Daily Archives: July 22, 2009


No, this does not mean the dialect of an idiot. Nor is it a reading by Idi Amin. It is also not pronounced like eye dialect, which refers to spellings that represent normal pronunciations differently – stomick, must of, stoopid – to indicate something about the speaker, usualy that they’re uneducated and would spell the word that way, even though it’s a normal way to say it. But an idiolect might engender eye dialect when transcribed, depending on the writer’s estimation of the speaker. It’s all about the speaker, anyway. Whether or not he or she is an idiot, he or she will be an idiotes, “private person” (in Greek), and perhaps or perhaps not an uneducated plebeian (a further implication in Greek and the source of our idiot), but anyway having a particular personal way of speaking, differing at least a little from everyone else in vocabulary, syntactic preferences, and pronunciations. The word, after all, comes from merging idios “private, own, peculiar” with dialect. But it’s not idiodialect! That would be a beast to deal with – you’d run a risk of getting lost partway through. So it limits itself to one tap and one lick, followed by the back-and-front lock-and-key of [kt]. And there is a visual echo of dialect – and of course of idiot – but that o is a cooler customer than an a. And there’s that d with its tandem torches, i i, guarding the gate. The clinical tinge of ect – which starts words like ectoplasm and ends words like dissect – and the echo of derelict do not make this word any friendlier. Rearrange it to get diet and coil and you are no happer, though if you cite an idol it may at least seem exotic. But this word’s object may be as friendly as you make it. It’s all yours, after all, as individually specified as your tongue and your lungs: others may emulate, but you have your own, ‘n that’s enuf fer innywun.


Psychopomp… qu’est-ce que c’est? Do you think you better run, run, run, run away? Well, that might not be the right thing to do. The object of this word is not some fancy graduation ceremony for serial killers. It also has nothing to do with killer high-heel shoes (those would be psycho pumps), deranged disco music (psycho pop), a very bad diaper situation (let’s just leave that one alone)…

Should you meet a psychopomp, circumstances will be such that you will want this enigma’s variation to lead you to the land of hope and glory. If you find yourself keeping vigil with Virgil, start worrying; in Alighieri’s allegory, he was the tour guide to Hell. Better to bide with Beatrice, who owned the stairway to Heaven (even though she was likely sure that not all that glitters is gold). If you find instead that you are in Charon’s boat, just remember: don’t pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side.

They are all psychopomps, though: from Greek psycho “soul” (combining form of the word) and pompos “guide.” This is not a word one uses over coffee every day; it is more likely to come up in pretentious literary criticism and cultural theory, where it serves to pump up the pomposity of the prose. Or it may show up in mythological references. It has an eye-popping presence wherever it may be found, with the three p‘s (one flanked by o‘s), the four descenders digging down while only one chimney sends to the sky, and of course the eye-snag of the psycho, which when combining manages to carry the freaky overtones that seldom settle on psychology (with its different stress). And to hear it, it might resemble sycophant – a psychopomp is unlikely to be one – or cycle pump. Which you would certainly want in case of flat tire, if your Beatrice were a biker.