Saturday, January 13, 2018

Watershed Moments in History: Power Word #19

People take everyday conveniences--computers, cell phones, airplanes--and even basic human rights for granted.  The development of these contributions has a history, however, an often difficult one that slips into obscurity.  It isn't that we need to be historians to appreciate them, but if these watershed moments do impact civilization in such a revolutionary way, we might be wise to pay better attention to them.  As a beginning, examine the word itself, watershed, and with enough familiarity through frequent use of the word and adequate consideration of the historical examples themselves, you will gain ownership of the word: watershed.

Definition 1: an event marking a turning point, a milestone in a course of action

Definition 2: an area of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas; a dividing point

Unless you are a scientist, the definition you will use most often is the first one, which is a figurative use of watershed.

Pronunciation:  (wah ter   shed)

Origin:  From German, wassersheide: water divide
              From English, water + shed ( a ridge of high ground, first used in 1803)
              (Don't think of  shed as a building.  This use of shed is a variation of shade, which makes
              more sense if you think of a shed as giving shade or protection.)
              Figurative use: 1878

25 Watershed Moments in History:

1.  The life of Jesus of Nazareth 4 BC - c. 30/33 AD
2.  Pax Romana, miraculous 206 years of peace in the Roman Empire 27 BC - AD 180
3.  Black Death devastates Europe 1347-1361
4.  Gutenberg invents printing in Europe 1436; prints Bible 1453
5.  Martin Luther, Publication of 95 Theses 1530's
6.  Shakespeare and the Renaissance 1590-1611
7.  Mohammed begins to dictate the Koran 1625  
8.  Robert Hooke discovers biological cells in his own compound microscope, 1665.
9.  Invention of the Watt Steam Engine 1775
10.  American Revolution 1775
11. The storming of the Bastille in 1789 (flashpoint of the French Revolution)
12. Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation 1862
13. Invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell 1876
14.  Berlin Conference of 1884 (European powers carve themselves pieces of Africa---heightened colonial activity eliminating African autonomy)
15.  Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully fly first powered airplane 1903
16. Henry Ford's first automobile 1903
17.  Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand Francis 1914 leads to WW I
18. WW I (War to End All Wars) 1914 - 1918 (paves way for major political changes and also WWII)
19.  The October Revolution (Red October, Bolshevik Revolution 1917 leads to the formation of the Soviet Union and large scale industrialization)
 20. First television transmissions: Britain 1925, New York 1928
 21. WW II and the atomic bomb 1941
 22.  Birth control pill 1960
23.  Tearing down of the Berlin Wall 1989 - 1992 (powerful and enduring symbol of the Cold War)
24.  First microprocessor developed in 1971 by Ted Hoff at Intel (leads way for the personal computer)
25.  First mobile phone call by Martin Cooper and his team at Motorola 1973

Notice I didn't mention Edward Jenner's vaccine for small pox in 1796 or Jonas Salk's successful vaccine against the polio virus in 1953. Or even more recently the Me, Too movement in which women have been speaking out so forcefully about sexual harassment that concrete actions have been taken, a dramatic shift from the past. Clearly a list of twenty-five watershed moments barely begins to shed light on the momentous turning points that continue to change our lives.

The funny thing is, as we take advantage of the long term effects of these watershed moments, we rarely think of the events that paved the way for the safe and convenient way we live now.  So why bother learning about them?  What's the point?  Well, here's another long list of reasons for you to ponder:
 Watershed moments
1.  influence civilization
2. cause revolution in every way
3.  give a voice to people as they experience free thought
4.  enable continued education and learning
5.  create an equalizing environment
6.  change the political and religious climate for millions of people
7.  make people question long standing beliefs and traditions so they can grow
8.  clear the way for reforms in safety and human rights

Although the impact of a watershed moment may be visible only in hindsight, our daily consciousness of  not only the needs of people around the world but also their progress, can give us a better understanding of change itself, the necessity of it and the potential for it to improve lives everywhere.  Watershed, a good word to know and use for a deeper understanding of life as we know it.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Art of Legerdemain

The word legerdemain has a history of trickery--sleight of hand, and we are fascinated with it, even thrilled by its ability to hold us in awe.
What is it about the notion of being befuddled, even tricked, that we readily agree to suspending our disbelief even for a moment?
Perhaps, deep down in the human psyche, hope is at the root of our actions--hope in the context of the possible amidst the impossible, success juxtaposed with the unlikely. We are basically dreamers.  Writers have reflected our own thoughts about hopes and dreams through the ages:

Shakespeare in The Tempest:  Prospero says, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep." The play fills us with the magic that comes with love and redemption and happy endings, the perfect ingredients for a Shakespearean romantic comedy.

Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist: The Alchemist teaches Santiago that, "When you are loved, there's no need at all to understand what's happening, because everything happens within you, and even men can turn themselves into the wind." And Santiago does just that.

Langston Hughes in "Dream Deferred": "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" In Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, the playwright transforms the painful racial integration of a white neighborhood into a triumph of magic to heal a broken family.

Our references to legerdemain are thus quite understandable, given our penchant for magic, even the metaphorical kind.  So, speaking of metaphors, we can easily use the word both metaphorically and literally. Placing an adjective before it turns legerdemain into a metaphor.

For example, while educational legerdemain might imply the magic of learning something new and helpful--a positive connotation of the word, political legerdemain could lead one to believe one has been duped by a more powerful authority--a negative connotation. Romantic legerdemain offers the magic of the sudden discovery of love in unexpected places, an often welcomed interpretation of the word.
In whatever way you choose to use the word, legerdemain renders precision in meaning, including imagery that shows as much as tells,  ideal circumstances for communicating.
Legerdemain:  sleight of hand; magic; trickery; deception; any artful trick


Late Middle English (legerdemeyn, lygarde de mayne)  from Middle French (leger de main--translated literally, light of hand)

Part of Speech
Noun; adjectival noun

1.  The legerdemain of the loan officer created a magical illusion of prosperity for the young couple when she found them the lowest interest rate for their newly purchased home.

2.  What educational legerdemain did the English teacher conjure when all of her students passed the state exam, allowing them to graduate!

3.  Houdini's art of legerdemain was renown as he traveled from theatre to theatre in the South, escaping chains and adroitly tricking our eyes with his skillful cunning.

In his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum wrote,
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”  When we use the word legerdemain literally or figuratively, we use it with an understanding and appreciation of the place that magic holds in the hearts and minds of our readers. And connecting with people can be magic in itself.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Xenophobia and the Archetypal Warrior

In Dance of Language, I ask the question, "Will the legacy humankind leaves to future generations be one of esprit de corps--a spirit of loyalty that unites us and encourages us to help one another--or will it be one of betrayal, caused by greed and indifference to human suffering and need?" The answer, in part, may lie in how we view what social scientists call the other. Scholars who study human behavior attribute the conflict between kindness and hatred largely to the distress that comes from fear of the other--people who have ideas that differ from your own or even the conflicting ideas themselves--and the subsequent inability to tolerate those who are not like us. The term the media has been using with some frequency now is xenophobia.

Xenophobia:  an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is strange or foreign or perceived as different

(zen - uh - foh - bee - uh) or (zee - nuh - foh - bee - uh)

Latin: xenos + phobos (phobia) = stranger, guest + fear or flight
First appeared in English in 1903
Many ancient Greeks believed that foreigners were barbarians, that Greeks were superior and, therefore, many believed strangers were meant to be enslaved.

Part of Speech

1.  Historically most cultures engaged in some sort of enslavement, which developed from a heightened degree of xenophobia, until the philosophical belief in democracy slowly encouraged freedom for all citizens.

2.  Xenophobia exists even in the most civilized groups of people because of mankind's universal fear of the unknown and their tendency to create concomitant laws and behavior.

3.  Reason and compassion often serve as antidotes to xenophobia, and when they do, people once considered to be part of the other take their place among the ranks of nation builders--artists and scientists, writers and humanitarians, people of diversity who share their talents to strengthen a country.

The reasons for intolerance vary, but research shows that the more tolerance for ambiguity we have, the more we can accept and understand the mysteries of life, of which the other plays an important role.  Because certainty is not probable, we live in gray areas. Understanding that uncertainty is an immutable part of life, however, may be the best antidote to our anxieties about life's many conflicts, especially the ones based on fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.

Perhaps we can even conquer our own personal xenophobia.  Perhaps we can become archetypal warriors who commit to the higher values of courage, selflessness and tolerance for the people and things different from ourselves. Perhaps not only justice but also right would be done.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Wrestling with the Leviathan

Fear results from the unknown, either that which one cannot perceive with the senses and therefore is left to the imagination, or that which seems overwhelming to the senses, creating feelings of helplessness and thus also loss of hope.  The English language has words to express such gargantuan fear, but a Power Word with a Biblical and literary history that creates the consummate imagery you might be looking for is the word Leviathan.

Leviathan:  anything of immense size and power; something large or formidable; a sea monster in the Old Testament; often capitalized as the proper name of the sea monster

Part of Speech
Noun or adjectival noun (noun used as an adjective)

[le  vahy  uh  thuh  n]

Middle English: leviathan, from late Latin, leviathan, from Hebrew, liwyathan, meaning twisted or coiled.
First used in the Bible in the books of Job and the Psalms as a proper noun, Leviathan
First recorded use as a common noun, leviathan:  1350-1400; used by Thomas Hobbs as the title of his 1651 political treatise on government


1.  The head accountant took two weeks off to sort out the leviathan budgetary crisis of the printing company, only to discover the monster had grown in size overnight.

2.  Autumn crispness in the air,  the cheerleaders' intoxicating yells energized the crowd to the rhythm of the band as their team stepped onto the field, an overpowering Leviathan ready to swallow their opponents.

3.  The megaship floating into the St. Thomas harbor was known as the Leviathan of the seas with  powerful gross tonnage and length equal to no other cruise ship in the world.

4.  The President of the United States must often wrestle with the leviathan responsibility allocated to the most powerful leader of the free world and perhaps even the planet.

We live in a world in which the immense and the powerful gain our attention and support until, of course, the weight of the monster crushes us. Such is the muscle of metaphor and the use of figurative aids such as allusions and Biblical allegory. Look at these examples.

In the book of Psalm 74:12-14, God destroys the Leviathan, a sea serpent, and gives it to the Hebrews as food in the wilderness. 
                 12  For God is my King from of old,
                       Working salvation in the midst of the earth,
                 13  You divided the sea by Your strength;
                       You broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters,
                 14  You broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces,
                       And gave him as food to the people
                            inhabiting the wilderness.

Leviathan, a large sea monster, is mentioned again in the book of Job, Chapter 41 as God challenges him and tests his faith:
                1    "Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook,
                      Or snare his tongue with a line which you lower...
                9    Indeed, any hope of overcoming him is vain
                      Shall one not be overwhelmed at the sight of him?

Later in 1667, Milton writes about Leviathan in his epic blank verse poem Paradise Lost about the Biblical fall of man.  Book I, lines 200-202:
                     By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast
                     Leviathan, which God of all his works
                     Created hugest that swim th' Ocean stream...

Finally, in 1651Thomas Hobbs uses leviathan as the title of his famous essay written during the English Civil War, urging for a strong undivided government in opposition to war.

The word Leviathan carries with it so much meaning and historical significance that its usefulness to our language seems to grow exponentially in the strength of its allusion to the Bible.

When you choose the word leviathan, use it to enhance the enormity of the concept that you are describing. That person, place, thing, event, action--it isn't just big or tall or heavy.  It is a skyscraper lying on its side in the ocean, the tip so far away that its size seems minuscule.  Now that's real power, almost leviathan.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Quid Pro Quo and the Give-and-Take Society

The meanings of common words and phrases often change over time.  This linguistic behavior is widely known, accepted, and appreciated by word lovers.  Power Word #16, quid pro quo, is one of the expressions whose meaning has shifted. 

In the 1530's in England, the phrase was used to indicate the substitution of one medicine for another, both intentionally and accidentally.  By the beginning of the 17th century, quid pro quo was used to mean a substitute but in a more expanded way, something that was given or taken in exchange for something else.  Although today the expression finds itself useful in legal contexts and politics, the word implies numerous equivalent exchanges. Let's explore this idea a bit more.

Quid pro quo: one thing in return for another; a substitute; something that is given or taken for something else

Part of Speech
A noun; plural form:  quid pro quos or quids pro quo

Latin, literally something for something

1.  Because no agreement of quid pro quo existed between organizations, both groups worked independently without sharing vital information.

2.  The evidence came to the attorney in the first place as a quid pro quo from a credible but criminal source and was therefore deemed inadmissible.

3.  David didn't need a quid pro quo to achieve enough votes from the student body; he was a popular candidate with a strong ethos.

4.  Because the unusually large sum of money suddenly deposited into Morrison's bank account looked suspiciously like a quid pro quo, the FBI opened an investigation.

The concept of quid pro quo has both negative and positive connotations, giving it the possibility of ambiguity.  The expression implies indebtedness, that a gift of equal value must be repaid or the consequences of lost faith will ensue, but is that always how giving works?

In light of negative undertones, we must consider what such an attitude says about the nature of giving. How often is our willingness or generosity for giving connected to the notion of what we expect to receive in return?  How difficult do we find it to give freely without encumbrances or attachments, without the concomitant guilt or shame?

Psychologist Brene Brown wrote, "Until we receive with an open heart, we're never really giving with an open heart.  When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

On the other hand, quid pro quo enhances human interaction; that is, when we repay someone's kindness willingly, our old brain thinks we're doing it so that we'll feel good about ourselves as well as the receiver.  Face it; it actually does feel good to make other people happy.

Furthermore, is it wrong to want to keep the playing field level, to insure continued help from others or even future cooperation by giving or returning the favor?  Perhaps that question has more than one answer.

I suppose, like everything in life, it's all in how you look at it from where you're standing.  Nevertheless, the point is, when you hear the expression quid quo pro now, perhaps you will give it another thought.  Such is the power of words.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Raison D'etre, Adding a Brawny Punch to Life

 In an interview I heard recently on NPR about Syrian refugees to the U.S. learning English, the journalist concluded the program with this statement:  Learning English is the key to freedom.

In the current political crisis, I understand why she used the concept of freedom. Well, word friends, nothing is more powerful than freedom, and Power Word #14, raison d'etre is one of those superheroes of diction.  It offers its brawny punch to our writing and speaking as it underscores the things that give purpose to our lives.  What could be more compelling than unlocking and revealing what means the most to us?

Raison d'etre:  reason for being; the reason for which a person or organization exists; the thing that is most important to someone or something

From French
First known use:  1864

Noun; plural form--raisons d'etre

(rey zohn de truh)

1.  Taking care of the horses on her grandfather's farm seemed to be Jenny's raison d'etre, at least for the summer, which eventually led her to apply to veterinary school.
2.  The raison d'etre of the family was to provide a good education for their children, even at the sacrifice of their usual luxury vacations.
3.  The heated discussion between the two friends revealed the raison d'etre of their friendship, and they quickly patched things up.

When you look at the list below, the very fact that you recognize these names indicates little doubt about their raison d'etre.

Abraham Lincoln
Mother Teresa
John F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King
Nelson Mandela
Winston Churill
Bill Gates
Muhammed Ali
Mahatma Ganhi
Christopher Columbus
Charles Darvin
Elvis Presley
Albert Einstein
Leonardo da Vinci
Thomas Edison
Pope John Paul II
Rosa Parks
Superheroes of all sorts
Beethoven, and the list goes on.....

We ordinary human beings don't usually have just one particular interest--person, place, hobby, talent, that gives us our sole reason for living.  We have jobs, school, families, extracurricular activities and hobbies that consume our time and keep us devoted to maintaining order in our lives.  Occasionally, however, we do feel as though one special person is our everything.  Or our gratitude to a career that is especially enabling and productive leads us to believe, even momentarily, that this job is our raison d'etre, our purpose for continuing. It even may be the one thing that overshadows the bad and accentuates the good, solidifying that reason to go on living.  And perhaps it isn't the day job but the after hours activities--watching or engaging in sports, playing in an orchestra, enjoying friendships, traveling, that provide a raison d'etre and lend a different level of meaning to our lives.

Have you noticed that the added benefit to learning new words is thinking in greater depth about the application of the word to your own life?  The French call this something extra lagniappe. Another good word to make us more conscious beings.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Machiavellian, Amoral Member of the Dark Triad

Psychologists have a term for a collection of three undesirable personality traits:  narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellian-ism.  They call it the Dark Triad.  The third trait was named after Niccolo Machiavelli, the second chancellor from Florence, Italy who lived from 1469 to 1527.  In his book The Prince, Machiavelli discusses ways in which rulers of nations can use political expediency above morality and gain control of the people, basically through manipulation and deceit.

What kind of man Machiavelli was is surely demonstrated by the company he keeps in the triad:  narcissists and psychopaths.  Yet, we all know people such as he; therefore we must call it like it is and more importantly know it for what it means. Power Word #13, Machiavellian.

Machiavellian:  of or relating to Machiavelli; cunning, scheming, unscrupulous, amoral, opportunist, duplicitous, cut throat, unconscionable, unethical.  Can be used as an adjective or a noun--a person who follows the beliefs of Machiavelli.

Named for Niccolo Machiavelli, with the publication of his book The Prince in 1513

1.  Johnson's Machiavellian tendency to detach himself from any form of community building made him an ineffective member of the welcoming committee.

2.  The Machiavellian battle of ISIS to gain and control power over Syria and Iraq has been viewed by the West as a dark pessimistic view of brutal opportunism.

3.  During her last semester of college, Janie's philosophy professor assigned The Prince, the book that analyzes Machiavellian methods of governing people with manipulation, craft, and deceit.

Everyday life with its often mundane duties of jobs, school, and family life--hobbies and a bit of relaxation thrown in, often discourages serious responses toward leadership, including our government.  Generally the most we can hope for in exercising citizenship for the good of humanity is casting our informed vote in each election.  Furthermore, the average person is not a psychologist trained in the science of recognizing and diagnosing personality disorders. Yet, leaders of government, industry and business, and even education have indeed exhibited the cold selfishness that results in high priorities of money, power, and the advancement of one's career or position at the expense of the less powerful.  We don't need to look far to observe it happening today. Harsh management tactics and manipulative behaviors tend to stifle if not enslave people, and frequently because of our constraints of time and training and even consciousness, we are helpless in preventing them.

Thus, unfortunately, you won't find any answers to such madness in this post, but as you know, "Consciousness is as good as it gets."  Perhaps an awareness of the word might engender an awareness of our growing lack of tolerance for the actions of such power hungry leaders.