CHIMERIC, CHIMERICAL

In today’s language the adjective chimeric, or chimerical, means visionary, fantastic, unreal, or wildly improbable. The word stems from a mythological story of a she-monster named Chimera. This fire-breathing monster was represented as spewing flames and usually as having a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a dragon’s tail.
Chimera’s doom stemmed from the fury of a woman scorned. Chimera was ravaging Lycia, in Asia Minor, and King lobates sought a hero to destroy the monster. Coincidental with the king’s search for a dragon slayer was the arrival of Bellerophon. He had been sent there with a sealed message from King Proteus of Argos demanding that Bellerophon be slain. King Proteus’s wife had fallen in love with Bellerophon, but when he spurned her, she accused him of trying to seduce her. King Proteus was unwilling to kill him because he was a guest in Proteus’s court. Hence his plan to have King lobates execute the letter-bearer. lobates figured out a good way to dispose of his guest and the Chimera simultaneously. He pitted Bellerophon against Chimera, fully expecting him to perish. But the ingenious youth had captured and tamed the winged Pegasus, surprised Chimera by riding above the dragon, and slew it with his bow and arrows.

CHICKEN A LA KING

The origin of this dish, tasty enough for a king but not named in honor of one, is so controversial that word sleuths can make no sense of it. However, two possibilities seem to have attracted more «origin hunters» than any other.
The stronger possibility — diced chicken in a sherry-cream sauce — was served at the Claridge Hotel in London. This dish was dreamed up by its chef to honor J. R. Keene, who had won the Grand Prix in 1881. The name of this delectable comestible may have been Chicken a la Keene, a name later corrupted by changing Keene to King. But who knows?
And then again, some people attribute the invention to another Keene, the son of J. R. This Keene, with a forename of Foxhall, who modestly claimed that he was the world’s greatest amateur athlete, may have suggested the recipe to the chef at New York’s Delmonico, where presumably the name of the dish ended with a flourish of d. la Keene, but not for long. The public lost interest in the Keenes, and Chicken a
la Keene became Chicken a la King. However the dish got its name, first mentioned in print in 1912, it became a standard luncheon item, served from a chafing dish with rice or on a pastry shell.

CHESTERFIELD OVERCOAT

A chesterfield coat is a velvet-collared, single-breasted overcoat with concealed buttons reaching to the knees. The coat was designed by an Earl of Chesterfield. But which earl? There were at least five. A Chesterfield also gave his name to an overstuffed sofa and to a popular brand of cigarettes.
Philip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773), the fourth Earl of Chesterfield,
was the more prominent of the earls and probably the one for whom the foregoing items were named. Stanhope was an English writer and statesman whose name became a symbol of elegant manners and good breeding. But he is chiefly remembered for the Letters to his son written for his illegitimate son Philip Stanhope, published in 1774, a year after the earl’s death. The work offered advice on affairs, courtly etiquette, and women.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, who thoroughly disliked the earl because he refused to become a patron of Johnson’s Dictionary, described the Letters as «teaching the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master». When Chesterfield wrote favorably on the Dictionary, Johnson retorted: «Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it». Charles Dickens caricatured Chesterfield as Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge (1871). The opinions of these two popular writers contributed to Chesterfield’s image as a cynical man of the world and a courtier. Careful readers of Chesterfield’s letters, nevertheless, consider these opinions unjustified. Johnson’s diatribe was not well-received by the literati.
The Letters contains homely counsel written in a witty and epigram- matical style. Among his quotations are «No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today» and «Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least».

CHAUVINIST, CHAUVINISM

Chauvinist and chauvinism were derived from the name of an overzealous French patriot named Nicolas Chauvin, of Rochefort. Chauvin, a veteran trooper in La Grande Armee, was wounded seventeen times while serving the Hrst Republic and then the Empire under Napoleon. He had an exaggerated, almost fanatical admiration for the Corsican. He would not stop singing Napoleon’s praises and the glories of France, and he was ridiculed for his unbridled boasting. He was caricatured by French playwrights Charles and Jean Cogniard, who were brothers, in La Cocarde tricolore («Je suis francjais, je suis Chauvin» — I am French, I am Chauvin) and by Eugene Scribe in Le Soldat Labourer. The character of Chauvin was depicted in a number of other works, including Conscript Chauvin by Charet and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.
Chauvin would not recognize what has happened to the word denoting his adoration of Napoleon. Today a chauvinist may still of course refer to someone who mouths unreasoning patriotism, but it is far more frequently used by feminists to deride dispositions of male supremacy. Or it may represent a person who is an overzealous supporter of any cause.
Eugene Maleska, former crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, cites this doggerel without attribution:
Poor Nicholas, how fickle is
The world you loved a lot;
Now you’re condemned by angry femmes
For all that you were not.
But, sir, you rate some hoots of hate
As superpatriot!

GERES, CEREAL

Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture (identified with Greek Demeter), was patroness particularly of grain, or cereal, and plants. The Latin adjective form is cerealis, «relating to Ceres». She was especially the corn goddess, and, despite her many celestial responsibilities, found time to have a daughter by Jupiter, Proserpine. One day while playing in a field of daffodils, Proserpine was abducted by Pluto, king of Hades, who carried her off to rule as his queen. Ceres was frantic and could not be consoled. She neglected the fruits and grains and all withered and died.
The problem was confounded when a prolonged drought struck. The people prayed to Jupiter, the king of the gods in Roman mythology, for rain, and their prayers were answered. The rains came. Then Jupiter
ordered Pluto to release Proserpine so that she could spend six months of the year with her mother. Ceres was so delighted that she let the grains grow high during Proserpine’s period with her. The people were delighted, too, and they showed their gratitude by building temples in her honor and worshiped her in festivities called Cerealia.
We don’t know whether Kellogg, Post, and the other manufacturers of American cereals pay homage to Ceres, but certainly the American people do as they eat their breakfast cereal.

CELSIUS, CELSIUS SCALE

The centigrade thermometer has two constant degrees, a freezing point of water, namely 0°, and its boiling point, 100°. It is sometimes called the Celsius scale in honor of the person who simplified the Fahrenheit scale, which has a freezing point of 32° and a boiling point of 212°.
The centigrade temperature scale (its name was changed to Celsius in 1948 by a world conference on weights and measures) was an invention of Anders Celsius (1701-1744), born in Uppsala, Sweden. The son of an astronomy professor, young Celsius, after teaching mathematics, followed in his father’s footsteps: He became a professor of astronomy at the University of Uppsala, where he devised the scale that bears his name. Celsius published a collection of 316 observations of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, and in 1744 built the Uppsala Observatory. He subsequently was able to verify through the measurement of a meridian in Lapland that Newton’s hypothesis that the poles were somewhat flattened was correct.
Celsius first described the Celsius scale in a paper he read before the Swedish Academy of Science in 1742. Today the mercury thermometer patterned on this thermometric scale is the favored method in Europe of determining meterological temperature as well as the temperature of human beings.
Centigrade temperature can be converted to Fahrenheit by multiplying the centigrade reading by 1.8 and adding 32 to the result.

CATHERINE WHEEL

St. Catherine of Alexandria in the year 307 A.D. supposedly suffered martyrdom when she protested the persecutions of Christians during the reign of Emperor Maximinus. She had adroitly defended the Christian faith at a public disputation with certain heathen philosophers, whereupon the emperor sentenced her to imprisonment. He became further incensed, however, upon learning that Catherine had won over to Christianity both his wife and the Roman general who escorted Catherine to prison. She was then ordered broken on the spiked wheel. According to one story, however, the wheel broke, and Catherine was then axed and her body carried to Mount Sinai by angels. Whether Catherine
ever lived is a matter of dispute. Catholic scholars no longer give credence to the fabulous story of her martyrdom. But the name of a spiked wheel memorializes her, as does any circular window with radiating spokes, sometimes called a rose window.
A Catherine wheel is a kind of firework in the form of a wheel. It is driven round by the recoil from the explosion of the various squibs of which it is composed.

CASSANDRA

In Greek legend, Cassandra, the daughter of Hecuba and Priam, the king of Troy, was given the power to prophesy by Apollo; but the god, being sexually greedy, was keenly disappointed by Cassandra’s refusal to let him partake of her favors. And so he brought it to pass that, although she could retain the gift of prophecy, no one would ever believe her. Thus her warnings about Troy’s plight were ignored; and even though she foretold the fall of Troy, her prophecies were disregarded.
Before uttering her prophecies, Cassandra went into an ecstatic trance; her family believed her to be mad. When Paris, Cassandra’s brother, first came to Troy, she realized his identity, although he had been exposed on Mount Ida as an infant and was unknown to his parents. She foretold the harm that Paris would do by going to Sparta (where he abducted Helen), and she also knew the dangers concealed within the Wooden Horse. But her warnings went entirely unheeded by the Trojans. And so the story ends; Troy was captured and burned.
In today’s usage, a Cassandra is still regarded as a person whose prophecies go unheeded, but also is considered one who prophesies disaster.

CASANOVA

A casanova in today’s usage is an unprincipled ladies’ man, a libertine, a rake, dedicated to the gratification of his lust. Such a person was Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Siengalt (1725-1798), born into a theatrical family. As a young man he played the violin in a Venetian restaurant, but then matriculated at a seminary, from which he was expelled for making licentious remarks and for immoral conduct. After a few more efforts to adjust to gainful employment, he became a traveler from capital to capital, displaying a charm that made women easy prey. Casanova meant no harm; he was a pleasant, likable person. All he wanted to do
was make love to women. He bragged about his prowess and claimed to have bedded thousands of willing women.
His engaging personality and incisive wit gave him access to such distinguished giants as Voltaire, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Prussia’s Frederick the Great. He became secretary and librarian to Count von Waldstein of Bohemia, a position that gave him the opportunity to write his Memoirs (in twelve volumes). The memoirs were racy and described his amorous adventures and intrigues.
With the exception of Don Juan, Casanova was the unrivaled «Lover of Women», on whom he thrived. He employed bizarre tricks to lure them, such as the «oyster game», in which he and his woman friend would eat oysters from each other’s mouths. As long as he could, he thrived on seduction, but death took away his pleasures at age seventy- three.

CARTESIAN PHILOSOPHY

The philosophical system of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was based on doubt, because to doubt is to think. His system became known as Cartesian philosophy, derived from the Latinized form of his name. His most famous conclusion was expressed in three words: Cogito, ergo sum («I think, therefore I am»). His theory of the importance of doubt is based on the assumption that all existing knowledge rests on an unstable foundation; therefore everything that can be doubted should be doubted. The only fact that he could not doubt was that he was doubting. He reasoned that to doubt is to think, and to think is to exist. Hence the above three-word conclusion.
Descartes provided many expressions that have been passed down through the ages; for example, «Common sense is the most widely distributed commodity in the world, for everyone is convinced that he is well supplied with it». And another: «The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest men of past centuries».
Descartes was born at La Haye in Touraine, attended the Jesuit College at La Fleche, and was graduated in law from the University of Poitiers. After ten years’ service in the army, and then travel throughout Europe, he settled in Holland where he remained the rest of his life and where he did his most important work. In 1649 he accepted an invitation to teach philosophy to Queen Christina of Sweden. He died a few months after arriving at the court at Stockholm.
Descartes was an eminent mathematician. He is often called the father of modern philosophy. His two chief works are Discourse on Method and Meditations. Descartes’ explanation of heavenly bodies has been replaced by Newton’s theory of gravitation.

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