Charles Harrington Elster

Charlie with his beloved Webster 2

Some of Charlie's other dictionaries. The ten-volume set in the middle is a beautiful 1914 edition of the Century Dictionary, its final year of publication.

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Word Workout:
Building a Muscular Vocabulary
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Level 1, Word 24: BESOTTED (bi-SAHT-id)

Very drunk, extremely intoxicated; also, infatuated, obsessed.

The prefix be- has several meanings. It may mean to deprive of, as in behead. It may mean all around, on all sides, as in beset and besiege. It may mean all over, as in besmear, besprinkle, and beslobber. And it may mean completely, thoroughly, as in besotted, completely drunk. Other words in which the prefix be- means completely, thoroughly, include becalm, to calm completely; benumb, to numb thoroughly; and befuddle, which means either to make thoroughly drunk or to completely confuse, confound (word 34 of Level 2).

The noun a sot was first used, more than a thousand years ago, to mean a stupid person, a fool. Later sot came to mean a person who habitually drinks to excess, a drunkard, which is how the word is used today. The adjective besotted, which entered English in the 16th century, means rendered stupid or foolish either from drinking or by infatuation. Drunken sailors are besotted sailors, and in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Marc Antony becomes besotted with the exotic Egyptian queen.

Synonyms of besotted in the sense of very drunk include befuddled, groggy, addled (AD’ld), inebriated, and stupefied. (The verb to stupefy is word 30 of Level 3.) Antonyms of besotted in the sense of very drunk include sober, temperate, and abstemious (ab-STEE-mee-us). Synonyms of besotted in the sense of infatuated, obsessed include captivated, smitten, enamored, enraptured, enthralled, and beguiled. Antonyms of besotted in the sense of infatuated, obsessed include dispassionate (word 20 of Level 2), unruffled, and imperturbable (IM-pur-TUR-buh-bul).


Level 1, Word 40: HUBRIS (HYOO-bris)

Excessive pride or self-confidence.

Synonyms of hubris include arrogance, insolence (IN-suh-lints), presumption, and hauteur (haw-TUR or hoh-TUR). Modesty and humility are antonyms.

The adjective hubristic (hyoo-BRIS-tik), which means insolent, arrogant, contemptuous, is first recorded in English in 1831, about fifty years before the noun hubris appeared. Both words come from the Greek hybris, insolence, arrogance. The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) notes that in ancient Greek tragic drama, hubris was “the overweening self-confidence and ambition that leads . . . to the ruin of its possessor.” Hubris is sometimes also called the fatal flaw, the weakness or defect in character that brings about the downfall of a tragic figure. In this technical, theatrical sense hubris is opposed to the word nemesis (NEM-uh-sis, word 2 of Level 5), divine punishment. In Greek tragedy, a character’s hubris, arrogance, was depicted as an affront to the gods or to the divine order of nature, and would inevitably lead to an appropriate nemesis, divine punishment.

Hubris is also used generally to describe a person who exhibits excessive pride, self-confidence, or ambition, as in this sentence from a Time magazine review of the film The Company Men: “[Ben] Affleck always has trouble simulating high emotion . . . but he nails Bobby’s plunge from hubris to humiliation.” Hubris may also be used of an institution or a nation: Wall Street’s unchecked greed and hubris; the hubris of American foreign policy.


Level 2, Word 5: INSOLENT (IN-suh-lint)

Boldly insulting and disrespectful; rudely presumptuous (word 2 of Level 1).

The three words impertinent, impudent, and insolent are close in meaning. All refer to rude, disrespectful behavior.

Impertinent, whose literal meaning is not pertinent, inappropriate, is the least insulting of the three. Impertinent refers to behavior that is uncalled for because it is too forward or intrusive. People who say or do something that they know, or ought to know, is rude or out of place are being impertinent. Someone who fails to show proper respect to a superior is impertinent, and an inappropriately personal question can be impertinent.

Impudent comes from the Latin impudens, shameless, and refers to behavior that is shamelessly bold or rude. An impudent reply is a shamelessly rude or insulting reply, and an impudent person is knowingly and boldly disrespectful. Incidentally, impudens, the Latin source of impudent, comes in turn from the verb pudere, to make ashamed or to be ashamed, the source of the unusual English words pudency (PYOO-din-see), modesty, bashfulness, and pudendum (pyoo-DEN-dum), which means literally “that of which one ought to be ashamed” and denotes the external genital organs, especially of a woman.

While impertinent is used of inappropriately forward behavior, and impudent is used of shamelessly bold behavior, our keyword, insolent, is stronger still. It comes from a Latin adjective that meant proud, haughty, arrogant, and it applies to behavior that is arrogantly and contemptuously disrespectful and insulting. An insolent soldier invites disciplinary action. Parents often punish an insolent child. And an insolent coworker or colleague is one who revels, takes pleasure, in insulting you or giving you grief.

The corresponding nouns are impertinence, impudence, and insolence, boldly insulting and disrespectful behavior.


Level 2, Word 41: PONDEROUS (PAHN-dur-us)

Large and heavy, weighty, or hard to handle because of great size and weight.

Synonyms of ponderous include massive, bulky, cumbersome, and unwieldy.

Ponderous comes from the Latin adjective ponderosus, heavy, weighty, which comes in turn from the noun pondus, a weight, mass, burden, literally a weight used in a pair of scales. From pondus English has also inherited the verb to ponder, to weigh in the mind, contemplate, meditate, consider deeply, and the noun pound, a unit of weight, also a monetary unit used in the United Kingdom, so-called because before we used paper money people would weigh precious metals such as gold and silver to determine their monetary value. That’s why we have expressions like he is worth his weight in gold.

The Latin pondus, a weight, is also related to the Latin verb pendere, to cause to hang down; hence, to weigh. From pendere come a host of English words, both common and uncommon, all relating in some way to weight, weighing, or hanging down.

To depend is literally to hang down from and figuratively to rely on. Thus, to be independent is to not have to hang on or rely on anyone or anything else. To suspend by derivation means to hang, dangle, or hold up, as a rope bridge suspended over a canyon. To append is literally to hang something on something else, hence to attach, and an appendix is something attached, as an appendix to a book, a section attached to the main part, or the vermiform (VUR-mi-form, wormlike) appendix, the wormlike tube that hangs down from the bottom of the large intestine on the right side of the abdomen. A pendant is something suspended, an ornament that hangs down. A pendulum (PEN-juh-lum) is a swinging weight, and the adjective pendulous (PEN-juh-lus) means hanging down so as to swing freely. Finally, something pending is literally hanging in the air, and therefore unsettled, unresolved.

Our keyword, ponderous, may be used in a number of ways, all of which suggest weight or heaviness. It may be used to mean heavy with meaning or importance, serious, profound, as ponderous thoughts or ponderous words. It may be used of movement to mean heavy and slow, deliberate, as their ponderous trek up the mountain. And it may be used of style or expression to mean heavy and dull, boring, labored, as the ponderous lecture put her to sleep. But perhaps most often ponderous is used to mean large and heavy, weighty, as a ponderous giant of a man, or hard to handle because of great size and weight, as ponderous suitcases or a ponderous tome. (A tome is large and heavy book, especially a scholarly one.)


Level 3, Word 3: NEFARIOUS (ne-FAIR-ee-us)

Extremely wicked, infamously evil.

Nefarious comes from the Latin nefârius, wicked, vile, abominable, which comes in turn from the noun nĕfas, a sin, crime, abomination, offense against divine law. By derivation, that which is nefarious is horrible or evil because it violates our moral code.

Nefarious has been used in English for more than four hundred years of people, things, or deeds that are extremely or unspeakably wicked. We speak of a nefarious plot, a nefarious crime, nefarious activities, a nefarious cult, or a nefarious tyrant. The word may also be used without modifying a following noun, as in something nefarious is afoot.

Synonyms of nefarious—and there are many because human beings have such a long and regrettable history of being wicked—include villainous, sinful, vicious, heinous (HAY-nis, rhymes with anus), abominable, atrocious, diabolical, depraved, egregious (i-GREE-jus), flagitious (fluh-JISH-us), odious (OH-dee-us), execrable (EK-si-kruh-buul), and iniquitous (i-NIK-wi-tus).


Level 3, Word 44: CIRCUMLOCUTION (SUR- kum-loh-KYOO-shin)

A roundabout or indirect way of speaking or writing; evasive speech or writing.

Circumlocution blends the combining form circum-, around, with the Latin loqui, to speak, and means literally a speaking or talking around a subject.

Three other useful English words that incorporate circum-, around, are circumscribe, circumspect, and circumvent. The verb to circumscribe (sur-kum-SKRYB), from the Latin scribĕre, to write, draw lines, means literally to draw a line around, encircle, and figuratively to enclose within narrow limits, restrict, confine, as a law that circumscribes certain rights. The adjective circumspect (SUR-kum-spekt), from the Latin specere, to look at carefully, observe, means cautious, watchful, wary, carefully considering things before acting or making a decision: “After the big downturn in the economy, they became more circumspect about their investments.” And the verb to circumvent (sur-kum-VENT), from the Latin venire, to come, means literally to come or go around, and so to bypass, especially in a clever or resourceful way: “She had to circumvent a lot of red tape to get the job done.”

Our keyword, circumlocution, implies the use of many more words than are necessary to express an idea, and it often suggests a deliberate attempt to avoid being clear and direct so as to cover something up or evade scrutiny: “Reporters repeatedly pressed the senator for straight answers, but all they got was circumlocution.”

Periphrasis (puh-RIF-ruh-sis), a term used in rhetoric, is a fancy synonym of circumlocution. Unlike our keyword, periphrasis does not imply deliberate evasion and refers only to roundabout expression, the use of more words where fewer words would suffice. Straightforward, candid expression is the opposite of circumlocution, while concise, plain English is the opposite of periphrasis.

The corresponding adjective is circumlocutory (SUR-kum-LAHK-yuh-tor-ee), speaking indirectly or in a roundabout way, talking around a subject: “The message was puzzling and circumlocutory, perhaps designed to be misunderstood and throw us off the trail.”


Level 4, Word 4: ENSCONCE (en-SKAHNTS)

To shelter, cover, or hide securely; also, to settle or fix comfortably and securely.

In its best-known sense, a sconce is a wall-mounted bracket candlestick with screens to shield the candle flames, or a wall-mounted electric light fixture resembling a bracket candlestick. This sense of sconce comes from the Old French esconse, a screened candle or lantern, or a hiding-place. In another less familiar sense a sconce is a small detached defensive work, a protective screen or shelter. This sense hails from the Dutch schans, a bundle of wood or sticks, or a screen for soldiers made from brushwood. Both these senses of the noun sconce have influenced the meaning of the verb to ensconce, to shelter securely or settle comfortably.

The verb-forming prefix en-, explains the Random House Dictionary, may mean to confine in or place on, as in enshrine, enthrone, and entomb, or it may mean to restrict on all sides, as in encircle and enclose. Combine this prefix en- with the noun sconce and you have ensconce, literally to confine or restrict behind a protective screen or shelter.

Ensconce may be used either to describe something sheltered or hidden securely or to describe something snugly and securely settled. When Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, says, “She shall not see me: I will ensconce me behind the arras,” he means that he will hide himself behind a screen. (An arras [AR-is] is a tapestry used as a wall-hanging, curtain, or screen.) When, in my vocabulary-building novel Test of Time, I described an ATM as “a shiny metal machine ensconced in the wall of a brownstone building,” I meant that the machine was securely fixed in the wall.

You can be ensconced in an armchair, settled comfortably in it. You can ensconce your valuables in a secret wall safe, hide them securely in it. If you’re a dairy farmer you can ensconce your livestock in a warm, dry barn during a thunderstorm. And, if you want to continue building your vocabulary after you finish this program, whenever you read you must be on the lookout for any unfamiliar words ensconced in what you’re reading—words snugly settled or concealed, like glistening jewels, among all the other ordinary words, just waiting for you to discover them.


Level 4, Word 49: UTILITARIAN (yoo-TIL-uh-TAIR-ee-in)

Practical, useful, functional; concerned with or intended for ordinary, practical use.

The noun utility means practical usefulness, fitness for some practical purpose, as a prehistoric tool whose utility has long puzzled archaeologists. A public utility provides a practical service to the community, such as distributing water, electricity, or natural gas. A utility knife is a knife used for a number of practical purposes. And a utility room is a room for appliances, such as a washing machine or water heater, that perform everyday, practical functions.

Utility, which entered English in the 14th century, and utilitarian, which entered English in the late 18th century, both come from the Latin ūtĭlis, useful, fit, serviceable, beneficial, the source also of the English verb to utilize, to make practical or profitable use of, and the unusual adjective utile (YOO-til), a fancy synonym of useful.

Utilitarianism is the ethical doctrine, promulgated* in the late 18th century chiefly by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (BEN-thum, 1748–1832), that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the prime consideration of society and the aim of all public action. This doctrine naturally led to the idea that the virtue or value of something must be judged by its utility, its ability to promote the public good or its practical usefulness to all.

The adjective utilitarian may mean pertaining or adhering to the doctrine of utilitarianism, as a utilitarian law, one intended to promote the welfare of all citizens. But more often utilitarian means having utility, practical usefulness, fitness for a useful purpose. That which is utilitarian values function over form and usefulness over beauty. A utilitarian car offers no frills or amenities and simply gets you where you need to go. A utilitarian building is a functional building, with no ornamentation. A utilitarian dress is practical, not attractive. And while many would use the word wildlife for wild animals, hunters tend to take a more utilitarian view and call them game.

* Promulgate (pruh-MUHL-gayt or PRAHM-ul-gayt) means to make known, publish, proclaim, make public in an official manner.


Level 5, Word 24: OXYMORON (AHK-si-MOR-ahn or AHK-see-MOR-ahn)

An expression or figure of speech that combines two contradictory words; a concise and pointed phrase that seems self-contradictory. In his delightful book Crazy English, Richard Lederer defines oxymoron as “a figure of speech in which two incongruous, contradictory terms are yoked together in a small space.”

For the plural, dictionaries give only the Greek oxymora, but Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that the anglicized oxymorons “is now about 60 times as common as oxymora in print sources, and ought to be accepted as standard.” The corresponding adjective is oxymoronic (AHK-si-muh-RAH-nik), being or resembling an oxymoron.

By derivation the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron. It comes through Latin from the neuter form of the ancient Greek oxymōros, which meant literally sharp-dull or figuratively keenly stupid, for in Greek oxys meant sharp, acute, keen, and mōros, the source also of the English moron, meant dull or foolish.

Oxymorons abound in literature, as in Shakespeare’s sweet sorrow, Milton’s darkness visible, and Keats’s little noiseless noise. Many common expressions are also oxymoronic. Consider these examples: student teacher, executive secretary, sure bet, baby grand, jumbo shrimp, inside out, random order, working vacation, death benefit, benevolent despot, idiot savant, industrial park, urban village, white chocolate, good grief, whole piece (or half, or some other portion), conspicuously absent, plastic silverware, original copy, and pretty ugly.

Lederer notes that oxymorons can also be found in place names such as Little Big Horn and Old New York, as well as in single words such as bittersweet, firewater, spendthrift, and wholesome. Pianoforte (or sometimes fortepiano)—the original name of the musical instrument now called simply a piano—is also a one-word oxymoron because in music the Italian piano means soft and forte (pronounced FOR-tay) means loud. Even personal names can sometimes be oxymoronic, such as the baseball player Angel Pagan.

“Among language aficionados,” says Garner, “collecting and inventing cynical oxymorons is a parlor game; they enjoy phrases that seem to imply contradictions,” such as legal brief and military intelligence. “If you are willing to stretch the oxymoronic concept and editorialize unabashedly,” writes Lederer, “you will expand your oxymoronic list considerably.” Among Lederer’s examples in this vein are student athlete, educational television, nonworking mother, postal service, and business ethics. What “editorializing oxymorons” like these can you think of?


Level 6, Word 33: PAEAN (PEE-un)

A song of praise, joy, thanksgiving, or triumph; hence, a tribute or expression of praise.

The noun paean comes directly from the Latin paeān, a hymn. The OED notes that the paean was originally a solemn song or chant, usually of victory, addressed at first to Apollo—the god of the sun, of prophecy, of music, and of poetry—and later to other gods. From this historical sense soon developed the general sense in which the word is most often used today: a glowing tribute or expression of high praise.

Paean is usually used of a work that praises or honors its subject—whether serious, as President Obama’s paean to the late Senator Ted Kennedy or a paean to the pristine grandeur of Yosemite National Park, or not-so-serious, as a paean to the joys of karaoke or a paean to the nobility of bacon. But the word is also frequently used to denote praise for a person or thing you wouldn’t expect to be praiseworthy, as a paean to living fast and dying young or a paean to poor parenting. That usage is acceptable because praiseworthiness is in the eye of the beholder, and paean merely denotes an expression of praise. What is not acceptable usage, though, is writing a paean of praise, which is redundant because the idea of praise is implicit in paean.

As you may have noticed from these examples, paean must be followed by to unless it stands alone syntactically, as in this citation: “The humble coffee bean harvested, roasted and ground is worthy of a modern-day paean” (New Statesman).


Level 7, Word 7: HAUTEUR (hoh-TUR)

Arrogance, haughtiness, condescension; a lofty, lordly, or domineering manner.

Synonyms of hauteur include snobbishness, pretentiousness, pomposity, contemptuousness, imperiousness, and superciliousness.

The noun hauteur and the adjective haughty are etymological cousins whose closest antecedent is the French haut, high. And both haughty and hauteur strongly imply high-and-mightiness, lordliness of manner. But while haughtiness is either an instinctive or an affected arrogance, hauteur so boldly aspires to the heights of arrogance, and so fully expects others to view condescension as its birthright, that, depending on the context, the effect can be arresting, even intimidating—or downright farcical.

Think of the stereotype of the grim and gaunt waiter in a fancy French restaurant—in France—who alternately sneers at and ignores foreign customers: that’s hauteur. Think of the lordly posture of proud flamenco dancers in a vibrant duet: that’s hauteur. Think of the 19th-century Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, who, when passing through customs on a visit to the United States, said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius”: that’s hauteur. Or if you’d prefer an example from popular culture, there’s the maliciously condescending Cruella de Vil in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. That “cruel devil” is the embodiment of hauteur!


Level 8, Word 19: SCHADENFREUDE (SHAHD-’n-FROY-duh)

Malicious joy in the misfortune of others; pleasure derived from another’s troubles.

Schadenfreude is a German loanword, a combination of the German Schaden, harm, and Freude, joy. Though it has been used in English since the 19th century, it is still sometimes (unnecessarily) printed with a capital S.

In They Have a Word for It, Howard Rheingold asks, “Why do people laugh at cartoons that show people slipping on banana peels? What is so funny about the way the Three Stooges bonk one another? One of the peculiar definining characteristics of the human race seems to be related to our strange and sometimes sadistic sense of humor.”

In contemporary America, where no opportunity to make a buck is overlooked, people have made a thriving business out of schadenfreude. From tabloids that revel in exposing the foibles and misfortunes of celebrities to TV shows featuring home videos of embarrassing and often injurious mishaps, other people’s pain has become our pastime and our guilty pleasure. And now you have a word for that: schadenfreude.


Level 9, Word 46: PSEUDANDRY (SOO-dan-dree or soo-DAN-dree)

The use of a male name by a woman as a pseudonym or pen name.

The noun pseudandry combines pseudo-, false, pretended, with -andry, male, which comes from the Greek andrós, a man, male. A pseudonym (SOO-duh-nim), from pseudo-, false, and -onym, name, is a fictitious name, such as the pen name of an author. A pseudonym or pen name is also called a nom de plume (NAHM-duh-PLOOM), which is French for pen name.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the few women who wrote for publication usually resorted to pseudandry, the use of a male pen name, because of their inferior social status: women were thought to be less competent than men and it was considered scandalous for a woman to write a book. Pseudandry therefore offered a way to be taken seriously, or at least not to be dismissed outright.

Famous pseudandrists of that period include Mary Ann Evans, who used the nom de plume George Eliot to publish Middlemarch and other novels; the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, who used, respectively, the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the French novelist Lucile Aurore Dupin Dudevant, who achieved fame writing under the pseudonym George Sand; and Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, who began her career writing under the androgynous (an-DRAH-juh-nus) pen name A. M. Barnard. (Androgynous, from the Greek andrós, man, and gyné, woman, means having qualities or characteristics of both a man and a woman.)

Contemporary female writers who have used androgynous initials in their pen names include Nora Roberts, who has published as J. D. Robb, and Anne Rice, who has published as A. N. Roquelaure. And J. K. Rowling, the androgynously named author of the Harry Potter series, has written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

The counterpart of pseudandry is pseudogyny (soo-DAH-juh-nee), from pseudo-, false, pretended, and the Greek gyné, woman, the use of a female name by a man as a pseudonym or pen name.


Level 10, Word 9: ESPRIT DE L’ESCALIER (e-SPREE duh les-kal-YAY)

The perfect response or remark that comes to mind later, after the chance to make it has passed.

Haven’t we all had the experience of thinking of a snappy comeback or stinging riposte (word 38 of Level 6) when it’s way too late to use it? And haven’t you sometimes wondered if there was a word for that? Well, now you know it: esprit de l’escalier, which English borrowed from French in the early 1900s, means literally the spirit of the staircase—in other words, inspiration gained upon ascending the stairs to retire to bed, long after the opportunity for a retort has passed. When you’re coming home from work and you think of what you could have said to your contemptible boss, or when you’re cleaning up after dinner and you suddenly know what you should have told your insufferable father-in-law, that’s esprit de l’escalier.

In recent years, two English equivalents of this French-derived phrase have been proposed: stairwit, almost a literal translation of the original, and retrotort, a blend of the prefix retro-, backward or behind, and retort. There is also the German Treppenwitz (TREP-in-vitz), a word on the fringe of becoming English whose connotations extend beyond the spirit of the staircase. In They Have a Word for It, Howard Rheingold writes that “in addition to referring to the kind of remark that occurs to a person when it is too late, [Treppenwitz] also applies to events that appear to be the result of a joke played by fate or history.”

The French word esprit (e-SPREE) is also an English word meaning liveliness or vivacious wit: “The Howells always invited Marjorie to their Christmas party because everyone loved her infectious esprit.” Esprit also appears in bel-esprit (BEL-e-SPREE), a person of intelligence and wit, and in the phrase esprit de corps (e-SPREE duh KOR), the sense of unity and enthusiasm for a common cause among the members of a group.


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Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Selected Works

Books
Articles
Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
Charlie beats up on Merriam-Webster in the Boston Globe.
At a loss for words? Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Shopping for a new dictionary? Here's some sage advice.
Charlie's brave new words for a wireless world.
Read one of Charlie's articles in SPELL/Binder.
Read a profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.
Letters
Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.