Monday, October 31, 2011

pons asinorum

pons asinorum [pɒnz ˌæsəˈnɔrəm] n.

1.) A humorous name for the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid, from the difficulty which beginners or dull-witted persons find in 'getting over' or mastering it. Hence allusively (O.E.D. 2nd Ed.).

Etymology: New Latin pons asinorum, bridge of fools: Latin pons, bridge + Latin asinrum, genitive plural of asinus, ass, fool.

"Even as regards the Ricardian doctrine of rent, which it was customary to call the pons asinorum of Political Economy, a suspicion has begun to prevail that the part of it which is true is a mere truism; the wage-fund theory has suffered the same process of attenuation, and the "economic man" has been banished to the planet Saturn" ("Introduction to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations", Joseph Shield Nicholson, 1884).

(Death of Euclid, Barnett Newman, 1947)

Okay, it's time to announce the winner of this week's contest. It's...Lemons Don't Make Lemonade! She wrote:
As I opened the envelope in my hand, I couldn't help but wonder if Lord Wessex's invitation was merely a beau geste. After all, I was the penseroso of his cousins and this could just be a kind attempt to inveigle me into the affections of his more garrulous relatives. Still, the palpitations of my heart told me that I hoped for more and I would continue hoping...even if he made it clear that I was just an ersatz companion to fill the void of heart. Replacing the card in the envelope, I hid it under my pillow and tried to fall asleep. Unfortunately, all I could think about was the scene in the sitting room where Lady Elizabeth had ridiculed me as "old-fashioned." Despite my anger, I had responded with a smile and a polite observation on how Lord Wessex favored her. Reculer pour mieux sauter is often the best action in war, and love IS war.
Good stuff there, LDML. Is this a continuous story by the way? Cause that would be pretty impressive. Also, I like "inveigle". I may have to use that one. Okay, for next week, let's do votary, legerdemain, savoir-faire, quash, and litotes. (Only 5 since I've been lazy and not posting very often.) Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 27, 2011


votary [ˈvoʊtəri] n.

1.) One who is bound by vows to a religious life; a monk or nun. One who has made, or is bound by, a special vow.
2.) One who is devoted to a particular religion, or to some form of worship or religious observance; a devotee. A devout worshipper. (Cf. next.)
3.) A devoted or zealous worshipper of God, Christ, one of the saints, etc. Used with reference to ancient or heathen deities, partly in fig. use.
4.) One who is devoted or passionately addicted to some particular pursuit, occupation, study, aim, etc. Constructed with "to" (now rare) or "of".
5.) A devoted adherent or admirer of some person, institution, etc. (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition).

Etymology: from Latin vōt-, participle stem of vovēre, to vow + -ary, adaptation of Latin -āri-us, -āri-um.

"The little Love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the General of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love's fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
For men diseased; but I, my mistress' thrall,
   Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
   Love's fire heats water, water cools not love."
("Sonnet 154", William Shakespeare, 1609)

(Amore e Psiche, Antonio Canova, 1793)

Monday, October 24, 2011


legerdemain [ˌlɛdʒərdəˈmeɪn] n.

1.) Sleight of hand.
2.) A show of skill or deceitful cleverness: "financial legerdemain" (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).

Etymology: Middle English legerdemayn, from Old French leger de main: leger, light (from Vulgar Latin leviarius, from Latin levis) + de, of + main, hand.

"Like as the fouler on his guilefull pype
Charmes to the birds full many a pleasant lay,
That they the whiles may take lesse heedie keepe,
How he his nets doth for their ruine lay:
So did the villaine to her prate and play,
And many pleasant trickes before her show,
To turne her eyes from his intent away:
For he in slights and jugling feates did flow,
And of legierdemayne the mysteries did know" (The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser, 1596).

(De goochelaar, Hieronymus Bosch, ~1510)

Hi, all. After a two-week hiatus it's time to announce the winner of this week's "Climbing the Mountain" challenge. It's...shari! She wrote:
Typically, I enjoy most cabbalistic festivities, but this party lacked the oneiric quality that I was longing for. I broodingly sat on the sofa, holding my bottle of lager and gazed about at the abderian nitwits John seemed to always invite to his parties. Taking off the bottle cap, I flipped it over to solve the rebus stamped inside. Most of these garish jezebels wouldn't be able to figure out the first symbol, I muttered to myself.... a bee, representing the letter B. A B and an image of an icicle. Bicycle. I stretched out my legs and took a large gulp of my beer. Bicycle built for two. So many perfumed and sweaty dancers gyrating in front of me... The miasma of eau-de-floozy wafted about me. I got up, festina lente, and in a final beau geste, gave my still cold and unfinished beer to a passing party-goer, then made my way out the front door and into the fresh autumn night air.
Great stuff, there, shari. Not sure about your use of "cabbalistic", but you definitely made up for it with the other words. (You do realize you only need to use 5 of the 7, don't you?) Okay, so for next week let's do beau geste, distaff, reculer pour mieux sauter, penseroso, fecundity, garrulous, and ersatz. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rhetoric - meiosis

meiosis [maɪˈoʊsɪs] n.

1.) A figure of speech in which something's importance is intentionally understated or implied to be less significant or substantial than it really is. The understatement actually heightens the force of the statement (Garner's Modern American Usage 3rd Edition).

Etymology: Greek µείωσις lessening, from µειοῦν, to lessen, from µείων less.

   "'No, everybody's fine at home,' I said. 'It's me. I have to have this operation.'
   'Oh! I'm so sorry,' she said. She really was, too. I was right away sorry I'd said it, but it was too late.
   'It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.'
   'Oh, no!" She put her hand up to her mouth and all.
   'Oh, I'll be all right and everything! It's right near the outside. And it's a very tiny one. They can take it out in about two minutes.'
   Then I started reading this timetable I had in my pocket. Just to stop lying. Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it. No kidding. Hours" (The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger, 1951).

(Philosophy, Salvator Rosa, 1640)

Thursday, October 20, 2011


penseroso [pɛnsəˈroʊsoʊ] a.

1.) Meditative, brooding, melancholy.

penseroso n.

1.) A brooding or melancholy person, or personality (O.E.D. 2nd Edition).

Etymology: From the title of John Milton's poem "Il Penseroso" (1632), adopted from obsolete Italian penseroso, now pensieroso, from pensiere thought.

"— Manly: I unintentionally intruded into this lady's presence this morning, for which she was so good as to promise me her forgiveness.
— Charlotte: Oh! ho! is that the case! Have these two penserosos been together? Were they Henry's eyes that looked so tenderly? [Aside.] And so you promised to pardon him? and could you be so good-natured? have you really forgiven him? I beg you would do it for my sake [whispering loud to Maria]. But, my dear, as you are in such haste, it would be cruel to detain you; I can show you the way through the other room.
— Maria: Spare me, my sprightly friend" (The Contrast, Royall Tyler, 1787).

(Il Penseroso, Thomas Cole, 1845)

I know, I know, two Thomas Cole's in a row. But it was too perfect to pass up. Also, I'm not sure why it's always the French words and phrases that put people up in arms. Maybe it's the pronunciation. But, again, I only include words and phrases from major English dictionaries that have been used in multiple works published in English. If you want to go back to speaking the Wessex dialect of Anglo-Saxon, go right ahead. Finally, it's a big day for us, MA readers: we've found a mistake in the O.E.D. 2nd Edition! It claims that The Contrast was published in 1887, rather than 1787, and that the pertinent line is "How I should like to see that pair of Penserosos together". Needless to say, they'll be getting a stern letter. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

reculer pour mieux sauter

reculer pour mieux sauter [rəkyle pur mjø sote] phr.

1.) Making use of a withdrawal or setback in such a way as to advance or succeed all the more (O.E.D. 2nd Edition).

Etymology: French, lit. 'to draw back in order to leap better'.

"If we are to build a better world, we must have the courage to make a new start—even if that means some reculer pour mieux sauter. It is not those who believe in inevitable tendencies who show this courage, not those who preach a 'New Order' which is no more than a projection of the tendencies of the last forty years, and who can think of nother better than to imitate Hitler" (The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich August Hayek, 1944).

(The Course of Empire: Destruction, Thomas Cole, 1836)

Don't worry, this is as political as I will ever get.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


distaff [ˈdɪstæf] n.

1.) A cleft staff about 3 feet long, on which, in the ancient mode of spinning, wool or flax was wound. It was held under the left arm, and the fibres of the material were drawn from it through the fingers of the left hand, and twisted spirally by the forefinger and thumb of the right, with the aid of the suspended spindle, round which the thread, as it was twisted or spun, was wound.
2.) The staff or "rock" of a hand spinning-wheel, upon which the flax to be spun is placed.
3.) As the type of women's work or occupation.
4.) Hence, symbolically, for the female sex, female authority or dominion; also, the female branch of a family, the "spindle-side" as opposed to the "spear-side"; a female heir.
5.) attrib. and Comb., as distaff-business, distaff-right, distaff-woman; distaff side, the female branch of a house or family; distaff's or St. Distaff's day, the day after Twelfth Day or the Feast of the Epiphany, on which day (Jan. 7) women resumed their spinning and other ordinary employments after the holidays; also called rock-day; distaff cane, a species of reed, the stems or canes of which are used for distaffs, arrows, fishing-rods, etc.; distaff thistle, a name of Carthamus lanatus (Cirsium lanatum), from its woolly flowering stems (O.E.D. 2nd Ed.).

Etymology: Middle English distaf, from Old English distæf: dis-, bunch of flax + stæf, staff.

"Women predominate not only, I think, because of matriarchal considerations, or claims to divine paternity, but also because Boiotian tradition leans in every way toward the distaff side. Yet, through entry and identification of the heroine 'like her who...,' one can file the heroes too, and their exploits, and so compose an account of the heroic age using a method different from Homer's and scarcely derived from him" (Hesiod: The Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Herakles, Richmond Lattimore, 1959).

(Hésiode et la Muse, Gustave Moreau, 1891)

Monday, October 17, 2011

beau geste

beau geste [boʊ ˈʒɛst] n.

1.) A gracious gesture.
2.) A gesture noble in form but meaningless in substance (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).

Etymology: French beau, noble + geste, gesture.

"It was in the rout that followed Issus that Darius fled the field of battle, leaving his wife, children, and even his mother behind in the baggage train. Alexander, with characteristic largesse and fondness for the beau geste—like most extravagant personalities, he had a capacity for generosity as great as his capacity for ruthlessness—honorably maintained the captives in royal state" (How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, Daniel Mendelsohn, 2008).

(Mégas Aléxandros, "Menas", ~350 B.C.)

I thought I'd give the ladies an aide-mémoire this time. (This is also pretty much what I look like when my toga is falling off.) And let's resume the weekly challenge this week, using 5 of rebus, cabbalistic, festina lente, abderian, miasma, oneiric, and jezebel. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 15, 2011


jezebel also iesabelle, jezabel, jesebel [ˈdʒɛzəˌbɛl] n.

1.) Name of the infamous wife of Ahab king of Israel; hence used allusively for a wicked, impudent, or abandoned woman or for a woman who paints her face (O.E.D. 2nd Edition).

"That I might have nothing to divert me from my Studies, and to avoid the Noises of Coaches and Chair-men, I have taken Lodgings in a very narrow Street not far from Whitehall; but it is my Misfortune to be so posted, that my Lodgings are directly opposite to those of a Jezebel. You are to know, Sir, that a Jezebel (so call'd by the Neighbourhood from displaying here pernicious Charms at her Window) appears constantly dress'd as her Sash, and has a thousand little Tricks and Fooleries to attract the Eyes of all the idle young Fellows in the Neighbourhood" ("The Spectator", Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (ed.), 20 Sep. 1711).

(Jezebel, John Byam Liston Shaw, 1896)

I can't believe none of my readers is an Ubuntu user! Free yourselves from your corporate shackles, people. See, Thursday marked the release of Ubuntu 11.10, nicknamed the "Oneiric Ocelot". That was why "oneiric" was chosen (plus I had no idea what it meant). I like that some of you thought I'd suddenly change tack and start blogging about my personal dream-narratives. However, that's between me, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, and the attractive barista at my local coffee shop, thank you very much!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


oneiric [oʊˈnaɪrɪk] a.

1.) Of, relating to, or suggestive of dreams.

Etymology: Greek oneiros, dream + -ic.

"The interpretation of the Oedipus complex is placed among the examples of dreams of the death of loved relatives, which come under the heading of typical dreams; the latter appear in the chapter dealing with 'The Material and Sources of Dreams'—prior, therefore, to the great chapter on 'The Dream-Work.' This arrangement is quite misleading, and even more so the treatment of the Oedipus complex as a mere oneiric theme" ("Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation" by Paul Ricoeur, Denis Savage (trans.), 1977).

(The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781)

Extra nerd points if you know why I chose this word for today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


miasma [maɪˈæzmə] n.

1.) Infectious or noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; poisonous particles or germs floating in and polluting the atmosphere; noxious emanations, especially malaria (Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition).

Etymology: modern Latin, adopted from Greek µίασµα, pollution, related to µιαίνειν, to pollute. Cf. French miasme.

"A door slammed. 'Primo,' I said—or meant to say. But he was gone. Never apologize. Never explain. I stepped carefully down the alley, leaned around the corner, and felt my way brick by brick back to my car. Some son of a bitch had snatched the flower off the hood. I got in and drove out of town, through the shining miasma of my drunkenness, turned off the highway, and went up a steep dirt road that led to a pass between a pair of cactus-studded hills" ("In Defense of the Redneck", Edward Abbey, 1979).

(Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah)

Here's a rare tribute to my Southwestern heritage (the quote and the picture, not the word). Extra points to anyone who had heard of Edward Abbey before!

Friday, October 7, 2011


abderian [æbˈdɛərɪən] a.

1.) Given to laughter; inclined to foolish or incessant merriment (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary).

Etymology: Latin, from Abdera, adoption of Greek Άβδηρα, a town in Thrace where Democritus, the "laughing philosopher", was a native.

"—Heidelberg: Then let me bruise it in upon your brains that you should have the interest of my children as much at heart as my own interests, sir. Abderian ape! What are you grinning at?
—Markus: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, hu, hu, ha, ha!
—Heidelberg: Baboon! hold down your risibility or he will trot you into trouble, sir" (Hernarne: a Comedy, William B. Felts, 1891).

(De jonge Rembrandt als Democritus de lachende filosoof, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1629)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

festina lente

festina lente [fɛsˈtinɑ ˈlɛntɛ] v. phr. (imper.)

1.) Make haste slowly, do not be impetuous (Dictionary of Foreign Words, Adrian Room (ed.), 2000).

Etymology: Latin, lit. "hasten slowly", from festina, imperative of festinare to hasten + lente, slowly. The phrase was originally a Greek proverb, quoted by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus in De vita Caesarum as a favorite motto of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.

"And thus also must that picture be taken of a dolphin clasping an anchor; that is, not really, as is by most conceived out of affection unto man, conveying the anchor unto the ground; but emblematically, according as Pierius hath expressed it, the swiftest animal conjoined with that heavy body, implying that common moral, festina lente: and that celerity should always be contempered with cunctation" (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Thomas Browne, 1646).

(Battaglia di Azio, Lorenzo Castro, 1672)

This one in honor of HYDRIOTAPHIA. Also, it's nice to get back to the good old Ancient Greek and Roman foundations. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


cabbalistic [kæbəˈlɪstɪk] a. also cabalistic

1.) Pertaining to, of the nature of, or like the Cabbala or cabbalists; having a private or mystic sense; mysterious (O.E.D. 2nd Ed.).

Etymology: from cabalist, adaptation of medieval Latin cabbalista, + ic, or direct adaptation of French cabalistique or medieval Latin cabbalisticus.

"Yet, by the mid-seventies, when the singer-songwriter school was wearing thin and with it the whole flaccid enterprise of California rock-and-roll, people were nonetheless realizing that literature had once again become cool, suddenly, with the words 'a screaming comes across the sky,' in the mad, cabalistic invention of Gravity's Rainbow, in the fury of Donald Barthelme's unequaled experiments in short prose, in John Ashbery's poems, or in the tremendous innovative assault of the Living Theater (a pride of New York artists walks into a theatrical space, takes off its clothes, and just starts talking—without script or theme or character), or in the violent electric period of Miles Davis (who probably comes closer, in his life's work, to embodying cool than any other single American artist)" ("About Cool", Rick Moody, 2004).

(Albero della Cabbala, Davide Tonato, 1985)

Hi all, no posts last week as I was trying to cram in as much fourteenering as possible whilst the warm weather held out. Managed to bag 3 of them (although 2 were ones I had already climbed). Anyways, it's time (a day late, actually) to announce the winner of this week's contest. It's...jos xx! She wrote:
As she waited anxiously on the huge velvet chair, she still couldn’t believe it. A personal invitation from the Count had arrived to her earlier in the morning, while she was happily singing over a large tin pan, containing a sort of olla podrida that had appeared on the table for the past three days. She was poor, she had nothing to offer to this noble man, what did he want from her? While she was lost in her deepest thoughts, they curled her hair, polished her neck with some fragrant powder, and they would have added a soupcon of rouge if she had not rebelled. She was then taken to a large hall, filled with large chandeliers and delicious wine, and while she stood rooted on the spot, she could easily feel all eyes on her. A music program developed under the aegis of a short chubby man opened the big dances and suddenly everyone was following an amazing waltz pattern. She looked away, through the large windows instead, and even in the darkness she could easily recognize the Count’s handsome figure walking rapidly through the fecundity of his enchanting garden while hailing at his youngest daughter with a sort of avuncular jocularity. If it wasn’t for the lad who insisted to dance with her, she would have have stayed there, staring outside the windows...all night.
Well done, jos. One more victory and you'll be the first big winner! But let's actually take a week-long hiatus from the contest, considering that I didn't post any words. As always, thanks for reading!