I have a bit of an unpopular opinion: I hate chess.
It's boring. It's limiting. I don't want to think a thousand moves ahead when I can barely keep track of what all the little guys even do. I would much rather play checkers. Actually, I would much rather play Clue. That game, and all the strategy and intrigue involved, is way more interesting than chess.
A lot of people will probably disagree with me here. I wish I loved chess, I really do. It's just one of those things that I can't get into no matter how many times someone tries to explain it to me. All I ever grasp is that the Queen can do whatever she wants and then I get stuck on thinking how great of an idea that is and the rest just goes in one ear and out the other.
It's strange because, for a year and a half of my college career, I wanted to be an Economics major. In fact, I completed all of the requirements. But once there were no Game Theory classes left for me to take, the whole field didn't seem as interesting to me anymore, and I decided not to declare that major anymore, despite having spent a lot of time going through the motions in that department. (Also, imagine me as an Economics major. Like, okay. I wasn't fooling anybody.)
Anyway, that whole tangent was just to say that I really like Game Theory. I think it's cool and interesting as heck. So then why don't I love chess?
Whatever. I am who I am.
There is one thing I like about chess, however, and that is the crazy German words they used to describe certain moves. But of course, I don't use them to describe my chess strategies, but instead the actual decisions I make on the daily. I like them for the same reason that I like Game Theory: you can apply them to any and all choices you make, not just where you're going to move your horse knight and your bobblehead front guy.
So this Wednesday, I'm giving you, the reader, two totally fabulous words of German origin that will come in handy 1) if you're a chessmaster and 2) if you're a normal person who, like, makes decisions throughout the day like everyone else (even small decisions, like whether to hit snooze again or finally get out of bed).
So for the first one, we have ZUGZWANG. I don't know how to pronounce it so don't bother asking me. Just say it with confidence and no one will question you, even if it's totally wrong.
Anyway, zugzwang is the name for a situation in which any move available to you (any choice, any decision) is unfavorable. It's sort of like a lose-lose situation. Perhaps an example would help illuminate the meaning of this word. Imagine this: it's eight in the morning. You have class at ten in the morning. You can either get up, get ready, and then go to class, but then you will be tired and, well, end up in probably a boring class. Your other option would be to sleep in, which is very nice indeed, but you would either not have time to get ready for your class or miss the class altogether. Either way, you're not as satisfied as if at ten past eight in the morning your professor emailed you that class was cancelled that morning and you could sleep in guilt-free.
So, yeah. That's basically zugzwang.
And then, there's ZWISCHENZUG! A word as unpredictable as the situations it describes. Basically, a zwischenzug is when you do pretty much the opposite of what was expected of you.
So, in a classic zwischenzug move, instead of continuing to talk, I'm just going to end the post here!
Honestly, this Wednesday Word is just… cute. It doesn't have a terribly interesting history or etymology. It comes from the Latin ericius, which literally means "hedgehog." Period. End of sentence.
Just kidding, of course there's more to it than that!
If you didn't take Latin for six years like your friendly neighborhood Girl Unaffiliated, you might not know that the ancient Romans were simultaneously lovers of war as well as lovers of the figurative use of animals in war strategy.
So how do hedgehogs, the lovable cuddlers that they are, relate to war? Well, quite evidently, hedgehogs are covered in spikes. Sure, they’re more like the soft bristles of a toothbrush, but they’re still echinated (another fun word meaning prickly with stiff spines). If you’re a bit trigger happy as several leaders of the Roman Empire were, you might have enough of an imagination to turn the spikes of a hedgehog into a built-in armor of spears, which sounds like a pretty effective way to synthesize defense and offense.
I’m not much of a war person. By that I mean I am one hundred percent against it, morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, animally, minerally. For some reason, however, the battles and conquests of Rome feel more like fantasy fiction than something that really happened to real people in real life. Is that wrong? Oh well, it’s something.
The fable-like animal metaphors probably influence that a little.
Anyway, back to the hedgehogs. Using the hedgehog’s physical characteristics as a reference, the Romans developed a device equipped with spines. This weapon was used to both repel and slow down attackers. I mean, come on. Would you want to approach someone bearing what is basically a spiked javelin?
In a fairly uncreative move, the Romans called this device an ericius as well. I wonder if there were any situations on the battlefield in which a soldier was referring to a hedgehog and not the weapon and a hilariously classic mix-up ensued.
Of course, there aren’t any clear images of the ericius, and only vague descriptions of it. But this is not the only example of the hedgehog in allegorical history. And because I’m self-serving and this is my blog, damn it, I’m going to tell you about my favorite: the hedgehog’s dilemma.
I actually learned about this at my very first class at college. It was a class that all freshmen who go to my school have to take, and typically complain about. But I got an incredible professor (who—and this is 100% true—was stolen from us by Harvard University literally after my class with her ended).
She never really told us why she started our class off with the hedgehog’s dilemma. The course itself was essentially an introduction to a number of significant texts and minds (Kant, Wollstonecraft, Nietzsche, other college party name-drop worthy philosophers, writers, thinkers) and to this day I can’t connect the hedgehog’s dilemma with the curriculum. But let’s see what we think after talking about it for a bit.
The hedgehog’s dilemma (often called the porcupine dilemma) is a metaphor attempting to describe the universal challenges of human intimacy. During times of cold weather, hedgehogs must burrow together (somewhat like penguins) to share heat. However, the sharp edges of their spines can’t help but puncture and hurt each other, making them remain apart. How do the sweet hedgehogs reconcile this? How do they stay warm without hurting each other?
For reasons they cannot change, hedgehogs can’t be as close and intimate as they want to be. So they have to keep just as much distance as they can between themselves.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in Parerga und Paralipomena, first used this dilemma to describe the state of the individual in relation to other individuals within a society. Here’s an excerpt from the text: “…the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance.”
A note about Schopenhauer that might influence how you feel about the hedgehog/porcupine dilemma: not only was he a massive pessimist, there is no evidence from his life that he had any virtues except for kindness toward animals and had a generally sour countenance.
It’s almost like an unspoken arrangement between members of the humankind. To keep ourselves from being pricked, and to keep from pricking those we care about, we try to maintain as much independence as we possibly can. And if you’re someone who is already a little too hot, you stay away to avoid further issues.
Sigmund Freud adopted the allegory from Schopenhauer, giving it international attention and inserting it into the field of psychology. In fact, when Freud visited the United States in 1919, he gave his reasoning for the trip as follows: “I am going to the USA to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.” (I find this anecdote to be adorable.)
I think I understand now why my dear professor told us this, in our very first class, in our very first year of school. For many of us, it was the first time that we would be interacting with people from a different place, a different perspective. It was inevitable that each student would bristle nerves, and get his or her nerves bristled in the next four years we spent together, in this tiny liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere.
I know that I, personally, have had my nerves bristled. I sure as hell have bristled a lot of nerves in the past two and a half years (and probably every year of my existence before then).
Maybe the hedgehog dilemma isn’t just an interesting way to think about personal relationships. Maybe it’s actually a fable with a moral, a lesson to be learned. I’m still figuring out how to catch sight of my own wild porcupine. I think I’m getting warmer.
In the mid-19th century, people decided that it was really fun and hilarious to make up longwinded, silly words that vaguely resembled Latin but actually just meant nothing. Believe it or not, a lot of the words have survived, including "discombobulated" and "rambunctious." I wish "absquatulate" was one of those lucky few.
I'm fascinated with the idea of the Irish Goodbye. If you've not heard of it, it's when someone leaves a party/event/gathering/etc. without saying goodbye to anybody. I love this. I do this. I enjoy doing this. It brings me joy.
Basically, to absquatulate is to perform the Irish Goodbye. The fact that it was once just a silly grouping of sounds that made some people in the 1830s laugh and is now a word found in the dictionary but not actually used by anybody seems very Irish Goodbye-ish to me. Like it left the party, no one even realized it was at the party, but then someone puts a photo of it on Facebook the next week and everyone's like, "Who's she?"
This week, we’re learning some ancient Greek.
Ancient Greek was spoken from the 9th century to the 4th century B.C.E (by the ancient Grecians, of course). That is so long ago. That is almost three thousand years ago (maybe—math is hard). And they were better at complimenting butts than we are now in the 21st century.
That’s actually not that surprising when you think about how awesome Greek theatre was. I mean, theatre is pretty awesome now, too. But we had Greek theatre to learn from. What did they learn from? Gilgamesh, maybe?
I’ve started off this Wednesday Word in a pretty boring way considering this is such a good, good word. Though I don’t know how to pronounce it, or even what these letters are, here is “the state of having a great butt” in ancient Greek: “καλλίπυγος” (kallípugos). Try throwing that one on a Valentine’s card.
The etymology is pretty easy and remarkably uncontested on this one. Kalli means “beautiful,” and pugḗ means “butt.” It also comes from a magnificent statue of the goddess of love and beauty Venus, called Aphrodite Kallipygos or Callipygian Venus, who obviously had a good butt.
The statue is depicting Venus in a state of anasyrma, yet another amazing word that refers to the gesture of lifting a skirt or kilt to expose the genitals. Venus, also often called Aphrodite, is lifting her peplos, a typical dress for Grecian women in the Classical period, to reveal her callipygian assets, while simultaneously looking over her shoulder, probably enjoying the view herself.
Though the statue, and therefore the word, dates to the late 1st century B.C.E., the sentiment is certainly not outdated. I genuinely hope to soon hear this word in every rap and pop hit on the radio, to see it in every silly magazine. Maybe I’ll even start a petition on Change.org that every offensive compliment has to be replaced with callipygian. Until then, I recommend everyone go out and tell all of their loved ones exactly how good their butt is. You never know when you’ll get another chance to say how you really feel.
Some words are so weird, wacky, and wonderful that they don’t seem to fit into any language.
A noun with distinctly negative connotations, brouhaha refers to an overexcited commotion. It is synonymous with words like “hubbub” and “hullaballoo” (other super goofy words that seriously need to be added to my daily lexicon).
Have you ever been unpleasantly confused in the face of a loud, perhaps even irrational, response? If the answer is yes, then you, too, have been afflicted with the disease that is brouhaha.
If it sounds like I’m painting the word in too harsh a light, read this: one accepted source of “brouhaha” comes from sixteenth century French drama, in which it was used as the devil’s signature catchphrase. “Brou, ha, ha!”
But not all etymologists agree that this is how the word originated. In fact, a certain sect of etymologists doesn’t see the word as French in origin at all. Rather, they believe it to be a derivation of the Hebrew barukh habba, meaning “welcome” or, literally, “blessed be the one who comes.”
Additionally, there is a similar word originating from Hebrew, which the dictionary insists is used in North America but I personally have never heard, seen, or read it: tohubohu, meaning a state of chaos or utter confusion. The Hebrew word it comes from means “emptiness and desolation,” which is a bit closer than barukh habba to brouhaha, in regards to connotation.
Looks like we might have another case of won’t-actually-know-until-someone-invents-a-working-time-machine on our hands. Until then, “brouhaha” needs no further explanation.
Like all angsty high schoolers, I loved The Catcher in the Rye. I had a strange, half-formed crush on Holden Kaufield; I, too, saw great beauty and meaning in the children's carousel, which is only the natural reaction for someone who is too embarrassed to still ride them but really, really wants to; and I imagined myself as the singular speck of authenticity floating in the teenage galaxy of, to borrow from Holden, phoniness, while, like Holden, not realizing that I wasn't that true to myself, either.
Nowadays, the word "phony" has become a bit of a zebra amongst horses, replaced with the more colloquial terms "fake" and "poser." However, in this modern age of social media, Photoshop, and airbrushing, we're going to need all of the synonyms we can get just to have one measly conversation about last night's episode of (insert any television show on Bravo, MTV, TLC, or E!).
But we hear enough about phoniness in the 21st century. Let's talk about phoniness in the 19th century.
In the late 1800s, similar to today, it was way too hard to find a job. Equal education was a joke, equal opportunity a scam. Therefore, those looking to earn fast riches took to swindling. Within the thieving community, code words were utilized to dupe the masses. One such word was "fawney," which referred to gilt brass rings. Advertised and sold as real gold rings, fawney eventually evolved into phony, giving us, and J.D. Salinger, the word we know and use today.