home had raw sewage floating about in their basement and/or lacked the customary plumbing systems that every other house on our block seemed to have, he couldn’t say. He also couldn’t explain why there was no odor or even moisture along the curb. Nevertheless, this shortage of answers didn’t stop him from ranting to me about “the excrement” every chance he got.

Janine had a different issue. She wanted me to call the cops on the multi-generational Asian family living in the house next to mine because she was sure they were “running a brothel.” She even went so far as to claim that, one night, “one of ladies” asked Jim if he needed some “company.” Why Janine cared what anyone might have said to her husband is a mystery given that she wanted me to call the cops on him too. See, Jim liked to leave food out for the stray cats of the neighborhood and, on occasion, he would let some of them into the house. Janine wanted this to stop.

Clearly, Jim and Janine had some problems, and I didn’t want to get mixed up in them. If they wanted to inform the police of their neighbor-based conspiracy theories (or their spouse’s odd behavior), they’d have to do it themselves. I wasn’t going to rat on the neighbors (who weren’t doing anything wrong) for them.

Bizarre as all that was, the whole experience got me thinking about the malleability of the word rat. After all, one of the reasons I didn’t want to “rat” Jim out to the cops was that, by attracting stray felines to his house, he was inadvertently keeping the neighborhood’s “rat” population down. Another was that, had I stuck my neck out for these two lunatics, word would have spread, and I would have become the neighborhood “rat.” See what I mean? It’s a very flexible term!

So where does the word rat come from and how did it come to have these different meanings? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s consult the books!


The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions for rat:

1. A rodent of some of the larger species of the genus Mus., especially M. rattus, the black rat (now almost extinct), and M. decumanus, the common gray, brown, or Norway rat.
2. In phrases, [such as] To smell a rat, [meaning] to suspect something
3. Used as an opprobrious or familiar epithet
4. A pirate
5. Something resembling a rat in shape
6. The act of changing one’s side [as in, “You dirty, double-crossing rat!”]
7. Attributive [as to identify a kind of something, e.g., rat poison, or rat terrier]

In addition to these definitions, the OED also includes a note about the word’s origin, which it initially describes as “uncertain,” but then adds: “it seems probable that it was adopted first in the Teutonic [aka: Germanic] languages, when the animal came to be known in western Europe, and thence passed into the Romance tongues.”

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins (DWO) offers a similarly phoned-in etymology, saying rat is “a general western European term” with a rather far-flung family tree that includes the “French rat,  Italian ratto, Spanish ratta, German ratte, Dutch rat, Swedish raatta, and Danish rotte.” In the end, though, the DWO goes on to say that all of these terms “come from vulgar Latin rattus, whose origin is unknown.”

Writing in Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Eric Partridge offers a (somewhat) more certain history of rat, which he links to:

Middle English rat or ratte, Old English raet [which is] akin to Medieval Dutch and Dutch rat, ratte, rotte, Old High German ratta, Middle High German and German ratte, Old Saxon ratta, and probably akin to Latin rodare, to gnaw. English dialect exhibits the variation ratten, whence probably the English to ratten, or “to rob of tools or machinery”; the now dialectical ratton, however, comes rather from the Medieval French, French diminutive raton. The slang ratty, meaning “angry or easily angered,” derives from ratty, of or like a rat, as rats [are know to be] fierce creatures.

The descent into slang at the end of this excerpt from Origins is no accident, as Partridge is a well-known figure in its study. His mammoth Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English captures a wide variety of uses for rat (as a noun), including: a drunken person taken into custody, a clergyman, a police spy, an infernal machine for the foundering of insured bottoms (nautical), a street urchin or wharf laborer, a workman that has not served his time and cannot enter a union, and any type of thief. In its verb form, rat means “to steal or rob; to search the body of a dead man after battle (WWI).”

Obviously, some of these more colorful uses of rat inform the various definitions included in those captured by the OED.

rats2For what it’s worth, the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English also includes a variety of other fun rat-related terms worth having under your belt, including:

Rat Castle – prison
Rat-house – an asylum for the insane (Australia)
Rat in your fore-chains – nautical insult to a sloppy ship
Rat run – a back alley or narrow passage between buildings
Ratbag – An ill-disposed person, an eccentric, a worthless person
Ratbaggery – A display of eccentricity

I could go on, but something is bothering me about all the rat disparaging going on here. Ecologically speaking, the rat is a very successful creature, as indicated by its spread around the globe. Along with only a handful of other creatures, the rat has been able to profit from humanity’s massive imprint on the planet while most other species have suffered. Therefore, it strikes me as a little odd that rat has come to signify something “bad.” Shouldn’t the term be affiliated with resourcefulness, grit, or achievement?

Maybe. “In Asia, the rat is often a symbolic animal that brings good luck,” says the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. “It is an attendant of the god of wealth ; in China as well as in Siberia, the absence of rats in one’s home and yard is regarded as an unsettling sign.”[Think rats fleeing a sinking ship. – Ed.]

Biedermann’s Dictionary of Symbolism contains similar sentiments, but it isn’t long before both texts shift gears and point out how rats, which were often seen in Europe as “destroyers of stored food” and “transmitters of disease” developed a reputation for “being in league with the Devil, demons, and witches” who were always working to “bring the unsuspecting to ruin.”

No wonder that, whereas the majority of other creatures flee from humans, rats are one of the few creatures that send us packing, especially when they’re in large numbers. As you might expect, and as the entries in the aforementioned symbolic dictionaries suggest, this fear has saturated our cultural consciousness and even gnawed its way into our subconscious.

Rat-DoSFor example, as noted in the The Dictionary of World Folklore (Larousse), the folklore of the rat is similar to that of the mouse, although it is generally less well-regarded:

It is often a symbol of death, perhaps because of early apprehension of its connection with the plague virus. In modern folklore the sailor’s superstition that rats can sense when a ship is about to sink, and will leave it, has become proverbial for the desertion of adherents experienced by any individual or project whose popularity is waning.

Similar sentiments surface in the entry for rat found in the Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

The rat is a symbol of fears and anxieties, or is the diseased or devious part of dreamer or their situation. It can also represent something which is repulsive in some way. The dreamer may be experiencing disloyalty from a friend or colleague. Other associations are of dirt and squalor, or of time gnawing away at our life and the unacceptable parts of oneself.

Dreams are one thing, full-on rat-related psychological turmoil is another. This brings us to “Rat-Man,” the nickname used in the literature of psychoanalysis that refers to a patient of Sigmund Freud. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, “The Rat Man was tormented by fantasies of rats gnawing at his father’s anus and that of a woman to whom he was attracted.”

Oh, boy …. (now I’m going to have nightmares)

Whether the Rat Man was cured of this malady, I can’t say. If you’re interested to know more, see Freud’s case study titled, “Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis,” published in 1909.

Other Terms for Dictionary and More about the “F” Word

Do you find the word “bed” controversial?

Jonathon Green’s massive tome, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, is a hell of read. I’m only on chapter two and my copy already boasts an explosion of Post-It notes emerging like mushrooms from a soggy log. On seemingly every page there is some intriguing factoid, a nicely worded quote about the peculiar practice of writing an “abecedarium,” or new word (or at least a word that’s new to me). Here’s a tiny sample of some interesting stuff I’ve learned from the book thus far.

Abecedarium, meaning an alphabetical order, was one of those new-to-me words. Green includes it among a list of terms for “word books,” some of which you know and some you (probably) don’t. Here’s the complete list:

Alveary – a beehive (Oxford English Dictionary)
Catholicon – a universal remedy or panacea (Oxford English Dictionary)
Glossary – a list with explanations of abstruse, antiquated, dialectical or
technical terms (Oxford English Dictionary)
Manipulus – a handful or bundle (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Medulla – the marrow of bones, also the substance of the brain; the pith
of human hair (Oxford English Dictionary)
Ortus –  birth, sunrise, rising, beginning  (Oxford Latin Dictionary)**
Promputarium – Store room, cupboard (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Sylva – A title for a collection of pieces, especially of poems; also a thesaurus
of words or phrases (Oxford English Dictionary)
Thesaurus – A treasury or storehouse of knowledge (Oxford English Dictionary)
Vocabulary – A collection or list of words with brief explanations of
their meanings (Oxford English Dictionary)
Vulgar – Of language or speech: Commonly or customarily used by the
people of a country; ordinary, vernacular (Oxford English Dictionary)

Pretty cool stuff, right? But wait, there’s more! In the section of the book’s introduction bearing the subhead “Obscenity and Taboo,” Green includes this little Green Civernugget about the “F-word,” a well-worn bit of slang I wrote about nearly a year ago. Although that post contained some fun fucking facts, the following were not among them.

To wap and to niggle, both meaning to have sexual intercourse, or more properly, since they come from the slang vocabulary, to fuck, appear in Thomas Harman’s Caveat (1565). Fuck itself* appears first not in a slang work, but in a bilingual dictionary, John Florio‘s Worlde of Wordes, where it was cited as one of the English synonyms for the Italian fottere.

Finally, if you think that’s fucking amazing, get a load of this: Did you know that a handful of school districts in the United States banned the American Heritage, Webster’s New World (student edition), Random House, Doubleday, and other dictionaries because:

Self-appointed “concerned” parents, school boards, and their allies object to such terms as  “hot” (in a sexual sense), “horny,” “crocked” (drunk), “knocker,” “nut,” “tail,” “ball,” and “bed” (in the definition of which Webster’s New World makes a reference to “bed” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse).

I found that so ridiculous I didn’t (want to) believe Mr. Green. Sure enough, a quick Google search revealed he’s telling the truth.

Have you read a good book about dictionaries? Let me know what it is!



* “Fuck itself” hah-hah-hah ….
** Green defines this as “garden,” but the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines it as noted above.

What Is the Best Word for Wasting Time?

Please LoiterLast week, after finally having enough of the bullshit and the idiocy, I resigned from my job. It was (as it always is) a great feeling to announce my impending departure, but now I have a problem. No, I don’t need a new job, I need to survive the next three days in the office with almost nothing to do. Oh sure, I’ll have some meetings to attend and the duration of my lunches will be a little longer than normal, but even with these diversions I’ll spend much of the next three work days trying to devise clever ways to waste time.

This evening, while turning the phrase over in my mind, I began to wonder if there’s a suitable word that encompasses or encapsulates the special kind of time wasting that I’ll be doing in the coming days. To find out, I consulted a book I don’t reach for too often, the Reverse Dictionary.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a reverse dictionary, the author of one in the BLRL collection, Theodore M. Bernstein, describes the text this way:

A conventional dictionary lists words alphabetically and gives you their meanings. This unconventional dictionary lists an array of meanings alphabetically and gives you the words.

The words it discovers for you are those you have momentarily forgotten or those you never knew or those of whose meanings you were not quite certain.

ReverseSo what words does the Reverse Dictionary give for the phrase “wasting time”? Dawdle, loiter dilly-dally, and piddle. As nice a selection of words as this is, I wondered about their meanings and which one best captured the essence of my situation. To find out, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s what transpired:

Dawdle: 1) To idle, waste time; to be sluggish or lazy; to loiter, linger dally.

Dally: 1) To talk or converse lightly or idly; to chat. 2) To act of speak sportively, make sport, amuse oneself; to toy, sport, play with, especially in the way of amorous caresses; to flirt, wanton.

Dilly-Dally: To act with trifling vacillation or indecision; to go on dallying with a thing without advancing; to loiter in vacillation, to trifle.

Loiter: (intransitive) In early use, to idle, waste one’s time in idleness. Now only with more specific meaning: To linger indolently on the way when sent on an errand or when making a journey; to linger idly about a place; to waste time in some particular task, to dawdle. (Transitive) To neglect one’s work; to allow time to pass idly; to waste carelessly or upon trifles; to postpone getting or giving (something).

Piddle: (intransitive) To work or act in a trifling, paltry, petty, or insignificant way; to trifle, toy, dally.

So which one of these best describes my situation and how I’ll be “working” during the next three days? I have to say, I thought it would be dawdle, but after reading these definitions from the OED, I have to go with piddle.

Color me surprised … and later, bored out of my fucking skull.