Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Robert Blackwill, Dictionaries, and p[a-z]*pot(ate|ent)

Despite a gleaming mention in the subject, Robert Blackwill has very little to do with this particular journal entry. In fact, he is merely part of the ambient noise surrounding a slippery word that tantalizingly evaded me. It's quite odd how, when focusing so intently on recollecting one thing, loosely related items emerge into thought and, though unsolicited, they emerge with unbridled clarity and brilliance.

I began explaining to a friend how I hate synonyms and prefer words which carry a larger concept - a purposeful word useful in reducing the amount of time to convey an idea. At that moment, I caught the shadow of a word which would be of prime example; unfortunately, anything more than the shadow eluded me. Lilipote? No, no. What was it? I struggled to think. I knew its definition is the use of a euphemism or understatement for emphasis. I started rattling off to my friend whatever I could think to see if the word would come to me. If two people are berated by an extremely mean officer, one can later use hyperbole to tell the other "that's the worst officer ever in history!" One can also use sarcasm to tell the other "he sure is a nice guy." One can also use a .. er .. lilipote to tell the other "he's not an extremely nice guy." Tragically, I was in the car without internet access. I asked my friend over the phone to google "lilipote" and although I was expecting no results, it was disheartening to be confronted with that reality. It did make for a decent segue into Lilliputs and from there the conversion meandered to other things of interest, such as the movie about a 40yr old male virgin, and away from this mess of grappling with quarter-life senility.

To ensure no one's spirits have risen in thinking this blog will delve into the interesting parts of that conversation, I should make clear that interesting movie-related discussion will never be in any blog I write. Interesting stories can easily be told to people, real-time; it's the uninteresting things which require the occasional straggler who resorts to reading blogs, having tired of hours of solitaire.exe and an additional hour of repeatedly dragging rectangles on her desktop to see icons highlight. Right, now that we've squared that away.. Once I arrived home and the conversation ended, I managed to remember 'litotes' was the word I likely was looking for, and a quick validation on the web vindicated my belated answer. Naturally, just before feeling the burden lifted, I remembered once knowing a word used in a many years old NY Times passage about then ambassador Robert Blackwill being autocratic and sinking his staff into depression by incessantly denigrating them. I knew the word meant something along the lines of being given authority or power by appointment; other than that, I only knew it began with something like "pen" and ended with something like "potate" or "potent" which is sadly insufficient to query a web dictionary, or a printed one for that matter.

Cursed word-based queries, grep would solve this in seconds, I muttered. Wait, yes, grep will solve this in seconds! After some longer than anticipated tar.gz hunting, I seemed to find numerous providers of the 1913 Webster's unabridged English dictionary, which has fortunately been released into public domain. With some tr, sed, and sort -u, I had a nice greppable txt file revealing 'plenipotentiary', carrying as a noun the meaning "a diplomatic agent, such as an ambassador, fully authorized to represent his or her government" and as an adjective "invested with or conferring full powers." Aha, excellent. If only there had been a web service to do this generally! Are you listening, Google? I seriously need a mind-augmenting persistent cache to prevent memory loss. As an aside, as if this whole posting wasn't a giant one, a month and a half ago I managed to utter "Al Grove" in place of "Carl Rove", seamlessly morphing him with a certain former vice president and presidential candidate I'll leave unnamed. Needless to say, that gaffe instantly clinched an unofficial debate victory for my heckling opponent.

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