The Bribe of Frankincense


As the story goes the Magi brought to Bethlehem gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, gold is still pretty popular for gift giving and getting, but the other two seem to have gone out of style. I mean, I’ve never been given, or even seen, frankincense or myrrh. Still, have you ever wondered what on Earth these two substances are?

frankincense (frānk′ ən səns) noun  An aromatic gum resin obtained from trees of the genus Bowellia, used as an incense.

myrrh (mər) noun  An aromatic gum resin obtained from trees and shrubs of the genus Commiphora, used in per­fume and incense.

So basically the Magi were bringing gifts of Glade and Chanel No. 5. Which I imagine were needed as they was living in a stable at the time. Which means we’ve solved some of the mystery of what and why. But it does leave one thing unan­swered, what’s with that strange spelling… myrrh?

Filed 12/24/08

Jumping the Lock, Stock and Barrel

gun1 is here even though I know it’s not 2009 yet. Am I jumping the gun or going off half-cocked?

Jumping the gun is a sports meta­phor which doesn’t concern hurdling a firearm, just starting the race before the starter’s pistol goes off. Half-cocked has to do with firearms more directly.

Half-cocked was the hammer’s safety position for priming the pan with gunpowder on a flint-lock. If you pulled the trigger in that case it wouldn’t cause a spark to discharge the gun because the striker is out of position. Hence going off half-cocked means ill prepared and to no effect.


Lock, stock and barrel is another, if less obvious gun related phrase. Way back when gunsmiths often special­ized, some made barrels, others made the lock firing mechanism, and still others carved the wooden stocks. Some created the whole gun from start to finish, hence lock, stock and barrel. In other words, the whole kit and kaboodle from soup to nuts. Though what a kaboodle of soup would be, I can’t imagine.

Filed 12/22/08

Latin for Big Cheese


Czar, Tsar, Tzar, (zär) noun. Russian autocrat, king.

Czar comes from the Latin, Caesar. Notice how we pronounce it, see-zar. Just drop the first bit and you get Czar. The Germans also used Caesar to get Kaiser which, if I’m not mistaken, this is actually closer to the way the Romans would have said it.

Which brings me to question why it is that politicians so often propose we have czars of this and that. Like a Drug Czar, a National Security Czar, and now president-elect Obama has proposed a Car Czar to deal with the troubled auto industry.

Considering Russian history, why do we want czars of anything? Czars were autocratic dictators and not exactly the most benevolent sort. Would we want to have a Drug King or a National Security Dictator? Worse, we could adopt fascist nomen­clature for leader and have a Drug Duce or a National Security Fuhrer. Or we could go all Mafia and have an Auto Boss or Car Cappo.

There must be a better term.

And Versa Vice


“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

Ever hear that famous quote? However, this is not the entire quote. When you hear the whole thing it casts what Alfred Sloan said in a different light. The complete quote and context makes all the difference:

“What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

Though nowadays one wonders how applicable that is. As well as just what is good for General Motors. Furthermore, what is General Motors good for.

The Marines Tell It to You


“Train as you fight. Fight as you train.” is the current philosophy of the US military. This isn’t a totally new idea, but the modern take on the way the Roman legions trained. Of whom it was said, “Their drills were blood­less battles and their battles were bloody drills.”

Like they say, everything old is new again.

Add To Your Fauxcabulary


zzyzzyzee (zĭz′-ə zē) noun. One of a series of letter zees indicating snoring in a cartoon.

Admittedly, you won’t find this word in a standard dictionary, or a non-standard one either. I made it up out of thin air as it were. For no good reason other than to coin the last word listed in an English language diction­ary. Why not? Somebody has to do it. Not that I expect it will ever make it into standard usage. But a guy can dream. And dreaming and zzyzzyzees just rather go together.

By the by, outside the US they say zed and not zee for the 26th letter of the alphabet, so it would be a zzyzzyzed.

Oops, That’s Funny


contretemps (kŏn′ trə-tŏn) noun, An inopportune or embarrassing occur­ance, a mishap.

In other words, the description of half of all sit-com humor and slapstick as well as 90% of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Can you say pratfall, crotch-hit, Freudian slip, or fart? How about Oops!? Of course, as Mel Brooks tells us, when it happens to you it’s tragedy. When it happens to someone else it’s comedy.

Like a Circular Mohawk


tonsure (tŏn′ shür) noun 1. The act of shaving the top or crown of the head, especially as a preliminary to becom­ing a priest or monk. 2. The part of a monk’s head so shaven.

How the voluntary bald spot caught on is something of a mystery to me. Can’t imagine it was to look cool or stylish, those things being eschewed by ascetics. Maybe it was supposed to make you look old and wise, when looking old and wise was a good thing. Then again, could have been a sort-of hair halo or something.

Whatever it was intended for, it seems to have gone out of style even for monks.

Be Be Irregular


Language doesn’t always make sense. Especially the way some people use it. What I’m really referring to, though, is some rules of grammar that don’t seem to add anything to help understanding. Specifically the way the noun changes the verb. Take for instance…

I am, you are, he is, they are.

Am, is and are all mean the same thing really, to be. Why three words meaning the same thing? If we change to past tense…

I was, you were, he was, they were.

Now there’s only two forms of the verb. One for I and he, another for you and they. Then again, if we have a different verb…

I run, you run, he runs, they run.

In this case I, you and they go together and he has another form. Where’s the consistency in all this? The topper is when we go to past tense…

I ran, you ran, he ran, they ran.

It’s the same for everybody! Which means you really don’t need a differ­ent verb for different nouns, the noun differentiates itself by itself. Of course, it could be worse. We could have gender as other languages do which change the article as well. In English this might be something like…

The children are, da boy is, la girl be.

What a mess that is. It adds nothing as far as I can tell. I’m pretty sure we can tell a girl is feminine without the feminine lead-in or verb after the fact. What’s the point?

War News is Hell


Strained relations between the military and the press are nothing new. Just consider this quote from General William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War:

“I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.”

Said Just the Way It Sounds


quixotic (kwĭk sä′ tək) adj. Caught up in the romance of noble deeds or unob­tainable ideals; romantic without regard to practicality.

This is an eponym after Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha who was prone “To dream the impossible dream. To fight the unbeatable foe” as the lyrics go. Quixote is pronounced kee-HOE-tay but we don’t say kee-HOE-tik for quixotic. Must be an Anglicizing of the Spanish original.

The story of Don Quixote is also where we get the phrase “tilting at windmills” which means the same thing as quixotic. Tilting in this instance means jousting, thrusting with a lance and not leaning or tipping. Hey, look it up for yourself.

Paradise Lost


utopia (yū tō′ pē-ə) noun, 1. Any condition, place, or situation of social or political perfection. 2. Any ideal­istic goal or concept for social or political reform.

Utopia is a word from Greek roots coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his 1516 novel, Utopia. Which translates as nowhere. (ou, not + topos, place) This should give you a good hint as why utopias are very hard to create. You can’t have some-place that’s no-place. Something not unlike the way Dorothy Parker once quipped, “There’s no there there.”

No Accounting For Tastes in Amusement


A toad eater was a charlatan’s atten­dant who pretended to eat toads (thought to be poisonous) to prove the charlatan could expel the poison. This term evoled into the familiar…

toady (tō′ dē) noun One who panders to the wealthy or influential; a servile flatterer. syn. -- sycophant.

I guess these days we’d call them a groupie or part of an entourage. Whether you could get a groupie to eat toads, I couldn’t say. But I wouldn’t put it past them.

A Word I’m Itching to Use


Here’s a word I’ll toss in, not because it’s so useful, but because it’s so odd. I mean, how common is this?

formication (fôr mə kā′-shən) noun A spontaneous abnormal sensation of ants or other insects running over the skin.

Classical Error


Let’s set the record straight on another word people like to misuse. Though really not all that often because it’s obscure, but often enough in the rare instances it is used. That word is…

vomitorium. Wags and jokesters like to use it as if it means a room where you go to throw up, retch, puke, regurgitate… in other words vomit. Wrong. A vomitorium is a passage­way. Vomit comes from Latin and is related to discharge. A doorway or passageway is for the discharge of people from one place to another. This would be a vomitory (doorway) or a vomitorium (passageway, like a hall).

Basically, Helots


hoi polloi (hoi pə loi′) noun The com­mon people viewed from a position of social or intellectual advantage or privilege.

This is another one of those terms I hear people being mixed up about, often thinking it means the elite, the upper class, the rich and powerful, the upper crust. But it means the opposite; the masses, the rabble, the ruck, the great unwashed, the many-headed, the plebs, the common folk, et al. I can only guess these people confuse hoi polloi as being somehow related to…

hoity-toity (hoi tē-toi′ tē) adj. Arro­gant, pompous, pretentious.

In other words, snobbery and snobs. Who are often the elite, the upper crust, etc.

Say, Uncle


avuncular (ə-vŭng′ kyə-lər) adj. Of, like, or pertaining to an uncle.

This may have good or bad conno­tations depending how you feel about your uncle. Or whether your uncle is a great guy or something of a jerk. I think most people would think uncles leave a warm fuzzy feeling, but it could be cold and hairy instead.

Good to See When Someone Has Both


callipygian (kal-ə pē′ jē-ən) adj. Having a beautifully proportioned buttocks.

zaftig (zăf′ təg) adj. slang Full-bosomed.

These are the words you might use in polite company rather than the vulgarisms you’d usually use. You know, when a caboose is on rails, ass refers to a pack animal, butts are cigarette remains, and back means the lumbar region. When melons are fruit, jugs are ewers, hooters are owls, boobs are fools, ta-tas are farewells in London, knockers alert you to visitors at the front door, the front porch is attached to the house and when it’s built it’s done by carpenters and not mother nature, and where boxes may be stacked.

No More Mr. Nice Guy


irascible (ĭ rās′ ə-bəl) adj. Easily provoked or angered.

This word is the formal equivalent of the everyday words and expressions testy, cranky, touchy, cantankerous, peevish, hot-headed, quick-tempered, thin-skinned or having a hair trigger or a short fuse. Which might be why you don’t hear it very often. Who needs it when we have these more colorful versions. Like the related phrase “flying off the handle.” Though when examined it’s hard to figure out how such an expression came about. Can people actually fly off handles? Handles of what? It’s rather nonsen­sical when you think about it.

Not All Equines Are Equal


I saw where Family Feud lumped donkey and mule together as a single answer. Uh, no.

mule (myūl) noun a sterile hybrid of a male ass and a female horse.

Compare that to the less common:

hinny (hĭn′ ē) noun a sterile hybrid of a female ass and a male horse.

One supposes hinnies are much less common than mules because a female donkey is small and giving birth to a horse’s offspring wouldn’t be all that easy. Or safe.

On the other hand, I will admit to a mistake I used to make, that a pony is a young horse. Not so. A young horse is a colt. A pony is a fully grown horse of a small breed, less than 14 hands tall. Though many folks, some cow­boys for instance, call any horse you saddle up and ride a pony. And so, the Pony Express.

They Said It


Some quotes just for the fun of it.

“I’ve gotten a great deal of advice from him over the years. All of it bad.”
—Calvin Coolidge on Herbert Hoover

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t make them all yourself.”

“History helps us better understand the past.”
—Ed Bluestone

Shadowy Talk


aspersion (ă-spər′ zhən) noun 1. Slander, a calumnious report or remark. 2. The act of defaming or slandering.

How often have you heard anyone protest about someone casting asper­sions on their character? Why is it aspersions always seem to be cast? Can they also be tossed, thrown, lobbed, floated or distributed in some other way? Is this casting like casting a shadow or casting for fish with a rod and reel? And why does it seem always to be plural, aspersions, rather than just one aspersion?

Actually there is a reason, but it goes to another meaning of the word. Which is: aspersion, n. 3. A sprink­ling: especially, a baptism by sprinkling.

This means you can have an aspersion (sprinkling, casting) of aspersions (slanders, defamations) against someone’s character. They just naturally go together, sort-of. I’m sure that’s all crystal clear as mud. Though I rather imagine the reader would also like to know what calumnious means. I’ll get to that some other time.

The Nazis Gave Propaganda a Bad Name


I imagine many people will think the title of this entry is a joke, but it’s not. Consider, the Third Reich itself called it the Propaganda Ministry. They wouldn’t have called it that if propa­ganda implied misinformation and lies as it does to many today. Here’s what it really means:

propaganda (prŏ′ pə găn dă) noun Speech intended to convince.

Then Goebbels got hold of it and its never been the same. Now folks infer it being something like…

sophistry (sŏf′ əs trē) noun A plaus­ible but misleading or fallacious argument.

By the original definition adver­tising and political speech is propa­ganda, and so is a sunday sermon. Honesty and accuracy had nothing to do with it. It’s a shame because now we have two words people use for sophistry and nothing for what propaganda really means.

If only they’d have called it the Sophistry Ministry to begin with. Ironically, the Nazis were more forth­right in calling it propaganda rather than the euphemistic terms used today, such as the Information Ministry, public relations, or press secretary.

Almost There


sisypheon (sis-ə fē′-ən) adj. Caught up in an endless, hopeless, frustrating endeavor or task; futile. -- From the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a mountain which slipped back to the bottom just before reaching the summit.

This is a word all you bloggers out there can especially relate to.

Word Overkill


sesquipedalian (səs′-kwĭ-pə dā lē-ən) adj. 1. Long and ponderous; polysyl­labic. 2. Given to using long words. (From Latin sesquipedalis, of a foot and a half in length.)

This is something of a self parody, a long word meaning using long words. Can you use it in a sentence? How about, “Sesquipedalian circumlocution concomitant with euphemistic mala­propism obfuscates ineluctably.” There’s a mouthful of gobbledegook. Does it make me sound smart or pre­tentious using all those twenty dollar words? Not for me to say. But I did write using and not the more sesquipedalian utilizing.

Very Big of You


largess (lär jəs′) noun 1. a. Liberality in giving. b. The money or gifts bestowed. 2. A bounty, dole, or tip. 3. Generosity of attitude.

pun (pŭn) noun, A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words.

I tossed in two puns. Many people think a pun is the lowest form of humor. And a pun making fun of a naughty bit must be the lowest of the low. Still, I couldn’t resist.

Berzerkr Runs Amok


berserk (bər zŭrk′) adj. 1. Destruc­tively or frenetically violent. 2. Deranged.

So, why the crazy Viking attacking a bear, you ask. The word derives from the Norse, berserkr, bear skin, the garment of choice for all self-respecting Vikings. As for attacking a bear bare-handed, you’d have to have gone berserk to attempt it.

Though someone gone berserk is now a crazy man, berserkr originally meant something more along the lines of a bodyguard, crazy or not.

The Perfect Word


quintessential (kwĭn tə sĕn′-shŭl) adj. Having the nature of the most typical instance; pure and concentrated in nature. (From Medieval Latin quinta essentia, fifth essence.)

This word comes from the Medi­eval idea that the world was made of four corruptible elements: earth, air, fire and water. The heavens were made of an incorruptible, or perfect fifth element. A perfect example is likened to this perfect fifth element, or quinta essentia, and so is said to be quintessential.



draconian (drŏ kō′ nē-ən) adj. 1. Designating a law or code of extreme severity. 2. Harsh, rigorous.

Thought I’d turn the tables on Dracula, sometimes thought to be fashioned after Vlad the Impaler who was pretty harsh to put it mildly. You don’t get the moniker “the Impaler” by being liberal minded and benevolent.

It Takes Concentration


rebus (rē′ bŭs) noun, A riddle com­posed of words or syllables depicted by symbols or pictures that suggest the sound of the words or syllables they represent.

Remember the TV game show Concentration? That’s what the puzzles slowly revealed were. That’s also partly the basis for Pictionary. And there’s an element of the rebus when you play charades, only instead of a picture for syllable sounds you act something out.

Big Mistake


enormity (ĕ-nōr′ mə-tē) noun 1. excessive wickedness, outrageousness. 2. a monstrous offense or evil, an outrage.

This is a word people often use incorrectly to mean enormousness, importance, or somesuch. It’s one of those 20 dollar words folks like to sprinkle in their conversation to sound smart and educated. I’ve nothing against using big words, especially when they have a unique, specific meaning or connotation that another word can’t convey. Or for comic effect. In either case, you need to know the real meaning to make it work. Using big words incorrectly just makes you appear silly and pretentious.

Too Much, Man


surfeit (sür′ fət) noun An excessive amount.

The First Shall Be Last, That’s Just the Way Blogs Work


curmudgeon (kər mŭj′-ən) noun A cantankerous person; an ill-tempered and disagreeable person.

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