thewordmaven (David Settle)

Numbers cruncher by day, word maven by night (and weekends, and other odd hours).

13 Thirteen Words

7b4062_52854e43983447faa496c68f9a653bb4The number thirteen has long held a special attraction. Thirteen is a prime number, a Fibonacci number, and a happy number (calculated for any positive integer as the sum of the squares of its digits, repeated until the process either equals one [a happy number] or endlessly loops [unhappy number]).

Thirteen is the age in Judaism in which a boy becomes a man and full member of the Jewish faith through the Bar Mitzvah. A thirteenth anniversary is called a tredecennial(1) or tridecennary(2) (tridecennary can also apply to a period of thirteen years). A triskaidecago(3) is a polygon with thirteen sides (also called a tridecagon(4)). A clutch(5) is a unit of count equal to thirteen (typically concerning eggs), and a devil’s dozen(6) may also refer to a count of thirteen. And the thirteen offsprings of a single birthing are known as tredecaplets(7).

Thirteen also has many sinister meanings, such as the number of witches in a coven(8), and  Sizdah Be-dar, the thirteenth day of the Zoroastrian new year which is held to be a day in which evil exerted great power and people traditionally retreated to countryside in an effort to avoid any ill effects commonly associated with life in urban areas. And XIII is the tarot card of death.

We more famously associate the fifteenth of the month with the ancient Roman term ides, because of Caesar’s famous run-in at the Senate on the ides of March (March 15th), but on only four months of the year did the ides fall on the fifteenth; on the other eight months they fell on the thirteenth, so the unlucky connotation of ides is associated with both the numbers 15 and 13.

Over the years, the number thirteen has increasingly become associated with ill luck. So much so, there’s even a word (actually two) for the morbid fear of the number thirteen: triskaidekaphobia(9) or tridecaphobia(10). There’s a number of theories for how thirteen came upon this unfortunate reputation, but the true reason isn’t actually known. Some believe it relates to the thirteen attendees at Jesus’ Last Supper, the thirteenth being Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ. Also, some years have thirteen full moon cycles (about one-third do), instead of the usual twelve, which was considered unlucky because it upset the timing of certain religious moveable feasts, such as Easter (see Some people even believe the tradition of considering thirteen as unlucky goes all the way back to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, dating around 1780 BC, in which the thirteenth code deals with circumstances associated with an individual’s death.

And of course, Friday the thirteenth has its own tradition as a luckless time.  There’s even a term for the fear of this auspicious day: paraskevidekatriaphobia(11).

On a lighter note, back around 1266 in England, Henry III revived a statute regulating the price of bread based on the weight of a standard loaf. In tough economic times or in times of bread shortages, bakers were known to shirk the law by baking smaller loaves. This was illegal and some bakers ended up in the goal or publicly flogged for their illicit behavior. So the story goes that bakers began adding a little extra slice to each loaf, and a full extra loaf to orders of a dozen loaves. The thinking was that this practice would offset any inadvertent shortage of weight. As you have probably guessed, this tradition became known as a baker’s dozen(12), or thirteen for the price of twelve. And a little word trivia−the thirteenth item in a baker’s dozen is known as the advantage.

In a similar vein, any unexpected free gift received with purchase is now known by several terms: brotuspilon (from the Southwest U.S.), and from Louisianna we get lagniappe (also spelled lagnappe) which can also mean a bribe or a tip. I can remember merchants doing this a lot more when I was growing up than they do now, but maybe free shipping is today’s rough version of a brotus.

Falling somewhere between a baker’s dozen and a brotus is a poulter’s measure. Beginning at least several centuries ago, poulters (those who farm poultry) began the practice of giving away two additional eggs for every second dozen ordered. So, the first dozen ordered brought you twelve eggs and the second, fourteen. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the average was thirteen but the extra amount wasn’t added on until that extra order. This is like a baker’s dozen with a catch. At some point, a type of poem having alternate lines of verse consisting of twelve and fourteen syllables also became known a poulter’s measure.

Italians seem to buck the trend and consider thirteen as a lucky number, where fare tredici (13) (literally, “to do 13”) means to hit the jackpot.

Regardless of whether you are superstitious, prudently cautious, or one of those willing to throw caution to the wind and embrace all numbers as equals, thirteen has a rich and proud history. But I would definitely urge caution when purchasing a dozen donuts if the ides of January, February, April, June, August, September, November, or December fall on Friday the thirteenth of the tredecennial of your thirteenth birthday.


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The power of fear, and the triumph of words.

If I asked yoFearu to think of something or someone whose name is so terrible, so odious, that you could not even mention it, what would you think of? I’m guessing that many of you would come up with the evil character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; namely, Lord Voldemort, or his alias dictus, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

For very different reasons, the term “YHWH” or “Yahweh” was the Hebrew term used by Jews for the God of Abraham. Historically, it was considered a profound lack of respect just to mention the name of God except by high priests on very holy days, so Jews often reverted to Adonia, meaning my Lord, or HaShem, meaning the Name.

In some places like Australia, North Africa, southern India, and Siberia, for certain cultural groups, the utterance of a recently dead person’s name is highly taboo.  And as children we are taught that in polite society there are certain swear words not to be used, which we often replace with euphemisms – a blander form of of the word. In fact, many of our mild swear words, such as Sam Hill for the devil, are euphemisms. Most of us couldn’t get through a day without using a few good euphemisms. Go ahead and try and you will see what I mean.

But we are straying afield from the original thought. What word would one use for a situation where the mere mention of something terrible and evil is too repugnant for thought, something unmentionable…something unspeakable? Could you provide an answer? Well, there is a word for that, and it’s infandous – referring to something being too repugnant to be spoken or expressed. So next time someone mentions Lord Voldemort’s name, just make a grimace and let them know that name is just too infandous to be uttered.

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Show me the Carfax!

Yes, show me the carfax.  No, I’m not starting a new policy of advertising on my site.  This is just today’s 3carfax-tower-oxford-oxford“There’s A Word for That?” word.

A number of years ago I found myself in London over a long weekend during a business trip.  So, I decided to wake up early, head down to Paddington Station and catch a train out to Oxford to see the sites.  I had never been and had always wanted to visit the university that had produced (at the time) 24 British prime ministers, including Gladstone and Margaret Thatcher, numerous poet laureates and so many Nobel Prize winners that it’s incredible to fathom (47!), T.E. Lawrence (a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia), J.R.R. Tolkien, and most importantly, Hugh Grant.

The weather was superb (for England), the people were incredibly nice, and the university was everything you would expect.  If you ever visit, be sure to stop by the Bodleian Library; one of the most beautiful in the world.  Before entering the library, you are still required to pledge an oral oath that you will follow the library’s rules.

In the center of town, located at the intersection of St. Aldate’s, Cornmarket Street, Queen Street, and High Street is Carfax Tower.  This nondescript tower is all that remains of St. Martin’s Church, formerly the City Church of Oxford where all the town’s important denizens worshiped.   There’s not really much of historical importance to this tower, and with the 38 colleges of Oxford being the prime reason most people visit here, it’s easily overlooked.  The tower is like so many others that are found throughout England, with one exception.  The tower’s name lent itself to a distinctly new British word (well, it was new in the late Middle Ages.)  The tower’s name is an anglisized corruption of the French word carrefour, meaning crossroads.  Having been build only about 60 years after William the Conqueror’s conquest, many placenames throughout England were being given French names.  This tower, however, took on a name that was French in origin but English in execution.  Given the tower’s location at the center of one of the most important cities in Europe, it’s understandable that it adopted a name having the meaning of crossroads.  After all, great university towns were crossroads of not just important streets but where important ideas and knowledge intersected.

The term carfax eventually came into common usage as any intersection of four roads, especially the main intersection of a town.  Sort of the British version of our American town square, without the square.  Today, the term is largely out of use, having been replaced with GPS’s and Baedekers.  But next time you’re in the U.K. visiting some quaint British town (or Scottish or Welsh town, for that matter), and you find yourself in a taxi wanting to visit the town’s center, just say, “show me the carfax!”

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The many styles of facial hair…

About 25 years ago (B.C. – “before children;” as opposed to A.D. – “after dependents”), my wife and I took a long vacation with another couple to Alaska.  I won’t bore you with the incredible details, but if you ever get a chance to go – do!  The other husband and I decided to grow out beards in keeping with the trip’s theme of hitting the back country, and soon after returning, and upon my wife’s insistence, I shaved off my hairy deportment, never to grow it out again.  Until recently, that is.  It was one of those torpid weekends and I had neglected my circadian routine of a close shave, and when Monday morning arrived, I continued in the same vein.  And now I am once again sporting a perpetual four-day growth.

All this is just my way of introducing today’s “There’s a Word for That” for the letter B.  Today’s word is barbula and is defined as a small beard grown just below the lip, extending down to the upper part of the chin.  You see a lot of guys sporting this beard style these days and mistakenly calling it a soul patch.  Technically speaking, and this is without any authoritative source to back me up, a soul patch is a very small patch of hair grown just below the lower lip.  A barbula typically extends further down and across the area below the mouth.  The soul patch is a term that comes out of the 1950s and was originally popular with jazz trumpet musicians because of the comfort it provided when using the mouthpiece, but soon the style was adopted by beatniks and artists and is still associated with having a literary or musical bent.  Barbula comes to us from the word barbule, being that part of an armored helmet that protects the cheeks and chin.

There are a numBeardber of styles of beards that have their own names, and in fact the art of growing and trimming a beard has its own term – pogonotrophy.  A common style is the Van Dyke, a mustache that extends down to fully cover the area below the mouth and around the chin.  This style has been popular since its naming for the 17th century Flemish artist.  Often the mustache is long and curled at the ends.  When the beard is trimmed to a distinct point below the chin, it is more appropriately called a pike devant – think Three Musketeers.  Take away the mustache and you are left with a goatee.  The goatee has been around since ancient times where it was often used when depicting the god Pan.  The Christians appropriated the style and applied it in paintings of Satan during the medieval and Renaissance periods.  The practice has been extended to this day.  My favorite is Robert De Niro in Angel Heart who sported a very full goatee while playing the character Lew Cyphre (get it?  Lucifer)

Extending the barbula even further down to cover the chin, and you end up with a royale.  Take the classic Van Dyke and trim off the area below the mustache that connects the mustache with area below the mouth and you’re left with an imperial.  Take a goatee and extend the lower ends up the jawline about half-way towards the earlobes and you have a balbo.  An anchor combines elements of the goatee and balbo; it’s a thin strip that flows from just below the lower lip to the base of the chin, and then extends in a thin line up the jawline to meet the sideburns.

And what discussion about beards would be complete without mentioning sideburns; those hair extensions in front of the ears corruptly named for the Civil War general Ambrose Burnside whose extremely odd looking style of long, bushy sideburns that extended down the face to connect with an equally bushy mustache, but having a clean-shaven chin?  Trim off Mr. Burnside’s mustache and the remaining bushy sideburns are call muttonchops or alternately, dundrearies, an eponym named for a character in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin, best known as the play being attended by Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated.  And for those keeping record, Lincoln wore a goatee.

As long as there are sharp razors and good imaginations, men will be coming up with new ways to sport their beards and we will be right here to note any new words that might appear.

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He’s Back! And with lots of new Words to explore…

After taking a multi-year hiatus, I thought I would gen back up my little blog concerning uncommon words. Today’s entry into the “There’s a Word for That?” category begins with the letter “A” and is the first in an alphabetical sequence that will eventually stretch out to “Z.”

Today’s woAccoladerd is one that we are all familiar with but has a distinct, although related, meaning to its more common usage. The word is accolade, and in our uncommon meaning is defined as a ceremonial greeting consisting of an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks. This formal type of greeting is still in use in many cultures and not an unusual site when watching our president meet other heads of state.

In more common usage, accolade is an expression of approval or praise, and therefore it’s easy to see that the two meanings are related. During WWI, President Wilson instituted a presidential certificate honoring those service men and women who died or were wounded in battle, calling the certificate an Accolade. The certificate was used again during WWII and the Korean War and was later extended to non-military civilians killed or injured in service associated with the military. Receipt of an Accolade is high praise, indeed.

Originally, the term applied to the service of conferring a knighthood, consisting of an embrace and slight blow to each shoulder with the flat edge of a sword. One can easily see the direct link from this earliest usage to today’s embrace, replacing the sword blow with a more benign kiss to each cheek.

In some places in the world, the tradition of a two-cheek kiss has been modified. In France today, it’s generally still a two-cheek affair, but if you really want to show your affection, it can be repeated, thereby extending the accolade to a four-cheek engagement. In Belgium, for reasons unknown, it’s a three-cheek kiss. In our post-PC world of sexual hypertension, the embrace is often omitted and only the kisses are used. Even the kisses themselves are often seen as not making contact; a sort of air kiss. Or just dispense with the kiss itself and make a slight movement to each cheek while repeating the words “kiss-kiss.” To those whose concern is over the health aspects of an accolade, you will be relieved to know that the International Forum on Home Hygiene concluded that cheek kissing spreads less germs that a simple handshake. Yes, someone actually studied this…I don’t make this stuff up. And for those who pay close attention to such matters, Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, says that you should always aim for the right cheek first. In our rush-rush world, sometimes the two-cheek kiss is substituted for a more efficient one-cheek execution; sort of a kiss-off to the receiver. You might even see the Western hand-shake combined with the two-cheek kiss; often even accompanied by a sort-of shoulder bump. This type of greeting would seem to cover all the bases.

So, the next time you see our president on the receiving end of a hug and two wet slobbers to each cheek, you will know that he received an accolade, even if the media doesn’t shower him with accolades for his political performance.


More on flags

flag half mast

Today’s Watchword of the Day continues this week’s flag theme and actually includes three separate but related words that all deal with vertically hoisting the flag up and down the pole.  By the way, did you know that when raising a flag to half-staff (same as half-mast), you first raise the flag to the top of the pole, then lower it either to two-thirds of its normal height or by the width of the flag?  And, when lowering a flag flying at half-staff, you once again raise it to the top of the pole before lowering.

dipping n. a form of saluting with a flag by lowering it almost to the ground, then raising it back up a flagstaff to its original position.

strike vi. to lower a flag as a sign of surrender.

trailing n. an uncommon method of flag saluting whereby the flag is lowered to lightly touch the ground, then immediately hoisted back up the staff.

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cantonIn today’s Watchword of the Day, following this week’s flag theme, comes the word that can be used to describe the particular area of design in many flags, including the U.S. national flag, and the flags of Australia, New Zealand, and the People’s Republic of China.  (The picture at right is the Royal Air Force ensign of India.)

canton n. the upper corner of a flag adjacent to the staff; typically where a special design, such as a union, is placed.

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