The harkening back…

I’m reading The Professor and the Madman1, by Simon Winchester, and given that it details the circumstances around the creation of The Complete Oxford English Dictionary, there are plenty of unusual words thrown about!

I particularly enjoy learning of common words we use today having previous meanings that are virtually unknown now. Take heckling for example. According to Winchester, it meant

…the process of separating the individual stems of the flax plant from each other…2

And then,

…(often in a political context) in the sense of catechizing someone, making his or her arguments stand up to severe scrutiny, as a flax plant might stand for the scutcher.3

Neither of these definitions match how we use the word today, but you can see a progression through the meanings.

Another example I knew of before is broadcast. You certainly know the most common meaning today, but the word was first used in the middle of the 18th century. Like Heckling, it was a farming term:

Of seed , sowing , etc.: sown or performed by scattering widely rather than by placing in drills or rows.4

One would cast the seeds over a broad area. Broad-cast.

I wonder what other words we use today, perhaps in a technical sense, have much older meanings.


  1. Strangely, and inexplicably, the title of this book everywhere but the US and Canada is The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words.
  2. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1998
  3. ibid
  4. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 2007

Musical terms

I was listening to Demi Lovato’s Confident and after a few times, I am ready to say that’s it’s a pretty good album. With how my preferences don’t lean easily toward pure pop, this is high praise, indeed! One of the songs is about her relationship with her father, so I went over to Wikipedia to see if it is autobiographical1. While there, I learned a few new words.

The first is whistle register. The performer who is most famous for the whistle register’s use is Mariah Carrey. You know that really high squeal she sometimes does? That’s the whistle register. Wikipedia describes it this way:

The whistle register (also called the flageolet or flute register or whistle tone) is the highest register of the human voice, lying above the modal register and falsetto register. This register has a specific physiological production that is different from the other registers, and is so called because the timbre of the notes that are produced from this register is similar to that of a whistle.2

And note that when one considers a singer’s range, the whistle register is not included.

The whistle register took me to Mariah Carrey’s Wikipedia entry where she is referenced as having a “melismatic” style. What’s that you ask?

Melisma, plural melismata, in music, is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, in which each syllable of text is matched to a single note.3

You’ll hear this the most often in R&B music. It’s always sounded to me that the singer is showing off or simply trying too hard. I’ve never cared for this singing technique, and now I know what it’s called!


  1. It is.
  2. Whistle register,” Wikipedia, retrieved March 7, 2016.
  3. Melisma,” Wikipedia, retrieved March 7, 2016.

Album cover © 2015 Hollywood Records

When are you most active?

I sometimes look up something on Wikipedia, and after reading and following links for twenty minutes, find myself goodness knows where. Surely you know what I mean.

In this particular instance, I was looking up something about cats. I learned that their schedules are quite flexible and depend on their circumstances, though house cats are most active in the morning and evening because that’s when we are most active in many households.

This brought me to some new words. You know the first:

Nocturnal — active at night. From the Latin nocturnum, meaning ‘night.’

Diurnal — active during the day. From the Latin diurnus, meaning ‘daily.’

Crepuscular — active at dawn and dusk. From the Latin crepusculum, meaning ‘twilight.’

And more specifically,

Matutinal — active at dawn. From the Latin matutinus, meaning ‘morning.’

Vespertine — active at dusk. From the Latin vesper, meaning ‘evening.’

So most house cats are largely crepuscular. This definition also explains the title of the Thelonious Monk composition, Crepuscule with Nellie.

Knowledge is cool!

Temper, temper…

I’m re-reading Stuart Isacoff’s excellent book, Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization. My nephew mentioned he was reading it and it blew his mind, just as it did mine. Since we would be travelling by car for over an hour (each way) to the concert we attended Friday, I thought it would be interesting to discuss so I dove back in to refresh my memory.

Briefly, the way we tune keyboard instruments today is not the way they were tuned in the past. Indeed, our equal temperament “was once regarded as a crime against God and nature,” according to Isacoff.

Back in the day, keyboards used Pythagorean tuning, in which all the fifths were tuned in perfect 3:2 ratios. But if you played thirds, they didn’t sound right. Further, the tuning was by key. If you wanted to play in a different key, you had to tune the instrument for the desired key or it sounded like an utter disaster. You simply can not tune perfect octaves, thirds, and fifths, all at the same time.

Our twelve note scale has the notes logarithmically equally spaced between perfect octaves, but even this is a compromise, as the thirds and fifths are slightly dissonant. We’ve just grown used to it, and it seems a reasonable compromise to avoid a different tuning for every key! Reasonable today, but not in the past when the 3:2 ratio of the perfect fifths was a sign of the perfection of god’s construction of the universe! Not using perfect fifths was sacrilege.

I highly recommend the book. I know very little musical theory, but this didn’t dampen my enjoyment in the least.

Isacoff used two words, antonyms, that I didn’t realize are related in a musical sense. You know dissonant. I did not know its opposite is concordant.

concordant adjective. 1 Agreeing ; harmonious ; unanimous ; consistent . l15.

I’ve known the word to mean ‘agreement,’ but not in a musical sense. Interesting.


Book cover ©2001, 2003 by Stuart Isacoff.

Definitions from the electronic Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Monopoly…

I read a new word today in Joe Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. You see, he’s an independent author, and he shared some of his thoughts about the current ‘situation’ between Amazon and Hachette Book Group in an entry named Fisking Charlie Stross: More on Hachette/Amazon. I found this short and interesting paragraph in this entry:

People have a choice on where to buy books. Amazon being the biggest bookseller on the planet doesn’t make them a monopoly or monopsony. If readers demand Hachette books, Amazon has not prevented them from being sold. There are thousands of other retailers who sell Hachette titles.

My first thought was that monopsony was a typo and he surely meant monopoly. Then again, since monopoly appears two words earlier in the same sentence, joined to monopsony with the conjunction ‘or,’ it wasn’t a typo. Not of monopoly anyway.

So I went off to the dictionary!

Let me start with the word you know:

monopoly 1 Exclusive possession or control of the trade in a commodity , service , etc.; the condition of having no competitor in one’s trade or business ; Law a situation in which one supplier or producer controls more than a specified fraction of the market. m16.

And now, in a sense, the opposite:

monopsony Economics. A situation in which there is a sole or predominant consumer for a particular product. m20.

Neat, huh? The etymologies are cool, as well. Monopoly is from the Greek mono (one), and pōlein (sell) while monopsony is from the Greek mono (one) and opsōnein (buy provisions). I also find it interesting that monopoly is from the middle of the 16th century while monopsony is from the middle of the 20th century. Is that progress?


Definitions from the electronic Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.