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Word

By Angela Tung

Appreciation

These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears. – William Shakespeare

The bird is the word. – The Trashmen

 

 

I love my job.

I love my job because it’s not my old job. At my old job, you were expected to dress, talk, and act a certain way. You were expected to be a team player.

I love my new job because people would only say “team player” before pretending to barf.

I love my new job because I don’t feel like a fraud. I don’t feel like any minute someone will say, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” to which I’d feel great shame and relief, like the cheating spouse who deep in their heart, wants to get caught.

I love my new job because I do not feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m with the boyfriend I’m supposed to be with (nice, laid-back, smart, occasionally funny, and very nerdy). I wear jeans and T-shirts every day. There are free snacks in the kitchen.

But mostly I love my job because I get to work with words, and for a writer that’s like the Forbidden City: just one room short of heaven.

 

 

My job is to find words – cool words, weird words, words that no one has heard of.

For instance, have you heard of shail? It means “to walk crookedly,” as well as “scarecrow.” Do you know what a wanger is? No, not that! It’s a pillow specifically for one’s cheek. How about serein? It’s “a mist or exceedingly fine rain which falls from a cloudless sky, a phenomenon not unusual in tropical climates.” And a supercilium? It’s an eyebrow!

But maybe you’ve heard of these words. Maybe I’m alone in my amazement.

Call me the Christopher Columbus of semantics.

 

 

I really don’t know too many words. I was never interested in words as individuals, only what they could do for me in groups.

I memorized big words for the SATs – I still remember recalcitrant because Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes is unruly and stubborn – but otherwise put together sentences to sound like me talking (or if not me-me, then the writer me, who ironically while silent is much more garrulous than the real-life me, unless the real-life has consumed several shots of espresso), or rather like Judy Blume talking, or Madeleine L’Engle, or Stephen King, or whomever I was reading at the time.

I didn’t pay too much attention to grammar. I knew when stuff sounded right, but ask me something about a misplaced modifier or split infinitive, and I was at a loss.

Which kept me out of junior year honors English. Not because of bad grades from sophomore year honors English (pulled an A minus), but because of the grammar section of the SATs that I just blew by because hey, only the verbal and math counted in the total score, and I was only a 10th grader taking the test for practice.

But my low grammar score was held against me (even though is “good at grammar” really tantamount to “good at literature”?), and the head of the English department, Ms. P., a woman with a voice like sandpaper, said:

“I think you’re better off in the regular English class.”

 

 

Okay.

I may sound totally snotty. Wah, cry, I wasn’t in honors English! But by then I already knew I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t popular, nor was I an athlete. Math was hard, and I almost failed chemistry.

Words were all I had.

So there I was stuck in “regular English,” which was right next to “honors English,” and because my school was hippy dippy with open classrooms, I got to see all the kids in honors English, my friends and classmates from my other classes (like honors trigonometry, which I somehow got into despite getting a C minus in Algebra II), while I sat with – I’m sorry but it’s true – a lot of dumb head kids, who laughed – LAUGHED – when the teacher read one of my poems aloud.

“A faggot must have written that,” said the star football player, an ugly galut who picked his nose in class and somehow ended up at Princeton.

Of course I was Angry Poet Girl. I had no other choice.

 

 

What I’ve come to favor are big words for ordinary things.

Like pandiculation, the act of stretching oneself when fatigued or upon waking. Often accompanied by yawning.

Or sternutation, the act of sneezing.

Or horripilation, the ordinary goosebump.

Or borborygmus, a rumbling in the tummy, which, by the way, is onomatopoeia.

Was that your stomach or mine going bor-bo-RYG-mus?

 

 

I grew up speaking both Chinese and English. I don’t remember learning either. I understood my family, and I understood my friends and Sesame Street. Aside from almost speaking in Mandarin once in kindergarten, I didn’t have any trouble.

Well, not much.

Remember Rickel’s, the hardware store? Rhymes with nickel.  My father pronounced it “Reeckel.” Like treacle.

It wasn’t till I mentioned to a childhood friend that we were going to Reeckel’s, that I knew I was mistaken.

“Reeckel’s?!” she cried. “It’s not Reeckel’s! It’s Rickel’s.” She laughed. “Reeckel’s.”

We also pronounced the department store Steinbach’s as Stein-BACK’s (although I had no problem saying Johann Sebastian Bach). Till I was eighteen, I thought a nectarine was simply called a nectar. And in my New York City college, I was ridiculed for my mispronunciation of the state capital.

“AL-bany?” my so-called friend kept repeating, guffawing all the while. “AL-bany?”

For I had said AL-bany, as in Al Roker, instead of ALL-bany, as in, “All of you stop laughing and shut the fuck up.”

 

 

Words from the Scots are also good.

Like clamjamphrie, low worthless people.

Jouk, to roust or perch.

Spoondrift, “a showery sprinkling of sea-water or fine spray swept from the tops of the waves by the violence of the wind in a tempest, and driven along before it, covering the surface of the sea.”

And stramash, to beat or destroy, which I can only hear in the voice Groundskeeper Willie.

“Ach, I’ll stramash ye clamjamphrie into haggis and sprinkle ye like spoondrift!”

 

 

I know: that’s totally racist. Racist to Scots.

 

 

Because looking at me, I wouldn’t want people to assume I have an accent, aside from central Jersey. Well, okay, sure looking at me, you might think I have an accent, but once I start talking, it’s obvious that I don’t. It’s pretty obvious that even if I wasn’t born here (which I was), I at least have spent a good part, if not all, of my life here. But despite this very obvious fact, writing professors, such as those who head MFA programs, will think that English is my second language.

They will ask me, because of some quirky grammar (which I blame wholly on Madeleine L’Engle’s weird biblical syntax), “Where were you born? When did you learn to speak English?” and I will answer, in confusion, “Here. When I was two,” and afterward, in utter humiliation, I will go out and get Strunk & White because as with computers, I know how to use language but am less familiar with how it works.

 

 

The grammar thing again.

Damn you, Ms. P.

 

 

I also like words that sound like one thing, but mean something else.

Divagation is not navigation by divas but a wandering, a digression, a deviation.

An algorism isn’t something Al Gore said but the Arabic system of notation.

A colporteur isn’t someone who goes around singing, “Anything Goes!” but a peddler of religious texts.

A fremd is a stranger.

And I like words that sound like exactly what they are.

Like truelove, cuddlesome, dessert-spoonful, and thumbless.

Like susurrous, a whispering. Suss-sur-rousss. (I speak parseltongue too!)

And I like archaic insults.

You stinkpot!

You’re such a cudden!

Lay off, criticaster!

And some words are just cool, for no particular reason.

Tricksiness: the state of being tricky.

Anamnesis: a state of reminiscence.

Sweven: a dream.

 

 

I have dreamed in Chinese. I dreamed that I was wandering through the rain crying in Mandarin on the phone with my mother, who said nothing because she was too busy playing mah-jongg.

When I lived in China, I dreamed that the man speaking Mandarin below my window was speaking English, and when awoke and found that he was not, I was overwhelmed with homesickness and disappointment.

When I lived in China, I was starved for different languages, the way I was starved for different foods. My ears ate up Korean and Russian as though they were bagels and pad thai.

When I talked to my American friends on the phone, I forgot that they knew English. “They’re kind of xenophobic here,” I said once. “Do you know what that means?”

My friend paused. “I can’t believe you just asked me that.”

 

 

From ages 12 to 18, I spoke almost no Chinese. I felt embarrassed, mispronouncing words and tones. Especially tones. There were no lack of Chinese adults who’d laugh in the face of an unsuspecting ABC as she said, “I’m four years old,” (four = si, fourth tone) when clearly she was ten (ten = shi, second tone).

“You’re four?!” some old guy would crow, holding up four arthritic fingers. “Only four?!?”

Those are four fingers you’ll soon be missing, old man.  You’ll be the opposite of thumbless.

When I tried speaking Mandarin to my grandmother, it came out French.

“Are your parents home?”

Oui.”

 

 

Words of course aren’t everything.

Actions louder. Silence golden. All that.

But sometimes they are.

Like “abandonment” clearly isn’t the same thing as “adultery,” yet some people would have you think it is. Some people would think it perfectly fine to slip one word in for another.

Words unsaid are just as powerful.  More so even.

G-d.

You-know-who.

He-who-must-not-be-named.

We infuse power into words-that-should-not-be-said.

 

 

Faggot.

Nigger.

Chink.

 

 

Asshole.

Bitch.

Cunt.

 

 

Shitfuckpissdamn.

 

 

In China, when my friends visited, the natives thought I was their tour guide. The hawkers tried to get me to bring them over so that they could sell my friends overpriced postcards and fake ancient coins.

But I’d steer my friends away. I wasn’t like Happy, a tour guide who asked me, “When did you begin studying English?” (to which I answered, “When I was 2”), sharing my “business.”  This pissed the natives off.

Ta ma de!” they’d shout at me.

Fuck your mother.

And I’d wince, cheeks burning, while my friends sailed on, the shards of words mere spoondrift to their Mandarin-less ears.

 

 

Does a thing exist without a word? Can you think of a thing that doesn’t have one?

How about this*:

It would be impossible to describe how something looks to someone who has never seen. Perhaps after blind people die, they end up on a distant planet where they gain sight. But till then it’s impossible to describe it to them.

Perhaps for those who can see, after we die, we gain something as indescribable.

That indescribable something: there is no word for it.

Then again maybe there is.

Maybe there is a word for “a concept that is indescribable; that for which there are no words.”

I just have yet to find it.

Wish me luck.

 

 

*Concept lifted from Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Ring of Endless Light.

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Angela Tung A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

48 responses to “Word”

  1. As someone who’s been trying to shoehorn a new language into his life for the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time picking words apart lately, just as often in my native English as in the French I’m supposed to be adopting. Something about the introduction of a new language makes you question the basics of your own.

    But one irony I’ve come across is that the more time you spend dissecting cognates and overanalyzing individual words, the slower your pace of acquiring that new language is. At the same time, I find I become steadily less fluent in spoken English.

    Which dovetails with this line of yours that I really liked “the writer me, who ironically while silent is much more garrulous than the real-life me.” I’ve always been that way myself. Also, thanks for pointing out the wonderful word “susurrous.”

    • angela says:

      “But one irony I’ve come across is that the more time you spend dissecting cognates and overanalyzing individual words, the slower your pace of acquiring that new language is.”

      you know i think that’s true, and maybe why i didn’t feel confident in French or Mandarin while i was learning it in school. i was just memorizing lists of words, and picking then apart in order to memorize them, but felt at a loss during class in terms of using them. it wasn’t till i went to Paris and China, and was forced to just speak willy-nilly, regardless if what i was saying was 100% correct, that my speaking ability vastly improved.

      i love that word “susurrous”! i could have gone on and on with all the weird, wonderful words i’ve found, but then i’d have a 3000 word essay. 🙂

  2. Way to make me jealous… I got an awesome degree in English and ended up working with words: saying: “Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat. Cat.” Yeah, kindergarten sucks.

    But well done to you. It sounds like a freakin’ braw job.

    Yup, that’s about the extent of my Scots. I used to know more, obviously, but I’ve Americanised my vocabulary over these past few years. My mum sent me a teatowel with lots of Scots words: stramash being one of them. Blether is another, meaning “to talk.”

    I have the same trouble with my “a”s. I would, for example, pronounce “Albany” the same as you did. I was a problem when I learned Korean, because my pronunciation was fitting with Korean, but the Americans I was friends with pronounced Korean words differently… So I’d say a word with my “a” and they’d have no idea. Of course, being a white guy meant that Koreans had no idea either! So misunderstood…

    I started learning Mandarin last week – it’s a wonderful language. The problem is (and I discovered this in China) the sounds are so alien to me. I have already learned a lot of vocabulary and grammar… but I can’t say these crazy words correctly! It’s frustrating, but practice practice practice, right?

    Anyway, I’m fascinated by language. I love learning new ones. But it’s curse because I start learning one, then give up and try another. I’m very jealous of people smart/focused enough to speak two languages with any level of competency.

    • angela says:

      ooh i like “blether”! may have to steal that. 😉

      the non-native Mandarin speakers in my college class had a particularly difficult time with the tones. i think the idea of tones is so far removed from most languages that if you don’t grow up listening to different tones before you’re four or five, they’re really hard to learn.

      i remember one guy wanted to say, “i hope i. . .” and i thought he said, “i wash the dishes.” hope = xi wang, first tone/fourth tone; wash the dishes = xi wan, third tone/third tone. a precarious difference!

      • Tones are strange, but I don’t find them particularly tough. There are some sounds, though, that get me. With tones I just bob my head exaggeratedly like the girl in the video I watched. It’s fun. I think I’ll probably get nervous and stay silent in Taiwan, though. Learning is all very well in the privacy of your own home.

        I’ve noticed a few of these little differences… I wonder what Chinese comedy is like. In Korea I thought the words were so similar that comedy would revolve totally around puns and misunderstandings, but it doesn’t, of course. It revolves around poop.

        If you like blether you’ll also get a kick out of Oor Wille.

        • angela says:

          “With tones I just bob my head exaggeratedly like the girl in the video I watched.”

          hilarious.

          i think Chinese humor does indeed revolve a lot around puns. i remember the first joke i ever made in China. someone asked me if i received the English speaking channels on my TV, which i didn’t. “shou bu dao,” i said, which means something like “i don’t receive them,” then i said, “shou bu liao,” which means, “i can’t stand it.”

          another joke: this guy was telling a story about someone who played an instrument – “ta chui. . .chui. . .” he blows on. . . then he ended, “ta chui niu,” which means “to lie.” and i actually got the joke!

          you’ll have to write about Taiwan TV. my parents watch it regularly and it’s so incredibly asinine.

        • angela says:

          oh and thanks for the recommendation for the Scottish comic strip! i will definitely be perusing it for more cool words.

        • Judy Prince says:

          “Oor Wullie”—total fave of dear Rodent! I even bought a couple Oor Wullie cookbooks (had to get an idea how folks cook haggis and neeps, and especially clootie dumpling).

          I always enjoy this little bit (may have it wrong, but oh well): A mother and father watching their son march in a military parade. She smiles delightedly and says: “They’re aw oot-a step except oor Jock!”

        • Oor Wullie is commonly known in Scotland (ask Rodent about this) as a “toilet book.” It has the dubious distinction of being that book every family has lying in the bathroom. I never truly got into it, but my family has always loved Oor Wullie.

        • Judy Prince says:

          David, dear Rodent’s about the age of your parents, so his experiences may be different than yours.

          He says, re “Oor Wullie”:

          “It’s a generational thing—-I read it as it came out once a week in The Sunday Post. It’s gone through numerous artists, and Wullie switched his pet from a mouse to a Scotch terrier en route since the thirties. The original ‘lect was Dundee (since D.C. Thomson Papers who published The Sunday Post were created there). Originally late 30s I think. The mouse was called Jemmy, and the Scottie was called Harry.”

          Here’s a link to Oor Wullie:

          http://www.google.co.uk/search?sourceid=ie7&q=oor+wullie&rls=com.microsoft:en-gb:IE-SearchBox&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&rlz=1I7SVEC_en&redir_esc=&ei=vxehTMizMp-I4gbTwIXJDQ

        • We were never really a Sunday Post family… I don’t think I’ve ever read it other than on my paper route as a kid. For a long time, though, they’ve had annuals or collections. Some of these old ones are extremely valuable items for collectors.

          I’ve seen some of the mouse ones, but honestly I’ve never been a big fan of it. It’s really something my dad read and that I took a look at when I was a kid. I always loved his catchphrases: “Jings crivens, help ma boab!” I don’t think I ever knew anyone who talked like that!

  3. Judy Prince says:

    ““You’re four?!” some old guy would crow, holding up four arthritic fingers. “Only four?!?”

    “Those are four fingers you’ll soon be missing, old man. You’ll be the opposite of thumbless.”

    HAHAHA—-good, angela! That obnoxious toadperson!

    “parseltongue”—-I totally love this, but what does it mean? i want to use it right now!

    I so identified with this: “When I lived in China, I dreamed that the man speaking Mandarin below my window was speaking English . . .” —-only my experience was the night after returning to USAmerica from Taiwan and thinking my neighbour was speaking French. Weird, but so real-seeming, like some dreams. And yes I missed being in Taiwan, hearing Mandarin Chinese.

    And this happened lots to me in Taiwan: “When I tried speaking Mandarin to my grandmother, it came out French.” Oddly, the two languages (my two favourites) seem interchangeable to me, both so beautiful in every possible way.

    WOH! Forgot to mention that I love that you love your job!! Can’t get better than this: “I love my new job because people would only say “team player” before pretending to barf.” HA!

    Oh, angela, I was forthrightly turned down for a teaching job right after uni bcuz I couldn’t think of an example of a gerund at the job interview. Those bloody bastards who put you (and kept you) in non-honours English need to get a life and get a soul. Go back and give ’em a Glasgow kiss (a way serious head-butt)!!

    • angela says:

      haha, judy, that old guy did kind of look like a toad! but maybe all the obnoxious old Asian men i’ve ever encountered are blending in my mind.

      i can’t take credit for “parseltongue” – it’s from Harry Potter! the language of snakes. incidentally, JK Rowling’s books have great fun with language, and i realize only now that many of the names of are real words, such as Mundungus Fletcher – mundungus being an obsolete word for “poor tobacco with a rotting smell.”

      trying to speak one foreign language and having another one come out is like an actual thing, but i don’t know the word for it! i know what i’ll be searching for today. . .

      “Glasgow kiss” – love it! the Scots win again!

      • Judy Prince says:

        angela, I’m loving this discussion about learning languages, having odd haps like automatically switching them without realising it (French for Mandarin, for example), and I agree with you and Nathaniel about just jumping in whether it’s “correct” being the quickest way to “get” the language. My having tutors was good, but it didn’t get me into the thick of things on the fly and in the streets, fighting to recognise a word or two in conversations and firing ones back, right or wrong. One time I got so bummed out at the difficulty of it all in Taiwan that when an Englishwoman came up to me in a restaurant and said “Do you speak English?” I said: “A little.” !!!

        • angela says:

          for some reason that reminds me of when i’d start telling people in China that i actually wasn’t Chinese but Korean and didn’t speak Mandarin (this was during my “tour guide” time with my non-Chinese friends) – all spoken in Mandarin of course. i got so tired of being the middle man!

        • Judy Prince says:

          I can well imagine the mess ‘twould have been being the “middleman”, angela.

          In the ridiculous response-situation I noted (saying I knew little English), I was simply weirded-out and exhausted with trying to learn Mandarin. I knew a lot of Mandarin in my student-learner brain, but that didn’t come to me on the fly, off the cuff, in conversations. Therefore, I could never possibly have been a middleman; that is, helping English-speaking folk with Mandarin or translating what they said to the Chinese folk.

          What you did was what so many wonderfully patient Chinese people did for me in Taiwan, over and over and over again. I’m so grateful to them for their constant assistance and unfailing, courteous, sometimes hilarious help. What sweethearts!

          A big irony is that the Chinese—with whom I wanted to practice my Chinese—-wanted only to speak English with me in order to practice their English, a very rare treat for them at the time. HAHAHA!!

          Oh would I ever love to dine on a dozen jyaudz (or baudz) now!!!! I can just see them floating up to the top of a big pot of boiling water, ready to eat. I forgot whether jyaudz is the boiled or fried dumpling. You doubtless spell the words Englishly differently; I learned the Yale University spelling and can’t always figure out the other spelling system used more predominantly here in the USA and in ROC and PRC.

        • angela says:

          i experienced the same thing: chinese people very anxious to practice their English with me once they found out i could speak it. also, weirdly, people asking if they could just show up in my classes.

          dumplings are dumplings whether fried or boild (or jiao-zi, the pinyin way). i think they’re only potstickers (guo tie) if they have never been boiled and are fried right away.

          man, i’d love some jiao zi too! i just saw my mom a couple of weeks ago and had a lot. now i want more, even at nine in the morning.

        • Judy Prince says:

          oh angela, and I’ve lost the wonderful recipe for jyaudz! Even made it once, but puckering up those little dudes needed some practice. A great fun food to make, actually. Found out that the inimitable fragrance of jaudz seems to come from peanut oil. Judy now hongry for jaudz once again. (sigh)

          So you couldn’t escape the “let’s talk English” Chinese folk, either! HA!

          Re those folk wanting to just come to your class, next time say: “Bring lotsa food or money when you come, dear one, sye sye (hsieh hsieh?).” heh. 😉

          Dzai jyan!

  4. Dana says:

    This is so much fun Angela!
    Fremd and pandiculation and sternuation. Sounds like a wonderful job for you. I’m curious though how you find these words and then what is done with them.

    Also, I’d like to note that stinkpot is a favorite curse around my house, mostly because it always makes me giggle.

    Years ago my (rather colorful) grandmother was telling a story about her new minister (she didn’t seem to care for him much), and ended with a rowdy, “Potlicker!”. My husband and I roared with laughter. Seriously one of the weirdest epithets I’ve ever heard. Some time after that I heard a character in a period drama use the same word, and I tried to research the origin because it seemed to be directed at an Irish immigrant. All I could find at the time was that it’s another term for the broth at the bottom of a pot. Which is pretty tame when compared to “fuck your mother”.

    • angela says:

      dana, i work for an online dictionary so we have access to all sorts of words. we can generate lists, for example, of words that are rarely looked up, so chances are they are cool and rare (some of course are not and end up being alternative spellings or technical terms).

      part of my job is to choose a “word of the day” every day, which is a lot! but it’s great fun.

      “potlicker” – awesome! i am picturing one who licks chamber pots – ew!

  5. This was wonderful. So very delicious. I love new words, the tongue-feel of them, and yeah, I pretty much went over every word with which I wasn’t familiar and whispered it to myself. Tried it on for size.

    I’m pretty sure I knew borborygmus, but only because I love onomatopoeia.

    I love that Calvin figured into your mnemonic.

    • angela says:

      will, glad you enjoyed it!

      how words are typed also determine if i like them or not. for instance “disease” is not a fun word, but it’s so fun to type!

      you know, now i’m remembering other onomatopoeia (which i can’t spell for the life of me) from Calvin & Hobbes. like Calvin going, “Kra-kow! Kra-kow!” pretending to shoot at stuff but inadvertently answering Susie’s question, “What was a former capital of Poland?” and Calvin and Hobbes going “spelunking,” not cave exploring but throwing rocks into water, which upon landing went, “SPE-lunk!”

  6. jmblaine says:

    Hey I once failed English.

    Anytime someone says
    team player
    I’m ready to start
    breaking stuff.

    Its good to love
    your job isnt it?

    • angela says:

      isn’t it funny how what we do in school has so little to do with real life?

      “team player” is just one of many corp speak terms that make my want to hit someone. “accountability” and “at the end of the day” are others.

      i haven’t loved my job in – well, ever! it’s weird not to have “Sunday night dread” and actually look forward to Monday.

  7. Erika Rae says:

    I love the easy tone in which you write. (Ah, see? You made me pay attention to my grammar there.) This is such a great piece on so many levels. Funny, smart, cultural. I adore weird words, too. I even wrote a poem once called Big Words. It speaks to me somehow in that way that poetry does when it’s not that interesting to anybody else but the author. Which is to say that it sucks, but I still love it. I consistently love your writing, Angela.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    I can relate to this…when I wrote SAT verbal test questions at Kaplan, I’d basically sit there and memorize all the big words. Perspicacious of me, given my current profession…

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    Angela, what a perfect tribute to the beauty of words! Here’s one that may not have made it through onto your radar before, as it’s pretty Australian:

    furphy: rumour or false information, particularly in politics.

    (and I originally said it as ALbany, too)

    • angela says:

      i love “furphy”! it’s a word i just learned. i love that sounds like one of those furry stuffed animals that talks.

      the Australians also have some awesome words. i think “fossick” is another one i just learned, to search for gold.

  10. Irene Zion says:

    Angela,

    I love words too.
    Do you get the magazine: “Verbatim?”
    It’s like taking a bubble bath in words.

    • angela says:

      no but i’ve heard of VERBATIM. it’s an excellent source for cool words.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Angela,

        Verbatim is the kind of journal that doesn’t want to be a bother.
        So they only tell you once that your subscription is running out.
        I am always noticing months along that I haven’t gotten one and I have to find them and resubscribe.
        I need journals to be nudgy.

  11. Joe Daly says:

    What a fun piece! As a Latin major, I have such little practical application of my major, that etymology is one of my last refuges. Of course, that leaves me only the Romance languages, so even there, I’m pretty limited.

    As David noted, I’m pretty jealous of your gig. Sounds interesting and rewarding. Plus you’ve got all these little weapons for stopping people in their conversational tracks- just throw out your word for cheek pillow and walk away as they stir in their own confusion.

    • angela says:

      it is a pretty sweet gig. only downside is that it pays about 60% less than may previous job. but that’s what nest eggs are for! now all i need to do is write a best selling novel before that nest egg gets used up.

  12. Meg Worden says:

    “I love my new job because people would only say “team player” before pretending to barf”

    Loved reading this, Angela! I could just get lost on wordnik myself…doing it for a living? Add me to the jealous list.

  13. Don Mitchell says:

    Angela, this is a great piece. You hit on some things that I think about often — like the difference between knowing grammar as a subject, and being able to write grammatically and well (my mother was a high school English teacher so I know that problem intimately).

    But I most like the part where you break into another language while trying to speak your other tongue. That happened regularly to me when I was in the field — I’d start to reply in their language, but something else would come out. Usually French. I think about that regularly. Is it that some part of our brain recognizes that we’re speaking a language not our own, and concludes that any word in any language not our own will do? They’re all the same? It must be something like that.

    And — I don’t think I’ve heard or read “galut” (or galoot) since I was a boy, and it was my mother’s favorite word to describe drunks. Thanks for bringing back that memory.

    And yeah, Albany. NY State has a bunch of those — Chili, Java, Nunda come to mind. You’d think they’d be pronounced the way they look. Nope.

    • angela says:

      don, now i really want to know the term for “breaking into a different foreign language than one meant to speak.” i think our brains do sort of think [in brainy robot voice], ATTEMPTING FOREIGN LANGUAGE, and just throws out the one we’ve learned most recently. when i spoke in French with my grandmother, i was taking French, but didn’t regularly speak Mandarin.

      then there are the times i’m with with my family, and forget that certain spouses and boyfriends don’t speak Chinese, and will ask them something and wonder why they’re looking at me like i’m crazy.

      “galut” – or “galoot,” which seems to be the preferred spelling – was the only way to describe this kid. huge, ugly and gross.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I think it’s called interference.

        I learned Italian most recently and I can say more in Italian than I can in, say, Spanish.

        But if I’m talking or writing along in Italian and my brain comes to a word it doesn’t know or can’t remember the Italian for, it will sometimes miraculously and without even asking me first, just toss in the Spanish word instead.

        Sometimes Spanish words that I didn’t even know I knew. And half the time, I’m none the wiser, since the two languages are so similar. Sometimes all I get is a sort of vague sense of unease, like some part of my brain is trying to holler from very far away that this is the wrong language completely, but it’s being muffled and thwarted and held down by the part going:

        “Need foreign word for _________! ANY FOREIGN WORD FOR IT! HURRY!”

        • Angela Tung says:

          thanks, becky! that would have driven me insane.

          that vague sense of unease you describe is familiar. i definitely get that with language (foreign or not), but also with actors i can’t place, or voices – usually from some commerical – that i recognize but can’t pinpoint. i feel like my brain starts at the edges, and slowly, painfully fills in the blanks till finally i get it.

  14. Gloria says:

    Serein is a great word! I’d never heard it before. Of course it makes sense. Sere means dry. I don’t know the etymology of the “in” ending, but whatever it is, I’m sure it makes serein a logical word for “fine misty rain.”

    Your job sounds amazing. Especially the team player thing. When I hear “team player” at my job, in my head I think “man down in the trenches” and immediately the image of a battlefield comes to mind.

    Wow, this piece goes all over – and I do not mean that in a “wow this is really rambling.” I mean, wow – what a comprehensive examination of the power of words. The g-d he-who-must-not-be-named part made me giggle. Because IT’S TRUE!

    Fiddlefooted, by the way, is my favorite random word few people know. I had a boss once who read the dictionary and taught himself one new word a day. (That dude was a trip.) He told me one day that I was fiddlefooted. He was pretty right on. 🙂

    • angela says:

      gloria, of course i had to go look up the etymology for “serein,” which apparently comes from the Latin serenus, “cloudless”, by extension “calm, peaceful.” who knew? i’d have guessed it came from “sere” as well.

      i think a lot of that corp speak bullshit comes from the military. “all hands on deck!” “around the horn.” which makes it even more obnoxious because it’s doubtful that national security is in the hands of the marketing department.

      oh yeah, i think my piece totally rambles! i had to struggle to keep it from being, “here are a list of cool words i like. the end.”

      fiddlefooted is an awesome word. i’d never heard of it before!

  15. Marni Grossman says:

    Such a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece. As per usual. And I loved this: “A colporteur isn’t someone who goes around singing, “Anything Goes!” but a peddler of religious texts.” Because I am, obviously, a huge nerd.

  16. […] arcane words, America, Australia, […]

  17. […] She has lousy taste in music, but impeccable taste in words. […]

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