Archive for March, 2011

March 30, 2011

Steamy hiatus…

Dictionary Person is gone boiling for a couple of days.

March 29, 2011


“Ululate” — pronounced UL(as in gull)-you-late  — is a word that is far from new in the world, going back to Latin (from ululare), and appearing almost unchanged in the modern Romance languages1 and in English.  And yet for many of us, perhaps, it’s just recently that we’re noticing it. This picture of our experience (if it’s accurate) may be reflected in how some of our sources handle “ululate”.

Thus, the OED:

To howl or wail; to lament loudly.

1623 H. Cockeram Eng. Dict., Vlulate, to howle like a dog or wolfe.

1832 T. P. Thompson Exercises (1842) II. 321 Men must have been sadly beaten, when they ululate in this sort.

1893 ‘Q’ Delectable Duchy 171 The widow so often interrupted the service to ululate that the town clock had struck four when I hurried back.

And yet when we visit Wikipedia (“Ululation“), the explanation of where and how ululation occurs is centered on Africa and the Middle East. And unlike the examples from the OED, it’s clear that ululation is not used just at times of sadness, as at funerals, but also at celebrations.

Wikipedia — give Satan his due! — has a fine and interesting explanation of the technique of ululation:

An ululation … is a long, wavering, high-pitched sound resembling the howl of a dog or wolf with a trilling quality. It is produced by emitting a high pitched loud voice accompanied with a rapid movement of the tongue and the uvula. The term ululation is an onomatopoeic word derived from Latin. It is produced by moving the tongue, rapidly, from left to right repetitively in the mouth while producing a sharp sound.(ellipsis added)

Further the Wikipedia article traces the practice back at least as far as the fifth century BC.  Here’s Herodotus:

I think for my part that the loud cries uttered in our sacred rites came also from thence; for the Libyan women are greatly given to such cries and utter them very sweetly.

And in the modern world, ululation continues as part of cultural practices of North Africa, the Middle East, and Africa south of the Sahara. Looking at the fifty illustrative examples for ululate at Wordnik, we see that the practice is widely distributed.

You can see a short video of ululation here.  And here’s another:

1 Here’s the etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary: ” < Latin ululāt-, participial stem of ululāre (hence Italian ululare, Spanish ulular, Portuguese ulular, Provençal ulular, French ululer), of imitative origin: compare ulula screech-owl.”

March 28, 2011


Looking up “tattersall” (“fabric with a small and even check pattern”), I came across this lovely half-remembered word.

Webster’s Third defines tatterdemalion as “a person dressed in ragged clothing : one who is disreputable in appearance”. Synonyms offered are ragamuffin and scarecrow. These “tatters” and “ragas”  call to mind other picturesque,  vaguely onomatopoetic words and expressions for outsiders, for the “others”, such as “ruffian” and “rapscallion” and  “raggle-taggle gypsies” oh!

The etymology is a little vague: ” tatter + demalion, of unknown origin”. There’s a mystery here. The OED offers a little more1, but isn’t overly helpful either. “Tatter”  for ragged bits of cloth has a long history in English, with several sources tracing it back to around 14002. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology refers to “-demalian” as “an obscure element”.  Clear enough that!

Here are a couple of illustrative examples from the OED.

1879 Scribner’s Monthly 19 296/1 It is rare to see a tatterdemallion in Paris.

1771 T. Smollett Humphry Clinker I. 171 Mrs. Bramble‥ said, she had never seen such a filthy tatterdemalion.

1858 O. W. Holmes Autocrat of Breakfast-table xi. 108 A group of young tatterdemalions playing pitch-and-toss.

In any case, it seems a rather dignified, almost stately word to use for those whom many would rather not see.

You’ll see from this Google Ngram graph below that tatterdemailion may have had its best days around a hundred years ago.  Link here.


Google Ngram: tatterdemalion

1 From the OED:  “Etymology: < tatter n.1, or more probably tattered adj., with a factitious element suggesting an ethnic or descriptive derivative. The earlier pronunciation rhymes with battalion, Italian, stallion, as shown by the frequent doubling of l.”
2 The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (edited by C.T. Onions) on tatter: “First recorded in tatarwagges c. 1400) but implied in earlier tattered…clothed in slash garments (tatird Rolle, tatrid Wyclif)…” [elipsis mine, for clarity]

March 26, 2011

Wordy Weekend Internet Maunderings

On weekends we like to take a break and bust out of our self-imposed abecedarian discipline.  And this weekend, we thought we’d share a few items that we found on the interwebs, which has (famously) been defined as a “series of tubes”.1

An interpretation from

First, an avid DP reader sent us this: Words Without Words, “a visual dictionary of words with abstract, complex, or underused meanings”.  Some of the representations here work better than others, but it’s a brave and interesting project. And we note with approval the use of the serial comma!

Clearly, there are lots of language, linguistics, and word blogs. I’m starting to compile a blogroll (watch for it!) .So here are just a couple of blogs I’ve come across recently:

Wordnik Subtitled “a dictionary, thesaurus, word community, and more.”  Begun in 2009, Wordnik has a fascinating mission:

A crowdsourced toolkit for tracking and recording the evolution of language as it occurs, its goal is to gather as much information about a word as possible — not its mere definition, but also in-sentence examples, semantic “neighborhoods” of related words, images, statistics about usage, and more.

Language Log A longstanding group blog written mainly by academics; newsy, worldly, and international in scope.

Fully (sic) A blog from some more of those people who use this English language (sort of!). It’s a blog where we can

[s]it back and enjoy the spectacle of Australian linguists getting all hot and bothered about the way we communicate.

1 So described in 2006 by Senator Ted Stevens. Much fun ensued.  See this Wikipedia article, and follow some of its external links.

March 25, 2011


Continuing on our abecedarian path, we come to “s”. There were many worthy candidates, including synergy, syzygy, schadenfreude, seiche, shibboleth, skullduggery, solipsistic, stevedore, susurrus, simian, and subjunctive. The world loves  “s” words, it seems1.

But, dear readers, though it grieves me to tell you this, I must unburden myself. There was a very concerted, open, blatant campaign to influence Dictionary Person on the word choice for “s”.  Bribery was attempted! Innocents were drawn in and subverted! Quite a tummle!

But in the end, we resisted and, whether for good or for evil, made a choice by our own lights. And so chose “spleeny “.

Oxford (the OED) has spleeny as an adjective, meaning splenetic, spleenful, referring back to spleen.  To the spleen over the ages all sorts of qualities have been attributed, many seemingly contradictory. The OED reflects these in listings of many now obsolete or archaic meanings. But one current meaning for spleen is “violent ill-nature or ill-humour; irritable or peevish temper.”

This doesn’t quite get at the way “spleeny” seems to be used hereabouts.  So we consult some “American” sources. The Century comes in with definitions rather like those of the OED.  The American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t help.  The very fine Dictionary of American Regional English might some day help, but right now they’re only up to “sk” words.

We turn to John Gould’ s Maine Lingo2 (1975) for the local usage:

Supposedly derived from some disorder of the spleen, the word is now used in Maine for somebody unnecessarily timid about bodily pain.  If a child whimpers at having a splinter removed from his finger, Mother will say, “Now, don’t be so spleeny, this isn’t going to hurt!”  Sometimes spleeny is used for a hypochondriac and one who “enjoys poor health,” but mostly it means lack of physical bravery.

This is better, but it may not get at all the current uses of the word. And meanings do change over time.  Just a few years ago my farmer neighbor described the power shaft on his baler as spleeny. (I told him he should have gotten a John Deere.)

1 For instance, of the 2662 pages of word entries in print edition of  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 330, or 12.3%, are devoted to “s” entries.  Remarkable!
2 John Gould, Maine Lingo : Boiled Owls, Billdads & Wazzats, 1975. p. 270. PE3101.M2 G6

March 24, 2011


From The Century (can you tell it’s my go-to resource?):

1. The state of being recrudescent, or becoming raw or exacerbated again.  Hence — 2. A reopening; renewal; a coming into existence anew; a fresh outbreak.

Yon can see all sorts of uses for this word, I hope.  Think zombies, cholera, Baathism, Malomars, and so on.  There’s no end of the dangers and evils that might experience a recrudescence, or suddenly recrudescence!

The OED has a very similar definition, but shades the first toward the negative,

1. The action or fact of breaking out afresh; a recurrence of a disease or medical condition, or of an undesirable state of things, bad feelings, etc., esp. after a period of quiescence or remission

and the second toward the positive:

2. A revival or rediscovery of something good or valuable.

In political and policy discussions recrudescence often comes up when referring to an ideology, a way of thinking, that the writer detests.  Try a Google search combing “recrudescence” with nationalism, fascism, McCarthyism, socialism, racism, Stalinism, etc.

Clearly “recrudescence” has uses in medicine and public health.

But in botany, recrudescence refers  “the production of a fresh shoot from the top of a ripened spike”1.

Any day now, we’ll be seeing the recrudescence of crocuses and daffodils and trout lilies!

1 Fourth definition, The Century Dictionary

March 23, 2011


Originally a bog or boggy land;  this use goes back to the 16th century.

The OED is pretty guarded on the etymology: “a first element of uncertain origin (related to quag n. and quag v.1) + mire n.”  The Century is less so:  “Appar. a var. of the earlier quakemire…”  This is in keeping with The Century’s definition:  “Soft, wet, boggy land that trembles under the foot; a marsh; a bog; a fen.”

It’s a small jump then to using quagmire in a figurative sense — to sink in, as in a quagmire.  This use is probably the only way in which moderns encounter the term.

Those of a certain age cannot hear or read this word without recalling its association with the Vietnam War.  It’s curious that the OED does not include any quotation using “quagmire”  in that context.  Yet a keyword search in URSUS yields a large number of Vietnam-related titles.

In the Vietnam War-era, the word would often come up on occasions that also recalled MacArthur’s (purported) dictum1 “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

A search in Historical New York Times (1851 to 4 years ago) on “quagmire vietnam” comes up with 577 results, beginning in 1950 (Korea), with a few in 1954 (Dienbienphu), and the late 1950’s (Algeria).  The bulk of the citations come from the Vietnam Era, of course, and then the word invariably resurfaces in discussing every U.S. military action since the 1970’s.

And the word continues to have power. Witness Johnny Apple’s Fall 2001 invocation of “quagmire” vis-a-vis the nascent Operation Enduring Freedom, “A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam“:

Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word “quagmire” has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad.

1 Supposed to have been said to John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon B. Johnson, by Douglas MacArthur. Also attributed to Bernard L. Montgomery, and said to have been a firm belief, if never quite uttered in succinct form, of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Uttered, too, by a character in The Princess Bride (1987). Discussion here.

March 21, 2011


Lapsus connotes the fall (the “Fall”), pre goeth before.

Merriam-Webster:  characteristic of or belonging to the time or state before the fall of humankind.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1504)

From an exegesis on this engraving1:

Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk melancholic. Before the Fall, these humors were held in check, controlled by the innocence of man; once Adam and Eve ate from the apple of knowledge, all four were activated, all innocence lost.

To recall our earlier entry on “abcedarius”,  I’m reminded that The New England Primer2 taught A by this verse: ” In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

The word prelapsarian seems to have arisen in the 1870’s;  one wonders what word or phrase (“before the Fall?”) sufficed for the concept earlier. (There’s more on the “lapsarian” family here.)

1 From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
2 Facsimiles of editions (over 200!) of The New England Primer are available through Early American Imprints, 1639-1800 and Early American Imprints, 1801-1819.

March 19, 2011

Weekend Linkiness!

Dictionary Person will resume regular posts on Monday, but to tide over the word-worried and logocentric, I offer these word-related links, contributed by readers.  Thanks for your help and interest, and keep ’em coming!

First, we are witnesses at the birth of a new word. (And for this we can, I suppose, blame the media and the media-obsessed public, and the generally deplorable state of the popular culture.)  The new word is….(insert drum roll here)…

Sheening: To behave like Charlie Sheen – “partying, questionable decision making and public humiliation.”

The whole sordid tale is here. We weep.

We call your attention to a snappy appreciation of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), its 2010 reprinting,  and the descriptivist/prescriptivist mud wrestle debate, “Use Value” by Barton Swain (New Criterion, February 2011).

Finally, here’s a nice piece on differences between current-day American and English pronunciation and how that awful American popular culture (see above) isn’t necessarily swamping Dear Old Blighty!

March 18, 2011


Pronunciation: OR ta lan

I came across this word in a recent Atlantic article, The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.

Bourdain starts off his book[1]by reveling in the illegality of a banquet at which he and some famous (unnamed) chefs dined on ortolan, endangered songbirds fattened up, as he unself-consciously tells us, in pitch-dark cages.

Though I was wild about Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential2 and I’m not ordinarily squeamish about food — or where it comes from — I found this strangely horrifying.

More reading on the topic hasn’t helped overcome my unease. Escoffier’s La Guide Culinaire and the Larousse Gastronomique contain many recipes.  François Mitterand, former president of France, famously had an illegal “last supper” of ortolans just days before passing.

Enough editorializing.  The OED identifies the ortolan as a migratory bunting, Emberiza hortulana.  Its status is  threatened.

A memorable word!

1 Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
2 Kitchen Confidential was subtitled ” Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” and was a gritty, honest account of what it’s like to earn a living working in restaurants, “good” and not-so-good. You can almost smell the foul corners of the walk-in.