Wednesday, July 20, 2011

a muggle's lexical news of the world

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" - Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" | Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Howard Richler

News of the Lexical World

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

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He [Rupert Murdoch] could have been Dumbledore crossed with Harry Potter. But he’s Voldemort, and he’s not vanquished yet.
– Tina Brown
Rebekah Brooks has resigned! News of the World extinct! Only four horcruxes left to go and Murdoch will be mortal again.
Tweet by freelancer Ed Yong
With the release of the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, it’s time to finally bury Darth Vader as the apotheosis of evil. Long live the new ├╝bervillain, Lord Voldemort! We are indeed living in a Potter universe when media baron Rupert Murdoch is described in Potteresque terms.
Due to Voldemort’s nefarious powers, other wizards are afraid of summoning him, in a manner similar to the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew word written YHWH that was often substituted for the ineffable name of God and treated as a mysterious symbol of God. Thus, Voldemort is also called “He Who Must Not Be Named.” This designation is useful in describing someone whose name should not be mentioned. Linguist/lexicographer Ben Zimmer, who runs the website Visual Thesaurus, says he knows a woman who refers to her ex-husband as He Who Must Not Be Named, and her sisters sometimes shorten this to Voldemort.
For the uninitiated, I should explain the consistency of a horcrux. It’s an object that contains a fragment of a dark wizard’s soul, thus making it easier for him to become immortal. In case you haven’t yet read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort uses them to help him destroy Harry and his pals.
Another Potter term that’s entered the vernacular is dementor. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, dementors guard the Azkaban prison by sucking out the souls of the inhabitants. Dementors feed off human happiness, and thus cause depression and despair to anyone who approaches them. They are prodigious eaters who can consume a person’s soul, leaving their victims in a permanent state of vegetation. One can easily see how the term can be used for some of the manipulative people we encounter every day.
Many of the Potter characters have become shorthand ways to refer to people who possess certain qualities. A Dumbledore represents a sagacious and valiant mentor, a Hermione a bright young woman who tries too hard, a Snape a mean teacher, and a Draco a malevolent bully.
Then there’s the word “Muggle.” In Potter parlance, a Muggle refers to a non-magical person. But, increasingly, the word is gaining distinct meanings among certain groups. Among computer hackers, for instance, the term muggle is sometimes applied to a non-hacker. It’s also used to describe a vexatious person who’s not on the same wavelength as you. On July 17, 2000, News Tribune reported: “Thus fielding a team of muggles in a league of wizards, the Storm opened the season with four losses.”
The Oxford English Dictionary shows three meanings for muggle: a 13th-century Kentish word for “tail of a fish,” a term for marijuana in the early part of the 20th century, and a 17th-century term for “sweetheart.” I suspect Ms. Rowling chose this word to describe non-magic people because it connotes a humdrum existence. A mug is an inelegant word for one’s face, and the OED shows a sense where it refers to “a stupid or incompetent person.” Also, in East Anglia and Shropshire dialect, the word refers to “a damp, dull, gloomy state of the atmosphere.”
But what do I know? I’m no Voldemort, just a Muggle.
Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Litigator's Palindrome

(A version of this article appeared in the July/Aug edition of Lexpert.  Feel free to submit legal palindromes even if you don't know the difference between a litigator and an alligator)

                                   THE LITIGATOR'S PALINDROME
Twenty years ago I had an epiphany. It occurred to me that the year in question, 1991, was a palindromic year and the first one I had ever experienced. Perhaps buoyed by this revelation and the fact that I would be privileged to live through another palindromic year eleven years hence, I composed a series of palindromic poems that were published the next year. In fact, the first book I ever had published was called The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes in which I created a series of supposed biblical sayings as a means of lampooning those who find predictive passages in the Bible.

In case you are not familiar with the word palindrome, let me explain that it is a word, phrase, passage or number that reads the same forward or backward. Examples of palindromes are the words “civic,” “rotator,” the language “Malayalam” and the sentences “Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus” and “Step on no pets. ” The word palindrome derives from the Greek palindromos,which translates as “running back again.” I absolutely refudiate the notion that it is connected to Sarah Palin.

Sotades, a Thracian iconoclastic poet, is generally credited with inventing palindromic sentences. This accounts for the alternate name for palindromes, “Sotadics.” Sotades, however, burst one balloon too many. He made the mistake of dissing the Egyptian king Ptolemy II in one of his palindromes. The humourless king didn’t appreciate Sotades’ wit and had him stuffed inside a lead chest and thrown in the sea.

The majority of palindromes seem to be written in Latin and English but their use is not unknown to other languages. For example we have the French, “Elu par cette crapule” (Elected by this s**t) and the German, “Ein neger mit gazelle zagt im regen nie” (A black man with a gazelle doesn't hesitate in the rain.)

One of the best known English palindromes is attributed to an enisled Anglophilic Napoleon who is purported to have intoned “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Perhaps inspired by the immortality Napoleon attained by his palindromic lament, 20th-century politicians and leaders have had a penchant for palindromic ejaculations. Curiously, even the ones penned by Farsi and German speakers are in English. Here is a sampling (some of which are undoubtedly apocryphal attributions):

In a regal age ran I.” (Kaiser Willhelm II discussing his daily jogs; 1911)

A man, a plan, a canal — Panama.”(Woodrow Wilson dedicates the opening of the Panama Canal to its chief engineer, George Washington Goethals; 1914.)

Jar a tonga; nag not a raj.”(Winston Churchill admonishes Mahatma Gandhi; 1942.)

Can I attain a C?” (Attributed to Prince Charles in his quest for mediocrity while attending Cambridge ;1967.)

To last, Carter retracts a lot.”(During his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford charges his opponent with vacillation; 1976.)

No evil shahs live on.” (Attributed to Ayatollah Khoumeini; 1979.)

Drat! Saddam, a mad dastard.”(President George H.W. Bush expresses his disdain for Saddam Hussein; 1991.)

No,’in uneven union!”(In a speech to the Monarchist League of Canada, Jacques Parizeau affirms that he will no longer tolerate a second-class status for Quebec; 1995.)

Rise to vote, sir.” (Speaker of the House Gib Parent advises a Bloc backbencher that his vote won't count if cast in a prone position; 1999)

Unfortunately, few ancient palindromes are still known. One that has survived was probably printed on the business cards of ancient Roman lawyers and an inspiration to litigators. It read “Si nummi, immunis,” which translates roughly as “Pay me and I’ll get you off.”

A modern version of this would be: “Tie, tag it; I’ll litigate it,” which translates as “Come up with a lawsuit and I’ll defend you in court.”

Some other legal palindromes include:

Joy, O.J.” (Attributed to Johnnie Cochrane upon Simpson’s 1996 acquittal.)

No, sir.Prison.” (A judge refuses probation.)

Sex at noon taxes.” (To fight the deficit, Finance Minister Flaherty imposes a tax on lunch-hour hanky-panky.)

Sex at one —no taxes.” (After discovering that some Cabinet colleagues are flouting this edict, Flahertylimits the time period from 12:00 to 1:00.)

Lexpert readers are asked to come up with a palindrome with a legal flavour to it, or at least one that whose palindromic theme can be explained. The author of the best palindromic entry will receive a copy of my latest book. Please send your entries to

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

words invented by Canadians

(a version of this article appeared in the Globe & Mail on July 1, Canada Day)


What words hath Canadians wrought?

Howard Richler

Now that Canada has reached the venerable age of 144, it is time to dispel the reductionist notion that our nation only represents the words snow and hockey. Truth be told snow predates our confederation by over a millennium and hockey is first mentioned in the Galway, Ireland statutes of 1527, a decade before Cartier paddled on the St.Lawrence River. On the other hand, the eclectic quartet of kerosene, cyberspace, ACTH and optics (PR sense) were all Canadian creations. Here are their stories.

In a church hall in Charlottetown,in 1846, Dr Abraham Gesner unveiled his discovery of “kerocene.” He coined the word by blending the Greek word for wax keros and the common scientific ending –ene. By devising a means of distilling kerosene from petroleum Gesner not only made an important industrial contribution but in the process he may have also prevented the extinction of whales. At the dawn of the industrial age, whales were an important natural resource that humans had been exploiting for centuries. Whales were especially valued for their oil, which was used primarily as fuel for lamps. So thirty years after Gesner discovered kerosene the fleet of whaling ships had shrunk by 95% because kerosene was more economical than whale oil.

The word cyberspace was coined by Canadian author William Gibson and appeared in his science fiction novel Neuromancer in 1984. Actually, the first citation of the word comes two years earlier in an article Gibson wrote in the science magazine Omni: “It looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the ‘Cyberspace Seven’, but I'd rebuilt it so many times that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimetre of factory circuitry in all that silicon.” Cyberspace is a back-formation of the word “cybernetics,” the study of automatic control systems in both machines and living things. This word had been coined in 1948 by mathematician Norbert Wiener and comes from the Greek, kybernetes, meaning “steersman.” Gibson used the word cyberspace to refer to the virtual reality landscape within networked computers as it is experienced by humans. Since 1990, the word has moved into mainstream usage to refer to the imagined locale where electronic data goes. So if your looking for someone to blame for cyberterrorism, cyberstalking and cyberdreck - Gibson's your man.
ACTH , the acronym for adrenocorticotrophic hormone, is produced by the pituitary gland, which stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce steroid hormones. It was first isolated and named in 1933 at McGill University by biochemist James Collip in 1933, who was born in Belleville, Ontario. As a prelude to his discovery and its contribution to words “made in Canada,” earlier in his career, Collip had assisted Banting in the isolation of insulin.
While the word optics referring to the branch of physics that deals with light was invented centuries before the birth of Canada, we Canucks rightfully own the modern sense of optics to refer to the public perception of things. To wit, on April 7, 1983 the Globe and Mail featured the headline Optics Is Name of Game and the article elucidated that “They say in Larry Grossman's health ministry, it's all a matter of optics. This has nothing to do with the eyes, but is has everything to do with the way the public sees things.” This represents the first citation of optics in this context and it would take more than two years until the word was similarly used in the USA in a article in Wall Street Journal. I'm sure the reason optics debuted in Canada was because it was borrowed from our French brethr. For in French, the word optique refers not only to the science of optics but also to visual appearance in general. According to a contact at the OED, the Canadian-inspired sense of optics should make its debut in the venerable dictionary in 2012.
So on Friday raise a glass of Canadian Club, Molson Canadian or one of Canada Dry not only to our land but also to our inventive wordsmiths. Have yourselves a joyous Canada Day.


 Howard's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.