January 2008 Re-bar (Seattle) Bee
Bill Long 1/28/08
I am on Randy Hilfman's email list. Randy, if you didn't know, placed second at the National Senior Spelling Bee last summer in Cheyenne, and he and I have kept up with each other since then--following each other's spelling exploits with interest. He participates in the monthly Re-bar bee in Seattle, while I occasionally enter the weekly Mississippi Pizza Pub bee in Portland. Someday I will stop in on his....
Well, in the latest email, he mentioned how he got 2nd in the January bee, and then he kindly sent along about 15 or so of the most difficult words used that night. I thought it might be good to introduce a few of them here, taking some of them in directions that the bee didn't, so that we might enrich ourselves yet further. Two preliminary observations are useful: (1) You can, actually, get a good mastery of English words by patiently doing things like this; and (2) almost all English-language words are trivially easy, as long as you are familiar with the right "field" out of which the word comes. Since they are easy for some, they should be simple for us...
Some Words from the Re-bar Bee
Ten of the more difficult words which Randy sent along were hypophysis, eupyrion, cossette, diphyodont, lowestoft, smorzando, laticiferous, potichomania, passacaglia and thixotropy. Let's spend some time on a few and see where they lead us. First, Lowestoft (capitalized in the OED) is a town in Suffolk England known for its porcelain. Here is the web page of the porcelain works, which has been putting out the stuff since 1757. Because the 250th anniversary of the founding of the porcelain works was last year, an attractive commemorative plate was issued--picture on the site. A third-grader from the east coast of England would know how to spell the name--certainly now we will never forget it.
The word smorzando, not to be confused with sforzando, is a term from music and means "dying away." It comes from the Italian smorzare, which means "to extinguish." From 1800, "De Camp, & c. will warble their dulcet tones, semitones, diminuendo's, rallentando's and smorzando's in due time and place!" By the way, rallentando is also a good word, and it means "that the time is gradually to be made slower." I found this glossary of musical and dance terms, which is important to mention because one of our other terms, passacaglia, also appears in it. Then I figured I would work through their list of 100s of terms, highlighting the following, which are difficult to spell and appear in the OED.
1. bourree--a lively dance, of French origin, in common time (two beats in a bar).
lively dance in 2/4 time.
3. chaconne-- a dance in triple time with a ground bass.
4. larghetto--meaning that the passage to be played slowly.
5. gavotte--French dance in 4/4 or 2/2 time.
6. passepied--dance in triple time resembling a lively minuet.
7. pavane--a grave and stately dance in slow duple time.
8. courante--kind of dance formerly in vogue, characterized by a running or gliding step.
9. galliard-- a quick and lively dance in triple time.
10. obbligato--originally designating a part subordinate to the principal melody, but nevertheless essential. I give this word because, in English, we drop the second "b" in the word, and it can therefore case some confusion.
Now you can see how the dictionary or the spelling bee words, difficult as some might be, are only the tip of the verbal iceberg of words that need to be learned. Don't lose heart, however. After a while you begin to see the same words over and over again, and they become easy to spell. By the way, passacaglia is a slow musical composition written in triple time. It really would be wonderful to know, in personal experience, the meaning of all of these terms.
Thus, you see that these words are trivially easy for one who has some experience in music or dance, just as lowestoft would be easy for any child in that region of England. The other "difficult" words are likewise easy, if you just know what they mean. For example, a cossette (dim. of French cosse, pod or husk) is a slice of a root, especially the sugar beet root, cut up during processes of manufacture. All you have to do is check a web site, like this one, where you can get pictures of beets (Beta vulgaris), as well as an explanation of a cossette. "First the roots are washed, then cut into strips called cossettes." Easy as harvesting beets.
Thixotropy sounds much more difficult than it actually is. I would guess that most misspellings of this word come from the speller adding an "h," to make the last two syllables "trophy..." But tropy is derived from the Greek word trope, which means "change" or "turning." Thixis is a rare Greek prefix in English, but means "touching." Thus, thixotropy is a property of certain gels to become fluid when agitated and of reverting back to gel when left to stand.
Potichomania looks pretty daunting until you realize that a potiche is a large porcelain vase (I think the spelling bee organizers had vases and dances on their minds..), typically rounded in shape with bulging shoulders and a wide mouth, and freq. having a lid, originally produced in China during the Ming dynasty. Pictures are here. Well, an object that has "mania" added on to it suggests that at some point in history there was a "craze" for it. Actually potichomania comes from 1854 and is defined as the "art of applying paint or images printed on paper to glass vessels to give them the appearance of painted porcelain."
The other words are defined as follows: hypophysis literally is a growth or excresence, and is now known as the pituitary body of the brain. We also have epiphysis and apophysis in English to talk about various kinds of "growth." The Greek word underlying it all is phuo--"to grow." Something laticiferous "bears" or "carries" (Latin fero means to "carry" or "bear") latex. I just learned a synonymn for laticiferous tissue--cinenchyma. This is tissue forming vessels containing latex or milky juice.
The only unfair word on the list was eupyrion, which lit up the verbal sky for a few years in the early 19th century. Oh, it designates a contrivance for obtaining light instantaneously. Hertner's Eupyrion was the first on the market, and there are a few Google references to it. But, the first and last quotations from the OED mentioning the word are from 1827. Probably should have kept it there. The Century gives an example of a eupyrion--Lucifer-matches. I wonder if he used them when falling from his heavenly perch...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long