Friday, March 1, 2013

Etymological glossers unite!

Another out-of-the park guest post by pitch-hitting Gleaner Karen L. Mulder.
When I was but a small child, my family moved from New York to Melbourne, as did my accent. Before I left Australia, I was told that I had mastered  Stryne. “Stryne?” I queried; “Wot is Stryne?” Turns out it's Australian, as opposed to ‘Murcan English (best exemplified by the murmurations of George Dubya Bush). ‘Murcan has all sorts of its own contractions, possibly promoted by the pragmatism of Americans, who tend to always be in a hurry to get somewhere and do something. Howdjya, for example, as in ‘howdja do it?’, or thingydobob, as in ‘hey, can you hand me the … thingydobob?’ (also synonymous with doohickey or watchamacallit.)  If you or a member of your circle are samplers of ‘Murcan, do I have a tome for you!
It’s a small and frankly absurd little book with the kind of ridiculously elongated subtitle you tend to see on British treatises about furniture design or philosophy from the 18th century. Ahhh, but every word counts. The Whatchamacallit:Those Everyday Objects You Just Can’t Name (And Things You Think You KnowAbout, But Don’t) takes you from achenes (pronounced a-keens) to zucchetto in about 200 pages. Is it essential? No. Not even to Scrabble fans. Is it fun? Absolutely. It is also top-shelf reading material for your loo. A word, incidentally, that I theorize came from the lieux d’Anglais, the English place (said with a French sneer)—or in other words, the eponymous invention of a plumber named Thomas Crapper. Others say that the water closet or WC was at some point always numbered “100” (which I find hard to believe in multistoried buildings), and this became “loo” in Anglo-Saxon English. Every word has its stories, and that’s the poop on this one.
Cary Grant had quite the philtrum.
Two self-proclaimed wordsmiths with publishing credentials—books about the Metropolitan Museum, global etiquette, bits for the Sunday Times, and so on—were having lunch one day when one of them managed to deposit a dollop of gravy on his…well it was his…what IS that space between the lip and the nose? That was all it took for authors Danny Danziger and Mark McCrum to gather their list of more than 100 unusual words, once they daubed the sauce off their … philtrum. Now really, shouldn’t you know this term, since a competent martial artist can apparently slay you simply by tapping that area in just the right way?
Pip pip hooray!
Perhaps not, but if you like words, it’s simply fun to idle through these pages and end up knowing how an aglet (the bit that keeps a shoelace from unraveling) differs from a zarf (the holder for a glass without a handle). While the jacket notes jingoistically promise that you will “always know the right word for things” by virtue of reading this book, that would only hold true if you need to know the precise nomenclature for the little pips on a strawberry (achenes) or the velveteen skullcaps that top the heads of Roman Catholic clerics (zucchetto). The authors avoided specialized jargon (otherwise, they could have just written another type of dictionary, right?), but culled their shortlist from a long list of everyday items, like phloem bundles (the stringy thingamabobs on bananas) that may not be in common usage.
Hold on to your zucchetto!
Unlike other word books, from Simon Winchester’s masterful story about the daft American who provided many of the first entries for the Oxford English Dictionary (The Professor and the Madman, 1998), to comedian Rich Hall’s fanciful Sniglets genre (about made up words that should be in the dictionary, such as “doork—a person who pushes on a door marked ‘pull’”), The Watchamacallit gives a few paragraphs of anecdotal and etymological gloss to each word. Some will be predictable, depending on our personal aptitudes and professions, but many are surprising. And in the end, as the authors remind us, virtually everything eventually reverts to a watchmacallit—so strike before the interrobang goes off (?!). 
Feel free to share your favorite miswordings, wordlinesses, and untoword etymological gems with us!
Art and architectural historian Karen L. Mulder loves to diddle around with words and has been known to read the OED just for fun.

Further fascinating word lore: By Hook or Crook: A Journey in Search of English and Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.


  1. a) My favorite made-up word was said to me in a grocery store some time back by a guy who had picked something off the shelves and then decided he didn't want it. As I watched him replace it on another shelf, many aisles over from where it belonged, he looked at me and explained, "I'm lop-shifting."

    b) Here's a word I found this morning: Qlipothic (which apparently is an alternative spelling).

    c) My favorite words discovered in 2012 are assembled here. You may find something you like.

    1. love the grocery one ... heading over to your list now.

    2. OMG -- gotta bookmark this one for further looking up. What an awe-inspiring vita you have too!

  2. So I'm not the only putz reading the dictionary for amusement!
    My favorite word origins are: "tabby"--well known for coming from the quarter of Baghdad named for Prince Attab, where was sold a silk cloth so attractive, someone named a cat after it.
    And "sardonic"--after a plant grown on Sardinia, which, when eaten, produces convulsive laughter ending in death.
    It says it in the dictionary, so it must be so.
    (Haven't seen RPS's link yet.) There must be a word for dictionary diners!

    1. Oh, while I have an expert here--it's been bothering me...
      How does the word "sequester" wind up associated with budget cuts? I haven't been keeping up with the financial news, and this application seems more murky than Murcian. Can you elucidate, please?

  3. To RPS and La Gioconda bella from KLM...I say with no seriousity at all that
    making up words and then trying to foist them compellingly on others is one of the funnest games around! Although, if you get to use something like 'gallimaufrey' in a serious sentence, that's a coupe too! As for sequester...I confess that a) it rhymes with jester and that b) I had to sleuth for an answer. It's certainly a word that's received a great deal of free press. Sequestrate is noted earliest in something called Antechrist, 1380, with the Monk of Evesham in 1481 according to the OED, and in all its forms takes up almost two pages of text! It seems to have applied to virtually every discipline imaginable as a term of separation. The Economist recently explained Bob Woodward's obsession with the term and his mistaken notion that Obama planted it two years ago...when the roots of its current usage apparently go deeper. Others say it's just a little more Washingtonian jargon to put the dys in functional...

    1. Wow! Been doing a bit of looking up, and apparently what is being sequestered is money appropriated to agencies by a too-fat budget. Sort of like a glutton having part of his supper withheld... A link!

      But doesn't that mean the money exists somewhere? I don't usually get this confused till I do my taxes! A jester, indeed!

  4. The book "Through the Language Glass" looks really interesting. I've noticed that different languages cause one to think differently; the concepts are not equal.
    The land of 700 cheeses has at least that many forms of "coup"--are the French easily startled? But no word for lint!

    RPS, you've done everything but train to be an astronaut!

  5. Ms. Mulder, seeing your theory about the origin of "loo" sent me to my Encarta Dictionary of World English. Here's a truncated version of what that tome has to say:

    "The likeliest source is perhaps French 'lieux d'aisances,' literally 'places of ease,' hence 'toilet,' possibly picked up by British service personnel in France during World War I." The note remarks also that there is no evidence of the word being used before the 1930s. (Which makes me wonder, then, why attribute it to something in the late 1910s? Hmmmm.)

    Of course such silliness isn't even mentioned in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. (I looked. I was sad.)

  6. Hmmmm is right. The loo d'anglais reference came from a researcher at Jefferson's Monticello, but that was a first. I suppose that a word for such a 'common' commode-ity will inspire many

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  8. Imana Murcan who found you while searching for a little Aussie book called "Stryne." This is the most hilarious book in the history of books ... but it must be read ALOUD (to as many friends as you can gather in one place, preferably while they READ along with you from a large TV screen). You must SEE the "words" as they're read to get the comic effect. My Aussie girlfriend, Anabelle (what else?) had one in 1970, and we read it to each other on her bed in Stockholm, howling with laughter and with tears streaming down our faces. I haven't found it anywhere on the web until moments ago I found that there's an alternative spelling to "stryne," which is "strine." And now I've found the book! I'm ordering it tonight. If you haven't read it, you must get a copy ... it's amazing. The author (Afferbeck Lauder ... sounds like Stryne to me!) has several books on Amazon, all from 3rd party sellers. One is "Strine: The Complete Works of Professor Afferbeck Lauder." Another is "Strine: Let Stalk Strine and Nose Tone Unturned" (two books in one). The one I read in 1970 was "Let Stalk Strine" ... this is a booklet of only 47 pages. Priceless!