When my eldest son was in middle school, we found a vintage copy of Willard Espy’s Words At Play at the bottom of a pile of dusty books that had survived the 1970’s, long neglect, and a hard life in unopened cartons across four moves . The book was chock full of acronyms, epigrams, spoonerisms, malapropisms, limericks, palindromes, riddles, puns, and poetry at play.
Things palindromic were of particular interest, from the simplest, “Madam, I’m Adam” to “A man, a plan, Panama,” and finally to “Marge let a moody baby doom a telegram”. The idea of a computer program creating a sentence which can be read from front to back or back to front playing homage to “madam I’m Adam”, did not occur to us then, but the Director of Research at Google came up with one that has now expanded to 17,826 words. “It begins with ““A man, a plan, a cameo, Zena, Bird, Mocha, Prowel, a rave, Uganda … and ends with “a wadna, Guevara, Lew, Orpah, Comdr, Ibanez, OEM, a canal, Panama!” Probably more than any of us need to read.
The book became a nightly treat and may be at the root of my fascination with all things silly; it certainly gave me more than enough incentive to continue the hunt for oddities of language in everyday life (See postings : “Sang Froid, Schadenfreude, and Double Entendre”, Aug. 19, “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry”, July 21, “Words We Should Use And Words We Should Not”, May 26, “I’m Like Uh …”, April 29, and “I Am Too Much A Snoot”, April 13.)
Espy was a wordsmith with a sense of the absurd and the gumption needed to track down odd words and odd uses of words; in his day, Espy was favorably compared to W. S. Sullivan, Ogden Nash, and Cole Porter. Neither of us had realized that playing with words could be a vocation as well as an amusing habit that annoyed many people. In fact, the word vocation derives from the Latin vocatio”, a call or summons. Espy put it more elegantly, ” words choose their lovers arbitrarily.”
Some are called to words more violently than others. I once had a roommate who was offended that a teacher, “used so many words”; I didn’t know what to say without exhausting his daily quota. On the other end of the spectrum, my cartoon hero, Foghorn J. Leghorn, the bombastic rooster patrolling the Loony Tunes henhouse, always had a way with words, usually punctuated by his trademark space keeper, “I say … I say”.
After an accident has befallen him. “Fortunately, I say, fortunately, I always carry a spare set of feather.” Observing the vain attempts of a dog to win a battle of wits. “I say, boy, you cover about as much territory as a flapper’s skirt, I say skirt.” “I say, I say, that dog’s busier than a centipede, I say centipede, at a toe counting contest.” The clarity of a Leghorn simile is perhaps best expressed in this oft repeated line from “Weasel While You Work”, “The snow, I say the snow, is so deep, you have to jack up the cows to milk ’em, I say milk ’em.”
All of the above is to prepare the reader for this week’s immersion in the nonsense that arrives with any examination of the words we use.
Let’s start with an obvious conundrum. Why do flammable and inflammable mean the same thing? All the other “in” words basically push the listener toward an opposite. Insensitive is not sensitive; inert is not ert.
Wait. There we go, exactly as I feared. We’ve stumbled into the land of where-the-heck-does-that-come-from and why-does-it-continue-to-afflict-us?
It takes some digging, but the word inert is a composite of “in”, without or not, and “ars” or “artis”, as dinged by the French (zut) as “erte”, all meaning skill. Which still leaves room for wonderment as “skill” is replaced by “energy” or “power” in the most common use of the word “inert”.
And so, the door is opened for the tsunami of words that have clear meaning with what seems a negative prefix (even when the word is not a negative word) but no meaning without the prefix.
disGRUNTLED, for example, is puzzling; disGUSTINGis not.
Though we don’t immediately think of “gustation” , the act of tasting, when the word “disgusting” is used, there’s little to confound us upon reflection. Disgruntled, on the other hand, offers the possibility of “gruntled” or “gruntling”, which is a pleasure not to be ignored; it is a usage frequently appearing in the work of P.G. Wodehouse as Bertie Wooster is fond of describing the degree of gruntlement his companions have exhibited.
But, alas, the truth is less lovely, as is often the case. We are accustomed to thinking of the prefix “dis” as meaning ‘opposite of’, whereas at one time it might also have meant “exceedingly” or “powerfully”. So we’re off to a reasonable beginning here. Then, the trick is to remember that it was once a practice to add “le” to a noun in order to make it a verb, as in “start” and “startle” or “spark” and “sparkle” . Thus, “grunt”, generally an expression of displeasure is made into the verb “gruntle”, then amplified with the “dis” to express a great deal of displeasure.
The problem, of course, is that my “mind” immediately turns to “cat” and “cattle”, “rat” and “rattle”, “sad” and “saddle”, “tack” and “tackle”, “rank” and “rankle”, and on into a sleepless night.
Today, I am sorry to say, we no longer even go to that effort; we just take a noun and verb it. “Interface” was a highly regarded verb for a short period; my hope is that it has gone back to its original happy state as a noun. The obvious contemporary verbed nouns are “to google”, “to friend”, “to text”. Don’t even think about it, do we?
As the title of this piece suggests, we still have to deal with “defunct”, as in “all over, dead-as-a-doornail, finito, kaput, fertig, really-most-sincerely-dead”. We are troubled, n’est ce pas, with this funct business? And yet, we sense that in this case, the “de” really does mean “not”, leaving us to work on the rest.
I know, you go to functional, as one might, but, you see, that inevitably takes us back to, “full of funct”, and dysfunctional then seeming to imply a paucity of funct. We have to trek back to Latin once again for a word that was odd even in its day, “functus” the past participle of “fungi” , to perform, to live”.
Ah hah! The game is afoot. “De-functusi”, “not perform, not move, not alive”.
Fans of functus/ fungi will immediately leap to an understanding of the word “fungible”, “to replace or to be interchangeable”… see, can “perform” as as the other?
I’m grateful to Willard Espy for his willingness to have fun with words and for his tacit encouragement of those of us who just like to horse around with language.
No “neigh” sayers out there?