The advent of the movie Avatar has got me thinking about words one is familiar with, but cannot quite remember the actual meaning of. [We have not yet seen the movie. I am allergic to movies you have to wear special glasses to watch, but Susie wants to see it, so we shall go before it moves on.] Herewith some of my favorite mystery words.
Let us begin with avatar itself. Strictly speaking, an avatar is a human or animal embodiment of the Hindu deity Vishnu, but the word has migrated into more common usage [how often does one have an occasion to talk about animal embodiments of Vishnu?] to mean the embodiment of an idea or a spirit of any sort. So, for example, it would be appropriate to describe Senator Sessions as an avatar of stupidity, or Angelina Jolie as an avatar of sensuousness. Barack Obama could be described as the avatar of cool.
My second choice is a word that has proved a great disappointment to me. Some while back I was searching for a nice orotund phrase [another good one, that] to describe David Brooks. I wanted to call him "an egregious, crepuscular twit," which rolled off the tongue very satisfyingly. Ever cautious, I checked the definition of "crepuscular," and it turns out to mean "having to do with twilight." What a total waste! I mean, "crepuscular" sounds like a particularly nasty term of excoriation [which, by the way, means "to tear or wear the skin off, to abrade."] Why squander a word that resonant on the twilight? Oh well. It goes into the cubbyhole with nocturnal, matinal, and quotidian.
Avuncular pretty much means what it sounds like, namely kind in an uncle-y sort of way. The strict meaning is "of or pertaining to a maternal uncle" [i.e., your mother's brother], but if your mother doesn't have any brothers, I think you can get away with using it to describe your father's nice brother, or even a genial and thoughtful older professor [like me.] The actor Edmund Gwenn, who played characters like Santa Claus in The Miracle on 34th Street was, we might say, an avatar of avuncular.
My next word is actually one whose meaning I know, though most people do not. Meretricious is from the Latin, meretrix, and it literally means "falsely alluring, like a prostitute." [I think that is a quite unnecessary knock at women in the sex trade, but that is neither here nor there.] So a meretricious argument is a sexy bit of logical flim-flam.
Disinterested is one of those words with a very useful meaning that has been corrupted by misuse so that not only the word but, to some extent, the meaning has been lost to us. Disinterested does not mean "uninterested." "Uninterested" is a perfectly good way of saying "not interested." "Disinterested" means "not swayed by interest," impartial as a judge is expected to be. One can have a very great interest in a disagreement or conflict of interests, and yet be totally impartial in judging the rights and wrongs of the matter. One can be disinterested.
A rather curious phrase is memento mori. It sounds as though it ought to have something to do with recollections of death, and in a sense it does. But the literal meaning is rather particular. Apparently, in the Roman Empire, it was the custom, when a general was accorded a triumphant march through the Eternal City to commemorate a victory, for a slave to walk along behind him, whispering in his ear "memento mori," which means roughly, "remember that you too shall die." The idea was to dissuade the general, at the moment of his greatest acclaim, from taking too exalted a view of himself. I think we could have used a bit of that during the Bush years.
Let me close with one more desperate and fruitless effort to get people to stop saying "you and I" when they mean "you and me." "He has offered to give free passes to the concert to you and I" is NOT PROPER ENGLISH. Would you say, "He offered to give a free pass to the concert to I?" Of course you wouldn't. "He offered to give free passes to the concert to you and me" is a short hand way of saying, "He offered to give a free pass to you and he offered to give a free pass to me." It is obvious what happens to people's brains. They know that "He and I went to the movies" is correct. So when they start to form the phrase "he and " they automatically put in "I" as though they were starting a sentence, even when in fact the phrase "him and me" is what is actually called for. "He offered to give free passes to you and I" is a sort of raised pinkie, white doily, prissy proper thing to say, a misguided stab at elegance. I spend a good deal of my time yelling at the television set when supposedly educated people make this mistake. I am very pleased to report that several evenings ago, I actually hear Rachel Maddow make this mistake and then instantly correct herself. I knew there was a reason why I totally love her.