|Scarcely Used Words Scarcely Used Words, a database of more than 2000 words, and their definitions, that appear randomly, is available to Vocabula Review readers.|
|Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher|
|October 2015, Vol. 17, No. 10||ISSN 1542-7080|
In the October 2015 Vocabula
The November 2015 issue is due online November 22 .
A woman sent me an email at work regarding what she called "a highly technical grammar" question. I snorted. How would she know what kind of grammar question is considered "highly technical"? The question concerned the insertion of vowels in Hebrew word roots, something familiar to almost any linguist, though for a non-linguist or non-Hebrew speaker it would no doubt seem exotic, if not complex. I put my haughtiness on hold to politely reply, then felt the accusing agenbite of inwit. Shame on me! I am a professor. My role is not solely to know my discipline deeply and contribute new knowledge to it, but also to share what I know, to profess it, especially to students, be they hungry or reluctant to learn. Why was I being such a jerk, even if I was doing my best not to show it?
Why, for that matter, is anyone a jerk? In particular, whence pedantry? Literally, of course, it comes from paid- the Greek stem for "child," which in turn is used in words referring to teaching and learning, such as pedagogy and encyclopedia, which are fine enough things, but also in more pejorative terms such as the Greek word meaning "punish" and English "pedagogue," the close cousin of a pedant the one who can reduce an adult to a child. But what I really wonder is whence the pedant? What is it that forms such a personality trait, and why do issues of language and usage in particular bring out the pedantry in so many of us?
Because modern English has shed most of the flexional endings that distinguish grammatical functions, many of our words possess the lively ability to rail-jump from one part of speech to another without any basic change in form. This happy facility, variously called conversion or function shift, endows our vocabulary with vitality, power, and a prolific source of new words.
Without being fully aware of it, many of us cut our punning eye teeth on riddles that are built on function shift:
A garbage truck.
Over the centuries, some lucky people have been granted a measure of immortality by having had their names transformed into common English words. One way to achieve such posthumous fame is to become so closely identified with an idea that your name becomes an ism.
Thusly, the names of philosophers Plato and Karl Marx are enshrined in the words Platonism and Marxism. French soldier Nicholas Chauvin pursued his patriotism with such excessive zeal that his name is, to this day, preserved in the concept of chauvinism.
The Rev. William Archibald Spooner occasionally and unintentionally interchanged initial consonant sounds in his statements: "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" and "Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" Such switcheroos are now dubbed spoonerisms.
The life and writings of the Marquis de Sade extolled the pleasures of inflicting pain, while the fictional characters of novelist Leopold Sacher-Masoch enjoyed receiving pain. Today the surnames of these two men live on in the words sadism and masochism. (As the story goes, the masochist pleads, "Beat me, beat me!" and the masochist sneers, "No!")
This past Tuesday, Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, one of the most beautiful lives in Major League Baseball, retired from the great stadium of life at the age of 90. The legendary Yankee catcher played in 14 World Series, 10 of them won by his New York Yankees, and caught Don Larsen's perfect World Series game. Berra later exulted about that feat, "It's never happened in World Series competition, and it still hasn't."
To begin, I lodge a mild dissent concerning descriptive adjectives used by most dictionaries when referring to words rare, obscure or obsolete. Our two synonyms for "heaven" under discussion today, firmament and welkin, both suffer from slipshod, uncareful, and deficient labeling.
The Firmament Fuss The Oxford English Dictionary, in particular, seems loath to even mention satirical or playful or lightly jesting uses of a rare or obsolete word.
Take firmament as an example. If you know the Book of Genesis in the KJV, the King James version of The Bible, you will exult in the orotund majesty of firmament, a synonym for heaven, reverberant when spoken aloud like the blast of an angel's trumpet. A place of locative authority and environing certitude, the firmament is, by the very sound of the word, confident of its existence and certain of its divinity. Genesis 1:6 tells the reader, "And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters."
Oxford says modern use of firmament is "only" poetic or rhetorical. So wrongly incomplete! I've read the word firmament used whimsically, playfully, magnified for comic exaggeration or employed viciously in an anti-religious newspaper column by a militant atheist. Such uses of the word in print have shown up throughout my life. Yet in its many quotations demonstrating various uses of firmament, Oxford shows not one quotation that is sportive or frisky.
Pappus is the botanical name of the kind of air-borne, wind-blown seeds of plants like milkweed. Such aerial seeds in flotillas of tiny, silky parasols are dispersed by the winds of autumn. Filament-topped thistle-tufts and the velutinous and plumose pappi of dandelions also belong to this family of sky seeds.
The word pappus is a Latin form of an ancient Greek term for white down or fluff on certain seeds. Before that developed meaning in ancient Greek, πάππος, pappos was a word for grandfather. Gramp's white hair probably suggested this second meaning of a white-haired seed.
In form, πάππος is an affectionate diminutive in which the root *pa, "dad, father," is duplicated, for example πάππος, pappas, was a Greek child's word for father, much like papa in English and some European languages.
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