Weird Words

Weird Words: Emoluments

Perhaps we should call this “ask the etymologist”…

Emolument comes to us by way of Latin – specifically, ēmŏlŭmentum literally means “something that is produced from work”. Different forms of the Latin word “emolument” meant striving for success and achieving success, but it also referred to profits, gains, or benefits. “Emolument” can be dissected into a couple of word roots to help us remember the meaning of “emolument”.

“Ex-“ or “E-“ means “out/out of” in both Greek and Latin. Think of organ removal surgeries – an appendectomy is when an appendix is taken out, likewise a hysterectomy is when one’s uterus is removed. Alternatively, some Christians believe in creation “ex nihilo”, God’s creation of the universe “out of nothing”.

“Melere” means “to grind” in Latin. This word root has a fine and storied history, older by far than Latin, going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. Think of all the words we have that come from this today! Our grinding teeth are called “molars”, certain hammer-related crushing tools are called “mauls”, a “miller” crushes things in a “mill” and the resultant “meal” is what has been crushed.

So, if we mash those two word roots together ex-melere → e-melere emolument would roughly translate as “the outcome of grinding” (money, if you’re the miller).

This word appears prominently in the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution. This clause was put in place to limit the amount of governmental corruption, particularly by outside money… A worthy goal, if hard to achieve.

The idea is that we don’t want our officials, either elected or appointed, using their positions to achieve personal gain. Most organizations, whether community, state, or national-level have safeguards to prevent emoluments. One doesn’t want an employee giving preferential treatment to certain people because of secret bargains. It’s also a common word to see in Nepotism laws.

Weird Words

Developing International Socialism

As you could figure, the problem with Marx’ theoretical communism is in two concepts – first “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” kind of breaks down fast in the real world scenario, and second, when all property is publicly owned,  real decision-making is in the hands of the manager.  Lincoln Electric is our closest example – with the slogan “owned by the people we serve.”  I remember how many of the owners showed up over 30 years ago to take the co-op back – and what an unusual accomplishment it was.  The cooperative is technically owned by the members – but it is controlled by the manager except for rare occasions.

The term for the manager controlling a socially owned means of production was first used by Joseph Weydemeyer – a lieutenant colonel in the Union army, a Republican and a Marxist. He formed the first Marxist organization in the US.  I never did get a quiet chance to ask Winton Weydemeyer politely about what he might know about Joseph, and still regret the unasked question – there just never was a courteous opportunity.   Anyway, since a socially owned means of production can’t be managed by the owners, Joseph Weydemeyer gave us the term “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  It is an important term in differentiating between Marx’ view of communism and the international socialism we think of as communism.

While Marxist communism couldn’t get past this management problem, it wasn’t a problem until the Russian Revolution.  All at once the communists had a big country to manage – and the successor to Marxism was Leninism.

“Leninism can be explained as the political theory that works towards the organization of a vanguard party which is revolutionary and achieves to attain dictatorship of the proletariat in order to establish socialism. This vanguard party’s aim was supposed to provide the proletariat consciousness about their class in order to destroy capitalism in Imperial Russia. He knew that imperialism was caused by capitalism and it was the exorbitant point of capitalism. Communism is a higher form than that of capitalism, it was proposed that the revolution by the proletariat had to occur first in the economically and industrially advanced countries.

According to Lenin, the Communist party consisted of a scientific understanding of the history and of a society guided by the Marxist principles. They were deeply committed to ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism. They believed that this was only possible with the acquisition of political power. The aim of achieving this political power made them do anything that was possible, be it violence or revolution if required. Lenin argued that the workers or proletariats alone could acquire revolutionary and class consciousness that was needed. Deep within he was afraid that the proletariats would become easily content with smaller gains in their living as well as working conditions acquired through the various trade union activities. He feared that the proletariats would be diverted easily in their motive to dethrone capitalism. This was the point where Leninism differed from Marxism. For the Marxists, material conditions were enough to facilitate the workers to realize their need for revolting . . . Some of the unprecedented results of Leninism were that its pursuit of creating a socialist society led to the creation of a totalitarian state where all the social, economic, cultural, aspects of life were being controlled by the Communist party. Marxism and Leninism predicted the victory of the proletariat; it resulted instead in the increased power of the state.”

Basically, Joseph Weydemeyer and V. I. Lenin melded the dictatorship of the proletariat to the utopian socialist ideals of Robert Owens and the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels to develop the ideology of Leninism – the ideology of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – international socialism.

Community, Weird Words

Sharing the definition of Impeccable for the County Clerk

A January 13 article in the Tobacco Valley News described how a box of ballots was left behind on November 3 and counted days later.  The Western News in Libby brought the matter to light on January 5.  The kudos and praise belong to our local press – blunders such as this need to be brought to the light of day.  The article described how the ballots were counted late – and the TV News quoted Robin Benson, county clerk and recorder: “I still think that the election staff, Chris, did an impeccable and amazing job . . .”

The Cambridge English Dictionary shares the definition of impeccable: perfect, with no problems or bad parts.   What was it the guy in the Princess Bride said?  “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Of course, she may have thought impeccable was a relative term, and been using Georgia standards.  Transparency doesn’t call for the media announcing the error and the correction.

Another TV News quote from Josh Letcher described the former election administrator.  “He did great things.  He put his heart into it.”  It is good to know that Nelson‘s heart is in the right place – but it would be more reassuring had his head been in the right place.  It’s a bit harder to sneer at Georgia when this happens here.  Again, high praise to the media for bringing this to light.

Weird Words

Weird Words: Pontificate

Pontificate, verb: “to speak or express your opinion about something in a way that shows that you think you are always right” (Merriam Webster’s definition for those learning english)

The more formal definition they offer is:

to speak or express opinions in a pompous or dogmatic way”

Merriam Webster

Synonyms include expound, moralize, lecture and preach. This is rather appropriate since the noun form of pontificate is the duration of time for which a pope serves as, well, pope. It originally comes from Latin, specifically from Pontifex, which was the title of a Roman high priest. The word probably meant something along the lines of bridge-maker or path-maker.

Regardless, pontificate used as a verb today has a negative connotation. While it might be appropriate to describe a priest as pontificating, it’s not something to say if you have a favorable opinion of the sermon.

Pontificate is a nice, all around good word for describing anyone that talks as if from a position of authority. With a synonym of expound, it also tends to imply being long winded.

Anyone with the need to preach or moralize, at length, about a topic, can be said to be pontificate. Heard anyone pontificating lately?

Weird Words

Weird Words: Procrustean

“Procrustean” is a fun word with an interesting history.

According to Merriam-Webster, it means: “marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances”

The story the word come from is marked by someone who was precisely that.
Προκρουστης, known to us as Procrustes, is a figure from Greek mythology. He was a robber who invited travelers to his home, then, after supper, put them to bed. As his unfortunate guests would discover, Procrustes’ guest room’s bed was made of iron, and he was determined to make it fit everyone perfectly.

If a guest was too small for his massive iron bed, he’d tie their ankles to one end of the bed, and stretch them until they were the right size… tearing limbs out of joint in the process. In the unlikely event that a guest was too tall for his bed, he’d take his hacksaw and remove as much of their feet and lower legs, as was needed to make them the perfect length.

The name “Procrustes” itself comes from two Greek root words: “προ” (pro) meaning “in front of” and “κρουειν” (krouein) meaning “to strike” or “to beat”. These words paint the picture of a smith lengthening a piece of metal by beating it out.

A fellow who goes around murdering travelers doesn’t really add to the quality of one’s local community, but Procrustes got away with his crimes for quite a while by claiming to be the son of the sea god, Poseidon. Eventually, he was killed by another Greek who claimed divine parentage. Theseus, ostensibly another son of Poseidon, was the last person to stay in Procrustes’ home. You see, Theseus made Procrustes fit his own bed.

A procrustean policy is one that treats everyone the same, regardless of circumstances, with the implication that it does so in a way that is harmful. Of course, those complaining that a policy is procrustean are the people “the bed” doesn’t fit. If the policy fits most people, there will be few that find it procrustean in their experience.

What policies do you feel are procrustean?

Weird Words

Weird Words: Jargon

Most professions seem to have their own specialized language that the uninitiated have difficulty understanding. The word for this, because of course there is one, is jargon.

the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”

Merriam Webster definition for Jargon

The hair stylist talks about “clarifying” shampoo. To me, “clarifying” is explaining, making ideas and words more readily understandable. We speak the same language on the surface, but a closer examination shows we are talking about entirely different things.

To the scientist the word “theory” is quite specific. “Theory” to a scientist implies something highly tested, so well-studied as to be nearly certain. A scientist’s theory is a grand thing, an explanation that has withstood much careful examination. The rest of the world, though, may theorize about anything. Even about things they have not tested and have no intention of testing. The same word, but vastly different meanings.

Occasionally people talk to me of cars, engines, and other mechanical items. There, it becomes clear to me that they, too, have a language all their own. My cookbook is full of jargon as well, though perhaps that is more reflective of my inexperience than the complexity of the topic. Regardless, it comes in handy to have a more experienced translator in the kitchen, lest I spend more time looking up techniques than cooking.

Most of us have a jargon that we use specific to a profession or a hobby. I find it never hurts to ask for a little clarification (though perhaps with the hair stylist, one ought to specify which kind!).

What words or phrases do you know that the rest of us don’t (but should)?