Daily Archives: May 13, 2020

scabbald

I am a faint scabbald set within a formicated frail.

Or at least that feels right to me. It’s actually the third definition of Franken’s anti-Atlantic, according to Dictionarish.

Dictionarish, @dictionarish, is “Dictionary entries, as dreamt by a neural network | bot by @mewo2”; in other words, it’s what you can get if you set artificial intelligence to trying to imitate a dictionary. You might say it’s a computer’s answer to prisencolinensinainciusol. Obviously as soon as I saw it I followed it.

The three definitions of Franken’s anti-Atlantic, tweeted on May 8, 2020, are “1 relating to the lower class. 2 a medieval conflict, especially by assistance; last of: she was able to resign about drugs 3 a faint scabbald set within a formicated frail.” I shall leave the first two aside; number 1 is too clear, and number 2 is its own story. But number 3 touched something within me. Something that loves vaguely unsettling things that I can’t entirely understand.

Most of the words in it are no problem. Everyone knows what faint and frail mean; although frail is normally an adjective, it appears to be a noun here, and I think our parsing engines are robust enough to sort it out. Formicated is an excellent and underused word; literally it means ‘ant-infested’ or ‘moved like an ant’, but by transference it also means ‘having [or having had] a sensation like crawling ants’ – in other words, what we call “pins and needles” but what in Spanish (as I learned from Salvador Dali and Luís Buñuel thanks to Un chien andalou) is sometimes called “las hormigas,” literally ‘the ants’, and you can see hormiga descended from Latin formica, which means ‘ant’, not ‘artificial countertop’ (weirdly unrelated etymologically) – although I have certainly gotten the ants from jamming the tender spot of my elbow against a Formica counter edge. I have also gotten formicated from sitting tapping on my computer too long, as I am doing right now.

OK, fine, after so long in lockdown my meatshell is surely a formicated frail. But what is a scabbald?

Scabbald certainly looks familiar, doesn’t it? It obviously resembles scabbard and perhaps ribald and the family name Sibbald (which makes a cameo in Calgary place names; Sibbald’s rorqual is also an alternate name for the blue whale). And yet it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and it’s not on Wiktionary. It’s not even on Urban Dictionary (you’d think some 14-year-old might have imagined something disgusting to say it means, but not yet). And if you Google it, you think you’ve gotten hits, but they’re all one of three things: a mis-scanned scabbard, the words scab and bald next to each other, or, now, the phrase “A faint scabbald set within a formicated frail,” which since May 8 has, for a lark, been my display name on Twitter and consequently has been polluting the search results (the Dictionarish definition is in an image and so doesn’t show up as text).

So scabbald is a word that seems familiar but is actually utterly inscrutable because entirely meaningless. You could make guesses as to its sense, but they would just be on the basis of other words it looks like (which is, yes, how we most often work out the meanings of words new to us, which sometimes leads to words shifting in sense towards more common words they resemble). It came up by accident and just seems real enough to be acceptable.

In other words, a scabbald is the hood ornament on a classiomatic.

And also, it seems, a word for the dim light glimmering from the back room of my mind: a faint scabbald set within a formicated frail.

So mote it be.