When Words Get Stuck in the Memory, Part II

AnomalyIn the spirit of the season, here’s the sequel to a barely-seen post from three years ago. It’s even longer than the original! At least it’s free. Honestly, I enjoyed the exercise the first time around, and as with so many sequels, the idea of coming up with another list of words started germinating almost as soon as I hit “Publish.” For those just joining us: sometimes my experience of a given word is inextricably bound up with a specific cultural artifact. I’m not talking about words that have become brands; there’s no point discussing the associations bound up in adjectives like “daffy” and “snoopy,” or nouns like “monopoly” and “starburst.” The words I have in mind are only incidentally used in the shows, songs, and products to which I link them, but because I encountered these artifacts as a child, the experience was formative. Now, whenever I hear or see these words again, my mind tends to recall those experiences, however remote.

This is all just a silly diversion, but I think it’s a fun way of clearing some mental attic space — brushing the cobwebs off the memory. Like last time, I’ve assembled ten words below, with definitions provided by Dictionary.com.

Adjacent [uh-JEY-suhnt] (adjective) lying near, close, or contiguous; adjoining; neighboring: a motel adjacent to the highway.

  • Risk board game, released in 1959, but of course I didn’t get around to it until the 90s.
  • Here’s a prime example of the point I just made about words being used “incidentally.” I can’t imagine whoever wrote the instructions to this game thought that their use of the word “adjacent” was some kind of unforgettable flourish. But I’m quite confident that I’d never seen the word when I first pored over the complex rules for this highly entertaining game. Now that I think of it, I can probably trace my experience with the word “oblong” back to Risk, as well. Not to mention all the outdated geopolitical boundaries.

Anomaly [uh-NOM-uh-lee] (noun) a deviation from the common rule, type, arrangement, or form.

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All Good Things…”, broadcast May 23, 1994, videotaped and revisited periodically ever since.
  • I was too young to follow along too closely with Star Trek: TNG while it was still on the air. Otherwise I surely would have known that anomalies were a somewhat frequent topic of discussion. But the series finale, in which Captain Picard jumps among three different periods of time and has to figure out how to prevent humanity’s extinction, was a major event. The word is amusing for its vagueness, but because of this show my assumption when I hear it is that it means bad news.

Carnage [KAHR-nij] (noun) the slaughter of a great number of people, as in battle; butchery; massacre.

  • Spider-Man comics, introduced in 1991-1992, first seen in Spider-Man: The Animated Series in 1996.
  • This is a character named after a thing. He’s a Spider-Man villain, best described as “not Venom, the other guy.” These symbiotic monsters first grabbed a hold of my imagination through their portraits, either on the accompanying comic book covers or as advertisements elsewhere, I don’t remember exactly. “Symbiote” or “venom” would also make good candidates for a list like this, but “carnage” is the nastiest word of the three.

Custard [KUHS-terd] (noun) a dessert made of eggs, sugar, and milk, either baked, boiled, or frozen.

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Food for Thought,” broadcast October 15, 1988, but I was less than a year old then, so there must have been a rerun sometime.
  • Theodore the chipmunk is having a little trouble with his history class, so his brothers come upon the solution of associating different historical events with different foods. (If you’re new to the Alvin and the Chipmunks mythos, pantophagy is kinda Theodore’s whole deal.) As a memory aid, this was a great idea, because it evidently worked on me too. Not only when I think of the dessert, but George Armstrong Custer as well, this episode of a show I’ve otherwise completely forgotten will probably spring to mind.

Gambit [GAM-bit] (noun) 1. Chess: an opening in which a player seeks to obtain some advantage by sacrificing a pawn or piece. 2. any maneuver by which one seeks to gain an advantage.

  • X-Men comics, introduced in 1990, one of the main characters in X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-1997).
  • Chess has been a part of my life for a long time, but a cartoon beat it to the punch as far as the word “gambit” is concerned. Once again, it’s a character’s nickname — a good guy, this time, although like so many of the X-Men, he has a complicated reputation. The props he uses are playing cards, not chess pieces, but it wasn’t such a huge leap from one context to the other. I eventually got pretty good at chess, but the gambit was one of the strategies I never experimented with much. The word can also be used figuratively in other contexts, such as politics.

Incinerator [in-SIN-uh-rey-ter] (noun) a furnace or apparatus for burning trash, garbage, etc., to ashes.

  • G.I. Joe action figure, released in 1991.
  • I knew I had a toy called “Incinerator,” but it wasn’t until I did a little googling that I saw it was part of the G.I. Joe line. I must have forgotten. G.I. Joe was never a big part of my life, and this might have been the only toy from that famous brand I ever owned. I liked that little fellow and thought he had a really cool name. Incidentally, this word is also the source of my personal all-time favorite mondegreen. In the Wallflowers’ song “One Headlight,” the line goes, “me and Cinderella / [we] put it all together.” But for quite a long while I insisted on hearing it as, “the incinerator / put it all together,” or something like that. Don’t ask me what I thought the song was about; all I knew was that it used that cool word again.

IncineratorLingo [LING-goh] (noun) the language and speech, especially the jargon, slang, or argot, of a particular field, group, or individual: gamblers’ lingo.

  • “Burger King Kids Club” ad campaign, 1989-2005.
  • To help sell their kids’ meals, Burger King created a group of kids (and one dog) who fit into various archetypes. Lingo was Hispanic and loved art. I’m not sure how well I understood either of these facts at the time, but like most of the words on this list, “lingo” stuck out because I hadn’t seen it before. Another character was named I.Q., so I tend to think of him when I see that abbreviation as well. These characters had such a hold on my imagination that I distinctly remember owning a Burger King calendar for 1996. It’s the only calendar I can remember in this way. I’m not sure if my 2015 calendar had nature photos or Norman Rockwell paintings on it, but I still remember the Burger King one.

Pastoral [PAS-ter-uhl, PAH-ster- ] (adjective) 1. having the simplicity, charm, serenity, or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas: pastoral scenery; the pastoral life. 3. portraying or suggesting idyllically the life of shepherds or of the country, as a work of literature, art, or music: pastoral poetry; a pastoral symphony. 5. of or relating to a pastor or the duties of a pastor: pastoral visits to a hospital. (noun) a poem, play, or the like, dealing with the life of shepherds, commonly in a conventional or artificial manner, or with simple rural life generally; a bucolic.

  • Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastoral,” first performed in 1808, used in the movie Fantasia in 1940. I finally came around to it in the 90s.
  • Music is usually described as having a strong hold on memory, so it’s interesting to me that, between these two blog posts, only ten percent of the words that stuck out to me come from musical compositions (not counting “incinerator”). Pop songs have their famous hooks, but those lyrics don’t typically make room for unusual words. Instead, I looked to a hymn in the first post and a symphony this time. Thanks to Fantasia, Beethoven’s Sixth is just as familiar to me as the Third, the Fifth, and the Ninth. The word itself, as you can see, applies equally to shepherds and preachers, and I’m somewhat familiar with both spheres.

Upstart [UHP-stahrt] (noun) 1. a person who has risen suddenly from a humble position to wealth, power, or a position of consequence. 2. a presumptuous and objectionable person who has so risen; parvenu.

  • Duck Soup, released in 1933, seen on video in the 90s.
  • This is the seven-letter insult that ignites a war in the Marx Brothers’ political satire. It’s very easy to remember not only because it’s repeated, but because it’s explicitly singled out as the worst in a whole list of pejoratives. As the definitions above make clear, this description fits Rufus T. Firefly to a, um, T.

Zinc [zingk] (noun) Chemistry: a ductile, bluish-white metallic element: used in making galvanized iron, brass, and other alloys, and as an element in voltaic cells. Symbol: Zn; atomic weight: 65.37; atomic number: 30; specific gravity: 7.14 at 20°C.

  • “Nutrition Facts” labels on cereal boxes, idly read in the 90s. (I learned all of these words in the 90s, didn’t I?)
  • Yeah, I was one of those kids who consulted the Nutrition Facts on the side of the box. I learned about carbohydrates and a few different kinds of B vitamins this way. Last but not least came zinc. Zinc is a mineral, the nutritional value of which is still unknown to me, and I’m in no hurry to learn more about it. It’s a fun little word. Like a dork, I humorously incorporated it into a speech I gave in middle school, and I encountered it as recently as last weekend, in the Billy Wilder film Avanti! But for me it will always possess an ineffable connection to breakfast.

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