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AWADmail Issue 420

July 18, 2010

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

This week's Email of the Week is from John Howell (see below), who'll be able to One Up! his frenemies now.


From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Interesting stories from the net

The Language Divide, Writ Small, in Belgian Town
The New York Times

On Language, The Web Is At War With Itself
National Public Radio


Email of the Week (Courtesy One Up! - Wicked. Smart.)

From: John Howell (jhowell earlham.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--paean
Def: An expression of praise, joy, or triumph, traditionally in the form of a song.

No doubt many of your readers will smile as they recall that when the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea in 1968, its Commanding Officer, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, was forced into writing a confession. Wikipedia describes what happened: "None of the Koreans knew English well enough to write the confession, so they had Bucher write it himself. They verified the meaning of his words, but failed to catch the pun when he said "We paean the DPRK. We paean the Korean people. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung". (The word 'paean' sounds identical to the term pee on.)"


From: Graham Mays (maysg callnetuk.com)
Subject: "Post No Bills"

Your message reminds me of the political quip relating to boxes beside the roads in the UK which contain salted gravel for spreading when it's icy - "Grit for Roads - Vote for Grit".


From: Larry Israel (larry.israel weizmann.ac.il)
Subject: Comments in Your Column

You wrote "That reminds me of books, manuals, and annual reports with a "blank" page bearing the text: "This page intentionally left blank."

Years ago, because of nasty comments from nit-pickers, IBM changed to "The rest of this page intentionally left blank."


From: Barry Hurwitz (barryindy ameritech.net)
Subject: Page left blank

I always got a laugh out of the "This page intentionally left blank", which appeared regularly in IBM hardware and software manuals. But I became thoroughly confused when I received a document with this statement on front cover: "This copy contains missing pages."


From: Mit (via Wordsmith Talk bulletin board)
Subject: This is a blank topic

I'm not sure how long this has been the case, but when I did my exams at the end of high school, the back of the cover page of the exam booklet always said "This is a blank page." We were explicitly told by our teachers not to write "not anymore" or "no it's not" on that page, as the assessor's had seen it so many times that we might put them in a bad mood. I'm not sure how much of an effect this warning had on us. Probably not much.


From: Mark Watson (mark.e.watson altria.com)
Subject: A.Word.A.Day--paean

Years ago (pre-PC) in contributing to the creation of a large technical manual I insisted that this very label NOT be used. I badgered the boss to the point that he agreed to change the disclaimer to: "This page reserved for your notes." I especially liked this since it served the dual purpose of letting the reader know that the page wasn't blank due to a misprint and it implicitly encouraged them to be more actively engaged in using the manual.


From: Alan Gasser (argasser gmail.com)
Subject: Post No Bills

Murray, Clinton, Gates, and Cosby.

Kind of a visual graffiti joke that somebody does in my hometown, Toronto. It's a stencil of those four Bills.


From: Kelli Crawford (kellisina yahoo.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--paean

Your email about 'Post No Bills' brought back a great memory for me. When I lived in NY there was construction on the Upper East Side a few blocks from my apartment. I'd always pass it on my way to the train. There were signs everywhere that said "Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted." Well, one day someone had written in magic marker "Bill Posters Is Innocent!" It still makes me laugh.


From: F.J. Bergmann (demiurge fibitz.com)
Subject: mephitic
Def: Poisonous or foul-smelling.

How could you resist mentioning that the skunk family is Mephitidae?


From: Eve Chamberlain (echamberlain njtpa.org)
Subject: Mephitic

Mephitis mephitis: the striped skunk! I had a cat once aptly named "Mephitis Jones" because she was always passing foul smelling gas.


From: Robbie Stamp (robbie stampbros.com)
Subject: Mephitic

Mephitis was originally the Samnite Goddess of fertility and the earth but when the Romans conquered Pompeii (the Samnites were the early inhabitants) in 80 BCE in a classic piece of degrading assimilation, Mephitis was turned into a goddess of swamp gas and as you say bad smells.


From: Mike Miller (asamdrmike gmail.com)
Subject: mephitic

Made me wonder -- and I was right: the devil is a poisonous, foul-smelling character.


From: Wyatt McCormack (wyattmcc yahoo.com)
Subject: Timeliness of mephitic

Mephitic is a timely word because of news reports about Lois, the Amorphophallus titanum, or Corpse Flower, blooming at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


From: Paul L. Doering (doering shands.ufl.edu)
Subject: Equipoise
Def: 1. A state of balance. 2. Something that serves as a counterbalance.

As a pharmacy professor, I find the double entendre of this week's word, equipoise, to be interesting. In addition to the definition discussed, this was the name given a champion thoroughbred racehorse (1928-1938), a chestnut bred in the United States by Harry Payne Whitney and owned by his son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Reportedly, he was called the Chocolate Soldier by his fans, owing to his elegance and symmetry -- living up to his name.

More commonly, Equipoise is recognized as the brand name of a veterinary anabolic steroid (boldenone) used to produce weight gain in horses. Looking at the roots of the word, one is tempted to break it down this was: Equus (Latin for horse) and poise (for weight or weight gain in this instance).

Type in the word "equipoise" in any search engine and you will be flooded with opportunities to buy this horse drug for use in human bodybuilding and other athletic pursuits.

Whoever suggested this name for a drug that boosts the weight of horses was either a linguaphile or the double meaning was serendipitous.


From: Jeanne Goessling (jeanne goessling.com)
Subject: Fun with etymology

Equipoise: A self-assured horse
Equidistant: A far-off horse
Equivocal: A talking horse
Equinox: A nightmare
Equilibrium: An equine book collection.


From: Katie Geissinger (katie.geissinger gmail.com)
Subject: equipoise

In the musical Guys and Dolls, one of the guys is betting on a horse named Epitaph (to win it "by a half"):

"And just a minute boys,
I've got the feed box noise,
It says the great grandfather was Equipoise."

Bet he had an even gait.


From: Dr Sandhya Ramachandran (sandyparthi gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--risible
Def: 1. Laughable; ludicrous. 2. Disposed to laugh. 3. Relating to laughter.

I should tell you that my vocabulary improved by leaps and bounds ever since I joined medical school. I remembered many medical conditions by relating to the root of the word. Risus sardonicus is one such term. Here I quote from Wikipedia:

"Risus sardonicus is a highly characteristic, abnormal, sustained spasm of the facial muscles that appears to produce grinning. The name of the condition derives from the appearance of raised eyebrows and an open 'grin' -- which can appear malevolent to the lay observer -- displayed by those suffering from these muscle spasms."


From: Arthur Lebowitz, MD (grampsalot nyc.rr.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--risible

Your featuring of risus and risible reminded me of the first time I saw pictures of and read the description of the typical facial features of tetanus, called "risus sardonicus". I was a second-year medical student (some 47 years ago) and was both frightened as well as fascinated by what later stage tetanus was capable of doing. The sardonicus adjectival seems to refer to the ritual killing of the elderly in Sardinia by the feeding of an extract of a plant that had a neurotoxin that led to paralysis and death by asphyxiation.

The even fiercer spasms of the whole body with the back arched, called "opisthotonus" is another interesting word, derived from Greek.


From: Lorie Vallejo (loredith_joy yahoo.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--folderol
Def: 1. Nonsense; foolishness. 2. A trifle; gewgaw.

As a huge Neil Gaiman fan, I was delighted to learn this word. In his short story, Troll Bridge, the line "Fol rol de ol rol" is repeated many times. I had always assumed the line to just mean "Follow the old road". I didn't know it was also a play on the word folderol, the etymology as stated in AWAD of which is "From a nonsense refrain in some old songs."

I posted the link on Facebook and my friend Steve commented that Old traditional folk singers had a habit of going 'Folderol De Do Da Day' and 'Hey Nonny Nonny' for reasons unknown.


From: Mary L. Stewart (indiansmary aol.com)
Subject: folderol

My father often sang me to sleep in the 1920s with a song about a woman who "went to market all on a summer's day, fol rol, diddle diddle dol." The song tells how she fell asleep; a peddler came along and cut her petticoats "all 'round about"; up she jumped and ran home, with many repetitions of fol, rol, diddle diddle dol.


From: LD Lombardo (ldlombardo gmail.com)
Subject: Folderol and fiddle-dy-dee

Rogers and Hammerstein does it again in the lyrics for IMPOSSIBLE from their musical version of CINDERELLA:

"Impossible, for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage.
Impossible, for a plain country bumpkin and a prince to join in marriage,
And four white mice will never be four white horses!
Such fol-der-ol and fid-dle-dy dee of course, is--- Impossible!
But the world is full of zanies and fools
Who don't believe in sensible rules
And won't believe what sensible people say.
And because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes,
Impossible things are happening every day."

Oh, the vocabulary American songwriters have introduced to me over my lifetime!


From: Laurie Kincaid (lauriechef juno.com)
Subject: folderol

You are really milking Guys & Dolls this week, "folderol" of course being in the lyrics of the title song. What a great show! Thanks so much for such a fun musical week!


A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension. -Ezra Pound, poet (1885-1972)
This week's theme
Miscellaneous words

This week's words
paean
mephitic
equipoise
risible
folderol

Next week's theme
Words that look one part of speech but are other

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