Test your word power against a dead squirrel

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Future historians will wonder at the turn-of-the-century trait of people forwarding each other emails and web links containing allegedly humourous or entertaining material. I’m lucky enough to have friends who spare me, by and large, from this practice. Nonetheless, on a slow work day someone pointed me towards “33 Names of Things You Never Knew had Names”, one of a number of lists published on Canongate Books’ website to promote their publication The Book Of Lists.
If I wore a bow tie and/or lamented the occasional, elegant use of a terminal preposition, I would resent the assertion that I didn’t know these things have names, let alone that I didn’t know what those names all were. Instead I’ll put my brain where my mouth is and review a selection of the words, to see how many I do know, and even whether the list gets something wrong…
Aglet is the first word on the list. Feh! Anyone who reads Achewood or has done prison time knows this one.
Columella Nasi. I almost called this one wrong, misinterpreting the description as referring instead to that classic obscure body-part, the philtrum. Philtrum is an excellent word, naming an essential yet overlooked (literally) facial feature that is right under your very nose (again, literally); furthermore, it has a beautifully arbitrary etymology, and renders one of the definitions in The Meaning of Liff redundant. Columella Nasi is not excellent. Latin terms like these aren’t very impressive: they suggest you’ve merely boned up on a science book, rather than achieved the command of a wide-ranging vocabulary through a lifetime rich with variegated experience. It’s like saying “rattus norvegicus” when you could say “Siberian hamster”.
Hemidemisemiquaver. As a rough guide, there’s not much enjoyment to be had from a word if it’s useless for both Hangman and Scrabble. If you’re going to fill up your list with technical jargon, there are much better words to be had from the field of music, even starting with H, such as hocket, hemiola, and Hennessy.
Jarns, Nittles, Grawlix, and Quimp. They don’t give you any pictures of these to show precisely which is which, so here you go. Funnily enough, the font set linked above shows that a jarn is the same thing as an octothorpe, and there’s a character called a phosphene. The research behind this list is starting to look less than extensive. In case you were wondering, these terms were all coined by Mort Walker, who also invented the similarly useful word, briffit.
Keeper. The lamest name for the dullest definition. Even if they believe you, knowing this word is guaranteed not to impress anyone. Honestly, this sounds like something a five-year-old came up with.
Minimus. “The little finger or toe.” For names which are supposed to define amusingly specific things (see nef), this one is maddeningly vague. Pick one appendage and stick with it! I’m sure this word is responsible for at least one erroneous amputation.
Peen. What part of “ball-peen hammer” don’t you understand? Besides the “peen” part.
Purlicue. This is entering my personal lexicon immediately, and I shall never admit that I got it from a stupid list someone emailed me.
Rowel. This one came up on one of those forensic science dramas (the one where everything’s dark blue even though they’re in the middle of a desert) a while back, so along with dragĂ©es and ferrule I’ve got 8 out of 33 so far, while Douglas Adams has 0.
Zarf. I’m docking myself half a point for getting this one hopelessly wrong, thanks to a newspaper article I read years ago which asserted that the correct word for those cup-holders is swarf, derived from the large wood shavings that lathe operators used to wrap around their hot mugs of tea. It turns out that guy was confused and wrong, and so, in turn, was I. Swarf typically means fine shavings and filings, and zarf is an unrelated word of Arabic origin. I’m pretty sure I read my misinformation in a column in The Adelaide Review, so I’ll take comfort from blaming this on Christopher Pearson.
Any suggestions for better, more obscure nouns are more than welcome.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)