One drawback to our acceptance of the aging process seems to be the amount of time we can waste day-dreaming. I can fritter away hours just thinking about nothing. The word “whippersnapper” popped into my idle mind the other day and it won’t leave until it gets the explanation it is demanding from me. What is this word? Why does it exist? Where did it come from?
I’m deeply sorry I couldn’t find out. I tried, Oh, how I tried. First I broke it down into syllables, then I tried to parse it. When that didn’t work I strained to remember where I first heard it, wondering if there was a hidden meaning.
Finally I delved into my Merriam-Webster, noting as I opened it that my chances of finding the word “whippersnapper” were 1 in 70,000. Still, I felt hopeful.
And there it was! On page 830, right between “whiplash” and “whippet.” TA-DA!
“whippersnapper: pronunciation given, it’s a noun, definition: a small insignificant presumptuous person.”
AND? AND? You mean that’s it? I’ve been racking my brain for days over that?
No explanation of its root, where it came from, how many decades or centuries it’s been in use. We need help here! The “whippersnapper” pestering my grey cells is not at all satisfied and neither am I. However, this will have to do for the nonce.
Now there’s another curious word, “nonce”. O.K., back to the Merriam-Webster and its 70,000 words. And there it is, not 1 but 2 listings right on page 491 between “non-book” and “nonchalant.”
“nonce: pronunciation given, it’s a noun, definition #1: the one, the particular, etc. etc. definition #2: occurring or needed only once for a special occasion, Blah, blah, blah.” Far more than I wanted to know about “nonce.”
Why couldn’t they have explained “whippersnapper” as fully? Which leads me to wonder about the many strange words we come across, some in common usage, some archaic, some facetious, quite a few useless.
I’m now compiling lists of words as they come to mind. I categorize them as follows, MEANINGFUL or MEANINGLESS.
#1. Weight-Bearing Words: The real words, the work-horse words, serious, useful, important, all suited to their purpose: pound that nail, build that house, grow that food. Definitely MEANINGFUL.
#2. Stuffed-Shirt Words: These words are usually used in dimly lit rooms filled with the smell of cigar smoke. Often accompanied by “Er” or “Ahem,” pudgy fingers smoothing charcoal-striped vests, gleaming watch fobs dangling. Such words might sound ponderous, praise-worthy, stentorious, resonant, etc. These words suffer from overuse and should be, but seldom are MEANINGFUL.
#3. Make-An-Impression words: Similar to stuffed shirt words but starchier. These words are used only by diplomats, military officers of the higher ranks, members of Congress, Supreme Court judges and Heads of State. MEANINGFUL? Doubtful, see #2.
#4. Just plain fun words: Humbug, Flibberty-Jibbet, Skedaddle, Discombobulate, Mugwump, Oh yes, Whippersnapper, and an endless string of euphemisms for that porcelain fixture in the bathroom, the one between the tub and the sink. We’ve heard john, head, throne, the garden spot (that’s the one down the path and around the bushes) and, as the Brits say, lav or loo. My favorite is biffy. I had an aunt who never went anywhere but to the biffy for 88 years. These silly words serve a purpose, adding a dash of color to our occasionally stuffed shirt conversations. I would say they’re MEANINGFUL.
#5. Utterly worthless words: Almost all crossword puzzle fill-ins. When the puzzle writers need an “across” or a “down” to make sense of a good solid weight-bearing word, they dream up these ridiculous words. I actually came across “Dooby Dooby Doo” in a New York Times puzzle the other morning, before breakfast yet. Other than increasing Frank Sinatra’s income by considerable, what earthly good does Dooby Dooby Doo bring to us? Impossible to use in a sentence: “I made lasagna last night and it looked like Dooby Dooby Doo. It tasted like Dooby Dooby Doo. It took gallons of Dooby Dooby Doo to get the plates clean afterwards.” These so-called words have got to go. MEANINGLESS!
#6. In a class by itself: Antidisestablishmentarianism!!!! A word created just to be a word, the longest word in the dictionary doesn’t need an explanation.
This entire situation has left me getting more frustrated – frustrated : page 93, pronunciation given, it’s a verb, definition: 1. defeated 2. feeling unsure 3. discouraged 4. dissatisfied: – as I said, I’m more frustrated by the minute.
Perhaps I should dedicate the rest of my life to re-writing dictionaries but somehow that doesn’t come under “Just Plain Fun”. I guess I’ll Bite The Bullet and Mind My Ps And Qs before I get caught up in Odd-Ball phrases next. I’ll be Beside Myself then, and that will take some real explaining.