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AWADmail Issue 460

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

This week's Email of the Week is from Mowgli (see below), who will finally get his well-deserved Comeuppance - eight ounces of poetic justice, sent Priority Mail and unconditionally guaranteed.


From: Ram Venkatraman (ram.venkatraman techmahindra.com)
Subject: calliopean
Def: Piercingly loud.

This word reminded me of these lines from the inimitable Ogden Nash:

Many an infant that screams like a calliope
Could be soothed by a little attention to his diope.

Ram Venkatraman, Mumbai, India


From: Suzanne Fox (Suzfox aol.com)
Subject: Calliopean

Here's a great video of a calliope.

Suzanne Fox, El Sobrante, California


From: Alain Gottcheiner (agot ulb.ac.be)
Subject: Calliope

Notice that Calliope was also the name of an American self-propelled rocket launcher based on a Sherman chassis.

It seems like it took its name from the musical instrument, because of the appearance and sound of the object; cf. the German name "Stalin's organ" given to a similar device (the Russian Katyusha rocket launcher).

Alain Gottcheiner, Brussels, Belgium


From: Pete Saussy (bujinin netzero.com)
Subject: calliopean

I always get this one confused with callipygian, but only in hindsight.

Pete Saussy, Pawleys Island, South Carolina


From: Jane Hoed (otherwisemusic sympatico.ca)
Subject: calliopean

Calliope hummingbird
Art: Jane Hoed
I finished a work of art just yesterday that I named "Calliope". Its main focus is a Calliope hummingbird . I superimposed a poem on it that I wrote specifically for it:

sweet colours sing to me of joy
and grace and beauty
I am kaleidoscope; observer of beautiful forms
written to music and cascading melodies
bird song
light as air
here and there
over and through from now to far, far beyond
depths plumbed
rippling waves and ethereal clouds
spun and sung by
Calliope

Jane Hoed, Vineland, Ontario, Canada


From: Warren Schuetz (w.schuetz uwinnipeg.ca)
Subject: Re: pariah
Def: An outcast.

From Tamil paraiyar, plural of paraiyan (drummer), from parai (drum, to tell). Because the drum players were considered among the lowest in the former caste system of India, the word took on the general meaning of an outcast. Earliest documented use: 1613.

This reminds me of a joke from my musician days.

What is the definition of a band?
Three musicians and a drummer. (ba-da-boom!)

Warren Schuetz, Winnipeg, Canada


From: Mike Zim (mikewzim gmail.com)
Subject: pariah

I was pleased to send this etymology to my drummer friends. Disrespecting them is a centuries-long tradition!

What's the last thing the drummer said before being fired from the band?
"Hey, I wrote a song for us!"

Mike Zim, Columbus, Ohio


From: Jean Perkins (PerkinsJean aol.com)
Subject: Pariah

I wonder why drums seem to figure prominently in lowliness or disgrace. Is it because they're so basic, perhaps the first instrument ever made? Not only is the drummer himself an outcast, drums (not bugles) are used to heighten a soldier's humiliation in a drumming out ceremony. The OED dates the first usage of "drumming out of the corps" to 1766 in Thomas Amory's "The Life of John Buncle", 150 years after the first recorded use of pariah. For a thread of about the Marine Corps Drumming Out Ceremony, see here.

Jean Perkins, Chicago, Illinois


Email of the Week - (Brought to you by Comeuppance - Get yours now!)

From: Mowgli (via Wordsmith Talk bulletin board)
Subject: pariah

To explain why drummers were members of the lowest caste -- drumming was an occupation performed by the Dalit or untouchable caste because drums were made from the tanned hides of animals and thus once associated with death. Therefore, the task of beating on them fell to the Dalit caste, who also performed other "unclean" occupations having to do with death and human waste.


From: Nate Roberts (npr4 columbia.edu)
Subject: Pariah

I am an anthropologist who works among the Paraiyar in Tamil Nadu, India. Please note that many people in India (especially those who are themselves Dalits, or who have connections to the Dalit community) object to "Pariah" being used to describe undesirable or morally repugnant persons. I suppose it is a bit like "Jew" being used to describe someone who is mean and stingy (one of the possible definitions one finds in older dictionaries), or "nigger" to mean a lazy, good-for-nothing black person (or anyone who is non-white).

I do not favor the policing of language, and I know that people who use the term "Pariah" in the West are unaware of the connotations and mean no harm. But please imagine how you would feel if the name for your ethnic group were used to signify something horrible. Perhaps you could add a brief note on the web page for this word along the lines of, "this term is considered derogatory or hurtful by members of the Paraiyar community and others."

Nate Roberts, Göttingen, Germany

My understanding is that the word pariah is used in the sense that someone is an outcast, not necessarity for a morally repugnant act. A plain-dressed woman could be a pariah in a Hollywood fashion party. But the deeper issue you raise is about using someone's name in a generic sense, as an eponym. We've featured hundreds of eponyms in the past. These eponyms may convey positive or negative qualities. The issue becomes thorny when a particular quality is ascribed to a whole community. For example, see pharisaical and helot.

Pharisees are no more so we can perhaps get away with using the word. A Helot could move to another city, say Athens, and shed his connection to the town of Helos and the image it conjures. But the way the caste system works, a member of the Paraiyar caste, after which the word pariah is coined, could no more leave the caste he was born in than a man could change the color of his skin.

So what about the word pariah? The term is too well-established, in the English language, and in a number of fields, such as math (pariah group), international relations (pariah state), animal breeds (pariah dog), among others. As you indicate, most people who use the term are unaware of its origin, even people from the southern states in India where the Paraiyar live. Does the fact that the word has wide currency give us the latitude to ignore its offensiveness to the people after whom it was coined?

I consulted a number of people, including some from the state of Tamil Nadu, where the word came from. V. Balakrishnan, a professor at IIT Chennai wrote, "It's a little like the word negro, which has, of course, lost all its literal meaning and is today entirely pejorative. In that sense, pariah, too, is a word that perhaps deserves to be consigned to oblivion through benign neglect."

Lakshmi Gopal, a professional editor and English instructor said, "When I first went to the US, I didn't realise that the word Negro is not to be used unless you wanted to end up in ER -- for me Negro was just a word signifying people who originated in Nigeria [The name is derived from the name of the Niger river]. If the entire world is to be aware and accept the fact that the words Negro or nigger are insulting, what's wrong in expecting the entire world to be aware that pariah is insulting to a community in India?"

Finally, Ashok Mahadevan, retired chief editor of Reader's Digest India told me, "It seems wrong not to point it out just because the Paraiyar community doesn't have much clout in the West (or perhaps even in India). In fact, although I rarely use the word, I'm now going to stop using it altogether. After all, there are plenty of alternatives."

So, many thanks for raising this issue and sharing your thoughts. We've now added a note and a link to this discussion in the entry for the word pariah. Also see the next two comments below.
-Anu Garg


From: J. Murali Krishnan (murali97 gmail.com)
Subject: Pariah

The word pariah reminded of the issue created in 1995 when Dr. Subramanian Swamy called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam an "international pariah" and was slapped with a non-bailable warrant. Subsequently this politician vowed that he would remove the word pariah from the English dictionary itself. This book has more details, even with a letter from the Editor-in-Chief of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Prof. J. Murali Krishnan, Chennai, India


From: Danielle Gill (danielle.gill96 live.com)
Subject: pariah

Recently the use of the word pariah in a novel was subject of a controversy here in Malaysia. See this link.

Danielle Gill, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


From: Brian Fahey (brianfahey juno.com)
Subject: clarion
Def: adjective: Loud and clear. noun: An ancient trumpet used as a signal in war.

Many of the Greek and some other mythological names have become pipe organ stop (instrument) names as well.

Stentorian is known as Stentor
Clarion is known as Clarion
Maris is known as Unda Maris
Aeolus or Aeolian is known as Aeolian

The above are just a few, and know that there are exacting definitions for the sounds that each make. Try this site.

Brian Fahey, Hunt, New York


From: Tom Pressman (tlpressm sbcs.com)
Subject: second fiddle
Def: A secondary role. A person in such a role.

I believe it was Leonard Bernstein who said the toughest position in an orchestra to fill is second chair violin?

Tom Pressman, Huntington, West Virginia


From: Yvonne Sprauel (ysprauel free.fr)
Subject: second fiddle

In French, we have an equivalent expression: second knife (second couteau). Different cultures, different minds?

Yvonne Sprauel, Strasbourg, France


From: James Wheat (jamesrwheat centurytel.net)
Subject: highfalutin
Def: Pompous; bombastic.

While it is plausible that the word hifalutin may refer to high fluting, the comparison with oboe needs emendation. The French word hautbois, referred to the loud woodwind, as opposed to a soft-sounding instrument such as the lute or flute. In the 15th century, a group of shawms and sackbuts were known as an "haut ensemble" owing to the loud sounds they produced.

James Wheat, La Crosse, Wisconsin


From: Jon Murry (trooperjon suddenlink.net)
Subject: highfalutin

I thought the term was in reference to the tall champagne glasses (called flutes) used by the high society elites at "fancy dinners" at the turn of the 1900s.

Jon Murry, Tyler, Texas


From: David Lachmann (david.lachmann mail.house.gov)
Subject: Highfalutin

I had always thought that the word referred to steam-powered riverboats in the 19th century. "Falutin" was derived from "flutes" or the smokestacks of the steamboats. The wealthy sat on the upper decks, while the rest of the passengers sat on the lower decks. The proximity to the flutes, rather than the paddlewheel gave rise to the derisive term. Can anyone else add some substance, or actual references, to this oft-stated theory?

David Lachmann, Silver Spring, Maryland

It appears there are as many explanations for highfalutin as for the term full monty. For a discussion, see here.
-Anu Garg


A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
Language is the archives of history. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)
Apr 24, 2011
This week's theme
Words derived from musical instruments

This week's words
calliopean
pariah
clarion
second fiddle
highfalutin

Next week's theme
Words related to clothing

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