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Capricious / Mercurial

Get a grip, Muldoon.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve been trying to find any differences in the connotations of “capricious” and “mercurial.” They both deal with inconsistencies, but the only difference seems to be in their etymology: “capricious” started with the inconsistencies of goats, whereas “mercurial” started with the inconsistencies of the god Mercury. Is there anything more to these two words’ meanings? — Danielle Then.

That’s an interesting question. Say, do you mind if I borrow “The Inconsistencies of Goats” for the title of my next book? Usually I’d think of one myself, but all these goats are driving me crazy. I’ve tried to convince them they’d be happier outside, but they get halfway out the door and change their minds. Aside from a touch of agoraphobia, however, goats are just about the coolest animals going, much cooler than sheep, who are, let’s be blunt, total idiots. Goats are actually a lot like cats. Except for the horns, of course. I’m glad cats don’t have horns, aren’t you? Oh yeah, you had a question.

“Capricious,” which today we use to mean “impulsive,” “unpredictable” and, therefore, “unreliable,” is, appropriately, a word with a somewhat convoluted history. The noun behind the adjective “capricious” is “caprice,” meaning “whim, impulse, sudden urge or unusual action.” English borrowed our “caprice” in the 17th century from the French, who had adapted the Italian “capriccio,” also meaning “whim,” etc. But the earlier and original meaning of the Italian word was not “whim,” but “sudden shock” or “horror.” And the animal behind the word was not a goat, but a hedgehog. The Italian word is thought to be a blend of “caput” (head) with “riggio” (hedgehog), describing a person whose hair was standing on end, like a hedgehog’s, from fright or surprise. When “capriccio” eventually lightened up in Italian and came to mean “playful, whimsical,” the fact that it resembled the Italian word “capro” (goat) led people to associate the frisky play of young goats with “capriciousness,” which made much more sense than trying to rationalize “friskiness” with the torpid behavior of hedgehogs.

“Mercurial,” meaning “lively, volatile, given to quick changes of mood,” does indeed hark back to the Roman god Mercury (who was based on the Greek god Hermes), messenger of the gods and a notably fleet fellow (due in part to his winged shoes). Interestingly, Mercury was also the god of trade and travel, and his name comes from the Latin “merx,” meaning (and the root of) “merchandise.” “Mercury” today is best known as the name of a planet, an element, and a brand of car made, until 2011, by Ford. The adjective “mercurial,” which first appeared in English in the 14th century, can refer to anything having anything do do with Mercury, from the planet to the element, various plants, and medicines containing the element. The use of “mercurial” to mean “highly changeable” in reference to people dates to the mid-17th century and was apparently originally a reference to the fickle personality of the god Mercury. The modern use of “mercurial,” however, is more a reference to the metallic form of mercury (also known as “quicksilver”), which is the only metal which is liquid at room temperature. Apart from being extremely toxic, mercury is known for its highly fluid and quick movement, which is what makes it a good metaphor for swift change and unpredictability.

Every thesaurus I’ve checked considers “capricious” and “mercurial” to be synonyms, but I think there is a slight difference between the two. To describe someone as “mercurial” is not necessarily at all derogatory. Great artists and similar sensitive types are often lively, impulsive and given to “quicksilver” changes of mood. But to describe someone as “capricious” marks the person as undependable, flighty, and possibly petty, likely to disregard the effect of a sudden change in plans, etc., on other people. It’s not a distinction that can be traced to etymology or the broad definitions of the words, but I do think “mercurial” and “capricious” have developed that shade of difference in modern usage.


My personal Muse is Caffeinia, goddess of staring vacantly out the window.

Dear Word Detective: I know that “bemused” means “puzzled, confused, or bewildered.” But in most “modern” contexts, I tend to hear it used as a sort of “amusedly bewildered.” I assume this comes from the fact that “amuse” and “bemuse” sound alike. I find this new meaning useful, as it’s nice to have a word to attach to that particular feeling, and there are plenty of other ways to say “confused.” But would you consider this common enough to use in speech and written works today without being misunderstood? Also, as a side note, is “bemused” related to “mazed?” — Michael Duggan.

That’s a very interesting question. Edifying, too. Until I started poking around a bit, I had assumed that the noun “muse” (as in the nine Muses of Greek mythology, of whom more in a moment) was, at a minimum, closely related to the verb “to muse” meaning “to daydream or ponder.” That makes sense, right? The poet is “musing” — staring vacantly out the window — when the “muse” of poetry shows up with a bucket full of inspiration.

But no. “Muse” the noun and “muse” the verb are two separate words, commonly associated today but of completely unrelated origin. “Muse” the noun is usually used today to mean “the guiding spirit or inspiration,” especially of music or poetry (“Whom shall the Muse from out the shining Throng Select to heighten and adorn her Song?” 1714). The original “Muses” of Greek mythology were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The division of labor of the Muses was Clio (history), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Euterpe (music), Terpsichore (dancing), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry and hymns), Urania (astronomy), and Calliope (epic poetry). The term “muse” itself comes from Greek roots meaning “music or song,” possibly based on an Indo-European root meaning “mind.” Our modern English “music” comes from Greek roots meaning “the art of the Muses.”

The verb “to muse,” meaning “to be absorbed in thought; to ponder,” first appeared in the 14th century, adapted from the Old French “muser,” which meant all those things plus “to gape at; to stand with one’s nose in the air; to sniff.” If that sounds a bit canine, you’re on the right track. This “muse” comes from roots meaning “muzzle or snout,” and was also used to describe an animal sniffing the air for a scent.

“Amuse” and “bemuse” are very close cousins, both derivatives of the verb “to muse,” and in both cases the prefix (“a” or “be”) serves to strengthen the action of the verb. “Amuse” first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the Old French “amuser,” meaning “to stare stupidly.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, “to amuse” someone was to divert or delude that person in order to cheat them. But the standard sense today is usually “to divert someone’s attention with something light, cheerful and entertaining,” with no intention of larceny. The goal of “amusing” someone is thus to make them laugh, or at least smile (“Representations of … artless innocence always amuse and delight,” 1782).

The original sense of “bemuse,” back in the 18th century, was also “to befuddle or confuse” someone, often oneself, often with alcohol (“A Prussian was regarded in England as a dull beer-bemused creature,” 1880). Until very recently, “bemused” retained more of that “utterly confused” sense than “amused” did, but, as you note, “bemused” is now more likely to be used to mean “wryly amused, with slight puzzlement,” often regarding a matter that might ordinarily be considered in a skeptical or negative light (“Bob was bemused when his elderly widowed mother married her former brother-in-law”). I think this usage is rapidly becoming the standard; using “bemused” to mean simply “confused” or “stupefied” would probably actually confuse listeners today.

Lastly, “bemuse” is not related to “amaze,” which comes from the Old English “amasian,” and originally meant “to stun or render witless.” “Amaze” is related to the noun “maze,” which meant “state of confusion or delirium” before it meant “labyrinth.” The modern sense of “amaze” meaning “to astound; to overcome with wonder” dates to the late 16th century (“Christall eine, Whose full perfection all the world amazes,” Shakespeare, 1593). But in the 16th and 17th centuries, “amaze” was also used to mean “to fill with fear or panic” (“The sight of any shadow amazes the fish,” 1653).

Hot wash

 There will be folderol.

Dear Word Detective: I am looking for the origin of the phrase “hot wash,” which is used in the emergency management world to refer to an informal debrief or discussion after an exercise or emergency response. So for example, “After the derecho-response exercise, the participants conducted a brief hot wash to review the results.” — Ken Lerner.

Derecho response? I’ve spent the last few minutes trying to figure out a way to convey a rueful laugh in print (“heh … hehhehheh”?), but we’ll just have to pretend this column has sound effects. We had two derechos (which is the Spanish word for “straight,” referring to the 80-plus mph straight-line winds of these storms) in quick succession last year. The first knocked out our power for eight days and the second deposited several huge trees on our lawn. Our “derecho response” consisted of sitting in the sweltering darkness eating peanut butter from the jar and chanting our ancient meditation mantra (“I can’t believe this is happening”) several thousand times. I say our mantra is “ancient” because it got really old after a few days. And I now hate peanut butter. Thanks a lot, Weather Gods.

According to the official FEMA Glossary (FEMA being the people who put the electrodes in your cousin Artie’s brain, of course), “hot wash” means “… a facilitated discussion held immediately following an exercise among exercise players … designed to capture feedback about any issues, concerns, or proposed improvements players may have about the exercise.” So a “hot wash” is a kind of “immediately after the action” debriefing, a slightly more formal “So, how’d it go?” session. Some sources use the term “cold wash” to mean a more detailed review conducted at a later date.

The term “hot wash” (which is sometimes rendered as one word, “hotwash”) originated in the US military, where it is used as an informal equivalent of “After Action Review,” the debriefing of personnel immediately after they return from a mission, patrol, etc. Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio language program A Way with Words (, listed “hot wash” in his Official Dictionary of Unofficial English back in 2005. The first example he found in print was from 1991 (“The day the fighting ended, senior Army aides presented to Army Chief of Staff Carl E. Vuono their first observations on the operation. Such an initial review of a just-concluded operation is called a ‘hot wash.’,” LA Times). In his dictionary entry, Grant notes that “This term appears to be migrating out of the military, where it originated,” and the years since have proven him right. “Business leadership” websites are in love with the term, and some even offer free Powerpoint (of course) presentation slides you can use to browbeat your desperate employees into pretending they value and enjoy the “hot wash” process after every meeting with clients. (Have I ever mentioned how much I detest management consultants? Good argument for Soylent Green, the lot of ’em.)

For a term that seems to have popped up in the early 1990s, “hot wash” is a bit of a puzzle, and I’ve found no authoritative explanation of its origin. One clue to the term may lie in the fact that the process is apparently often called a “hot wash-up,” which might indicate that it came from the idea of a discussion taking place while soldiers literally “washed up” (with soap and water) just after returning to base. That the participants would still be “hot” from exertion, or that their experience in the field would be “hot” in the sense of “fresh,” might also play a role in the phrase.

It’s also possible that the phrase originally referred to washing off a horse after a race or a day of hard work. The popularity of the phrase “ridden hard and put away wet” (meaning “not properly cared for,” referring to an exhausted horse being put back in its stall while still sweaty and ungroomed, which can make a horse very sick) might have contributed to “hot wash.”

Yet another possibility is that the source is a more figurative use of “wash,” specifically in the sense found in the phrase “to come out in the wash,” which first appeared in print in the early 1900s meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “(of the truth) to be revealed, become clear; (of a situation, events, etc.) to be resolved or put right eventually.” The “wash” in “come out in the wash” is a metaphorical laundering process, and that figurative sense of “wash” may play a role in “hot wash.”