Bill Long 6/14/06
Words Derived From Names of People
One of the real problems for spellers is the number and difficulty of words which are derived from place names or names of people. There often is no real way of "sounding them out;" you just have to learn the word. Actually, this is not so bad, since often there is a compelling story or biographical detail about the person which sinks the word deeply into consciousness. However, learning words in this way takes time, and time is not widely available to us when we are preparing for a Bee.
The ten or so words in this category I will mention in this essay are quisling, oersted, paulownia, proustite, rafflesia, roorback, tillandsia, ytterbium, yagi, zoisite and zoysia.
Let me begin, however, with a word not on the list (it isn't in the Collegiate) because it is one of my all-time favorites: grimthorpe. There is no rhyme or reason from etymology or long usage that grimthorpe ought to mean "to restore (an ancient building) with lavish expenditure rather than skill and fine taste." Nevertheless, that is what it means, according to the OED. Why? Well, the story goes that Sir Edmund Beckett, first Lord Grimthorpe (sounds rather macabre, don't you think?; his dates are 1816-1905), was called upon to oversee the restoration of St. Albans Cathedral in London. The completed work was greeted with criticism and controversy. Because of that, beginning in 1890, the verb "grimthorpe" made an appearance, beginning with the January issue of Antiquary: "To this a keen and well-known Yorkshire ecclesiologist replied: 'Heaven forbid! the building might be grimthorped!'" The most recent attestation of the verb in the OED is 1909; one can assume that with the passage of time and two world wars that grimthorpe has faded into a well-deserved obsolescence. Nevertheless, that is how words get started.
A word that got its start in late 1970's disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. Gerald Rafshoon was Jimmy Carter's communications director. So thorough was he in vetting things that came through the office that someone coined the verb "Rafshooned" to describe the process of having your ideas picked apart and repackaged by Gerry. But I don't find that word online and no one uses it anymore.
Words that Made it Into the Collegiate
1. But the italicized and bolded words above did make it into the Collegiate, and it is best for me to know them. Quisling is perhaps the easiest for people of my generation, because it was coined in 1940 and named after Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who collaborated with the Nazis in WWII. Thus a quisling is a traitor or collaborator. In this case the sound of the word goes well with the concept: a quisling sounds like a sort of wimpy character who sidles up to a stronger person for help.
2. and 3. Paulownia and roorback are probably the most difficult of the bunch. The former is "any of a genus of Chinese trees of the snapdragon family." Of course a person stands behind this. It is Anna Pavlovna, a 19th century Russian princess. I didn't take the time to research her life or discover why the genus (Paulownia) was named after her. All I have time for today is the word.
The same is true for roorback. The word is actually pretty interesting--it is "a defamatory falsehood published for political effect." How did it arise? Well, during the administration of James Knox Polk (1845-49) he was attacked with a broadside purporting to quote from an invented book by a certain Baron von Roorback. Webster's new and revised dictionary had this entry in its 1864 version under the word: "Roorbach (note the spelling!), a forgery or fictitious story published for purposes of political intrigue. [Note. The word originated in 1844, when such a forgery was published, purporting to be an extract from the 'Travels of Baron Roorbach.]" By 1884, however, the word was spelled "roorbacks" and put lower case letters. One Boston newspaper in 1884 wrote this of its competition: "The Herald and Globe abound in roorbacks which are designed to influence the vote in Maine." To me the amazing thing is that this word is still in our dictionaries...
I only have time for one slight digression here. Why is it that some words from human names maintain their upper case beginning and that others are in lower case? For example, the Collegiate has a word "Wellerism," defined as "an expression of comparison comprising a usu. well-known quotation followed by a facetious sequel (as "'every one to his own taste,' said the old woman as she kissed the cow"), and most scholars look at Wellerisms as of the same type of words as malapropisms or spoonerisms. Nevertheless, the last two appear with lower case beginnings. This means that they are "fair game" in our Bee, while Wellerism, because it begins with an upper case letter, is off limits.
4. Let's finish this essay with oersted. Hans Christian (not Anderson) Orsted (slash through O) was a Danish physicist (1777-1851) who discovered that an electric currect deflects a magnetic compass needle. I am sure that someone, someday, will tell me the significance of O(e)rsted's discovery. Unlike some people who leave their bodies to science, O(e)rsted bequeathed his name to a "unit of electric current, equivalent to an ampere." But this usage of oersted became obsolete by the 1880s. Yet, the spirit of Hans Christian lived, and his name became synonymous with "a unit of reluctance in the cgs electromagnetic system, defined as one gilbert per maxwell." This definition also faded out, by it took until the early 1930s for it to fall into desuetude. But then, when the second definition was fading, a third began. An oersted became a unit of reluctance in the cgs electromagnetic system, though its definition was different from the earlier one (I will not bore you with it here). Thus, a good response to a question of what has almost as many lives as a cat would be an oersted--for it passed through three definitions before it "stuck."
I can easily see how you can get through life without a knowledge of these terms--though not through a Spelling Bee. I need one more essay on these terms.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long