Monthly Archives: November 2009

werewolf /’wɪəwʊlf/ or /’wɜ:wʊlf/

My last posting made an opportunist reference to the cinematic flavor du jour, New Moon, the latest in the made-for-sequels Twilight series. I use the word opportunistic because I am fully aware that I am shamelessly exploiting the current pop culture zeitgeist to snag (or is that snare) hapless web surfers and drag them to this site.

The current cultural vogue for sparring between vampires and werewolves is, for me, much better covered in the movie, Underworld, with Kate Beckinsale proving that female vampires can be just as erotic as male ones, and Bill Nighy turning in a splendidly entertaining performance as Viktor, the 1500-year-old vampire elder.

Kate Beckinsale as a Vampire

So having dealt with the etymology of vampire, it seems only fair to bite into werewolf and the plural, werewolves. And we can start with the definition offered by the OED:

A person who (according to mediæval superstition) was transformed or was capable of transforming himself at times into a wolf.  (obsolete) also, an exceptionally large and ferocious wolf. (OED, Vol.XX, p.158)

The first written definition of a werewolf in the English comes from Richard Verstegan‘s A restitution of decayed intelligence: in antiquities (1605) where we see;

The were-wolues are certaine sorcerers, who hauing annoynted their bodyes, with an oyntment which they make by the instinct of the deuil; and putting on a certaine inchanted girdel, do not only vnto the view of othres seems as wolues, but to their own thinking haue both the shape and nature of wolues, so long as they weare the said girdel.

The word itself is found as the Old English werewulf, which is thought by most to have been formed from the Old English wer meaning “man” and wulf meaning “wolf.” The latter is a found in many of the Germanic languages as ulfr (Old Norse); wolf (Old Frisian, Old High German); and wulf (Old Saxon).


In Greek, the word for wolf is λύκος, which forms the basis for the other common word for werewolfery (or werewolfism) – lycanthropy. The word for “man” in Greek is ανθρωπος or anthropos, where we also get such words as anthropology, the study of mankind. Note that anthropos refers to humans, not just the sexual gender of “man” as opposed to “woman,” and lycanthropes can be both male and female.

The original werewolf is arguably the Greek king of ancient Arcadia called Lycaon. A thoroughly wicked king, Zeus decided to test him to see if he had any redeeming qualities whatsoever and after taking the form of a man, he made his way to Lycaon’s palace. There, in a reversal of roles, Lycaon decided to put Zeus to the test to see if he would eat human flesh. While relating the story of his encounter with the Arcadian king to his fellow gods, Zeus said of Lycaon that;

“…he took
a hostage sent by the Molossians,
and after severing his windpipe, cut
his body into pieces and then put
the throbbing parts up to be boiled or broiled.” [1]

King Lycaon becomes a wolf

Yummy! Of course, Zeus refused to eat the Molossian snack and instead set about tossing thunderbolts across the land, killing all of Lycaon’s fifty sons and turning the king himself into a wolf:

“His garments now become a shaggy pelt;
his arms turn into legs, and he, to wolf
while still retaining traces of the man:
greyness the same; the same cruel visage
the same cold eyes and bestial appearance.” [2]

In a further fit of pique, Zeus followed up by causing a flood that destroyed the world, except for the virtuous couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha, who managed to build a boat and survive.

Anyhow, if you’re wanting to score points at the office party this year, while simultaneously trying to look hip, cool, and “in the moment” as regards popular culture, you might want to casual mention that in old Scottish dialect, a werewolf was something very different from the usual 500 lbs of fur, claws, and teeth with a penchant for ripping out throats. In the 1808 An etymological dictionary of the Scottish language, John Jamieson defines a warwolf as “a puny child or an ill-grown person of whatever age;  pronounced warwoof.”

And one other quirky definition relates to the an attempt by the Nazis at the end of World War II to create an underground paramilitary group that would continue the fight. The group was conceived by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who initiated Operation Werewolf (Unternehmen Werwolf) with the aim of having small groups of elite forces wreak havoc as guerrilla fighters behind enemy lines. Although nothing came of this, except a few alleged actions that have since been disputed due to lack of evidence, it’s a great story to use to impress your hosts.

Operation Werewolf

As with modern vampires, werewolves have assumed a romantic semi-heroic status, being seen more as naughty puppies who need a cuddle rather than a solid silver slug through the head.



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vampire /’væmpaɪə/

In an attempt to project an image of “old curmudgeon,” I thought about starting this article with the phrase “I don’t really understand all the fuss about this Twilight movie thing…” but realized that I actually do understand all the fuss. Sure, the trailers for the movie look like ads for Abercrombie & Fitch, with the obligatory topless young kouroi flaunting their six-pack abs and genetically enhanced dentition, but in our glossy celebrity-focused culture, this is par for the course.

New Moon kouros

The majority of Twilight fans are either teenage girls or moms reliving their teenage years, and ogling attractive young men in various stages of undress is hardly abnormal. It’s no different from my watching the spectacularly bad Bandidas (2006) solely because it has Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, or sitting through the vapidly banal Barb Wire (1986) just to marvel at the gravity-defying qualities of Pamela Anderson Lee‘s frontage.

Bandidas (2006)

Barb Wire (1996)

The other element that makes the New Moon movie so appealing is the presence of male vampires. Without going into an extended psychoanalytical thesis, all you need to know is that as far as women are concerned, vampires are HOT. And by “hot,” I mean sexually charged and erotic. Although I’m acutely aware that feminists may hate me for saying this, a woman can get the chills thinking of being dominated by some dark, handsome vampire whose intentions are less than honorable and who are quite happy to use their sexual charisma (something vampires appear to have in spades) to take their wicked pleasures.

Anyone who actually does want to read a thesis on sexuality and vampires should pop out and buy a copy of the deliciously decadent romp by Camille Paglia called Sexual Persona. Ms. Paglia takes on the whole of western art and uses a psycho-sexual knife to pare it down to its roots – which turns out to be shockingly erotic and so mired in sex that a walk through the masterpieces in the National Gallery of Art in Washington turns out to be no different from an afternoon in a back-street porno theater with a bucket of buttery popcorn. Admittedly she spend more time talking about the notion of the female vampire or “femme fatale,” but to connection between vampirism and sexuality is explicit.

So anyone claiming they “don’t understand what all the fuss is about” is either woefully unable to understand women or lying just so they can seem to be intellectually aloof. And anyone pretending that they’re watching the movie for Oscar-winning performances by giants in the field of acting is simply suffering from the American disease called Puritanism. As a friend of mine told me many years ago, “America was founded by Puritans – and it still shows!” I’m with H.L. Mencken when he says that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.”

As to understanding the word itself, vampire – or vampyr – is of Slavic origin. It exists in Czech, Polish, Russian, and Serb, as well as vapir and vepir in Bulgarian and vepyr in Ruthenian. Other variations include vopyr, opyr, upir, upyr and upior. The OED defines one as follows:

A preternatural being of a malignant nature (in the original and usual form of the belief, a reanimated corpse), supposed to seek nourishment, or do harm, by sucking the blood of sleeping persons; a man or woman abnormally endowed with such habits. (OED, Vol.XIX, p.422)

In 1796, the word is used in something called the Harleian Miscellany. The full – and well-worth repeating – title is Harleian Miscellany: A collection of scarce, curious, and entertaining pamphlets and tracts, as well in manuscript as in print, found in the late (Edmund Harley, second) Earl of Oxford’s library. Sounds like a forerunner of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. In the relevant passage, the writer says, “These Vampyres are supposed to be the Bodies of Deceased Persons, animated by evil Spirits, which come out of the Graves, in the Night-time, suck the Blood of many of the Living, and thereby destroy them.”

By 1813, the vampire had become a thing literary comment, with Lord Byron including the following sentence in his poem, The Giaour; “The freshness of the face, the wetness of the lips with blood, are the never-failing signs of a Vampire.” Interestingly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem Christabel in 1797 (with the second part in 1800 and the third part never appearing), which is clearly about a female vampire but without the word actually being used.

Christabel print

Christabel and Geraldine

The publishing of Bram Stoker‘s Dracula in 1897 marked the birth of the “modern” vampire, who is male, urbane, and a Romantic figure. Rather than being an ugly, evil, tortured spirit, the modern vampire is more along the lines of being “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” By the end of the 20th century, thanks to the writing of such authors as Anne Rice and the Hollywood movie machine, vampires had become romantically heroic. There’s even a whole sub-culture (or sub-cultures) of people who are convinced that (a) vampires are real and (b) they are vampires!. Take a diversion to the to find out if you are a vampire, how to “come-out,” and how to meet other vampires for fun, friendship, profit, and blood-letting.

Cruise and Pitt: Vampires

By extending the metaphor of sucking blood, the word vampire has also come to be used to describe “A person of a malignant and loathsome character, esp. one who preys ruthlessly upon others; a vile or cruel extractor or extortioner.” (ibid. 422)

The word can also undergo inflections: vampiric and vampirish are used to described someone as having the nature of a vampire; vampiredom means the state of being a vampire; and vampirism is the collective facts or ideas associated with the world of vampires.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a shortened form of the word, vamp, was used to describe, “A woman who intentionally attracts and exploits men; an adventuress; a Jezebel; freq. as a stock character in plays and films.” (OED, Vol. XIX, p.421). Note that this is NOT the same as the word vamp used to describe the part of the shoe or hose (stocking/sock) that covers the front of the foot. That word derives from the Old French avanpie, which in turn comes from avan(t)=before + pié=foot. It’s a great example of where two words appear to come from the same root but, in fact, don’t. This is sometimes referred to as a false cognate.

I won’t be going to see New Moon. There are only so many hours left in my life and spending two of them watching fantasy teenage angst seems a little bit of a waste. Now, where’s my Tomb Raider DVD…?

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newstainment /nyuz’təɪnmənt/

Among the many millions of events that happened in 1980, two took place that lead to the appearance of today’s word; newstainment. The first was the launch of Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, known as CNN, the first 24-hour news station. Prior to that, news shows were scheduled at intervals within regular daily TV shows.

The second took place in the one-time steel town of Sheffield in the UK, at a joint conference between the Institute of Information Scientists and the Library Association, referred to as ASLIP. Here, a group of information scientists put on a comedy show under the sobriquet of The Infotainers, who presented skits using “infotainment,” a portmanteau word culled from “information” and “entertainment.”

The challenge for the scientists was to fill an hour with fun and levity; the challenge for CNN was to fill 24 hours with news day in and day – forever. One way to do this was to repeat news over and over; the second was to include news that wouldn’t necessarily have appeared in a 30-minute show.

Thus the seeds were sown for the evolution of a new form of news reporting that is referred to as newtainment, a portmanteau of “news” and “entertainment.”

For some, this has become a problem. By the start of the 21st century, not only has CNN added different entities across the globe (and Headline News) but there were other players, such as MSNBC and Fox News. But what also appeared was the tendency for programs to blur the line between hard news and entertainment, and for the entertainment tail to begin wagging the news dog. For example, on February 2nd, 2004, the headline news was about Janet Jackson showing a nipple on national TV; second was the mailing of the deadly poison, Ricin, to Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist. The nipple slip dominated the network for days, not because of any inherently newsworthy content but because people love to hear about nipple slips.

Bill Frist

Janet Jackson

In April 2003, Professor Richard Breyer of the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University, New York, published an article entitled Newstainment: Cable news goes for the Oooomph. In it, he suggested that cable news was slouching toward a prurient Gomorrah where interviews  Rosie O’Donnell on gay adoptions, and a Las Vegas brothel owner are “news.” In fairness, he didn’t use the word “slouching,” “Gomorrah,” or “prurient,” but I couldn’t resist a little paraphrasing.

Later the same year, a group of Australian comedians who had created a spoof news network, CNNNN (Chaser Non-stop News Network) in September 2002, won an “award” for their “Director of Newstainment,” Rudi Blass. To quote Blass, “The challenge was to make everyday news more interesting,” he said. “And I think that through the judicious use of semi-naked dancers, we’ve more than risen to that challenge.”

The definition of newstainment is still fuzzy. Even the paragon of current slang, The Urban Dictionary, has yet to offer a first-stab at the word; and the other source of user-generated definitions, the Wiktionary, is similarly ripe for a wannabee lexicographer. Those interested in numbers might like to consider the following:

Ghits = 13,200

Yhits = 10,400

Bhits = 3,060

These scores are so low that you might argue it’s hardly worth considering it as a word at all, more a “flash in the pan” that is doomed to extinction in the lexical gene pool, but somehow I think it deserves at least its own 15-minutes of fame. Compare these scores with its close synonym, infotainment:

Ghits = 25,700,000

Yhits = 3,380,00

Bhits = 1,300,000

Now you see how this “hopeful monster” may well end up as a footnote in blog – or at least this single article.

My guess is that the use of newstainment is more of an Australian phenomenon rather than a world-wide English development. It appears in a scholarly journal article by an Australian author (Harrington, S. How Does “Newstainment” Actually Work?: Ethnographic Research Methods and Contemporary Popular News, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA. Online PDF 2009-05-24 from but I have been unable to find many references outside of the country. Again, its use in Oz is not unexpected considering the phenomenon of the popular CNNNN comedy from the early 2000’s.

Another nail in the coffin for newstainment is its lack of change to accommodate other grammatical classes. Most successful words quickly take on new forms by adding endings and switching teams. If you look at infotainment (the noun), you will find other forms such as infotaining, infortained, infotainer, infotains, and even infotainingly (adverb but only 59 ghits). Contrast that with newstainment that shows no evidence of verb inflections (except as a misspelling of “new staining” or “new stained”) and only 39 ghits for newstainer.

So if newstainment is a brief mayfly of a word, tragically destined to be pushed aside by the more robust infotainment, let’s at least tip our hat to a brave contender and acknowledge its transient existence. After all, who knows how many other words have been and gone and never been recorded? It’s as if they never lived.


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droid /’dɹɔɪd/

There was a frisson of excitement in the cellular telephony market a few days ago with the launch of a new mobile phone called the Droid. As the owner of a very old Motorola® MOTOKRZR™ phone and tied to the Verizon network, this new technology could be the ersatz iPhone® I have been looking for.


Motorola Droid

So, over the unseasonably warm Ohio weekend, I took a trip out on my Triumph® motorcycle to the local Verizon store, where I was able to get my hands on this new smartphone. It is, as the marketing suggests, a pretty cool device and offers the same general features as Apple® iPhone, as well as access to new apps – even if there are currently fewer on offer than the iTunes® store.

The word droid is clearly a contraction of android, which the OED defines as “An automaton resembling a human being.” (OED, Vol. I, p.452.) However, the phone in no way, shape, or form resembles a human being – unless the human being under consideration has had a horrific accident in a car crushing machine.

So how has this change comes about?

The first mention of android is in Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia; or, an universal dictionary of arts and sciences, which was published between 1722 and 1751. Here, he says, “Albertus Magnus is recorded as having made a famous androides.”

By the mid-20th century, androids were also seen as being part human. The Spectator magazine on 19th September, 1958, said, “Today SF [science fiction – Ed.] must be more than a blood-and-sex day-dream spattered with words like android (robots made of flesh and bone).” This also marks the distinction between a robot (from the Czech word robota meaning “forced labor”) and android.

The use of the circumcised form, droid, appears to have originated in the first of the Star Wars series of movies back in 1977. Incidentally, this lopping off of the linguistic foreskin is called aphesis, from the Greek ἀπό for “away” andἵημι meaning “to send.” Cutting off the end of a word is apocope, from the Greek ἀποκόπτω, which means “cut off.”

Imperial probe droid

Imperial probe droid

This notion of Star Wars being the progenitor of droid is reinforced by the very recent filing for Droid as a trademark by Lucasfilm Ltd. They claim specifically that they want the mark reserved for;

“Wireless communications devices, including, mobile phones, cell phones, hand held devices and personal digital assistants, accessories and parts therefor, and related computer software and wireless telecommunications programs; mobile digital electronic devices for the sending and receiving of telephone calls, electronic mail, and other digital data, for use as a digital format audio player, and for use as a handheld computer, electronic organizer, electronic notepad, and digital camera; downloadable ring tones and screen savers; cameras, pagers and calling cards.”

I add all this information to highlight the fact that words can be very, very serious business. Many people think that etymologists (folks who are interested in word origins) are geeks who live in cloud cuckoo land. Not so. In fact, trademarking is an area of business where etymologists can be very useful folks to have around.

More interesting is that the filing comes now, just prior to the release of the Motorola Droid, which doesn’t appear with a trademark but is cited as being “under license from Lucasfilms Ltd.” The actual filing is dated October 9th, 2009, which looks suspiciously like a last-minute dash by the Lucas attorneys to snag the mark before Motorola.

The word android is rooted in the Greek word ὰνδρο, meaning “man,” and the suffix -ειδῄς, “having the likeness of.” It’s the same root as the word androgyne, a being with the physical characteristics of both a man and a woman. More commonly, the word hermaphrodite is used for such as blended person. This comes from the myth of Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, who became half-man, half-woman after the gods fused him with the nymph, Salmacis.


Salmacis and Hermaphroditus - Navez (1892)

The adjective form of the word is androidal, meaning “like an automaton,” but it is rare. A quick Google search reveals 150,000 ghits, most of which seem to be the names of companies.

Now not only can the iPhone brigade get their dose of The Word Guy on their phones but now the Droid set can join in with words on the web.


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pimp /pɪmp/

I’m not a lawyer and more specifically not an intellectual property (IP) lawyer, but this particular area of the law is one I have been involved in as a patent owner. It’s somewhat weird to think that you can patent ideas such that other folks cannot use them without permission – but there yah go!

The field of IP is, however, a source of great entertainment for those who are not suing or being sued. For example, an 8-year battle between McDonalds and Malaysian fast-food company McCurry (allegedly short for “Malaysian Chicken Curry“) still continues.

McCurry Restaurant

McCurry Restaurant and Owners

One other linguistically based skirmish took place in 2006 between Viacom International (owners of MTV, VH1, Paramount Pictures, and a host of media companies) and sole-proprietor web site Pimp My Snack. I thought of headlining this SpongeBob Whips Sponge Cake but thought better of it.

The alleged infringing site, now called Pimp THAT Snack, is dedicated to the “art” of taking a particular item of food and turning it into a much larger version. I came across it while watching an episode of BBC’s The F-Word and saw one of the presenters create a two-foot wide Jaffa(R) cake – a popular chocolate-coated orange-based cookie.

Large Jaffa cake

Huge Jaffa cake with originals in foreground

The use of the word pimp in this situation reflects a modern change to refer to something as being wonderful, great, cool, or desirable. It appears to have been originally used in this way in the 1970’s by African-American males to describe an attitude or swagger, and being pimp was a good thing. It also seems to have been happy to jump across parts of speech from noun (“He’s a pimp“) to adjective (“That’s a pimp outfit you’re wearing”) to verb (“I’ve pimped out my ride”), and even interjection (“Pimping!”)

It’s in its use a verb that the Viacom lawsuit is based. In 2004, MTV launched the show Pimp My Ride, where the mechanics of LA car shop, West Coast Customs, would take a beat-up old car and transform it into something glamorous and desirable. Viacom have clearly decided that they can claim ownership of the phrase Pimp My X, hence the “cease-and-desist” order against the linguistically similar Pimp My Snack.

Legally, I suspect that only the words “pimp my” are covered because changing to Pimp THAT Snack doesn’t seem to have incurred a further law suit. The word “my” is used as a possessive determiner whereas “that” is used as a demonstrative, so clearly it’s true that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Legal arguments aside, the word pimp first makes an appearance in 1607 to refer to someone who “provides means and opportunities for unlawful sexual intercourse.”  (OED, Vol XI, p.845)

The famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in his 1666 diary on 10th June that, “The Duke of York is wholly given up to his new mistress… Mr. Brouncker, it seems, was the pimp to bring it about.”

It’s thought that the word derives from the 16th century French verb, pimper, which translates as “to render elegant,” and then from the past participle, pimpant,  to mean alluring or seductive in appearance or dress. However, this is still open to discussion.

Interestingly, the word is also used dialectically to mean a bundle of firewood or faggot, which first appears in print in 1742 in De Foe’s Tour of Great Britain; “Those small light Bavins, which are used in Taverns in London to light their Faggots, and are called in the Taverns a Brush, and by the Wood-men Pimps.”

Bundle of wood called a pimp or faggot

Pimp or faggot

Continuing with the word as a noun, in Australian and New Zealand slang a pimp is an informer or tell-tale, while in Welsh dialect it’s a Peeping Tom.

As a verb, it is used intransitively. In the New Yorker magazine on May 26th, 1975, you’ll find “His father (Jack Warden) pimps to add to his income as a taxi-driver.”

Oh, and those of you who are fascinated by bacronyms may want to stop by the Urban Dictionary site to find a few that have appeared for pimp. These include “Person Into Marketing Prostitutes,” “Player In Many Places,” “Put It In My Pocket” and even “Penis In Many People.”

And who says modern youth are not linguistically creative 😉

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