Posts Tagged uncommon words

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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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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gonfalonI thought I would try something different.  Each day this week, I will be posting a Watchword of the Day that pertains to a selected subject.  This week’s subject is flags. In future weeks, I would like to post words that pertain to subjects that you, the reader, request.  So that’s an open invitation for you to make your requests – first come, first served.  It can be anything at all, such as “words relating to horse colors,” or “words ending in ‘ism’,” or “old Hebraic measurement words.” The more arcane, the better.  I’ll see what I can come up with.

gonfalon n. a flag or banner hung from a horizontal bar, often accompanied by streamers and tails.

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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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