Weekly Word Watch: rocket man, wildplassen, and dotard
This week’s Word Watch definitely had us raising our, um, monobrows:
‘I used to get called monobrow at school that BROW IS ON COVER OF VOGUE’, tweeted New Zealand singer Lorde after she was featured on the latest issue of Vogue magazine.
it’s literally fucked that i could be on the cover of vogue i used to get called monobrow at school that BROW IS ON COVER OF VOGUE
— Lorde (@lorde) September 16, 2017
Over 20,000 retweets later, we’re all talking about monobrows. A monobrow refers to eyebrows close, thick, or otherwise hairy enough that they look like a single eyebrow. Hence mono-, the Greek prefix for ‘one’; others like the Latin equivalent, uni-, yielding unibrow. The Oxford English Dictionary has no preference, first citing both terms in 1987. Neither does American nor British English, with unibrow far out exceeding monobrow in both dialects, according to Google Ngrams.
Lorde, for her part, has no preference – that is, no preference for plucking eyebrows that only by the lowbrow-est of beauty standards make for any monobrow.
In an aggressive first speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump set his sights on North Korean leader Kim Jon-Un: ‘Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime’. For many this side of 1972, rocket man immediately evokes Elton John’s song of the same name, which centers on a workaday astronaut. As David Axelrod, former campaign manager for Barack Obama, tweeted in response:
.@POTUS inserts Rocket Man reference into speech, marking first time Elton John tune has been inserted into an UNGA address.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) September 19, 2017
Rocket man far predates Sir Elton, found in science fiction as early as 1931 and notably used by Ray Bradbury as a title of a 1951 short story. Trump’s rocket man also riffs on a much older sense, ‘a person who builds rockets’ – weaponized ones, in North Korea’s alarming case – and which traces back to at least 1938.
It’s the earliest meaning of rocket man, though, that may be most relevant to Trump’s latest epithet. The OED cites rocket man for a ‘soldier responsible for firing rockets’ in 1764, noting the term was originally used in British India.
This Tuesday, Moscow unveiled a statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov holding his infamous creation: the AK-47. The name AK-47 is practically synonymous with assault rifles, but what does AK-47 even stand for in the first place?
AK is short for avtomat Kalašnikova, or ‘Kalashnikov’s automatic rifle’, which will continuously fire rounds at a single pull of the trigger. And 47? The gun was first manufactured in 1947. After he was wounded in the Second World War, Kalashnikov set out to make a rifle better than the Nazi’s, which he accomplished by 1947. His name lives on in the AK-47 – and in estimated one-fifth of the world’s guns, which are styled after his deadly weapon.
A judge in the Netherlands has managed to really, er, piss off a lot of people. Back in 2015, a woman, Geerte Piening, was fined about 80 quid for public urination in Amsterdam. She challenged the offence, citing the fact that the city has 35 public urinals for men – and only three for women. A judge upheld the original fine this week, though, suggesting Piening should have just peed in one of the men’s facilities, sparking an outcry over sexism.
Many of the outraged took to social media using the hashtag #wildplassen:
— Amy Hunter (@aeh_health) September 20, 2017
If there’s a lexical silver lining to this story, it’s that the Dutch, yes, have a word for such public urination. Wildplassen literally means ‘wild peeing’, or urinating in public spaces other than toilets, urinoirs, or the like, according to the term’s very own Wikipedia entry.
Dutch’s wild, of course, is related to English’s wild, which both derive from an older Germanic root referring to the ‘woods’ while Dutch’s plassen points back to a more general meaning of ‘pool’ or ‘puddle’, perhaps connected to English’s plash.
To the layperson’s eye, they are albino, the pair of rare, beautiful, and spectrally white giraffes sighted in Kenya this week. But to the zoologist’s, they are leucistic – that is, displaying leucism.
Leucism and albinism are very similar in that they are genetic abnormalities that reduce or eliminate the pigmentation in an animal such that its skin, fur, feathers, or the like are white or pale. Yet albinism specifically targets melanin while leucism affects several types of pigment-producing cells in organisms. This difference – to gloss over a number of biological complexities – results in such giraffes with white fur but, if you inspect the long-necked ungulates closely, whose eyes and lips, among other features, have normal coloration.
Leucism and albinism have another shade of difference, too. The former term comes from the Greek root for ‘white’ (leukos, also found in leukemia) while the later comes from Latin’s, albus (e.g, album).
We had a late and very fast-moving blip on our radar – and fortunately it’s just a word. Answering the bellicose verbiage of rocket man Donald Trump issued at Kim Jong-un this week, the North Korean leader fired back with a colorful, and unusual, insult of his own:
Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say…I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.
Dotard, huh? This fairly uncommon and old word for an ‘imbecile’ might have been a sick burn, oh, some 600 years ago when Chaucer slung it in his Canterbury Tales, as the Oxford English Dictionary observed on Twitter:
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales) was slinging the insult ‘dotard’ over 600 years ago. pic.twitter.com/ZuZdsvOTf1
— The OED (@OED) September 22, 2017
The word dotard is based on the verb dote, meaning back in the 13th century ‘to be deranged, to act or talk foolishly, to be weak-minded from age’. The word is found in some earlier Germanic languages for ‘to take a nap’, and by the late 15th century, its sense of ‘foolishness’ suggested ‘infatuation’, leading to the doting upon, or ‘showing excessive fondness’, we use today.
The ending -ard, for its part, is French-by-way-of-German -hard (‘hardy’), first adopted in names such as Bernard (‘strong as a bear’) but later co-opted as a pejorative suffix, e.g., bastard, coward, and later in English, drunkard and dotard.
Bonus: manspreading and dad bod
Two old friends – well, two old new friends – deserve honorable mentions this Word Watch: manspreading and dad bod. In an interview with late-show host Stephen Colbert this week, Hillary Clinton mocked Russian President Vladimir Putin for ‘manspreading’, which Oxford Dictionaries added in 2015. And Londoner Albert Pukies debuted the Dadbag, a bumbag designed to look like a paunch and instantly giving its wearer a dad bod, another new word that took off in 2015. Both uses here suggest these neologisms, for all their lexical trendiness in the cultural zeitgeist, definitely have some staying power.