Monthly Archives: July 2010

triumph /’traɪəmf/

Given a choice between investigating a word’s origins and going for a ride on my motorcycle, the weighting is heavily determined by the weather. So while the sun shines down in NE Ohio and the temperatures stick around the 80’s, there’s little mystery as to why there’s been a delay in the weekly posting. This, of course, is the correct decision to make because life is’ after all, about experiences and not writing about experiences. As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his masterpiece, Zorba the Greek;

I felt once more how simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

In the movie – a rare case of where a film actually does justice to a novel – you get to see how the English, bookish, academic character played by Alan Bates learns a valuable lesson from Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, about what it means to be alive. Those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie are in for a treat when you finish reading this and rush out to buy them (or order them online – whichever is your preference.)

Zorba teaches Basil

My motorcycle is a Triumph Bonneville America, perhaps not an unusual choice for an English ex-pat, I suppose. It is, without doubt, one of the most stylish bikes on the planet – although I may be a little biased. I can guarantee that whenever I park up, someone is going to come over and talk to me and tell me how much they like it. I’d like to say it was a “chick magnet” but it’s more of a “geezer magnet,” so the typical discussion revolves around engines, torque, valves, and other items about which I have no clue. To paraphrase Star Trek‘s Leonard McCoy, “I’m a linguist, dammit, not an engineer.”

2003 Triumph Bonneville America

The word triumph is of Greek origin, θρίαμβος, and means a hymn to Dionysus sung in processions to his honor. Dionysos, who was to become Bacchus for the Romans, was the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Well, in the sense that he was in charge of wine, agriculture, fertility in nature, and the Greek stage.


The Romans took the notion of the “hymn of praise” to use the word as follows:

The entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome, permission for which was granted by the senate in honour of an important achievement in war.

The word appears to have slipped into the Latin via Etruscan, according to Liddell and Scott, authors of the definitive Greek-English Lexicon, first published in 1819.  From there it morphed into Old French triumpher, the Provençal triomfar, Spanish triunfar, Portuguese triumphar, and Italian trionfare. So all in all, quite a popular and useful word.

Triumphant entry: Spring by Alma-Tadema

There’s an early use of the word by King Aelfred in 893, but we can see it in Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite (1374)  where he says. “With his tryumphe and laurer corovned thus… Let I this noble prince Theseus Towarde Athenes in his wey ryding.” By the 16th century, it had slipped across the border from noun-hood to verbiness;

I tryumphe for a conquest or a victorye gotten… It was a marvaylouse syght to se the Romanynes tryumphe, whan they had the vyctorie of their ennemyes. (Palsgrave (1530), Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse).

At around the same time, specifically in 1529, a priest named Hugh Latimer gave a controversial Christmas sermon on playing cards. Although this was a pastime sanctioned by the church at Christmastime, the Reformers were antagonistic, even though Latimer used the metaphor to teach a spiritual truth based on the triumph or trump card. In fact, he uses the words triumph and trump synonymously. Compare the following:

Heartes is trumpe. {emem} Cast thy tromp vnto them both, and gather them all three together.

And then;

Lette therefore euery Christian manne and woman playe at these cardes, that they maye haue and obteyne the triumph; you must marke also that the triumphe muste apply to fetche home vnto hym all the other cardes, whatsoeuer sute they bee of.

So the word trump, as used in cards, comes from the word triumph. Incidentally, the Sermon on the Cards may well be the original precursor of the popular Text Ritter country song from 1948, The Deck of Cards. This tells the story of a soldier arrested for playing cards but who talks his way out of the charge by saying that the deck is his bible, with the Ace representing God, the two the Old and New Testaments, the three Holy Trinity, and so on.

Deck of cards

Other noun variations are triumphator or triumpher – one who triumphs; triumphress – a woman who triumphs; triumphalism – the sense of pride after achieving a triumph; and triumphancy – the state of being triumphant. Although these are not likely to be tripping off the tongue on a regular basis, they do illustrate how the word has blossomed since its early days.

As well as sitting happily in the noun and verb camps, triumph‘s promiscuity extends to its sleeping with adjectives and adverbs. The popular triumphant can be traced back to the late 15th century, and it’s less frequently used analog, triumphal even further back to the beginning of that century. Triumphous pops up at around the same time, and by sticking the adjectival -ing on the end, triumphing appears as yet another option in the earlier 16th century, with poet William Dunbar offering “O hye trivmphing peradiss of joy (Poems, 1500-1520). Why, there’s even the existence of triumphable (capable of being triumphed over), but a quick Google search reveals a ghit score of 106, of which most are in sentence pairs where one ends in triumph and the next starts with able (“…triumph. Able…)

In terms of adverbs, you can do things triumphantly, or even triumphally, as evidenced in an article from the Miami Herald in 1984, where we read, “Mike Zeck returns triumphally as… the local kid who actually did break into the business.”

It’s heating up outside. The sun is still shining. My bike is waiting. Write no more.

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. D.H. Lawrence



Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

shoat /ˈʃəʊt/

It’s been a cruel day and now it’s late in the evening and I’m taking the opportunity to relax with a bottle of Russell’s Reserve bourbon (created by the good folks at Wild Turkey) and a book of crosswords. I don’t profess to be a connoisseur of corn whiskey and freely admit to buying the stuff simply because I saw my name on the bottle as I cruised the liquor store. Shallow? Perhaps.

But frankly there are many “connoisseurs” out there whose level of sophistication and expertise is inversely proportional to their actual knowledge, and if there is a skill that many Americans are good at it’s called bullshitting. Wine snobs are particularly adept at this. Here, for example, is a snippet from a writer who refers to a piece of research done in 2001 with blind taste testing:

In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The phrase “not a single one” is particularly damning considering that all 57 of the subjects considered themselves “experts.” The same goes for “management consultants” who charge enormous fees to tell people what they already know and to spout absolute claptrap using deceptive words and flowery phrases. For years, “guru” Stephen Covey told us that there were the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and built a very profitable empire on selling that to people. Yet then, in 2004, the business wunderkind reveals that there’s an eight habit he’s failed to mention previously. What a crock! I don’t recall his offering to refund folks for their being short changed by the spectacular omission of this critical eighth. Doubtless when the revenue from the eight habits starts to fall, an ninth will suddenly appear and the franchise will once again milk the teat of human credulity. As H.L. Mencken said, “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

An 8th? Dude, you kept THAT quiet!

So being one of the “great masses” myself, I make no claim to any special skills at identifying and preferring specific bourbons. If it tastes good to me and the cork top comes off with a satisfying “plop,” then that’s all I need to be happy and any doyen or guru of the distilleries can go suck a corn cob.

Which leads me to the fact that as I sipped the Russell’s and worked on the crossword, one of the clues was, “A small pig.” Cruciverbalist that I am (Lover of crosswords, from Latin “crux”=cross and “verbum”=word), my first thought was piglet – a not unlikely choice. Except that it had five blanks. Hmm.

The amount of bourbon I had consumed at this point might have been an excuse for not knowing the answer, but as it turns out, I could have been as sober as a Puritan in a church on National “Drinker’s Go To Hell” day, and still not have remembered the word. Because I didn’t know it! By completing the “across” clues, the five-word “down” answer was revealed as shoat. Naturally, this sent me scurrying for the dictionary and another glass of Russell’s.

Rainbow trout - not shoat enough

The first recorded shoat appeared in a manuscript by Aelfric, the Abbott of Eynsham, written around 1000 CE, where it appears as scoetan and seems to refer to a fish resembling a trout found in Devon and Cornwall in England. A more definite reference to the fishy interpretation comes 600 years later in Richard Carew’s The survey of Cornwall (1602) where he says;

The Shote [is] in a maner peculiar to Deuon and Cornwall, in shape and colour he resembleth the Trowt: howbeit in bignesse and goodnesse, commeth farre behind him.

The best suggestion of the word’s origin is the  Old English scéotan, which means “to shoot around” as in movement – a characteristic of fish, and thus by extension to the sceota, or trout.

This is in contrast to the use of the word in 1413 to refer to a pig under one year old. The word seems to be from the same root as West Flemish, which uses schote, schoteling to refer to weaned pigs. Here was the origin of the crossword puzzle answer.


By 1800, shoat had taken on a pejorative air to refer to someone who was estimated as being idle and worthless. In The Clockmaker: The sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville (1840), Thomas C. Haliburton made a pun when he wrote, “I am the poorest shot in the world. Poorest shote, said he, you mean, for you have no soul in you.”

More recently in 1969, the word shoat was used in Australia to describe the offspring of a sheep and a goat. According to a 1969 “letter to the editor,” writer D.F. Elder said, “Although it has not appeared in print, the radio and television news programmes have also been using the word ‘shoats.’” The New Scientist of 1977 reinforced this meaning; “Hundreds of people have claimed success in breeding shoats or geep.”

Both shoat and geep are portmanteau words – those made from taking two (possibly more) words and squashing them together to make a combine word. The word portmanteau itself derives from Middle French portmanteau < porter=to carry + manteau=mantle.

Currently, the word seems to be languishing in the “where are they now?” category, omitted totally from the ever-popular Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, scoring a measly 8 in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and a pathetic one in the British National Corpus. This might explain why is has also never left its noun status and made a bid for verbiness.

It’s interesting that the Urban Dictionary includes another portmanteau derivation and meaning for shoat; in this case, the words shitty and coat to refer to a really awful coat – a shoat. This particular definition hasn’t made it into the OED but I suppose we can all start lobbying now.

Katherine Heigl wears a shoat

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hyperbole /haiˈpɜbəli/

Just yesterday, I received a tweet with a link to an article about the culture of whales. No, that wasn’t a misspelling of “Wales” but a reference to those huge, blubbery mammals that produce exotic whoops and whistles in order to communicate with one another.  I say “communicate” because I’m not one of those linguists who believe that “talking” is the right way to describe what whales do.

"Do you think my hump looks fat?"

Bees are able to do quirky little dances in order to communicate – without the New Jersey fist-pumping element – but you’d have to be very flexible with your definitions to describe is as a conversation. The bees can transmit data about distance and direction but there’s no “Hey dude, did you hear about Ralph getting a guest spot on ‘Springer’ and stinging some trailer park chick in the ass?”

"So, back to your hive or mine?"

Of course, this doesn’t stop some people from wanting to claim that such communication activities are evidence of an underlying intelligence and consciousness that is close to being human. At the top of the wacko food chain are the self-proclaimed “Pet Psychics” who are not as dumb as the people who believe them, and who are smart enough to get paid by gullible pet owners for spouting total crap (“Fido tells me he is unhappy, and that switching to a premium doggy chow would enhance his self-esteem.”)

In the case of the whales, the story originally comes from a 2001 scholarly article (and for “scholarly” read “we got paid to do this from a grant”) that’s entitled Culture in whales and dolphins by Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead[1]. The more recent revival of the story makes an appearance in the online publication, The Daily Galaxy, where the following gem of hyperbole appears when the author talks about how whale songs have changed:

Why did the song change? It’s not clear, but what is clear is that whales have a sophisticated culture. And who knows, it may be a culture that provides them with the tools to outlive that of homo sapiens. The fact that they took the opposite revolutionary route of human’s by going from land to sea 50 million years ago was a stroke of genius. After all, this the water planet.

“Sophisticated culture?” “Outlive homo sapiens?” “Stroke of genius?” As far as I can remember, it was Melville who wrote Moby Dick, and not Moby Dick who wrote “Melville.” And in the great list of the cultural contributions of whales, I suppose sucking krill is their most significant achievement. Apart from the egregiously erroneous notion that somehow the whales sat down and thought, “Gee guys, let’s not evolve legs and stick around in the water instead,” the paragraph practically defines the word hyperbole for us.

Here’s how the OED defines it:

A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.

Alas for some speakers – and writers – hyperbole IS intended to be understood literally.

The word comes from the Greek, ύπερβολή, meaning excess or exaggeration, and is made up from ύπέρ = over and βάλλειν = to throw. Sometimes an example of hyperbole seems more like it should mean “throw up” rather than “throw over.”

One of the earliest uses in English is by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), a famous English figure who is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church. In his enthrallingly titled A dyaloge wherin he treatyd dyvers maters as of the veneration and worshyp of ymagys from 1529, he writes, “By a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” The spelling variation here probably a French influence.

Thomas More (1478-1535)

In 1653, another More decided to enhance the word by sticking an “-ism” suffix one. Henry More (1614-1687) was an English philosopher and born in Grantham, the same town as Britain’s first Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He spent most of his life teaching at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and during that time wrote An antidote against atheisme, which included the comment, “Nor is there anything here of Hyperbolism or high-flown Language.”

Henry More (1614-1687)

As a verb, the word is rare.  Philosopher John Locke uses it as such in the comment “Your poor solitary verger who suffers here under the deep winter of frost and snow: I do not hyperbole in the case” (Letter to E. Masham, April 29th, 1698). But other than that, there appear to be no other instances readily available. It is more frequent (but maybe only just) when it appears as the form hyperbolize. It appears in a letter of 1599 in the sentence “Will you hyperbolize aboue S. Gregorie, who is contented to marshall the foure generall Councels?” and in the “-ing” form in 1619 in Martin Fotherby’s gripping Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels; “Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels.”

The Corpus of Contemporary American cites only three examples in recent history; one from Men’s Health magazine in 1996, one from a National Public Radio interview of 2004, and one from an academic article in 2005. So not exactly a form that trips of the tongue at cocktail parties.

Interestingly, as an adjective, you might expect it to be hyperbolic, but in this form, it means “Of, belonging to, or of the form or nature of a hyperbola.” The OED recognizes hyperbolical as meaning “Of the nature of, involving, or using hyperbole; exaggerated, extravagant.” The sense of the word is clearly important in determining the form of the adjective.

Meanwhile, the Welsh can take comfort in the observation that when I typed “the language and culture of whales” into the Google search engine, the top returned reference was to the Wikipedia page for Wales. Seems that the culture of the land and people is still infinitely more important than that of corpulent cetaceans. Or is that just hyperbole?


[1] , L. and Whitehead, H. 2001. Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(2): 309-382 Abstract PDF.

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