Category Archives: Word of the Week

Word of the Week Respair

Respair (n.), English all the way down. Also rare and usually considered obsolete. This word was not my idea. Rather, credit goes to a tweet that went flying by on my timeline a few days ago. I’m sorry I don’t remember your name.

A fun thing about language is that it can be fairly modular. Which is something authors and poets have exploited since time immemorial. And so it is with respair. Despair is a word that comes to us from the French through the Latin. It’s origin is in the word esperer: to hope. The de- prefix was added to indicate a situation where one was without hope. Somehow, in English, hope took a different route to get here, but we kept despair.

However, a historian in the 1400s needed a way to talk about a return to hope after a period of despair: a coming out of the darkness. And he looked at the word, chopped off the de- and added a re-. The re- prefix has always had a sense of going back (thus returning, receding, etc.), and so with it he created respair. The return of hope.

As far as I can tell, the word never really caught on. But I like it. Nice to have a word at hand for when things do finally get better. Because we can hope they will.

Word of the Week: Vignette

Vignette (adj.) comes to English from the French (where it is spelled the same). It first started showing up in the 1750s and remains in moderate use today. I picked this word because I wrote one earlier this week. In that context, a vignette is a short written sketch providing a slice of a character or scene. But that wasn’t its earliest usage.

The most literal meaning is “little vines” and it was originally used to refer to the ornamentation at the edge of pages that often (but not always) took the forms of vine-like patterns. These designs were often used to fill blanks spaces in books and to some extent persist today.

The word was then adapted to similar elements in architecture and design. Rarely it was even applied to literal vines on trellises, balconies, columns, etc.

At some point, around century after it entered the lexicon, the meaning shifted. It’s unclear why. Photos of the head and shoulders, especially those with the edges trailing away softly, began to be referred to as vignettes and eventually so did short passages of characterization and description in text. Vignettes began to refer to brief scenes by which you would study a small piece of a character or story apart from the main plot of the work. Folk etymology may suggest that this usage became popular as these short pieces were adornment and embellishment upon the body of the work, much like their graphical predecessors. However, that’s just supposition.

Regardless, I’m going to be using the term vignette to refer to short, evocative pieces from my life. Little slices for our enjoyment to get a better taste of me.

Word of the Week: Sisyphean

Sisyphean (adj.) comes to English through the Greek, and unlike last week’s word we know exactly where it comes from. It came into use in the mid 1600s (which honestly seems late) and is fairly rare in current use.

Sisyphus was, simply put, a cheating bastard. And he was good at it. Good enough to cheat death twice. After sufficiently pissing off the gods, either Hades or Thanatos (sources vary) was sent to drag Sisyphus to the underworld and bind him in a chair as eternal punishment. This was special treatment, as usually Hermes was sent to retrieve the souls of the dead. Hermes, psychopomp with elements of a trickster, would likely not have fallen for Sisyphus’ plan.

Sisyphus asked the god to show him how the chair worked. And, somehow not anticipating what was to come, the very embodiment of death and/or the underworld sat in the chair and was bound. This led to nothing being able to die,  and the world becoming a rather unpleasant place. This was obviously an untenable situation, and eventually the gods conspired to make sure their brethren was released. Which once again meant Sisyphus was staring death in the face.

Before dying, Sisyphus gave instructions that his body should be desecrated after his death. And, on arriving to the underworld, he told Persephone such a sob story about how horribly his body had been treated. She was so moved that she let the smug little bastard go back to the world of the living to see to his affairs. Of course, Sisyphus had no intention of returning. Eventually, Hermes caught up with him and dragged him back down beneath the earth, but Sisyphus had enough time in the intervening period to be awful to his family and to basically make a nuisance of himself.

Once he was finally in the underworld for good, Sisyphus was tasked with rolling a boulder to the top of a hill. A hill which, upon reaching the top, the boulder would immediately roll down the other side. And this is where the word gets the meaning it carries today: something resembling fruitless toil towards an unreachable goal.

Word of the Week: Baroque

Baroque (adj.), it comes to English and French through the Spanish (barrueco), but no one knows where it originated. Likewise, I have no idea why this word is on my mind. Dates back to the late 1700s and is still used today.

The Spanish word refers to an imperfect or misshapen pearl. And likewise the word itself refers to the irregular, the asymmetrical, the grotesque, and the odd. It’s often used pejoratively. The term usually gets applies to 17th and 18th century arts to describe the emergence of noise and exaggeration that had been lacking in previous periods.

But despite the pejorative sense, there are things of great beauty in the Baroque. Technical perfection leaves us cold. Perfect symmetry verges into the uncanny. A little emotion, a little excess, and a little imperfection can do us a lot of good.

Word of the Week: Complex

Complex (adj.), from the Latin (complexus) through the French (complexe), dates back to the mid-1600s and is still in current use. I used this word earlier today when I referred to biology as “terrifyingly, beautifully complex”, and I thought it was important to explain what that means.

For starters, it does not simply mean “complicated”. Complicated refers to a tangled, difficult, confusing thing with multiple parts. Complex says something about how those parts work together. Complexity requires a certain interweaving of component parts to form a greater whole. Though complicated things can be complex, not all complicated things are.

Imagine you have a thing to assemble. It has three parts: A, B, and C. You attach A to B and then you attach B to C and your thing is complete: A-B-C. From a very simple point of view this could be a complicated thing because it has multiple parts attached together. Now, imagine you have another thing. It has three parts: A, B, and Z. A clearly attaches to B, but Z clearly doesn’t fit either A or B. So you attach A to B and then B acts on A to transform A into X and then X in turn acts on B to transform B into Y. Now you can attach Z after the other two parts have finished interacting with each other: X-Y-Z. This would be a complex situation; the end result is different due to the interaction of component parts with one another. Consequentially, complex things are not easily predictable from their starting state.

That’s how life works. It’s actually a defining characteristic of life. And it makes it extremely difficult to study and understand. The approaches science has used in the past were very adept at handling simple principles, but once we move into the realm of complexity we’re often left grasping. Because the illustration above isn’t really hypothetical: a living system is so complex that the actions of each individual part are changed by each adjacent individual part. And no measure of taking those systems apart and laying out the components can answer significant questions. This is why the Human Genome Project never delivered on its promises. This is why drug development has such a high failure rate. To try to conceptualize a highly complex system is literally maddening, but at the same time, it’s the only way forward.

Word of the Week: Sanguine

Sanguine (n. & adj.), from the Latin (sanguineus) through the French (sanguin). Earliest uses in the late 1300s and some uses still common today.

Quite honestly one reason I like the word is the way it’s a bit self-contradicting. As illustrated by the following quote for the show Firefly:

Zoe: You sanguine about the kind of reception we’re apt to receive on an Alliance ship, Cap’n?
Mal: Absolutely. What’s “sanguine” mean?
Zoe: “Sanguine”. Hopeful. Plus, point of interest? it also means “bloody”.
Mal: Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don’t it?

The primary meaning of the word is the bloody one: It refers to any thing of, pertaining to, or containing blood, and particularly the specific red color of blood. It could be used to describe a person or institution that relishes blood or delights in blood shed. The word has also been used to describe someone blushing or just generally red in the face.

To understand the ‘hopeful’ connotation, you have to look to the old medical notion of the four humors. Early medicine believed that all people contained a balance of four fluids called humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. In any one person one humor could be dominant and have an effect on that person’s temperament. Sanguine individuals, those in whom blood was dominant, were thought to be courageous, hopeful, confident, and humorous. Not quite sure why, but the word stuck even if the medical theory didn’t.

So a sanguine person could be a hopeful happy person, a person who would like to bleed you dry, a person who just happens to be a little red in the face, a person dripping with blood, or any combination of the four!

Word of the Week: Liminal

Liminal (adj.), from the Latin for threshold (limen), refers to something characterized by being on a boundary or in a transitional state. It’s been in use since ~1875 and continues in current usage today.

It probably isn’t coincidental that it’s a word I loved even before I started transitioning, but that I’ve taken a particular fancy to it over the past several years as I’ve been on hormone therapy. It’s been even more appropriate over the last few months as not only is my body in a transitional state, but my life is in a transitional state and I’ve been traveling (airplanes and hotels, by nature, being liminal spaces).

There’s something exciting about the liminal, because change is often good. Liminal experiences free us from the everyday, they can have the feeling of the exotic or adventure about them. It’s easier to let go of things in those spaces, to play with our identity, to engage in actions (at least seemingly) removed of consequence. But they can also be places of danger. Remember that as one leaves home and follows a road over the horizon, neither the journey nor the destination are guaranteed to be pleasant or safe.

Related: liminality, limanally