Posts Tagged ‘Latin’

The older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know – and will never know. Despite having the goal to read at least one book per week, I’m having a hard time doing it. To add to the misery, it doesn’t a degree in mathematics to realize that even if I could read 52 books per year, assuming I get the opportunity to live until I’m 100, I can only expect to read just over 2000 books before I’m dead. And that’s the best case scenario! If I only manage 26 per year and live until I’m 90, that drops to 800.

Math aside, the challenge then becomes working out which books to choose, given that not only do thousands of new ones appear every year but that there are also many more that have been published since the invention of the printing press.

All of this is pretty much just a preamble to explaining why it is that I’ve reached the age of 57 and only now found the time to read Apollodorus’s The Library, which I’ve decided I should have done 40 years ago! Sure, it’s not as racy as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s a denser read than Homer’s Odyssey, but it’s packed with gods, mythology, and more characters than Game of Thrones. The copy I bought is from the Loeb Classical Library and not only has the original Greek paired with the English translation on every two pages but it includes fascinating commentaries by the translator, the brilliant anthropologist and scholar  J.G. Frazer [1]. Although it’s often promoted, or perceived, as a text for academics and students, quite frankly it’s the sort of book anyone can read and find lots of interesting and entertaining snippets of knowledge.



Not surprisingly, considering how educated and erudite Frazer was, now and again I have to pause my reading to head for the dictionary. More specifically, I use the Oxford Dictionaries Quick Search app [2] on my Moto X phone because it’s quick, convenient, and accurate. And my latest new word was supposititious.

At first, I thought it was a misprint for superstitious but when I re-read the sentence it clearly was supposed to mean something else. And it did! The word is used in the story of Oedipus, who was the son of King Laius and Jocasta. Laius had been warned by an oracle not to have a son because he would grow up to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Tragically, one night he got roaring drunk and had sex with Jocasta, which resulted in Oedipus. So Laius had his new-born taken out into the mountains and left to die. Fortunately for Oedipus [3], he was found by a cowherd of King Polybus and taken to him and his wife, Periboea. They brought him up as their son, not revealing that he was a foundling. However, there were rumors…

When the boy grew up and excelled his fellows in strength, they spitefully twitted him with being supposititious. (Apollodorus, p.345).

The first meaning of the word as defined by the OED is as follows:

Put by devious means in the place of another; fraudulently substituted for the genuine thing or person. Hence: falsely claimed or purporting to be something, not genuine, spurious, counterfeit, false.

The colleagues of Oedipus were correct. He was indeed claiming to be the son of Polybus and Periboea but was not. In fairness, he wasn’t actually deceiving people because he wasn’t aware of his real parents, and his adoptive ones kept it a secret. In fact, it was precisely because they kept mum that Oedipus eventually killed his dad and shagged his mum! Because Periboea wouldn’t say anything about his past, he went to the oracle at Delphi who told him not to go back to his home because he would murder his father and sleep with his mother. He naturally assumed this meant Polybus and Periboea, so he left and ended up at his real birthplace where the prophecy played out.

oedipus and sphinx

Oedipus Meets the Sphinx

Supposititious makes its first appearance in 1600 and is from the Latin suppositīcius, which means “to put in place of another,” “to substitute” or simply “pretended.” The supposit– element is the past participle form of the verb supponere, which means variously “to place under or beneath, to append, subjoin, to put in the place of another, substitute, to introduce fraudulently.” Breaking it down even further, the sup– is a phonetic variation [4] of the prefix sub– that means “under” or “at the bottom of,” and the ponere means “to put, to place” – literally “to put under.”

By 1620 the meaning of supposititious had been extended to include “pretended or imagined to exist; feigned, fictitious; fabulous; fancied, imaginary” in general, and five years later the meaning included the notion of the substitution of children:

Of a child, esp. one set up to displace a real heir or successor, or the birth of such a child. Also in extended sense: illegitimate.

This is the sense of the word that Frazer.

By the middle of the 17th century, supposititious was also being used as a general adjective for anything that was hypothetical, supposed, or subject to conjecture. In fact, it’s still used in the sense today – if infrequently.

It may have struck some readers that there’s another similar-sounding word that comes to mind when you see supposititioussuppository. The similarity is not accidental. A  suppository is defined as:

A medicinal preparation, typically in the form of a small, solid cone or cylinder of a base material that becomes soft or liquid at body temperature, administered by insertion into the rectum, vagina, or urethra (or, esp. in early use, any body orifice other than the mouth).

It comes from the Latin suppositorium  meaning “a medical plug,” which in turn can be traced back to verb supponere and the sense of “something going under.”

The word suppository was also used as an adjective meaning “supposed or hypothetical” from the mid-1600s through to the beginning of the 20th century, but its current use is almost exclusively as the noun referring to drugs administered anally.

Bottoms up!

[1] James George Frazer was born on 1st January 1854 in Glasgow, Scotland, and died on 7th May, 1941 aged 87. My guess is that he was quite capable of reading 52 books a year. And on top of that, he wrote the influential The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, the 3rd edition of which runs to 12 volumes released between 1906 and 1915. Alas I’ve only ever managed to read the single-volume abridged version and it’s likely the encyclopedic set will never even make it onto my book shelves. Who has time to read all this good stuff?

[2] Whenever someone asks me “which dictionary should I use?” I’m now comfortable with an “It depends” response. Dictionaries are like physical tools in that you use different ones for different jobs. If your toolbox only had a hammer in it, you’d be restricted in the number of jobs you could do. It’s the same with dictionaries. I use the Oxford Dictionaries app on my smart phone when I am reading a physical book because I can have instant access to a word I don’t know literally within arm’s reach. But for some serious investigation of a word (or words) there are still times I need to pile up volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary on a table top and flick through pages of paper. Oh, and I use the online Urban Dictionary for researching slang words – but that’s a different post!

[3] Some people claim that “the name makes the man” but in the case of Oedipus it’s an example of where “the man makes the name.” When Laius first had his son exposed and left to die, he stabbed him in the ankles, presumably to speed up the process. The Greek Οἰδίπους means “swollen foot” and is a blend of οἰδεῖν meaning “to swell” and πούς meaning “foot.” The Greek πούς is gave way to the Latin ped and both are found at the root of many words used in English that related to feet, walking, and movement.

[4] When a prefix gets attached to the front of a word, the actual sound of it can changed based on the sound at the beginning of the word to which it is being attached. The final sound of the prefix “assimilates” with the initial sound of the word being prefixed so as to make the word easier to say. In the case of sub-, the final sound is the /b/ whereas the initial sound of ponere is a /p/. The difference between these two sound is that the former is voiced, which means the vocal cords vibrate a little, and the latter is voiceless, where the cords don’t get involved. If  you try to say a word where you switch from /b/ to /p/ quickly, it’s hard! But what happens is that the /b/ at the end of sub shifts to become voiceless like the /p/ at the beginning of ponere, and you get supponere not subponere (or subbornere). This is Nature’s way of making speech easier. That’s also way when you hear someone say the word subpoena it is typically pronounced as “su-PEE-nuh” without any /b/ sound. Check it out next time you watch a crime drama on TV!

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Sigmund FreudToday, May 5, 2016, is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. Coming immediately one day after Cinco de Mayo, I’m guessing most folks will be too partied out to go out on the town tonight to drink beer, smoke cigars, snort cocaine, and eat mushrooms. My own raucous celebrations are likely to include take-out food and a Brandy Alexander followed by watching Psycho and wondering if the movie would have turned out differently if only Norman Bates had had an analyst.The it’ll be off to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Freud spent an awful lot of his life talking about dreams. In fact, it took him five years to write his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams, starting in 1895 and seeing the published book in 1900. Here is expounds at length on how dreams are “the Royal Road to the Unconscious” where our deepest, darkest desires roil around like serpents in a pit. In a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, Freud opened the book with the following quotation:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo

Or for those of us who speak little or no Latin, “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal regions.” And in the spirit of accuracy, “Acheronta movebo” is more literally translated as “I will move the Acheron,” which in Greek mythology is one of the rivers of the Underworld and Land of the Dead – the river of Woe [1].

A later reworking of Virgil’s phrase is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the fallen angel Lucifer says,

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

If you’ve read Paradise Lost, you’ll know that when Lucifer says this, he’s feeling pretty miserable because he’s been tossed out of Heaven and a little antsy towards God. A more modern interpretation of Lucifer’s angst can be seen in the 1966 movie Bedazzled starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, where Cook – as God – sits atop a post box while Moore – as Lucifer – walks round and around the box worshiping God until Moore says, “Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places?”

“That’s exactly how I felt,” says Cook. “I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!”


But before Lucifer became identified in Christian mythology as a fallen angel, the word was used to refer to the morning star, or the planet Venus as it rises in the sky at dawn. The Latin lūcifer is an adjective meaning “light-bringing” and by extension was used as the name for the morning star.

The first part of the word, lūc(i),- comes from lux meaning “light,” and the second part, -fer, is a suffix with the sense of carrying or bearing, as in transfer or crucifer. It comes from the verb ferre meaning “to bear or carry.” The lux element is also the source for the word lucid, meaning “clear” or “easy to understand, and for the common word light as in “bright” or “shining.”

We can stroll a little further back to the Greek word for the morning star or Venus, which is Phosphorus (ϕωσϕόρος ). This itself is a shortening of the phrase ϕωσϕόρος ἀστήρ, which means “bright star,” where phosphorus is an adjective, not a proper noun. The Greek phos (ϕῶς) means “light” and the suffix foros (ϕόρος ) means “to carry” or “to bear” – like the Latin -fer suffix just mentioned. The verb form of “to bear” was actually the Greek pherien (ϕέρειν) and this looks and sounds very similar to the Latin ferre.

When translators came to handle the word Phosphorus, they knew that is had the sense of “bearer of light” and so the Greek phos became the Latin lux and the Greek foros changed to Latin fer – hence Lucifer.

From all this, it should be apparent that the old myth that the word luck comes from Lucifer is wrong. Very wrong. Apart from the three letters L-U-C there’s no link between them. Luck is of Germanic stock with cognates such as Middle Dutch luc, Middle Low German lücke, Old Icelandic lukka, lykka, and Old Danish lukkæ. The ultimate Germanic base form is unknown but it’s certainly not from the same line as Lucifer.

[1] The five rivers of the Underworld are Acheron, Cocytus, Lethe, Phlegethon, and Styx. The first is the river of Woe, the second the river of Lamentation, the third the river of Forgetfulness, the fourth the river of Fire, and the Styx is the river of Dead Progressive Rock Bands.

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Most of us spend a fair amount of our lives trying to make money so that we can do the things we want to do. The juggling of income and expenditure is typically referred to as a budget. The concept behind working to a budget is stunningly simple and was expressed very well by the Mr. Micawber, a character for the Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, where he says;

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

Economists and politicians will spend lots of time trying to make this sound complicated – especially since the former want you to pay them for their services and the latter want you to vote them into power. But so long as what you spend is less than what you earn, you’re good to go. Sure you can borrow money, which feels like extra income, but of course, it isn’t income because you have to pay it back.



So when governments make budgets, all they are doing is telling us all how they intend to use taxes (government income) to keep the country running (government expenditure). In the US, when the opposition parties can’t agree on budgets, it can lead to a shutdown – as happened on 1st October, 2013. And if a government overspends its budget, then they run the risk of losing the next election.

The word budget wasn’t originally anything to do with balancing income and expenditure and it made its way into English via the French bougette, which in turn was a diminutive of the word bouge – a leather bag. It’s transfer to the meaning we all use today came from British parliamentary procedure back in the early 18th century when the Chancellor of the Exchequer would submit a financial plan for the next few years to the members of the House of Commons. He would carry his notes in a small leather bag, the budget, and then “open the budget” to read his statement. In 1771, Horace Walpole wrote in his Memories of George II that;

The time was now come for opening the budget, when it was incumbent on him to state the finances, debts, and calls of Government.

Going back in time a little further, we find that the word budget also referred generally to the contents of a purse or bag. So in 1597, Thomas Morley wrote in his A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke that, “You shall have the hardest in all my budget.” And seeing as how a bundle of papers could easily be carried inside a purse, the word became used to refer to newspaper print for periodicals such as The Pall Mall Budget or the Young Folk’s Weekly Budget. This is similar to how we use words such as gazette, record, or chronicle in the names of other newspapers.

The Old French bouge (or sometimes boulge, buche, or buge) can be traced back to the Latin bulga, a leather bag – or even the womb! Note that in Old Irish we also find the words bolg and bolc being used to refer to a leather sack or bag. The word bulge for a protuberance or lump comes from the same root.

Its move to taking on verb characteristics was first noted at the beginning of the 17th century. In the sense of “to draw up or create a budget,” John Taylor wrote in Works (1618) that, “We eate a substantiall dinner, & like miserable Guests we did budget vp the reuersions.” By the 19th century, it was happily being used in the same verb sense as it is today.

It’s also worth noting that up until the late 19th century, the phrase “open one’s budget” was used to mean “speak one’s mind.” In Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (1847) she wrote;

There’s Matilda..and I must go and open my budget to her.

Related to this sadly obsolete phrase was its similarly defunct counterpart, mumbudget, which means “to keep silent.” Here the addition of mum (to stay silent) creates an opposite of the word budget. It’s a great word and worthy of resurrection!

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Almost six years ago, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper contained a short article by feature writer Jon Henley – not to be confused with the drummer, and later solo artist, from The Eagles, Don Henley. Entitled A glossary of US military torture euphemisms, it present a short list of words and phrases used by government agencies to talk about things that they really don’t want to talk about. Where most people would define “taking someone by force and holding them against their will” as kidnapping, the military would describe this as special renditions – well, as long as it’s our folks who are doing the rendering! And when “enemy combatants” are subjected to water-boarding or sleep deprivation, this is not torture but enhanced coercive interrogation techniques. “Torture” is what Johnny Foreigner does to our chaps, not what we do to theirs.

UK's The Guardian

UK’s The Guardian

Euphemism, from the Greek euphemos (εὔϕημος) meaning “speak well” or “fair of speech,” is a standard tool in politics, and something that George Orwell excoriated in his classic 1946 article, Politics and the English Language, describing it as using language in”the defense of the indefensible.” It’s also a social tool that allows us to talk about sensitive or shocking topics without actually using words that offend our sensibilities or shock. People don’t die, they pass on; they aren’t sacked, they’re let go; they’re not drunk just a little worse for wear; and they are not lying just being economical with the truth.

The general aim of euphemism is to “soften the blow.” Euphemism implicitly recognizes that words are not just a cluster of sounds that transmit meanings but that they can also be carriers of significant emotional content. Shit, crap, dung, poop, and feces are all the same thing – but you wouldn’t use them all with your granny or a Sunday school teacher [1].

Peculation is a word that should be used more as a euphemism but hasn’t really caught on. It’s defined as;

The appropriation of money or property held in trust for another by a servant, employee, or official; esp. the embezzlement of public funds belonging to a ruler, state, or government.

To all intents and purposes, it is really a more polite and less emotionally laden way of saying embezzlement.


The word made an appearance in 1658 as an entry in a dictionary written by Edward Phillips, defined as; “a robbing of the Prince or Common-wealth.” It appears to have then been used on and off during the 18th and 19th centuries but was much rarer in the 20th. It’s use in the UK’s Daily Telegraph in the phrase;

It would no longer tolerate a form of politics that favoured politicians above people and peculation above principles

seems to be more of a nod toward alliteration than any serious attempt to revive the word.

We can trace it back to post-classical Latin peculatio, the embezzlement of money or property, which in turn comes from classical Latin peculari meaning “to rob or defraud.” Earlier than this was peculium, used to refer to both money and private property. This same root (peculium) is also the origin of the words peculiar, which is an adjective used to describe something “distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others” or “special, remarkable, or distinctive.” The sense is that of a quality that is private to an individual.

Although peculation appeared as a noun in 1658, the word peculator was around two years earlier in 1656, as an entry in the first edition of Thomas Blount’s Glossographia; or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words, whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin… as are now used in our refined English tongue. By the early 18th century it had slipped on its verbal slippers to appear as to peculate, followed by wearing its adjectival cloaks of peculative (1779) and peculant (1853).

Sadly it’s now more likely to turn up in a spelling bee more than the pages of a newspaper, magazine, book, or web page – unless the web page is talking about the etymology of the word! The mighty Corpus of Contemporary American English has 5 examples from its 450 million word database, and even the mind-bogglingly huge 1.9 billion word sample of the Corpus of Web-based Global English (GloWbE) only turns up 31 instances.

Slim pickings indeed.

[1] I know that someone reading this will probably have a granny who swears like the proverbial trooper and can use more profanities than the Urban Dictionary can keep up with. However, the point is that we not only choose our words to convey a specific meaning but that we may choose different but similar words based on the context in which we expect to be saying them.

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In one of those splendid examples of being divided by a common language, my recent post on petroleum (or petrol, as those wacky Brits like to call it) cries out for a similar investigation into the word gasoline. As far as out motor cars go, they are both the same but etymologically speaking, the are clearly continents apart.

Gas pump

Unlike petroleum, which can be traced back to Greek, gasoline is a relatively new word, dating back to the 19th century, where it starts out life as gasolene or gasoleine – or even gazoline. The OED defines it as follows:

Originally: a light fuel oil made by the fractional distillation of petroleum, used for heating and lighting. Subsequently: a similar petroleum distillate used as motor fuel.

The first recorded mention of the word can be seen in the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle from 1863;

Best and cheapest burning oils for winter… Refined colza, gasolene, petrolene. (12th September)

One interesting possibility for the origin of the word is that it may be an eponym – a word derived from someone’s name. The suggestion is that back in the 1860’s, a London merchant called John Cassell sold lighting fluid for lamps under the trade name Cazelene. Meanwhile, a competitor on Dublin had a similar product called Gazelene, possibly to avoid any legal challenges from Cassell, who had a patent out on Cazelene. And how do we know there was a patent? And ad in the London Times said so;

The Patent Cazeline Oil possesses all the requisites which have so long been desired as a means of powerful artificial light (Times, 27th November, 1862)

Considering that a patent application needs to be around before you start talking about it – let alone printing it – it’s likely that it was around a few years before the 1863 citation of gasolene, and may therefore be an early example of the phenomenon of “genericization” – where a trade name becomes a common word, usually to the dismay of the mark holder!

As we know, the use of gas took off in the US in contrast to the UK’s use of petrol. A quick look at the Corpus of Historical American shows the growth of its use in the phrase “gas station” from 1920 onwards. And both words demonstrate the process of back-clipping – the shortening of a longer word by dropping the end part. So now people talk about gas and petrol, not gasoline and petroleum.

Frequency of use of gas station from 1900 to 2000

Gas station 1920-2000

Still, the word gasoline itself is a great example of how you can build a word from pieces and parts – or for those who are more academically inclined, how to derive a word morphologically. Clearly there are three parts; gas, –ol, and –ine. So let’s go through each one.

Gas was coined in 1648 (or thereabouts) by the Flemish chemist, J.B. Van Helmont (1577–1644) to describe something that was “a far more subtile or fine thing than a vapour, mist, or distilled Oylinesses.” He modeled it on the Greek word chaos (χάος) and he explicitly said that

A few years later, the more global definition was;

A substance in a state in which it expands freely to fill the whole of a container, having no fixed shape (unlike a solid) and no fixed volume (unlike a liquid); spec. (distinguished from a vapour) such a substance above a critical temperature such that it cannot be liquefied by the application of pressure alone; any substance which normally exists in such a state.

This is pretty much what we currently understand as the meaning of gas.

The next part, –ol, is a suffix used in chemistry to form the names of hydrocarbons – such as that which we refine as fuel for cars. It comes from the Latin oleum meaning “oil,” which in turn appears to be a variation on the Greek elaion (ἔλαιον) or “olive oil.”

The final piece is the suffix –line that was used in the 19th century to create the names of chemical derivatives i.e. chemicals that were created as a result of extracting them using some sort of process – as in the distillation of fuel.

Still, whether you call it petrol or gasoline, it still burns a hole in your pocket!

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Back when I was a kid and home science didn’t include computers or the internet, and required much simpler technology – such as books – I was fascinated by astronomy. In my early teens, the tools of my trade consisted of a cheap telescope, a stand made by my dad out of some old piping he found at the factory where he worked, and The Observer’s Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore. In fact, I still have the book, which is dated 1967 and still hasn’t fallen apart.

Moore, now Sir Patrick, is something of an English icon in the world of amateur astronomy and television. He presents a show called The Sky at Night, and has done so since April 24th, 1957, which makes it older than I am. On the March 16th, 2011, Moore presented the 700th episode, which was attended by Queen guitarist Brian May [1] and popular TV physicist Brain Cox, who was inspired to take up astronomy after reading The Observer’s Book of Astronomy. It makes you wonder just how influential that one little book has been on amateur astronomers in the UK.

For many years I would spend evenings in the back yard of our two-up, two-down terraced house, pointing my telescope over the wall and turning on my flashlight [2] now and again to check my little book. And one of the things I wanted to see was the famous Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion [3]. Sadly my telescope had all the magnification power of a pair of spectacles so I could never see the nebula as it was portrayed in Moore’s book.

Horsehead nebula

Horsehead Nebula

As I became more interested in psychology and then linguistics, I never realized how much the language of astronomy would actually help, with its many words derived from Latin and Greek. And the stories of the constellations undoubtedly contributed to my fascination with the Classics and mythology in general.
In the world of astronomy, the word nebula means;

…an indistinct cloud-like, luminous object seen in the night sky, such as a cluster of distant stars, a galaxy, or a cloud of gas or dust. Now (usually): spec. a mass of gas or dust within a galaxy, typically visible either as a luminous patch or as a dark silhouette against a brighter background.

It comes from the Latin nebula meaning fog, mist, or cloud, which is how the nebula first appeared in early telescopes. This notion of cloudiness is why it was also used in the 5th century CE as a medical term to describe the look of infected urine i.e. cloudy. In the 17th century, it was also used in ophthalmology to describe any thin-film that coated the eye.

At the same time, it began to be used to describe sunspots, or the hazy ring that surrounded a sunspot. But by the beginning of the 18th century, the word was more likely to be applied in general to indistinct, cloudy celestial objects that we not stars or planets. The Horsehead nebula was identified in 1888 and became famous because of its distinctive shape that mimics a horse’s head.

The Greek word for “cloud” or “mist” is nepheli (νεϕέλη) and in mythology, Nephele was a cloud that Zeus shaped into an image of his wife, Hera, with the intent of tricking King Ixion into seducing her. Sadly for Ixion, he was weak and  attempted to rape her, for which he was punished by having to spend eternity in Hades strapped to a burning wheel. It’s never a good idea to piss off a Greek god, especially Zeus.


Ixion on his wheel

In another story, Nephele is the mother of Phrixus and Helle, who were about to be sacrificed when Nephele sent a golden ram to carry them to safety. Ultimately, Phrixus married the daughter of King Aeetes and sacrificed the ram in honor of their nuptials. The King then took this Golden Fleece and hung it on a tree where it was found by Jason and his Argonauts.

It is hypothesized that there is an Indo-European ancestor to the word as we see variations of it in Old High German nebul meaning “mist” and Icelandic njol meaning “night.” It’s worth noting that the word nebule was also used in the 15th century to mean “cloud” or “mist.”

People with asthma and other respiratory illnesses may be familiar with device called a nebulizer, which is used to spray a fine mist of drugs in suspension directly into the lungs. The word nebulizer comes, as you might guess, from nebula.

I no longer spend time as an amateur astronomer. Occasionally I’ll sit out in my back garden and look up at the stars for a few minutes but the old passion has gone. It’s disappeared – just like a cloud in the wind.

[1] Queen fans are well aware that Brian May was part way through a doctoral program in astrophysics before deciding to give it up due to the rising demands of his life as the lead guitarist for the band. After some 35 years of creating a back-catalog of albums that is impressive by anyone’s standards, he completed his Ph.D. and became Dr. May in May 2008.

[2] Although I use the word flashlight now, that’s because I’m bilingual and speak both British and American English fluently. As a kid, I called it a torch, with torch and flashlight being something of a shibboleth that labels you as English or American. When they were invented, they were originally called electric torches to distinguish them from flaming brands but over the years, the electric piece was dropped leaving just torch.

[3] For my younger daughter’s 13th birthday, I bought her a star in the constellation of Orion from the International Star Registry. The star now bears her name and can be found in Orion at right ascension 6h 1m 40s and declination 15 degrees and 57 minutes. Those of you with clever telescopes can check this out. She asked if it really was her star, and I told her that she could go and pick it up any time she liked.

For those of you wanting to buy someone a little something special, it’s well worth going to the International Star Registry and buying a little piece of the cosmos. “But darling, now every time I look at the stars, they remind me of you…”

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So what do the following tweets have in common?

Just seen the TV ad for the unauthorised book on me. Yikes! (@SimonCowell)

Being a celebrity has afforded me many opportunities but has also boxed me in creatively (@kanyewest)

The desk is almost clear. Work on memoir, film all but done. Maybe I can allow myself the weekend off before beginning work on my TV series? (@SalmanRushdie)

Well, they are all examples of humblebrags, and a humblebrag is defined by the sporadically accurate but always entertaining Urban Dictionary as;

When you, usually consciously, try to get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a phony show of humility.

The rise of Twitter has ushered in a golden age of humblebragging, and not only for celebrities. Here are a few examples from ordinary folks, just like you and me;

I gave a speech at TEDx and now it’s on the internet. If you’d like to be uninspired for fifteen minutes, click here:

Great. The same week I lose my fake tooth down a sink, I get asked to be a photoshoot model. I’ll be serving gap-toothed realness.

I hate when people tell me, ‘You’re too pretty for tattoos’ …shut up …it’s art.

As you have probably worked out, the art of the humblebrag is to combining shameless self promotion along with fake humility. In all of the examples above, you’ll see the two basic components; the brag and the self-deprecation. For example, the underlying structure of the statement from Simon Cowell is;

The Deprecate [1]: Yikes, I am the victim of an unauthorized biography.
The Brag: I am so famous people want to write whole books about me.

In the Kanye West example:

The Deprecate: I am stifled by my celebrity status.
The Brag: Hey, I’m a celebrity!

And in the Salman Rushdie tweet:

The Deprecate: I’ve been so busy and need a rest.
The Brag: I’m so busy because I’m so clever and have TV shows and memoirs.

The Brag/Deprecate structure can, I suggest, be applied to any humblebrag. The deprecate also functions to try and give the impression that the braggart is “just a regular person” but is clearly just a smokescreen to allow for the brag.

And even the Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Solokowski is not above the occasional humblebrag, as evidence in this recent tweet:

I’m very humbled by the wonderful piece in @slate‘s @browbeatslate blog by @abbyohlheiser: http://slate.me/LOpxCp Thank you!! Welcome all

And the underlying structure?

The Deprecate: How humble I feel.
The Brag: Look, the folks at Slate are writing about me!

It’s possible that some folks unconsciously fall into humblebragging, but in the Twitter environment, one of the major points of the entire system is to allow people to talk about themselves and share their lives with a world that they think cares. Twitter is, by and large, an example par excellence of the “Me Generation,” [2] and is up there with Facebook, its more wordy companion.

Facebook takes humblebragging to extremes. It’s an opportunity to people to post to the world how special they are, how great their lives are, how talented/beautiful/important they are, and indulge in an orgy of mutual appreciation. It’s tailor-made for parent humblebraggers, whose postings are always thinly veiled brags about how smart their kids are.  The subtext for “My 18-month-old won’t stop talking and it is driving me crazy!” is;

The Deprecate: I’m stressed, just like normal parents.
The Brag: Look how smart my kid is! Talking at 18-months. Must be a genius. [3]

A colleague of mine will go for months without posting to Facebook – until she takes a trip abroad and starts the rounds of “OMG, so tired after landing in Sydney” or “Almost fell asleep in the Sydney Opera house because of the jet lag.” Once back home, we never hear “Just got back from Wal-Mart with a new can opener” or “Took the trash out and it was raining.” Nope, it’s only the glamorous world that we hear about.

And that, of course, is what humblebragging is ultimately about; it’s a way of creating the image we want to be, as opposed to displaying the image of what we actually are.  We post the edited highlights of our lives and polish them up just a little because we don’t want to appear – heaven forbid! – boring.

Tweets and Facebook posts therefore take on an air of excitement and drama, which is the purpose behind editing. The film director, Alfred Hitchcock, once famously said;

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

Hence the rise of the humblebrag. We become dramatic; we become interesting; but we also want to be simultaneously special and ordinary. Kanye West may want to sound like “just like an everyday person” but he doesn’t actually want to be one! When celebrity Tila Tequila tweeted;

I hate my lambo! Police is ALWAYS pulling me over just cuz its a lambo so they always think I’m speeding but I’m not!! Then they let me go!

..you know she’s trying to sounds “just like one of us who gets pulled over” but she also wants you to know she (a) has a Lamborghini and (b) gets let off because she’s a celebrity.

Tila Tequila's lamborghini

Tila’s lambo: Such a bore

The humblebrag is essentially a form of paralipsis, which is a rhetorical device used by a speaker to bring attention to something by professing to be ignoring it. If a politician says, “Irrespective of my honorable friend having once been charged with tax evasion, I believe there are many reasons for not voting for his being Head of the Treasury,” that’s paralipsis.

Although humblebrag has not yet made it into any of the standard dictionaries, it did make it into the American Dialect Society 2011 Word-of-the-Year list, an although it lost out as WOTY to occupy, it did place first in the “Most Useful” category. It therefore may simply be a matter of time before it becomes a dictionary word.

Clearly it’s a portmanteau word made from humble and brag. The OED defines humble as;

Having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud.

It appeared in Middle English as umble, humbul, humbyll, and oumbbylle, originating from the Latin humilem, meaning lowly, small, or insignificant. This, in turn, came from humus meaning earth or ground.

Back in the 16th century, brag meant, “A loud noise, the bray of a trumpet,” and it is that sense of a braying trumpet that lead to the modern meaning of arrogant or boastful language. There’s still uncertainty about the word’s origins but one suggestion is that it derives from the Old Norse brak, which is a “creaking noise.” Another is that it is from Old Norse bragr meaning “the best, the foremost, the boast or toast.”

Whatever the origin may be, I’m betting that humblebrag will slide into the dictionaries within 5 years – unless we all suddenly decide that self-promotion is a bad thing. And my guess is that the world will end before true humility makes a comeback.

Postscript 6/11/12
Remiss of me not to mention the excellent @humblebrag Twitter stream run by Harris Wittels. It’s well worth following for the splendid examples of painfully obvious false humility, or just catch up now and again at http://twitter.com/humblebrag

[1] I’m using the term deprecate to refer to the element of the sentence (or narrative) structure that is used to convey a sense of “ordinariness.” The word itself derives from the Latin deprecare meaning “to pray away” or “to ward off.”

[2] Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York, NY: Free Press.

See also Twenge, J.M. (2009) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Sadly, the bitter truth is that although everyone believes their children are above average, statistically that cannot be the case. The odds are that your kiddo is average and no amount of humblebragging will change that. I am, in fact, so confident of my claim that I predict that YOU who is reading this NOW will be convinced I am wrong and that your child is the exception, and although you might grasp the statistical truth, you are psychologically unable to accept that your offspring is anywhere other than at the top end of the bell curve.

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