Some words for the wise

I have a confession to make: I am a wordaholic. Give me a definition to find in a dictionary, and I read the book. It’s the greatest story ever told. I collect books about origins of words and phrases, always follow the etymological explanations and usage quotes in the dictionaries: and take a long time to get on with my work. Better, with a deadline, to misspell a word. If I have to look up a map, I go to the gazetteer to discover the funny names of places some people live in.

So when I pulled down one of my old favourites the other day, I wondered if it would still cast its spell, or simply provide an answer. Don’t you hate it when you reread some favourite book and think, “what did I ever see in that?” Best to leave it unreread. But how great it is if the book still grabs your attention.


The book in question now is The Superior Person’s Little Book of Words by Peter Bowler, which culls other more obscure dictionaries for shouldn’t be obsolete words. I am a superior person, and I need to know words that inferior persons don’t, although I often notice they tend not to listen to what I say. Pearls before swine (now where did that phrase come from?) Actually there are a lot of us superior persons, but not all of us read ordinary dictionaries. So it’s not surprising that Peter Bowler’s book has been in print since 1979, and he has authored five sequels. He’s also written a book on the beliefs of Christian sectarians called True Believers which is absolutely hard to believe.

What I like about Bowler’s book is that he gives examples of the words’ use in everyday situations, and explains how the superior person can achieve great gains by the way they use words. It thus goes beyond etymology and enters the field of self help, even therapy. When you have an argument with a person in a restaurant for example who appears to know more about a subject that you thought you knew all about, you want to win, and a good way is to introduce words that he may have only a faint idea of their meaning. He’ll either start shouting, or say, “I don’t quite get what you’re driving at”, and give you the opportunity to reply “we don’t appear to be getting anywhere with this argument. Perhaps we should continue at a later date”. Known as a tactical retreat.

Similar words, different meanings quoted by Bowler: alternate/alternative, obliquity/obloquy, antinomy/antimony, ataxy/a taxi, baklava/balaclava, formicate/fornicate. To which I add: etymology/entomology.

Unprounceable alternative: apophthegm/epigram: ‘phth’ is really difficult to say, but it can be done. Might cause a lisp to form. Does not work as a quick retort; and you should be a reasonable distance away from the person you’re talking to.

Aposiopesis, aside from being very poetical, is the foundation of an industry, the classical detective story. It means breaking off in the middle of a story. As Sir Hugh staggers out of the library at midnight with an oriental dagger between his shoulder blades, he says, “I knew it all along! The bounder! It was…” Thud.

In a book of famous last words I read of a general visiting the trenches in WWI. Looking at the enemy position, he said, “They’ll never be able to hit…” Splat.

Another favourite is aprosexia, inability to concentrate, one of the long term effects of the use of marijuana. As Bowler says, it’s great for a sick leave form (if you can remember why you were filling it out). Not, he points out, what you do after sex. It is not therefore synonymous with sleep. As for sick leave forms, what about suffering from ergasiophobia, or aversion to work.

Aporia is an insincere speech, such as an election promise by a politician in opposition. In government, aporia takes the form of ridiculing the opposition’s election promises. This is also known as a symbiotic relationship, as in the case also where you buy the forbidden crisps and your partner eats them before you.

Barmecide (from the Arabian Nights of course. Of course!) is someone who promises and doesn’t deliver, as wives once promised to love and obey. Someone at work who gets your support for his chief manager’s job application then implies you’re incompetent when he gets the job.

Battology is continual repetition of a word, eventually for it to lose it’s meaning, as when you continually say “Yes dear” to your spouse’s reproaches.

Boondoggle is to carry out trivial or unnecessary work so as to appear busy, as a public servant going through the Pending tray, or soldiers digging a trench and then filling it in (the soldiers’ view: the command actually think this activity is important, so find out what side they’re on in the next war and join the other).

Bully for you; stout fellow; splendid!; codger. All out of date colloquialisms  to be remembered for times you want to appear trendy.

Alternative words: canard/hoax; jejune/trivial; kinetosis/travel sickness. Tone up your sentences. The idea is for people to almost know what you’re talking about but not willing to ask for clarification.

Words to be careful of: carbuncle means both an abscess and a precious stone; ephemeral means short lasting, but doesn’t mean of no consequence; henotheism means either there is one god, but not that god is the only god – and if that’s not confusing enough, it can also mean that god is a hen, a sect with very few followers (but quite a few chicks).

Words with no application: chrematophobia is the fear of money, perhaps an affliction of those who take literally the idea it is the root of all evil; merkin, a woman’s pubic wig  (that’s woman, w-o-m-a-n) as Muddy Waters should sing non sexistly.

We know eclectic of course, nothing to do with electricity, but a wide ranging acceptance of opinions and ideas. But what about ephectic, sceptical?

Oniomania is an uncontrollable urge to buy things, including, I suppose, onions. People suffer from it when they truly believe they were born to shop and then find they can’t pay their bills.

One of my favourites is oxymoron, a word in common circulation, yet many feel it has something to do with oxen doing something stupid. Or was it stupid people acting like oxen? Forget to remember that.

Bowler also has advice on verbiage such as: paradigm, infrastructure, matrix…well, it’s a long list. His advice is to ask innocently, “Do you really mean (that word) in the context we’re speaking of?” As most people don’t know what these words really mean (except Matrix fans) you’re bound to confuse.

And to end with perhaps my favourite Superior Person’s word: pejorative, for derogatory. I’ve noticed I use it quite a bit (and have become a bit hazy about derogatory).

Bowler’s book is still a highly regarded part of my collection, and highly recommended for those fascinated with words, how they sound, and how their meanings are subtly shifting even as we speak.


Did you know that William Shakespeare contributed more than 2,000 words to the English language, more than any other person?

OUP have a fascinating title, Origins of Words and Phrases, reissued by Readers Digest. In it I learn that alcohol is really al-kohl, eye make up. No, it doesn’t make you drunk if you consume it. Though the phrase ‘pie-eyed’ is suggestive. And there seems a connection somehow between a hangover and eye shadow. A definite penumbra.

Did you know that aloof is originally steering a ship  ‘to windward’, loof being a form of luff. A loofa of course helps you steer through your shower, but has no connection with loof. Loof in fact seems to be a wasted insult: I know several people I could call a loof (but they wouldn’t understand). A kind of backward fool. Of course these same people call me aloof, which is something much more superior.

They had me over a barrel refers to Royal Navy practice: sailors were once tied over a water cask when whipped (with a cat of nine tails) as a disciplinary measures; and that’s where they ended up if they fell in the water from the yard arm (most sailors couldn’t swim). They were hauled on board, put over a barrel and the water squeezed from their lungs.

Don’t cast your pearls before swine is good advice from the gospel of St Matthew. They’ll only trample them underfoot. The Jews didn’t think highly of swine. St Matthew also contributed shake the dust off your feet, go elsewhere if not appreciated.

I’ve always wanted to know where Boxing Day came from. In 19th century Britain well off households collected money throughout the year in an earthenware box, and on the day after Christmas Day the box was opened by breaking it, and the money distributed as a gift to servants and tradespeople connected with the family. More appropriately unboxing day. A bit like breaking the (piggy) bank.

When you have recourse to chocolate you’re going back to 18th century England, where it was a newly fashionable drink. Before that it was consumed by the Aztecs, who called it, in nahuatl, their language, chocolatl, food made from cacao, or cocoa, seeds. (Should that be cocoatl?)

A deadline was a prison borderline. If you were caught outside that line, the guards shot to kill.

To denigrate is to blacken someone’s character, from Latin for black, niger. Not to be used by the rigidly political correct speaker, who can’t understand why Afro Americans don’t refer to each other as such.

Devil is Greek diabolos, or accuser. On judgment day he’s the advocate who tries to prove you’re not worthy of entering heaven. Nothing to do with evil. Lucifer was once a rebellious vassal of the Great King of Persia, then the name of the chief of the angels who rebelled against god in the Jewish scriptures (perhaps just after they cohabited with the daughters of men). Satan (Shaitan) is the adversary, the opponent of god. All three eventually became one, an infernal trinity.

I was interested to find that fillip meant boost, or surge (often of joy), but before that it signified a mere flick of the finger.

Flotsam and jetsam is a legal term: the first word signifies material from a wreckage thrown up on shore; the second word signifies material thrown overboard and abandoned, then washed up on shore.

Nice is a word often derided as overused, bland and boring. How nice to find it has a colourful (and nice) history. It originally meant, in medieval times,  foolish, or ignorant, then progressed to mean dissolute, ostentatious, cowardly, and then developed the meaning delicate, fragile, before, in the 16th century, coming to mean fine or subtle. Finally in the 18th century it came to mean kind and pleasant. Nothing whatsoever to do with the French town of Nice, in case you were wondering.

Both pagan and heathen come from Latin words meaning rustic, of the countryside. They are supposed to have acquired the meaning ‘non Christian’ in the fourth century AD, when followers of the old religion were scattered about rural areas while Christians now were concentrated in urban centres and held the official administrative positions of the state.

Beyond the pale goes back to Roman legionary practice. The soldiers when making camp first constructed a surrounding ditch, behind which a rampart of wooden stakes, a kind of fence (made of palings, L. palus, pali, wooden posts) defined the area of the camp, which whenever possible contained the source of a well or stream. Beyond the pale were enemies, barbarians. The editors at OUP didn’t know this: I found it in a book by Alfred Duggan.

Play it again Sam is the title of a Woody Allen film, and many people think the title is a misquotation from Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman says “Play it, Sam”, in that movie, and Allen, because his movie is about how he comes to relive the plot of Casablanca, made up the title of his film accordingly.

Propaganda meant promotion or publicising from the 16th to the mid 19th century, when it first acquired the meaning of spreading false information.

Throw in the towel originally happened in bare fist boxing, which normally went on till one contestant was unconscious. However the trainer might preserve his man for another contest by conceding the match (and losing the handicap). To do so he threw the towel, which he used to wipe off the blood and sweat from his boxer’s face and eyes, into the centre of the ring and stopped the match. The expression ‘towel up’ meant to thrash, so to down towel would have been to give up.

To confound anti discriminants comes this origin for woman. In Old English the word was wifmon, made up from wif=woman, and mon or man=person. Wif or wife came to be specialised, a married woman, otherwise known as a mistress ie in charge of the household. The husband was master. Female is from Latin femella, diminutive of femina; male is from Latin mas, male.

Serendipity was a word invented by Horace Walpole in 1754. He mentioned in a letter it was derived from the title of a fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip”, an old name for Sri Lanka. The three princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. If that doesn’t sum up the way this essay was written I’ll have to look up another dictionary.

The OUP title is more serious and comprehensive than Bowler, not as entertaining, but you can spend days reading it.


Another word book I find endlessly fascinating is Neaman and Silver’s Dictionary of Euphemisms. Euphemisms are those words you use when you want to describe something you’d rather not. They’re words to conceal, not reveal, meaning. They include sub categories of language such as slang and jargon.

So, you probably know the meaning of trouser snake, family jewels and cobblers’ awls. Technicolour yawn, explain the chain and point percy at the porcelain will be familiar to Australians, and to see a man about a dog I can remember my father saying when I was a child (I really thought that’s what he was doing, as he held a copy of the betting form in his hand when he said it).

When you’re feeling blue you might consider taking the easy way out, self deliverance, or a planned termination, but probably you wouldn’t cut the belly (otherwise known as hari kari or suppuku). Thanks to Raymond Chandler you may sleep the big sleep or say the long goodbye.

Terminological inexactitude leads to the underground economy until eventually it looks like rain (lies to hide income lead to an arrest).

It gets really interesting in the section on government speak. Benign neglect (ignore the problem and it might go away); cross cultural communication (means the same as face to face dialogue, meaningful exchange of ideas, or conversation, at least according to a reliable source). In the early stages of finalisation is unfinished, semi finalised is half finished and finalisation is finished. People on benefits are negative savers, a grey area is a depressed market not yet requiring government assistance. Job turning is erosion of prestige and salary levels when a job becomes non discriminatory eg available to female as well as male applicants. Personnel ceiling reductions are staff cutbacks. Sensitive news becomes managed news (censored by government) in the interests of law and order (police and military intervention).

Nuclear power is a government hot potato. The easiest way is not to mention it at all. So an energy release is nuclear radiation. Hazardous waste sites are nuclear waste sites. Counter force weapons and countervalue weapons are nuclear weapons used against people and structures respectively. Collateral damage is unintended killing of civilians in a nuclear attack – Sorry! First and second strike capabilities are nuclear ones (a second nuclear offensive is probably an illusion, though an extremely expensive one).

Democracy is good, dictatorship is bad, so what’s dictatorship of the people? Is representative democracy better than direct democracy? How about people’s democracy? (the US system, ancient Athenian system and the one to be ushered in by the USSR dictatorship of the Party, which never made it).

Does an anti personnel mine sound safer than a mine designed to kill a human being? The device explodes at waist level and sends thousands of iron shards into the upper body, a human shredding device. To pacify, better still, to liberate, sounds better than to invade another country. And just how do you distinguish between terrorists and freedom fighters?

This last section is of words used in the government of countries by elected representatives and their servants. The real problem, unless I’m an alarmist, is that words and meanings in this sector have finally parted company. To mean what you say has always had a moral value, even if we aren’t very good at its practice. But here to not mean what you say is the desired object.

There are many similar books to these last two I mention. All can be browsed through with profit. The exercise brings several things to my mind about words (and meanings).

1. To feel strongly about something should inspire you to speak or write of it.

2. To know your subject should enable you to describe it justly.

3. To know your audience is to understand how to address them.

4. To recognise their response to what you say should enable you to modify your discourse without falsity.

It seems to me at least that to do one of these four things is a good definition of a waste of time. All four need to be practised at the same time to be effective. The only exception I can think of is a blog, which is a kind of diary where the writer speaks to themselves.

Words are like music, they have a rhythm and a history, and carry around  tones and overtones, associations from their past, just as people do. The way a word relates to its meaning is complex, and that’s what these books mentioned have shown me.


Here is a kind of appendix, on funny place names, from Gregorys Guide to NSW of 1965.

I have a relative who lived in Sunny Corner, a town in NSW Australia on the way to Bathurst. Just to the north is Dark Corner. I imagined someone bought up in Rose Lane, Sunny Corner. Would they be more optimistic than someone who lived on Gloom Street, Dark Corner? There’s a place called Dumpe, another called Backwater, just north of Armidale. How honest is calling a town by those names? There’s also a place called Bland. Another town is called Bunglegumble; then there’s Tumblegum,  and Mummelgum near Casino. Lilli Pilli is near Sydney, Lost River near Goulburn (wonder if they get their mail?),  Merrywinebone near Walgett, Pokataroo (where I once lived for a short while), Quandary, and Wait-a-while.

This is just what caught my eye in NSW (thank god you say), but it conjures up the early settlers in this state, their meeting with Aboriginal peoples, the many places that tried and never made it, and the gumption of the early settlers in just getting down and making things work. And that’s another story.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.  


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