If you're like me you will delight in the discovery of a new word, even one you might never find a use for, although sometimes a word is so good that you simply have to make room for it. I gave the protagonist in my third novel wind so that I'd have an excuse to use the word 'borborygmi' or some variant thereof. Actually the sentence I ended up with reads: 'Jim’s stomach gurgled borborygmically something that sounded not unlike, “Uh, oh.”'
n. pl. bor·bo·ryg·mi
A rumbling noise produced by the movement of gas through the intestines.
[New Latin, from Greek borborugmos, of imitative origin.]
What amazes me is for all the words we have and for all the words that have fallen into disuse there are still so many things for which there is no suitable word. A few years ago my daughter bought me a copy of The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd which contains made-up words for many of those instances that the world's lexicographers have sadly neglected. Actually they're not strictly made-up, they're the names of places. Liff is a place.
The preface to the book reads:
In Life*, there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist.
On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.
Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.
*And, indeed, in Liff.
And the entry for Liff goes as follows:
A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words. 'This book will change your life'.
Now, I was delighted when my daughter bought me this thing. I have no idea what the event was, a birthday or Xmas probably (these being the main occasions when we find excuses to spend too much money on each other) but the whole idea of a new book of fun words pleased me no end. I flicked through it, read a few entries, and then we moved onto the next present to be opened. And, to my embarrassment (and, daughter, if you're reading this I do apologise) I don't think I ever opened the damn thing again.
I know where it is. I could go and get it right now but that's not the point. The point is that there are a lot of people who get presents of books – and this is especially true at Xmas – and these are books that illicit the same response and end up on a shelf somewhere forgotten about until the time comes for a clearout and, lo and behold, don't these all end up in charity shops two or three years later! And, I'm wondering what exactly is the point?
A novel is one thing or a biography – Xmas is always a big time for celebrity bios and even novels "by" celebrities – but I'm not sure how to feel about these word books. I have several that I picked up in charity shops over the years, books like The Rude Dictionary, impulse buys, books I manage to convince myself in a second that I must have to add to my collection of dictionaries (see the full list here) and they do that, they take up a place on my shelf but they're never referred to. And since the advent of the Internet that situation has gotten even worse. Indeed the entire Meaning of Liff is available online here. Check out LUDLOW, POLBATHIC and SMEARISARY if you've a spare minute.
So what do you buy a logophile for Xmas?
Well, there are still books with funny words out there. Douglas Adams' book is certainly still on the go but there are new ones appearing all the time. I was contacted a few months back by one Adam Jacot de Boinod (a researcher on QI) who was hoping I'd be willing to promote his new book, The Wonder of Whiffling. No, it's not a place but if I'd known about it when I wrote that sentence I mentioned above I'd have had a damn good try to squeeze that word in too:
v. whif·fled, whif·fling, whif·fles
1. To move or think erratically; vacillate.
2. To blow in fitful gusts; puff: The wind whiffled through the trees.
3. To whistle lightly.
To blow, displace, or scatter with gusts of air.
He was unable to send me a review copy – not even a review PDF which I thought odd – but he did send me a bit of background to the book:
My first book The Meaning of Tingo began as my interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache.
My curiosity soon became a passion. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: nakhur, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; Many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a cigerci, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’?
In the second book Toujours Tingo I looked at languages from all corners of the world, from the Fuegian of southernmost Chile to the Inuit of northernmost Alaska, from the Maori of the remote Cook Islands to Siberian Yakut. Some of them describe, of course, strictly local concepts and sensations, such as the Hawaiian kapau’u, ‘to drive fish into a waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’; or paarnguliaq, the Inuit for ‘a seal that has strayed and can’t find its breathing hole’. But others reinforce the commonality of human experience. Haven’t we all felt termangu-mangu, the Indonesian for ‘sad and not sure what to do’ or mukamuka, the Japanese for ‘so angry one feels like throwing up’?
Then, with my third book The Wonder of Whiffling I moved onto the English Language – from Anglo-Saxon to Trailer Park Slang – I have waded through dictionaries from the origins of English with Anglo-Saxon through Old and Middle English and Tudor-Stuart, then on to the rural dialects collected so lovingly by Victorian lexicographers, the argot of 19th century criminals and the slang from the two World Wars,
I’ve discovered many old words that make very useful additions to any vocabulary today. Most of us know a blatteroon (1645), a person who will not stop talking, not to mention a wallydrag (1508), a worthless, slovenly person, and even a shot-clog (1599), a drinking companion, only tolerated because he pays for the drinks. Along the way I’ve discovered the parnel, a priest’s mistress, through the applesquire, the male servant of a prostitute, to the screever, a writer of begging letters.
I’ve scoured the dialects of Britain. In the Midlands we find a jaisy, a polite and effeminate man, and in Yorkshire a stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman. In Cornwall you might be described as ploffy plump); in Shropshire, having joblocks (fleshy, hanging cheeks); while down in Wiltshire hands that have been left too long in the washtub are quobbled.
How fascinating they are the journeys many words have taken from their original definitions with grape: originally a hook for gathering fruit and later a cluster of fruit growing together: friend: a lover later a relative or kinsman; sky meaning a cloud; frantic: insane; corset: a little body and mortgage: a death pledge. In Tudor times drink actually meant to smoke tobacco; walk; to roll, toss, move about and later to press cloth and steward: a keeper of the pigs and later, as wealth expanded, of herds of cattle and land.
Now, not having read the book myself, I can't say too much but having looked at a few sample pages (which you can find here) I know exactly what to expect. Here’s one page for example:
Now, see the bit I've highlighted, I've lived in Scotland all my life and no one has ever promised me a chippie-burdie although I have been offered a chip butty on occasion. It's not a very helpful definition either. I found this text online which includes the sentence:
Ye're juist like a wheen bairns, staunin afore the sweetyman's windy, lickin yer mous, an Tod-Lowrie sayin til ye, 'Bide a wee, hinnies, an ye'll get aa thae bonny-dies for naethin – gie me yer votes, my bonny lambs, an ye'll get a chippy-burdie to play yersels wi some day! '
Now I'm a Scot and I'm struggling with this but I doubt it's a chip butty that's on offer here. After a bit of digging I came up with this definition in Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary:
chippie-burdie, s. A term used in a promise made to a child, for the purpose of pacifying or pleasing it; I'll gie you a chippie-bur die, Loth. — Perhaps a child's toy, called a cheepy-burdie, from the noise made when the air is forced out; or a corr. of Fr. chapeau horde, a cocked, or, perhaps, an embroidered hat.
And I bet that's where de Boinod found it too.
I have a confession to make. I never read on the loo. I've never read on the loo. The very thought of it makes me uncomfortable. When I'm in there I'm there to do a job (or perchance to wee) and my mind is focused on that. I've seen plenty of characters on TV and cartoons with some bloke on the loo reading his paper but that has never been me. I don't read in the bath either. Just imagine the damage that could get done to a book! I think if I was a loo reader I might have read The Meaning of Liff by now. And I suspect that the target audience for The Wonder of Whiffling would have to be people of that general persuasion.
Some publishing companies have openly embraced the 'bathroom books' niche market, releasing titles such as Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, which contains short, self-contained humour essays, general interest articles and trivia. Other intentional bathroom books may offer quick condensations of famous literary works or factoids about celebrities. These books are marketed specifically to those who seek something to read during their inevitable down time. This I did not know.
Of course now I do I see there are a plethora of books aimed at the closet reader (pun intended): Passing Time in the Loo, The Great American Bathroom Book, the aforementioned Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, The Ladies Room Reader, Lavatory 101 - A Bathroom Book of Knowledge, Thoughts for the Throne; The Ultimate Bathroom Book of Useless Information and, for the constipated among you, 1,001 Facts That Will Scare the S**t Out of You: The Ultimate Bathroom Book to name just a few.
If you know someone of a literary bent who habitually spends too long in the bathroom and is not a boy circa fourteen years of age then The Wonder of Whiffling may be just the thing for them. In fact even if it is a teenage boy it might be nice for a change though I wouldn't bank on it. Anyway, The Wonder of Whiffling, or to give it its full title, The Wonder of Whiffling: (and Other Extraordinary Words in the English Language) is available in hardcover from Amazon price £7.78 at time of writing which, for a book 256 pages long, is probably not that bad a price and that's post free if you can take advantage of their Super Saver Delivery offer.