Of cats and butterflies and the pitfalls of old words

I recently perused a website devoted to plucking deserving old words from the jaws of oblivion (Word Warriors).  You can also nominate a word you like, say why, and other users can give it the thumbs up or down. With some luck, your favorite word will make it onto their word list.

Among their top ten words for 2012 is supercilious, which surprised me, as I didn’t realize it had gone out of fashion. I use it all the time. But perhaps that’s because my choice of vocab. can be somewhat antediluvian (another gem on their list). They also list transmogrify, which has a distinct Harry Potteresque quality, and which, if you’re British or Australian, reminds you of cats (moggie = ordinary, non-pedigree cat).

Speaking of cats, I was delighted to find concatenation on their list. This is a word that is hard to forget once you have read an account of Bertram Wooster conversing with his butler Jeeves, with Wooster grappling, as usual, for the mot juste:

 “And owing to…what’s that something of circumstances you hear people talking about? Cats enter into it, if I remember rightly.”

“Would concatenation be the word for which you are groping?”

(“Jeeves and the Greasy Bird”)

In case you’re wondering, concatenation has nothing to do with cats and everything to do with linking things together, as in a chain of events. Too bad – cats would be infinitely more entertaining.

There are a lot of old-fashioned words that appeal to me. Such as flibbertigibbet. I like it because it’s fun to say and because P. G. Wodehouse used it to describe one of his flighty young female characters (although I can’t for the life of me remember which one, and I’m not about to dive into the Master’s opus—after all, there is a considerable number of volumes to plow through).

For some reason, to me the word flibbertigibbet conjures up an image of colorful butterflies flitting hither and thither. Plus, it is usually applied, often in an indulgent way, to chatty and somewhat scatterbrained young women, so I assumed that the origin of flibbertigibbet was something sweet, even innocent.

Far from it. To my horror, Wikipedia—the Internet’s reigning fount of wisdom—has something quite different to report: one possible origin relates to birds flying by and pecking the remains of executed criminals set out for display on a platform or gallows (a gibbet). Yuck!  And it gets worse. Well, actually, it doesn’t, but it’s just as bad: in naval terminology, a gibbet is

A wooden frame from which dead pirates are hung, often in a metal cage especially fitted for the dead man. This is done as a warning to others who would think of taking up a career in piracy. (see here)

An alternative explanation offered is more benign and refers to the jib sail that may flutter in the wind, depending on how tightly it is rigged. Better, but not great. And nothing at all to do with butterflies.

Whatever its origin, flibbertigibbet has an illustrious lineage: Shakespeare used it in King Lear. Alas, butterflies were far from his mind:

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. He begins at curfew,

and walks till the first cock. He gives the web and the pin,

squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat,

and hurts the poor creature of earth.

(Act III, Scene 4)

Flibbertigibbet: a foul fiend? This is definitely a far cry from the contemporary use of the word, which is perhaps not terribly complimentary, but at least a flibbertigibbet is harmless.

But perhaps all these attempts at delving into the supposed etymological roots of the word are misguided, and flibbertigibbet is simply one of those words that attempts to sound like the thing it describes. Think barnyard words like moo, oink, and woof.  This, indeed, is the explanation offered by Evan Morris (whose excellent site The Word Detective I have just discovered):

 “Flibbertigibbet” almost certainly arose as an attempt to duplicate the sound of someone babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter. 

Yes! Onomatopoeia to the rescue! This is now my preferred explanation, as I am not partial to the idea of birds pecking at a person’s exposed remains . . .  which brings to mind the unfortunate Prometheus of Greek mythology, who had to undergo the indignity of  having his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. Fortunately, his liver was self-regenerating, much like a gecko’s tail, so there’s your silver lining. Such as it is.

Writer Olympics

The Olympic games are upon us. All that farther, higher, faster, stronger business is quite exhausting, even when viewed from the proverbial armchair.

I’m not much of an athlete, armchair or otherwise, so while watching gymnasts turn themselves inside out and runners huff and puff around the stadium like ants around a clock, my mind inevitably turns to other things. And as it happened, I recently started thinking about literary feats of Olympic proportions, in particular prolificness, or prolificacy, if that’s the term you prefer, though I don’t, because it sounds too much like profligacy, which is a state of shameless debauchery. And I wouldn’t even accuse the author of Fifty Shades of Grey of such unseemly conduct. Or perhaps I will, once I have actually plowed through her tome and not just read about it.

Back to prolificness. P.G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie and other popular writers now deceased produced dozens of books in their lifetime. And there is slew of contemporary writers who are busily adding to their equally considerable oeuvre, book by book. These are Olympics-sized achievements in my book, and I was properly in awe.   Until I found out that there were writers who have published books by the hundreds: Isaac Asimov (506), Enid Blyton (600), Barbara Cartland (722). And that’s just those writing in the English language! I cannot imagine writing 722 books in any language. Not ever. Not even for Olympic gold.

But English-writing authors are not alone. The list of literary prolifics is an international one, and the one who beats them all is a lady from Spain, Corín Tellado, who clocked up a whopping 4000+ published works, mostly novels.

Four. Thousand. PLUS. The mind boggles.

Now these people, I assume, glued their bottoms to their chairs, and actually wrote every single word themselves, be it on a typewriter, a computer keyboard, or a note pad. Blood, sweat, and tears—not to mention the wearing-off of fingertips—went into their work. If that’s not an Olympics-worthy effort, I don’t know what is.

Enter Philip M. Parker, whose tally of works totals 200,000 and counting. Yes, he is the world’s most prolific author you may have never heard of. But here’s the thing: Mr. Parker, a Professor of Management at a business school, didn’t go for the old bum glue routine to reach this dizzying height. No, his method of production is as new-fangled as it gets: his works are created with a computer algorithm that trawls data bases and puts the information together into readable form, conveniently sorted into genres. Romances, dictionaries, thrillers, self-help, medical texts—you name it, there’s an algorithm for it. His publications are original compilations clobbered together from bits and pieces of publicly available data found on the Internet (though there may well be questions about copyright infringement, but let’s not go there right now). The question is: is this writing? Is this writing in the bum glue sense of the word? I concede that bum glue is required to develop the algorithm, but that’s where it stops. Computer programs do the vast majority of the work that results in a new book.

The question is, does he qualify as an entrant to the Writers’ Olympics? Well, given the general absence of bum glue in the production of the actual volumes, my vote is “no.”

Which still leaves us with Ms. Tellado. I have no idea how she did it. My mind is stuck in a boggle when contemplating the 4000 plus.

So, without further ado, the Writers’ Olympics Gold Medalist in Prolificness for Writers Past and Present goes to:

CORIN TELLADO!

CUE:  Olympic Fanfare

(I hope this works – if it does, you will have leapt 2 feet into the air)

Here are some links for those who love lists:

Wiki list

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