What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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Vice or virtue?

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, June 27, 2014

When I proofed today's editorial yesterday, I almost marked “hutzpah” as being misspelled. After a quick dictionary check, though, I learned it's an alternate spelling of that glorious Yiddish word, “chutzpah.” (Still another spelling is “chutzpa.”)

Webster's defines it as “shameless audacity; impudence; brass.”

This word always reminds me of Alexander Pope's statement that every virtue has a corresponding vice. In his poem, "An Essay on Man," Pope wrote, “The difference is too nice – Where ends the virtue or begins the vice.”

A few examples of Pope's somewhat paradoxical observation are faith vs. gullibility; tenacity vs. stubbornness; and tolerance vs. being a doormat.

“Chutzpah” seems to do double duty as a vice and a virtue. In the editorial, it is used in a derogatory sense, but quite often, it is used as wry praise of someone's assertiveness. I wonder just how many of us secretly wish we could've had a tiny bit more of it at times.

"Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Don't ever aim your doubt at yourself."

Alan Alda, graduation speech, Connecticut College, 1980
Source: Wikipedia

Painting of Alexander Pope by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Courtesy of Wikipedia


Trusted knights, classy real estate

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, June 26, 2014

“Paladin” appears in George Will's column today on B2. Like so many words in English, it has a long and colorful history, ultimately winding its way back to a Roman hill.

In the sense that Will uses it today, “paladin” means “leader,” but in the Middle Ages a paladin was a knight and a palace official in the court of the renowned ruler Charlemagne, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History. “Endless tales were told of the doughty deeds … of his knights (similar to those which, in England, were told of King Arthur's knights).”

Legends say, Asimov adds, that 12 of these trusted paladins were in Charlemagne's court.

Both “paladin” and “palace” go back to the Latin “palatium, after Palatium, one of the seven hills of Rome, where Augusta lived,” according to Webster's. Asimov refers to it as Palatine Hill.

As the city grew, Palatine Hill soon became quite the upscale neighborhood, according to Asimov. “Cicero lived there and so did many other wealthy Romans. It was handy to the circuses, the amphitheatre, the forum, and the temples.”

In 31 B.C. Octavian Caesar built a “lavish” home there and his successor, Tiberius, would later choose a nearby site on the hill for his sumptuous new digs, Asimov notes. Still later, Asimov writes, Nero would establish himself in the neighborhood.

“Nero built a most ornate structure that took up a large section of the hill. A structure like this was a 'palatium' ('a building on the Palatine') and the word came to be used for the residence of a ruler. In French it become 'palais' and in English palace.”

Roland is gifted with a sword by Charlemagne. From a manuscript of a chanson de geste*
Ruins of the Domus Augustana on Palatine Hill
Photos and captions courtesy of Wikipedia
*Old French for “song of heroic deeds,” according to Wikipedia


Fine Italian hand

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, June 20, 2014

One of the fonts we use at The Daily Sentinel is:

It belongs to the gothic typeface, or font family.

Its history goes all the way back to 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg, a German, began operating a printing press using mechanical movable type — a huge advancement in disseminating information.

The design for Gutenberg's letters, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History, wasn't simple. “[T]he letters had outlines of various widths, thick on the downstroke, thin on the cross-strokes. This imitated the action of a quill pen and had a beautiful effect, but was hard to read. The Italians called it, contemptuously, 'gothic' type …”

About 50 years later, Asimov explains, Aldus Manutius, an Italian printer, came up with another typeface, “one that was very thin, with neat outlines and a graceful slant.” This became known as italics, in deference to the country of its origin.

Asimov relates another interesting snippet regarding the use of italics in the 1500s. “Such fine writing was characteristic of the letters of papal nuncios and Venetian ambassadors, who were almost proverbial for their subtlety,” he writes. “To suspect guile, therefore, was to see signs of a fine Italian hand giving instructions via letter, and that phrase came to mean anything sneaky and underhanded, whatever the nationality.”

In modern times, writers use italics for words that should be emphasized. As an example, the national columnists the Sentinel publishes often include instructions for words to be italicized in their copy. Whenever the columnists want a word or words to appear that way, they bracket the word(s) with [ITAL]. It is then up to those who lay out pages here to make sure those instructions are carried out. No guile required — just attention to detail.

Johannes Gutenberg
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Aldus Manutius                                            Illustration of Italian manuscript special to the Sentinel
Courtesy of Wikipedia


Just a whit on wit

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Witty” comes from the Old English wittig “'clever, wise, sagagious; in one's right mind,'” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

It's the adjective form of wit, which, according to the same dictionary, goes back to the Old English word witan “to know.”

Since “brevity is the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare wisely noted, here's just one more point to ponder by another keen societal observer:

"Words may show a man's wit but actions his meaning."
Benjamin Franklin

Painting of Franklin by Benjamin Wilson, 1759
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Cogitating on cognizance

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, June 18, 2014




A synonym for “cognizant” (found in today's editorial) is “aware.” “Cognizant” is a back formation of “cognizance.” (Back formation occurs when words are clipped to create new words. A few other examples are “edit” from “editor,” “baby-sit” from “baby sitter” and “handwrite” from “handwritten.” These are verbs created from nouns, while “cognizant” is an adjective created from a noun.)

There. I should stop now. Other work awaits, but looking up “cognizant” this morning set me onto many enticing semantic paths. I'll try to limit myself to just a few.

Webster's first definition of “cognizance” is “perception or knowledge, especially the range of knowledge possible through observation.” There are other definitions, but I promised restraint. The English word winds its way back through French to Latin cognoscere “to know,” according to Webster's.

OK, just one more definition: In the late Middle Ages in England, “cognizances” were another name for heraldic badges, according to Wikipedia. They were worn to symbolize “allegiance to or the property of an individual or family.”

I didn't know that historical tidbit until this morning, but it made sense. I'm always aware that wearing my Sentinel nametag sets the stage for conversations I have with strangers. In essence, the nametag heralds a professional allegiance and likely prompts some cognition in others as to the type of person I might be even before any introductions are made.

I'd be thrilled if anybody ever considered me a cognoscente in journalism, but chances of that are as rare as a goal in the first minute of a World Cup match. That would mean I'm an expert in this field, and I'm far from it. “Dilettante” is a more apt descriptor, but, hey, at least I'm cognizant of all that I don't know.

I digress and really must move on to other tasks so I'll leave you with one final observation on back formations: Writers sometimes get carried away with them. If you wish, kindly take cognizance of one whimsical example:

"He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled, so I tactfully changed the subject."
P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938

Illustrations special to the Sentinel 

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