One of my favorite writers died recently—Brian Doyle: a left-leaning story grabbing unapologetic Roman Catholic and one heck of a mentoring inspiration to students, writers and the readers who loved his work. Did you notice… More
Using this whimsical, multi-colored Y-alphabet letter encouraged me to find whimsical, multi-colored, or at least unusual words. How ’bout these from some of the sources I’ve used in the A-Z blog challenge?
Yirn v. “To whine; to pout, or show petulance by facial grimaces. Pronounced the same as yearn. ‘My husband is an idealist; he’s always yirning for something.'”—The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler
Ylem n. “The primordial substance from which all the elements in the universe were supposed by early philosophers to have been formed. Thought by the ancients to have been water, by the moderns to be hydrogen, and by the Chinese to be monosodium glutamate.”—The Superior Person’s Book of Words
Yarwhelp n. the bartailed godwit—Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary by Josefa Heifetz Byrne
Yex n. hiccup—Mrs. Bryne’s Dictionary
Yahoo. n. “There’s a good deal of the yahoo in every gang of adolescents that goes berserk, whatever their color…In Dean Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Yahoos are a tribe of brutes having human form and embodying all the vices of mankind.”—I Always Look Up the Word Egregious by Maxwell Nurnberg
Yorgan n. a Turkish quilt; yaffle v. to eat and drink, especially noisily and greedily; yava n. an alcoholic drink made from the roots of the Polynesian shrub Piper methysticum—Foyle’s Philavery by Christopher Foyle
Demonstrating that word excavations have a practical application, I will now yaffle a yogurt while seated on a yorgan with nary a yex of satisfaction.
According to the online Urban Dictionary, “X marks the spot” was a symbol pirates used to designate the location of treasure. Then the British Army appropriated the phrase and the X for executions. They marked a piece of paper with a black X and positioned it on the heart of someone sentenced to death. The officer in charge would announce “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would shoot the x.
Bear in mind that, like Wiktionary which uses volunteers, the Urban Dictionary relies on its users to add content. One can vote on a word or phrase by choosing, “Add it,” “Keep out,” or “Can’t decide.”
This edgy database called the Urban Dictionary kinda does and kinda doesn’t take itself seriously as in this March 2017 definition:
“An outlet for word addicts, who can be grouped into six main characters: the rarely creative, the hypocritically cynical, the politically irreverent, the sexually depraved, the religiously racist, and the sarcastically narcissistic. On a lighter note, the Urban Dictionary motivates us not to take life seriously—let’s laugh at our idiocies and idiosyncrasies, not to say, our frailties and fatalities.”
Back to X Marks the Spot. The Oxford English Dictionary, which I never tire of accessing for quotations indicating usage over time, quotes J. M. Barrie’s 1918 line from Echoes of War: “In the rough sketch drawn for to-morrow’s press, ‘Street in which the criminal resided’…you will find Mrs. Dowey’s home therein marked with an X.”
We know Sir James Matthew Barrie not for his short story collections (Echoes of War) or for his theatrical productions (What Every Woman Knows) or for his sentimental novels (The Little Minister), but for Peter Pan, first performed as a play in London in 1904.
The letter “X” (24th in the alphabet) marks the spot, so to speak, where I shorten my blogs because I have three to write in one day to complete the A-Z Blog Challenge. My wife suggested that I write a single blog spotlighting a word that contained X, Y, and Z. Great idea, I thought, certain that I’d run into one in our Scrabble dictionary.
There were no words, other than long scientific ones, that contained all three letters. (Prove me wrong, if you know of one!) The closest I could come was the noun xystus which can also be spelled zystus.
The OED defines Xystus like this: “Among the ancient Greeks, a long covered portico or court used for athletic exercises; among the ancient Romans, an open colonnade, or walk planted with trees, used for recreation and conversation.”
Wrestlers also used Xisti. (Xisti is one of the plurals of zystus): “Zystus was a Place where the Wrestlers exercis’d.”—Phillips New World of Words, 1706.
In 1871, F. W. Farrar wrote in Witness of History, “Philosophers…aired their elegant doubts in the shady xystus.”
I leave this shady xystus, this shadowy blog, for the letter Y.
Way back on April 5th, I talked about John Simpson’s The Word Detective, a memoir about Simpson’s time as an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, I found The Word Detective by Evan Morris, published in 2000 by Algonquin, a most charming book, right there on my very own bookshelf.
The Word Detective is a collection of columns from Morris’ newspaper and internet columns. The format is Q and A. I opened the book to page one. Doris A. from Toledo asked about the phrase “run amok.”
I’ve been thinking about that phrase myself. Lately, our pastor’s sermons, always ebullient, as she herself is, have contained the sentence “The spirit is running amok.” I think she means that God-driven spirituality is on a fierce upswing in our congregation. Perhaps so, but to my discredit, I visualized some kind of unholy ghost cyclone touching down on the Peterson’s pew to awaken a dozing spouse or swooping up (kindly, of course) the ever cranky Matthews’ toddler.
Evan Morris explains that amok comes from the Malay word amuck—“a state of murderous frenzy.” The story goes that inhabitants of Malaysia were given to bouts of depression and drug use, a combination leading to murderous rampages. “Anyone in the path of the person running amok,” Morris explained, “was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris.” The word was also applied to out-of-control elephants who attacked humans.
Morris observes that the meaning in English has become diluted as the centuries rolled by and has become a metaphor used “to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect and not necessarily chopping folks up.”
I feel much better now, but smile suppression will not work if I hear anything amok preached from the pulpit.
What I don’t feel better about—and now I’m quite serious—is my tardy discovery of Evan Morris. The Word Detective began 62 years ago as “Words, Wit and Wisdom”by Evan’s father, William Morris, an editor in chief at both Grosset and Dunlap and American Heritage Dictionary.His column appeared in newspapers all over the country and abroad. After writing for thirty-five years, he announced at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon, that it was time for him to quit—unless one of his six grown children were interested in assuming it.
Evan heard himself say he’d take a shot at it. He did. Eventually, he posted the column online. Hundreds of discussions are archived. He has taken on obscure and common words and phrases—malaprops and mondegreens, duck soup, kerfuffle, hara kirl, brouhaha, flesh out and flummoxed, Peck’s Bad Boy and the Pied Piper.
But now a great sadness. Unlike his father who chose to discontinue writing his column, Evan Morris is being forced to discontinue writing. He has advanced multiple sclerosis and stage four cancer. His last columns are witty and graceful explanations of his declining health and financial reverses. Take a look a look here at his website, Check out the archives, an amazing compilation of etymological dissections and whimsical digressions. Contribute to his site. I’m going to.
You might even want to contribute to his cause which can be done through PayPal or by sending a check, small or large, to Evan Morris, P.O. Box 1, Millersport OH 43046.
I’m going to.
I never know where I’m going to find a compelling word, in this case, a V-word—in, say, the OED, from one of our 30+ word books, or in some random, unexpected place.
Since I had a hangover bad mood, triggered by yesterday’s two-hour wait for a mudslide-delayed Amtrak train and then, today, a 90-minute wait in a doctor’s office, I thought this self-description might apply. Virago: “a fierce, bad-tempered woman.” (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words).
Such an admittance of distemper (rare, I assure you, the distemper, that is) could qualify me as a veracious individual: “Habitually speaking or disposed to speak the truth; observant of the truth; truthful.” (Source: OED.) In The Superior Person’s…Words, Peter Bowler points out that veracious is pronounced exactly like voracious: “Of greedy disposition.”
Just because I like the mellifluous oddity of English sentences from older times, I present a few illustrative quotations from the OED:
Virago: “And as to the Neutralities, I really think the Russian virago an impertinent Puss for meddling with us.”—William Cowper, 1781
Veracious: “I am a most veracious person, and Totally unacquainted with untruth.”— Percy B. Shelley, 1822
Voracious: “I had seen him about a year before…and had noted well the unlovely voracious look of him.”—Thomas Carlyle, 1850
V, I vouchsafe, is the beginning letter of negative descriptors on the glass-half-full spectrum of attitude and behavior: Vapulation; flogging; Vecordy: mad, obsessive; vellicate: to twitch or cause to twitch: Varlet: Low, menial scoundrel; Venefical: associated with malignant sorcery or witchcraft.
I was glad to find a v-word of a positive nature, Vigilant, in one of those random, unexpected places, a museum bathroom. The Vigilant was a five-masted schooner that won a Hawaii-to-Bellingham race in 1930. Hence, its picture hangs in one of the less prominent, but much-used rooms, of the Old City Hall Museum on Prospect Street in Bellingham, Washington.
I will be vigilant—that is,”wakeful and watchful; keeping steadily on the alert; attentively or closely observant” (OED)”— with respect to language. I hope never to describe myself as a vigilant virago.
Über, borrowed from the German, is a prefix that crowns a noun: A geek becomes an uber-geek, a runway fashion queen becomes an uber-model.
“An uber building came about…an enormous quasi-crystalline structure that reached out multicolored limbs of fiberglass and plastic.”—Stang, Three-Fisted Tales of ‘Bob,’ 1990
Or, uber commingles with an adjective to create uber-rich or uber-cool.
“‘I like to consider myself part of the new wave of couturiers,’ explains the Nashville-born Talbot from his atelier just off the city’s uber-chic Maximilianstrasse.”—Vanity Fair, 1992
Now we have a standalone noun in a black rectangle, without an umlaut, that we look for on the windshield or hanging from the mirror of a sleek, new model car.
Which is why my wife Amory and I and two friends, Peggy and Victoria, were standing in front of the Hotel Vetiver in Queens at the end of a five-day New York City vacation. We wanted to get to Penn Station and our train to New Jersey without navigating subway stairs in the rain.
Curbside, a shiny, black Nissan appeared and out popped Steve, a tall, handsome man with dreadlocks, a winning smile, and ready hands for holding doors and fitting suitcases in his car.
Conversation was easy. We found out he drives for three companies—Juno, Lyfft, and Uber. “You’ve gotta work twelve-hour days or it isn’t worth it. First, you have to buy an $800 license. Then you have to buy insurance on top of your regular insurance which can be $3000-$5000. So you gotta work long hours. I drink a lot of coffee. But, I love driving.”
” I grew up right here,” Steve continued, “right here in Queens.”
“Have you lived anywhere else?”
“Oh, everywhere. In Atlanta the longest, three years, but I’m a New Yorker.”
And now, I thought, there’s a New Yorker in the White House. I wonder how I can find out what he thinks about that.
“What was it like in New York when Trump was elected” I ventured.
Steve paused. I worried.”I just sat back and laughed,” he said. “The Ringling Brothers Circus closed and all the clowns were going to Washington. We’ve elected a shock jock. There’s no difference between him and Howard Stern. Except for money.”
“I just sat back and laughed,” he said. “The Ringling Brothers Circus closed and all the clowns were going to Washington. We’ve elected a shock jock. There’s no difference between him and Howard Stern. Except for money.”
I think we all relaxed, and soon, despite the bumper-to-bumper traffic, we were in front of Penn Station.
“I hate driving to New Jersey. Thanks for not making me go there,” he smiled.
We rolled ourselves out of the Nissan’s cozy confines. I pivoted and swooped up my suitcase, backpack, and some loose items belonging to my friends. I handed Steve a Starbucks card. Such a nice guy. He smiled and waved.The Altima, amidst a crush of yellow cabs and honking horns, pulled into the traffic.
“I got your stuff,” I said to my traveling companions. Blank looks. No one can do a blank look like Peggy, the only Ph.D. and scientist in the group.
For the first time, I observed what I had grabbed: a bag with protruding tissue paper, a canvas briefcase with an unfamiliar red log, and a large black leather jacket. Men’s.
I had stolen Steve’s stuff. I was going to jail. Steve would be arrested. He had to turn in his rental car the next day. Without papers. We would miss our flight. While I stood there in a welter of emotion, Amory and Victoria, searched through Steve’s briefcase and found papers with phone numbers.
“Leave a message” wasn’t helpful. Neither was a disconnected line or an Uber helpline. t Victoria, who had made the reservation, called Uber again, accessing a series of menus, and finally got an Uber person who listened and agreed to call Steve. Uber called back. Steve hadn’t answered. Victoria handed the phone to me.
I stumbled through an explanation. “I’ll call him again for you,” the pleasant voice said, “and let you know what he wants to do.” Again he didn’t answer, but she had left him a message with my phone number.
“Could another Uber driver pick up his belongings, or could we leave it somewhere for him to get them?”I queried. “We need to catch our flight.”
“We have a Lost and Found in Hoboken.”
“I don’t even know where that is.” Exasperation crept into my voice. “Do we just call another Uber and say ‘take us to Hoboken?'”
And then, Steve called. “OmiGod,” he said after I stumbled through my story. “I’m driving without my papers. Where are you? I’ll come get them. I don’t want you to miss your flight. Wait right there on the corner.”
He switched to texting. “I’m 20 minutes away. Is that okay or should I get out my batmobile?” Then he phoned again. “I don’t want you to miss your flight. My wife works two blocks from there. She might get there before I do.”
She did, a person as friendly and happy as Steve. We hugged, Amory took a picture, Steve’s wife went back to work, and we didn’t miss our flight.
Steve is an Uber-Guy.
What I really want to write about is the book I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, The Superior Person’s Book of Words, but neither the title, the author’s name, Peter Bowler, nor the publisher’s handle, David R. Godine, begin with a “T.”
So, to meet the minimal requirement and to showcase the wit of this Australian lexicographer, I’m extracting three of Bowler’s seventeen listed T-words.
Titular a. “Derived from the holding of a title; nominal. Thus the titular head of a country is usually the President, Prime Minister, Dictator, etc, as distinct from the effective head, who is usually his wife, cleaning lady, golfing partner, etc. ”
Temulency n. “Inebriation, drunkenness. Another good one for sick-leave application forms.”
Tetragram n. “A word with four letters. Note that the phrase “four-letter word” is pejorative (q.v.), but that tetragram is not. Do what you can to remedy this situation.”
The Superior Person’s Book of Words was Bowler’s first book, published in 1979. Everything about this book makes me smile, including the cleverly composed jacket copy describing him as some who
becomes noticeably tongue-tied in the face of questioning and indeed has been known to break down completely and admit to being just an easily confused fat man with a poor memory
and the author’s demurring stabs at humility in the Acknowledgments:
I cannot let these definitions go before the public without acknowledging the contributions made by Dr. Ernest Foot…who worked with me on the manuscripts and wrote several of the definitions. To me should go much of the credit for whatever virtues this book possess; the odium for any faults must rest entirely with him.”
Two more word books followed. The Superior Person’s Second Book of Wierd and Wondrous Words (1992), and The Superior Persons Third Book of Well-Bred Words (2001).In addition to Bowler’s erudite word books, he wrote a book about cults; The True Believer; two novels, Human Remains and The De Reszke Record; a children’s book of verse, The Creepy-Crawly, and, a book on child development, Your Child from One to Ten.
His niche popularity (at least one of his word books has been in print since 1969) resulted in Godine’s publication of a three-box set In 2012. The author’s purpose was to give readers
a more finely tuned engine of the language they speak, so they may more readily assert their linguistic superiority over their fellow travelers at the traffic stops of life.
Who doesn’t enjoy Bowler’s pillage of the arcanum of archaic and obscure, esoteric and unusual words? On the Godine web page, his publishers say that Bowler has had a “Road to Damascus” conversion, prompting the return to simple, straightforward language. They published The Superior Person’s Field Guide to Deceitful, Deceptive, and Downright Dangerous Language in 2007— Ten years ago!
I think I better read it.
David Bodine ↓
On Monday morning, April 3rd, the day my brother-in-law died, I was scanning through our word book collection and came upon two copies of the The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler.
I extracted the one inscribed by Corinne Hayak, a LaConner Regional Library board member. Corinne was chair of the board that took a chance on hiring me, a recent but older and inexperienced library school graduate, as their first library director with a professional credential. I so appreciated their leap of faith and continuing support, not to mention the carefully calligraphed message on the book: October 26, 1999 [a few months after my appointment] “To celebrate the English language and your fun with words.”
Until I looked, I’d forgotten that the second copy was a birthday gift from my jokester brother-in-law, Kent Lambert. The $9.95 price was scratched out and $49.95 was penciled in. On the flyleaf he wrote, “Happy Birthday to my favorite Washington sister-in-law! Kent. January 3, 1988.” Never mind, that I was his only sister-in-law in Washington.
I remember the moment I first saw Kent. I was a junior at Mt. Whitney High in Visalia, California and he was a freshman. He was standing at the open door of his K building locker, a few feet away from me. He didn’t look up. One of my friends whispered, “That’s Kent Lambert, Mark’s little brother.” He was tall, thin-faced, and, I soon learned, very shy.
Many years later after his brother Mark and I were married, he came to our apartment in Beverly Hills. Just as tall, not quite so thin-faced, and much more confident in his Air Force uniform. He leaned down to give me a hug. “Hi, Sis.” he said. Those two words made me tear up: an only child, no one had ever called me Sis. Then there was the Spring evening he rang the doorbell of our Birchwood Street house. There on our porch stood a man saddened by the probability of divorce.
The following December he again stood on our porch, holding Care Bears for each of our three daughters. On Christmas during another year—I can’t remember which—he came with another present. He’d been commercial fishing and his summer adventure had been successful. He bought us our first VCR. In time, he regrouped from his first marriage and married again.
When I divorced his brother and remarried, Kent and I were still friends. His wedding present to Amory and me was the perfect gift: a home inspection. Kent was the first home inspector in our county. It was said that if you were buying a house, you wanted Kent Lambert. If you were selling a house, you didn’t want Kent Lambert. Fortunately, we were buyers. He provided a thorough inspection, resulting in several thousand dollars worth of improvements paid for the seller.
Nine days before he died, at his request, he and his wife Ramona, held a Living Wake. I’m not sure how many friends and family were there. The living room was cleared of furniture, prepared with microphones and lots of chairs. When Kent came in, he looked around the room, and started counting how many of us had come. Vintage Kent. We all laughed.
A beautiful and jubilant spirit prevailed. Norman, the oldest brother who had already lost his brother Mark, spoke as did both of Kent’s children, Matthew and Alexa. His oldest grandson, Samuel, read a poem. Matt’s wife Kay put together a video collage of photos. When Ramona said it would be made available to everyone free, Kent quipped “They should pay.”
I won’t leave this remembrance without a funny word from the book he gave me, succedaneum, n.
A substitute, resorted to when the real thing is not available. Normally an object (as, for instance, a baby’s pacifier); but may be used of persons (as, for instance, by Walpole: ’In lieu of men, you will have a charming succedaneum Lady Harriet Stanhope.’
I do not know (but will find out for another blog) who Lady Harriet Stanhope was, but I do know that Kent would laugh at the word succedaneum and I know there is no succedaneum for Kent Lambert, a superior person.
I will miss him.