Daily Archives: November 9, 2012


Things I learned as a word taster:

You have never seen them all.

One reason you have never seen them all is that they keep making new ones.

“They” being those words, themselves, which you will find in compromising positions when you least expect it.

Yes, I know that words exist entirely within people’s minds, and in usage contexts, as socially agreed constructions, and always as each individual’s impression of something received, which means that word DNA mutates at least a little with every transmission. That doesn’t really matter. That poltergeist you are sure doesn’t exist is still smashing a flowerpot over your head. And it does hurt. The stitches you get are, curiously, real. Likewise, people will respond to a word that they recognize as a word even if it’s never existed before and may never show up again. See classiomatic.

Morphemes matter less than you think they do. All those copter and oholic words should have taught you that. Once people forget where a word came from, rhythm and phonemics and recognizable sequences matter a lot more than which bits that were put together to make it. And people forget more quickly and readily than you think.

Take a word like evolution. You know how emotion is shortened to emo sometimes? It sure makes sense to shorten evolution to evo, doesn’t it? Of course it does. Tell me what other word that evo could make you think of. Exactly. But now tell me what evolution comes from. The word, I mean. What’s its evolution? How did it turn out that way?

Once upon a time (way more than once, in fact, but let’s go with that), there was a Latin word, volvere, “turn, roll”, and a Latin prefix, ex, “out, out of”, which shortened to e in some cases. They got together, as these things do, and made evolvere, “roll out, roll away, unwind, unfold, etc.” You might say “turn out”. And when someone needed a word to apply to things in nature that changed, to talk about how they came to turn out as they turned out, this seemed like a perfectly good one. Evolve. Noun, evolution. It’s not really evo plus lution anymore than solution is so plus lution. But that doesn’t really matter, actually, because even people who know Latin would rather make words that aren’t ugly. Everyone wants a pretty baby. Words want pretty babies too. And we like it best if we can recognize the parents on both sides. Word paternity tests can be so vexing. This is why we say chocoholic rather than chocolatic.

Some words, though, are just too delicious to cut up. You want the whole thing on your tongue. Take propinquitous. And propinquity. I’m sure that there are many people who think that these words are delicious. I know of at least two: myself and Christopher Schmitt.

They’re pretty words, of course. Long. Propinquitous has thirteen letters, twelve phonemes, four syllables. It has those pretty p’s and q looking at each other, with their pert prim tops and trim descenders. Two each of i, o, and u. Three letters that go below the body and three that go above. It’s crisp but with a little soft bit, and it starts by popping on the lips but then drops to the back before tapping off the tongue tip. It’s a word that might be proper, might have property, yet might still proposition you iniquitously like a delinquent. Or a pro. It’s a word you want to get near. Word, meet tongue.

Do you wonder, if pro means “for” or “forward” or “before”, what pinquity or pinquitous means? You’ve been fooled again. That pro is there, but only as a progenitor of prope, “near”, which got together on some hazy peach-sky evening with inquus (would you? doesn’t it look dangerous? naahhhh…) just to get even closer. And then their love-child went through French and landed in English. Their love-children.

You thought it would be easy and straightforward. Clear, direct strands of DNA and descent, flowing together side by side like streams of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. You thought that when words get together in the little room of your mind with other words, with the curtains drawn, they would just take off their clothes. You had no idea that they would take off some of their limbs too, and mix and match like paper dolls in the hands of a naughty boy. You didn’t expect to be walking through the jungle of words and encounter a full-grown hippogriff or manticore or sphinx.

But now you’re feeding it. And helping it propagate.

Because someone who studies how animals evolve and spread put it there. Just as a lexical embodiment of the fascinations and complications he encounters in the rain forest watching monkeys and getting spit in the eye by them and stepping on electric eels and brushing against poison plants and getting eaten by ants and. Because he wanted to be near to evolution. So he became part of it. His mind, infected with language, succumbed to the will of the parasitic lexis and became the womb for the gestation of one of its perplexing and ecstatic miscegenations. And now he has spread it, this new lexical ornithorhynchus. It has infected me. It has now infected you. Evopropinquitous. Being near to evolution (and evolutionary biology), or inclined to be near to it.

He is Christopher Schmitt. His blog is evopropinquitous.tumblr.com. It is hilarious and true. You will be glad he is there experiencing it and writing about it and you are not.