Visit theallusionist.org/bonus2016 to listen to and read more about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, make the leftovers of language into a big sandwich.
Today’s episode is the end-of-2016 bonus edition of The Allusionist, wherein we hear some bits and pieces from this year’s guests that didn't fit into the episodes but I thought were interesting. Also I've pulled out a few of your etymological requests from the coffers - thanks very much for sending those in throughout the year, and apologies if I have not replied or etymologized yet. The Allusionist is mostly a one-horse operation, and the horse can open neither emails nor the dictionary. I don't know why I keep it on payroll.
If this is your first experience of the Allusionist, welcome - go and listen to a few more typical episodes: this year there have been shows about if you spend too much time in Antarctica, your ability to use words freezes; how to rewrite your online dating profile to find the person of your dreams; how language is being preserved in the event of apocalypse; different ways Brits and Americans use the word ‘please’ - that episode got the most strong and varied responses of any episode so far. I’ve learnt a lot this year, and thanks very much for allowing me into your ears during the process.
This episode is supported by Poetry Magazine and the Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Foundation is all about celebrating poetry and discovering new work, and Poetry Magazine is devoted to that mission. It was founded in 1912 and you can browse through that amazing archive at poetryfoundation.org, but treat yourself to current and future issues with a subscription to the magazine - you Allusionist listeners receive a 50% discount on a year-long subscription at http://poetrymagazine.org/allusionist. That’s monthly installments of the best poetry, and also you could get a subscription for the poetry enthusiast in your life: subscriptions are a great gift because the recipient is reminded of how generous and thoughtful you are every month, not just once. Remember, 50% off at poetrymagazine.org/allusionist.
This episode is also sponsored by Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go toilet spray. The question I’ve been asked more than any other this year is, “Is Poo-Pourri a real product?” Yes, yes it is: Poo-Pourri really does provide a veil of olfactory modesty when you’re evacuating your bowels. You just spritz it onto the water in the toilet before you go, and stench becomes scent thanks to Poo-Pourri’s combinations of essential oils - it’s a natural product too, so you’re not tipping noxious chemicals into the water system. Shop at poopourri.com, and to get 20% off your next order, use the discount code ‘WORDS’.
On with the show!
Drew has an etymological request:
Sanguine. I would love to know why this word means what it does, instead of, say, "covered in blood"
Sanguine can mean bloody, and blood-coloured, from its origin in the Latin for blood, ‘sanguis’; but I’m assuming that Drew wants to know why ‘sanguine’ is a personality trait, a cheerful upbeat one. This is related to the Four Humours theory of medicine, popularized nearly 2,500 years ago by Hippocrates, the Greek father of Western medicine. For some 2,000 years after him, the Four Humours remained scientifically significant.
Any malady could be ascribed to an imbalance of the four humours, or bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. So if you had a problem attributed to having too much blood, that could be fixed with blood-letting. Or if you were prone to having too much yellow bile, you’d eat cooling foods like cucumbers, to counteract yellow bile’s firiness - because each humour also corresponded with an element, earth, air, fire and water, and a season, a colour, a time of day, sign of the zodiac, and emotions. In fact you can relate the word ‘temperament’ to this as well - it’s from the Latin ‘temperare’, to mix, referring to how a person’s character was influenced by their combination of humours. Bit like a Myers-Briggs personality test, but composed of bodily fluids.
Here’s where 'sanguine' comes in: blood was considered the most positive of the humours, associated with joy and optimism. If your personal balance of humours favoured blood, you had a sanguine personality. Phlegmatic people were not only phlegmy, they were calm, perhaps to the point of apathy. A temperament dominated by yellow bile was 'choleric', meaning irascible - bile words are frequently synonyms for anger. But the ‘chol’ part of the bile-related word ‘choleric’, you also hear in ‘melancholy’, the low spirits that resulted from an excess of the black bile humour. The four humours gave us several familiar words.
On the subject of medicine, here’s Dr Isaac Siemens, who appeared in the Name That Disease episode talking about medical eponyms. I had to ask him about some other important medical terminology.
HZ: How often do you say things like "Stat!" and just talk in numbers and letters?
IS: I'm interested in palliative care, which is a lot of communication with patients and families that are going through death or very emotionally charged situations. And so communication is super important, and in palliative care we spend a lot of time trying to really reflect on the language we're using, because you get so used to jargon, and you overhear yourself doing it and colleagues doing it all the time where you realize that you're using words that are basically like 'cat' or 'apple' to us that mean absolutely nothing to the patients. I catch myself doing it all the time. But, you know, saying "Stat!" always sounds cool and I think it's one of those like cultural things - and I only recently learned what 'stat' actually means: it's short for 'statem' which just means 'right away' in Latin.
HZ: And you didn't guess that from watching ER?
IS: Well I figured it meant like, "I need something now," but I never really understood what exactly you were saying. My pet peeve, is that for some reason, instead of saying 'by mouth', in medicine we say, "PO", which stands for "per os", but you'll hear it if you go to the emergency department or you're in the hospital. You hear people telling patients all the time, "Oh, you'll just take that medication PO." People just nod and then once the doctor leaves, they just look at each other and say, "What was he just talking about? We have no idea."
HZ: "Where in my body is that medicine going?"
IS: Yeah exactly. It could be per anything, I don't know; her rectum? We don't know. But yeah. There's a lot of things like that that kind of drive me crazy.
HZ: And yet it must be hard when you're in work made to flit between -
IS: Mm hmm. It is. And it's an efficiency thing; the language is really specific and quick, like saying 'stat'. So everyone knows what you mean and you can say it quickly and everyone involved, all the health care professionals, will know what you're talking about, so it's effective and quick and that's why it's so easy to use. But then, yeah, having to switch back and forth with patients, you have to be really really conscious of what you're doing. And sometimes it's good to be able to say things in front of people without them knowing what you're saying. So I think that's another useful part of jargon.
HZ: What are some of the other doctor slang terms that we should know about - or we shouldn't know about?
IS: I'm worried that I might get kicked out of Doctor Land for explaining them. One common one is "supertentorial": the tentorium is this anatomical area that separates the the brain from the rest of the body. And when you describe a condition as 'supertentorial', what you mean is it's all in their head. You would say, "Oh, this patient has some condition, but we highly suspect that it's supertentorial," and that they're just anxious or crazy or making it up. And so that would be a typical thing that you might say in front of a crowded room, just so that people know what you're talking about but nobody else does. I think it's mean to do but people do it... Disclaimer!
This is not a dig at Dr Isaac Siemens, but Harriet wrote:
I work in a hospital and the other day I spoke with colleagues about the term ‘quack’, an unscrupulous, bogus doctor. I was wondering if you knew why quack has this meaning aside from the adorable sound a duck makes?
Nothing to do with ducks, but a shortening of a word which English poached from Dutch around 1570: ‘quacksalver’. In Dutch, the ‘quack’ was from the verb ‘quacken’, to brag, and the salver as in salves, ointments: the quacksalvers sold salves, implication being they were flogging salves that were no more medically effectivethan anointing yourself with absolute nonsense.
I was wondering how the word "cataract" came to mean both a waterfall and an eye condition of blurred vision. I am not seeing the connection between the two.
Some try to explain it as water churned up by a waterfall looks white, and so does an eye with a cataract. But I don’t think that’s really the linguistic connection. Come with me, Eric, back to ancient Greek, in which the word ‘katarhaktes’ meant something swooping or rushing down. That’s classic waterfall behaviour. But when ‘cataract’ was coopted into Latin, it meant other down-rushing things, like floodgates and portcullises, and it’s more likely that the ocular opacity sense was analogous to that sense - a barrier to clear vision.
Name developer Nancy Friedman appeared in the Brand It episode, talking about the process of coming up with names and taglines for brands, and trends therein. Recently, she’s been keeping an eye on name trends in the legal marijuana business.
NF: We’re just seeing the start of it. There’s a lot of copycatting. Denver has had it longest; Washington is starting. We’re seeing a lot of small businesses that use ‘leaf’ and ‘green’ and ‘herb’, and they use the same logo. There are also starting to be branding agencies that specialise in legal marijuana. In Colorado, there’s one run by women - women are getting into this in a big way - and they’re trying to get away from the hippie associations and go for an elegant, soothing, spa-like effect. Right around here -
HZ: - Nancy and I met up in Oakland, California -
NF: - as I walked here today I passed a big bus shelter ad, saying ‘cannabis’ rather than ‘marijuana’ first of all, and ‘Kana’ is a whole line of products that are CA-grown in the sunshine and aren’t hydroponic, so there’s an elegant, allusive kind of name. But we’re still going to see a lot of hokey, punny names - a lot of Mary Janes, a lot of 420. Which get confused: the object of your name is to make your business distinctive, but if you’re using the same three numbers…
HZ: It's a young industry, they haven’t learnt yet… If you choose a classy spa-like name, can you charge more for product?
NF: I’m sure that’s what they’re thinking - make it seem more upscale, more premium.
HZ: Not so medicalised, either.
NF: So, yeah, it’s quite an interesting time. What they’re saying is the big alcohol and tobacco brands are going to move in and gather a lot of these small brands under their wing and rebrand everything. There’s already Marley, named after Bob Marley, and Willie Nelson has his own brand of cannabis munchies, I think. That’s called ‘borrowed interest’, ‘borrowed equity’, when you take a celebrity name.
HZ: When I was, I dunno, nine, my friends and I used to hide in the bathroom and sneak a look at rude words in the dictionary. It was a pre-internet time. But now the dictionary is online, even though people could get more substantial kicks with just a click, habits haven’t changed all that much. Jane Solomon from Dictionary.com came on the Word of the Day episode, and while examining data of people's Dictionary.com search habits, one thing she noticed -
JS: ...is this very strange pattern where people would look up a series of words, and when they were done with their search, they would choose a vulgar default word to end their search then bounce from the site. So here’s an example of one of these searches we came across in our data, looking at a bunch of searches and wondering what it meant: “November, octopus, octopus,octopus, genus, octopus, astatine, remora, fart”. So in terms of what is this person doing? ‘Fart’ is the default word for when they don’t know what to type any more.
Insight into the order of it: the definition of ‘octopus’ has ‘genus’ in it, so ‘octopus genus octopus’ might be them clicking on ‘genus’ in the definition, which is a link, then pressing the back button. So we can guess what this is about, but we don’t know for sure. Maybe the person who made this search -
HZ: - wants to know if octopuses fart?
JS: That’s a very real question.
HZ: I googled ‘do octopuses fart?’ and the answers were not conclusive. Some say that octopuses do fart: they fart ink. I tried to find out if there’s a more technical term for octopuses shooting ink, and ‘inking’ seems to be about it. But along the way I found out that squid can shoot ink in specific shapes, for instance smaller prey to divert their predators. Well played, squid.
Gaslighting. I heard it recently. Is it a real compound word in the dictionary -
Yes, light fuelled by gas -
or slang for something?
Yes, slang for psychologically manipulating someone until they no longer trust their own sanity.
Spoiler alert for Gaslight, a 1944 film remake of Gaslight, a 1940 film adapted from Gas Light, a 1938 play: the details vary in these different versions of Gaslight, but the upshot is: domineering husband and vulnerable younger wife move into a new home; when the wife’s possessions disappear or her husband is absent without explanation, he convinces her she is imagining it all, including her notion that the gas lights in their home are intermittently dimming. But she’s not going insane: the lights are in fact dimming, because the supply of gas to her lamps is reduced when the lamps elsewhere in the building are switched on, such as when the husband is in the flat upstairs searching for jewels he failed to find previously when he burgled the place and murdered the woman who lived there.
So although ‘gaslighting’ is a term from popular culture that has entered the common lexicon, actually understanding why it means what it means requires knowledge not only of the films or the play but also outmoded lighting technology.
Gaslighting is a pretty grim way to treat someone, but here's divorce lawyer Nick Allen, who appeared in the Post-Love episode, with some other causes of a relationship’s demise.
NA: A lot of the time, you get the feeling that people have stopped putting in the effort into the relationship. Other times, one party has taken the other for granted; or they felt undermined if they went out socially and the other spent more time talking to friends than their spouse. These are all grounds for ‘unreasonable behaviour’, which is the main ground for divorcing or dissolving your civil partnership. But the vast majority of the time, the grounds on a divorce petition that are said to be ‘unreasonable behaviour’ are no worse than you get with any couple any day of the week. Drafting the ‘unreasonable behaviour’ particulars are only a means to an end.
HZ: Loaded the dishwasher wrong…
NA: Didn’t put the cutlery the right way up… I’ve seen people in divorce petitions make reference to the other throwing the teabag in the bin rather than putting the teabag in the special teabag thing on the side. Who knew that was grounds for divorce?
HZ: It’s the little things that make you want to stab your spouse to death.
NA: And the little things you can put in a petition to a judge as grounds for unreasonable behaviour and therefore you’re entitled to your interim decree.
HZ: Maybe ‘unreasonable’ should be replaced by ‘profoundly irritating’?
NA: yes. Profoundly irritating - or annoying for three weeks out of four. I don't know.
This episode is sponsored by Bombas, makers of expertly engineered socks. I’ve been doing some hiking over the Winterval period, so I’m very glad of my Bombas socks, because there’s a web of extra support around your foot. The socks have other cunning features as well, to prevent blisters, chafing and slippage. And if you’re not 100% satisfied with your socks, Bombas will refund your money. That’s how confident they are in their socks.
But the best thing is for every pair you buy, Bombas donates a pair to a homeless shelter in the USA, where socks are the most requested item. So clothe your feet and someone else’s feet: shop at bombas.com and get 20% off your first order of four or more pairs.
Thanks also to Cheeka Eyers and Devon Taylor for their help with the Allusionist during this year. Devon also works on fellow Radiotopian show Millennial, about how to navigate life in your 20s - and beyond. I departed my 20s some time ago, and it still resonates. Host Megan Tan came on this show to talk about the definition of a Millennial - along with the guy who actually coined the term; it was a very interesting episode. Megan’s got a very exciting series coming up in the new year, so catch up on Millennial in preparation; you can find the show, and all the Radiotopians, at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the support of you generous listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
nuchal, adjective, anatomy: of or relating to the nape of the neck.
Try using it in an email today.
The show is hibernating during January, while I gather Allusional material for new episodes. But stay in touch at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and visit the show at home at theallusionist.org.