Notes on Words

for Writers, Readers, Logophiles and Logorrhetics

Grandma’s Neck Fat — February 28, 2013

Grandma’s Neck Fat

He’s all like what punk you wanna tussle?

We learn about our world only by naming its elements. A person with a hundred cats can tell each one apart – so long as they went through the process of naming each one. The Himbu tribe can’t see the difference between colors we’d call blue and green, and they call their sky white, or black – but they can tell minutely different greens apart – all of them having different names in their language. This is part of my ongoing project to expand my own understanding and usage of the googolplex of words available to me – and you!

A dewlap is “a loose fold of skin hanging from the neck of certain animals,” and is present in dogs, lizards, cattle, according to wikipedia, “as well as cracids and some guans,” whatever the hell that means. In some cases it is mobile, like with those lizards, and sometimes, like with the wattle of a rooster, it just . . . wattles. Back and forth. While the bird bobs his widdle head.

Really, the wattle is not a true dewlap, which is described as a longitudinal mass of skin hanging beneath the jaw or neck; a wattle is a “caruncle,” another weird if mostly useless word.

And neither is that ominous, pendulous bob of skin which dangles from grandma’s throat a dewlap. But the meaning of “dewlap” has expanded to include these phenomena, and for most of us who are not bird enthusiasts or otherwise zoologically occupied, “grandma’s dangly neck fat” is the most useful use of the word. As in, I used to go around grandma’s a lot until she dropped that mean dewlap around age 70, which now seems to watch me when I walk around the room, or While grandpa’s sleeping in his chair, the cat plays with his dewlap. I suppose that you could use it for roosters and lizards, if you really like: Check out the sweet dewlap on that anole lizard as it expands and contracts as a method of attracting mates or repelling predators!

Dewlap would also be a great name for a character in a satirical novel or play, such as Quintus Dewlap, or Dewlap Dickson; or Sissy and Evangeline, the unsettling Dewlap sisters.

Word number two for today is:

This must mean something, after all

Apophenian.: The experience of seeing meaningful patterns in random or meaningless data.

What a wonderful little word. I have literally pissed myself with excitement.

In the novel Cosmos by Witolt Gombrowicz, a pair of students are drawn against their wills into an obsessive quest to discover the meaning of a series of probably meaningless indicators, such as a dead bird hung from a string, or a series of marks on the ceiling which line up with a stick lying outside their window, and point in the direction of . . . something. Throughout the novel, the young men continually attempt to steer themselves away from their insane quest and make a good impression on the family that’s hosting them, but again and again they find themselves standing on dining room tables to examine scratches on the ceiling, or wandering around the outside of the house at night.

Gombrowicz is taking a certain human need – the need to find something, somewhere which makes some kind of sense in an otherwise chaotic and silly world – and dragging it out to absurd dimensions, putting a microscope to the pathetic consequences of such passions.

We are all subject to apophenia. It is part of the human condition. Whether people are finding Jesus in a piece of burnt toast (or whatever) or wearing the same pair of boxer shorts every time they give a speech, they are driven by this same mad tendency to fish for meaning in a sea of meaningless – and take control of their lives.

People once thought that left-handed folks were evil, simply because there weren’t many of them. This is clearly false, the result of apophenia, as are things like the ancient Romans’ belief in bird augury. Religion, people’s ideas about supernatural or extraterrestrial phenomena, astrology, atheism, global warming, the concept that Jamie Lee Curtis was born a hermaphrodite, the concept that global warming doesn’t exist, Tarot, etc. may all be the results of apophenia, after all. As is this:

Not a face

We call this a face, but it’s only a few lines and circles put together. Our brains are hardwired to recognize a face everywhere that we think we might see one, either to detect danger or locate friends. A friendly face is one of the nicest things to look at, whether we’re still sticky from the womb or a hundred and sixty five years old. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not a face but only a few meaningless lines and dots which put us in mind of a face.

I meant to visit grandma more, but she’s got apophenia, and because I scratch my chin in a certain way while looking at my sister she thinks we’re plotting to kill her. Sasha is clearly an apopheniac: she thinks we all like her because we voted her in as president of the board game club, but the only other candidate has a mephitic aroma.

And to finish off today’s post, some easy and useful nouns:

A dolly llama

Substraten.: A bottom or lower layer (plural: substrata). My boyfriend spends his evenings plumbing the substrate of the internet for bizarre pornography. I try to keep the sink clean, but I cannot cut through the indefatigable substrate of forks, knives, bowls, and liquified food.

Conbobberationn.: A disturbance, a row, a tussle. Down at Grumpy’s we had us a big bloody conbobberation over Obamacare an’ marriage equality, and me an’ Giovanni barely got out afore the cops showed up.

Lamaseryn.: A monastery of lamas (not llamas), usually in Tibet or Mongolia. While hiking the mountains, we spotted a hospitable-looking lamasery couched on a snowy plateau, with little orange-cloaked monks wandering its purlieu.

Paradise Park — February 26, 2013

Paradise Park

Paradise Park by Charles MeeI recently saw Paradise Park by Charles Mee. It was put up by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium at the Walnut Theater’s Studio 5, an intimate space.

If your favorite part of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was the creepy boat ride or if you even remember that scene with a tingle of cinematic delight right down in your nethers, then you’re definitely of the constitution to enjoy Paradise Park.

If you like Shakespeare’s problem plays more than his simple ones, or if you’d argue that Twelfth Night is actually a problem play (and mean it as a compliment), then you’re the person that Paradise Park is being staged for.

I don’t want to give too much away; but I might have a review coming up at the Broad Street Review which will do enough of that. Go see it – it ends March 3rd.

You can read the play here; in fact, you can read every play that Charles Mee’s written by following that same link, and there are a bunch of them. Because he’s such a nice guy.

Actually, can I clarify that and say that it’s an incredible thing that Mee’s done. By making all of his plays available to read – and encouraging artists and writers to borrow/steal his words – he is contributing to a growing worldwide culture of collaboration. And he ought to – a lot of his texts are created from other people’s words, phrases, speeches, structures.

Dope picture of a tiger diving underwater. Source:
Meretricious autochthons, expand thy purlieus — February 25, 2013

Meretricious autochthons, expand thy purlieus

Meretricious Money Face
This meretricious dude loves definitions! Courtesy of m1ndy9876

This post is part of an ongoing project dedicated to sharing new words and ideas. This is not meant to be a “word of the day” where a new, unusual word is defined every day. First of all, each post will probably include multiple words. Second of all, there will be some discussion about each word, with a goal of creating interest and showing how a word can actually be used. Thirdly, none of these are words which I knew before I looked them up. My sources include books, television, conversations with friends, webcomics, overheard conversations, and the titles of weird pornographies.

Autochthonous – pronounced “aw-tok-thon-us”

The word “autochthonous” means “from the soil,” and it’s got deep Greek roots. In Greek mythology, an Autochthon was a person who was born directly from the soil, rather than from a mother and father. For example, the Spartans were supposed to have been born out of a field sewn with dragon’s teeth. Which would explain to everyone alive why they were such badasses, and also why they had the right, as it were, to hold on to their land and conquer that of others.

Even then, though, it had some real-life meanings, and now basically means indigenous or native.
n. 1. Indigenous, native. The process of gentrification, though positive in a lot of ways, is a process of the continual relocation of poor, autochthonous citizens to other, equally crappy neighborhoods.
2. (Geology) Buried in place, especially of a fossil found in its life position. The coolest fossils are the autochthonous ones where the dinosaurs are found in medias res, fighting, or eating, or spooning.

I find this word exciting, in part, on account of its regal bearing: “Autochthon.” It’s hard to pronounce – to put that /k/ sound right before the /th/. You have to pause before you even complete the word. You almost have to straighten your back and face forward. It adds regality to the position of having been somewhere first. Virgil would have loved it – in fact, he probably did.

What’s more, autochthany, its validity as a legal or rightful stance, and the implications of violating it are a hot topic in our decrescent world, whether you’re debating the fates of Syrian or Congolese refugees, or bans against gypsies, or the destruction of autochthonous habitats and species by the “artificial” introductions of alien species, something which seems to happen too often.

Purlieu – pronounced “pur-loo,” “purl-yoo”
        n. 1. The area near or surrounding a place – this one basically means vicinity or neighborhood. I live in the purlieu of the Sardine Bar; therefore, I know the bartenders there; therefore, when I don’t want to look like an alcoholic, I drink there, because I know the bartenders there and can pretend I am visiting them.
             2. A person’s usual haunts. We were so taken with Benedict Cumberbatch’s curly hair and sullen, malicious intellectualism that we moved to London, dogged his steps, learned his purlieus, and began to frequent them.
  3. A place where one may range at large; confines or bounds. A thousand years of progress have increased the average person’s purlieu; where once the majority of people might never leave their hometown, and ten miles’ travel was a day’s work, today, half the circumference of the globe is a trivial matter of a fraction of a day. This is accompanied by an equally great decrease in the purlieu of many other animals, like deer, wolves, giraffes and polar bears.

Matthew Crawley sitting in his purrr-lieu.
Purlieu, being French, puts me in mind of the British.

Purlieu is great for a few reasons. I like the purring noise it makes – purr-lyoo. And anything in French just sounds luscious and drowsy, like it should be said with half-lidded eyes and a limply outstretched arm, from a position of be-pillowed repose.

So you might say that The proposed sale of PA Wine and Spirits shops to private owners, under the burden of a number of restrictions and of course the liquor tax, will make these new businesses purlieus to thestate. (I’m not voicing a negative opinion here. I like privatization – Convenience and Choice in 2013!)

Meretricious. Meretricious means, literally, “apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.” So cubic zirconium is meretricious diamond, the The Phantom of The Opera sequel Love Never Dies is a meretricious play, the toilet upstairs is a meretricious toilet (the plumbers came and turned off the water; they’ve since left and have not yet returned, and I have to take a pee, and cannot) and Tom Cruise is just meretricious.

R Mutt 1917
Another useless toilet.

Because meretricious has also taken on another meaning, one which is borrowed by association: “of, or relating to, a prostitute.” Therefore, Tom Cruise is meretricious because he sells his belief to a religion that’s considered a “dangerous cult” in more than one reputable country and because he’ll be in pretty much any movie that comes along and pays. By this definition, short skirts are also meretricious, and canker sores, and the play Pretty Woman: because it’s about a prostitute.

See how words, over time, can creep and crawl across meanings? Prostitutes are so commonly considered meretricious that the meaning of “meretricious” becomes “prostitutular.”

Which of course reminds me of the terrible rap that prostitutes get, kind of all of the time. They are “apparently attractive” but likely with no value, and no integrity. Having no values, these women are usually called to prostitution because of the job security and the benefits, and how much fun the work is.

That said, sex with a prostitute must be very much meretricious: looking good on that late, drunken night that you’re stumbling back to the hotel in the airport district; but in most honest retrospect, all fizzle with little sizzle.

If women had gotten to write the dictionaries and the newspapers of the last half a millennia, while still in their oppressed state, “meretricious” would more likely now mean something like: “Of, or relating to, politicians.” Or, “Of guys with popped collars.” I propose new meanings, in relation to the current climate: “Of, or relating to, my college degree,” or “regarding the Presidential debates.”

Update on my own situation: the plumbers were gone for quite a while. Eventually, experiencing pain but not being able to leave (the plumbers could not get back in if I did) or use the toilet, I took the age-old route of empty beer bottles. It looks like, with little effort, I can pee more than 24 ounces!

Words Control your Brain —

Words Control your Brain

A letter represents a sound; a group of letters make a word; it only takes one word to make a thought.
Gombrowicz’s text printed beside my handwritten notes. I’ve always wanted to be published side-by-side with a famous author.

There is nothing I love more than words.

Reading and writing are the base passions for me. So much so that up until recently I could be a bit obnoxious about them.

In the past, when conversations got onto the topic of books I tended to veer in weird directions. I always want to talk about the odd books and authors who have their fingers in heart – Mac Wellman and Witold Gombrowicz and Jerzy Kosinski all the way down to Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf and JRR Tolkien and Gogol. I would blather on, quote, proselytize. And if the conversation somehow staggered down to authors I look down upon, I actively looked down on them.

Eventually I learned to control this behavior because it was never productive. People do not respond well to rabid speech-making and the quoting of authors with names they can’t even pronounce, no matter how well-intentioned. More importantly, people don’t want to be told that their favorite reading material is garbage and not a whole lot better than watching TV.

It took me a long time to learn to say that Stephen King is a master at creating character.

He really is.

I’ll never say that The Da Vinci Code is a good book, but I’ve learned to say nothing, and just unfriend that person from Facebook and ignore their texts.

I also watch a lot of TV now.

So, to some degree, I’ve undergone the process of normalization, the tender spiritual spraining which social and professional lives inflict upon us.

Speaking of television, briefly, this same process is again and again reinforced by (arguably) all TV sitcoms, in which again and again, a character begins to build their life up and away from the comedic rut, only to be pulled back down by their long-standing friends and co-stars. They usually, then, give a speech about how friends are worth more than any talent, job, love, happiness, relocation etc.

I still love words more than anything.

A colleague of mine introduced me to a theory, recently, which states the following:

Never pass a word you don’t know without looking it up.

The reasoning for this is as follows:

When a you do not completely understand a word, concept, or idea, you will immediately begin to lose interest in what you are doing. You will lose the ability to follow a conversation or book. You will begin to yawn. Your energy and comprehension will drop drastically.

We were taught in school to learn words by context. For true understanding, “context learning” is in essence lying to yourself – you cannot learn a word by “context” any more than you can guess at a person’s soul based on what clothes they are wearing. You might get a near approximation, but more often your conclusions will be weird, incorrect, and woefully incomplete.

I have had this demonstrated to me a hundred times over the last few weeks because I have begun to look up every word I encounter which I cannot define confidently. Again and again, I trip over my own self-inflicted bungles: I find that I thought “salubrious” meant kind or smooth; that “tautology” was just a bad argument, and that a “solipsism” was the same thing; that “homunculus” was just a deformed monster; that “veldt” was a veil between life and death; “gelid” meant gooey and “stertorous” meant stentorian, “perspicacity” was precociousness and “facile” and flaccid were synonymous.

The Veldt by DeadMau5.
Some kids took a trip to the veldt. If they’d learned the definition of the word by context, this picture could have been tragic.

Learning by context is an erroneous and dangerous tool invented by lazy, or well-meaning but beleaguered teachers, to make their jobs easier. Just like giving the student the answer and then asking them, while nodding, if it is the correct answer.

So not only did I realize, over time, how easily I lied myself into learning the wrong things by context (and got really good, really fast, at knowing when I was lying to myself) – but I have learned a shit-ton of new words, and a little about the ideas which go along with them.

Because to learn a word like “tautology” you must learn something about rhetoric. To know what “proprioception” means you have to learn a bit about kinesthetics and neuroscience. You can’t know “topological prominence” without knowing a bit about topography.

I hope to use this as a space to share those words with the internet. A list of interesting words, and the thoughts which go along with them.



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Notes on Words

for Writers, Readers, Logophiles and Logorrhetics