NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 8, 2012

A dearth of superlatives and other matters

As Good As Your Word Jonathan Wells
Newburyport Daily News

---- — Across our retinas and through our ears flows a continuous stream of news and ads illuminated from time to time by wonderful, amusing and stimulating word or phrase or unintended slip. In this column are a number that have struck me.

First, however, have you encountered a word problem that comes up all the time for me — finding a superlative to describe some extraordinary idea, situation or event? The fact is that I just cannot find words in the language to convey my feelings about a number of things. Where, for example, does one find words to express one’s revulsion at such deeds of the Taliban as the recent beheading of 17 Afghans for attending a party with music and the opposite sex? Savage, barbarian, cruel, inhuman are just a start. The flagitious crimes of these mindless ignoramuses beggar description and challenge credulity. Even if they fall short, these words are still better than Orwell’s “double plus ungood,” I suppose.

At the positive end of the scale are the more-than-wonderful technological developments — for example, the iPhone, at whose extraordinary capabilities one can only stare in disbelief. When I try to express my sentiments, I find that all the words that come to mind are shopworn and insufficient: “amazing,” “incredible,” “unbelievable” and “mind-boggling,” so I end up gasping out inarticulate noises instead. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” has some appeal, but it’s supersesquipedalian, and much too closely connected with Mary Poppins. Anyone have any ideas?

Of course, strong sentiments can often be expressed using quite simple words. Although not contributing much to rational discourse, former presidential candidate Pat Robertson expressed his views about the Equal Rights Amendment in these terse, unminced words: “It’s about a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

(“He seems,” says the reporter, “to have been opposed.”)

Declaring the development of superlatives a work-in-progress, let me offer you for entertainment the “other matters,” a very mixed bag of interesting or amusing words or phrases.

Did you know that: a conspirator is one who “breathes with” someone else, from Latin “spirare” to breathe, and “con” with? (Can’t you just see conspirators leaning in around a table in a basement somewhere, mixing their fetid exhalations?) In this vein, the Germans have a good phrase “Unter vier Augen,” “under four eyes’” that is, just you and me. Did you know when the restaurant offered you that “shrimp scampi” that it means “shrimp shrimp” (“scampo” in Italian meaning a shrimp), just as “with au jus” (as one sometimes sees it in menus) means “with with juice”? Things that crunch when you bite them, BTW, are crisp, not “crispy” as the advertisers would have it. No such word.

“Halcyon days,” a time of peace and quiet, are so-called from Alcyone, the kingfisher. “The ancients believed that the bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting — around the winter solstice” (Phrases.org.uk). Even at the solstice there is not one “kudo” or many “kudos.” The word is singular, from the Greek, meaning “praise,” and pronounced “cue-doss.” (I don’t think there is a plural, i.e., no kudosses, however.) While we’re here, don’t say “the hoi polloi” when referring to Mencken’s “great unwashed” — “hoi” means “the,” so there’s another tautology!

In this paper (incredible as it may seem) it was recently reported that “the Obama campaign is aiming to sew [sic.] new doubt into the minds of Pennsylvania voters.” Political brain surgery? (“Sic.,” by the way, is Latin for “thus” in the phrase “sic erat scriptum” — “this it was written,” is a nice supercilious put-down if you are quoting someone who has made a mistake, as above).

When listening to or viewing the political tohuwabohu, we are usually tickled when someone from the party we don’t like says something, which is turned back upon him. He has blown himself up with his own bomb. As Hamlet says, “For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer hoist by his own petard.” Don’t breach the peace in your excitement, though, or you might end up like someone I just read about, “sentenced to two months in the Lawrence Superior Court.” Meanwhile, send me a petard (only metaphorical, please.)

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Jonathan Wells of Newbury can be con Jon3sticks@gmail.com.