Evil Little Goat

Photo by Peter Scholten on Unsplash

A recent Italian film has furnished us a perfect Wednesday Word: chimera.

La Chimera, written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, stars Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown) as a thief who, with fellow gang members, raids Etruscan tombs and fences ancient artifacts. That prosaic description comes nowhere near the fantastical experience this movie creates. The title itself is a better representation.

A chimera is “an illusion or fabrication of the mind, especially an unrealizable dream.” This word describes the strange and wondrous mental state of Arthur, the protagonist tomb raider. It’s also the mysterious, meandering movie itself, as experienced by you, the viewer.

In everyday usage, a chimera might be world peace or your dream job or the ideal mate–something you imagine that will never materialize. In science, a chimera is a creature with more than one genotype, created when two zygotes merge.

That scientific usage gets us closer to the word’s root. Imagine a creature composed of a goat, a lion, and a dragon. Oh, and she could breathe fire. According to Homer’s Iliad, she was  “of divine stock not of men, in the fore part a lion, in the hinder a serpent, and in the midst a goat, breathing forth in terrible wise the might of blazing fire.”[The Greek roots seem to mean “she-goat” and “winter,” because the monster somehow personified winter. The word came to denote any monster which combined different creatures; it later generalized to any illusion, any imaginary creation of the mind. (I.e., world peace and ideal mates.)

Fortunately for all of us, the Greek hero Bellerophon, with the help of the trusty Pegasus, slew the actual Chimera. You can rest easy. At her death, she was banished to Hades, where I trust you will never go.

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Are You Tanked Up?

Photo by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash

Cleveland lies in the path of the April 8th solar eclipse, and everyone’s a-twitter, including Twitter. The Guardians’ home opener also happens today, and the big women’s college basketball championship games were here in Cleveland this weekend. Traffic will be snarled! Pets will be terrorized! Heedless viewers will be blinded! States of emergency have been declared!

Kerr County, Texas, officials are expecting an influx of double or triple the resident population. They have warned their citizens, “Make sure your vehicles are tanked up, that you have sufficient grocery supplies, that your prescriptions are filled and that you are stocked up on provisions for any animals in your care.”

Alas, I read these warnings too late here in Cleveland, and have neither tanked up nor stocked up, nor shopped, nor filled. Having failed my family, desolate in my home, I’m diverting my mind from the oncoming disaster by exploring the roots and meanings of the word eclipse.

The Latin eclipsis derives from the Greek ekleipsis, from a verb meaning “to leave from.” Today, the sun will leave, in effect. Eclipse means “to fail to appear” or “to abandon an accustomed place,” terms which seem to blame the sun (in this case) unfairly.

Perhaps sometimes you forget which is a solar eclipse and which is a lunar eclipse. The heavenly body that disappears names the event. Because the sun, this time, is abandoning its accustomed place, this is a solar eclipse. The moon is eclipsing it.

Think about the word’s usage in other contexts. The musician Livingston Taylor, for example, has been eclipsed by his more famous brother James. That’s a Livingston eclipse. Remember that astronomically the heavenly body that disappears names the eclipse. In a lunar eclipse, the moon (Livingston) fails to appear while it’s hidden (“eclipsed”) by its brother Earth (James).

I enjoyed reading this informative article in Time. You might want to peruse it in solidarity with us in Cleveland from about 2:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time to its totality around 3:13 and beyond. Send a little prayer that we have enough to eat, our medications hold out, and that Roxie’s provisions are sufficient for the duration.

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That’s an Order!

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Mandamus is one of those legal terms being bandied about these days. It’s a court order that commands an official to do his or her duty or forbids him or her from doing something he or she shouldn’t be doing. Pundits are discussing this possible writ regarding the Trump documents case in Florida to push Judge Cannon to get a move on.

If you remember amo, amas, amat, amamus, etc., from your first day of Latin class, you might recall that the endings on that verb provide a pronoun subject. Amo means “I love.” Amas means “you love.” Amat means “she, he, or it loves,” and amamus means “we love.” If you studied French or Spanish instead of Latin, you might remember similar endings on those Romance languages’ verbs. (But you should have studied Latin.)

The ending on mandamus, then, means “we.” The verb itself means “command” or “order.” A writ of mandamus is not messing around. It means “we command,” and could result in the removal of an official who doesn’t hop to it. It’s the root of mandate and mandatory.

Like many other terms, mandamus has an Anglicized pronunciation. In Latin, one would say “mahn-dah-moose.” Today’s jurists, however, will not be prosecuted for saying “man-day-mus.” Commonly used in English, the word has taken on an English pronunciation. Imagine, for example, pronouncing bona fide as it would sound in Latin: “bona-feeday.” You’d sound like a pretentious jerk. Normal English speakers make “bona fide” rhyme with “fried.”

Similarly, habeas corpus (literally, “let you have the body”) takes on a long A in the first syllable: “hay-bee-us core-pus.” In Latin, the two A’s in habeas would have that “ah” sound.

More than once over my years of teaching Latin, an eager new student would stop at my desk to report an egregious error on the part of a family member. “I told them it’s pronounced ‘way-toe,’ not ‘vee-toe,'” they might report. I usually didn’t have the heart to correct them.

Keep on pronouncing veto, alter ego, ultimatum, via, ad litem, and ad hoc as you always have. You’re communicating with other English speakers, not ancient Romans.

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Parapros . . .What??

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I never encountered paraprosdokian before, but I liked it as soon as we met.

David Bordwell introduced us, by way of his 2016 book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture. Bordwell, one of my husband’s favorite critics, died a couple of weeks ago, and I overheard as John listened to a discussion of the book online.

James Agee, one of Bordwell’s subjects, piqued my interest. I love Agee’s novel A Death in the Family (1957), as I do his 1941 non-fiction examination of Depression-era sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (an affection I share with Jimmy Carter). Agee is one of four film critics Bordwell discusses, the others being Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler.

It’s Farber who most often employs paraprosdokian, sentences that do a 180-degree turn at the end. Here’s an example: “Stalag 17 is a crude, cliche-ridden glimpse of a Nazi prison camp that I hated to see end.” Agee, too, tries his hand: “Stage Door Canteen is a nice harmless picture for the whole family, and it is a gold mine for those who are willing to go to it in the wrong spirit.”

You can probably guess the word’s roots are Greek. (That k is a giveaway.) Coined around 1896, the compound consists of para-, meaning “against,” and prosdokia, meaning “expectation.” A paraprosdokian sentence has a surprise ending, in which the end of the sentence causes you to reevaluate the beginning.

Groucho Marx (see photo above) pumped out some famous ones. “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” Also, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” often attributed, at least, to Groucho.

Noted wits Dorothy Parker and Will Rogers used the device. Guess which one is whose: “If all the girls attending the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised” and “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Read more good ones here. Tell us your favorites in the comments, or, even better, share some of your own!

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The Horseless Dashboard

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

The term dashboard dates from the 1840s or so.

What? you exclaim. There were no cars in the 1840s! How could there have been dashboards?

You’re right about cars, of course. Karl Benz developed the first car in Germany, acquiring a patent in 1886. Henry Ford’s Model T, regarded as the first successfully mass-produced car, appeared in 1927.

But those autos, you’ll recall, were dubbed horseless carriages (though the term dates back to steam engines). That term demonstrates humans’ propensity for comparing what’s new with what came before, and actual carriages, that is, horsey-carriages, included a dashboard. It didn’t warn the driver that the horse needed fuel or that passengers’ seatbelts weren’t fastened. It didn’t flash or beep.

It consisted instead of a board that protected the driver from mud flung up by the horses’ hooves, mud that was said to be dashed. Dash can have the meaning “hurl,” “smash,” “crash,” “throw,” “toss,” or “pitch.” Think of ships dashed upon the rocks. An angry executive might dash his lunch onto a wall. Psalm 91 says that angels will bear you up “lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

Dirt would be dashed back upon a carriage’s driver, and the dashboard shielded him or her. Modern dashboards are in roughly the same position, that is, in front of the driver, and the name carried over to the new-fangled vehicle.

I looked this word up because the page on this site where I find reader statistics is called the Dashboard, piquing my curiosity. The website’s dashboard contains useful information, like our modern cars’ dashboards. The meaning has strayed from its etymological roots.

No mud is dashed into my face as I face my screen. Only pleasant, informative comments, which you should feel free to add below.

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Baltimore Boys

I wrote about R. Eric Thomas here, describing Thomas’s hilarious take on Mister Rogers and the mythical land of Bubbleland in his book of essays, Here for It, or, How to Save Your Soul in America.

Last week I read Thomas’s YA novel Kings of B’more. It’s such a good book. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not a Young Adult, but don’t let that stop you. If you enjoy meaningful, original, and funny fiction, it’s the book for you.

The main characters are two young gay Black men, Harrison and Linus, who live in Baltimore. They are funny, smart, and real. Like most adolescents, they watch their parents’ behavior carefully, trying to figure out how to become adults. But they watch with a skeptical, ironic attitude.

Here’s just one example of how gently, realistically funny this book is. The boys observe that their fathers, casual friends, take forever to say goodbye to one another. The two men seem unable both to carry on a conversation and end one. Near the novel’s close, Harrison’s father, Wally, calls Linus’s father to try to resolve some difficulties between the boys and their families. Linus is riding in the car with his dad, Obed, listening in. This is what he hears:

“What’s up, man?’

“How you doing?”

“All right. All right. How are you?”

“Can’t complain, brother. You know.”

“Yeah. I know.”


“Right.” Linus was amazed that these two men were apparently friends, possibly good friends . . . and yet they seemed to have nothing to say.

After a while, it becomes clear that Obed is out of the loop. He’s not aware of the problems the boys have been having and doesn’t even know the whereabouts of his wife and son.

“Man, ain’t nobody in this house. . . . I don’t know. I just live here.”

“I know that’s right.”

“Tell me about it.”

Both men laughed. Incredible.

“All right,” said Wally. “Thanks . . . for your help with everything, Obed.”

“Course. Absolutely. Y’all drive safe, okay. We’ll see you soon.”

“All right.”


“Take care.”

This went on for a while. Linus tuned out slightly.

The boys’ parents are likeable and rounded characters, as are their friends. Harrison’s older sister Corinne seems distant and troubled at first, but ends up shadowing him around the city to keep him out of trouble. This is just one of many sweet surprises in this book.

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Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Ustekinumab? Ixabepilone? RimabotulinumtoxinB?

Weird words, indeed, but (even more weirdly) you can probably guess that these are medications. We’ve become accustomed to the unpronounceable alphabetic mishmashes that name our pills. Who concocts these words, and how do they do it?

The process is too labyrinthine for me to explain, or even to understand after looking it up. Suffice it to say, the United States Adopted Names Program attaches a generic name to new drugs. According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, “Pharmaceutical names are assigned according to a scheme in which specific syllables in the drug name (called stems) convey information about the chemical structure, action, or indication of the drug. The name also includes a prefix that is distinct from other drug names and that is euphonious, memorable, and acceptable to the sponsoring pharmaceutical firm.”

I especially love the “euphonious.” (Whose Greek roots, by the way, mean “sweet-sounding.”)

In short, drugs end up with three names: a generic (non-proprietary) name (acetaminophen), a brand name (Tylenol) , and a chemical name. According to Wikipedia, “The brand name Tylenol and the United States Adopted Name acetaminophen were generated by McNeil (Laboratories) from the chemical name of the drug, N-acetylpara-aminophenol (APAP).”

Sinemet, for another example, a brand-name Parkinson’s drug, combines two roots: sine, meaning “without” in Latin, and emetic, from Greek (and then Latin), meaning “to vomit.” Sinemet doesn’t make you vomit! The drug combines levodopa, a dopamine replacement, which causes nausea, with carbidopa, which inhibits nausea by preventing the creation of dopamine outside of the brain. Sinemet’s generic name is carbidopa-levodopa. Its scientific name may or may not be something like (2S)-2-amino-3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)propanoic acid;3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)-2-hydrazinyl-2-methylpropanoic acid.

A cholesterol drug, Lipitor, goes by the generic name atorvastatin. The prefix lipi- derives from lipids, referring to cholesterol compounds, and the suffix –tor- comes from the second syllable in atorvastatin, which apparently comes from a Spanish word meaning “to clog.” Statin comes from the Latin verb stare, meaning “to stand” or “to stop,” as in status, solstice (when the sun “stops”), and stasis. The drug stops the clogging.

Because it’s hard not to get lost in the weeds and because I have probably already butchered much of the science, I’ll stop. Feel free to correct me, and to share some of your own favorite medicinal nomenclature.

In closing, I recommend you check out this website, wherein a pharmacist shares some delightful customer mispronunciations of drug names. X and X, anyone?

*See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis

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Spoiler Alert

Photo by Neil Daftary on Unsplash

Working on Thursday’s New York Times Connections puzzle, I stared at the word suede long and hard, wondering what it had to do with broil, watch, blur, timer, hourglass, or any of the ten other words it supposedly might connect to. I stared at the word so long it became a meaningless concoction of letters, lacking any meaning at all.

[In case you’re not addicted, Connections offers sixteen words that break into four groups which have a common thread. A few days ago, for instance, buzz, drone, hum, and purr formed a “monotonous sound” group. Not usually so easy, though.]

Suede looked so strange to me, I began wondering about its roots. Where does that weird word come from?

Turns out suede comes from the name of a country, and if you’re guessing Sweden, you’re right. Before we get there, though, let’s examine the actual meaning–“undressed kid skin,” which has nothing to do with naked children (an understandable mistake). A clearer definition is “leather with the the flesh side rubbed to create a velvety nap.” No doubt much of what passes for suede today is some lab-created dried stretched smoothed soft plastic substance. Which is good news for the actual kids, i.e., baby goats.

Many countries turn out both critters and leather, so why Sweden? The Swedes produced prized, soft leather gloves, or gants de Suede, “gloves of Sweden,” and the term began being shortened to suede in English in the mid-19th century.

This research was merely putting off my struggles with Connections. I then tried looking up suede as a slang word, which is cheating but not really cheating. Sometimes Connections lists four ordinary words with hip new meanings I have never encountered. Suede in hip lingo, I learned, describes a cool, good-looking ladies man, as in suave. I would try to incorporate this term into my everyday conversation, but I don’t think I know anyone who fits the bill at this stage of my life. And none of the other Connections words connected with this meaning. Who calls a cute guy a timer or a survey?

As it turned out, the Connected suede is actually a proper noun (spoiler alert) with a musical link. Its three companions were blur, oasis, and pulp, which some of you smarter people probably recognize as 90s Britpop bands. I arrived at this conclusion only by solving the other combinations first.

Do you play? Thoughts?

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Lots of Good Fun That Is Funny

Photo by Reba Spike on Unsplash

Amid my interesting reading lately, I enjoyed revisiting a classic yesterday. Twice.

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.

The opening pages of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat are committed to memory, thanks to frequent bedtime rereadings about forty years ago. It’s also the first book I remember reading by myself.

So this gem has lots of sentimental value for me, but my enjoyment of reading it aloud goes beyond nostalgia. The book falls squarely in the category of “fun to read.”

All Dr. Seuss books, of course, are rhythmically fun. The anapestic beat of The Cat in the Hat chugs along–carrying you through the story with your pint-sized listener. An anapest, in case you’ve forgotten, consists of two short syllables followed by one accented one, as in the word interrupt. The children’s choleric fish is Master of the Anapest:

"Put me down!" said the fish.
"This is no fun at all!
Put me down!" said the fish.
I do not  wish to fall!"

{Try reading aloud but substituting two interrupts per line.)

The story itself is also lots of good fun, if you wish. Revisiting it now, I’m struck by just how weird it is, and I remember feeling similarly when I read it at the age of six. I didn’t love the cat, and I didn’t love the fish, but they fascinated me. Likewise my two-year-old granddaughter yesterday. When the fish shouts, “You should not be here when our mother is not!” she looked up at me and agreed that he shouldn’t. Who, after all, hops up and down on a ball while holding a cup and some milk and a cake and some books and a ship and a fish on a rake? I mean.

The story is subversive. My twin grandson often enjoys books at some remove while performing important construction work nearby with his excavator and dump truck, but he sidles up to view the mess created when the cat comes down with a bump and all the things fall. The cat is a home wrecker, and I imagine the book may be canceled at some point for depicting children’s letting a destructive stranger into their house.

Lastly, Dr. Seuss’s masterful drawings adhere perfectly to the words. When Thing 1 and Thing 2 run down the hall and bump their kites on the wall, there on the page are Thing 1 and Thing 2 and a hall and two kites and a wall. How could kids not learn to read from this book?

The Cat in the Hat consists of 236 different words–all one or two syllables long– demonstrating the magic of simple language, imaginative drawings, and a cockeyed, crazy story.

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More Nonsense Words

Writing last week about YouTuber Dana K. White’s dololly and other weird words, I intended to move on to whomper-jawed, Dana’s adjective for a rickety bookshelf she was getting rid of. But I forgot and moved on instead to thingamajigs and whatllIcallits.

How amazingly coincidental that reader and friend Barbara B., in her comment, referred to whopper-jawed, a common variant, which can also be spelled wapper-jawed, womper-jawed, and even whompsey-jawed. Words used more often in speech than writing often have multiple spellings, because no authority has stepped forward to standardize it. The variants are part of the charm.

I love whomper-jawed and all its variations. I intend to use it whenever I can, and our old house’s many whomper-jawed dolollies provide plenty of opportunities.

Which brings up a charming synonym, cattywampus, also spelled catawampus. It means “askew,” “messy,” “disordered.” I’ve probably heard the word in other contexts, but remember it fondly from an episode of The Office in which Andy, played by Ed Helms, straightened Dwight’s sport coat, admonishing him, “Do not walk around with your jacket cattywampus!” (At about 2:15) I was delighted to shoehorn the word into A Grandmother’s ABC Book, describing some of my embroidery that might have gone cattywampus. On the C is for Cat page, no less!

The Internet is rich with websites explaining such weird old-fashioned and regional usages. One includes a term dear to our current President, malarkey, referring to “talk that is particularly foolish.” Biden’s No Malarkey Tour, part of his Iowa campaign in 2019, raised issues about his age and relevance. Young people didn’t know the meaning of the word and therefore, I guess, might not vote for him. We could refer them to this Merriam-Webster page, which explains the term’s synonym, trumpery.

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