Friday, 28 February 2014

Catastrophe - A Real Bummer

A young Japanese girl cries after dropping her ice-cream
This photo breaks my heart every time I look at it.
(photo by Big Ben in Japan)


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[Latin catastropha from Greek katastrophe overturning, sudden turn, from katastrephein, formed as CATA- + strephein turn.]

1 The dénouement of a play, especially a tragedy;
the final resolution of a novel etc. M16

2(a) A disastrous conclusion; overthrow, ruin, calamitous fate. L16

2(b) obsolete. The buttocks. jocular. rare (Shakespeare). Only in L16

3(a) A revolutionary event. L17

3(b) GEOLOGY. (An event causing) a sudden upheaval or discontinuity in the stratigraphic record. M19

4 A sudden or widespread or noteworthy disaster.; an extreme misfortune. M18

catastrophic adj. of or pertaining to a catastrophe; disastrous, dreadful. M19
catastrophical adj. = CATASTROPHIC E19
catastrophically adv. L19

Oh how very Greek. How very Greek indeed! In fact, I don't think Lexicolatry has covered a Greeker word than catastrophe; it just exudes an indefinable Greekness from every tragic phoneme and dramatic syllable. And d'you know what? I love it as a word. Considering how steeped in catastrophic tragedy Grecian culture is, it's unsurprising that catastrophe has its roots in drama, as the catastrophe was the sudden denouement of a play, particularly when it was a shocking reversal of what the audience expected (think Tom Hanks getting shot by Jude Law right at the end of Road to Perdition, just when it seemed everything was going tickety-boo).

One of catastrophe's greatest qualities as a word, however, is its evolution away from its thespian roots. Yes, of course, catastrophe can mean a genuine, ground-splitting, world-ending disaster, but it can also be used just as comfortably to describe, say, your oven going on the blink half an hour before your boss and his wife arrive for dinner. And what about a dropped ice-cream? Oh my word! Is there anything more catastrophically tragic than a dropped ice-cream? For what was a only a fleeting moment, a child held a single scoop of pure happiness in her hand. It was everything - the excitement, the anticipation, the wonder of the cool, delicious bliss to come. And then? Splat. In an instant, the child's entire world is unceremoniously spattered across the unyielding pavement. Oh one almost weeps just thinking about it.

And yes, finally, in Shakespearean English, a catastrophe was a pair of buttocks, as immortalised in the line:

"Away you scullion! You rampallion! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!"
Henry IV Part II 

Crude Shakespearean language aside (and I do apologise for such), I say without hesitation that I'm in favour of reinstating this gluteus catastrophe, either as an adjective - "Maaan! That is one catastrophic set of glutes you got there!" - or as a noun - "I see ya baby! Shaking that catastrophe!" Of course, my feeble favours are nothing without the will of the masses, so it's up to all of us: use catastrophe today to refer to your own bottom, and together we will return this wonderful word to its rightful place.

Seriously, is there anything more catastrophic than a dropped ice-cream?

Has anyone ever admired your catastrophe?

Do please complete this post's denouement by leaving a comment in the box below.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Catarrh - The Big Tissue

The Bogey Man (who's made of snot, phlegm and catarrh)


Noun. Early 16th century.
[French catarrhe from late Latin catarrhus from Greek katarrhous,
from katarrhein run down, formed as CATA- + rhein flow.]

1 (An) excessive discharge of mucus from inflamed membranes, especially in the nose and throat;
(an) inflammation producing this. E16

2 obsolete. Cerebral effusion or haemorrhage; apoplexy. M16-E18

catarrhal adj. of the nature of, involving, pertaining to, or affected with catarrh. M17
catarrhous adj. = CATARRHAL. L16

Catarrh means 'flowing down', which is aptly disgusting, and also sounds a lot like guitar, which is confusing, and often left me wondering why my parents kept saying they had to do something about my brother's guitar. Still, it was the same snotty brother that threatened me with the bogey man, a catarrh-constructed phantom that subsequently haunted me for much of my childhood. So good; I hope they did do something about his guitar; serves him right.

A guitar, which sounds like catarrh

Do please pick out your best comments and leave them in the box below.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cataract - The Portcullis of the Eye

A man with a cataract, and a blurred photograph of the same man
A depiction of how a cataract may affect someone's sight
(photo by Clare Louise Thomas, courtesy of ORBIS)


Noun & verb. Late Middle English.
[Latin cataracta waterfall, floodgate, portcullis, from Greek kataractes, -rrh- down-rushing (water etc.),
probably from katarassein formed as CATA- + arassein strike, smash. In sense 2 apparent figurative use of sense 'portcullis'.]

A1(a) noun. obsolete. In plural. Floodgates, specifically of heaven (Genesis 7:11, 8:2). LME-L17

A1(b) noun. transferred. A waterspout. M16-M17

A2 noun. MEDICINE. (A condition of) partial or complete opacity of the lens of the eye. LME

A3 noun. A waterfall, specifically a large and sheer one; a torrent. L16

A4 noun. obsolete. A portcullis; the grating of a window. rare. M17-M19

B1 verb trans. Pour in a torrent. rare. L18

B2 verb intrans. Fall in or like a cataract. M19

cataractal adj. of the nature of a cataract. L19
cataractic obs. adj. (rare) cataractal. L17-E19
cataractous adj. of or affected by cataract of the eye. E19

Cataract arrived in English via the Greek for 'waterfall', was adopted into Latin to also mean 'portcullis', which was then figuratively applied to the ubiquitous eye condition; few etymologies in the English language convey with such poignancy the human story behind a word. For the approximately 20 million people that suffer from cataracts worldwide, their sight can become just like straining to look through a static sheet of water, or oil smeared on a pane of glass. Causing 51% of the world's blindness and disproportionately hitting developing countries due to limited access to eye care, cataracts become like a portcullis in not only being a physical barrier to good sight, but a social barrier that limits opportunities in work, education and mobility.

Do please leave any comments in the box below.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Catamaran - Two Hull & Back

Traditional four-log catamarans from Kerala
(photo by K.Rayker)


Noun. Early 17th century.
[Tamil kaṭṭu-maram literally 'tied-wood'.]

1 A raft or flat of logs tied side by side with the longest in the middle;
a raft of two boats fastened side by side;
a boat with two hulls side by side. E17

2 Historical. A naval weapon consisting of a floating chest packed with gunpowder. E19

3 A quarrelsome woman. colloquial. M19

If you've never had the pleasure of being on a catamaran, it's a singularly luxurious and graceful experience; catamarans are lighter, faster and more stable than their monohulled cousins, and they look so refined too - monohulls are so very 16th century. Except the catamaran is much older than that of course - they've been developed independently by several cultures, including Dravidian people from around southern India, Polynesians and various groups throughout Oceania, and possibly even the Ancient Greeks. To modern Europe, the catamaran is a relatively recent innovation, and was met with some skepticism when it first started to appear. Despite its definite advantages, sailing a catamaran is apparently a little trickier to master than a monohulled sailboat, which is perhaps why it came to be used as a word for a 'quarrelsome woman' (boats are one of the few things in English that are arbitrarily assigned a gender, often being referred to in the feminine). Their design and use has developed considerably from simple one-man fishing boats - there are now catamaran ferries, research ships, luxury and pleasure boats, and even prototype military vessels. What's wonderful, however, is the ultimate simplicity of the catamaran design, reflected beautifully in its Tamil name kaṭṭu-maram - tied wood.
This is the graceful, luxurious type cat I was talking about
(photo by Joe Ross)
Do you own a catamaran?

Have you ever been on a catamaran?

Do please float your boat by commenting in the box below.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Cataclysm - A Floody Disaster

The Deluge of the Biblical Genesis Account
The Deluge
Francis Danby (1793-1861)


Noun. Early 17th century.
[French cataclysme from Latin cataclysmos from Greek kataklusmos deluge, formed as CATA- + kluzein to wash.]

A violent geological or meteorological event;
the Flood (in Genesis);
figuratively a political or social upheaval.

cataclysmal adj. M19
cataclysmic adj. M19
cataclysmically adv. L19

In everyday language, we can have a tendency to overuse cataclysmic language, dramatically describing events as apocalyptic, a disaster, or a calamity, even when they're nowhere near being such - "If I don't put that letter in the post, it'll be an absolute disaster." The origin of cataclysm, however, carrying the connotation of washing away or washing down, has found appropriate applications in violent natural disasters such as the truly cataclysmic tsunamis in Japan and Asia.

Do please leave any comments in the box below. 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Catachresis - Using Words Misincorrectly

A newspaper sign saying "Burglar Prayed on the Elderly"
Photo by Ian Gallagher


Noun. Plural catachreses. Mid-16th century.
[Latin catachresis from Greek katakhresis, from katakhresthai to misuse, formed as CATA- + khresthai use.]

(An instance of) the incorrect use of words.

catachrestic adj. (of a word, etc.) misused, misapplied; of the nature of catachresis M17
catachrestical adj. E17
catachrestically adv. E17

A sign that says: "Please do not empty your dog"
Catachresis, or just a hilariously original use of language?
Photo by Gene Hunt
When I spied catachresis in the OED, my heart literally stopped beating and I died dead in anticipation - here was my chance to rant until my mind's content about the misuse and abuse of words like altercation, refute, chronic and ... yes ... literally. Aaargh! I get as sick as a carrot just thinking about that one. But having done a little research on the interweb, it seems that there is a bally dose of confusion about what even catachresis means, despite the main dictionaries being rather clear on the matter:

Chambers 20th Century
misapplication of a word

the incorrect use of words, as luxuriant for luxurious

 (1) use of the wrong word for the context
(2) use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech (as blind mouths)

For example, several sites, including Wikipedia, say that catachresis also means using a word for something, in place of another more correct word or because a specific word for that thing doesn't exist, and a common example is a chair's leg. However, as the OED clearly includes in the definition of leg 'a thing resembling a leg or acting as a support,' it makes me wonder how catachrestic a chair's leg really is, assuming that we accept this rather suspect definition at all (unless it's only catachrestic when someone first says "Hmm. I don't know what that supporty thing on the chair is called. Let's go with leg," but when it becomes established, yes, that too is a leg, and it's no longer catachrestic or only historically catachrestic).

One use of catachrestic that does seem legitimate, however, is that of a forced or paradoxical figure of speech, as specifically defined as such by Merriam-Webster. Thus, if I said I was 'as happy as a corpse', this could be termed catachrestical, or maybe 'silent shouts'. However, what's wonderful about these is that they can be deliberate, a catachrestical twisting of the proper or usual meaning for effect (and before I get any pointed comments, yes, I did employ catachreses for illustrative effect in the opening paragraph of this post). So there you go - my chance at a genuine rant is gone, because I searched catachresis on the internet and came back with the troubling notion that there's a lot of confusion about what it means and, yes, our use of catachresis is often ironically catachrestical.

Do please leave your most curmudgeonly, catachrestic and carnaptious comments in the box below.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Cat - And Its Catty Contribution to the English Language

A black and white portrait of an exceptionally handsome cat
It's undeniable - some cats are exceptionally handsome
(photo by Photo Extremist)


[Old English catt masculine (= Old Norse kottr), catte feminine (= Old Frisian, Middle Dutch katte, Dutch kat, Old High German kazza, German katze),
reinforced in Middle English by Anglo-Norman, Old Northern French cat varient of Old & modern French chat from late Latin cattus.}

1(a) An agile, partly nocturnal, quadrupedal carnivorous mammal, Felis catus,
with smooth fur and retractile claws, long domesticated as a pet. OE

1(b) Any of numerous related animals constituting the family Felidae, including the lion, tiger, leopard, lynx, etc.
Also, any of various catlike animals of other taxa. M16

1(c) In full catfish:
(a) any of various mainly freshwater fishes of the order Siluriformes, having several sensory barbels and scaleless bodies;
(b) = wolf-fish s.v WOLF noun;
(c) a cuttlefish or other cephalopod. L16

2(a) figurative. A spiteful person, especially (derogatory) a spiteful or malicious woman; a prostitute (obsolete except in cat-house). ME

2(b) A person, a fellow (usually of a specified kind); a jazz enthusiast. slang. E20

3 A small piece of wood tapering at each end, used in the game of tipcat; the game itself. LME

4 Historical. A moveable penthouse used by besiegers for protection. L15

5 NAUTICAL. (in full cathead, obsolete cat's-head)
a horizontal beam extending from each side of a ship's bow for raising and carrying an anchor;
(in full cat-purchase, cat-tackle) a tackle used in hoisting an anchor to the cathead. L15

6 Historical. In full cat-o'-nine-tails.
A rope whip with nine knotted lashes for flogging sailors, soldiers, or criminals. L17

7 A double tripod with six legs so placed that it always resets on three legs. E19

Cats: people love cats. I can't claim to be their biggest fan myself. It may just be the specific cats I've known, or perhaps my inability to get on with them (I'm starting to feel like a bigot defending his racist beliefs). However, knowing well how much people love cats (if you love cats, by the way, you're an ailurophile), and appreciating that they are rather amazing creatures with exceptional abilities, I've chosen to cover cat in Lexicolatry not so much because of an interesting etymology (Latin cattus, which is rather unremarkable), but because of the influence the cat has on our vernacular, as we regularly employ expressions that celebrate its abilities and traits, while also giving tacit acknowledgement to the fact that humans can be exceptionally cruel to cats and we have rather odd superstitions about them (if you're frightened of cats, you might have ailurophobia).

To bell the cat, for example, is to take the danger of a shared enterprise upon oneself - imagine a plucky young mouse volunteering for the mission of stealthily hanging a bell on the cat's neck during its catnap; imagine him moving like a cat on hot bricks, knowing full well that if he's detected and lets the cat out of the bag, he's not a cat in hell's chance of escape, but will find out quite literally the origin of the expression like something the cat dragged in after a most unpleasant (and literal) game of cat and mouse. While it may seem absurd that a mere mouse try to turn the cat in the pan (reverse the order of nature) by defeating the cat, putting the cat among the pigeons, if you will, if he does succeed it will be enough to make a cat laugh and he and his comrades will all be smiling like a Cheshire cat at his heroics which were, quite frankly, the cat's pyjamas.

The slender feline's contribution to our language is rather impressive, I'm sure you will agree (and I rather think I've barely cat-scratched the surfaces of these catty impression). If, however, you ever feel just a tad fed up of ailrophiles banging on about how great cats are and how superior their senses are, etc, etc, there are a number of things that you can do better than a cat: you have a better sense of taste (unsurprising, seeing as cat's eat cat food), you have better colour vision, and you have opposable thumbs, meaning you can operate the Sky+ remote.

A small kitten
So cute! But don't ask him to record Sherlock.
(photo by JW Copas)

Are you an ailurophile or ailurophobe?

Do you have any favourite feline expressions?

Do please deposit your cattiest comments into the litter-box below.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Casus belli - The Case for War

The invasion underwat, a German bomber flies over a Polish city
A German medium bomber flies over a Polish city


Noun phrase. Plural same. Mid-19th century.
[from Latin casus CASE noun + belli genitive of bellum war.]

An act or situation justifying or precipitating war.

Countries (generally) need a damn good reason to go to war, a reason that will motivate its fighting forces, galvanise support from its allies, undermine support for its enemy, and mollify critics and its own civilian population. Where there is no reasonable justification, however, governments haven't been above artfully orchestrating them: Nazi Germany staged an attack on its own Sender Gleiwitz radio station by Germans dressed in Polish uniforms, an "act of aggression" that was subsequently used to justify its catalytic invasion, and later that same year, the Soviet Union shelled the Russian village of Mainila and blamed it on Finland, using that as an excuse to invade and start the 'The Winter War'. Interestingly, while Germany's invasion of Poland was technically the casus belli for Britain and France to declare war, this is more correctly termed a casus foederis, a 'case for the alliance', which is when the terms of a military alliance trigger a declaration of war. Of course, in the age of media and democracy, the importance of a convincing casus belli has never been greater - alleging the development of WMDs or links to Al Qaeda have been particularly useful in this regard.

Do feel free to leave any comments in the box below.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Casuist - Case Off

A casuist thinking about an ethical dilemma
Photo by Striatic


Noun. Early 17th century.
[French casuiste from Spanish casuista from modern Latin, from Latin casus CASE noun: see -IST.]

A person, especially a theologian, who resolves cases of conscience, duty, etc;
a sophist, a quibbler.

casuistic, casuistical adjectives of or pertaining to casuists or casuistry M17

casuistically adverb L17

casuistry noun the reasoning of a casuist;
the resolution of cases of conscience by the application of general rules to particular instances, frequently disclosing a conflict of duties;
sophistry. E18

Casuistry is a difficult topic to pin down, with various dictionaries giving vague, conflicting and perplexing definitions. However, historically, a casuist is a person that examines matters of conscience on a case-by-case basis rather than dogmatically adhering to an absolute moral truth. Therefore, if one accepts the axiom that lying is morally wrong, one might question if it's always, absolutely, without exception morally wrong. A casuistic approach to this question would be to examine each case individually - as a general principle, lying is morally wrong; under oath, in a court of law, lying is morally wrong; lying to a Gestapo agent, however, who is searching your house for the Jewish family hiding in the attic, might be morally acceptable considering that if you tell the truth it will almost definitely lead to their arrest and execution. Conversely, a moral absolutist who maintains the position that lying is wrong will do just that - he will maintain that position regardless of the details of the case.

All rather clear, right? Well it would be, except that casuistry has gained and lost favour through the centuries, so that its meaning has similarly altered. Whenever it's used now, it is almost invariably pejorative, describing clever, tricky, high-sounding but ultimately specious arguments (my favourite definition, and by far the simplest, was by Cambridge Online Dictionaries, that defined casuistry as 'the use of clever arguments to trick people'). This fall from favour came in part from criticism that casuistry leads to overly flexible morality - "Sure, lying is wrong, but if I can think of a reason why it doesn't apply in my case, I can excuse it." No doubt the inventiveness, imagination and sheer gall of some casuists (defending lawyers and politicians spring to mind) have edged the meaning of casuistry away from purely a method of approaching ethical issues to one that describes a tricky, clever-sounding, excuse-laden tongue.

So ... lying ... is it always wrong?

Do you approach that question casuistically or absolutely?

Do feel free to state your case in the comment box below.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Castrametation - Camp Indeed, Sir

Artistic recreation of a Roman castrum


Noun. Late 17th century.
[French castramétation, from Latin castra metari measure or mark out a camp.]

The designing or laying out of military camps.

castral adjective. rare. Of or pertaining to a camp. M16
castrensian adjective. Or or pertaining to a military camp. M17
castrum noun. A Roman encampment or fortress. M19

War films and military histories often skip over some of the more unpleasant, boring or mundane aspects of human conflict - disease for one thing: when was the last time you watched a war film where 3/4 of the soldiers were waylaid by dysentery? Logistics is another. Considering how ancient armies were unmechanised but still incredibly large and mobile (Alexander the Great, when crossing into Asia Minor, had approximately 40,000 soldiers to look after), it's surprising we don't hear more about castrametation - that vital art of designing and laying out one's military camp. Doing so has to take into account a multitude of factors - security, mobility, sanitation and organisation. Actually, it's obvious why war films don't dwell on this - it's about as dull as military life gets. Still, it is rather important, and those rambunctious Romans apparently had it down to a fine art, their castra (Latin for 'camps') following very specific and very efficient patterns.

Have you ever designed, worked on or otherwise experienced a military camp?

Do please pitch your tented comments into the box below.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Castle - And Other Castellar Words

Peñafiel Castle, Castile-Leon, Spain
(photo by Pedro Fernandez Photography)


Noun. Late Old English.
[Anglo-Norman, Old Northern French castel variant of chastel (modern château) from Latin castellum diminutive of castrum fortified place.
In branch II rendering late Latin (Vulgate) castellum village, Latin castra camp.]

1(a) A (usually large) fortified building or set of buildings;
a stronghold (literally & figuratively);
(especially in proper names) a mansion that was once such.
Also (in proper names), a site of ancient earthworks. LOE

1(b) A model or representation of such a building or buildings. ME

2 A tower mounted on an elephant's back;
a movable tower formerly used in warfare. ME

3 An elevated structure on the deck of a ship. obsolete except in FORECASTLE. ME

4 A large ship, especially of war. literary. L16

5 CHESS = ROOK noun. M17

6 In biblical translations and allusions: a village. LOE-M16

7 singular & (usually) in plural. A camp. ME-L15

I love castles! I always have, ever since I was a wee nipper running around their ruins with a toy sword, picking off imaginary vikings from the arrowslits, tipping back the scaling ladders with a wooden fork, before finally charging up to the top of the ramparts to give those rotters on the battering ram a healthy dose of boiling lead to the head. Phrwoah! Bam! Brilliant! I rather think if I had a toy sword in front of me now, I might just pop a saucepan on my head and charge around the kitchen for a bit. Huzzah! Considering the important place that castles have had in British (and European) history, it doesn't seem too surprising that there are quite a few castle-words in English. Therefore, in honour of all the saucepan-sounding, wooden sword swinging, battlecry bounding little boys out there, I present you with a selection of English's finest castellar words:

Noun. Also castellane (obsolete). LME
The governor of a castle (or, in layman's terms, 'the king of the castle', as opposed to 'the dirty rascal'.)

Adjective. L18
Pertaining to or of the nature of a castle. 

Verb. Rare. M19
To take the form of a castle, or to build like a castle (with battlements, etc).

Adjective. L17
1) Built like a castle, or 2) Dotted with castles.

Noun. E19
The building of castles or battlements.

Noun. Obsolete except Historical. L17
A castle's territory or jurisdiction.

Noun. Obsolete except Historical. L16
A member of a castle's garrison, or a person living in a castle.

Noun. M16
A small castle."Aww! Bless!" isn't really the desired response from your enemy when they first
catch sight of your castlet walls, but at least there'll be no clearly-compensating-for-something jokes.

What's the difference between a castle, a palace and a fort, anyway?

While we're on the subject of all words castellar, if you've ever wondered about the exact difference between a castle, a palace and a fort, you may be frustrated to learn that it's not set in stone (brilliant pun). However, speaking generally, a palace is an unfortified royal residence, or the residence of some other high-ranking dignitary, and they're not built to withstand attack. A castle, on the hand, is also a residence, but is specifically designed with fortification in mind, and thus they have many common features, such a thick walls, defensive positions, moats, drawbridges, arrowslits, etc. Finally, a fort is a purely military structure, built as a defensive position or one from which offensive operations can be conducted. Oh, and a fort is the only one that can be made out of your Mum's duvet.

Do you like castles?

Do you have a favourite castle or castellar word?

Do please rampart your knowledge and make a moat point by commenting in the box below.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Caste - Race, Status, Purity and Hierarchy

Caste, Casteism
A Dalit (or Untouchable) woman of Bombay, India, c. 1942


Noun. Also (obsolete) cast. Mid-16th century.
[Spanish & Portuguese casta use as noun (raza, raça race) of feminine of casto pure, unmixed from Latin castus chaste.]

1 A race, a stock, a breed. Obsolete in general sense. M16

2(a) A Hindu hereditary class of socially equal persons, united in religion and usually following similar occupations,
distinguished from other castes in the hierarchy by its relative degree of purity or pollution. E17

2(b) Any more or less exclusive social class. E19

3 The position conferred by membership of a caste. L18

4 The system of division of society into castes. M19

5 The form of a social insect having a particular function. M19

Although the words caste and casteism are often primarily associated with Hinduism and, by extension, India, it's difficult to identify a major culture that hasn't, to some degree, adopted some notion of hereditary classism, division and purity. In English, up until quite recently, it was common to hear the term half-caste to describe a person whose parents are from different ethnic backgrounds, and specifically those whose parents have different skin colours, such as a white mother and a black father, or (historically in Britain) one white and one Indian parent. Considering the origin of the word caste, meaning 'race', and coupled with its overtones of racial purity, it's easy to see why this term has come to be considered so offensive - especially considering the implications of suggesting that someone is only half-caste.

A diagram of the Hindu caste system. Although caste-based discrimination is illegal in India,
it is still common, particularly against those deemed Untouchable, or without caste.

(diagram by Dave Hallmon)

Do please leave any comments in the box below.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Castalie - Well Inspiring

Poets drinking from the Castalian Spring
Painting by Heinrich Füger (1751-1818)


Noun. Archaic or poetical. Also Castaly. Early 17th century.
[Alteration of Latin Castalia from Greek Kastalia, the fountain sacred to the Muses on Mount Parnassus.]

A spring of pure water; a source of inspiration.

Apollo, already in my bad books for the beastly way he treated Cassandra, shows himself to be a proper oik again in the story of Castalia, a nymph who, like Cassandra, had the misfortune of catching Apollo's ever-randy eye. In a rather rash bid to escape his amorous attentions, Castalie threw herself into a well and Apollo, who really must learn to handle rejection better, responded by magically turning Castalie into a fountain (rather than, say, helping her out of the well, apologising profusely for the mixup, and resolving to be less pushy in the future). Drinking from these Castalian waters, however, was said to inspire the genius of poetry, and thus Castalie in English has come to mean the source of one's inspiration. Still, Apollo ... what a plonker.

Do you have a Castalie?

Do inspire us by leaving an amusing comment in the box below.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Cassandra - A Prophetess of Doom (Yeah whatever sweetheart)

Casandra, going mad, as Troy burns behind her. Just like she said it would. And no one would listen. Grrr!
Painting by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)


Noun. Early 17th century.
[Latin from Greek Kas(s)andra, daughter of Priam king of Troy, condemned by Apollo to prophesy correctly but never to be believed.]

A prophet of disaster, especially one who is disbelieved.

One cannot but feel for Cassandra. The daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, mortal Cassandra was renowned for her exceptional charm, intelligence and beauty. Her biggest mistake, however, was getting mixed up with the god Apollo. It was he that taught Cassandra the art of prophecy, but in doing so seems to have misread the signals between himself and his student (clearly not a god of the omniscient variety then), for when he made his move on Cassandra, she flatly rejected his divine seductions. An infamous playboy, Apollo wasn't accustomed to rejection, and in a supernatural tantrum of toddleresque proportions he cursed poor Cassandra; she would forever carry the gift of prophecy, but no one would ever believe her divinatory words.

Cassandra suffered immensely under the burden of her curse, even predicting the fall of Troy by means of that damned wooden horse - she told them, and all they had to do was give that horse the once over, but would they listen? Oh no. Typical men. Ultimately, Cassandra went mad from the onus of her dark prophecies, and has thus become the archetype of the misunderstood, delphic prophet or, conversely, the hysterical woman: "Just stop and ask someone! Is it really such an affront to your masculinity to ask for directions? We'll get lost; you know we will. Look, there's someone. Ask him. No? What? Why aren't you listening. Oh great. Now we're lost. Didn't I tell you? I told you we'd get lost. Didn't I tell you that? Aargh! Your stubbornness is maddening!"

Are you a Cassandra?

Do you know a Cassandra?

For do tell us your most divinatory comments in the box below.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Caseous - Cheesy Queasy

Swiss cheese - classic cartoon food
(photo by NCI)


Adjective. Mid-17th century.
[from Latin caseus cheese + -OUS.]

1 Of or like cheese, cheesy. M17

2 MEDICINE. Like cheese in appearance;
characterized by caseation. M18

I love cheese, I really do, but anything that's described as cheesy warrants suspicion. As for any type of medical condition or bodily function that's linked with el queso ... well let's just say I don't advise doing a Google image search for caseous necrosis and leave it at that.

Do please leave your gratest comment below.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Casanova - The Man Behind the Name

Restrain yourselves, ladies! Don't look into his eyes.


Noun. Early 20th century.
[Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-98), Italian adventurer.]

A man who engages in promiscuous affairs.

Despite the rather one-dimensional definition that has become attached to his name, just a little reading into the life of Casanova shows that he was anything but an empty-headed love-machine. In fact, to call him an adventurer is a profound understatement - Casanova was a veteran traveller who moved within the beau monde of his day, a bel esprit who was variously a clergyman, a lawyer, a medic, a gourmand, a soldier, a gambler, a violinist, an entrepreneur, a spy, a philosopher and a writer. And yes, he seduced women - lots and lots and lots of women. Thus, despite being a profound intellect and polymath whose cerebral pursuits, some say, utterly eclipse his salacious bedroom antics, Casanova's name has become synonymous with charismatic cads and promiscuous wastrels the world over. His infamously captivating beauté du diable persists, however - in 2010 the original copy of his memoir Histoire de Ma Vie (Story of My Life) sold for $9.6 million, a book so shockingly raunchy that it was only available in English in bowdlerized form until 1960.

Have you read Histoire de Ma Vie?

Are you a Casavova?

Do please seduce us with your silky words by leaving a captivatingly charming comment in the box below.
(before you shamelessly move on to your next blog)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Cartoon - An Artfully Fine Etymology



Noun & verb. Late 16th century.
[Italian cartone augmentative of carta: see CARTEL, -OON.]

A1 noun. A full-size drawing made on stout paper as a design for a painting, tapestry, mosaic, etc. L16

A2 noun. An illustrative drawing (originally full-page or large) in a newspaper or magazine,
especially as a vehicle for political satire or humour;
an amusing drawing with or without a caption;
a sequence of these in a strip. M19

A2(b) noun. A film made by animating a series of drawings. E20

B1 verb intrans. Draw a cartoon or cartoons. Chiefly as cartooning verbal noun. M19

B2 verb trans. Represent in a cartoon; caricature in a cartoon. L19

cartoonery noun cartoons collectively; the making of cartoon M19

cartoonish adjective resembling (the style of) a cartoon (Sense 2);
showing simplication or exaggeration of some feature L20

cartoonishly adverb L20

cartoonishness noun L20

cartoonist noun a person who draws cartoons L19

cartoony adjective = CARTOONISH L20

My, my! What cartoonery is this? I have been simultaneously cartoonified and superheroficated! As soon as I read cartoon in the OED and had determined, yes, it is an interesting word, I knew exactly who I wanted to illustrate it - the bodaciously brilliant Belgian blogger Bibi, whose creative cartoonery has entertained me pretty much ever since I entered the blogosphere. So thank you, Bibi; all I had in mind to illustrate cartoon was, well, one of your lovely pictures, but instead you've not only rendered me cartoonishly chuffed by making me a superhero - Eddie Lexi: The Hero With the OED - but you've treated me and all of the other Lexicolaters to a very fine three-part cartoon as I do battle with the evil Dr Cacolex: 




Now that Dr Cacolex's dastardly plan to spread txtspk to the world has been thwarted, you might very well be wondering about the origin of the word cartoon (one of those words that definitely starts to sound a bit weird if you say it more than twice). Without wanting to denigrate the art form of cartoons, it does seem rather surprising that cartoon originated with what one might consider fine art, as cartoons originally referred to full-sized preliminary drawings made by artists in the 16th century as they planned their paintings, stained glass, tapestries and frescoes. The Raphael Cartoons, for example, are seven large cartoons for tapestries, although by the modern definition there is obviously nothing remotely cartoonish about them - the use of cartoon as it's popularly used today only started in the 1840s, when one-plate satirical cartoons started to appear in newspapers. As can be seen from the OED's entry, cartoon has now come to represent several different art forms, from the original preparatory cartoon, the humorous or satirical cartoon, the amusing cartoon that may or may not be in a strip, to the animated cartoons we all grew up watching. Anyway, enough blogging - now that I'm a superhero, I'd better get out and start doing lexicologically heroic stuff; I may have won the battle with Dr Cacolex, but txtspk never sleeps ...

Thank you again to Bibi for such wonderful illustrations. If you'd like to see more of Bibi's work, you can do so at Bibi Blog, and may I especially recommend her short animated film How I Learned to Love My Body. Thank you Bibi!

Do you like cartoons?

Are you a cartoonist?

Do let us draw on your experience by commenting in the box below.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Cartomancy - Jack to the Future

Cartomancy, Divination
A rather beautiful Dutch Jack of Spades
(photo by Michiel)


Noun. Late 19th century.
[French cartomancie, from carte CARD noun: see -MANCY.]

Fortune-telling by playing-cards.

In this grand and meandering game of chance we call life, have you ever said "It's just not in the cards for me right now," "Put your cards on the table," or "I'm just trying to play my cards right"? Well, apparently, if you have (and I haven't), this is because ... well ... I don't even know actually ... but that was the preamble on a spiritual guidance website that vaunts playing cards as a "code to life" through which we all can unlock knowledge and insight and wisdom and loads of other buzzwords. Oh, and no one knows where playing cards came from. But some say they might have come from Atlantis. And someone else mentioned mathematics. And science. And gypsies - there was a lot of talk of gypsies. And mathematics again - cartomancy is, apparently, "pure mathematics based on numbers" (italics and sarcasm mine). If this all sounds too good to be true (cough) ... well ... umm ... just remember that playing cards might have come from Atlantis.

Do please deal out your most divine comments below.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Cartography - Mapping Mundi

Photo by Calsidy Rose


Noun. Also (now rare) chartography. Mid-19th century.
[French cartographie, from carte map: see CARD noun, -OGRAPHY. Spelling with ch- after Latin charta.]

The drawing of maps or charts.

cartographer noun a person who draws maps;
an expert in or practitioner of cartography. M19

cartographic adjective M19

cartographically adverb M20

I spent so much time drawing maps in my childhood that, looking back, it seems incredible that I didn't ever consider cartography as something I'd like to do as a profession. I had folders, sketchbooks and notepads stuffed full of fantastic maps and charts - ancient and exotic lands full of expansive forests and tumbling plains, forbidding mountains and choking swamps. The cities, towns and trade routes would be painstakingly sketched and plotted, and journals filled with notes on the histories and cultures of these imagined kingdoms. Although my interests have become less fantastic in adulthood, my fascination with maps and cartography has never subsided, and sitting in my office as I write I have no less than seven maps displayed in front of me, from the modern to the antique, and displayed for reasons both practical and aesthetic. Thinking about cartography, it's difficult not to be humbled by the majesty of what is truly an art and a science, as there can be few human artifacts that so seamlessly unite both utility and beauty.

Historic maps are often humorously inaccurate by modern standards, with whole continents put in the wrong place and liberally adorned with cautionary images of monsters and serpents.
(Carta Marina, 1539)
Are you a cartographer or otherwise versed in the art-science of cartography?

Do please plot your most chart-felt comments in the box below.