(to return to Words page, click here)
Aggiornamento—along with ageism, came into English in the 1960s. The word aggiornamento, however, wasn't a stateside invention, but derives from the Italian word for the idea of "modernization" or "bringing up to date." In contrast to ageism, aggiornamento had a positive connotation when introduced into English. Aggiornamento found its English-language voice, with the same meaning as the Italian word, during and after the Vatican II conference in 1962-65. In preparation for the conference, Life Magazine ran an October 1962 article in which it coined the word: “The aggiornamento and the spiritual renewal for which the Pope appeals are difficult concepts for earthbound men to translate into concrete terms.” But soon after Vatican II concluded, with all its heady promise, the word became supple enough to be used in other venues, such as a 1966 reference of General Charles de Gaulle of France “encouraging the aggiornamento in popular democracies, particularly in Romania.” That same usage is behind it appearance in a 2003 Foreign Affairs article, which spoke of the “transformation, or aggiornamento, of the Latin American left.” Depending on one's perspective, one could also lament this aggiornamento in the Roman Catholic church. From 1969, “The splendid garb traditionally worn by Princes of the Church is the latest victim of aggiornamento.”
Agglutinative—the word means what it sounds like, that is, to “glue together” two objects. Derived from the Latin agglutinare, the word had its longest run in English in the medical field, though linguistics is quickly overtaking it in our day. Medically speaking, an agglutinative is something that promotes agglutination or something that “unites or fastens as like glue”or “causes to stick firmly.” From a 1585 surgical manual, one has, “After thus closing, dress up the wound with some agglutinative medicine.” In the eighteenth century one did the following, “On the stitches the agglutinative powder was sprinkled.” Its use in medicine is fading, as we do not really want to use five syllables to describe this “glue”process, but linguistics is picking up the slack. The usual contrast in that field was between inflected and agglutinative languages. More recently a host of other words have been introduced to make that contrast, but agglutinative survives into the twenty-first century. From the NY Review of Books (2003), “The language itself is not inflected as Semitic and Indo-European languages are, but agglutinative.” Such a language adds grammatical and other elements on as prefixes and suffixes of a word stem. One example will suffice. The Turkish word enlerden means “from the houses,”and it consists of en, a house, ler is a plural, and den, which means “from.”Now you have it, even though your tongue tends to stick to your teeth when you try to say the word.
Aggrandize—though this verb is a perfectly good one, and means “to make something larger or more intense,” it is almost exclusively used today in the phrase self-aggrandizement. I will get to that in a second, but first you should know, and you no doubt see in the word, that it has something to do with making something “grander”or “larger.” More specifically, it means “to increase the power, status or wealth of a person, country, etc.” or simply to “enlarge, increase, magnify” something. From 2009, “It will help historians understand whether Goering was a Renaissance man, as he liked to aggrandize himself. . .” Or, “He does it not to benefit others but to aggrandize his own personal power.” It has been used in these two ways in English since the word was borrowed from the French in the seventeenth century. Yet, it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that someone had the imagination to put “self” in front of the word to mean “self-promotion”and say, “If he employed the forces of state for the purpose of personal vengeance or self-aggrandizement, he was justly held obnoxious.” One also has the word-phrase self-aggrandizing, to mean the same thing. It often appears in the phrase “self-aggrandizing behavior.”The latter is considered to be one of the seven traits of a narcissist. You can be sure that one of the other six isn’t “self-effacing"!
Agoraphobia--Fear, or dread, of open spaces. This was one of the phobias coined in the nineteenth century (see note on ailurophobia), and means “the fear of the agora,”or “fear of open or crowded spaces.” Because nineteenth century Germany was searching for an identity, it decided that classical Greece had the key to that identity, and that all its young men of promise should spend their time mastering the Greek classics. Thus it is not unexpected that the one who invented this term in 1871, derived from the open civic space in classical Greece (the Agora), was a German psychiatrist Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal. He was working as a professor and clinical instructor in the department of mental and nervous diseases in Berlin and had three male patients who displayed extreme anxiety, even dread, when they entered certain public areas of the city. An 1871 English language article had this to say, “Agoraphobia--With this name Westphal denotes a neuropathic affection which he has recently occasionally encountered. Its most essential symptom, is a most acute anxiety or fear, experienced in open spaces, long passages, theaters, concert saloons, etc., with no other cerebral disturbance.” Current psychiatry hasn’t much expanded Westphal’s definition, but has made advances in two areas: charting its frequency and exploring its “co-morbid" conditions. As to the former, we are told that nearly 1% of adults each year suffer from this affliction; with respect to the latter, it is often associated with the more general phenomenon of panic attacks.
Ailurophobia—the intense fear or aversion to cats--has probably been around as long as humans and cats have occupuied the same space, even though the word only made its entry into English in 1905. Derived from two classical Greek words, ailuros (cat) and phobos (fear), this fear is, apparently, widespread and, from the perspective of cat-lovers, quite irrational. The word phobia only entered into English in 1786, and so one could look at the nineteenth century as not simply the age of Western exploration and exploitation of Africa or Latin America but as the century of the invention/discovery of phobias. Claustrophobia, for example, first appeared in 1879; agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) in 1871; acrophobia (fear of being in high places) in 1888; nosophobia (an irrational fear of diseases) in 1889; anthropophobia (fear of humans) in 1799; nomophobia (fear of rules or laws) in 1803 [but it also has been recently re-coined in 2008 as the fear of not having access to a cell phone; the same is true of homophobia, which meant fear or hatred of the male gender when coined in 1901 but was re-coined in 1969 to mean hostility against homosexual people]. Words for various fears are still being coined. But my favorite sentence including ailurophobia/ic is its initial appearance: “Finding a lady, rather ailurophobic, in a low dress at dinner, Tippoo (obviously a cat) suddenly leaped up and alighted on her neck. He was never so friendly with non-ailurophobes.
Akhenaten—Books have been written about this 18th Dynasty Pharaoh who died around 1335 BCE. He was relatively unknown among historians until the unearthing of the Amarna tablets in the 1880s, which describe life at his court and the religious changes he attempted to bring to the Egyptian people. But if that was all he did, he would not bulk so large among students of antiquity. Rather, he seemed to have turned away from the traditional divinities of Egypt to embrace the sun God, Aten, and to do so in a way that led many scholars to say he was a proto-monotheist or a monolatrist or a henotheist. That is, he considered Aten either the supreme god or even the only God of Egypt. When scholars of ancient religion, especially in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries adopted a kind of evolutionary view of religion, where societies went from polytheism to henotheism (one supreme god but with other lesser divinities) to monotheism (supposedly represented especially in the Israelite prophets), Akhenaten was seen as an important link in this supposed chain. This approach to the history of religions has since been discredited. But apart from any theory of the development of concepts of divinity, his reign was noteworthy for a more humanistic flavor in art and, of course, for his lovely wife Nefertiti, often referred to as the most beautiful woman in the classical world (though the Chinese, with their concept of the four beauties beginning with the lovely 西施(xi1shi1) several centuries later, would probably give the Egyptians a run for their money. . ).
Alacrity—Cheerful readiness, usually to perform a task. The word comes from similarly-spelled Latin and French words and first made it into English in 1460 in the phrase “alacrity to leap.” I think that phrase is felicitous because it gives the impression not simply of willingness to do something but of liveliness, sprightliness and rapidity. As such, it is a great word to capture someone’s quick compliance, eagerness to do something, or simply one’s brisk “spirit.” Shakespeare used it in the last sense in Richard III, “I have not that alacrity of spirit nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have.” But its more usual use was in connection with doing things: “The pleasantness and alacrity, with which a charitable person should set himself to the doing of good. . .” A 1993 article could talk about a person who “has trained her body to an enviable trimness and alacrity of motion.” Though one can speak of someone having an alacrity of spirit, as Shakespeare did, I usually associate the word with the performance of a task: “A number of brisk young men began with remarkable alacrity to tidy up the room. . .” But I do like the sentence, “The minister had an alacrity of spirit that helped minimize the weight she carried.”
Albatross—one of not many words whose original and very useful zoological meaning has been almost completely overtaken by its figurative meaning. In zoology, an albatraoss is a large oceanic bird with long narrow wings, typically with white plumage, and found in the southern oceans. One quotation from 1726 calls them “the largest sort of sea-fowls.” But Samuel Taylor Coleridge was responsible, in his 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for transforming its meaning into a figurative one: “Instead of the Cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung.” But it wasn’t until almost a century later that the connection between Coleridge’s words and albatross as encumbrance or hindrance was made. From 1883 “Sir Allan had long been the albatross about the government’s neck.” So the phrase “albatross around (someone’s) neck” or simply “an albatross” became common to describe a source of frustration, obstruction or guilt from which it is difficult to rid oneself. What is doubly interesting with this usage is that English already had a perfectly good way to express the same idea communicated by“albatross around the neck”: “millstone around the neck.” But millstones gradually faded as the mechanized processes of the nineteenth century replaced them. In addition, Coleridge had such a literary visibility that his vivid phrase captured our attention. Google searches, however, on the phrases “millstone around”and “albatross around” yield similar numbers. Hmm. . .how to describe this terrible burden on me? I bet no one has ever sat in a psychologist’s chair and confessed, “Doctor, my major problem is whether to describe my burden as an albatross or a millstone around my neck. . .”
Albumen/Albumin—Albumen is a word originally meaning, in English (1599), “white of an egg,” a usage which goes all the way back to early medieval Latin, but by the end of the next century it included the meaning of “the endosperm of a seed.” The connection between the two was made for us in a 1796 quotation, “Albumen, used by Grew and Gaertner, for the substance of the lobes of the seed; which corresponds to the white of an egg.” The word morphed further in the late eighteenth century to include “a colorless soluble tissue” that “forms a major constituent part of an egg white, blood plasma and other animal and plant tissues.” Thus by 1822 we could be talking about how “albumen is the principle constituent of the serum of blood.” By the late 1850s, a scientist could write: “These compounds . . . gluten, fibrin, albumen, casein, etc., form the basis of all vegetable and animal tissues.” Albumen thus started out in the inauspicious world of egg whites and vaulted to the higher social status plane of a constituent of tissues of all living things. Yet, its victory was short-lived. Along the way (in 1801), another word, albumin, entered. It picked up on the “colorless soluble protein” definition of albumen, and then became a more specialized word to describe “a member of a class of simple globular proteins that are soluble in water, moderately soluble in salt solutions and denatured by heat.” As the twentieth century wore on, albumin began to take over all the usages of albumen except its first—an egg white—so that by the twenty-first century, the words are distinct. Albumen is once again “the clear liquid contained within an egg,” while albumin is a family of globular proteins, the most common of which is “serum albumin.” If I were a child of albumen, I would protest.
Aleatory—means a chance occurrence of something. It is especially present, though not necessarily common, in legal contexts, especially insurance contracts. In those contracts an uncertain event, such as a fire or explosion, triggers the responsibility of the insurance carrier to cover the loss. Thus, an aleatory contract is one that is a “chancy”one, or one that is dependent on uncertain events or occurrences happening for it to be effective. Behind the English word is the Latin alea, die or dice and aleator, a gambler or dice-player. But the word is one of those, like subaltern or a host of other cool-sounding words, that have been picked up by artsy or literary types to describe a phenomenon that often is clear to few people, and sometimes not even to those who use the word. There is a topic or field known as aleatory art, for example, which is art created, composed or performed according to a chance or random process. From a book on (what else?) postmodernism in 1990, “His 1978 Oxidation series, in which aleatory color schemes are created through Warhol urinating on bronze or copper-covered canvases.” I can see the appeal of both the word and his art.... I am sure you can, too. One might also have aleatory (i.e., random) music or other art forms. Nice to have a big word to describe this randomness—as if to give it meaning and some academic heft.
Algebraic—the adjectival form of algebra, a branch of mathematics dealing with symbols, (written in both Latin and Greek letters), where these symbols represent quantities without fixed values, known as variables. Knowing the Arabic roots of the term algebra helps us understand why, when the word algebra first came into English around 1400 it meant the “surgical treatment of a fractured or dislocated bone.” That meaning, by the way, fell out of common usage by 1800 except in historical notes. From a 1999 book, “Its jurisdiction (i.e., the board of medical examiners in colonial Guatemala in 1793) covered the entire field of medicine—algebra (bone setting), midwifery, phlebotomy (bloodletting), surgery, and pharmacy.” But the Arabic root for the word is al-jabr (I can’t confirm, since my Arabic is rusty in March 2020), which comes from the realm of “restoration.” It was first used mathematically by the Arabs, so the OED tells us, to describe a method of solving quadratic equations by completing the square. By the ninth century, al-Kwarizmi had written the classic The Concise Book on Calculation by Restoration and Compensation. So, algebra originally was a kind of “restoration”or filling up of things not filled. But the word “restoration”in Arabic also suggests the “reunion”of broken parts and thus the surgical treatment of fractures. Philosopher Mary Everest Boole calls algebra the “honest confession of our ignorance,”because we supply a place holder, such as “x”to denote a number of which we are not certain. But then, by means of a formula, we might actually figure out what it is. Algebra both confesses and relieves our ignorance. Wish I had known that in eighth grade.
Aliphatic—one of the two kinds of hydrocarbons. This word takes us right into the heart of organic chemistry, which very few people either have interest in or knowledge of. To understand aliphatic, one must start with hydrocarbons, a compound of hydrogen and carbon. For example, methane (CH4) is a hydrocarbon (an alkane), consisting of just hydrogen and carbon elements. Ethane, too (C2H6), and propane (C3H8..note the formula is CnH2n+2) is a hydrocarbon. The two types of hydrocarbons are aliphatic and aromatic. Aliphatic hydrocarbons include alkanes, alkenes, alkynes. The most popular aromatic hydrocarbon is the benzene ring. One might further divide hydrocarbons into saturated and unsaturated, but that takes us too far afield at this point. The OED defines aliphatic as “having a molecular structure based on an open-ended chain of carbon atoms.”The word aliphatic originates in the Greek word aleiphar/aleiphat, having to do with an unguent or fat, with the verb aleiphein meaning “to anoint.” I am sure that all of this makes you want to stop doing everything now to take up the finer points of this fine science.
Aliquot—usually used in the phrase “aliquot part,” aliquot turns up most frequently in mathematics, biology, medicine and land surveying. Knowing the Latin origin of the term, however, gets you nowhere: alius means “some” and quot means “how many.” Thus, a definition would be helpful: an aliquot is something contained in a larger number a certain number of times without any remainder. Thus it is an exact divisor. But that exact divisor need not be an integer. Thus, we might say that the aliquot parts of a dollar include, but are not limited to 1 (an aliquot part of any integer), 2, 3 1/3, 4, 5, 10, 20, 33 1/3, 25, 50. The best way to teach children the notion of aliquot parts is to place one piece of cake in front of two of your children, tell one to divide it and the other to choose his or her piece first. They will both immediately catch on to the importance of aliquot parts in keeping familial harmony. In biology and medicine, an aliquot is two or more samples, typically of the same size, taken from a larger quantity for analysis. “Eight 30-cc aliquots of a stock solution. . .were exposed to a 9-kilocycle sonic waves.”I was fascinated to discover that the language of aliquot parts is also used as a unit of measurement as part of the US’s Public Land Survey System. An aliquot part describes a subsection of a larger plot. For example, when the public lands were divided into sections (640 acres), the aliquot parts of it were the four “quarter sections”(160 acres each), denominated by directional markings: i.e., the “northwest quadrant/corner of section 29 of township XXX.”
Allargando—this word takes us into the interesting, and perhaps deliberately vague, world of musical terminology derived from the Italian. I say “perhaps deliberately vague”because there were four musical terms that generally meant “to slow down”that were brought over from Italian into English in the space of a century and, when taken over, were not clearly distinguished from each other. I am referring to allargando (1873), rallentando (1786), ritenuto (1826) and ritardando (1806). Though this article is about allargando, a word on the others is helpful. In order: rallentando from 1786 was described, “an expression implying that the time of the passage over which it is placed it to be gradually decreased. ”Well, how about ritardando? From 1806, “an expression implying a slackening of the time.” By 1809 we could have in a British encyclopedia of music saying, "Rallentando, or ritardando, becoming slower, but gradually.” Two words for the same thing now. Sounds cool to be able to say them to a rapt audience, however. Then, ritenuto (1826) is never really defined in English, but only appears in this sentence, “How is it legato, con fuoco, a tempo, ritenuto, brillante?” The OED isn’t even sure how the word is derived but suggests an ultimate origin in the classical Latin retinere (“to retain/hold back”). So, in 1828 it was defined as movements in music to be performed “in a gentle, delicate, and restrained manner.” But is this a "decrease" or “slowing down”? It must be, though the vagueness is somewhat charming. A music appreciation book from 1920 could smush all these three together, “Variation in tempo is indicated by such words as ritenuto, ritardando, rallentando (denoting a gradual decrease of rapidity),” but the good author left it tantalizingly imprecise whether the gradual decrease only applied to rallentando or all three. True artists believe that words can never capture their brilliance, and so those of us who are seeking precision are most likely misguided fools. But I will interpret CG Hamilton (author of the 1920 quotation) to mean that the decrease of rapidity applies to all three of the preceding terms. This is starting to look like a common law property conveyance contract, where one might “sell, lease, demise, quit”or other things in order to make sure that the property is off your hands. Sorry I am going on, but a section from current Delaware law, regarding conveyance of title in real estate has this, “Any person . . .may contract to purchase, acquire, take, hold, sell, transfer, assign, lease, demise, encumber, or otherwise convey any estate, right, title, or interest in real estate.”I wonder if musicians and real estate attorneys should have a convention together and play a game: “How many terms can we string together in one sentence, each of which might have a specific meaning but together seem to drown us in overwhelming vagueness?” But, as if this wasn’t enough, I suppose someone felt we needed in English another Italian word that might suggest slowing down but might suggest some other kind of action while slowing down of music is happening. That would be our word allargando. When it was first recorded in English in 1873, the frustration of the author is clear: “Allargando is from the verb allargare—to extend or enlarge; but is applicability to the passage over which it is placed can only be understood by those who sufficiently sympathize with the author to accept so vague an indication.” So the verb allargare means “to enlarge.”We can muse: enlarge means to make something big. How do you make a note “big”? Well, by slowing down and pausing over it. So, the OED presents the definition as follows: “A musical direction indicating that the time is to be made slower and the tone fuller.” We can just see a tortured conductor, pleading with the orchestra, and intoning “allargando, allargando”and expecting everyone to know what he means. Actually, the presence of four Italian-derived terms in music that can mean about the same thing allows that same conductor to say to them, “You really didn’t do it precisely right,” and get away with it. Vagueness masquerading as expertise. But it seems so much cooler to have Italian words in musical directions than mere English words (“slow down here”). It is like going to a classy Manhattan restaurant and not having a chef who speaks French. You have a right to feel insulted.
Allay—most frequently today meaning “to lay aside” and especially in the phrase “allay one’s fears,” but in fact a very complex verb. The OED’s extensive historical note asserts that it seems to be derived from the Old High German erlegen, though it is difficult to see how the “al,” behind which no doubt stands the Latin ad, is derived from er. A second difficulty is in the crossover in early English between the verbs allay and allege, which could seemingly be spelled interchangeably. Thus, a search for origins here just seems to catch us in a deeper and more impenetrable thicket. When the word allay emerges from that thicket, it could be used in a dozen different ways, as the OED tells us, most of which usages are obsolete. Yet, the first usage,“to lay aside”or “quell,”which it says is obsolete, is really at the basis of its use today. Our current meaning of allay is “to quell or subdue (a disturbance or strong emotion); to calm; appease; to put (fear, suspicion) at rest.” A 2011 example gives us the most common combination: “The study also allays fears that CBT or GET may be harmful,” though other appearances talk about allaying suspicion, allaying paranoid convictions, allaying anger and bitter controversy. Yet, we can stretch allay a bit, removing it from the realm of human emotion, and associating it with natural phenomena. Ambrose Bierce said in 1909, “Till storm and counter-storm are both allayed. . .” Allay can even be used in the sense of satisfy, “We are told that dogs were sacrificed to allay the Dog-star heat. ”Normally in our day the verb “subside”takes over the meaning of Bierce’s allay, and “satisfy/propitiate”the “Dog-star”quotation. Fears, of course, can also be “charmed,”or “calmed”or “reduced,” but allay is a sturdy term to describe the process of something, especially one’s fears or suspicions, (gradually) dissipating.
Allegation—more frequently appearing in the verbal form allege, which originally appeared primarily in legal contexts meaning “to declare before a legal tribunal” or “to submit something as legal evidence,” but it morphed gradually into the meaning almost exclusively used today--“to assert something without proof.” An allegation, then, is a claim that something is true, even though the substance of the claim has not been demonstrated. An allegation might be said to be something “pending proof.” Though used in popular or general speech today, its home remains in law. From 1989, “The inquest into his death was delayed by legal arguments. . .alleging he had been assaulted with kicks and punches.” But when the word starts straying too far from its legal roots, we all can get into trouble. What I mean by that is that allegation in politics or public life now generally carries the meaning of unjustified evil innuendo or possibly scandalous behavior. A search of the phrase “baseless allegation” yielded 400,000 results, while “wild allegation” came in at over 100,000, though many of these latter point to the name of a Boston-based band. Yet its legal flavor is maintained when there is the word “of” after allegation, for it refers to as-yet unsubstantiated charges. The two most frequently-appearing phrases are “allegations of misconduct,” which the company HR department is often charged with the responsibility of investigating and, most frequently appearing, an “allegation of abuse.”This is a magic phrase that usually gets the legal apparatus grinding.
Allemande—a Renaissance and Baroque era (i.e., sixteenth-eighteenth century) dance of German origin, originating in ducal courts, in moderate duple time and performed by couples who frequently spin each other or hold/touch hands. The best “description,” of course, is a YouTube video of it. The word made it into English in the phrase “allemande leap” as early as 1591, but it really didn’t pick up steam until the eighteenth century. We see the “leaping”nature of it in a 1728 quotation, “Whenever you have made several [springs or hops] together, as in the Allemande. . .”A 1748 quotation captures the reality of dancing even to our day, “The German girls very prettily dressed, dancing Allemande with their uncouth men.” A dance history in 2010 tried to put this dance in perspective: “The many handholds and intertwined positions of the allemande began a dance revolution.”Would that I had time and knowledge to develop that point. The word can also describe the steps of a dance; I recall from my dancing classes beginning in seventh grade that one of the frequent commands was, “Allemande left.”In addition, in the nineteenth century the word became associated with a rich velouté sauce thickened with egg yolks and cream. I wonder if the dance suggested the sauce, or if the development of the words was completely unrelated. . .
Allotment—has the general meaning of something apportioned or given out to someone but, more specifically, refers to a portion or parcel of land. The verb allot, appearing first in the fifteenth century, emphasized the authoritative distribution of land, either by law or by a lord/political leader. From the Rolls of Parliament of Edward IV (1473-1474) we are introduced to all kinds of medieval English real estate terms: “To whom the said lordship, manor, wapentake, lands and tenements. . .be allotted. . . “Littleton’s classic sixteenth century work on Tenures (i.e., land holdings) mentioned that,“the lands in fee simple be allotted to the younger daughter. . .”But, as mentioned, the word can have a broader meaning than in land distribution. One can have allotments of the spoils of war, or shares of stock, or money, or vehicles. In the twentieth century even the geneticists got into the act but talking about sex determination in the womb. “[It] appears to be settled at the time of fertilization, when the individual receives his or her allotment of chromosomes.” I wish I had known that meaning of the term when my parents were still alive, for I could have then used it in conversation with them about the genes bequeathed to me. . .
Altricial—and its antonym precocial, have to do with babies of animal species and how they are equipped to deal with the world upon birth. An altricial offspring, where altricial is derived ultimately from the Latin alere (to nurture, bring up) and mediately from the Latin altrix (foster mother/wet nurse), is one which is dependent and so is confined to the nest, burrow, or home until it is sufficiently developed to live without parental care. The word originated in descriptions of young birds, so that by 1872 one could have, “pigeons are altricial, and monogamous.”But by the twentieth century altricial became useful to describe the “nest-bound”character of any offspring. . From Scientific American in 1980, “There are six pups in an average coyote litter, and they are altricial, or dependent, at birth.”Well, what are humans? According to the National Institutes of Health, “Our neonates are born with the least-developed brains of any primate, with brains less than 30% of adult size. As a result, although human newborns are precocial in other respects, our neonates are neurologically and behaviorally altricial.” A recent article in Frontiers of Zoology (2017), used the term altricial-precocial spectrum to describe differences in developmental modes in humans. What that article tried to do was to investigate the link, hitherto unexplored, between developmental mode and social complexity in humans. The categories of altricial and precocial were invented by the Swedish professor Carl Jakob Sundevall (1801-1875) in the early 1870s in his study of birds. The OED mysteriously tells us that he later “abandoned”these categories (when and why?), but the rest of the world still uses them. And, now we have a growing number of “spectrums”by which we define our lives: we plot ourselves on the “gender spectrum”between male and female, at opposite ends. We plot ourselves on the “autism spectrum”with severe autism and neurotypicality at opposite ends. We now can plot ourselves on the altricial-precocial spectrum. It’s our way of thinking today. Black and white is fading, and spectrums are “in.”
Alzheimer’s—is a word on everyone’s lips to describe a form of dementia in which a person gradually forgets things, becomes confused, and finally becomes disoriented. Though the onset of some cases of Alzheimer’s happens before a person’s fiftieth birthday, it normally affects people in their seventies and older. There is little help at this stage for reversing the course of this ravager but that hasn’t stopped many people from rushing in with pills or other regimens that they claim can stave off the onset of this malady. “Take this pill”or “learn a new language”or “do the crossword puzzle daily”or “make sure you get your heart rate up for fifteen minutes” are a number of saws that have risen almost to the level of wisdom sayings in advising people who face this reality. The word comes from the name of the German neurologist, Dr Alois Alzheimer, who first characterized the disease in a person he began treating in 1901. No word was coined at first to describe the patient’s (a woman named Auguste Deter) extreme memory loss and delusions. Dr Alzheimer cared for her until her death in 1906, whereupon he examined her brain and discovered amyloid plaques and other neural changes. Rather than being named after the sufferer, the disease then became named after the doctor, and it came into English in 1911 as “Alzheimer’s disease.” Estimates now are that Alzheimer’s constitutes upwards of 70% of dementia cases. Had the disease only been identified in the last thirty or so years, it would probably not have been named after the discoverer but with a term descriptive of the condition. But Alzheimer’s, like Asperger’s syndrome in autism spectrum disorders, retained the name of its discoverer.
Amaurosis—the OED gives the general definition: “partial or total loss of sight arising from disease of the optic nerve, usually without external change in the eye.”The term amaurosis, derived from the Greek word for “darken”or “make dim”goes back to 1657 in English. Its Latin equivalent is gutta serena or, literally, “clear spot,”emphasizing the condition as one without any apparent changes in the eye’s surface. But as blindness was studied more granularly after 1657, a distinction arose, beginning in the nineteenth century, between Leber’s congenital amaurosis and amaurosis fugax. The former is an eye disorder primarily affecting the retina, a tissue in the back of the eye detecting light and color. While this condition of severe visual impairment typically affects people beginning in infancy, the condition may worsen over time. Its prevalence is 1 in 40,000 newborns and its severity, as can be expected, varies considerably from person to person. Eighteen types are currently recognized. Amaurosis fugax is, as the word fugax suggests, “fleeting.” It is temporary blindness caused by a decrease of blood flowing to the retina, often caused by a clot or plaque in the bloodstream. Though this condition often is resolved in a few minutes, it is probably indicative of a serious ocular or systemic problem. This condition is often called “temporary/transient visual loss”(TVL). When one starts talking more specifically about causation and treatment, one enters into a wonderful world of Latin-derived medical terms that are beyond the scope of this essay.
Ambulatory—the word ambulatory, like adjuvant, had its origins outside of the medical field but has pretty much been taken over by medicine in our day. Medicine is getting a larger and larger chunk of the domestic national product; it only seems fair that they take over a corresponding share of the words in the dictionary. The big question a person faces after surgery today is when s/he will be ambulatory or be able to walk. The run-of-the-mill question is “How long will it take you to be on your feet?”but lurking behind the “on your feet”is the term ambulatory. But the word developed bigger ambitions in medicine than just to describe ability to walk. Now the word is used to describe “outpatient”services. As one site says, “Any health care you can get without staying in the hospital is ambulatory care.”Thus, the services provided for you in this condition are “ambulatory patient services.”But when the word came into English from the Latin ambulare (“to walk around”) it first entered as a noun, and only in the seventeenth century as an adjective. As a noun it meant “a place designed for walking,”often a covered area or arcade. It could even refer to an aisle in a large church running behind the high altar and along the chancel or apse [Sorry, but church architectural terms have their own fascinating journeys]. As an adjective, it generally suggests moving from place to place or not having a permanent location. Law made a bid for the adjective ambulatory early (still in the seventeenth century), in the law of wills. From 1651: “A man’s will. . . according to the civil law is ambulatory, or alterable, until death.”Not surprisingly, many of its earliest appearances were in the area of religion, where ambulatory was the word used to describe the ancient Tabernacle in the Wilderness. From 1703: “This Tabernacle was an ambulatory Temple.” Though the adjective has, as indicated, increasingly been taken over by medicine, it can still describe animals (“ambulatory birds”or “ambulatory limbs”). They, like Nancy Sinatra’s boots in the 1966 song, were made for walking.
Amerindian—when I selected this word, a combination of “American”and “Indian”to characterize the First Nations peoples in America, I never thought that I would end up smack in the middle of the “Native American name controversy,”as the Wikipedia page calls it. The issue is most basic and most difficult. It has to do with what one should call the first inhabitants of North America. But even framing the issue that way has problems. Should one call “them”what “they”wish to be called? But what about if there are differences of opinion on that one? Whose lead do you follow? Or, do you decide on a name regardless of feelings of people who are characterized by the name? And, what is the unit that should be determinative for naming purposes? It is all Native tribes of North America? All the Americas? Should each tribal group have the privilege of giving a generic name to all the tribes? It is somewhat similar to what I faced growing up when a variety of names for African Americans/Blacks/People of color were being bandied back and forth and where one could be excluded from certain social circles, or looked down on, for not being up-to-date on the latest decision on which name was “right.”The Wikipedia article reviews the history of several names to characterize these peoples, starting with Indian and proceeding to Native American or American Indian or Amerindian or First Nations/First Peoples or Indigenous Peoples or other designations, without trying to “solve”the issue for us. With the word Amerindian on my list, we aren't able to avoid the issue. The word was only coined in 1899 in an anthropological magazine where it spoke of “Amerindian languages.” By the 1980s the term Amerindian could be used to describe the field of study: “Amerindian scholars.”Current publications from the US Government talk about “First Amerindian Natives,”a characterization that makes one smile because almost every possible name is implicated in those three words. The naming controversy for North American First Peoples doesn't show any signs of abating; one can be sure, however, that when the dust settles the agreed-upon name won’t be Amerindian.
Amniocentesis—is a prenatal diagnostic technique to determine likelihood of chromosomal deficiencies or other potential birth defects in a fetus. In amniocentesis a sample of amniotic fluid is withdrawn from the uterus with a hollow needle and examined for those problems. Derived from two Greek words, amnion (“the caul/inner membrane enclosing a fetus”) and kentein (“to prick”), the word entered into English in 1958, despite the fact of needles extracting amniotic fluid having been used beginning in the 1880s by German doctors. At first this procedure simply relieved pressure on the fetus in a case of excess fluid, but today an amniocentesis is used to perform genetic tests on a feturs to detect conditions such as Down Syndrome or likelihood of hemophilia. It also can determine the baby’s gender. An amniocentesis is not performed as a routine part of pre-natal care except if the woman is over 35; usually a pre-natal screening suggests to a physician whether to pursue an amniocentesis. But even if one is performed and the results yield a likelihood of certain genetic deficiencies, the parents are confronted with the ethical dilemma of whether to abort a fetus or to let it go to term. The amniocentesis is more than 99% accurate for determining Down syndrome (its technical name is trisomy 21). The US had an estimated termination rate for Down syndrome (i.e., terminated pregnancy after screening or diagnostic tests indicated a high likelihood of Down syndrome) of 67%, in cases from 1995-2011. France’s termination rate is about 77%, while Denmark’s and Iceland’s are nearing 100%.
Amoxicillin—One may tell the story of amoxicillin, a semi-synthetic penicillin discovered in the early 1970s, in the context of the history of antibiotics or from the perspective of organic chemistry or from the pill and drug revolution that has made almost every American over 40, and many under that age, a consumer of prescription drugs. Just one word on each. Amoxicillin, a word formed by a combination of amino+oxy+penicillin with various vowels and consonants dropped out, was third in a remarkable chain of drugs developed in England and America, beginning with the first isolation of penicillin from a mold in the late 1920s. Penicillin didn’t really have a clinical application until the early 1940s and then became the miracle drug of WWII to burst bacterial cell walls and fight infections, probably saving millions of lives in that otherwise most bloody war. But the range of maladies penicillin treated was narrow: pneumonia and other respiratory tract infects, scarlet fever, throat infections, cuts on the skin and a few other things. After WWII the race was on to develop derivatives that would treat a wider variety of infections. That came first with ampicillin in the early 1960s, which could treat bladder infections, pneumonia, gonorrhea, meningitis or stomach infections. Amoxicillin followed in the early 1970s, and it had even a broader range. It is now used to treat many more infections caused by bacteria, such as tonsillitis, bronchitis, infections of the urinary tract, ear, nose, throat, and skin. It is the go-to antibiotic today for these conditions, and in some surveys it is in the top ten of prescribed drugs in America. Another survey places it only in the top twenty, with more than 25,000,000 prescriptions annually. It isn’t effective against the common cold or flu viruses. As to the chemistry of amoxicillin, one can say that it differs only minimally from ampicillin by having an additional hydroxyl group on the benzene ring. Amoxicillin is slightly more lipid soluble than ampicillin, allowing it to kill bacteria slightly quicker. With respect to drugs and America, well, that is a topic in and of itself.
Amphetamine—a drug that is on the front lines not only in helping to ease a lot of pain but also, because of its easy availability and use to produce more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine, has become a route to drug abuse, addiction and all kinds of social ills that follow in its wake. But, of course, it didn’t start out that way. Though first synthesized in the late nineteenth century, its stimulant properties weren’t discovered until the mid-1930s by Prinzmetal and Bloomberg. From 1938: “The effective use of . . .benzedrine sulfate (amphetamine sulfate) in the treatment of epilepsy.”And, from Bloomberg’s article in 1939, “Amphetamine (Benzedrine) sulfate was introduced into therapeutics in 1935 by Prinzmetal and the author as an effective agent in the prevention of symptoms of narcolepsy.” The reason for its skyrocketing popularity after that was that it served as a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system, thus increasing cerebral respiration. The phrase“pep pill” was coined popularly to describe it in the 1950s, and it was claimed to improve one’s performance, heighten one’s state of awareness, and in general lead to more creative and brilliant outcomes from work. And, of course, the rush caused by ingestion of amphetamines was not its least attractive feature. As the range of people and conditions taking amphetamines increased, from athletes to those suffering from obesity, another more noxious derivative of amphetamines was discovered: methamphetamine. The latter differs from amphetamine in that it is a methyl derivative from amphetamine with more immediate, intense, and longer-lasting effects in stimulating the nervous system. When methamphetamine was introduced in the early 1950s, it also was used in the treatment of narcolepsy, but then gradually became prescribed for the treatment of alcoholism and obesity. Methamphetamine use and abuse became a widespread topic in America starting in the 1980s; it still is destroying lives on a daily basis. But that hasn’t stopped prescription of amphetamines, especially for hyperactivity in young people (including ADHD—a strange phenomenon at first to us non-scientists because one seemingly would be giving a stimulant to reduce activity) and narcolepsy. Occasionally it is prescribed for depression.
Amygdala—This almond-shaped lobe, average size 1.24 cubic centimeters, found deep within the temporal lobe of the brain. Actually, there are two amygdalae in the brain, one in each hemisphere. Historically this little collection of clusters of nuclei was considered part of the limbic system, but even the definition of that system is coming in for closer examination today. In addition, the function of the amygdala, historically considered, which was to initiate a “fight or flight”reaction when confronted with a fearful object, is now expanding so that its role in memory, decision-making and other emotional responses is a widespread subject of research. In a word, we have words to describe various parts of the brain, words bequeathed to us from earlier generations, and we have basic understanding of functions of these parts, but the study of how they interrelate to produce motivation, love, fear, longing or a host of other things that makes us human is still in its infancy. Particularly noteworthy about this research has been the realization that different-sized amygdala in males and females may help to explain why the genders process emotionally stressful stimuli differently. One other thing to mention: the “sense of fear” that people may have, even before being confronted with a fearful object, may be an example of messages reaching the amygdala before passing through the cerebral cortex, which is, if oversimplification is permitted, the place where thoughts are processed. So, if we accuse each other at times of overreacting to potentially fearful situations, a good response might be, “My amygdala made me do it.”
Amyotrophic—we probably would never have heard of this word had it not been for Lou Gehrig and his death from this disease at age 37 in 1941. One of the great ironies of life is that Gehrig was long-considered baseball’s “iron man,”having played in more consecutive professional baseball games (2130) games than any person until Cal Ripken broke his record in 1995. To put Gehrig’s achievement in perspective: the record for most consecutive games played before him was only 1307. So, when Gehrig was diagnosed with the crippling and little-known disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) on his 36th birthday, he not only broke millions of hearts but unwittingly bequeathed to the broader world the word amyotrophic. Eventually, his name became attached to the disease. First mentioned by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in 1869 (though the OED says it was 1874), ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. When these nerve cells die, that ability of the brain to control muscle movement is lost, which can eventually lead to paralysis and death. The word amyotrophic consists of three Greek words, the “alpha privative” (a) which negates what follows, the word for “muscle” (mys) and “nurture/nourishment” (trophia). That is, the muscles aren’t receiving their nourishment.
The condition isn’t widespread (about 5,000 people are diagnosed per year), but it has been stubbornly resistant to therapies and cures. A person lives an average of 2-5 years after diagnosis. Gehrig almost made it to two years. . .
Anachronistic—is an adjective, the noun of which is anachronism. An anachronism, from the Greek, is something “above”or “backwards” (ana) and “time” (chronos). The word was meant in the first instance to describe a situation, or even a person, that exists today that is out of harmony with the present. But it also refers to something in the past that is “out of time”with that past scene. Examples illustrate the concept most easily. The sentence,“A sword is an anachronism in modern warfare,”suggests that a weapon appropriate in other ages and times is out-of-date today. A more literary example, from 1952: “She herself was a smoldering anachronism, a throwback to those ardent young women of the (eighteen) sixties, Turgenev’s heroines.”The word “throwback”is a good synonym for anachronism. Anachronisms can sometimes be funny. Suppose there is a movie set depicting a scene from Caesar’s Rome, but in the middle of the Roman Forum is an Apple Store. That would be an anachronism, unless one wants to argue that Apple’s ubiquity is such that it really didn’t start in the 1980s but reached back to time immemorial! Web pages are dedicated to examples of anachronisms in movies, one of which is an Eisenhower-Era (i.e., 1950s) scene in the Godfather that shows some long-haired hippie types in the background, which would only be historically accurate for a scene from the late 1960s or later. The hippies, then, are an (unintentional) anachronistic touch. Anachronism, and anachronistic, are useful words in intelligent speech.
Anaphora—though anaphora has a technical meaning in the Greek Orthodox Church liturgy, pointing to a part of the Eucharistic service that including the consecration of the elements, the oblation (offering of the elements) and communion, I will focus here on its longest-standing meaning in English, from rhetoric. Anaphora is a literary and rhetorical device in which there is the repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses. According to the ancient rhetoricians, such a device helps focus the audience’s thinking and thus more easily persuade or motivate them to do something. One of the original rhetorical treatises in English, George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589) gave an example, with the anaphora here italicized: To think on death it is a misery; To think on life it is a vanity; To think on the world verily (as) it is; To think that here man hath no perfect bliss.” As I have pointed out elsewhere in my writing, anaphora can be used compellingly by the biblical authors. Psalm 29 is full of anaphora: Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones; Ascribe to the Lord, glory and strength; Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name, worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” Thus, we see that its purpose is not just to put on a literary display but to lead the reader/hearer to a subsequent action, captured here in the words “worship the Lord.” Look for selective repetition of powerful phrases at the beginning of consecutive sentences. It is often there for a reason.
Anathematize—is a verb meaning to “pronounce an anathema” on or “consign to Satan” or “to curse.” Though its principal home has been in theology, Milton used it in economic sense in a 1641 quotation: “Gold hath been anathematized for the idolatrous use.” The noun “anathema” is derived from the identical Greek word and was first brought into English in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of I Corinthians 16:22, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, the same be anathema.” Its vividness in English is derived from another passage of St Paul, Romans 9:3, where he says with obvious hyperbole, “I wish/pray that I myself should be accursed (anathema), separated from Christ, for the sake of my (Jewish) brethren.” Throughout the history of the Christian church, it referred to an official declaration or “curse” of excommunication, withholding of the sacraments or condemning someone’s heretical belief. In current usage it is synonymous with something utterly loathsome, repugnant or, more mildly, something objectionable. From 2005, “The idea of paying just to go into a bar is anathema to us Northerners.”
Androgynous—along with its companion noun androgyny, androgynous emphasizes either the possession of fully developed sexual organs of both sexes (biological definition), that each flower of each individual has both male and female structures (plant morphology) or, with humans, that a person combines elements of masculinity and femininity. This definition will focus exclusively on androgynous as it relates to humans. Derived from the classical Latin, which itself is derived from the Greek andro (“male”) and gyne (“female”), androgynous first made it into English in 1628 as a depreciative word designating a man who was effeminate or had an effeminate appearance. It was used synonymously with effeminate until a noun developed in the early nineteenth century to capture these people: dandies. Coleridge wrote in 1821:
“Milliners, tailors and the androgynous the androgynous correlations of both. . .now yclept (i.e., “called”) dandies.”
In 1887, the Atlantic used it along with a term we no longer use or even understand: “We found one of those useful androgynous personages known as courier-maids.” Courier-maid seems to suggest a woman who also does “man’s”work. But this was beginning to lead to gender confusion, and so the leading voices of Protestantism were instrumental in developing the concept of “muscular Christianity,” i.e., the athlete who is a committed Christian. We see this in the award-winning film Chariots of Fire, set in the early 1920s. Then, from 1922, “Protestantism has no use for the androgynous feminine male; it wants the bone, and brawn, and sinew of manliness." But androgyny wouldn’t be so lightly dismissed, and so from the 1960s we have been engaged in a massive debate on the nature of gender and sexuality, with the concepts of androgyny, as well as many others such as bisexual, nonbinary, trans-sexual coming to the forefront. In a word, our society on gender is now acting like our country in political matters: like an overgrown and confused teenager. We just hope that both debates make it into the “twenties.”
Angelology—the systematic study of angels. One would think that this is a topic relegated to the hinterlands of theological discussion. With heavier topics such as God’s nature, the relationship of the Three Persons in the Trinity (if you are a Christian), and the role of Christ in salvation, why would one be interested in angels? Though it is impossible to calibrate interest on the question, I think the interest in angels or some kind of mediators from another (good) realm to work for our benefit is growing. Perhaps it is the frightening pace of change or the fears of the twenty-first century that are driving us to seek help from these intermediaries. Almost all religious traditions, from the most primitive to most modern, believe in the existence of powers beyond that of human and either less than or different from a supreme power. But, the key is that these intermediary powers, sometimes denominated “angels,”can be accessed or, in some cases, are even “assigned” to you. From the nineteenth century Hansel & Gretel’s, “When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch me. . .”(originally in German “Abends will ich schlafen gehn, Vierzehn Engel um mich stehn”) to the refined prose of Abraham Lincoln (“the better angels of our nature”), we have angels on the brain. Angelology tries to put all this knowledge in a nicely packaged form. In 2006, the New York Times talked about Angelology as consisting “of layer upon layer of stories, the celestial hierarchy grouping the heavenly host into nine tiers such as thrones, dominions and virtues—all with a different job.” Even imagining it makes you a bit dizzy.