Bill Long 1/20/07
Psellism (Stuttering) and Near Neighbors
While on my "break" from reviewing many words in the 2005 Bee, I decided to journey further down the road of interesting but little-known words. I was in the "p's" (pogonotrophy) and didn't have far to go to run into psellism, the word which shall get us started today. I think I wanted to pause on psellism because I love English words beginning with "ps," which are derived from the PSI in Greek. It was one of my favorite letters to write when I took Greek, because it allowed me to draw a cup and then slash right throught the middle of it.
Actually, the Unabridged doesn't have any word derived from psellism, being satisfied to explore rather at length the derivatives from the Greek verb pselaphan--"to grope about". The OED only has one "groping" word, however, pselaphognath, which is a millipede of the Pselaphognatha, appropriatedly enough, and this subclass has bristles. I also found a reference to pselaphidae, which is a family of small beetles relating to the rove beetle. A rove beetle may be defined as one which knows how to spin political news very effectively. I think that these beetles were known as pselaphidae because they look like they are always groping about. If only we knew our Greek and Latin well, and learned the motivation of the first namers of species in the West, I believe the whole animal and plant kingdom would open right before our very eyes.
Well, while we are waiting for that to happen, let's return to psellism, stammering or lisping. [Oh, two wonderful synonyms for psellism, which I don't have time to develop here, are balbutience and Hottentotism. The latter probably merits its own essay. Note from 12/07--indeed, I wrote three of them beginning the day after I completed this essay!] I devoted about a dozen essays last year to several terms for facial or bodily movements; words such as jactitate, nictitate, sternutate, osculate, oscitate, eructate and a few more. I left out psellism for some reason, but now you have it. It is derived from the identical Greek word, which means the same thing in English (like battology--needless or tireless repetition in speech). It goes back to 1799 in English, and we even have the designation "Professors of Psellismology" in 1856, though I don't know if one should take that latter as a joke or seriously. Psellism is almost all the way there to psephology, which has to do with studying election returns (a psephos, in Greek, is a pebble which was used to cast a vote). Psephomancy is divination by means of little stones.
Retreating a Little in the Dictionary
While on psellism, I decided to go backwards in the OED and see what befell me. I ran into pschent, a word appearing in the Unabridged, too. It is a great word, derived ultimately from Egyptian Demotic through Greek and spelled with a PSI and then a CHI, which doesn't really happen in Greek. Hence the spelling in English, and pronunciation as "pskent" or "skent." The word came to light through line 9 of the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1798. Well, more precisely, since that Stone is trilingual, line 9 of the hieroglyphs was rendered in line 26 of the Demotic as p-skhent, which is transliterated in line 44 of the Greek as pschent. Now you have it. But, what is it? Well, it is the "double crown" of ancient Egypt, combining the white crown of Upper and the red of Lower Egypt. Tons of really cool pictures are in Google Images. Since it is so clear that this is a symbol of joined lands, with none of the symbol of the predecessor kingdoms being lost, it might be worthwhile to use this as a figurative word. "Melding the pschent of the New Orleans Jazz culture and the striking Utah mountains, the owner of the Utah Jazz proposed new and controversial uniforms" (not in fact the case..)
Skipping a word or two and we arrive at another Greek prefix psammo-, meaning "sand." We could start with psammon, which has nothing to do with the NW fish, but has everything to do with a community of minute plants and animals that live in the water filling the interstices of sand adjacent to a body of fresh water. Therefore, something psammobiotic lives or thrives in such a community. A synonym is psammophile, even though the "phile"-ending suggests something that "loves" the sand. Maybe some three year-olds could be so designated. Something psammic inhabits the sandy areas--without our knowing in fact whether it flourishes there. Psammite is a "fine or smooth-grained sandstone. I didn't know there were so many kinds of sandstone, but apparently when it was coined in the mid-19th century it has do do with "fine-grained, fissile, clayey sandstones" rather than sandstones which are more "siliceous and gritty." Rather than getting down to the "nitty gritty," I guess this brand of sandstone descended to the "siliceous and gritty." We are almost through psamm, but should mention psammoma, which combines words for sand and cancer, and refers to "a tumor (usually in the brain) containing calcarous particles like grains of sand." While on the medical front we should also not avoid psammurgical, which literally means "pertaining to the working of sand," and is a term found in medieval alchemy. Again, psammismus, appearing in the Century, is a term in pathology for "the passage of gravel" in the urine, even though the term literally means "burying in the sand." I don't think the term is used anymore today.
Time Would Fail to Tell
Let's rush on to finish this by giving a few more "p's" for our pleasure. Only Dorlands Medical Dictionary has psauoscopy--derived from the Greek "psauein"--to touch, and it is a "method of physical examination done by passing the ball of the index finger back and forth lightly over the margin of an abnormal area." It is hard to understand why this concept needs a specialized, and very obscure word. Then there are a few words derived from the Greek word for "poor"--ptochos. Ptochocracy is a "rule by beggars" or, "a governing body consisting of the poor." Is that an interesting comment on our culture--that we combine in the definition words for poor and beggar? Ptochogeny is the "begetting of beggars," and ptochology is the scientific study of unemployment. Well, if the people following election returns can be called psephologists, there seems no reason why we can't call those who study unemployment a ptochologist. We could, if we really tried, almost invent a new language...
I think after this brief interlude that I should return to the Bee. Words are waiting.