Saturday, January 13, 2007

Word's worth

One of the many things I do not understand about this world is why the English language would need a word like ‘anatiferous’, which means ‘producing ducks’. Beyond a scientific reference to a mother duck, and its clear potential as creative insult (“Wouldst cross me, thou anatiferous popinjay?!”) and euphemism (“Now stepping up to the crease is the anatiferous Sourav Ganguly”), what use could it be? The dictionary was no help at all—it just sucked me into a whirlpool of even more unhelpful obscurities, such as peduncle and cirriped, which also makes for a passable insult, viz.: “Get off of my pizza/wife/land, you peduncled cirriped!”.

Speaking of dictionaries, anatiferous came to me from an article on Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch, Professor of English at Rutgers. Lynch talks about how in the 18th century, lexicography, which had previously focused exclusively on obscure or difficult words like ‘adpugn’, began to take an interest in including and adequately defining the easy, common ones, like ‘take’. He talks about how ‘take’ went from a nine-word definition in John Kersey's New English Dictionary in 1702, to an 8,000-word definition in Dr Johnson’s great Dictionary of 1755.

That isn’t work for the common yob, and one has to admire Johnson’s bloody-mindedness in finishing his oeuvre; it was clearly painful, especially since he had to know that nine out of ten people would make a beeline for ‘adpugn’ and never read a word of ‘take’. In Johnson’s words: “I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.” You can’t really blame him for spicing up the job by shamelessly throwing in his own opinions, viz. ‘ruse’, which he called ‘A French word neither elegant nor necessary.’

I’m always up for a bizarre word myself, and elsewhere in Lynch’s article found one that finally names the nameless evil that has been throwing off my personal budget for years: ‘abligurition’, or ‘spending too much on food and drink’.

On the theme of bizarre words for bizarre concepts, I recently came across ‘dermoid’. A dermoid is an ovarian cyst formed from a totipotential germ cell—which is a cell that has the potential to be anything it wants to be, like in the Army. These little toti-potentates can grow into any type of epidermal cell; so a woman could be walking around with a little bouquet of, say, eyelashes, or teeth, or thyroids, in her belly. It seems useful—I, for one, could use extras of all of those things—but it’s pretty odd.

And speaking of extras, almost twenty years ago I had a heated conversation with a friend who opined that feelingless human beings should be bred and stored in freezers to have their organs harvested for people in medical need. I didn’t think there was any way that we could breed feelingless human beings when we couldn’t even get rid of the common cold.

But science is progressing at a frightening clip, and based on recent cultural evidence (movies like ‘The Island’, which foregrounds notable organs such as Scarlett Johanssen’s, and books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, both about shadow civilisations of clones) I’d say that even the mainstream population now thinks of the idea as possible, even if ethically complicated. Already, if you’re rich, and up with the latest scientific research, and have had a baby, and don’t have too many God issues, you can cryogenically store the umbilical cord and placenta, to be defrosted and harvested for stem cells in your offspring’s time of need.

I’d love to see a 23rd century dictionary—what a wealth of bizarre words it would contain. Perhaps it would come pre-loaded in my brain. Dictionaries, after all, have to keep up with life.


Miao said...

Really informative. From now on I shall try insulting someone by saying "Wouldst cross me, thou anatiferous popinjay?!"


Jack Lynch said...

Thanks for the puff of my abridgment of the Dictionary. As for the word anatiferous, which I adore for being so bizarre, Johnson quotes it from Sir Thomas Browne, who in a very strange book called Pseudodoxia Epidemica (maybe better known as Vulgar Errors) talks about "barnacle geese," which supposedly grow out of barnacles: "If there be anatiferous trees, whose corruption breaks forth into barnacles; yet, if they corrupt, they degenerate into maggots, which produce not them again." The trees produce the barnacles, and the barnacles grow into ducks or geese (you know, those trees).

Browne was very fond of obscure words like that; in my abridgment you'll find him quoted under accubation, amphibology, amphisbaena, axillar, balneation, and so on.

Ravi Kandala said...

Hey Mitali, I read this word 'callipygian' in a movie review on IMDB...perplexed me no end. The sentence actually said the callipygous Jennifer Lopez... hope that puts things in to perspective...LOL

Anonymous said...

SAT Sunday, eh?