Thursday, December 30, 2010




1 : a person to be revered for high-mindedness, wisdom, and selflessness
2 : a person of great prestige in a field of endeavor



: merge, blend

MAHATMA does not have its own place in the thesaurus; it appears first under the entry for celebrity, along with synonyms like big cheese, hot shot, and superstar. I would have equated the word more with messiah—number four out of five meanings is: a zealous leader of some cause or project. This leads me to believe MAHATMA is slowly losing it's first meaning and moving closer to the vagueness that infects much of modern language.

This is a topic I've inadvertently touched on several times in the writing of this blog. Within my brief peeks into etymology, I've noticed a trend of meanings becoming more vague, softened, general. The word qualm comes to mind—a word that once meant a violent attack of illness because of a bad feeling, an instinct, hormonal perhaps. The word now just means a doubt. Maybe we are less in touch with the physical cues of our instincts. Maybe we shut them out. I read the softening of the word as a parallel softening of us, or rather, of a more primal intuition.

It's a modern stereotype that westerners don't believe in any of that mumbo-jumbo, so to speak, and the English language reflects that disbelief. Hold it together, keep out of nonsense, it's nothing, it's nothing, napkin in lap, hands at sides, smile now, don't give away your doubt.

And meanings MELD together and drift away from their distinction, no longer unique, but homogenous. The words lose their identities. They are our slaves. We take a word and say it over and over to rob it of its meaning, it becomes a lost sound. We are confused by the new foreignness of such familiar word, but in awe of our role in the matter. Look what I have done! Like pouring salt on a slug and reveling in both our power and our shame.

Somewhere someone has the power to delete words from existence, take them off the map leaving only a palimpsest; the lost meanings appear as shadows in the meanings of new, shiny, compact words. The erased words are now only meaningless sounds. Gibberish.

And gibberish is a word. A word to describe the obscurity of words.


I started this blog a year ago to "challenge myself to find relevance in every single one of those words." What I have found is that relevance is subjective. There is no relevance to find in any word, it is ours to give. Such is the nature of language. Meaning comes from the beholder.

I admit I also hoped this blog would expand my vocabulary. But as I look back at the words I have studied, I remember only a handful of definitions. What I remember is what I wrote, how I processed, what the word inspired within me. This is the difference between definition and meaning. I have given each one of these words a new meaning—a meaning somehow attached to me and how I see the world. The words don't really matter, they are only tools. It's about learning how to better wield them to our advantage.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010




1 a : full of plums
b : choice, desirable
2 a : having a plum color
b : rich and mellow often to the point of affectation

One day, a couple jobs ago, a co-worker and I stood around bored, deciding what food represented each of our fellow employees. He decided I should be a plum. I am getting that uncomfortable feeling that I've written this story in another blog, but I don't have the patience to look, and I don't much care anyway. It simply eases my mind that the reader know I am well aware of the potential that I'm repeating myself.

Anyway, I was pleased with this designation. I don't know what it was about a plum that stuck me so right. I guess I was happy a plum is not a widely appreciated fruit, it doesn't often make it into juices or sorbets or desserts, even among the other stone fruits it gets little play. Something about a plum suggests—

I remember now. It was something I wrote about a Japanese plum. Don't remember the word. Still don't feel like looking.

—the mysteries inherent in under-appreciation. I'm not often in the mood for a plum nor do I regularly eat them, but when I do I'm pleasantly surprised. I guess maybe I communicate something similar in my personality. I'm not popular or well-liked, but there's something there. Like a plum I somehow fall under the radar, and I like it like that.

All of this, of course, somewhat refutes the above definition of PLUMMY as choice and desirable. Neither would I describe myself as "full of plums" or "plum colored."* My voice may sometimes come out as rich or mellow, but not quite affected. So, while I may equate myself with the ideology of the plum, I wouldn't call myself PLUMMY.

But enough about me.

The plum's dried version, the prune, does not have an accompanying adjective. I thought PRUNY might be a word (as in: fingers out of a bathtub) but it is not so. Alas.

*Although, this reminds me that I once told my mother that purple was my favorite color (20 some odd years ago) and she refuses to believe otherwise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010




: to move with a clumsy heavy tread

Scholars believe GALUMPH is a hybrid of "gallop" and "triumphant" as pertaining to its first use in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. Carroll uses GALUMPH in the passage during which the "Beamish Boy" slays the "Jabberwock":

One, Two! One, two. And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went GALUMPHING back.

Carroll was known for devising his own poetic vernacular, including other words such as:

brillig: the time of boiling dinner; the close of the afternoon
slithy: slime + lithe = smooth and active
mimsy: miserable and miserable, thus unhappy
borogove: an extinct wingless parrot that builds nests under sundials and lives off veal

He was especially fond of the portmanteau, or blend of two pre-existing words and meanings.

For a fairly comprehensive list of portmanteaus, see here. This spectrum stretches from because to beefalo, although the list-makers miss the boat on words like bacne and spork, which somehow didn't make it. Wikipedia has a decent list, too.

The best one I have come up with (not as to say someone hasn't thought of it already somewhere else) is boredinary (boring + ordinary).

Monday, December 27, 2010




1 : tightrope walking
2 : a show especially of mental agility

On a Wednesday morning in August of 1974 a French man got arrested in New York for his acts of FUNAMBULISM, which he executed 1,368 feet above Manhattan on a 450 pound cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The man—Philippe Petit—and his posse had been staking out the towers for months; the night before his act they snuck their equipment up to the roof of one of the towers and shot the cables across the "void" using a bow and arrow. The next morning he crossed the rope eight times, and finally was greeted by the NYPD at the end of his rope on the South Tower. All charges were eventually dropped in exchange for Petit putting on a FUNAMBULIST show for NYC's children.

When asked how he felt seeing the Twin Towers collapse, Petit responded: "I felt eviscerated."

Good use of vocabulary, Petit.

Sunday, December 26, 2010




1 : to confuse or disconcert
2 : to involve in financial difficulties
3 : to cause to experience self-conscious distress
4 : to hinder or impede

I find EMBARRASSMENT difficult to access in my old(er) age. It's an emotion tacked onto the revealing of things hidden. The only things I keep hidden are those still hidden to myself—I'm not sure who would be able to see me in my actual nakedness when I have yet to really see it. I expose myself so much in my writing that I've lost much shame. In many ways this is a good thing. The writing leaves me feeling as though I have nothing to lose and that I have controlled every act of unrobing.

But I know there is more. There are paths I will not walk down; I stand at their inchoate beginnings, looking into the tunnels of darkness, plagued with an excitement only trumped by a fear whose parameters I cannot explain. In order to traverse this darkness I would have to lose myself and erase my own footprints, never again to be found. I don't know if this is the ultimate freedom or the ultimate trap or if those two endings are actually the same.

I just know I have been hovering at the precipice.

Saturday, December 25, 2010




: small bunch of flowers

The descendent of Tussie-Mussie.

Friday, December 24, 2010




: incapable of being conquered, overcome, or subdued

Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman.




: the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need


Wednesday, December 22, 2010




1 : supernatural, mysterious
2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : holy
3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : spiritual

Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010




: a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art

In Greek, EKPHRASIS translates to explaining or pointing out. Perhaps, more specifically, it means the act of philosophically working something out in one's head.

Let's try some EKPHRASIS here. I bought a piece of art yesterday, likely my first real art purchase (as in: not from a friend). I had gone into a local coffee shop last week and saw some art that I really liked—prints of street scenes, muted colors, vivid spots of brightness, the blurriness of watercolors. I was pleasantly surprised to find the small prints were not grossly overpriced ($40). I went back a few days later and awkwardly admitted to the barista that I wanted to purchase one of the 9x12 images. I ordered a drink first and perused the prints for a moment so the transaction would seem more casual, as though I just wandered in off the street and decided to invest.

The print is titled Sapphire City. It's an image of a street view during a Portland dusk—rainy, blue, blurry reflections of taillights on the glistening pavement. Somewhat impressionistic. The word PORTLAND appears in the background, probably a sign on any number of buildings in the city. This city is proud of itself. The image reflects such a pride. Even I have that pride, part of the reason I enjoy this image. Of course, the colors are lovely, the composition is inviting, but the concept preys on my sense of regional vanity. The artist is saying, I love my place, I think its beautiful enough to emulate. The coffee shop then says, look at these beautiful representations of the beautiful city in which our business thrives. And I come in, order my Americano, hover around the images and think, this is me, in a coffee shop, looking at images of my beautiful city. I think, by purchasing the print, I am somehow part of this lovely food chain of images devouring themselves.

I am also currently reading Blues for Cannibals, which may slightly alter my perception.

Monday, December 20, 2010




1 : deserving imitation especially because of excellence : commendable
2 : serving as a warning
3 : serving as an example, instance, or illustration

In most cases EXEMPLARY is used to suggest excellence. Merriam-Websters illuminates us that "usage commentators" warn against using the two terms synonymously, even though excellence naturally warrants imitation. But more importantly: what is a "usage commentator?"

The Columbia Guide to Standard English describes the battle between descriptive linguists and prescriptive (or usage) commentators:

(1) A descriptive approach to language describes in full detail precisely how we use that language. The chief values of this approach are accuracy and an unretouched picture of usage, warts and all.
(2) A prescriptive approach insists that however many variables might be found, there are better and worse choices; it will specify at least which is most appropriate, or likely which is acceptable, or in its most rigorous application, which is correct.

The author further illuminates this point with the EXEMPLARY selection of the word irregardless. Prescriptive commentators would say: Don't use it! Pretend it doesn't exist! Descriptive linguists would then argue: In fact, irregardless does exist, it's in dictionaries, and people do use the word; we'll show you when, why, how, etc.

So, the battle rages on. Merriam-Webster sits in the middle, impartial, sending out emails and reporting back to the lay person like myself.

Sunday, December 19, 2010




1 : writhe, toss; also : wallow
2 : to become deeply sunk, soaked, or involved
3 : to be in turmoil

The sea. The sand. The dark cave where I feel my way with a dim flashlight. The walls are rough on my fingertips. My eyes adjust to the black. The sound of the outside fades, only a memory of itself, really, but I listen. The sound is my trail of breadcrumbs, a means to trace my way back out of the WELTERING I have followed into this place like one follows a movement in the woods through a pair of slivered and curious eyes. I tether myself to the air and to the light and to reality. I close my eyes and wait for a tug to pull me back. I trust I have not grown numb.

Saturday, December 18, 2010




: exhibiting or producing a condition in which people or things are closely united

In chemistry, COHESION describes the physical property of a substance whose intermolecular attraction acts to unite said involved molecules. There is probably an extremely more successful way to paraphrase that concept, but I'm sticking with the above. A lazy and yet prime example of chemical cohesion: water.

In writing, COHESION is form, structure, flow. As I write, I feel fairly responsible for the COHESION of the words I thoughtfully throw around. This is a fallacy. It is the form that holds the words together, not me. Eventually I will crumble, and for the words remain in their present arrangement they must exist in a solid form outside the temporary and imagined grip of my hands.

COHESIVE is a word used to draw attention away from the trees and to the forest. The big picture. It is a concept without which form would be nothing but disparate pieces thrown into a moldy cardboard box.

This box, of course, may become COHESIVE if one were to scribble something on its side like: JIM'S OLD BELONGINGS - NEVER PICKED UP.

There is little COHESION, in case you haven't noticed, in the writing of this blog. It is held together by the (not so) random forces of Merriam-Webster.

Friday, December 17, 2010




: the collection and study of postage and imprinted stamps : stamp collecting

The world saw its first adhesive postage stamp in 1840. Twenty some-odd years later, the word PHILATELY (the Greek roots phil [loving] + ateleia [tax exemption]) hit the scene to designate a growing population fascinated with the sticky rectangles. And in 1886 the APS (American Philatelic Society) formed to house a growing community of stamp lovers. The organization boasts 35,000+ members in 110 countries. In trying to find the world's most famous PHILATELIST, I discovered only the world's most famous stamp: the 1856 one-cent "Black on Magenta" from British Guiana. It has changed hands several times; at the last auction sale in 1980 the stamp sold for $935,000.

I could go on but, really, all I want to say right now is, "What have you done for me PHILATELY? Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, yeah."

That's where I'm at right now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010




1 : resembling a worm in form or motion
2 : of, relating to, or caused by worms

At the beginning of this year I took a pre-modern Science Fiction Literature course, which looked at the zygotes of the genre. Graduate students had to do a presentation for the class based on a piece of seventeenth century sci-fi literature from outside the syllabus of coursework. I stumbled upon a pamphlet titled, VERMICULARS Destroyed, in which the author (a chemist) advertised his ability to eliminate intestinal worms using some of his "powders." This piece proved relevant to my coursework since the text repeatedly cited the use of the then-revolutionary microscope—a device through which new worlds were revealed. In this case, it was the world of worms, a.k.a. VERMICULARS, a once invisible threat now magnified into images of larger-than-life creatures with multiple legs, and occasionally multiple heads. What the author may have been witnessing, in many cases, was bacteria.

I also read a great VERMICULAR essay titled, "Thinking About Earthworms," by David Quammen. He discusses Darwin's oft ignored last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms. Quammen says, "The most interesting thing about the book, in my view, is simply that this particular man took the trouble to write it. At the time, evolution by natural selection was the hottest idea in science; yet Charles Darwin spent his last year of work thinking about earthworms." The essay goes on to encourage readers to spend some time thinking about things that aren't thought about on a grand scale. I was inspired by this piece. I tend to notice and think about things seemingly insignificant in nature. Sometimes I dwell on a random image—a tear in a billboard, an abandoned pair of shoes, a published typo—for a long time."Pick a subject so perversely obscure that it can't help but have neglected significance," he says. Recently I received a bill or notice of some sort on the back of which was printed the phrase: This page left intentionally blank.

Tonight I think about this intention.