Know Your Words

Coward or Dastard?

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

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

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

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

Strike one.

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

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

Strike two.

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

Nailed it.

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

Really nailed it.

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Postscript:

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

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

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

Poltroonery: Cowardice, cowardly behavior (DCW/TT)

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

Recreancy: Cowardice, treason, or disloyalty (DCW)

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

Know Your Words

Toxic: Poison Is Just the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know Your Words

Of Enemies and Intertextuality

T2C,_Fred_Barnard,_Darnay_leaving_the_courtroom_to_be_executed_the_following_day_(III,11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know Your Words

Of Noise and Seasickness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I get the feeling that ol’ Schopenhauer would approve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eww. Etymology is gross.

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Notes:

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

 

Know Your Words · Word Wednesday

Rhetoric: From Truth to Persuasiveness

Spiegel_Const_van_Rhetoriken_1555In the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, reporters, commentators, and talking heads of every sort have argued that the perpetrator was spurred on by President Trump’s demeaning and divisive rhetoric against immigrants, the media, Democrats, and pretty much anyone who refuses to bow down and kiss his ring. The President, of course, denies any culpability and has struggled to deflect such accusations on to the media for its insistence on reporting1 the hateful things he says in public.

Sigh ….

All of this makes me wonder if the President knows what rhetoric is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), rhetoric is defines as:

1) The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others
2) Speech or writing expressed in terms calculated to persuade; hence language characterized by artificial or ostentatious expression
3) Skill in or faculty of using eloquent and persuasive language

On one hand, I’d say he is aware of it. Even though it’d be a stretch to call the man eloquent, there is no doubt that he knows how to speak to the folks that make up his base and keep them on his side. Yet, if that’s true — if he’s deliberately using language to influence the behavior of his supporters — then it presents something of a problem, for he should then understand how the rhetorical devices that pepper his “speeches” (e.g., the references to immigrants as “invaders” and all the rest of his demeaning language) might spur some of those supporters to shoot up a synagogue.

Etymology: Say What?

Rhetoric2, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, is a Middle English word that comes from Old French rethorique, via Latin and Greek rhetorike (tekhne “art” + rhetor “rhetor”). In ancient Greece, a rhetor, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, was a “public speaker” or an “orator.” Partridge’s Origins: A Short  Etymological Dictionary of Modern English offers a more detailed account:

Greek rhematikos, adjective of rhema, a word … rhema is akin to Greek rhetor, a “teacher of oratory,” whence via Late Latin, “the learned,” English “rhetor“. Both rhema and rhetor, for wherma and whretor, derive from eiro (werio), “I say.”

Persuasiveness over Truthfulness

So in the end, rhetoric boils down to the words that you or I “say,” but what if, when all is said and done, you haven’t said much of anything? This, sadly, is what rhetoric has come to mean today, and not just because of our current president.

As noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, rhetorical skills were revered in antiquity. Nowadays, not so much.

[Rhetoric] has been the subject of scholarly study since at least the 4th century BC. It was a central component of Classical learning alongside logic and grammar in both Athens and Rome,3 where it was divided into three categories: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. While Classical scholars considered rhetorical skill essential to the good conduct of both politics and philosophy, and as a consequence eminent scholars of the time like Aristotle wrote treatises on the subject, over time, but especially in the Romantic period, rhetoric has come under suspicion for emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness. Rhetoric in some contexts, particularly in the political arena, has become a code word for empty or insubstantial discourse.

The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy offers a similar, albeit more succinct, take on the subject. Its entry for rhetoric reads, “Speech or writing that lacks substance but is aimed at persuading an audience is often called ‘mere rhetoric.'”

Even the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology piles on. It defines rhetoric as “The art of persuasive, influential, or entertaining speech or oratory” and “bombastic or mannered speech or writing, or language that seems impressive but lacks true meaning.”

Lacks substance? Bombastic? Emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness? This is beginning to sound familiar. It’s almost as if these books were written with a particular person in mind.

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Notes:

1) I thought it might be useful to point out that the Oxford Dictionary of Journalism defines reporter as “A journalist who finds things out rather than one who merely processes, polishes, and presents the work of others…. Their role is, essentially, to discover and/or verify fresh information about topical and newsworthy events, to turn such information into stories appropriate to their news organization’s outlets, and — just as important — to discard information that does not stand up to scrutiny.”

2) According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the spelling of rhetoric (with rh-) is first recorded about 1475, in imitation of the Latin spelling. The extended sense of “mastery of literary eloquence, elegance in writing or speech,” appeared in Middle English in 1395, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The depreciatory meaning of “language characterized by artificial, ostentatious, or exaggerated expression,” is first recorded in the 1500s.

3) For an amazingly in-depth account of how the ancient Greeks (and to a lesser extent, the Romans) thought about rhetoric, along with some insight as to how it evolved over time in Greek society, check out the entry for rhetoric in The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art (Seyffert). Here’s a taste:

Among the Greeks, rhetorike comprised the practical as well as the theoretical art of speaking, and rhetor denoted an orator no less than a teacher of oratory. Among the Romans, it denoted only the latter, the actual speaker being called orator. The first men, who reduced oratory to a system capable of being taught, appeared among the Sicilian Greeks, who, according to testimony of the ancients, were distinguished for the keenness of their understanding and their love of disputation.

Know Your Words · Word Wednesday

Not This Crude Matter

George_Stubbs_-_A_Comparative_Anatomical_Exposition_of_the_Structure_of_the_Human_Body_with_That_of_a_Tiger_and_a_Co..._-_Google_Art_ProjectAbout a month ago, while doing something stupid, I damaged a ligament in my left shoulder and tore my bicep. It was a serious injury and, although I didn’t have to have surgery, I’ve been dealing with the fallout from this accident ever since. In doing so, it’s made me think about Yoda’s famous claim that we are “luminous beings, not this crude matter.” I agree with him (he’s a 900 year-old Jedi master after all), but there’s no getting around the fact that the flesh is something with which we must deal each and every day. But what is this thing we refer to as our flesh? Our skin and cartilage? Our ligaments, muscles, and tendons? All of it combined except our bones? And where does the word come from, given it’s so different from the other words — body, guts, innards, etc. — we use to refer to our crude matter? Let’s find out! Welcome to Word Wednesday.

Leaving aside the “soft, pulpy substance of fruit or a plant,” or the “muscular tissue, or tissues generally of animals, regarded as an article of food,” Flesh, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “soft substance, especially the muscular parts of an animal body; that which covers the framework of the bones and is enclosed by the skin.”

The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (Dorset and Barber) and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language say the same … and by that I mean, exactly the same, even the part about the fruit. (See the Kory Stamper’s Word By Word for more on plagiarism in dictionaries.) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers similar verbiage as well, but adds that the word is typically reserved the … um … flesh of vertebrates, and that it is distinguished from “internal organs, bone, and integument (aka: something that covers or envelopes, such as skin). Even the medical dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves offer the same definition.

There seems to be similar consensus regarding the word’s etymology, too. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says flesh comes from the Old English word flaesc, which is Germanic in origin and related to Dutch vlees and German fleisch. The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) agrees, but adds a little more color, noting that, “The etymological notion underlying flesh, and its near relative flitch ‘side of bacon’ [Old English], is of ‘slitting open and cutting up an animal’s carcase for food.'”

Expression_of_the_Emotions_Figure_1The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology hits these same notes, but calls into question the part about bacon by noting, “(modern) German fleisch … is possibly related to Old Icelandic flesk, swine’s flesh (bacon), through Old English flaec, though this form is considered an inaccurate or dialectical spelling by the [Oxford English Dictionary].” Partridge’s Origins offers a different take on the swine thing and says flesk is an Old Norse word for bacon AND pork, but the author provides himself an out by adding the abbreviation “o.o.o.,” meaning “of obscure origin,” at the end of the entry.

Okay, so now that we’re all up to speed on the meaning and etymology of flesh, you can go ahead and forget it because, in the words of the master, you’re not that crude matter.

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Postscript:

Although all my dictionaries seemed to be in agreement about the definition of flesh, Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (1940), includes information about the colors one might encounter while examining the flesh of food animals. I thought you might get a kick out of it … or maybe find it useful … so I’ve included it here.

Yellow: May be produced by food. In disease due to biliary compounds.
Brown: Rare, except in old meat undergoing decomposition.
Dark Purple: May indicate animal has died a natural death, suffered from acute
fever, tuberculosis, or rinderpest. Avoid.
Dark Reddish-Brown: May indicate animal has been hunted or overdriven,
poisoned, drowned, or suffocated. Avoid.
Scarlett: Rare. Indicates arsenic or monoxide poisoning.
Green or Violet: Indicates the beginning of putrefaction. Dangerous.
Saffron: Indicates artificial coloring or smoked pork.
Brilliant Red: Due to poisonous bacteria.
White: Rare, except in calves. Found in certain diseases. Avoid.

This shit could save your life. You’re welcome.

Know Your Words · Text Tuesday

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.

Otto_van_Veen_-_Xantippe_Dousing_Socrates_-_WGA24347
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!