Words: Meaningful or Meaningless

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.

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The Red Canoe

As retirees keeping ourselves busy, my husband and I bought an old fixer-upper house on a gorgeous 1 acre lot in Prescott, Arizona one Fall,  winterized it, locked the door and headed for Guadalajara, Mexico with our R.V.  After several months we began to get a bit antsy about our purchase  and returned to Arizona a little too soon;   as in finding snow still on the ground.  We decided it would be prudent to wait until warmer weather to begin our remodeling project, so there we sat, waiting for Spring and beginning to get bored.

Two of our close friends were snugged into a neat little A-Frame just a few blocks away and cabin fever was bothering them, too.  My husband spent hours leafing through his yachting magazines and spotted an ad for a FOLBOT canoe kit, lightweight and easy to assemble, offering hours of pleasurable outings.  His clinching argument was how easy it would be to explore the nearby lakes and rivers.  (This is central Arizona, by the way, 5400 foot elevation,  but what the heck.)  We were all bored to tears by now and our friends were eager to help assemble the canoe in return for sharing the fun trips.

Our kit arrived in good time, and since we’d already torn out the old living room carpet in preparation for remodeling, it seemed like the perfect place to put together our new canoe.  Two sawhorses were set up end to end among the chairs, and there was still plenty of clearance to work.  The big selling point in the sales pitch had been the fact that a troop of Girl Scouts had assembled a kit just like ours in a very few days.

Big deal!  Here we have 4 adults, all experienced to some  degree at using tools and doing remodeling. The guys had built several small boats  –  what a breeze!  We were good!

The lightweight frame went together quickly and looked pretty spiffy sitting on its sawhorses in the middle of our living room waiting for its  “skin.”  It waited and waited  There’s always a catch to everything and we ran into this one head-on. The  “skin” or actual covering was made of brilliant, shiny red NAUGAHYDE, all pieces cut to size and shape; and with that troop of Girl Scouts looking over our shoulders, so to speak,  we got into the fine print.

Each piece of that lovely red NAUGAHYDE had a mirror twin and the idea was to face two corresponding pieces together, glue carefully and  “massage”  (their word, not ours) until all air bubbles were worked out and we had a perfectly smooth interior and exterior piece ready to be fastened to the framework.   So we massaged and massaged – for days we massaged, taking the name of those blankety-blank Girl Scouts in vain,  day after day after day. Surely assembling that beautiful red canoe,  massaging that NAUGAHYDE  was the most tedious job any of us had ever gotten into. I began to question whether that troop of Girl Scouts had ever even existed outside of an ad agency.

But finally, at long, long last  we had a canoe.  The finishing touches went fast, the paddles were varnished and we were ready to launch.  We were living a mere 200 miles from the Colorado River so our plan was to load our new vessel on top of our old International Travelall the night before, then at the crack o’ dawn we’d grab the thermoses and a packed lunch and head downhill.

This all went as planned.  Since the canoe only held 2 people at a time, my friend and I dropped off the canoe, the 2 adventurers, one of the thermoses and some snacks, waved Bon Voyage  and watched them set off downstream.  There was no christening ceremony; even a bottle of root beer would have collapsed the bow of that light boat.  My friend and I jumped in the car, spent some time slowly sightseeing along the river, checking out the tourist traps until we finally arrived at the designated meeting place.  No canoe was in sight.  Time passed, more time passed, still no red canoe in sight.

We ate the picnic food, bought more, nibbled on that, and continued what was by now a rather anxious wait.  Had we not massaged enough on any part of the skin?  Did they capsize?  Get run over by a ski-boat?  Our questions piled up until at long last they came into view, the red canoe bright and jaunty in the sun as it appeared around the bend.

Never were seen 2 more dejected, disappointed, disgruntled  sailors, faces as shiny red as the canoe.  What had happened?  What  went wrong? There was no real answer.  “It just wasn’t any fun”  seemed to be the extent of their explanation.   I think the routine of paddling an oar mile after mile while ski-boats whizzed by couldn’t begin to compare to the excitement our usual form of recreation, raising and lowering sails with every wind shift, skimming the waves and feeling at one with the water in a small sailboat.

Poor little FOLBOT, it did its part, helping us through some long boring weeks. It never even got a name.  It was the last boat we ever owned and I hope someone learned to love it. By now Spring had come and we got busy with our remodeling,  with no “massaging” involved anywhere.  Let the Girl Scouts assemble all the canoe kits they wanted to, we were done.

Shaggy Dog Stories

Remember Shaggy Dog stories?  those painfully long, painfully dreary, supposedly humorous stories we used to suffer through?  There was always at least one deadly bore at every gathering back in the day who felt called upon to corner those of us who couldn’t think fast enough or move fast enough to avoid him.  (Or her, yes, women told them, too.)

This windbag would open up with  “Have you heard the one about the BLAH BLAH BLAH?”  or  “Here’s a good one, let me tell you about the  BLAH BLAH BLAH.”   You’d find yourself trapped, eyes glazing, hoping he didn’t have bad breath, while he happily launched into his story.

So, what was a Shaggy Dog story?  Basically it was an extremely long winded, pointless anecdote that might take up to 5 minutes or more to tell, leaving the listeners ready to commit mayhem before the end was reached.  You’d listen to it in spite of yourself, caught up with certain expectations for what would become a meaningless, meandering, irrelevant anti-climax.  And, no, all Shaggy Dog stories were not about shaggy dogs,

For some reason those stories popped up in my mind recently, and after diligent research online  (well, 10 minutes on Google)  I came across the original Shaggy Dog Story.  It was every bit as bad as I remembered it, if not worse.  There were 2 or 3 versions of the original but they all ended the same way.

“It seems this guy owned a dog that was really, really shaggy.  (Some variations bring the aristocracy into the tale but I prefer the plain old Joe Schmoe version, it goes a little faster.)  Anyway, Joe’s dog was so shaggy, Joe began entering him into Shaggy Dog contests and his dog always won.  He won the neighborhood Shaggy Dog contest as the shaggiest dog.  He won the city-wide contest as the shaggiest dog.  Next he won the State contest, once again being proclaimed the shaggiest dog.

Finally he was entered into the Shaggy Dog Grand Nationals, where the shaggiest dog in the nation would be chosen.  Joe was beside himself with pride until he overheard the judges saying   “That dog isn’t so shaggy.”

That’s it folks, that’s the story. Whoever started those?  Why did anyone ever listen? Why aren’t you laughing?  Why did Shaggy Dog stories last as long as they did?  Mercifully they died a well-deserved death 30 or so years ago and have never been missed.  There were endless variations, each more boring and pointless than the last, always ending with loud groans, dirty looks, insults, even death threats on the part of the listeners;  and a smug, self-satisfied smirk on the face of the perpetrator.

Mark Twain, that master story-teller, wrote what is considered to be the ultimate Shaggy Dog story in his book  “ROUGHING IT.”  He was meandering around the California Gold Rush country back in the 1850s, picking up ideas, talking to anyone who had a story, when a group of local miners put him on the trail of Old Jim.  Old Jim’s grandfather had owned a remarkable ram.

Mark Twain tracked down Old Jim at a tavern, eager to listen to the story about his grandfather’s ram.  Old Jim was happy to relate it in exchange for a drink or two, so he leaned into the bar and began his story. Unfortunately he never got to the point of why his grandfather’s ram was so special.

He got side-tracked into a tale about boiled missionaries, then a woman who borrowed a glass eye, on to someone’s peg leg, then the wig of the coffin salesman’s wife.  He finally got caught up in the story of a man who worked in a carpet factory. The unfortunate man became tangled in the machinery, and his widow bought the piece of carpet with his remains woven into it.

After 4 pages of furious scribbling on Mark Twain’s part, Old Jim passed out cold across the bar.  Mark Twain looked helplessly around to where his  acquaintances  were laughing uproariously.  They’d been listening to Old Jim’s story of his grandfather’s remarkable ram for years, and Old Jim never did get to the point of why the ram was so special.

So who told the best “Shaggy Dog story,”  Old Jim or Mark Twain?  It seems to depend on whether Old Jim was a real person or one of  Mark Twain’s creations.  Whichever, it’s never been topped.

I’m wondering if today’s Urban Legends have come into our folklore to replace Shaggy Dogs.  We do love to be fooled, we can be so gullible at times.  Just don’t let Shaggy Dogs come back

Medical Terminology

Do you ever get the feeling that your health and well being have been taken over by a never ending series of  ISTS  and  OLOGISTS?  You need medical care?  No one goes to a plain old doctor any more.  This is the age of specialists and specialized specialists.  You don’t call the eye guy as your sight dims.  Neither do you go to an opthamologist.  You go to see a retinologist at the opthamologist’s clinic.

Your back aches?  You consult a rheumatologist at the orthopedist’s clinic.  The ENT Doc is now known as an  Otorhinolaryngologist.  You have a runny nose, you call for some nose drops.  A chirpy young voice answers,  “You have reached the offices of your friendly  OTORHINOLARYNGOLOGIST,  Dr. Whatever His Name Is”.  By the time she gets all this out, your runny nose has turned into a full-blown sinus infection, your throat is raw and you’re coughing too hard to make the appointment.

The danger here is that those of us who have reached the age where we’re part of a study now underway by leading gerontologists ( a euphemistic term for treating old people)  may not see as well or hear as well as we used to.  We need to be sure we understand exactly who we’re making our appointments with when we call for help.  Terrible mistakes have been made.

You might limp in to see your podiatrist, bunions blazing, only to find that you’re at a pediatrician’s office.  One woman I knew went to see her orthopedist with a sprained left thumb and found herself at the obstetrician’s.

My neighbor phoned his psychologist to discuss a slight problem he was having with his spouse, only to call a proctologist by mistake.  Someone I heard of needed a neurologist and ended up with a urologist, and a phlebotomist’s patient consulted a pathologist.

I myself once made an appointment with a gastroenterologist after a particularly bad spell of indigestion  How embarrassing to show up at the gynecologist’s office complaining of a stomach ache.

And then there was this classic; a dear little friend of mine was advised to consult an endocrinologist and she made the mistake of phoning an entomologist.  Now, entomology isn’t even a medical field, it’s the study of insects.  That poor soul felt really buggy by the time she got home again.  She claims she learned a lot about the Mediterranean fruit fly during her visit, though, so her time wasn’t wasted.

So, folks, be careful, be alert.  Life gets complicated enough without these mix-ups. When you have the need to visit a specialist’s specialist for whatever specialized purpose. be especially careful whom you call.  You might end up seeing stars with a meteorologist – or is that an astrologist? archeologist?  anthropologist?   No, no, I’ve got it all wrong, an astronomer, who isn’t an  OLOGIST  at all.   There’s a big difference.

And don’t even get me started on the names of all the new medications.