Friday, January 20, 2012


The potlatch tradition of giving practiced by the Kwakiutl and other Indian tribes of the Northwest includes re-gifting. In that tradition, I’d like to share several holiday gifts from friends, my attempt to redistribute the wealth of words I recently received.

First, a precious gift of “The Poems of William Cullen Bryant” published by THE HERITAGE PRESS in 1947, found at Bargain Books in Key West, and inscribed “Merry Christmas to Katharine, 1948, from Mother and Dad,” includes the beautiful poem of nature, “Thanatopsis.” Written when Bryant was only 17, it is a meditation on death. The title word is from the Greek thantos…death and opsis…sight. Reflective, yes, but not at all maudlin, it opens: “To him who in the love of Nature holds/Communion with her visible forms, she speaks/A various language…”

“The Word Museum, The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000, Simon and Schuster, given by a dear friend who said she found it behind a row of shelved books, “clearly destined to be yours” opens with  abracadabrant…marvelous or stunning  and aflunters…in a state of disorder (“her hair was all aflunters.”) Each of its 224 pages has at least one word I want to lobby dictionary editors to bring back. They don’t make words like that any more! And how about mawmsey…sleepy; stupid, as from lack of rest or over-drinking.

From an artist friend, I received “The Book of Hard Words” by David Bramwell, 2008, Ivy Press. This little jewel, a visual dictionary, defines, gives the etymology, and provides an example of usage for only one word per page! Each word is charmingly illustrated to provide what is called the “Read it-See it-Know it-Use it system.” Matroclinous…taking after one’s mother (from Latin mater and Greek klinein…to learn) and echopraxia…the compulsion to repeat or imitate the movements and postures of those around one (from Greek echo…repeat and praxia…action) are among the entries. This gift included a very special artist-made bookmark.

On December 26, I celebrated Kwanzaa at a service led by Rev. Randy Becker at the UU church in Key West. This Pan-African American holiday centers around a consideration of “The Seven Principles” which reaffirm the dignity of the human person in community. Each is expressed in a single Swahili word, Swahili being the most universal of the African languages. From a word perspective, it was the sixth principle, kuumba…creativity, that caught my attention. I wondered if it might be related to Kumbaya, the Joan Baez/ Peter, Paul and Mary folk song title we’ve all sung since the ‘60s on we-are-one-in-spirit occasions. But, no, kumbaya… “come by here,” I learned, is from Gullah, a creole pidgin dialect spoken by former slaves in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Originally an African-American spiritual title, it dates to the 1920s.

Sometime back, a friend e-mailed suggesting I write a column on onomatopoeia, and offered borborygmus…the sound of intestinal rumbling. I’m sorry I forgot to include it last month…it’s a terrific example dating back to the Greeks and supports the theory that onomatopoeic or imitative words may have been the first uttered. This word lay in waiting for more than two millennia before getting a second job in plumbing. “All the toilets and waterpipes in the house had been suddenly seized with borborygmic convulsions,” wrote Nabokov in 1969 in “Ada.”

“Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is a wonderful gift from a loving friend. T.S. Eliot’s book of poetry was the basis of  “CATS,” the second longest running musical in Broadway history. In the last stanza of “The Naming of Cats” I jumped with delight on a word I didn’t know: “When you notice a cat in profound meditation,/The reason, I tell you, is always the same:/His mind is engaged  in a rapt contemplation/Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:/His ineffable effable/Effanineffable/Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Down the rabbit hole I went trying to find its meaning, or to discern the poet’s creativity with words…(did I see the word ‘feline’ embedded anagrammatically in effanineffable?) Finally, the “Urban Dictionary” clued me in: non-screwable; used by asexuals to describe themselves!! It seems that ‘effa’ means  ‘the eff word’ used more in days when people were less reluctant to cuss. Eliot used it as a prefix to emphasize the word ineffable! Because it’s as unique as they are, asexuals adopted it in a sense that suited.  The UD had another word that employs the same construction, effanepic…descriptive of anything with a high degree of epic qualities.

I’m tempted to wish you an effanepic New Year full of great memories in the making!

Joe Mc Kay
January 2012

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Waaay…”

I receive many requests that sound something like this: “Why don’t you do a column on…what do you call it? ... the kind of word that sounds like what it is… like ‘boom’ or ‘hiss’ or ‘tinkle.” Few of us dare try to spell it or say it, (it has eight vowels!) so it’s difficult to remember. (Dictionary entries usually call it “imitative.”) But most of us seem to sense a language arc connecting us to our primitive past when we get onto the subject of onomatopoeia.

This jolly holiday month seems like a good time to write on the subject… “Fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la!”

Onomatopoeia comes from two Greek words meaning “name” and “I make.” We all hear kids, before they can speak, imitating sounds like “bow-wow” and “choo-choo.” Parents often use these sound-words in teaching children, who may continue using them long after they learn dog and train. Indeed, what honest-with-himself adult doesn’t love to join with a group in singing “Old Mac Donald?”

It’s no wonder that an early leading theory of the origin of language, formulated by Charles Darwin, has our ancestral grunts imitating the sounds they heard in nature aided by gestures. When they gleefully reproduced those sounds with their lips, larynx, tongues, and breath, they began to experiment, perhaps commanding the cave-cat, “Meow…hie!” (“come here, cat”!) (It still doesn’t work!) And on and on it evolved over the millennia…the human mind embracing new concepts while searching to express itself. To reverse the philosopher’s adage, “The limits of our world are the limits of our language.”

All this much time later, we’re still imitating as we create new language to meet our word needs. All new words derive from older ones in one way or another. Marketing focus groups research sounds we associate with positive feelings. It is no coincidence that Xanax makes you feel “relaxed.” And when detectives needed a new word for “to follow closely behind a suspect,” they didn’t have to look farther than the “tail” of the dog to get an idea, and ‘voila!’ we had a new verb. People who are easily duped were tagged ‘gullible’ by a clever wordsmith connecting the “dupee” with the sneaky and deceptive characteristics of the seagull, for the gain of a new adjective.

But there is relatively little onomatopoeia among the slew of new words we see every year. The daily comics were, in the 1950’s, a great new source, among them a favorite, “boing…the sound of a coiled spring being released.” Lewis Carroll’s “galumph… (1871) to move in a clumsy, ponderous or noisy manner” is another.

Poets and songwriters delight us with their artful use of word sounds that, together, create a mood or feeling. These are sometimes referred to as onomatopoeic poems. Edgar Alan Poe was a master of the form. In his poem, “The Bells,” written within earshot of Fordham University’s church tower bells in the Bronx, he coined the word tintinnabulation…a ringing or tinkling sound. Using the word “bells” repeatedly and their various sounds, he celebrates the course of his love’s life from their joyful courtship on a sleigh ride (“tinkle, tinkle, tinkle”) to his mourning her death (“tolling, tolling, tolling.”)

In this holiday season, if you are awakened by “such a clatter that you spring from your bed to see what’s the matter” you may hear a familiar onomatopoeic-style stanza from “’Twas the Night before Christmas”: Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!/ On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!/ To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!/ Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
The lines, with their reindeer names, verbs, and punctuation, work together to create a sense of excitement, movement, and clatter. (And you can see how that upstart, Rudolph, sooo never fit in!)

Enjoy the myriad sounds of this holiday season. Notice the mood they create…(Ho-ho-ho!) and see if you can identify a fresh onomatopoeia among them. The current list from achoo to zoom should welcome a newcomer.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How “Honour” Was Lost & “Ain’t” Gained Ground …in the Dictionary Wars

I felt a shiver, a frisson of fellowship, when I read this revelation from Emily Dickinson’s biographer, “The dictionary was no mere reference book to her; she read it, like a priest his breviary --- over and over, page by page, with utter absorption.”

How could she not have been smitten by a book so full of itself?!

She owned Noah Webster’s first “American Dictionary of the English Language” which he had completed in 1828 at the age of 70. Expanded in 1841, it contained 85,000 words. “Honour” was not one of them!

Fifty years after the Revolutionary War, as Americans were still struggling to define their own national identity, Webster booted the English spellings of words like “honour,” “programme,” and “centre,” embraced terms from the Arts & Sciences (gasp!) rather than just literary references, and advocated our use of “a federal language.” Infuriated cultural conservatives criticized him for being too inclusive, said his book “bordered on vulgar.”

Were he alive today, he might say his dictionary is “as American as apple pie.” Indeed, “Webster’s Third” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of The English Language, Unabridged),
published in 1961, was so inclusive and descriptive of common usage that it even allowed the long-disdained “ain’t” … “though disapproved by many, and more common in less educated speech, (it is) used orally in most parts of the US by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase, “ain’t I.” Sounds fair enough, eh?

But there has never been a lull in the Dictionary Wars. The publishers of American Heritage magazine, after failing to buy out Webster’s to halt its sales, geared up and came out with their first dictionary in 1969. It favored the prescriptive tradition, guarding what, to their team of lexicographers, is “proper” English.

What would Emily Dickinson say? A line of her own might provide a clue, “A word is dead when it is said, some say/ I say it just begins to live that day.”

I am lucky enough to witness words begin to live in the minds of hundreds of children every year at this time. “Crazy About Words” is a local sponsor of “The Dictionary Project”* here on Eastern Long Island. Volunteers personalize and present over 300 copies of “A Student’s Dictionary” to Third Graders at eight local schools. I give a short introductory lesson in how to use their dictionary, by first asking the teachers to help the kids adopt a pet letter in advance of our school visit.

After volunteers call them up one-by-one to receive their very own first dictionary, I ask the children to turn to the page where words with their “pet letter” begin, and suggest that by the end of the school year they might be experts on words beginning with that letter. Then I ask them each to find a 5-letter word they don’t know. On one recent visit, a “C” boy, beaming with the light of discovery, identified cache. The boy spelled the word, heard the correct pronunciation (not catchy!), and read the definition. Many of the kids, now bristling with recognition of the idea, had anecdotes about caches they’ve known.

I like to think they will have an abiding affection for the words they discover on this day.

The inspirational cover of their new dictionary bears a photo of Planet Earth from space and a quote from the Viennese Philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of your language are the limits of your world.” We close our lesson with a discussion of its meaning.
The Dictionary Project’s slogan, “A Dictionary is a Necessity” rings true for me constantly. I look at one of my several grownup’s dictionaries and I ask myself, “Where else but in a Dictionary could I find the words, “brumal,” “kyphosis,” and “okapi” between two covers?” … three words I discovered in my reading this past month and was delighted to squirrel away in my cache of ken.

And only with an adult’s understanding of the multiple definitions of so many words could I know that “a Caesarean Section” might also be “a neighborhood in Rome” (from my cache of puns!)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Summer Catch

Mentally searching for an image that would serve to capture the feeling of this past fine Summer for me, I recalled spending afternoons at the beach on Long Island Sound watching fishermen net bait fish. It’s an activity that has endured without change for thousands of years. That image from this Summer could be used to illustrate a Bible story.

It also serves as a metaphor for how I gathered words here and there…

On vacation in Stonington, Maine, I attended a benefit concert of folk and fiddle songs by Archipelago, a group of four very talented musician/singers. Geoff Warner rendered a wonderful song he wrote, “Pronoia.” The word virtually jumped into my net! Geoff told me it was originally defined in the 70’s as “a state of mind” by John Perry Barlow, a longtime songwriter for Grateful Dead. Recently it was used by well-known horoscope columnist, Rob Brezsny, as his book title, “Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: How All of Creation is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.” I hope the song, the book, and the concept go viral. Our world needs more pronoia and less paranoia. Let’s spread the word! …“Pronoia” is not yet used by enough of us to make it into the dictionaries.

An enthusiastic participant in my “Poetry Appreciation” group presented “Travel” … “I should like to rise and go/Where the golden apples grow;” … from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection, “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” I was carried back to my own youthful dreams of exotic experiences by the line, “swinging in a palanquin;” (pronounced pal-an-keen). This Javanese to Portuguese to English word is an East Asian covered litter, carried on poles on the shoulders of two or four bearers. By the time I was borne on one in Dacca, East Pakistan, (now Bangladesh) in the 60’s, I found it bumpier than a Checker on a Manhattan Street, and so labor intensive, I felt very uneasy. That’s how dreams sometimes go!

David Foster Wallace, in a 1997 review of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” described the author as suffering from “ontological despair”… a feeling that there’s no worthwhile reason for being (based on ‘ontology’…the branch of philosophy that deals with being). The phrase was used to describe Wallace himself after he committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. I’ve long wondered if there might be a single word which could stand-in for that phrase, and this summer came across one that comes close in a 1923 Dictionary list of German words which have come into English: weltschmerz…world weariness.

“A Nation of Scofflaws” is the title of Part 2 of Ken Burns’ excellent mini-series “Prohibition.” Scofflaw… simply scoff+ law… has a nice quirky etymology…seems there was a contest in Boston in 1923 to come up with a word to define “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor.” Two of the 25,000 entries tied to win with the word we now apply to a person who willfully disregards any law. Example/confession: When I was taking courses at Baruch College in Manhattan in the 60’s and always late for class, I had a favorite tiny illegal parking space on Lexington Ave. The floor of my VW “Bug” was littered with dozens of unpaid parking tickets. I wonder if Ken would be interested in serializing “He Was A Hippie-Scofflaw.”

Much as I respect and love to taste artisanal cheeses, I was not aware of “the evangelical zeal….among hard-core fanatics of fromage.” As Brian Ralph, the “cave manager” at Murray’s in Manhattan explained in the NYT (10/5/11) affinage (a French word new to English) is the careful practice of ripening cheese. The affineur prevents many of the problems that can occur if the temperature and humidity are not just right and the cheese does not develop the proper mold. Needless to say, there are skeptics who feel it’s no more than a marketing gimmick, and parents who worry that their kids might aspire to be cave managers!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making Sense of Jabberwocky

I was minding my Ps and Qs recently, when I ventured upon “portmanteau words,” that wonderful lexical key which opened the door to the creation of hundreds of new words since 1871, courtesy of Lewis Carroll. Each is a blend of two or more words, their sounds and meanings combined.

In his Through the Looking-Glass, he has Humpty Dumpty explain the concept to Alice, “You see, it’s like a portmanteau…there are two meanings packed up into one word.” (Portmanteau is a French word, (carry+cloak) carried over to English, and currently called a “suitcase,” which is designed in two halves, but combines into one.)

Carroll’s genius gave us “slithy” (pronounced “sly-thee,” he insisted) from “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” from “miserable and flimsy” and my favorite, “frumious,” describing the “fuming and furious” Bandersnatch in the nonsense poem, Jabberwocky.

Victorians were besotted with Alice, as we are today with Harry Potter. Well-read, language-proud Englishmen made creating them fashionable, and “portmanteau words” proliferated.

Most were “nonce words,” neo-logisms made up on the spot or for an occasion, but some went on to enter the standard vocabulary. Within a relatively short while, we were breathing “smog,” eating “brunch” and overnighting at “motels.”

Today we generally call them “hybrid words.” But technically, a “hybrid word” is composed of elements from different languages, e.g., “pescalator… a conveyor belt used on fish farms to move fish, as they grow, from one tank to another.” So I’m advocating for not letting go of “portmanteau” or the memory of Lewis Carroll.

Think of the lexical wealth he spawned: “bionic” (biology+electronic), “humongous” (huge+monstrous), “motorcade” (motor+cavalcade), “outpatient” (outside+patient), “palimony” (partner+alimony), “sitcom” (situation+comedy), and “telegenic” (television+photogenic), to name a few from a long list.

What name might Tanganyika and Zanzibar have used when they merged in 1964, without the portmanteau concept that suggests “Tanzania?”

How could we have survived these past twenty years, our political sense of humor intact, without “Billary,” and how would we cross the Channel without the “Chunnel?”

Portmanteau words pour out of our creative brains as we face new situations… “Spanglish” and “Chinglish” and “Hinglish” and “Ponglish” are heard in the melting pots of English speaking nations that continue to lure peoples of the world. “Sporks” and “knorks” are designed to make our cutlery choices simpler. And “e-mail” is making snail mail obsolete!

Erin Mc Kean, former Editor of the OED, in her new Wall Street Journal column, “Week in Words,” recently reported that in the 1970s, Oliver, a chimp who walked upright, was suspected of being a “humanzee” until DNA testing proved otherwise.

So what can we make of Carroll’s choice of a title for his nonsense poem in Through the Looking Glass? The clue is in the “-wocky” part of the word; it’s from “wocor” an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “offspring or fruit.” There may have been a lesson intended: jabber often produces useful language as its offspring.

Alice herself said of Jabberwocky, “It seems very pretty but it’s rather hard to understand. Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas...”

Jabber away!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ugh! Slugs

Sometimes a very ordinary word goes to extraordinary ends to get your attention …

I walked out for a bit of fresh air and a look at the coming-on moon before going to bed one hot and humid Saturday night in August two years ago. On my way back in I had to sidestep to avoid squishing slugs which had appeared on the slate walkway during the five minutes I was gone.

If you’ve ever stepped on one you’d remember. It’s more like slipping on a banana peel than crushing a bug, and I muttered, “Damn things … you could really break your neck.”

I counted six of them in the course of a few feet (a “slugfest!”) and stopped to notice how each moved ever so slowly, or just lay there in its slime. They seemed to have no other destination or purpose than to get under my feet, after feasting on the leaves in my garden.

Then I observed that they resembled apostrophes, and felt a little better about them, because I’m a big fan of punctuation. Which got me thinking about the word … “s-l-u-g”. Nice little four-letter guy … an anagram of “lugs” … too bad there isn’t a word “glus”… and what might it mean if there were?

Besides being the name for these slimy, slippery creatures that no one can warm up to, “slug” is a verb and a noun meaning “punch,” as in, “… then he slugged the guy.” And, of course, we call people who seem lazy and unmotivated “slugs” or “sluggards” … no doubt derived from the characteristic “sluggish” movement of the lower form. Then, we have “slug” as a piece of metal, a blank, to be made into a bullet or a counterfeit coin. And, oh yes, there’s a slug of water, or some other liquor.

It’s interesting to speculate on the etymology, how over the centuries, these several meanings might have derived from one original idea of something slow and heavy. And it’s fun to realize how we’ve built on this little word to get sluggish, slugger, slugging average, and slugfest.

It occurred to me that if you think of a slug as a “snail,” to which it is very closely related, you instantly upgrade its image; not only does no one gag when you mention a snail, most people smile at their mental image of a mythic, self-reliant creature toting its mobile home along, looking, for all the world, like a moving Scotch tape dispenser. Or they picture delicious escargot bathing in garlicky butter.

My reverie ended with a chuckle as I realized how much time I’d spent on this most unlikely subject. Most people would be waxing poetic over the magnificent moon while I’d been looking down at what must be pretty near the bottom of the evolutionary scale.

I was in for a pleasant surprise the very next morning when I grabbed the NYTimes “Week in Review.” Verlyn Klinkenborg, a brilliant essayist whose attention to the tiniest details of life gives me such pleasure, opened “The Rural Life” on the editorial page as follows:
“I do not detest slugs. They are a perfectly valid life form. I discover them in the garden with no surprise or alarm. I expect to find them on the stone walk in the early morning, and I step around them, respectfully. But now I find them on the walls of the house, climbing up the door jamb, climbing up the door as if they were going to pick the lock and come in out of the rain. In their form, their liquid droplike appearance, they distill the essence of this appalling summer. It’s as if the thunderheads – rising fungally above us – were raining slugs.”

What a nice coincidence, I thought, to be seeing analogies along with of one of my favorite writers …

But how much coincidence can there be before it’s called something else? I turned to the “Op-Eds” and Nicholas Kristof’s column title jumped off the page, “How To Lick A Slug”!

His essay was a thoughtful lament of the fact that kids these days do not value and learn from being outdoors as they once did. He ends with this sentence:
“Time was… most kids knew that if you licked the underside of a banana slug, your tongue went numb. Better that than have them numb their senses staying cooped up inside.”

And the next day’s NYT crossword offered the clue “Mays” for which the answer was “slugger Willie”!

My imagination had been captured by “slug” to which I’d previously given no mind whatever. With its appearance now compared to a drop of water, a banana, and an apostrophe, the slug has great metaphorical potential for a wordsmith.

But was the Universe conspiring to tell me something more? Had it brought this lowliest of creatures and simplest of words dramatically to my attention for some good reason? Or was it just a coincidence?

The naturalist, William Burroughs, once said, “In the magical universe, there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” And Elizabeth Kubler-Ross adds, “All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”

I thought about it and remembered that only ten days earlier, I’d had a minor heart problem which landed me in the ER. At the conclusion of several hours of testing, the heart specialist said, “You’ve got to remember to slow down.”

The slugs were my reminder.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poor Little Orphans

It’s a sure sign you’re crazy ...about words, at least, when you come to think of them as people. I began to realize this about myself some time back as I was checking out the etymology of bamboozled. I was surprised that it was as old as 1703, but floored when I saw that it was categorized as “origin unknown.” How could etymologists not know how such a nifty word originated?

Sometime later, I saw that bludgeon (1868) was in that same category, then flirt (1877) and punk (1596). I wrote them down on a sheet of paper and printed “origin unknown” at the top. I felt like a character in a Dickens novel, a benevolent one, gathering in orphans from the street. Now, every time I come across a word with that label, or “origin uncertain,” I feel parental and add it to my list.

Most words are like children whose roots can be traced as pedigrees are … axiomatic from Greek, obsequious from Latin, maladroit from French, galore from Irish Gaelic, or assassin from Arabic, to list a few. They come to us from long lines of traceable language.

Or they are new words, easily traceable in this Google era, e.g., app (short for application and the 2010 “word of the year”), tweet (a 2009 winner which defines a message containing no more than 140 characters and delivered by Twitter), and locavore (a person who eats only food grown and produced within a certain number of miles of his home). No etymologist of the future, with the prowess of the Internet at his fingertips, will fail to detect the precise origin of words like these.

Actually, the more I get to know of etymologists’ exacting work, the more I appreciate what they have been able to trace with certainty. E.g., genro (a group of elder Japanese statesmen, formerly advisers to the emperor) originated as two words in Ancient Mandarin. I am in awe of the lexicological digging involved here; it’s akin to archeology.

Here are a few surprises that defied etymologists in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century: chad (“a bit of paper punched out from a data card.” It became world famous in the 2000 US presidential election; it’s been traced to 1947, but how did the word come about? … perhaps from the Scots “gravel”… “origin uncertain”); copacetic (“very satisfactory,”1919… a fun word; I expected it to be of Greek origin); gimmick (“an ingenious or novel mechanical device, gadget,” 1926… you could have an interesting time with fellow word lovers making up an etymology for it!) They each have a special place in my heart.

Another favorite is quaff (1529) thought perhaps to be imitative. I’ve tried, even wiped my lips with the back of my hand, but quaff after quaff, I can’t get myself to sound like the word.

Simoleon (1895-1900) is a cool slang word for a dollar. How I wish we knew its origins. It’s bound to be interesting.

At the top of my list is acne. While not exactly of unknown origin, it had a peculiar beginning, in that it was the result of a manuscript error, aka “typo.” “Acme” was intended, after “the head of a pimple” : ( … but “acne” stuck (and most of us were stuck with it at some point in our young lives!). So it’s fitting that the last word in my alphabetical list of “origins unknown,” zit, originated in 1966, the last year that etymologists could not detect a word’s origin. Since then, the huge computer databases available make it virtually impossible for a word to be born without a birth certificate. It marks the end of an etymological era.