My wife and I are still getting used to the program schedule of our new public radio station, WFCR (FCR for Five College Radio, and I much prefer it, because they play classical and jazz music for most of the day in place of the earnest public-interest talkfests I used to skip on WAMC in Pittsfield); for instance, WAMC had Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! on from 11 AM to noon on Saturdays, and here it’s on from noon to one. Well, today (after remembering to listen to “Wait, Wait”) we kept the radio on and found ourselves listening to a hilarious, entertaining, and by-god educational word show called Says You!. Part of the show (my favorite part) is a version of the old Dictionary game, where panelists have to choose between the real definition of an obscure word and fakes dreamed up for the occasion; today one of the words was opisthenar (oh-PISTH-uh-nahr), for which the proffered definitions were “the Pharaoh’s symbol of authority,” “the proclamation of an Ancient Greek oracle,” and “the back of the hand.” I knew enough Greek to know which was correct (I’ll put it below the cut in case you want to guess), but it fooled the panelists. In between rounds of that, they play other games; today they had a joined-authors theme. If Dumas, Poe, and Thomas Mann had collaborated on a book, what would it have been? The Man in the Iron Masque of the Red Death in Venice, of course. Hey, it’s not Apostrophes, but it’s a lot of fun, and I’m glad I found it.

Answer: It’s the back (opisth-) of the hand (thenar being the palm).


  1. British TV and radio has a similar game, called Call My Bluff. Most of the words they use seem to be things like foreign currencies or obscure Papuan animals, which I think is sort of cheating.

  2. Answer: It’s the back (opisth-) of the hand (thenar being the palm).
    Is it? (I’m not in doubt. It’s just that I cannot recall a single word built with either opisth- or thenar and I wonder if somebody here have one in mind. The Thenardiers maybe? those greedy people who would probably have liked to live opulently sous les palmiers , busy counting the glittering pearls they would have in the palm of their hand…)

  3. I like the irony of a grammatically incorrect (but colloquially acceptable) name for an educational show.

  4. Surprised you get Apostrophes there. Just curiosity, how?

  5. Check out this geocache:
    (Ours is the May 26, 2006 entry)

  6. Surprised you get Apostrophes there.
    I don’t. I watched it in Paris and New York.

  7. Love Wait! Wait! & Says You & Whad’ya Know?

  8. Man, I haven’t heard that show in so long! It’s one of those radio feasts that just makes you want to get smarter: read more, study more, everything.

  9. Surprised you get Apostrophes there. Just curiosity, how?
    TV5MONDE is available worldwide on satellite.

  10. The OED defines the prefix opistho-, giving as examples opisthodont ‘having back teeth only [of a snake]’ and the obsolete forms -glossal and -pulmonate. In addition, there are individual definitions for -branch, -branchiate, -coelian, -coelous, -come, -dome, -domous, -gastrate, -glossic, -glyph(-ic/-ous), -gnathous, -graph(-ic), -ion, -osmous, -orchiasis, -s’o’ma(-l), -tonic, -tonos, -ur(-e,-al) (with some obvious elisions at the point of compounding). We are also told that when a ciliated protozan divides by fission into a front half and a back half, they are the proter and the opisthe respectively.
    Opisthotonos, a spasm that makes the body arch backwards, is the only one of these I’ve ever actually met, in the writings of Oliver Sacks.
    As for thenar, we have the word itself (equally the palm of the hand or the sole of the foot, but in anatomy specifically the ball of the thumb, or the underlying abductor muscle) and the obvious adjective thenal. It’s too hard to search for the second component of a compound generally, but a few superficial checks have shown no other compounds in -thena(r/l).

  11. I wrote s’o’ma above to escape the auto-censor, not because the word actually contains two apostrophes.

  12. I’m really quite surprised you’ve never heard of that show. I think we should petition them to have you on as a guest.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Words with opistho- are all over anatomy. The bone in the braincase in front of the inner ear is the prootic, and the one behind the opisthotic. Vertebrae that have a ball in front and a socket at the other end are opisthocoelous (koilos “hollow”). Then there are the protobranch and the opisthobranch snails (gills in front/at the rear end), and so on.

  14. We are also told that when a ciliated protozan divides by fission into a front half and a back half, they are the proter and the opisthe respectively.
    Well, John, who, being an ordinary honest man, is supposed to have heard about it? I can’t recall any such word passing anywhere near my opisthotics (or any other skull bone). To find straightaway the answer to the question, one must definitely be called Mr Hat.
    The OED and others suggest that palm (the part of the hand) comes from palm the tree or the leaf. Wouldn’t it be strange that some men used a word coming from outside to talk of a prominent part of their own body? (A part which, being fingerless, do not even look like a palm leaf.) What is the word Romans used to talk of the palm of their hand?
    Apostrophes? This TV programme set up by a monteur d’ours* as one “Immortal” wrote once in a French daily? Tsss…
    * Steve, how would you translate “monteur”? “Tamer” won’t properly do it I think, but I can’t find any other English word.

  15. Can’t help you — my dictionaries give only ‘fitter,’ ‘editor,’ and ‘paste-up artist,’ none of which would seem to apply. What exactly does a monteur d’ours do?

  16. Oops! sorry Steve, it looks as if I wasn’t perfectly awake this morning: montreur d’ours, i.e. the guy who tamed one or several bears, taught them some tricks and earned a living by displaying (montrer) his funny animals during market fairs and other events. (But you can have un monteur de spectacles, ou de pièces de théâtre…)
    In a vitriolic Figaro article, Maurice Druon used this expression to say all the bad he thought of Bernard Pivot… who responded brilliantly. (For that matter Mr Apostrophes y Bouillon used the most powerful tool one could use against a member of l’Académie française: he showed that his opponent made une erreur de français.)
    BTW, palm (the part of the hand and the leaf) could both come from a root meaning flat (cf. Latin palam, openly, Russian pole (cf. Pologne), says Le Petit Bob).

  17. Christophe Strobbe says

    Talking of Bernard Pivot, he also published a little book called “100 mots à sauver”. The motto is: we’re trying to save endangered animals and plans, but why not save endangered words?
    By the way, the French Wikipedia entry on Bernard Pivot contains a link to an archive with all of ‘Apostrophes’.

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