Thursday, 28 February 2013



Noun. L19.
[from Greek auxein increase + -OLOGY]

The study of growth and development; spec. in MEDICINE, the study of physical growth and development in humans on the basis of measurements such as height, weight, and rate of growth.

Amateur auxology is a growing field (I know - I apologise profusely). As someone that is very tall, I'm regularly asked questions about my height. You're very tall, aren't you? How tall are you exactly? Have you always been tall? Were you the tallest in your school? What's the weather like up there? Etc, etc. Oh it never gets tiresome at all.

It's bizarre that most feel free to comment at length on a tall person's height, but the inverse is generally not acceptable. Most would never say to a short person: My word, you're short! How short are you exactly? Do you mind if I sit down while we talk because I'm tall and you're short and it's giving me a bad back? Etc etc. 

Why is this? It's not because all tall people are fine with being tall and all short people aren't; many tall people, particularly if they have a shy disposition, can be very self-conscious about their height. It could be a cultural prejudice, the notion that being tall is somehow better than being short, something desirable, and therefore it's perfectly acceptable to comment on it. 

Whatever the reasons (and if you have any theories, please do share them in the comments section), auxology itself is rather interesting, even if constantly answering inane questions about your own height is not. Did you know, for example, that:
Do you have any other interesting facts or stories about human growth, development and measurement? If so, do tell!

PS Added on 01/03/13:
For fellow tall people, there seems to an interesting book by the author Arianne Cohen, "The Tall Book: A Celebration From Life On High." I haven't read it, but it's got good reviews on Amazon and has just made my wish-list!

The assertion above that "tall people earn more" has drawn comment (see the comments section) as there also seems to be research that indicates women slightly below average height earn more. Thanks to Bibi for passing on that information. Bibi has also written a very entertaining blog post on the subject entitled "Why Do Tall Women Love Little Men? & Other Questions" which is well worth a read. 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013


'Downstream Autumn' by Chris Marshall of Scoops Images


Adjective. L16.
[Latin autumnalis, from autumnus autumn]

1 Of or pertaining to autumn; characteristic of or appropriate to autumn; maturing or blooming in autumn. L16.

2 fig. Past the prime of life; in decline. E17.

Autumnal is a deeply sensuous word. It encapsulates everything that is so richly beautiful about autumn itself: the striking colours and contrasts, the fragrant scents and the allure of change hanging in the cool air. To describe something with the adjective autumnal is to convey upon it one of the most elegant words in the English language. Even in its second sense, that of being in decline, autumnal carries a distinguished venerability and elegance.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013


No lizards were autotomised during the taking of this photo (I think, anyway; ask Iker Cortabarria - he took it)


Noun. L19.
[Greek auto-, from autos self + -tomia, from -tomos cutting, from temnein to cut]

ZOOLOGY. The casting off of a part of the body by some animals (e.g. lizards, crabs) as a means of escape.

At some point, we've probably all taken an innocent interest in a lizard or some other reptile, only for the poor thing to subsequently shed its tail and scamper off with a bloody stump, leaving us thinking: "Oh yeah! I forgot lizards do that."

This is autotomy; some lizards do it, but also some geckos, skinks, salamanders, octupi, crabs, brittle stars, lobsters and spiders. It's a self-defense and anti-predator mechanism, relying on the predator taking more of an interest in the autotomised (and expendable) body part than in the full prey itself; some shed parts (such as tails) even continue to wriggle and twitch in order to keep the predator's attention. Interestingly, in the case of a lizard that can perform autotomy of its tail, it has specific fracture points in the skeletal structure of the tail in order to facilitate easy shedding. 

In many such creatures, autotomised body parts do regenerate (a field of interest to scientists with regards the human body's capability to perhaps regenerate lost parts). This regeneration is even used commercially in the practice of declawing crabs. Basically, crabs are caught, have their claws pulled off, and are then returned to the water. The thinking is that, as the crabs will regenerate their claws, this is a system of sustainable fishing. The practice is controversial, however, as crabs (in test conditions) have a higher mortality rate after being declawed and it's unknown how much stress, pain or suffering it inflicts on the crab.

For a less grisly and altogether more psychedelic anti-predator mechanism, it's worth reading up on aposematism too. 

Monday, 25 February 2013

Autoscopy - A Little Self-Reflection

Autoscopy, Negative autoscopy


Noun. Late 19th century.
[Greek autos self + skopia observation, from skopein examine, look at]

Viewing or examination of oneself; a hallucination of viewing one's own body.

I experienced an autoscopy once in which I floated out of my sleeping body and looked down upon myself from the top corner of the room. I even watched myself turn in the bed, surprised to physically feel the sensation of turning in my completely immaterial self. 

There's nothing particularly unusual about my experience, of course, and I've no doubt at all that it was just a particularly vivid dream. Out-of-body experiences have fascinated humans since time immemorial, and although some still put such experiences down to occult or spiritual phenomena, it's generally accepted in mainstream science that there are rational explanations, such as it being a type of hallucination brought about by such diverse factors as brain injury, sleep disorders or deprivation or some other psychological or neurological reason. 

What is particularly bizarre is an apparent condition called a negative autoscopy, or occasionally Maartechen Syndrome. This is a psychological condition in which the sufferer is unable to see their own reflection in mirrors or other reflective surfaces, even though the person's reflection is (of course) normal to everyone else. It is apparently extremely rare, and is described in Jan Dirk Blom's Dictionary of Hallucinations as a type of cognitive hallucination. 

Have you ever experienced an autoscopy?

Do you suffer from negative autoscopy?

Do please leave your most reflective comments in the box below.

Sunday, 24 February 2013


Some eggs. You'll have to make up the relevence in your own time. 


Adjective. E19. 
[Greek autoskhediastikos, from autoskhediazein act or speak extempore, from autoskhedios personally near, off-hand]

Done on the spur of the moment, improvised.

Bam! Right ... in keeping with the spirit of autoschediastic, I'm going to write this entry completely autoschediastically (I'm not completely sure that autoschediastically is really a word, but it would not be in keeping for me to go and check it now). So what can I say about it? Umm ... well, if I ever release an album of improvised jazz numbers, I will call it 'AutoschEDDIEastic'. It's a workable pun, it contains my name, and it conveys the improvised nature of the music within. It's also evidence that autoschedism (again probably not a word, so don't use it in any thesis you're writing) doesn't always work, or at least only works for those that are good at it. 

Do you have any autoschediastic horror stories? Do tell in the comments section below.  

Saturday, 23 February 2013


Leo de V: looking all smug and self-educated


Noun. M18.
[from Greek autodidaktos self-taught]

A person who is self-taught.

I'm an autodidact, and I dare say you're an autodidact too.  We're in good company. Just about every field of human endeavor has its share of celebrated autodidacts. Perhaps the most celebrated of them all is the utterly inimitable and all-round smartypants Leonardo da Vinci, who seems to have been self-taught in a number of the fields he engaged in. Other suggested autodidacts are Bill Gates, Terry Pratchett, Jimi Hendrix and the Wright Brothers.

While we may not have become one of the world's richest men, greatest authors, revolutionised music or invented human flight, if we've ever taught ourselves an instrument, a language, a craft or any other skill, to whatever degree (and I struggle to think that there's anyone who hasn't), we can count ourselves as one from among The Great Pantheon of Autodidacts.

Friday, 22 February 2013


Director, Film making, Producer, Hollywood, Horror, Classic, Black and white,


Noun. M20.
[French = AUTHOR]

A film director who so greatly influences the films directed as to be able to rank as their author.

Think of a classic film like Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock directed it, Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay, and Robert Bloch wrote the novel. So the question is: who really is the film's author?

According to Auteur Theory, if a director has complete creative control over a film and through such fundamentals as camera angles, scene length, lighting and the final edit has put his own personal stamp on the piece, then he is the work's author, rather than other writers involved or, crucially, the author of the original screenplay or book.

This is understandably a very contentious matter, as film-making is such a collaborative effort. Even if one accepts the premise of auteur theory, it's a matter of debate as to whether a particular director qualifies to be classed as an auteur; the internet is rife with discussions over who is and who isn't. Some seem to be accepted as auteurs without question, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton, both of whose films carry instantly recognisable styles, themes and motifs. Others, like James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg, can be the subjects of lively debate.  

Thursday, 21 February 2013



Adjective. Late 16th century.
[French, or Latin auspicium taking omens from birds, from avis bird + var. stem of specere look + -OUS]

1 Propitious; favourable, favouring; conducive to success. L16

2 Giving or being an omen;
specifically of good omen, betokening success. E17

B Of a person: predicting or prognosticating good. E18

3 Prosperous, fortunate. E17

Auspicious was requested by one of Lexicolatry's readers who remembers discovering it while reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and thus became one of her favourite words. This struck a chord with me because I specifically remember highlighting auspicious the very first time I read the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, as its etymology is fascinating. Apparently, the taking omens from birds was a big thing in times past, particularly with the Romans. This doesn't strike a chord with me, as I always find flocks of birds directly above my head to be a markedly inauspicious occurrence.

I'm sure there any many examples in art and literature of birds betokening success. The one that immediately springs to mind is that of the dove auspiciously returning to Noah's Ark with the olive leaf in its beak. If anyone can think of any others, please leave examples in the comments section. Thank you to Chloe Antonia for suggesting the word.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013



Adjective. Rare. L18. 
[from Latin aurum gold + -vorus from vorare devour]

Consuming gold; avidly desirous of gold.

While part of gold's peculiarity is that it's edible to humans, I'm yet to come across any creature, human or otherwise, that could literally be described as aurivorous. Gold leaf has traditionally been used for decorative purposes in food, particularly with high-end luxury foods and most notably in confectionery. Even now, various alcoholic drinks are available with small flakes of gold suspended in them, two examples being Gold Strike and Goldwasser. For those that like to pore over the ingredients of everything they eat, gold's E-number is E-175.

In a less literal sense, there have been some remarkably nasty aurivorous executions throughout history. Roman Emperor Valerian and the Spanish Bishop Vincente de Valverde are both said to have had molten gold poured down their throats as punishment for excessive greed.

The second application of aurivorous, that of being avidly desirous of gold, is more easily applicable. Auric Goldfinger (whose first name means of or pertaining to gold), the infamous gold-obsessed Bond villain, immediately springs to mind. He also used gold to execute his enemies, as in the iconic scene where Bond discovers Goldfinger's secretary, Jill Masterson, painted from head to toe in gold, dead from "skin suffocation." The numerous gold rushes throughout history (and continuing in present day) could also be described as aurivorous. In fact, due to the bizarre relationship that humans have with gold, in this sense we are very much an aurivorous species.  

Yes it's complete nonsense, but it still made an iconic cinematic scene

Tuesday, 19 February 2013



Noun. Rare. E17.
[Latin aurigatio(n-), from aurigat- pa. ppl. stem of aurigare, from auriga a charioteer]

The action or art of driving a chariot or coach.

The next time you hear someone quote the "fact" that Tiger Woods was the first sportsman to earn over $1 billion, set your face to smug and your tone to derisory as you chime: "Umm .. I think you're forgetting about Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who just so happened to have pipped Tiger to that post by nearly 2000 years!"

Diocles skills of aurigation were such that, during his 24-year career as a Roman chariot racer, he earned the equivalent of $15 billion. He retired at the age of 42, which was a feat in itself as chariot racing was a decidedly deadly business. It had been an Olympic sport in the time of the Greeks, one of the few events where the athletes did not compete naked (for obvious reasons). The Romans never liked to miss an opportunity to make a dangerous sport even more dangerous, however, and rather than have the charioteer hold the reins like big Greek girls, they preferred to wrap the reins around themselves so that, in the event of a crash, at least the charioteer could continue to be dragged around the course, albeit without a chariot and albeit dead on completing the race. Spectators played their part too, and it was not unknown for fans to lob lumps of nail-studded lead at chariots of opposing teams. Altogether, it was a fun day out for the family, especially as admission was free to the poor. 

Without a doubt, Diocles puts Tiger in the shade. Not only does competitive aurigation make professional golf look like ... well ... golf, but Diocles' earnings make Tiger's look like beer money, and it's unlikely that he would have crashed his chariot into a tree while fleeing from his embittered wife. Go Tiger.

Monday, 18 February 2013



Noun. Early 19th century.
[medieval Latin aureitas, from aureus, from Late Latin aureatus, from aureus golden, from aurum gold]

The peculiar quality of gold.

Gold is a singularly peculiar element. It is a heavy, shiny, and exceptionally malleable metal (a single gram of gold can be beaten into a sheet of one metre squared). It is one of the least reactive elements, which is why it doesn't rust or corrode, making it ideal for coinage and jewellery. It's edible (well, it's approved and used as a food additive in its pure form - don't go tucking into your wedding ring any time soon). It has an unparalleled position in human history, traditionally prized for both its beauty and utility. Despite this, only approximately 170,000 tonnes of gold has been mined in all of human history and, because of its value, most of the gold ever mined is still in circulation today.

Perhaps my favourite fact about gold, however, lies in its extraterrestrial origins. Since gold is a heavy element, almost all of the Earth's original gold is thought to have sunk to its core during the time when the Earth was molten. The gold that humans have been using, from the crust, arrived via asteroid when the Earth had already solidified. Think of that the next time you lose an earring; that gold has travelled all the way through interstellar space, from its creation in a supernova, hitching a ride on an asteroid, eventually slamming into the Earth to be dug out, refined and crafted, only for you to lose it down the back of someone's sofa while watching the X-Factor. Nice one.

Sunday, 17 February 2013



Noun. L17.
[French from Spanish albada, from alba (= French aube) dawn]

A piece of music or a poem written to be heard at or appropriate to dawn.

Would-be suitors beware - pulling out the aubade is a risky strategy. A little pre-wooing research might be in order, just to check that she is actually a morning person. And if it does all go Pete Tong, don't even think about returning at midnight to recite your hastily composed nocturne. Or maybe you should. I don't know. Just go for it. You've probably blown it anyway. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013


"I'm with the humans on this one ... let's just wait and see what happens to all the ice ..."


Noun. M20.
[French, from attente wait, waiting]

The policy of waiting to see what happens.

The central locking on my car stopped working recently. After not much thought, I decided to adopt a policy of attentisme, an approach I've also found very effective with computer problems. It worked, and after a couple of weeks the car was inexplicably locking again. I'm currently exercising a similar approach on the broken downstairs toilet, the hole in the roof and the strange and expanding swelling on my left hand. And before I get any messages telling me how stupid I'm being, I might point out that as humans our approach to such things as climate change, deforestation, antibiotic resistance, etc, is a tacit attentisme. Suddenly the swelling on my left hand doesn't seem to be such a big thing, does it? 

Friday, 15 February 2013


Adriaen van Ostade's The Painter in his Workshop


Noun. L17.

A workshop or studio, esp. of an artist or couturier.

There is a special wonder and romance in the atelier of an artist; in its arcane instruments, abstruse mementos and unfinished sketchings. Somehow, from the seeming disorder of the discoloured pots and jars, the stiff brown rags and the ubiquitous smell of heat, dust and paint, artifacts of profound beauty emerge. The atelier itself is as much a constructed work of art as anything produced therein, because it is deeply personal to the artist, formed over time to allow the discrete fragments of the creative mind to be pulled together, shaped and refined, to offer up something deeper to enrich the world.

Do you have an atelier, be it a formal studio or a converted spare room? Please feel free to leave any comments about yours and what it means to you.

Thursday, 14 February 2013


Hassan-i Sabbah, the Grandmaster of the Order of Assassins


Noun. M16. 
[French, or medieval Latin assassinus from Arab hašîšî hasish-eater]

A person who undertakes to assassinate somebody;

Specifically (historical)
Any of a band of Ismaili Muslim fanatics in the time of the Crusades who were allegedly sent on murder errands by the Old Man of the Mountains or by later leaders.

I first came across an explanation for assassin's etymology in The Da Vinci Code. Knowing the risk of taking any "fact" in that book at face value, I looked it up in several sources and, lo and behold, there does seem to be some shred of historicity to it. Well done you, Dan Brown. 

However, things do get a little hazy, as it seems in doubt that the early assassins actually ate hasish before setting out on a mission to kill someone. Some sources claim this was actually something of a slur campaign, and the term in Arabic for hasish-eater actually meant rabble or social outcasts. Although it was in use earlier, it came to be applied to the Ismailis by those that didn't hold them in high regard, and perhaps was equivalent to branding some fringe group with extreme ideas as a bunch of potheads, whether they're on the toke or not. 

What does seem to be without doubt, however, was that there was an Order of Assassins, dating from around the First Crusade in the 11th century and lasting up until their destruction by the dastardly Mongols in 1256. This Order carried out, surprise surprise, assassinations against various targets, both Muslim and Christian. Targets were usually public figures, or those with influence, and the hits were usually carried out in public to maximise intimidation, which is pretty savvy for a bunch of stoners. They also tended to avoid harming civilians, and preferred precise, clean kills rather than widespread bloodshed, which is jolly good of them.

Lastly, although they could be roughly considered synonymous, there does seem to be a popular difference between an assassin and a hitman. Basically, an assassin in a person that kills primarily for some ideological purpose, whereas a hitman is primarily professional - they're in it for the money.

If you'd like to read more about the Order of Assassins, you can have a look at the Wikipedia page. Please note, though, that they're no longer hiring, so those interested in a career as an assassin will have to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


A young boy looks askance at a smiling woman


Adverb, adjective & verb. Late 15th century.
[Origin unknown]

A adverb & (usually predicatively) adjective. Sideways, oblique(ly);
with a side glance, asquint. 
Now chiefly figuratively. suspicious(ly), with disfavour;
especially in look askance (at). L15.

B verb trans. Turn (one's eye) aside. rare. L16.

So the aforementioned arrière-pensée is what happens in the mind and the look askance is the expression that it often carries. It would seem that the word once meant any sideward glance, but most dictionaries now agree that it generally carries a suspicious connotation. Chambers 20th Century Dictionary defines it as: to look at with disdain, disapprobation, envy or (now usually) suspicion. Askance, coupled with arrière-pensée, gives us all a powerful (and mildly alliterative) means to express our doubt, incredulity, skepticism and suspicion to the world. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013



Adjective. L15.
[Latin asininus, from asinus, ASS] 

Of or pertaining to asses; asslike; stupid, obtinate.

Once, with no qualifying remarks, and in the ubiquitous red ink that seemed to grace all of my schoolwork, a teacher branded an essay I wrote as asinine. It confused me a little bit, as I wasn't sure what asinine meant, although contextually I was fairly sure it wasn't good; the humble dictionary put any confusion to rest. The following day, the same teacher called me aside and told me he had reconsidered his estimation of my work.

"Yes," he said. "It wasn't completely asinine, but that's only because it was completely half-assed."

To this day, I don't know which one of us was more asinine: me for not seeing that coming, or him for thinking about, planning and then setting up such a bad joke. On balance, I think it was him. 

Monday, 11 February 2013


Oliver Twist, Jack Wild
The Artful Dodger as portrayed by the late Jack Wild


Adjective. Early 17th century.
[from ART old & modern French from Latin art-, ars, from a base meaning 'put together, join, fit.' + -FUL

1 Of a person, action, etc: skilful, clever, (arch); (passing into) crafty, deceitful. E17

2 Of person: learned, wise. obsolete. Only in 17

3 Of a thing: artificial, imitative, unreal. archaic E17

Artfully adverb E17Artfulness noun E18

Artful is a wonderful word, and one that has been immortalised by Dickens' character Jack Dawkins, better known as Artful Dodger, from the classic tale of Victorian inequality Oliver Twist. Dawkins is a master child pickpocket and leader of Fagin's criminal gang. It isn't only his criminal skill and cunning that has won him an immortal place as one of literature's great minor characters; he is resourceful, charming and mischievous. He is, as his nickname suggests, artful in his nefarious deeds. He is a rogue and a chancer, wily and cunning. Regardless of the morality, this is part of the reason why a quality like artful somehow drifts into being a positive quality. Yes, it's dishonest, but it's dishonesty with refinement, skill and aplomb.

Sunday, 10 February 2013



Noun. Plural pronounced same. E19.
[French, literally 'behind-thought'.]

A concealed thought or intention; an ulterior motive; a mental reservation.

This word has a number of meanings, but the most interesting aspect by far is the idea of a mental reservation; we don't really believe what someone is saying, but good manners or the occasion prevents us from airing our doubts. Instead we have an internal monologue, critiquing their stories with a series of uh-huhs, yeah rights and in your dreams. Some online dictionaries define the arrière-pensée as an unstated doubt that prevents you from accepting something wholeheartedly. It's an oh-so-familiar concept with a not-so-familiar name. 

We often have doubts that we can't air. This may be due to timidity, uncertainty about whether or not our own doubts are valid (an arrière-pensée about our arrière-pensée), or simply protocol. Someone's speech at a funeral, for example, would be a sensitive time to air an I'm-not-sure-he-was-like-that-at-all kind of objection. The boss, too, is a tricky one, and we will often err on the side of caution when he is vaunting the benefits of his most recent cost-cutting measures. A well-bitten lip is the most outward manifestation of many an arrière-pensée.

Of course, the arrière-pensée can be a product of our better judgement, despite us really wanting something to be true. After all, perhaps we really have won the Spanish lottery. Maybe this poor Nigerian businessman really does need our esteemed help in moving $20,000,000 between accounts. And maybe Svetlana, the 22-year-old Russian lingerie model we just met in an online chatroom, really is, well, a 22-year-old Russian lingerie model. As such, the humble arrière-pensée can literally reserve and preserve our life-savings and dignity.

As for its pronuncation, it's something akin to arry-err-pon-say. Make it sound French, and feel free to suggest any better ways of writing out its pronunciation. You can also listen to its pronunciation in a rather affected voice on, if you really want to nail it.

" ... and that's how I became a 22-year-old Russian lingerie model ... "
I really hope there's an almighty arrière-pensée taking place on the other side of that screen right now

Saturday, 9 February 2013


A ship's surgeon's armamentarium


Noun. Plural -ia. Late 19th century. 
[Latin = arsenal, armoury.]

The medicines, equipment, and techniques available to a medical practitioner.

Thankfully, the armamentarium of the modern doctor and paramedic has come a long way since the bone-sawing days of yore. 

Friday, 8 February 2013



Noun. Mid-19th century.
[from Greek ariston breakfast, luncheon + logos discourse]

The art or science of dining.

Thus far, we've covered a lot of culinary words in Lexicolatry, which is surprising considering we're only up to AR- in the dictionary. Aristology, the art or science of dining, is such a wonderful word because we rarely think of science being applied to food at all, but of course it undeniably is. A scientific approach to cooking is exemplified in the entirely self-taught British chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of the famous Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire. Blumenthal has been dubbed a molecular gastronomist for his scientific approach to the cooking; some of his signature methods include ultra-slow cooking, the use of vacuum jars for aeration and catering for a multi-sensory dining experience (in which all of the senses are catered for rather than just taste and smell). He has been awarded a number of honorary degrees for his work and has collaborated with numerous scientists, including physicists and psychologists. 

Have a look at the Fat Duck's website and prepare yourself for an aristological treat. Perhaps you'll be tempted by Blumenthal's trademark dish of snail porridge. Who said British cooking was bad? 

Thursday, 7 February 2013


Teddy bear, Arctophile, Cuddly toy, Cuddly
Meet Montgomery - my favourite teddy


Noun. L20. 
[from Greek arktos bear +  philos loving, dear]

A person who collects or is very fond of teddy bears.

I'm an arctophile - I always have been. As a child I even founded my own teddy bear religion. I present to you two of my most cherished arctophilic possessions. Firstly, the book Who Want an Old Teddy Bear? by Ginnie Hofmann, a gift from my father and a story he used to read to me at bedtime. And Montgomery, the rather dashing Harrod's bear, a gift from my late mother. Yes, it says 1998 on his foot, so yes, by most standards I should have been too old to be getting teddy bear presents from my Mum. A true arctophile doesn't care for 'most standards' however; we're going to keep loving our bears and not give a damn what society says!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013



Noun. M17.
[mod. Latin archaisum from Greek arkhaimos, from arkhaizein copy of the ancients in language, etc., from arkhaios ancient] 

1 The retention or imitation of what is old or obsolete, esp. in language or art. M17. 

2 An archaic word or expression; an archaic feature. M17. 

Zounds, thou caddish blackguard! Come hither forthwith! I advance unto thee this galimaufry of archaisms; fettle thine ivory tablets, deliciate and be astonied, for hark! I am neither a bouncable nor a coiner, but a ludibrious grinder! Kench unto these archaisms; let us brabble no more, but depart anon from whenceforth we came. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


The arcane script of the Voynich Manuscript


Adjective. M16.
[Old & mod. French, or Latin arcanus, from arcere shut up, from arca chest] 

Hidden, secret; mysterious; abstruse.

If you ever feel like tackling something truly arcane, why not have a crack at deciphering the Voynich Manuscript? Dated to the early 15th century, it is a 240 page book written in an unknown language, by an unknown author, with an unknown purpose. Most pages are illustrated, many of the illustrations being botanical in nature, but the plants depicted generally match no known modern descriptions. It has attracted the attention and study of numerous academics, linguists and cryptographers, but has thus far defied all attempts at decipherment. Numerous theories as to its origin abound, from the well-grounded to the fanciful, ranging from a book of medieval medicine, to an alchemist's handbook, to it perhaps even being of alien origin or a hoax. Whatever the truth, for now the meaning of the Voynich Manuscript remains firmly sealed in the arca, the Latin chest of all things arcane, hidden and secret.  

Go on! Have a crack at it. You might just be the one that finally breaks the Voynich Manuscript!

Monday, 4 February 2013


Big tree, Felling, Cutting down trees, Deforestation, Climate change, Enviroment


Noun. Late 19th century. 
[from Latin arbor tree + Latin -cidium cutting, killing] 

The wanton destruction of trees.

One of my teachers in primary school abhorred waste of any kind, but particularly that of paper. If any of us were deemed to have wasted paper, the entire class had to recount the mantra: 

If you waste paper, you help to kill a tree

The repetition worked, as it's a principle I've never forgotten. My teacher was obviously well aware that, as a species, humans are woefully arboricidal, and our proclivity for tree-felling has been a marked component of our history. Improperly managed and uncontrolled deforestation causes immeasurable damage. To name but a few, it increases greenhouse gas emissions, it disrupts the water cycle, it contributes to soil erosion and it destroys the natural habitats of countless species (it's estimated that 80% of the Earth's documented species are native to rainforests). The current rate of deforestation is staggering. The WWF estimates that between 46 and 58 million square miles of forest are lost annually - that's the equivalent of 36 football fields being cut down ... per minute!

It's funny to think that, some 25 years ago, a classroom of children were doing their best to heed their teacher's admonishments against arboricide, for little other reason than not wanting a good telling-off. As a species however, facing far darker consequences from our arboricidal mania, it's something that we just can't seem to get a grip on. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013



Noun, adjective & verb. M17. 
[French from Italian arabesco, from arabo Arab + Italian esco from medieval Latin -iscus

A noun.
1 Decorative work of a kind which originated in Arabic or Moorish art, consisting of flowing lines of branches, leaves, scrollwork, etc, fancifully intertwined; an ornamental design of this kind. M17.

2 Vernacular Arabic. Obsolete. Only in L18.

3 Ballet. A posture in which the body is bent forwards and supported on one leg with the other leg extended horizontally backwards, with the arms extended one forwards and one backwards. M19.

4 Music. A passage or composition with fanciful ornamentation of the melody. 

B Adjective.
Of ornamental design: decorated in arabesque, of the nature of arabesque. M19.

C verb trans.
Ornament in arabesque. L18.  

Sometimes a word carries a beauty all of its own, regardless of its meaning. This is something very personal. Ever since I was a child, the word arabesque has carried a special elegance and allure. In this case, however, its beauty is not divorced from its meaning, as arabesque does indeed signify things of exceptional beauty, from the arabesque ballet pose, to its description of Islamic and Arabian art, architecture and ornamentation.

Saturday, 2 February 2013


Aquaphobia is no laughing matter


Noun. M20.
[from Latin aqua water + Greek -phobos fear] 

Fear of water, spec. of drowing in water (as opp. to hydrophobia or fear of drinking water).

Aquaphobia is certainly something budding aquanauts would need to overcome. Besides, the difference between being aquaphobic and hydrophobic is interesting, don't you think? I think so. 

Friday, 1 February 2013


Don Walsh (left) & Jaques Piccard (right)
True pioneers of exploration


Noun. L19.
[Latin aqua water + Greek nautes sailor]

An underwater swimmer or explorer.

It's likely that every one of us can name the first men on the moon, the first to have climbed Everest, and probably numerous other explorers who opened up the world during the Age of Discovery. But consider this:

Twelve men have walked on the surface of the moon, around 500 have been into space, and thousands have climbed Mount Everest. However, only three people have ever descended to the ocean's deepest point in the Mariana Trench. The first were Jaques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh, completing their descent on the 23rd January 1960 in their bathyscaphe Trieste. The third was film director James Cameron, who became the first to make a solo descent on March 26th 2012. 

From the surface of the ocean, the Mariana Trench is almost 11km deep (if you were to lower Mount Everest into the trench, its peak would still be 1.6km underwater) and the pressure at that depth is a positively sub-crushing 8 tonnes per square inch. 

There's little doubt in my mind that aquanauts Walsh and Piccard deserve to be recognised alongside other great explorers like Armstrong & Aldrin and Hilary & Norgay. Cameron's expedition is similarly fascinating, and you can learn more about it and the Mariana Trench on the Deepsea Challenge website.

The bathyscaphe Trieste