Peter Wood

Among my favorite diversions is learning new words. It’s best when you come across them unawares, like spotting an owl in the forest. Joseph Epstein, reviewing (in the latest edition of The New Criterion) a translation of the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Memoirs, tells of the time “Mme de Charlus’s turban caught fire, the flames de-wigging her, so that in her anger she flung an egg into the face of the King’s confessor, who did nothing but laugh.” De-wigging? Perfectly clear and delightful. 

Though I look, it is not every day I spot an owl and for the betweentimes, I have recourse to such expedients as Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words (1974), Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words (2007), and The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English (1999).   Mrs. Byrne supplies an eagre of strange words with terse definitions and no examples or context. Eagre? She says that’s “a sudden tidal flood; a tidal wave.” But lest you refer to the storm surge that lately swamped Galveston as an “eagre,” take warning. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary informs us that “eagre (origin unknown) is “a tidal bore in a river; now esp. that in the River Trent.” Ah, a tidal bore on the River Trent. Still not exactly clear, I checked the Shorter Oxford for “bore,” and found that it “a steep-fronted wave caused by the meeting of two tides or by the constriction of a spring tide as it passes up a narrowing estuary.”

This, at last, seems to move a superfluous synonym for tidal wave into the realm of the metaphorically evocative. Tonight’s presidential debate is the eagre of the campaign, as the candidates cram themselves into the 90 minute estuary at Hofstra University.

Foyle’s Philavery has drawbacks similar to Mrs. Bryne’s.It is a cleek to reach words that are just out reach—a cleek of course being “a large hook or crook used to catch hold of, pull or suspend something.” Once you have a found a word in this fashion, however, you need to make it your own, which is more than a matter of simply using it in a sentence. A new word needs to be weighed like an apple, from palm to palm; tossed in the air like a coin in the sunlight; and tapped against a stone like a walking stick.   We need to expiscate it —fish it out for a close look. 

Mrs. Byrne and Mr. Foyle address themselves to people like me who just enjoy the pleasures of English’s byroads and backways. The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English is a more sober undertaking with some quite common terms such as podium, piñata, and pièce de résistance. But if you can’t quite remember what “bien pensant” means (think New York Times op ed page) or wonder if this is a dies non (a day that doesn’t count), the OED-FTE may help. It also has unexpected gems such as fingerspitzengefühl, literally “fingertip feeling,” but a nice German word for “intuition, tact, deftness in handling a task or situation.”

Recently I signed up for a word-a-day site called Wordsmith which claims some 600,000 members. I suppose that means any word I adopt from Wordsmith is familiar in at least 1.2 million ears. That takes away a little of the ah-ha pleasure of insinuating an unfamiliar word in a familiar place. But Wordsmith deserves plaudits for boosting the fortunes of some good words. A person who watches the presidential debate and who laughs and laughs and laughs is a hypergelast. Hypergelasts are those who laugh excessively, and what could be more excessive than laughing when affairs of moment are under debate? 

Those of us who collect words are often in danger of being drawn to the dark side: the nether realm of almost and would-be words, the limbo of stillborn neologisms. Sometimes these float out of half-heard conversations: once I heard some exclaim “That’s mind-bottling!” it was in my head forever, as was the phrase used by a speaker at a conference on diversity who said the idea had “spread like wild flower.”

Some are coinages actually in use but seem destined for short lives: staycation, ginormous, edutainment. Others are portmanteau words in Lewis Carroll’s sense—collisions of two words that make an evocative third. I am angry because I’m hungry: I’m hangry. My sometimes friend with whom I’m on the outs is my frenemy. When a boring fool proses on, he speaks drivial. Television personalities filling airtime have nonversations. Groups in need of a scapegoat sometimes hold meetings in which to blamestorm. And college campuses now offer students lots of opportunities to “serve the community,” through programs that can best be understood as voluntyrrany. The academic credit awarded at many colleges and universities to people volunteering in one of the presidential campaigns probably merits the designation “credirt.”

I don’t expect any of these to stick, but they make me smile. 

I also have a small collection of words that have defied definition. A student once gave me a paper describing someone as a “wreck-loose.” She meant the guy lived alone. Perhaps he lived alone too long. 

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