Category Archives: Words

An Abundance Of Caution

US Capitol Building

The office of Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., announced April 9 he had a positive test for the coronavirus after visiting the emergency room “out of an abundance of caution” the evening of April 6.
“Congresswoman Fletcher sought professional medical treatment out of an abundance of caution. At the determination of her physician, she was tested for COVID-19 today. She will continue to work from home until she receives her test results,” a statement from her office reads.
A statement from spokeswoman Lina Francis continued, “Congresswoman Pressley sought professional medical treatment out of an abundance of caution. She has been tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting test results.”
Moulton said a House doctor advised a test wasn’t needed because he and his wife, Liz, had only minor symptoms and the results wouldn’t change their treatment. He said he will stay at home “out of an abundance of caution” and could miss key votes in Washington as a result.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in a statement on March 19 he would self-quarantine following news that Diaz-Balart tested positive for COVID-19, saying he was “around him for an extended period last week.”
“Out of an abundance of caution, I am following the doctor’s instructions to self-quarantine until March 27,” he continued, reiterating he has “no symptoms and feel fine.”
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., released a statement on Tuesday, March 17, saying he has decided to self-quarantine after meeting with a “Coloradan who visited my Washington office for a constituent meeting” who has tested positive for coronavirus. Gardner said he is not showing any symptoms, but is self-quarantining out of an “abundance of caution.”

Savannah Behrmann‘Abundance of caution’: Several lawmakers quarantine out of fear of contact with coronavirusUSA Today


Since the Current Unpleasantness began, we’ve had something of an abundance of “abundance of caution”. I chose the example above simply because it illustrates so well how the phrase has become mind-numbingly popular during these Times of Covid. (I haven’t even quoted all the examples appearing in the USA Today article at the other end of my link above.) It certainly seems that “an abundance of caution” has been something of a go-to phrase for the elected representatives of the American people recently. (Except, of course, for that group that has been exhibiting an abundance of incaution.) There has even been a beer brewed in its honour.

It’s certainly a fine politician’s phrase. “Caution”, on its own, can be parsed as a negative attribute; but an “abundance” of anything has got to be a good thing, doesn’t it? The phrase also allows the user some considerable wiggle room if challenged. An abundance of caution can imply, “Well, I have no good supporting evidence for the course of action I took, but I did it with the best of intentions.” Or it can imply, “Look, I know you think I shouldn’t have done this, but other people think I maybe should have done it, so my abundant caution drove me to acknowledge all viewpoints and make the best of a bad job.”

I don’t recall registering the phrase before this year, when I’ve been encountering it to a positively nauseating extent. But it has been around for long time, it turns out. The extraordinary Reverend John Newton used it in a letter in 1763, for instance, but in context it’s clear he intended the phrase to mean something like “carefully noncommittal”.

The phrase in its current meaning comes to us from legal Latin, ex abundante cautela, “by way of extreme caution”, which was used when a person took extreme measures to avoid an unlikely adverse outcome—“belt and braces”, in other words. In that sense it seems to have leaked into English in the mid-1800s, mediated by people with a background in law. In a search of the Hansard corpus (the written records of the British Parliament) it first appears in 1856, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Lewis, a qualified lawyer) proposing a vote to provide funds to the Royal Navy, covering unexpected expenditure arising from the Crimean War.

I intended to state to the Committee that the Vote which I have proposed is a Vote taken simply from abundance of caution …

Soon after that, in 1859, it turns up being used in the same sense in the written corpus of US Supreme Court opinions. And so it trickled on for a century and a half, until suddenly exploding into prominence this year.

So much for the phrase. With reference to etymology, both abundance and caution have sparse but interesting connections.

Abundance, its adjective abundant, and the verb abound all derive from Latin abundantem, “overflowing”, from the verb abundare, “to overflow”. The verb in turn is formed from the prefix ab-, “away from”, and undare, “to flow in waves”. And undare is the verb from unda, “wave”, the root of our word undulate, as well as the obscure old words und, “wave” and oundy, “wavy”. Undated, meaning “having wavy markings” has also fallen into obscurity, perhaps because of the confusion it could cause with undated, “lacking a date”. Then there’s inundate, literally “to cover with waves”, and undine, a kind of water nymph. We also have redound, which as a noun is a rare synonym for echo. It derives from redundare, “to return in a wave”. As a verb, redound originally meant “to come back upon”, but nowadays that has mutated slightly into “to contribute greatly to”. Then there’s surround, from superundare, another Latin “overflow” word. Its original meaning was “to cover with water”, in the sense of a river bursting its banks, but the subsequent progression to its current meaning is clear, if we imagine buildings surrounded by floodwater.

Caution and its adjective cautious come from Latin cautus, meaning … well, “cautious”. And cautus is the past participle stem of the verb cavere, “to beware”. Cautus also gives us precaution, literally the act of being cautious in advance, and the old word cautel, which, confusingly, seems to have been used to mean both “precaution” and “trick” (that is, the thing one might take precautions against). The third person singular active present subjunctive of the verb cavere is caveat—”let him beware”. In English, a caveat is a warning of some kind, and it’s also familiar from the Latin tag caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”, telling us we should always inspect our purchases before handing over the cash (something that has rather gone by the board in these days of internet shopping). It has a corollary in caveat venditor, “let the seller beware”, which cautions sellers that they are responsible for problems the buyer may have as a result of their purchase. Then there’s caveat lector, “let the reader beware”—don’t accept anything you read uncritically. In 1975, however, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison®* put a whole new spin on that phrase when his short story collection Deathbird Stories was published. He prefaced it with the following injunction:

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

(Ellison was never much given to underestimating the effectiveness of his own writing.)

The present singular active imperative of cavere is cave, often written with an exclamation mark to indicate its imperative nature: Cave! “Beware!” Posting a notice reading Cave Canem (“Beware of the Dog”) on your front gate was once a way of showing off your classical education, but achieved the exact opposite of “keeping out the riff-raff”—only the classically educated postman was saved from injury. Which may well have been the object of the exercise, I suppose.

And anyone who has read the Billy Bunter books of Frank Richards will know that English public schoolboys of a certain vintage were constantly shouting “Cave!” to each other if a teacher approached the scene of their wrongdoings.

Cave!” shouted Hazeldene suddenly.
The form of Dr. Locke, the Head of Greyfriars, appeared suddenly from a door in the passage. He stood, and stared at the juniors in amazement.
“M-m-my hat!” gasped Bob Cherry.
“Dear me!” said the Head, in wonder.

Bunter the Sportsman (1965)

So “to keep cave” was once slang for “to keep watch”. But the pedant in me wants to tell the hapless Hazeldene that he should have shouted “Cavete!” since there were plural juniors present.

Cue the obligatory scene from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979):

* Ellison registered his name as a trademark in 2001. Which tells you something about him, I suppose.



Immunity: Exemption from a service, obligation, or duty; the condition of being insusceptible to the contagion of a specific disease

Covid-19 finger-prick antibody testOur aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.

Sir Patrick Vallance, BBC Radio 4, 13 March 2020

We’ve been hearing a lot about immunity lately. Developing herd immunity to COVID-19 suddenly turned into a Very Bad Plan only a week or so after Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, made the above statement. But it will probably turn into a Very Good Plan at some unspecified time in the future, if it can be achieved through mass vaccination rather than mass infection.

The word comes from the Latin adjective, munis, “ready to be of service”, from the noun munus, meaning “service” or “duty”. By adding the negating prefix im- to munis, the Romans derived immunis, which meant “free from service or duty”. And that was the sole meaning of the English word immune until the late nineteenth century, when the nascent science of medicine co-opted it to mean “not susceptible to a specific infectious disease”. And so we now have the medical specialty of immunology, and the practice of immunization.

The Romans also added the prefix com- to munis, suggesting “shared duty”—but the meaning of communis broadened to indicate anything that a group of people shared. From which we derive community, commune (noun and verb) and common (as in, “we have something in common”). From an original meaning of “belonging equally to more than one”, common quickly developed additional connotations—if something was common, there was a lot of it about, and it was a bit ordinary, and maybe even something that could be looked down on as being rather vulgar. Interestingly, common has managed to hang on to all those different meanings for six hundred years. It also assumed duty as a noun, designating the land to which a community shared access, and it’s still used in that sense in England today. For a while, it was also the name for the specific rights that a person had to that common ground—so you had common of pasture if you were entitled to graze your livestock, common of piscary if you had fishing rights, common of turbary for digging turf, and common of estovers if you could gather firewood.

The House of Commons, the name given to the “lower house” of the bicameral parliament in both the United Kingdom and Canada, is so called because its members (in theory at least) represent the interests of the communities that elected them.

Latin communis also gives us communism, a doctrine that rejects all private ownership; communion, a coming together in a spirit of sharing; and the verb to communicate, which implies the sharing of information. And, coming full circle to the word that started this post, a disease is communicable if it can be shared with (that is, infect) others.

Latin munus, meaning “service” or “duty”, acquired another oddly unrelated meaning—”gift”. This may relate to the fact that it was the duty of prominent Roman citizens to finance what were essentially gifts to the populace—public games and performances, financed by the wealthy elite, also fell within the ambit of the noun munus.

Both senses of the word have reached English. If you remunerate someone, you pay them for services rendered. And a municipium was a city whose inhabitants enjoyed the privileges, and duties, of Roman citizens—from that, we get our words municipal and municipality.

Someone who is munificent gives generous gifts; they exhibit munificence. Sadly, several related words have fallen into disuse—if you were carrying a gift, you were muniferous; if you plied another with gifts, you munificated them; and anything pertaining to gifts was munerary.

These handy little words are my gift to you. Let’s get them back into common usage.



Anthropause: The period of reduced human mobility brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic

Original photograph used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Over the past few months, many countries around the world went into lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19. Brought about by the most tragic circumstances, this period of unusually reduced human mobility — which we suggest be coined ‘anthropause’ — may provide important insights into human–wildlife interactions in the twenty-first century. Anecdotal observations indicate that many animal species are enjoying the newly afforded peace and quiet, while others, surprisingly, seem to have come under increased pressure.

Rutz et al. Nature Ecology & Evolution 22 June 2020

So there’s the coining of a new and useful word, happening before our very eyes, although in the quotation above the authors use the verb “to coin” in a way that’s still largely considered erroneous. The metaphor underlying coin is a reference to minting money—you coin a word or phrase by newly creating it. But there’s been a tendency of late, perhaps driven by the increasing obscurity of the metaphorical reference, for people to use coin in situations where the verbs name or dub would be the customary choices. That’s language for you.

The authors acknowledge that their new coining should really be anthropopause, from Greek anthropos, “human being” and the scientific suffix -pause, which usually indicates an ending of some sort. For instance, the menopause is the end of menstruation; the magnetopause is the outer limit of a planet’s magnetic field. But the authors seem to have been influenced by the common meaning of the noun pause—“the act of stopping for a brief interval”.

So there are things about this new word that are not quite right, etymologically speaking. It’s also a hybrid word, with mixed Greek and Latin roots, because pause comes to us from the Latin noun pausa, meaning “halt”. But nevertheless it seems like a name for something we needed a name for, and it seems to have been finding its way into scientific currency during the month since it was invented.

The Latin verb associated with pausa was pausere, “to halt”, which mutated into French poser. But poser doesn’t mean “to halt”—it means “to place”, “to put down”, “to rest” and, well, “to pose”. These meanings properly belong to Latin ponere. How did they get transferred to poser? Well, in the past tense ponere conjugates into a whole load of verbs beginning “pos-”, and that may have been the source of the confusion.

Whatever the reason, English acquired the verb to pose from the French. We also acquired, or built for ourselves, a whole batch of -pose words. To compose is to “place together”; to juxtapose is to “place side by side”; to dispose is to “place apart”; to expose is to “place away”, and so on through many others.

Now: anthropos.

The prefix anthropo-, referring to human beings, has been fairly busy in forming words, as has the suffix -anthropy. Anthropause is just the latest in a series of such words that refer to the human impact on nature. There’s also Anthropocene, which is a serious proposal for the name of a new geological period defined by human impact on the natural world; anthroposphere refers to that part of the world dominated by human activity (there’s even a magazine of the same name); and of course Anthropogenic Global Warming is the thing we were all preoccupied by before we became preoccupied by the anthropause. (In the nineteenth century, anthropogenic referred to anthropogeny, the science of human origins; only in the twentieth century did it acquire its present meaning of “caused by humans”.)

Anthropometry is human measurement, useful in designing tools and environments for human use. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human organisms or objects, and anthropopsychism is the attribution of human motives to these same things. Anthropotomy, literally “human cutting”, is a fine old word for the study of human anatomy, and anthroponymy is the study of personal names. Ananthropism is a lack of fellow-feeling for humanity, as is aphilanthropy; apanthropy is a love of solitude; anthropophobia is a fear of humans, as is phobanthropy; misanthropy is a hatred of humans; and crinanthropy is being judgemental about humans. Philanthropy is, of course, a love of humankind, especially a love expressed through aid or kindness to others. A gastrophilanthropist is one who expresses philanthropy by feeding others.

Unpleasantly, anthropophagy is the practice of eating humans, and anthropomancy is a supposed method of divining the future by inspecting human entrails. (This latter was, as you have guessed, invented by the Romans.)

Something anthropoid is in the form of a human—most commonly, the anthropoid apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan). Anthropology is the study of humans, and palaeoanthropology is the study of ancient humans.

Palaeoanthropology has given us a whole crop of genus names for extinct humans, many now disused—Africanthropus was “African human”, now understood to be ancient Homo sapiens; Eoanthropus was “dawn human” (the classification of the famous Piltdown Man hoax); Sinanthropus was “Chinese human”, the genus to which so-called Peking Man was assigned, before being reclassified as a subspecies of Homo erectus; and Pithecanthropus was “ape human”, another Homo erectus subspecies informally called Java Man in less gender-neutral days. There are others, but you see how it goes. All of these long-dead humans are known to us by their anthropolites—fossilized human remains.

There is also an oddly detailed list of psychiatric states involving the suffix -anthropy, though I suspect few are in current clinical use. The overarching concept is of zoanthropy, in which a person imagines themselves to be an animal. But under that umbrella lurks a list of specific delusional creatures—boanthropy (ox), cervanthropy (deer), galeanthropy (cat), cynanthropy (dog), hippanthropy (horse) … and of course the grand-daddy of them all, lycanthropy (wolf). Only the final example seems to have made the transition from “delusion” to “supernatural creature”, the word lycanthrope now being used almost exclusively as a synonym for werewolf. (For whom the act of turning back into human form is anthropomorphosis.)

Finally, I offer you anthropoglot, a word that is usually defined as “an animal with a tongue resembling that of a human”. Puzzlingly, the illustrative example always given is a parrot. Now, parrots’ mouths do contain something that looks like a rather wizened and discoloured human tongue, but many mammals do a better job in that regard. What’s different about a parrot’s tongue is that it uses it to produce speech, in much the same way a human does. (See, for example, the splendidly named paper Vocal-Tract Filtering by Lingual Articulation in a Parrot, in Current Biology of September 7, 2004.) So I do believe that the real and original nineteenth-century meaning of this rare word was “an animal capable of speaking like a human”.

Parrot tongue
Original source



knee: The joint between the thigh and lower leg; an object or structure which resembles this joint

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)

I’ve got to say, on this “taking a knee” thing—I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history but it seems to be taken from The Game of Thrones—feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination rather than one of liberation and emancipation.

Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary: talkRADIO, 18 June 2020

Oh dear. That’s Dominic Raab displaying a remarkable (and, given his job, rather alarming) ignorance of the multithreaded historical symbolism underlying the gesture of “taking a knee”—there’s Martin Luther King’s prayer at Selma and National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the American national anthem, as well as resonances that stretch across centuries, from the medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (at the head of this post), to the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.

The whole sorry episode was marvellously lampooned on Michael Spicer’s “The Room Next Door” channel on YouTube. (For those not familiar with his oeuvre, Spicer pretends to be a live off-screen adviser to politicians who are making particularly disastrous speeches.)

Raab also seems to think that there’s a popular television series called The Game of Thrones, but we’ll let that one slide.

However, there’s no doubt that the word knee, with its curious silent “k”, has featured more in the mass media recently than possibly in the entire previous history of journalism.

The silent “k” marks this out as being a Germanic word, along with a long list of other English words beginning with kn-: knight and knave and knob and knife and knell, and so on. The “k” used to be pronounced, in Old English and Middle English, but at some time during the sixteenth century, English speakers seem to have just become tired of saying it. Unfortunately, the spelling had recently become enshrined because of the invention of the printing press, so the “k” stayed in place to mock everyone subsequently trying to learn English as a second language. Other Germanic languages seem to have been quite happy to keep sounding the “k”—it’s still there in German Knie, for instance.

Knee, and its verb to kneel, are descended from a Proto-Indo-European word reconstructed as genu-, probably meaning “knee” or “angle”. Which evolved neatly into Greek gonia, “angle”, and Latin genu, “knee”.

Greek gonia gives us the -gon suffix used for geometrical shapes. A polygon has many angles; and we have, specifically, the common words pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, decagon and dodecagon for shapes with five, six, seven, eight, ten and twelve angles (and therefore sides), respectively. Possibly less well known are the enneagon (nine angles), hendecagon (eleven), quindecagon (fifteen) and chiliagon (a thousand). The tetragon (Greek, “four angles”) is more commonly called a quadrilateral (Latin, “four sides”). Tetragonism was the old sport in constructive geometry of trying to square the circle. Now that we know it is impossible, the word has drifted out of use. A trigon (“three angles”) is a triangle—the Greek version appears only in a variety of technical terms, ranging from astrology to anatomy.

An amblygon is a shape with an obtuse angle; an oxygon has an acute angle. The word diagonal literally means “across angles”—the diagonal of a square splits the angles at its corners. A goniometer is a device for measuring angles, and the gonion is the anatomical name for the angle of your jaw.

Latin genu gives us our adjectives genual, genicular and geniculate, which refer to things that are knee-shaped, or pertain to the knee. The genicular arteries form a network around the knee; the geniculate ganglion, in the facial nerve, has a knee-shaped bend to it. To genuflect is to “bend the knee”—that is, to kneel, usually in worship. Genuflexion is the act of genuflecting, but something genuflexuous is zigzagging—producing knee shapes in alternate directions. The art of heraldry keeps alive (just barely) the old word genuant, “in a kneeling posture”, but there is little use in English  nowadays for genouillère, the French technical term designating the complicated part of a suit of armour which protected the knee.*

Right Poleyn from Armour of Claude Gouffier (1501–1570) (MET LC-1994 390-004)

The French still use the word. But now it refers, much less glamorously, to an orthopaedic knee brace.

* Also called a poleyn. No-one knows why, but I thought I’d just mention it.



Isolated: placed or standing apart or alone; detached or separate from other things or persons; unconnected with anything else; solitary

Dominic Cummings

To protect others, you must stay at home if you or someone you live with has symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19).
This is called self-isolation.

UK National Health Service, Self-Isolation Advice (2020)

During the Current Unpleasantness, people all around the world have become acquainted with the concept of “self-isolation”—an infected person’s duty to break the epidemic’s chain of infection by voluntarily withdrawing from all external contacts with other people. For those of us in the UK, that concept has become particularly salient over the last few days, as we have been amused/entertained/irritated/outraged* by the unfolding saga of the self-isolation of a senior government adviser, Dominic Cummings, which involved a rather unusual amount of travel. Who’d have guessed, as Covid-19 lock-down restrictions slowly eased, that the national conversation would be largely taken up by speculation on the bladder capacity of four-year-old children on long car journeys, or the advisability of testing your vision by taking your wife and child out for a drive?

Isolated and isolation come to us from the French verb isoler, “to isolate”. The French formed an adjective, isolé, and a noun, isolation, from that verb; both were at first adopted into English unchanged, but the intrusively French isolé evolved first into the awkward isolé’d and was finally fully Anglicized as isolated during the eighteenth century, albeit against stiff resistance. An anonymous reviewer of the book Morality United With Policy by Robert Fellowes, writing for the conservative magazine The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review in October 1800 opined:

In point of language, we have little to object to Mr. F. but we must tell him, as we have told many others, that the affected, frenchified, unnecessary word, isolated is not English, and we trust never will be. Much the same may be said of reclamation, and one or two other words; but in general his language is pure, and his style vigorous: and when he shall have a little less confidence in himself, his sober readers will place more in him.


(The British and French were going through one of their occasional episodes of disharmony at the time.)

The English verb isolate was then back-formed from the adjective isolated, which subsequently took up an additional duty as a past participle.

Something that can be isolated is isolable or isolatable; a thing that isolates is an isolator, and has an isolative function; someone in favour of political isolation is an isolationist, who favours isolationism. And a person who is an outcast from society is an isolato, a word we have acquired directly from the Italian.

Both the French and Italian roots come from Latin insula, “island”, a word that the Romans also applied to what we’d now call a block of flats or a condominium. A peninsula is, of course, a promontory of land that is “almost an island”. Insula has provided English with a list of words that relate in some way to the properties of an island. Something pertaining to an island is insular—which has also acquired figurative applications to people or societies that are cut off from the mainstream, stuck in their ways, or narrow-minded. Such people are said to show insularity or insularism. We cut things off from the rest of the world by insulating them, for which purpose we apply insulation. A thing which insulates is described as insulative; it is an insulator or insulant. And then there was the short-lived Septinsular Republic, based on the seven Ionian Islands of Greece. It existed, appropriately enough, for seven years, gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1800, and falling to the French under Napoleon in 1807.

Our English words isle and island have a complicated history. Isle was originally spelled “ile” or “yle”, brought into Middle English from Old French ile, the equivalent of modern French île, “island”. Island, on the other hand, is Germanic in origin, and was originally iland or yland. The first syllable takes its origin from Old English ieg, which was pronounced something like “eey”, and meant … well, “island”. So island is literally “island land”. During the fifteenth century, English speakers began to think of the Germanic word as containing the French word, and would write iland as ile-land. Meanwhile, the French decided to add an “s” to ile, in acknowledgement of its Latin origin in insula. This new French spelling. isle with a silent “s”, leaked into English usage, and immediately had a knock-on effect on the spelling of ile-land. So the old Germanic word acquired a Franco-Latin silent “s” that it really didn’t need, and we ended up with confusing modern spelling “island”. Another English word that ended up with a pointless silent “s” is aisle, which strictly designates the wings on either side of the nave of a church, but (probably because of confusion with the unrelated word alley), is also now the name for a passage between the rows of church pews. It came into English from French aile, which derives from Latin ala, “wing”. English speakers managed to get aile confused with ile, “island”, and when they added the silent “s” in isle, they also added one to aile. (The French later dropped the “s” from isle, marking its departure with a circumflex on the “i”, and in effect walked away whistling, denying all responsibility for the mess they’d created in English spelling.)

A sea dotted with islands can be described as islanded or islandy. Someone who comes from an island is an isleman, islesman, or a gender-neutral islander. Someone who loves islands suffers from islomania. And a small island is, of course, an islet.

Which brings me to the anatomical structures known as the Islets of Langerhans—little circular patches of cells, scattered through the pancreas like islands, and named in honour of the German anatomist Paul Langerhans, who first described them in 1869. It was known that the main part of the pancreas produced digestive enzymes, and it was known that removal of the pancreas caused diabetes. So Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer suggested, during the 1890s, that the Islets of Langerhans must be responsible for producing some substance that acted to control blood sugar. Harking back to Latin insula, “island”, he coined a name for this hypothetical substance produced by the Islet cells—he called it “insuline”, and today we know it as insulin.

Islet of Langerhans, stained for insulin
Islet of Langerhans, stained for insulin (Source)

* Delete as applicable

Latin Plurals: Nouns Ending In -um

Desiderata, Max Ehrmann (1927)
Layout by the Oikofuge, click for pdf


Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.

Those are the opening lines of Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann, originally written in 1927. The text has a rather complicated history of publication, and for a while in the ’60s and ’70s was distributed in ornate little A4 posters, like the one above, but marked “Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore 1692”. So prevalent was this version on the walls of student flats when I was at university, I was later rather surprised to discover it was of more recent pedigree, with an actual named author.

It ushers in the long-delayed final post in my trio about Latin plurals. I’ve previously written about the plurals of words ending in -us and -a, so this time it’s the turn of -um. In Latin, these words are second declension neuter, and they take -a as their plural ending. And desiderata is the plural of desideratum, “desirable thing”.

Desideratum/desiderata is a pairing that still feels Latin, and there’s little tendency to regularize to “desideratums”. Several others fall into this category, among which are: corrigendum/corrigenda, ovum/ova, phylum/phyla, stratum/strata, spectrum/spectra, serum/sera, simulacrum/simulacra, erratum/errata, quantum/quanta.

Some, like curriculum/curricula, rostrum/rostra and crematorium/crematoria have a fairly fixed dominant relationship with a minority regularized plural ending in -s, as in this example from the Google Ngram corpus:

Some are in a protracted neck-and-neck tussle between the Latin and regularized plural, likes solarium/solaria and  gymnasium/gymnasia:

Some Latin plurals have fairly recently lost the battle against regularization. In the Google corpus forum/fora lost out to “forums” back around 1930. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that “stadiums” became the preferred option for stadium/stadia:

And some Latin plurals have just never been that popular, like mausoleum/mausolea, for which “mausoleums” has been the more popular choice for a couple of centuries:

Finally, there are words for which the Latin plural form is essentially never used: album/albums, asylum/asylums, lyceum/lyceums, museum/museums, premium/premiums. To that list we can add the Latin names of plants, which generally take regularized plurals: antirrhinum/antirrhinums, chrysanthemum/chrysanthemums, delphinium/delphiniums, laburnum/laburnums, nasturtium/nasturtiums.

A few Latin plurals in this group have taken on an independent life of their own. Agenda is the plural of Latin agendum “that which is to be done”, but is established as a singular noun in English. Media, plural of medium, is a label for the various modes of mass communication—newspaper, radio, television, electronic—and has been edging towards becoming a singular mass noun. That process has been going on for a century, with the singular usage slowly gaining parity with the plural, though the Oxford English Dictionary still classifies the singular form as “erron.”

Pretty much the same thing has happened to data, which has wandered off from just being the plural of datum, and become a concept in itself:

Candelabra is the plural of candelabrum, “candlestick”. But the construction of multiple candlesticks on a single base is so common that candelabra has quite reasonably mutated into a singular noun.

And I used to think that treating bacteria, the plural of bacterium, as a singular was a fairly recent innovation, but it’s been going on for decades:

There seems to be no good reason for it, apart from the fact that people hear the word bacterium less often, and may be unaware of the singular form.

There are a few -um words that are not Latin, and so do not take a Latin plural—conundrum and panjandrum are invented words, harmonium and vellum are French, begum is Urdu.

And then there are words which are Latin, but not second declension neuter nouns. These too take regular plurals. Factotum is an instruction: “do everything”. A Johannes factotum was a “John-do-everything”—a jack-of-all-trades. Nowadays it refers to employees who are entrusted with complete control of their employers’ affairs. Nostrum means “our”, as in the Roman name for the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea”. The word is applied to quack remedies and patent medicines because they are recommended by the person who prepares them (“our medicine”). Pendulum is a Latin adjective, meaning “hanging down”. The plural pendula can be defended as the corresponding plural adjective, but pendulums is much more common. Quorum means “of whom”, and its current usage derives from a standard Latin phrase calling together members of a committee: quorum vos [John Doe] unum esse volumus—“of whom we will that [John Doe] be one”. A variorum is a collected edition of an author’s work, together with notes on the text. The name comes from Latin editio cum notis variorum, “edition with various notes”.

Finally, a vade-mecum is a little book or manual suitable for carrying around with you. Of which, in my opinion, there can never be too many. Again, the name is an instruction: “go with me”. I’m fond of this word, and I remember exactly how I first encountered it. Like many medical students and paediatric residents, I carried around a copy of Ben Wood’s A Paediatric Vade-Mecum in the pocket of my white coat when I was training on the children’s wards. Mine was the green eighth edition, the envy of those stuck with the pink seventh edition.

Cover of A Paediatric Vade-Mecum by Ben WoodIt was a treasure-trove of handy facts, and I remember it fondly. So I was a little saddened to find that it seems to have expired with its fourteenth edition in 2002—this vade-mecum no longer goes with anyone. Replaced, no doubt, by a phone app.



Corona: a circular structure, or spiked circular structure, surrounding a central core

Three coronas
Three coronas: coronavirus, lunar corona, solar corona

Corona is the Latin word for a crown. And, after passing through French, it’s the origin of our word crown. In its original form, it’s used to designate all sorts of crown-like structures. The spiky protrusions from the capsule of the coronavirus give it its name. The halos of coloured light often seen around the moon are also referred to as a corona—they are generated by diffraction and interference of light passing through tiny particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. And during a total solar eclipse we are able to see the wispy outer atmosphere of the sun, which is also called a corona.

There are others. The circular chandelier of a church is called a corona lucis, “crown of light”; the tonsure of a Roman Catholic monk is called a corona clericalis, “clerical crown”; electrically charged conductors can cause a halo of ionization in the surrounding atmosphere, called a corona discharge; and there are a host of biological structures, from seeds to brains, that are called coronas because of their shape. We also have two constellations, Corona Borealis and Corona Australis, the northern and southern crowns. Both consist of tightly curved arrays of stars, more reminiscent of tiaras than conventional crowns.

Corona is still the word for “crown” in Spanish, which is why a bottle of Mexican Corona beer has a little picture of a crown on it. (Fatuous early reports that American beer drinkers were avoiding Corona beer because of confusion with coronavirus turned out not to be reflected by reality.) Corona is also the Spanish name for a particular size of cigar, intermediate in length between a robusto (“strong”) and a toro (“bull”), though slimmer than either—there seems to be no particular logic to the nomenclature.

A coronet is a small crown. A coronation is, of course, a crowning ceremony. The person who sets the crown on the royal head is variously styled a coronator or coronant. To coronize is the act of crowning, and a person wearing a crown is incoronate. Something crown-shaped is coroniform, or coronary. The latter word gives its name to the two coronary arteries of the heart, which supply blood to the heart muscle. Their ramifications around the heart make it look, I suppose, a little as if it is set inside a a rather exotic inverted crown.

Coronary Arteries
Original image by Mikael Häggström used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Something pertaining to a crown is coronal. So in anatomy, we have the coronal suture of the skull, which crosses the head from side to side; and the coronal plane, one of the three principal anatomical planes of the body, which cuts through from side to side and top to bottom.

Anatomical Planes
Principal anatomical planes. Labels added to original blank graphic by OpenStax College, used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

We often use the phrase “The Crown” to refer to the royal office itself.* A coroner was once a local or regional officer assigned to protect the property rights of the Crown. (Nowadays in England, a coroner’s main role is to hold inquests into deaths caused by violence or accident.)

Corolla is the Latin word for a small crown, or a garland of flowers, and it’s the name applied in English to the petals of a flower. In ancient Rome a corollarium was a small sum of money paid for a garland of flowers; it went on to mean a tip or gratuity. Then,  in a metaphorical sense, it became the word for a little extra bit of detail at the end of a mathematical proof—something that followed naturally from the proof already given, which did not require a proof of its own. Which is where the English word corollary comes from, designating something that is an immediate consequence of what has previously occurred or been said.

And finally, have you ever wondered why the military rank of colonel is pronounced in English as if the first “l” is an “r”? The word, and its spelling, comes from Italian colonnello, which is derived in turn from colonna, “column”. So the military rank of colonnello was the person who led a column of men. The French adopted this as coronel—probably just because l’s sometimes change into r’s, especially if there is more than one “l” in a word, but also perhaps under the influence of couronne, “crown”—the French version of Latin corona. But then, in a delayed burst of etymological exactitude, the French word was revised to colonel during the 16th century. English acquired both spellings from the French, but then managed to eliminate the “r” version during the 17th century, while perversely preserving the “r” pronunciation.

* This substitution of an attribute for the name of the thing meant, which is a common enough formulation, is called metonymy. Other examples are “The Vatican”, “The Oval Office” and “The Kremlin”.

Pettifoggery, etc

Justice Roberts & PettifoggingI think it is appropriate for me to admonish both the House managers and the President’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body. One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.
In the 1905 Swayne trial, a senator objected when one of the managers used the word “pettifogging” and the presiding officer said the word ought not to have been used. I don’t think we need to aspire to that high of a standard, but I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.

Chief Justice John Roberts, 22 January 2020

The word “pettifogging” was recently introduced to many people when it was spoken by Chief Justice John Roberts on the first day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. He was admonishing those speaking at the trial to avoid the use of insulting or inflammatory language—and the news media found themselves obliged to explain what exactly “pettifogging” meant.

The act of pettifogging is pettifoggery, and the word’s little moment of fame reminded me that there seem to be rather a lot of strange and obscure compound nouns ending in -ery that are used in a pejorative manner. And that’s what this post is about.

A pettifogger is a lawyer who uses sharp or dishonest practice in order to win cases. The first element comes from petty, which derives from French petit, “small”; the second element probably derives from the Fuggers, a family of wealthy merchants and bankers based in Augsburg during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even during their ascendancy, the word fogger, derived from their name, was used to designate a person who was prepared to use underhand methods for financial gain. The verb to pettifog, quoted by Justice Roberts, is a back-formation from the noun.

Skulduggery is underhand dealing, secret machination, or just plain trickery. No-one seems to know the origin of the expression, which started out as sculduddery in the eighteenth century. It has a back-formed verb, to skuldug, which has failed to gain as much popularity as it deserves.

Tomfoolery is foolish behaviour. The word comes from the stock character Tom Fool who appeared in mediaeval plays—the name “Tom” was used to designate the common man, much in the manner of “Joe Public” today. Damfoolery is a more modern equivalent, the behaviour of “damned fools”. It has an associated adjective damfool, which in the nineteenth century was occasionally spelled damphool, for no readily apparent reason.

Crackpottery is the behaviour of a crackpot—the “pot” in this case being a slang term for the skull. Crackpot was once synonymous with the now obsolete crackbrain—a person who’s brain isn’t working properly. In modern times, the pejorative crackpot seems to be reserved to designate cranks and other harmless eccentrics. Crackpottery has an apparently medical synonym, psychoceramics—this is the fictitious field of study of the equally fictitious Professor Josiah Stinkney Carberry. Carberry originated as a hoax in 1929, but has now become a tradition at Brown University, Rhode Island.

Madcappery is a little like crackpottery, except the madcap is maniacal in behaviour. The derivation is obvious, though quite why the headgear is relevant is unknown.

Fruitloopery, a word championed by the magazine New Scientist since 2005, is the ignorant misuse of scientific jargon to add a superficial air of plausibility to one’s speech or writing. It derives from fruit loop, a slang expression for someone who is eccentric or credulous, which has been around since the 1980s. And that, in turn, presumably has something to do with the alarming children’s breakfast cereal Froot Loops, though I’m hard-pressed to think what.

Loonspuddery is a naive willingness to accept or transmit even the most outlandish conspiracy theories or “alternative” viewpoints. Although it has been knocking around for the better part of a decade, the word doesn’t seem to have made it into the dictionaries yet. But if I had to hazard a guess at the etymology, I’d say loon in the sense of “lunatic”, and spud in the Scottish sense of “potato”—which is to say, both mad and not very clever.

Nincompoopery is the state of being, or the actions of, a nincompoop—a word of obscure origin, meaning “idiot”. Samuel Johnson hazarded that it might have something to do with the Latin non compos mentis, “not of sound mind”, but that doesn’t seem to match with the earliest form of the word, nickumpoop. Nitwittery is a synonym, referring to a nitwit—a person who has no more wit than a nit (which is the egg of a headlouse, and therefore not particularly bright). At the other end of the intelligence scale is eggheadery, which derives from the noun egghead, applied to an intellectual or “high-browed” person—one with a stereotypical brow as smoothly rounded as an egg.

Quacksalvery pertains to the activities of quacksalvers—ignorant people peddling miracle cures. The derivation seems to come from salve, meaning “ointment”, and an analogy between the quacking of a duck and the meaningless speech of the quacksalver. The word has now been abbreviated to just plain quack, for a bogus doctor. Another word applying to the same deceitful profession is mountebankerymountebanks take their name from Italian montimbanco “mount-on-bench”, because they would often climb on to a chair to address their audience and peddle their wares.

Thimbleriggery is another deceitful profession—that of the thimblerigger. The reference is to the old “hunt the pea” sleight of hand trick, performed with three thimbles (or inverted cups) and a single pea, but it has application to anyone who cheats you by nimble deception.

Jiggery-pokery is another word for manipulative deceit. It comes from the Scots joukery-pawkery, and in my home town a hybrid version, joukery-pokery is still in current use. In Scots, to jouk is to dodge or dive; and a pawky person is sly, though the word has now acquired light-hearted connotations—in the phrase “a pawky sense of humour”, pawky could perhaps best be translated as “arch”.

While we’re on the subject of deceit, scallywaggery covers all possible modes—the derivation of scallywag is obscure, but it’s a word applied to deceitful, disreputable or just plain idle folk.

Swashbucklery, on the other hand, is all about noisy activity. A swashbuckler is a person who swashes a buckler—that is, strikes a shield noisily (with a sword or other weapon). It’s a rather dismissive term for those who indulge in swaggering braggadocio. To swashbuckle is to indulge in swashbucklery—a verb back-formed from the original swashbuckler.

Gimcrackery is a collection of gimcracks—tawdry and worthless ornaments. Be sure to pronounce it with a soft “g”. The etymology is obscure, but it seems to refer to an object that breaks easily.

Godwottery is an over-elaborate style of gardening. It takes its mocking origin from a poem by T.E. Brown entitled “My Garden“, which opens with the line:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!

Wot is the third person singular of the old verb wit, meaning “to know”, and “God wot!” was a common enough exclamation in Shakespeare’s time, meaning something like “It is certainly so!” The Victorian poets briefly revived the expression, as they did with so much archaic language.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of the many words coined by James Joyce in Finnegans WakeScandiknavery. Which is a deceit perpetrated by one or more Scandinavians.

Apostrophe: Part 2


apostrophe: 1) A rhetorical device in which the speaker breaks off from discourse in order to address a person or thing, absent or present; 2) The sign ’, used to indicate omitted letters, or the possessive case

Greengrocer's apostrophe in fairground
Click to enlarge

In my previous post about apostrophes, I wrote about the use of the punctuation mark, and mentioned briefly that the name comes from Greek apostrophe, compounded of the prefix apo-, “away” and strophe “a turning”. I’ve written before about the prefix apo-, and its various applications, when I dealt with the words perihelion and aphelion. So this post will deal with the family of words descended from Greek strophe.

Last time, I gave a Shakespearean example of the rhetorical kind of apostrophe (the first definition at the head of this post). Here’s another, more modern example:

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again

That’s Paul Simon, “turning away” to address a literal or figurative darkness at the start of his song “The Sound Of Silence” (1964). If you indulge in apostrophe of this sort, then you apostrophize. But if you apostrophate, you cut short your discourse—a more literal interpretation of “turning away”.

Another rhetorical device is epistrophe, “turning upon”, in which a word or phrase is repeated, for emphasis, at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Abraham Lincoln used it to good effect in his Gettysburg Address when he spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

And then there anastrophe, “turning back”, another rhetorical device, in which normal word order is reversed so as to place emphasis where it needs to be—”life eternal”, “body beautiful” and Longfellow’s “forest primeval” all use anastrophe to put the emphasis on the adjective, rather than the noun.

The word catastrophe, “turning over”, was originally used to mean a reversal of fortune, for good or bad, at the conclusion of a drama. Only later did it come to have its current extreme, negative connotations. J.R.R. Tolkien felt that we really needed a specific word for a reversal of fortune that produced a good outcome, and so added the Greek prefix eu-, “good”, coining the handy word eucatastrophe.

In Ancient Greek theatre, scene-setting was done by a chorus, who would sing poetic odes to introduce the characters and their situation. This was traditionally done in matched sections, the strophe and antistrophe—the first sung as the chorus moved across the stage from right to left, and the second (matching the poetic structure of the first but delivering some alternative aspect of the plot) as the chorus moved from left to right. So the strophe (“turn”) and antistrophe (“turn against”) were literal movements as well as figurative opposites. Nowadays, strophe applies to a metrical group of lines of verse, a usage almost indistinguishable from stanza. But antistrophe has taken on new meanings—as a synonym for epistrophe; and to designate the deeply satisfying practice, in debate, of turning one opponents’ own words against them. An example of such debating judo is called an antistrophon.

Greek strophe also gives us many scientific words, of which the following is just a sampler. Diastrophism (“turning across”) is the geological process of folding and faulting that produces much of our landscape. In biology, a snail-shell that curls in the reverse direction to the normal for its species is said to be heterostrophic (“different turning”). Exstrophy (“out turning”) is the turning inside-out of an organ during embryological development (never a good thing). Geostrophic (“earth turning”) winds or ocean currents are movements of air or water under the influence of the Earth’s rotation (I wrote about this phenomenon in my post about the Coriolis force). And hypostrophe (“turning back”) has had several medical usages over the years—the tossing and turning of delirious people; a relapse of a disease that had been in remission; and as a synonym for what’s now more commonly called retroversion—the process by which an internal organ folds back on itself (never a good thing).

Greek strophos, “twisted cord” gives us the genus name Strophanthus (“twisted cord flower”), which includes some African species that were used to create arrow poisons. (The name comes from the fan of thin, twisting petals sported by some species.) The pharmacologically active ingredient of the arrow poison was extracted and named strophanthin—it has an action on the heart similar to that of digitalis. And just as digoxin is the purified drug made from digitalis, a drug called ouabain was made from strophanthin, its name deriving from Somali waabaayo, “arrow poison”. It was still something I learned about when I studied pharmacology back in the 1970s, but I never saw it used, and it has now  vanished from the pharmacopoeia.

Strophanthus hispidus, from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen, Volume 2 (1889)

Finally, there’s boustrophedon, “ox-turning”. This originally referred to the path taken by a team of oxen pulling a plough—moving first from left to right, then turning at the end of a furrow so as to plough the next furrow from right to left. Then turning again, and repeating the process. It is applied to the Ancient Greek style of writing which was read in from left to right on one line and then from right to left (with the letters mirror-reversed) on the next. In (slightly) more modern times, it refers to the motion of the printing head of a dot-matrix printer, which would zip alternately from left to right and right to left, so that it printed every second line in the reverse of reading order.

And that concludes my turn for today.



impeachment: The accusation and prosecution of a person for treason or other high crime or misdemeanour before a competent tribunal; in Great Britain, the judicial process by which a person may be tried before the House of Lords at the instigation of the House of Commons; in the U.S.A., a similar process in which the accusers are the House of Representatives and the court is the Senate.

Cover of Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution Of The United States

As a sort of companion to my post about the etymology of the word prorogation, it seems like it might be time to investigate another unusual word that is freighted with political significance at present.

It’s an interesting fact, often omitted from potted histories of the U.S. Constitution, that its drafters borrowed both the technical usage of the word impeachment and the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” from British constitutional law. Impeachment was originally a process by which the English Parliament could remove from office (and indeed judicially kill), representatives of the King who were deemed to be abusing the powers of their office. (That’s what the “high” in “high crimes and misdemeanours” means—the crimes and misdemeanours cited are not of the sort available to the common person, only to those who hold high office.)

Impeachment comes from the verb to impeach and the suffix -ment, which forms nouns from verbs, relating to either the process or result of the verb’s action. The verb to impeach came to us from Old French empechier, which in turn derived from the Latin verb impedicare. And impedicare refers to the Latin noun pedica, meaning “shackle” or “snare”*. So impedicare was the act of placing a person in shackles, and it gives us our English word impede. The same etymology applies to Modern French empêcher, which means “to hinder”, and that is also the original meaning of the English word impeach. But in English the sense of hindering a person, or impeding what they were doing, gradually evolved into the idea of legally challenging their actions, and so to its current highly specific usage. We also used to have a verb appeach, with the same derivation, and which underwent the same slow evolution in its meaning. It’s now obsolete and replaced by impeach, but it has left a tiny residue behind by dropping its first letter to form the verb to peach—to peach on someone is to give evidence against them.

Returning now to impedicare and our word impede, an impediment is of course something that impedes; impedimenta are things that impede progress, and the word has come to be applied to bulky baggage.

Latin impedicare had an opposite, expedire—to release from fetters. Which of course gives us English expedite, meaning to clear of difficulties or to hasten progress. Something expeditious is speedily performed, and an expedition is a well-organized movement of people and equipment. However, the word expedient has taken on negative connotations—an expedient may clear difficulties and hasten progress, but the final result is deemed unsatisfactory or reprehensible. (Expedite also once came with an exact opposite, impedite, which has become obsolete in favour of impede.)

There seems also to have been another Latin opposite to impedicaredepedicare. There’s now no written Latin evidence for it, but it is presumably the origin of the French verb dépêcher “to hurry”. And we used to have an English word depeach, derived from the French, meaning “to send away” or “to dispose of”. But its function has now been entirely taken over by dispatch, which (despite the similarity in sound) has a different etymology.

Finally, if you’ve been fretting about the derivation of the name of the fruit, peach, it has nothing to do with any of the above. The Romans thought of it as a “Persian apple”, persicum malum, which in Late Latin mutated into persica, then into Italian pesca, French pêche, and finally into our peach.

* And if you’re thinking that pedica has something to do with Latin pes, “foot”, you’re right. Pedica was something that tangled up your feet and stopped you walking.