Monthly Archives: September 2009

eldritch /’ɛldɹɪtʃ/

Like most people, there are times when I find myself thinking of things that seem to pop out of nowhere. In this case, my mind drifted back to a novel I read many years ao by Philip K. Dick called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The name “Palmer” and the link to “stigmata” seems fair enough but I was unfamiliar with the word eldritch, assuming at the time that is merely a name. Hard as it might seem to believe, there was a time when I was younger that language didn’t have the same fascination for me – although reading did. So I simply enjoyed the book for what it was and moved on.

Philip K. Dick book

Philip K. Dick book

The OED defines the word as meaning “weird, ghostly, unnatural, frightful, hideous.” So, a spooky, eerie sort of word. The Scottish poet, William Dunbar (1460-1520), used it on his 1508 poem The Golden Targe;

“There was Pluto, the elrich incubus,
In cloke of grene – his court usit no sable”

At around the same time in Scotland, Bishop Gavin Douglas (1474–1522) was working on a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Scottish version of which became known as the Eneados. At one point her writes, “Vgsum to heir was hir wyld elriche screik.”

Its status as a Scottish word continued with its use by other Caledonian writers such as William Stewart () in his Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland, where it appears as eldritche, and by Robert Burns’ (1759 – 1796) On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland (1789) in the sentence;

“By some auld, houlet-haunted biggin,
Or kirk deserted by its riggin,
It’s ten to ane ye’ll find him snug in
Some eldritch part,
Wi’ deils, they say, Lord save’s! colleaguin
At some black art.”

At this point, the spelling settled down to the current form of eldritch. Prior to this, other variants included alriche, elraige, and eltrich.

The derivation is thought to be from the Old English ælf-rice, which means “elf” and “sphere of influence or domain,” thus describing an elvish domain or supernatural associations. However, there is some (academic) debate still going on. In 2007, at an annual conference on Scottish Language, Alric Hall gave a paper entitled The etymology and meanings of eldritch, and argues that  it “is unlikely etymologically to contain elf-, but *alja-, meaning ‘foreign, strange’, deriving from Old English *æl-rīce~el-rīce.”

al-, el-, or elf-, the word scores low on ghits (672,000), of which a sizable proportion refer to people’s surnames or company names. And an image search turns up lots of pictures of characters from games, comics, or virtual worlds.

Eldritch Knight of Deriahn

Eldritch Knight of Deriahn

It seems that the word describes itself; eldritch indeed.

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sarcasm /’sɑ:kæzəm/

Many years ago, I spent the princely sum of one pound and fifty pence for a copy of The Lowest Form Of Wit by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter, who died in 1984, was best known in the UK for his comedic roles as the landlord Rigsby in the series Rising Damp, and Reginald Perrin in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. In both of these classics, he was not averse to the use of sarcasm, and his 1981 book was a paen to what has been called “the lowest form of wit.”

The phrase, “the lowest form of wit” is oft used, but its origin is obscure. The Internet, being the Mother of All Lies, ascribes it to Oscar Wilde, who was a master of sarcasm himself and certainly a worthy owner of the phrase. Alas, no Wilde scholar has been able to point to its existence in any of his works. Some folks say that it is actually a corruption of “sarcasm is the lowest form of humor but the highest form of wit,” a phrase that is similarly cited as being from Wilde, yet just as impossible to demonstrate!

And it doesn’t stop there. Michael DeJong, in an article for The Huffington Post, wrote a piece on “Sarcasm Month” and supplied a new misquote  where he says, “as Oscar Wilde stated, Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.'” Sorry Michael, it appears he didn’t say that either!

Proverbial origins aside, the actual word sarcasm is of Greek origin, from σαρκάζειν meaning “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.” (OED, Vol. XIV, p. 480). This evolved into the Latin sarcasmus, and took on the meaning of “A sharp, bitter, or cutting expression of remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.” (Ibid.)

Sarcastic? You bet!

Sarcastic? You bet!

If you use sarcasm, you are being sarcastic, or you may even be described as being a sarcast. The word can also be used in its adverbial form, sarcastically – or even, at a pinch, sarcasmically. This is a rare word indeed and first appears in John Jones’ 1658 tome, Ovid’s Invective or curse against Ibis, where he writes, “It is inhumane sarcasmically to insult over a captive as a Cat over a Mouse.”

Recent research suggests that contrary to its “lowest form of wit” appellation, sarcasm requires some sophisticated mental processing. In an article entitled The Neuroanatomical Basis of Understanding Sarcasm and Its Relationship to Social Cognition, psychologists Simone Shamay-Tsoory, Rachel Tomer, and Judith Aharon-Peretz found that understanding sarcasm requires a healthy right frontal lobe. Underlying this is the fact that in order to know sarcasm is taking place, you have to be able to appreciate the point of view of the speaker – a skill that requires the hearer to shift from an egotistical point of view. This is thought to be a skill lacking in folks who exhibit autistic behavior; the inability to appreciate the perspective of other people.

So let me finish with a few examples of sarcasm culled from the wit of various writers – including Oscar Wilde:

“I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying. ” Oscar Wilde.

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain.

“I did not attend his funeral:  but I wrote a nice letter saying that I approved of it. Mark Twain.

“Jane Austen’s books, too, are missing from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” Mark Twain.

“I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you don’t like?” Jean Cocteau.

“The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.” George Bernard Shaw.

“He is a man of great common sense and good taste… meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw.

“The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” Robert Frost.

“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Voltaire.

“I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on I go to the library and read a good book.” Groucho Marx.

Food for thought

Food for thought

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Intermission: How To Organize Your Books

The Word Guy is on the road. The upshot of this is that I don’t have access to my OED and that makes it difficult to provide interesting and accurate word etymologies. This, of course, is a marvelous example of why buying the OED on CD is worth doing. If I were to spring for the disk (another $200 – $300 or so depending on where I buy it) I could have mobile access.

So in the absence of my source books – which also includes Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots and Donald Ayers’ English Words from Latin and Greek Elements – I’ve decided to offer an intermission piece that was originally published in a local periodical. I’ll be back home by the weekend and working on the word sarcasm.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Great Library of Alexandria; the Bodleian Library of Oxford; the Library of Congress; and even Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel – all world famous examples of cathedrals to bibliophilia – the love of books. Since the first caveman scrawled the prehistoric version of “Kilroy was here” on the walls of his rocky condo, mankind has sought to record his story, laying the foundations for a cultural existence. And as the number of literary efforts increases, so does the need for cataloging and organizing them. Whether on tablets of stone, in jars of clay, or engraved onto the surfaces of grains of rice, accessing what has been written is as important as the actual content of the text.

When Melvil Dewey devised his system of classification back in the 1870s, who could have thought that this would become the standard method of choice for the world? And who would argue that this relatively simple and efficient system didn’t make life easier for the common reader.

Melvil Dewey

Melvil Dewey

Well, the editor of In Style magazine for one. The February 2006 edition of this veritable vade mecum of fashion answers the age-old question of how best to organize a collection of books. And here is it, in black and white, from page 325:

“Books look best when organized by size or grouped in color blocks.”

So there you have it. Problem solved. And thank goodness, I say, that the Oxford English Dictionary is made up of individual volumes that are (a) all the same color and (b) all the same size. However, bad luck if you’re looking for a copy of the Bible. Considering that there are bibles in as many colors and sizes as rainbows and rocks, finding one might turn out to be a bit of a problem.

Imagine the scenario:

Student: “Excuse me, my fine fellow. Pray, tell me, where might I find the latest offering by that goodly scribe, John Grisham?”

Librarian: “Ah, my honest scholar, wouldst that be the big brown one, the big blue one, or the more portable small black one?”

Student: “Goodness, my educated friend, in truth, I know neither of the size nor the color.”

Librarian: “Ah, my hapless seeker-after-wisdom, then art thou up a raging river without aid of a rowing implement. Without such critical information regarding appearance and girth, I am, alas, unable to help thee in thy quest.”

Student: “Oh, sweet mother of mercy, is there not a way of finding it by, for example, using the first letter of the honorable scribe’s surname of ‘Grisham?’”

Librarian (chuckling softly): “What a unique suggestion, my witty colleague! But if we were to adopt such a method, wouldst it not then make it almost impossible to find, for example, yonder large, green tome? Why, how would I decide where to locate a new middling orange epistle?”

Student (crestfallen and dejected): “Aye, there’s the rub.”

Librarian (surprised): “’Struth, art thou familiar with the contents of the large, thick work – in green, red, and brown – found on the third shelf on the twentieth case in the fourth room?”

Student (equally surprised): “Yes, although in my own humble abode, it is found on the first shelf, next to a fetching gold small tome about a young girl named Alice who finds herself in a bizarre world of fantasy.”

Librarian: “Ah yes, fantasy indeed. A little like your joke about ordering books by letter.

Exeunt Librarian and Scholar, slapping each other’s backs, laughing together at the absurdity.

Color-coded Bookcase

Color-coded Bookcase

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syllepsis /sɪˈlɛpsɪs/

There’s small gem of a movie starring Mike Myers and Nancy Travers called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which borders on being a cult offering and contains prescient hints of the hit Austin Powers series. It’s a fluffy romantic comedy set in San Francisco with Myers playing Charlie Mackenzie, an aspiring poet and Travers is Harriet Michaels, the daughter of a butcher.

So I Married an Axe Murderer

So I Married an Axe Murderer

As well as being the inspiration for an incident where The Word Guy danced with a friend through the aisles of a small grocery store in San Francisco’s Russian Hill district, it also provides a splendid example of the linguistic phenomenon known as syllepsis. This is where two or more parts of a sentence are yoked together by a common verb or noun, more often than not for humorous effect. The example in So I Married An Axe Murderer is a line from a poem written by Charlie for Harriet; “She was a thief, you gotta believe, she stole my heart and my cat.”

The syllepsis here is in the last phrase, where the word stole is used to refer both to heart and cat. The meaning of the sylleptic word changes relative to the nouns. In this instance, the first gloss is related to the phrase to steal someone’s heart, which doesn’t mean literally ripping a beating heart from someone’s chest like an Aztec sacrifice but to cause someone to fall deeply in love with another. The second gloss is, indeed, the literal meaning of the word steal in that the cat is physically taken without consent.

According to the OED, syllepsis is a figure of speech where “a word, or a particular form or inflexion (sic)  of a word, is made to refer to two or more other words in the same sentence, while properly applying to or agreeing with only one of them.” (OED, Vol. XVII, p. 446).

The Greek origin is the word σύλληψις, which in turn is derived from the prefix, σύν- meaning together or with, and λῆψις meaning taking. Thus, the notion is that the sylleptic word and those it refers to are “taken together.”

Charles Dickens was not above using a little sylleptic humor in The posthumous papers of the Pickwick Club when he wrote “She went straight home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair[1],” and Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock said of Queen Anne;

“Here thou art, Great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.”

The Rolling Stones offer an example of what I’d call a semi-syllepsis in their song, Honky Tonk Woman, where they sing, “”She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.” To be truly sylleptic, Mick and Keith should have tossed out that second blew. However, this would clearly have changed the meter of the song so I guess it was more a prosodic decision than a grammatical one.

Syllepsis is related to another word – zeugma. For some, it is simply a synonym; for others, it is a sub-type of several different zeugmas. I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I’ll stop here because I think I’m out of time and imagination.


[1] Full quote: “All these things combined with the noises and interruptions of constant comings in and goings out made Mr Pickwick play rather badly. The cards were against him also and when they left off at ten minutes past eleven Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated and went straight home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair.”

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