As world economies tumble, governments change, people are killed in conflicts across the Middle East, and children die of simple diseases for lack of cheap drugs, it’s nice to know that one area of human enterprise continues to flourish. Apple Corp sales.

Yes, worry not about the coming apocalypse because as long as we have our iPhones and iPads, all must be well with the world. Whatever privations the average Americans are facing, that didn’t stop them buying technology by the bucket-load over Christmas 2011. It may be a little unfair to pick on Apple products because vendors of HD TV’s, gaming machines, and computers also did well. I dare say Bob Cratchit may have been unable to buy a goose for Tiny Tim but I bet he’d have made sure he got his iPad or Microsoft Kinect. “Good bless us, everyone,” said Tim to his online team as he took yet another head off a marauding zombie in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

iPad sales trend - upwards

Personal technology has clearly entered the realm of the fetish, which is;

An inanimate object worshiped by preliterate peoples on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit.

If there’s anything that Apple has done particularly well it’s to create a brand that has all the appearance of being magical. Given enough time, I suspect that the Cult of Apple could become a religion, with St. Steve as the technological messiah and Apple stores as churches. If we measured the dopamine level of true Apple zealots when they talk about their products, I’m betting they’d be close to those found in people undergoing religious euphoria.

Cult of Apple

First Church of Jobs

What makes this all the more fascinating is that if you take some time to read the blogs and websites devoted to the deification of Apple technology, the sense of identification you hear from the Macophiles is almost palpable. If you really want to get a feel for how deeply engrained their devotion is, try posting something that goes against their creed and you can ignite a Jihad of fanatical proportions. Mac-lovers will do anything to defend their products. Anything.

But I’m not sure how defensive they would be over the apps. Back in September 2011, an app called AcneApp was available for $1.99. The creators alleged that you held you iDevice over the affected area and various lights would flash at special frequencies and cure the acne [1]. This was, of course, totally bogus – but over 11,500 people didn’t agree and happily downloaded the software. Following an investigation from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Apple eventually pulled the app [2].

But if you have a headache, you might want to try the BrainWave Headache Relief app from Banzai Labs. This one is free and Apple have not pulled it. Apparently “bogus science” is OK – it’s only if you charge money for it that the FTC will tell Apple will intervene. So much for “ethics” and “evidence-based medicine.” Still, there’s no way to legislate against stupid.

In a more general sense, many pro-Apple types are doing their best to promote the iPad as a technological panacea, which is, according to the OED;

Something used to solve all problems; a practice or course of action adopted in every case of difficulty; a universal cure.

The word makes its first recorded appearance in 1548 in a translation of Erasmus’s The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament.

[That] which they call panacea, a medicine (as they affirme) effectual and of muche vertue, but knowen to no man.

It’s origin can be traced back to the classical Latin panacea, which referred to any plant purported to have curative properties. This in turn comes directly from the Greek “panakeia” (πανάκεια), also a reference to health-imparting plants. In mythology, Panacea was the daughter of Asclepius, the god of healing, who is associated with the Rod of Asclepius – a staff entwined by a serpent. Tragically, poor Asclepius made the mistake of being too good at his job and after bringing a dead person back to life, he was killed by Zeus for his impiety [3].

rod of asclepius

Rod of Asclepius

The earlier Hellenic Greek word “panakis” (πανακής), meant “all-healing,” from the elements “pan” (παν) meaning “all” and “akos” (ἄκος) for “cure.” The notion of a cure-all shifted over the years from a medical reference to include anything that purports to solve a set of problems. So in 1616, we find a quote by the writer Thomas Gainsford in his book Rich Cabinet;

The godly Preacher‥procures the generall panacea of patience, to ease all paines.

Religion is often given as an example of a social panacea, most famously by Karl Marx, who described it as “the opium of the people.” Yet there are other notions of panacea to be found. Money was mentioned as a panacea in 1884 in a law report with the line “There is one panacea which heals every sore in litigation, and that is costs.” Then, in 1917, the poet Ella Wilcox wrote that she hoped “foreign travel… would be a panacea for my troubled mind.” Imperialism was considered by some to be a panacea for conflicts, and in a New Republic article in 1992, we find the following quote:

The panaceas of ‘empowerment’—homeownership, tenant-management schemes, and the like—‥fail to address the gravity of the situation (New Republic 25 May 9/1).

Clearly many things have made claim to being panacean, an adjective that appeared first in 1616. And we can now add to the list the notion of technology being a panacea for… well, whatever Apple wants it to be.

[1] FTC: Treating Acne? No, there is no app for that. September 8th, 2011.

[2] I find this disingenuous because the FDA seem to be happy to let all types of snake-oil cures to be marketed on television, from magnetic bracelets to penis-growth promoters. Why should stupid people using iTunes be penalized whereas stupid TV viewers are allowed to waste as much money as they want on bogus products? If someone is dumb enough to believe they can cure acne with an iApp, then I don’t begrudge someone making money from their stupidity. Caveat emptor.

[3] Along with Asclepius, a number of other humans have suffered at the hands of the gods. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and so Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle could come down daily and peck out his liver. Tantalus allegedly stole ambrosia from the gods, so he was condemned to spend eternity in Tartarus by a pool of water with an apple tree. As he neared the water, it would disappear, and on reaching for an apple, it would move away. This is where the word tantalize comes from. Sisyphus, a Corinthian king, was made to spend his afterlife pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back each night. Mind you, he was guilty of killing and eating his own son, so maybe there’s some justice in the punishment. And Ixion, another king, killed his father-in-law and mated with a cloud, for which he was sent to Tartarus forever to spin on a burning wheel, now known as the Wheel of Ixion.

Those of us who write and  are not digital natives will remember a most excellent piece of technology called a typewriter. Anyone under 30 may well never have used one, nor even seen one, bizarre as that may seem to we “oldies.”

The typewriter was a predecessor to the word processor and was a mechanical device that printed letters on paper when you pressed the keys on a keyboard. When you hit a key, a small metal block with a letter embossed on it would hammer against a piece of paper through an intervening inked ribbon.  Here’s a short clip of someone using a typewriter, especially for our younger readers:

One of my first purchases when I went to university in the late 1970’s was a Smith-Corona blue typewriter, which I used to make my reports and essays more legible because my handwriting was never all that good. It still isn’t. At the time it was pretty much cutting edge, and, if memory serves, it had two colors; black and red. Cutting edge indeed!

Still, the act of creating an essay was laborious, especially if an error was made because there was, of course, no delete key available. The process of deletion involved using a white correction fluid to cover the mistake, then, once you’d let it dry, retype the intended word – or even sentence.

The temptation to make life easier by copying whole chunks of text from articles and books was always there. However, when you were “pulling an all-nighter” [1] it was actually easier to hammer out authentic text than copied, although there was always an element of rephrasing going on.

The act of taking whole chunks of someone else’s work is called plagiarism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as;

The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.

The first written example dates from 1621 in Richard Montagu’s Diatribæ upon the first part of the late history of tithes in the phrase, “Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?” Yet only a few years earlier we see the word plagiary also being used, and so both plagiarism and plagiary existed together.

Both words can be traced to the Latin plagiarius, a person who abducts the child or slave of another, or even a kidnapper, seducer, or literary thief. The Latin plagium means “kidnapping,: and so the modern notion of plagiarism fits well with the metaphor of “kidnapping an idea.”

The word may derive from the earlier Latin plaga meaning “net” or “snare,” or perhaps the earlier ancient Greek πλάγιος, which means oblique or slanted. Either way, it’s almost poetic to describe the stealing of someone’s work as a kidnapping of ideas. It almost makes it sound fair.

The Internet, with its easy access to text, has now made plagiarism much easier. Stunningly easier. As bloggers cut and paste wholesale from online newspapers, publishers are scrambling to know what to do. When does “fair use” become outright plagiarism? And how do you stop it when tossing bits and bytes across the Net takes no more than a click of a button and can be routed through computers across the entire world, many of which sit outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement?

The “plague of plagiarism” [2] is with us for the foreseeable future. And in case you were wondering, sadly plague does not come from the same source as plagiarism, despite it sounding so similar. The Latin plaga also exists as a word meaning “wound” or “gash” or “strike,” which is different from the “net” meaning of plagiarism. This meaning also carries the association with a wound or blow due to some form of divine retribution, hence the link to the modern meaning of plague.


It's a crime

[1] An “all-nighter,” as the word suggests, is a mode of action favored by procrastinators, idlers, and party-loving students, who wait until the night before an essay is due to actually write it. Knowing that your work had to handed in at a specific time less than 24-hours away focuses your concentration wonderfully. Much as I tried to avoid these things, I found that drinking copious amounts of tea would help the process along, and for that very reason I bought myself a pint mug to make large drinks. On a tough essay, I could go through up to four pints of tea before I’d finished.

[2] To avoid the charge of being a plagiarist, I have to ‘fess up to the fact that although I came up with the phrase “plague of plagiarism” on my own, it sounded so appropriate that I couldn’t believe no-one else had ever used it. Not surprisingly, it isn’t unique.  A Google search popped up 77,800 hits, with the first being to an article by Dr. Irving Hexham from the University of Calgary. In it, he says that to avoid the charge of being a plagiarist you should cite where you find text. So here’s the link to Dr. Irving’s original essay, The Plague of Plagiarism.

One of the most fascinating and entertaining features of the English language is that it is in a constant state of change. As new things are created or discovered, someone, somewhere, comes up with a word to refer to it. For example, a side effect of male obesity is the growth of large, fleshy breasts that have been referred to as man boobs, or moobs. It’s perhaps something of a sign-of-the-times that we need such a word. Nevertheless, now we have ’em, we also have a name for ’em.

Yet there are also many old words that clearly were necessary for some peculiar reason but that we don’t use much now. For word lovers, it’s always fun to bring some of these out of retirement, if only – like mayflies – they can have their moment in the sun before disappearing back into obscurity for decades.

So welcome back to the spotlight the word nudiustertian, which on first inspection seems like it should have something to do with strippers and nakedness. Alas its meaning is much more prosaic – though fascinating in its own right.



According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means;

Of or relating to the day before yesterday

The word literally means “today the third day” and derives from the Latin word nudestarianus, which is turn originates from the phrase nudius tertius – the day before yesterday. Breaking this down even further, the word nudius comes from nu meaning “now,” and dius for “day,” and tertius means “third.”

THE OED goes on to gives its only example of the use of the word in a sentence from 1647, taken from the ever-popular The simple cobler of Aggawam in America, written by Nathaniel Ward.

When I heare a‥Gentledame inquire‥what [is] the nudiustertian fashion of the Court; I mean the very newest.

Sadly, there are no other examples, and this is truly sad because in all honesty, it’s hard to think of a way of slipping this word into a casual sentence! Indeed, a quick Google search for “nudiustertian examples” offers lots of examples of Nathaniel’s sentence, but little else. Even the folks at the usually prolific Wordnik site can only offer one extra sentence, and that’s a comment on the use of nudiustertian by Ward.

What we may have here is a word for which there is a meaning but no functional use! Or put another way, just because there is a word for “related to the day before yesterday” doesn’t mean it’s going to be used. Remember, it’s not a noun but an adjective, so it has to be used in an adjectival way.

In truth, even Ward appears to suggest that the word should not be used in its literally sense but as meaning “the newest” or “most recent.” No wonder it never caught on.

We also have a similar, although temporally opposite, word for “related to the day after tomorrow,” which is overmorrow. Yet as with nudiustertian, having a word for something doesn’t mean we’ll use it. Given the choice between “I’ll see you tomorrow” and “I see you overmorrow,” which do you think you’re likely to use?

logorrhea /ˌlɒgə’riːə/

What’s the point of having a love of words and then avoid using them just because other people might not understand? I’m all for clarity in communication, and adapting your mode of discourse to accommodate the presumed needs of your audience is simply being polite. But in general, if we were all to decide only to use words we thought other folks understood, we’d be back to “Me Tarzan, you Jane” before you can say “Book burning.”

In fact, I suggest that logophiles (lovers of words) should see it as their duty to make sure that that as many words as possible get a regular airing so as to prevent their becoming a mere †word (the dagger symbol is used in dictionaries to mark “obsolete” word).

As an aside, if you haven’t checked out the Oxford Dictionaries’ Save the Words site, you’re missing a treat. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@etyman) will know that I occasionally run a “Save the Words Week” where I provide the etymology for interesting but rare or obsolete words such as nubivagant (moving through clouds, from Latin “nubivagus” < “nubes”=cloud + “vagari”=to roam + “-ant”=adjective-forming suffix) and veprecous (full of prickly shrubs or bushes, from Latin “veprecosus” < “vepres”=brier or bramble bush).

The danger, of course, is that your listeners may decide you’re just a smart ass and begin to avoid talking to you. In some cases, this may be a good thing. But if you use the more esoteric words sparingly, in a reasonable context, and with a sense of humor, then it can make life just a little more interesting.

However, if you come under attack and are accused of using “verbal diarrhea,” you should cease the chance to provide an education of about the link between diarrhea and logorrhea, a fairly recently coined word but well worth tossing into a conversation.

logorrhea wordle


The first written use of the word logorrhea was in James Baldwin’s 1902 Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology where he defined it as;

…the excessive flow of words, a common symptom in cases of mania.

This places it in the field of pathology, so was seen as an illness. In 1907, a mention in the Daily Chronicle supports this medical connotation where we find, “In the case of a man suffering from the insanity known as logorrhea the ideas come rapidly tumbling over each other.”

Like many words, it gradually shifted from being a tightly defined medical word to a more loosely applied general word to describe the behavior of anyone who is significantly verbose. In 1970, a review in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper had this to say about a book;

We are left with a tedious tale of complicated intrigues written by an author suffering from acute logorrhoea

In the same year, we can see logorrhea still being used as a psychiatric term, but it also appears to have developed a synonym; tachylogia. The OED doesn’t have tachylogia as an entry but it’s clearly derived from the Greek ταχύς  meaning “swift” or “fast,” and λόγος  meaning “speech” or “word.” Apart from the 1970 mention in the OED, I was unable to find any earlier written references, with both the Corpus of Historical American English and British National Corpus being spectacularly devoid of examples.

The λόγος element of logorrhea is the same as that of tachylogia and the Greek ῥοία part means “flow” or “stream,” which is clearly descriptive of the rapid stream of words associated with the condition.

Which is where the link to diarrhea comes in. The Greek διαρρεῖν means “to flow through,” and the OED defines diarrhea as;

A disorder consisting in the too frequent evacuation of too fluid fæces, sometimes attended with griping pains

The double use of the word “too” here might be stylistically suspect but it certainly highlights the sense of excess that comes from a bout of diarrhea.

Diarrhea notice

The only reason you need this is...

Diarrhea is older than logorrhea, being first recorded in 1398 in John Trevisa’s best-selling pot-boiler Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum. OK, so I might be exaggerating a little as regards the excitement generated by the book but I’m guessing that this is the first time in months since it got a mention. I’ll be honest and say I’ve never read it, and that I have no desire to do so. However, I think it’s important to give a shout out now and again for dead 14th century writers who clearly put a lot of effort into scribing parchments.

So when logorrhea was coined, it’s not unreasonable to assume that it was influenced by the word diarrhea, and hence there is this relationship between the two. And what’s even more exciting is that you can also use this fact to respond to someone who accuses you of not only being a smart ass but “talking shit,” as you can now say “Funny you should say that but did you know…?”

One of my favorite paintings – and I have many – is called The Isle of the Dead by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). It was also a favorite of Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Böcklin himself, who painted five versions of it between 1880 and 1886.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin

Isle of the Dead 1860

Perhaps “favorite” is not quite the right word to describe Böcklin’s feelings toward the painting because he apparently based on the English Cemetery in Florence, where his baby daughter Maria was buried. It seems the multiple offerings were more of a catharsis than anything else.

In the picture, we see an oarsman seated at the rear of a row-boat while a figure clad all in white stands gazing at an island straight ahead. The most popular interpretation is that it represents the mythical ferryman, Charon, who’s job is to carry the souls of the dead across the river Styx and into Hades, the underworld.

More generally, a guide into the underworld is called a psychopomp, with Charon being one of many in mythology. In Dante’s Inferno, the psychopomp is Virgil; in Norse mythology, the Valkyries are psychopomps who take fallen warriors to the halls of Valhalla; in Ancient Egypt, Anubis performed the role of psychopomp; and in both Judaic and Islamic myths, Azrael is the Angel of Death who returns the souls of the dead to God. Clearly there is a deep-seated psychological need for cultures to create such figures in their myths, legends, and religions.

The Valkyrie's Vigil: Hughes 1906

In a more modern guise, devotees of the excellent Lost series will have recognized that Desmond David Hume (played by Henry Ian Cusack) takes on the role of psychopomp in the final series, in a fashion that is directly opposite that of Böcklin’s painting; he is ferrying people away from an island, not to it.

The word comes from the Greek   ψυχοπομπός, which means “conductor or guider of souls.” The first element, psycho– (ψυχο) originally meant “of, or relating to the soul,” and the second part, pompos (πομπός) means “guide” or “conductor.”

The first reference to the word was in a 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Morals by Philemon Holland;

There is one‥that helpeth to convey the soules of such as have ended their life, from hence into another world, and to lay them in quiet repose, who for bestowing and transporting of them in that sort is called Catunastes and Psychopompos.

The analyst Carl Jung used the word to refer to a psychic factor that mediated between the conscious and the unconscious. This can be personified in dreams and myth as a wise man, or perhaps as an animal. The raven, for example, is seen in Celtic folklore to be a psychopomp, and is a role that peeps out in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?”

The poet here assumes the role of the bird to be as a link between life and death, and at the end of the poem, there’s the hint that his own death may be imminent;

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!

His soul is trapped by the raven’s shadow and doomed to nevermore leave it. Psychopomp indeed!

Dore's illustration from The Raven

"...throws his shadow on the floor"

In 1971, David Bowie released his 4th album, Hunky Dory. For me, one of the highlights is the timeless Life On Mars, which features the haunting piano work of Rick Wakeman, who became the keyboard player for the canonical progressive rock band, Yes in the same year.

David Bowie's Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory - David Bowie

The word hunky dory originated in the United States as a slang word meaning “satisfactory” or “fine,” in the sense of all being well. The first part appears to derive from the noun hunk meaning;

In children’s games: The goal, home, or den; as “to reach hunk;” “to be on hunk,” contr. “to be hunk.”

The word traveled to the US along with Dutch immigrants as honk, which means “a den or goal in a game.” Going a little further back, West Frisian has the word honcke or honck for “house” or “place of refuge or safety.” East Frisian has hunk for “corner” or “nook.” Maybe Barnes & Noble could have called their eReader the Hunk rather than the Nook!

There is a wonderful etymology on offer for hunky dory that traces it back to Japan and it’s worth sharing. Allegedly, back in the 1860’s, following the opening up of Japanese ports by Admiral Matthew Perry, American sailors would take shore leave in the city of Yokohama. One destination was a street called Honcho dori, which offered services of a “comforting” nature to men who had spent weeks at sea. The pronunciation was something along the lines of /ˈhɒŋɔˌdɔrɪ/ and became hunky dory to describe how the sailors felt after a trip down the street!

Honcho-dori Yokohama

Honcho-dori, Yokohama, c.1880

Alas, plausible as it seems, it may be an etymythology after all. The words hunk and hunky meaning “fine” or “good” were being used in the US well before the opening up of Japan.

What is curious is that a maritime etymology has not been proposed – or at least to my knowledge – based on the fact that the word dory is an 18th century word for a type of boat. The OED refers to it as;

A small boat; esp. a small flat-bottomed boat used in sea-fisheries, in which to go out from a larger vessel to catch fish.

Younger readers of this blog – or parents of younger readers – may recall that a major character in Disney’s Finding Nemo is a fish called Dory. Yes, a dory is also the name of a fish, specifically the Zeus faber found in Europe. The dory, or “St. Peter’s Fish,” derives from the French dorer, meaning “to guild,” and ultimately from Latin de– + aurum, which is “gold.”


Dory from "Finding Nemo"

It doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to imagine someone referring to a well-maintained boat as a “hunky dory”; after all, the phrase “shipshape” has been around since the 17th century and is used to describe things as being in good order. It would be a small step indeed to move from the specific reference to a boat to becoming a more generic referent for “all fine” or “satisfactory.”

Dory boat

A "hunky" dory?

This is, of course, speculative, but well within the bounds of possibility. This would also explain the Japanese connection. Rather than the phonetic sound of Honcho dori becoming a word, the already existing hunky dory became reinforced by association. The sailors heard that hunky dory sounded like Honcho dori and the extended meaning was cemented.

As far as possible etymologies go, this one strikes me as being just peachie!

It’s not often that local news goes national but the bizarre case of an Amish gang performing an illegal shaving of a bishop certainly had the element needed to catch the eyes of the national media. If one of the Amish had been a woman and naked, the impact could have been global! [1]

Apparently, a group of Amish dissidents, led by one Samuel Mullet, [2] took it upon themselves to dish out some rough justice against a local bishop in retaliation for his shunning member of another Amish family. Shunning is a serious business among the Amish – as is growing beards. Now, in New York or LA, your typical gang would probably just bust a cap on someone’s ass and dump the body on a freeway. However, all that’s needed from your Amish attackers is a pair of scissors and a few extra hands to hold the victim down. Snip, snip, snip, and the beard is off.

The Bergholz Gang

The Bergholz Gang

The incident was the hot topic of the water cooler, especially among my bearded colleagues, but one question was more difficult to answer immediately: Did this type of crime actually have a name? Burn down a barn, it’s arson; steal from someone’s house, it’s burglary; steal money from a pension fund, it’s embezzlement; but cut off someone’s beard, and it’s… well, what?

The act of removing a beard does have a name; pogonotomy. This comes from the Greek pogon (πώγων), meaning “beard,” and the suffix –tomy, (Greek τομία), which is used to create abstract nouns related to the notion of “cutting.” Tέμνειν means “to cut” and is seen in other words, usually medical, like lobotomy, the cutting of the pre-frontal lobes of the brain; tracheotomy, cutting a hole in the trachea; and zootomy, the dissection of animals.

Pogonotomy - shaving

Pogonotomy makes its first recorded appearance in the Los Angeles Times of 1896, on December 27th, where we find;

Pogonotomy is what the Greeks used to call the gentle art of self-shaving.

So although this is the removal of a beard, it’s not the criminal removing of a beard.

Almost 100 years earlier, in 1788, the English essayist Vicesimus Knox published a book entitled Winter Evenings: Or Lucubrations[1] on Life and Lessons. In it, he humorously notes that, “It would not be surprising to see a barber style himself… Pogonologist.”

The idea that someone might actually devote time to studying beards was mentioned just a couple of years earlier that Knox’s book, the OED cite a source that reads, “Pogonologia, or a philosophical essay on beards, translated from the French.”

Incidentally, the pogo stick, a child’s toy that is essential a pole with a spring that you can stand on and jump, comes from a different source – or indeed sources. One suggestion is that it comes from 1920 and the names of two German patent holders for a “spring end hopping stilt” who were called Max Pohlig and Ernst Gottschall. Another is that it is the name of a Burmese girl called Pogo, who had no transportation to let he visit her father, so she created a stick with springs that she could ride to meet him.

This latter one just sounds too good to be true and to my mind, the former has more credence.

It is, however, worth speculating that the device is a pole that goes somewhere, and using those first two syllables to create a new word seems plausible. I’ll offer it as a possibility and remain open to new suggestions.

None of this, though, gets us to an actual word for the crime itself, namely the forced removal of someone’s beard.

Fortunately, the FBI offers us a possibility based on its definition of the more general crime of a “felonious assault.” This is;

…the unlawful attack or attempt to attack through force or violence to cause physical injury to another.

When four guys pin a bishop to the floor and shear off his whiskers, that sounds pretty much like a good example of a felonious assault. I therefore suggest that to be very specific, we should use the term “felonious pogonotomy” to describe the criminal act of removing a beard by force. I did do a search using Google and found precisely zero examples of the phrase. This makes “felonious pogonotomy” not only a new coinage but a hapax legomenon, a one-off use of a word in a text.

So next time you come across a case of felonious pogonotomy, please let me know; I’d love to think that I’d made a significant contribution to the legal field.

[1] Update Nov. 28th. Since writing this, the incident has gone global, with newspapers as far away as Australia reporting on the antics of the Bergholz Gang.

[2] A hair crime by someone called mullet is just so deliciously appropriate and obvious that I resisted the temptation to go off at a tangent and make fun of the name. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel… all too easy!

We’re having something of an Indian Summer in Ohio, which doesn’t mean our Cleveland baseball team has made it through to the World Series but that although it is October, the temperature is warm enough to allow me to ride my motorcycle and wear T-shirts. It also means that the grass in my back yard is continuing to grow and has now reached a level that could end up in my being fined by the local council for breaking Property Code Ordinance 302.4 “All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches.”

I believe this is done to encourage a sense of order and tidiness among the city residents although it strikes me as another example of petty state interference with personal liberty. After all, I may be a lover of nature and find tall weeds attractive. It’s a curious reflection on human nature that we invent laws to force people to “control” their environment and bend nature to our own bidding. I’ve always felt that this is much more noticeable in the US, where the underlying assumption is that there are no such thing as accidents and “mistakes” are failures to control something.

Fundamentally, many Americans believe the universe is built on Order whereas I believe it is built on Chaos. When weeds grow in my garden, or ants invade my kitchen, it’s not because I have failed to maintain some sort of “order” but that such chaotic behavior is, in fact, the way things are. Trying to impose human order on a chaotic universe is a short-term fix at best but ultimately doomed to end in the collapse of our cities and the triumph of weeds and insects over the earth.

This philosophy may, of course, be little more than a feeble attempt to provide a reason for not mowing the yard.

Such agriculture activities as mowing, tilling, and sowing are at the linguistic root of the word boustrophedon, which is an adjective defined by the OED as referring to scripts that are;

(Written) alternately from right to left and from left to right, like the course of the plough in successive furrows; as in various ancient inscriptions in Greek and other languages.

The word literally means “as an ox turns while plowing.” This means you plow across the field from right to left, then turn around and plow from left to right, and so ad finem. The Greek word βου means “an ox” and στρόϕος means “turning” – hence “turning like an ox.”

Plowing a field

"Boustrophedonically? Who ate the dictionary?"

Perhaps the earliest example of boustrophedon writing is in the form of Linear B, a script discovered in 1900 by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered a number of clay tablets at Knossos on the island of Crete. It wasn’t until 1953 that the script was finally deciphered by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick. They discovered that it represented an early dialect of Greek that became known as Mycenaean, named after the home of King Agamemnon, Mycenae.

boustrophedon linear b

Linear B: boustrophedon

If you look at the image above and the symbol that looks like a “K,” you will see that it on the first line it is the right way round but on the second it is mirrored. Other characters do the same thing. Here’s what boustrophedon English looks like:

boustrophedon english

Boustrophedon English

Not surprisingly, boustrophedon scripts seem to have been a fad and only a small number of such writing systems have been found.

Despite this being an old word, and certainly one that we could confidently predict to be an atypical entry in most people’s mental dictionary, it crops up in on of the Inspector Morse series of novels by the English crime writer, Colin Dexter. In 1979’s Service of All the Dead, he describes how a character walks through a church:

She then walked boustrophedon along the pews on either side of the main aisle, replacing on their hooks whatever loose hassocks had been left on the floor, flicking the pew-ledges with a yellow duster, and at the same time collecting a few stray hymn-books and prayer-books.

Although this accurately described how one would most efficiently clean the seats in a church, I can’t help thinking that there’s just a little showing off going on here by Colin. Still, he didn’t then follow up by describing how she may have walked around the church “widdershins.”

Colin Dexter's Service of All the Dead

Colin Dexter

It’s worth noting that the word has been used by some computer geeks to describe the action of a printer, where the head prints in one direction but then prints backwards in the other. And math geeks will be aware of something called the Boustrophedon Transformation, which is apparently a method of mapping one sequence against another and involves the creation of a triangular array. But alas, my love of words is inversely proportional to my love of numbers, so I’m happy to simply direct interested parties to Wikipedia’s page entitled Boustrophedon Transform.

And as a last thought: If the “-strophe” part has made you think of words such as apostrophe and catastrophe, then that’s to be expected. Both these words derive from the same Greek root. Apostrophe is from ἀπό meaning “away” and στρόϕος meaning “turning;” thus, a “turning away.” Catastrophe comes from καταστροϕή, meaning “an overturning or sudden change,” derived from κατά meaning “down” and the στρόϕος.

Barring some unforeseen catastrophe or a bizarre accident with the lawn mower, I’ll be back next week with another meandering through the world of words.

9/11 /,naɪnɪ’lɛvən /

Typically when we think about words, we imagine them as strings of letters. However, there are rare examples of words that are strings of numbers with arguably the most famous and emotionally powerful one being 9/11.

New York

New York

So given that using a number as a word is rare, why did 9/11 become the noun of choice to describe this particular incident? If we look back at other significant and emotionally charged events, we find they are typically named after locations. For example, on December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed the US Pacific Fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, yet we don’t refer to this 7/41 but “the attack on Pearl Harbor” or simply “Pearl Harbor.” Four years later the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 80,000 people, didn’t become 6/45 but “the Hiroshima bombing” and ultimately just “Hiroshima.”

Closer to home, when Timothy McVeigh planted and detonated the bombs that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995, this was the deadliest home-grown terrorist attack that the US had seen. Over 160 people were killed and almost 700 injured, which produced an emotional shock to the country. Yet this event became “the Oklahoma City bombing” and not 19/95.

The tendency to use geography as shorthand for traumatic events is also a clue as to why the events of September 11th may have become 9/11. Unlike all the others, there was no single location in which to drop a linguistic anchor. The attack was seen as a coordinated action on multiple targets and although the focus was on the Twin Towers of New York City, the perception was more that this was an attack on all of America and not just three places. Within hours of the planes crashing, there was already talk in the media of “an attack on America” and this was reinforced by President Bush in his address to the nation on the evening of that day:

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts… America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.

If you analyze the entire speech, it is only 600 words long and the words New York and Washington only appear once, which is in contrast to the word America, which occurs 6 times.  The other notable scorers are evil with 4 instances and American with 3. Equal to American are freedom and nation. Significantly the most common pronoun used is our, outranking both we and I – words that are typically more frequent – and which serves to highlight that this incident had affected something we all possessed; in this case, our nation and our freedom.

The critical point is that the language being used is already positioning the terrorist activities as more than attacks on specific cities but on the entire American culture. With such rhetoric working against calling it “the New York attack” or “the Washington attack,” the date became a potential focal point.

In the months that followed, there were references to “the terrorist attacks,” “September 11th,” “the attacks on September 11th,” and “9/11.” By the end of the year, the simple 9/11 had become so engrained in the nation’s lexicon that the American Dialect Society cited it as its “Word of the Year” for 2001. The closest the country came to having a location-based word was to refer to the site where the Twin Towers fell as ground zero. This wasn’t a new coinage but originally referred to the point on the ground directly below where a bomb detonated. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first use in 1946 in a New York Times article on the bombing of Hiroshima: “The intense heat of the blast started fires as far as 3,500 feet from ‘ground zero.’”

Since 9/11 there have been other attempts to use date-based naming of terrorist event but none has really stuck. In the UK, 7/7 was used to refer to a series of suicide attacks that took place on the London Underground on 7th July, 2005. However, this coinage seems to be more of an attempt to parallel the format of using numbers, and although 9/11 has made it into the Oxford Online Dictionary, 7/7 has not. Similarly, 9/11 has achieved dictionary status in a number of US dictionaries but not 7/7.

This mimicry extended to the 2004 Madrid train bombings on 11th March and 2008 Mumbai attacks of November 26th. Both had some support for 11/3 (or 11-M) and 26/11 but neither gained popularity. Why? Because both incidents could be tied to specific cities and referring to them as “The Madrid” or “The Mumbai” attacks was easier.

Ultimately it may be that 9/11 will stand alone as a rare word for a rare event. This is just as many might want this to be.

Many years ago in my early teens, I was an avid reader of science fiction and devoured the epics of Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), E.E. “Doc” Smith (The Skylark and Lensman series), Frank Herbert (Dune), and many others. The book publishers, Panther (a then-division of Granada Publishing Ltd.) were partly to blame because of their choice of two particularly memorable cover artists;  Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington. It’s fair to say that in those days, I did judge a book by its cover – or at least I was more likely to pick up one with an illustration by one of these two gentlemen. I still have a number of these books sitting on my bookshelf, although I try not to open them up too much for fear of them falling apart!

One of the books that Pennington illustrated was called Out of Space and Time: Vol 1 by the Californian-born writer, Clark Ashton Smith, and although the tales were more fantasy than sci-fi, I bought it. And Smith, in turn, lead me to H.P. Lovecraft.

Clark Ashton Smith Out of Space and Time

Bruce Pennington artwork

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20th August, 1890 and in his brief 46 years he produced an enormous amount of text. As well as a wealth of short stories and books, he wrote over 100,000 letters, some over 30 pages long, poems, travelogues, art critiques, journalistic pieces, and others. His primary genre is usually referred to as “weird fiction” although I prefer “gothic horror/fantasy.”

One of his most popular and enduring stories is called The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1926 and published in 1928 in the magazine, Weird Tales. Cthulhu is a creature from another world, which ends up trapped in a sunken tomb in the mythical city of R’lyeh. Apparently inspired by Tennyson’s poem, The Kraken, Cthlulhu is a large, subterranean beast described as a “monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”



After reading the story in my early teens, Cthulhu remained submerged in my unconscious until  I entered university in the late 70’s. One of the popular bands at the that time was Caravan, a particularly English band from Canterbury who were a blend of psychedelic and progressive rock. Although never a mainstream act, they were certainly a college favorite, and produced such wonderful album titles as Blind Dog at St. Dunstan’sIn the Land of Grey and Pink, Cunning Stunts (a nod to the Reverend Spooner), and Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night.

And it’s the latter album that resurrected Cthulhu in the song C’thlu Thlu, a six-minute piece that never actually uses the name Cthulhu but nevertheless tries to capture that element of the “weird” that runs through all of Lovecraft’s work. This was one of those songs we’d listen to late at night as we would down both the beer and the lights.

My interest in psychology meant reading Freud (extensively) and Jung (heretically), and in his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung uses the word chthonic to refer to both the mythical realm of the underworld and the gods and goddesses therein, and the psychological realm of the darker side of the Unconscious.

So where does chthonic originate? And more important, how do you pronounce it?

The Greek word kthos (χθών) or kthonos (χθονός) means “earth,” with kthonios (χθόνιος) meaning “of the earth” or “beneath the earth.” It first makes a written appearance in 1882 in a book by Charles Francis Keary called Outlines of Primitive Beliefs Among the Indo -European Races, where he says;

The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.

Joseph Shipley, in the classic The Origins of English Words, traces the word back to the the Indo-European*ghdhem meaning “of the earth, and a cognate of the Persian zamindar, which means “ground.” He also tells the tale of Erysichthon, a King of Thessaly who chopped down trees in a sacred forest dedicated to the goddess Demeter in order to build a huge feasting hall. As punishment for such impiety (chopping down sacred trees is always a no-no in mythology) Demeter inflicted him with an insatiable hunger that only ended when he ate himself! The name Erysichthon means “tearer-up of earth,” the “chthon” element being the “earth” reference.


Erysichthon's table

So what about the pronunciation? Well, Greek, both ancient and modern, is one of those languages that allows a plosive and fricative sound to live together happily at the beginning of a word, whereas English doesn’t like this at all. Thus, Greek words starting with “ps” (psomi=bread or psari=fish), “ts” (tsai=tea) and “ks” (ksenos=foreigner) are all perfectly normal, but in English, such clusters can only appear in the middle of words or at the end. The tendency for English speakers is therefore to simplify such words by dropping one of the sounds.  Hence the reason we pronounce the words psychology and mnemonic as /saɪ’kɒlədʒi/ and /nə’mɒnɪk/ with the initial “p” and “m” dropped.

But with the Brits being a scholarly bunch, steeped in the history of Empire and the university tradition of learning the Classics, chthonic kept its original form and the OED enshrines its pronunciation as /’kθɒnɪk/, with the tongue-twisting cluster up front. The more relaxed and much younger Americans opted for the dropping of the spurious /k/ sound and recommends the simpler /’θɒnɪk/.

Either way, it’s certainly one of those words that deserves an outing now and again, so try slipping it into your next email to the boss.