Words at Play


I recently read a wonderful book about words entitled Wordcatcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words (2010) by Phil Cousineau.  The author discusses approximately 250 words (in alphabetical order), but also talks about many more “companion words.”  Here are a few examples of his entries – including “lagniappe” which is the title of a monthly post on this website.

JAZZ In a word, Louis; in two, Ella Fitzgerald; in three, Charlie “Bird” Parker; in four, Irish heat or passion. Its origins are as hip as its syncopated rhythm. Jazz jumped out of Black America’s juke joints, those cheap bars in the South that flailed with bump-and-grind dancing and bad-ass music, as intertwined as two lovers on the dance floor swaying to an Eartha Kitt song. So jazzin’ was slang for getting it on, jazzy became an adjective to describe the slick moves of a Pete Maravich on the basketball court. Cassidy’s Irish-American dictionary offers the Irish teas, pronounced j’as ch’as, and meaning “passion, ardor, excitement, sexual heat and excitement.” His persuasive research tracks the word to as early as 1917, in the Bay Area, where it was a “hot new word” heard in music halls and whorehouses and on baseball fields. He writes, “Jazz was so full of jasm and gism (iteas ioma, an abundance of heat) … It was a word you learned by ear—like jazz music.” Often used together by the immigrant Irish, jasm and gism had a kind of bluesy “call and response” relationship, which resulted in tch’as pronounced, drum roll, please—jazz. Originally a kind of “spark.” it appears in Northern California sports pages, in the 1890s, to describe ballplayers who performed with gis, sass, zest, pizzazz. In hipster slang, jazz means having sex, as in “I Want a Jazzy Kiss,” by Mamie Smith, 1921. Companion words include jazzbo, boyfriend; jazz water, bootleg alcohol; jazzed, excited. Jive, as indispensable in jazz as syncopation, is defined in Hip Slang as “to kid, to talk insincerely, to use elaborate or trick language”—immortalized in Cab Calloway’s crepuscular dictionary of Jive Talk in the 1920s.

LAGNIAPPE An expensive word for a cheap gift given to a customer. This coinage comes from New Orleans, deriving from la napa, Spanish for “the gift,” from the American Indian or Cajun word yapa, a present from a trader to a steady customer. The impulse behind this form of gift giving is alive and well in the form of tchotchkes and gewgaws such as T-shirts, pens, pads of paper presented as little gifts, reminders, gratitudes. Funk cites our greatest wordsmith, Mark Twain’s, clever usage in Life on the Mississippi: “The English were trading beads and blankets to them [the Indians] for a consideration and throwing in civilization and whiskey ‘for lagniappe.’”

MELANCHOLY Overwhelming sadness, merciless moodiness, grief’s house. Hovering on the edge of chapfallen, sullen, gloomy, and petulant. The word first appears in English in 1303, from the Greek melancholia, from melas, black, and khole, bile or gall, an excess of which was said to cause plunging fits of depression, or irascibility. Traditionally, melancholy was regarded as the result of an overabundance of this “black gall,” a belief that’s survived in the expression “You’ve got a lot of gall,” suggesting someone who is rude, impertinent, or bitter. Medieval physicians believed the accretion from the spleen, one of the four “humors,” led to depression, even insanity. Eventually, four types of melancholy were distinguished: melancholia attonita, gloomy; melancholia errabunda, restless; melancholia malevolens, mischievous; and melancholia complacens, complacent. And we might add a fifth, melancholia romantica, as in “Melancholy Baby,” as sung by Judy Garland. Surprisingly, down in the dumps comes from dumpin, Swedish for melancholy; dimba, to steam, reek; and Danish dump, dull, damp, as in “to damp one’s spirits.” This was John Milton’s sense when he wrote in Paradise Lost: “A melancholy damp of cold and dry, / to weigh thy spirits down,” by which he is saying that melancholy damps, as in suffocates, the human spirit. Virginia Woolf wrote, in Jacob’s Room, “Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about his life of “active melancholy .” On the walls of the Lion’s Den pub in Greenwich Village we find: “Neurosis is red / Melancholia is blue / I’m schizophrenic / What are you?” Companion words include moanworthy, sad; doleful, full of grief; lugubrious, mournful; and crepehanger, a gloomy Gus, a pessimist.

PUN A play on words. For some, a pun is the height of cleverness, for others a punishment, like having one’s ears pounded—no mere coincidence, as that’s exactly the derivation. Pun devolves from the Anglo-Saxon punian, to pound. Skeat writes, as if mortally offended, “Hence, to pound words, beat them into new senses, hammer at forced similes.” To paraphrase Shakespeare, the lad doth protest too much. The bard couldn’t help himself; he punned precisely 1,062 times in his works. The technical term is paronomasia, but slang words proliferate, such as liripoop and quip. Everyone has their favorites, such as the “unspeakable” pun by Confucius: “Seven days on honeymoon makes one whole week.” In his risible handbook Stop Me If You’ve Heard This, Jim Holt writes, “Shakespeare’s puns, while chucklesome, are invariably bawdy, even when they are being made by clowns: Hamlet: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” Ophelia: “No, my lord.” Hamlet: “I mean my head upon your lap.” Ophelia: Ay, my lord.” Hamlet: “Did you think I meant country [cunt-try] matters?” My punster father used to love to quote the famously droll Dorothy Parker’s “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think,” which she thought of when challenged to use the botanical word in a quipping contest at the Algonquin Club. Her notoriously quick wit was the mirror image of esprit de l’escalier, what we might call esprit de table, the spirit of the table. Companion words include the querulous quibble, originally meaning to pun or play on words, and only later to have reservations about them.

QUIZ A test, a question, a mystery word. Quiz is of obscure origin—but stories abound. So we can approach the word in its own spirit, quizzically: When is the first mention of the word? 1847. What are the roots? The first Latin question, Qui es? “Who are you?” asked in traditional grammar schools. What about that old chestnut, the Dublin bar bet? There is a popular though undocumented story that dates back to around 1836 about a man named Jim Daly, the manager of a Dublin theater, who laid down a wager in a local pub that he could coin a new word and render it famous within twenty-four hours. According to the legend, he won the bet by stenciling, as Brewer writes, “four mystic letters,” Q-U-I-Z, all over town, which prompted the indignant question, “What is this?” To which Daly was happy to answer something to the effect of, “What is this? Why, it’s Latin for ‘What is this?!’” Speaking of questions, the story goes that the question mark itself [?] is a kind of collapsed version of the letter “Q,” short for “question.” Quiz is also slang for an “odd character.” Irony of ironies, Charles Van Doren, the Columbia University English professor implicated in the scandal to “fix” the 1950s television quiz show “Twenty-One,” told a grand jury through his lawyer, “It is silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.”

ZITCOM A sitcom for teens. One of the more colorful of the bountiful examples of newly slung slang. In all truthiness, as Stephen Colbert calls slippery talk, it takes a staminac, a sleep-starved overachiever, or a sleep camel, a power-sleeping workaholic who slaves away for a few days, then draws on those stored z’s for the long trek across a week of nineteen-hour workdays, to keep up with the slang. Other eclectic examples: Spendorphins is the curious boost of shopping endorphins released upon entrance into the local mall. Banalysis is a trivial recap of complex material; blamestorming is faultfinding among co-workers. Chipmunking is looking all scrunched up while typing out text messages. Digitalia refers to indispensable gadgets from the wired world. Infonesia is amnesia about information, possibly due to being overwhelmed by infoglut. And for me the most stirring neologism of all, tankmanning: standing up to authority, after the anonymous man who defied the tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, providing the world with a modern equivalent of Gandhi’s Salt March, King’s Selma March, and the actions of the current titan of courageous protest, the pro-democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been calmly defying Burmese authorities for the last nineteen years.

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How do you pronounce “timbre”?  “Givenchy”? “Budapest”?  “Gyro”? You are the exception if you can pronounce all four words correctly.  The Atlantic magazine has an article about a new book, You’re Saying It Wrong, that corrects our pronunciation of many words that are so commonly mispronounced. You’ll be surprised (and perhaps a bit embarrassed) when you learn their correct pronunciations.

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Professor John McWhorter is well known and highly respected in the world of linguistics.  He has written several books on the evolution of language, and he discussed his latest book, Words on the Move, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

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Jonathan Green’s Dictionary of Slang is now available  in book form and on the internet.  It represents years of work on his part, and is unparalled in its depth.  A Time magazine article give us an idea of just how complete Green’s three book set is.  Green discusses his decision to also launch the dictionary on the internet in a Slate article.

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We just celebrated my mother’s 97th birthday.  My sister, Brenda, sent Mom a collage depicting notable events and people who were popular in 1919, the year Mom was born. Brenda included a list of some of the things that were new that year.  “Collage,” which is what Brenda sent was new that year as were Mercurochrome, the payphone, the exclamation “phooey,” and the term “white-collar.”

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