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September 15, 2017

Strange But True!

Q. English is a remarkably agile language, where words form proper nouns that then morph into common nouns and even into verbs. For example, the title character Robinson Crusoe of Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel is shipwrecked on a remote desert island for 28 years, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. So you'll likely understand this 2016 reference: “I had not seen any people… while I was Robinson Crusoed out there on the wet international border” (Robert Wehrman, “Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher”). Can you define these more challenging examples of “people who became verbs”: “out-Herod,” “penelopize,” “mithridatize”?

A. Herod the Great (74-73 B.C.-4 B.C.) was depicted as a tyrant in medieval mystery plays and lends his reputation to “out-Herod,” meaning to surpass in cruelty, evil, etc., Garg says. And to “penelopize” comes from Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Greek mythology, who waited 20 years for her husband's return from the Trojan War, putting off her many suitors by saying she wouldn't marry until she finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. But each night she unraveled what she had woven during the day. Hence, to “penelopize” means to delay an undesired event.

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