Monday, 30 June 2014

Why Do We Say Things are 'Corny'?

A corny photo by G.Pozzi


Adjective. Late Middle English.
[from CORN noun.]

1 Of beer: tasting strongly of malt. Long obsolete excluding dialect. LME

2 Of or pertaining to corn. L16

3 Producing corn; having much corn, as a crop or as grains. L16

4 Drunk, intoxicated. Compare with CORNED adj. dialectical. E19

5 Rustic, unsophisticated;
ridiculously or tiresomely old-fashioned or sentimental;
trite. colloquial. M20

corniness noun (colloquial) the quality of being corny (sense 5). M20

Why corn? I mean, specifically, why are we singling out this one cereal crop and attaching it in a pejorative adjective to things we consider banal, trite, and mawkishly sentimental? When we decry corny jokes, corny chat-up lines and corny films, why are we dragging maize of all things into the fray of our subjective assertions? And corniness is subjective, of course. A man going down on one knee to propose is the ultimate romantic gesture for some, yet chaff-chompingly corny for others. And then there are Facebook pages. Y'know the type:

"My husband is the love of my life and the life of my love. Please share if you agree."

Yes, that type. For some, they're sweetness and beauty and ... no, hang on ... this isn't subjective. This is the very essence of corn! This is concentrated corn, in all its (un)refined, ultra-processed gloop. Why, oh why ... oh why!? ... do thousands upon thousands upon thousands share this tat? If you really do love your husband, or wife, sister, cat, gerbil, goldfish, whatever, why not just tell them? Here's an idea: Why not get your face off Facebook, rub your bleary eyes, and actually have a go at forming an original thought for once? And anyway, is your beloved so cravenly fawning, so subserviently supine, as to be taken by such effortlessly unoriginal displays of affection? Does clicking share on Facebook really serve to validate the oh so deep love that you somehow can't bring yourself to express in your own words?

Umm ... where were we? Oh yes - why corn? Sorry. I must have needed to get that off my chest. The origin is 1930s American slang, in which corny ('of corn' or 'full of corn') meant 'appealing to country folk', country folk being, of course, rustic, unsophisticated and old-fashioned in the minds of many. It's easy to see how this meaning took hold - one can just imagine a bevy of country bumpkins arriving in New York fresh from the cornfields, attempting to impress these urbane socialites with their combine harvester jokes and root beer gags. Poor chaps. Would they be able to do anything that wasn't immediately decried as corny? Still, I bet they wouldn't have liked and shared stupid 'inspirational' Facebook pages. I mean, seriously! Is there anything more maddenly mawkish? More infuriatingly inane? Why are you sharing this tripe with us? Leave us out of it! We don't care! Oh for ...  

An inspiration Facebook photo: "Life is better with your best friend; that's why I married mine."
Please share if you've never expressed an original thought in your entire life

What do you find to be unbearably corny?

Conversely, does corniness rock your combine?

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

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Corduroy - The Cloth of Kings

A close-up of corduroy
Corduroy is all its kingly glory
(photo by Javier Valasquez Murial)


Noun & adjective. Late 18th century.
[from CORD + DUROY.]

A1 noun. A coarse cotton velvet with thick ribbing. L18

A2 noun. In plural. Corduroy trousers. colloquial. L18

A3 noun. A road made of logs laid together transversely;
ground made up into such a road. M19

B1 adj. Made of corduroy. L18

B2 adj. Having ridges and furrows like corduroy;
specifically (of a road, etc) made of logs laid together transversely. L18

I love corduroy; I love its softness, I love its durability, I love its style. In my late teens, I spent so much time in corduroy that I perennially looked like a supply teacher. Once at a party, some oik told me I just needed a shotgun over one arm and a dead pheasant over the other to complete the look. It was meant as an insult, but I took it as a huge compliment. And don't even get me started on the allure of a woman in corduroy ...

It's commonly said that the word corduroy comes from the French corde du roi, literally meaning 'the cloth of kings'. As kingly as corduroy is, this isn't true; it simply comes from cord and duroy, which is a coarse woollen cloth used in menswear in the 18th century. Still, should I by some fluke of lineage ever be crowned king, I will personally make it my business to make sure that corduroy does officially become The Cloth of Kings. I'll do some other stuff, too, of course, but that's gonna be right up there.

And in my adulation of corduroy, I'm in good company. The 11th November, for example, is Corduroy Appreciation Day, that date so chosen because written 11/11 it rather resembles corduroy itself. They even have parties in which attendees (who must be wearing at least two corduroy items) discuss wale width and their shared mistrust of velvet. Does that not just sound wonderful? I bet they're the types that read dictionaries too. I love them.

A girl in a corduroy jacket
A corduroy jacket
(Fox Cartel)
Do you wear corduroy?

Do you like corduroy?

Do please cordon off your most royal comments in the box below.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Cordiform - A Word with Heart

A handmade heart-shaped brooch
A cordiform brooch
(by Mary Anne Enriquez)


Adjective. Early 19th century.
[from Latin cor(d) heart + -FORM.]


If you're looking for a synonym for 'heart-shaped', consider cordiform which, together with its cognate cordate, is also a formal zoological and botanical term, as in 'a cordiform leaf'. I'm not quite sure why I like this word so much, but it's ... well ... captured my heart.

A selection of eight handmade heart-shaped bookmarks
Cordiform bookmarks
(by Marceline Smith)

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

Friday, 27 June 2014

Copper - An Arresting Etymology

Two policeman guarding Buckingham Palace
"Why is we called coppers? Ooh that's a good'un, that. Lemme 'ave a fink ..."


Noun. Slang. Mid-19th century.
[from COP verb to capture, to catch + -ER.]

A police officer.

Cops and coppers are both commonly used slang terms for 'police'. But where do they come from? Various theories exist, including cop being an acronym for Constable on Patrol, and copper being a reference to the colour of the brass buttons on old police uniforms. The truth, however, is a lot simpler but no less interesting - it's derived directly from the English verb to cop, meaning 'to capture, to catch'. This, with the suffix -er added, means a copper is simply 'one that captures [the bad guys]'. Coz that's what police do. Easy.

Do please detain us with your most captivating comments below.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Cooties - What Are They? How Can You Avoid Them?

A painting of a six-legged, friendly-looking, bug-like creature
An artist's impression of a cootie
(painting by Kari)


Noun. Slang. Also kootie. Early 20th century.
[Perhaps from Malay kutu a biting insect.]

A body louse.

A young girl looks knowingly at the camera as she kisses a boy
Unfortunately for this boy, it's too late. And she knows it.
(photo by Katy from Bookroom Reviews)

What Are Cooties?

Thankfully, I grew up in a part of the world that doesn't have a significant cootie problem. In Britain, we have the dreaded lurgies, but make no mistake about it - the cooties are coming, and it's vital we take adequate steps to protect ourselves against this invisible threat. The exact taxonomic definition of cooties has thus far evaded scientists as no living sample has ever been isolated. But know this: cooties are real! They prey primarily on children, and the consequences of a cootie outbreak can be ... well ... cootistrophic. If a cootie carrier is outed, expect immediate panic, with all other children in the vicinity running around screaming "Ewwww!" and "He's got cooties!" Once a carrier has been thus publicly exposed, it is virtually impossible for him to regain his social standing within the five- to ten-year-old demographic.

How Can I Avoid Catching Cooties?

Just like the dreaded lurgies, the primary vectors for cooties are girls. Therefore, boys should always stay as far away from girls as possible, and under no circumstances should a boy allow any kind of physical contact to take place. The exception to this rule is Mum - she's the best and she never has cooties, so you can cuddle her all you want without fear. Sisters, on the other hand, are the prime cootie-carriers, so exercise extreme caution around them at all times, especially at mealtimes and other family occasions in which you're compelled to be in close proximity. There is some evidence that taunting, hair-pulling and generally tormenting your sister may reduce the chances of cross-infection, so use these measures liberally. Also consider putting up "Girls Smell!" and "No Girls Allowed" posters on your bedroom door.

Does Anyone Else Carry Cooties?

Yes indeed, but they're usually easily identifiable - the weird kid in your class that always smells of crisps and wee, for example, most definitely has cooties. If you're a girl concerned about cooties, however, unfortunately it's probably too late - you already have them on account of being a girl. The best you can now do is take precautions to avoid infecting the boys in your class and, if you have a brother, giving him your pocket money and chocolate has been shown to reduce the overall number of cooties you have.

The suggestion that boys might carry cooties is, of course, absurd
(photo by Sergio Feria)

Do you have any tips for avoiding cooties?

What's the equivalent of cooties where you're from?

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

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cooper - A Barrel Role

Double barrelled
(photo by Fabio Sola Penna)


Noun & verb. Middle English.
[Middle Dutch, Middle Low German kuper, formed as COOP noun.]

A1(a) noun. A skilled worker who makes and repairs wooden vessels
formed of staves and hoops, as casks, tubs, etc, etc. ME

A1(b) noun. A crew member on a ship who repairs casks, etc. E17

A2 noun. A person engaged in the trade of sampling, bottling, or retailing wine. E16

A3 noun. A bottle-basket used in wine cellars. E19

A4 noun. A drink composed of a mixture of stout and porter,
originally drunk by the coopers in breweries. L19

B1 verb trans. Make or repair the staves or hoops of (casks etc.);
equip or secure with hoops. E18

B2 verb trans. Put or stow in casks. M18

B3 verb trans. Followed by up: get into a presentable form. colloquial. E19

B4 verb trans. Ruin, spoil. slang. M19

If you thought, as I did, that a cooper is just a maker of barrels, then the OED has news for you: a cooper can be so much more than that. Not only does he make a variety of wooden vessels 'formed of staves and hoops', but a cooper might be in charge of maintaining casks on a ship, or have the deliciously enviable job of sampling and bottling wine. And coupled with cooper is the rather wonderful noun cooperage, which can variously refer to a cooper's work, products, skills, workshop or fees.

Oh, and finally, just to show that cooperage is a barrel of laughs:

What do you call a bossy cooper?
A hard caskmaster!

Eh? No? Didn't like that one? Okay ... 

Barrels, barrels, everywhere, and quite a lot to drink
(photo by Magalie L'Abbe)
Are you a cooper?

Do you have any more barrel jokes?

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

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Cooee - Call of the Australian Wild

A black man daubed in white body paint
Photo by Rusty Stewart


Noun, interjection & verb. Chiefly Australian & New Zealand. Also cooey. Late 18th century.
[Imitative of a signal used by Aborigines and copied by settlers.]

noun & interjection. (A call or cry) used as a signal to draw attention to the caller. L18

B verb intrans. Past tense & past participle cooeed. Utter this call. E19

How many words of Aboriginal origin are in your active vocabulary? Well, no doubt a few: kangaroo, koala, boomerang, didgeridoo, budgerigar, and maybe even billabong. But how many are there that aren't obviously Australian? How many Aboriginal words have been truly adopted by the English language, to have made themselves so at home within our copia verborum that we don't even recognise them as ostensibly antipodian? Of these, there aren't very many; so few, in fact, that we should treasure the ones we have. One such gem is the call of "Cooee!"

For whatever reason, cooee brings to mind either an intrusive, middle-aged female neighbour standing at the front door that you stupidly forgot to lock, or an exuberantly overweight aunt that you're keen to avoid at family functions, one who persists in chasing you down with cooey's and helloo darlings's in order to pull you into her suffocatingly ample bosom. But now I'm determined to overcome my ignorant prejudice, for to call "Cooey!" is to propagate an ancient and venerable cry of the outback, one that enabled the Australian Aborigines to communicate over huge distances. That, fellow Lexicolaters, is a worthy word, and from this day no amount of Aunt Flo's bosom will persuade me otherwise.

Do you call "Cooey!" to family and friends, or other people trying to avoid you?

Do you prefer the spelling cooee or cooey?

Do please draw attention to yourself by heading south to the comment box below.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Contronyms - Words That Are Their Own Opposites

A fork road sign


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[Blend of CONTRA- and -ONYM, on the pattern of synonym and antonym.]

A word with two opposite meanings.

Few things in the English language are more fascinating than the contronym, a word that holds two contradictory meanings. And what's really bizarre is that the average English speaker won't even notice their existence - not even blinking at the notion that an engine that's gone may have left to go somewhere, or it may be completely broken. And even if it's left, has it left to go or is it left behind? Thus, in celebration of these cunningly contrary contronyms, here is a list for you to puzzle over:

In the past, or in the future?
"Regardless of what happened before, your future is before you."

Not sharp, or straight to the point?
"I told him bluntly: Your knife is blunt."

To flee, or to secure?
"He bolted the door before he bolted."

With bones, or having had the bones removed?
"I prefer my boned fish to be thoroughly boned."

Tied up, or heading toward?
"While I was bound with rope, he was bound for home."

To fasten, or to collapse?
"After buckling his belt, his knees buckled."

Indefinite, or definite?
"Are you certain she has that certain something?"

To split, or to join?
"As the axe cleaved the monster's skull, the terrified villagers cleaved together in horror."

Relaxed and informal, or frosty and tense?
"My stuffy parents have a cool relationship with my cool boyfriend."

Removing dust, or applying it?
"While the maid dusted the bedroom, the detective dusted the hallway."

To start, or to kill?
"The general executed his orders by executing the prisoners."

Moving quickly, or completely stuck?
"The fast car was stuck fast in the mud."

To run, or to break?
"This car's about to go."

Hold up
To support, or to impede?
"Holding up my drunk wife is holding me up."

Departed, or remained?
"When the police left, we were left."

On, or not on?
"The alarm went off."

Watching over, or failure to watch over?
"Not giving me oversight was an oversight."

Capable, or limited?
"While qualified, he only got a qualified endorsement from the board."

Somewhat, or absolutely?
"He's quite handsome."

To pay rent for, or to rent out?
"I'm renting a flat."

To ban, or to approve of?
"The UN officially sanctioned sanctioning the rogue state."

To remove stones from, or to hurl stones at?
"He was stoned for stoning the Sacred Peach."

Arousing suspicion, or suspicious of others?
"The detective was suspicious."

To soften, or strengthen?
"Tempering metal is a great way to temper your temper."

Doing one's best, or hard to endure?
"Your child, while trying, is trying."

A selection, or one of a kind?
"I'd rather have a variety of apples than this variety of apple."

Against, at one's side or using?
"I fought with my brother."

Do you know of any other contronyms?

Do please leave your most ambiguously equivocal comments in the box below. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Contra Mundum - Against the World

A man walking alone in a blizzard
Photo courtesy of the U.S Dept. of Defense


Adverbial phrase. Mid-18th century.
[Latin contra mundum.]

Against the world; defying or opposing everyone.

Yes! I like this. Just once in my life, I'd like to go contra mundum. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, I will never stop reading my dictionary.

Not until I get to the end anyway. And then I'll stop. But that won't have been because of you.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Contrail - Plane & Simple

A plane leaving thick controls behind it
If you don't believe this is a system for dispersing mind-controlling chemical agents to subdue the masses, you're just deluded
(photo by RevedAvion)


Noun. Mid-20th century.

A condensation trail.

You know those wispy white lines that are left behind by aeroplanes in the sky? They're contrails, right? Wrong, dude! They're only contrails to the all-accepting, propaganda-gulping, sheep-minded masses, man. Every person out there with an IQ in double-figures knows that they're actually chemtrails! That's right, bro: chemtrails. The powers that be are spraying us will all kinds of up to no good. And while so-called 'scientists' might try and explain away contrails as simply the product of water vapour in a jet's exhaust condensing in the nut-nippingly frosty conditions up there to form what are basically clouds, you and I know that this is actually the perfect covert dispersal unit for the governments' population reducing, illness inducing, weather warfare falutin' chemical agents. Oh, you think this is nuts? You think this is just some whack conspiracy theory dreamt up by a bunch of right-wing loons who are convinced the world is controlled by reptilian alien overlords who will soon seize power for the New World Order? Then look up in the sky, man. See the chemtrails for yourself! I saw a plane the other day and that evening I sneezed, bro. Twice. Coincidence? You decide.

Do please leave your most trailingly reptilian comments in the box below.
(Warning: the NWO is monitoring your comments, man) 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Constipation - A Crowded Etymology

I have no idea, but it seemed appropriate
(photo by Douglas Muth)


Noun. Late Middle English.
[Old & modern French, or late Latin constipatio(n-) crowding together, (in medieval Latin) costiveness.]

1(a) obsolete. Contraction or constriction of passages or tissues of the body. LME-M17

1(b) Irregularity and difficulty in defecation. M16

1(c) figurative. Abnormal lack of efficacy or ease. E19

2 obsolete. Compression or condensation of matter. L19

The ultimate Latin root of constipare carries the sense of 'press, cram', and this could be applied in many different ways. The Spanish, for example, use it to mean 'to have a cold' (think 'congested'), which gives rise to oh so many delightful misunderstandings when a Spaniard declares: "¡Estoy tan constipado!" It goes the other way too, of course, and it's worth remembering the difference when holidaying in Spain. Go into a pharmacy complaining of that you're constipated and you're likely to be given a nasal spray, which would be interesting to say the least ...

Do please crowd around and leave your most compacted comments in the box below.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Constable - A Stable Profession

A Victorian police constable chatting to a maid in London
A stallion of a Victorian constable chatting to a maid
(photograph courtesy of Leonard Bentley)


Noun. Middle English.
[Old French cunestable, cone- (modern connétable), representing late Latin comes stabuli literally 'count (head officer) of the stable'.]

1 Historical. The principal officer of the household, administration, or army of a monarch or nobleman;
specifically one of the chief officers of the French, English, or Scottish royal household. ME

2 The governor or warden of a royal fortress or castle. ME

3 A military officer. Long rare. ME

4(a) An officer of the peace. ME

4(b) A police officer of the lowest rank. Also more fully police constable. M19

Should you ever be found horsing about in one of Britain's fair cities, do expect a stern word in your ear from a constable of the law. However, why not diffuse this moment of awkwardness by asking your conscientious constable if he knows his rank's chevaline etymology? He will no doubt be delighted to learn that constable comes from the Latin comes stabuli, which was an officer in charge of a lord's stables during the Byzantine era; it was transferred to Western Europe first as a high military rank, and later adopted as the (generally lowest) rank for police officers. Of course, as with the dropping of any etym-bomb, timing is everything, and my experience is that the police have little time for lively linguistic debate during the actual exercising of their duties (ie. reading you your rights). You wouldn't want to stirrup any trouble with the long face of the law now, would you? Ho ho ho [baton smack].

Are you a constable?

Were you aware of its horsey origins?

Do answer Yay or Neigh in the horsebox below.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Conspectus - A Summary of Its Definition


Noun. Mid-19th century.
[Latin, from conspect- past participial stem conspicere look at attentively.]

1 A comprehensive mental survey M19

2 A summary, a synopsis. M19

I do rather like a conspectus. If you can tell me what I need to know in 1 page instead of 10, or 100 instead of a 1000, great. And one of my favourite examples is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson which is just ... wow! Could a book be more ambitious in its scope? As Bryson attempts to cover everything (well, nearly everything - he disappointingly doesn't cover the history of ginger beer), he does so with enough wit to keep you entertained, enough depth to keep you intrigued, and enough detail to make you look clever at parties without having ever actually studied whatever it is you're pretending to know about. Did you know, for example, that only 12% of the Earth's land surface is habitable for humans? If you take the total surface of the planet and not just the dry bits that stick out of the water, that shrinks to 4%. Wow. Thanks Bill.

Do you have a favourite conspectus?

Do please leave a brief summary of your comments below.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

What Is a Consonant?

The letters L and X in Scrabble tiles


Noun. Late Middle English.
[Old French from Latin consonant-, consonans, present participle of consonare sound together, formed as CON-, SONANT.]

1(a) A letter of the alphabet that represents a consonantal sound. ME

1(b) An elementary speech sound other than a vowel, 
in which the air-stream is at least partly obstructed, 
and which in forming a syllable is usually combined with a vowel. E17

2 obsolete. = CONSONANCE. LME-E18

Were you ever taught what a consonant is? I mean, what it actually is rather than what they are? I was chatting about the difference between vowels and consonants the other day with my five-year-old daughter, who had just learnt that classic list A-E-I-O-U and was writing them out for her homework. While doing so, she asked me why these letters are vowels, but none of the others. It made me think that perhaps, often with the basic stuff we learn really early on, the details are just skipped over in education. Perhaps we assume that a child's mind would simply be overwhelmed if we tried to explain everything, or perhaps (and more likely) it's just easier for us smelly adults if we dismiss the enquiring why's and how come's with a wave of the hand and a curt "Because it just is, OK?"

So, what is a consonant? In short, it's a basic unit of speech in which the sound is made using an obstructed or partially obstructed air-stream. This is clearly apparent in the P sound in a word like push - the very puh is made by obstructing the air and building up pressure behind your lips. But take the O sound in a word like over, and the whole syllable is completed with an expansive circle for your breath to breeze through unhindered. Therefore, O is clearly a vowel.

This is a very convenient distinction but, of course, English being English, it does rather like to muddle things up a bit. Is the letter Y, for example, a vowel or a consonant? Well, yes, obviously it's a consonant, because it's definitely not in the A-E-I-O-U list of vowels we learn in school. Technically, however, the answer is less clear, because in English Y functions as both a vowel and a consonant: in the word myth, for example, it behaves as a vowel, but in beyond it's clearly transformed itself into a consonant as it acts as an obstruction between the two vowels.

Whether or not Y is a vowel or consonant is really rather arbitrary, then. But, notes Oxford Dictionaries, as Y's consonant sound is not consistently represented by any other letter in English (unlike its vowel sound which can often be easily made with an I), this is probably the reason that Y is traditionally classed as a consonant.

Do please leave any comments below.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Connemara - The Emerald of Ireland

A landscape shot of beautiful Connemara
Photo by Tom Fahy


Noun. Mid-19th century.
[A region in the west of Co. Galway, Republic of Ireland.]

Used attributively to designate things found in or associated with Connemara.

Connemara marble a banded serpentinous marble.
Connemara pony a small hardy breed of horse.

Situated on the very western edge of Europe, Connemara is renowned for its bleak beauty and rugged campestral charm. Its name, Conamara in Irish, is derived from Conmhaicne Mara, meaning 'descendents of Con Mhac of the sea', after the branch of the Conmhaicne tribe that occupied this westerly portion of Ireland in medieval times. From the windswept sandy beaches that shore the Atlantic to the  rocky peaks of the The Twelve Bens, the crystal lakes of Roundstone and the pitted blankets of richly-scented peat bog, Connemara is an enchanting and inspiring land full of history, beauty and adventure.

Me! Hillwalking in Connemara in 2005
Have you ever been to Connemara?

Do please leave any comments in the box below.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Confessor - A Saint Lite

A portrait of a very pious-looking Maximum the Confessor
Don't invite anyone with the title Confessor to a party - they're notorious killjoys
(painting of Maximum the Confessor)


Noun. Old English.
[Anglo-Norman confessur, Old French confessour (modern confesseur) from ecclesiastical Latin confessor, from confess-.]

1 A person avowing his religion in the face of danger, and adhering to it despite persecution, but not suffering martyrdom. OE

2 A person who makes confession or public acknowledgement of religious belief, etc., or (later) of a crime, sin, etc. ME

3 A priest who hears confessions. ME

Have you ever wondered what a confessor is? Well, I hadn't either to be honest, at least until I read the entry in the dictionary. For me, a confessor has mainly been the stock murderer in lazily written episodes of CSI and the like, the type of criminal that conveniently gives a full and detailed confession at the end of every single episode rather than drag out the whole process through years of trials, legal quibbles and technicalities, as does any criminal worth his salt.

However, as given in the definition, confessor is a title conferred upon someone by various Christian denominations, perhaps most famously with Edward the Confessor, King of England between 1042-1066 and known for his great piety. According to the Catholic encyclopaedia New Advent, confessor is a title conferred upon "those men who have distinguished themselves by heroic virtue" in the face of persecution because of their faith, but generally not to the point of martyrdom. That encyclopaedia is talking about confessors of the Catholic Church, obviously, but seemingly it's a title given by other denominations too.

So, if you'd like to be venerated by your church but don't like the idea of martyrdom, be virtuous, avow your faith, and be at least a little bit persecuted for doing so (it's kind of Sainthood Lite). First, however, do check that your denomination uses the title confessor, and remember to not let your persecutors, under any circumstances, kill you.

Are you confessor?

Would you like to be?

Do please give light to your darkest thoughts in the confessional comment box below.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Condemn - Forcefully Damn It!

Photo by Fabian


Verb transitive. Middle English.
[Old French condem(p)ner (modern condamner) from Latin condem(p)nare, formed CON- + DAMN verb.]

1 Give judgement against, convict;
 sentence to punishment, to be punished;
 especially sentence to death. ME

2 Pronounce an adverse judgement on;
 express strong disapproval of;
 censure, blame; reject.
Of words, looks, actions, etc.: incur or bring about condemnation of. LME

3(a) Consign to perdition; damn. LME

3(b) Force into or limit to an unwelcome or unpleasant action or state; 
especially in passive, be doomed to some condition or to do something. M17

4 Pronounce guilty of (a crime, fault, etc.). archaic. M16

5 Close permanently, block up (a door, window). M16

6 Pronounce (smuggled good, prizes of war, etc.) legally forfeited. E18

7(a) Pronounce officially to be unfit for use, consumption, or habitation. E18

7(b) Pronounce judicially (land etc.) as converted or convertible to public use. US. M19

8 Pronounce incurable. M19

Condemn is constructed from con- (expressing intensive force) and damn which, considering that damn was most definitely a proscribed word when I was a child, makes it seem that condemn is a rather nasty word too. After all, as if damning something isn't bad enough, how much worse is forcefully and intensively damning something? (though, when we're talking fire and brimstone and eternal torment, it's hard to imagine how you could unforcefully damn someone).

However, while condemn does have some undoubtedly grim associations - think of a man condemned to death, for example - it's never been as associated with theological damnation as damn. In fact, the demn (damn) part of it doesn't specifically refer to fiery torment at all, but derives from the Old French condemner, which means to convict, to blame, to injure. And even damn itself was somewhat more benign in the beginning - popping up in the 13th century, it originally meant pretty much exactly the same as condemner, and only acquired its fiery theological sense in the 14th century, a meaning that would put it well and truly into the realm of the taboo until the 20th century.

Still, the connection between condemn and damn is an interesting one, as are the various uses of condemn. You could, for example, condemn a doorway in the 16th century by permanently blocking it up, and in the United States a piece of land could be condemned to public use which, in whichever sense the damn part is taken, seems a bizarre reflection on attitudes toward that damnable public.

A notice of condemnation nailed to a tree infection with Dutch Elm disease
If trees aren't safe from condemnation, what is?
(photo by Karl Frankowski)
Do please leave your most condemnatory comments in the comment box below.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Concert - You Can't Do It Alone

Definitely a concerted effort here
(photo by Napat Chaichanasiri)


Verb. Late 16th century.
[French concerter from Italian concertare bring into agreement or harmony, of unknown origin.]

1 obsolete. verb trans. Bring to agreement or unity. L16-L17

2 verb trans. Arrange to carry out, agree (plans, action, etc.) with or with another person etc. or others;
contrive by mutual agreement;
plan or effect (coordinated action). L17

3 verb intrans. Arrange a matter by agreement with someone; act in harmony with. E18

4 verb intrans. Sing or play in concert. rare. E19

concerted participial adj.
(a) arranged by mutual agreement, done in concert, coordinated;
(b) MUSIC arranged in parts for several voices or instruments;
(c) united in action or intentions; earlier in UNCONCERTED. E18

You can't make a solo concerted effort. If you're ever tempted to say: "I'm going to make a concerted effort to tidy my office, get my tax done, stop harassing my ex, etc," consider using concentrated, strenuous, determined or definite effort instead. Because that's what you really mean, isn't it. And using concerted like that makes you look daft, doesn't it. And it doesn't make any sense.

(photo by Robert Clemens)
Do please leave your most unconcerted comments in the box below.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Comstockery - Art Blanched

Mr Anthony "Not Much Fun" Comstock Whatever would he have thought of the interweb? 


Noun. Capitalised and uncapitalised. Early 20th century.
[from Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), member of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.]

Excessive opposition to supposed immorality in the arts; prudery.

Anthony Comstock does not leap from the history books as a particularly likeable fellow. A ferocious crusader in the name of public morality in the U.S, his eponymous Comstock Act of 1873 criminalised the publication, distribution and possession of obscene or immoral literature. Falling foul of these laws could land you with a fine of up to $2,000, and even imprisonment with hard labour.

Although the Act was primarily written to tackle pornography, its application was so broad that it was used to attack such things as anatomical textbooks, medical literature on birth-control and contraception, guide books on sex and sexual health, and various works of art and literature that were deemed obscene.

While obscenity is, by its nature, a subjective debate, it was Comstock's rabid prosecution of his targets that perhaps leaves the worst taste in the mouth. He boasted, for example, of making over 4,000 arrests during his career, and of driving 15 of his marks to suicide, including the campaigner for free speech and women's rights Ida Craddock, who took her own after being imprisoned for her manual for married couples The Wedding Night.

Because of such passionate prosecution, history does not look with much favour on the barbarously burnsided Anthony Comstock. The noun Comstockery, meaning excessive opposition to supposed immorality in the arts, was coined by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in The New York Times: "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."

Do please leave any comments in the box below.
(thought any obscenity will be comstocked)

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Complexus - It's Complicated

A complexus of drainpipes on the side of a building
I'm no civil engineer, but I'm sure there's a simpler way to do this
(photo by Rohit Mattoo)


Noun. Late 19th century.
[formed as COM- + PLEXUS.]

A complicated system; a complex.

If you've ever been utterly exasperated by the gratuitously complex nature of things, then complexus is just the word you need. As a noun, it means a complicated system made up of many different parts, and could be likened to a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a piece of equipment that performs a comically simple task in a ridiculously complicated manner.

The Rube Goldberg is a common trope in movies and a particular favourite of supervillains. After all, why kill the hero with a bullet to the head when one can utilise a vat of sharks, numerous cogs and pulleys, a candle burning through a rope, a mouse dangling over an elephant's head, sneezing powder, a bowling ball on a set of tracks and a small Jaffa Cake? Sure, you need a degree in engineering to put it all together, and the logistics of keeping all the animals is a nightmare (not to mention having to get the final machine signed off by someone from Animal Welfare so you can run the 'No Animals Were Harmed in the Killing of this Hero' disclaimer), but it's so much more suspenseful, exciting, and downright villainous! A bullet to the head? Bah! The Rube Goldberg complexus is the only way to go.

A complexus array of pulleys and levers to operate a napkin
Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin
(from Wikipedia)
The complexus, however, does not just exist in the realm of the supervillain. Having recently had to apply to four different government departments to get one one measly tax form ... for the government ... I rather think the whole system of taxation in Ireland is a cunningly contrived complexus, if not a full-blown Rube Goldberg operation. And yes, one even has to endure the cackling glee of villainous bureaucrats as they knowingly befuddle you with talk of first getting your P120, but only after having filed the DM-4(b) with PAYE for payments under Section 2 for the relevant quarter. I think I'd rather get the sharks ...

Finally, let me mention the infamous Magic Roundabout of Swindon, a fiendishly intricate junction that I had the pleasure of traversing during my driving test at 17. And no, I'm pretty sure I didn't do it right - but thankfully the driving instructor looked as nonplussed as me, and probably couldn't tell if I'd done it right either. I passed, but I hereby pronounce the Magic Roundabout to be an insurance-inflatingly crass complexus.

The next time you're faced with the criminally complex, the cunningly convoluted, or the cryptically circuitous, shout 'Complexus!' with Lavignesque exasperation. Confucius said that life is really rather simple, but it's only on our insistence that it becomes complicated. So let us simple-minded folk fight back and reclaim simplicity from the simpletons.
Road sign for the Magic Roundabout, showing a central roundabout surrounded by five smaller satellite mini-iroundabouts
Approaching the dreaded Magic Roundabout ...
(photo by Dick Bauch)
Do please leave your simplest comments below.
(no complex clauses please)  

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Compassion - Sharing in the Suffering of Others

Two red salvia flowers extending upward from dark leaves
Red Out of the Black
(photo by Tony Hammond)


Noun. Middle English.
[Old & modern French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compass- past participial stem of campati suffer with: see PASSION noun.]

1 obsolete. Participation in another's suffering; fellow-feeling, sympathy. ME-E17

2 Pity inclining one to show mercy or give aid. Frequently in have compassion on. ME

3 obsolete. Sorrowful emotion, grief. ME-L16

In combination:
compassion fatigue indifference to charitable appeals resulting from the frequency of such appeals.

Of the many virtues that humans are capable of displaying, compassion is one of the most precious. It is simply constructed, from the Latin com- meaning 'combined, together', and passion, from its ecclesiastical root of 'suffering'. Therefore, a compassionate person is one that literally shares in the suffering of others.

Semantically, this differs from some of its synonyms, even though etymologically they're very similar. An empathetic person, for example, is one capable of understanding the troubles of others, and a sympathetic person is one that feels pity. A compassionate person, however, is one both emotionally capable and practically willing to share in the grief of his fellows, giving aid, comfort, relief and support.

Do please leave any comments in the box below.