Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What Are Some Other Terms for 'Detective'?

The Man Himself.
(photo by Dynamosquito)


Adjective & noun. Mid-19th century.
[from DETECT + -IVE, after elect, elective, etc.]

A1 adj. Of, pertaining to, or employed in the investigation of things 
apt to elude notice or deliberately concealed, especially of crimes;
having the character or function of detection. M19

A2 adj. [attributive use of the noun.] Describing crime and the detection of criminals. L19

B noun. A police officer or other person whose occupation it is
to investigate crimes by eliciting evidence, information, etc.;
a person engaged in detective work;
the position or rank of a police detective. M19

As a child, I was fascinated with detectives, detective work and detective fiction; it was actually after finishing The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes that I decided it was the career for me. Of continual interest, too, was the array of terms used to describe detectives, particularly those that worked (as I did) in the private sector.

My first professional introduction to this was the question of what exactly a private detective calls himself. For example, the first company I worked for preferred the term professional investigator (even though private detective was the title printed on my ID), and this was the understanding of the initialism P.I, otherwise often read as private investigator. Other terms commonly used by those working in the field are inquiry agent as a general term, and tracing agent and skip tracer for those that specialise in locating people.

For what others call us, there are numerous terms. Private eye is still commonly used, though often only jocularly. An old-fashioned term is dick, a contraction of detective, something I have been called many times over the course of my career, often with a cephalic suffix tacked on for good measure. Another common descriptor in literature is gumshoe, which the OED states is another word for sneaker, and thus refers to a private detective's supposed stealth.

Going back in time, an old-fashioned term for a PI is shamus, used in the 1920s and which Merriam-Webster suggests draws a derogatory comparison between the work of a church sexton and that of a store detective. An even older term is hawkshaw, which is a reference to a detective in the 1863 play The Ticket of Leave Man.

Finally, sleuth is often used to denote someone with a particular skill in detection, often in reference to amateur sleuths or armchair sleuths / detectives. Armchair sleuth can also be used for those that are so brilliant that they need never visit a crime scene to solve a case, as Sherlock Holmes says of his brother Mycroft in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. In real life, however, they're more likely to be the type that shout at the television during episodes of CSI, and assiduously follow televised court cases before concluding that the judge did it in the library with the iPad, and the prosecutor is sleeping with the court stenographer. Case closed.

Not once did I ever burst in on a naked woman with my gun drawn.
And now that I think of it, I never even had a gun.
(image by Will Hart)
Are there any other terms for detective where you're from?

Are there any you particularly like?

Do please prosecute your most deductive comments in the witness box below.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Dessert - A Sweet Etymology

Of course, I may just have chosen to cover dessert so I could gorge myself on photos of delicious food ...
(photo by Ralph Dally)


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[French, use as noun of part participle of desservir clear the table, from des- removal + servir to serve.]

A course of fruit, nuts, sweets, etc., served at the end of a meal.
Also (originally US) a pudding or sweet course.

Regular readers of Lexicolatry might be a little confused by this entry, as surely everything one needs to know about the word dessert has already been covered in the post Is It 'Just Deserts' or 'Just Desserts'? However, no! For the word dessert has its very own fascinating etymological secrets to offer us, namely in that it's derived from the French verb meaning 'to clear the table'.

"Wonderful!" you think, "but how might this gem of knowledge benefit me in any way?" Well, I say just think of the next time you're at a dinner party and the host announces: "Dessert is served!" Ah ha! How humorously oxymoronic! Just think how enamoured all attendees will be as you regale them with the etymology of dessert, perhaps followed by a second course of the desert vs dessert question, and then finished off with a history of, say, chocolate, or biscuits, or perhaps the fact that saying The Sahara Desert is, literally, saying The Desert Desert.

Armed with these lexicological wonders, you need never worry about being invited to a dinner party again.

Oh ... my ... 
(photo by Kimberly Vardeman)
Do please do us the (dis)service of leaving your sweetest comments in the box below.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Is it 'Just Deserts' or 'Just Desserts'?

Someone's just about to get their desserts! Ho ho ho.
(photo by April Bern)


Noun. Middle English.
[Old French, from deservir DESERVE.]

1(a) Deserving, being worthy of reward or punishment. ME

1(b) Merit, excellence, worth. LME

2 An action or quality deserving reward or punishment. Usually in plural. LME

3 Due reward or punishment, something deserved.
Frequently in get one's deserts, have one's deserts, meet with one's deserts, etc. LME

Noo! Not that type of dessert. Nor that type. Rather, this is desert, as in something one deserves, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable just like the dessert of the delicious type, and not like the desert of the sandy type. Yes, that's right; were dealing with three completely separate words. And if you've been writing (or thinking) just desserts, then you're a right proper numpty. Did you know that there are even language bloggers that have been caught out by this, only to be corrected on their own blogs, thus exposing their ignorance to the world after they had put themselves up on a pedestal as some kind of authority on the subject? Now if that's not getting your just deserts, I don't know what is.

Now, to be fair to this blogger that shall remain nameless, many resources acknowledge that, while originally it most definitely was deserts and not desserts, the latter has become so common in modern English as to have become virtually acceptable. But seriously: where is the fun in that? For picky pedants and grumpy grammar goblins around the world, where is the satisfaction in shrugging your shoulders and saying: "Ah sure, but everyone says it like that!" No fun. No fun at all. So remember:

(pronounced as dessert, but spelt as desert)

Just desert
(photo by Ilker Ender)
Do please leave your sweetest comments in the sandbox below.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Derrick - Oil Well & Good

An oil well and derrick


Noun. Early 17th century.
[Derrick, the surname of a noted London hangman floruit 1600.]

1 obsolete. Capitalised as Derrick. A hangman; hanging; the gallows. E17-L18

2 A contrivance for hoisting or moving heavy weights. M18-M19

2(a) NAUTICAL. A tackle used at the outer quarter of the mizzen-mast. M-L18

2(b) A spar or boom set up obliquely, with its head steadied by guys,
and fitted with tackle, originally used on board ship. M18

2(c) A kind of crane with a jib or adjustable arm pivoted to the foot of the central post, deck, or floor. M19

3 A framework erected over an oil-well or similar boring, to support the drilling apparatus. M19

A derrick crane
The Wonder Book of Engineering Wonders (1931)
Well knock me down with a barrel o' crude! It seems that for the past thirty years or so, I've been labouring under a cloud of confusion as to what a derrick is. Specifically, what I thought is a derrick isn't, and what it's not is what I thought it was. It's all very confusing ...

So, firstly, let's get what a derrick isn't out of the way: it's not one of those odd, slightly creepy bowing constructions that you see tirelessly pumping away in deserts. Those are oil pumps, and they're variously called pumpjacks, sucker rod pumps, grasshopper pumps, Big Texans, thirsty birds, horsehead pumps and nodding donkeys. They are not, however, called derricks, even though many of you (including me) thought they were.

So what's a derrick? Broadly speaking, it's one of two things: a type of crane, or the framework that supports a drilling operation. Conveniently, both types are almost as recognisable as the nodding donkeys we thought were called derricks, and so from this day forth there need no longer be any confusion.

This is not a derrick
(photo from Geograph.co.uk)
But why is a derrick called a derrick? Well this it where it gets a bit dark, because Thomas Derrick was a notable and enthusiastic executioner in England during the Elizabethan period. Nothing if not diligent, Derrick executed over 3,000 souls during his tenure as the capital's capital carnifex, and was rather innovative in how he did it; whereas any old hangman can sling a rope over a beam, Derrick devised a system of pulleys to gleefully winch his charges aloft. It is the similarity between his pulley system and the framework he used to support it that gives his name to the drilling towers and dockyard cranes.

As for the modern name Derek, this is a variant of Derrick, and can also be spelled Derreck, Derick, Derrok and (for the especially pretentious) Deryck; its origin is the German name Theodoric, meaning 'ruler of the people'. Despite this regal origin, however, it has come to be universally regarded as a very silly name, rhyming as it does with such unsavoury words as sick, tick, hick and ick (as well as a few others that shall not be printed here). Quite possibly, it was Thomas Derrick's silly name that compelled him to be such as ardent executioner, as no one had ever taken him seriously in his life before.

Self-portrait of some bloke called 'Derek'

Did you ever confuse a nodding donkey with a derrick?

Do you know a Derek that's a bit of a donkey?

Do please bore us with your most well-thought-out comments in the box below.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Dermato - The Skinny on Skin Words

A woman's bare neck
A model with skin
Photo by Gisela Giardino


Combining form. Before a vowel also dermat-.
Greek derma, dermat-, skin, hide, leather. Before a vowel also dermat-.

Relating to the skin.

When you think about it, skin is really important. Now I mean really important. Without it, we'd be a mess; all leaky and ick (and humans are pretty leaky as it is). Therefore, it's appropriate that English retains a proper prefix in dermato- for skin-related words. There's also dermo- and derma-. Really, anything that starts with derm is probably to do with the skin.

For example, dermabrasion is a medical treatment in which the superficial layers of skin are removed with (and I don't like the sound of this) "a rapidly revolving abrasive tool". There is also dermatoplasty, which is the surgical replacement of damaged or destroyed skin, and dermatosis, which is any non-inflammatory disease of the skin. These medical terms probably all come under the umbrella of dermatology, the science that deals with skin and skin disorders (the practitioner of which is, of course, a dermatologist).

Talking of science, one particularly interesting skin word is dermatoglyphics, which is defined as the science that deals with "skin patterns (e.g fingerprints), especially of the hands and the feet". Did you know, for example, that humans are not the only creature to possess fingerprints? A number of other species have them too, especially those that climb trees. In fact, the fingerprints of a koala are so similar to a human's as to be virtually indistinguishable. How's that for a dermatoglyphic fact?

And lastly, if you're not interested in talking medicine or science, but still want a good skinny chat, consider dermal or the considerably less appealing dermoid, which mean 'of the skin' and 'skin-like' respectively.

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

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Dépaysé & Déraciné - The Uprooting of People

Syrian refugees in 2014
Photo credit: Concern Worldwide


Adjective. Feminine dépaysée. Early 20th century.
[French = (removed) from one's own country.]

Removed from one's habitual surroundings.


Adjective & noun. Feminine déracinée. Early 20th century.
[French = uprooted, past participial adjective of déraciner, from dé + racine root.]

A adj. Uprooted from one's environment;
displaced geographically or socially. E20

B noun. A déraciné person. E20

Dépaysé and déraciné stem from the French verb déraciner, 'to uproot'. It's a feeling most of us can relate to - whether we've uprooted by choice, perhaps by moving house or to a new country, or we've been uprooted, perhaps by losing a job, leaving us removed from our reassuringly familiar surroundings.

The truly déraciné, however, are those that have had their roots pulled up from underneath them, displaced into the unfamiliar and alien. One might think of the millions of Britons (particularly children) who were evacuated during The Blitz of WWII to escape the threat of aerial bombing. Even their hardships, however, are nothing in comparison to the hundreds of thousands currently being displaced in places like Syria, Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq.

When considering places like this, it's easy to simply think of them as war-torn, lawless and ruined lands, places that no one would want to live in. However, as the root verb metaphorically highlights, these are people's homes, where they have laid their roots and livelihoods, which speaks for the unthinkable horrors people must have faced in order to pull everything up and flee. And, of course, even if such ones do find shelter, where they're not scorned or treated with contempt by the authorities or native population, it still isn't home, their home, where they had their roots, and thus they remain déraciné.

Do please leave any comments in the box below.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Deoch an doris - A Drink at the Door

A man pouring a drink
A Nip Against the Cold
Erskin Nichol (1825-1904)


Noun phrase. Scottish & Anglo-Irish. Also doch an doris. Late 17th century.
[Gaelic deoch an doruis, Irish deoch an dorais a drink at the door.]

A drink taken at parting, a stirrup cup.

Thanks to the referendum of September 2014, it seems there'll be no wee deoch an doris between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom just yet, which is handy, as I think it'll take me until the next one to wrap my tongue around the lyrics of the Harry Lauder song, particularly the line: "It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht." Now that I try it, I can see how a wee dram of something would help ...

Is there an equivalent custom to deoch an doris where you're from?

Do please take a shot at a comment before you go.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Denouement - The Unravelling

Photo by Daniela Vladamirova


Noun. Also dénouement. Mid-18th century.
[French, from dénouer (earlier des-) untie, from des, dé- de- + nouer to knot.]

The unravelling of the complications of a plot, or of a confused situation or mystery;
the final resolution of a play, novel, or other narrative.

If anyone is ever describing the plot of their new book, idea for a film, etc, and they refer to the final act as the denouement (pronounced day-noo-moh), you just know it's going to be full of pretension and probably not nearly as clever as the author thinks it is.

When a denouement is done well, of course, it can be breathtaking, the mark of pure brilliance in an author. Done badly, however, it can unravel the entire narrative and make the audience question why they ever bothered to try and think this one through, especially if it seems the author couldn't be bothered doing the same.

In film, terrible denouements include: The Forgotten, Hide & Seek, Secret Window, The Happening and Safe Haven. In each case, they fell back on tired tropes to explain away convoluted plots that the audience really should have known better than to try and unravel, variously wheeling out aliens, ghosts, split personalities and the old "it was the main character all along" trick. Oh, and in the case of The Happening, it turned out to be plants. Evil plants. Evil plants that were making everyone commit suicide. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

The thing with a denouement is this: the writer has just had the audience commit a significant portion of his or her life to trying to unravel the plot. The very least any author can do is try and do the same, lest his work become one of many that could alternately be called The Unravelling (which is, if I may say so, not a half-bad title for a thriller with a convoluted plot).

The denouement can either tie up all the loose ends, or unravel the entire narrative, as per its French etymology.
Photo by Lisa Risager

Do you have any examples of good and bad denouement?

Do please wrap up your comments in the box below.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

What Is the Origin of Denim?

Photo by DJ Keino


Noun & adjective. Originally serge denim. Late 17th century.
[serge denim from French serge de Nimes serge of Nimes (a city in southern France).]

A noun. Originally a kind of serge.
Now, a twilled hard-wearing cotton fabric (frequently blue) used for overalls, jeans, etc.
In plural, overalls or jeans made of denim. L17

B adj. Made of denim. E18

Those dastardly Americans! Always claiming they're the best and they're the origin of this, that and everything! Well I'm sick of it, and if you are too, you'll be interested to know that the material denim is not as American as apple pie. In fact, it's French, and is actually a type of serge from Nimes (pronounced neem), and is therefore a serge de Nimes, ergo denim, ergo French, ergo the Yanks are nicking it and claiming it as their own, just like they do with French fries. Still, I don't feel too much sympathy for the French, as they pilfered French fries from Belgium and even claim that champagne is of their own making (when everyone clearly knows it's actually of English origin). Hmm. Come to think of it, the earliest references to apple pie are English too, which means that that isn't American, which means that denim is as American as apple pie (as in, not American at all). Really, America! Other than The Simpsons and dodgy spelling, what have you given us?

Photo by Timothy Marsee
Do please leave your skinniest comments in the box below.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Dendro- - The Root of Tree Words

A tree in sepia tones
Photo by Oscar Paradela


Combining form of Greek dendron tree.

For those that love trees, the prefix dendro- offers the perfect platform from which to branch out into a wider arborescent vocabulary. For example, a lover of trees is a dendrophile, and as such likely has an appreciation for all things dendroid (tree-shaped). Talking of tree shapes, a dendrite is a stone or mineral that bears a natural tree-like structure, and can thus be described as dendriticIf you're really serious, then you may even be a student of dendrochronology, which is the science of dating events through the study of the rings in ancient timber. Of course, this comes under the broader canopy of dendrology, the science of trees, a discipline practised by dendrologists who are, of course, all completely barking.

Do you have any favourite dendro- words?

Make a like a tree and leave your most deciduous comments in the box below.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Deltiology - Postcard Regard

A blank postcard
Nothing says "I was too tight to buy you a gift and too lazy to write you a proper letter" like a postcard
(image by Caspian Levers)


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[from Greek deltion, diminutive of deltos writing tablet + -OLOGY.]

The hobby of collecting postcards.

deltiologist noun a person who collects postcards M20

The closest I ever came to being a deltiologist was as a child on holiday in Majorca, when I used to try and casually sneak a glimpse at the postcards on display there. Because ... y'know ... Spanish postcards are different to British ones. Very different. In that there are boobs on them. Lots of boobs. Boobs coming out of your ears. And that's about as interesting as deltiology gets.

Are you a deltiologist?


Just ... why?

Monday, 15 September 2014

What Does 'Delphic' Mean?

The Priestess of Delphi
John Crozier (1850-1934)


Adjective. Late 16th century.
[from Delphi (see below).]

Of or relating to Delphi, a town of Phocis in ancient Greece,
especially as the site of a sanctuary and oracle of Apollo;

Resembling or characteristic of the oracle of Delphi;
(of an utterance etc.) obscure, ambiguous, enigmatic.

If you were ever a little uncertain about something in ancient Greece, whether it be when to plant your crops, if it was a good idea to ask out that girl from work, or who you should next assassinate, then the place to go was the oracle of Delphi on the picturesque slopes of Mount Parnassus. There you could avail yourself of the very best divinatory advice, dispensed with cheerful ambiguity by the resident prophetess.

And, yes, as those with the gift like to be, the predictions given at Delphi were notoriously obscure. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Croesus, king of Lydia, who enquired as to whether he should attack the Persians. The oracle replied: "If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed," which is rather like a football pundit saying "Well it could go either way, couldn't it." However, oddly emboldened by the oracle's words, Croesus and his army charged ahead with their attack, only to learn that it was the Lydian empire that the oracle was saying would be destroyed, and not the Persians. Oops!

However, there is a better example. After all, Croesus must have been a bit of a numpty not to realise that that prediction didn't tell him anything, other than that someone was going to lose. The oracle's response to the people of Athens when faced with an attack by Xerxes I, however, was truly perplexing: "Trust in your wooden walls." This was interpreted in one of three ways: that the Athenians should erect literal wooden defences; that 'wooden walls' was a metaphor for ships and so the Persians should be fought at sea; and finally, while still thinking that 'wooden walls' referred to ships, some interpreted it as saying that everyone should just pack up their stuff and leg it (by ship) before the Persians arrive. Interestingly, the Athenians variously did all three, and when the pesky Persians were (temporarily) beaten, they all thought that the prophetess at Delphi had been extraordinarily and divinely insightful.

In modern English, the adjective Delphic has come to mean a person or a statement that is obscure, enigmatic and ambiguous, often deliberately so. Thus, whatever the outcome, it can be said that the prediction was correct (or at the very least not wrong), and Delphic language is thus a favourite of politicians, mystics and practitioners or alternative medicine.

Have you experienced any Delphic advice?

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

Friday, 12 September 2014

Delope - When Duellists Miss

A man firing two pistols to the side
To delope like this would really be unnecessarily dangerous to any onlookers
(photo by Paul Townsend)


Verb intrans. Mid-19th century.
[Origin unknown.]

Of a duellist: deliberately firing into the air.

If you ever find yourself being forced to take part in a duel, perhaps because of your intemperate use of words like bounder and blackguard down the pub, remember that you have the option to delope your shot. Deloping involves deliberately missing, and a duellist might do this for a number of reasons.

For one, you might genuinely not want to kill your opponent. Also, if you're a bit of a stuffed shirt, you might think your opponent is so beneath your station that bothering to kill him would be beneath you too. You might also be a rubbish shot, and know that a battle of marksmanship against Sir Arthur Bonham "Crackshot" Peddlington is a very bad idea indeed. And finally, perhaps your opponent is from a very large, highly vengeful family, and even if you do win, at best you'll be receiving dozens more challenges to duel, but more likely you'll wake up one morning, dead, with a knife in your ear.

Needless to say, deloping is an incredibly risky strategy, and is liable to enrage rather than mollify your opponent. For one thing, you didn't follow the rules of the duel (although generally illegal, they did have rules, and deloping was often specifically proscribed). If he thinks you didn't consider him worthy of killing, he's going to shoot you, and even if you pretend you meant to shoot him (perhaps by aiming for a near-miss), he'll probably just think you really did miss and are now claiming that you deloped because you're a big whingy, highly shootable crybaby. Ergo, you're still going to get shot.

Personally, I'm not in favour of deloping unless under exceptional circumstances, such as if your challenger is a one-eyed, one-legged hopping simpleton with no forefingers, whose wife you ran off with, thus ruining his one chance of happiness. Other than that, if someone challenges you to a duel, they are (literally) asking to be shot. By all means, try and get out of it beforehand by the most craven and cowardly means necessary, but once those pistols are cocked and your backs are turned, it's every over-sensitive man for himself.

Two men duelling with pistols in the snow
Eugene Onegin & Vladimir Lensky's Duel
Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
Pistols at dawn: would you delope?

Under what circumstances would deloping be acceptable?

Do please shoot your mouth off in the comment box below.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Delectus personae - Personnel Choice

A cartoon of an interview
"If your application is successful, what qualities will you bring to Ed's poker group?"
(drawing by The Daily English Show)


Noun phrase. Mid-18th century.
[Latin, literally 'choice of a person'.]

LAW (now Historical). The right of each partner in a firm, party to a contract, etc.,
to choose or be satisfied with any person subsequently admitted to partnership.

Just once in my life, I want to slam my fists on the table and cry: "I invoke the right of delectus personae!"

Seriously, how cool would that be?

Very cool.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Déjà Vu & Its (Un)familiar Relatives


Noun phrase. Mid-20th century.
[French = already seen.]

1 PSYCHOLOGY. The illusory feeling of having already experienced the present moment or situation. E20
2 The (correct) impression that something similar has been previously experienced; tedious familiarity. M20

We've all experienced déjà vu - that rather curious feeling that we've witnessed something before. Alas, if you're prone to these odd sensations, it doesn't mean that you have 'the gift'. Rather, déjà vu has been explained scientifically as a mere memory glitch, an error in your brain where an experience is processed as a past memory rather than a new experience. 

Which is all rather familiar, but consider the lesser known but just as commonly experienced relatives of déjà vu. For example, there is déjà entendu (French for 'already heard'), the feeling that you've previously heard or understood something, such as words or music; this may or may not be illusory, as there is evidence that we can remember pieces of music we heard while in the womb. A similar experience is déjà lu ('already read'), which is applied to supposed familiarity with what one is reading. 

Perhaps the most interesting is jamais vu ('never seen'), sometimes described as the opposite of déjà vu. This is when you're struck with the unfamiliarity of something or someone that you know you're familiar with. This often occurs with words - sit down and write out the same word over and over; say, for example, 'rubble'. As you write it out, really study the word; very quickly it can start to look strange, foreign, and you might even start doubting it's a real word at all. Even more bizarrely, you can do this with family members or close friends. As a familiar person is talking to you, really study their features and mannerisms; if you do it for long enough, soon you can be overcome with the disquieting notion that you're looking at a complete stranger. In fact, some psychologists think that the same processing errors in the brain that prompt episodes of jamais vu are responsible for what's known as Capgras Delusion, in which the sufferer becomes convinced that someone close to him has been replaced by an impostor.

And finally, if you find these various vus interesting but think you'll struggle to remember the borrowed French terms used to describe them, then take comfort in that you'll soon experience presque vu ('almost seen'), which is otherwise known as something being on the tip of one's tongue; it's that irritating, nagging, oh-I'm-so-close feeling when you're trying to remember something but for whatever reason your brain just won't make that final connection. And talking of vus, that word is starting to look weird ...


Have you experienced déjà vudéjà entendudéjà lu, jamais vu or presque vu?

Are there any other vus that should be added?

Do please leave your most (un)familiar comments in the box below.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Deipnosophist - A Conversationalist to Dine For

A couple having dinner


Noun. Early 17th century.
[Greek deipnosophistes, used in plural as title of a work by Atheneus (3rd century AD),
describing long discussions at a banquet, from deipnon dinner + sophistes wise man.

A person skilled in the art of dining and table talk.

The bringing together of conversation and fine dining is a human custom as old as history itself. Few, however, are able to master this art, requiring as it does the adept use of one organ (the mouth) for two activities simultaneously. It's something akin to rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time ... with one hand.

Those that have the necessary oral and mental dexterity to pull this off, however, are rightly called by a suitably prestigious name: deipnosophists. Now I make no claim to this lofty title (pronounced dipe-noss-oh-fist); however, as someone with aristological leanings, and as a proponent of good conversation with the suitable bon enfant, I have through my years formed some basic tenets that every aspiring deipnosophist should adhere to. Here, on Lexicolatry, I have chosen to share these tenets for your edification:
  • When at a restaurant, don't order spaghetti bolognese. This is especially true if you're on a date, or wearing a white shirt.
  • Similarly, if attending a breakfast function, avoid muesli; sneezing with a mouthful of muesli is a faux pas that's simply beyond recovery.
  • A gentleman should familiarise himself with the proper use of cutlery. If you're unsure what each piece is for, remember that generally you work from the outside in (just don't tell anyone that you learnt this rule while watching Titanic).
  • Be cautious about broaching religion or politics. Feel free, however, to bring up grammar, correct use of the English language, and any interesting vocabulary blog you might happen to read.
  • If you're not funny, don't try to be; if you're not suave, don't try to be; if you're not sexy, don't try to be.
  • And finally, at any cost, and I really can't stress this enough: avoid dribbling. Whatever you're doing, whether it's making a case for saving the white rhino or trying to pull the person sat next to you, dribbling will irredeemably lose you all credibility. Forever.

  • If none of the above work, you could try and save the night by pulling a funny face.

    Do you have any suggestions on how to be a great deipnosophist?

    Do any particular table antics disqualify someone from being a true deipnosophist?

    Do please table your most conversational comments in the box below.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Defenestration - Window Dropping

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes


Noun. Early 17th century.
[modern Latin defenestratio(n), from de- + fenestra window.]

The action of throwing a thing or (usually) a person out of a window.

defenestrate verb intrans. E17

While defenestrations are probably a lot less common than Hollywood action films would have us believe, there have been a number of high profile window tossings throughout history. Perhaps the most famous is that of Jezebel, who was ignominiously tossed out of a window by her own eunuchs (and then, to add insult to blunt force trauma, she was eaten by dogs).

Perhaps the most bizarre case, however, is Garry Hoy's autodefenestration in 1993. Hoy was a Canadian lawyer with a penchant for demonstrating the unbreakability of his firm's windows by hurling himself against them. Unfortunately, on what would be his last demonstration, he again successfully showed that the glass was unbreakable, but not so the window frames into which they were set, and he plummeted to his death from the 24th floor.

Do please leave your most smashing comments in the window box below. 

Friday, 5 September 2014

What Do De Facto and De Jure Mean?


Adverbial & adjectival phrase. Early 17th century.
[Latin = of fact.]

(Existing, held, etc.) in fact, in reality;
in actual existence, force, or possession, whether by right or not.


Adverbial & adjectival phrase. Mid-16th century.
[Latin = of law.]

(Existing, held, etc.) rightfully, according to law (frequently as opposed to de facto).

Two terms that seem to appear with increasing frequency in news reports are de facto and de jure, as in the headline: Russia executes de facto takeover of Crimea. This means that, regardless of legal standing, Russia has taken over and is now governing Crimea, even if if it remains part of the Ukraine de jure.

Another example is that of my friend Heather, whose de jure name is Mary, because at her christening the Catholic priest refused to accept a pagan name like Heather. Thus, de jure (legally), her name is Mary, as recorded on her birth certificate and all other official documentation, but de facto (in reality and practice) her name is Heather, because that's what we all use, know her by and love her as.

Do you have any examples of de facto and de jure?

Do please leave any comments or examples in the box below.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Dedentition - The Tooth Is Out There

A girl with missing teeth
Photo by Steven de Polo


Noun. Mid-17th century.
[from DE- + DENTITION.]

PHYSIOLOGY. The shedding of the (deciduous) teeth.

I learnt two things from this entry in the OED:

1) When a child's teeth fall out naturally (as opposed to, say, your older brother pushing you over and smashing them out on a step, as I did), it's called dedentition.

2) The teeth that fall out are called deciduous teeth, just like the trees (although if your teeth are evergreen, you should really see a dental hygienist).

However, I still don't know why I have a recurring dream of my teeth falling out. Oh wise and venerable OED, will your tomes give me the answer in a future entry? I can only hope that the tooth is out there ...

Do please enamel us with your finest comments below.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Decumbiture - Off to Bed

A painting of a woman lying in bed
Eva Bonnier (1857-1909)


Noun. Now rare or obsolete. Mid-17th century.
[Irregular from Latin decumbere.]

1 The act or time of taking to one's bed in an illness;
ASTROLOGY a horoscope made for the time at which this happens, affording prognostication of the outcome. M17

2 Lying down, specifically as an invalid in bed. L17

As someone that is regularly compelled to take to his bed, I have decided to refer to these sojourns as my decumbitures.

It just sounds so much more voluntary.

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

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Découpage - Oh Cut It Out!

A thoroughly inoffensive decoupage box
(photo by Anne Bourne)


Noun. Plural pronounced same. Mid-20th century.
[French, from découper cut up or out.]

1 The decoration of a surface with cut-out paper patterns or illustrations;
an object so decorated. M20

2 CINEMATOGRAPHY. The cutting or editing of a film. M20

Of all the arts and crafts, découpage must be one of the most benign and inoffensive. In 2013, however, it provoked the kind of spittle-spattered fury that only the internet can muster. Kayleigh Herbertson, author of the blog Articlate & Intricate, wrote a review of Anna Rice's vampire novel Pandora, hated it (and said so articulately and intricately), and ultimately decided the paper would be better used in a spot of decopatch, which is a less fancy name and easier version of the classic coupage. Anna Rice read this review and was so incensed by it that she saw fit to call out Herbertson on her Facebook page, thus goading and unleashing her hoards of dribbling fans on the lone blogger.

'Courtney' was first to rail against Herbertson on her own blog, leaving the carefully considered comment: "YOU [FLIPPIN'] HAG! I HOPE YOU GET HERPES!" More histrionics followed, with Herbertson's book-destroying antics being called disrespectful, immature, downright evil and reminiscent of the Nazi book-burnings of the 1930s. Herbertson (who describes herself as a small scale blogger with less than 100 followers) patiently waded through the comments, politely and respectfully replying, even though they have now run into their thousands.

Ultimately, Kayleigh Herbertson comes out of this looking rather well; Anna Rice comes out looking like a petulant bully whose time would be better spent improving her books (it's not the first time she has reacted to critics that common sense says you should ignore - she once wrote 1,200 word one-paragraph response to negative Amazon reviewers, telling them they they were reading her books from the 'wrong perspective'); as for a core of Rice's fans who descended upon Herbertson, they came across as slavering, slavish, barely-literate pitbulls, hardly capable of reading books, let alone defending the merits of one or that of their author.

As for the découpage itself, many took offence to Herbertson's 'desecration' of Pandora, as if books are somehow sacrosanct. As an ardent bibliophile, I find this idea utterly bizarre. If she had not given this book new life in découpage, what should she have done with it? Thrown it away? Burned it? Inflict its illiterate horrors upon someone else? Or was it only that she didn't like it, and then découpaged it? Although not an artsy-crafty type myself, I think it's a rather wonderful way to keep a battered old paperback alive just that little bit longer, even one as interminably awful as Pandora (no, I haven't read it, nor will I, and yes, I've decided to take Herbertson's review on this matter at face value). That's just my opinion, of course, something we're all entitled to, a concept that seems beyond Anna "Time to Stop Googling Yourself" Rice and a number of her fans.

Do please cut to the chase and stick your comments in the box below.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Décolletage - She's Got Some Neck

Actress Gina Lollobrigida and her fabulous 1960s décolletage


Noun. Late 19th century.
[French, from décolleter expose the neck, from dé + collet collar of a dress etc.]

1 The low-cut neckline of a woman's garment. L19

2 Exposure of the neck and shoulder by such a neckline. L19

Portrait of Isabella of Parma
Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779)


Adjective. Mid-19th century.
[French décolleter, as above.]

Of a (woman's) garment: having a low-cut neckline.
Of a woman: wearing a low-necked garment.
Also figuratively, daring, slightly improper.

As much I relished writing about cleavage, I must admit that the word is rather vulgar. Fortunately, the saucy French have provided us (as they so often do) with an altogether more refined alternative in décolletage, which originates from the delightfully specific French verb décolleter, 'to show the neck'. And as a bonus, its related adjective décollete has the thoroughly marvellous definition of 'slightly improper'!

If you have something to get off your décolletage, do please leave a comment in the box below.