Odd Words: Cenotaph

CenotaphWelcome to page 45 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! The page did not offer that great a selection of words. But luckily, there was a word having to do with death. And I’m always up for that: cenotaph.


Much of page 45 was taken up using centi– words — those relating to one-hundredth. So we got words “centesimal” and “centigrade.” It occurred to me that the dictionary was published in 1972. This was when the metric system was all the rage.

I remember at the time that there was a certain amount of nationalism that went along with the metric system. A lot of people considered it to be some kind of foreign plot. Yet we did make the change without too much pain.

If it were going on today, you can just imagine. Fox News and hate radio would blow it up into an existential threat. There would be old conservatives all over the nation worrying about it the way people did nuclear war in the early 1960s. Of course, maybe that would be good — give them something to worry about rather than taking healthcare away from much of the nation.

Other Words

There isn’t much rhyme or reason to the rest of the words, so I’ll just touch on a few randomly. Of some interest is the word “celure,” which is “a decorated canopy for a bed, throne, etc.” It makes me think of the ceiling they have for Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But that isn’t accurate. It’s more what is above a canopy bed. When I was a kid, my sisters had canopy beds. It seemed very posh.

I love all the arcane words associated with religion. Today we have “canobite.” It is “a member of a religious group living a communal life.” That always sounds like something I would like. You know, the contemplative life. But I know I would end up going crazy.

And I’ll leave this section with “ceratoid.” I bring it up mostly because of the way our dictionary defined it: “horny; resembling horn.” I think even in 1972, “horny” mostly meant “feeling or arousing sexual excitement.” It just seems an odd choice. But maybe it’s only me.


Okay, enough of that. Let’s move on to “cenotaph.” This is actually a useful word. I always think that when I imagine trying to talk about something without using a particular word. In this case, you run into something like, “I visited his — well, it’s not his grave — it’s like a tombstone, but his body isn’t there.” It makes me want to give up.

Cen·o·taph  noun  \sen’-ətaf\

1. a tomb or monument erected as a memorial to a deceased person who is buried elsewhere.

Date: Early 17th century.

Origin: French cénotaphe via Latin cénotaphe via Greek kenos and taphos — literally “empty tomb.”

Example: But the push is to raise these funds before the end of summer — in order to move forward with the cenotaph revitalization and bronze memorial project in its entirety. –Lindsay Seewalt, Cenotaph Needs $20K

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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.

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