Ugh! What is this nasty, disgusting, loathsome word? How do you even say this? It starts with a b and a d bumping bellies in an apparent fight over which gets to attach to the rest. It’s like it was going to be bely and then the d gave it the lie and gazumped the whole thing. And though the b keeps the first position, we end up saying the d – because, unlike Ancient Greeks (and many other people), we are constitutionally opposed to saying [bd] at the start of a syllable. Our tongues simply… abdicate. (That bd is across a syllable break, so it’s OK.) And then we have the echoing y’s like twin tornadoes or, perhaps, cesspits. And the h like an upside-down y, and the g to complete the set of blunt, grunting, burbling, gargling voiced stops. Why. Just why.
Would you like to know who’s responsible for this mess, where it came from and how it came to be on your screen squinting up at you like some kind of tangle of mudworms? Perhaps a nice hate-read?
And don’t we all like a nice hate-read from time to time? We do tire of hagiographies – saints’ biographies, laudatory works about the lives of exemplary people and great heroes. Sometimes we really just have to know about someone truly loathsome. We want to know how they got to be so horrid. We are consumed with curiosity about their rancid childhood, their purulent adolescence, their fetid and coprophagous adulthood… We want a bdelygraphy.
Guggh! I still hate looking at that word, and I am not one given to word aversion (though as a youth I truly could not abide the words onus and decanter, especially in juxtaposition, so I spent much time thinking about what kind of dreadful person might say “The onus is on the decanter” – conscious that, in truth, the only person in the world to have composed that sentence is me). But you can’t call it a hagiography when it’s about the opposite of a hagios (saint, blessed person). And biography is such a neutral term. And hate-read is a larger category. So we get… this.
The graphy, of course, is the same graphy as in biography and various other graph words. No problem there. What is the bdely? It has nothing to do with Amelia Bedelia (who is really quite charming, in her literal-minded way). Resemblance to bedly (what) and badly and bely is accidental. Likewise bleedy, though leeches do attach. No, when we muck through the lexical swamp, we find ourselves at an Ancient Greek root that gives us βδέλυγμα bdelugma ‘horror, abomination’ and βδελυρός bdeluros ‘disgusting, loathsome, blackguardly’ (per Wiktionary) – a root that is often traced to βδέω bdeo ‘I fart’ (no direction specified), though apparently the necessary proposed insertion of λυ has an unacceptable air to it. It also – sorry – does not actually trace to βδέλλα bdella ‘leech’, though once you get a leech, good luck getting rid of it. (I must here quote Wiktionary’s etymological note for βδέλλα: “From βδάλλω (bdállō, “I milk”, (in the middle voice, of a cow) “I yield to milking”; “I suck”).” Yes, yes they do.)
So there you have it. A nasty word for a nasty thing. But you know you love it, don’t you? Sometimes we create foul things just to enjoy hating them. Why else would anyone write bdelygraphies?
You know what I’m going to tell you next. This is a new old word. I am the miscreant: I sewed it together myself from the real parts I just told you about. Well, we need it. There are certainly enough books we can apply it to.