Twenty Weird Words I
Bill Long 3/21/08
Ever since a list of 20 "weird words" was posted on this web site last September, the list has been picked up by many others and circulated widely. But, even though the first list defined the 20 "weird" terms briefly, no explanation of the history of the words, their use or likely utility in speech/writing today was given. I hope to redress that lack in these three essays. I am indebted to whomever first posted the list; let's see if we can burnish the words a bit brighter and emblazon a few on the heart.
Here are the 20 words. They all appear in the OED, even though one of them is mispelled on the web site. In order, they are: (1) erinaceous; (2) lamprophony; (3) depone; (4) finnimbrun; (5) floccinaucinihilipilification; (6) inaniloquent; (7) limerance (misspelled; should be limerence); (8) mesonoxian; (9) mungo; (10) nihilarian; (11) nudiustertian; (12) phenakism; (13) pronk; (14) pulveratricious; (15) rastaquouere; (16) scopperloit; (17) selcouth; (18) tyrotoxism; (19) widdiful; and (20) zabernism.
Let's begin wherever we want. Tyrotoxism is easy to spell and understand, even if the phenomenon is something that makes you stop what you are doing for a second. The Greek word turos means "cheese" and toxicon means "poison," so now you have your definition. The word tyrotoxism first appeared about 1900, while tyrotoxicon, as a "poisonous ptomaine (diazobenzene hydroxide) produced by a microbe in stale cheese and milk" was first used in Scientific American in 1886. It was isolated from samples of cheese by Dr. Victor C. Vaughn of the Univ. of Michigan.
Well, whenever I see something that links a word to a person, I simply have to try to learn about that person and his life or at least his work leading to the linguistic breakthrough. After all, his life and work was probably important to him; why shouldn't we try to learn more? Sure enough, without digging too deeply, I found an article entitled "Tyrotoxicon: Its Presence in Poisonous Cheese, Ice Cream (Oh no!!--my comment) and Milk," by Victor C. Vaughn in the journal Chemical News and Journal of Industrial Science from July 29, 1887, 45ff. Though I don't want to expatiate extensively on the origin of tyrotoxicon, I love the way that Prof. Vaughn sets up his article. He begins with a historical note about the "learned poet and chemist Justinus Kerner." That poet/chemist (why don't we have any of those today?) first observed in 1817 that certain foods became poisonous by fermentation or, more properly, putrefaction. Kerner was specifically interested in poisonous sausage--something that Germans really couldn't live with. Kerner concluded that the poisonous principle consisted of a fatty acid analogous to the sebacic acid described by Thenard (i.e., Louis Jacques Thenard, 1777-1857, a French chemist whose work on sebacic acid in 1802 and bile in 1807 revolutionized our understanding of both). Stimulated by the reality that sausage and cheese often go together, other researchers began to investigate the chemical nature of cheese poison. I will avoid a full discussion of this, a fact that will, no doubt, make you very grateful. After reviewing the scholarship, however, Vaughn quotes another German to this effect:
"The older investigations of the chemical nature of cheese poison, which led to the belief of 'putrefactive cheese acids,' and other problematic substances, are void of all trustworthiness...."
Thus spaketh the good professor. So, what happened to lead him to coin the new word? Well, something very practical. "In the years 1883 and 1884 there were reported to the Michigan State Board of Health about 300 cases of cheese poisoning." He didn't take into consideration the fact that it might have been introduced by Wisconsin fans before the big game in Ann Arbor. Rather, he turned his scientific eye to the symptoms. One physican reported:
"Every one who ate of the cheese was taken with vomiting; at first of a thin, watery, later a more consistent reddish-colored substance. At the same time the patients suffered from diarrhoea with watery stools" (did you ever think that my investigation of one of these words would lead to watery stools??)...
Well, after you describe the symptoms, you have to look at the cheese, even if, like in the Farmer in the Dell, the cheese isn't standing alone. There were several kinds of cheese isolated as culprits. The good professor attempted to feed it to dogs and cats, but they would only eat the bad cheese under duress. Who says that humans are the smartest creatures on earth? Well, Prof. Vaughn then contanced his "friend, Dr. Sternberg, the eminent bacteriologist," and they subjected this poisonous cheese to the microscope, where they isolated some microbes that seemed to be the culprits. Then, he says it baldly:
"I have called this poison tyrotoxicon (cheese poison). It gives, with potassium ferricyanide and ferric chloride, Prussian blue...."
He then goes into the chemistry of the poison, which doesn't really concern me. Suffice it to show how the word tyrotoxicon received its birth. Once we have learned the story of tyrotoxicon, the word tyrotoxism is much less interesting. It simply means cheese-poisoning and was coined about 15 years after Vaughn's work. Phew, now we have one word from the list!
Concluding with Zabernism
Zabernism also has everything do to with life about a century ago. A quotation from an etymological dictionary in 1921 explains its origin (I took the quotation from the OED): "(hist.) military jackbootery. From an incident at Saverne (Ger. Zabern) in Alsace (1912), when an excited German subaltern cut down a lame cobbler who smiled at him." A subaltern officer, by the way, is "an officer in the army of junior rank; i.e., below that of captain."
Though this reprehensible incident bequeathed a word into English, a word that is hardly ever used these days, I found this account of the "Zabern affair," which was reported to the Reichstag on December 3, 1913. It has nothing to do with the Zabernism of our word, but is nevertheless interesting, even humorous. During a traning hour, Lieutenant von Forstner was instructing a recruit on how he should handle himself if attacked. Tensions in the Alsace region had been running high for a long time, so this kind of training was appropriate. So, the commanding officer set up a scenario for the recruit. He said that someone was going to attack the recruit; he called such an attacker a "screwball" (Wackes in German). In fact, in giving the instruction, the officer three times referred to Alsatians as "screwballs." The Alsatians, of course, were incensed, and demanded that the Germans quit referring to them as "screwballs." So, what is the result, in this august and majestic report to the Reichstag?
"The word 'screwball' is now forbidden in military areas...I can now say that the word will not be used again by our troops to describe the Alsatians..."
Though the tensions between people were understandably high, I think everyone is a bit wacky (first used in English in 1935) or wacko (coined in English in 1977) for being upset at the use of Wackes.
I am not making much progress, am I? But I am sure having fun doing it.... Let's get to the other 18 words.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long