Damn, that last word tasting note really was a bit overstuffed, wasn’t it? I started working on it with the intention of doing just one word – gizmo – and then I decided I had to cover four other similar words, and then I decided I really ought also to cover another six words in passing. I suppose that’s not so out of range for a blog like this, which covers so many angles and styles, but still, talk about scope creep!
Scope creep is such a common dread in today’s world of work – a project starts out looking like five pounds of shit but before you know it it’s become ten. And if you figure you’re going to get through it like any shit sandwich (by eating quickly – nom nom!), you soon discover you have a footlong double-stuff shit sandwich. But then there are the projects that arrive with scope already crept. They have always already become. You get to your desk and there is a bag of shit that is labelled “5 lbs” but it clearly has 10 lbs in it. (And it’s on fire.) You have been given a blivet.
The word blivet is itself, in a way, a blivet. Not that it’s unpleasant per se, but it inevitably comes with at least twice as much as it pretends to. For one thing, as the 1967 Dictionary of American Slang by Wentworth and Flexner says, “The word is seldom heard except when the speaker uses it in order to define it.” So you get not just the word but the definition, pretty much every time. (“That there is a blivet. You know what a blivet is, right? Ten pounds of shit in a five-pound sack.”)
For another thing, if you want to do any research on it, you quickly realize there’s more to it than you thought there would be. To start with, it’s a word from the US Army during World War II, right? Yes… but the US Army apparently got it from the Australian army in New Guinea. And where did the Australian army get it from? Oh, good luck finding that out. I don’t have access to an Australian etymological dictionary, but, going by the sources I do have, if I did it would probably say “Etymology: NCM” and then I’d look up “NCM” and find it stands for “no clue, mate.”
And if you decide to look in Google Books to see what kind of old citations you get, you find that there are quite a few uses of the word that aren’t what you want. Leaving aside bad character recognition (such as a charming transmutation of “Mount Olivet” into “Mount Blivet”), there are instances where it’s a surname – although apparently no one famous enough to have gotten a Wikipedia article has ever borne the name. There are also citations for the blivet that Wikipedia sends you to when you search the word: the impossible fork or impossible trident, an optical illusion – it first had the name blivet applied to it in the late 1960s in a magazine called Worm Runner’s Digest, which was also something of a blivet, in that it contained both satirical articles and earnest scientific explorations, mixed indiscriminately. And there are citations in Swedish.
In Swedish? Yes. Blivet is also a Swedish word. But in Swedish it is the neuter form of bliven, which means ‘having become’. (It is also a word in Low German; I think it means ‘remain’ but I can’t confirm.) Well, it has become quite a lot, hasn’t it.
And it has become a word with two spellings, too, because you’ll also see it as blivit. And when you look for it in that spelling, you likely find Kurt Vonnegut’s use of it in the introduction to his book of collected writings, Palm Sunday:
This is certainly that kind of masterpiece, and a new name should be created for such an all-frequencies assault on the senses. I propose the name blivit. This is a word which during my adolescence was defined by peers as “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.”
I would not mind if books simpler than this one, but combining fiction and fact, were also called blivits. This would encourage The New York Times Book Review to establish a third category for best sellers, one long needed, in my opinion. If there were a separate list for blivits, then authors of blivits could stop stepping on the faces of mere novelists and historians and so on.
I’m sure I’d like it. But I’d have to see it to blivet.