Monthly Archives: June 2010

palimpsest /’pælɪmpˌsɛst/

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an aging man in possession of a good intellect, must know that he gets more stupid by the year. The older one gets, the less one knows. There is so much I realize I don’t now that I seriously doubt any knowledge I think I do! This is regularly reinforced when I find that a word I thought I knew turns out to be totally wrong.

The Oxford University Press has a new blogger; Lauren Appelwick. In her inaugural blog, I asked her what her favorite three words are, to which she answered palimpsest, legit, and curdle. Now palimpsest is a word I know of, but not about. By that, I mean I sort of know that it’s a word, recall having heard it during my life,  but not know what it means.

But what made seeing the word particularly irritating was that I could have sworn blind that the word was actually *palimpset. Honestly. Ironically, I had to check the OED itself to confirm my error – an error that has clearly been in my head for decades.

Another example of how little I know and how inaccurate what I think I know may be.

Palimpsest derives from the Latin palimpsestus, which refers to a piece of paper or parchment that has been written on again. In a sense, palimpsests represent an ancient form of recycling, where old writing would be removed from a parchment and new script added. Either that or a precursor to the Magic Slate or Etch A Sketch®.

Codex Armenicus palimpsest

Incidentally (and what’s a Word Guy article without an “incidentally”) the Etch a Sketch was invented in the late 1950’s by a Frenchman called Andre Cassagnes, an electrician by trade but a toy designer at heart. He developed a toy that he modeled on the shape of a TV screen, which used two knobs to move a pointer across a glass screen covered in aluminum dust. He called it the Telecran, itself derived from télévision and écran, the French for screen. Cassagnes took the toy to the International Toy Fair in Germany in 1959 under the name of L’Ecran Magique, where the Ohio Art Company took a look at it and promptly said “non!” Fortunately for the Cassagnes, the “non” became a “oui” on a deuxième viewing, and in 1960, the Etch A Sketch burst forth onto American TV screens and became a huge hit.


So thousands of years earlier, Hellenistic Greek had the word παλὶπφηστος meaning “scraped again,” which derived from Ancient Greek πὰλιν = again along with φηστός = to rub smooth. φηστός has the same Indo-European base as the Sanskrit bhas, which means “to crush, chew, or devour.”

In 1661, Robert Lovell mentions the palimpsest in his A compleat history of animals and minerals when he says, “The chalked skinne for a palimpsestus, serving in stead of a table book.” A full definition appeared in 1701 in Phillips’s New World of Words, Vol 6. as;

… a sort of Paper or Parchment, that was generally us’d for making the first draught of things, which might be wip’d out, and new wrote in the same Place.

It is also used to refer to brass plates that have been reused on the back

By the 19th century, the word had taken on extended meaning as “a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multi-layered record.”

Palimpsest was used to described the brain (“What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?” – De Quincey, 1845); the soul (“Let who says ‘The soul’s a clean white paper’ rather say a palimpsest… defiled” – Browning, 1856); history (“All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary” – Orwell, 1949); and even entire countries (“The absurdity and high emotion that characterises the palimpsest that is India” – The Times, 9 Mar., 1995).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the word was assimilated by the fields of physical geography and geology to specifically refer to structures that are characterized by superimposed features, produced at two or more distinct time periods. In 1914, an article by Taylor in the Geographic Journal contained the line “I explain the topography as follows (in accord with the ‘palimpsest’ theory)…”

The word can be used as an adjective to described things of a palimpsest nature, as evidenced by The Times in 2001:

They [sc. television reruns] are another manifestation of today’s palimpsest pop culture, in which everything is ripe for sampling and nothing stays dead.

By adding the “-ic” suffix, it’s possible to turn the adjective palimpsest to – the adjective palimpsestic! This is referred to as a pleonasm, the addition of a redundant morpheme or word. If I were pretentious, I might want to suggest that a pleonasm is a type of linguistic palimpsest: but I am not pretentious 😉

Hmm, it’s surprising that no-one at Rolling Stone has yet used the phrase “palimpsestic rap” or “palimpsestic dance remixes” – or maybe they have.

The word also exists as a verb, to palimpsest, but it sounds weird when you see it inflected in a sentence. For example, in Scribes and Scholars (1991), Reynolds and Wilson wrote “The toll of classical authors was very heavy: amongst those palimpsested we find Plautus and Terence, Cicero and Livy.” And in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) Pynchon wrote, “Down both the man’s cheeks runs a terrible rash, palimpsested over older pockmarks.”

It’s hardly a popular verb. The Corpus of Contemporary American doesn’t have an example of palimpsested, palimpsests, or palimpsesting. Nor does the British National Corpus. Here’s an opportunity for wordies to start promoting

So now I know enough about the word palimpsest to feel temporarily content that in the infinite universe of things I don’t know, there’s at least one more word that I can be reasonably confident about. Until someone makes a comment…

Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest"


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soccer /’sɒkə/

The much-anticipated – and some might say hyped – World Cup match between the US and England was always, from the English perspective, a “no-win” event. After all, in the grand scheme of things, England’s winning would be seen as expected. Anything other than a win would be viewed from the American perspective as a win, where win is defined as “not losing to the Brits.” So when the match ended up as a 1-1 draw, there was the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth in pubs across the “green and pleasant land,” while US commentators had a hard time avoiding smugness – and by “holding back” I mean “not holding back.”

US vs. England 2010

The special relationship between the US and the UK has always been less of the English “Greeks” to the American “Romans” but independent child to rapidly aging parents. Every year on the 4th of July my American colleagues feel it necessary to remind me how they “whooped British asses” and created a better nation, while I feel obliged to remind them that many of those actually fighting for independence were British and that a significant number of folks living in the UK were also for US independence. There has always been something of an anti-English element in America, which is being sorely tested at this moment in time with the devastating oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit of which being BP – British Petroleum. Never mind that BP is an international company, with a sizable number of American investors, American employees, American managers, and American business relationships. As of 2009,  40 per cent of BP’s shares were owned in Britain, with a comparable 39 per cent owned in the US. It also has six British directors and six American, and employs 22,000 Americans against only 10,000 Britons.[1]

BP: Bringing Pain - Burning Petroleum

Nope, the big thing here is that the word British is right up there, allowing for the upsurge of latent anti-English feelings to resurface. The truth is that is doesn’t matter if the oil company responsible is British, American, Saudi Arabian, or Elvish; oil is spewing out into the sea and the Blame Game can wait until after a solution has been found.

So what better time to take on the Old Country via through the international medium of soccer -or as the rest of the world calls it, football. It’s also an opportunity to whip out the cudgels to fight on that other Anglo-American battleground – the English Language. Hardly a day goes by in the world without someone in the UK bemoaning the devastating effect those ugly Americanisms are having on the purity of English, while/whilst the US literati (an oxymoron for some little Englanders) use the same argument to promote the vitality and vivacity of the New Linguistic World order, with American English now being seen as the true heir to the language, with the fuddy-duddy whinging poms being stuck in a time warp, never having been able to get over the loss of the Empire.

It’s this on-going rivalry that fuels the squabbling over the word soccer, used primarily by Americans to describe a game played by the rest of the world in a different manner to their own game called football. But is the US predilection to use soccer in opposition to everyone else just another show of imperialism or a historical linguistic expedient? To understand this, we first have to forget the word soccer and go back to football.

Typical English Football Team

The ancient Greeks were not averse to a spot of knocking a ball around as a form of exercise and entertainment. The game, ἐπίσκυρος, was first mentioned in the writings of Antiphanes, and involved two teams of 12 players with a ball. The word ἐπίσκυρος is itself a variation on ἐπίκοινος, which Liddell and Scott translate as “common to many,” i.e. the ball is common to all the players.

Socrates Centre Forward

In the 2nd century AD, the writer Pollux described the game as follows:

This is played by teams of equal numbers standing opposite one another. They mark out a line between them with stone chips; this is the skuros on which the ball is placed. They then mark out two lines, one behind each team. The team which secures possession of the ball throws it over their opponents who then try to get hold of the ball and throw it back, until one side pushes the other over the line behind them. The game might be called a Ball Battle.

The Romans played a ball game called harpastum, the word being a romanization of the Greek ἁρπαστόν, from the word ἁρπάζω, which means “to grab,” which suggests some handling of the ball was expected.

The specific word football kicked off in English way back in 1424 when it appeared in a legal document issued by King James I of Scotland – not to be confused with King James I of Cleveland, OH, who also goes under the name of basketball player LeBron James. The act itself appears to have come about because too many wastrels were spending time playing the game instead of doing things the King felt more productive, so the edict was issued that “the King forbids that any man play at the ‘fut bal’ under payne of fines.” King Edward II also issued a ban, this time under “pain of imprisonment” – clearer he felt a little more strongly about it.

As might be expected with such an old game, over time, many variations on a theme began to appear, giving rise to different types of football. Thus is became necessary to distinguish the various forms by using some type of adjective to mark the specific set of rules being used. In England, for example, a particular version was developed and played at a school in the town of Rugby (thought to derive from Anglo-Saxon hruch burh = rook’s fortress, with rook referring either to the bird or a person’s name) and thus being designated Rugby football. In Ireland, they play Gaelic football, which is, in turn different from Australian rules football.

Rugby School. Warwickshire

In 1863, the newly formed Football Association (or FA) codified a set of rules that became the standard for Association Football, which involved the kicking of a round ball with only a goal-keeper being allowed to physically handle the ball. At around the same time, colleges in the US were playing a form of football that was more similar to Rugby football, where holding an oval-shaped ball and running with it was the main activity. This was referred to as collegiate football, the precursor the the run-of-the-century professional or grid-iron football.

Typical American Football Team

Now here’s where it gets interesting. In the UK, the phrase “association football” followed the path of simplification by shortening the adjective to soccer, similar to the way in which rugby football had become rugger. In 1889, the English poet and writer Ernest Dowson’s Letters was published, in which he wrote, “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.” The misspelling may, in fact, be due to the word not actually having a standard form at that point.

Dowson, as an aside, was one of those tragic figures who had a short life and dead at the age of 32 due to chronic alcoholism. When he was 23, he fell in love with an 11-year-old, Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Polish restaurateur. Although nothing came of this infatuation, her marriage in 1897 to one of her father’s waiters became the third element of a tragic trifecta that included the suicide of his father by an overdose of chloral hydrate in 1894, and the suicide of his mother by hanging in 1895. Dowson left for France saying, “I have no lungs left to speak of, an apology for a liver, and a broken heart.” Thus began his slow decline into alcoholism and death back in England in 1900.

Ernest Dowson 1867-1900

In the US, the adjective was dropped rather than shortened and references to collegiate or grid-iron football simply fell back to football alone. An article in the New York Herald of November 1881 said that, “A splendid game of football was played yesterday at the Polo Grounds between… Harvard and Princeton.”

But now for the flip-flop.

The English-originated word soccer was primarily used by the then upper classes, when public school chappies would play rugger, soccer, and cricket, and export them across the empire where the natives would learn to play them and ultimately beat the English in all of them! But the working classes of the 19th and 20th century still played common or garden football, a much more logical name for a game that involved kicking a ball with your foot. So gradually, the popular word for the game in England became football and not soccer.

Meanwhile, on the ranch, the official body for the game of soccer as played in the UK was created in 1913 as the United States of America Foot Ball Association, and became one of the early members of the international body that overseas the World Cup, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). It wasn’t until 1945 that it became the United States Soccer Football Association (and notice how the word association is used along with the word derived from association in the first place!) Then, the flip ultimately flopped in 1974 as the word football was dropped altogether to leave the United States Soccer Federation. With football now firmly associated with American football, using soccer served to make the distinction between the two ball games.

Which brings us back to June 2010, with the Americans using the British English word soccer to refer to… well… soccer! Rather than being some sort of snub to the sons and daughters of Mad King George, it seems that the heirs to the Revolution are preserving a word coined by the 19th century’s Empire Builders.  It turns out, therefore, that perhaps in certain respects, the Americans are actually preserving the English language.

Bet we don’t see a letter to the UK’s Daily Telegraph about THAT analysis!

[1] Source: UK Times newspaper article, June 10, 2010: Boris Johnson attacks America’s ‘anti-British’ rhetoric on BP.

Postscript: Germany vs. Greece

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terroristic /tˌɛrəˈrɪstɪk/

Earlier this year in March, on Neal Horsley was arrested for “making terroristic threats” against Elton John. The New York Daily News ran the story from The Associated Press using the word terroristic in the headline. Now sometimes you hear a word and think that it is in some sense “wrong,” which leads to you not liking it. That’s the effect terroristic has on me. Why, even the WordPress spell checker tells me it’s wrong. On the other hand, Microsoft Word, on the other hand, has no problem letting it go and so maybe I am being a little harsh in wanting to deny the poor word some form of existence.

"...terroristic threats"

Yet it feels odd. When I hear that someone, “made a terroristic threat,” I want to argue that “made a terror threat” would work just as well. Or even “made a terrorist threat” wouldn’t be a bad thing.

So why does it feel so weird? Why am I having such a hard time accepting it? Is it just too new and I’m too old?

Well, according to the OED, the word makes an appearance back in 1850 in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume XXVIII, p. 407, where we find “This was the Government styled ‘terroristical’ by the Austrians!” Twenty-five years later, in his gripping pot-boiler, Gaii institutionum juris civilis commentarii, Edward Poste wrote, “This terroristic law… was not abrogated till the time of Justinian.”

Notice that the words are used both attributively and predicatively, so the word really seems to be a fair and flexible adjective, able to skip around like any other happy little descriptor. And in 1972, the word appears as a regular “-ly” adverb in an April edition of Economic and Political Weekly, based in Mumbai;

Consisting almost exclusively of guerilla squads, they [sc. the Naxals] moved secretively and acted terroristically.

Adjective to adverb. Well, that pretty much wraps it up for my original notion that it isn’t a word, when in fact it has been around since the mid-19th century and has behaved like a regular adjective.

The uncertainty about the reality of the word may come from frequency – or lack thereof. And when it comes to frequency of a word, there are a number of sources I tap into. On this occasion, I opted for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a splendid online resource for those of us who are not full-time academics with access to specialized (and often expensive) databases. It’s based at Brigham Young University and is one of six created by Professor Mark Davies. Adjectives like monumental and herculean spring to mind when describing the amount of time and effort that has clearly gone into these corpora, which may seem cliched but in this case apposite.

One of the valuable features of the COCA is the ability to be able to search for a word’s frequency by part of speech. My original discomfort with terroristic was because I believed that terror and terrorist could quite happily be used as adjectives preceding threat without the need for a “new” one. So using COCA, I tracked down the relative frequencies of use of the three possible phrases; terror threat, terroristic threat, and terrorist threat.


See how low terroristic scores? Pretty pathetic really. It’s no surprise that it sounds “odd” because statistically it is! Take a look at how it stacks up against terror and terrorist in total i.e. as all parts of speech:

TERROR: 11,999

So although I turned out to be wrong – and I really, really thought terroristic was a newly coined error word – at least I got a lesson on how much the frequency of a word plays in its being accepted as a real word.


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