The Words of the Gods

Sometimes, those around us do godlike things.

Consider that trusted friend whose body temperature frequently rivals that of a cucumber’s. He’s Apollonian to the core. Your friend’s harmonious, rational, calm disposition conjures Apollo, the Greek god of sun, light, and music, and, if he’s feeling a tad more illogical that day, prophecy.

Haply you might prefer to trade all this cool sobriety in for a good Bacchanalian night out on the town. You can thank Bacchus, the Greek god of drama, wine, and ecstasy for that. Your frenzied, orgiastic evening that left you sick all over the passenger seat, however, would not have been fondly received by a centurion after 186 B.C, as the Bacchanalia—a festival of wild desire and unrivaled debauchery, was then outlawed. Or, should you desire to take your sins to the level of Original, you might consider stepping up to all things Dionysian. Dionysus invented the first intoxicant, wine, and was always followed by his Friday Night Crew of satyrs and maenads.

Perhaps all this filth has brought you to new lows. Or maybe it has made you jovial. Jovial comes from Jove, the Roman equivalent of Zeus. Your cheerful, sociable, fatherly nature has made you the belle of the ball, or the Santa Claus of the department store.

Capricious with fleet-feet? When something’s Mercurial it has rapid and unpredictable changes in mood. This comes from Mercury, the god of speed and athletics. The planet Mercury was named for him due it its orbital speed, and liquid silver mercury for its skittering out of one’s hand so quickly.

Something venereal has to do with sexual intercourse, or the diseases transmitted by it. This originates in Venus, the goddess of love, who governed all aspects of human sensuality and sexuality. Perhaps these began at the sight of something callipygian; but, if used injudiciously, it will bring about venereal diseases. 

Palladium is a silver-white metal related to platinum that is used in electrical contracts or as an alloy with gold to form white gold. This comes from Pallas Athena. This is the goddess Athena’s full name. During a friendly sparring match with a fellow female warrior, Athena accidentally killed her battle-sister. This warrior’s name was Pallas. Thus, in honor of her, Athena put Pallas’s name before her own.

This article is Hades. Hades is both the land of the dead the God who rules it. Misery loves company. Hades is primarily used today as a euphemism for hell.

Cereal is a grain-based breakfast food often mixed with milk. The word “cereal” comes from the Roman goddess Ceres. She was a serene goddess who did not take part in quarrels with the other gods. I find this a fitting etymology for cereal indeed, as might most people who find serenity in devouring cereal by the boxful. There’s a glazed-over look to people eating cereal. 

Junoesque means to have a matured, poised, dignified beauty. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. She was matronly, mature, and well filled-out. Moreover, she was, for the time, something of an ideal for the Greek Wife. This is no longer true.

Martial arts, martial law, Marshall Mathers: two of these are etymologically consistent with war and military life. Something martial comes from the god of war, Mars. He was in charge of the brutish and chaotic aspects of war. He also dabbled in marching music.

Something vulcanized is a crude synthetic rubber so elastic and strong that it resists decay. This comes from Vulcan, the god of fire.

Something with a glowing, rainbow-like play of color that seems to change as the light shifts is iridescent. Goddess of the rainbow, Iris took messages from Olympus to Earth, using the rainbow as her staircase.

If someone is your muse then she or he is your source of inspiration, or a guiding spirit. Nine goddesses who presided over such things as music and literature were called the Muses. Their temple was called a museum. Many artists have chosen living human beings as muses. Dante chose Beatrice. Chopin: Aurore Dudevant. James Joyce: Nora Barnacle (and her rear end).

One of the nine goddess muses, Calliope was the muse of heroic or epic poetry and responsible for inspiring poets to write beautiful, eloquent-sounding epics, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. A Calliope is an organ in which whistles are sounded by steam or compressed air and is the preferred musical instrument of circuses. It’s also a somewhat rare girls’ name. 

Zephyr a breeze from the west, or a gentle breeze. Not quite a proper god, the Greeks called the west wind “Zephyrus” and regarded him and his fellow winds as gods.

Neither was Prometheus quite a god, rather a titan. To be promethean is to be new or creative in a daring way. During the Titanomachy, Prometheus fought for the gods against his own kind. Thereafter, he brought the gods fire, taught them how to write, farm, build houses, read the stars and weather, cure themselves when sick, and tame animals—in short, all the arts and skills that make humans unique. 

At some point, Zeus decided to chain Prometheus to a titanic rocky cliff, where, for centuries, an eagle daily tore at his liver. Thus, Promethean also means to suffer on a grand scale. And I don’t think that the myth simultaneously conveys the “genuinely unique and creative” and “pure, prolonged suffering” by chance. I believe that not only does the former beget the latter, but also that they’re ineluctable coevals. If one is truly new and creative, then one’s life is inevitably tortured. 

Speak Shibboleth

A while back, on a sandy day at the Jordan fords, one Semitic tribe, the Gileadites, put a whooping on another Semitic tribe, the Ephraimites. Thereafter, the Gileadites decided to forgo parliamentary process in favor of genocide, sending a few of The Boys to cordon off the Jordan River to put the kibosh on any Ephraimite reentry into Gileadite territory. 

But the sentries couldn’t tell a Ephraimite from Adam, so they politely asked the gentleperson in question to say the word Shibboleth, which the unfortunate Ephraimites pronounced Sibboleth. This is called Due Process. 

The Gileadites then gave this schlimazel the business under the passage of Jordan. It is recorded that this worked upwards of 42,000 times. It worked so well, in fact, that we still follow the same rules of entry today.

Shibboleth is Ancient Hebrew for either the part of a plant containing grain or a flood/torrent. But shibboleth is no longer exclusive to God’s chosen people, rather available also to us heathens as a common English noun that means “A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another”; hence, a password. Also, “a word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause”; hence, a catchphrase, watchword, or slogan. 

Modern Shibboleths may be found in various forms.

My father’s pronunciation of having watermelon this upcoming humid Tuesday as “And I says that we can have WOODermelon tuhmarra because it’s gunna be YOOmid this TuesDEE” suggests lowborn Philadelphia lineage and puts off anyone with a triple-digit IQ. This an example a regional shibboleth.

There are shibboleths of literacy, such as the use of “whom” and deep-minded-sounding Latin words, as well as shibboleths of illiteracy in words such as “irregardless”, and bad grammar akin to “Me and my friends” or “running fast.” Whenever these words and usages are noticed in conversation, they act as trusty linguistic markers that differentiate who’ll likely gravitate towards whom.  

The absence of clichés in speech is a shibboleth. Are we not inclined to feel some inclination towards the old-style Jordon-esque beatdown when encountering people who suggest that you should “face the music,” “bet your bottom dollar,” or put “another feather in your cap?”

The modern workplace is teeming with shibboleths. Whenever in the presence of dead-eyed administrators who want “going forward” you to “think outside of the box” or to “push the envelope” or to “take things to the next level” you now know exactly whom to avoid. These workplace clichés are often ironic, as the one employing such lexical pudding-headedness has proved himself incapable of any of the abovementioned suggestions.

Shibboleths are a great way to join today’s global political gestapo, too. Words such as “problematic”, “progress”, “code-switcher”, and other broadly defined “-isms” are passwords for special tree-house-club-police membership.

Shibboleths also work for spotting Try-Hards. Cringe-worthy fashionable phrases such as “for a minute,” as in “I haven’t met someone so into shibboleths in a minute” or “nah,” as in “nah,” are great linguistic markers to spot soulless jokers. 

Shibboleths may also be found in non-verbal form, too. Everyone wears a uniform. Whether your thuggish pants hang at your hock, you have a fruity bandana of a certain color in your back, left pocket, or you sport a pair of offended Toms, you’re speaking the shibboleth to those around you, actively appealing to your tribe.

“Literally” is a great shibboleth. Watch for those who use it. If the offender does not drive you out of your mind, she might literally run you off your feet. 

After the Staircase

A couple of decades before the French Revolution said pooh-pooh on all things half-interesting, prominent Enlightenment figure and ne’er-do-well libertine Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, taking things rather personally.

It was in the home of statesman Jacques Necker where a remark rode roughshod enough over Diderot’s auricular sense that it nonplussed him, after which he proceeded home quite miffed about the whole thing. But why not just take a swig of something strong, toss on a wry grin, provide the assailant with the final lexical haymaker, and call it a night? Simple: Diderot had not yet reached a staircase. 

Esprit De L’Escalier, known to most English speakers as Staircase Wit, but which might also be known as Escalator WitAfterwit, or the neologism Retrotort, was psychologized by Diderot in his Paradoxe sur Le Comédien thusly:

“a sensitive man, such as myself (sic), overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and [can only think clearly again when he] finds himself at the bottom of the stairs.”

Whether the result of lighthearted badinage or a life-drowning lover’s wreck, espirt de l’escalier is that perfect response or remark that comes to mind later, after the chance to make it has passed. Esprit is also an English noun meaning liveliness or vivacious wit, which plays part in the word bel-esprit: a person of intelligence and wit.

And this phenomenon seems universal enough to have swept its way eastward. 

Yiddish did it first with trepverter (staircase words). 

As usual, the Germans took things a step further. The German calque is Treppenwitz (Staircase Joke) and also applies to events that appear to be the result of a joke played by fate or history. Moreover, contemporary German’s Treppenwitz engineers further meaning, referring to events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context. This stems from the frequently used phrase “Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte” (staircase joke of world history), which supports Diderot’s original hypothesis that staircase wit derives from a personality paradox. 

And speaking of cognitive dissonance, there seems a lack of harmony as regards the best psychological representation of staircase wit, namely, which part of the staircase truly evokes this agenbite of could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.

There are essentially two factions. 

Faction One takes the lesser-informed top-of-the-stairs approach. It suggests this psychological phenomenon’s mot just—although Diderot denoted that those under possession of the spirt of the staircase are “confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs—” to be best represented whenever “inspiration is gained upon ascending the stairs to retire to bed, long after the opportunity for retort has passed.” Thus, espirt de l’escalier  is unknown to those who rent bottom-floors and those who own rancher homes.

The second is the popular bottom-of-the-stairs faction. We are reminded that Jacques Necker’s home, a haven for apparent offense, was less of a home and more of a hôtel particulier, a kind of lavish mansion. In such houses (and in hotels in which I cannot afford to doss) the reception rooms were on the etage nobel, one floor above ground-level. To have alighted upon the bottom of the staircase connecting the two would mean to have left the gathering.


Bear in mind that Winnie-The-Pooh was a self-described “Bear of Very Little Brain.” I am here to suggest otherwise. Reminiscent of infamous serial-killer H.H. Holmes, Pooh’s series of name-changes actually seems to belie a certain, deliberate intellect, further proving Pooh to possess a name of not insignificant linguistical value. 

Known initially by those closest to him as Edward Bear, Pooh began his perceived transition into the epicene when his friend, Christopher Robin, renamed him after a vivacious North American female black bear at the London Zoo called Winnie, a former resident of Winnipeg, Canada.

Winnie may indeed act as a sobriquet for the masculine name “Winston,” but Winnie more backhands as short for the feminine Winifred. Winifred derives from the Anglo-Saxon Wine (friend, lord, protector) and Friþ (peace, refuge, sanctuary). Saint Winifred comes to mind. Mr. Pooh is therefore connoted as a “protector of the peace.” 

“But I thought he was a boy?”

“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.

“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”

“I don’t.”

“But you said—”

“He’s Winnie-Ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ther’ means?”

“Ah, yes, now I do,” I said quickly; and I hope that you do too, because it is all the explanation that you are going to get.

Thanks, Alan.

Connotations however abound, Mr. Winnie-The-Pooh is indeed a gent through and through, the conundrum solved by way of a brief investigation of the rhotic language distinction, the beloved schwa, and the English honorifics system.

British English is primarily a non-rhotic language, which means that, unless an r-sound is to come before a pronounced vowel, such as in the word “red,” the r-sound is dropped. American English, due to its formative population of Scotch-Irish settlers, is primarily rhotic, which means that it almost always, except for some cases in the south and New England, pronounces the r-sound. Americans are also famous for the schwa sound, a loose vowel utterance not found in British English, which sounds like uhh, and is most readily produced by conjuring one’s most troglodytic of ancestral memories, as when an American is asking for more “buhhdder.”

Prior to the Phonetic Alphabet, any self-respecting non-rhotic British writer would denote the schwa-sound with the hesitation marker /r/, which stresses the word “the” by lengthening the schwa sound, providing certainty of Pooh’s masculine title: Winnie-ThUH-Pooh.

Names with “the” in the middle are mostly masculine. We might perceive, then, a child’s imagination to work by adding “the” to transform the feminine Winnie into a masculine title. We may now understand that Christopher Robin was prefixing his honey-addicted, ursine companion with a masculine honorific, much like that of Alfred The Great’s.