doodad, doohickey, gizmo, gadget, widget

You got that thingumabob? Thingamajig? Whatsit? Doodad? You know, the widget, the gadget, the doohickey? The, uh, gizmo there?

Sometimes you have a thing of some function – perhaps manufactured by Acme or perhaps cooked up by Joe Schmoe or Fnu Lnu or by my dude Mister Whatsisname – and there’s totally a real word for it, but maybe you don’t remember it or maybe you never knew it. You need it to reticulate some splines or to foo the bar, so you need to ask for it. But thing is just too vague, you know? You need to communicate that it’s some kind of contrived device with a definite purpose, and also that you don’t remember a better name for it but you shouldn’t be judged for that. So you use a placeholder name. 

Of which there are several available. Some convey most directly that the speaker has forgotten the name: thingummy, thingumabob, thingamajig, thingy, whatsits, whatchamacallit. Others can convey not just thingummy-ness but obscurantism: “A differential is a caucus on the rear gadjet that centrifugally operates the twiggler in the doodad on the fifth wheel,” as The Marines Magazine had it in 1916. Some function more as a generic, of which a particular item’s particular name may be a subset. And some have become specific things in themselves, at least some of the time.

The “I totally have no idea and I’m going to be up front about it” words have a long pedigree. Thingummy showed up in the early 1700s as a diminutive form of thingum, which has been around since the mid-1600s (and was probably formed as a mock-Latin version of thing, which in its turn is a word from the Germanic mists of time originally referring to a council, then to a matter discussed before a council, and then to any act or matter, and at length to any old thing at all). Thingy showed up about a half century after thingummy. Thingumabob (also spelled thingamabob) also showed up in the mid-1700s, following on jiggumbob and kickumbob from the mid-1600s meaning the same thing (the exact reason for the bob is not altogether known), but thingamajig, which uses the same jig as in jiggumbob, didn’t appear until the early 1800s, followed a couple of decades later by jigamaree (which, again, means the same kind of thing). On the other hand, whatsit, which (I hope) requires no etymological explication, appeared near the end of the 1800s, and whatchamacallit not until the mid-1900s (although what-d’ye-call-it, spelled variously, including such as whatchicaltes, showed up starting in the 1600s).

The ones that have taken on a stronger sense than mere confusion are, overall, more recent. 

Doodad apparently dates all the way back to the later 1800s, though it shows up more starting in the early 1900s. It seems to have started by referring to ornamental items, either around the house or on the clothing: you could, for instance, “pin a doodad of some sort on your nightie.” Over time it has gained a sense of some minor instrumental item, such as an attachment or implement used for adjusting. In my own experience, doodads tend to be fiddly.

Doohickey names a doodad or a hickey or, more to the point, a merger of both. Hickey, I should say, first showed up in the early 1900s as a word that used to be like doodad and the rest of these, but once it gained the particular sense of ‘love-bite mark’ starting in the 1930s, that pretty much eclipsed the rest. However, doohickey had already shown up by 1914 and was not necked out by that shift in sense. It seems to convey more pointedly than doodad, gizmo, gadget, or widget the fact that the speaker doesn’t know the name of the thing and perhaps also that the speaker is uncertain as to its exact nature and function; it may or may not be relevant that, unlike those other words, it has three syllables, of which the first is stressed and the second may be as well.

Gizmo showed up during World War II. Life magazine in 1945 said gizmo “is Marine and Navy usage for any old thing you can’t put a name to.” In 1944 Jim Griffing Lucas in Combat Correspondent called gizmo “a Marine Corps term. It is the equivalent of the civilian ‘doo-dad,’ and is applicable to anything for which more descriptive terminology is not immediately available.” There’s no clear indication of how the name was confected. I would venture to say that, inasmuch as gizmo is used today, it is typically used for something that has some degree of technical ingenuity. The z helps that.

Gadget is now in a class of its own, thanks in part to Inspector Gadget (and perhaps also to Gidget, movie surfer girl played by Sandra Dee; Gidget is supposedly from girl plus midget but, come on, she was 5 foot 4) but also thanks to broad usage, matched only by widget. It has even been used as a fictional name on various occasions as early as the first decade of the 1900s. As evidence that gadget is considered a completely normal word, note that Green’s Dictionary of Slang doesn’t even list its usual senses (because they’re not slang), just a couple of prurient meanings

Gadget has been around longer than some; its earliest published uses are from the mid-1880s. There is some suggestion that it comes from French gâchette, which refers to a locking mechanism. However, there’s no clear observed path from the one to the other in usage and sense, and the /ʃ/ to /dʒ/ development is, if we’re being honest, only middling plausible. In any event, gadget is now used to mean, as Wiktionary puts it, “any device or machine, especially one whose name cannot be recalled. Often either clever or complicated” – and in particular, as an informal sense, “any consumer electronics product.”

Widget has wandered farthest in sense from whatsit and thingamajig: it is now treated as an actual kind of thing – or multiple kinds of things. It’s so well established as a word that it doesn’t appear at all in Green’s. Many of us know it as a name for simple applications and interface elements in computers, mobile devices, and websites (for example, all of the boxes you see down the right column of my blog are widgets); it has had this sense since the early 1990s. Some of us also know widget as the name for the small pressurized item floating in a can of “draft-style” beer that squeals out nitrogen when you open the can – a sense that also showed up in the early 1990s. But it has been used as a generic placeholder name for commercial items, used in examples in economics texts and such like, at least since the 1930s. 

There are a few different accounts of the etymology of widget, and if you find one that sounds cute or clever or clear you can assume it’s pure fiction – for instance, in one B-movie I watched one Saturday afternoon in my teens (I think it was the 1942 Wildcat), one of the characters claims it came from a misreading of midget. The real original source is known, or at least seems to be: the 1924 play Beggar on Horseback by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, in which it is some undescribed fanciful manufactured item:

Yes. Big business. What business are we in? 

Widgets. We’re in the widget business. 

The widget business? 

Yes, sir! I suppose I’m the biggest manufacturer in the world of overhead and underground A-erial widgets. Miss You! 

Yes, sir. 

Let’s hear what our business was during the first six months of the fiscal year. [To Neil.] The annual report. 

“The turnover in the widget industry last year was greater than ever. If placed alongside the Woolworth Building it would stretch to the moon. The operating expenses alone would furnish every man, woman and child in the United States, China and similar places with enough to last for eighteen and one-half years, if laid end to end.” 

How’s that? 

It’s wonderful! 

And wait for September 17th! 


That’s to be National Widget Week! The whole country!

What we don’t know is how Kaufman and Hart came up with the word. Probably it just sounded good, but exactly why it sounded good is another matter – likely from resemblance to gadget and perhaps wedge or whatsit or fidget or… 

Anyway, the word caught on, and, like widgets generally, has proven a useful simple little implement. Not quite as mechanical as a gadget, perhaps, or as gee-whiz as a gizmo, or as fiddly as a doodad, but definitely more definite than a doohickey.


There are dad words, and there are granddad words, and there are great-granddad words. Over the years, zowie has progressed upward in those ranks. Even when I was a kid it was the sort of word I saw in cartoons and old books (as a 1962 article in the Spectator put it, “Think of the United States as a 3,000-mile-broad comic strip where significant occasions go bam, pop and zowie”). 

But I did hear it used in full earnest once. I was riding in a car, somewhere in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when the driver exclaimed “Zowie! He almost hit him!” I didn’t even pay attention to the near-accident, so entertained was I by the word uttered by the driver… who was my dad.

This word has a few surprises awaiting you if you go digging up its early days. Although its popularity crested in the 1940s, it emerged around the turn of the century: Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an earliest citation from 1902, and I haven’t found an earlier one… in the sense in question. 

If you look in Google Books, you will get quite a lot of hits that are not the sense in question.

This is because Google Books also has books in Polish. The Polish word zowie – now archaic; the more modern version is zwie – is the third-person singular present of zwać, which means ‘call’ or ‘be called’ (i.e., ‘name’ or ‘summon’). It has nothing at all to do with our English word zowie, and it doesn’t sound the same either – it’s said about like “soviet” but with a “z” in place of the “s” and without the “t” at the end.

It’s also because it shows up from time to time as a first name.

You’re may think of Zowie Bowie, the son of David Bowie. As David Bowie was the stage name of David Jones, Zowie Bowie is actually Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones; note that this Zowie rhymes with Bowie, making it a homophone for the name Zoë (which, however, is typically a woman’s name). I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that at least some of the people named Zowie who show up sporadically in the early 1900s – such as one of a couple named Walter and Zowie and another of the couple Seymour and Zowie Tufts – might have been using a variant of Zoë. On the other hand, the musical group Zowie’s Zobo Band, which played in Dartmouth in 1908, might not have followed that pattern.

Beyond those instances, however, pretty much every other use of zowie that you’ll find is an interjection. But while most of the time it is the same class as “Wow!” “Yikes!” “Holy cow!” and “Hot damn!” – and nearly always has an exclamation mark on it – there are a few more violent uses too. 

There’s the “potato bug exterminator” mentioned in The American Flint in 1913, wherewith one may dispose of said bugs “by taking two blocks of hard wood, hickory for instance, and cutting them about five inches long, three inches wide and two inches thick, placing one in each hand, gently treading to the potato patch, placing one bug at a time on the block in one hand and ‘zowie’ with the other.” In Pearson’s Magazine in 1914, there are explosions:




The explosions followed each other rapidly…

And there are gunshots, as seen in Our Navy in 1915: “Nothing was heard but the steady purr of the beating motor, when suddenly—‘Zowie! Zowie!’—two shots rang out through the balmy California air.”

Which is arguably ironic, because zowie is thought originally to have been more like the steady purr of the beating motor: as Merriam-Webster says, “The word zowie was inspired by the sound of a speeding vehicle—a new phenomenon when the word entered the lexicon in 1902, the year before the Ford Motor Company sold its first car.” GDOS agrees that it’s “echoic of speed.” But the OED and Wiktionary are mute on its origins. And when you look at the available quotations – in the dictionaries and in Google Books – even the earliest ones aren’t imitative of a speeding vehicle; they all go with the “astonishment” and “admiration” that are part of the dictionary definitions.

OK, but how about astonishment (if not admiration) at a speeding vehicle? I really do feel like my dad gave me the whole deal there – or would have if there had been actual violence (gunshots? explosions? bug-squashing at least?). Especially if one of the cars had been driven by someone called Zoë.


Aina recently described something she was dealing with at work as “a real humdinger.”

You know what a humdinger is, don’t you?

Can you define or describe it?

I thought I’d look at some instances of early usage of the word in Google Books – and by early I mean the first couple of decades of the 20th century; Wiktionary says the word is “first attested in a newspaper article in the Daily Enterprise of June 4, 1883, at Livingston, Montana” but Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s earliest citation is from 1898 (from Yakima, Washington) and the Oxford English Dictionary has nothing before 1905. Anyway, when a cherry-bomb of a word like humdinger is still fresh, people like to define it when they use it, and here are some hits (forgive the [sic] insertions but I really want you to understand they are not typos):

Vicegerent [sic] M. D. Jameson pulled off at Portland, Oregon, on the evening of December 9 a concatenation that has been termed a “humdinger.” We of the South do not know exactly what a “humdinger” is, but we do know that when the Hoo-Hoo boys of Oregon get together for a Hoo-Hoo meeting and call it a “humdinger” that there was joy and fun there for everyone.
The Bulletin (of the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo), volumes 16–17, 1909

It was our second annual industrial exposition, and it was a corker—a humdinger, to put it mildly and intelligently. It jammed the big Curling Club building for a week, and the total attendance was over 100,000, which tells for itself something of what it was like.
The Rotarian, November 1913

In the words of one subscriber the meeting was “a humdinger.” First of all let us analyze who or what is “a humdinger.”
In the unwritten dictionary of slang the word is used to most forcibly describe a gathering at which a very high degree of enthusiasm over a successful achievement, prevails.
American Fertilizer, volume 40, 1914

spizzerinctum … was defined as that quality which Wid Card [sic] possessed which made him the youngest man among the assembled people. And when Wid Card got up he said, “anything that is filled with spizzerinctum is a humdinger.” He said, “I am a humdinger.”
Proceedings of the New York Farmers, 1919

“Papa, what is a humdinger?”
“A humdinger, my son, is a man that can make a deaf and dumb girl say, ‘Oh, daddy!’”
The Gargoyle, volume 18, 1920

In loud accents we want to inform this old world of ours (and a few of the larger planets) that our house-party last commencement was a “humdinger” (for definition of “humdinger” see Whiz Bang).
The Scroll of Phi Delta Theta, volume 46, 1921

The dictionaries of the future will contain the word “humdinger.” It is a good word and an expressive one.
A humdinger is one who does things. Blessed be the humdinger. Let us have more of him.
The Gateway, volume 36, number 2, 1921

So what we can gather from those is that a humdinger is something on the order of a very impressive party – either party as in ‘social occasion’ or party as in ‘person’. 

But that’s not what Aina was talking about, and if you’ve used the word humdinger (which, let’s be honest, is really a Jason Sudeikis kind of word, isn’t it), you may have had something else in mind too: a corker in some other sense, not always positive. Quite a thing. Not something to be taken lightly. An eyebrow-raiser. A sockdolager. Something remarkable, outstanding, unusual, exceptional…

All sources agree that the word is American (no surprise there), and we may note that the earliest citations all seem to be from the Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana. Some other ten-dollar words from the same era of Americana have come from the South and from New England or New York, but this one has those Northwest bona fides.

But what does it come from? We’re not completely sure – the OED professes to have no idea – but Wiktionary suggests it’s from hummer (‘something that moves fast’) and dinger (‘something outstanding’). Merriam-Webster also thinks it’s probably an alteration of hummer. Which, we imagine, might come from the humming sound machinery makes, or something like that. And to the “whizz” of the humming we add the “bang” of the dinging, to make a real whizzbang humdinger.

I have thoughts about that dinger, too – not to say that this has any connection, but I recall that in the southern Alberta of my youth (and probably many other parts of Canada and perhaps the US), if you wanted to express how unimpressed you were with something, you could say “Whoopee ding” – which was shortened from “whoopee ding-dong,” as in cheer and ring a bell. There is a certain something in that ding – a bit like the nine in cloud nine, dressed to the ninesthe whole nine yards, and so on. This is all very impressionistic, of course, but it does have a familiar ring.

Well. Zowie. There you have it. This is a classic old white dad word, ya know? Or maybe old white granddad word now. But nothing’s stopping the youth from using it… It’s a mighty impressive bit of lexis, if you ask me.


“We really ought to start calling this a symposium, dontcha think?”

Yes, Andy, I do think so.

“Andy” in this case is Andy Hollandbeck, fellow editor, with whom I just, um, symposed at the ACES conference in Columbus, Ohio. And he was not sitting up from his spot on a couch when saying that – though he could have been; he tooted it on Mastodon in response to my observation, “A conference is a fountain of knowledge where editors gather to drink!”

Which is not an original witticism, mind you – though it’s usually said of universities. But I was saying it in response to Christian Wilkie characterizing the subjects of my conference photos as “the important stuff.” With which, given that they were largely pictures of people having animated conversations while holding drinks, I tend to concur.

That may not make sense to you if your familiarity with symposia is just with what are typically called “symposium” these days: events consisting of panel discussions or people reading scholarly papers one after another, always in some fluorescent-lit room with desks, dry as bones, fueled with bad coffee or nothing at all. If there is any lubricated conviviality, it takes place afterwards and unofficially.

Those who have some acquaintance with Plato know that his Symposium is the original literary pattern for such things: a philosophical discussion between a half-dozen – make that seven – eminent ancient Greeks, most eminent of whom being Socrates. They are making speeches, one by one, about Eros.

In the average layperson’s mind, this sounds like a literary description of a faculty dinner, all these erudite people saying such smart things. Those who know the subject – and faculty dinners – more intimately know that it was, indeed, like many a faculty dinner: all but one of them are in their cups (and a late arrival shows up having come from another party absolutely cratered), and they are talking about sex.

This is not to say that all symposia must take sex as their subject; not at all – any topic is fair game. (Editing, for instance, can be more interesting than you might think.) But the origin of the symposium is a drinking-and-talking party. To our English eyes, symposium seems formal, on the same level of dignity as symphony, with an air of posing questions perhaps (or intellectual poseurs?), and, um, all those words that end in um, from forum to opium. But it comes (via Latin) from Ancient Greek συμπόσιον sumpósion, from συν- sun- (‘together’) plus πίνω pínō (‘drink’). And no, you don’t have to drink pinot, although the Athenians did always drink wine – it was served from a large jar called a krater and drunk from shallow cups.

Symposia were common in Athenian society of about 2400 years ago. There would be dinner, and then there would be drinking and talking. Which is exactly what I go to conferences in hope of, and I am always pleased to get it. (The presentations are enjoyable, but I don’t go for formal education really; I can get that more efficiently by other means.) I have long been an advocate of conviviality: when I was heading an editorial department, I maintained “the team that lunches together has hunches together,” and I may also have said “the team that does shots together has thoughts together.” Meetings are de rigueur (mortis) but informal contexts are where the truth really comes out.

But there is one thing about a symposium in the original model that I don’t cotton to: women were not allowed.

Well, for heaven’s sake. How am I supposed to get any really valuable insight in a room full of nothing but men? Have you been in a room full of nothing but men trying to impress each other with how much they know? It’s an intellectual desiccant. Please. Let us include women, and the more the better (editors’ conferences are excellent for this), for the sake of a better balance of insight and perspective and for better conviviality.

Which is what the Romans did at their version of the symposium. Oh, I’m not talking about their famous orgies; I’m talking about the same kind of event as the Greeks had, with speeches and toasts and ample beverage. But the Romans did not exclude women from them. Also, the Romans didn’t wait until after dinner to start pouring the wine. Not that alcohol is essential; not everyone wants to drink, and if non-drinking was fine for Socrates (it was), it’s fine for anyone else. It’s not the spirits, it’s the spirit!

But the Romans also had a different name for their gatherings – one that already sounds more inviting: convivium. (Yes, by the way, its etymological origins are con- ‘with’ and vivo ‘I live’. I can live with that.) And perhaps convivium is the term we really want. Here’s to conviviality!

Sounding Like the “Right Sort”

I was in Columbus for the annual ACES conference for the last few days. I gave a presentation on how we use vocabulary and grammar to filter audiences in and out – often in subtle ways. Here it is!


There are quite a lot of words that we use on a regular basis to smooth the flow of reading – or just to give the impression of more content – that are not, strictly speaking, essential to the basic sense.

We regularly use many words that don’t add information to help text seem smoother or fuller.

We frequently use filler words.

Verbal excipients abound.

Say, are you familiar with this word excipient? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s obsolete. My pharmacist friends and colleagues haven’t gotten the memo on that. And, in a way, neither have I – although I seldom use the word excipient, I spend a chunk of time every morning working on articles about prescription drugs, and one of the things I handle regularly are lists of what the articles call non-medicinal ingredients. Which are, in another word, excipients.

“Oh, filler, you mean.” Well, yes and no. Perhaps the best way to define excipient is that it’s everything in a medication except the active ingredient. Excipients aren’t just there to bulk up the pills (which can be necessary; the amount of active ingredient is sometimes very small because it’s very potent, milligram for milligram), and they’re not just the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down – although, yes, the substantial doses of sugar and flavouring you get in many medication syrups are indeed excipients and they do indeed serve to get people to take the stuff more willingly. But excipients also serve other purposes: they help the medication stay in pill form; they help the medication dissolve more easily when taken (and not before); they help the pills be more identifiable (prescription medications are expected to be visually distinguishable from other prescription medications, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining); they help the medication last long on the shelf (or in the fridge); they help the medication – the active ingredient – be more effective. In short, they are the vehicle taking the active ingredient to you.

And the same goes for many verbal excipients. It’s true that brevity is, typically, the soul of wit, and that concision aids cogency, but there are limits. Exiguous wording can be gnomic – sometimes two or three words make a thing much clearer than a single high-potency word, and sometimes dropping a seemingly unnecessary word such as, say, the that left out of “All your friends will try to do is sleep” (i.e., “All that your friends [etc.]”) will cause many readers to interpret a sentence one way up to a certain point and then have to rejig their interpretation – usually a small effort, but more than no effort. We also sometimes use words just to signal what kind of text the text is (in-group terminology) or what discourse it belongs to (citationality!). Parenthetical comments and other appositives and amplifications may seem extraneous, but they better furnish the mental room of the sentence. And beyond that, although some readers take exception to even the whiff of prolixity, there are the things that make text a pleasure to read: luxurious words, full of sound and rhythm and images. There’s a reason some people buy thick biographies rather than reading Wikipedia articles. There is a time and a place for a verbal bubble bath – and few readers eagerly seek out textual cold showers.

There are other less valuable kinds of verbal excipients too, mind you. There are the kinds that truly are there to bulk up, not to smooth the flow; academic and legal texts are typically full of this kind, and its main effect is to make the text seem more important – and often to disguise lack of substance. There are the kinds of circumlocutions that we use out of dread of excessive directness – what I often call verbal bubble wrap. And there are words that seem mainly to exist to make sure unabridged dictionaries are as ponderous and prepossessing as possible.

Of which one would seem to be excipient. After all, it may be concise, but it’s not clear to anyone who hasn’t had it explained to them. You could say that non-medicinal ingredient has more filler, in that it’s more words, but those are words that people already know; excipient is an extra word to stuff into your brain. But you wouldn’t be here reading this if you didn’t like having and knowing more words. And once you know that excipient means all those things I listed off three paragraphs ago, it does seem useful in context. 

And since you’re here for extra knowledge, you of course want to know where excipient comes from. It comes from Latin excipio, from ex- ‘out’ and capio ‘I take’ (which also shows up in words such as English capture and Italian capisci ‘you understand’). This excipio can mean quite different things: it can mean ‘I take out’, it can mean ‘I receive’, it can mean ‘I follow after’, it can mean ‘I rescue’, it can mean ‘I except’ (except is a direct descendent of excipio), and it can mean ‘I host or accommodate’ – as in what medical excipients do. Even in English, defunct senses of excipient include ‘one who takes objection’ and ‘one who takes up in succession’.

But those senses have dissolved in the gut of time. This one pharmaceutical sense has survived. And so may it be. The truth is that, though we may discern verbal excipients, every word can be an active ingredient if well used – language is a drug.


If polyhedral means ‘many-sided’, and dodecahedral means ‘twelve-sided’, then it follows that cathedral must mean ‘cat-sided’, clearly. 

And if polyhedral is the adjectival form of polyhedron, it follows that cathedral must be the adjectival form of cathedron.

And, since hedron is from Greek ἕδρα ‘seat’, cathedron means ‘cat chair’. Which makes perfect sense, if you’ve ever seen the majesty with which a cat can occupy a chair.

You may have noticed, however, that ἕδρα is hedra, not hedron – the Greek root is originally feminine; for various reasons it came through in the neuter when referring to shapes. But this means that the word is not cathedron but cathedra

Are you chary of this idea that cathedra is a cat chair? Some of us know this word in the Latin phrase ex cathedra, which refers to pronouncements that are made by the pope in his official papal role, and as such doctrinally binding (“infallible”), set down in stone as it were. There aren’t all that many of these; most things the pope says (e.g., interviews, sermons, tweets) are not ex cathedra and are open to some level of disagreement. 

Cathedra is also an English word (by direct assimilation from Latin) referring to the chair of a bishop in his home church. That’s why the church is a cathedral – originally it’s cathedral church, as in the church with a cathedra.

So the top dog of dogma gets the cat chair, is that right? Well, if the bishop is a cardinal, you could say he’s the top bird (although the bird is actually named after the ecclesiast, and not the other way around; cardinals the bishops wear red robes, and so do cardinals the birds, but cardinals in the church are so named for the same reason that cardinal numbers are cardinal numbers: from Latin cardinalis, which means ‘important, pivotal’). But in any event he’s in the catbird seat.

But while there is something very appealing about the image of a majestic feline occupying an important chair in an important church, we do need to deal honestly with this cat. And perhaps you should be sitting down for this.

You see, we could catalogue an almost catastrophic number of words with cat at the start – certainly enough to make you catatonic – that all get it from the same Greek root: κατά. In some cases it trims to κατ; in others – words that have “rough breathing,” which is typically rendered as h in transliteration – it shows up as καθ. And that root κατά translates variously, because it’s a preposition, but it’s generally ‘against’ or ‘towards’ or ‘along’ or ‘according to’ or – perhaps most often, and in the present case – ‘down’. Which, since ἕδρα means ‘seat’, means that cathedra is ‘sit down’ – as a noun, mind you, not a verb.

But there are three more things to think about. One is that cats follow the principle of “If it fits, I sits” – they famously like to occupy boxes and bowls that you might not think they could even get into. And that means that a random parallelepiped of corrugated cardboard could become a cathedra for a cat – the infallible authority seated in whatever held your last shipment from Amazon.

The second is that cat, as in your furry friend, is not in fact related to κατά (I imagine you’re not surprised). Its origins are known to a certain point, traced back into Proto-Germanic, and it is thought to be cognate with, and perhaps derived from, Latin cattus ‘cat’ (seems likely, doesn’t it), but there are also similar words for the same thing in some unrelated languages, such as Nubian, Arabic, and Classical Syriac, and so it could be what’s called a Wanderwort – a “wander-word,” a word that has been spread around by travel. Which, frankly, seems altogether fitting for what it names, an animal as famous for its wandering as for its sitting.

The third is that while bishops and popes may stay in their seats (indeed, they are not known for wandering much on matters of dogma), words do wander – not just geographically, but in form too. If a word fits better in speakers’ mouths in a modified way, it will ultimately sit that way. And so syllables get trimmed and sounds get modified. And the word cathedra, over the centuries, passed through French and into English to become the modern words chaise (French) and chair (English). Which means that cathedral is, really, chairy in fancy traditional raiment. 

PS: The photo is of my wife, Aina, sitting in a chair in the cathedral in Rheims, France. And since Aina had the nickname “Ainacat” or “the Cat” among her skater friends…

Pronunciation tip: Irish counties

It’s St. Patrick’s again, and why would I pass up a chance to do a pronunciation tip on something Irish? This time it’s the counties (and provinces) of Ireland. And although there are 32 of them (and four provinces), it’s a quick one!



OK, who said it? Who do you associate bodacious with?

Let me guess. Snuffy Smith, perhaps, or his wife Loweezy, from the cartoon strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith?

No? How about the bull Bodacious, considered the most dangerous rodeo bull in the world, retired in his prime lest he maim too many riders?

No? Hmm, let’s see…

Bill and Ted, played by Alex Winters and Keanu Reeves?


Some words really do acquire a strong association with one specific person, place, or work. Strong? Bold. Bold? Audacious. Bold and audacious? Bodacious.

Yes, that’s where this word is thought to come from: bold plus audacious. And its first known published uses – back in the mid-1800s – are not inevitably positive in tone: it modified words such as idjit (i.e., idiot), blurt, and (as a bare adverb) unreasonable. And bodaciously could be seen before used up or fast. Even into the middle of the 20th century you could see lines in fiction like “That’s bodacious big talk, boy.”

But it’s too, uh, bodacious a word not to shift toward being a general-purpose strong positive intensifier, a sort of pet word. Like in a story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935: “I’m keeping the bodacious score for the day. Got a bet I’ll hear the word a thousand times. If you want a reputation for wit in this lunatic fringe on the shirttail of society , all you’ve got to do is know how to pronounce the word.” And in a 1966 issue of The Leatherneck (the magazine of the US Marine Corps), we get “‘We climbed some ‘bodacious’ hills,’ Sgt Robert Rho puffed, using the company’s favorite expression, ‘bodacious,’ meaning huge or gigantic.”

By that time, it was also well established in use in the cartoon Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, which started in 1919, and in which it was used – is used, in fact, since the strip is still running after 104 years – as a kind of backwoodsy all-purpose term of intense approbation: “Now that thar is one bodacious full moon!” “Snuffy an’ Loweezy are still doin’ bodaciously good after all these years, too!!” And so on.

Which also gives it a kind of, um, low-falutin’ hifalutin-ness. Although its polysyllabic presentation may seem like audacious with a bow on it, its history has established it as less suited to an archduke and more suited to Bo and Luke Duke.

But most people don’t read up on the history and etymology of a word before they use it. Words are known by the company they keep. And I feel confident that Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, when they wrote the script for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the late 1980s, picked up the earthy associations from literature and cartoons, even if they didn’t know that the word had always been associated with rural southern Americans. Anyway, it just sounds right, you know, dude?

And then it launched into eternity, thoroughly associated (along with the word bogus as an antonym) with a certain kind of high school dude… and perhaps a bit with an actor who, in his subsequent career, has proven quite bodacious indeed.

If you want a good example of how people acquire and think of words, here’s Keanu and Alex discussing the meaning of bodacious:

“On the extreme periphery of outstanding, somewhere between excellent and savory. . . And there’s a mystical quality as well.”

And that’s no bull.


Who can rival the nival scenery of the True North Strong and Free? There’s no place like a snow place. It’s not simply that it brings the curious combination of frigid and fluffy (never mind the snirt), nor that it has the shocking smooth brightness (again, skip the snirt), nor that you can do winter sports on it, though all of these are certainly virtues.

No, it’s that it evinces the evanescence of scenery itself. I can walk down a snowy street and know not only that it will look entirely different in the warmer seasons, but that it will look at least somewhat different even the next day. Snow blows and drifts and piles up and melts away… water, the stuff of life, is become a sort of butterfly, but even less permanent.

I’m ambivalent about this word nival. It is exemplary, showing the drift from its Latin origin nivalis in both form and pronunciation, and it has its uses: it can mean ‘snowy, made of snow, made in snow’ (like niveous but a bit shorter and without the beauty lotion overtones); it can relate to a region of perpetual snow (we have some of that in Canada, but I have no photos, not having visited there); it can relate to “the falling, accumulation, or melting of snow,” to quote the OED (in other words, relating to nivation, and not only by invitation). But it rhymes with rival, and also of course revival and survival, and that “long i” just somehow doesn’t seem… on the level. At least to me.

But that doesn’t make it invalid – just alive. We do those sound changes in English, and yet you can look at a word and see the shape of what was there before. And words keep changing, and also coming and going. And we’re not out of the woods yet with this one – tell me if you’ve ever used it!

It’s fun to think, isn’t it, that the same stuff that can support naval vessels, and stretch beyond our eyes to the horizon, can blow and drift, pile up on cars and be made into balls for handy tossing? It’s all a matter of phase. In other days or other ways, it’s also steam, and clouds. And life in places that lack this version of water is somehow… incomplete. We will always have that rival season summer in its turn, but when the streets and beaches are warm and dry, I sometimes catch myself picturing what they have been – and will be again – in the nival time of the year.