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Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Greeks Had a Word for It

What's the word for a word that sounds like it ought to mean something, but it really means something else? "Malapropism" is not it; that's sort of the inverse of what I mean.

The other day on, Lileks had a post titled "Calling All Sybarites," which prompted one of his readers to comment:

[That's] a word I'm unlikely to use, and thank heaven. I had to look up "catamite" that appeared somewhere in Lileks' writings this week. By the look and sound of the word, I surmised that perhaps it was a mineral specimen. Imagine my surprise.


I've been trying to keep a list (in my head) of words that sound like they might mean something completely different, such as:

  • Thesaurus: A giant reptile of the late Cretaceous
  • Eponymous: A large mammal native to Africa

Unfortunately, that's as far as I get. Occasionally one occurs to me, and I vow to remember it, but never do. Let's see if we can think of a few now:

  • Cenotaph: A method of long-distance communication.
  • Prolix: A part of the body not mentioned in polite company.
  • Sesquipedalian: Any of a number of species of small, many-legged creatures, many of them venomous.
  • Obfuscatory: A small niche used as a hiding place [1].
  • Armature: A covering of metal or other tough substance, used as protection for a fighter in battle.

See! It's fun! You could make up an entire story using these.

Karst shifted in his saddle, trying to ease the spot where his heavy armature chafed his prolix. "I don't like the look of this terrine," he called over his shoulder. He gestured to the rock stratus above them, catamite overlaid with sybarite. "This rising gorge is the perfect hunting ground for a thesaurus." His companion urged his stout eponymous forward to Karst's side. "When we reach Bougainvillea[2], we can send a message by cenotaph to the capitulate," he said. "The Argon will organize a posset to deal with the beasts."

Sadly, as my vocabulary grows these sorts of words become less obvious. The toughest read I ever had as an adult was Pietro Redondi's Galileo: Heretic, where on one page I had to deal with hermeneutics, hagiography, and exegesis.

  • Hermeneutics: A complex and obscure branch of mathematics
  • Hagiography: An ancient system of writing
  • Exegesis: Something expelled from the body

(The toughest read I ever had as a child was a book about an old lady who had a pet monkey that had died of pneumonia. I couldn't deal with pneumonia, and returned the book sadly to the library. That damaged my self-esteem for years to come.)

My literary effort above reminds me of what many consider the Worst. Fantasy. Ever., "The Eye of Argon". It was written by a 16-year-old named Jim Theis (sadly no longer with us), and published in an obscure fan journal in 1970.

I'm not sure that the plot is particularly bad, but the writing is. In addition to the usual newbie vices of clotted verbs and overlarded adjectives, Theis misuses many words -- as when the hero, Grignr, defeats two men in battle and then glares "lustfully" at them as they die. (And no, Theis does not really mean "lustfully".)

Later he sees a girl in a tavern and admires her "lithe, opaque nose". I believe this is where I realized I was in the presence of genius.

Perhaps Theis was inventing a new type of literature, where the meanings of words are less important than their possible meanings, or perhaps we should say their homophonic meanings[3]. Working under that theory, "lithe" is a good description of a nose, hinting clumsily at grace. Though what Theis was thinking of with "opaque" I can't imagine.

I PREDICT that within a century this sort of thing will become a celebrated literary genre. I'd better get in while the getting's good.

Unless that's what James Joyce thought he was doing; then to hell with it.

[1] Actually, I can see Matthew Hughes using the word in that manner.
[2]OK, that's cheating a little.
[3] Or possibly homorthographophonic? There aren't any homorthographophoniphobes in the audience, I hope.