Cryptogamists, Eructers, and Wykyn de Worde

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May 14, 2018 by libroshombre

As Welsh poet George Herbert rightly noted in the 1600s, “Good words are worth much, and cost little,” but sometimes wrong words pan out, too. We’re certainly lucky that Geoffrey Tandy’s occupation was misspelled when he was called up for Royal Navy duty. A recent article about him said, “Tandy wanted to serve Britain however he could as World War II threatened his country’s existence. But as a cryptogamist for the National History Museum, Tandy wasn’t quite sure where he fit in.” Botanically speaking, “cryptogams” include lichen, fungi, and algea, the reproduction of which long eluded scientists, who named them “cryptogam” because it’s Latin for “hidden marriage.”

Tandy, unlike most new recruits, was greeted by top Ministry of Defense officials who escorted him to his posting at Bletchley Park, the headquarters for codebreaking, AKA cryptography. The “cryptogamist”-“cryptographist” typo was soon discovered, but Tandy had languished for several years among Alan Turing and the other cryptographic geniuses until two German U-boats were torpedoed and captured. The codebooks for Germany’s Enigma cryptography machine were recovered, but they were too waterlogged to be legible. Bletchley “needed someone who was an expert at drying out water-damaged fragile materials … they needed someone like Tandy. Using absorbent materials gathered from a museum, Tandy dried the pages and returned them to legibility,” thereby permitted the breaking of the Enigma code and shortening the war by 2-4 years and millions of lives.

Sometimes the best word is spelled “Worde,” as in Wynkyn de Worde, a guy we studied in library school. He was the leading English-language printer, after William Caxton, the first English language printer. De Worde worked for Caxton when he moved his press from Belgium to London in 1476, and when Caxton died in 1491, he took over the business. De Worde greatly expanded the titles and subjects the shop published, eventually printing over 800 editions of 400 different titles, thereby sparking and meeting a growing demand for English language books.

De Worde’s 1498 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, modernized the archaic Middle English text’s spelling and vocabulary and became a best-seller. Though his name was sometimes spelled “Winandus van Worden,” “Jan Wynken,” and other ways, his books’ colophons – the who-printed-it-when information at the beginning or end of books – was usually Wynkyn de Worde. And though occasionally criticized for sloppy craftsmanship, he boosted English literacy satisfyingly.

The adjective “satisfying” was carefully chosen over the less enthusiastic “satisfactory.” I make no bones about being a Rex Stout fanboy, because at bedtime nothing suits like one of Stout’s amusing and erudite Nero Wolfe mysteries. Nero Wolfe fans know that the detective haled from Montenegro and possessed a vocabulary to be reckoned with, like many adult learners of English, such as Vladimir Nabakov. Wolfe, America’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, was an obese, housebound genius passionate about food and orchids. He relied on his hardnosed assistant, Archie Goodwin, to bring in clues and suspects. When Archie did an exceptional job, Wolfe sometimes rewarded him with a “Satisfactory,” which was Wolfe’s highest praise. much can be gleaned about Wolfe’s formidable vocabulary, and his reading and dining inclinations. Having recently completed Stout‘s “From My Dead Body,” I toted up twenty unusual terms and nine that fall well outside my personal vocabulary. I knew “fatuous” (inanely foolish), “cupidity” (wanting much more than you need), and “provender” (dry food or provisions), but “obloquy” (very severe criticism), “persiflage” (light banter), and “eruct” (belch) were outside my verbal wheelhouse.

One reason reading Nero Wolfe books is so pleasurable comes from matching vocabularies with Stout, and I might have caught him on “satisfactory.”’s “Usage Note” states, “The adjectives satisfactory and satisfying are closely related … but there is an important distinction. Satisfactory denotes the meeting or fulfillment of expectations, standards, or requirements … Satisfying denotes the same, but goes further to connote the pleasure or enjoyment derived from the satisfaction.”

Then there’s “satisfice” (to satisfy the minimum requirements), a term coined in 1956 by Herbert Simon, an American scientist studying decision-making strategies, by blending “satisfy” and “suffice.” The most amazingly useful words are provided at our immensely satisfying public library, including one of the best words in the language: library.

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