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Dear Word Detective: I consider myself fairly well-educated and reasonably well-read, to the extent that it is a rare experience when I am stopped dead in my reading by a word that I cannot understand even from the context. Such was the case when, in reading Allen Guelzo’s “Lincoln and Douglas” (2008), I encountered a reference to Senator Douglas’s “rodomontade.”  Neither my 2006 Concise Oxford American Dictionary nor my 2001 6th Edition Roget had heard of the word. My old standby American Heritage Dictionary (1968 — you told me I needed a newer one!) defines it as “pretentious boasting,” originating from a character in a 15th century play. Is this word in anything like current usage, or is Guelzo’s use an illustration of its meaning (“I know this word and you don’t”)? — Charles Anderson.

Oops. My bad. I really told you to deep six your American Heritage Dictionary? I’m glad you didn’t listen to me. My father, William Morris, was Editor-in-Chief of that edition (published in 1969, I believe), the first American Heritage Dictionary. It was considered a revolutionary work in several respects (use of photographs, inclusion of “bad words,” more attention to etymology, use of a usage panel, etc.). It’s definitely something you should hang onto.

“Rodomontade,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines as “Extravagant boasting or bragging; bravado; boastful or bombastic language,” is in current usage in the same way you can say with assurance that there are four-leaf clovers out there somewhere. A search of Google News at the moment reveals exactly four instances of the word being used in print, and two of those are in French (where it means the same thing). Of the English-language sources, one is an article about British politician George Galloway (“[T]he handful of curious passers-by had swelled to a throng by the time he had finished a rodomontade which excoriated Labour and the Conservatives for neglecting his city”) and the other about (hoodathunkit?) Donald Trump (“Until the mid-’60s, rodomontade was rare even in sports. Then came Muhammad Ali. His exuberant braggadocio was what made Ali so different …”).

The inspiration for “rodomontade” was the character Rodomonte, a courageous but excitable and boastful Saracen leader in the epic poem “Orlando Innamorato” by M. M. Boiardo (1495) and its sequel (by L. Ariosto) “Orlando Furioso” (1532). The name “Rodomonte” apparently means “one who moves (rolls away) mountains” in dialectical Italian, and the character Rodomonte is fittingly distinguished by his courage and forceful plain-speaking (which leads to his death).

When “rodomontade” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, it was used to mean a single instance of boastful or arrogant speech or writing (or simply an arrogant act, a usage now considered obsolete). We also adopted the term “rodomont” to mean a person who boasted and blustered in a vain, egotistical manner. By the mid-17th century, however, we were using “rodomontade” in is modern collective sense of “boastful or bombastic language” (“For all your Rodomontade, our Principals shall fight with you with any Arms,” Earl of Orrery, circa 1679). “Rodomontade” also began to be used as an adjective meaning “boastful, characterized by bragging” during this period (“Whereas a modest mistake might slip by undiscern’d, these Rodomontade errors force themselves upon mens observation,” 1667). An interesting use from 1919 cited in the OED employs the word to characterize society in general (“These instances in themselves are not edifying to our rodomontade civilization”).

“Rodomontade” is definitely a bit of a rarity these days, and I think you’re unlikely to hear it from anyone who doesn’t own at least one thesaurus. I think it’s significant that in both of the current news articles I cited above the author was clearly using “rodomontade” to avoid repeating a nearby use of the far more common term “braggadocio,” also meaning “bragging and self-important bluster.” Incidentally, many people assume that “braggadocio” is an Italian word, a logical assumption since “occhio” and “occio” are common intensive endings in Italian. But “braggadocio” was actually invented by the English poet Edmund Spenser as the name of a character in his 1590 epic poem The Faerie Queen by “Italifying” the simple English word “brag” because Italian terms were fashionable in England at the time.


Dear Word Detective: Is there any “figment” other than “figment of imagination”? I have never seen the word used outside that phrase. — Allan Pratt.

Good question. I was thinking about “figment” earlier today. (I always think about things before I write about them, not that it shows in most instances.) Anyway, I realized that I’ve retained a weird mental association, no doubt forged in childhood, between “figment” and “Fig Newton” cookies, the tasty little fig bars made by Nabisco. The reason I’ve capitalized “Fig Newton” there is that the term is actually a trademark (though often used generically) owned by Nabisco. It turns out, I discovered while writing a book on trade names a few years ago, that the company went through a phase of naming their confections after towns in their local state of Massachusetts and, in this case, decided to honor the Boston suburb of Newton. Newton is a lovely town, but, as I said in my book, I was a bit disappointed that the inspiration wasn’t Isaac Newton, perhaps heralding a line of famous scientist cookies that might eventually include Copernicus Nut Clusters and Heisenberg Uncertainty Macaroons.

It’s true that nearly every use of the word “figment” I’ve been able to find in popular media has been in the phrase “figment of one’s imagination” or phrases substituting “hallucination,” “memory,” “mind,” and similar mental venues. “Figment” today is used as a loose synonym for “fantasy” or “hallucination,” a belief that something is true that clearly isn’t, or, less charitably, an attempt to imply a desired meaning where actual evidence is lacking (“Another attempt .? to read into prehistoric monuments ?. patterns and explanations which are simply figments of the observer’s imagination,” Nature, 1971).

In current usage “figment” is clearly a dismissive and sometimes pejorative term. When the word first appeared in English in the 15th century, however, it had a considerably broader and less loaded definition. “Figment” is derived from the Latin “figmentum,” something fashioned or created, from the verb “fingere,” meaning “to mold or fashion.” The original meaning of “figment,” now obsolete, was simply “something molded, fashioned or created,” usually in the form of something else, such as a model, statue or painting (“This Statue is become the?eternal God of Heaven and Earth .? though it be really a mere figment,” 1664).

Early on, however, “figment” was also used to mean specifically “a fictitious invention” or “falsehood,” a story or statement that was presented as true but was not (“It is a sin to lie, even for Gods cause, and to defend even his justice with false tales and figments,” 1639). This definition differs from the common use of “figment” today because it implies some intent to deceive in the origin of “figment,” and in fact early use of this sense included “figment” meaning “a fraudulent trick.”

By the early 17th century, however, the modern sense of “figment” meaning “a construct or perception of the mind that has no basis in reality; an invention” had arisen, and we began to speak of “figments” of the mind, imagination, etc. The earliest citation for the phrase “figment of imagination” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Jane Eyre (1847): “The long dishevelled hair, the swelled black face, the exaggerated stature, were figments of imagination.” So modern use of “figment” is almost always in regard to some mental misapprehension or delusion, whether actual or implied.


Dear Word Detective: I recently had one of my dubious schemes stymied and I used the old line “Curses! Foiled Again!” I know what curses are (all too well) but I got to thinking about “foiled.” Trying not to impose on you, I went the online dictionary  and got “Origin: Middle English, alteration of ‘fullen’ to full cloth.” Huh? — Donald Wilkinson, Gaithersburg, MD.

Hmm. I think we have a failure to communicate here, folks. I appreciate your courtesy in not wishing to impose on me with your question, I really do. But what you might consider an “imposition” I consider “raw material.” If people don’t ask questions, I don’t have a column to write, and pretty soon hungry, yowling cats are circling my desk and camping out on my keyboard. A few years ago I tried the ninja-esque tactic of offering anyone who asked a question a free cat as a reward, but while my plea did produce questions, not a single person asked for their cat. Go figure. Anyway, keep those cards and letters coming, gang, the more the merrier.

I don’t blame you for being mystified by that origin for “foil” offered by the online dictionary (shame on you, Merriam-Webster). “Alteration of ‘fullen’ to full cloth” doesn’t explain anything and sounds like gibberish to boot. The key to unlocking that cryptic little phrase is the fact that “full” as they use it is actually a verb, and “to full” cloth is to beat or stamp on it in order to clean it (as people still beat a rug hanging on a clothesline to remove dust, etc.) or to compress or “thicken” it. I guess the folks at M-W thought we already knew that.

There are actually two kinds of “foil” in English. The “thin sheet of metal” sort of “foil” appeared in the early 14th century, derived from the Old French “fueille,” meaning “leaf,” which developed from the Latin “folium” (which also gave us “foliage”). One interesting descendant of this “foil” is its use to mean “a person who enhances the distinctive characteristics of another by contrast,” as in “Meg’s drab husband acted as her foil, making her witty comments seem even sharper.” This use of “foil” harks back to jewelers’ use of metal foil as a backing in gem mountings to make less-than-stellar stones sparkle more brightly (“In gems, that want colour & perfection, a foil is put under them to add to their lustre: in others, as in diamonds, the foil is black; & in this sense when a pretty woman chuses to appear in publick with a homely one, we say she uses her as a foil,” 1767).

The other sort of foil is the one meaning “to thwart, to prevent from succeeding,” found in the phrase “Curses, foiled again!” popularized by the character Snidely Whiplash, the villain in the Dudley Do-Right segments on the old Rocky and His Friends (aka Rocky & Bullwinkle) cartoon show. This brings us back to that cryptic verb “to full,” meaning “to beat or press.” This word appeared in English in the 14th century, adapted from Old French, which apparently based it on the Latin “fullo,” meaning “one who cleans cloth.” Unfortunately, the origin of that “fullo” is unknown.

“Foil,” closely related to that “full,” also first appeared in English in the 14th century, with the specific sense of “to trample down,” and eventually developed a sense specific to hunting meaning “to trample down and thus obscure a track or scent, thus preventing hounds from tracking the game.” This “foiling” could be done by other animals or even by the hounds themselves. In either case, it marked a defeat for the hunters, and by the 16th century “foil” was being used in its modern sense to mean “to defeat, to block, to baffle a foe.”

There is, I should mention, one other common use of “foil,” that of “light sword used in fencing,” which first appeared in the late 16th century. Most authorities consider this “foil” to be connected to the verb “to foil” above, perhaps reflecting the sense of “blunt” or “block” because the tip of a fencing foil usually has a small button at its point.