Drapetomania

August 31, 2009

Drapetomania was a pseudo-scientific mental illness first proposed by U.S. physician Samual Cartwright in 1851. Cartwright wrote of the illness in his book Diseases and Pecularities of the Negro Race. Drapetomania was an illness that affected slaves and caused them to run away from their masters. Drapetes, is the Greek word for runaway slaves.

Thanks to NPR’s This American Life as the source for much of this information.

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Tergiversate

August 28, 2009

I will be the  first to admit that Woody Allen is just not that funny any more.  The only movies he has made recently worth their wait has been his thrillers.  2003’s Anything Else was no exception to his recent slide; Jason Biggs made a poor Woody Allen protagonist, and Christina Ricci just seemed to be trying too hard.  Woody Allen’s character, David Dobel, was the closest thing to making the movie worthwhile.  Dobel is a paranoid old man with an absurd vocabulary.  One of the DVD extras to the movie is a dictionary of words Dobel used throughout the film.

The best of this crew: Tergiversate.  Dobel warns Bigg’s character, “Once you tergiverstate, you’re lost.”  The word means to change one’s loyalties or to make conflicting statements (O.A.D.).


Dhow

August 27, 2009

A ship often used in the Indian ocean using lateen (or triangular) sails.  They were most commonly used by Arabic traders.  A picture of one can be found here.


Lèse Majesté

August 26, 2009

A phrase I can never remember no matter how often I come across it. It means the insulting of a monarch (O.A.D.). It comes from the Latin for “injured sovereignity.”


Flexidoxy

August 25, 2009

I came across this invented word reading David Brook’s Bobos in Paradise.  He credits the phrase to a Rabbi Gershon Winkler who presides over the only Jewish congregation in Missoula, Montana.  When you are the only rabbi in the entire city, you have to incorporate all of the different ideas under one tent.  There is no Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, only Flexidoxy.

Brooks defines Flexidoxy (a wonderfully rare word that has two x’s) as the hybrid mixture of freedom with the rigor of orthodoxy.  He uses this word to reflect the spiritual life of the new American elites, the bobos.  They long for a spiritual structure, but they are careful not to make that structure so rigid as to constrain them or their liberal sensibilities.  Hense we have a new religious revivalism that is careful not to criticize or condemn the non-believers.


Prague Spring

August 24, 2009

I came across this phrase while looking up the term Prague Summer, a phrase used in Jeffery Toobin’s The Nine.  The Prague Spring, according to Wikipedia, was “a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War I.”  In January 1968, with the rise of power of Alexander Dubček, Czechoslovakia began a period of reform to decentralize the economy and grant democratic rights.  By August, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members invaded the country and put an end to the reforms.

Toobin used his version of the phrase to refer to the politcal liberization of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Kennedy,after spending a summer abroad working with international courts, returned the SCOTUS with a much greater leftward shift.


Palliative

August 21, 2009

This word comes from yesterday’s New York Times in an article by the journalist Anemona Hartocollis about palliative care.  Palliative, according to the O.A.D., means releaving pain without addressing the underlying causes. Palliative care, often known by its uglier, blunter name end-of-life care has become one of the foci of the recent health care debate.  An early provision for it started unfounded rumors, spread among others by former politican Sarah Palin, of “death panels.”  In actuallity, it is merely the process of living out one’s life comfortably and free from pain.

The word finds an interesting origin from the latin verd palliare, which means “to cloak.”  Literally, one is cloaking the illness by relieving the pain.