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My own year in words

The energetic Grant Barrett and Sam Sifton have an article in The New York Times on the words of 2010. It is an excellent compilation, and whether you click on the link may depend on how much you care to be reminding of the year that is approaching its end.

My enterprise in the past year has had less to do with neologisms than with existing words that merit being lifted from relative obscurity. Since the limn crisis in September,* I have been posting each week at a word, with etymology and illustration, that may be unfamiliar to readers. They have all been excellent words, meriting a place in the sun:













And—a sneak peek at the next one—Otiose.

They’re collected in a gallery.

On the blog I’ve indulged in a weakness for British words not commonly uttered on these shores, such as kerfuffle and codswallop, despite a mild apprehension that I might be dragged before the House Committee on Un-American Language** and ordered to name names.

No doubt, dear ones, you have your own favorites. Would you like to share?


*No, God no, I am not going back there. You will have to look it up yourselves.

**If there isn’t one now, there probably will be in the next Congress.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:05 PM | | Comments (13)


My favourite is "nincompoop".

I used the word "gnomic" in a eulogy I wrote for my late boyfriend a few years ago. Now, every time I read it, I smile a little. I'm very much looking forward to using "chthonic" and "nonage" in the next year. Thank you so much for sharing! I am not in the news-making profession, but I have learned much from your posts which is quite relevant to my work.

"Meriting a place in the sun," you say? It is a pun made more delightful by its subtlety. If intentional, I thank you for not parenthetically pointing it out as such.

I have three favorites, which I associate mostly with my father (1912-1995): discombobulated, conniption, and megrim in its meaning of despondency or low feeling. When I was a child, I suspected him of having made them up, since I had never heard anybody else use them. Lately, I have found some delight in hearing a friend of mine use discombobulated, and I continue to seek opportunities to refer to somebody as combobulated.

I remember -- after all these years -- the phrase "otiose boredom" from my reading, in 1963 at the tender age of 13, of CATCH-22. And I first stumbled on "chthonic" in GRAVITY'S RAINBOW. Both words that deserve more use.

In respect to the British word"dosgsbody" cited in the previous post, "dog's breakfast" is a very useful descriptive phrase in editorial work. Another Britishism I like is "twee." I once used it in an essay for The American Scholar and the coyeditor forbade it on the grounds that nobody would know what it meant. And more's the pity.

Appears after the airing of CBS's "60 Minutes" a couple of Sundays ago that the new, in-coming, Speaker of the House, Republican man-of-color (burnt orange HA!) might well be the new poster boy for the chronically "lachrymose". (Sob! Sob!)

Veteran interviewer Leslie Stahl seemed positively gobsmacked by Boehner's display of impromptu waterworks. Talk about 'cry me a river'.

The 'media' are now calling him 'the weeper of the House'. Couldn't help conjuring up distant memories of that popular '50s crooner, Johnny Ray, who made crooning-and-crying the hallmark of many of his performances, when I saw that revealing Boehner "60 Minutes" piece.

I'd hardly go so far as calling tearful John Boehner, "milquetoast', but he does appear to be a real softy when it comes to revisiting his humble 'custodial' history, namely sweeping those saw-dusted hardwood floors of his pop's neighborhood watering-hole when he was a mere young sprite. Just sayin'.

Hmm...... now "louche" does have a decidedly Gallic air about it, 'non'? I've come up w/ a novel variant on an old adage......... 'Louche lips sink ships.' Am i being a bit naughty here, or just plain nautical? Talk about a 'louche' interpretation.

I swear the word "chthonic" sounds uncannily like how toon-canary Tweety's feline arch-rival, Sylvester, might pronounce the thundering roar of renowned aviator Chuck Yeager's initial momentous breaking of the sound barrier........ namely the first 'chthonic'-boom. (Groan!) As an ex-TV animation artist, I plead 'The 5th' on that one.

I better exit this site while the goings good, before the 'word police' catch up w/ me, take me in, and throw away the key. Solitary confinement does not become me.

Thanks much John Mc. for these weekly unique, oft-strange looking, rarely-used words. Maybe by next year when the annual National Spelling Bee rolls around, airing on ESPN/ ABC, I'll be able to get more than maybe 2-out-of-ten words correctly...... my consistent average....... and if the truth be known, I'm likely being a little generous to myself, here. (Ugh!)

Going up against those bright young pre-teen and teenage brainiacs, I'd have to say I'm not much smarter than a kindergardener, let alone a 5th grader. HA!

That "Bee" always leaves me slightly disgruntled, and feeling much dumber than I really am. Couldn't I, just for once, feel totally 'gruntled'? Is that too much to ask?

Alas, at least I still have my better-than-average skill level on "Jeopardy' to fall back on. Right, Mr. Alex (fellow Canuck) Trebek?


I'll throw in my vote for avuncular, penultimate, and tintinnabulation


Does that word you brought up, "tintinnabulation", have anything to do w/ the popular fictive Belgian boy-sleuth, Tintin, the precocious, energetic young hero of countless volumes of beautifully illustrated graphic novels of international adventure and intrigue, originally written and drawn by the late Hergé?

Just kidding, fairchildd. I'm just pulling your chain, or more aptly, ringing your chimes. HA!

I know "tintinnabulation" is defined as the ringing sound of bells. So does that make the fabled Hunchback of Notre Dame a full-time tintinnabulator, i.e., bell-ringer? Just askin'.

I'm pretty certain the word "tinnitus", has the same generic root, defined as an often chronic, bothersome medical condition manifesting itself in ringing, or buzzing in the ear(s). I actually suffer from this ailment, but have, over time, gotten used to it.

Now Rin Tin Tin is a whole other story. Woof! Woof!


Alex -

Funny you should bring up Tintin - the origin of his name has never been determined to anyone's satisfaction (although a lot of theories have been tossed around).

But tintinnabulation certainly came first; it was used by Baltimore's Edgar Allen Poe in "The Bells", which is where I first heard it.

And as for a bell-ringer, how about Ray Lewis?


Thanks for that little E.A. Poe tasty tidbit re/ his use of the word "tintinnabulation" in "The Bells".

Speaking of Poe, one of Baltimore's most revered, storied, and cultured native sons, I read a cool article in my L.A. Times Calendar (entertainment) section this very morning about a feature film currently in the works starring actor John Cusack as E.A.P. in the last five days of his eventful life, naturally titled "the Raven".

The piece, quite aptly, happened to be a pick-up from the Baltimore Sun, co-written by Sun reporters Mary Carole McCauley and Mike Sragow. Bravo guys. Excellent article, underscoring how bottom-line, a limited budget often dictates where a particular film might be ultimately shot. In "The Raven"'s case one would think that your fair City of Baltimore, Poe's most familiar haunt, would be the natural shooting locale for this movie, but not so fast, you Charm City cinema boosters.

After much gnashing of teeth, and more importantly, crunching of the numbers, it appears that the producers of this film opted for two European locations----Budapest and Belgrade. Basically the price was right to shoot over the pond, as much as it would have been so proper to have made the film in Poe's hometown. I would imagine there are neighborhoods in both the aforementioned historic European cities that still retain that old-world, late 19th century feel of Poe's era. This was part of the producers rationale, I suppose?

But that's showbiz, folks.

fairchildd, I liked your Ray Lewis as "bell-ringer" association. I'm not an avid NFL watcher, but Lewis, the stellar long-time Raven's linebacker, is one of those bigger-than-life sports personalities who appears to transcend his sport, sadly sometimes to the extreme, as when he was accused of homicide a while back.

Oh, another sure-fire "bell-ringer", who has always answered 'the bell' and then some, is multi-divisional world champion pugilist, and pride of the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao. This scrappy little guy has rang many an opponents chimes, and moreover, made them see whole galaxies of stars while flat-out-KO-ed on the canvas. I suspect many a Manny P. vanquished boxing rival has shambled away from the ring w/ at least a case of temporary tinitus, if not the full-blown version. Just sayin'.



My all-time favorite bit of British slang is "bumf"--to wit:

bumf or bumph (bmf)
n. Chiefly British Slang
1. Printed matter, such as pamphlets, forms, or memorandums, especially of an official nature and deemed of little interest or importance.
2. Toilet paper.
[Short for bum fodder : bum + fodder.]

nice english words
keep up the good work

May I add a personal favorite along the lines of "gruntled" and "combobulated" above? I should very much like for my word "whelmed" to enter common usage, as I have found it both quite useful and (important bonus!) easily understood without laborious explanations.

I think of it this way: I am OVERwhelmed by the hours of holiday cleanup ahead of me; but I am merely WHELMED by the pile of cards I have yet to send out. The latter implies slogging through mountains of cards, while the former communicates utter drowning and surrender.

Any takers?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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