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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2004 / 4 Shevat, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports

"Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"? | Dear Editor:

I am interested in the word "decimate." Where does it come from?

_C.S., Hillsdale, Mich.

Dear C.S.:

"Decimate" has its roots in a particularly nasty practice of the Roman army. Any Roman soldier who pondered mutiny had good reason to think twice. A technique to keep mutinous units in line was to select one-tenth of the men by lot and execute them, thereby encouraging the remaining nine-tenths to follow orders. The Latin verb for this presumably effective punishment was "decimare," literally "to take the tenth of."

The old Roman practice has not continued into modern times, of course, but its memorable ferocity has given us the verb "decimate," which has been used in English since 1600.

"Decimate" was originally used in historical reference to the Roman disciplinary procedure, but it soon came to be used more broadly in what is now its usual sense, "to destroy a large part of," as in "the bombing decimated the city" or "the plague decimated the population." Although it carries no suggestion of "one-tenth" (despite the insistence of a few commentators that it should), the modern "decimate" does retain clearly the overtones of extreme violence and terror associated with the original sense.

Dear Editor:

Recently I encountered the word "duende" in my reading. The author used it to refer to a kind of charm given off by a performer. What's the back story behind this word?

_S.H., Reno, Nev.

Dear S.H.:

The word "duende" comes from Spanish, where it translates literally as "ghost" or "goblin," and is believed to derive from the phrase "dueno de casa," which means "owner of a house." The term was originally used in flamenco music and other art forms to refer to an often elusive mystical or powerful force given off by a performer. A person who is performing with duende is able to captivate his or her audience with a seemingly magical spirit that infects the music and leaves those in the performer's presence mesmerized.

The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote in his essay "Teoria y Juego del Duende" ("Play and Theory of the Duende") that duende "is a power and not a behavior a struggle and not a concept." A Boston Globe columnist named George Frazier is often credited with introducing the word into English in the 1960s. The term has expanded in usage since that time, and nowadays appears in a broader range of contexts to refer to any kind of unspoken charm or allure (such as that given off by an athlete or public speaker).

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Dear Editor:

My grandmother used to serve a sweet custardlike dessert that she called "junket." Is this word related to the trip or journey kind of "junket"?

_S.C., Los Angeles, California

Dear S.C.:

"Junket" has been part of the English language since the 15th century, and has evolved in the centuries it's been in use. The meanings you cite are indeed related.

"Junket" comes from the word "juncus," the Latin word for a rush, a marsh plant whose stems and leaves are useful for making mats and baskets. Long ago a type of cream cheese was prepared in baskets made of rushes or reeds, and the cheese took its name from its container. In Italy in the Middle Ages this cream cheese was called "guincata," a derivative of Latin "juncus."

It was probably from this Italian source that Middle English borrowed "ioncate," which later become "junket." The English word was first used for cream cheese but later became the name of a dessert made of sweetened curdled milk. In the early modern period of English, "junket" was a popular term for any sweet dish.

William Adlington's 16th-century translation of "The Golden Ass of Apuleius" (1566) lists a few: "Bread pasties, tartes, custardes and other delicate ionckettes dipped in honie." From this sense of "junket" developed the extended sense "a feast or banquet."

Perhaps two centuries ago, "junket" began to be used for a large picnic or outing at which eating and drinking are a major part of the entertainment, and later for any pleasure outing or trip. The most common contemporary junket is a trip made by a public official at public expense.

You may be interested to know that another descendent of Latin "juncus" is "jonquil." This flower was named for the resemblance of its long, narrow leaves to those of rushes.

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11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
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10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
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08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
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06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
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