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1366 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Boiling the Lance: Recreational Linguistics

by Skip Eisiminger

The phrase “to poach an egg” angered Eugene,
for words should mean one thing, not umpteen.
The Wordspinner
“Fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing,
for in the Queen’s English the jester is king.
The Wordspinner

In some old film whose title I have conveniently forgotten, a leading man told his leading lady that her face made time stand still. She tenderly kissed him; the director faded to black, and that was the end of it. As I often did, I tried to memorize smooth one-liners when I found them because uncertain as I was at twelve, I suspected I would need some poetic backup one day. However, when the time for help came, that one-liner emerged as, “Your face would stop a clock,” and that too was the end of it.

Critical actions often hinge on arranging the right words in the right order—err on either count, and you may have your face slapped. I recall underscoring that paragraph in which Holden Caulfield mishears Robert Burns’ line about “comin’ through the rye” as “catcher in the rye” and how that mondegreen changed his life. Having been ridiculed in kindergarten after “I led the pigeons to the flag,” I concluded like Holden that I’d better start paying closer attention to words.

To help in that effort, my father bought me a leather-bound, vest-pocket dictionary. It was here that I found “avuncular” while writing about the uncle who’d let me borrow his car, but when I looked for its equivalent to describe a benevolent aunt, I drew a blank. So I created “avantular,” and my English teacher apparently read right past it.

Coining words was not only useful, I discovered, but fun, and after college, I drifted into a sky-blue, unfunded, subset of recreational linguistics, or “rec ling.” When I thought I’d coined “objectifyingly” in the sentence, “Stone, a descendant of Medusa, could not help but look objectifyingly at women,” I realized that I had a word unlisted in any of my print dictionaries. (On-line, I’ve since discovered that it’s been used over nine hundred times.) But the more interesting feature for me was that here was a word with three suffixes! I felt like one of those savants who discover prime numbers surfing the waves of their cerebral seas. Actually, the feeling was more like that of the California owner of the Yreka Bakery when he realized he’d been given a palindrome without asking.

The next move was to see how many prefixes I could add to some impoverished stem. Some student of Greek had beaten me to “penultimate,” meaning next to the last, but what if you wanted to call someone’s attention to the sixth to the last item in a series? And thus was born “pro-supra-pre-ante-pen-ultimate.” (Ordinarily, I don’t use the hyphens, but I wanted to show where the fusions occurred.) Years later, a web search showed to my horror and admiration that someone had coined “supra-fore-pro-pre-ante-pen-ultimate,” for the seventh item in a series. In the comments section of the creator’s web page, a jealous rival had proclaimed it, “the worthless word of the day.” I beg to differ.

One of our grandsons has apparently inherited the word gene from me. When Spencer was thirteen, he asked me if I knew the longest word in English. I said, “I’m pretty sure I do, but what do you think it is?” “Hippopoto-monstro-sesqui-pedalio-phobia,” he chuckled. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about “pneumo-ultra-micro-scopic-silico-volcano-coni-osis” or the little train station in Wales with the name that is almost as long as the trains that stop there. But his joy was undiminished when I told him about “smiles,” a word whose start and finish are separated by an orthographic “mile.”

One day, daydreaming over my keyboard, I noticed that while “sinister” requires two hands to type on QWERTY, “dexter” (right) is typed with the left alone. A Google search showed I was not in virgin territory wherein no hand had stepped. Some anonymous logophiles had determined that “stewardesses” is the longest word in modern English typed exclusively with the left hand, and “lollipop” is the longest using the right. “Typewriter” is the longest using the top row, and “skepticism” is the longest alternating using left and right. As for words that are neatly laid out for you by QWERTY, there’s “we” and “as,” while pre-spelled names include “Io” and “Ty.” The record for the middle row is “Shakalshas,” a group of Turkish emigres living in Sicily. Unless one accepts “zzz” as a synonym for “sleeping” or “xxx” meaning “pornographic,” I’ve yet to discover a word, not an acronym or abbreviation, which might be constructed from ZXCVBNM, the bottom row.

My favorite and largest category, however, is the superlative, which includes words fixed at the apogee or nadir of their orbits. These include in no particular order:

  • The largest Roman-numeral word: “mix” (1009)

  • The longest word that does not use “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u”: “rhythms”

  • My most beautiful word: “asphodel” (Who knew there were flowers in hell?)

  • The least expected demonym: “Leodensian” (a resident of Leeds, UK)

  • My proudest crossword clue: “elbows on the table” (pasta)

  • My hardest word to pronounce: “isthmus” (I hesitate every time I say it.)

  • The strongest denial: “I ain’t never seen no such thing, no how, no way.” (a quintuple negative)

  • The longest word with 180° rotational symmetry: “SWIMS”

  • My hardest tongue twister: “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

  • My sexiest word: “lubricious”

  • The most often confused words: “its” and “it’s” (“Their,” “there,” and “they’re” run a close second.)

  • The most toxic word: the “n-word” (Even buried in this list and spelled euphemistically, it is the verbal equivalent of plutonium. It may be the one word Donald Trump won’t use.)

  • The most disgusting word: “smegma” (the cheesy secretion beneath an unwashed foreskin)

  • The best word without a vowel: “cwm” (a mountain lake and/or its steep-walled valley)

  • The best word without a consonant: “Iouea” (a Cretaceous sponge)

  • The most dangerous word: “inflammable” (It can mean both “not flammable” and “very flammable.”)

  • The longest word in alphabetical order: “abillowy” (I claim credit for adding the “a.”)

  • The longest one-syllable word: “squirrelled” (UK spelling)

  • The best visual words: “Bed” and “bed” (The first has a fluffy pillow.)

  • The shortest word with the most syllables: “etui” (I pronounce it with three syllables despite what the French say.)

  • The longest single word palindrome: “kinnikinnik” (an Alaskan shrub)

  • The best synonym for “synonym”: “equivalent”

  • Longest reflection grouping: “X88B88” (voodoo)

  • Longest snowball sentence: “I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness.” (lil thugsta)

  • Longest set of homonyms: “raise, rays, rase, raze, rehs, réis, res”

  • Shortest word with all six vowels in alphabetical order: “facetiously”

  • The sole honest number: “four” (four letters that mean “4”)

  • The best oxymoron: “oxymoron” (the Greek roots are “sharp” and “dull”)

  • The eeriest anagram: “the meaning of life”/”the fine game of nil”

  • Rich Hall’s finest sniglet: “potentater” (the longest French fry in any order of fries)

  • The longest word without a repeated letter: “uncopyrightables”

  • The funniest malapropism: “After Skip’s prostate surgery, he was incompetent.”

  • The longest kangaroo word and its joey: “municipality” and “city”

  • The most widely understood English slang word: “okay” or “OK”

We’ve come a long way since “bankrupt” was spelled “b-----pt” so as not to frighten readers of the financial news in 1900. But the freedom we enjoy in the twenty-first century has led some of my colleagues in “rec ling” to venture beyond the sign at the lip of the precipice: “Know Hope.” I’m thinking mainly of Cory Abbott who in 2012 transliterated Alice in Wonderland into alphagrams in which each of Lewis Carroll’s words is reset in alphabetical order. Thus the title becomes: Aceil in addelnnorW. Cory Abbott, whose names are alphagrams, is rumored to be recuperating in the Henry Ford Center. It was a tough call because neither “Henry” nor “Ford” is an alphagram. Upon his release, Abbott plans to alphabetize all the words in Alice. Since he may need some help, I’ll do the first five for him: a, a, a, a, a.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury