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Jewish World Review August 12, 2004 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports

'Vexillologist'; 'fifth column'; 'Homer sometimes nods' | Dear Editor:

Well, he did it again. On the Fourth of July my know-it-all cousin stumped me with a word I'd never heard before. I'm not even sure how to spell it - ``vexillologist''?

— E.C., Medina, Minn.

Dear E.C.:

Don't be vexed by ``vexillologist.'' Your cousin undoubtedly used your Independence Day celebration to bring it up because it is the word for a person who studies flags. Vexillologists undertake scholarly investigations of flags, producing papers with titles such as ``A Review of the Changing Proportions of Rectangular Flags Since Medieval Times, and Some Suggestions for the Future.'' Whitney Smith, a pioneer in the field, is credited with having coined the term ``vexillology'' in the late 1950s for the study of flags. The word comes from ``vexillum,'' the Latin term for a square flag or banner used by the ancient Roman cavalry.

Dear Editor:

An article I read used the term ``fifth column.'' I have never heard this phrase before. What is a ``fifth column''?

— F.C., Orem, Utah

Dear F.C.:

``Fifth column'' is a term used to refer to a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy within defense lines or national borders, and especially such a group that engages in espionage or sabotage. The term first came into use in the mid-1930s in the context of the Spanish Civil War, although the exact source is uncertain.

``Fifth column'' apparently first appeared in English in dispatches by William Carney, a correspondent for The New York Times reporting on the Civil War in Spain. On Oct. 16, 1936, Carney mentioned raids in Republican-held Madrid that ``apparently were instigated by a recent broadcast over the Rebel radio station by General Emilio Mola. He stated he was counting on four columns of troops outside Madrid and another column of persons hiding within the city who would join the invaders as soon as they entered the capital.''

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Carney was accurately reflecting the fact that Spanish ``quinta columna,'' or ``fifth column,'' was an epithet for subversive Nationalist (``rebel'') elements in the city. But subsequent literature on the war makes no mention of a radio broadcast by Mola, which Carney himself seems not to have heard, and Nationalist biographies of Mola do not attribute the phrase to him. In fact, the first documented use of ``quinta columna'' was on Oct. 2, 1936, in a newspaper article by the Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, known in Spain as ``La Pasionaria,'' or ``The Passionflower.'' The phrase may actually have been a propaganda invention of the Republicans attributed to Mola in order to justify reprisals against the supposed Nationalist supporters in Madrid. In any event, ``fifth column'' soon became an international catchphrase for a conspiracy of traitors within one's own camp.

Dear Editor:

I'm curious about an expression I've heard - ``Homer sometimes nods.'' What does it mean?

— K.W., Fremont, Calif.

Dear K.W.:

The phrase ``Homer sometimes nods'' or ``even Homer nods'' means that even someone who is the best at what they do can turn in a subpar performance. It is a translation of a line from ``Ars Poetica'' by the Roman poet Horace. The sense of ``nod'' meant here is not the downward motion of the head used to indicate a ``yes'' response to something, but the drooping of the head as an indication that someone is about to ``nod'' off to sleep.

Homer was an epic poet, a giant of Greek literature, and the creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but Horace obviously felt that that even such a gifted and admired figure was not always at his best. As he put it, ``I think it a shame when the worthy Homer nods; but in so long a work it is allowable if drowsiness comes on.''

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07/08/04: 'The proof is in the pudding'; 'Pyrrhic victory'
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06/25/04: 'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
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06/03/04: 'Surrounded on three sides'; sleuths
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05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
04/27/04: Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
04/21/04: Meaning of "budget'' in the word "fussbudget''; "bleeding hearts''; "skycap''
04/01/04: "Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
03/22/04: "King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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