Monthly Archives: February 2006

Weird Words

Absquatulate; Carphology; Deasil; Gaberlunzie; Semordnilap. No, they’re not new life forms; neither are they aliens. They are among a collection of English words that you can find, with their definitions, in the Weird Words Index of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words website.

Quinion’s site is definitely a place for word lovers. He adopts the OED style (more on that in a future post) of tracing back an expression or definition through dated quotes cited from published works, that define the word/expression. Here’s an example:


Relating to dinner or supper.

This is one of 22,889 words and senses marked in the Oxford English Dictionary as being both obsolete and rare. The OED’s only record for it is from a work of 1646 by the physician Sir Thomas Browne. He’s immortalised in the OED by 3792 other citations, which include many equally rare words, such as bicipitous (having two heads); elychnious (having the nature of a wick); latirostrous (broad-beaked); stillicidious (falling in drops); and zodiographer (a person who writes about animals).

Cenatory isn’t quite so rare as the OED entry might suggest. It turns up, for example, in Camp-Fire and Cotton-Field, by Thomas W. Knox, published in 1865: “On one line of boats, the cold meats on the supper-table were from carefully selected pieces, cooked and cooled expressly for the cenatory meal.” And it’s in James Branch Cabell’s Chivalry (1921), in a passage that follows a description of a meal: “Richard was replete and contented with the world. He took up the lute, in full consciousness that his compliance was in large part cenatory.”

Cenatory is from Latin cenatorius, relating to dinner. It has a similar meaning to prandial (Latin prandium, meal), which the OED describes as “affected or jocose” and which usually appears in the compounds pre-prandial, before dinner (sometimes also ante-prandial), and post-prandial, after the meal. (“He went through dinner talking on such events of the time as usually form the subject of prandial conversation.”—The Man Who Bought London, by Edgar Wallace, 1915.)

Go for a visit and feast your eyes and your brain.

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English, the easy language

Over at the Quipping Queen, the latest entry is over the letter “D”.

I’ve said before in my entries on English, that this language, which is purported to be so easy, is one of the most difficult to learn well. Sure, you can use certain words, such as get, go, or do, add a preposition, and you change the meaning, but English has a specific word for everything. Some, of course, have fallen into obscurity, and these are the ones that the Queen is playing with. Here are some of my favorite “D” words from the list she’s given us:

  • davering: walking about in a dazed condition, as in to wander aimlessly
  • dashpot: shock absorber
  • deipnosophist: one who is exceptionally good at dinner-table conversation
  • deltiologist: one who collects postcards
  • deosculator: one who kisses affectionately and passionately
  • dharmic: pertaining to an individual’s duty fulfilled by observance of customs or cosmic laws
  • dome doily: a wig
  • donnicker: a toilet
  • donsy: restive or saucy
  • dontopedalogy: putting one’s foot in one’s mouth
  • dowcet: the testicle of a deer or rabbit
  • droobs: dull or boring people
  • dunghavenhooters: imaginary mouthless creatures that beat their victims into gas and inhale them through large nostrils
  • dysbulia: loss of will power

In continuing with the theme of the beauty –and complexity– of the English language, my friend Ron Purvis sent me an email this morning on that same topic. I’d seen it before, but it’s always fun to reread:
(Note: I have no idea of the origins of what I included below. If someone does, please let me know, I’ll give credit where credit is due)

  • The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  • Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present .
  • A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
  • When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
  • I did not object to the object.
  • The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  • There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row .
  • They were too close to the door to close it.
  • The buck does funny things when the does are present.
  • A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
  • To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  • The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
  • Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
  • I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
  • How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. […] If we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? […] you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? […] In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? […] your house can burn up as it burns down, […] you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visib le, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

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A computer for luddites

An article in the New Scientist online states that a new quantum computer “works best switched off”.

“With the right set-up, the theory suggested, the computer would sometimes get an answer out of the computer even though the program did not run. And now researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have improved on the original design and built a non-running quantum computer that really works.

I knew that quantum physics and quantum mechanics were weird. This one, though, beats my story of parallel universes (Meter Made), which is based on brane theory, derived from quantum physics.

Thanks to Ed Willet for pointing to the article.

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Pod-by-mouth: for good or ill?

Writer and editor Poddy Mouth (an alias, obviously) started a blog to review books printed through the print-on-demand medium. She originally started with the premise that most POD books were crap. Supposedly, she was surprised to find a pearl among the rocks and decided to call on publishers and editors to submit books (she’s bought some, too) so that she could find more pearls… perhaps. The end result is the Needle Awards, and some end-of-year stats. Some of those stats struck me:

  • Total number of books considered: 1,398
  • Total number books read to completion but did not get reviewed (the ones that came “this close”): 43
  • Total number of books not read past first page: 132
  • Total number of books not read past first paragraph: 12
  • Total number of books not read past first sentence: 2

Most of the books she received were self-published, thus perpetuating, again, the myth that POD equates self-publication and low quality.

Sure, she says she found some good books, but it’s only the opinion of one person, after all. I’m not sure her reviews translate into sales for those authors who made it into the hallowed halls of her blog, but I’m wondering if she’s not making more damage to writers in general, and to legitimate publishers (not “printers”, like iUniverse or Lulu) who are small and are trying to cut costs by using an alternate method of printing the books they publish. It’s the same old story: if you’re not published by the big ones (and Poddy Mouth is published by Penguin Putnam), you’re not really worth much. She started this as a lark and, regardless of the surprises she found, she still sees POD as a publisher rather than a printing method. I’m not planning on thanking her to perpetuate the legend.

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Strange Horizons

Matt Cheney, from the Mumpsimus, pointed to this week’s Strange Horizons, in which he is a contributor. I’m sure he’s mentioned the weekly SF magazine on his blog before, but it’s the first time I visited. It’s chockfull of interesting stuff, from commentary and fiction to art.

Matt’s column this week is about language “accessibility”:

“There is no such thing as “accessible writing.” There is writing that is, under some conditions, accessible to certain audiences. But even that statement is not entirely true, because it presumes we can say that something definitely did or definitely did not communicate everything it was supposed to communicate.

To cry that a type of writing “is not accessible” and then to decry that “writing should be accessible” is to make a narcissistic claim. The claim builds off the expectation that what you read should conform to the conventions you know and are most comfortable with. It universalizes personal preferences. It is a totalitarian impulse.”

I have pondered this concept of accessibility as well. There are books I have struggled through –for instance, Blindness by Jose Saramago– with some frustration because I had to work at understanding the message, and I was awed and intimidated by the prose. (Blindness remains one of my favorite books of all times.) Would most people I know work at reading these kinds of books? Probably not. They are work. For me, anyway. I don’t pretend to be highly intelligent or cultivated, so maybe the struggle lies within my own capacity for understanding. We also live in a culture of speed, and taking the time to understand concepts and messages, making the effort, seems daunting and exhausting.

Does “accessible” mean easy? I think not. Maybe it means that the writing must speak to you, on an emotional level, before it speaks to your mind. We all experience emotions differently, so it stands to reason that some writing would impact us differently as well. But if your emotions are engaged, the effort is more justifiable. I suppose there is narcissism in that.

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