Flowers, Fireflies, and Frequentatives

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June 3, 2016 by libroshombre

A recent visit to central Texas revealed that sensible rains have returned there after a half-decade of severe drought. The hills were green, the wild flowers still blooming, and, at dusk, lightning bugs, AKA fireflies, abounded. According to, Texas A&M entomologist Wizzie Brown says past and present rains are key. We’re “not talking about the rain this year … it takes time for a firefly to grow. They need a wet spring to lay a bunch of eggs. Then the larvae need moisture as they grow underground for at least a year before emerging.”

The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary remains my personal favorite, not least because of its mini-essays enlarge upon interesting words. The “firefly” entry led to a “Regional Note” under “lightning bug.” “Although firefly remains the literary and formal word, lightning bug is the term used by the majority of Americans … Nearly 80 percent of those interviewed for the Dictionary of American Regional English volunteered lightning bug, while not quite 30 percent said firefly, including those who said both).”

“It’s time to make love, douse the glim;” Conrad Aiken wrote, “The fireflies twinkle and dim.” “Twinkle” is what’s known in grammar circles as a “frequentative,” an adjective that expresses “frequent repetition or intensity of action,” often by adding “-le”. In Old English to twincan meant “to wink, blink,” and its frequentative, twinclian, meant to “twinkle.” Other common frequentatives include gamble (game), sparkle (spark), and gruntle.

“The first sense of gruntle was of a repeated grunt,” said, “especially the noise that pigs make in company … Gruntle appeared in the fifteenth century; by the end of the next century it had begun to be used to mean grumbling or complaining.” Add an intensifier, like dis, to the frequentative “gruntle”, and you have the unsatisfied disgruntled, whose opposite should logically be “happy, contented.” For instance, P.G. Wodehouse’s perfect fictional butler, Jeeves, waited on a perfect idiot named Bertie Wooster, who said of his servant, “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

Gruntle is an “unpaired word,” a word created by taking away part of it. Some unpaired words are real words anyway. Effable means “capable of being expressed,” for example, scrutible means “capable of being understood,” and peccable means “imperfect, flawed.” An example of the latter is from a London Times article by Mark Dapin titled “Lost in France”: “We picked up a Peugeot 406 automatic at Toulouse airport. I approached the glossy woman at the airport desk and announced in extremely peccable French: ‘The car is here, brothel-owning lady, for us.’”
During last year’s trip to France, I distributed my retirement calling card far and wide that says I’m a “rogue librarian.” A kindly Frenchman eventually enlightened me that in France a library is “a bookstore,” and a rogue is a very naughty fellow, so I was claiming to be XXX bookstore operator.

Perhaps kamishibai’s behind my latest word-fixation. Kamishibai means “paper-theater” in Japan, where storytellers once bicycled from town to town with a miniature stage and case of candy strapped to the back. The storyteller/candyman used illustrated scrolls or sheets in the stage to tell long, fanciful stories, making sure sweets purchasers sat up front. According to, “Kamishibai is, if anything, poor man’s theater, and it flourished during a time when Japan experienced extreme financial hardship … By the 1950s and the advent of television, kamishibai had become so popular that television was initially referred to as denki kamishibai, or ‘electric kamishibai.’”

Like so much in life, I encountered kamishibai in a book, Birdsong, by James Sturm. It’s part of the excellent TOON Book series, “the first high-quality comics designed for children ages three and up … Each TOON book has been vetted by educators to ensure that the language and the narratives will nurture young minds.” They’re fun, informative, and very-well made, and our library has scads of them. They’re perfect for our library’s “On Your Mark, Get Set … READ!” summer reading program for ages two and up. It’s an excellent way to immerse your child in words. Like John Ray said, “Good words cool more than cold water.”

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