Word of the Week: Anomie

ANOMIE: social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also :  personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals (merriam-webster.com)

I read this word for the first time in a French article this week responding to the recent tragedy in Paris, and it is not only my word of the week, but my word of the month, the year, perhaps the era. I read it in French but it exists just the same in English. The writer referred to ‘anomie’ as being a possible route to civil war, so I looked it up and here’s what I found.

Anomie is a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community e.g. if under unruly scenarios resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. Originally a philosophical concept, it was popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book ‘Suicide’ (1897). Durkheim never uses the term normlessness; rather, he describes anomie as “derangement”, and “an insatiable will”.’

‘Deranged’ and ‘insatiable will’ are certainly two terms that are easily applied to the lunatics who, under the premise of acting on some divine will, commit atrocities and terrorise society. Durkheim may have developed his theory in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and in relation to the new position of man in a rapidly-changing, mechanised society, but its implication is wider.

He describes the social context of ‘anomie’ as one characterised by a rapid change of the standards or values of societies (resulting from an economic shift, whether positive or negative) and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. For Durkheim, anomie arises from a divergence between the expectations imposed on individuals by society, and the reality of their position within it. This then would result in a lack of moral grounding and an absence of legitimate aspirations.

A big concept for such a small word.

Change of economic fortune, feelings of alienation from society, an inability to find one’s place and form conceivable aspirations, a discrepancy between institutional ideology and the reality of everyday life for the majority – sound familiar? Durkheim may have been writing in the 19th century but he could have been describing 2015.

Anomie is a state which Durkheim links to suicide. The ultimate loss of hope, the ultimate act of desperation. He blames society for these ‘anomic suicides’. The idea was further developed into a concept called ‘strain theory’ which posited that individuals suffering from anomie would seek to attain the ideals advanced by their society, yet would be unable to attain them legitimately because of structural limitations within that same society. This would result in the exhibition of ‘deviant behaviour’.

‘Anomie’ is a powerful word, a big concept, one everyone should be aware of in this age of billionaires and bin-scroungers, of Wall Street banks and food banks, of suicide-bombers and school-shooters, in an era which has unbelievably at times been named ‘post-racial’ but in which the colour of your skin still largely predicts your income. In our general state of anomie, nothing that has happened this week should come as a surprise.


Wonder-wench and Snoutfair

WORDS OF THE WEEK: Wonder-wench and Snoutfair

Babe, cutie, hot stuff, princess, ever feel like you’re running out of good words to describe that special someone passing you by on the street without a second glance in your direction?

Well if you ever need to, feel free to surprise them with some terms from the good old past when ‘wonder-wench’ and ‘snoutfair’ were the equivalent of ‘sweetheart’ and ‘handsome’.

Be careful with ‘snoutfair’ though. It was coined in the 16th century by putting together, yes you guessed it, the words ‘snout’ and ‘fair’, and whilst underlining the person’s beauty, it also kinda suggests something negative about their character.

Next time try shouting out ‘hey, wonder-wench!’, and see if that doesn’t turn and eye or two in your direction.


Word of the Week: Lunting

Did you ever go on that evening stroll whilst puffing on your favourite pipe and think: “What a singular experience it is to go for a walk with a pipe in my mouth – I sure wish there were a specific word for it!”

Well wish no more for here it is, and high time it should be revived too! From John Mactaggart’s “Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia” of 1824 we have the word ‘lunting’ to describe that very action.

The Scot’s word ‘lunt’ today still means a match or flame used to light a fire, or at times refers to the smoke from a tobacco pipe. ‘To Lunt’ is more often used to mean ‘to light a fire or a pipe’. The probable origin? A Dutch word (‘lont’) from the mid-16th century meaning ‘match’ or ‘fuse’, akin to the Middle Low German ‘lunte’ which also meant ‘match’ or ‘wick’.

The expression, ‘an evening lunt’ is also to be found out there in the depths of the internet such as when this gentleman describes his evening stroll with a pipe in stormy weather to the delights of PipesMagazine.com readers: ‘Lunting in the Rain‘ is the title of his adventure story.


Word of the Week: Gorgonise


To have a paralysing or mesmerising effect on someone. 

A bit like:  paralyse, petrify, or hypnotise.

As in: “Then he got up on stage, took of his shirt and started belly dancing. I was utterly gorgonised.” 

From: Early 17th century

Origin: You’ll have to think back to your Greek mythology to get this one. From the root word ‘gorgon’, which generally refers to any horrifying female, and more particularly to any of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who had hair made of of living, venomous snakes, and a terrifying face which turned those who looked at it into stone.

Who used it: The likes of Lord Tennyson who wrote, “Gorgonised me from head to foot / With a stony British stare” in Maud, 1855.

Word of the Week: OK


Sure, just fine, that’ll do; it’s not great or fantastic, not awful nor terrible, neither delicious nor disgusting, thrilling or disheartening; it’s simply OK.

Not a word to get the heart racing. Sometimes it can outright sound more of a disappointment than anything:

 – Will you marry me? – OK. 

How was the wedding? – it was OK.

 – Is the baby cute?  – he’s OK.

A pretty mediocre word, I gave ‘OK’ little-to-no thought until I discovered that it perhaps originates from the Scots “och aye” (“oh yes”). But “och aye” is so much more expressive, so much fuller in the mouth and so much more affirmative – an “of course!” rather than a “sure, why not…”. Was it toned-down by Scots and Irish immigrants to North America only to be ferried back to Europe in its weakened form?

That’s one of many hypotheses. It turns out that for such a bland expression OK has been much debated about. Some other (among the more probable) propositions as to the origins of OK are as follows:

– Initials of “oll korrect” – Coined during a fad for comical misspellings and abbreviations in the 19th century

– From the Wolof “waw-kay” (waw “yes” + emphatic -kay ) – Introduced by West African slaves

– A misspelling of “O.R.” for ‘Order Received’ – A common mistake in the Western US in the 18th century due to the similar shaped of the letters R and K.

– Initials of the Greek “Όλα Καλά” meaning Everything is well – entering the English language as an abbreviation used by Greek immigrants in United States in the late 1900s, when sending telegrams to their relatives in Greece to keep the cost low.

– From the Greek “och, och” (ὤχ, ὤχ), a magical incantation against fleas  – (improbable but still probably my favourite explanation)

– Initials of “Open Key” – A global telegraph signal used in the 19th century and meaning “ready to transmit”

– Initials of Omnis Korrecta (“all correct” in Latin) – Used by early schoolmasters marking examination papers

– From the Occitan oc (“yes”) – Introduced by colonists to French Louisiana

– From the French O qu’oui (“ah, yes”) – proposed as an explanation in 1945…

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the noun is first attested to in1841; the verb in 1888. Now so omnipresent that we not only say it but click on it dozens of times each day, OK has even been deemed worthy of a whole book in its honour: Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word”. If you’re kind of interested but just not the 240-pages-kind-of-interested, you can read a summary by the same author in this BBC article.

Word of the week: Catachresis


The name of many different types of figure of speech which all have in common that they are using words “wrongly”.

Some Possibilities:
1) The use of a new, never seen before phrase or word. Catachresis is similar to a neologism, but catachresis also includes new phrases.
2) Crossing categorical boundaries with words, because there otherwise would be no suitable word. (like referring to the “legs” of a chair”)
3) A paradox (Milton’s “darkness visible”)
4) A mingling of metaphors (Shakespeare’s “To take arms against a sea of troubles…”)
5) Replacing an expected word with another, half rhyming word, with an entirely different meaning from what one would expect. (“I’m ‘ravished’!” for “I’m ravenous!” or for “I’m famished!” )
6) Using an established word or phrase in the wrong context (“Can’t you hear that? Are you blind?”)
7) The farfetched use of an already existing word or phrase. (Shakespeare again: “Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse”)
8) A blatant euphemism. (Dead people within a cemetery being referred to as “inhabitants”.)
9) The replacement of a word with a more ambiguous synonym.
10) According to Derrida, a reference to the original incompleteness that is a part of all systems of meaning, or a word with an arbitrary connection to its meaning.

Apparently taking points 2 and 10 into consideration, the artist Amalia Pica turned this literary term into visual representations in her ‘Catachresis’ series which, like much of her work, explores the miscommunication inherent to both language and art.

This, then, is what catachresis look like as contemporary art:

Catachresis #9 (legs of the table, the neck of the bottle, the elbow of the pipe, the leg of the chair), 2011

Catachresis #33 (legs of the table, tongue of the shoe), 2013

Catachresis #35 (legs of chair, teeth of the rake, eye of the potato, eye of the needle), 2013.

Word of the Week: Yo!

Think ‘yo!’ comes from a recent development in African-American vernacular? Think again. A multifaceted syllable bursting with history, there’s more to ‘yo!’ than meets the eye.

Some claim that the interjection was introduced into African-American culture through Basic Training in the US military during Vietnam or perhaps even WWII. “Yo!” would in this case be the equivalent of the response “Yes” or “Present”, perhaps altered for ease of enunciation in a very loud military voice.

Two decades ago however, a New York Times article claimed to trace it back to Italian immigrants in Philadelphia in the 1930s. ‘Yo!’ would be a shortened version of ‘guaglione’ (‘young man’ in Neapolitan), which made the shift through an approximate pronunciation of guahl-YO-nay>guahl-YO> whal-YO>Yo!.

Chapman’s dictionary of American slang dates ‘yo!’ to an exclamatory greeting used in the mid-19th century, but  the  word  is  attested  as  a  sailor’s  or  huntsman’s utterance since c.1420. That’s right, ‘yo!’ was possibly being used to get someone’s attention back when Middle English was being spoken.

Some sources (notably wiktionary) claim that ‘yo!’ might also be related to Io! in Latin, which also appears in Ancient Greek as ἰώ (iō, “oh!”), and was used as an exclamation of joy or triumph. But here we would perhaps be taking things a little too far. As an interjection which rolls so easily off the tongue, it is very possible that ‘yo!’ has been reinvented through the centuries and millennia.

Today, you are as likely to hear ‘yo!’ in the lyrics of an east-coast rapper as you are to hear the word coming from the mouth of a president, like when George W. Bush greeted his long-term friend and Prime Minister of the UK with a friendly  “Yo, Blair, what are you doing?” at the G8 summit in 2006… This became the butt of many jokes, and the the title of a book: “Yo, Blair!” by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

Euphemism of the year: Disposition Matrix

(A slight political digression form the regular ‘word of the week’ feature, but I thought it was worth it…)

DISPOSITION MATRIX   (or how to hide behind fancy words)

The term has probable been around for a few years, but was only really brought to public attention through a series of articles in the Washington Post last October. It may sound new-agey and somewhat futuristic, and indeed it partly is both those things, but it is also a deadly, morally controversial and highly criticised American military strategy.

What the ‘Disposition Matrix’ amounts to is a kill list accompanied by a capability for tracking, capturing, rendering, or killing terrorism suspect. ‘Matrix’ because it is essentially a complex database, ‘Disposition’ because it aims to dispose of enemies. Really just one step up from the previous top euphemism: ‘enhanced interrogation’. A next generation target list obscured behind policy speak, and, as Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald called it, creepily Orwellian.

Word of the Week: Elflock


Meaning: Tangled hair, (as if matted my sly little elves who come into your bed at night)
Origin: 1590s
As in: Look at the state of those elflocks — has that guy ever heard of a comb?

What would Shakespeare say (WWSS) about all this?

Here’s a reference from Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet on the exploits of Queen Mab, where he seems to imply the locks are only unlucky if combed out: 

“She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone…….
That plaits the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.”

According to Shakespeare then, an ‘elf lock’ or ‘fairy lock’ could be attributed to any various tangles and knots of unknown origins appearing in the manes of beasts or hair of sleeping children. Also, in King Lear, when Edgar impersonates a madman, “he elfs all his hair in knots.” (Lear, ii. 3.) – i.e. he messes up his hair.

Shakespeare here also teaches us that hairs can be ‘sluttish’ (see above). Worth remembering next time you brush.

Word of the Week: Discombobulate


tr.v. dis·com·bob·u·lat·eddis·com·bob·u·lat·ingdis·com·bob·u·lates

To throw into a state of confusion.

As in:
the hecklers pelted the discombobulated speaker with anything that came to hand”;  G.B.Shaw

mid 19th century: probably based on discompose or discomfit

Urban Dictionary says:
Feeling disconnected or unbalanced.
When your mind has a million things running around in it and it makes you act like a fumbling retard.

Why no ‘combobulate’?