We've all been there. You're out to dinner. Someone casually drops the word 'übermensch' into the conversation. Knowledgeable laughter drifts along the table while your expression freezes. Are they ordering a starter? Are they clearing their throat? Is someone being insulted? You put down your napkin, reach for your copy of Jim O'Donnell's Wordgloss, find out it's the German for 'superman' and lead the table in a discussion of nihilism, Nietzschean philosophy and the master/slave distinction.
Wordgloss is a book designed to map the "cultural lexicon". It combines the elements of a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia to catalogue the meanings, origins and context for a wealth of commonly-used but difficult to pin down words. As John Banville notes in his introduction, it is not "a bluffer's guide to logodaedaly", which the book helpfully informs us is "the practice of crafty and tricksy word-use."
Arranged in alphabetical order, but containing a multitude of sidebar definitions, digressions and etymologies, Worldgloss succinctly unravels knotty subjects and ties related strands together into neat bundles of information.
Look up politics and, along with the word's English definition and Greek origins (from 'polis' meaning 'city-state'), it includes an account of realpolitik (from the German meaning "the politics of realism") and a rundown of the five main concerns of politicians – public order, economics, community, culture and institutional issues. Funny that, no mention of tribunals.
O'Donnell also tackles words like assassination, which George Bernard Shaw described as "the extreme form of censorship", and cynic, which comes from the Greek word kunikos, meaning 'dog-like'.
Painstakingly-researched, elegantly-written and bursting with enthusiasm, Worldgloss will prove to be an invaluable resource for anyone concerned with the words that we live by.
See below for a small extract
literally, to the point of causing sickness
Ad is the Latin 'to' or 'for'; nauseam is a form of nausea 'seasickness'. A bore often creates his or her effect by going on ad nauseam about a topic of exceedingly limited interest to the hearer(s). Nausea is itself derived from the Greek nausia, also meaning 'seasickness', which in turn derives from naus the Greek 'ship' (nautikos 'of a ship' from naus gives us nautical). Navis is the Latin 'ship' (hence navy, naval, navigator and circumnavigate, circum being the Latin 'around').
means delight in another's misfortune (from the German Schaden 'hurt' and Freude 'joy')
the Fourth Estate means the mass media. The phrase was coined by the Irish orator Edmund Burke. Speaking in the British House of Commons, he observed that there were three estates in parliament; then, referring to the newspaper reporters' gallery, he declared, 'Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all!'
the terrible destruction of the European Jews by the Nazis (holokauston is the Greek 'whole-burnt sacrifice', from holos 'whole' and kaustos 'burnt'; it came into use in this context around 1959). Shoah, the Hebrew
'destruction', is used as a synonym for Holocaust