Saturday, May 3, 2008

Weird Words

.... because if the rest of the world can never be too thin or too rich, scribblers can never have too many words, the weirder the better. Besides, none of the pwp guest readers I invited to submit poems responded, let alone delivered, leaving me with a materials gap... your mission, should you choose to accept to compose a poem using one or (preferably) more of the following weird words

Weird Words from  World Wide Words

Pilcrow /'pIlkr@U/ - the paragraph sign.
    The word is delightful, not least because it gives no clue at all to what it means or where it might come from. The recently revised entry for it in the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is "now chiefly historic", which I rather dispute, since it's easy to find examples in current books on typography and it continues to be used in standards documents that list character sets.
    What makes it truly weird is that the experts are sure it's a much bashed-about transformation of "paragraph". This can be traced back to ancient Greek "paragraphos", a short stroke that marked a break in sense (from "para-", beside + "graphein", write). The changes began with people amending the first "r" to "l" (it appeared in Old French in the thirteenth century as "pelagraphe" and "pelagreffe"). Then the folk etymologists got at it, altering the first part to "pill" and the second to "craft" and then to "crow". The earliest recorded version was "pylcrafte", in 1440; over the next century it settled down to its modern form.
    The paragraph symbol, by the way, isn't a reversed "P" as you might guess. It's actually a script "C" that was crossed by one or two vertical lines. The letter stood for Latin "capitulum", chapter.

Recently noted: MALLERCISE
An article in the Guardian on Tuesday said mallercise
"is a craze sweeping the US and catching on here". You may perhaps not recognise it under that name - a newspaper search found only a few examples, all from the UK, the earliest being from the Scotsman in 2002. The US name is "mall-walking", a term that can be found in newspapers from the early 1980s. As it appeared in a guide, Safety & Health, issued by the US National Safety Council in 1988: "Mall-walking is growing by leaps and bounds. And lots of shopping malls want to get involved with it", it's wide of the mark to say it's a newly fashionable craze. It's obviously enough walking in shopping malls, a form of exercise especially suitable for older people or those with heart problems, since the malls are climate-controlled and free of wheeled traffic.

    Writing about oneself in an adulatory way. Autohagiography has the same relationship to autobiography as a publicist’s puffery has to objective truth. So far as I know it hasn’t yet reached the pages of any major dictionary, being one of those words that lurks unnoticed in the linguistic undergrowth, only occasionally emerging to startle the unwary reader. The first use of it I can trace is in the title of the book The Confessions of Aleister Crowley; An Autohagiography, which was published in 1970. I’ve also seen the adjective autohagiographical, but it seems to be rare to the point where it is reinvented each time it’s used. The root word hagiography comes from the Greek agios, “holy”, and was at first applied to books which described the lives of the saints. Such books had a marked tendency towards uncritical descriptions. So sometime about the end of last century hagiography broadened its sense to that of any biographical work that flatters or idolises its subject.

CACOGRAPHY /kæˈkɒɡrəfɪ/
    Bad handwriting or bad spelling. We should use this word more, it’s too useful and relevant to let it fade away. It derives from the Greek graphos, “writing”, prefixed with kakos, “bad”. We’re more familiar with this as the beginning of cacophony, “bad noises” (despite the association of ideas, it has nothing to do with our cack-handed, which derives from Old English cack, “excrement”). When cacography began to appear in English at the end of the sixteenth century it did so with the sense of “bad spelling”. It was beginning to be thought that the old way of spelling words by personal preference ought to give way to a standardised system; the introduction of printing had a lot to do with this. So cacography was seen as the opposite of orthography, “correct spelling”. In the following century cacography was used to mean bad handwriting as well, as the opposite of yet a third Greek word, calligraphy, “fine writing”. The word is marked as archaic in my dictionaries, though it still turns up from time to time. A typical usage was that by the horror writer H P Lovecraft, who described the manuscript of his novel Quebeck as “136 pages of crabbed cacography” (in reference presumably to the handwriting rather than the spelling). Someone who exhibits either failing is a cacographer.

Hairy at the heel
    The expression is characteristically English, but it was a term more of clubland, the upper middle classes and the landed gentry than of English people at large. It placed the speaker as much as the person being spoken about. The term came out of bloodstock breeding. It used to be said that it was a sign of poor breeding if a horse had too much hair about the fetlocks. It didn't take much to shift the saying, figuratively, to humans. Of course, it applied only to thoroughbred racehorses and to humans who aspired to belong to society's equivalent: working horses such as shires have very hairy feet, but then they're common as muck.
    The expression was rather variable, also appearing as "hairy in the fetlocks", "hairy round the heels", "hairy-heeled", even at times simply "hairy", though it doesn't seem to be connected to any of the many other senses of that word. Dating-wise, its heyday was of the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. You can still find it on occasion, but it's now outmoded, a term solely of elderly upper-class men remembering their youth.

Archive of weird words, turns of phrase and topical words

World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2008. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at .

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