Esquivalience and Other Mountweazels

The August 29th issue of The New Yorker contains an article by Henry Alford in the Talk of the Town section about esquivalience and other mountweazels. Esquivalience? Mountweazel? Surely those aren’t words to be found in a dictionary?

Well, it seems the first is in a dictionary and the second appears in an encyclopedia. The 2nd edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the first as:

"esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities ... late 19th cent.; perhaps from the French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’"

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Barbarians

This week we take a look at barbarians, or more specifically what words we have used for them. A barbarian is, of course, an uncivilized person, or perhaps more accurately someone from a civilization or culture other than our own. In English usage, the words barbarian and barbarous date to the 16th century. The obsolete barbar was in use earlier, dating to the 14th century. The English word is borrowed from the French and ultimately comes from Latin and Greek. The origin in Greek is probably echoic, the bar-bar as mimicry of what a foreign and unintelligible language sounded like. In ancient Greece, the word was used to refer to anyone from a non-Hellenic culture. In Roman usage, the word was used to mean someone who was neither Roman nor Greek, and in later usage to anyone from outside the empire.

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Atomic

This past week saw the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the events that brought an end to World War II. These two grim events introduced a large number of terms in the vocabularies of millions.

First among these are the names for the device itself. The term atomic bomb predates the device, being used as early as 1914 in H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free. Its shorter cousin A-bomb dates from 1945 as does the term the bomb. The thermonuclear hydrogen bomb comes a few years later in 1947 and H-bomb in 1950. The use of more technically accurate nuclear to denote fission and fusion processes and weapons also comes in 1945.

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What Is This Phishing Of Which You Speak?

Reuters reported this week that a survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project asked online users about various internet buzzwords and jargon terms. It found that despite all the buzz, the words were not that familiar to most internet users.

Most users knew what spam was, but there the familiarity ended. Words like phishing (soliciting financial information about a person by pretending to be a bank or other trustworthy source), podcasting (audio downloads available over the internet), and RSS feed (a service that pushes blog entries to a user as soon as they are published).

Younger internet users fared better than older ones in recognizing the terms.

A Scandal of Errors

The latest Washington scandal, that of presidential consigliere Karl Rove and vice presidential assistant Lewis "Scooter" Libby revealing the name of a C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame to the press in an attempt to discredit her husband, suffers from not having a catchy name. Some have suggested Plamegate, using the –gate suffix that has been affixed to many a scandal since the original Watergate. Others have suggested the more unwieldy Rove v. Plame, a play on the court case Roe v. Wade.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the essence of the scandal is that Rove, architect of President Bush’s electoral campaigns for governor of Texas and president of the United States, and Libby, told reporters that Plame worked for the C.I.A. either for revenge because her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was critical of the administration or to discredit Wilson by implying that he was given a C.I.A. assignment by his wife. There are questions about what laws, if any, were actually broken, and one reporter has been sent to jail for refusing to reveal her sources even though she never wrote a story about the case.

The scandal centers on that venerable Washington institution, the leak. A leak is the revelation of a secret. Leak has been used in this sense since 1859. Of course leaks are usually made to reporters, who seek to protect their sources from exposure. 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws (1998) that do not require journalists to reveal their sources to police or official investigators, but the federal government does not have one. This is why the reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times, was sent to jail.

Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper has given us double secret background, the terms under which Rove spoke to him. Cooper used the term in an email to his editor that was made public during the investigation. Background is a journalism term used to describe a source who is not to be quoted. There is also deep background, meaning that the source is not even to be referred to anonymously, the information is only provided to the reporter as a guide for finding more leads or other sources. Cooper jocularly dubbed this double secret background, a play on the term double secret probation, which was used in the 1978 movie Animal House to refer to a punishment inflicted on a fraternity by the university.

Another word that has gotten a lot of use in this particular scandal is the verb to out, meaning to reveal a hidden identity, as in "Rove outed C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame." Most recognize the word in the sense of publicly revealing that someone is gay, but some question its use in this, more general, sense. Both these senses are cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1990. The specific sense relating to gays is a variant of the reflexive verb phrase to come out or to come out of the closet. This older term dates to 1968, but it’s not the oldest related sense. Out has been used to mean to reveal a secret since the late 14th century.

In response to the scandal, Republicans have released their legions of spin doctors (1984) who loyally repeat the daily talking points (1920), or message, on television, the radio, and to print reporters. The Democrats have their spin doctors and talking points too, but the Republicans are better at message discipline (1993).

Finally, there is the word scandal itself. It’s from the Latin scandalum, meaning a cause of offense and ultimately from the Greek meaning trap or snare. English usage dates to the 13th century and originally applied to something that brought discredit upon a clergyman or a church. The OED’s first citation in a secular and general sense is from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. This current scandal is chock full of errors, on all sides, but is hardly a comedy.

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