Bill Long 5/9/06
Words that you Won't See in the Spelling Bee
Sometimes when you are working on a big task you become slap-happy and begin to come up with information that is rather useless for the task at hand but still is fun to know. So, when I was poring over lists of words and reading the Collegiate dictionary for this year's National Senior Spelling Bee (June 17 in Cheyenne), I seemed to run across a whole passel of words which certainly won't make it to the Bee. I share some of those thoughts with you here. If you are a person, however, who just puts his/her nose to the grindstone and doesn't want to have a little fun, I urge you to paddle on to the next essays, where I will return to my "serious" form.
I suppose I received encouragement in this task because one of the things I remember most about Johnny Carson's old monologues were his jokes about things you won't hear anyplace. For example, he said, "You will never hear the following line. 'It's the banjo player's porsche.'" Or, another line that you will never hear is, "Honey, it's the Jehovah's Witnesses at the door. Make up the spare bedroom!" So, these are words you will never hear at a spelling bee, even though they are perfectly good dictionary words.
Words from The "P's" You Will Never Hear
1. Here is the first word: pimpmobile. It is listed as a three-syllable word, with divisions between the p and m and between the o and b. It can be pronounced either PIMP mo bile or PIMP ma bile, if you were interested in that tidbit of information. The first English attestation of the term was in 1971, though the OED only has the first usage in a Washington Post article from 1973, about the time that Watergate was heating up. Oh, I never defined the term: "An ostentatious luxury car of a kind characteristically used by a pimp." The Post has this: "Features of the luxury pimpmobile--glittering striping, dual spares, elaborate scrollwork and amber sunroofs--are showing up, somewhat toned-down, in stylized autombiles, according to car customizers." Hm. One of the realities of American cultural life is that many fashion statements and bodily movements originate from our African-American community. For example, white guys who stand around the office giving each other "high fives" in 2006 are imitating African American athletes from the 1970s and 1980s. I just hope the White guys don't start jumping in the air and bumping butts in the near future to close a deal.
2. Then, I am sure they won't quiz us on penetralia, even though it is a perfectly good English word. The Collegiate simply defines the word as "the innermost or most private parts," leaving the open-mouthed reader (if there are such unfortunate creatures as readers of dictionaries) imagining some sexual thoughts that probably are pretty amorphous but may be downright gross. But, in fact, if the Collegiate had used the OED's definition, it could have "saved" the word for the competition, for the OED defines penetralia as "the innermost parts or recesses of a building (my emphasis); spec. the sanctuary or inner sanctum of a temple." Thus, we see really how dirty our minds are, don't we? When we first heard the term and then saw the Collegiate dictionary, we immediately imagined that the word suggested something relating to gooey stuff resulting from sexual intercourse, but it doesn't mean that at all. It relates to the most sacred places of temples, for heaven's sake. As a matter of fact, the first attestation of the word in English comes from 1688 and is in a theological book (John Howe's The Blessedness of the Righteous): "From the penetralia...the secret chambers of the soul." Then, the word could be used by physicians ("Penetralia of the Lungs") or archaeologists ("But the sancta sanctorum, the penetralia of the city, is a small region surrounding the cathedral.."). Thus, because of our prudishness, and our inclination to read the Collegiate's definition as importing a raciness where no raciness exists, we have lost a good word for the Bee.
3. Let me list seven more words and then comment only on one or two. Also absent from our Bee will be penile, penis, penis envy, pizzle, pecker, pissant and pissoir. French terms usually trip up at least one contestant in such a Bee; hence it is too bad that we have to give up pissoir. Well, what is it? It first came into English in 1919 and is defined as "a public urinal usu. located on the street in some European countries." Is that why they call it EuroPEEan? You see that I am a little slap-happy today... Oh, to whom do we owe the honor of introducing the term into English? To none other than HL Mencken, who also, by the way, gave us the term ecdysiast in 1940 to describe a stripper. I am afraid that ecdysiast also won't make it into the Bee, though the Wyoming folks probably have less against strippers than pissers.
4. I know that they can't use penis envy, not because Freud is a persona non grata or the doctrine is not politically correct, but because it is a double word. The rules say that any double or triple words will not be used in the contest. Hm. One of the words I misspelled in 2004 was "Mobius," which is only listed in the dictionary as "Mobius strip." I guess they were still getting their act together in 2004. Oh, you may be asking why I missed Mobius strip? Because I knew too much. I knew the German had an umlaut in it, and I knew it was pronounced with the umlaut sound in English; hence I added an "e" after the "o" and promptly got it wrong.
Well, that's enough for now, but it has stimulated me to think of some other words that might turn the stomachs of the Cheyenne folk in June. The next essay explores some of those words.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long