My Favorite New Word

Well, it’s not a new word, by any means. Just new to me. I do this. I run across a word that just excites me, though I’ve never been able to explain why it does, and I savor it for months or years.

I think it started a long time ago when a fast food chain—Roy Rogers, if I’m not mistaken, which shows you how long ago this was (at their peak, they had 650 restaurants, then in the 90s they sold most of them to Hardee’s, and now they’re down to, like, 51 nationwide)—ran a commercial that included a “word of the day,” which I think was one of their sandwiches or a side item. The ad ended with this line: “Tomorrow’s word: Windowsill.” The announcer said “windowsill” as if it were a deliciously foreign concept, mysterious and intriguing. I loved the idea of making the mundane something new and bizarre. To this day, “windowsill” (always pronounced in the same stentorian tones) remains a favorite word.

I’ve picked up other favorite words along the way. A former employee, a woman, shivered visibly every time the word tongue was uttered. Once, my friend Jim and I worked together to pack up a crowded, electronics-filled office and tried to sort out the morass of cables, wires, and extension cords that we found. Covered in sweat and dust, I waggled a cord in his face and yelled, “This thing is . . . superfluous!” Jim burst into hysterics and called me a filthy name.

I enjoy the word ubiquitous. It’s a seldom-used word for things that are everywhere around you. That simple contradiction just makes me giggle. On the other hand, there’s sesquipedalian. It’s a big word that means . . . well, “big word.” Literally, a word that’s a foot and a half long.

I love the simple words for things that we use every day but never name. You know the plastic bit on the end of a shoelace? It’s an aglet. Lovely word. A square section of a concrete sidewalk is called a flag, derived from flagstone, even though they look nothing like actual flagstones. A forward slash / is properly called a solidus. It’s named after the old Roman coin for reasons that are quite interesting (at least to my mind) but a little off-topic here. And the strips of wood that separate and hold the panes of glass in a window are called mutins, glazing bars, or astragals. Perfectly interchangeable words. I love it.

My new favorite is “interpunct.” It’s the tiny centered dot that separates words and letters. Originally it separated words, which in many languages tended to run together in one long unbroken block of text. It was used mainly in Latin script, but Germanic runic writing used it as well, and Chinese script frequently employs it even today. Most languages now use word spaces instead of interpuncts (spaces came into vogue around 700 C.E.). Dictionaries often use interpuncts instead of hyphens to separate syllables to avoid confusion with words that are properly hyphenated, like well-being (which would then be printed as well-be·ing).

As much as I like interpunct because of what it means, I like it even more for the way it sounds. “Punk” originally meant a female prostitute, then became the bottom in a male-male sexual relationship (which is how it became a term for the “slave” or protectee in a prison relationship). It became the term of choice for a juvenile delinquent, though it’s always denoted a worthless person, and which is why the punk rockers wanted to turn it into a term of rebellion and empowerment. And more recently, “to punk” has come to mean “to play a prank” on someone (I think because it made the punkee look like a fool, but I’m not sure).

So would an “interpunk” mean a punk in transition, or one who likes to surf the ’net?

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Categories: Words | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “My Favorite New Word

  1. indigo bunting

    A lovely read.

    It has always pained me that the word palindrome isn’t one.

  2. One of my favorite palindromes is retrosorter, which is someone who makes up palindromes.

    Another is peeweep, a bird similar to a lapwing. I think it’s also an onomatopoeia. At least it should be.

  3. indigo bunting

    Ooooo, retrosorter is a new word for me.

  4. One of my favorite words isn’t really a word, but it should be. It’s the name of that little bit of covering they leave on the end of straws when they bring you a drink in a restaurant: strawphyllactic. (Came from “Addadictionary”)

  5. Makes me miss Tony Randall.

    My favourite words: oubliette and defenestrate.

    Gee, and I wonder why I don’t have more friends.

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