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                               Essay Ten, Nouns and History


As you engage in conversation or reading, it is inevitable that you run into nouns that describe certain figures or events from the past. Unless you have taken the effort to get to know them, you will be nonplussed when you run into them.  This chapter and one in the next part of the book will probe words formed off of historical or mythological events, ideas or creatures. Here we will look at leviathan, Dadaism, Chautauqua, jeremiad, glasnost, laches and some related words. My goal here is not simply to give you insight into these terms but to give you a method to probe history so as to make it your playground of meaning and to enrich your conversation and writing.




Speaking of playgrounds, one of the first references we have to the mythological giant sea creature Leviathan mentions that it has the sea as its playground (Psalm 104:26):


     “There go the ships, and Leviathan whom thou (God) has formed to sport in it (the sea)"

Leviathan is a Hebrew word of uncertain derivation, but in the four or five biblical passages where it occurs it refers to a huge sea creature that God subdued (or will subdue) as an example of the divine power. Today it means something of enormous size and power. William Blake tried to depict this hard-scaled sea creature, along with Behemoth, in his sketches from the Book of Job. (1)

(1) Pictures of them abound online; the Web citation alone is five lines, and I won't reproduce it here. 


The longest treatment of this fearsome creature is in Job 41. Job’s description constitutes the richest Biblical description of any creature. It is wily and strong (Job 41:9):


     “Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed; were not even the gods overwhelmed        at the sight of it?"


It was protected by an impenetrable double coat of mail (v. 13). “One (plate) is so near to another that no air can come between them” (v. 16).  Not only is the creature strong and well-protected; it also exerts tremendous power when it moves:


    “Its breath kindles coals,

    and a flame comes out of its mouth,” (v. 21).


    “The arrow cannot make it flee;

    slingstones for it are turned to chaff,” (v. 28).


    "It makes the deep boil like a pot;

    It makes the sea like a pot of ointment,” (v. 31).


This memorable portrait of the sea creature leviathan not only influenced literary critics who publish a journal on Melville Studies (it is called, appropriately, Leviathan), but also was the inspiration for Thomas Hobbes’ most influential book in political philosophy. (2) Hobbes’ book was published just after the English Civil War of the 1640s. No doubt because of the chaos surrounding him as he wrote, he argued that the best form of government is a hugely powerful state which has in its tentacular grip both ecclesiastical and political power. The sovereign can never be removed from power. It cannot legitimately be revolted against. It is judge in all cases. It makes war and peace as it sees fit. It is itself the law. It is, in a word, a leviathan. When President George W. Bush brought people into the White House and the Office of Legal Counsel in order to develop his view of the “unitary Executive” or the supreme importance of the President (thus playing down the doctrine of separation of powers), he could have had them simply rely on the picture of the sovereign Hobbes’ Leviathan to make his case. As it was, Professor John Yoo and Judge Jay Bybee relied on other sources to redefine the meaning of torture, among other things.

(2Leviathan, The Matter, From and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651).


Thomas Hobbes’ idea never fully caught on in English political theory principally because John Locke, 40 years later, took the concept of the social contract, already present in Hobbes, and connected it with a more limited view of executive power. This view was then adopted by Montesquieu and Jefferson in the 18th century. But Hobbes' book made certain that the word leviathan would enter our vocabulary to describe something huge, monstrous or of enormous power. (3)  An 1839 book talked about “A legal contest with so potent a defendant as this leviathan of two counties.”  Or, from 1816:  “They [floating baths] stretch their long sprawling forms on the water, like so many painted Leviathans.” The word is used often today.  In describing some artistic renderings of a whale, a reviewer could write:  “’In the Whale,’ is a dark, nearly abstract vision of the leviathan’s cavernous interior.” A series of high mountain summits could be called a “parade of leviathan peaks.” Dan Brown, in his new book The Lost Symbol, (4) used the word. From Maureen Dowd’s review:


     “His metaphors and similes thud onto the page. Inoue Sato, an intelligence official              investigating a disembodied hand bearing a Masonic ring and iconic tattoos that shows      up in the Capitol Rotunda, ‘cruised the deep waters of the C.I.A. like a leviathan who          surfaced only to devour its prey.’”

(3) Hobbes was not the first to use the word leviathan as a synonym of "huge" or "powerful," though this usage only emerged in the early seventeenth century.

(4) Review by Maureen Dowd, "Capital Secrets," New York Times, October 11, 2009, p. 1.


Many think that under the last two US Presidents the federal government has grown to such a degree that it is best characterized as a leviathan. Who, indeed, can “tame” this giant monster in our midst?




We leave the roiling waters of the sea to the calm Finger Lakes region of New York State to pick up this term. Chautauqua is a place in that picturesque area of the Empire State that entered into our national vocabulary in the mid-1870s when two men, Lewis Miller and Bishop John Heyl Vincent, began a summer training institute for Sunday School teachers. Miller was the father of 11 children, one of whom (Mina) married Thomas Edison in 1886. Within a year of the founding of the Chautauqua Institute, it became directed not only to religious issues but also to the “promotion of true culture.” (5) Over the next two generations, Chautauqua became synonymous with the movement to bring culture, education and exposure to leading figures in American life for the middle classes. As such, Chautauqua:


     “is a shining example of how the growing middle class used self-cultivation as a means      of defining themselves.” (6)

(5) This is the subtitle of the monthly Chautauqua magazine. 

(6) The website that formerly had this quotation, from the University of Virginia, has been taken down. Its address was,


Soon after its inception the Chautauqua movement moved into more formal educational programs by forming the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC).  This was a four-year course of assigned home reading, the first such program in the nation’s history. We are fortunate to have online the reading list of the 1887-88 CLSC. (7) Two of the basic texts were Edward Everett Hale’s American History and Henry A. Beers’ An Outline Sketch of American Literature.  (8) So popular was this rush to educate Americans in their history and literature that one book could characterize the 1890s as “a fertile decade for writing American literary histories.” (9)


(8) Beers' book is online.

(9) Kermit Vanderbilt, American Literature and the Academy (1989), p. 132.


Well, I don’t need to tell the whole history of this movement or its revival in state humanities’ programs in the 1980s to today. I have given enough information to bring the word into your vocabulary.  One might use the word to characterize the “middle-classness” of a phenomenon.  It emphasizes study, diligence, self-improvement, moral education, refinement of manners and all those things we associate with the upwardly moving middle class at the beginning of the Gilded Age. 




Many of our meaningful historical terms originated in religious contexts because of the important shaping influence of religion in Western civilization. One of those religious terms is jeremiad. The word derives, as the OED says, from the style of writing in the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament (attributed to Jeremiah).This style, also presented in the Book of Jeremiah, consisted of three things: a statement of how the people had fallen away from the ideal of loyalty to the God of the Covenant (Yahweh), a list of the requirements for fidelity, and an exhortation to return to God while there is still time to do so. (10)

(10) The OED's colorful definitions include these three points. It describes a jeremiad as "a lamentation; a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress; a doleful complaint; a complaining tirade; a lugubrious effusion." I don't know if I have ever seen the phrase "lugubrious effusion" previously; I certainly will try to use it in the future.


But the word has been freed from its religious connection and now is associated with any searching indictment that still holds out hope for reform, if action is taken quickly.  The most famous jeremiad of the last 50 years was President Jimmy Carter’s July 15, 1979 speech on the “crisis of the American spirit.” In that speech a harried President, obsessed by the continuing oil crisis and long gas lines, depressed that his good friend Bert Lance had just been indicted, stung by allegations of a former speech writer that he, Carter, “believed 50 things but did not believe one thing,” delivered this talk to the American people.  We were gently chided not to focus on material acquisitions but on the need for caring for each other. We needed to sacrifice and not accumulate goods just for ourselves. (11) Carter delivered this jeremiad in 1979, but ever since President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that it was “morning in America” again, in the 1980s, no American President has seen fit to chide the country like Mr. Carter tried to.  Preachers may do so; academics can sometimes get away with it.  But in the last 40 years we have wanted our Presidents to be men who are upbeat in temperament, aggressive in spirit, gently forgiving of our failings and able to tell us that we can get everything we want without too much sacrifice. You wonder if the genre of American jeremiad is dead. I don’t think so for a moment.  It is just that we are probably going through national denial at the moment. Certainly the word is still quite useful and will become more useful in the ensuing days.

(11) A book by Professor Kevin Mattson, 'What the Heck are You Up To, Mr. President?' Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country (2009), thoroughly reviews the speech and the context out of which it grew.


                                                        Glasnost and Perestroika


These terms only came into American speech in the past 35 years. They are, of course, from Russian, and they emphasize the twin goals of the movement in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s to pursue greater “openness” (glasnost) and “restructuring” (perestroika) of the government based on this openness.  (12) Glasnost really was a remarkable change in the Soviet Union, and at first it produced a spirit of skepticism in the United States. 'Right,' we thought, 'the Soviet Union is opening up to internal criticism. That will be the day.'  But then, as we saw the quick effects of this policy, which led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we began to understand how much of a change was brought about through the work of Soviet Premier (and then President) Michael Gorbachev (b. 1931).



The first article describing glasnost with any clarity was written by Serge Schemann, the Moscow-based reporter for the New York Times. In a February 22, 1986 article, he began this way:


     “An Old Bolshevik declared that he thought it was time to re-establish the practice of        regular purges. Another thought party officials should be stripped of their privileges          and made to stand in "those lines we so despise" with everyone else. That was in              Pravda. On television, a Deputy Minister of Light Industry, charged with making                  clothing and shoes, was invited to answer questions called in live by viewers, and              President Reagan went on the air with a New Year's message." (13)

(13) "From Purges to Privilege:  Lively Debate In Gorbachev's Soviet," New York Times, February 22, 1986, p. 12.


This was the beginning of the movement to openness, which began when Gorbachev took office in March 1985. It started with cautious criticisms in the official journalistic arm of the Communist Party, Pravda, but then it spread to all areas of Soviet life.  But the doctrine of glasnost,  translated as ‘transparency,’ had unintended effects.  People not only wanted to shine a light on the “whitewashing” of history performed by Soviet academics or the ways their family had been trampled by the Party, but they also began to bring to light long-standing social and economic inequality and injustice that were supposed not to exist in this Communist state. Then, as the Russian people began to learn more details about the horrors of their past, a widespread movement arose to throw off the system which gave them these things.  Like the musical piece “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” based on the 14-stanza 1797 poem by the German romantic poet Goethe, the broom that was first a servant of the person doing the cleaning ends up becoming independent of the cleaner and threatens to destroys the house and everything in it.


The concept of openness or transparency of government has received a fresh new twist in the Administration of President Barack Obama. Call it American glasnost. On the day after he took the oath of office, his office issued a “transparency memorandum,” which said that his Administration was prepared to “create an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” (14) What is interesting, however, as Prof. Lawrence Lessig pointed out in the October 2009  essay “Against Openness: The Perils of Transparency in Government,” is that the notion of transparency, though immediately and superficially attractive to the ear, actually can end up undermining the work of government and the goals of an ambitious Administration. (15) Openness is good and bad; it can help expose some of the nefarious schemes of people who make their way under the cloak of secrecy, but it also can shed too much light on activities that might, for the time being, need to be shrouded in silence. But the word glasnost and, to a lesser extent, perestroika, can help frame that debate more elegantly today than just using our words “transparency.”




                                                        Dadaism and Fauvism


The epoch of WWI, from about 1913-1923, was transformative for Western society.  The War to End All Wars, as it was called, managed instead to lead to the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians, destroy major economies, and create the conditions for an even more destructive war a generation later. It also unleashed forces of anti-colonialism which are still in our collective psyche and which have affected literature, art, history-writing and almost every aspect of international relations until today.  Rather than it being the “last shot” of the nineteenth century ushering in a millennium of peace and prosperity, WWI ended up being the “first shot” of the twentieth century, a century that fundamentally changed the way that power was aligned in the world, that technology functioned, and that people conceived of their present and future.


Such a dramatic series of events, triggered by the June 28, 1914 Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, also had effects in the artistic and literary worlds. The nineteenth century saw the development of Western art from the realism of someone like David in France through the impressionism of Renoir and Monet to the cubism of Cezanne and Picasso. Abstraction was gently edging its way into the artistic scene, and it would, eventually, bear fruit in the literary movement known as deconstruction after WWII.  But the irruption or violent bursting in of “total war” in the years following 1914 led to the formation of a short-lived but influential artistic movement known as Dada or Dadaism. The word, when combined with the verb “to be” in French means “to ride one’s hobby-horse,” was first used in 1916 by a Romanian poet in a Zurich review article.  (16) It was meant to describe the artistic repudiation of traditional conventions and reason, and it was also intended to outrage and scandalize. (17) The art flowing from this movement, at first centered in Zurich but then spread to six cities in Europe and America (New York).  As one web site says, 


     “these writers and artists used any public forum they could find to (metaphorically) spit      on nationalism, rationalism, materialism and any other -ism which they felt had                    contributed to a senseless war. In other words, the Dadaists were fed up. If society is        going in this direction, they said, we'll have no part of it or its traditions.” (18)

(16) Some suggest, alternatively, that the word is simply nonsense talk, like the meaningless chatter of an infant.

(17) OED, Dada.


Examples of Dada art are easy to find on the Net.  The footnoted web site gives a retrospective of Dada images on display in a 2005-06 exhibit at MoMA in New York. (19)



The irony of the Dadaist movement was that its artwork survived and became the subject of an exhibit. It wasn’t supposed to be art. It was supposed to be anti-art. But there was another artistic movement early in the twentieth century that very much wanted to survive but, ironically, did not.  Called the Fauves (French for “wild beast”), this artistic movement emphasized “painterly qualities and strong color over representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism.” (20) Of course the work of these artists has survived, and that of Henri Matisse and Andre Derain is especially to be noted, but the notion of a movement quickly faded in the incandescent heat of WWI.  



Both these terms are useful to know, with Dada/Dadaism being especially helpful if you want a word to help you describe something completely meaningless to you.  It is “dada.”  It could also suggest a product of your rage, confusion or counter-cultural sentiment.  Massaging historical terms is fun, because you yet might draw out a meaning from the word not even intended by those who first used it.




The simple definition of laches (LATCHES) is “negligence” or “sloth.” Almost the only place the term is used today is in law, where it means “negligence in the performance of any legal duty” or “delay in asserting a right, claim or privilege.” (21)  I first ran into the term in law school when reading a pleading in which the defendant argued that his case ought to be dismissed because of plaintiff’s laches—the plaintiff had not brought the case in a timely fashion.

(21) OED, s.v.


The legal treatise that most ably sums up the common law tradition, the legal tradition of England and the US, is William Blackstone’s three-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69).  Though his volumes don’t make easy reading today, they can profitably be studied, especially when you realize it was the work of Blackstone that utterly incensed his able student Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and led Bentham to reformulate the nature of the common law tradition.  


Blackstone uses the word laches throughout his work, but one place should be noted. In his discussion on the prerogatives of the king (I.vii), where his general point is that the king is beyond the law, he says the following:


     “In farther pursuance of this principle, the law also determines that in the king can be         no negligence, or laches, and therefore no delay will bar his right. Nullum tempus              occurrit regi [“no time runs against the king”] is the standing maxim upon all                        occasions:  for the law intents that the king is always busied for the public good, and          therefore has not leisure to assert his right within the times limited to subjects.”


Can we hear the slight echo of this passage behind modern attempts to assert a doctrine of high executive privilege?

If the word simply had a rather arcane legal usage (now law in general talks about specific statutes of limitation rather than general principles of laches), it might not merit notice.  But it was first brought into English in the fourteenth century in literary contexts to mean “slackness, remissness, negligence or a habit of neglect.” Though this definition has been called “Obsolete,” it might be good to review its usage at an earlier time, because I think this word is a candidate for revival in our day. It can be helpfully used as a synonym for negligence, delay, sloth, acedia or accidie.  (22) George Eliot used the term in Middlemarch:


     “In his heart he [Mr. Farebrother] felt rather ashamed that his conduct had shown                laches which other who did not get benefices were free from." (23)

(22) The last two words aren't familiar to most readers, but they are good medieval Latin terms to describe one of the seven deadly sins--sloth.

(23) Cited in Century Dictionary, s.v. 


Perhaps the earliest and most interesting literary usage of laches is in the Parson’s Tale near the end of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  This long tale appears, on the surface, just to be a standard medieval homily about the dangers of falling prey to the seven deadly sins.  But several commentators have taken Chaucer’s apparent seriousness here as a signal to read deeper meaning into the tale. I will remain mum on this question, but I do want to show you how laches enters. The Parson narrates the malefic effects of the sins of envy and anger. Then, he says, in modern translation: “After the sins of envy and of anger, now will I speak of the sin of acedia, or sloth.”


The discussion continues:

     “Then enters the sin that men call tarditas, which is when a man is too tardy or too            long-tarrying before he turns unto God.”


Still speaking of the general sin of sloth, he continues (and now we will switch back to the medieval English):


    “Thanne comth lachesse (laches) that is he, that 

    Whan he biginneth any good werk, anon he

    Shal forleten it and stynten…” (24)

(24) "Parson's Tale," line 721.


The modern translation renders this:  “then comes laziness; that is when a man begins any work and anon forgoes it and holds his hand. . .” The last verb is stint, which we have seen above.




Many more words could be described here.  Indeed, I was ready to give full descriptions of chimera, sibyl, bacchanalia, and ayurveda in addition, but space doesn’t permit that here.  Maybe there will be time to consider them under their adjectival forms in the next part of the book.  Or, maybe the next book. Or maybe that will be in your book.

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