Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Today's Word: Exiguous

Exiguous comes from the Latin verb 'exigere' meaning equally to demand or to drive out or to measure.

The measurement aspect of this word borrowed from the more forceful tone of the other meanings and thus took on a petty tone, inferring a cheapness or a hawkish level of precision in rationing!

Today, it means scanty or inadequate.

Sadly the last two days have shown what a tremendous impact exiguous forethought, not to mention funding or upkeep, can have on our lives!

The people who have been affected by the levee failure in New Orleans will forever appreciate the significance of adequate public works, and the importance of tending to one's own garden!

Nature is beyond our control, but our state of readiness is not! We should carefully examine the priorities of the people who take on the mantle of keeping us prepared. And that's all I have to say about this!


Monday, August 29, 2005

Today's Word: Esquivalience

Today's word is not a word! I know, I know - I've often had to fight and argue that my words here are all real. None of them made up or invented! This, my faithful readers, is the solitary exception!

It's fake!

But it's important because it's a part of history - it's a secret!

I learned about this via a New Yorker Article.

As you will see if you read the article, 'esquivalience' is a linguistic trap!

Publishers of research-intensive tomes realized that providing definitions and encyclopedic reference materials presented a unique challenge in terms of copyright-protection. What could stop a copycat publisher from simply riding in the wake of their hard-work by simply copying their text?

Thus was borne a secret tradition. Encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference guides were seeded with 'fake' listings which could be used as red flags in case a publisher suspected a competitor of plagiarism. The practice dates back as far as the late 1800's!

'Esquivalience' first appeared in the 2001 copy of the New Oxford American Dictionary and was only exposed earlier this year in a second printing of the 2005 edition.

The New Oxford American Dictionary's definition of 'Esquivalience' is a "willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities."

Very appropriate since the fake-definition is quite in-line with what publishers have been trying to prevent for over 100 years!


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Today's Word: Meme

Now, a lot of my words are rooted in history - they have stories that span generations and roots that draw from our earliest ancestors.

Not 'meme'!

Meme was invented! It's barely old enough to drink!

In 1976, British scientist Richard Dawkins wrote a controversial book about his theories of social development entitled 'The Selfish Gene' which discussed the similarities between physical and cultural evolution. But don't confuse Mr. Dawkins' theories with the political theories of Ayn Rand! No! In fact, his work explores the seemingly unexplainable altruism that plays a delicate part in the balancing of the theory of evolution a stark contrast with Ms. Rand's Objectivist ideas.

A meme, per Mr. Dawkins, is a cultural virus of sorts. An often used example is the 'smiley' face that is recognized as a visual meme across the internet.

: )

A meme (which rhymes with gene) can be word, a phrase, a behavior, an article of clothing...anything that is spread via social means.

Memetics is the study of the spread of these cultural flags and follows Darwin's theories on evolution and natural selection.

Dawkins didn't just make up a funny sounding word! No, he's a scientist! (Yes, he's still alive! That's how new this word is!)
'Meme" is derived from two sources: The Greek root, 'mim-' meaning to mime or copy, and the English suffix '-eme' which denotes a unit of measure. Technically, the word should be 'mimeme', and Dawkins acknowledges this in his book, but he liked the shorter word better, particularly because of the similar sound to 'gene'.

Dawkins was a close friend of the late Douglas Adams (author of the famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) and is an ardent atheist!

He likes monkeys!


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Today's Word: Thug

Today's word comes courtesy of fellow word-enthusiast Nick, who has a very engaging blog called Ganesh and Gandhi regarding all things Indian! He's an American who is teaching the internet Hindi - one letter of the alphabet at a time!

Thug. Is it slang? Well, it's used in a derisive enough manner that it sure seems like it might be!

We all know that a thug is a brutish malcontent whose solution to any dilemma is quick and unyielding violence. But where did the term come from? Appropriately, the same place we got the word 'mugger': India!

(Mugger is derived from the Hindi 'muggar' - which in turn comes from the Sanskrit 'makarah' - referring to a type of crocodile (Crocodilus palustris) that is found primarily in Southwest Asia. Reptiles tend to get the short end of the reputation stick, and as such - these crocodiles have become the namesake of the cold-blooded human profiteers who lurk in the underbelly of our society.)

'Thug' is a shortening of the name 'Thuggee'. The Thuggees were an Indian cult (more on this term later) that was active in India for over six hundred years! Think about that! The United States has barely been around for two hundred years!

The Thuggees were devoted to the Hindu Goddess Kali. Membership in the cult was hereditary, meaning that it was passed from generation to generation from father to son, often in secret.

Kali is the Tantric Goddess of Destruction! But take care! 'Destruction' has taken on a significantly negative tone in our cut-and-dry Western view of the world! The truth is, all things must end...Death is an essential part of our life-cycle...rotting wood provides mulch to nurture new growth! Destruction, like Winter, is simply a phase of life - and as such, Kali's followers were not all murderous people! In fact, the Thuggees were acting out of a sense of moral obligation! The belief was that for each Thuggee murder, they were postponing the return of Kali (and thus the destruction of the world) by a thousand years!

The Thuggees were not aimless villains! Their murders were highly ritualistic and they were extremely well organized. They were a recognized group of assassins, and even though they worked in secrecy - they paid taxes!

They traveled in large gangs, and were most famous for their method of killing - strangulation. It is estimated that the Thuggees were responsible for over two million murders, and their last leader, Behrem, was alleged to have personally murdered 931 people between the years 1790 and 1830!

After six hundred years, a British soldier named William Sleehan formed the precursor to India's current intelligence Agency. Through extensive profiling and research, the agency was able to eradicate the cult from modern Indian society!

A part of me finds it somewhat of a shame that the complex and rich history of the Thuggee cult has been distilled down to a term that is applied to random and recklessly violent people.

(I use the term 'cult' in the same way I use 'myth' - without judgment or connotation. The cults and mythology of ancient times were the sects and beliefs of our ancestors. I don't believe that I have the authority to say whether any one system is more right or more wrong than any other - particularly when examined out of the context of the system's era. If I lived into the next millennium, I would use the term 'cult' to refer to any branch of any major contemporary religion. "Cult" has become synonymous with "crazy" to many people, and that's dangerous and sad.)


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Today's Word: Punch

Today's word will liven the spirits!

It's ripe with debate and I'll leave it to my readers to make up their minds as to where the truth lies!

'Punch' can mean two very different things that, in excess, can produce the exact same result!

A punch can be either a physical act of aggression, or an alcoholic concoction. If you are on the receiving end of either, disorientation is likely!

Let's take the first meaning - the act of striking a person with a fist. Coming from the Middle English 'puncheon', which in turn comes from the Old French 'poincon' which means to pierce with a tool (and in fact can refer to the tool itself, as can the ancestor in question).

It's a pretty direct lineage: A tool used to emboss or pierce - the action of that tool - the action in general of striking something with force.

So, let's turn to the next meaning; the alcoholic brew.

Here, my friends is where the history gets rich.

At one time, and more recently than we often care to admit, the world was not such a connected place! International trade was the domain of the adventurer - and often, the pirate! Simple spices - salt and pepper - were so rare in some parts of the world that wars were fought and lives were lost for them. The trade route between England and India was ripe with danger - and was a mixing of cultures that still shapes much of our world today!

Rum-soaked sailors brought back tales of an exotic Indian drink named 'panch'!

The Hindi word for the number five is 'panc'. It comes from Sanskritt 'panca'. It was also used to describe this now-famous drink because the drink was made from five essential elements: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Weak and Strong.

Limes and lemons provided the Sour - and often the Bitter by way of the rind. Sometimes the Bitter came from black tea.

The Weak and Strong were different types of alcohol, often a beer or ale served as the Weak half. In India, 'Arrack' is a common moonshine distilled from a mash of rice, molasses, and palm fruits - it is a cousin of modern rum - and was the Strong of choice.

So from five ingredients, comes a beverage that can knock you out!

In fact, one can imagine a scene where one sailor drunkenly orders a round of punch for his mates aninadvertentlyly slights a nearby pirate who offers our unfortunate sailor a 'punch' with five very different ingredients - meaning a fist!

For as long as there have been bars and patrons, there have been bar fights!

Scholars have long debated the direction of the flow of meaning. Sanskrit is an old language, far older than England. And yet, there is plenty of evidence that the beverage was popular in England as early as the 15th century. Of course, there is also quite a long history of the British appropriating things from other cultures and claiming them as their own!

Regardless of which punch you favor, remember that moderation is important in all aspects of life!


(A special thanks to all of my readers who have inquired about my extended - and unintended - absence. I'm feeling much better! Some wounds never fully heal, and I'm afraid that from time to time, I need to focus on my health. Thanks for your enthusiasm and concerns!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Today's Word: Numinous

Numinous is a neat word!

It comes from the Latin word 'numen' meaning "nod of the head". The Latin term indicated a physical gesture, meant as an order! The idea that the term evoked command and authority eventually led to its use to refer to things of a higher order - specifically deities.

In Ancient Rome, a 'numen' was a god that presided over an object or place!

The meaning stuck, and today, something that is numinous is something that inspires awe and spiritual reverence. It can be that breathless moment when the sun dips below the horizon, the carefree giggle of a child, or the deep understanding that we, as individuals, are but fleeting specks on the fabric of existence!

Even though the religions that spoke of numens are long faded in our memories, the word holds power still. In fact, it may hold more power now because it is applicable in any moment of divine pause, regardless of faith or creed!


Friday, August 12, 2005

Gone until Tuesday

My friends, I will be forced to be away from my computer for a few days, and as such, won't be able to update my daily word list.

But in the meantime, please find this EXCELLENT article on the vast and surprising history of the words we use to describe color! This article comes from the site that Nick posted in the comments section a few days back.

World Wide Words has been a very exciting find for me, so I hope you all enjoy it too!