Saturday, August 27, 2011

Words of Reassurance

In which the blogger stretches the reach of this blog and offers a few word-treasures extracted from the geological depths of language.

As I anticipate many hours of wind and rain from Hurricane Irene, and know that our electricity will go out (possibly for days), I wonder what would be best to read by our battery-powered lamp during the long, dark night before me, something to distract me, reduce my anxiety.  A masterful biography of a great scientist?  A detective novel oozing atmosphere set in Victorian England?  An engrossing tale of science fiction weirdness written for “young adults” (a category awash in amazing literature)?  An essay by a once robust poet, now slipping away?  Will the written word suffice, offer me a literary hug machine?

At the moment, with the electricity still on, perhaps the act of composing a blog posting might distract me for awhile.  As usual, I’ve been collecting words new to me and, perhaps, a brief offering of a trinity of those in the vault might do the trick.  Admittedly, only one of these words holds any kind of explicit link to the general focus of this blog.  So be it.  Here they are in no particular order.


The boy, often called Bobby by members of his family and sometimes Charley, earned the nickname Gas from his classmates at his boarding school because of the chemistry experiments he conducted at night with the gas lamp that lit the shabby, overcrowded room in which the boys slept.  In Bobby’s own account of his life, he noted that the headmaster, upon discovering these illicit activities, applied a different name to him:
He called me very unjustly a ‘poco curante,’ and as I did not understand what he meant it seemed to me a fearful reproach.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, 1996), a pococurante is “one who does not care.”  The word comes from Latin, via Italian (poco meaning “little” and curare meaning “care”).  But, that’s not quite how the headmaster was using the term, according to science historian Janet Browne who recounted Charles ("Bobby," "Charley," "Gas") Darwin’s exploits with gas in volume one of her definitive and wonderfully readable biography of the man (Charles Darwin:  Voyaging, 1995, p. 33).  “Pococurantism, in his day, meant someone who was only interested in trifles.”  Indeed.


Novelist Anne Perry introduced me to this word in her Victorian mystery novels.  In A Dangerous Mourning (1991), Perry described the streets outside a courthouse where a trial is underway (a carryover from a previous novel, The Face of a Stranger, the marvelous first volume of the William Monk series).  She wrote, that, amid the large and excited crowd,
Running patterers recounted the whole case, with much detail added, for the benefit of the ignorant – or any who simply wished to hear it all again.  (p. 40)
Oral recounting of the news of the day served a population in a time and place where literacy was not universal and, of course, there was no television.  Those who offered that service were patterers.  The 1907 New American Encyclopedic Dictionary offered this definition:
One who disposes of his wares in the public streets by long harangues.  (p. 3033)
Though I knew the noun patter (“glib, rapid speech”), I’d never encountered patterer.  The origin of this constellation of words is most delightful.  These words come from the Middle English patren which is derived from Paternoster, Latin for the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer.  This use presumably was inspired by the mechanical, rote way in which the prayer was often intoned.


The fantastically (I chose this adverb carefully) inventive mind of author William Sleator blinked off earlier this month with his death at age 66 (yes, the books still remain).  Sleator created aliens of grotesque features inhabiting worlds where the rules remained unclear for vulnerable teenage humans, an uncertainty with potentially deadly consequences – worlds all too familiar to his intended audience of so-called “young adults” (and to a host of others outside that demographic).

Sleator loved words, and the beings who inhabit his novels (e.g., the classic Interstellar Pig) play or wrestle with them.  His collection of autobiographical stories (Oddballs) makes clear that he grew up in an environment where words, real or invented, were loved and used to great effect (his sister Vicky, particularly, was a consummate artist with words).

But, it’s not a word from his books that I offer here.  Rather, Margalit Fox in her New York Times obituary of Sleator seduced me with a word in her discussion of Sleator’s parents.  His parents fit no conventional models of parenting.  One example should suffice.  His father would play what I can only describe as an urban survival game with Billy and his sister Vicky when both children were under the age of 10.  The two children would be blindfolded and then driven by their father to some remote corner of the city, released from their blindfolds, and left to get home on their own.  The only small piece of a safety net – a dime for a phone call.

As Fox noted in the obituary,
Billy, as he was known, grew up amid art, intellectual ferment and a laissez-faire approach to child rearing that would give helicopter parents the fantods.
That’s the word – fantods.  Clearly invented, worthy of Sleator or his sister Vicky, its first use predating them by over a century.  The American Heritage Dictionary asserts “origin unknown.”  Meaning of the noun?  “A state of nervous irritability” or “the  movements caused by tension.”  Merriam-Webster’s does it better – “fidgets.”  Just reading about his father’s “game” gave me the fantods.

Geology of Words

Four years before his death, Walt Whitman published a collection of poems and essays titled November Boughs.  Trust Whitman, even in his last years, to expand the reach of words, to enrich them to an overflowing abundance; trust him to connect mind and body.

As Hurricane Irene draws up the coast toward Long Island where my rickety summer cottage awaits her onslaught, I drink in this volume’s poetry about Paumanok (the Native American name for the island).
Sea-beauty ! stretch’d and basking !
One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce,
steamers, sails,
And one the Atlantic’s wind caressing, fierce or gentle – mighty
hulls dark-gliding in the distance.
Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water – healthy air and soil !
Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine !
Whitman, a consummate shaper of words, sought words among people of all stations and occupations.  He came to this endeavor with an appreciation of the process through which words are born and live and often die.  In his essay Slang in America which appeared in November Boughs, Whitman wrote,
To make it plainer, it is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang. In the processes of word-formation, myriads die, but here and there the attempt attracts superior meanings, becomes valuable and indispensable, and lives forever.  (p. 68)
Trust Whitman to not be content to merely describe this process, but to reach for more, to draw in an encompassing natural history.  As he concluded the essay, he stated,
The science of language has large and close analogies in geological science, with its ceaseless evolution, its fossils, and its numberless submerged layers and hidden strata, the infinite go-before of the present.  (p. 72)
The “infinite go-before of the present” . . . perhaps Whitman would be the best companion for the late night vigil amid the howling winds.

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