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AWADmail Issue 577

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

From: Sally M. Chetwynd (brasscastlearts gmail.com)
Subject: This week's theme: multiple meanings

In your introduction to this week's theme, with Robert Heinlein illustrating the multiple skills of the human being, I am reminded of an old colloquialism which I heard while growing up in Maine (but which is not likely unique to that locale): a jack of all trades, and master of none. Hard economic times tend to make us jacks of all trades, in order to survive, and Maine has long been a region of hardscrabble living. Maybe not a master of none, but a lot of us have become quite adept at most of them.

Sally M. Chetwynd, Wakefield, Massachusetts

From: Gearoid O'Brien (gearoid gmail.com)
Subject: sconce

The word sconce is also a slang term for a 'quick look' in Ireland, as in "Give us a sconce at that" is equivalent to "Give me a look at that".

Gearoid O'Brien, Dublin, Ireland

Email of the Week (Brought to you by One Up! -- Have yourself a s&y blast.)

From: Michael Riisager (pmichaelriisager hotmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--sconce

As an undergraduate student in a male-only Oxford College in the 1950s, I was introduced to a time-honored mechanism of ensuring appropriate conversation at the formal evening dinners in the [College] Hall: sconcing.

Should a miscreant talk shop, politics, religion, discuss the paintings on the walls, or -- heavens above -- voice a woman's name, they could be sconced -- forced to drink (in our case, in Oriel, 2 3/4 pints) a tankard full of ale within 30 seconds. Should he succeed, the accuser would pay for the ale; should he lose, the sinner would pay for a full sconce of ale for each of the (usually) eight students sitting at his table. "Sconce" is thus a noun, referring to the punitive silver tankard with its contents; but also readily used as a transitive verb.

Decorum was preserved by the adjudication of the Fellows' High Table to which a Latin Petition requesting the sconce, and the plaintiff's defense (also in Latin) were submitted for approval. Bedlam ensued one memorable evening when someone unfurled a poster of Mademoiselle Bardot, virtually, or virtuously, nude from a balcony in Hall.

The immediate chorus of "Brigitte!" spawned sconces at all tables!

Michael Riisager, Yarmouth, Maine

From: Caryn Davies (caryn.davies gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--sconce

At Oxford (and certain other British universities), it is a tradition to sconce fellow students at formal dinners. This happens after the meal. One person will stand up and say something like, "I sconce everyone whose college is older than his country", at which point all the Americans in the room would have to stand up and take a drink.

Caryn Davies, Ithaca, New York
(Oxford Law and Finance '13)

From: Richard S. Russell (richardsrussell tds.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--sconce

Also "sconse" or "sconnie" is a person from Wisconsin.

Richard S. Russell, Madison, Wisconsin

From: Joan Rubenstein (joanmort73 aol.com)
Subject: mortify

My late husband's name was Mort so we always laughed when using today's word. However, when the situation applied to me, I was always "joanified". He loved A.Word.A.Day as much as I do.

Joan Rubenstein, Somers, New York

From: Doug Bodley (dougbodley gmail.com)
Subject: Mortify

Finally the (English) title of one of Bach's chorales makes sense: it is the second meaning of the word "mortify" that really works in this instance: "Mortify us by Thy grace."

Doug Bodley, Toronto, Canada

From: Catherine Bolton (translations bolton.it)
Subject: cloaca

Probably the most famous one is the Cloaca Maxima in Rome, one of the world's first sewage systems. It was built by the Etruscans!

Catherine Bolton, Bastia Umbra, Italy

From: Hiller B. Zobel (honzobe aol.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--cloaca

When in 1861 the College of New Jersey (re-named Princeton University in 1896) installed a state-of-the-art brick outhouse, the classically-trained students immediately named it after its Roman predecessor Cloaca Maxima.

Hiller B. Zobel, Boston Massachusetts

From: Carol Cunningham (cacrider wildblue.net)
Subject: cloaca

The second citation, ("Anne had balked at hanging her mistress's most beautiful clothes in the cloaca ... because of the smell.") brings to mind all the "garderobes" in English castles, especially those built by William the Conqueror. Clothes were hung near the cloaca, because the ammonia tended to repel moths. So those tell-tale loos hanging over the moat were often reached via the protective closets.... No wonder at nosegays!

Carol Cunningham, Tehachapi, California

From: Barbara Morrell (barbara.morrell ingrammicro.com)
Subject: Cloaca

I see this word and I'm back in 1969, in a heated, close, and sweltering high-school physiology class with hopes of becoming a doctor some day (unrequited so far). In front of me on the wood table is a stinky, formaldehyde-preserved shark with gimlet eyes (who didn't want to be there, either); I'm gingerly holding a beveled scalpel, being directed toward the shark's cloaca by my lab partner for an initial cut of dissection. Cloaca with no gloves for us. Everyone in the school knew who was taking that class because of the lingering aroma. They also knew who'd fainted. (I avoided that, but another couple of degrees and Ida B. Gonner.

Barbara Morrell, Santa Ana, California

From: John Robinson (robinsonjohnb uams.edu)
Subject: AWAD - Cloaca

I was amused one day while driving through Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. All of the street names in the upscale retirement community are Spanish names. But the street leading to the animal shelter and waste treatment plant was named Cloaca Ln. Someone in the planning department had a sense of humor.

John Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas

From: Simone Wilcock (sim1wi gmail.com)
Subject: Cloaca

I immediately smiled and sent today's word to all of my videogaming friends. In the game Mass Effect 2, a space opera, one of the characters, an amphibian alien scientist, memorably uses the word cloaca in the place of its human anatomical equivalent as an insult!

Simone Wilcock, Gauteng, South Africa

From: Oliver Haffenden (oliver.haffenden rd.bbc.co.uk)
subject: Cloaca

Long ago, one of my college friends told us about a dream he'd had in which he was travelling inside a diplodocus. The interior was comfortable, luxuriously furnished and equipped with a bar, seating, and picture windows through which passengers could watch the scenery. Boarding, however, was rather unpleasant, since ingress and egress was via the mighty beast's nether orifice. When he described it to one of our friends, a student of zoology (using a different word for said opening which I will spare your readers), he replied "most amusing, although of course dinosaurs had the birdlike cloaca". The phrase "birdlike cloaca" has remained with us ever since. (One wonders what his response would have been had his specialty been Freudian psychoanalysis instead.)

Oliver Haffenden, Wandsworth, UK

From: Venkataraman Balakrishnan (venkataraman.balakrishnan gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--confabulate

1. To talk informally.
2. To replace fact with fantasy to fill in gaps in memory.

Usage: "Senior party leaders from across the state were expected to attend the meet and confabulate on issues pertaining to tribals in the state."

Surely this example serves to illustrate the second meaning of the word even more accurately than it does the first? So a single example would have sufficed in this case :-)

Venkataraman Balakrishnan, Chennai, India

From: Barbara Henkel (bhenkel tampabay.rr.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--confabulate

Confabulation is a problem for those of us involved in caregiving a person with dementia. My mother can tell you the most involved, detail-filled stories about things that never happened, yet will ask if we have had dinner while the empty plates are still on the table. It's why investigators cannot really depend on what people confined to care facilities tell them about their experiences.

Barbara Henkel, Gulfport, Florida

From: Dave Hatfield (ddhatfi verizon.net)
Subject: Words with multiple meanings

In 1980 I was assigned to lead a multinational group within a NATO unit at Allied Forces Central Europe in Brunnsum, the Netherlands. In about my third week there, I assigned my Belgian Air Force corporal a task to prepare a memorandum for an upcoming mission. I reminded him to ensure the memo included access to the trunk lines at our destination.

After three days he still had not returned the memo to me so I went into the back office to check on him. He stood at the table that held our massive Oxford English Dictionary. I looked over his shoulder as he was writing down all the meanings for the word "trunk" and drawing pictures beside each meaning.

He told me, "David, I do not understand what you mean by 'Trunk lines' we need to access." There were dozens of meanings listed and hundreds of use cases spelled out. I had to explain how telephone trunk lines worked, and how the English language had so many words with multiple meanings. He could only shake his head and walk back to his desk, still a little confused, I think.

This was not the last funny incident we had in our organization about the English language, and seeing it through the eyes of those who spoke both other languages and English gave me a new perspective on my own language that truly opened my eyes.

Dave Hatfield, Severn, Maryland

From: William Tuttle (olddakoty frontier.com)
Subject: multiple-meaning words

Reading your preface to today's word discussing "set" brings to mind the German word "zug", as characterized in Mark Twain's essay: THAT AWFUL GERMAN LANGUAGE (text).

William Tuttle, Montgomery, Minnesota

We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves. -John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

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