Word Play

I love finding new words. As a Scrabble player I see each one as another way to score. But as a reader and writer I value a word for its sound and texture and nuances of meaning. Certain words amaze and delight me when I first come upon them. This happened more often when I was young, less after I grew up and became a teacher. Task-oriented reading has a way of squashing delight before it is born. One is less likely to pause and savor a word when one has five dozen papers to read (which right now, thank the moon and stars, I do not). Anyhow, here are three words that amazed and delighted me as an adolescent reader.

Apoplectic Chestnuts

Apoplexy is stroke – a blood vessel starts leaking into the brain, causing all kinds of dire symptoms up to and including death. But the adjective apoplectic may be used in a figurative sense to describe someone who seems on the verge of having a stroke, or something that causes a stroke or resembles a stroke. Charles Dickens uses the word a lot. In Nickolas Nickleby there is “an ancient butler of apoplectic appearance” and in A Christmas Carol he describes “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.” I love the way the word sounds, the plosives one after another, popping off like a chain of fireworks. I imagine an apoplectic person as red-faced, bad-tempered and chronically frustrated – like a huge pimple on the verge of bursting.

Anger by Thomas Perkins
Apoplectic Man

Never Drop a Mercury Thermometer

Mercurial means volatile, unpredictable, fast-thinking, imaginative. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Originally such qualities were associated with the god or the planet; the sense is now usually understood to allude to the properties of mercury the metal.” As a teenager I loved Greek and Roman mythology, so I associated mercurial with the wing-footed god. Then there came the incident in chemistry class. Mr. Hawks, our teacher, warned us to be careful with the thermometers. A hopeless klutz, I usually let my lab partner handle the equipment while I wrote the report. I was good at the writing reports. But one day I somehow ended up holding the thermometer. And of course I dropped it. The mercury hit the floor and scattered, then drew itself into tense little beads that seemed alive, as though any moment they would slither together and form a pulsating blob that would devour us one by one until it filled the entire classroom. Mr. Hawks confirmed this impression by ordering us to stand back as he vacuumed up the perilous beads.

A Colder Kind of Snotty

A phlegmatic character is the opposite of mercurial. He’s the guy at the party who sits like a lump watching TV and never cracks a joke or laughs at anyone else’s joke. She’s the gal who never dances and falls asleep after one glass of wine. As the OED puts it, being phlegmatic means “having, showing, or characteristic of the temperament formerly believed to result from a predominance of phlegm among the bodily humours; not easily excited to feeling or action; stolidly calm, self-possessed, imperturbable; (with pejorative connotation) sluggish, apathetic, lacking enthusiasm.” There are four bodily humours, or fluids, thought by the ancient Greeks to influence health. One of course is phlegm. The others – blood, yellow bile, and black bile – have words associated with them as well. Sanguine for blood, bilious for bile. But phlegmatic is the most fun of the humourous words. It sounds as though somebody spliced phlegm to automatic to create Phlegm-o-Matic, the amazing new snot-producing machine. I guess that would be just about anybody with a bad cold.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Augustyn says:

    Hi Mary –

    I always enjoy your posts and especially this one, so I thought you might get a kick out of one of my favorite quotes.
    “I wonder if there are jobs for people to invent new words or better ones, because sometimes you come across something and there isn’t a word for it. Or perhaps there is, but I haven’t read it yet. I mean, why isn’t there a word for those days in September when the dew twinkles on the spiders’ webs in the privet hedge and the air feels like it’s decided just that morning that summer is over?”

    – Hilary Spiers, “Cleverclogs”

    Like

    1. Dreambeast7 says:

      Hi Jan, What a pleasure to hear from you. I love the Hillary Spiers quote.

      Like

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