Saturday, January 31, 2009


nihilism [ˈnī-(h)ə-ˌli-zəm, ˈnē-]
n. 1. a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless; a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths; total rejection of established laws and institutions; belief in nothing; 2. the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.

[Etymology: German Nihilismus, from Latin nihil nothing]

In the sense that a nihilist "believes in nothing," I doubt any thinking human being has ever been or ever will be one. A person might disavow ("refuse to accept; reject as unjust") established laws and institutions, but only because he believes that there is something better. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, rejected modern institutions and used assasination and terrorism to affect them. He didn't mail pipe bombs to scientists because he believed in nothing. He wanted to annihilate ("reduce to nothing; destroy utterly") technology, because he believed scientific progress was destroying the planet.

A person who believes all forms of government are oppressive and that human beings would get along better living in a state of nature could be a nihilist, in the sense he rejects established laws and institutions. But if that's his endgame, he's more of an anarchist. From my point of view, anarchists, though they do have a cool symbol, are idiots. Take a look at countries like Somalia, where government completely collapsed. Life became much worse under anarchy. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote in Leviathan, life in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In Federalist 51, James Madison made clear his belief that human beings, left to their own devices, are not selfless enough to permit anarchy: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Christian fundamentalist often characterize the irreligious as nihilists or believers in nothing. They evangelize ("preach the gospel") that if there were no God and no afterlife, that life on Earth would mean nothing and that there would be no reason to behave morally. Because they believe God is watching over them (and everyone else), and that He will reward those who behave in the manner He has prescribed (according to their scripture), they believe they must accept God and behave morally and that the meaning of life on Earth is wrapped up in the hope for an eternal life in Heaven. From that perspective, all truth and morality flows from acceptance of their God; and thus rejection of their God is belief in nothing and amoral ("having no moral restraints or principles"). Of course, atheists (and followers of non-Christian religions) don't believe in nothing. Atheists (generally) believe in the scientific explanation of life on Earth and see themselves and all creatures as a part of an evolving planet. Like Christians, they may or may not behave morally. While their moral compass won't be based on religious dogma ("a system of tenets and principles, as of a church"), their moral actions follow a similar pattern of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. An atheist doesn't behave morally in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. Rather, he is kind to others because it feels good to him and because he knows over time that other people will tend to be kind to him in return. The meaning of life on Earth to an atheist is sui generis ("unique") to the individual. Because he does not believe in Heaven, he might believe it more important to make the most out of every day he has. His "afterlife" might be seen in the good works he accomplishes and in the people he affects who live on after him and go on to affect even more people.

Outside of philosophical discussions, the word nihilism isn't commonly used. However, its relative, annihilate, is an everyday word, in reference to actual wars or to sports metaphors for wars. For example, this headline about a recent NBA basketball game read, "Magic annihilate Kings with league-record 23 treys." During the recent war between Palestinians and Israelis in the Gaza Strip, the Arab and far left media portrayed Israel's aim as an annihilation of the Palestinians. Counterpunch: "... the Israeli government's heavily trained and armed military continues its march of death and destruction. ... then there will be a siege to weaken the enemy garrison; then the assault that conquers the position and annihilates the enemy ... And the enemy garrison that they want to weaken with the siege that is spread out all over Gaza is the Palestinian population that lives there. And the assault will seek to annihilate that population." By contrast, Melanie Phillips, writing in the British newspaper, The Spectator, claims enemies of Israel casually call for the annihilation of the Jewish State: "I am standing in a queue waiting to buy a train ticket from London to Canterbury. A well-dressed lady standing behind me informs her friend that she ‘can’t wait till Israel disappears off the face of the earth.’ What struck me was not her intense hostility to Israel but the mild-mannered, matter-of-fact tone with which she announced her wish for the annihilation of a nation."

Friday, January 30, 2009


termagant [ˈtər-mə-gənt]
n. 1. a violent, turbulent or brawling woman; 2. (cap.) a deity erroneously ascribed to Islam by medieval European Christians and represented in early English drama as a violent character; a mythical deity popularly believed in the Middle Ages to be worshipped by the Muslims and introduced into the morality play as a violent, overbearing personage in long robes; 3. (adj.) violent, turbulent, brawling, shrewish.

[Origin: from French name given to mythical Muslim god: Termagaunt]

Although it too is not in common usage today, shrew ("a woman of violent temper and speech") is better known than its near synonym, termagant. Both words are familiar to readers of Shakespeare.

Near the end of Part One of Henry IV (Act V, Scene IV), Falstaff (a jolly, fat and unscrupulous knight) bellows, "Embowelled! if thou embowel me to-day, I'll give you leave to powder me and eat me too to-morrow. 'Sblood,'twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too."

The termagant Scot that Falstaff is referring to is a man, Archibald, the 4th Earl of Douglas. So why did termagant come to mean an aggressive or violent woman? Because in morality plays of the Middle Ages, the stock Termagant character was always depicted in long, flowing feminine gowns. English audiences got the idea that the Termagant character, though portrayed by male actors, was female. As a result, termagant came to mean a shrewish woman who was a common scold ("a woman who scolds with loud and abusive speech").

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act III, Scene II), Hamlet speaks the word in its capitalized sense, as a (mythical and supremely violent) Muslim deity: "O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the cars of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipp'd for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it."

For reference, periwig-pated means he was wearing a powdered wig on his head of the sort that were fashionable starting in the time of Shakespeare (early 1600s) and ending in the age of George Washington, when they went out of style. Groundlings were members of the audience who sat in the cheap seats. And Herod, viewed from the Christian perspective, was an evil king of Judea who, according to Matthew 2:16-18, ordered the killing of all male children two years old and younger in the village of Bethlehem, in order to prevent losing his throne to a newborn King of the Jews (Jesus of Nazareth), whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. (Of course, this story in Matthew is entirely fictional.)

Insofar as we disparage a woman of loud and violent temperament today, we refer to her as a bitch ("female dog"). Alanis Morisette sings, "I'm a bitch, I'm a lover, I'm a child, I'm a mother;" Snoop Dogg raps, "So all my bitches and my niggaz and my niggaz and my bitches, Wave your motherfuckin hands in the air;" and Eminem croons, "Bitch, please - you must have a mental disease, Assume the position and get back down on your knees." That much bitching gets old. Might I suggest to contemporary performers that they occasionally substitute shrew or termagant for bitch?

Thursday, January 29, 2009


risible [ˈri-zə-bəl]
adj. 1. capable of laughing; disposed to laugh; 2. arousing or provoking laughter; laughable; 3. associated with, relating to, or used in laughter

[Late Latin risibilis, from Latin risus, past participle of ridēre to laugh: 1557]

Risible is an excellent word that is not in common usage. I don't know why. Most people are risible. That is, they love to laugh. The only other English word I know directly related to risible is its noun form, risibility ("the ability or disposition to laugh; humorous awareness of the ridiculous and absurd").

Risible is not related to rise ("to get up from a lying, sitting, or kneeling posture"). When someone gets a rise out of you, he's not making you laugh. Rather, he's provoking anger or irritation.

I once had a roommate who was inordinately risible. He laughed all the time. He wasn't crazy. He was joyous ("experiencing, causing, or showing joy"). It was fun to watch a sitcom with him, because he laughed out loud at every opportunity. His laughter was infectious. I was happier around him. Sophisticates ("people who have a refined knowledge of the ways of the world cultivated especially through wide experience") scoff at television shows that employ a laugh track or a live audience that laughs at every joke, funny or not. I don't share that prejudice. All else held equal, a TV comedy is better to watch when you have others laughing along with you. Of course, if the show is not funny, canned laughter won't change that. But a laugh track will make watching a funny show more pleasurable.

Before the last of laugh -- its etymology is traced back to an onomatopoeic origin in Sanskrit, kakhati, but made it to English, 1557, by way of Anglian hlæhhan, earlier hlihhan, from Germanic klakhjanan -- there a number of good synonyms or near-synonyms to list: cacchination ("rauccous laughter"); cackle ("a loud laugh suggestive of a hen's cackle"); chortle ("a snorting, joyful laugh or chuckle"); chuckle ("to laugh quietly or to oneself"); gale ("a state of excitement, passion, or hilarity brought on by laughter); giggle ("to laugh with repeated short, spasmodic sounds"); guffaw ("a coarse laughter"); howl ("a loud, scornful laugh or yell"); roar ("to laugh loudly or boisterously"); snicker ("to laugh in a half-suppressed, indecorous or disrespectful manner."); snigger ("a disrespectful laugh"); tee-hee ("a sound made in imitation of a giggle or titter"); and titter ("to laugh in a restrained, self-conscious, or affected way, as from nervousness or in ill-suppressed amusement").

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


evert [i·vûrt']
tr.v. To turn inside out or outward.

[Back-formation from Middle English everted, turned upside down, from Latin vertus, past participle of vertere, to overturn: ex- + vertere, to turn.]

Evert is not a common word. Yet, you would think it would be. We commonly turn things inside out, but rarely would someone say, "After washing my socks, I everted them and set them on the line to dry." Perhaps the reason we don't use evert is because invert ("to reverse the position, order, or condition of") is such a close synonym.

I doubt the surname of former tennis champion Chris Evert derives from its lower-case homonym. Last names are often odd versions of other words. Miss Evert's name might well be regional English for "effort" or some other similar sounding word.

The most common use of eversion is with bizarre animals that turn themselves inside out as a form of defense. Sea cucumbers, for example, evert themselves and eject their internal organs in order to discourage other animals from consuming them. I once had the displeasure of eating a sea cucumber at a Chinese restaurant. It had no flavor, but felt like a big hunk of mucus in my mouth.

Extroversion means much the same thing. It is used medically, for example, when a person's eyelids are turned inside out -- that is extroversion.

While evert is a good word we don't use much, everyday English is loaded with common terms containing the same -vert root. They include: avert ("to turn away; to prevent"); convert ("to change something into another form, substance, state, or product; transform; to persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief); covert ("not openly practiced, avowed, engaged in, accumulated, or shown"); culvert ("a sewer or drain crossing under a road or embankment"); divert ("to turn aside from a course or direction; to entertain by distracting the attention from worrisome thoughts or cares; amuse"); extrovert ("an outgoing person, concerned with things outside himself"); introvert ("a person concered with his inner thoughts"); overt ("open and observable; not hidden, concealed, or secret"); pervert ("to cause to turn away from what is right, proper, or good; corrupt; to interpret incorrectly; misconstrue or distort"); revert ("to return to a former condition, practice, subject, or belief; Law, to return to the former owner"); and subvert ("to destroy completely; ruin; to undermine the character, morals, or allegiance of; corrupt").

There are also a number of less common -vert words in our lexicon. They include: advert to ("to turn attention to; to call attention to, as with an advertisement"); ambivert ("a person with personality characteristics found in both an extrovert and an introvert"); controvert ("to raise arguments against; voice opposition to"); intervert ("to turn to another course or use"); and obvert ("to turn so as to present another side or aspect to view").

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


n. 1. any place or house of worship, esp. one designed for a large congregation; 2. (often initial capital letter) the portable sanctuary in use by the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon. Ex. 25–27; 3. Ecclesiastical: an ornamental receptacle for the reserved Eucharist, now generally found on the altar; 4. a canopied niche or recess, as for an image or icon; 5. a temporary dwelling or shelter, as a tent or hut. 6. a dwelling place; 7. the human body as the temporary abode of the soul; 8. Nautical: A boxlike support in which the heel of a mast is stepped.

[Origin: 1200–50; ME < LL tabernāculum, L: tent, equiv. to tabern ( a ) hut, stall, inn ( cf. tavern ) + -āculum, prob. extracted from hibernāculum winter quarters ( see hibernaculum)]

Growing up, the only use of tabernacle I ever heard was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It never occurred to me that in that context Tabernacle was a synonym for temple ("any place or house of worship, esp. one designed for a large congregation"). Vaguely, I had heard of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. I don't recall anyone ever referring to it as the Mormon Tabernacle.

I also was unaware that the word tavern ("a place where liquors are sold to be consumed on the premises; a bar") is related to tabernacle, in that both are, in different ways, inns.

While tabernacle has sprouted a number of offspring meanings, they all have their genesis (pardon the pun) in Exodus 25, where it appears when God is having a chat with Moses, instructing him on his duties of a prophet.

God talking: "And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it."

Because it sounds so much like the vulgar term for feces, the wood from which God wanted Moses to make both the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant ("the chest containing the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets, carried by the Hebrews during their desert wanderings") sounds funny: It's called shittim [SHIT-im] and it comes from the shittah [SHIT-uh] tree, a type of acacia.

God: "And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof."

A cubit ("an ancient unit of linear measure, originally equal to the length of the forearm from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow, or about 17 to 22 inches") was the standard measure of its day. Using the forearm sounds like an odd standard, unless you compare it to what we use, a foot.

Getting back to tabernacle, it turns out there is an annual Jewish holiday called the Feast of Tabernacles. Growing up, as a Jew, I don't remember this name. However, reading about it, I realize that's because we called it Sukkahs (pronounced SOOK-us, rhymes with LOOK-us, and meaning "booths"). In Hebrew, the holiday should be called Sukkoth (SUE-coat), which is translated Feast of Booths or Feast Tabernacles. It comes less than a week after Yom Kippur ("the day of atonement") in the autumn. My clearest memory of Sukkahs was being forced to build small huts out of twigs and leaves and junk like that. While Sukkas (or Feast of Tabernacles) is a remembrance of the story of Exodus, it is also a celebration of the fall harvest, and involves eating fresh foods that are harvested at that time of year. I have heard that Sukkahs was the inspiration for the Pilgrims' original Thanksgiving.

Pop culture reference: "On the new hit reality series, Evangelical Survivor, host Jeff Ross divided the cast into two teams, the Gentiles and the Goyim, and instructed each to build a tabernacle based on the design described in the Book of Exodus. Guest judge Edwin Moses deemed the Gentiles' tabernacle, which would serve as their home for the next 39 days, more Godly. Celebrating their win, the Gentiles feasted on a pig. Unfortunately, swine is trayf (Lev. 11:7), so they were all struck dead."

Monday, January 26, 2009


elinguation [ē-lin-gway-shun]
n. the removal of the tongue as punishment

[Latin: ēlinguāre, ēlinguātus]

Last year, I read this story about a Muslim man in Saudi Arabia who cut out his daughter's tongue and then burned her alive, upon learning that she had become a Christian. There was a similar story out of Santa Ana, from 2005, about a 50 year old man (presumably not a Muslim) who cut his girlfriend's tongue out and let her bleed to death.

These gruesome events got me thinking about this business of elinguation, or cutting out someone's tongue. The practice goes back at least to Biblical times and was a common punishment in the Christian world as recently as 250 years ago. Proverbs 10:31 reads, "The mouth of the just bringeth forth wisdom: but the froward tongue shall be cut out."

Just being froward ("stubbornly contrary and disobedient") doesn't seem like quite enough to get your tongue removed. However, my understanding is that elinguation was the normal punishment for crimes of slander, perjury and heresy.

Despite the murder of the Saudi Christian, it's not clear to me that Islamic Law calls for elinguation -- at least not in modern times. However, I know that the Muslim prescription for theft is cutting off the hand. And countries like Iran still have stoning and crucifixion for various offenses.

Most of them employing the suffix -tomy ("a cutting"), we have a long list of words for cutting off various body parts, though not usually for penal reasons. For example, when Lorena Bobbitt chopped off her husband's unit, that was a penectomy. The act of cutting off your own penis is autopenectomy. If a surgeon removes a woman's ovaries, that is gonadectomy. For a male, gonadectomy has a common synonym, castration, and a more medical one, orchiectomy.

A hundred years and more ago, castration was common enough for young boys, that opera companies and other choir groups often had a class of high-pitched male singers called castrati. Technically, they were not eunuchs ("a castrated man employed as a harem attendant in the Orient"), because castrati were chopped off entirely to maintain their boyish singing voices. The etymology of eunuch defines the word. From Greek, eune means bed or place of sleeping, while -ouchos means keeping or attending to. Thus, a eunuch is "one who attends to a place of sleeping, such as a bedchamber."

Sunday, January 25, 2009


v. to play on a stringed instrument, as a guitar, by plucking the strings, esp. in an idle, monotonous or unskillful manner.
n. a thrumming sound.

[1592, from the noun (1553), of imitative origin.]

It's hard to not imitate the sound an acoustic guitar when you pronounce the word thrum, especially if you hold that emm. Onomatopoeia ("the formation of a word by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent") is fun. Bang! Boom! Poof!

A near-synonym for thrum, and more commonly in use, is the word strum ("to play on a stringed instrument by running the fingers lightly across the strings"). While strum doesn't qualify as onomatopoeia, it has an interesting origin: Strum was formed by combining string and thumb.

The guitar-word thrum has a homonym ("a word the same as another in sound and spelling but different in meaning"). The other thrum is "a fringe of warp threads left on the loom after the cloth has been removed." That thrum is not onomatopoetic. It showed up in English in the 1300s, about 200 years before the onomatopoeia was coined. It came from an Old English suffix -thrum (in tungethrum ligament of the tongue), and is related to Old High German trumme, meaning drum.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


no·e·sis [pronounced noh-ee-sis]
n. 1. (in Greek philosophy) the exercise of reason; 2. Psychology. cognition; the functioning of the intellect.

[Greek nóēsis thought, intelligence, equiv. to noē- (var. s. of noeîn to think) + -sis.]

Noesis is a usable word that nobody uses. It can be a synonym for cognition ("the mental process of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment"). However, noesis is a bit narrower than that. It requires "the exercise of reason," where cognition can simply be awareness.

I think of noesis as the opposite of intuition ("the act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes"). A juror is supposed to use noesis, not intuition, in reaching his determination. But a lot of ordinary people, people who serve on juries, are unreasonable. They look at a defendant and decide if he's guilty. A lot of times, that intuition, is based on prejudice ("a judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts"). If a juror is partial toward the police, for example, he might accept as true whatever a cop testifies, even if other evidence contradicts or disproves that.

Most religious opinions are formed this way: without noesis. Instead of asking questions, considering all known facts, logical arguments and other possible explanations, the religious shuts down his mind and relies on faith ("belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence"), not noesis. Acceptance of the Christian trinity ("the union of three divine persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one God") requires faith, not noesis. The same illogic applies to believing that the Bible is the word of God, that Joseph Smith found some cockamamie gold plates and translated them into the Book of Mormon, which again is supposed to be the word of God, or that Allah literally dictated the Koran to Mohammed.

People who are congenitally incapable of noesis, I don't blame for their irrationality. However, I think a lot of people, otherwise smart, are lazy when it comes to exercising reason and intelligently examining what it is they believe. It's easier to hold on to myths one learned as a child than rock the boat and use judgment. Because we live in a religious world, people who take mythology to task are outcasts, decried, ironically, as prejudiced against faith. Instead of going up against that tide of opinion, it's easier to never examine religious beliefs using noesis.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inaugural poem: Praise Song for the Day

I guess the tradition of reading a poem at a president's inaugural goes back to Robert Frost at JFK's swearing in. Before Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander to read her "poem" this week, the only other one I recall was the super-blowhard Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton's first inaugural: "A Rock, A River, A Tree; Hosts to species long since departed; Marked the mastodon." What a lousy country we are if we cannot call that crap crap.

Generally speaking, poetry sucks. American poetry. Spanish poetry. Swahili poetry. For every good poem there are ten thousand bad ones -- words thrown together haphazardly, making little sense. If Jackson Pollock had been a writer and not an "artist," he would have been a poet.

I re-realized how much I hate poetry when Ms. Alexander recited "Praise Song for the Day" at Obama's swearing-in on Tuesday. In the way that rap artists sample previously recorded music, her trite rendition made me think she was sampling from television, movies and books:

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking."

Isn't that line lifted from Chance the Gardner in Being There? At least he could excuse himself, being mentally retarded.

All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Now she's stealing almost word for word from Dom DeLillo's overrated novel, White Noise. (That book has its moments. The language is playful and the whole Hitler Studies bit is funny. But the plot goes nowhere, the characters are dull and as a slice of life, it rings false. Despite its failings, I am told Lit majors in college today are forced to read it. That says a lot about the yokels teaching Literature.)

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Meet Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

Definitely Hee Haw!

A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

I'm trying to remember which 1970s TV commercial she stole that image from. I'd prefer, "An Italian actor, dressed up, to look like. An American Indian Chief, stands over a highway, and cries. When he sees whitey, polluting."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider.

"You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Poem Zone!"

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of some one and then others, who said I need to see what’s on the other side. I know there’s something better down the road.

I can't recall which actor said that line first. It was either Corky in Life Goes On. Or Benny in L.A. Law. Too bad we don't have more retards on TV these days.

We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Mr. Magoo was always walking into that which he could not yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Dolly Parton, fake boobs and all, said it better: "Working nine to five, what a way to make living; Barely getting by, it's all taking and no giving. They just use your mind, and they never give you credit. It's enough to drive you crazy, if you let it."

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

The nuclear family sitting at their kitchen table contemplating The One? "I am Parker Griffith and I approved this ad."

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Speaking of Love -- Reggie Love, the former Duke Blue Devil, who played on the 2001 championship team that featured Carlos Boozer, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Chris Duhon, and Dahntay Jones, is a close friend, basketball buddy and bodyguard of the president. On Obama's court, certainly, the mightiest word is Love.

Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

Love American Style! My favorite episode was the pilot for Happy Days. It featured Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham, Marion Ross as Marion, and Anson Williams as Potsie. The actors who played Howard, Joanie and Richie's brother Chuck were all different from those who made it onto the series.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

Except for a sentence which is worth writing, apparently.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light.

I recall, after Sarah Palin did not screw up terribly in her vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden, the idiots on Fox News praised her "great performance." She exceeded expectations. But to me, Sarah Palin was, at best, Tracy Flick, the pretentious high school chick played by Reese Witherspoon -- brilliantly -- in Election. I doubt Tracy Flick would have composed a less original poem than Ms. Alexander did.


n. A man married to an unfaithful wife.

cuck·old·ed, cuck·old·ing, cuck·olds
tr.v. To make a cuckold of.

[Middle English cokewald, from Anglo-Norman cucuald, from cucu, the cuckoo, from Vulgar Latin cucclus, from Latin cuclus.]

The least interesting thing about the word cuckold is its interesting etymology. It derives from the cuckoo bird, which is known for laying its eggs in the nests of another bird, throwing away the other birds's eggs, and leaving its cuckoo eggs to be cared for by the resident nesters. Going back to the Romans, I guess, the cuckoo's nesting routine was seen as an act of infidelity to her chicks and mate, not even raising his offspring.

The more interesting thing to me is that the word cuckold is so uncommon to most contemporary English speakers. It's just something we don't give much thought to: a woman who cheats on her husband. My guess is that in our culture, the vast majority of married women are faithful to their husbands; and when a woman is not, her infidelity is not seen as being his failing, because in Anglo-Saxon countries, husbands don't own their wives, the way they do in some other cultures.

It also interests me that we have another word, cornuto, which means exactly the same thing. I'm not sure when cornuto came into English -- it comes from Italian, meaning one who is horned -- but having a second word for this same phenomenon suggests to me that back in the old days married Englishmen were more worried about being cuckolded than they are today.

In contrast to the unfamiliarity of cuckold, the word cabrón in Spanish, particularly in a macho country like Mexico, is commonplace. No Spanish speaker is unfamiliar with it. Literally, a cabrón is a cuckold. They are synonymous. For a macho, the idea that his wife would be unfaithful to him is the height of insult. She is his property. For her to sleep with another man makes her a slut and him worse than a fool. Figuratively, cabrón has other meanings in Spanish. With a negative inflection, it can mean jerk or asshole or son-of-a-bitch or any other type of generally bad guy: "Ay, cabrón." But said to a friend, in a joking manner -- and this is its most common usage -- cabrón means buddy. Because it literally is a put-down, you would not casually call someone cabrón if he was not really a close friend, not really your buddy.

One final thought on the cuckold idea: what do you call a woman whose husband cheats on her? I don't think we have a word for that in English. I don't know if any language has such a word. Historically speaking, it's like having a word for a dog whose owner pets someone else's mutt. That dog may feel cheated, but we don't give a damn about his feelings. It's our language, not his.