Category Archives: Reading & Writing

What Did Shakespeare Mean by “Purple Testament”?

What Did Shakespeare Mean by Purple Testament?
The royal family still likes purple — a lot — they are just more subtle.

If you’ve read me at all, you know of my love-hate relationship with “That Bard” — the broccoli of theater (something you don’t like but think is good for you) — William Shakespeare, or as I like to refer to him, “My Willy.” So I was very interested in a Twilight Zone episode I was watching, which I’ve always liked, called “The Purple Testament.” It’s from Richard II one of That Bard’s better plays, “‘He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war.” But for the first time I thought, what does that phrase mean?

So I went looking to see if it was a common phrase at the time. Indeed it was not. I guess Willy just thought it sounded good and fit into his blank verse. As with all of Shakespeare, there is so much talking. A lot of people think people spoke that way at the time. No. I’m sure an actual king would have simply said, “He’s come to start a bloody war!”

But the phrase still requires some explanation. He wrote “purple testament” and not something else. The whole line is “the purple testament of bleeding war.” I will give myself at most five minutes to come up with a more understandable line (although truly, I’d rework the line before, which is 12-syllables not 10):

“The bleeding war of his selfish hubris.”

And don’t tell me that isn’t a great line, because his line wasn’t great either. And mine has the advantage of saying what Richard actually means!

What Do The Shake-Scholars Think?

Still, there have been 400 years of Shakespearean scholars (if you include people like Jonson). So some of them must have come up with some good ideas, right? Not so much, no.

In his mid-19th century edition of The Works of William Shakespeare, Howard Staunton wrote:

Stevens believed that testament is here used in its legal sense, but Mr Whiter, in his ingenious Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, quotes a parallel passage from the first part of the old play Jeronimo,

“There I unclasp the purple leaves of war”

and remarks, “Whatever be the direct meaning of the words in question, I am persuaded that the idea of a book with a purple covering suggested this combination to the mind of our poet.”

What Does “Purple Testament” Mean

Well, sure, Shakespeare stole from everyone — all writers did at that time. But it only provides some indication of Shakespeare’s process. It could be reaching but Jeronimo was performed in 1592 at The Rose, when Shakespeare was there.

But all this tells us is a little about the writing process. Why did the Jeronimo writer use “purple leaves”? I don’t know the play. I assume by “purple,” he is referring to autumn. Thus it indicates the lead into war — and thus death. That’s not bad.

A purple testament has no such association. Based on the context, testament doesn’t just refer to a book, it refers to the Bible. Richard is ranting on about how no one likes him but God.

So is Shakespeare implying that Richard will soon lose the favor of God? I think that’s a reasonable reading of the text.

Why Do We Always Have to Help Out Poor Willy Shakespeare?

But here’s the problem: for hundreds of years, people like me — but generally with a far higher opinion of That Bard — have been doing this: assuming that he wasn’t just pulling lines out of his ass that fit. It’s very likely that “purple testament” meant nothing to him or the actors or the theater-goers.

He probably just liked the sound of it. Also, of course, purple is a “royal” color. Queen Elizabeth I (you know, the woman who was queen when Richard III was written) forbade anyone outside the royal family from wearing it. So that was doubtless on Willy’s mind, given what a suck-up he was to royalty.

It’s a good phrase though. It sounds important. But mostly, I think it was meaningless — just five syllables when Shakespeare needed them.

What Is Wrong With “Emails”?

What Is Wrong With Emails

I was reading a Jonathan Chait column and he used the word “emails” a dozen times. (Okay, seven emails.) I hate this. The war is over, of course. But I will have my say.

A Brief History of Mail

Here’s my problem: there was once a time when we had no email. We had something that worked wonderfully well. We called it “mail.” People would write down words on paper. Very often, all the words were spelled correctly because the people knew how to spell most words and when they weren’t sure, they looked them up in a big book called a dictionary.

No red lines appeared under supposedly misspelled words.

They would then fold the one or more of these pieces of paper they had written on, stick them in an envelope, apply a stamp (or something similar — it evolved), and have a mail carrier deliver it to someone else. It worked great.

An Even Briefer History of Email

But then came ARPANET.

Here’s a fun fact for you all: the first network connection on what would become ARPANET was just between two computers. They sent the word “LOGIN” from one computer to the other. But only two characters made it before the network crashed. That was at the surprisingly high speed (for the time) of 56 kilobits per second.

Obviously, things improved quickly. And before long people invented a mailing system on the network. It was not written by Shiva Ayyadurai. (Note, email systems on intranets date back to the early 1970s.)

When we all decided on the word “email,” it was short for “electronic mail” — a term widely used in the early days.

Then Stupid People Showed Up

It made sense. Computer scientists are easily as picky as editors. So one might say, “My email is really piling up; I’ve got to get to it.” That’s because you would say, “My mail is really piling up; I’ve got to get to it.”

But no literate person would say, “I’ve got a mail I’ve got to get to the postman.” But otherwise literate people have no trouble saying, “I’ve got an email I’ve got to send.”

The Obviousness of “email” and “emails” Usage

The proper sentence would be, “I’ve got an email message I’ve got to send.” Right? Isn’t that obvious?!

You have no idea how old I feel right now.

Grammar is Descriptive Not Prescriptive

Okay. You’re thinking, “What happened to that liberal grammarian, Frank?”


I’m just as liberal as I ever was. People understand it. It’s fine. I’m a sinner too. I checked earlier and there were 33 articles on Frankly Curious that include the word “emails.” Now there are 20, because I removed my writing abominations and a couple of editing abominations (where I didn’t fix another writer’s abomination).

The remaining ones are in quotes and there is one proper use of “emails.” I’ll come back to that.

So a significant number were by me. But as I’ve noted many times here: I do not edit any articles written by me.

The Dreaded “Emails”

There’s only one situation where I can justify “emails”: as a present perfect verb. For example, “She emails a lot of messages!” But you never “send a lot of emails,” just as you never “send a lot of mails.” Why? Because “mail” is plural.

Why do people think they need to add an “s” to “email” but not “mail”?! Because they are sloppy and don’t think. And… (This is the critical thing.) Publishing moves so fast now that little time is spent editing.

Why Not “Eletter”?

Email was an outgrowth of messaging systems. So you would think “email message” would just trip off the tongue. (Note: this is commonly written “drip off the tongue.” It’s one of those wonderful “wrong” usage cases that make great sense. Another example is “beat red.” I love these things.)

The real problem here is that there was never general acceptance of the term “eletter” or something similar. And most people will not type “email message” when “email” (as much as it drives me crazy) is just as clear.

But people did try. In the late 80s and early 90s, I commonly read “eletter” and similar things. But they never took off. And then the web came and a lot of ignorant people just overran us like zombies in Night of the Living Dead. And now that Hillary Clinton had so many “emails” and Bernie Sanders didn’t want to hear about her “damned emails” the war is so far over that I should give up.

The Current State

I won’t though. I’ll be one of those (probably apocryphal) Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II well into the 1950s.

So where are we? Well, for the time being, any time I edit a writer I fix this obnoxious usage (not that I’m perfect as already noted). And I will continue to do so until the day when someone who pays me says, “Our style is to use ’email’ rather than ’email message’.” And on my sites it will always be done what I consider the right way. That is: the right way.

But I’m sure the day will come when someone will tell me to put “emails” as a noun in a style book. I’ve been writing on at least a semi-professional level for the last 25 years. And as I’ve noted, during that time, I’ve seen editing standards go down constantly. Even the books that are published today have so many more errors in them than they did two decades ago, it’s frightening.

Why I Care

Ultimately, editing (and writing, of course[1]) is about quality control. And the quality you are controlling is clarity. As much as I hate these uses of “email” and “emails,” I know they don’t normally cause confusion. They could, however — in rare cases. But my specific concern is just that this kind of usage is ugly.

My general concern is much more disturbing. Every language has its strengths and limitations. There are concepts that take a paragraph to describe in one language that other languages have single words for. And vice versa. It does not help the language to take two different words and replace them with one. It makes the language less precise. And we already have the mother of all problems: homophones.

I realize we are creating new words all the time. But they are new words for new things. Mail is mail — regardless of the mode of transport. That’s why we should have coined “eletter” or “ezipdingdong” or whatever.

And I feel even older now.

The Bottom Line: Read This!

It’s simple. Read your sentence without the “e.” If it sounds right, great! If it sounds wrong, change it. There are few grammatical matters that are easier than that.

Suppose you wrote, “Now that there is talk of some emails that no one has looked at that might have something to do with something that might conceivably be important, people swing in the opposite direction.” Few people would complain. But try this sentence with a single character taken out, “Now that there is talk of some mails that no one has looked at that might have something to do with something that might conceivably be important, people swing in the opposite direction.”

You’d never write that second sentence. So why not write, “Now that there is talk of some email that no one has looked at that might have something to do with something that might conceivably be important, people swing in the opposite direction”? You have no reason other than laziness.


My great fear is that people will begin to use “mail” as they use “email.” And that second sentence that I assume all readers find offensive will not only be accepted, but standard.

Now I feel as old as Dr Muñoz at the end of H P Lovecraft’s story “Cool Air”!

[1] Every writer edits and every editor writes. When I say I don’t edit my work here, I mean I don’t take the time to do even what passes as a professional edit today.

Art, Commerce, and Their Disgusting Collaboration

Denny's HaikuI have a great love of haiku — especially since I did the research for my article, How to Write Haiku Without Being a Pedant. Before that, I thought of it as just the simple 5-7-5 syllable structure. There wasn’t much too it. They were trivial to write. And if you sent one to a friend, it was likely they wouldn’t even notice you had sent them a haiku.

Since then, I suppose I’ve become something of a pedant in the opposite direction. Now that I don’t apply a strict structure to the poems, I’m required to call upon all my creativity. At the same time, the real structure of haiku in English provides so little room that even rendering the simplest of things is a technical challenge.

Haiku for Commerce

And as I try to write haiku that are transcendent, the simple 5-7-5 structure that every American schoolchild learns calls out to ad agencies to inject some “art” into their disreputable endeavors. And that brings me to a morning a few weeks ago.

At roughly 9:30 am each morning, I go on what I call my anti-stress walk. It lasts between an hour and an hour and a half. And I credit it with keeping me alive.

One morning, I was walking past a bus stop, and I noticed the cup in the image above. It was sitting on a bench. I had to have it. I love picking up weird discarded stuff on my walks anyway. But this was better. It was a “haiku” — by Denny’s no less. It displayed:


It then explained that it had been tweeted by @DennysDiner. It outraged me, but most people were far more accepting of it. It is, after all, clever. It isn’t actually a haiku but rather a senryū, which is more or less a humorous haiku.

But I don’t like it in the same way that I wouldn’t like it if American Music Club’s song “Firefly” were used to promote a new chain of Firefly Steakhouses. I like to keep my art and commodity separate.

The Structure Is Wrong

But there are other problems. One is that the people who created the cup didn’t even know enough to call it a senryū. Or maybe, like everything else about it, they were simply pitching their product to the most ignorant people.

At a time when most serious haiku writers use 11 syllables — 3-5-3 (which I still think is too long) — they went with 17, because otherwise, their ignorant audience would have complained, having learned nothing since grammar school.

It Includes an Subject

What makes the haiku special to me is its lack of a subject. This could be easily fixed with the second line being changed to, “Could be the flutter of love.”

I think if they had made just that one change, I wouldn’t have complained. But a haiku is never about you or anyone or anything. And with such a simple fix, it’s much less offensive.

A Fix

The beauty is that it could take days to go from an idea to a poem that works.

But it isn’t that hard to make something that is okay. I wrote this with the 3-5-3 format. I don’t like it, but it’s easy.

Heart racing
Divine love’s signal
Or coffee?

Being a tea drinker, I’d make the last line, “Too much tea” or “Done teapot.”

But like I said, you could work on it for days.

The Pain

But what really hurts is just the idea of an art form — hundreds of years old — made so tacky. Why not just a picture of a naked woman?

There is something beautiful about pornography: there is no pretense to art. It’s just commodity. It sells orgasms.

Denny’s sells coffee.

You [sic] disgust me so [sic]
Defile art to sell coffee [sic]
Erectionless porn. [sic]

It’s Time to Stop With the Bigly

It's Time to Stop With the BiglyIt’s the evening of 15 November 2017. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States over a year ago. It is time for us liberals to stop using the word “bigly” as an ironic critique of the man. We’ve had our fun. But the word has now reached a point were it hardly refers to Trump and acts in a silly and idiosyncratic way as “in the day” does (for me anyway).

Yes, of course, “bigly” is a word. So are “um” and “uh” and “irregardless.” Just because something is a word doesn’t mean sensible people should use it.

“Big” is an adjective. It modifies a noun. And understandably so. Things have sizes. But if we take “bigly” to be an adverb, it would generally modify a verb. And how often do we talk about the size of an action? Not often. “Tianna Bartoletta jumped bigly at the 2016 Olympics”?! No one says that. It’s not even really correct because “bigly” is not really modifying her act of jumping but the result of it.

Now I’m sure that people can come up with sentences in which “bigly” works just fine. But there’s a reason that it sticks out when Donald Trump uses the word. It’s unnatural. It doesn’t sound right.

Did Trump Say “Bigly” or “Big League”? Both

There are two ways you can look at Trump’s use of the word. He could be a lover of language who enjoys playing with it. I am such a person, and I’ve written a number of songs that play with language in this way. But regardless (or irregardless) of what you think of the President, we all know that he isn’t a language lover who lies in bed at night reading modern poetry.

The truth is that when he said it in the first presidential debate, I’m pretty sure he said “big league.” That’s what it sounds like to me. It’s also a tired colloquialism, which pretty much sums up Trump and, really, pretty much all politicians in the US. To speak well and originally is “elitist” and therefore bad for anyone who wants to win the contest of being “most enjoyable drinking partner.”

I Hate —ly

But if President Trump did say “bigly,” (and at other times it sounds like he is saying “bigly”) he didn’t mean to create an adverb; he meant to intensify “big.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it would have been “double plus big.” In most places I find myself, it would be “f—ing big.”

And really: why not? I hate the use of of —ly to create an adverb. It is almost always obvious from the context if a word is an adjective or adverb. Is there anything wrong with, “He ran quick up the hill”? If I had the the power, I would make all —lys optional. Unfortunately, I live in a world where I would have put up hordes of very opinionated people whose grammar knowledge stopped after Mrs Benson’s 5th grade English class.

Let’s Rid Our Speech of “Bigly”

Love Trump or hate him, you must know that he is not an intellectual. So making fun of his using the word “bigly” is only fun for a limited period of time. And that time is over. Using it today is like using “Well excuuuuse me!” in 1990 or “Now isn’t that special?” in 2000.

Trump has already done enough damage to our society. Let’s not add to it an odd new grammar construct that completely lacks charm.

So it’s 15 November 2017 and “bigly” is done. Anyone who doesn’t agree with me can kiss my grits.

Odd Words: Coelostat

CoelostatAre you ready for page 57 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition?! Well, even if you aren’t, here it is. It is mostly a rant about one word. And then we will get on to today’s word: coelostat.

Little Men

I have never heard the word “cockalorum” before. It is “a conceited or pretentious little man.” I am short, and for most of my life I was painfully thin. And it has always bugged me that small men have special words and phrases to describe them. The best known, of course, is the Napoleon complex. But isn’t that just like a short man to be bugged by such a thing?

Here’s the thing: we don’t have special words for big men who are conceited or aggressive or whatever. And what’s going on is exactly what’s going on with women. The assumption is that it is somehow wrong for a small man or a woman to be strong. So while a large man’s aggressiveness might be seen as him being “a go-getter,” it indicates some kind of pathology in a small man.


The issue is obviously more important socially as it affects women. It tells half the population that they should be demure. Should they demand equality, there are lots of verbal smears that will be used on them. I might hate words like “cockalorum,” but there’s a whole industry devoted to creating words to keep women in their places. In some cases, it works well in that you know pretty much all you need to about a man who uses the word “feminazi.”

On the other side of this is that short men (and women) tend to be ignored. There is a joke I’ve seen a few times in movies and television shows. In it, a woman will say something in a business meeting, and everyone ignores it. Then a man says it and everyone congratulates him on his great idea. (See, for example, Miss Congeniality.) This has happened to me. I suspect I’m not alone among smaller men. And certainly this is something that happens to women commonly.

Small Men Are Less Aggressive

As a result, you would think that small men would exhibit signs of the Napoleon complex. The society certainly pushes them to. But at least one study found that this wasn’t the case. It found that taller men were more likely to lose their temper than short men. (I don’t think we need a study for women.)

Of course, if you think about it, it makes sense. When you find a hyper-aggressive short man, it sticks out. It’s not because he’s short; it is because it is so unusual. I find the whole thing ridiculous and annoying. But as I noted before, isn’t that just like a small man?


I probably should have known this word because I have used the device before. I used to be very involved with astronomy. But I always came at it from the computer end. I didn’t know anything cool like how to look up where a star is in the sky and then how to find it. Anyway, this is a great device, but not so great a word: coelostat.

Coe·lo·stat  noun  \sē’ləstat\

1. a telescope fitted with an adjustable mirror used to reflect the light of a star, etc, into the telescope.

Date: late 19th century.

Origin: from Latin caelum, which means “sky.”

Example: Naturally, Griffith Observatory is hosting a viewing event, featuring telescope viewing from the lawn, sidewalks, and on the coelostat (solar telescope) in the Hall of the Sky (note: personal telescopes aren’t allowed). –Gwynedd Stuart, Where to Watch the Solar Eclipse in LA.

Odd Words: Cloche

Vilma Banky in ClocheToday, we do page 56 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! It’s an excellent page, and it introduced me to a new kind of hat: cloche.

All the Words I Knew Before

Page 56 had a lot of words I knew, and I don’t see why I should deny them to myself. I was thinking about how we all know just when we learned some words. One example of that is the word “clique.” It is “a small, exclusive circle of people, especially with identical interests.” I learned it when I took Psychology when I was in high school.

Interestingly, it was taught by the music teacher. It was very much pop psychology. I think the instructor, Mr Wright, had received a minor in it when he was in college. You could get much the same education from reading Psychology Today. Or perhaps even that is putting on airs. Nevertheless, it was a fun and interesting class.

“Solitary, Celibate, I Hate It”

Similarly, I know when I learned the word “cloistered” (or close enough). It means “alone; separated from everything else; sheltered away from the world.” Or so the dictionary says. It has specific religious meanings. And I learned it when I was perhaps 12 years old. I was in the habit of checking out original cast albums of musicals from the library. One of them was 1776.

In the song “Yours, Yours, Yours,” Abigail sings, “I live like a nun in a cloister; solitary, celibate, I hate it.” So I looked it up. (It’s interesting that people consider me an intellectual; the only thing that is different between me and others is that I drag out the dictionary.) Here is the song. It’s very sweet:

Dropping Stock of Clone

Now a word I have no recollection of learning is “clone.” I won’t bother defining it. But it does seem that the idea of cloning had a great hold on our society in the early 70s. There were lots of movies about it. People were fascinated about it. Now that it is a real thing, people aren’t as interested.

All the Words I Didn’t Know Before

Some words seem too bizarre to be real. Thus it is with “clinker built,” even though I know it is a real thing. I’m sure for people into boating it is something they take for granted, but I have no experience with it. It means “(of ships) having boards or planks that overlap.” I was thinking of making it the word of the day, but I got distracted.

I often find myself looking for the name for a group of animals. There’s a great webpage for this: Animal Group Names. But only today I learned that there is a word for a group of cats: “clowder.” Although according to that page, a group of wild cats is called a “destruction.” That’s pretty cool.

There is also the simple word “cloy,” which is “to satiate or become distasteful through excess.” The word kind of makes me hungry. For the last month or so, food has tasted off. So the idea of eating enough to get sick of food sounds appealing. But this probably explains why I have now lost 15 pounds.


I have a great fondness for women’s fashion. I used to really enjoy going clothes shopping with my wife. So I’m naturally drawn to any words that relate to women’s fashion. And I really like this: cloche.

Cloche  noun  \klōsh\

1. a glass cover, usually bell-shaped, placed over plants to protect them from frost.

2. a woman’s close-fitting, brimless hat.

Date: late 19th century.

Origin: from French for “bell.”

Example: The “flapper hat,” as it is often called, is actually a cloche hat. It works best with short, cropped hair, which was the style in the 1920s –Lena Maikon, Knitter’s Lib: Learn to Knit, Crochet, and Free Yourself from Pattern Dependency

Odd Words: Clepsydra

ClepsydraAll I can say is “Happy, happy! Joy, joy!” as we do page 55 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. It’s actually a pretty good page. And the word is odd indeed: clepsydra.

Civil Rights?!

The first entry on page 55 was “civil rights.” That’s interesting. The dictionary was published in 1972. I’m surprised they felt that need to define it. After all, it had been in all the papers! Today, I understand, that many people don’t understand what civil rights means. They think it means protecting the heads of “thugs” as they are put into the backs of police cars. But the definition is the same as it was then: “a citizen’s right to personal liberty as established by the US Constitution.” (Actually: there is nothing about needing to be a citizen in the Constitution.)


There are two different words that have the exact same definition: “having the shape of a club.” They are: “clavate” and “claviform.” It’s odd to have two words that are so similar. What is even the point? I know: foolish me for looking for rationality in the English language. But still.

Other Words

There were a lot of good words that I already knew like “clairvoyance” and “clandestine.” But there were also good ones that I didn’t know. Even though it is easy enough to figure out, I like “cleptobiosis.” It is “a mode of existence in which one species steals food from another.” This is the mode of existence of the rich in the middle third of North America.

A really delightful word is “claque.” It is “a group of persons hired to applaud a theatrical performance.” That’s what I need. I need to hire a group of people to follow me around and laugh when I make a joke, applaud when I cross the street without incident, and otherwise murmur “Oh, very insightful” whenever I say something that isn’t funny.

And it seems appropriate to end with “climacteric,” which is “a period in life leading to decreased sexual activity in men and to menopause in women.” Although it appears to me that men have more profound changes than simply a reduced sex drive. Feel free to school me on this.


Today’s word actually just means “water clock.” But for some reason, the dictionary wanted to describe it. So ladies and gentlemen, here is “clepsydra.”

Clep·sy·dra  noun  \klep’-sidrə\

1. an apparatus for measuring the passage of time by the regulated flow of water.

Date: late Middle English.

Origin: from Latin via Greek klepsudra, based on kleptein, which means “steal water.”

Example: The device above is known as a clepsydra (Greek for “water-thief”), which is a gourd with one hole in the top and one-to-many holes in the bottom. –Ethan Siegel, Yes, New York Times, There Is A Scientific Method

Odd Words: Cirque

Cirque de Gavarnie

Page 54 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition was a very difficult one! I’ll explain in a moment. But first, today’s word: cirque.

Around the Page!

The entire first column on page 54, and a little bit more, was made up of circum– words. I can’t say that I knew all of them, but it was trivial to figure out what they meant. Or close enough. They started with “circumambient.” A surprising number of these words just meant what this one did: “encircling; encompassing.” People apparently need a lot of different worlds to say “around.”

This set of words ended with “circumvolve.” I’m sure few will be surprised to learn that it means “to wind about or around; rotate.”

The only really useful word of the bunch was “circumlocution,” which is about the only word that I specifically remember seeing. It’s a pretty common word meaning “excessive use of words to express an idea; an evasive or round about way of speaking.” I won’t name anyone, but it is a word that I associate very much with one of my close friends. (I’ll leave it to them to fight over who it is.)

My Side of Whatever

Almost a quarter of page 54 was made up of cis– words. In Latin, cis means “on this side of.” And that is what this prefix does to words. For example, “cisalpine” means “on this (the Italian) side of the Alps.” And then “cismontane” is a slightly more general “cisalpine,” meaning “on this side of the mountains.”

Similarly, there is “cislunar,” which is “lying between the Earth and the Moon.” And you know, even though it isn’t part of the classic thought experiment, if there were a teapot orbiting cislunar, we would very likely not have noticed it.


And so, that takes us to today’s word, which despite a difficult page, is quite useful: cirque.

Cirque  noun  \surk\

1. a basin in a mountain forming a circular space like an amphitheater.

Date: late 17th century.

Origin: from Latin circus, which is a circular line.

Example: Each lake occupies a glacial cirque ­– a type of basin named for its shape — with steep banks. –Deborah Wall, Lakes Loop Trail a Highlight of Great Basin

Odd Words: Cicatrix

CicatrixIt is not with a great deal of pleasure that I present page 54 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. But it’s like a chore, so let’s get through it. I do at least like today’s word because it is very useful: cicatrix.

Useless Words

No words are truly useless. But some are so specialized as to make me wonder what they are doing in a dictionary of this type.

One such word is “chyle.” It is “lymph containing emulsified fats formed from chym in the small intestine.” And, of course, “chyme” is “the semiliquid mass of partially digested food formed by gastric secretion.”

Now I have little doubt that these are perfectly good words for biologists and doctors. But really: when would I use these words? And who could I be talking to who I could expect to know them?

Who? Nobody.

Useful Words

And then there are some very useful words. One of them is today’s word. Or maybe I just think that because I have scars.

The first word on page 53 is “chutzpa.” (The accepted spelling of it is “chutzpah.”) Most people know this word: “gall; audacity; impudence.” It’s a great word. And it sounds so great!

The last complete word on page 53 is “circuitous.” It is “roundabout; indirect.” I probably overuse the word. But it is so accurate, especially if it brings to mind a circuit board. And it does for me.


There were a few words related to the cinema. I believe they are all coined from the word “cinema” itself.

The first is “cineaste.” It is “an enthusiast for motion pictures, especially in their artistic and technical aspects.” That’s a word I’ve seen around a lot. There is also “cinema verite,” which is “motion pictures that are imitative of real life.” I just checked and before this article, I’d used the phrase in six articles on Frankly Curious.

But the third cinema word I have never seen and I kind of doubt it is a real word: “cinematics.” It’s easy enough to guess: “the art or technique of motion picture making.” I’m curious if anyone has ever run into it.


And that leads us to today’s word:

Cic·a·trix  noun  \sik’-ətriks\

1. the scar that forms on a wound, which has healed.

2. a mark left on a stem by a fallen leaf.

Date: late Middle English.

Origin: from Latin cicatrix. which means “ulcer.”

Example: This apparatus was rather heavy and cumbersome and attended with the objection that the end of the thigh stump had to carry the weight of the body, and the stump cicatrix had to endure a constant pressure. –Berry Craig (quoted), Sixteenth Century French Barber Surgeon: A Man of Many Talents

Odd Words: Chrysalis

ChrysalisSorry for missing yesterday. I took the day off and went to the fair. And then I was really tired and didn’t feel like writing. But I’m back at it with page 52 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! Much like page 51, this page has a lot of space dedicated to two roots. I picked something different, however: chrysalis.

Two Big Roots

The first column on page 52 was made up almost entirely of two roots. The first is chroma–, which comes from the Greek chrōmatikós. So we get words like “chromogen,” which is “a substance, as a microorganism, which produces pigmented compounds when oxidized.”

The other root is chrono–, which is from the Greek word khronos — time. Most of the words have something to do with measuring time. Or the opposite, like with “chronopher,” which is “an electrical apparatus used to broadcast time signals.”


About a quarter of page 52 was made up of “church” words and phrases — mostly phrases. I’ll just list them out because they are kind of interesting, even if kind of familiar:

  • Church invisible: “the whole of Christianity both in heaven and on Earth.” So let’s see, that’s all of the Christians on Earth plus zero. Got it!
  • Church Militant: “those Christians constantly active in the fight against evil.” I’d say about half of them. The second half are the ones they are fighting.
  • Church visible: the whole body of Christian believers on Earth.” So the same as church invisible.

There’s also “churchwarden,” which is “a tobacco pipe with a long stem.” Interesting that I didn’t know that one.

Other Words

One word caught my eye for personal reasons. I know it, of course: “chronic.” It means “perpetual; unceasing.” The reason it struck me was that I’ve been dealing with problems with my blood pressure. I normally have what is considered normal blood pressure: 120/80. But recently, I’ve had roughly 150/100 during the day. Then it reduces to 120/85 at night.

Yesterday, I took my father to the fair. It was a very pleasant day, as I plan to discuss later today. When I got home, I took my blood pressure: 112/80. Great. Then I went to work, and something went wrong. I decided to check my blood pressure: 161/105.

I may end up on disability if I don’t watch out. Of course, with the Republicans in charge of Washington for the next year and a half, at least, there may be none — so I can just work myself to death.


Today’s word is a specialized biologist word. But it is still the kind of word that a lot of people know and one that is useful: chrysalis. Note that the definition below is very limited; the word applies to a lot of different insects.

Chrys·a·lis  noun  \kris’-əlis\

1. the pupa of a butterfly.

Date: early 17th century.

Origin: from Greek khrusos, which means “gold” since some pupae are golden.

Example: This year, in addition to the Painted Ladies, two Monarch butterflies were released into the Butterfly House, as well as a chrysalis and some caterpillars. –Kirsten Barnhart, Master Gardeners Hold Butterfly Release Party

Odd Words: Choli

CholiWe’re back moving forward with page 51 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! There wasn’t a lot to choose from, but I do like today’s word: choli.

Three Big Roots

I knew almost every word on page 51. It shows the power of knowing roots. The first of this was chloro–. It comes from the Greek word for green, khlōros. And so you get words like “chlorophyll,” which I’m sure you know means “the green coloring substance of plants and leaves associated with the production of carbohydrates by photosynthesis.” Although I bet you would have described it differently. More like, “Well, it’s the stuff, uh, that makes, you know, plants green.” At least that’s what I would have said.

Next were the chore– words. These are based on the Greek word khoreia, which means “dancing in unison” and is derived from the earlier Greek word khoros, which means “chorus.” And so we get words like “choreography,” which again, I expect you know is “the art of composing and arranging techniques, movements, etc, for dances, especially ballet.”

Finally, we have the Christo– words, which of course are words about Jesus. The only one that was even vaguely new to me was “Christophany.” It is “an appearance of Christ on Earth after the time of his resurrection.” So you know, those couple of times right after he died that were reported by no one outside a tiny cult. Not that I’m making any judgments! It could absolutely have happened — just like there might be a china teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars. Who am I to say?

Other Words

The other words were pretty specialized. There was “chitin” for example. It is “a horny, organic substance forming part of the outer integument of some insects and crustaceans.” See: even after reading the definition, I don’t really know what it is.

I suffer from nausea a lot. So I was interested to see the word “chlorpromazine.” According to the dictionary, it is “a drug used to depress the central nervous system and prevent nausea and vomiting.” But when I checked online, Google told me it was an antipsychotic. Maybe I could use that too!

I’ll leave you with a word that I feel like I ought to have known: “choragus.” It is “one who officiates at an entertainment, festival, etc.” It appears to derive from the leader of a Greek chorus, which may explain why I don’t know it. Ancient Greek theater does have its interests, but I’m not that into it.


Even though page 51 didn’t offer many options, it did contain one that I liked. It is similar to yesterday’s word, but this time from the east: choli.

Cho·li  noun  \chō’-lē\

1. a short blouse worn by women in India.

Date: early 20th century.

Origin: from the Hindu word coli.

Example: The lehenga was paired with a plunging neckline choli that had gotta patti work on it as well along with short sleeves. –Shikha Kohli, Fashion Faceoff: Ileana D’Cruz or Kriti Sanon, Who Wore Anita Dongre Better?

Odd Words: Chemisette

ChemisetteToday we do page 49 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! I know what you’re thinking, “Didn’t we do page 49 yesterday?!” Well, we did. But not anymore. If you go back and look, you will see that I changed it to page 50.

You see, as I do this series, I pull out the page I’m working on. The book is falling apart anyway. And it is just more convenient to deal with a single page. But with the discolored pages, it is kind of hard to read and so yesterday, I read the wrong side. So we are doing page 49 today. And the word is: chemisette.

Chemical Reactions

Well over half of page 49 was made up of chemi– and chemo– words. They are such that even if you have never seen them, you can figure out what they mean. So there are words like “chemoreflex,” which is not surprisingly “a reflex brought about by a chemical stimulus.”

I was interested to see that “chemiculture” is another word for “hydroponics.” But then it occurred to me that I don’t actually know what “hydroponics” is. I just know it because people use it to grow cannabis. It is a way of growing things without soil — in rocks, generally. But when I looked it up, I found out that I was right. Sometimes, you don’t need to look up a word.

There are two words related to the atmosphere. First is “chemosphere”: “a stratum of the atmosphere in which the most intense chemical activity takes place.” No one uses the word anymore. It is really just the upper stratosphere — from about 30 km to 50 km. A related word is “chemopause”: “the stratum or boundary lying between the chemosphere and the ionosphere.

There are lots of –pause words. What it actually indicates is where a temperature trend change takes place. For example, as you go up in the lowest part of the atmosphere (troposphere), the temperature gets colder and colder. But at the tropopause, the temperature gets warmer as you go up. Then you are in the stratosphere. At the stratopause (also the chemopause), the temperature again starts going down.

When I was in graduate school, my thesis adviser was the editor of the scientific journal Chemosphere. I published my best work there — the permafrost stuff.

Other Words

Outside of the words related to chemical reactions, the pickings were limited. Some were interesting though. For example, “chela.” It is “a nipper- or pincer-like organ of certain crustaceans. This reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster.” In it, he talks about how lobsters are loners and they have to have their chelas taped shut or they would harm each other. It is but one part of the horror that we put these creatures through.

I hate cigars. It’s nothing about cigars themselves. It’s just that cigars are so linked to jerks. You have reached the pinnacle of vileness when you’ve made the cover of Cigar Aficionado. Anyway, there is a specialized cigar word, “cheroot.” It is “a cigar cut square at each end.”


Today’s word is quite far away from everything else we’ve considered. It’s actually quite interesting — at least to me, since I like women’s fashion.

Chem·i·sette  noun  \shemizet’\

1. a woman’s garment worn over a low-cut bodice.

Date: early 19th century.

Origin: from French — diminutive of chemise.

Example: The standing band was also made with small collars attached and was particularly popular on the chemisette. –Joan L Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900.