Tag Archives: wordplay

Fun with words: Update your dictionary

Photograph by Henry Lim.

There are too many fascinating words in English that don’t get used very often.  Our vocabulary tends to be limited to the scope of our daily lives, and the mundane exchanges of forgettable pleasantry that pass for typical conversation.  If the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow, English has a billion permutations of how to talk about snow in a workplace elevator.  Still, our language is full of tricks and tropes that allow us to use these same old words in exciting new ways.  You’ve probably used many of these without realizing what you were doing (or writing) at the time.  But much as a famous technology company would assure you that “there’s an app for that,” in English, there’s a word for that as well.  These are some of my favourites, and I hope they shall find greater use in the future:

  • Portmanteau – From French for “carry your coat,” this is a word that originates as the combination of two separate words in order to describe something new, like how combining smoke and fog gives you smog.  Some popular examples include breathalyzer, jazzercise, soundscape, televangelist, bromance, and, regrettably, bootylicious.
  • Mondegreen – Refer to my previous post on misheard lyrics – this is the term for those.  It was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, referring to a 17th Century poem called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” in which a stanza reads:  “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.”  Wright heard the latter phrase as “And Lady Mondegreen.”  The key to a true mondegreen, according to Wright, is that the misinterpretation must improve upon the original; hence, my father’s (in)famous misreading of Hall & Oates’ “The woman is wild, ooh” as “Poobulasquaooh” probably doesn’t count.  (See also:  “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”)
  • Anacoluthon – Familiar, if not immediately, to any man in trouble with his wife, this is the term for a phrase where the grammar is broken.  “It was just a – I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry.”
  • Apophasia – Politicians love this one, for it lets them slag their opponents without seeming like they’re doing so on purpose.  This is when you say you’re not going to mention something but end up insinuating it anyway.  Ronald Reagan used it to great effect in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale when he said after being challenged that he was too old to be President, “I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Or “You know, it’s not true, all that stuff they say about Phil being a lying, sleazy, unprincipled, back-stabbing, philanderous, greedy old opportunistic horse thief.”
  • Mumpsimus – Anyone who insists on saying “nucular” is guilty of this grammatical offense – the term for a habit adhered to obstinately, no matter how many times evidence shows it to be in error.  It comes from a story about a monk who mispronounced part of the Latin Eucharist and refused to change it to the correct version because he’d been doing it his own way for forty years.
  • Paraprosdokian – I just learned this one yesterday and I’ve saved the best for last.  This is where the second part of a sentence unexpectedly causes you to reinterpret the first part.  You could almost call it the Groucho Marx, as he was a master of it:  “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening – unfortunately, this wasn’t it.”  Or the other famous quote, usually interpreted to be said by or about Winston Churchill depending on where you read it:  “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

There you have it – six fun terms to expand your vocabulary – not that they’re likely to help when you’re stuck in that elevator on a snowy day.  Perhaps “anacoluthon” might spring to mind the next time you find yourself struggling for words in a difficult situation.  You could even try to relax the tension of the moment by pointing it out to your sparring partner.  I disavow myself of all legal responsibility therefor should you then get summarily punched in the face.

P.S. Thanks to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge for its customary assistance.

Fun with words: Embiggened English

Last year, when that cunning polyglot Sarah Palin was castigated for her invented word “refudiate,” she invoked Shakespeare and the perpetual evolution of the English language.  While the Bard might execute the expected cemetery gymnastics in being compared to a person who never met a present-tense verb she couldn’t wrest of its “g,” the Barracuda was, to her credit, quite savvy in her assessment of our mother tongue.  Admittedly my opinion is biased given that apart from some passable conversational French, it’s the only language with which I’m intimately familiar, but I find the almost infinite permutations of “the Queen’s” fascinating.  Dialects, accents, patois, cant, slang, rhyming slang, textspeak (editor’s note:  vomit), jargon, technobabble, profanity, and the notion that a person from back-street Glasgow and one from Texas would never be able to understand one another despite using all the same words.  Particularly the profanity.  The great Stephen Fry recently tweeted what has become my new favourite:  “Bollocks arse wank and tittypoo.”  Try it sometime when you’ve just bashed your thumb with a hammer.  To quote The King’s Speech, it flows trippingly from the tongue.

It doesn’t have to be countries developing their own variations on English.  New lexicons spring up amongst even individuals.  As a relationship develops, partners formulate their own code and refine terms that are of use only to them.  Married friends of mine say “Icarus” to alert each other when their child is verging on a tantrum – justified props for the classical reference to the guy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings.  My own better half and I have conjured a host of phrases that are nonsensical to outsiders but capture with craftsman-like precision the very substance of the entity being described, in a relaxed, familiar manner that lets us know just what the other is thinking and feeling at that moment.  I present for your entertainment then, a sampling of our forays into etymology, and trust that you will not come away thinking us insane.  Pronunciation guide added where appropriate.

  • Bluhcky: BLUH-kee (adjective):  Descriptive for inclement weather, particularly that which is a combination of cold, damp/raining, fog or gray.  “It’s a really bluhcky day out today.”
  • Boogloo (noun):  Our cat’s covered bed, which resembles a small igloo, and thus a portmanteau of that and boo-boo-kitty“The cat is asleep in her boogloo.”  An additional note here is that boo- can be used as a prefix for any number of objects that relate to the cat:  Boo-bits (her food), boo-box (where her food goes when she’s done with it), boo-barf (the occasional unfortunate hairball).
  • Burnippy:  BRR-nippy (adjective):  Descriptive of a state of extreme cold.  “It’s supposed to be really burnippy tomorrow.”
  • Dirters (noun):  Portmanteau of dirty and unders, i.e. underwear, used to refer to any form of laundry that needs attention.  “Don’t leave your dirters on the bedroom floor.”
  • Frabjabbits (noun):  Exclamation to be used in situations deemed unfortunate, similar to “goshdarnit.”  “That local sports team lost again.  Oh, frabjabbits.”
  • Poobulasquaooh: POO-buh-lah-squah-ooh (???):  Placeholder for any song lyric that defies comprehension.  This is my father’s interpretation of a hastily delivered, slightly obscure line from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” which actually goes “The woman is wild, ooh.”
  • Shmorgee-borgee (noun):  A meal consisting of a random assemblage of whatever food happens to be available, usually leftovers.  “We have lots of chicken and veggies and stuff so let’s just have a shmorgee-borgee tonight.”  An obvious if Swedish Chef-ized variation on “smorgasbord.”
  • Showeriffic (adjective):  Descriptive for how one feels after a warm, cleansing and satisfying shower, especially if one was particularly dirty and/or sweaty going in.  “That shower with the sixteen jets is just showeriffic.”
  • Snorfly (adjective)/The Snorfles (noun):  The state of feeling congested due to a cold or persistent allergies.  “Cleaning up that cat hair gave me the snorfles” or “I feel all snorfly after being out in the rain.”

What can I say, they require less spitting and hacking than Klingon.  Seriously though, just try slipping a few of these into your next conversation and let me know about the blank stares you get back.  But don’t tell me you don’t have your own mini-dictionary of words and phrases just for you and yours.  It’s how we personalize a flexible, slightly weathered old horse we’ve all been sharing since Beowulf – how to make a little piece of English, a very common good, our very own.  Sounds pretty cromulent to me.

Fun with words: What’s missing?

A dollop of fun today, a touch dissimilar to rants past.  Your mission, and I think you’ll find it amusing, is to scan my paragraphs and unmask what’s missing from my words that you would normally find abundant.  It is my task also, to suss out if I can do it whilst maintaining a gripping account for visitors to my blog.  Why do I do this?  Curiosity, mainly; to find if it is at all within my writing skills.  Do I fancy my output as wordplay on par with that of a craftsman such as, say, Nabokov?  Hardly.  Most vigorously not, in point of fact.  Triumph in this pursuit, or falling short, will signify nothing important, or lasting.  It is, truly, just for kicks.

Pray, what to talk about today?  Our world is a cornucopia, rampant with judicious topics:  a sampling might contain a follow-up to All Hallows’, political turmoil abroad and on our own soil, institutional ramifications of Kim Kardashian’s imploding nuptials, or sonic vistas from Coldplay’s album Mylo Xyloto.  Or my familiar go-to if nothing can catch my imagination on that day, Aaron Sorkin’s vast portfolio of writings.  Anyway, I’ll go for a story I find particularly irritating.

Much was said about Ms. Kardashian’s 72-day sham, mainly and rightly, that it is folly to proclaim in this day of our ongoing commoditization of stardom that any should look upon gay unions as a singular hazard to that most holy (said with sarcasm) institution of matrimony.  Is it not individuals such as Kim who turn such important rituals into ridiculous “shows” for cash who should catch our communal scorn?  Why do loyalists to a particular political inclination go on fighting to bar gay unions if straight Kim and company can flaunt what is so important to so many loving pairs with such disdain?  A high point of hypocrisy, I would think.  Not that it’s a shock coming from such sorts.  It’s always about “saving our morality,” a worn-out justification to attack things out of favour with a diminishing group of old right-wing layabouts.

A propos of our villain in this saga, you cannot totally fault Kim.  Truly, all of us must swallow our own wrongdoing in popularizing Kim’s antics and crafting a mass craving for additional clowning around; purchasing stacks of flimsy publications thanks simply to Kim’s mug only adds to this “famous-for-nothing” lady’s kingdom of public domination.  It will not stop until common man opts to turn his focus away and to topics of vital import.  Until that day, Kim Kardashian and ilk will maintain an unnatural hold on our discussion and grow rich, with a continuing sum contribution of nothing to civilization’s gradual growth (or stagnation).

I shall stop my rant at this point and ask you again to look back at this post and say what is missing.  For my part, it was good fun to craft.  You may submit your thoughts in our usual way.  Alas, naught but bragging rights to our victor.  Good luck though, and happy hunting!