The Words of October 2011

Fourteen “Words of the Day” from the last month.

Part 1 — Dictionary.com (Date of First Known Use in English Taken from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, except where noted)

10/5: Bandersnatch [BAN-der-snach] (noun) an imaginary wild animal of fierce disposition. Origin: Bandersnatch was invented by Lewis Carroll in 1871 in his book Through the Looking Glass.

10/9: Milquetoast [MILK-tohst] (noun) a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated. Origin: Milquetoast is after Caspar Milquetoast, a comic strip by H.T. Webster (1885-1952), American cartoonist. First Known Use: 1935

10/14: Cosmogony [koz-MOG-uh-nee] (noun) a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe. Origin: Cosmogony stems from the Greek kosmogonia meaning “creation of the world,” from kosmos “world, universe” and -gonia “a begetting.” First Known Use: 1696

10/15: Askance [uh-SKANS] (adverb) with suspicion, mistrust, or disapproval. Origin: The origin of askance has not been verifiably determined. It is possibly a variant of the Old Norse word askew meaning “to one side.” First Known Use: c. 1530

10/21: Loll [lol] (verb) to recline or lean in a relaxed, lazy, or indolent manner; lounge. Origin: Loll is derived from the Middle English lollen, lullen which compares to the Middle Dutch lollen meaning “to doze, sit over the fire.” First Known Use: 14th century

10/23: Ferly [FER-lee] (noun) something unusual, strange, or causing wonder or terror. Origin: Ferly is derived from Old English fǣrlīc meaning fǣr (fear) and -līc (-ly). It was related to the German gefährlich meaning dangerous. First Known Use: 13th century

10/31: Nyctophobia [nik-tuh-FOH-bee-uh] (noun) an abnormal fear of night or darkness. Origin: Nyctophobia stems from the Greek nyktos- meaning night and phobia meaning fear. First Known Use: Early 20th century (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

Our first two words this month are perfect for each other, both in their contrasting meanings and the similarity of their origins. The bandersnatch is part of the strange menagerie in Lewis Carroll’s famous and neologism-filled poem “Jabberwocky,” from Through the Looking Glass. In the poem it is described as “frumious” (fuming + furious), but nothing else is said about it. It has fallen upon Carroll’s many followers to describe the creature in detail, and vastly different interpretations have been offered, from the tree-like monster (pictured above) in Anna Matlack Richards’s A New Alice in the Old Wonderland (1895) to the dog-like monster in Tim Burton’s 2010 film, Alice in WonderlandMilquetoast, it so happens, would be just the type of person to fall prey to the bandersnatch. From H.T. Webster’s cartoon series The Timid Soul, Caspar Milquetoast was described by the cartoonist as “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” I find it very interesting that this word has so quickly come into general use, to the point where I, at least, wasn’t aware of its origin until October 9 of this year. Yet bandersnatch is an older word, and its origin is inseparable from the word itself. It’s safe to say that Lewis Carroll is more famous than H.T. Webster. Regardless, Webster’s word has seeped more effectively into English-speaking cultures than Carroll’s. Consequently, milquetoast is the better word for general use, unless the writer intends a specific tribute to Carroll. Both words are formed from preexisting words: milquetoast, of course, from “milk” and “toast,” two boring, basic parts of the diet. The “Jabberwocky” article on Wikipedia suggests that bandersnatch takes “bander,” “an archaic word for ‘leader,'” and combines it with “snatch,” so that the creature seeks out and takes leaders, generally the strongest and most clever in a group. Perhaps, then, a milquetoast would survive after all — were it not for the Jubjub bird and the Jabberwock, of course.

Cosmogony is a good scientific Greek word. Etymologically (another good scientific Greek word), the word only means “birth of the world.” But since that event was not observed by any human being, science is restricted to theories as to what that event looked like. Because this word is so commonly used in discussions about the origin of the universe, the aspect of a “theory” or “story” has become part of the definition. Therefore, it might not be completely accurate to use the word in reference to the beginnings of an idea or worldview, for example. But I don’t see any reason to quibble on that point. At any rate, fictional worlds can certainly be built through the stories we write, and the idea of cosmogony and the potential controversy inherent in it could definitely be used dramatically.

Askance can also mean “with a side glance” or “obliquely.” In fact, this is how the word was first used in English, and it seems to have developed its more common meaning through visual metaphor. To glance to one’s side is to look away from one’s objective to “keep an eye on” something else. This word, then, is useful not only in itself but as a reminder that the idea of suspicion can be conveyed in a simple, and simply described, action.

I don’t think I’ve come across loll very often, which surprises me a little, although alternatives to the word are plentiful. Those alternatives might be more easily understood, but I think the word loll evokes its meaning quite well. In fact, I don’t think misunderstanding is likely when the word is placed in context.

Ferly is interesting for a few reasons. One is that it is primarily a Scottish word, so unfortunately it isn’t likely to be understood in America. Second, a Google search reveals that it can be a proper name. Third, Dictionary.com and the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary are not in agreement as to the meaning of the Old English fǣrlīc.  MWOD has the neutral term “unexpected,” not “fear.” That seems to account for the lack of prominence given “fear” in the definition. A ferly can be any source of wonder or amazement. At the same time, the connection between fǣr and fear is obvious. Because this word isn’t really used over here, I can’t say how often it connotes fear as opposed to wonder. However, those two ideas are in fact similar. It is only the recognition that the strange thing poses a threat that turns wonder to fear. There could be room for a great deal of study within this small word.

The -phobia in nyctophobia identifies it immediately. That suffix has become instantly recognizable. The only question is, of what is the nyctophobe afraid? The Greek prefix means “night,” but the phobia is any fear of darkness. As with all phobias, though, it has a precise medical definition that goes beyond the general apprehension in dark places that most of us share. Phobias are typically described as irrational fears. There’s nothing irrational in worrying about tripping over something or falling into a hole. But to be afraid in one’s own room when the light is turned off reaches into phobia territory. Still, I don’t think “irrational” is a good word; “abnormal,” as Dictionary.com uses, is more sweeping and less insulting. Not all phobias derive from inert things, after all; many take genuinely dangerous situations or creatures and give them more power over the person than they naturally have. Just a pinch of fear, for the sake of alertness, may actually be called for when walking through a dark area. But to suffer from nyctophobia, or any other, is to have more fear than one can handle.

Part 2 — Urban Dictionary (WARNING: Some strong language)

10/5: Shitload (noun) more than an assload but still less than a fuckton. Definition contributed in 2004

10/9: Brofessional (noun) a professional bro. This is a person who excels in party related activity with a professional style. They are good at all things party: i.e. drinking, smoking, dancing, talking to the opposite sex, getting out of situations, etc. Definition contributed in 2008

10/14: Cringeworthy (adjective) when someone does something that is worthy of a cringe. Definition contributed in 2007

10/15: Babe paralysis (noun) a temporary state whereby one’s motor skills are severe [sic] impeded by the need to spontaneously interact with an extraordinarily attractive women [sic]. Definition contributed in 2011

10/21: Mullet over (verb) when a guy with a mullet ponders or considers a decision at great length such as whether to buy Keystone beer or Iron City beer. Definition contributed in 2011

10/23: Groutfiti (noun) a form of graffiti. It involves writing in the tiny space of grout in between tiles in public toilets. The phrases always are made up of some pun using the word grout. Other examples include movie titles, like “The grout, the bad, and the ugly” or simple words, like “groutrageous.” Definition contributed in 2005

10/31: Halloween (noun) an annual excuse for girls to dress like sluts and get away with it. Definition contributed in 2004

The dirty word of the month is shitload. The word “shit” is, of course, another name for feces, and the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary cites its first known use at circa 1526. It is among the most offensive commonly used words in the language. All offensiveness aside, though, it’s a pretty incredible word — particularly considering how far it has come. Today it has a massive variety of uses and derivative forms, all considered deeply vulgar, but both positive and negative. Often, as in the case of shitload, it is used for nothing more than emphasis. The word shitload is essentially nonsensical. Obviously, any definition in the Urban Dictionary that provides a precise measurement for a “shitload” would be satirical. But there’s no doubt the word refers to a great amount of something. The tone in recognizing this great amount may be one of exasperation, amusement, or begrudging respect. Delivery and context do much more to explain the word’s meaning than the word itself possibly could.

Brofessional, like a Lewis Carroll word, combines two ideas. “Bro” is still used for an actual brother, but probably more often it refers to a close friend, a fellow you can count on for help or support. Adding the label “professional” denotes someone who is especially adept at this.

Cringeworthy, like shitload, has successfully crossed over to more legitimate sources like the Collins English Dictionary. Actually, I’m not sure of the chronology, but I like to think of the Urban Dictionary as a springboard for new words, some of which are good enough to stick. Cringeworthy is absolutely good enough to do so. It is a completely self-describing word, which accounts for the redundancy of the Urban Dictionary’s definition. And unlike many new words, it preserves the life of a particularly old (13th century) word and makes it part of today’s lexicon. This is wonderful.

Babe paralysis is a relatable idea for me. Let’s move on.

I couldn’t resist including mullet over. It’s a particularly bad pun, but I don’t mind that when the target is so insultable.

The portmanteau words bandersnatch, milquetoast, and shitload are made up of harmoniously adjoined words. I don’t think we can say the same for groutfiti. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s not a term I’d heard before, and perhaps through repeating it I’ll come around. I wasn’t familiar with the concept, either. Although I’ve been in public restrooms with graffiti before, I don’t believe I’ve ever looked closely at writing between the tiles. Those also seem to be populated with bad puns, so I don’t feel any regret about missing out.

Finally, we have Halloween, a word for which the Urban Dictionary has many humorous definitions. However, this definition has been approved by the site’s users nine times as often as the second most popular definition. And it’s actually a concept that I encountered at several places on the internet this year. I think the less I say about it, the better. It is what it is. Wearing costumes can serve many functions, and a primary one is to step out of one’s self, to put on a role and “get away with it.” The motives behind the disguise and exactly what it is the person is trying to “get away with” should be examined as much as the nature of the costume itself.

The cringeworthy milquetoast looked askance at everyone that Halloween; over the course of the evening, he suffered bouts of babe paralysis and nyctophobia in succession until he finally passed out at the ferly of a distant bandersnatch call.

2 responses to “The Words of October 2011

  1. Pingback: The Words of November 2011 « infinitecrescendo·

  2. Pingback: The Words of February 2012 « infinitecrescendo·

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