TNQDE: Wavy Hair, FTW!

To continue the Scripps-inspired theme this week, I bring you the word that won the competition. I almost bailed on doing this word because it’s not in my dictionary. (The Bee uses Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which is a tome that I have had no good reason to lay down the money for. I haven’t used it myself, so I can’t speak to its etymologies or definitions, though I may have to give it a gander the next time I’m at the library. If anyone over at Webster is reading this, I can probably be persuaded to shamelessly plug your dictionary from time to time in exchange for a free copy. : ) When I googled the winning word, there were at least as many links to articles about the bee as there were to definitions, and certainly more words written about¬† it in those articles than in the definition pages. So which word won?


The reason there’s not much written about this word is that there’s not much to write. It’s specific to the discipline of anthropology and means simply: “having wavy hair.” I’m cymotrichous! The breakdown, as with many field-specific words, is nothing special. It’s take straight from ancient Greek: kuma = “wave” + trich = “hair” + Latin’s -ous. It is a good study in how academic words are formed. That mish-mash of Greek and Latin is a dead giveaway that the word was made up by someone academic, although I haven’t found enough information to tell you at what point in history that academic was working. I would guess mid-1700s to early 1900s, when classification of races was an issue that occupied the minds of English scholars, but it’s just a guess.

So there you have it. How to win a spelling bee, in one simple step: learn all the really obscure academic terms.

TNQDE: One More Grain

This week’s etymology posts will be brought to you by the Scripps National Spelling Bee and NPR. Somewhere along my training in linguistics, my own ability to spell went to heck. It’s hard for me to hold onto many of the conventions I learned as a kid when I’m also aware of historic, British, and phonetic ways of spelling them. Maybe if you stick with historical linguistics all the way through to a Ph.D. you eventually manage to get things sorted in your head, but I’m only a muddle-headed hobbyist who knows how her collection of excellent dictionaries.¬† That being said, I have a great deal of respect for people who know how to spell. Today’s word is the one that lost the bee for speller who cam in second place.


NSB endgame words are often characterized by their “Huh?” factor, so here’s the definition for you: “A form of argument in which a series of incomplete syllogisms is so arranged that the predicate of each premise forms the subject of the next until the first subject is joined with the predicate of the last in the conclusion” (AHCD, s.v. “sorites”).

All clear now? What do you mean, “No”? I thought that definition all but sparkled with useful clarity. Kind of a case in point for how dictionaries are poor tools for teaching new words, isn’t it?

Fortunately, the key to understanding the word is its history. “Sorites” is jargon in philosophy, logic, and their close cousin mathematics and it has been from its coinage. That means the word has traveled to us almost unchanged through the path I think of as the “philosopher’s highway,” which is to say that the idea started with the Greeks, passed to the Romans, then traveled out into the wider world through the standard channels of classical education.

The original Greek is soreites, meaning “heaped up,” which comes from the word for “heap” – soros. The word is named for the first noted example of a type of flawed argument. It goes like this: 1 grain of sand does not make a heap. If 1 grain of sand does not make a heap, then 2 grains of sand do not make a heap. If 2 grains of sand don’t make a heap, then 3 grains of sand do not make a heap. If you continue this line of reasoning, you must accept that 10,000 grains of sand do not make a heap.

Of course, we can see where the argument fails in the Bee itself. 1 right word + 1 right word, added indefinitely, do not make the champion. The spelling champion is made by 1 + 1 + 1 … + 2 right words.