Daily Archives: October 18, 2009

eldritch

For a long time, there was a restaurant on the outskirts of Fredonia, New York, called Aldrich’s. Their sign advertised to those who drove by on highway 60 that they were a “beef and ice cream parlor.” I ate there at least once, and I seem to recall that their beef and ice cream were both pretty good. But I guess they couldn’t handle the competition from the big boxes that sprouted like mushrooms a mile or so closer to the Thruway; they closed down in September 2007. Now the place sits there empty, unoccupied, getting just a little spookier every time I go by. Like the sort of place where a group of teens decide, on some windy October night, to break in and explore, but when they go into the kitchen and open the old walk-in freezer, they hear an otherworldly moan and they see…

Well, never mind. The fact is that the name Aldrich will forever have a strong taste of beef and ice cream for me, and the rich in it just amplifies that. And no matter how eerie, spooky, unearthly the place may ever get – no matter how eldritch – I will always have that taste of beef and ice cream, every time I see the word Aldrich – or the word eldritch. Which just goes to show how subjective word tastes can be.

Undoubtedly whatever association you have with Aldrich, if any (say, Aldrich Ames, who spied for the USSR while working for the CIA), will affect your perception of eldritch, unless you happen to see eldritch much more often than Aldrich. But other things naturally impinge as well: elder – perhaps as in the “elder gods” (such as Cthulhu, as seen in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories), or perhaps as in a church or simply as in old – and rich, and itch, and probably ditch too.

I do like how the various ascenders on this word may recall horripilation – i.e., your hair standing on end. And the whole word is focused on the tip of the tongue; the farthest back it goes in enunciation is during the /r/ – the rest is at the alveolar ridge. Nothing at the velum: you don’t want to go back there…

Whence comes this word? Old English, certainly, but the trail is misty. It seems reasonable that it comes from el “strange, other” and rice (pronounced “reach a”) “realm,” but there is a gap in the trail of evidence, and one must cross it… (don’t pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side!)

Serve this word with spooky tales, of the sort that naturally go not only with Victorian houses but with lower-frequency, higher-register – but not scholarly – words such as this one.

four very long words

The Order of Logogustation does know how to party… polysyllabically. One popular event is Night of the Long Words. Its unofficial theme song is “Excellent Birds” (also called “This Is the Picture”) by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, which has the line “Long words. Excellent words. I can hear them now.”

We like to bring out some of the old favourites – words and debates. Which word to count as the longest word, for instance.

“I am of the opinion that in normal circumstances one may count antidisestablishmentarianism as the longest word in the English language as it is spoken today among those words not deliberately coined solely for the sake of being long,” opined Raoul Carter at a recent instance of the meeting.

“You’ve managed to produce a sentence as agglutinative as that word,” I noted approvingly.

“Moreso,” Raoul said. “There are only seven morphemes in antidisestablishmentarianism, not as many as I had modifying phrases.” He was right, too, by one way of counting them anyway: anti+dis+establish+ment+ari+an+ism. One cannot decompose establish, the stable root of the word, further; it comes, by way of former French establir (now établir), from Latin stabilire, which derives from stabilis “stable.” Add to it in the following sequence: disestablishment (meaning, in this case, separation of church from state), disestablishmentary (an adjective form), antidisestablishmentary (meaning opposed to this doctrine of disestablishment), antidisestablishmentarian (of an antidisestablishmentary nature), and finally, as the noun for the belief in this opposition to disestablishment, antidisestablishmentarianism.

“The problem,” my old friend Philippe chipped in, “is that the word really only exists in the language now – only surivived, and perhaps really was motivated in the first place – because of its length. And if you are of the sesquipedalian disposition, then absolutely, without question, undeniably, obviously, floccinaucinihilipilification is a longer word on paper.”

“Cute,” I said. “Another syntax-morphology match-up.” Philippe made a small bow of acknowledgement. The first four morphemes of floccinaucinihilipilificationflocci, nauci, nihili, and pili – all denote insignificant things or nothing and come from phrases (in the Eton Latin Grammar) meaning “don’t care” – each of the words plus facere, “make” (e.g., flocci facere). The word as a whole, invented fancifully for the sake of length, refers to the act or habit of estimating something as worthless.

“However, it has one less phoneme,” Raoul noted correctly (it has two cases where two letters represent one phoneme – au and ti – whereas Raoul’s word has but one, sh).

“And, on the other hand, one more syllable,” Philippe parried.

“But if we’re to allow words that have been invented to be long,” I said, “then you both know that a longer words stalks the lexicon: open your dictionaries to pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” I did not try to mirror the morphology with my syntax.

“Ick,” Raoul said. “It’s not even very well formed. There’s no especially good reason to have it joined between microscopic and silico. It’s like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It’s simply not normal in English to put an ic in the middle of a word without so much as a hyphen.”

“Besides,” Philippe added, dogpiling on, “it’s just a surgically enhanced version of silicosis. There isn’t another single word that expresses either of our words; you need a phrase for each of them.”

“If perhaps a shorter phrase,” I pointed out.

At this point Jess walked up. “Gents,” she said, “there is a word of goodly length that was coined entirely in earnest.”

“Oh, not that bloody chemical name that requires a paperback book,” Raoul said, rolling his eyes.

“No,” Jess said, “that’s in no dictionary, and if that word exists then one need merely posit a slightly more complex chemical and come up with an even longer ‘word’ for this hypothetical substance. No, I mean pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism. Every bit of it has a reason to be there, even both pseudos.” True: pseudohypoparathyroidism is a condition that seems like hypoparathyroidism – a parathyroid deficiency – but isn’t, and pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism in turn resembles that condition but isn’t it.

“Oh, that’s just a technical term,” Raul said with a wave of his hand.

“Meaning someone actually uses it,” Jess countered.

“Funny, though,” said Philippe, “nobody ever talks about that one.”

“People do tend to shy away from inherited metabolic disorders,” I said. “But also, it’s not really in the game, as it were. It wasn’t coined to be long; it’s an accidental competitor.”

Raoul, meanwhile, had been silently enunciating while counting on his fingers. “Not if you count phonemes or syllables it doesn’t,” he said.

“I believe he’s floccinaucinihilipilificating your word,” Philippe said to Jess.

“It’s still a word that is actually used in earnest,” Jess said. “And it’s smooth and rhythmic.”

She had a point. And I leave the further tasting of these words – their mouthfeel and echoes in particular – to the reader as an exercise. Quite a bit of exercise, I’d say.