Macaronic – Wildest Word of the Day

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Image by TheBrassGlass on Morguefile.com

When Yankee Doodle went to London riding on his pony, he stuck a feather in his cap and called it – macaroni! As a kid I always pictured Yankee Doodle as an Ichabod Crane type. A tall, skinny guy, his feet dragging on the ground, riding a tiny, exhausted horse with a weary look on its face. In my childhood imagination I saw him wearing a tricorn hat with a giant elbow macaroni sticking out of the top of it like a feather. This image stuck with me for years.

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Image by MaxStraeten on Morguefile.com

I found out later that macaroni was a term related to foppishness and referred to the tiny tricorn hats on top of the Macaroni wig that the men of the Macaroni Club in Britain wore in the 1700’s. Yankee Doodle was a song of derision aimed at Colonial troops by members of the British Army. The British thought that the Colonials were so unsophisticated that if they put a feather in their caps they would think they were wearing the highest fashion of the day. Later, the Colonials would use the song to mock the British troops when they won.

When I stumbled on the term macaronic, I thought it might have something to do with this. Perhaps it meant anything thought to be sophisticated by a group that actually isn’t sophisticated. (Like velvet paintings at truck stops?) When I did a little more digging I made an interesting discovery.

“Sloth” a painting on velvet by Bruce White

Macaronic refers to a way of mixing two or more languages in a piece of writing for satire or humor. It has derogatory overtones, like the macaroni in Yankee Doodle, so people debate whether it should be used to refer to mixed language in more serious or dramatic literature.

According to Wikipedia, the term comes from the New Latin word macaronicus which in turn was derived from maccarone, a type of dumpling eaten by Italian peasants. It began with a mixing of Latin and vernacular and came about because educated people who knew Latin needed a way of communicating with people who did not speak or read Latin. The term may have come from a comic poem written by Tifi Odasi in the late 1400’s called the Macaronea.

The device of macaronic language is often used in comic films and plays to poke fun at people who fancy themselves to be more sophisticated than they actually are. A good example is Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania, Charlie Chaplin’s character in The Great Dictator who speaks in German – English macaronic language and says things like “cheese und cracken” and other similar phrases.

As a certified word nerd, I was really pleased to discover that this device had such a great name. Let me know if you’ve used macaronic language in your own writing or if you’ve discovered any great pieces of macaronic language out there. I’d love to hear from you!

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Colporteur – Wildest Word of the Day

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(Credit: Flickr photo by Dominique Chappard)

I stumbled across this wild word today on a random search down an internet rabbit hole.

A colporteur is someone who goes from place to place peddling printed material like books, brochures and newspapers. It was mainly used for people who distributed religious tracts and bibles. The act of doing this is known as colportage.

I’m fascinated with the idea that there were (and still are?) colporteurs who go door-to-door selling bibles. Ever since I met Albert Maysles and watched his moving documentary, Salesman, I’ve wondered what their lives must’ve been like off-camera and if there are still some lonely souls out there trying to eke out a living doing this.

According to the website World Wide Words, the work of the colporteur could also be dangerous, especially if one was doing it in Wallachia. The site shows a decree from the Ottoman Governor of Wallachia, in what is now Romania, which stated:

“We order you to tear those writings that are against our Holy Religion. Whoever will seize and deliver up the publishers of those writings, shall receive 300 crowns…The Colporteur, on the contrary, shall be impaled alive upon the very place where he was seized.”

Morning Post (London), 26 Apr. 1788.

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(Credit: Flickr photo from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Impaled, alive, on the very place he was seized. Ouch! I mean, the impaling thing makes sense, though. After all, the Prince of Wallachia was known as Vlad the Impaler, and was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Christian Bible has sold over 6 billion copies (according to website Statistic Brain). That’s enough to make anyone’s Amazon.com sales figures look measly by comparison. The colporteurs of the past helped those numbers climb with their endless knocking on endless doors and selling millions of copies of the book in the process.

My questions of the day:

  • Did you know anyone who was a colporteur?
  • In our digital age, are there still colporteurs out there?

Besides the occasional Jehovah’s Witness who tries to drop off a copy of The Watchtower (the most widely circulated magazine in the world), I think the only colporteurs we might still have are those young men (and some women) who pretend to be of college age and knock on your door at the worst possible moments, trying to sell you shady subscriptions to magazines that you already don’t read. They usually carry a wrinkled up cardboard I.D. and give you a sad story about how they are trying to either pay for college or complete an assignment by selling more subscriptions than their classmates. According to Con$umerMan at NBCnews.com we should all “just say no” to these modern day colporteurs. 

If one of them does show up, perhaps you should show them the announcement from the Ottoman Governor of Wallachia.

The threat of impalement may keep those pesky colporteurs from ever coming back again!

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(Credit: Flickr photo from Bibliotheque des Champs Libres)

BONUS: A different kind of “colporteur” – the one who wrote all those great tunes from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s (and beyond). Enjoy the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter.

Lambert – Wildest Word of the Day

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Photo by Michael Kearns

According to The Phrontistery (The Thinking Place) and their list of unusual words, lambert is a unit of brightness and light.

It was also the maiden name of my maternal grandmother (pictured above) who died recently after breaking her tailbone and having a heart attack as a result. She was 90 years old. Her oldest daughter, my mother, died at 42. My grandmother never quite recovered from losing her daughter so young and so the past 25 years have been hard on her.

I would like to celebrate the laughter and light I remember as a child visiting my grandmother by sharing this word of the day.

Soccer – Wildest Word of the Day

With all this talk of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I started thinking about the origin of the word “soccer”. A lot of countries other than ours call it “football”. We’re often made to feel bad and wrong for calling it soccer. But where did the word come from and which one is more “correct”?

I did a bit of searching around on the internet and found a lot of different sources by Daven Hiskey wrote a great article called “The Origin of the Word ‘Soccer'” that is one of the best.

According to Hiskey, the word “soccer” preceded the word “football” by about eighteen years.

Apparently the word soccer came about because British school boys had a habit of  speaking in slang by adding-er to the ends of shortened forms of the words. Thus, rugby became “rugger” and Associated Football, the original name for the sport became known as “assoccer” which was shortened even further to “soccer.” Legend has it that the first use of the term came from the Oxfordian (Oxer?) Charles Wredford-Brown who was asked if he’d like to play a game of “rugger” and he replied that he preferred to play “soccer.” This supposedly happened right around 1863, shortly after the creation of Associated Football. It was considered a sport for gentlemen and played by the upper classes but quickly became popular with the middle and lower classes as well. When this happened, around 1881, everyone shortened the name from Associated Football to just football.

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Charles Wreford-Brown from Myfootballfacts.com

Honorificabilitudinitatibus – Wildest Word of the Day

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James Joyce by Paul Jenny

In honor of Bloomsday, I wanted to include this monstrous vocable. According to Wikipedia, honorificabilitudinitatibus is the “dative and ablative plural of the medieval Latin word honorificabilitudinitas, which can be translated as, ‘the state of being able to achieve honors.'” It’s the longest word in the English language featuring only alternating consonants and vowels.

This is how Joyce uses the word in Ulysses:

“Like John o’Gaunt his name is dear to him, as dear as the coat and crest he toadied for, on a bend sable a spear or steeled argent, honorificabilitudinitatibus, dearer than his glory of greatest shakescene in the country.”

Shakespeare used this word in Love’s Labors Lost in Act V, Scene 4 of the play. Costard, a comic rustic, says of the pedants, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.” (Flap-dragon was a game of eating hot raisins from a bowl of burning brandy.)

Essentially, the word means, “with honorableness” according to Pinky and the Brain’s 1995 episode “Napoleon Bonaparte” (Season 1, Episode 11). If you learn this one, you’ll never sound like you belong in a coterie of pre-verbal neonates.

Happy Bloomsday!

Brontide – Wildest Word of the Day

Flickr photo by N. Tackaberry

(Credit: Flickr photo by N. Tackaberry)

A brontide is a low rumbling sound like thunder thought to be caused by feeble earth tremors (Merriam-Webster). I also like the way the word sounds when you say it. Try it now.

“BRON-tide.” Feels good, doesn’t it?

If you’ve ever experienced the brontide, let me know in the comments.

“While standing on the precipice of the cliff looking down, Harry heard the brontide. It seemed like a long, low warning not to jump.”