Odd Words: Calumet

CalumetToday we are at page 38 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. Interestingly, I knew a surprisingly few of these words — and some are quite useful! But I’ve chosen to use a specialty word, mostly because I could find quotes and images for it: calumet.

Whole Lot of Ignorance

I knew so few of the words on this page, that it’s hard to know how to make any kind of coherent narrative out of them. There aren’t many shared roots in the words. But I guess I’ll make due.

I’m always interested to see the arcane words of specialists. On this page, we had “caltrop.” It is a word of warfare. The military is always good for odd words. “Caltrop” is “a small spiked iron device used to obstruct the passage of cavalry.” They look kind of like the tokens you pick up in the game Jacks. I feel somehow that these things don’t deserve their own word.

Similarly, “camouflet” is “a bomb, mine, etc, exploded underground, which makes a cavity but does not break the surface.” Now that is a very specialized word! But I can well see that in mining it is one that would be of use. But it still makes me think of Shaw’s idea that every profession was a conspiracy against the laity.

Moving on to religion, we have “callotte.” It is the word for the skull caps worn by Roman Catholic clerics. In this case, of course, the word is hard to justify. It’s not like there would be any confusion if we referred to a cleric’s callotte as a “skull cap,” right?

Other Words

I probably should have chosen “cambion.” It is “the offspring of an incubus and a succubus.” But if you are like me, you don’t believe in demons. So we have two words for mythical creates — and then a third for their spawn. Of course, we need to remember that people have taken these demons to be very real in the past.

In fact, if you listen to Pat Robertson, you will hear a lot of explicit references to demons. This is also true for most of the people on my mother’s side of the family. Just imagine if they ever got to create a society without restriction. It would be a return to the Inquisition. We really haven’t progressed very much.

“Camelopard” is another word for a giraffe. It is a combination of “camel” and “leopard.” This is because it is shaped like a camel and spotted like a leopard. This is one of the silliest words I’ve ever seen.

I’ll end this section with a useful word, which I’m surprised I didn’t know, “calumniate.” It is “to malign; accuse falsely; spread malicious reports about.” I can’t image that I haven’t run into this word dozens of times. Yet I can’t remember it!

Put That in Your Calumet!

But today, our word is: calumet.

Cal·u·met  noun  \kal’-yəmet\

1. an ornamented ceremonial pipe used by North American Indians.

Date: Late 17th century.

Origin: from Latin (via French), calamellus, which means “little reed.”

Example: Incorrectly known as “smoking the peace pipe,” the use of the calumet formed an important part of the ceremonies surrounding many forms of negotiations.Family Life in Native America by James M Volo and Dorothy Denneen Volo

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

9 thoughts on “Odd Words: Calumet

  1. Also a small town up in the Keweenaw Peninsula here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, home to the Copper Kings.

    • I keep meaning to get up that way, seeing as I live in the vicinity (Minnesota). I hear it’s lovely, and the old mining towns have lots of fascinating history. Someday, someday, like so many things I want to get around to doing!

  2. Calumny has fallen out of common usage for some time. That is why you didn’t recognize the transitive verb form calumniate. I made the vague association from the definition you provided, but I needed to research it to verify. I wouldn’t have known what to make of it except in it’s used context without the definition. If someone had spoken the word camelopard to me, absent sufficient contextual clues, I would guess it to be a melon. Reading the word it appears a portmanteau of camel and leopard. I’m surprised you didn’t know the word caltrop. In my formative years all my friends were boys who played tabletop war games, D&D, and who enjoyed military history. So I suppose that is how I come by that bit of vocabulary, among others. And if your experience was different I shouldn’t be surprised you didn’t know it. I have no doubt you are better read and more educated than I. The genius of the caltrop is that it always lands with a point up. But you saw that, I’m sure. The ancients were easily as smart as we. I doubt anyone could build the Roman aqueducts without computers and machines today. And yet they were made, thousands of years before computers and machines existed.

    • “Portmanteau”! That was the word I was looking for yesterday.

      Yes, I am familiar with “calumny” — but not enough to know it sans context.

      The truth is that my brain is not functioning that well. For the last couple of months I feel like I’m in a fog. I think it is stress related, as I mentioned yesterday. Or maybe: I hope it is. I don’t know if I can manage to live like this.

          • Last week I talked to the lady who runs the Twins fan site I write for sometimes. (I’d never talked to her. I don’t talk to strangers much!) Her amount of stress was off the charts. Her bosses want a minimum of five posts a day, and she’s got a (volunteer) staff that usually produces three. So she gets to do the other two. And she’s supposed to keep a regular site promotion feed on Twitter going. Oh, and they want her to do a podcast. (I did mention I have a headset I’m not using.)

            You know what Vox pays her? $400 a month! No wonder she’s stressed! And she makes sure all the volunteer writers are up on the latest standards/practices. For $400 a month, I’d tell writers “you do whatever you want, the bosses can fire me.” But it’s better than the horrible office experience she had.

            Point being? Stress-fueled depression is going around these days. And this magnificent “gig economy” isn’t helping. I can’t count the number of people I’ve known who want to work hard, and want to leave their job at the door when they go home. Nope. Commit to the career, all the time, because if you don’t, someone even more desperate will take your place.

            This is madness. It creates a world where everyone is so frazzled there’s no way for people to talk with each other. Except the very successful and very ridiculously lazy (farting around on new “genius” ideas is the definition of lazy, that’s something drunks like myself do). And they live in secluded enclaves, and only talk to their own. Is this a society any sane person wants to construct?

            • It is crazy. It’s not so bad when you are young, but as you get older, it is hard to keep up. And despite what anyone says, people are in the gig economy because they have no choice. Everyone would prefer a regular job. I’ve written about the gig economy a fair amount before, so I’ll leave it for now. But I worry about the future of this nation.

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