What Does That Word Mean?

I have developed a bad habit over the years; I think I know what a particular word means only because I’ve heard it often. Then I began to think, what if someone challenged me to tell them exactly what that word means?

Well, I’d be sitting there with egg on my face, unable to give them a straight answer. So I began taking the time to actually look up words I’m familiar with, but can’t quote the exact meaning; such as “ineluctable.”

What a delicious and mysterious word it is! It actually means “not to be avoided or overcome; inevitable.” Who knew? So this now is one of my most fun hobbies; challenging myself to read up on those words for which I need a specific meaning.

I am a big fan of the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child “Agent Pendergast” books. This agent is extremely intelligent, well-spoken, charming and educated. All of his beautiful black suits are “bespoke” suits, so of course I had to find out exactly what that meant.

The word simply means that the suit is made specifically for the person wearing it; that is, it is tailor-made, or “bespoke” for one person.

I realize that with today’s technology it is pretty easy to look up any word you want. However, I am too fond of leafing through my tattered copy of the American Heritage Dictionary to find the word I want. Plus it makes the hunt all that more rewarding.

I wonder if children in school still take that magical trip to the town library to see in person the dewy-decimal system; that arcane card file all librarians always used. This was how I learned to find books on my own without bothering the rather disapproving librarian in my town. It was kind of a powerful thing to a kid at that time; you learned the puzzle of where your favorite books lived in the library.

I’ll leave you with some of my newly-favorite words, now that I know what they mean:

  • Seraglio – a harem. A sultan’s palace.
  • Insuperable – incapable of being overcome; insurmountable.
  • Nopar – without face value.
  • Palimpsest – vellum or parchment that has been written upon several times, often with remnants of earlier, imperfectly erased writing still visible.
  • Isobar – a line on a weather map connecting points of equal barometric pressure.
  • Rapprochement – the establishment of cordial relations.
  • Salubrious – favorable to health.






Thank You, Mr. Holden

My Latin teacher, Gerald Holden, was about the scariest teacher I ever had. Although he had a wicked sense of humor, you never knew which Mr. Holden it would be on any given day. He could be breath-takingly funny, or he could rip you apart with a well-chosen word. However, I loved his class because I fell in love with Latin.

Let people call it a “dead” language; it was and is at vital as when Caesar addressed his troops. Because Mr. Holden was so strict about homework, I did all I could to stay ahead in it. I spent many nights feverishly memorizing Cicero’s *Catiline Orations, afraid that if I slipped up on it, I would receive one of Mr. Holden’s scathing looks and reprimands.

This is the part I remember best:

“Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia? Nihilne te nocturnum praesidium Palati, nihil urbis vigiliae, nihil timor populi, nihil concursus bonorum omnium, nihil hic munitissimus habendi senatus locus, nihil horum ora voltusque moverunt? Patere tua consilia non sentis? Constrictam iam horum omnium scientia teneri coniurationem tuam no vides? Quid proxima, quid superiore nocte egeris, ubi fueris, quos convocaveris, quid consilii ceperis, quem nostrum ignorare arbitraries?”


“Tell me, Catiline, how long shall you abuse our patience? How long shall you mock us with your madness? To what end shall your unrestrained audacity toss itself about? Is the garrison of the Palatine nothing to you, the wakefulness of the city nothing, the meeting of all good men nothing, convening the Senate in this most fortified place nothing, nothing that the faces and expressions of these men are troubled? Do you not sense your plans lain bare? Do you not see your conspiracy held in chains by the things known to all these men? What you did last night, the night before last, where you were, with whom you met, at what plan you arrived, who among us do you suppose to be ignorant?”

I practiced this until I could recite it, word for word, with confidence.

Not only did I learn to love this amazing language, but I found to my surprise that some still speak it. While in high school I was lucky enough to go on a class trip to Rome, Italy. When I forgot the rudimentary Italian I learned prior to the trip, I was able to get by with some Latin.

Going to Rome felt like coming home to dear old friends I had discovered in Mr. Holden’s class. When I went to the colosseum, I saw the famous statue of Caesar addressing the troops. It took my breath away.

Later in life, I loved learning the Latin names for flowers, plants, and animals. Latin came in handy for sussing out new words, too. The small chart below shows just a few Latin words and their meanings:

annus year
ante meridiem before noon
aqua water
bene well, good
canis dog
caput head
circus circle
cogito I think
corpus body
de facto in fact
deus god

Mr. Holden’s Latin class was one of the stand-out experiences for me in high school. At that time, I had no idea of how much Latin would figure in my life; I still use Latin phrases to this day.

Although Mr. Holden often scared me, I admired him and was glad to be in his class. He could be devastatingly funny one day, and brutally snappish the next. When he died in 1968, I found out that he had been ill for a long time and had been in nearly constant pain. No wonder he had some bad days.

I will always be grateful to this amazing and complicated man for opening my mind and heart to Latin.

Thank you, Mr. Holden—**ad astra per aspera.

*The Catiline Orations, or Catilinarian Orations, were speeches given in 63 BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the consul of Rome to expose to the Roman Senate the plot to overthrow the Roman government, purportedly led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) and his allies.

**To the stars through difficulty.