Saturday, May 19, 2007


Technically, this is a phrase, which has been misspelled as a single word for the benefit of English, and a foreign word (phrase), and therefore, excluded from discussion, but I'll make a a brief exception because it is French.

Nonpareil comes from the Latin "non" (not) and "par" (equal). Literally, not equal, but figuratively, for unequaled or without equal. Old French kept the "non" and used a diminutive "pareil" for equal, so the etymology to usage is still direct, as is the current spelling.

Which leaves us with usage, and here I will digress, since I think the appropriate usage would be to keep it as two French words "non pareil" and write it in italics to indicate the deliberate usage of a foreign language. This phrase is French, and should stay that way. She hopes that her theory will be non pareil when presented to the Court. Equally, she strives that her musicianship and preparation for rehearsals will be non pareil, and set the standard for other chorus members. Of course, if you insist, just take out the space and lose the italics and see if it doesn't look like a typo...

Moil v. Toil

From the past two weeks while I was "otherwise occupied" with work and recuperating, I have such a backlog of DD words, that I think I can keep up the French trend for some time.

Moil derives from the Latin "mollis" for "soft" as related to "mollia (panis)" for "the soft part (of bread)", through Old French "moillier" for "to soften as from having been made wet" and eventually to Middle English "moillen" for "to soak or make wet" which of course led to manual labor because why else would anyone c. 1400 get wet other than toiling in the mire??? And that's the definition that we are left with--toiling, drudgery and hard work, and some latent description of the churning water as from the labor in the mire. Ironically, this word has no relationship to turmoil, which derives from some mill activity.

Now, compare toil, which derives from the Latin "tudiculare" for "to stir up or beat" as from a machine which crushed olives, through the French "toiler" for "to contend". It is hard to see how "crushing" becomes "contending", but ultimately, in Middle English c. 1250-1300, the word came to mean just hard and continuous labor. Maybe they were just contending against the daily grind. :-)

So, how does moil differ from toil, other than the initial consonant? Well, since moil derives from water, there is still the residual implication of churning in the work, while toil is has the residual crushing. Therefore, the busy receptionist's attention diverted by walk-ins, phone calls and doctor requests added to the moil which was her work environment, while the incessant HMO paperwork only added to her toil. The first is a flurry of activity like a whirlwind, while the second is the crushing blow. Daily teacher's toil away under adverse circumstances of dwindling resources, striving to keep each classroom from creating a moil. I like the first usage, but the second becomes a bit vague. Children after eating too many sweets are a moil of restless energy? Better, but still a little opaque. Depression moils in a downward spiral unless checked. eh. Basically, I don't like this word, even if it does have a French etymology. It's a bit useless and obscure. I'll keep working at it. See if I can make it work for me without too much moil--or toil.


Still working through my French words, although this one has a more circuitous evolution.

Pastiche comes from the French "pastiche" meaning "a medley" from the Italian "pasticcio" for both "a medley" and "a pastry cake" as derived from the Latin "pasta" for "paste" and "pastry cake", which took the word "pasta" from the Greek for "porridge or barley". There was a great joke about flour and water makes paste, but add eggs and sugar and you get cake--what happened to the paste? Well, this word evokes the joke. From the paste we get the pastry and then the imitation of the paste and/or the pastry from different pieces, and then just the disparate pieces in imitation of anything. It is certainly an eccentric derivation, but not without a rational thread, even if the evolution is due to lazy usage. What happened between the Latin and the Italian that the word came to mean a medley and not just a food? Was it something having to do with the combination of disparate ingredients of flour and egg to make the pasta that inadvertently came to be a cake and the medley of ingredient to make the cake? It's plausible, but still a little weak. However, as the Italian was arguably coined c. 1750, it is not improbable as the form of the pastry as a sweet was beginning to emerge.

A tart is a conduit for a pastiche of seasonal fruits. I especially love it when the literal the figurative merge. A quilt was originally a pastiche for remnant fabrics. P.D.Q. Bach employs a pastiche of elementary tunes from chop stix to childish taunts in his works. Statutes are a mere pastiche of unedited legal language from countless amendments. Since pastiche carries an element of creativity to the integration of disparate elements, it is typically used with artistic forms (music, cooking, writing). Therefore, although a homeless person's wardrobe may be a pastiche of charitable donations representing various decades of fashion, this may be a bit extreme. The decor of her home represented a pastiche of family heirlooms and curios collected from a myriad of exotic trips. Better. A mutt is not a pastiche of a its genealogy since it has no choice in the artistic make up, but a new breed may be so bred. Since pastiche is inherently artistic, there is an element that the creativity should be deliberate, and not merely by chance. The combination and/or imitation is intentional, and not a mistake in a new recipe or an inadvertent copyright infringement. Plaintiff's counsel's brief read like a pastiche of prior briefs for other clients, including the inadvertent typo of leaving in the other client's name, and therefore, carried no real persuasive effect.


I'm on a French kick at the moment, being a latent Francophile, and this is yet another word of French origin that finally tickled my French fancy.

Denouement--of course it would be French with all those vowels in rapid succession, and the correct pronounciation dropping the final "nt" in favor of the nasal "e"--comes from the French "dénouer" for to untie from the Latin "de" meaning the negative of the following word and "nodare" for "to tie in a knot." So literally, the word means to untie the knot, and figuratively, that has been applied to the resolution of the complex elements of an event or the plot of a literary or dramatic work. Did dénouer in 1752 when the word was coined ever just mean picking at one's bootlaces? Possibly, but it does seem equally appropriate to unraveling the threads of the story lines of a novel, and then by easy extension, to unraveling any complicated issue. So, no major detours in the evolution and current usage of this word.

The denouement of any fairy tale is the wedding between the hero and the damsel with the coda "and they lived happily ever after". Perhaps fairy tales aren't complicated, but you get the point. A typical film follows a 3 act formula with a quick denouement in the last reel; however, the movie AI: Artifical Intelligence, had a 3 act denouement which was painful to watch not only for the additional length but also for the lack of understanding of when the picture would actually end. The denouement of an argument between friends should lead to reconciliation and apologies. Plaintiff's counsel enjoyed the sound of his own voice so much that he failed to present a proper denouement in his closing argument that the jury could understand what the point of his speech was. Isn't the graduation ceremony merely a denouement of four years in college? This word isn't hard to use in everyday life. Any time an activity is winding down, this word is appropriate. There is an overtone of resolution of a complicated issue, the idea being that the events have been building to a climax which is resolved. If there is no building, though, there may be little to resolve, and therefore no real denouement. Conversely, a denouement which leads to a cliffhanger may be unsatisfying as not really resolving anything. So using denouement outside of normally complicated resolutions gives that import to the thing, for effect or for sarcasm. The denouement of the work day is packing up to go home. Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but that depends on how intricate one's work is and how difficult it may be to extricate oneself at the end of the day. The denouement of bankruptcy usually ends in a fire sale of assets. So many opportunities. So little time. The denouement of many entries in this forum involves a usage impugning plaintiffs' counsel. Enjoy.


Love this word! I use it regularly, and never hear it enough. Whenever I do hear it used (not by me), it always makes me smile.

Penchant comes from the French "pencher" for bend or incline from the Latin "pendere" for "to hang or weigh" as devolved through the Latin "pendicare" for "to lean". So as the pendulum or pendant (both of the same origin) hangs and perhaps sways in a direction, perhaps from a perceived imbalance, a movement whether deliberate or by the earth's rotation or magnetism, or an architectural anomaly, the bob appears to "incline" towards something. Of course, like all good words related to the movement of objects, it was immediately applied to people where it stuck and the object origin was abandoned. Thus, penchant not only means the emotional inclination toward a person or idea, but a strong such inclination, as if the original "inclining" were due solely to magnetism causing an unnatural attraction of the pendant to the other object.

She has a penchant for exploring new blog sites. His penchant for forensic accounting made him a formidable business executive. Her cat's penchant for moist cat treats was guaranteed to bring the pet out of hiding just from rusting the bag. As an initial note, penchant is nearly always used with the preposition "for", which makes this practically a phrase, and it can be used with any sentient creature which could have a preferential liking of something without issue. Now, the old IBM 386's had a penchant for crashing just before the user tried to save. Possibly, if you think outdated computers like to foil user's reasonable efforts, and give such intent to the computer. Derelict buildings have a penchant for drawing crime. Probably not, even if one were being sarcastic. There's just nothing cognitive about a building that it could even be remotely analogized to a person. Vague political theories have a penchant for being bandied about by the uninformed. Again probably not, because the theories are not the ones with the liking that is causing anything. Politicians have a penchant for bandying about vague political theories. Correct. And of course, she has a keen penchant for picking on plaintiffs' counsel.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


I normally would have given this word a miss, but the DD etymology got me so riled, I had to address it.

Pantheon derives from the Greek (finally! not another Latin origin) "pan" for "all" and "theos" for "god", so pantheon literally means "all the gods". There is nothing about a structure, despite what DD says. The Greek system of worshiping the gods was not restricted to a single building, but was a way of life which was embodied in all activities, much like many modern day religions which are not merely restricted to Sunday or Saturday services. To speak of the Pantheon then with a capital P was not referring to a temple, but to the Twelve Olympian, which represented the important gods, and the other gods were facets under these twelve (See e.g., Hermes, Hermes Argeiphontes, Hermes Cthonious (overlapping with Charon), Hermes Cyllenius, Hermes Trimegistis, Hermes Psychopompos (overlapping with Somnus, and his son Morpheus)). Gods not associated directly or indirectly with the Olympians were prior ancient deities being phased out as having been defeated by the Olympians (Titans and their "monstrous" progeny), deities in contravention to the Olympians for point of conflict (literally, Eris), and the vague deities of nature (e.g., Gaia, Eos, Nyx). So, to speak of the Pantheon is to speak of the twelve greatest gods of ancient Greece, and possibly the twelve greatest Roman gods as the same were subverted entirely into their religion. There was no single building in ancient Greece where all twelve were worshiped; that only exists in Rome, which makes it ironic that the idea of a structure is a Roman construct onto a Greek idea, literally and figuratively. Since there was no such building until Roman times, but the word is solely of Greek origin, it is clear that there was no intention of a building until the Romans took over the "Pantheon" from the Greeks. Therefore, being a purist, I would never use this word to describe a building except for the sole named building in Italy. Ok, stepping off my soap box now.

Quickly, then in practice, it should refer to a small group of the best of a category. Nobel prize winners represent the pantheon of academic scholars. Senior partners meet as a pantheon of legal minds. The special publication of the pantheon of papers was widely regarded as a "must have" for every library. The seven wonders of the ancient world are a pantheon of the greatest structures ever built. Works with people, places, things, ideas, basically anything that has a "best" which is everything. I'll leave you to your own sarcasm about creating a pantheon of things which are less than the best, but you know mine would start with Plaintiff's counsel.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Credulous v. Credible

My gut tells me that these are words frequently misused, so it's time I set myself straight, and DD has prompted me to do so.

Credulous comes from the Latin "credere" for "to believe", therefore, credulous means "believing easily", so it refers to the perception of a person and not the quality of the thing or intangible. Young children lose their credulous nature as they are exposed to the realities of the world around them. Naivete is merely credulousness in adults. Credulous clients allow Plaintiff's counsel's to convince them about the ongoing merits of their case, even in the face of negative court rulings. But not, the credulous witness or evidence was not believed by the jury. The correct word there is credible, which also comes from the Latin "credere". So the difference here is the suffix. "ous" means "possessing or being full of" the noun while "ible" means "susceptible of or capable of being" of that verb. The part of speech is largely irrelevant and only becomes an issue due to the switched perspective. Therefore, credulous correctly means "possessing or being full of belief" and credible means "capable of being believed". See various v. variable. Credible, therefore, can be used not just with people, but also with tangibles and intangibles, since the quality of capable of being believed is latent in the tangible or intangible until it is acknowledged by the potential believer. One who is credulous may believe too quickly that which appears tacitly credible. Fill in your own subjects; mine are Plaintiff's counsel and their own arguments.

Supplant v. Usurp

Both sublime words, not used nearly enough.

Supplant comes from the Latin "sub" for "under" and "planta" for "the sole of the foot". Therefore, literally it means "under foot", but poetically, as we have seen from other Latin derivations, the preposition comes after the verb, so it means to put one's foot under another, and thereby thrown that person down by tripping them. I suppose you would only want to trip someone who was under foot. From "tripping" someone, it is only a moderate stretch through "to displace or substitute" to "to take by force". After all, as we remember from grade school, when we "trip" someone, it is usually intentionally.

My cat regularly supplants my need for sleep with her need for affection. Someday alternative energy will supplant our reliance on fossil fuels. Plaintiff's counsel's client's whining supplanted his good sense not to take the case. Since supplant involves an issue of perception about the tripping or substitution, it works with tangibles and intangibles.

Now, the real fun is how it differs from usurp. Usurp comes from the Latin "usus" for "a use" and "rapere" for "to seize", and therefore means "seize for use". Usurp, by the etymology of "to seize", is more violent than supplant which was just tripping, and therefore, usurp has the connotation of being "without right" while supplant is just accidental or negligent. So, the uncle usurped the throne from his brother. Standard usage. Or building the fence 1" onto his neighbor's property, which position was not noticed for 20 years, allowed him to usurp the land through adverse possession. Perhaps a little less standard, but still correct. Having swapped urine samples, he usurped his competitor's place on the team. Ok, enough of standard usage. If we talk business, the release of the new Microsoft OS was intended to usurp Apple's dominance in the market. While not technically an issue of "without right", it gives the spectre of being underhanded or dirty as if it were "without right" from not being fair. The water cooler gossip of her affair which led to her promotion usurped her authority. Eh. Perhaps undermined would be better here, but it is possible that the gossip did replace her authority, and not merely countermand it. The water cooler gossip of her affair usurped the good reputation she had developed for her charitable work. Better, but still not quite right. It is violent enough in that the gossip is invidious, but the element being taken still doesn't appear to lend itself to such seizure. Plaintiff's counsel's client's whining usurped his good sense not to take the case. Hmmm. If he were weak-willed that his client could seize control of his good sense, maybe. Ok, well, basically, taking usurp to an expanded usage, it needs to have the appearance of being "without right" or raised to the level of appearing to be "without right" and the element being taken needs to be susceptible to being taken. She would never usurp someone else's idea or work and pass it off as her own, although she was often jokingly accused of having read everyone's mind.

We endeavor not to supplant our own word meanings, and thereby, not to usurp correct usage.