Q. An article I read recently about the demise of the sitcom "Seinfeld" used the word "termagant" to describe the character of Elaine. I'm not familiar with this word. Can you tell me about it?
A. Without delving into the question of Elaine's personality, we can tell you that "termagant" means "an overbearing, quarrelsome, scolding or nagging woman." The word "termagant" actually derives from a proper name, the name of a supposed Muslim god.
Most medieval Christians knew very little about Islam except that it was the religion of the enemy in the Crusades. Out of ignorance, they believed that Muslims worshipped a deity whom they called Termagant. This imaginary deity appears as a character in the medieval mystery plays, portrayed as violent and boisterous. References to Termagant can also be found in the works of Shakespeare.
Even after it became more generally known that no such deity as "Termagant" had ever been worshiped in the Islamic world, the word "termagant" lived on as a term for any overbearing, belligerent person, a sense that was first recorded in the 16th century. Ultimately the extended sense came to be restricted in application to a quarrelsome or overbearing woman, and that is the sense that still sees occasional use today.
Q. Once upon a time I knew a word that meant "stay up all night." Now I've forgotten it, and I was wanting to use it to refer to my college student son's habit of pulling all-nighters during finals week. Can you help?
A. "Pernoctate" is defined in Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "to stay up or out all night, especially, to pass the night in vigil or prayer." This verb first showed up in Henry Cockeram's 1623 English Dictionarie (the earliest published dictionary of English), where it was defined as "to tarry (to stay in a place) all night." From the Latin verb "pernoctare" (from "per-" meaning "through" and "noct-," "night"), "pernoctate" was one of thousands of Latin borrowings that appeared during the English Renaissance.
The second part of the definition, "to pass the night in vigil or prayer," reflects the 17th-century ecclesiastical application of the word, still seen occasionally in more modern texts. In fact, "pernoctate" is only rarely used in the general sense of simply staying awake all night.
In the meantime, Cockeram's meaning of "pernoctate," which is, essentially, "to spend the night," and the associated sense of the noun "pernoctation"(which also was used in the 17th century), have been kept alive at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England, where there are actual regulations concerning pernoctation.