I feel pretty badly that I haven’t done a light-hearted obscure words post in a while, so here’s one today. It’s got some naughty words in it, so hurrah!
Sommelier, n.: a wine waiter. As in, I wouldn’t eat there, the sommeliers have a savage look to them. Pronounced “SOHM-mel-YAY.”
QI, or Quite Interesting, is a quiz show with a great theme: the questions are so archaic that nobody is really expected to be able to answer them. Panelists, almost always clever, charismatic British celebs, get points for giving interesting answers rather than correct ones, and the show has a tendency to descend into chaotic hilarity. Another highlight is Stephen Fry’s outrageous wardrobe. Watching it, I never fail to gain some ridiculous soupçon of knowledge to fillip at friends.
Trivia’s trivial, it’s true. It’s not likely that anything you learn from a quiz show will save your life or make you better at your job. But tidbits like “Did you know, the giant tortoise didn’t have a Latin name until three centuries after its discovery because they’re too goddamn delicious to make it the whole boat ride to London, where such taxonomical honorifics are bestowed?” and “Did I tell you that I’m actually a direct descendant of Charlemagne?” make great party stories and give the illusion that you’re smart and interesting.
Additionally, I cling to the concept that there’s something to gain from teasing an extra wrinkle or two (knowledge does not actually wrinkle the brain) into my brain on a daily basis; tossing another puzzle piece of awareness into the infinite void of ignorance that is my exiguous understanding of the universe and the infernal brutes (humans) currently running the tiny corner of it which I inhabit.
Speaking of infernal brutes, I also learn great new words on QI from time to time, and here’s one: a plethysmograph is an instrument used to measure changes in an organ. There are a number of different types of p-graphs for different types of organs; a blood-pressure cuff is an obvious one. But the funnest plethys are inarguably the penile and vaginal plethysmographs, also known as “fruit machines.”
The penile is basically a cock ring, and it measures blood-flow to the wing-wang; the vaginal is like a tiny little dildo, measuring the same thing in its coordinate organ. They’re gained the “fruit machine” when they were first used to ferret out a person’s sexual preference. The Canadian Mounties ran all of their members (get it) through the fruit machine in the 50’s. What they’d do is hook a guy up, show him a bunch of gay porn, and then if the sparks flew and the numbers went up, the Mounty would ship out.
Oh so many Issues with this. One: I thought all Mounties were gay. (If you don’t want gay members, you shouldn’t dress like fabulous cowboys.) 2) If I was under the test, the very fact that I knew I wasn’t supposed to get aroused would trigger that precise reaction in me. Similarly, I know that I would fail a lie detector test. If someone suspects me of doing something wrong, I immediately act guilty. It’s a disastrous evolutionary adaptation, but I’ve hated getting into trouble since I was a child, and it has never stopped making me feel nervous. 3) Imagine this: the person who just clamped a ring around your cock and showed you a bunch of ratty porn mags turns to you and saying, “No, I’m sorry, you’re just not police material.”
Fruit machines have also been used to test those who claimed to be gay to avoid military service.
A plethysmograph can be a useful medical tool, but keep it off my tool.
Another fun social test is called a shibboleth. The first definition of shibboleth is: a word, a pronunciation of a word, or a custom that marks someone as being part of a specific group. Actually, that was the second definition; the first definition was “stalk of a grain” from the Hebrew. See, back in Biblical times (approximately Judges BC) a group of socially progressive Jews in Jordan used this word to tell if someone was an Ephraimite (people they didn’t like) because Ephraim’s tribe couldn’t make the “sh” sound at the start. If someone lisped the word incorrectly, they would be killed. The method was efficient: the good book has a braggartly account of 42,000 Ephraimites killed in this way. Cuz that’s what the Old Testament is like.
You could say that getting excited while looking at gay porn is a shibboleth which marks homosexuals as a group. You could also say that using gay porn to test if someone’s employee material is a douche-bag shibboleth. Similarly, saying “crick” instead of creek, midnight Wawa runs, and liking Dunkin Donuts more than Krispy Kreme are shibboleths which mark me indelibly as a Philadelphiite.
Apparently, deliberate misspellings and alliterations are shibboleths of the donut industry; I’d never noticed that before.
The various meanings of the word broaden out from here, all with their root in that bloody Biblical usage and having nothing to do with the original agricultural Hebrew meaning of “where the grains we make food from come from.”
A shibboleth can also be (third definition) anything that distinguishes somebody as an outsider (rather than as coming from a particular group). Like walking around a major city with a map, or looking strangers in the eyes anywhere on the American East Coast.
A shibboleth can be (fourth def) a catchphrase – like “Pop, pop!” “Did I do that?” and “Pizza time!” – for an individual, or for a group. So, “small government” is a Republican shibboleth; “equal rights” is a Democratic one. “Change” was Obama’s shibboleth when he was running in 2008. It was incredibly effective, in part because it was broad, powerful, and vague.
That brings us, elegantly, to the fifth meaning. Because these catchphrases are oftentimes used by politicians and political groups to garner support while distracting voters from their actual intentions, shibboleth has taken on another, kind of inevitable definition: a commonplace saying with little actual meaning. “Freedom,” for example has been bandied about by so many parties for so many purposes that now no one even asks what kind of freedom you’re talking about anymore. But it’s such a powerful American value that it immediately garners support for a cause and makes a person think twice about opposing it.
Other popular shibboleths: “I’ll call you,” “award-winning,” “we’ll talk about that raise later;” arguably, filler words like “awesome” and “cool,” so wide-ranging in meaning as to mean almost nothing, are shibboleths as well.
So there you are. That’s the five meanings of shibboleth for you. Those Biblical stalks gave off their little seeds, which were then tossed all the fuck over the place by the crazy-ass winds of time. Ah, the beauty of language.
Fustian, n.: 1. High-flown and affected speech. He described his point with so much fustian that none of us had any idea what he was saying. The speech was nothing but fustian; all we learned is that she’s great at saying nothing at all. It can be an adjective too: I want to learn all the words on Notes on Words so that I can be brutally fustian in my speech.
2. Anything high-flown or affected in style. Girl, why you be walkin around with so much fustian, strap on some heels and let’s go to the bar.
3. Strong cotton or linen fabric. “What’s that shirt made out of?” “Fustian.” “I don’t know what that is.” “Strong cotton or linen fabric.”