, Newburyport, MA


October 8, 2012

A dearth of superlatives and other matters


(“He seems,” says the reporter, “to have been opposed.”)

Declaring the development of superlatives a work-in-progress, let me offer you for entertainment the “other matters,” a very mixed bag of interesting or amusing words or phrases.

Did you know that: a conspirator is one who “breathes with” someone else, from Latin “spirare” to breathe, and “con” with? (Can’t you just see conspirators leaning in around a table in a basement somewhere, mixing their fetid exhalations?) In this vein, the Germans have a good phrase “Unter vier Augen,” “under four eyes’” that is, just you and me. Did you know when the restaurant offered you that “shrimp scampi” that it means “shrimp shrimp” (“scampo” in Italian meaning a shrimp), just as “with au jus” (as one sometimes sees it in menus) means “with with juice”? Things that crunch when you bite them, BTW, are crisp, not “crispy” as the advertisers would have it. No such word.

“Halcyon days,” a time of peace and quiet, are so-called from Alcyone, the kingfisher. “The ancients believed that the bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting — around the winter solstice” ( Even at the solstice there is not one “kudo” or many “kudos.” The word is singular, from the Greek, meaning “praise,” and pronounced “cue-doss.” (I don’t think there is a plural, i.e., no kudosses, however.) While we’re here, don’t say “the hoi polloi” when referring to Mencken’s “great unwashed” — “hoi” means “the,” so there’s another tautology!

In this paper (incredible as it may seem) it was recently reported that “the Obama campaign is aiming to sew [sic.] new doubt into the minds of Pennsylvania voters.” Political brain surgery? (“Sic.,” by the way, is Latin for “thus” in the phrase “sic erat scriptum” — “this it was written,” is a nice supercilious put-down if you are quoting someone who has made a mistake, as above).

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