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January 23, 2005 - What does it mean? Zen and The Art of Vocabulary Building

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Book Wrangler

Sunday, January 23, 2005

By Bob Patterson


This columnist can’t remember the last time we had to look up a new word we heard on television.  Yeah, we hear some we can’t believe are actually on the air, but as for one that we don’t have in our vocabulary, well, the last time that happened on TV Ed Sullivan ruled on Sunday nights (unless the Yankee game ran 24 innings.)


We know a bit about guns, and so when we were reading O .Henry’s short story titled “Best-Seller” (an appropriate selection for the Book Wrangler, eh?) and we came across the word mitrailleuse (Microsoft Word challenges it), we went racing for our copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary, where we found that it is something similar to a Gatling gun (stumped the Word spellchecker again!) that fires the various barrels simultaneously.  Good ole O immediately followed that by hipping us to the word yataghan (Word spellchecker has apparently never read O. Henry).  It means a Turkish short saber with a double curved blade and it has a handle but no guard.  (Thanks again, Mr. Webster!)


One of the best “new word” books we’ve discovered recently is a 1983 Comstock paperback edition of Gene Fowler’s 1933 book Timber Line: A Story of Bonfils and Tammen it is subtitled Denver – The Rip Roaring Years.  It is an anecdotal history of the two men who bought the Denver Post newspaper and turned it into a top-notch example of journalism.


Back when the story line in the book begins journalists were mostly eloquent hooligans.   A modern equivalent might be a college-educated fan of the Manchester United Soccer team.  [Hotspurs fans are cultured gentleman - much like the audience for a Yankees’ baseball game are more refined than Mets fans.]


Thing is, back then, a writer was proud of the size of his vocabulary and wasn’t afraid to show it off.  Over and above things like details about Otto Flotto, the Denver Post sports editor, (a Google search won’t turn up much on him) and the astounding fact that April 16, 1908, may have been the last time a resident of Southern California, who was sitting on her front porch, was killed by a charging elephant (page 179), Timber Line gets high marks for repeatedly sending us to the aforementioned dictionary.


It’s like the old Laugh-In line:  “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.”  If one isn’t handy, for word definitions on the Internet, you can go to One Look the online dictionary.


We found a nice list of new words in Timber Line: peculation, satrap, freshets, braw, sachem, minnesinger, lachrymal, hetman, knout, and Zouave.  Show me one TV show that has all those words in one script.


OK, we’ll do the work this time, but next time you’re on your own.


Peculation means embezzling.


Satrap means a petty tyrant.  (Isn’t that how we describe our beloved editor and publisher?)


Freshets means a sudden overflowing of a stream because of melting snow or heavy rain.  (Teenage boys will know the feeling.)


Braw means excellent.


Sachem means a honcho or political leader, especially one of the Tammany Hall posse.


Lachrymal means something related to tears and crying.  Wouldn’t that be used to describe the Democrats who watched the second Bush Inaugural?


Hetman means a Cossack chief.  We thought it was one of those guys who were pioneers in jazz.  Turns out they were hepcats. 


Knout is a kind of whip.  Bad boy!  You should have known that. 


Zouave refers to members of a French military unit known for the precision of their close order drills and their Oriental style uniforms. 


Minnesinger means a particular kind of German troubadour.  (We thought Edith Piaf would be the definition, because she was kinda short, wasn’t she?)


Wow!  We’ve learned all this and we are only about half way through the book. 


In this 1933 book we find this - “…in support of Tammen’s theory that the only thing to fear in life is fear.”  Hmmm.  Wonder if FDR read that book and when?


In doing the fact checking (How can the statement that this column was fact checked be fact checked?  It’s like the old radio line: “The fact checker knows!”) we discovered a marvelous online word-a-day site that not only features a new word each day, it has the definition and also throws in a marvelous quote of the day as an extra bonus. 


Based on the NPR story we heard, it seems that folks who liked Eats Shoots & Leaves are going to want to at least casually peruse Christopher J. Moore’s new book In Other Words ($14 hardback Walker & Co.).  Cunning linguists will eat it up.  [Christopher J. Moore ought not be confused with Christopher Moore (the leading – if not the only – author in the whimsical horror genre) who wrote The Stupidest Angel.]  In Other Words considers certain unique untranslatable words and phrases from various languages.  (For more on the challenges of accurate translation see this article from the Just Above Sunset archives.)


That concludes our regularly scheduled weekly column, but we’ll go into extra innings and get some brownie points from various and sundry folks in the literary world by plugging their new books.


Magnum Stories by Chris Boot  ($79.95 Phaidon Press) - This book with about 800 illustrations tells the story behind the legendary Magnum Photo, a photo agency that had many of the world’s best photographers on their team roster.


Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh ($24.95 William Morrow) - This novel is about life in a Pennsylvania coal mining town, but before anyone from Scranton buys this book, they should read the author’s biographical information for a possible clue about where the setting for this story might be located.


Real Men Work in the Pits: A Life in NASCAR Racing by Jeff Hammond and Geoff Norman ($24.95 Rodale Books published January 15, 2005) -  Is it precocious to say this book will get a car enthusiast’s motor revving?


Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds by Brian Burrell ($24.95 Broadway published Jan. 11, 2005) - Egad, Igor, don’t drop the brain on the carpet, we need it for our collection.  There really are brain collections, eh, Igor?  I thought we had the only one. 


Never Coming To A Theater Near You: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie by Kenneth Turan ($25 Public Affairs) - Yeah, OK, but is this book, which is mostly a collection of the author’s movie reviews for the LA Times, going to be on the shelves of the Santa Monica Public Library?


Laugh-In fans, say: “Good Night, Dick.”  See you next week?




Copyright 2005 – Robert Patterson


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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