Weekly Word Watch: from activate to whitewashing
This week, we’ve been watching words for hurricane havoc, Hollywood hubbub, and political patter:
According to the US National Hurricane Center, hurricane Harvey, which has dumped over 50 inches (127cm) of rain on parts of Houston, Texas, is set to mark the most extreme rain event in US history. As the Center has reported, the storm is causing ‘catastrophic’ flooding.
Catastrophic – characterizing a sudden, widespread, and violent disaster – is a sadly too-fitting term for Harvey’s wrath in southeast Texas. This formidable adjective has been in the record since the 1830s, but its parent noun, catastrophe, is much older and, originally, far less and yet far more dramatic.
The Oxford English Dictionary first finds catastrophe in a gloss attributed to a mysterious E.K. in Edmund Spenser’s 1579 Sheapeardes Calendar, the Renaissance poet’s first major work: ‘This tale is much like to that in Aesops fables, but the Catastrophe and ende is farre different’. Catastrophes can certainly teach us some all-too tragic lessons, but what does the term have to do with fables?
Initially, a catastrophe was the dénouement – the climactic, final part – of drama. The term derives from the Greek katastrophe, literally an ‘overturning’; its roots, kata, ‘down’, is seen in other English words like catalog while strophe, ‘turn’, shows up in the likes of apostrophe. As the endings of plays are often tragic, so catastrophe lent itself as term for other events of calamitous consequence.
Actor Ed Skrein, of Deadpool and Game of Thrones fame, stepped down this week from his role as Major Daimio in the new Hellboy reboot following popular outcry. Initially unbeknownst to Skrein when he landed the role the week prior, Major Daimio is of Asian descent in the movie’s source comic, compelling many critics to cry ‘whitewashing’ with the casting of Skrein, who is white. Skrein quickly dropped the part following the controversy:
— Ed Skrein (@edskrein) August 28, 2017
In TV and film, whitewashing refers to the practice of casting white people as non-white characters. The word, taking off in the late 1990s, is a cutting pun on earlier senses of the word. As previously examined on the blog, whitewash begins in the 16th century as a term for making materials like fabric or walls white. It was later metaphorically extended to ‘deliberately concealing unpleasant facts about someone or something to make them appear better’.
On the analogy of whitewash, -wash has become a productive combining form in the modern lexicon, yielding coinages from greenwashing (when companies pose as environmentally responsible) to cloudwashing (when companies tout a product’s connection to the internet).
Last week, India’s courts ruled privacy a fundamental right. This week, they ruled on India’s so-called ‘godmen’. One, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was convicted of raping two of his followers in 2002; 38 people were killed in riotous protests sparked by the decision. The other, Rampal Dass, was acquitted of several criminal charges, including assault.
In Indian culture, a ‘god-man’ is a pejorative colloquial term for a charismatic Hindu religious figure – sometimes referred to as a guru or baba – who attracts large followings and even political support. They often claim supernatural powers and perform purported miracles, hence the epithet god-man.
The OED finds reference to Hindu godmen as early as 1922, though the term was previously was used of Christian missionaries in Africa in the mid-19th century. Centuries earlier, God-man was a term for Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be both god and man.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… horse? Horses – and let’s not leave out their equine cousins, zebras and donkeys – are the only living monodactyls, or ‘one-toed’ animals. But they weren’t always this way.
Researchers – led by, yes, Briana McHorse – recently made important strides in understanding why equines boast this most unusual anatomical distinction. They determined that, as horses evolved greater body mass, their center toe enlarged while side toes fell off, accommodating their greater load and changes in locomotion.
Monodactyl joins monos, Greek for ‘one’ and dactylos, ‘finger’. And the latter root brings together the unlikely pair paleontologists and poets, appearing in words like pterodactyl (the ‘wing finger’ dinosaur) and dactylic verse, a trisyllabic meter named after the three major segments of a finger.
One ancestor of the modern horse, should you want to practice your ancient Greek, were four-toed in their front legs and three-toed in their hind – or tetradactylic and tridactylic. As for humans? Try pentadactyl if you’re feeling paleo.
One of this week’s buzzwords is a bit of political jargon: activate. In the UK, a conservative answer to the Labour Party’s Momentum, an organization of young activists which helped propel Jeremy Corbyn’s rise, launched. Called Activate, the grassroots campaign seeks to ‘engage young people with conservatism’. But their now-deleted initial efforts to do so backfired when they tweeted out a dated meme with some ham-handed hashtags, which was roundly mocked online.
Activate isn’t officially tied to the Conservatives, though it is chaired by Gary Markwell, a former campaign manager for the party. The term activate, though, does have close political affiliations. The word has long meant ‘to make something active or operational’, as a switch activates a light, but more recently, the term has taken on a special sense of ‘to make a person active or involved in a cause or community’, as Activate seeks to do for young persons in conservative politics.
This activate may have been formed from its widespread passive construction, to be politically activated, or may have simply grown out of its older uses. Whatever the case, activate is showing a newly activated, shall we say, intransitive meaning: to activate, or ‘to become politically active’. One person, for instance, posted on Ask MetaFilter last US presidential election: ‘How can I activate?’
Finally, we can’t sign off on this Word Watch without a nod to the Great British Bake Off, which returned to air this week. Bake-off – and don’t get a soggy bottom – isn’t itself originally British. Did you know the OED first cites this term for a baking competition, especially between non-professionals, in a 1949 copy of the Sheboygan Press? That’s in Wisconsin, USA.