Lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, and under-appreciated words: Part 1, M.

Greenland Drawing by Zaria FormanI don’t often start at the beginning, primarily because I rarely know where to find the beginning. As a writer, this is probably a bad habit, but I don’t care too much. Usually, it works out for the best—I find that starting at the beginning is the swiftest route to reader-boredom. I admit sometimes have trouble finding the end or figuring out how to wrap up an article, though I never have much trouble finding the punchline. I should probably just not write serious things and focus on telling jokes, but I am getting ahead of (behind? I’m not sure?) myself.

Anyway, the point is this: I am starting a new series of my blog of words that are lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, or under-appreciated. Basically, it’s going to be a bunch of cool words that I like and think others might enjoy.

I’m starting near the middle, because that’s what feels right (and because alphabetical order is great for glossaries, but not all that crucial for rambling bloggers). So today, I found three words that begin with M. Here ya go:

Montivagant (Noun, English)
This English word was used most often during the 17th Century and although it is considered a “dead” word, it’s not entirely forgotten. It describes a person who wanders over mountains and hills, a particularly ambitious vagabond. It’s someone who gains and loses altitude as they put one foot in front of the other, up and down, up and down. It’s a rambling man, a roadie without a band. In short, it’s how I want to live my life.

Mångata (Noun, Swedish)
This is a Swedish word that has no exact equivalent in English. It describes the “road-like reflection of the moon on water.” It’s that stairway to heaven that happens when you’re lakeside on a summer night and the moon rises big and slow and lazy.

Merrythought (Noun, English)
This word for the wishbone of a bird is extremely dated and sounds it (“Would you like to pull my merrythought?” asked no one ever). The first known appearance of “Merrythought” was in 1607. I’m squirreling this information away for use at Thanksgiving. When the dinner table talk inevitably and uncomfortably turns to politics, I plan to bust this one out to distract the quibblers.

Image: “Greenland” by Brooklyn-based artist Zaria Forman from her series “Chasing the Light,” which focuses on the interplay between light and water. I’ve blogged about her before, and I’m a huge fan of her work. See more here. 

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Language is awesome: On thieves cant, glymmering, and “limber, lasting, fierce words.”

Crow_peopleYou’ve probably heard of cockney slang, where rhyme and word association comes together to create some seriously weird linguistic substitutions. The classic example is using “apples” for “stairs.” See, stairs rhymes with pears, and apples and pears are associated words, thus stairs becomes apples. Similarly, eyes are sometimes referred to as “mincers” (eyes -> mince pieces -> mincers) and wives become “trouble” (wife -> strife -> trouble and strife -> trouble). It’s confusing, but it’s meant to be. It creates a system of insiders who understand the slang, and outsiders who do not. Some people believe that cockney slang sprung up as a way for criminals to confuse police and better achieve their nefarious goals (though that’s not an entirely accepted theory).

Anyway, I was researching cockney slang when I came across “thieves cant,” a language of thieves that has this truly incredible Wikipedia entry: “It was claimed by Samuel Rid that thieves’ cant was devised around 1530 ‘to the end that their cozeningsknaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known’, by Cock Lorel and the King of the Gypsies at The Devils Arse, a cave in Derbyshire.” Sadly, Wikipedia goes on to inform me that, while thieves cant most likely “originated in this period, the story is almost certainly a myth.” Bummer, right? But at least we got to read about the fantastically named Cock Lorel and his cozenings and knaveries and villainies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

As it turns out, English isn’t the only language with a thieves cant. The Germans had Rotwelsch, which pulls in words from Yiddish and Romany languages to create a verbal hodgepodge. But it’s also a highly literal language without abstractions, so instead of calling winter by an arbitrary name, it’s called “Blibberling,” which is the word for “shivering.” (Also, how great is it that both shivering and blibberling feel incredibly onomatopoeic? Just imagine trying to stammer out blibberling between chattering teeth.) Similar, criminals in Yugoslavia once spoke in Šatrovački to hide their knaveries. Šatrovački seems a little like a Slavic pig-latin, in which words are distorted by changing around the order of the syllables. (For example: trava—grass, often used for marijuana—becomes vutra instead of vatra, meaning fire and pivo—beer—becomes vopi.)

It’s amazing how, while these languages were created for mendacious purposes, they’re still so damn beautiful. Another great word from thieves cant is “glymmer,” which means fire. Glymmer! How utterly lovely. I’m also struck by how poetic slang words can be, how vibrant and bold. This happens with American slang, too. Just think of all the words that are being coined on Snapchat right now by the youths! It’s pretty mind-boggling.

Plus, it’s extra cool because American English is basically just a big ol’ melting pot filled with pilfered phrase and made-up words. I’m going to quote this article at length, so click through…  Continue reading

Some bookish things: Snow maidens, Vonnegut, & Tsundoku

kurt1. Isn’t this portrait of Kurt Vonnegut great? He wrote such dark books, but had such a lovely, optimistic mind. The Chicago-based artist does other funny “pep-talk” prints, including a great one of Dolly Parton.

2. I just learned a new “untranslatable” word, and it perfectly describes my apartment: Tsundoku. It’s a Japanese word that describes the act of buying books and leaving them unread in piles around your home. Right now, I’m staring at a pile of books that includes novels by Sarah Waters (who wrote Fingersmith, which was just fantastic) and The Snow Childwhich I’m actually quite close to finishing, so technically it’s not “unread.” But I wish it were! It’s so, so good that I wish I hadn’t read it so I could go back to the beginning and start over. It’s about an old homesteader couple in Alaska that wish a child into being. The magic snow-child’s name is Faina. How beautiful is that?