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Cathectic (adj.): of or relating to cathexis (a concentration or accumulation of mental energy in a particular channel).[1]

I came upon this amazing word in Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, ‘Beyond “Identity”‘, Theory and Society, 29.1 (2000), 1–47,[2] a dense but interesting and genuinely useful reflection on the imperfections of ‘identity’ as an analytical category and the possible replacements for it. I particularly liked the fact that this article, rather than simply complaining that lots of people use ‘identity’ in problematic and contradictory ways, actually proposed some useful solutions. Solutions that I, for one, am quite likely to adopt in future writing.

The word, cathectic, also rang some serious bells, because I am currently immersed, one might say in a cathectic manner, in the final revisions to my dissertation in time for submission next week. Wish me luck/leg breaks/etc. No time for proper reflective blogging… See you on the other side!


[1] “cathectic, adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28935?redirectedFrom=cathectic&gt;; “cathexis, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28959?redirectedFrom=cathexis&gt;.
[2] Available on JSTOR if you have access; I recommend checking it out!

apotropaic (adj.):  Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.[1]

I found this great word in Magistra et Mater’s report on a recent IHR seminar by Annette Kehnel, here. I recommend it to you (the post that is, not just the word) together with many other interesting posts to be found there.

In this report Magistra discusses Annette’s paper which examined the role of humility/humiliation in ritual behaviour during medieval royal inaugurations. I was particularly struck by the suggested apotropaic use of such rituals in political display and the way in which looking at ritual this way seems to demand a collapse of the humility/humiliation distinction. Presumably the voluntary humiliation of a public figure, such as in the cited example of kings of Ulster reportedly mating with a white mare,[2] would, in this light, be part of what protects him/her from later criticisms of pride, of acting without church/community/peer authorization, and so forth. But is humbling oneself, for instance, by bowing the head before an archbishop, really the same as being humiliated?

What do you think? Are they the same or different? And does it matter for the proposed evil-averting intention of the ritual?


[1] Oxford English Dictionary <http://www.oed.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/Entry/9475?redirectedFrom=apotropaic#eid&gt; [accessed 28 February 2013].
[2]Warning! Gerald of Wales reference! There may be serious questions over whether such ritual activity can or should be taken as given… There is also the question of whether, assuming Gerald’s report stands, we should also assume such behaviour was considered humiliating in an early medieval Irish context… But I digress.

Acyrologia (n.): (Rhetoric) the imprecise use of language, failure to use the proper term.

This word, which I came upon in the commentary on Donatus’ Barbarismus attributed to Robert Kilwardby (as translated in the recent rhetorical door-stopper edited by Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter), is a treasure and a joy forever. In the relevant passage, the commentator explains that an allegorical intention can excuse acyrologia. That is, if an instance of improper language use is “perpetrated on purpose for special effect” it becomes a species of allegory, and is thus no longer inappropriate.[1]

We’ve all found plenty of example of this in student work: I can think of one that made me chuckle while marking exam papers earlier this year in which I was assured that life for “pheasants” was particularly difficult in medieval times. Poor fowls. Not sure why they had it so tough… But for some reason, more than student malapropisms, this made me think of my grandfather, one of whose favourite sayings was “looks like an obstacle illusion!” I’m pretty sure this would have constituted acyrologia if it hadn’t been intended for humorous effect… Good one, Gramps!


[1] Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, A.D. 300–1475, ed. by Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), (p. 734). The quote comes from the editors’ definition and discussion of the term at n. 54.

I’m the kind of reader who tends to have the OED Online open in another tab whenever I’m working through a book or article, and I try to keep a note of the interesting words I find for future reference. So it seems appropriate to instigate a series of mini posts here in which I share my most recent ‘new word’, its definition, and the context in which I encountered it.

Map of Wales c. 1200, a fissiparous entity if ever there was one. From A. G. Little’s “Mediæval Wales, Chiefly in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” (1902).

Today’s Word of the Day is fissiparous (adj.). The OED gives:

a. Of organisms: Producing new individuals by fission.

b. Of or pertaining to the process of reproduction by fission.[1]

In other words, this is a marvellous word for describing things which have a tendency to split apart into many, fragmented units.

This interesting new piece of vocabulary came to my attention in reading Simon Meecham-Jones’ introduction to the book he co-edited with Ruth Kennedy for Palgrave Macmillan’s The New Middle Ages series: Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales (2008). It crops up in Meecham-Jones’ discussion of the distinction between Wales and the English Crown’s other, later, imperial projects, namely, a pre-existing textual tradition and documentary culture. He reminds us that “it was far from the truth to imagine that Wales was a land without textual resources of its own. England’s first colonial wars were aimed at subduing a people who, however fractious and fissiparous their political culture, nonetheless enjoyed both a highly developed and long-standing legal code… and a prolific and sophisticated literary culture…”[2]

Nice phrase, isn’t it? I’m reading this in the final stages of development of an essay I hope will appear somewhere or other reasonably soon which examines the particular rhetorical construction of kingship that emerged from the correspondence of Edward I with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, between the two Welsh Wars. I’ll let you know when I’m done… Meanwhile, try to use fissiparous in a sentence at least once this week.


[1] “fissiparous, adj.” OED Online (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2012). <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/70700?redirectedFrom=fissiparous&&gt; [accessed October 31, 2012].

[2] Simon Meecham-Jones, ‘Introduction’, in Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales, ed. by Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 1-11 (p. 4).

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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