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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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More on groups

home-aloneSpeaking of groups (see “Birds of a feather” below), there are a number of words that relate to a group of related words that deal with other words that are related in some distinct but different manner.  Confused?  Read on and all shall be revealed.


heteronym n. a word that is spelled the same as another but has a completely different pronunciation and definition.

homograph n. a word that has the same spelling as another but differs in its meaning and origin, and is sometimes pronounced differently.

homonym n. a word that is spelled and pronounced the same as another but has an entirely different meaning.

homophone n. a word that is pronounced the same as another and can be spelled the same or differently, but has a different meaning.

homealone n. a movie that was much better than the three sequels that followed. (Just making sure that you’re paying attention.)

So, let’s review.  A homonym is always a homograph and a heteronym is too, and a homophone can be a homograph if the two words in question are spelled alike.  Likewise, a homonym can also be a homophone if the two words are spelled alike, but a heteronym is never a homophone because they have different pronunciations.  And just why is it pronunciation and not pronounciation?  And why is it that sequels are almost never better than the first movie?

Heteronyms are probably the rarest of all the classes of words defined above.  Can you think of any?  Here’s one: lead, as in “lead an army into battle,” and lead, as in “don’t eat paint containing lead.”  You should probably just stay away from eating paint altogether.  Homonyms are easy to think of as there are literally thousands of examples.  There’s bear (to carry), and bear (the kind that bite). Homophones (when spelled differently) are rarer than homonyms (which are always spelled the same) but less rare than heteronyms. Bare and bear, and air and heir come to mind.  Led and lead (the element) also work.

Still confused?  Don’t worry.  There’s no test.

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Birds of a feather

flockI have amassed what I believe is quite possibly the world’s largest collection of words associated with animal groups.  As part of the work on my upcoming book on uncommon words, I have been accumulating terms in this category for more than a decade and I have yet to come across a list as comprehensive as the one I’ve put together.  But as they say, all this and about $3.50 will buy you a cup of latte at your favorite gourmet coffee shop.

It’s not that more is necessarily better, it’s just interesting to see all of the words that have come to be associated with different kinds of animals.  I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list (and I have to save some surprises for my book), but here are a few of my favorites.

Maybe you’ve heard of a murder of crows?  This once relatively unknown grouping was made more popular by a forgettable 1988 movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Staying with birds for a moment, a flock of geese is pretty boring, but there’s also a richness of martens, or a murmuration of starlings, an exaltation of larks, or a drumming of grouse.  For the more exotic birds, there’s a flamboyance of flamingoes, although a group of flamingoes can also be referred to as a stand or when in flight, as a skein, and a group of peacocks is an ostentation. If a flock of geese is boring, a flock of geese flying in a V-formation is called a wedge, and strictly speaking, a gaggle of geese is only when they are standing on the ground, but when they’re in the water, they’re called a plump. One of my favorite bird groups is a wake of vultures.  Get it?

Okay, enough about birds.  Tired of hearing about swine flu?  A group of hogs can be called a passel or a drift. In the livestock category, there’s a tribe of goats, a rumination of cattle, and a troop of horses, although a group of racehorses are called a field. Whales aren’t just called a school or pod, but also can be referred to as a herd, gam, grind, mob, or run. You could probably guess this next one: a group of vipers is a nest. For African animals, there’s a crossing of zebras, a memory of elephants, a crash of rhinos, and a machination of monkeys, although monkey groupings  have several other terms, such as barrel. And let’s not forget a cackle of hyenas.  Had enough?

Groups of bison are called a thunder, there’s a mischief of moose, a bike of bees, a shiver of sharks, and a confusion of weasels.  Just a few more.  A group of swans are a regatta, leopards are a leap, and groups of frogs are an army. Even groups of gerbils have their own word – a horde.

Okay, that’s enough for now.  Did I fail to mention your favorite animal?  Let me know and I will tell you its grouping name or names.

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Happy Anniversary to me…

anniversaryIt’s hard for me to believe that today marks one month from the beginning of this blog.  For those of you who have become regular readers, I hope you’re enjoying these little vignettes of uncommon words.  I appreciate all of the kind comments and emails I have received.

Since today is the one-month anniversary of this blog’s exordium, I thought it would be apt to discuss the word anniversary. Actually, the more precise term might be:

mensiversary n. a one month anniversary.

The suffix –versary comes from the Latin root versus meaning to turn. The prefix anni- predictably comes from the Latin word annus meaning year (although annus originally referred to a time period of ten months).  Thus, the resulting word anniversary is a turning of a year.  Interestingly, the root versary, when combined with the prefix ad-, gives us the word adversary, literally meaning a turning against.  Versus also gives us words such as verse and version.

Mensiversary is technically a nonce word – a word made up for the occasion, since it isn’t a word actually found in any established dictionary.  However, unlike some nonce words that are completely random, mensiversary makes sense because of its component parts.  We’ve already discussed –versary. Mensi- comes from the Latin mensis meaning month.  This same root word also spawned menses, the monthly menstruation cycle of females, and also gives us the word moon which is so closely related to the regular cycle that is nearly a month in length.  We often think of the Latin root for moon as being luna which gives us lunar and looney.  However, luna comes, not from any measurement of a time period, but from the word light.

Along with the word moon comes the related word tide, which as we all know is periodic change of the sea level as influenced by the moon’s gravitation.  Tide can also note an annual period of time and is most closely associated with ecclesiastical feast times, such as Christmastide and Eastertide.

The suffixes ennial, ennium, and enary all directly relate to the previously discussed annus, so when combined with metric prefixes result in specific anniversary periods, such as the common centennial for one hundred years, and the less common nonacentennial for a nine hundred year anniversary.

Within the Roman Catholic church, the word anniversary has a particular meaning of a Mass that is performed each year for the soul of a deceased, and an annueler is the priest that performs the Mass.  And just to complete the thought, the perfect antonym of the word birthday is deathday – the day of a person’s death or anniversary of their death.  Makes sense.

Jubilee is a word long associated with anniversaries.  In ancient times, every fifty years the Israelites would observe a full year of rest, and would free slaves and leave the land untilled.  Roman Catholics would observe a jubilee every twenty-five years in which the pope would grant indulgences and believers would be encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Rome.  In England, a jubilee marks the annual celebration of royal accession to the throne.  The word can also be used to mark a 25th or 50th anniversary.

So, happy anniversary to The Watchword and I promise not to publicly celebrate its bimensiversary.

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Just Clowning Around

clownOne of the more popular news commentators this week was heard calling the politicians in Washington “a bunch of clowns.” Lest any of you reading this get your feelings hurt thinking that I’m passing along a remark that was intended towards any particular person or political party, let me clarify that I believe he meant the whole gang of politicians in Washington, and wasn’t qualifying his statement to any clique.  This blog strives for political neutrality and believes that the term clown, being one of the more inoffensive remarks that can be made when referring to our elective leaders, is extremely appropriate and almost always well-timed.

This use of the word clown, as a contemptuous fool, is very close to the traditional notion of a clown, but is slightly different.  Historically, the clown has been a bumbling fool, but not necessarily worthy of our contempt.  In fact, the idea has always been that the clown is a comedic fellow worthy of laughter and possibly our sympathy.  Actually, now that I think about it, maybe the two definitions are closer upon examination than I originally thought.  Either way, the word clown originally referred to a country farmer.  And the word’s etymological roots lie in the word colonus, Latin for farmer.  Colonus gives us numerous words in English, including colonist.

Later, the idea of clown evolved from husbandman to a caricature of a farmer – the coarse rustic rube from down off the farm.  In this modification of the word’s meaning we get the fellow whose unsophisticated ways are the object of our scorn and laughter, but we still don’t quite have the guy with the orange hair and red nose – not quite yet.  For that interpretation of the word, we have to look back to Italy, but long after the fall of Rome.

In the 1540’s, noted writer and composer, Castelleti, staged a comedy production whereby a character by the name of Pierro was introduced.  He wore a long, baggy white tunic with oversized buttons and a floppy ruff (from the ruff neckband we get the word ruffle).  He also wore short trousers, a straw hat, a mask and oversized shoes.  He was a teller of jokes and funny stories.  Later in the century, Pagliaccio was a recurrent character in Italian comedies, his name meaning literally inferior straw, and was a clear relative of Pierro.  Both characters incorporated, through their dress and actions, the notion of a simpleton from the sticks.  Later a version of the same character appeared in French comedies as Pierrot, by now adding a whitened face and a conical hat.

With the addition of bright colors to the outfit, some red-painted lips and cheeks, the clown costume has changed little over the past five centuries.  So while we may look at a clown’s costume and think he looks very much a like a modern figure, he has been with us for quite some time.  And the idea of clown as politician is likely to be with us for an even longer time to come.

For some uncommon words that are close synonyms to clown, here’s a list:

antic n. a buffoon; a prankster.

archimime n. one who clowns around.

auguste n. a circus clown considered the most comical of all clowns, the name is derived from the German for fool, and the appearance employs a wide mouth, exaggerated eyes, and large red ball nose.

balatron n. a joker; one who clowns.

dizzard n. [Obsolete] a fool; a jester.

gracioso n. a traditional clown in Spanish comedy.

harlequin n. a stock character in commedia dell’arte, appearing in pantomime and ballet as a clown.

joey n. a clown in a circus or pantomime.

merry-andrew n. a person who clowns around in public.

monument n. [Scottish] a person whose behavior provokes ridicule.

pantaloon n. a buffoon in pantomimes; typically an old feeble man who is the butt of another clown’s actions.

patch n. a clown; booby.

Punchinello n. a clown or buffoon from a common character in Italian puppet shows.

scaramouch n. a cowardly buffoon.

tomfool n. a professional clown, esp. one acting in a play or pageant.

zanni n. a clown, similar in appearance to a Harlequin, used as a stock character in traditional Italian Commedia dell’Arte, having a black mask and playing the part of a comic servant who indulges in acrobatic tricks and antics; from this word we get zany.

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A Baker’s Dozen of Placeholder Names

widget1The other day, a friend and I were looking at how to unbolt a section from a desktop and noticed that the bolt had a flat head with a square slot on top, similar to a hex screw but with four sides instead of six.  Neither of us knew the name of this type of screw.  It turns out it’s a Robertson screw, but that’s irrelevant to my story.  What is relevant is that I said we needed a doohickey screwdriver to get the screw unbolted and she knew exactly what I meant.  These types of situations arise all the time where we don’t know the name of something, so we just use one of the general terms that applies to objects whose name is either irrelevant or unknown.  These words have their own classification and are known as placeholder names.

There’s even a word that acts as both a placeholder name and as a synonym to the phrase placeholder names.  In Flexner and Wentworth’s first edition of Dictionary of American Slang, they coined the word kadigan (also spelled cadigan) as a term to describe placeholder names.  The word can also be used as a placeholder name itself, just like doohickey.

Remember Economics 101 when learning about elasticity of demand and price equilibrium?  These lessons always mentioned widgets; universal eco-speak when referring to small unidentified manufactured items.  Other well known placeholder names include hoozits, thingamabobs, whatits, and even yadda-yadda-yadda.  There are other, less common, placeholder names and the list below is today’s contribution (in no particular order).  So next time you come across some item whose name you’ve either forgotten or don’t know, impress your friends with one of these placeholder words.

1.         oojah

2.         dingus

3.         gubbins (also, gubbings)

4.         frobnitz

5.         hickey

6.         yolk

7.         blivit (also, blivet)

8.         dealie

9.         omnium

10.       gilguy

11.       jigamaree

12.       dofunny (also, doofunny)

13.       doobrie

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Top 10 Dickensian Words

dickens1There are many characters found throughout English literature who become so closely associated with a certain trait, or traits, that their own name becomes synonymous with that trait.  As you might expect, there’s a word for this:  eponym, which is a literary character whose name conveys a quality associated with the character.  Perhaps no other author has better distinguished himself with this ability than Charles Dickens.  Mr. Dickens created characters that are known even by those who have never picked up a Dickens novel.  He had a talent for encapsulating an exaggerated personality trait into a single individual in a way that was both memorable and endearing, even if the character him- or herself wasn’t so endearing.  Today’s list is a top ten compilation of words that have made their way into the English language that are taken directly from Dickens’ characters.

1. Scrooge n. a selfish miser with a difficult, cantankerous personality; taken from Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

2. Fagin n. a villain who corrupts young children into a life of crime; from the character of the same name in Oliver Twist.

3. Pickwickian adj. 1. something that is unusually strange or odd; whimsical.  2. simple and kind.  3. of words or ideas, understood or interpreted in a manner that is different or peculiar from what is typical; from the character, Mr. Pickwick, in The Pickwick Papers.

4. Uriah Heap n. a person who is cruel, malicious, and hypocritically insincere; from the character of the same name in David Copperfield.

5. Gradgrind n. a cold and heartless person who is only interested in facts; from the character, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times.

6. Micawber n. a person who is hopefully, and often naively, optimistic; from Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield.

7. Chadband n. a smug, pious hypocrit, from the character in Bleak House of the same name.

8. Pecksniffian adj. hypocritically and unctuously benevolent; sanctimonious; from the character, Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit. Also, Pecksniffish.

9. gamp n. British term for a large umbrella; from the character, Mrs. Sarah Gamp, in Martin Chuzzlewit, who invariably carried an umbrella wherever she went.

10. Podsnap n. from Our Mutual Friend, a person having an attitude marked by complacency and the willful ignoring of unpleasant facts.

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