Category Archives: Words

There’s a Word for That: Zemblanity

alex atkins bookshelf wordsNo doubt, you’ve heard of the word, “serendipity.” It’s a wonderful word — both in sound and meaning. The word means “finding something valuable or interesting by chance” or “a fortunate or unexpected discovery by accident.” The word was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in a letter to his friend Horace Mann. In the letter, Walpole references the characters from a Persian fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip”: “[The princes were] always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Richard Boyle, a Sri Lankan English consultant of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), argues that the definition of serendipity as “simple accidental discovery” is a watered-down definition of the word. Boyle writes: “Even the OED definition, ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident,’ does not meet Walpole’s prescription of a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity [good judgment] while in pursuit of something else. These ingredients are cumulative and all should be mentioned in the ideal dictionary definition.” [emphasis added]

Zemblanity, on the other hand, is the antonym of serendipity. The definition of zemblanity is making unhappy, unlucky and unexpected discoveries by intent rather than by chance. The word was coined by William Boyd in his novel Armadillo published in 1998. The word is derived from Nova Zembla (meaning “new land”), a frigid, barren land; specifically an archipelago of islands once used for nuclear testing by the Russians. Incidentally, the word is pronounced “zem BLA ni tee.” Here is Boyd’s introduction of the word: “So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.”

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For further reading: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090726/Plus/sundaytimesplus_24.html


There’s a Word for That: Thrasonical

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you have ever listened to a world-class narcissist speak (consider Kanye West or Donald Trump) you are very familiar with thrasonical speech. Thrasonical, as you may have surmised from the previous sentence, means “boastful” or “vainglorious.” More specifically, it means “resembling, or relating to, or characteristic of Thraso. “Who the hell is Thraso?” you ask. “Is it one of the new Marvel superheroes? Or perhaps it is one of their nemeses?” Nice try, but no; however he is a fictional character. Thraso appears in the comedy Eunuchus (The Eunuch) written around 2 BC by Terence (c. 185-1509 BC), a slave who was freed and emerged as one of Rome’s most notable playwrights. The play centers on forbidden love between Phaedria, a young Athenian man from a good family, and Thais, a courtesan (a fancy way of saying “prostitute”) from a foreign land. One of the individuals who indirectly thwarts their relationship is Thraso, a warrior and slave owner, who is an insufferable, ostentatious braggart. The word, pronounced “thray SON i kul,” is derived from the Greek word thrasos, meaning “bold” or “spirited.”

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Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
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What is an Archaism?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you have read the Bible, Shakespeare, or legal documents you have encountered them time and time again. Consider the well-known commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” or Polonius’ advice to Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” or the wedding vow, “With this ring I thee wed.” Which words seem to stand out in the context of contemporary language? I mean, who even speaks like that any more? There are four words that immediately capture our attention: “thou,”  “shalt,” “thine,” and “thee.” A word or a style of writing (or speech) that belongs to an earlier time is known as an archaism (from the Greek archaikos meaning “antiquated” or “ancient”). These antiquated words or phrases, also known as archaic diction, remain in the modern lexicon because they are kept alive by continued use, such as in literature and poetry, as well as legal and religious rituals. Here are some common archaisms we encounter in our daily lives:

albeit

aye

erstwhile

fealty

hath

heretofore

saith

shalt

thee

thine

thou

thy

thyself

whereas

wherefore

whereof

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World of Allusions: Moby Dick

alex atkins bookshelf words“All of us run into (and sometimes use) [allusions], these sideways references that are intended to add color and vigor to language. But they are lost on us if we have forgotten or never knew what they mean,” writes Elizabeth Webber, co-editor of the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions. So that invites the question, when one encounters an allusion in a publication or book, where do we look it up? Most dictionaries, of course, only provide very precise definitions of discrete words, excluding phrases and allusions. Enter the Dictionary of Allusions, which is an absolutely incredible reference work; Webber describes it as “a collection of those tricky allusions that appear without accompanying explanations in our daily reading… The terms come from literature, sports, mythology, Wall Street, history, headlines, Shakespeare, politics, science, standup comics and Sunday comics, and venues from the locker room to the board room.” Today we will turn our attention to the allusion “Moby Dick.”

Many will recognize the title of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick, considered the Great American Novel, published in 1851. And they may be familiar with its basic plot, told by Ishmael, the sole survivor of the voyage aboard the whaling ship the Pequod: Captain Ahab obsessively pursues the great white whale, Moby-Dick, seeking revenge for the whale that took his leg many years before. In the novel, Moby-Dick functions as a symbol on many levels: cetological, religious, philosophical, ontological, epistemological — to name a few. Similarly, as an allusion, Moby Dick refers to one of several general meanings: the incarnation of evil, an obsessive, perhaps impossible quest (that may result in the pursuer’s death), a representation of God (hidden, mysterious, unknowable, inscrutable), and finally, a representation of unknowable truth or reality.

Now you understand why Moby-Dick is a whale of a tale…

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There’s a Word for That: Palinoia

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWe have all heard that timeless adage “practice makes perfect” a hundred times. Well, did you know there is a more sophisticated way of saying it? The word is palinoia: the compulsive repetition of an act, over and over, until  the act is performed perfectly. Think of the athlete training for the Olympics or a pianist practicing a difficult piece of music. The word is pronounced “pa-li-NOY-ah.” The word is derived from the Latin word palinodia which means “repetition” or “singing over again.” So the next time someone shares that old chestnut, turn to them nonchalantly and ask, “Oh, you mean palinoia, don’t you?”

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There’s a Word for That: Euphuism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s one of those words that evokes a double-take: did you say euphemism or euphuism? Is euphuism even a word? Yes – despite spellcheck’s very annoying tendency to autocorrect to “euphemism” euphuism is a seldomly used word that means a very elaborate or roundabout way of speaking or writing. Consider it a fancier way of saying overly wordy.

It’s a fascinating word when you examine its etymology. The word is an eponym (a noun formed after a person), named after the main character from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a romance published in 1578 by English writer and playwright John Lyly. That book was followed by a sequel, Euphues and His England published a year later. There is a specific reason that Lyly chose the name Euphues — it is based on the Greek word euphues, meaning “well-endowed by nature,” which in turn is derived from eu (meaning “well”) and phue (meaning “growth”).

Before prurient adolescent minds get carried away by the word “well-endowed” realize that 16th century writers did not mean its modern slang meaning (“having a large penis” — there, I said it; get over it). Rather, it meant that an individual had many talents. In the case of our friend Euphues, here is a character who didn’t act in porn films due to the aforementioned distinct anatomical feature; instead, he was able to speak in very long, ornate sentences. His speech was also distinctive in that he often spoke in sentences with parallel structure. Here are two examples:

“It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.”

“A sharp sore hath a short cure.”

While most modern readers are quite unfamiliar with Lyly, almost everyone has encountered him — but they just didn’t know it. How is that possible? Lyly was an influence on the greatest dramatist in the English language: William Shakespeare. Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard not only read Lyly, who was the source of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also satirized him in the ornate, fancy speeches of Beatrice and Benedick (yet again, another penis reference) in Much Ado About Nothing, the lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Polonius in the Tragedy of Prince Hamlet. So there.

Related terms are circumlocution, periphrasis, grandiloquence, purple prose, wordy, and sesquipedalian.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
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What Is “Mrs.” Short For?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMost people know the “Mrs.” is the title (“honorific” or “form of address” in linguistics jargon) used for married women. But what most people don’t know is that “Mrs.” is not an abbreviation of anything. Surprising, but true! It is never spelled out in written form; however, it is spelled out phonetically as “missis,” “missus,” or “missess” when it appears as dialogue. “How can this be?” you ask incredulously. For the answer to this linguistic mystery we need to travel back into time more than six centuries. Hold on tight…

We have arrived in the mid-1400’s, when a married woman is addressed as “mistress,” the feminine form of “master.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the earliest recorded use in 1463. Over time, “mistress” is abbreviated as “Mrs.” Now let’s fast forward 300 years.

Arriving in late 1700s, we discover for reasons that are not entirely clear, that “Mrs.” is no longer pronounced as “mistress” but rather as “missus” — this change is perhaps analogous to the great Vowel Shift of the 14th century. Therefore, in the 18th century, a married woman is introduced as “Missis Jane Smith” rather than as “Mistress Jane Smith.”

Fast forward once again — more than a century later and we discover that the word “missus” becomes a noun. The OED records one of the earliest uses in 1833 by Charles Dickens in a private letter: “Hint this delicately to your Missus.”

Similarly, the title “Ms.” used to address a married or unmarried woman, that was introduced in 1901, does not stand for anything. It is essentially a blend of Mrs. and Miss and pronounced “mizz.” And like “Mrs.” it is never spelled out in written form. The word is used in an article in the Springfield Republican, a newspaper that was founded in 1824 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The relevant passage is: “The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz’, which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

So the next time you are out with a group of people, impress them with this fascinating bit of trivia — ask them “so what is Mrs. an abbreviation for?” However, googling the answer is not permitted. Let’s see how well they do, Missy.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English Language?
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels
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For further reading: The Oxford English Dictionary
Critical Pronouncing Dictionary by John Walker

https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/02/what-are-mrs-and-ms-short-for/


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