Daily Archives: November 2, 2009


Dang, this word looks like a letter-form depiction of something rolling down a hill loudly and messily. You get the rolling sense from the o o o spaced through it (and from that roly-poly opening), and the flailing ascenders, descenders, and dots bring to mind the various bits sailing in the air from some one-person yard sale careering down a slope – or from some two-person cartoon-style dust-up (I remember once in school seeing two kids in a ball of a fight ejected abruptly from a classroom – turned out onto the hallway floor, nothing but jeans, feet, and fists all ascuffle). It even has the sound of flapping and bouncing.

I’m put in mind, too, of the great fall at the beginning of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, expressed as “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!” (I’ve kept Joyce’s hyphenation points to facilitate line breaking, though really the word is not hyphenated per se). Which in turn reminds me of the noise that alerted me to the fact that the clothes rail in the bedroom closet in our new apartment had not been anchored well in the wall (due to the drywall being right up against the concrete outside wall), and would no longer be enduring the weight of the various jackets, pants, shirts, and dresses we had lately laden it with, nor, for that matter, of anything else ever again. And the resultant heap of fabric and metal looked, come to think of it, a little like this word.

But the pftjschute of a rack of clothes hardly begins to illustrate this word. Think of how it sounds: like an Australian saying “Polly flies by an’…” Well, and what? If Polly is a parakeet or budgerigar, then probably Polly flies by an’ makes a lot of noise. With all the other Pollys out there.

But this word, the historical persistence of which we have Homer to thank for, was in the first place used to refer to the sound of the sea. Wot, that soothing rush of waves? Hmm. Turn up your stereo a bit. On a windy day, that rush becomes a roar, or many roars or much roaring. Phloisbos was Greek for “roar,” anyway, and Homer liked to refer to poluphloisboios thalasses, the “loud-roaring sea.”

In more recent times, however, when used at all, this word has typically been applied – with a humorous stiltedness – to people and their utterances. One may speak of polyphloisboian football hooligans (though I think I’ll be the first on the web to do so), or of polyphloisboian critics, or of some prolix polyphloisboian stentor, which, I must say, aside from being stilted is a touch redundant. Or one could use the word in a court proceeding; many lawyers and judges, it seems, enjoy tossing in obscure words and references, and I find this in the 2003 decision record of a US Department of Labor complaint: “The CO who conducted the inspection opined that the crane’s alarm might not be able to be heard in the polyphloisboian conditions within the warehouse.”

One may also, if Greek isn’t good enough without having been passed through Latin, spell this word poylphlœsbœan, and that forces a pronunciation on it that rhymes with “lesbian” and can make euphonious pairs with thespian and similar words. And if you want the word to seem to screech (perhaps to screech the brakes or to career uncontrollably), you can use the nonce-formation (attested only once in the OED but still in it) polyphloisboiic. If the object roars not just loudly but the loudest, you may call it, using another humorous nonce-word (this one from Thackeray), polyphloisboiotatotic. But my favourite in this line (and one that is still in use) is the massive portmanteau word polyphloisboisterous, which surely describes many a bar on a busy night – including the ones down the block from the island of calm in the sky where I write this.

I thank Elaine Phillips for bringing this word to my attention; she in turn passed it on from her friend Craig Withers.