WordWatch roundup: barbecue, panjandrum, ovate, and callipygian
This series investigates changes in lookups for words and their meanings across OxfordDictionaries.com. The graphs are based on website data collected over a four-week period, and the accompanying commentary explores how news and other current events have influenced these word trends and sudden peaks in interest.
With the advent of summer (unofficially marked in the US by the recent holiday of Memorial Day and the May Bank Holiday in the UK), everyone is taking to the outdoors to barbecue. Referring to the ‘meal or gathering at which meat, fish, or other food is cooked out of doors on a rack over an open fire or on a portable grill’, barbecue is also used to refer to the grill or rack itself, the food being cooked, and as a verb, ‘to barbecue’.
Barbecue, which is sometimes spelled barbeque and abbreviated to BBQ, has a long history in the Americas. The word appeared in English in the mid-17th century from the Spanish word barbacoa. The Spanish word seems to have come from a similar word in the Arawak language – the Arawak people lived in the Greater Antilles and parts of South America – meaning ‘wooden frame on posts’. The original sense referred to a ‘wooden framework for sleeping on, or for storing meat or fish to be dried’.
The arrests of 14 top FIFA officials on an array of charges, including bribery and fraud, recently rocked the world of international sports. Long suspected of corruption and bribery, FIFA and its longtime president Sepp Blatter, who is currently seeking a fifth term at the head of the organization, have been subject to widespread criticism.
One word that has been used to describe Blatter during his tenure as president is panjandrum, which refers to a ‘person who has or claims to have a great deal of authority or influence’. Popular use of the word in English dates from the 19th century, although it seems to have been coined around 1754 as a part of a nonsense piece composed by actor and dramatist Samuel Foote (1720–77) to test the memory of fellow actor Charles Macklin, who claimed that he could repeat anything verbatim after hearing it only a single time. In the first published version, the nonsense passage reads: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top.’ The term is sometimes seen as the ‘great panjandrum’.
During a recent press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Matthew McConaughey opined that a film audience ‘has a much of a right to boo as they have to ovate’. He was speaking, of course, about the booing that followed the screening of his most recent film The Sea of Trees at the festival on 22 May. But despite McConaughey’s quip, the large spike in lookups seems to be due to the use of the word on an episode of Britain’s Got Talent.
While ovation, the noun form of this word, is fairly common (particularly in standing ovation), the verb form ovate, meaning ‘to applaud enthusiastically’ is seen less frequently. You are probably more likely to hear the words applaud or clap. Additionally, while you might give someone just an ovation, the odds are pretty fair that you’ll be giving them a standing one.
One of the oddball curiosities offered up by the English language, the word callipygian means ‘having well-shaped buttocks’. The word entered English in the late 18th century, coming from the Greek kallipūgos, which was used to describe a famous statue of the goddess Venus. The Greek word comes from kallos ‘beauty’ + pūgē ‘buttocks’ + –ian. So why the sudden spike in interest? We can at least partly look to Reddit: the word was recently posted to the Logophilia subreddit. (Logophilia means ‘love of words’.)