Obambulate — and bidentate, palinal, and ??

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Several readers have pointed me to Anu Garg's  A.Word.A.Day entry for yesterday, obambulate:

verb tr.: To walk about.

From Latin ob- (towards, against) + ambulare (to walk). Ultimately from the Indo-European root ambhi- (around) that is also the source of ambulance, alley, preamble, and bivouac. The first print citation of the word is from 1614.

"We have often seen noble statesmen obambulating (as Dr. Johnson would say) the silent engraving-room, obviously rehearsing their orations."
The Year's Art; J.S. Virtue & Co.; 1917.

Anu promised more:

This week I have selected five words that appear to have been coined after this year's presidential candidates (Obama, Biden, McCain, and Palin). These are all 100% dictionary words — they have been in the language even before these candidates were born.

And, predictably, today's entry is bidentate (with its echo of "potentate", better than bidental would have been).

I'm fairly confident that one of the remaining two will be palinal ("Characterized by or involving backward motion, esp. of the lower jaw in chewing"), though there is some support out there for palindrome. But I can't think of anything plausible for "McCain". I mean, there's Macanese ("Of or relating to Macao"), and Meccan, and mechanism, and so on, but none of these seem either orthographically or topically appropriate. Predictions? Ideas?

[OT, I'm somewhat skeptical that obambulate is always or even usually transitive, though this is more on the basis of analogy than any experience with the word, which I'm pretty sure I've never read or seen. The three examples in the OED are all intransitive:

1614-15 J. BOYS Wks. (1622) 597 Soules departed..doe not obambulate and wander vp and downe, but remaine in places of happinesse or vnhappinesse. 1633 EARL OF MANCHESTER Al Mondo (1636) 100 In the interim the Soule doth not wander and obambulate. 1694 P. A. MOTTEUX Wks. F. Rabelais(1737) v. 231 We..must still obambulate, Sequacious of the Court.

It doesn't occur in LIterature Online. There are only two hits in EEBO. One of them is in Blount's 1661 Glossographia ("Obambulate (obambulo) to walk against another, or about, to range or stray over"), where no examples are given, though the gloss does suggest transitive uses. The other is the OED's first citation, John Boys' 1615 An exposition of the festiuall epistles and gospels vsed in our English liturgie together with a reason why the church did chuse the same, where the fuller context confirms its intransitivity:

Again, that al soules departed are in certaine receptacles vntill the generall iudgement, they do not obambulate and wander vp and downe, but remaine in places and states of happinesse or vnhappinesse, either in the hands of God, or in the Deuils prison: and therefore all the daies of our life, but especially at the houre of our death, it behooueth vs to say and pray with S. Steuen, O Lord Iesu receiue my spirit.

Google books turns up a sort of usage note, in the context of another lexicographical joke, in Notes and Queries ("Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Geneologists, Etc.") for January-June 1860:

Everyone knows the story of Dr. Littleton's introducing "condog" into his Latin Dictionary as the equivalent of "concur," but it may not be equally well known that he was not the original inventor of the joke. In Cockeram's curious little English Dictionary (a copy of the sixth edition of which, dated 1639, is now before me,) I find "concurre" and "condog" given as convertible with "agree". Now, as the earliest edition of Cockeram was probably published fifty years before Littleton (which first appeared in 1678), a singular difficulty occurs. Could the learned Doctor have stolen this valuable discovery from Cockeram, and then basely covered the theft by fabricating the story about his boy, &c.? And another difficult question is this: How came the original inventor to hit upon the discovery? Had he a boy to help him? I pause for a reply to these momentous questions; but before I close, I may mention that our friend Cockeram anticiapted to some small extent another idea of modern times — that so ably carried out by Dr. Roget in his Thesaurus. The second part of his Dictionary consists of a list of common words, explained, as he says, "by a more refined and elegant speech," by the use of which a person not satisfied with saying to his friend, "If you'll allow me I'll wake you early, and then we'll take a walk together," might refine his speech as follows: "If you'll approbate, I will matutinally espergefie you, and then we'll obambulate together." This is absurd enough, but notwithstanding there are some very interesting matters n Cockeram. I should be greatly obliged by any information about the author himself.

Absurd or not, obambulate is clearly intransitive in this example as well. And I'm sorry to say that 148 years later, there is no entry for Henry Cockeram in Wikipedia. ]


  1. jamessal said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:24 am

    "Mechanite" — a counterintuitive, near-analogously formed synonym for luddite.

  2. Oskar said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:34 am

    I agree, it's hard. The only one I could think of that fits somewhat is "machination", as in "crafty schemes; plots; intrigues".

    Also, "mechanical" fits better than "mechanism", I think.

  3. jamessal said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:48 am

    Whoops! I thought were coining words. Sloppy reading. Too early.

  4. gd said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:49 am

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macanese

    [(myl) This is the first suggestion in the body of the post. Maybe another cup of coffee is in order?]

  5. Virtual Linguist said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 8:17 am

    What about (all in OED)?:
    make-queen (equivalent to king-maker); mark of Cain (sign of infamy); mucker-in (one who rolls up his or her sleeves and gets involved).
    Or, you could forget about the Mc prefix. 'Cain' or 'Caine' is associated with anaesthetics – cocaine, novocaine, holocaine. There's scope for a pun there!

  6. Faldone said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 8:38 am

    I have been receiving AWAD for close to eight years now. Anu does sometimes mess up with little typos in his AWADs. I'm sure he didn't mean to say the word was transitive.

    I agree with Virtual Linguist that the McCain word will likely be one with the cain affix. I'm betting on one that starts with caino-, a variety of ceno-.

  7. greg said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    makai, pronounced muh-kahy, means 'toward the sea' or 'seaward' in hawaiian

    makaingko = ant in krisa, a language from papau new guinea, according to wiktionary

    mukainen means consistent or compatible in finnish (again, according to wiktionary)

  8. Mike said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    I saw someone signed into a forum as 'palintologist', which strikes me as "one who works with fossils".

    Personally, come November, I hope we see the Governor of Alaska, palin to insignificance.

  9. SusanneZurFreiheit said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    Three small things, none of them pertaining to the question at hand:

    1. I love Language Log.

    2. I shall add obambulate to my everyday vocabulary.

    3. Mike? Ouuuuuch. ;)

  10. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    Brittanica says Cockeram's book was the first to use the word dictionary in its title: The English Dictionarie: or, an Interpreter of hard English Words (1623). "It added many words that have never appeared anywhere else—adpugne, adstupiate, bulbitate, catillate, fraxate, nixious, prodigity, vitulate, and so on."

    (Can't find it in full view on Google Book Search or the HathiTrust, but a PDF of the book is available here.)

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    Oh, and my nominees for the next two words are palingenesis and marocain.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    I don't see how the examples of obambulate that you cite (especially the frequent juxtaposition with wander) preclude the not uncommon occasional transitive use of normally transitive verbs of motion, such as wander the desert, walk the streets, fly the friendly skies (not to be confused with strictly transitive uses such as walk the dog or fly the plane).

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    Oops.. I meant to write "normally intransitive."

  14. language hat said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    I don't see how the examples of obambulate that you cite (especially the frequent juxtaposition with wander) preclude the not uncommon occasional transitive use of normally transitive verbs of motion

    Of course they don't preclude it, but they certainly don't make it likely, and an obscure Latinate verb like obambulate is not really parallel to common verbs like wander, walk, and fly. I share Mark's sense that it is almost certainly only intransitive, and agree with Faldone that "tr." is likely a typo.

  15. Brandon said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

    I can't think of any relevant examples, but I don't know that "McCain" (substitute however you want to transcribe it) has to be at the beginning of the word, at least as long as the stress remains consistent.

  16. tablogloid said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

    I did read this somewhere before the debate.

    "If she spars with Biden on foreign policy, she will Pale in comparison.

  17. Craig Russell said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    Keeping in mind that I know that etymology is not destiny…

    I have looked up the Latin verb 'obambulare' in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, and it is normally intransitive as well, used with various prepositions.

    But the OLD lists one example of the verb used transitively, and from a mainstream Latin author and text:

    "ille quidem totam gemebundus obambulat Aetnam" (Ovid Metamorphoses 14.188)–"Indeed, he, groaning, 'obambulates' all Mount Etna"

    Perhaps whoever decided that it could be transitive is basing this opinion on the Latin original? (Although I would argue that this Latin example could also be analyzed as intransitive; Latin can use the accusative with no preposition to indicate extent of space, so this could be "obambulates *for* all Mount Etna").

  18. Philip Spaelti said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

    I am hardly a specialist of Latin, but I don't think that this type of sentence makes "obambulare" transitive anymore than the English examples cited by Coby make English motion verbs transitive. In Latin the accusative is used with motion verbs to indicate a goal. This type of construction (or similar) is interestingly enough found in languages the world over. So Japanese, for example, has "machi-o aruku" ("walk the city[acc]" meaning "walk around the city").

  19. Mira said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

    Interestingly, it was McCain who did all the obambulating during the second "town hall" style debate.

  20. language hat said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    In Latin the accusative is used with motion verbs to indicate a goal.

    Exactly, not to mention that Latin usage is irrelevant to English.

  21. Faldone said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    Today's word is palinode.

    See http://wordsmith.org/awad/archives/1008

  22. Craig Russell said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    @ Philip Spaelti

    Assuming you're responding to my post–I did say in it that I was dubious that this accusative can be identified as an object, given that the accusative is used for extent of space in Latin.

    I think that's a little different from the accusative being used as a *goal* though (and I don't think that properly describes the construction of "walk the street" either; if the English 'accusative' were providing a goal, it seems to me that "walk the street" would mean something like "walk TO the street"). Regardless, the Oxford Latin Dictionary labels the usage I quoted as transitive.

    @ Language Hat

    I began my post by saying "Keeping in mind that I know etymology is not destiny…" Of course I know that its (possible) transitivity in Latin is not evidence of its transitivity in English. But isn't what we're trying to explain here ultimately the reason behind this verb's identification as 'transitive' in the OED? Given the circumstances under which the OED was written, it doesn't seem impossible to me to imagine that the author of this entry had the verb's Latin usage in mind.

    Moreover, it seems a bit of a stretch to count the word 'obambulate' as a full-fledged part of the English language in the first place. If this word had caught on and become a normal part of the modern English vocabulary, perhaps its features such as transitivity could be significantly different from those of the Latin original upon which it is based. But I would wager that it was only ever used by writers and speakers with a detailed knowledge of Latin, who expected people to understand it by virtue of their understanding of Latin.

    Therefore, while the history of the word's use in Latin might not provide a definitive answer to whether it "really is" (or, given that it is now obsolete, and never had an extensive history of use, "really was") transitive in English, I think it can shed some light on how the people who used it thought of it.

  23. Troy S. said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    Hm, how about chicane? It rhymes, and it's topical, in perhaps all of its meanings. Either as a synonym for an act of trickery, or a series of twists
    and turns in a race, although this is a presidential race. Apparently there's
    a third meaning in some card games: an absence of trumps in one's hand, though this remains to be seen — there's still time for an October surprise, I suppose.

  24. Dave Bath said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    My Shorter OED includes PALINSPASTIC, a geological term "Of a map, diagram, etc.: representing layers of rock as returned to their supposed former positions".

  25. PALINSPASTIC is a real word in my OED « Balneus said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    […] is a real word in my OED 2008-10-26 — Dave Bath With a hat tip to Language Log, it's worth passing on a gigglefest about the possibilities of punning with […]

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