by Clover Carroll
Have you ever witnessed a syzygy or had a friend with callipygian qualities? Can you find the penultimate measure in a piece of music or remember an erstwhile professor? I often spend time in this column reflecting on soon-to-be-obsolete grammar and usage, but I feel similar nostalgia for old words. While we add new words to the lexicon of English each day, we are also steadily losing others as they fall out of use and eventually become obsolete. Like old houses, old words have character, hold history, and add color to our lives. But more importantly, they help us to say what we mean more precisely and vividly. So as we embark on a new year, let us try adding a few words to our vocabulary, or at least resuscitating some old ones we haven’t used in awhile! If you missed the last syzygy of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars in May 2011, you will need to consult the astronomical charts to find the next instance of this alignment of three or more celestial bodies. But you may be lucky enough to know a callipygous lady—that is, one with nicely rounded buttocks, like the Greek statue of Venus from which this word comes! Play or sing the next to last measure of a piece, to find the penultimate one, referring to the second from last in any series of things; this wonderful word comes from the Latin pene, meaning almost, plus ultimate, meaning final. Dave Norris has recently become the erstwhile Mayor of Charlottesville, an Old High German-derived word meaning formerly, some time ago.
My all-time favorite word is putter—which is also my favorite thing to do of a Saturday! I don’t mean the golf club nor the sound of a small engine, but the verb that, when combined with about or around, means to work at random, to move or act aimlessly, as if that little engine were cut loose to meander with no particular goal. With its soft u sound and double consonant, this word sounds like the action it describes—as does muddle, a state of disorder or confusion, which calls to mind cloudy obfuscation, like muddy water. Both of these words are of British origin, as are befuddled and its fun-to-say relatives bedazzled, bemused, bewitched, and besotted. This class of words turns verbs and nouns into adverbs by adding the versatile Old English (Saxon) prefix be-, meaning to intensify or enact that condition upon someone or something. Whether you are impressed, spellbound, or drunk, I hope at this point you aren’t bemused—that is, stupefied, confused, or bewildered–in short, too muddled even to putter!
Living in Crozet, we should all be familiar with the word idyllic, or “picturesque and full of natural simple charm,” like the Greek idyll, a poem about utopian, rustic life. Another favorite from Greek is peripatetic, meaning “given to walking about” or travelling–originally used to describe Aristotle, who walked while he taught his followers, causing them to become known as the Peripatetic school of philosophy. The Latin-derived soporific, meaning sleep-inducing, is handy to sum up many situations, from conversations to political speeches to long boring language articles! Also from the Latin ēnervāre —to extract the sinews of–comes the lusciously descriptive enervate, to impair the strength of or weaken someone, either physically or mentally. A person who is limp and void of energy—perhaps like Samson after his encounter with Delilah—could be described as enervated. But s/he may or may not be laconic, or one who “uses a brief and concise style of speech.” Ancient Sparta was in the Greek region of Laconia, so this word originally meant Spartan-like in speech. One might wish that many of our politicians were more laconic!
A number of beloved words and phrases are direct imports from other languages that never became Anglicized—perhaps because they express something unique for which English has no words. Joie de vivre, for example, conveys that je ne sais quoi better than “the joy of living.” Esprit de corps sounds much less inspiring when defined as “the regard entertained by the members of a body for the honor and interests of the body as a whole.” Another French borrowing is élan, meaning “ardour, impetuousness, vivacity”—an admirable quality in a friend. I wish I knew more people who possessed panache, “flamboyant confidence of style or manner, dashing display,” from the Middle French word for a plume of feathers. But my hands-down favorite foreign word is the German schadenfreude (literally, mischief-joy), meaning to take pleasure in the misery of others. Admit it!
Last but not least, I tip my hat to the old-fashioned American country words that we used to use to spice up our speech. Most are familiar with whippersnapper, almost a parody of a word for a young upstart. But how could I forget my aging father greeting my baby daughter each morning with “and how’s my little chickabitty today?” The Lemony Snicket books may have the name from persnickety, perhaps a conflation of wicked and crotchety, a quality my mother accused me of having.
I’m not sure what my favorite words have in common, except that they are rich in meaning, often evoke their meaning through their sound, and are just plain fun to use both in speaking and writing. Many of them employ poetic techniques such as assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) and consonance (repetition of consonant sounds). Humans have a natural affinity for music, and we all enjoy uttering alliterative phrases such as slippery slope, happy holidays, or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer!
Of course I have only scratched the surface of unusual words that enliven our rich and flexible language; for even more rare ones visit the Phrontistery at http://phrontistery.info/ihlstart.html. A wonderful nonfiction book about the love of words is The Professor & the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998). I wish you a New Year full of élan and panache!