Sunday, April 12, 2015

Whither the Basilisk?

I keep losing the slips on which I jot words while I am reading in bed—and hence don’t have a thick dictionary within my reach. The current list is getting longer. It’s time I looked up this words and started a new list.

I saw the word I’m featuring today in a quote from in one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (“The Worst Crime in the World”):

She had a powerful and rather heavy face of a pale and rather unwholesome complexion, and when she looked at anybody she cultivated the fascinations of a basilisk.

This is a happy instance in that it illustrates that context does not always help one make out a strange word, like basilisk. So what was this lady like, and what did Chesterton intend to convey when using that word? He intended to suggest a nasty woman with a fierce stare—and that because the basilisk is a mythological creature, a worm, with a death-dealing breath and a gaze that could kill outright. The word comes from the Greek basiliskos meaning “little king”; the original of it (see below) was a worm with a kind of crest suggesting a crown.

The medieval imagination rendered this creature as a worm with a cock’s head (first image). A close relative was the cockatrice (second image). According to Wikipedia (link), which did my research for me here, the naturalist Pliny the Elder (25-79 AD), who presumably supplied the name, had seen or heard about this creature and was describing an actual beast. He gave its size as no more than twelve fingers in length. While basilisk has continued to be treated as small, in some heraldic depictions it had latter grown large enough even to swallow a man.

The word has lost its currency today as a generic for “evil dragon” with bad breath and jaundiced eyes. In 1912 basilisk and dinosaur, as words, had the same frequency of use in the books Google Ngram tracks. Thereafter use of  basilisk declined significantly and dinosaur went for the skies. In 2000, however, basilisk still did a little better than tyrannosaurus rex. Ah science!

On my list are four more words. I found the first of these, portcullis, also in Father Brown and in the same story. The context was more revealing there, to wit: “The castle really was a castle, of the square embattled plan that the Normans built everywhere from Galilee to the Grampians. It did really and truly have a portcullis and a drawbridge.” A portcullis is a metal gate that slides in grooves and blocks entrance to a castle when the need arises. The image tells the story. At least we all know what it looks like….

Next comes apotheosis, also from Chesterton but from his book Orthodoxy. I should have known that word, but I failed to recognize it because I’d never consciously understood the prefix, apo. It means “to make”; theos, of course, is “God”; thus the word means the action of making a “god” out of something much less exalted: God-making. My own habit is to use the same word from a Latin root: “deification.”  

The next two words come from reading F.W.H. Myers’ Human Personality. The first is waistcoat. I knew roughly what it meant, namely a vest. But I wondered why it had lost its currency. Was it because vests had lost their popularity—particularly on those stout, men with fancy beards and somber looks? Or was it just that the word “vest” is shorter? Well, yes and yes. But the waistcoat has also conquered new territories. We see it, these days, mostly on young women, as shown in the illustration here provided.

The last word, expatiate, is interesting because it originated in a physical activity—but had come to mean, at least by the nineteenth century—something more mental. Ex can mean “outside,” as it does here. Spatiari means to work or roam about. (The German still use the verb spazieren to mean going on a recreational walk.) Such walks are often aimless, without fixed purpose. That aspect of a walk (or better yet “a ramble”) have come to be attached to expatiate; the word, these days, means to carry on, in writing or in talk, endlessly without much point. Expatiating at length—and then coming up short, wondering what I’m talking about—is one of my failings; it ranks right up there with inattention to words I don’t understand until a slip of paper gets kind of curly from lying on my bedside table for too long.
Image sources from Wikipedia articles in order: link, link, link, and link.


  1. Pedantry alert! The Greek "apo" is the preposition meaning away from. It corresponds with the ab of Latin. The part of the word that's doing the "making" in apotheosis is actually the "-is" ending. Theosis is Greek for divinization, Sarkosis for incarnation, etc. Apotheosis means "to make a god out of something." More cumbersome: "to move something away from being what it is to being a god."

    I couldn't withhold from a word-lover such as yourself!


    1. Thanks. I checked my source again and was told that apo, in this instance only, means "change." I was a little hasty there!!