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Essay 13, Very Nice Nouns
There are hundreds of nouns the knowledge of which will give you an admirable verbal range. In this final chapter on nouns, I will introduce about a dozen of them, with phrases or sentences to see them at work. Naming things precisely and carefully gives you a confidence in communication and a sense that you are understanding the world in a deeper, more powerful way. In this chapter I will explore the words abeyance, acedia, alacrity, amygdala, archetype, bonhomie, brouhaha, epiphany, nadir/zenith, panache, phylactery and tzitzit, tantamount, and temerity.
Two More Foreign-Derived Words
I have always loved pronouncing the Hebrew/Jewish word tzitzit (tseettseet). In addition, I have been fascinated for years with special aspects of dress through which religious people present themselves to the world (Bishops or others in the Catholic Church/Orthodox Jews in the world). The combination of these two realities leads us to the words tzitzit and phylactery. Let’s begin with the latter.
A phylactery is:
“either of two small leather boxes, containing Hebrew texts of the Bible written on parchment, worn by Jewish men during morning prayer on all days except the Sabbath and holidays, as a reminder of the obligation to keep the law.” (1)
(1) OED, s.v., Def. 1a.
If you want to see a picture of these things, just look online under “Google Images.” The Hebrew word from which it is derived is tefillin, from the Hebrew word for prayer. The little boxes are worn usually on the left wrist and the forehead, and four the passages in the boxes are Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21 and Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16. The first Deuteronomy text gives the command:
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates"
Thus, by binding them to the wrist and forehead, the Jewish male is keeping the Torah. By the way, the old (King James) word for “emblem” is “frontlet,” so that in that translation it reads, “they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.” I sometimes use the phrase “make it as a frontlet between your eyes” in my regular conversation to place emphasis on a point. It is this passage in Deuteronomy that gives me inspiration for this. Fundamentalist Christians think they are true to the Bible, but until they start walking around with little Scripture boxes on their foreheads and wrists, I don’t think they are. . . By the way, the Greek word underlying phylactery means “watchman’s post” or “safeguard.” Thus, a phylactery is something that protects you, guards you. It guards your heart, much like a prophylactic, which means “to take precautions (guard) ahead of time,” guards other parts of your body.
The tzitzit are fringes on prayer garments. The command to make them also appears in the Bible (Numbers 15:38-39):
“Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes"
This passage has been interpreted to mean that the garments to support these fringes, called the tallit gadol (big cloak; used for daily prayer) or tallit katan (small cloak; worn underneath the shirt for all-day wear) need to have their edges fringed. But the fringes are of a special kind. (2) There are five knots in the tassel, with eight strings coming out of the last knot. I give you these numbers for a reason, because ancient Judaism was convinced of the almost magical significance of numbers. Each letter of every word was given a numerical significance. The sum of the letters comprising tzitzit was 600. Then, when you add to that the number of knots and strings, you get 600 + 5 + 8 = 613. And 613 is the precise number of commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Bingo. Very neat. Actually a little too neat. The word tzitzit isn’t commonly used in English; it appeared only nine times in the New York Times in the past 30 years. Yet, if you know about phylacteries and tzitzit you probably will be in good stead with your Jewish friends.
Abeyance, Alacrity, Archetype
We can move quicker, or with more alacrity, on these three words. Abeyance is taken from old French words meaning to “gape” or “open the mouth wide.” If someone “gapes,” they have a “gap” in their mouth. The term found its first usage in medieval English law and pointed to the “gap” or expectation that law contemplated when there was land without a owner or a will without a claimant. Littleton, in his classic work on Tenures (ways of holding land), had this line:
“The right of fee simple is in abeyance, that is to say only in the remembrance, intendment and consideration of the law.” (3)
(3) Quoted in OED, s.v., Def. 1.
Blount picked up on this definition in the late seventeenth century: “And it is a Principle in the Law, That of every Land there is a Fee-simple in some man, or it is in Abeyance.” If something was in abeyance, it was dormant only and not forfeited. It was postponed or suspended, uncertain or unresolved, but not lost. There was a “gaping gap” that had to be filled.
This background explains our use today. We use the phrase in abeyance to indicate a “dormant or latent condition liable to be at any time revived.” We have more informal ways of saying the same thing. Something in abeyance is shelved, put on ice, kept in cold storage, hanging fire. Thus, you see there are lots of opportunities to use it.
More can and should be said about alacrity. Its derivation from Latin gives us the beginnings of what we need to know: alacer means “swift” or “brisk.” The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms discusses three synonymous words together: celerity, alacrity and legerity. The first emphasizes the speed with which something is done, while alacrity stresses “promptness in response more than swiftness in movement, though the latter is usually implied.” (4) It also suggests the cheerful attitude in which a movement is done. Something done with alacrity, then, is done with cheerful readiness. “He worked away at his subject with the alacrity of a person fulfilling the very office for which nature had designed him.” The OED gives us these five synonyms: “briskness, cheerful readiness, liveliness, promptitude, sprightliness.” A great collection indeed.
(4) Page 133. Legerity, by the way is a rarer word referring "more to the quality than to the rate of speed and implies nimbleness and ease." One covers the group with the legerity of a trained runner; one might have the legerity of the French mind, etc.
Alacrity is used variously today. One can do something with “show-off alacrity” or with “marked alacrity.” Alacrity also allows the use of metaphors. One might leave a room with the alacrity of a frightened hare; one moves with the alacrity of a criminal destroying evidence. You can do a difficult job with alacrity or embrace a suggestion with alacrity. Sometimes your alacrity can be stunning or unusual. Hawthorne used the word in Scarlet Letter:
“Whenever such a mischance occurred,--when a wagon-load of valuable merchandise had been smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and directly beneath their suspicious noses,---nothing could exceed the vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the delinquent vessel.” (5)
(5) Quoted in the following page, along with many other uses by renowned authors:
The word archetype has two primary meanings: it can mean a prototype/model/quintessential expression of a thing or it can refer, in Jungian psychology, to deep patterns of human life that form part of the collective unconscious. In either form of use, the word is enormously valuable.
For example, the British historian Macaulay could call the House of Commons “the archetype of all the representative assemblies which now meet.”
In October 2009 there was film festival celebrating sixteen works of the legendary director Elia Kazan (1909-2003). The reporter wrote:
“Under Kazan’s sympathetic aegis [a good word—it means “auspices” or “control”] a younger generation of actors led by Marlon Brando and James Dean established a new archetype: the vulnerable hero, a volatile rebel and eternal adolescent.” (6)
(6) Stephen Holden, "The Week Ahead," New York Times, October 4, 2009, AR, page 4.
In a moving column entitled “Pain Beyond Words, and an Impulse Just to Endure,” columnist Dana Jennings recounts the difference he has experienced in life between pain that can be described in words and those attacks that are simply beyond words. He writes:
“We don’t like to talk about pain—are somehow shamed by it and try to shrug it off. We’re told to play through pain or, even, to pray through it. We revere our stoic American archetypes, like the Wild West gunslinger riddled by half a dozen slugs of lead who swears, ‘Aw heck, Doc, it’s only a scratch.’” (7)
(7) New York Times, September 22, 2009, D5.
Whenever you think of a deeply-fixed image, a belief, a template for something, think archetype and you will be using a good word correctly. The other use of it, in Jungian psychology, is more controversial and imprecise. Jung’s first use of the suggestive term in English, in 1919, already hinted at its imprecision: “A factor determining the uniformity and regularity of our apprehension. . .I term the archetype, the primordial image.” In another place he called the archetype a “symbolical formula, which always begins to function whenever there are no conscious ideas present.”
The Jungian archetype needs to be understood in the context of his teaching concerning the “collective unconscious,” which is the “deposit of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity—a kind of readiness to reproduce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas.” I suppose one could say that the archetypes emerge out of the collective unconscious. One way of access to the archetypes is through the study of dreams, myths, fairly tales, legends and epic poems. Some speak of “sixteen master archetypes” from which we draw our pictures of life. (8) Whether such archetypes (or others) exist is a matter of debate. Jung’s major contribution was to suggest a positive, or at least not tangled, reservoir of images/pictures on which we drew for the shaping of our character. Rather than coming into the world as tabula rasa, we enter the world, he thought, informed and shaped by a collective unconscious of images and impulses upon which we draw for the future.
(8) Some of these archetypes, according to the author, are "the chief, the charmer, the lost soul, the professor, the swashbuckler, the bad boy, the best friend."
Both uses of the term have rich possibilities.
Acedia, Amygdala, Bonhomie, Brouhaha
A brouhaha is a “commotion, a to-do, a hubbub, an uproar.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, then of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, first used the word in 1890: “I enjoy the brouhaha. . .of all this quarrelsome menagerie of noise-making machines.” (9) In the summer of 2009 there was an international brouhaha about whether South African runner Caster Semenya was too “masculine” to compete in women’s track events. One can have marital or bureaucratic brouhahas. There can be a brouhaha in Parliament, Congress, in the Church or in anyplace where people gather.
(9) OED, s.v.
Bonhomie (BON a mee), an easily-flowing word, is “frank and simple good-heartedness” or “good nature; good-natured manner.” The word is really a portmanteau word, consisting of bon, good, and homme, man. As a nineteenth century British explorer of the Middle East wrote, in the typical broad brushstrokes of the Victorian era:
“The other redeeming qualities of the Meccan are his courage, his bonhomie, his manly suavity of manners,. . .and his general knowledge.” (10)
(10) Quoted in Century Dictionary, s.v.
The combinations of words with which it can appear are noteworthy. You might have rowdy bonhomie, upbeat bonhomie, or a pretense of bonhomie. There might be neighborhood or easy or rare or fake or sincere or false or high-spirited bonhomie. When two former rivals meet together, they might have a show of bonhomie, but that bonhomie may mask continual subterranean tensions. There can be cozy or jovial or even grumpy bonhomie between people.
The late John Updike’s poetry was described in this way:
“Updike enjoys such pre-eminence as a novelist that his poetry could be mistaken as a hobby or a foible…It is a poetry of civility—in its epigrammatical lucidity …and in the tone of vulgar bonhomie and good appetite.” (11)
A journalist covering his February 2009 funeral in Beverly Farms MA wrote:
“Updike seems to have liked everybody equally, and if he didn’t, it was hard to tell, because his genial bonhomie was nearly impossible to X-ray.” (12)
The word acedia is in vogue today. Or, to put it differently, this term of immense theological weight in the Middle Ages, used to describe a lethargy, torpor, sloth, bluntness of spirit or suffocating gloom that comes on a person, especially a monk, and renders him incapable of working, praying or directing life in a positive direction, has returned in full force in our day. A 2005 scholarly article in the Harvard Theological Review and a 2008 personal narrative by an established American author have brought the concept front and center again to us. (13) Known as the “noonday demon” mentioned in the KJV of Psalm 91:6, acedia has at times been equated with sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and at times has been considered a sort of adjunct of that deficiency. The term “noonday demon” is appropriate because it, rather than striking you in the middle of the night, creates a kind of interminable boredom, listlessness, ennui and complaint right in the middle of the day, when your “productivity” should be at its highest.
(13) The article is Andrew Crislip's, "The Sin of Sloth or the Illness of Demons? The Demon of Acedia in Early Christian Monasticism," Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005), pp. 133f.
The complete title of the book is Kathleen Norris' Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life.
Terms that carry such immense historical weight often are too much for contemporary people to bear. Such is the thesis of a review of a Kathleen Norris’ 2008 book Acedia & Me in the New York Times. (14) The USA Today editor, perhaps not aiming at as highbrow and secular audience as its New York companion, reviews it much more positively. (15) In any case, acedia has made itself felt again.
(14) Kathryn Harrison, "Am I Blue," New York Times, December 21, 2008, Section BR
Yet there are significant issues involved with how to understand this feeling that the words listed above try to capture. Is it nothing other than what psychologists today call depression? Is it simply an inability to come to grips with debilitating things from your past? Is it just a general dissatisfaction with life that hits all of us at times? Yet I tend to look at it differently. Perhaps because I am spending more and more of my time with doctors and nutritionists who work with children with disabilities, I wonder if the monastic feeling of acedia or lethargy, dullness, spiritual torpor, is mostly a condition of poor nutrition. It is amazing what an energy bar will do for you at certain times of the day. But because these fillips weren’t available long ago, the temptation would be strong to spiritualize a feeling that really is best understood in terms of dietary deficiency.
Crislip, in his Harvard Theological Review article, does what scholars of the history of religions have been doing for several generations: review a fairly obscure ancient text, which has been picked over by the dozen or so people in the field in the previous generations, and then apply a “theory du jour” from the social sciences to understand the text. In this case he decides that the modern “theory of anomie,” deriving ultimately from Emile Durkheim’s work, helps explain both the somatic and psychological oppression known as acedia. Anomie itself is a great word. Derived from two Greek words meaning “without norms” or “without law,” anomie has become associated with a social (and then personal) feeling of dislocation attendant upon a gap between societal expectations and the realistic possibility of attaining them. (16)
Well, all this shows you that certain old terms have a way of returning to occupy our lives today. I think if you go around the office on occasion (no more than once a year), complaining gently about your acedia, you will receive respectful consideration. However, if you voiced feelings about depression, people would say, “Join the club!” Thus, by all means use acedia; it may even get you a book contract.
Another hot topic in research these days concerns the amygdala, that almond-shaped portion of the brain in the medial temporal lobe just in front of the hippocampus, which is concerned with the control of motivation and aggression. (17) Brain research in the twentieth century tended to see the amygdala as linking feelings of fear to the body’s flight, fight or freeze response. (18) A hyper active amygdala can contribute to a heightened sense of vigilance; prolonged supervigilance can throw off chemical imbalances in the body. In the twenty-first century, brain research has begun to discover that an enlarged amygdala is correlated with manifestations of autism.
(17) OED, s.v., Def. 3.
“We believe that children with autism have normal-sized brains at birth but at some point, in the latter part of the first year of life, it [the amygdala] begins to grow in kids with autism.” (19)
(19) This is the conclusion of Dr. Joseph Piven of the University of North Carolina Medical School, in discussing findings published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in May 2009. For more information consult:
Thus, if you mention in the office that your acedia is tending to nag at you, be sure also to mention that you are concerned with the chemical imbalances in your body that may contribute to enlarging your amygdala. You will have everyone’s ears.
Finishing With a Flourish
We still have several words to discuss, but each will be handled much more briefly. They are tantamount, panache, temerity, epiphany and nadir/zenith. If something is tantamount to something else, it is equivalent. Normally, however, when you use tantamount (lit. “of equal amount”), you are comparing ideas or abstractions and not visible items. Often the word is used in controversy or debate. “A hearing actor playing a deaf person is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface.” So said a deaf actress recently. (20)
(20) "Hearing Man in Deaf Role Sparks Protests in New York," New York Times, October 14, 2009, C1.
If someone has temerity, it means they demonstrate excessive boldness, foolish or rash boldness or recklessness. The phrase in which it is most common is “temerity to suggest.” “He had the temerity to suggest that all the senior teachers should resign in order to get new blood in the institution.” It is also popular in phrases “temerity to think, criticize, to ask the tough question, to run for the school board,” etc. Sometimes the word is used tongue-in-cheek, as when a reporter said: “My own kids have the temerity to think that they know better than I which books they’ve enjoyed..”
The word epiphany has gone through an interesting transmogrification of late. What was formerly used almost exclusively to describe the Christian holiday on January 6, where the Wise Men discovered the Baby Jesus (this was the Ephiphany or “manifestation” of Jesus to the world), is now almost exclusively used to describe a kind of inspiration or even an idea that someone has had. That is, as with many words in English, there has been a linguistic slippage so that what was once a word signifying something of supremely sacred content is now used by people sitting around at Starbucks chatting over their lattes. The word is so popular (more than 1100 appearances in the New York Times in the past five years) that it can encompass almost any activity of life where someone feels “inspired” to do something. People who conceive of themselves as artists have epiphanies; the rest of the world has realizations. So, if you want to ramp up the energy in the office or at school, talk about your recent epiphanies—in love, in discovery, in understanding.
If you do something with panache, you are doing it with “flamboyant confidence of style or manner; dashing display; swagger; style.” (21) But the origin of the term is memorable. It is derived ultimately from French and Italian words meaning the feathers or plumes especially for a headdress or decoration for a helmet. The word first came into English in the late sixteenth century to describe a horse with a “feathered panache upon his head” which will “make him seem more brave.” Our more modern meaning only arose in the late nineteenth century. From 1932: “In real life the fun of soldiering, its bustle, its swagger, its panache, sometimes leads to being mutilated.” One can add panache now to almost anything, from a uniform, to one’s personal style, to the food one offers. It is a great and useful word.
(21) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
Let’s conclude this chapter with a word on zenith and nadir. The words are opposites, and are helpful to describe the “highs and lows” that we face in life. Though arising out of astronomy, the terms have a ready meaning in all human endeavors. One can have the zenith or nadir of a stock price, of personal fortunes, of national aspirations. From 1837: “The seventh century is the nadir of the human mind in Europe.” But, in order to end this chapter on an “up” note, let’s close with this quotation using zenith: “Built. . .in the zenith of the pointed style, [Westminster Abbey] is one of the most exquisite examples in its class.”
In the last part of this book we shall examine interesting and important adjectives for your written and oral communication.