March 3, 2007


tortuous adj. [TOR'- choo-us]
1. Having or marked by repeated turns or bends; winding or twisting: a tortuous road through the mountains.
2. Not straightforward; circuitous; devious.
--The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

1. Not taking a direct or straight line or course: anfractuous, circuitous, circular, devious, indirect, oblique, roundabout.
2. Repeatedly curving in alternate directions: anfractuous, flexuous, meandrous, serpentine, sinuous, snaky, winding.
--Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin.

ATTRIBUTION: President GERALD R. FORD (1913-2007), address to a joint session of Congress, August 12, 1974:
"I once told you that I am not a saint, and I hope never to see the day that I cannot admit having made a mistake. So I will close with another confession. Frequently, along the tortuous road of recent months from this chamber to the President’s House, I protested that I was my own man. Now I realize that I was wrong. I am your man, for it was your carefully weighed confirmation that changed my occupation. The truth is I am the people’s man, for you acted in their name, and I accepted and began my new and solemn trust with a promise to serve all the people and do the best that I can for America."
Public Papers of thePresidents of the United States: Gerald Rudolph Ford (1913– ), 1974, p. 13.
Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989.


"Do you recall that tortuous mountain path that was so torturous to your feet? Although tortuous and torturous both come from the Latin word torquere, “to twist,” their primary meanings are distinct. Tortuous means “twisting,” as in a tortuous road, or by extension “complex” or “devious,” as in tortuous bureaucratic procedures or a tortuous explanation. Torturous [containing a "r" in the second syllable: tortortorous] refers primarily to torture and the pain associated with it."
The American Heritage Book of English Usage. New York:Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

People unaware of the difference between the similar-sounding tortuous and torturous tend to mistake meaning in sentences such as this one:

"Summit Ridge Drive is a short but tortuous road that takes one up, atop, and down Quaker Hill."

The drive on Summit Ridge Drive is not torturous--a test of pain. It is merely tortuous, a sinuous one-mile passage that twists through six turns (including two U's) that direct the traveller to face six points around the compass: SW, W, NE, a U-turn to S, SE, another U-turn to NE, and a final stretch to the North.

I hope this page has not proven to be a torturous read.


March 2, 2007


discomfit: v.t. [dis-COM’-fit]
1a archaic : to defeat in battle
b : to frustrate the plans of : THWART
2 : to put into a state of perplexity and embarrassment : DISCONCERT
--Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary

c.1225, from O.Fr. desconfit, pp. of desconfire "to defeat, destroy," from des- "not" + confire "make, prepare, accomplish." Weaker sense of "disconcert" is first recorded 1530 in Eng., probably by confusion with discomfort (q.v.).
--Online Etymology Dictionary

For many of the words presented in this blog, I can remember with some precision when and where I first encountered a particular word (and had to look it up in dictionary). Discomfit is one of these words. I first learned it in 1962 at St. Mary’s University, during an undergraduate course on Shakespeare taught by Dr. Louie (as we called him) Schuster, S.M., Ph.D., now of happy memory. You’ll find discomfit meaning “to defeat in battle” presented below in a speech by the King in Henry IV, Part 1, a play that has eventually become one of my favorites.

Below that passage is another one from the New York Times Magazine that shows the word used in its modern sense: “to put into a state of perplexity.”

DISCOMFIT IN ITS ARCHAIC SENSE: "to defeat in battle":
In this scene King Henry IV praises the honor, gallantry, and bravery of his enemy’s son, Hotspur, directly in the face of his son, Prince Hal, who, though “like enough” to Hotspurr in age and raw talent, is, in contrast, openly dishonorable and “degenerate” in his behavior.
From Act III. Scene II. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. Craig, W.J., ed. 1914. The Oxford Shakespeare.

King to Prince: Thrice hath this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes,
This infant warrior, in his enterprises 116
Discomfited great Douglas; ta’en him once,
Enlarged him and made a friend of him,
To fill the mouth of deep defiance up
And shake the peace and safety of our throne.

DISCOMFIT IN ITS MODERN SENSE: “to put into a state of perplexity”:
It’s a discomfiting insight: a person’s vote, a hallmark of democracy, may be biased by polling environment. Yet this has nothing to do with dirty politics or foul play. Rather, it’s a fairly basic principle of psychology—the idea that environment cues can trigger ideas and affect our behavior without being conscious of it. If you’re voting in a school, then the part of your brain that values kids and education might be activated, whereas if you vote inside a church, your ideas about spirituality might be invigorated. For some people, it seems, a change in location is enough to change a vote (82).
From The New York Times Magzine, December 10, 2006 / Section 6 “The 6th Annual Year in Ideas,” “Voting Booth Feng Shui by Zdrienne Davich.

With the synonyms EMBARRASS, ABASH, DISCONCERT, and RATTLE available, why use DISCOMFIT?

If you read the distinctions among the SYNONISMS below and reread the definitions above, my sense is that more than a few of you will agree with the following assessment.
In all five of the synonyms a person (1) encounters a challenge and then (2) responds to or retreats from it in some way. Of the five, discomfit brings, in my view, the highest degree of distress in retreat. A discomfited person becomes perplexed—completely baffled, standing stock still, not knowing what to do.

None in coterie of competing terms below shows quite as much debilitation as does perplexity. The closest competitors to perplexed are “impairment of thought” (under RATTLED). I’ll leave it to the reader to agree or disagree with me that perplexity is worse than agitation that impairs thought and judgment

EMBARRASS implies some influence that impedes thought, speech, or action .
DISCOMFIT implies a hampering or frustrating accompanied by confusion .
ABASH presupposes some initial self-confidence that receives a sudden check, producing shyness, shame, or a feeling of inferiority .
DISCONCERT implies an upsetting of equanimity or assurance producing uncertainty or hesitancy .
RATTLE implies an agitation that impairs thought and judgment .
Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary

February 28, 2007


apotheosis: n. [uh-pah-the-O'-sus] (1) Transformation into a god (2) The perfect example.
"After his assassination Abraham Lincoln underwent an apotheosis that transformed the controversial politician into a saintly father of democracy."
The word apotheosis has the prefix apo-, meaning "related to" and the root theo, meaning "god"; thus, it suggests a human who has become godlike. In Greek mythology, very few humans were apotheosized [a-pah-THEE'-uh-sized], but Heracles (Hercules) was one who made the grade, and there are pictures painted on ancient vases showing the big party the rest of the gods held for him when he joined them after his apotheosis.
Any great classic example of something can be called its apotheosis; a collector might state, for example, that the Duesenberg* Phaeton was the apotheosis of the touring car (233).--Cornog, Mary Wood. Merriam-Webster's Vocabulary Builder. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1994.

Duesenberg = doozy. The great American luxury cars of the 1930s were the Pierce Arrow, the Packard, the Cadillac, the Cord, and the Duesenberg--the original doozy. The Duesenberg SJ model roadster had a 320-horsepower engine and could do 130 miles per hour; it was so exquisitely tooled, inside and out, that the diminutive Duesy, later doozy, quickly became a byword (often used sarcastically) for excellence (34).
--Tuleja, Tad. Marvelous Monikers. New York: Harmony Books, 1990.

1605, from L.L. apotheosis, from Gk. apotheosis, from apotheoun "deify, make (someone) a god," from apo- special use of this prefix, meaning, here, "change" + theos "god."--Online Etymology Dictionary
• The word apotheosized has been attached to many historical figures, including Homer, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, and George Washington.
• It has also been applied to cultural epochs such as the Greek Golden Age and the European Renaissance.
• More recently, the word has been
facetiously retooled to fit the likes of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Tom Cruze, and--toweringly--Marylin Monroe and Elvis Presley.



quotidian: adj. [quo-TID'-e-an]
1 : occurring every day [quotidian fever]
2 : belonging to everyday [quotidian routine]
3 : COMMONPLACE, ORDINARY [quotidian drabness]
--Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged. (28 Feb 2007).

1340, "everyday, daily," from L. quotidianus "daily," from L. quotus "how many, which in order or number" + dies "day"--Online Etymological Dictionary http://www.etymonline
.com (
28 Feb. 2007).

"Now, after a four-year process initiated under controversial former president Lawrence Summers, the nation's most famous university [Harvard] has come up with a whole new set of guidelines that proponents say will help clarify how liberal arts subjects like philosophy and art history shed light on the hurly-burly of more quotidian topics"(62-63)--Caplan,Jeremy. "As Harvard Goes," Time magazine, 5 March 2007.

Examples of "quotidian topics" in the new Harvard curriculum, which will not go into effect before Sep. 2009, are aluded to in the curriculum committee's description of a new course titled, Emperical Reasoning, which will cover math, logic, and statistics. "It is being added," the committee report says, "because graduates of Harvard 'will have to decide, for example, what medical treatments to undergo, when a defendant in court has been proven guilty, whether to support a policy proposal, and how to manage their personal finances'" (63).--Caplan.

Shockingly, the school will drop its requirement in history.

That'll make Henry Ford (1863-1947)-- whereever he may be--most happy. Ford's the solon who said "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present [read the quotidian] and the only history that's worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today."--Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1916.


February 27, 2007


self-empretzelment: [em-PRET'-zel-ment] v. or n.
• To cause one's own statements or actions to go against themselves or become entangled, thus causing one's arguments to become ineffective.
• [Taken from pretzel, the twisted pastry (Ger. Brezel), and the prefix em-, denoting the process of making into a pretzel, and used in Time's article "In the Arena" by columnist Joe Klein to describe a contradictory statement in the February 2006 issue.]--

"This is a curious self-empretzelment: How did it come about that when Bush talks about Palestinians he sounds like Ted Kennedy talking about Americans?" Klein, J. (2006). Democracy, the morning after. Time, Feb 6, 2006.

". . . both of these front runners seem slightly dated. McCain has lost more altitude, trailing Rudy Giuliani 29% among Republicans in a CBS poll last week. Clinton maintains her 20-point lead among democrats, but her Iraq empretzelment may be a leading indicator of a stiff, consultant-swarmed campaign that will come across as clanky in 2008. (25)--Klein, Joe. "How the Front Runners Lost Their Edge. Time magazine, March 5, 2007.

Empretzelment strikes me as a neologism that will swiftly enter our general pool of words and soon be cited in our dictionaries.

Why? Because it sports several attractive features:
• an immediately understandable metaphoric base;
• a tag-along visual image (pretzel) to embed in imagination and memory;
• an arch faux-Latin construction (oops: mixing the French with the Latin); and
• a playful sound for the mouth to "pronounciate" (my own neologism-cum-nonce word [the latter defined as a word invented expressly for a particular occasion]).


February 26, 2007


conceit: n. [con-SEET']
1.A favorable and especially unduly high opinion of one's own abilities or worth.

An ingenious or witty turn of phrase or thought.
A fanciful poetic image, especially an elaborate or exaggerated comparison.
A poem or passage consisting of such an image.
4a. The result of intellectual activity; a thought or an opinion.
b. A fanciful thought or idea.
a. A fancy article; a knickknack. b. An extravagant, fanciful, and elaborate construction or structure: “An eccentric addition to the lobby is a life-size wooden horse, a 19th century conceit” (Mimi Sheraton).
--Merriam Webster's International Unabridged Dictionary, Third Edition.

"Outside the Hollywood bubble, however, this conceit--that money and celebrity may be enough to crown The Nominee--can seem like, well, a conceit."--Zernike, Kate. The New York Times, "The Week in Review" (Pt. 4), pp1 & 4, 25 Feb. 2007.

Conceit must surely be a busy word out there in the field of discourse, what with five definitions to serve.

For our purposes, I have partially whited-out four of the definitions above that are not at work in Zernike's sentence.

What Zernike needed (and found) was a noun that refers to an idea that is, to its credit, the result of research and analysis but also somewhat "fanciful, odd, or excentric." Thus if Hollywood in 2008 eventually failed to deliver a winner, Zernike could say that back in February of 2007 she saw merit in the concept but also the possibility that it could turn out to be only a hopeful projection, a fanciful wish, an ungrounded conceit.

Of the five senses of the noun conceit listed above, only one--an overweening sense of oneself; conceitedness"--can take the adjectival form ("conceited"). Example: "Did you see how that conceited hostess lifted her nose at me?"

To communicate the idea that "Zernike is a writer who knows a conceit when she sees one," o
ne would not say "she is a conceited writer". Nor would one refer to her essay as a "conceited essay" if the idea were "the essay points out a conceit about Hollywood and politics."

All one can do when using conceit in the sense of "
a fanciful, odd or extravgant idea" is use the nominal (noun) form, conceit: "Zernike was prescient in February of 2007 to recognize that the idea that Hollywood could deliver a presidential nominee was only an optimistic conceit."



crepitate: v. to make a series of small, sharp, rapidly repeating explosions or sounds, as salt in fire, a snake rattling, to crackle
[kREP'-uh-tate] (L. crepitare to crackle, v. intensive of crepare to crack)
crepiation: [-TAY'-shun] act of cepitating; cracking, a crackling noise
Webster's International Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, 1955.