Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Words Patrick Likes

A series of short essays on words that tickled my fancy in 2011.

Amortize,
Ataraxis,
Bowels,
Defenestration,
e.g.,
Flange,
Foment,
Fungible,
Hamper,
Kerfuffle,
Lurking,
Mallet,
Peasant and
Wingnut.

Amortize

You want to know why amortize is a word I like? It literally means to kill off over time. The English Speaking children of the world have received this word from Old French, which is basically trashy latin (the kind of Latin you would speak if you were a poor undesirable, person — most of the world back then.)

But language and class warfare aside, death by inches is a hell of a concept. And if you’ve ever tried to kill off credit card debt you know just what I mean. It only goes little by little.

Amortize is the way you complete a journey of a thousand miles. The way you eat an elephant. It’s also the way you write a novel. A little bit at a time. For me there is a tremendous power in the idea of the increment. The little by little. Behavioral scientists call this “chunking”, when you break a large task into smaller steps so that it’s easier to accomplish.

Want to be President of the United States of America or climb Mount Everest? Then start training early and amortize it. I don’t recommend either of those goals. I believe in you and know that you have great and useful things to do with your life. You are too smart to trudge to your death (one step at at time) and too smart to doublespeak your mind into annihilation (one lie at a time.)

But whatever path you choose, whatever goals you may seek, recognize that amortize, with it’s incremental, financial connotation, holds one of the great truths of our existence — whatever you get you have have pay for — one way or another. Most usually, one way AND another. I don’t like the fact, but the word captures it so perfectly, I cannot deny that it is a Word Patrick Likes.

Ataraxis

Trip over the word “ataraxis” in a sentence and you’ll probably fall on it. And if you do one of those sharp letters is gonna stab you right in the liver. As your life’s blood seeps out into the paragraph below you will have time to think, “What kind of person uses a word like ataraxis anyway?”

Then, and only then, having vented your spleen and most of your bodily fluids, you will be overcome by a wonderful feeling of peace. Which is fitting because that’s what ataraxis means — a state of serene calmness.

Which is where it all falls apart for me. I mean really. Is NOBODY in charge around here? ATARAXIS? Just say it out loud. Pronouncing this word is like somebody putting a crystal vase in your mouth and then slamming you in the face with a tire iron. ATARAXIS? This is not a peaceful sounding world.

Watch.

It’s the end of a long day. We’re in a rich lady’s bathroom. And as she’s sliding into the fabled, proverbial and otherwise cliche’d bathtub — as the nearly scalding water releases every inch of tension from her body — as it all slips away, she gives voice to the wonderful feeling of peace that has overcome her by sighing, “Ataraxis.”

No she does not.

You know what Ataraxis should be good for? Let’s say, you’re down upon a defenseless village. And next to you are a couple of screaming, half-naked guys with blue paint on their skin and hate in their hearts. And next to them there are a bunch more guys wielding torches and warhammers and swords. The rape and the pillage knobs are turned up to 11.

But everybody’s waiting for you to give the signal, because you’re in charge. And you need to let them know that you want them to destroy this village so utterly that no other village on the face of this earth will ever think about resisting you. To do this you need a word. A really good word. Do you cry Havoc? Nah, you throw back your head and in the raspy voice of a man who’s thirst can only be slaked by the blood of the vanquished you cry ATARAXIS!

That’s what ataraxis should be good for.

But it’s not. Ataraxis is spelled like it sounds, but, sadly, it’s not meant like it sounds. It sure does sound badass doesn’t it? So it’s easy to see why it’s a word Patrick likes.

Bowels

I’m not ashamed to say it. I love bowels. This is not a strange culinary artifact  passed down to me by my Scottish ancestors. I mean to say I love the word bowels.

The bowels of hell. The bowels of night. The bowels of Uncle Frank. The bowels of New Jersey.

Combine the word bowels with almost anything else and you get an instant emotional response. Also an instant physiological response.

The word bowels rattles around in your nether regions like a 54 ounce steak through Jackie Gleason’s colon in 1958.

By the bowels of Greyskull. By the Bowels invested in me. Bowl at the moon.

In ancient times it was believed that the bowels were the seat of the more violent passions in the body. Love, hate that kind of thing. In fact, it’s the same nexus of meaning that gives the word ‘guts’ its tough-guy connotation.

Guts is another great word, by the way. It’s all fine and good to have courage when you are up there, riding a horse and protected by thick shiny armor, but when down here in the trench — when it’s just man to man — you gotta have guts. You gotta have that fortitude that prevents your bowels from turning to water.

You need, quite simply, the fire in your belly.

Combine all that with the fact that Bowels is one of the more entertaining two-syllable words you can say, and it’s easy to see why Bowels qualifies as a Word Patrick Likes.

Defenestration

There is a special kind of anger for which there is no word. And when you are this angry, writing a manifesto or stabbing someone or shooting someone simply isn’t enough to express how you truly feel. Luckily, for the truly, irreconcilably enraged, there is defenestration.

In Latin it literally means, “from the window”. And it is used, quite logically, to describe the act of throwing a person or object from a window. But here’s the interesting part: in and of itself defenestration is not usually enough to kill people. And especially not in the 1600’s (when defenestrating was all the rage) before the advent of steel framed building.

Oh, sure, getting thrown out of a window hurts, But, if the fall is less than five stories, you stand a pretty good chance of living through it. Which leads to an interesting practice. In many cases of defenestration the victim was stabbed or shot and THEN thrown out the window.

This act is so fraught with wrath and frustration it deserves its own word. Think about it. You’ve killed somebody. They’re dead. Instead of cooling off or running away or hiding the body, or are so moved that you must you heave it out a window into the town square for everyone to see.

No matter what page you open to in the book of history you are certain to find someone killing somebody. But defenestration? well that’s rare. It takes some creativity, some style, some planning and a window. And that’s why it’s a Word Patrick Likes.

e.g.

Okay, so it’s technically two words, but I’m going to quickly quote Emerson and move on as if there is nothing wrong with e.g. being a Word that Patrick Likes. Because there isn’t. Reverend Waldo, if you please —

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

The abbreviation e.g. means ‘for example’ but for me, the term is far, far cooler than that. It’s short for Exempli Gratia, which literally translates as free example. And what I love about that is the connotation it gives the term. It’s as if when you use e.g. you are saying, “Hey, I’ll give you this example for free, but the next one is gonna cost you. So pay attention numbnuts.”

E.g. a drug dealer handing out crack to a 5th grade class to hook them on the product. I.e. Baby, they’re free the first time.

E.g. is often confused with it’s Latin cousin i.e. but to interchange them is incorrect. I.e. is short for ‘id est’ which means “that is.”

Let me illustrate with an example that I won’t charge you for.

A politician e.g. Ted Kennedy

A politician i.e. that semi-veterbrate, parasitic eel clamped lamprey-like on the soft-underbelly of the American public as it gorges itself on the seemingly limitless blood-red dollars of soulless lobbyists.

I don’t think it’s a major sin to confuse i.e. with e.g. In fact, I think you can go your whole writing life without using either of them. But there is something dashing and magnanimous about the idea of giving someone a free example. Something which is made inexpressibly cooler by saying it in Latin. And that’s why Exempli Gratia is a term Patrick likes.

Flange

Flange has great sound to it, especially when said with an British accent. For this reason, I had long thought that flange was a synonym of valve. But it is not. It is something far better and far more precise.

A flange is a raised circle or collar used to make something easier to turn. Like, for instance, a valve. So when someone asks you to turn the flange, the are asking you to turn the knobby little bit that twists a shaft and ultimately opens or closes a valve.

A valve is a device for controlling the passage of a fluid through a pipe or duct. As such, your heart has valves. But it has no flanges. Unless you are very, very ill or have undergone some seriously wierd surgery.

This is the virtue of precision. Unless you’ve really needed precision, you might not have noticed how lacking this virtue is in language. To turn the steering wheel is not the same as directing the motion of the car as any desperate fool in a skid can tell you.

All of these distinctions seem semantic and trivial right up until the point that you need them. But it is the distinctions that give our writing, thinking and living meaning. That is why words like things and stuff are to be avoided. They are hollow, hold little or no meaning and provide no distinctions.

Even as a synonym for that brontosaurial ancestor of modern transistor — the vaccum tube — flange is precise in all it’s senses. And that’s why it’s a Word that Patrick Likes.

Foment

Foment comes from Late Middle English, through French, ultimately from the late latin verb fromentare which means to apply a poultice or hot lotion to a wound. In the modern sense it has become the act of stirring up a dissent. You bake a cake. You foment a rebellion.

There’s a lot to be said for rebellion, both in favor and against. No matter how unjust a state of affairs may be, rebellion means that quite a lot of people must die. And death, as should be obvious, is almost always worse than injustice. Timid words and the dusty pages of history are cast in new light when one realizes that a rebellion consists of people who abandon their settled way of life for the uncertain chance of revolution because they feel it is the best option they have.

But whatever the terrible consequence that rebellion and it’s foment may have, the word raises an interesting linguistic question What’s the antonym of foment?

Does it mean to dry out a wound? To unapply a poultice? There really isnt a word for that. And there really isn’t a word that means the opposite of foment.

This happens a lot with language. Very often, we find that there isn’t a precise word for something we want to describe. Reality is continuous and unlimited. Language is discrete and finite.

But I think we really need a word for the opposite of foment. Because all over the world, people are very, very unhappy right now. Many rebellions are fomenting. And many people are trying to unfoment them.

See, see how nasty that is not to have a word for that concept right there? But not just nasty, in terms of the flow of the prose, it is also intellectually troublesome. Because if you don’t have a word for something, it’s really hard to deal with it or understand it. That’s why most of the scientific enlightenment was devoted to classification of things.

So let’s go to the next best word. Pacify maybe. Mollify. Appease. Appeasement might work. Saudi Arabia just tried appeasement when they paid off their citizens. Maybe douse. Douse is probably the closest word. And, in the sense of things, related. Both words relate to the employment of fluids.

Foment a rebellion or douse one. One thing is certain. These are fomentous times we live in. There are riots in London. There are riots in Egypt. There are riots in Paris and Greece. Rebellion is fomented in many places around the world. But will it be doused? I cannot say. But in these uncertain times we live in, I take my pleasures where I can. And one of them is foment itself — A Word Patrick Likes.

Fungible

This fine word has become the great lie of modern times. It’s the idea that one thing is exactly the same as another.

In its unstretched, virginal state, fungible is useful enough and there is no harm in it. It is a legal term that denotes a class of items each member of which is perfectly capable of being used in place of another. For example, a gallon of a particular grade of gasoline. One gallon is as good as another and you don’t really care which one you have in your tank.

And its true, any dollar in a suitcase full of cash can be exchanged with any other dollar in the world without anyone being the worse off, or even noticing. But it is not true that each dollar in the suitcase is the same.

For the purposes of exchange one pound of wheat may be equivalent, but each grain of wheat is, like the proverbial and cliched snowflake, unique. As the meaning of words have changed, shifted, leaked, blended and melted into one another, Fungible has Funged us up but good.

As much as I love this very useful term of exchange, I must testify as an artist and one alive to the world — One thing is emphatically not another. The same suitcase of money may be used for the illegal purchase of a stolen Carravagio or it may be used for the illegal purchase of rocket-propelled grenades. The various dollars in the suitcase may be used, in subsequent transactions, to buy machine parts, t-shirts, radios, hot dogs, cocaine or a baby stroller.

While each dollar is functionally the same, its individual path through the world renders it unique.

If it is true of grubby, inanimate bits of paper currency, how much more true must it be of people? This is the dark patch where the idea of fungibility has bled into humanity. I submit that it is a stain and should be removed.

No matter how much we might try to grade and certify, two people with equal qualifications are not equal. No matter how convincing a structure of procedure or regulation that one may erect, people are not fungible.

All of what is best and worst in our modern exchange economy (and a battle for the very idea of a unique soul) is tied up in the word fungible. And that’s what makes it, well, not exactly a Word Patrick Likes, exactly, but one that’s pretty damn important.

Hamper

While my wife will tell you that I have no positive knowledge of such a thing as a hamper, I must beg to differ. I know hamper and have great affection for it. The world derives from hanepeir which is an Old French word which denotes a special case that contains a  goblet. And let me assure you, no matter what may happen with my clothes at the end of the day, I have never, ever left a goblet out of its case

Hamper is a funny sounding word, which in its verb from means to hinder or impede the progress of. It gets this sense from hampren, another 14th century word, which means to imprison or confine. And I would venture to say, that it is this sense of the word that creates my personal difficulty with the basket designed to hold dirty clothes in my bathroom. I’m not much on confines you see, and have never been able to reconcile myself to the idea that my clothes should have to endure a cruel imprisonment without due process of law. Especially after they have given me such good service. Surely, my habit, schmatta as it may be, deserves better than that.

So if you want my personal definition of Hamper, I would describe it as:

that barbarous relic of torture and imprisonment around which I scatter clothes as a way of honoring all those who suffered the injustices of rapacious 14th century government.

Why my wife wants to keep a reminder of benighted ages — a wicker woven equivalent of an Iron Maiden in our lovely home — I may never know. But whatever the reason, hamper remains a Word Patrick likes. If for no other reason than it’s funny-sounding.

Kerfuffle

Kerfuffle sounds like a made up word. This is silly because when you get right down to it, all words are made up words. But, one has to admit, Kerfuffle sounds _especially _made up. It sounds like it was what the guy who invented the word Smurf was working on before Joey Barbera knocked on his door and asked for a name for his new animated series about a village of little blue people so cute that even their swear words were Smurfing adorable.

As cute as Kerfuffle sounds, (I mean really, doesn’t it sound like it should be used to describe a laundry basket full of kittens wrestling over a dryer-fresh argyle sock?) it has a fine, strong, useful meaning.

Ker is a Gaelic word which means to twist or bend. And fuffle means disorder or confusion. The two were first combined by wily Scottish wordbenders in 1813.

A kerfuffle then is most directly defined as a bent confusion. And that’s awesome. Like a riddle wrapped in an enigma, a kerfuffle is a screw-up bent around a misunderstanding. It’s the bacon-wrapped scallop of interpersonal mayhem.

It’s the two guys, saying the exact same thing in slightly different words, who are about to come to blows, because nobody will shut up long enough to listen. Add alcohol and shake, and you’ve got a fight. But just shy of that, you’ve got a bent confusion. A Kerfuffle.

How can that not be a Word Patrick Likes?

Lurking

Once upon a time, I was given an assignment to write a banking brochure. It this kind of information that nowadays is buried several levels deep in painfully corporate website, but this was before big, dumb companies realized that the internet was going to be a thing and slightly after the invention of fire and the wheel.

Anyway, part of this brochure was supposed to encourage people be safe while using ATMs (oh yes, those had been invented, so it was like 1994 or so.) I wrote a bit of prose that went something like this, “Be on the lookout for suspicious characters lurking around ATMs.”

Sadly, my choice of adverb did not survive contact with the client. They thought that lurking was far too scary of a word. I agreed that it was scary but that was the whole point — to bring a heightened awareness of the risks of getting mugged, so that bank customers would be more cautious while using ATMs. In the end, my logic fared no better with the humorless bank clients than did the word lurking. It was dead. Dead. Dead. Dead Oh, the heartbreak of the professional wordslinger.

But now that I am older I have achieved, well, not wisdom exactly, but a philosophical distance from the passions of my youth. I can now admit that the bankers were right.

Lurking is a terrifying word. You might not think so, but that just because that you are young and foolish (or old and lucky) and have been lulled into complacency by your life of lurk-free encounters. That does not mean that things are not out there lurking. In fact, they are probably lurking very close to you now.

This, in and of itself is not scary. It was lurking implies — or must inexorably evolve into. At some point the lurking must become pouncing and gnashing and clawing and tearing (or perhaps just mugging) but in any event, no good can come from lurking. To lurk is to set in effect a powerful chain of events that cannot be stopped. Not by the lurkee. Not by the lurker. And certainly not by banking brochures.

Lurking is an action and a word with the suspense baked in.

And that’s why it’s a word that Patrick likes.

Mallet

I like mallet. It’s a good, honest sounding word. After all it’s a tool. A useful thing to have with you at almost any time. You really never say to yourself, geese, what’s this mallet doing here ? No. You say to yourself. “Hey, that’s a mallet. I should remember that. Could come in handy.”

Even on vacation, say, in the Carribean. At one of those of those poolside bars where they dispense the rum drinks with the funny little umbrellas.

Like this.

“Excuse me, Coconut publican, I’ll take a rum drink with a funny little hat and a croquet mallet…

“What? Look,

“I don’t care that you don’t have a Croquet court. I just want the mallet. Cmon, This is a full service bar. An all inclusive resort. So I want  my drink and I want my croquet mallet.

“Look buddy,

“If I don’t get a croquet mallet here I will go find one somewhere else. And then I’ll return to you fine, thatch-covered establishment. And I’m going to suck down about three hundred of those fruity drinks. And then I’m gonna heft my mallet in the air and  and demand satisfaction from you Mr. Resort Bartender. All because you wouldn’t do your job and get me a croquet mallet when I asked for it.

Yes sir. See mallet comes in handy just about anywhere. And that’s why it’s a word Patrick likes. Or maybe it’s just because he needs a vacation.

Peasant

Once in my misspent youth, before the yoke of responsibility had worn its honorable shape into my shoulders, a Monday morning found me playing golf with an actor friend of mine. It was one of those rare few moments in life when you know you are getting away with something.

The rest of the world was trapped by jobs they hated, choking down bad coffee and stale donuts while tripping the lights florescent, and punching the time card interminable. And I, lucky bastard that I was, was tracking fresh trails through unexplored dew by the light of morning.

It was at the height of my realization that my friend turned to me and said, in a mockingly English upper-crust accent, “I wonder what the peasants are doing today?”

“Shall you be lopping off ‘eads today, sire?” I asked.

“I know, let’s play a round and then decide!” he replied.

To appreciate how funny this was, you have to understand that we were playing golf on what was perhaps the worst public golf course within a 100-mile radius, but that morning, it conveyed a feeling of ineffable nobility. In spite of the fact that several golfers had recently been mugged on the number five tee.  We had no fears on that account, because they can’t steal what you don’t have.

No heads (or empty wallets) were lost that day, among the commoners or the gentry, but I have never forgotten that use of the word peasant. And it so it has remained, A Word Patrick Likes.

Wingnut

I love the word wingnut. Not as an epithet or insult, but for the word itself. The word wingnut makes me happy for no easily definable reason. Perhaps it is the silliness of the object itself, a nut with wings so it’s easier to tighten by hand. It’s an object that seems to say, “You don’t have the right sized wrench? You don’t even have a lousy pair of pliers? No problem there Nancy, just grab ahold of my ears and we’ll get this taken care of.” It’s a piece of hardware so accommodating that the tool required to use it is built right in.

Sadly it is the ideal word to illustrate a truth of language. None of us are masters of language — all of us are just swimming within the larger current. So it is that my happy little word has come to signify an endpoint on the severely limited continuum of modern American political discourse. To the far left we have moonbat and to the far right my helpful, joyous little word, wingnut.

I guess that’s what happens when you fall in with a bad crowd, the kind that thinks that politics is important, and is worth talking about. And somehow, through an unknowable machinery of graft, bribery, corruption and bullshit that politics can make the world a better place.

Yes, the word wingnut is loveable for what it really is, yet serves as a reminder that anyone who uses the language works with a shared tool the ultimate direction of which is beyond any individual’s control. And that’s why it’s a Word that Patrick likes.



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