Oubliette

October 21, 2009

An oubliette is a secret dungeon with only an opening in the ceiling.  It was for the prisoners that the state wanted to put away permanently where they could be “forgotten.”  That is were the name comes from; oubliette is French for “forgotten place.”

One of my favorite Flickr photographers remembered this word to me with her photo that could be found here.  Thank you Sarah Schloo for the reference.

Her photograph, made from a photo from Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (not an oubliette), made me think of the word as a figurative expression.  In all of us, there is a forgotten place.  It is where we  put away the thinks we have done that cannot be reconciled, the people we have hurt and the mistakes we have made.  It is the Struwwelpeter, who lies under the floorboards.  There is, it seems, an oubliette to the soul.


Zoetrope

October 20, 2009

I’m back from vacation and refreshed.

Today’s word is a 19th-century toy consisting of a cylinder with a series of pictures of an object in motion on the inside.  The cylinder is lined with slits and spun so that when you peak through, the images form a stop motion video.  Here is a diagram of a zoetrope.  Here is a D.J. mix featuring some zoetrope action.


Vacation, all I ever wanted…

October 13, 2009

After taking yesterday off for Columbus Day and treating a sick wife while working, I am taking the week off from blogging.  I’ll return next Monday.  Please, my few faithful readers, come back.


Snack

October 9, 2009

I picked up my daughter from daycare and found a note in her cubby asking us to cut her carrots into smaller pieces if we were going to send them as a snack.  Coincidentally, the note was written on the back of a tear-off word-of-the-day calendar, and the word for that day was snack.

A snack as a morsel of food (or to eat such a morsel), it turns out, is only one of the many meanings for the word.  Its more common meaning was the snap or bite of a dog (possibly a form of onomatopoeia).  This lead to the meaning as we know it (imagine a dog chomping away on a found morsel).  It could also be used as a snarky comment, from the same derivation.

Amazingly, there were several other definitions in the O.E.D. A snack is also a type of ship as well as a dried fungus that could be used as kindling.  It can also be used as an adverb or adjective: “There is no need to be snack and nasty about it” or “She answered me chastly an snack.”

I can never look at the word the same way again.


Corvine

October 8, 2009

One of my favorite words from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America.  Prior, the antagonist, after he has been visited by an angel, is described as corvine in appearance, that is, crow-like.

Adjectives used to describe animal-like appearances or behaviors are wonderfully useful and sound far more poetic than saying, let’s say, crow-like.  Aside from corvine, here is a shortlist of the names I have come across:

bovine (cow), feline (cat), canine (dog), ovine (sheep), porcine (pig), lupine (wolf), murine (mouse), equine (horse), leporine (rabbit), vulpine (fox), ursine (bear), taurine (bull), cervine (deer), elapine (viper), caprine (goat), ranine (frog), vespine (wasp), anserine (goose).

The last of which I only came across because a high school coach referred to the gait of a friend of mine as anserine.  Amazing, the high school I went to when the coaches are using words like anserine.

If there are others that you know of, please leave a comment here.


Perspicacious

October 7, 2009

I came across this word in an article by Faiz Ahmed in the Monthly Review from August.  He refers to the Caribbean states having developed a perspicacious outlook by joining ALBA.  It is a formal word for someone having a perceptive insight and understanding of things.  It comes from the Latin word for “seeing clearly,” perspicax.


Lexiconical Gap

October 6, 2009

Another phrase from the Frenemy episode of NPR’s This American Life.  A lexiconical gap is the name given to an absence of a necessary word in a language.  Linguistics suggests that if two words ever become fully synonymous, both in their literal and semantic meetings, one word will disappear.  It is a free marketplace of ideas philosophy.  However, the inverse doesn’t seem to be true.  Just because a word is needed, doesn’t mean it will appear.

The best example offered is that in our English we have a word for a child who lost his parents (an orphan), a woman who lost her spouse (a widow), but we have no word for a parent who lost a child.  This is a lexiconical gap.