February 27, 2024

No News From Doodlebug Island…by William F Jordan


How the use of a single word no longer in the written or spoken English lexicon could have launched a tidal wave of interest was nothing short of miraculous, and, though I was initially responsible for it, the gathering effect took on a life of its own, outstripping any idea of ownership.

In the manner of a break from editing chores in connection with the paper I own and publish, I began perusing a first-edition pronouncing dictionary given to me by my adorable Granddaughter Joan when I came upon the word ‘fribble,’ and immediately decided to use it on the next person who had the temerity to interrupt the quiet of my office.

That happened to be Doc Hastings, who stopped by to learn if I were in the mood to partner with him in the geezer golf tournament scheduled for the weekend?

“Sure I will,” I replied, drily, “if you can give me a reason why we bother. Why, we are perennial losers. Other players merely ‘fribble’ with us.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Doc said, slightly perplexed. “And I really don’t know! What in the nether reaches of the tangible world does the word ‘fribble’ mean?”

“Back in 1814, people used it to express the idea of ‘trifling’ with something or someone or of possessing a playful nature.” I gave him a quick overview of the dictionary.

“I knew if I hung around you long enough you’d be useful on some level,” he said. “Now, keep yourself and your money available for Saturday. I can’t wait to get back to my own office and try my new word on people smart enough to use my services.”

I was ready to reply that garbage pickup was sometimes referred to as a ‘service,’ but by that time he was past hearing, so I turned again to my new book.

Well, by that evening and with Doc Hasting’s help, the word ‘fribble’ had experienced resurrection and was once again tripping off speakers’ tongues, Not only that but it had sparked an interest in archaic words, and in the next few days people began clamoring for the dictionary to be made public. As someone interested in language, I was delighted to cooperate, and though the dictionary was fragile with age, I loaned it to the library where it soon shared space normally reserved for the OED (Oxford English Dictionary.)

That was how the tidal wave began. Creative teachers soon had students describing themselves and each other with expressive but long unused adjectives of two hundred years ago: ‘Using my ‘didascalic’ (perceptive) powers, I determined that ‘aliquant’ (unequal, as in 3 is an aliquant of 10) is not the same as ‘aliquot’ (equal, as in 3 is an aliquot of 12).”

“My weakness for chocolate arouses a ‘casuistical’ (case of conscience ) reaction.”

“My boyfriend is often ‘clodpated’ (thoughtless), and has ‘patibulary’ (belonging to the gallows) propensities.”

This is often followed by essay assignments capitalizing on the nouns, and other parts of speech popular in another time. “’Sudation’ (sweat) appears to be the chief outcome of physical education,” began one such paper. Predictably, this aroused an interest in etymology, linguistics, and semantics, although public excitement masked or obscured such formal terminology and left folks free to share in the fun.

Island librarian Bernice Malvern began posting sentences comprised of words from this past era and invited people to provide modern translations. One example read: “Mary Beth has ‘erubescent’ hair of ‘relucent’ quality and a figure bordering on ‘exilition’ with a slight ‘incurvity’ due to a minor case of childhood polio. Though not ‘redoubtable’, occasional pain sometimes makes her ‘techy’ and the victim of ‘oscitancy’ because of a pinched nerve.”

As with other sentences, Islanders were invited to post what each believed to be a suitable translation (sans the dictionary, which is always sequestered for the day.) The results, universally hilarious, were compared to a subsequent posting. “Mary Beth has ‘reddish’ hair of ‘shining’ quality and a figure bordering on ‘slenderness’ with a slight ‘crookedness’ due to a minor case of childhood polio. Though not ‘terrible’, occasional pain sometimes makes her ‘peevish’ and the victim of ‘yawning’ because of a pinched nerve.”

This column—modestly long on ‘pauciloquy’ ( a short speech)– is meant to be ‘suscitative’ (rousing), in that it might result in a certain ‘dedition’ (act of yielding to) an understanding and appreciation of the past, a truly ‘appetible’ (desirable) end. (Rumor has it that in my case an appetible end might also include tar and feathers!)

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