The Word Laid Bare, Part II
Paul West

Continued from Part I of Paul West’s “The World Laid Bare,” published April 4, 1999.


Amazing indeed: According to Herodotus, the Amazons were a race of female warriors who lived in Scythia, whose queen, Penthesilea, died at the hands of Achilles during the siege of Troy. These dynamic women were reputed to cut off their right breasts so as to draw their bows more easily. The story goes that the Greeks, having the word amazon lying around unused, invented the myth to make use of a (without) and mazos (breast). Another story goes as follows: Rio Santa Maria de la Mar Dulce, discoverer of the River Amazon, had to fight his way from the Andes down to the sea through hordes of savage Scythian-type Indians, women fighting alongside the men. So, not having observed their breasts too closely, he renamed the river after half-bosomed Scythians.


Singhalese had henakandaya which means “lightning stem,” denoting a slender green snake eventually anglicized by a British naturalist, John Ray, who in his A List of Indian Serpents (1693) called it a snake which “crushed the limbs of buffaloes and yoke beasts.” Had he been looking? The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica cites “a very large and terrible snake which often devours the unfortunate traveller alive.” This seems nearer. Make mental note to pore over old Britannicas. In the early nineteenth century, though, a French zoologist Francois Marie Daudin arbitrarily shifted the name anaconda to a huge South American boa we know all too well.


Argument here: Is it from the Old French bayon, meaning “crossbow bolt,” or, more picturesquely, from a French word modeled on Bayonne, a town on the southwest coast of France near Biarritz, where the Basques of the seventeenth century used things called bayonets?


If you have never been marooned on the South African veldt (where veldtschmerz sets in), you may not have needed biltong, whose uncompromising meaning is “buttock-tongue.” Strips of sun-dried meat, from whatever animal, are supposed to taste like ox-tongue, not buttock, although only gastronomes will know. It sounds like euphoric propaganda, proffering a spurious delicacy in the middle of nowhere while the lions and vultures gather. If we can regale ourselves with buttock-tongue, can hippo-truffle and hyena caviar be far behind?


In the age of rap and ghetto-blaster, boycott—leaving severely alone or sending to Conventry (see)—might seem a redundant word. The word appeared in 1880, to characterize a stand of the Irish Land League, created in 1879 by the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt to urge agrarian reform, lowering of rents, and so forth. Those who disagreed with it, it ostracized, one of the first targets being Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832–1897), a British estate manager in County Mayo. In the 1880s, boycott tunneled its way into other languages and remains in current parlance, more popular than the similar send to Coventry. How easily words lose their history, most of all those for which a gap has already appeared; the allusion becomes the act with pragmatic speed, and Captain Boycott’s life reduces itself to a verb. Was this the nineteenth century’s Catch 22?
     Democratic history owes something to the captain, land agent to the Earl of Erne, who raised the rents. Stores would sell him nothing, posses plundered his property, mail, and supplies, and in the end he accepted defeat by fleeing to England. He entered the language with an historic shriek of indignation echoing behind him.

charlie mccarthy

Relegated from proper name to generic prop, this is a phrase for someone under another’s domination while retaining the appearance of autonomy. From the dummy of Edgar Bergen, ventriloquist and comic. Stooge, yes-man, dupe. Automatic, brisk and brittle, the dummy seemed almost bionic in his cooperative pertness. A pseudo-robot?


English dialect, this, meaning a bout or fit of shivering, although in general use in the USA it means temper, to get ruffled. You shiver with anger, but to get one’s dander up seems entirely American, the full phrase occuring nowhere else. Charles A. Davis may be the first to have used it, in Letters of J. Downing, Major, Downingville Militia. Second Brigade (1834): “I went strait to the Gineral, and woke him up, and tell’d him all about it—he was wrathy as thunder—and when he gets his dander up, it’s no joke, I tell you.” Educated speakers use the phrase too. Etymology unknown, as is that of the dand- in dandruff (though the latter part probably means scab).


This misleading word from ballet seems to confront us with a cat (French, chat), but it comes from entrechas, part of the verb entrechasser, to chase in and out. The dancer’s feet cross, and “chase” each other while he/she is in the air, which is not long, though it can seem so when an expert leaper is at work.


Have a garibaldi? Not in honor of the nineteenth-century Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), but to relish the mythos attending this shortbread British cookie, enclosing a layer of currants, ample reason for its being called squashed-fly biscuit or, as the Scots have it, fly’s graveyard. A certain monotony creeps in, as Garibaldi found. General Garibaldi also survives in the loose high-necked blouse fashioned after the red shirts of him and his followers, the vogue among Italian women in the mid-nineteenth century.


Loan-word from Russia without the debt’s ever being called, this is from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (like perestroika, see). It means “publicity,” deriving from glas for voice. It’s Lenin’s word, really, referring to freely circulated information (a huge concept in a police state), but since 1985 this is Russian English for freedom of information acts.


Here is a word that once was declared obsolete, as “now only arch and lit,” by none other than the Oxford English Dictionary, that spotty compendium marred by the doldrum of certain contributors—some give you more than your money’s worth, some hardly at all (try rhesus or mandevilla, that gorgeous tropical flower). That was in 1900, since when grisly has surged back as its old self, firmly echoing its medieval sense (grise) of “to be terrified,” grijzelijk in Dutch. Grisly and the Old English grislic are full of shudder and tremble: pungent, percussive, and stark.


Derisive form of address, aimed at a savvy white male, usually by a black, the invoked personage Sherlock Holmes, epitome of book-smarts and privileged hauteur. I don’t know if Holmes, rather than Descartes or Einstein, quite qualifies as the bête noir of the unlettered, the poor, the disenfranchised, but I take his use in this manner to be social rather than intellectual. He is the type of the savant who “comes it,” relevant even if the offender happens to be only slightly uppity. Not even Simenon’s Maigret comes close in this regard.


It goes back to an Indo-European form g(e)neu or goneu signifying “angle,” origin of French genou, Italian ginocchio, and English genuine. Perhaps it relates to the Greek gonia, “angle,” from which we get polygon, having many angles. Going into German, it turned into knewam, yielding German and Dutch knie, Swedish kna, Danish knoe. The verb kneel existed before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain. Knuckle, another angle, borrowed from Low German, firms up a pattern broken only by ankle and wrist.

Load line

The depth to which a ship will sink in salt water when loaded. A design, painted on either side of the vessel, serves as a guide to safe loading depth. British equivalent, the Plimsoll Line (See).


Popular acronym for Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes, established in 1921 to provide canteens for servicemen and extending their activities into shops and recreational facilities wherever soldiers, sailors, and airmen are sent in the world. An equally popular bit of doggerel suggests a less than immaculate view of the Naafi and its doings:

The Naafi is a sort of caafi
Where soldiers are rude
About the food.

Pronounced Naffy or Narfy.


Persian for “leg-garment,” from pae (leg) and jama (clothing), pajama means leg-garment (compare Hindi paejama). These are the loose baggy trousers of the harem, desirable sleeping garments to Europeans, in Europe adding a jacket for warmth or decorum. English spelling pyjama. An eighteenth-century word.


Along with glasnost (see), the loan-word from Russian is as good a way to learn that language as any (unless you read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, loaded with Russian words easily acquired). Perestroika, gift of Mikhail Gorbachev in the middle 1980s, means “rebuilding, reconstruction, reform,” a compound word formed from pere (re) and stroika, “building, construction.” Clearly we don not have a single word for this, although in some ways Roosevelt’s New Deal prefigured its intentions. Gorbachev’s resolute changes in Soviet society merited a word with a speeding troika in it. Is it still said in the English-speaking countries or has it waned? It can still be heard in Paris.


Praehendere in Latin, meaning to seize, gave us comprehend, apprehend, prehensile, and prison; praehensio, “seizure,” contracted to prensio, which went into Old French as prisun. It is a twelfth-century word, the word for imprisonment, rapidly becoming the physical installation. Of the incarcerating words, it is the most honest, unlike the deceitfully obscurantist “correctional facility” and “penitentiary” as well as “reformatory.” Prison’s only intention, it seems, is to hold on to the person seized, not to submit him/her to some improving process.


Latin purus gives us this, close to Sanskrit putas, “purified.” Latin purificare gave us purify, and purare meaning “make pure,” gave French its purer and purée. Our “purge” comes from the same root. This is a thirteenth-century word unrelated to the similar-seeming word for fire (Greek, pur).


Sounds like a fugitive character from The Turn of the Screw, but it”s a Norfolk punting pole with a special attachment that keeps it from sinking into and sticking in mud. Many punters have left their pole behind them, but not many Norfolk bargement recently.


Since the word quibus, dative and ablative plural of Latin qui (who, what), showed up so often in legal papers, wags devised this retaliation, using an old word quib that meant pun. Quibble evokes all the petty juridicisms of law.


Favored by lawyers, this word means edit or “drive back” (re: back + agere: drive). Either way it means get something ready for publication. Perhaps lawyers like redact because it sounds more forceful than edit, as if they are doing something to the text it won’t recover from. The first editor who uses redact will have to have a quintupled salary.


Named for General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), British artillery officer who, during the Peninsular War, invented an exploding shell that hurled lead balls in every direction. When all that metal was flying about, it was safer to have a name for it. The shell exploded in the air, above opposing troops. Later, the term for fragments from any exploding shell.


Snitches tell. They are “informers” going back to the 1800s, and they also (later, in the 1920s) steal and pilfer. Snitch is a synonym for nose, so that meaning seems paramount, even in the films noirs of our day.


In the age of the Virago Press, it seems almost beside the point to recall the medieval mystery plays in which someone enacted the role of an obscure Muslim deity called Tervagant. This personification of evil, violence and general bad behavior met the Christian passion for a scapegoat of Semitic origin. But they slurred their pronunciation, and the word, heaven help her, eventually became that for a spiteful, shrewish woman (sometimes spelled with an -ent). Why termagant or Termagent? Try triple wandering, as the moon journeys to earth, heaven, and hell (tri-vagari, as in vagabond and vagrant, vagary and vague. We cannot be certain. If the saracens could caricature a sitting Christ as a king enthroned (see marzipan, then Christians could surely concoct a spurious Mohammedian deity to prove the devil a foreigner. But why, ultimately, stick woman with a bad reputation? Did a woman play the role?


To talk it used to mean being agreeable and pleasant, but talking turkey changed to frankly, tough, no nonsense until we at last got cold turkey, meaning the unadorned truth. In the related expression quitting cold turkey, is there a suspicion of gooseflesh or goosebumps, which occurs when someone is attempting a feat of chilling demands? Drug withdrawal, ghost-inspired terror, bumps in the night, all make the skin bristle and the short hairs erect themselves. The American turkey, so-called, reminded early settlers of the guinea fowl of Turkey, for which they named it, one of the first being Captain John Smith in 1607.


The national flag of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which combines the banner of St. Patrick with the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. The word comes from the jack of a ship, a flag flown at the ship’s bow since the seventeenth century, other than the ensign that designates the ship’s status as merchant or military. The jack denotes a ship’s nationality.


The so called “strange” gas, xenon, named in 1898 by its discoverer, the British chemist Sir William Ramsay, bears the Greek word for strange possibly related to English guest, hospital, host, and certainly part of our own word xenophobia—fear of the strange, i.e. foreigners. Etymologically, xenon belongs with paraffin, the substance that has nothing it common with any other (see).


The imaginary belt of animals supposed by the ancients, and some moderns, to encircle the celestial sphere. The Greek phrase for it is zoidiakos kuklos, “circle of carved figures,” of which the first word, originally an adjective “carved-figurelike,” became a noun and came into English by way of Latin zodiacus and French zodiaque. In recent years, even serious astronomers who debunk astrology, which makes thorough use of the twelve zodiacal signs, has lent some credence to these signs as useful categories in personality-typing.