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The World of Weird Words

In our last two installments, Webb’s Weird Words focused mostly on terms from medicine and India, as I was honoring Abraham Verghese’s current bestseller The Covenant of Water, which revolves around those two subjects.

This week, we’re back in random mode: I simply pulled up the first of the 26 pages in my oddball vocab list and selected out a baker’s dozen that seemed like they’d be fun.

Here you go:

Bumbershoot (BUM-bur-shoot, noun) – Whimsical slang for umbrella. A personal favorite, this term was constructed by chopping off pieces of “umbrella” and “parachute,” then gluing them together — a linguistic phenomenon called a “blend.” (That’s another separate column!)

Crapulent (CRAP-yuh-lint, adjective) – Feeling ill from excessive eating or drinking. Believe it or not, this expression is unrelated to the more common “crap,” but comes instead from Greek and Latin terms for “hangover” and “intoxication.”

Echolalia (ek-oh-LAY-lee-yah, noun) – The American Heritage Dictionary defines this as “involuntary repetition of words or phrases just spoken by others.” A psychiatric condition, it also occurs as a normal stage of development by babies learning speech.

Fossick (FOSS-ick, verb) – Originally a mining term, “fossick” means to search for gold, often by sorting through someone else’s diggings. More generally, it means to rummage or look for something that could turn a profit.

Frenulum (FREN-yuh-lum, noun) – If you stick your tongue all the way up or down between your gums and lip, you will feel a sharp little strip of flesh joining the two; that’s a frenulum — a thin connecting membrane. You also have one under your tongue — and now you know what to call it.

You’re welcome.

Glabrous (GLAB-russ, adjective) – Biology term meaning smooth — with no hairs or projections; generally used to describe skin or leaves.

Hoosegow (HOOSE-gow, noun) – A slang term for jail, derived from the Spanish “juzgar” (HOOZ-gar), which means “to judge.” This may also be where we get “jug,” another slang term for prison.

Slugabed (SLUG-uh-bed, noun) – Yes, this terrific word means exactly what it says: a lazy person who stays in bed too long when s/he should be up and active.

Snollygoster (SNOLL-ee-goss-ter, noun) – A shrewd, unscrupulous person, especially a politician.

Say no more.

Sockdolager (sock-DOLL-uh-jer, noun) – Something decisive, large, heavy, outstanding — like a blow or a remark. Familiar with this word from Huckleberry Finn, where the titular narrator uses it to refer to a colossal thunderclap, I’d always assumed it was formed by reversing the first and second consonant sounds in “doxology”; most sources do credit the second part of that word, but also throw in “sock” (as in “strike” or “hit”). As with many fanciful made-up words, its ultimate origin is largely a matter of guesswork.

Syzygy (SIZZ-uh-jee, noun) – A complex term having to do with an alignment of three celestial bodies, such as the earth, the sun, and another planet. I had to look up this charming word after hearing it in the 1986 movie Desert Bloom, where it comes up during a 1950s spelling bee. For the record, that sadly neglected cinematic gem features what I consider Jon Voight’s single finest performance. Well worth digging up.

Thrummy (THRUM-ee, adjective) – A “thrum” is a “loose end, fringe or tuft of thread,” says the AHD. So “thrummy” = “shaggy.”

Twaddle (TWAD-ull, verb) – To babble, prate or talk foolishly; also a noun for this type of speech.

So even though I wound up covering a lot of slang this time around, I hope it didn’t come across as twaddle.

Or gobbledygook.