What’s That Word?

I have renamed my “Word of the Week” feature to “What’s That Word?” because I haven’t posted it weekly or on Wednesdays. I compose it when I have time and am inspired by interesting words I want to research.

This post looks at the word bildungsroman.

I recently was looking at book reviews of titles that sounded interesting from Amazon.com and came across a novel entitled Middle C by William H. Gass, published in 2013. Since I am interested in anything related to music, I checked out the review of this novel. It is about an obscure professor of music, but that is only a small piece of it. It is a bildungsroman novel, which is a type of novel sometimes called a “coming of age” novel in that it focuses on both the psychological and moral growth of its protagonist.

The web site Literary Devices defines this type of novel:

A Bildungsroman is a story of the growing up of a sensitive person who looks for answers to his questions through different experiences. Generally, such a novel starts with a loss or a tragedy that disturbs the main character emotionally. He or she leaves on a journey to fill that vacuum.

During the journey, the protagonist gains maturity gradually and with difficulty. Usually, the plot depicts a conflict between the protagonist and the values of society. Finally, he or she accepts those values and they are accepted by the society, ending the dissatisfaction.

The purpose of a bildungsroman novel is to depict and criticize those aspects of society which cause the protagonist to suffer. The protagonist is a sensitive individual who feels these problems acutely and ultimately cause him/her to change his/her life.

This same web site gives examples of well-known novels that fall under this subgenre:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. This novel traces David Copperfield’s life from childhood to adulthood. The “transformational arc” essential to all good novels is that there is a change in David’s “undisciplined heart” when he chooses to marry a sensible woman who has always loved him.


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. This is a coming-of-age novel concerning the life of Stephen Dedalus. The story starts with Stephen at a boarding school at the age of 16. Through a series of personal tribulations, he decides to become a cleric. But later he has another change of heart and decides that being a cleric is a “waste of time” and he turns to living in society and innovation as an artist.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is a science fiction novel, that tells the story of Kathy in three stages of life: Childhood, Adulthood, and Donor. Kathy was carefree and free-spirited in her youth. When she becomes an adult, she is less emotional as she looks back on her past. Then in the final section, her organs are harvested to donate to others. As a mature woman, she accepts the life of herself and her friends.


Middle C by William H. Gass. The novel describes the life of Joseph Skizzen, the protagonist as well as his moral philosophical musings about how horrible humankind is. It starts with his father’s escape from Nazi Germany with his family, passing themselves off as Jewish by changing their surname. Once in America, he lives a mediocre life, plays the piano passably well and develops an interest in classical music. He becomes a professor of music at a small Lutheran collage. While telling the life of his sometimes dishonest life, the reader is introduced to his “Inhumanity Museum” with articles about inhumane acts throughout history which Skizzel has collected for decades and which are plastered all over his walls.


The origin of the word bildungsroman is German for “formation novel” or “education novel.”

Which bildungsroman novels have you read? Let me know in the comments section and your opinion of that (those) novel(s).

Word of the week: Graupel

We have had some weird weather here in Chicagoland lately. It’s unseasonably cold for April, and last Saturday the weather changed about 10 times! When I looked out the window at 3 pm, it looked like blizzard conditions, with the light snow whirling madly against strong winds. But at 5 pm, two hours later, the sun was shining!

The ground is too warm now for snow flurries to stay on the ground long. Especially when those snowflakes were not really snowflakes – they  were actually graupel!

Most people who live in areas with cold, snowy winters and volatile springs are probably familiar with graupel, even if they’ve never heard the word – I never had, until Monday, when my stepdaughter told me about it. She gets a daily email  with an unusual word and its definition. It just happened to be appropriate for these last few days of strange weather.

Graupel is precipitation that is formed when water forms around a snowflake and freezes. Similar in appearance to hail, it is distinguished by the fact that it is not solid like hail. If you squeeze a piece of graupel between your fingers, it will disintegrate, because only snow is inside. Since hail is actually a solid bit of ice, it will not disintegrate when you squeeze it.

graupel vs hail


Wikipedia gives this scientific explanation of the phenomenon:

Graupel, also called soft hail, snow pellets, or “grail” is formed when supercooled droplets of water are collected and freeze on falling snowflakes, forming 2-5 mm of rime. …

rime ice-graupel

Under some atmospheric conditions, snow crystals may encounter supercooled water droplets. … Contact between a snow crystal and the supercooled droplets results in freezing of the liquid droplets onto the surface of the crystal. … When this process continues so that the shape of the original snow crystal is no longer identifiable, the resulting crystal is referred to as graupel. Graupel was formerly referred to by meteorologists as soft hail. However, graupel is easily distinguishable from hail in both the shape and strength of the pellet and the circumstances in which it falls. Ice from hail is formed in hard, relatively uniform layers and usually falls only during thunderstorms. Graupel forms fragile, oblong shapes and falls in place of typical snowflakes in wintry mix situations, often in concert with ice pellets. Graupel is also fragile enough that it will typically fall apart when touched.

graupel diagram

The National Weather Service/NOAA has a chart describing different types of precipitation. For graupel to form, surface temperatures should be 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Cloud temperatures are mostly below freezing with some portion colder than 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It usually occurs when the lower atmosphere is very unstable.

When you see graupel on the ground, it may remind you of the dessert “Dippin’ Dots”:


In fact, one “Idaho Dad” has a blog post for “Graupel Delight”!

graupel delight

Origin: The origin of the word graupel is from German, according to dictionary.com: 1885-90; < German; diminutive of Graupe hulled grain. However, its actual origin is probably from Serbo-Croat krupa; related to Russian krupá peeled grain.

Because of English speakers’ tendency to  create verbs out of nouns, I began to use graupel this way: Instead of “It’s snowing!” or “It’s hailing!” I could be more specific by saying, “It’s graupeling!”





Word of the Week: reredos

This week’s word is reredos. (And no, it doesn’t mean to do the redo over again!) Earlier this week, my husband and I took a short trip to St. Louis, which is only about 4 hours drive from Chicago (without stops). We visited some lovely churches there, and I will post pictures of them later. One of the churches, the Episcopalian Christ Church Cathedral, has an interesting feature called reredos. I had read a little bit about it beforehand and was anxious to see it for myself.

I also looked up the definition and found out that the correct pronunciation is approximately REAR – dahs. Its origin is Anglo-French, from the 14th century. It came into use in Middle English, as an alteration of Anglo-French areredos, equivalent to Middle French arere behind (see arrear ) + dos back (< Latin dorsum) (from dictionary.com.).

The definition given in dictionary.com is as follows:

  1. a screen or a decorated part of the wall behind an altar in a church.
  2. the back of a fireplace or of a medieval open hearth.

I was picturing something that would look like a screen, so when I entered the church I wasn’t sure whether what I was seeing was the reredos or not. It was a large carved panel behind the altar, depicting different aspects of the life of Jesus.


There were some workmen in the church moving things around for Holy Week, supervised by whom I assumed was the pastor. He approached me and I told him of my interest in the reredos. He told me that a wealthy woman who belonged to this church in the early 20th century had visited Europe and saw examples of reredos there, which she found to be so beautiful that she decided to commission one for Christ Church Cathedral back home in St. Louis. The pastor also got me some information on the history of the church as well as a diagram of what is on the panel.

In the Self-Guided Tour written by Jim McGahey, facilities manager, he describes the reredos as the “crowning glory of the Cathedral.” He wrote: “This altar screen is similar to those screens in both St. Alban’s Abbey Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral in England, and was carved between 1909 and 1911 by Harry Hems at his studio in Exeter, England. Because of its connection with these two ancient English cathedrals, we have a stone from each set into the fabric of our building.”

Below are close ups that I took of different parts of the reredos.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Nativity scene

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Center: Jesus on the cross, flanked by Mary (on left), St. John (on right), with angels above.


Left side: Jesus’ disciples


Right side: Jesus’ disciples



Word of the Week: Zoochosis

CAUTION: The images and behaviors described below may be disturbing.

The word I chose this week is a new one: zoochosis. This word was coined by Bill Travers in 1992 to describe “the stereotypical behaviour of animals in captivity.
Stereotypic behaviour is defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function.” These behaviors do not occur with animals in the wild.  I’m sure that most of us who have visited zoos have observed at least one of the following behaviors  (I know I have):

pacing or circling the same path – this is seen in many animals, particularly wolves and big cats

tongue-playing and bar biting – seen especially in primates, involving continual licking, sucking or biting of the bars of their enclosure


neck twisting – unnatural movement of the neck, often flicking the head around or bending the neck back, seen in bears, giraffes, llamas and primates

head bobbing and swaying – standing in one place swaying the head and neck or the whole body from side to side or up and down, most commonly found in bears and elephants

rocking – sitting, maybe hugging the legs, rocking forward and back; seen in primate species

self-mutilation – the animal grooming itself excessively, causing feathers or hair to fall out; biting or chewing on legs or tail; or hitting its head against a wall



An elephant in extreme stress leans its head against a pole.

Other behaviors involve regurgitating and playing or eating feces.

Zoochosis is thought to be caused by stress due to living in a confined space; separation from its natural habitat, such as being fed a diet that is not natural to its wild state and living in an alien climate; enforced idleness; direct control by humans; loss of life in normal social groups; and drugs and medical fertility control.



Reading about cases of zoochosis, I feel like never visiting another zoo again! I used to absolutely love zoos, but in the last few years, I find that I alternate between enjoying watching the animals and being depressed about the animals’ confinement. I have seen many examples of “zoochotic” behavior, especially the pacing and circling.

To learn more about zoochosis, check out these web sites:

Care2 has a 1/2 hour documentary “Zoochosis” that explains what happens to animals in captivity.

OneGreenPlanet has the same documentary.

bornfree.org.uk has a comprehensive article and short video clips of each of the behaviors exhibited by animals suffering from zoochosis.

Although zoos have a role to play in breeding animals that would otherwise go extinct and also have educational programs and research to benefit wild animals, it is impossible for them to replicate the environments of species who come from places as far away as Antarctica or equatorial South America. And think about it: Would you want to be confined and have people staring at you? Why is it considered normal for people in cities all over the world to observe animals whose native habitat may be the savannas of Africa or the Amazon jungle? Why not go to petting zoos where there are species that are native to one’s own habitat – such as farm animals.

These are questions that make me think about whether zoos have a positive role to play to protect and preserve animal species or whether to visit them at all.




Word of the Week: Xanthochroid

When I was a kid, my family used to love to play board games. These games were not only fun, but many were meant to be learning experiences. My father was particularly fond of playing games with his children. One of the games we played sometimes was Anagrams.

In Anagrams, a player thinks of a word and uses letter tiles to spell it out, scrambling the letters. The other players have to figure out what word it is.

I wasn’t much good at Anagrams, because being the youngest I had the smallest vocabulary. We weren’t supposed to use a dictionary, but to break my losing streak, I asked my dad if I could use a dictionary, just once…  He allowed it.

Of course, I turned to the most exotic letter – X – and found a word that stumped him, my mother, and all my siblings. That word was xanthochroid.  I remember this word to this day, although I never use it in casual conversation, or even in formal essays!

One thing I like about it, though, is that it describes ME!

Bilingual=Life squared

I always thought it was a noun, e.g. “I am a xanthochroid“, but in fact, it’s an adjective, according to dictionary.com, which defines  xanthochroid as follows:


1.(rare) of, relating to, or designating races having light-coloured hair and a pale complexion.
Notice that this word is “rare”. That’s why it’s a fun word to use in games like Anagrams! Dictionary.com goes on to define it basically the same way as a medical term:

xanthochroid in Medicine

xanthochroid xan·tho·chroid (zān’thə-kroid’)

Having a light complexion and light hair. n.
A person having a light complexion and light hair.

Perhaps it’s a term used more often in medicine than anyplace else.

The origin of the word xanthochroid comes from  Greek:
xanthos (1829) meaning “yellow” + ōkhros meaning “pale”.

The prefix xantho- is used in many scientific words, such as xanthein (1857) “soluble yellow coloring matter in flowers,” and xanthophyll (1838) “yellow coloring matter in autumn leaves.”

Professor R. Huxley wrote a scientific paper entitled “On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind”, which was published in the Journal of the  Ethnological Society of London in 1870 and discussed the distribution of people with various racial characteristics throughout the world. Here is a short quote from that paper: 

III. The Xanthochroic Type …

A third extremely well-defined type of mankind is exhibited by the greater part of the population of Central Europe. These are the Xanthochroi, or fair whites. They are of tall stature and have the skin almost colourless, and so delicate that the blood really shows through it. The eyes are blue or grey; the hair light, ranging from straw-colour to red or chestnut; the beard and body-hair abundant. 

I don’t consider my skin to be “almost colorless” although I can see my veins on my wrist and forearm. Here, then, are some images of xanthochroid people:

Left: Two women from Iceland;  Right: a young Scot

This is the best picture taken of me in years! Dale looks OK too.

A favorite picture of me (xanthochroid) with my husband (not xanthochroid!)

Doing research on this word, I discovered that Xanthochroid is the name of a “black metal” band! According to its web site, it  strives to produce the most sophisticated and enthralling compositions in the metal scene today. … Xanthochroid combines many styles into a blackened cloud of legendary metal might.

Seems to be an oxymoron – “black”metal band named after very “white” people?? The guy in the back row at left is definitely xanthochroid!


A leaf with xanthophyll


Word of the week: shrift

English speakers have heard and occasionally use the expression “short shrift” as in giving “little or no attention to”: He gives short shrift to the work of contemporary composers, or “quick work” such as: They made short shrift of their homework, so they could go outside to play. 

The implication is that it is something little, brief or non-existent. But what exactly does the word “shrift” mean? We don’t use it in any other context today, except when combined with “short”.

Here is Merriam-Webster‘s definition of shrift:

  1. archaic(n):  a remission of sins pronounced by a priest in the sacrament of reconciliation :  the act of shriving: confessional

  2. 2obsolete:  confessional

Dictionary.com defines it:

noun, Archaic.
1. the imposition of penance by a priest on a penitent after confession.
2. absolution or remission of sins granted after confession and penance.

3. confession to a priest.



Picture downloaded from Google images.

This is something we may want to keep short! But the word has fallen out of use in other contexts. The expression “short shrift” actually came from a confession that a condemned prisoner made before his execution (first appeared 1685-1695). The executioners probably wanted this to be short, but perhaps the prisoner did not!

noose1                                                        Google images: rollingout.com

But the word shrift itself comes from Old English scrift (before AD 900) meaning “penance.” This is a false cognate of German and Dutch schrift, which means “writing”. (It’s a false cognate because although it is a similar word, it doesn’t mean the same thing.)

The idea for this post came from a post I got on Facebook: “12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms.” It’s true that we would never use or even have heard of the word shrift if it weren’t part of the idiom short shrift.
I love learning about words!

Word of the Week: snowbird

The word for this week is snowbird.  Very common, right? Why am I picking this word for word of the week?  Most people already know what it means!

Actually, the word snowbird has FOUR meanings.

The first meaning is the one most people know – and which I wish I were!! – which is: a person who travels to a warmer region for the winter. Most of these people are older and retired. Often it is due to physical pain in their joints that they need to go where the weather will be gentler on their arthritis.

gI_89530_The Secret Life of a Snowbird

Now that I am retired, I ask myself: Are my husband and I going to become snowbirds? And if so, where will we go in the winter?

Sedona would be a great place to retire!

Sedona would be a great place to retire!

We haven’t decided yet whether we will invest in a winter property, probably in Arizona, or just settle permanently in a warmer climate (like Mexico or Brazil). Or we will stay put and travel a lot! Each of these options has its advantages.


Meaning no. 2, which some readers may know, although I didn’t, is: a cocaine addict.

cocaine_addiction_symptoms-250x166This is American slang and this use of the word snowbird has been used since the early 20th century, when the use of cocaine was becoming popular and moreover, it was completely legal at that time. There was a recent series on television, called The Knick, the nickname of Knickerbocker, a hospital in New York. In this series, the main character, a doctor at the hospital, becomes addicted to cocaine.

Clive Owens plays Dr. John Thackery, a surgeon addicted to cocaine.

Clive Owens plays Dr. John Thackery, a surgeon addicted to cocaine.

#3: According to The Free Dictionary, a snowbird is also a type of finch, of which the dark-eyed junco and snow bunting are two examples.  This was the earliest known meaning of the word.


Finally, the 4th meaning of snowbird is a type of small sailboat, which, according to Wikipedia, was made popular in the 1920s by a yachtsman who was looking for a boat suitable for his young sons to sail. He saw a set of plans drawn to scale in the 1921 issue of Rudder magazine. He had a builder make several in 1926, and in 1928, the National Snowbird Yacht Racing Association was formed.  In the 1932 Olympics, the snowbird was a racing class. The gold medal in this class was awarded to Jacques Lebrun of France. The silver medal went to Bob Maas of the Netherlands, and Santiago Amat of Spain won the bronze medal.


Flight of the Snowbirds

Flight of the Snowbirds

I found a fifth use of the word Snowbird: It is the name of a ski resort in Utah.


Word(s) of the week: types of fog

I am pairing two weather-related words from two different places. The first is:

pogonip (noun). According to dictionary.com, it comes from a Shoshone word which refers to an ice fog that forms in the mountain valleys in Western USA. Being a “flatlander” in the Midwest, I of course had never heard of this term. I like the sound of it, though, especially the “nip” – when that fog comes in, the weather is quite nippy! A pogonip will nip at an exposed nose or ear!


Pogonip covering a mountain valley

The origin of pogonip in the Shoshone language (the Numic language group) is paγɨnappɨh, which means “thunder cloud.” Pogonip became an Americanism – in general use in that region – by 1865.

The pictures above show pogonip crystals.

The Shoshone people come from the Pacific Northwest. They may have several words derived from this root – just as the Inuit have many words for snow.


Crossing the Atlantic, another fog-related word comes from  eastern Scotland and Northeastern England.  A thick, white fog that comes onto land from the seacoast is called haar. It usually happens on the east coast of the British Isles between April and September, according to Wikipedia. The warm air comes into contact with the cold North Sea, causing the air to condense and creating the fog, which can spread several miles inland. This causes a substantial drop in temperature.


Haar covering half of the rail bridge over the Firth of Forth, Scotland

haar in Edinburgh

Haar descends on the city of Edinburgh.

The web site dictionary.com, dates this word to the late 1600s. It is a variant of the word “hoar.” Perhaps if we close our eyes and listen to what this fog sounds like, it might resemble haar– like a exhalation of air. This is, of course, pure speculation, since I have never seen – or heard – this fog.

The origin of haar may be Low German/Middle Dutch “hare”.

Here’s an especially dramatic picture of the haar: