Saturday, 24 July 2010

Word of the Week: Vomitorium

Noun. Pronounced: vomi-TOR-i-um
Listen to the word here.

A vomitorium.                            Photo courtesy: York University

Vomitoria at an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Photo courtesy: SebastiĆ” Giralt

The image that came to my mind, the first time I saw this word, was of a place meant for people to vomit in. It turned out to be something very different. And far more pleasant.

Vomitoria were the wide passageways in ancient amphitheatres through which large numbers of spectators could enter and exit. These days most sports stadiums and movie theatres have vomitoria.

Both vomit and vomitorium come from the Latin vomere, 'to spew forth, to discharge'.

Incidentally, amphitheatres were called so because they were circular in shape whereas theatres used to be semi-circular; the prefix amphi is Greek for 'both' or 'on both sides', hence a theatre on both sides would make an amphi-theatre. Clever!

A theatre.                                        Photo courtesy: Phil Gyford
An amphitheatre.                                  Photo courtesy: http2007

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Word of the Week: Schadenfreude

Noun. Pronounced SHAA-d'n-froi-der 
Listen to the word here.

Childless couples often go to great lengths to conceive a child of their own. If in spite of their efforts and money spent they are unable to do so, they may decide to undertake the time-consuming procedure of adopting a baby. 

Fortunately, adopting a word from another language is much simpler: there are no forms to fill, no interviews with the adoption agency and no house-visits. If you like a word, just take it!

I fell in love with this word the first time I saw it and came to know what it meant. It is a German word, adopted by the English language since it has no equivalent of its own. Its meaning:  pleasure derived from others' misfortune. 

Schadenfreude is what a political party in the opposition would feel on seeing the government in hot water due to a financial scandal. Or what a businessman would feel on seeing a competitor suffer big losses.  Or ... you get the picture, right? And here are some funny examples that I came across.

Monday, 12 July 2010

LIC, mediclaim and xerox

Until a few years ago the insurance industry in India consisted only of public sector companies: Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) was the only company selling life insurance policies and there were four public sector firms selling general insurance products like medical, householder's and vehicle insurance policies.

 Mediclaim is the brand name of the medical insurance policy offered by public sector general insurance firms, but it is widely used generically, even in the Press, to refer to policies sold by the private companies as well.

Likewise, xerox (from Xerox Corporation, manufacturer of photocopiers) is used both as a noun and as a verb to mean (to) photocopy. And the popularity of the Hoover vacuum cleaner in the US led to it being used as a verb: to hoover, meaning to vacuum.

Do you know of any other brand names being used generically?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Word of the Week: acnestis

Everyone suffers an itch now and then. But when it is on that part of the back where you just cannot reach, no matter how you contort your body, it can get really annoying. You must have seen cattle rubbing their backs against tree-trunks and dogs writhing on the ground on their backs trying to relieve a persistent itch.

And would you believe it! There is a word for it! Seriously. It's called acnestis: the part of an animal's back where it cannot scratch itself.

Although this term is used with respect to quadrupeds (an animal that walks on four legs) nothing stops us from using it to refer to the same part of our anatomy.

Just des(s)erts

I recently came to know that the expression just desserts ( a punishment or reward that a person deserves) should actually be written with a single s, as just deserts. 

The noun desert in this sense means 'something which is deserved'. However, it is pronounced the same as dessert, i.e. with the stress on the second syllable and this is why the confusion arises. The noun desert in the commonly used sense of 'dry, barren region' is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

You can read Michael Quinion's explanation here.