Monthly Archives: January 2009

pretentious /prɪˈtɛnʃəs/

It may comes as no surprise that one of my favorite TV shows is Frasier, with Kelsey Grammer (yes, with an e) and David Hyde Pierce as two brothers who are both psychiatrists.  Part of the appeal is watching how they both suffer from their pompous and pretentious natures, and how their obsession with social standing forces them into situations where they typically end up ensnared in webs of lies of their own making.

The modern meaning of pretentious – and by ‘modern’ is mean 17th century – seems to include the notion that all is for show, professing or making claim to great merit or importance, especially when unwarranted; making an outward show; showy, ostentatious.”

The noun, pretension, is of medieval Latin origin, praetensio, and in its early use meant an allegation or assertion that couldn’t be proved. Implicit in this was the idea that the allegation was, in fact, false – hence the lack of proof.

This contrasts with the meaning of pretension as a rightful claim to something, as in the Pretender to the Throne – a claimant to be the King. Both, however, have that concept of claiming in common.

In the book, 100 Pretentious Nursery Rhymes, author Michael Powell takes a number of common rhymes and turns them into more verbose, ostentatious linguistic offerings – basically, pretentious versions. Here are some samples:

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Enjoying her mucid repast.
An arachnid’s arrival
Threatened her survival,
So she left, to avoid being harassed

And how about;

Humpty Dumpty eschewed concavity
When, sitting on a wall, he succumbed to gravity.
Imperial equine and human assistance
Could not restore Humpty to his ovoid existence

So thinking back to my run in with the critic who accused me of being pedantic and pretentious, was she right? Do I really make great claims that cannot be substantiated? Am I in any shape or form showy and ostentatious?

Pretentious? Moi? Only when I drink my grande skimmed latte.



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pedantic /pɪˈdæntɪk/

My post on the word paralipsis came about as a result of my describing someone as being paraliptic. Someone told me, authoritatively, that I was in error and that paraliptic was not a word. I explained that it was a perfectly legitimate adjective derived from the noun, paralipsis, and then replacing the suffix by the -tic.

Not wanting to be proven wrong, my critic then said that if it were a word, why couldn’t she find in using a “dictionary site, wikipedia or any other references.” I countered by telling her that a word’s absence from an Internet dictionary doesn’t mean it is bogus – and I pointed her in the direction of the 2nd Edition OED, Volume XI, page 193, third column.

Her final comment was to accuse me of  “pedanticism and pretentiousness.” I took that as a victory.



But that made me curious about the word, pedantic, and whether it is a good or a bad thing. As far as I was concerned, all I was trying to do was support my hypothesis that paraliptic is a legitimate world, but she perceived it as pendantry. So, at what point is pedantry different from scholastic rigor?

A pedant was originally used for a teacher or schoolmaster, derived from the Italian pedante. Although there is no direct evidence, it is assumed that this, in turn, comes from the medieval Latin pedagogare meaning “to teach.” Hence the word pedagogue, which means “teacher.”

In the 15th century, being a pedant was OK. Starting in the 16th century, it took on a new meaning to apply to someone who “overrates book-learning or technical knowledge, or displays it unduly or unseasonably…one who lays excessive stress upon trifling details of knowledge or upon strict adherence to formal rules.”

This presumably includes people who pore over the OED simply to prove they are right. I guess I am a pedant after all!

Now, what’s this pretentious word all about…?

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paralipsis /pærəˈlɪpsɪs/

Ignore This Text

Ignore This Text

“It would be unfair to assume that my opponent’s past sexual infidelities will affect his ability to be a Senator.”

“My recent award of Humanitarian of the Year should not influence what you think of me.”

Paralipsis is a rhetorical device used by a speaker to bring attention to something by professing to be ignoring it. The word comes from the Greek παραλείπειν, which means to pass by or leave to one side. So when you say “It’s not important that my IQ was measured at 170…” you are pretending to “pass by” the fact, but you are, clearly, drawing attention to your intelligence.

The variants paraleipsis and paralepsis can sometimes be seen, with the former being more likely outside the US. Of course, “more likely” is a relative term; a quick Google search only beings up only 13,300 (as of today) examples of paralipsis, which is a very small number when you consider that sesquipedalian scores almost 10 times as many hits.

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gentleman /’dʒɛntl(ə)lmən/

Gentleman's PortraitAlthough it’s possible to use the word sarcastically, most men would be quite happy to be called a gentleman. GQ Magazine is not, as the ungentlemanly would say, “Gay Quarterly,” but Gentlemen’s Quarterly. The quartlerly piece is an historical remnant of its early incarnation as a supplement to Esquire magazine; it was a fashion addendum published every three months – quarterly. GQ started life in 1931 as Apparel Arts, became part of Esquire in 1957, and was bought by Conde Nast in 1983 to become the monthly GQ that is now circulating.

So what is it about the word gentleman that GQ readers hope applies to them?

The word comes from the Old French gentilz hom, a “gentle man,” and the word gentle comes from the Latin gentilis meaning belonging to the same race. It’s this root word gentle that does the harder work. Way back in the 13th century, to describe someone as gentle was to indicate that they were well-born and belonged to a family of some position.

The sort of behavior one expected from someone of gentle birth was honor, nobility, generosity, courtesy, and polite. It was – and still can be – used as an adjective to describe a man but is now just part of the whole word, gentleman.

A fascinating use of the word gentle is as an adjective to mean enchanted or haunted by fairies. Some folks use the phrase “the gentle people” to refer to fairies, and in the book The History of Carrickfergus by Samuel McSkimin, he says, “The large hawthorns growing singly…are deemed sacred to fairies and are hence called gentle thorns.”

Although it is used primarily as a positive appelation, it can have some negative or sarcastic uses. The devil is sometimes called the gentleman in black; a pirate can be described as a gentleman of fortune; a highwayman had the label gentleman of the road, which is also used for a hobo.

Oddly enough, the word as a whole can be used as an adjective to refer to someone who follows a profession or trade, but in such a way as to be better than the average person. So a gentleman farmer is higher up the social scale than a farmer; a gentleman thief is almost a good thing to be; a gentleman adventurer has a ring about it that sounds much better than just a common explorer. Note, though, that a gentleman friend is different – it’s a boyfriend.

Using the shortened version, gent, is typically in order to ascribe a sort of unworthiness to the person to whom the word is directed. And of course, if you ask for the gents, you won’t be shown a group of classy men but a row of glassy urinals!

And so, gentle reader, I come the end of this scholarly piece. Let me know what you think and I will be happy to respond – you have my gentleman’s agreement on that!

Thanks to Marina Herold for suggesting this word. It would be ungentlemanly of me to not mention her.

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eponym /’ɛpənɪm/

4th Earl of Sandwich

John Montague

When did you last have a sandwich? Or maybe some fettucini alfredo? Or even pizza margherita? I don’t suppose that as you were munching away at your meal that you thought, “Mmh, what a delicious eponymous dish!”

An eponym is the name of a person, place, or thing after which an item is named.

Way back in the 1760’s, John Montague would play cards with his friends regulary. Like most gamblers, he didn’t like to leave the table if he could avoid it, so he often asked for folks to put small food items between two slices of bread, simply so he could play cards and eat at the same time.

Montague also happened to be the 4th Earl of  Sandwich, an estate in England. So, the meal became know as the sandwich, after the ravenous earl. Sandwich is an example of an eponym.

In the early 20th century, Italian Alfedo di Lelio invented a new dish for his wife. It was made from  fettuccine pasta that had been tossed with Parmesan cheese, butter, and artery clogging heavy cream. It became known as the fetuccini Alfredo, another eponym.

Pizza Margherita was named after Queen Margherita of Savoy and used tomato, cheese, and basil to simulate the colors of the Italian flag – red, white, and green.

Queen Margherita of Savoy

Queen Margherita of Savoy

So the word eponym really applies to the name of the person or place, hence sandwich, fettucini, and Alfredo.  it comes from the Greek ὲπὡνυμ, a word made up of ὲπί (meaning “upon”) and ὸμομα for “name.”

Burking, the practice of strangling a victim so as to sell the body to the medical professions is another eponymous word.


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burke /bɜ:k/ – but not a berk /bɜ:k/

William Burke

William Burke

On 28th January, 1829, Irishman William Burke was hanged in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the murder of 17 people for profit. Burke, along with his colleague, William Hare, drugged and strangled their victims in order to sell them to the Edinburgh Medical School for dissection. In return for his testimony against his partner, Hare was released and disappeared from the public eye.

The modus operandi of drugging someone with alcohol and then strangling or suffocating them became known as burking. By extension, some who burks victims is called a Burkite – a follower of Burke – or simply a burker.

The verb can also be used figuratively to refer to the process of hushing something up or suppressing something.

The British English berk or burk is not related. It is a homonym – sounds the same – but has a very different origin. The word is a contraction of the Cockney rhyming slang, Berkley Hunt for cunt. The Berkeley Hunt was a famous hunt that took place in Gloustershire, England.

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omphaloskepsis /ɒmfələʊ’skɛpsɪs/

Have you ever found yourself “contemplating your naval?” That’s when you focus inwardly on something to the exclusion of everything else – usually something trivial. If so, you’ve been indulging in omphaloskepsis.

It comes from two Greek words: ὸμφαλός – meaning a naval, boss, or hub; and σκέψις – meaning examination or doubt.

It is a relatively new word in that it doesn’t appear in the 1986 Oxford English Dictionary but does pop up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, where it is credited with first appearing in 1925.

A similar-meaning word is omphalopsychic; or omphalopsychite –  not someone who can communicate mentally with dead belly buttons but a member of an ancient group of 14th century Greek monks called the Hesychasts. They lived quietly on Mount Athos and would go into a trance whilst meditating on their navels.

The word omphalos was used by the Ancient Greeks to refer to a stone at the Temple of Delphi high up on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. For them, this was the Center of the World.

Temple of Delphi

Temple of Delphi

If you count the number of knots on a baby’s umbilical cord to predict how many siblings he or she will have in the future, you are practicing omphalomancy – the -mancy ending comes from the Greek μαντεία, meaning divination.

Try slipping this word into your next conversation and see how it goes.

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