Saturday, December 11, 2010

Random Words - 1

A few random words I came across recently -



MEANING: noun: The practice of using long words.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin sesqui- (one and a half) + ped- (foot). First recorded use: 1759.


Literally speaking, sesquipedality is using words that are one and a half feet long. A related word is sesquicentennial (150th anniversary). Nothing wrong with using a sesquipedalian word once in a while, if it fits, but it's best to avoid too many long, polysyllabic words. This dictum doesn't apply to German speakers though, as Mark Twain once observed, "Some German words are so long that they have a perspective."

There's a bean subspecies commonly known as a yardlong bean. It's really misnamed as it's "only" half a yard long. Its scientific name, Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis, is more precise.


"The stories in Oblivion comprise relatively straightforward prose, with textual play and sesquipedality trimmed to the bone."

Tim Feeney; Oblivion; Review of Contemporary Fiction; Jul 2004.


Hobson's choice

(HOB-sonz chois)

MEANING: noun: An apparently free choice that offers no real alternative: take it or leave it.

ETYMOLOGY: After Thomas Hobson (1544?-1630), English keeper of a livery stable, from his requirement that customers take either the horse nearest the stable door or none.


Hobson had some 40 animals in his rent-a-horse business and a straightforward system: a returning horse goes to the end of the line, and the horse at the top of the line gets to serve next. He had good intentions -- rotating horses so his steeds received good rest and an equal wear, but his heavy-handed enforcement of the policy didn't earn him any customer service stars. He could have offered his clients the option of choosing one of the two horses nearest the stable door, for instance, and still achieve nearly the same goal. More recently Henry Ford offered customers a Ford Model T in any color as long as it was black.


"There, many are given a legal Hobson's choice: Plead guilty and go home or ask for a lawyer and spend longer in custody."

Sean Webby; No Lawyer in Sight for Many Making Way Through System; San Jose Mercury News (California); Dec 30, 2009.


Hobson's choice led me too -

Morton's fork

(MOR-tuhns fork)

MEANING: noun: A situation involving choice between two equally undesirable outcomes.

ETYMOLOGY: After John Morton (c. 1420-1500), archbishop of Canterbury, who was tax collector for the English King Henry VII. To him is attributed Morton's fork, a neat argument for collecting taxes from everyone: those living in luxury obviously had money to spare and those living frugally must have accumulated savings to be able to pay.

"Japan's political elites] face a Morton's fork between being ignored or being seen as a problem to which there is little solution."
Michael Auslin; Japan Dissing; The Wall Street Journal (New York); Apr 22, 2010.


And finally -


(di-KUHS-ayt, DEK-uh-sayt, adjective: di-KUHS-ayt, -it)

MEANING: verb tr.: To intersect or to cross.

1. Intersected or crossed in the form of an X.
2. Arranged in pairs along the stem, each pair at a right angle to the one above or below.

ETYMOLOGY: The word originated from Latin "as" (plural asses) which was a copper coin and the monetary unit in ancient Rome. The word for ten asses was decussis, from Latin decem (ten) + as (coin). Since ten is represented by X, this spawned the verb decussare, meaning to divide in the form of an X or intersect.


Samuel Johnson, lexicographer extraordinaire, has a well-deserved reputation for his magnum opus "A Dictionary of the English Language", but as they say, even Homer nods. He violated one of the dictums of lexicography -- do not define a word using harder words than the one being defined -- when he used today's word and two other uncommon words in defining the word network:

Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

And what is "reticulated"? Again, according to Johnson:

Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.

"How I wished then that my body, too, if it had to droop and shrivel, for surely everyone's did, would furl and decussate with grace to sculpt the victory of my spirit."

J. Nozipo Maraire; Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter; Delta; 1997.


  1. I love your blog!

    You write the only blog that makes me want to take notes!


  2. Thanks Tui! I appreciate the thought!

  3. I"m thinking of using that last quote as a personal motto. But somebody would probably ask me what I meant.