Monday, December 8, 2008


I know this word only in numerical and cryptographic contexts. Apparently there are others!

Definition of word:
1. (Arith.) A character [0] which, standing by itself, expresses nothing, but when placed at the right hand of a whole number, increases its value tenfold.
2. One who, or that which, has no weight or influence.
Here he was a mere cipher. --W. Irving.
3. A character in general, as a figure or letter. [Obs.]
This wisdom began to be written in ciphers and characters and letters bearing the forms of creatures. --Sir W. Raleigh.
4. A combination or interweaving of letters, as the initials of a name; a device; a monogram; as, a painter's cipher, an engraver's cipher, etc. The cut represents the initials N. W.
5. A private alphabet, system of characters, or other mode of writing, contrived for the safe transmission of secrets; also, a writing in such characters.
His father . . . engaged him when he was very young to write all his letters to England in cipher. --Bp. Burnet.

Cipher key, a key to assist in reading writings in cipher.” (, Webster’s).

Where I ran across it:
11/29/08 Washington Post review, “Faust Sells Itself Short at the Multiplex” by Anne Midgette, about the Met’s production and HD broadcast of Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust.”

“…As for John Relyea, he offered, in the house, a variant on the tried-and-true devil shtick that opera-goers have seen countless times before, in a voice that is competent enough, but expressively a cipher; the camera allowed it to appear as if something special was going on.…”

My two cents:
Recently I enjoyed the Met’s HD broadcast of “La Damnation de Faust” at my local theater. I read, with interest, the Washington Post critic’s review which runs both hot and cold, as does my opinion of her review. She makes some points with which I agree, and some I don’t. When she likens the baritone to a cipher, however, I’m curious.

I first learned the word “cipher” as a kid ordering secret de-coder rings from cereal boxes. I’ve always understood ciphering to be about numbers and words. But reading the word today in a different context altogether sent me directly to the dictionary. And now I discover that there’s this: “One who, or that which, has no weight or influence.” Now I’m really curious. (And how did I miss this all my life?)

A cipher is basically a big fat zero, and quite the versatile chameleon. It expresses nothing (ergo, the critic's baritone slap). It has no value in and of itself. When added to another number it adds no value. But when placed to the right of a number, its companion’s value is increased ten-fold! Unselfish Hero! But if you multiply a number by it, it reduces the number to zero. Devilish Scamp! But also, it means one or that which has no weight or influence. Ineffectual Fop!

What an odd Triune, a triple paradox. How can something which has no value or influence, but simply by virtue of its proximity to something else, exert an influence on the very magnitude of said something else ten-fold?! How, then, can that be considered a non-influential entity?

I’m feeling fairly stoopid over this. And all this consternation’s giving me a headache. Time for something mindless. Facebook, anyone?

Friday, December 5, 2008


Should know this. Don’t.

Definition of portmanteau:
A word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two different words, as chortle, from chuckle and snort.

2. A word concocted by fusing two different words together into one: a common example is brunch, from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’. The term was coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking‐Glass (1871), where he invents the word slithy from ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’; the portmanteau referred to is a kind of suitcase composed of two halves. The most extended literary use of portmanteau words is found in James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake (1939).” (

Where I ran across it:
There I was, looking up “Bollywood” on, and in the definition was this wonderful word, portmanteau

“…The name is a portmanteau of Bombay (the former name for Mumbai) and Hollywood, the center of the American film industry…”

My two cents:
Hi, I’m Susie and I have a problem.

Hi, Susie.

I am a linkoholic. There, I said it. I can’t stop clicking on hyperlinks.

I suffer from the dreaded Ooh, Look, A Bunny Syndrome. Yes, OLABS is my curse. There is no cure. The disease can only be managed. I am powerless under the spell of the bunnies, er hyperlinks. One is too many, and a thousand never enough. Damn those bunnies. Damn those hyperlinks. Damn this disease. Here's my story:

It all started out so innocently. I was curious about “Bollywood” and wanted to know more. Just one little research session I told myself. Off to I went, where those siren bunnies / hyperlinks lay in wait...

Then it happened: Ooh, look, there’s a cool word that I don’t know, portmanteau. Ooh, look, a bunny / hyperlink. Click. Ooh, look at all the hyperlinks in the definition! Click, read, ooh, click, scroll, read more, ooh, ooh, click, read, scroll, click, ooh, click, click…

Friends, before I knew it I had spent hours clicking hyperlinks and chasing bunnies from to Wikipedia; from Bollywood to Hollywood to the slithy toves and mimsy borogoves in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, to Humpty Dumpty’s lexical selection in Through the Looking-Glass, to James Joyce’s prodigious use of portmanteaus in Finnegans Wake, to linguistic blends and function words, to… oh never mind. Suffice it to say that there were many, many more bunnies.

Were it not for my right-click / “open link in new tab” coping skills, I’d have been completely and irretrievably lost. Oh the shame. Oh the humanity.

The first step is admitting the problem...

I guess that’s it. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


news to me

Definition of encomium:
n., pl. -mi·ums or -mi·a

  1. Warm, glowing praise.
  2. A formal expression of praise; a tribute.

[Latin encōmium, from Greek enkōmion (epos), (speech) praising a victor, neuter of enkōmios, of the victory procession : en-, in; see en–2 + kōmos, celebration.” (

Where I ran across it:
11/26/08 Time magazine article, “Bush’s Last Days: The Lamest Duck,” by Joe Klein.

“…Bush has that forlorn what-the-hell-happened? expression on his face, the one that has marked his presidency at difficult times. You never want to see the President of the United States looking like that.

So I've been searching for valedictory encomiums. His position on immigration was admirable and courageous; he was right about the Dubai Ports deal and about free trade in general. He spoke well, in the abstract, about the importance of freedom. He is an impeccable classicist when it comes to baseball. And that just about does it for me.…”

My two cents:
I thank my friend, Leanne, for sending me to Joe Klein’s spot-on, vocabulary-enriching article. Encomium is a perfectly wonderful word, but way too close in my mind to “meconium” which, how do I put this, is poo. My brain is now straining (sorry) to separate the praise from the poo. How hard should that be?

Perhaps I should just embrace this unlikely pairing and celebrate the birth of a new term I just made up: “meconium encomium.” I’ve decided it's akin to faint praise, only worse. Much worse. Downright poopy, in fact. Coined just in time for Mr. Bush’s exit.

How appropriate.

Friday, November 21, 2008


The high school French is way rusty after forty years.

Definition of saignant:
saignant, (french) /sɛɲɑ̃/, /ɑ̃t/ adjective (after the verb, saigner, to bleed)

  1. [meat] rare; bloody
  1. figurative (familiar) [criticism] savage.” (

Where I ran across it:
11/21/08 NYT movie review of “Twilight”, “The Love That Dare Not Bare Its Fangs,” by Manohla Dargis.

“…If Ms. Meyer has made the vampire story safe for her readers (and their parents) — the sole real menace comes from a half-baked subplot involving some swaggering vampires who like their steak saignant and human — it’s only because she suggests that there actually is something worse than death, especially for teenagers: sex.…”

My two cents:
I’ve heard all the Twilight hype, but haven’t read the book. Despite the well-written review and the gift of a new word (en francais, no less!), I won’t be going to the movie, either. I just don’t do vampires. Period. Frankly, I resent them, celibate and fangless, or not.

It all goes back, oh, about 50 years - to the seminal horror movie experience that scarred me for life at the tender age of 8. Our teenage babysitter pulled a stealthy movie matinee switcheroo one Saturday afternoon, and instead of the parent-approved Tom Thumb, swore my brother and me to secrecy and sneaked us into the Fox Theater for a matinee horror double-feature: The Return of Dracula, and The Blob. I remember curling up in a sobbing, terrified ball in - and then under - my seat, eyes squinted closed, fingers in ears. Still, I saw and heard too much. After that, I began a nightly bedtime ritual. For years, bless my heart, I laid me down to sleep in wide-eyed, mortal fear, with the light on and the covers pulled tight and high, the small silver cross on the chain around my neck carefully positioned on top of the covers. And oh, the nightmares. Pitiful, I tell you. Just pitiful.

I’m all grown up and I’m over it now. I sleep peacefully, and wear no crosses to bed. I’m just fine, albeit forever changed. I know my limits. I don’t do vampires, (or clowns, by the way), or horror movies of any stripe. But sometimes I do dream of finding that babysitter, shoving her into a seat and forcing her to sit through something really horrific.

Sarah Palin on an endless loop, perhaps.

Oh-h-h you betcha!

Sunday, November 16, 2008


a very familiar word, which I can both pronounce and spell. Also a very frustrating word because I cannot for the life of me define it without looking it up. Arggh!

Definition of lagniappe:
la·gniappe (lăn'yəp, lăn-yăp')
n. Chiefly Southern Louisiana & Mississippi.

  1. A small gift presented by a storeowner to a customer with the customer's purchase.
  2. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit. Also called boot. See Regional Note.

[Louisiana French, from American Spanish la ñapa, the gift : la, the (from Latin illa, feminine of ille, that, the) + ñapa (variant of yapa, gift, from Quechua, from yapay, to give more).]

REGIONAL NOTE: Lagniappe derives from New World Spanish la ñapa, “the gift,” and ultimately from Quechua yapay, “to give more.” The word came into the rich Creole dialect mixture of New Orleans and there acquired a French spelling. It is still used in the Gulf States, especially southern Louisiana, to denote a little bonus that a friendly shopkeeper might add to a purchase. By extension, it may mean “an extra or unexpected gift or benefit.” ” (

Where I ran across it:
11/14/08 NYT article, “The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla” by Dick Cavett.

“PS: Lagniappe for English mavens: A friend of mine has made you laugh greatly over the years. ... As a language fan, he has preserved many gems for posterity in his prodigious memory bank. Here comes my favorite:

A Navy lecturer was talking about some directives on the blackboard that he said to do something about, “except for these here ones with the asteroids in back of.”

Even David couldn’t make that up.”

My two cents:
Thanks as always to Dick Cavett for another smart column, and for reminding me of “lagniappe.”

I’ve had my fill of his subject matter, however: that frightening woman from the frozen north; poster girl for the Peter Principle; supreme goddess of screwed up syntax; all-around enigma, or should I say anathema??? Why did/do so many Americans like her? That’s Cavett’s question, and mine, too. It would be nice if she’d go quietly, now. Wouldn’t that be a beneficent parting gift, a truly lovely lagniappe from her to the country? Fat chance, friends. The press won’t leave her alone, and vice versa. She isn’t going away. Like the scary thing in a really bad horror movie, she keeps coming ba-a-a-ck. Cue the creepy music and cover your eyes. The show ain’t over.

Who ya gonna call, gosh darn it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

There Are No Words Today

Our first post-election day dawns. Barack Obama is the 44th president-elect of the United States.

Today I am hopeful.

Today I am grateful.

Today I am speechless.

Today there simply are no words.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


ringing a bell here, but truthfully… uh, nope, nobody’s home

Definition of tyro:
n., ty·ro also ti·ro (')

“One who is just starting to learn or do something: abecedarian, beginner, fledgling, freshman, greenhorn, initiate, neophyte, novice, novitiate, tenderfoot. Slang rookie.” [Medieval Latin t[ymacr]rō, squire, variant of Latin tīrō, recruit.] (

Where I ran across it:
11/1/08 NYT article, “Who’s The Question Mark?,” by Maureen Dowd.

“…While acknowledging he was a tech tyro, he promised to try “a Google,” as he called searching the Web, to put government spending online so citizens could bird-dog it.…”

My two cents:
Tuesday can’t come soon enough. I just got an ugly robo call – on Sunday morning, people – tattling on Barack Obama’s aunt, of all things. I’m sure it won’t be the only one between now and Tuesday. Holy Mother of God. Make it stop.

What’s up with this tiny little word, tyro, that I should have never met its acquaintance in my entire life? I am now reminded that I am but a tyro, myself, in this whole business of words and language. But, hey, I’m not beating myself up over it. To paraphrase Jerry Clower, one can’t know everything that’s in every book in every library, can one?

I attended a lecture years ago where the speaker confessed to an outrageous fantasy. As a once-fledgling, hyper vigilant student of horticulture, she actually aspired to an ultimate goal of owning (not just learning the names of, but actually owning) one of every kind of plant there is. We all shook our heads and had a good laugh over that notion, but it stayed with me. “The Goal,” I decided that day, isn’t a stopping point at which we have acquired, or have done, or now know it all, is it? No, “The Goal,” I decided, is not a static destination, but a constant and vibrant process, a long and winding road of humble discovery, discernment, and continued enlightenment that never ends. It's a good and joyful thing, and it's up to me to walk it, or not.