Words: A Foible

Luxurious words come to me, particularly when I write.  Aegis.  Austere.  Foible.  Gibe.  The sounds are part and parcel of the words.  They say to me, aurally, what they mean.  Loquacious:  my son.

Then I worry that the word that has appeared in my mind isn’t accurate.  Maybe I’m using the wrong one.

Carvaggio Foundation image

Aegis: according to one–albeit pathetic–dictionary, “support.”  According to my brain it means “under the banner of.”  But let me be sure.  Whence aegis?  The derivation bares the meaning I intended.  “The goatskin shield or breastplate of Zeus or Athena.  Athena’s shield carried at its center the head of Medusa.”

As I wrote that paragraph, I quickly checked “whence.”  My ear hears “from whence it comes.”  But whence means, in effect, “where it comes from,” so how does one appropriately use it?  Whence “is most often used nowadays to impart an archaic or formal tone,” so in this blog post I might as well use it in the historical manner, “whence ageis?”

Gibe” has diverse meanings.  I typically use it to mean that two people or thoughts are in line with one another.  As in: her idea gibed with mine.  Seeing the same sound, “gibe,” but spelled “jibe,” changes what I hear to mean a jeer or taunt thrown at someone.  Then I think of a boat “jibing,” the boom, under tremendous force, sweeping across from one side to the other as you come about (turn) away from the wind instead of into the wind.  But if, when used with a sailboat, jibe means something so violent, so contra-ry/against, how can gibe (officially just an “alternate spelling”) mean “two compatible ideas or actions”?

I was inspired to explore “gibe” when a colleague used “jived” instead.  Jive, as in “jive talk,” which for me conjures a black man in the early 1970s with an afro, posturing; maybe the man is “Jimmy” from Good Times.  I don’t know whether my colleagues and staff appreciate it when I launch into my word jiving; I can barely help myself.

  • Colleague: Let’s flush out that idea.  Me:  No, it’s “flesh,” as in giving the broad sketch, or skeleton, of the idea meat.
  • Colleague: They’re chomping at the bit to get that project started.  Me: Did you know it’s actually “champing” not “chomping”?

Sometimes my attachment to esoteric words makes me feel like an old obstinate turtle, perhaps a Loggerhead, living in an ancient lake of language, making brief forays to modernity for air.  Once, a meandering conversation led me to check the Oxford English Dictionary for loggerhead, where I learned that onward from Shakespeare’s 1588 use, it meant a “thick-headed or stupid person; a blockhead.” In 1657, enter the turtle, “so call’d, because it hath a great head.” OED documents, in 1680, the use of “going to Logger-heads,” or coming to blows.

I may be a little fisty/feisty about word use.  If my yen, my craving not for opium but for knowledge, requires diving deep, I go to the online version of OED.  Usually, though, my desire is not so great: I just need a reliable dictionary.

When I moved from the Archives to the Information Technology Office, I knew I needed to keep words near-by, to keep me grounded in proper English while bombarded by what some call “techno-babble.”

In Nana’s living room, with clear views to the sea, I devised my method for judging a dictionary.  In the midst of talking about computers, I jumped up to find the definition of “network.”

n. 1. An openwork fabric made by the interlaced threads of any material; 2. The process of making this fabric; 3. Any system of crossed lines: as a network of railroad tracks.  [The Winston simplified dictionary: including all the words in common use defined so that they can be easily understood, 1929.]

Perhaps my sub-conscious was prescient; perhaps it sparked my trip to the dictionary by observing lobster traps, which have nets, and talking about interconnected computers.

Apparently I come by my interest in words naturally.  That 1929 dictionary is stamped “Property of the School Department – Town of Vernon,” and so either given to or lifted by Papa, and no doubt used as he wrote his sermons.

In every dictionary in Harvard Square’s Wordsworth, I checked for “network.”  Only one dictionary passed the test:

n. 1. An openwork fabric or structure in which cords, threads, or wires cross at regular intervals. 2. A complex interconnected group or system: a spy network.  3. A chain of radio or television broadcasting stations with shared or coordinated programming. 4. A system of computers interconnected so as to share information. –-v. To interact with others for mutual assistance or support.  [The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, 1992.]

Dictionary on my iPhone

As you can see, my continued exploration of The Geek Side hasn’t diminished my interest in words.  But being a confirmed geek makes my primordial turtle simile absurd.  My Language Lake is currently fed by American Heritage Deluxe, 4th Edition, which is comprised of: The American Heritage Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus.  It covers almost 300,000 terms, with usage notes, pronunciations, and, get this: Indo-European etymology!  Is this 7.5 pounds weighing down my bookshelf?  Nope.  It’s on my iPhone, of course.

The new American Heritage definition of network differs slightly from 1992’s.  Now that it’s bytes instead of paperback pages, I have abridged its entry.

n. 1. An openwork fabric or structure in which cords, threads, or wires cross at regular intervals. 2. Something resembling an openwork fabric or structure in form or concept [e.g. railroads, espionage, mutual assistance] 3. [Radio/Television] 4. a. [connected electric circuits] b. Computer Science A system of computers interconnected by telephone wires or other means in order to share information. Also called net.  [v. excised]

I luxuriate in a sea of words, buoyed by my elegant dictionary/thesaurus, on my ever-present iPhone.

1 Comment

  1. living in an ancient lake of language! I love it! I thought I was the only one into big words – really, whenever I hear (or write) myself say a fancy word, I get all impressed with myself. I actually get giddy. Words are wonderful.
    I wonder if my Dad's pushing me in to taking latin has something to do with it…his dream was to have me do well on my SAT's. "A proper exposure to Latin" he said, "will guarantee a high SAT score." Hmmmm….thats a story for another time.

    You did a great job incorporating such great words into your script! I keep referring to the word clever when talking about your writing…hmmm perhaps it is a style? Clever writing? Whatever it is, it is engaging.

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