Winning Words VI
Bill Long 6/14/05
On to Cheyenne!
Because I have already discussed word 19, I only have words 18 and 20 to go: uncinated and velitation.
18. Uncinated. Taking a journey into the "unci's" is a delightful pastime for a summer day. There will be other occasions to hike and survey the vast vistas of the American West for me, but for now, I am drawn to the music of this rather strange and harsh sound. The word I am most familiar with, from long ago, is uncial. I used to look at Greek Uncial manuscripts of the New Testament when in graduate school. An uncial, literally, is a 1/12th part, and in Latin either meant an inch (in height) or an ounce (in weight). This explains how you can have the successive words in the Century: uncialize and unciatim. The former means to "put something in uncial (inch-high majuscule) hand" while the latter means "ounce by ounce." Many Americans desire diets where the pounds will fall off remarkably easily; in reality it is an unciatim process. Maybe that is why so many cable television stations boast of people who have lost tons of weight with their programs while America's collective waistline continues to grow. We live in a dream land on weight loss. In fact, wight loss is very difficult to do.
But then we move on to our word of the day. It is not hard to get hooked on uncinate and its relatives. Derived from the Latin uncinus or uncus, a hook or barb, something uncinate or unciform is "hooked or crooked; hooked at the end." Unfortunately for the word, it has not only been taken over by scientists but it primarily describes something invisible to most people, the shape of a part of the brain. The uncinate gyrus is "a convolution which appears on the median surface of the cerebrum nearly opposite the begininng of the gyrus fornicatus. It is so called from its shape, and the hook is known as the crochet or uncus." Other definitions emphasize that it affects the olfactory sense. The diagrams in the Century are primitive; I found an image in my "Google Images" of an "inferior view" (having nothing to do with quality!) of the cerebrum, and blew up the image and there was an arrow pointing to a little hooked area in the cerebrum. Well, not really completely satisfying. Well, then we have an "uncinate process," which is a "strutlike bone between adjacent ribs in birds, dromaeosaurs and some other theropods," according to one online source. Sure enough, little hooks.
The field of epilepsy has also sidled up to the term uncinate and epileptic seizures in which hallucinatory tastes or smells are experienced are called uncinate incidents. For example, from 1948: "An uncinate attack may be followed by an ordinary epileptic fit, in which case the uncinate attack represents an aura." I even found a reference to "uncinate hallucinations"--hallucinations in which the sense of smell is involved.
Let's let the scientists of various sorts use the term, but why not try to reclaim it for humanistic usage? We could start with that most infamous of literary characters: Captain Hook in Barrie's Peter Pan. We might not only want to say that he has a hook, but we might talk about the hook being a window into the uncinate character of the captain. Instead of a glabrous or transparent person, we might have hooked, sinuous, serpentine or uncinated people. Writing may be crabbed but people may be uncinated. But to be uncinated would not mean to be twisted or "torqued." I think that the literary world would be enhanced tremendously if writers would go on tours/grand rounds with plant biologists and neurosurgeons. We could be brought into their technical terminology and be grateful to them for their insights. Then we could free them from their own terminology as we give it to the world. Dream on, Bill.
20. Velitation. Be sure to distinguish this from vellication, derived from the Latin and meaning twitching or plucking. A velis, Anglicized as velite, was a light-armed Roman soldier (plural velites). The Century kindly informs us that soldiers of this class were first formed into a corps at the seige of Capua in 211 B.C.E and disappeared about a century later. Little did any of these soldiers know that during their one century of existence they would bequeath a word that was used to trip up a poor 13 year-old more than two millennia later. Chambers, in his 1728 Cyclopedia defines this "kind of antient Soldiery" as armed with "Javelin, a Cask (i.e., head-piece), Curiasse and Shield."
So, what do velites do? They engage in skirmishes, of course. Hence we have the word velitation, which means "A slight or preliminary engagement with an enemy; a skirmish." An over-the-top 1621 description uses the term: "Let him read those Pharsalian fields fought of late in France for religion, their massacres...and he shall find ours to be but velitations to theirs." Then in a little known practice of the Graeco-Roman world: "If any one killed an Enemy in any Velitation or pickering when they fought man to man, he was rewarded with a Spear without a head, call'd Hasta pura"--a spear without the iron tip. Finally, the term velitation could mean a "wordy skirmish or encounter," which may or may not have to an actual battle. I think the word can be of use today, especially in the atmosphere of academic politics. Rather than having pitched battles, most of the disagreements are velitations indeed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long