Words & Stuff

FF: A Matter of Definition

(9 August 1998)

In February '97, someone named Steve crossposted a request to half a dozen (mostly inappropriate) newsgroups, asking for help locating citations for nine archaic and semi-obscure words (at least one of which he misspelled). Bill Oliver provided this helpful set of definitions in response (which I've reformatted for HTML and lightly edited):

Subject: Re: Help me do research & get rewarded!

Steve <...address removed by Jed...> wrote:

>Cairn

This is the name of a spicy shredded meat dish popular on the Iberian peninsula during the 14th century. As a folk dish, it consisted primarily of game, though among the nobility the flesh of small birds was popular (primarily as a show of conspicuous consumption, since the labor involved in deboning small birds is enormous). With the settling of the New World, beef became a popular meat for the dish, and the more traditional spices were replaced by newer varietals, particularly the chiles found in Mesoamerica. In fact, the food became known more for its chiles than for the meat, hence the more modern derivation "chile con carne."

>Chaldean

This was an early title given to scholars whose primary task was the instruction of the very young. Roughly translated as "Dean of the Child" or "Child's Dean," these men also had the reputation of being very wise and mysterious, hence the reference to magicians. Chaldeans were very important in Middle Age society, until the famous Day Care Center Hysteria of the 1500s, when many were put to death (see jongleur below).

>Eidolon

This is a small flower which grows in the high moors of Scotland. It is known for the beauty of its sky-blue flower and blood-red stamen, and its rarity, but is legendary for the fact that it is a very late bloomer (having a blooming period of only one or two days a year), and for the peculiar properties of how the flower opens.

Unlike the traditional flower, which opens for display in order to attract insects, the Eidolon does not readily present its flower. Instead, it stays closed and attracts insects by scent. Only when the insect actually prods the flower does it open. Some botanists believe that this is a survival mechanism dictated by the sparse distribution of the flower. Simple distribution by wind is not effective, and it is better for the plant to "protect" its nectar for insects.

In any case, the Eidolon, also known as the "Idle flower" became synonymous with being lazy since it was necessary to "prod" the flower into opening and doing its work. This is where we get the word "idle."

>Flagae

This is, of course, simply an older spelling for flag. The last two vowels have always been silent, and proved a great pain for early scribes, who had a disturbing tendency to keep running the a into the e. The word was shortened to its modern form by the famous "Grammar Regularization Acts" of the 1600s, passed by Parliament during the Puritan takeover of Britain. Cromwell and the other Parliamentarians felt that the extra letters were wasteful, and thus an offense before God.

>Jack-pudding

This is a vulgar term for the refuse found on the floors of torture chambers and interrogation rooms. It was popular during the Auto de Fey.

>Jongleur

This is a Middle English term for an anatomical feature, um, present only in males. It was used to describe particularly large or talented features as in "The King has a jongleur that can juggle three balls in the air."

>Mounteback

This is an Elizabethan term for sexual intercourse, much like the famous "creature with two backs" mentioned more than once in the works of Shakespear. Thus, the words mounteback and jongleur are often seen together in works from that time.

>Redcap

This is a term for an occupation limited to central Europe during the 13th century. At that time, impaling was a very common method of execution. In some places, so many people were executed in that manner that they ran out of trees to make poles for the impalement. This, for instance, happened in Transylvania to the infamous "Dracula" or "Vlad the Impaler."

To overcome that problem, Vlad had his craftsmen develop a very pointy hat. He then conscripted serfs, had them stand at attention, and impaled his vctims on the serfs. Later, this became the duty of particular units of the military. Vestiges of this practice survived until World War I in the German military, who were known both for their pointy hats and their stiff bearing.

>Traiteurs

This is the last name of a famous general in Napoleon's Army who was caught in a great scandal. His name became synonymous with acting in poor faith. Until that time, such folk were called "Benedict Arnolds." This appelation was considered too long, but simply calling people "Arnie" didn't seem to convey the appropriate sentiment. The term "Traiteur" quickly became more popular, particularly in the Americas, but became best known in the form "traitor." This was primarily because nobody in the Americas at the time could spell.

hope this helps!


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>