Obscure Sorrows, Crosswords, and Amyloids

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July 28, 2016 by libroshombre


A child of mine recently passed along the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows of neologisms, newly coined words, created by John Koenig to define “emotions that do not have a descriptive term.” According to Wikipedia, Koenig’s neologisms “are based on his research on etymologies and meanings of used prefixes, suffixes, and word roots. The terms are often based on ‘feelings of existentialism’ and are meant to fill ‘a hole in the language.’” Examples include , “klexos: the art of dwelling in the past,” and “lutalica: the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories.” Though not a particularly gloomy Gus, I identified with one of Koenig’s terms, “kudoclasm: when lifelong dreams are brought down.”

After working at the Texas Legislature for five years, and wallowing in political kudoclasm, I renewed its acquaintance at my first job out of library school. This was at a corrupt West Texas public library, serving 100,000 people, that only bought new books one or two days a year, when two librarians were flown to Dallas, wined and dined, and given a few hours to buy all the library’s new books for the year from a dealer of remaindered, or leftover, books that are usually heavily discounted. The several hundred books I surveyed had average copyright dates of 1904 and cost over $40, even though new bestsellers cost less than $15 then. After turning over my evidence to the county attorney, who advised me to leave town fast, I did.

A more recent kudoclasm cropped up when I learned about the nefarious plagiarism of, no, not Mrs. Trump, but crossword-puzzle editor Timothy Parker. Last March, FiveThirtyEight, a website focusing on polls, politics, and economics, reported that “a group of eagle-eyed puzzlers, using digital tools, has uncovered a pattern of copying in the professional crossword-puzzle world.” Parker was USA Today’s crossword editor for 15 years until software engineer Saul Pwanson created first a database of 52,000 recent puzzles, and a program that identified puzzles that match up with another at least 25 percent.

There are often some similarities between competing puzzles. “To me,” Parker said, “it’s just mere coincidence.” However, Pwanson, who legally changed his named from “Paul Swanson”,  found that the New York Time’s puzzles had similarities with others 0.1 percent of the time, Los Angeles Times 0.3%, Wall Street Journal 0.4%, but USA had significant similarities at a 16% rate. Last May 16 USA Today announced that neither they nor Gannet, their parent company, will publish any crosswords associated with Parker, which somewhat lightened my kudoclasm.

Crosswords reveal much about us. NYTimes contributor Charles Kurzman recently suspected that Americans are becoming “more parochial than our grandparents’ generation,” so he downloaded all that paper’s crosswords from 1942-2015 and “created an algorithm to search all 2,092,375 pairs of clues and answers for foreign language words and place names outside the United States.” He found “the puzzle today uses one-third fewer international references than in its peak in 1943,” something of a surprise in this age of globalization.

Nonetheless, working on crosswords is a valuable activity. Despite American Crossword Puzzle champion Dan Feyer winning only $5,000 for his feat, exerting your brain with crosswords, reading deeply, and other mental exercises can stave off Alzheimer’s. According to ALZ.org, UC Berkeley researchers used brain scans looking for an imaging agent called “Pittsburg compound B” that binds to beta-amyloid, “a toxic protein that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s and is the main component of the brain plaques that characterize the disease.”

They found that “the more someone engaged in mentally stimulating activities, the less buildup of beta-amyloid they were likely to have in the brain … The brains of seniors who engaged in mentally stimulating activities most often were comparable to those of young people.”

The sooner in life you start exercising your brain, the Berkeley guys say, the better it will fend off beta-amyloid plaque buildup. How much is that worth? Certainly visiting your public library, that grand gymnasium for the mind. You’ll find more mental stimulation there than you’ll ever get through in a dozen lifetimes, and have fun. Moreover, Koenig might say your library’s got “vellichor: the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time.”

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