Leafing through Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I happened on the word standish “a stand for writing materials : inkstand.” Well, that’s an odd word, thought I, and turned to the OED, where I found it qualified as “Obs. exc. Hist. or arch.” with the etymology “Commonly believed to be f. STAND v. + DISH n.; but evidence is wanting for such a use of dish as would account for the assumed combination.” The latest citation is from 1864 (Athenæum 11 June 801 “When the veteran,.. is about to lay his pen to rest in the standish”), and given the way the world has turned since then, it is unlikely to experience a resurgence in popularity. What on earth is it doing in M-W at all, let alone unattended by an “obsolete” sticker?
The frighteningly literate Conrad pointed me to the revision of the OED’s entry for paparazzo. The former etymology read, in its entirety, “[It.],” and the first cite was from 1968; the revision (from last December) takes it back to 1961 (two quotes, both from Time) and adds a much fuller etymology:
[< Italian paparazzo (1961) < the name of the character Paparazzo, a society photographer in F. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960). See also PAPARAZZI n.
The selection of the name Paparazzo (which occurs as a surname in Italy) for the character in Fellini’s film has been variously explained. According to Fellini himself, the name was taken from an opera libretto; the comment is also attributed to him that the word ‘suggests.. a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. It is also used as the name of a character by G. Gissing in By the Ionian Sea (1909), which appeared in Italian translation in 1957 and has been cited as an inspiration by E. Flaiano, who contributed to the film’s scenario. (For further possible expressive connotations of the name, it has also been noted that in the Italian dialect of Abruzzi, where Flaiano came from, paparazzo occurs as a word for a clam, which could be taken as suggesting a metaphor for the opening and closing of a camera lens; the Italian suffix –azzo (variant of –accio < classical Latin -āceus: see -ACEOUS suffix) also has pejorative connotations.)]
Finally, I’ve just started a well-reviewed history of war in the Napoleonic period, David A. Bell’s The First Total War, and on p. 26 he says the young Napoleon “not only read obsessively through the great works of the Enlightenment but also took copious notes and even kept a file of obscure expressions to sprinkle ostentatiously through his own writings (rhizophage, cacique, tomogun).” Now, rhizophage and cacique were child’s play, but what on earth was tomogun? It wasn’t in my dictionaries, so I hit Google, with not much success except that it seemed to be from Voltaire—in his Essai sur les Moeurs, he writes:
Voici un morceau des plus singuliers du Veidam: « Le premier homme, étant sorti des mains de Dieu, lui dit: Il y aura sur la terre différentes occupations, tous ne seront pas propres à toutes; comment les distinguer entre eux? Dieu lui répondit: Ceux qui sont nés avec plus d’esprit et de goût pour la vertu que les autres seront les brames. Ceux qui participent le plus du rosogoun, c’est-à-dire de l’ambition, seront les guerriers. Ceux qui participent le plus du tomogun, c’est-à-dire de l’avarice, seront les marchands. Ceux qui participeront du comogun, c’est-à-dire qui seront robustes et bornés, seront occupés aux oeuvres serviles. »
(“Veidam” is short for Ézour-Veidam, a fake Veda written by one P. Nobili.) So “tomogun” means ‘avarice,’ and is presumably Sanskrit… except that I can’t find any trace of it elsewhere. Fortunately a scanning error helps out; in a Google Books search I get a hit for this (Message of the Upanishads, p. 27), where the word turns out to be tamogun. Now things proceed easily; Platts has it under “tamas (in comp. tamo), s.m. Darkness (physical or moral), gloom; the quality of darkness incident to humanity,” with its subentry “tamo-guṇ, s.m. The third of the qualities incident to creation or the state of humanity, viz., the quality of darkness or ignorance (=tamas, q.v.).” So “avarice” was Nobili’s misinterpretation or distortion, and all is clear. But without the internet, I don’t know how I would ever have found out what that odd sequence of letters meant.