Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Knowhatimean?

The other day I was giggling at the music video of "LDN" as Lily Allen struggles to describe the sort of music she's looking for:

"I was wondering if you have any kinda like sort of punky, electronica.... kinda grime.... kinda like new wave grime.... kind of maybe like more broken beats.... like kinda dub-y broken beats, but a little bit kinda soulful? Like kinda drum & bass-y but kinda more broken drum & bass.... kinda broken beats but break-beat kinda broken drum & bass kinda....y'know what I mean?"

The record store employee stares at her blankly. Poor Lily.

This week the word galumph was one of Google's Words of the Day and seeing it there on display before the whole world reawakened my lifelong vanity quest to 1) find a naked idea in need of a word, 2) tailor the perfect word for it, 3) sit back enjoy the fame when my Perfect Word is canonized in the Oxford English Dictionary.

As you may know, Lewis Carroll coined two such words that now appear in every pocket dictionary: galumph, from "gallop" and "triumph," which means to lumber along in a joyful but clumsy way, and chortle, from "chuckle" and "snort," which means a snorting sort of laugh. I know what you're thinking: "However did we cope before we had words for these things??" It is indeed hard to imagine such a dark time. Of course, Lewis Carroll is nothing to Shakespeare, who is the first written source for a bazillion words we use today, but I'm excluding Shakespeare from the present discussion because it's way too easy to launch new words when the greatest ruler of the Western World is one of your groupies.

Elizabeth R: "Dispatch a Proclamation: all Christian gentlemen shall employ the word 'kickie-wickie' when insulting their wives. This on pain of death."

Royal Proclaimer: "Yes, Your Majesty. Pray, how dost thou spell 'kickie-wickie'?"

Unfortunately, I'm not chummy with any monarchs and my invented words have fallen flat. For instance, a cousin was trying to describe the mix of infatuation and caring she felt for a guy she was dating. I suggested she was feeling smitterpated (smitten and twitterpated at the same time). I got a courtesy laugh, but the word never made another appearance in her love stories.

I also invented a word for a friend spending a semester in Taiwan. In her letters she described the discomfort of sleeping on the unadorned board that was her bed. In my reply I proudly unveiled the word mattresslessness to describe her sad state, but again, no go. I grant that it's not a very useful word unless you go camping a lot. But maybe people could use it figuratively? As in "I'm tossing and turning on the mattresslessness of solitude?" C'mon -- someone throw me a bone.

Of course, according to Humpty Dumpty, "real" meaning is irrelevant. He recommends you find a word you like and use it to mean anything and everything. However, if you go this route you should bear in mind that there are strings attached:

'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -- that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me, please,' said Alice 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

So if you're independently wealthy, just pick a word and go with it. I recommend something impressive-sounding, like lugubrious.

My crazy aunts and uncle invented an elaborate childhood language that didn't die as they grew up -- rather they added new words over the years to give a goofy sparkle to the yicky bits of adulthood. For example, you had your gibs which were little bits of unidentified nastiness and your aquagrogans which were the gifts small children add to the bathwater (but only if they float).

My uncle was especially good at coming up with just the right word for things. He disappeared a couple years ago and I was fortunate that fate gave us one last evening together just a few days before he was last seen. That night I was moaning to him about a situation at work. I was assigned to work with a particular coworker known for her attack-the-bleeding business techniques. Working with her had sent me spiraling into week after week of teeth-grinding, tummy-aching nightmares, and I felt I was going to snap under the pressure of trying to appease her. My uncle listened sympathetically to my tales of woe and then said, "You ever watch those National Geographic shows? She sounds like the big nasty head gorilla in a gorilla tribe. The one they call the alpha-male, y'know? So I guess that would make her the alpha-b****?"

The Perfect Word. In the weeks that followed it floated me, silently giggling, through many a three-alarm showdown at work. It was his last gift to me, and what a beaut. Wherever you are, Uncle Greg, this post's for you. God bless your lugubrious* soul.


*Here, lugubrious means "uniquely witty, with a twist of lime."

29 comments:

Belladonna said...

My dad used to make up words all the time. He called eggs either "cackleberries" or "hen fruit". To die was to go "pincher's up". At one point my brother documented a whole long list of Don-isms, the sayings our father used. This post makes me want to go look for it again.

My beloved, on the other hand, only makes up words when we are playing scrabble and he has a poor selection of tiles. Just the other night he tried to pass off "Duft" meaning a gritty sort of lint. I suppose it could be a perfectly respectable word, but I wasn't about to yield the points.

Have you ever played Balderdash? It's one of my all time favorite games (although I can seldom find anyone willing to play it with me.)
I love making up definitions for words.

For example...on the word verificaton for this coment I see I must type in YLIFUZBA. Well does't everyone know that means the dark wax you get in your ears in late summer? Or is it the membrance inside the hollows of bird bones? NO! I know, it was the traditional fuzzy tassle on the top of a yak bridle.

Maybe I better not get too serious about this whole new word stuff afterall.

Marie said...

I love "hen fruit!"

I've asked my aunts to write up their language for posterity, but they always dodge me. I don't know if it's that they're too busy, or they don't want outsiders infiltrating their secret club!

Our official family game is Speed Scrabble, and I guess every family has a shameless cheater -- in our case it's Mom. She knows French and Spanish and some Hebrew and she's always trying to pass off mutt words mixed up from all her languages. It's really funny.

I love Balderdash, but I don't own the actual game -- we just call it the Dictionary Game -- we whip out my OED and the magnifying glass and let someone pick a word. My friend's favorite definition was one her brother came up with. The word was duvatyne (doo-vuh-tyne) and her brother's definition was "the inevitable fate of those who duvacrime." Ha! You are an excellent definition inventor and if you lived closer I'd make you do a few rounds with me. People seem to either love the game or hate it, and it seems the people around me these days are more of the latter camp.

Too much sanity 'round here.

Belladonna said...

OK - Here's one for you from the actual boardgame of Balderdash.

The word is "Owling".

Give it your best shot!

Marie said...

OWLING


If I wanted people to laugh:

What you 'ear in a 'urricane.



If I wanted people to believe me:

A medieval sport akin to falconry.

OR

A baby owl.

OR

A forged iron window covering common in early Scandinavian architecture, designed to deter nesting birds of prey.

Belladonna said...

Would you believe the "true" definition given on the game card is "rustling sheep"?

wynne said...

Oooo---I want to play! Do another one.

Marie said...

Okay -- how about "farctate"?

Belladonna said...

EVERYONE knows that word.

It is the binding material they put in synthetic vitamins to make them digestible.

Ok Wynne, Give it your best shot!

Belladonna said...

Now, if we were playing the REAL balderdash game, I'd give you a SELECTION of definitons...ONE of which would be the facutal one. Your job would be to pick the real one.

SO - for Farctate the choices are:

binding material they put in synthetic vitamins to make them digestible.

the crusty build up on newborns head also known as "cradle cap"

a part inside a steam engine

being overly full from eating to much

a type of cooking fuel made from the sap from a rubber plant

daughter-o-de-cokeaholic said...

Hey Marie,
I haven't heard that Greg-ism before. That is hilarious! Leave it to Greg to come up such a perfect term for that woman. I am glad you are working to keep the Brown family language expanding. For shame that we've lost Greg. I guess the torch must be passed on to our generation though.
So Leah and I were thinking it would be really fun to start a cousins blog for the Marshall's, your fam and mine. Any thoughts on that? I hope you have a good weekend, talk to you soon.
Love, Kelly

Steve said...

You know, I was thinking about your psot today as the poetry unit continues in my class today. The boys were trying to write clerihews (leave it up to a idiotic teacher like myself to start with sonnets and work backwards to clerihews!) and I had a boy rhyming and using hte word "peeve" completely out of context. I questioned him on it, but then thought of your blog and wondered if we'd have galumph if Carroll had some up tight, intern teacher breathing over his back and questioning every word choice. Maybe I'll need to stop cromulating my students' writing so often...

Marie said...

I LOVE the blog idea, K. And a big thumbs up on the domain name idea -- nice and juicy, just the way we likes it ;) Tell me where to log on and I'm there, chin hairs and all.

Steve -- way to be cool. I wish you'd been my teacher. Of course, I don't know if Mr Carroll would exist without the absurdities of formal education. He was a teacher of mathematics and logic at Oxford! Oh, and I had to look up "clerihew." I don't think I've written one of those before.

Wynne -- sooo... where are my definitions? Or do you want a new word? (I gots lots!)

wynne said...

The thing about me & Balderdash is I can't play to fool anybody. I just have to go for silly.

farctate. v. to collide; specifically, two subatomic particles with perpindicular rotations

v. what you do on anti-depressants (see "gastrointestinal distress") (very immature, but I can't help it)

v. to chew without any teeth

Marie said...

I would've believed the subatomic particles one, Wynne. You guys are hilarious!

So how do you think we play this game of online Balderdash? Do we take a vote on the proposed definitions? If so, who votes? I can't because I already know the definition, and you guys can't, because you both know that none of the proposed definitions are right. Or just go on to the next word and toss out the whole voting and scoring part?

Is everyone a winner in online Balderdash?

I'm thinking so. Here's another word, if anyone's itching to send me some more delicious B.S.

-----> jejunator

wynne said...

jejunator. n. Specific title for a gardener who sprays weed killer, esp. in June.

I have more--but the child just woke.
"I'll be back" (in heavy Austrian accent)

Marie said...

Wynne -- do you subscribe to the Word-a-Day list by Anu Garg? His word for the day is "pilgarlic." I remember that was one of the words you chose when we played the Dictionary game at that Christmas party.

Great word. Obscure insults are useful because you get to vent, but the other person doesn't know you're being mean (as long as you say it sweetly).

Please continue with "jejunator" at your convenience.

wynne said...

I will never forget pilgarlic. However, I am surprised that so many years later, you can remember one word that I chose...what a lovely brain you have, my dear.

Um...jejunator, was it? Still a noun...let's see...

1. jejunator. n. Master of Jejunit (and if you were to cross-reference to "Jejunit," this is what you would find: n. Style of Martial Art consisting of jerky leg movements and canisters of Cheez Wiz)

or

2. jejunator. n. Egyptologist who stutters.

3. jejunator. n. White dwarf star on the verge of collapsing as a result of a violation of the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

So--what does "farctate" mean, anyway? (I am OED-deprived.)

wynne said...

And here's one for you, Marie:

rasbora

Belladonna said...

OK - here are my proposals of definitions for RASBORA:

a)a dye stabalizer to prevent fabrics from fading

b) a tropical fish

c) a fungus that afflicts cattle

d) a hat style popular in Paris in the 1950's

e) a skin disease

ONE of these is true. The rest are made up. Can you guess without peeking?

Belladonna said...

By the way - to your pal Wynne, I LOVE the definition "to chew without any teeth." I may have to steal that one next time I play balderdash for real.

Marie said...

Whoa, Wynne -- what's with all the quantum physics?? You're hardcore!

I especially love the stuttering Egyptologist. Hee hee! Poor little dude --I can see him now, trying to say "Tutankhamen." The Arabs laugh at him, and a little tear trickles down his face, into his moustache. The jejunator needs a hug.

Farctate is an adj meaning stuffed or filled solid (mainly used in botany).


Here are my definitions for rasbora:

(noun): a pitch-like substance native to the Levant, widely used as a ship sealant

(noun): the attack call of a flying squirrel

(interjection): shouted by gondoliers before a gondola crash; roughly translated as "hey, you're about to crash into my gondola!"


I'm going to control my urge to google the word and take a guess on the real definition. Is it a skin disease, Belladonna?

wynne said...

Bravo Belladonna! She got you, Marie! Eeet's a FISH.

Though I do have to admit, the flying squirrel and the gondolier made me laugh.

Farctate?
Jejunator?
You guys aren't actually going to make me go through the trouble of googling these, are you?

Here's one more:
jink

And send me one back, would ya? Anyone?

wynne said...

Um...(blushing)...Marie, I didn't read very carefully, or I read and immediately forgot. The definition for "farctate" is RIGHT THERE! Oops.

Kim said...

jink (v): to wink with both eyes, such as "When I winked at my 3-year-old niece, she jinked back."

Marie said...

I could have sworn there was a disease that made your skin lumpy and red like a raspberry and that its name sounded like "rasbora." You lose, say the fishies!

jejunator: A person who fasts

(go ahead and work that into your testimony on Fast Sunday -- I dare you)


JINK

(noun) racial epithet applied to those of Japanese and Chinese ancestry

(verb) to bob the elbow up and down repeatedly; a term primarily used in sychronized swimming

(noun) tomfoolery; USAGE: frequently used with prefixes "hi-" or "low-" to indicate the intensity of said jink


I like that, Kim! I remember my little sister laboring to wink when she was small so she could be like the rest of us. Maybe she wouldn't have cared to acquire that particular skill if we'd told her 2-eyed winking was "jinking." Sounds much cooler to me.


I hope we'll get some more definitions for "jink." In the meantime, here's another one for Wynne to tackle:

aubade

wynne said...

Oh, heavens, that first one made me laugh, Marie! I wasn't expecting it.

I think I might actually start using Kim's definition of the word no matter what the real one is. Makes a great deal of sense.

Oh Belladoooona, where are you?

AUBADE

1. v. Opposite of "disobeyed with relish." (So, I guess, to obey with much mopery.)

2. n. French fishing vessel with two oars and removable sail.

3. n. Morning coat, typically made of brocade and ornamented with sequins, that is specifically tailored for dogs.

4. adj. Slippery with oil.

Marie said...

The English language is long overdue for a word that means "to obey with much mopery." Thank you kindly -- I will use it often.

I love the dogs in sequined morning coats. Your mind is populated with the kookiest critters!

Are you still there, Belladonna?

wynne said...

Marie--

Will you resurrect this game by making it a post? A new post? I still want to play. If you don't mind. (I looked up new words and everything.)

Marie said...

Yas'um. I'll get right on that when I'm off work. I wonder if I could figure out a way to make it an ongoing feature in my sidebar so it doesn't get buried again? Hmmmmm....

Can't wait to hear your word collection.