Word of the Week! Scrofulous

Some background here, ye corky-armed poltroons: I be playin’ a game with some academic friends that involves pirate ships and sailing. It’s great fun: one can design a ship, navy or pirate, and learn to tack, raise and lower sails, fire cannon with several types of shot, and (of course) be sunk down to Davy Jones’ locker.

Sea-faring has a rich vocabulary, some of which in time entered academic parlance and common use (“against the wind” comes to mind).

Likewise, nicknames with adjectives yield some excellent (cannon) fodder for this blog.

Recently several of us, between battles on the virtual sea, devised alliterative pirate names.

“Pestilential Pete” proved a fine one. “Scurvy” gets overused and can be easily solved by citrus on a ship (hence, the clever English who figured this out got called Limeys).

But what about “Scrofulous Sam”?  That was my pick. It’s not because our pirate suffers from the lymphatic disease called Scrofula, though that is the origin of our word this week, as the OED shows us. Nay, Matey, belay that thought!

Sam would more likely (he is a pirate) to suffer from a moral depravity. As the OED entry notes, Sam would be “morally corrupt.” Never confuse the word with “scruffy,” of similar antiquity but denoting physical shabbiness.

While first usage of this week’s term dates back to the 17th Century, it was only in the Victorian era that we see a first-use metaphorically, in relation to morals. An 1889 example shows how the term appears in print, and readers today are likely to encounter it in Victorian literature like this:

“Holywell-street was re-named ‘Booksellers’-row’ because of its scrofulous reputation.”

A nasty word, but formal-sounding at this distance in time, as is “pestilential” or even “barbarous.” Drawing-room dialogue in Downton Abbey, the characters never fearing the eruption of pirates, plague-victims, or Visigoths during tea hour.

At least until the next sequel. Avast!

Be thou lubber or old salt, a tar or a pantaloon, scrofulous or saintly, this blog be keepin’ a weather-eye out for new words and metaphors! Sam will take your messages in a bottle at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Flag image courtesy of Wikipedia.

(Nonce) Word of the Week! Pompatus

Steve MillerI almost had an answer to a question that haunts every fan of classic Rock: what IS “the pompatus of Love” from musician Steve Miller’s song “The Joker”? I recall debating it over bags of Doritos.

Then, as I drove back from the Shenandoah Valley with Sirius XM on, DJ Earle Bailey announced he had solved the mystery. Like me, he claims to enjoy the OED and put in the word. It came up an old term related to pomp, splendor, or ceremony. Finally the riddle resolved for the many Space Cowboys, Gangsters of Love, and Maurices of the 1970s who have been dying to know the truth.

So I tried. Not a sausage, as the Brits say. Crickets, as we Yanks say (who do not play Cricket). Earl, check your sources! Steve Miller, looking like a sober, trim, and non-evil version of another Steve who once advised a former President (and who is sadly still around), talks to Jimmy Fallon about how he made up the term here. He says he misunderstood a term from an old doo-wop song.

You can also read the etymology of this made-up term here, one Miller based upon another musician’s “nonce word” (now I have learned something). In fact, I’ll add a new category of posts for these invented terms traceable to a clear origin.

I’d love to feature more nonce words. Got some? Got any words or metaphors? Be you picker, grinner, lover, or sinner, send me  all your pompati, or is it pompatuses?

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Steve Miller, 1977, courtesy of Wikipedia