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Monday, 7 December 2009

Whiffling in Liff or what to buy a constipated logophile for Xmas

Loo 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.]

liff 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.

Douglas Adams
John Lloyd

*And, indeed, in Liff.

And the entry for Liff goes as follows:

LIFF (n.)

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?

whifflingcover (email-version) 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:

MeaningOfTingo 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’?

tingo 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.

Uncle John 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.


Dick said...

Oh, what a timely post for logophiles everywhere. Thanks for this, Jim. Thoroughly entertaining, informative and useful in equal measure.

Might I add for logophiles of scatological inclination Viz's annual update of the Profanisaurus. Not for the faint-hearted.

And with 'The Meaning Of Liff' in mind, a friend of mine enjoyed devising pseudonyms from double-barreled town and village names. His favourite was Compton Pauncefoot.

Unknown said...

thats a long one though i cant wait to finish it

may be i can use them while i chat with my friends and tease them that they dont know the meaning for them yet.

Rachel Fenton said...

"The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!"

I make up words all the time - hang over from childhood when foreign words on cheap chocolate desserts were fair game for secret language and when malapropisms resulted in some new takes, such as "unduous" instead of undulating: what a wonderously curvaceous landscape should be called.

This is a lovely playful post, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

Wonderful post, Jim.

I was on my way to the dry cleaners a few months back and as I parked my car I stopped to listen to afternoon book reading on the radio.

I do not remember the book in question but I do remember that at one point the narrator talked about his stomach 'roiling'.

It might be a commonplace word to you but to me, it was a new one.

I practised it then and there and have used it occasionally ever since.

Words are funny, aren't they? We need to use them often enough so that they have an assimilated quality otherwise we can sound pretentious.

Perish the thought.

I'm tying to talk my husband nto starting a blog. I've told him about yours. Yours for its diversity, erudition, intelligence, warmth and sheer zaniness.

I might pass this particular post on to him for inspiration. He, too, loves words.

He, too, loves Gerald Murnane's writing.

Kass said...

Trust you to come up with a post about words. Very entertaining. Laughed right out loud at the bathroom books. Sometimes I need some facts to scare me just THAT much! Here's a word from Mrs. Byrnes's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne: lagotic = having rabbitlike ears. And in case you're wondering, you're a polyhistor = a thoroughly educated person.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dick, glad you enjoyed the post. Could never quite get into the right mindset for Viz which puzzles me because I'm very nostalgic about the comics from my childhood. I'm sure they'll eventually end up in a post. I'm not sure what precisely about Viz didn't work for me but I didn't find it funny. I wasn't offended but then neither was I entertained.

Anil, nice to see a new name in the comments box. Once you've been hanging around here for a bit you'll realise that this isn't a particularly long post. I've just finished one 6000 words long but I'm not putting that up till the new year.

Rachel, language should be fun. On the whole I'm a very serious person but I think nothing of mucking around with words when I talk. I probably love puns more than anything to be honest. One of my typical mispronunciations is 'deaf 'n' tootly' instead of 'definitely'.

Zany! Elisabeth? My wife rolled her eyes at that one. She said: "You're the least zany person I've ever met," and we proceeded to discuss a variety of comedians to see what qualifies as 'zany' – we agreed that Steve Martin could be 'whacky' but not necessarily 'zany'. Actually we couldn’t agree on what qualified as 'zany'.

And, Kass, why? I aks this question about a lot of words but why does 'polyhistor' mean dead clever? It sounds like it means 'many pasts' and I suppose if you look at that sideyways you could say that it means having lived many lives but I don't think words should be such hard work, do you? And, if a polyhistory is a dead clever person, what is a histor? One would assume if there's a poly there would be a uni, so maybe it's a unihistor? I don't know. Much as I love them words make my head hurt.

Kass said...

Jim - I didn't write the book, just quoted it. But I agree, I like the words you make up a lot more.

Dave King said...

This is my territory exactly. I love anything like this. I first got into it reading Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, realising - as I had not until then - how many words the intuits had for snow. It set me off comparing different languages to see how many - and how few - some had for certain common objects or experiences. A great post.

Conda Douglas said...

Ooh, great ideas for Christmas for my friends and family, thank you Jim (and what a fun post). I'm headed over to Amazon and I'm sure I can get free shipping!

Jim Murdoch said...

I've never had any great interest in foreign languages, Dave, except as a way of understanding English better – two years of French and one of Latin proved most illuminating although I do regret not having a crack at German; fortunately now I have Carrie for that.

One of the reference books my dad bought in the sixties was Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder, a thesaurus-like book which listed synonyms and antonyms in groups where it seems practically every word could be substituted for another. This confused me as a young boy. There seemed to be so much redundancy in language. I never saw it as colour, simply clutter. Although I enjoy words I still feel that if the language moved in a rather more Newspeak-direction it would be an altogether bad thing.

And, Conda, I guess that's my job done then.

j said...

The power of a title -- I probably came here a little earlier than usual based on your post title. Who could resist it?

I've never heard of a zoo daddy or goose father and though I can't say that I am well-versed in slang (at least not current slang), it makes me wonder about how common these terms really are. But The Wonder of Whiffling sounds like an interesting read. Yes, a perfect bathroom book.

John Ettorre said...

Quite an entertaining and educational riff, Jim. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Jennifer, I was pleased with that title in fact I was pleased how I managed to tie the whole article together. When I was first asked to promote the book I wasn't dead keen particularly not having read the thing but I think it all came together quite nicely.

And, John, delighted to hear that I could contribute to your entertainment and education.

Kass said...

Has anyone ever told you that you look like Dusty Hill of ZZ Top?

SG said...

Enjoyed reading your post. I especially liked borborygmus. Now I can use this word when describing the stomach-sounds :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Both my wife and daughter, Kass, in fact the filename for the photo is something like zz_jim.jpg if memory serves right. I'm not a huge ZZ Top fan – I have a couple of albums – but that's not why I let the beard grow out a bit. I've always been jealous of guys with thick beards and since I've never had a thick head of hair – I started to go bald when I was about fourteen – this was the closest I could get.

And, Phoenix, I guess the great thing about being a writer is that you can contrive a way to fit words like that into a story whereas if you used them in day-to-day speech you'd get slagged off by your mates. The trick is not to overdo it, one of two words like that per novel are fine.

Missy Frye said...

Thanks for the great post, Jim. I'm now looking for the right moment/place to use borborygmi.

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