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Is there a word for a fizzling balloon? Or the habit of name-chanting whatever item you’re seeking in a magical bid to find it? A dictionary trawl suggests no, and no. Language is elastic, but can’t accommodate everything.
Still, lycra can only envy English at full stretch. While German may fill some semantic gaps, our own mother tongue licks ample problems too. Is there a word for a gratitude thief? Or the art of softening bad news? Maybe, and maybe. Since evasive labels often lurk in dustier reaches of the lexicon. And if not, the village will devise them.
That last rule applied to my opening two questions. Responses overflowed when I shared each quandary online. Because if there’s no name for a fizzling balloon, then we surely need one. Query by query, each gap was filled by farticulation (a balloon’s raspberry roar), and then Liam Runnall’s ingenious finders-speakers (the folkloric law of chanting your car keys into existence).
As a pastime, language sleuths fossick glossaries hoping to find handy treasure. Charientism, say, is the rhetorical art of softening hard news with humour, derived from gracefulness in Greek. As a ploy, charientism can also camouflage an insult in banter, an inborn knack of Australian speech, despite few locals knowing the term.
For a gratitude thief, think pickthank, an English compound from the cut-throat clan. These are words drawing on a verb-noun shorthand to identify what they do, like scarecrow, rotgut, killjoy and breakfast. Each is familiar, compared to pickthank, first cited in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Part I). Smellfeast is a close cousin, being that blow-in guest who arrives once a meal is served.
Thanks to my epeolatry (worship of words), I often dringle (waste time) in quest of archaisms that may prove useful one day. Next time you catch a tap’s gush in your cupped hands, appreciate your palms bear a gowpen, via Old Norse. Thanks to the Scots, a curglaff is the shock of dipping a toe into freezing surf, or lowering your backside into a lukewarm bath. See what I mean. Strange words exist if you know where to find them.
One source, this week at least, has been my two-day spree in Steven Poole’s A Word For Every Day Of The Year (Quercus, 2019). Hardly a new release, this almanac of 365 obscurities is timeless, yielding sprink (that quick primp we do in the mirror) or accismus: that faux-refusal to do what we secretly crave to do. “Another slice of cake? No, I couldn’t.” Really?
The deeper you dip into esoteric lexicons, the quicker you’ll awaken to the structural patterns. Take caco-, that nasty Greek prefix meaning bad. Over time, cacophony (bad sound) dovetails with cacography (messy writing), cacotechny (the creation of an evil device) and cacoethes – the urge towards committing a wicked act.
Likewise the -drome (running) of palindrome accords with enantiodromia, being the switching of opinions, like the weathervane swivel of politicians seeking re-election. Mind you, finding gove (to goggle in disbelief) won’t usurp the gawp we already own, yet nuances are welcome. Gobemouche (from fly-swallower in French) is a fun synonym of a gawping patsy. Just as cataglottism (or tongue-kissing) is a $50 alternative to tonsil hockey.
Life is short, as a fizzling balloon reminds us. But while there’s still breath in your lungs, always believe your vocabulary to be infinite. Always expand. Enrich. Searching for words is never dringling. Either you’ll stumble across a priceless oddity, or you’ll find a piece of linguistic Lego to help you build your own gap-filler.
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