One reason I’m a writer is that words fascinate me. Better than that, they amuse me, like shiny shapes swirling from a mobile over my playpen.

An intriguing unfamiliar word tweaks my ear or flashes across my retinas, and I think, Ooh, listen! Look at that! I wonder what that means? And Google and I are off down another internet rabbit hole.

My sister, Nancy, taught me the word “widdershins.” I didn’t care what it meant, I just wanted the pleasure of saying it. Widdershins. Widdershins. Turns out it has both a practical meaning and a negative connotation. It’s a direction, meaning “to the left” or “the opposite of the way the sun appears to move,” or “counterclockwise.” (What’s a kid to do with that word nowadays, having experienced only digital clocks?) The negative connotation is that, well, it’s a negative direction – against the “natural” movement of things, like the word “sinister,” which originally had almost the same meaning.

At a wonderful kids’ science exhibit called “Grossology,” three of my grandchildren and I got to learn all about the “gross” icky, sticky, stinky things that human bodies can do. I loved it! We could watch drop of snot drip from a gigantic nose. We got to slide down a twisty fiberglass colon and be defecated out the lower end. My prim mother would have been appalled! And we got to learn the word “borborygmi,” which has both a practical meaning and a positive connotation. Borborygmi are the natural sounds a digestive system makes while it’s doing its job. (“Borborygmus” is the word for a singular sound, but “borborygmi” is more amusing and poetic to me.) Although borborygmi might be embarrassing in polite company (at least after the age of 16 or so), and can result in even-more-embarrassing burps or farts, if you don’t have some rumbling and bubbling going on inside it might mean that things are not well in intestine-ville.

A “katzenjammer” is a hangover. “Tatterdemalion” means shabby or dilapidated. The word “kakistocracy” might come in handy in the months ahead – it means government by the worst persons. A “peripatetic” is a person who travels from place to place; one can chant it while walking: “per-i-pa-tet-ic, per-i-pa-tet-ic.” And the word “ensorcel” seems to contain a bit of what it means – to bewitch.

The other day, looking up the meaning of “amphigory,” I popped down a digital rabbit hole and ran into this book review, written by Robert McCrum, obviously a member of the word-collecting tribe:

“Schott’s Original Miscellany is strangely unputdownable. It is the mother of all miscellanies, aka an amphigory, a medley, a pot-pourri, a gallimaufry, a salmagundi, an omnium-gatherum, a vade mecum, a smorgasbord… Oh boy, but Schott is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, a mad magpie at large in the wide world of facts and words.” (Robert McCrum in The Guardian, December, 2002, a review entitled “God Bless you, Mr. Schott.”)

THAT reviewer, Robert McCrumb, is a man who knows how to play with words!

So it’s time to end this blog post – I’m headed off down another lagomorphic warren entrance to see if I can find anything else written by Mr. McCrum, clearly my compatriot in collecting delicious nomenclature.

word photo

18 replies
  1. ann Linnea
    ann Linnea says:

    The love of words and sounds is one way I will always think about you, my friend. You have been consistent in this fascination since the day we met. It has taught me a lot!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Words are my joy, just as trees are your joy. Isn’t it wonderful when we can appreciate each others’ passions?!

      Reply
  2. Anna
    Anna says:

    What a fun memory of that museum exhibit! I don’t recall the exhibit for those fun words though…

    I do not recall if we had this discussion during my visit in September, but one of the words that my high school principal used in his speech to the graduates at my commencement ceremony was logophile, meaning “lover of words”. Very fitting here also.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I’m quite sure that LOGOPHILIA is a genetic trait in our family. You, especially, my dear eldest grandchild, are an inheritor of that gene, as evidenced by your championship status in all family word games!

      Reply
  3. Gary
    Gary says:

    I have fallen prey to being mesmerized by words. I liked the way they rolled off my tongue, the strange cadence they created. Advancing into my elder years the inscrutable has less appeal as I find my self happy if I can retrieve a simple word that meets the need of meaning, like the word on the edge of my mind that refers to end times….

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Thanks for this perspective, Gary. Simpler is, after all, always better. Just not always as delicious . . . or amusing.

      PS Is the word you’re looking for “Armageddon”? Or “apocalypse”?

      Reply
  4. Alison Heins
    Alison Heins says:

    How delightful! Last night I was contemplating the suffix “O-rama, recalling the time a friend whimsically queried, “what’s an -orama?”. (I am planning soon to host a “grillorama” so friends can teach us all about grilling.
    We used to play the Dictionary Game with friends every Thanksgiving. That’s where I learned the words flews and gallimaufry. It was impossible to win over my mother and Roo, both of whom knew Latin and Greek!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Yes! More members of the word-loving tribe! Wacky as we are, it’s great to know we’re not alone. Have fun with your grillorama. (On first reading I thought you were having a “gorillarama”! Barbecuing sounds less likely to create legal hassles for you.)

      Reply
  5. Mary
    Mary says:

    Do you remember the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip? I do not believe they were hung over, but they were always creating confusion!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I do remember them (though I’m pretty sure I didn’t think they were funny). Now that I know what the word means, I suspect their name came from the headaches their antics gave to their elders!

      Reply
  6. Jeanne
    Jeanne says:

    I noticed ‘rouspeter’ on your inspired list – a word I love – French for grumbling, complaining. Breaking the word apart: ‘peter’ means ‘to fart’. ‘Rous’ is from the same root word as’redden’ – So literally ‘rouspeter’ = a reddened face, farting… what a delightful description of grumbling!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Truth be told, the photo of that list came from a creative commons photo site. But I’m delighted to learn “rouspeter” even though it contains two French r’s – one, the back-of-the-throat r that I never get quite right, and then a silent r that I always get right!

      Reply
  7. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Crosswords, anagrams, puns, cryptic quotes — I love playing with words. You might like the podcast “A way with words” for fascinating information about words.

    Reply
  8. christina
    christina says:

    Lovely plunge into the billybucket, Cynthia… my question is: do you remember these words? Can you use them in a full sentence,and have you been able to weave them into daily conversation? And most importantly, do they appear in your poetry? Have an audacious day.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Yup, I do use “widdershins,” “borborigmi,”peripatetic,” and “ensorcel” in conversation. I’ll probably be using “kakistocracy” more often. None of these have appeared (yet) in my poetry, though I do have a poem (published in the University of Virginia Medical School’s literary journal, “Hospital Drive”) called “Legerdemain.” Your word “billybucket” has thrown me, however! Can’t find a definition . . . can you enlighten me?

      Reply

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