Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lexically Discombobulated

I heard a word today that I haven’t heard in a long time: Catawampus. Or is it catty-wampus? It was used in a documentary to describe the motion of side-wheel steamboats on the ocean—how they’d waddle and lurch sideways like a drunken sailor. It’s got a certain Twain-esque quality, witty and playful, and it made me grin.

Then I started to think about how many funny words there are in English—words like akimbo and lollygag, fillibuster and rigamarole, boondoggle and nincompoop. Some words are comical because of their rhyming sounds. Mamby-pamby and fuddy-duddy come to mind. Others tickle one’s fancy because of their onomatopoetic quality, like kerplunk or cock-a-doodle-doo.

Word combinations can be funny too. William Safire, who died this week, came up with a doozey when he coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” He was a presidential speechwriter for Richard Nixon, who should have gone to the hoosegow. Safire also wrote for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had a funny name. Speaking of funny names, when I lived in Santa Barbara I used to rent movies from Video Schmideo.

Language is a cockamamie thing that can occasionally make even a cantankerous curmudgeon like me smile.

(If you liked this post, I’d recommend you peruse Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr.)

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