The word of the day is scacchic (pronounced SKAK-ik), discovered by Bill Poser at Language Log in the adverbial form scacchically. As he says, “it took only a moment to realize what it meant,” but that’s if you recognize the root from its source language. When I read his post I thought it might be a nonce creation, but no, the OED tells me it has a pedigree dating back to 1860 (D. Willard Fiske, “Stern old fellows were these scacchic sages!”). If it’s unfamiliar to you, you might want to ponder it for a bit before clicking on the Log link and finding out what it means.

Fiske was an interesting guy:

When very young he disclosed an uncommon aptitude for the acquisition of languages, and a precocious interest in both literature and politics. He pursued his school education at Cazenovia seminary and at Hamilton College, but left that institution in his sophomore year to go abroad and study the Scandinavian languages. At Copenhagen he enjoyed the friendship of Professor Rafn, the distinguished Danish archaeologist. With little aid except some occasional correspondence with the New York “Tribune,” he sustained himself during 1849-52, passing two years in the University of Upsala, giving lessons in English and lecturing on American literature, and speaking Swedish so well that he commonly passed with the students for a Swede. In 1852 he returned to New York and took a place in the Astor library, where he remained as assistant until 1859, still pursuing his studies in languages, and in making a collection of Icelandic books, which soon became the most considerable in this country. So enthusiastically had he directed his attention to that enlightened Island that it was said that few natives were more familiar with its geography, history, politics, and literature than he.

In 1859-60 he was general secretary of the American geographical society. In 1861-2 he was again abroad, and attached to the American legation at Vienna under Minister John Lothrop Motley. Returning, he was editor of the daily “Journal” of Syracuse, New York, in 1864-6, and through 1867 had charge of the Hartford, Connecticut, “Courant,” from which he was called in 1868, after another extensive tour abroad, which embraced Egypt and Palestine, to the professorship of the north European languages, and the place of chief librarian, at Cornell University. To his unremitting labors for years in the classroom, as librarian, and as director of the University press, no inconsiderable degree of the success of the institution is due. During this time he took a deep interest in the reform of the civil service, and was a most influential writer and lecturer in its behalf. In 1879 he was again abroad for five months, and visited Iceland. He had been a principal promoter in this country of the contribution of a library on the celebration of the National millennium, and upon his arrival he was the guest of the nation and accorded honors seldom if ever given before by one nation to a private citizen of another. His health failing from his severe application to College duties, he went abroad again in 1880. In that year, in Berlin, he married Miss Jennie McGraw, of Ithaca, New York, who died in September 1881. In 1881 he resigned his offices at Cornell and took up his permanent residence in Florence, Italy. Although his chief work has been that of a scholar and bibliopole, he has been a voluminous contributor to various Swedish, Icelandic, and German journals, and to the American press.

This decorous account does not mention the fact that his wife’s death set off an unseemly episode known as the Great Will Case, in which Fiske and Cornell battled over his wife’s estate, Fiske eventually winning; you can read a brief description here and a full account in Chapter XIII of Morris Bishop’s A History of Cornell (1962).


  1. Isn’t that a Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary word? … [checks downstairs] … Yep.
    Ludus Scacchiæ is an early English book on chess (translated from Italian). A History of Chess has five whole pages on the complicated etymology of pretty much all the European chess, échecs, scacco, scacus, šachy, … words from shāh. Too bad it’s only snippets in Google Books.
    Did you see Fiske’s posthumous Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature in Google Books? Even weirder because of the whole Bobby Fisher thing.

  2. I didn’t get your e-mail until after you made the post. Anyway, testamentory disputes flared up again after Fiske’s death. In his will he gave a large amount of money to build a library building at the “Collegia Reykjavicensis” (can’t remember the exact name he used, but something like that), however, no institute with that name existed in Reykjavík (nor exists today). However, my old secondary school* Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, which also goes by the Latin name Scholae Reykjavicensis, laid claim to the money. Fiske’s heirs were not about to give up a large sum to some tiny school on the edge of nowhere. But the school won the case, got the money and built a library (tiny by contemporary standards) that is still used for its original purpose. It is named Íþaka, after Ithaca, NY. A bust of Fiske glares sternly at students in the study hall. Actually, the current study hall used to be the library, and the upstairs rooms, where it is now, was a dormitory.
    *Icelandic education system: primary, 6-16, secondary, 16-20.

  3. Excellent! Fiske certainly left some good stories behind along with the money.

  4. I don’t know why anyone would use a word like “scacchic” when there are perfectly serviceable alternatives like “chesstacular”.

  5. Matt, surely you mean “cromulent”, not “serviceable”.
    And I assumed “scacchic” meant “of or relating to the actress Greta Scacchi”.

  6. KCinDC, I stand berightled.

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