Peeves, Persiflage, and Portmanteaux

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June 18, 2022 by libroshombre

            “Foist,” “to introduce surreptitiously,” is a word I like, perhaps because librarians enjoy  foisting books and information, albeit overtly, but some people are more tolerant of being foisted upon than others.  Whoopie Goldberg once was asked if she found any particular thing annoying; she replied, “I don’t have pet peeves; I have whole kennels of irritations.”  Me, too, including inept use of our language.  However, I admire clever wordsmithing, especially when underused, but very precise, terms are creatively employed.  Rex Stout stands alone in my estimation in presenting bon mots in an amusing, non-pedantic manner, for to say he was a voracious reader is putting it mildly.  Various family members attested to Stout plowing through most of his dad’s 1,250-volume library before the age of six and often making notes in the books’ margins.  His memory was phenomenal as well, and his books inevitably included dozens of obscure, but spot-on (and to word fanciers, quite amusing) terms that can easily be understood from the story’s context.

            Take one a representative example from a Nero Wolfe mystery, “Over My Dead Body,” and you’ll discover locate “persiflage” (“frivolous bantering talk”), “obloquy” (“a strongly condemnatory utterance : abusive language”), “asininity” (“extremely or utterly foolish or silly”), “metonymy” (“substituting the name of an attribute or feature for the name of the thing itself, as in `they counted heads’),” “gospodar” (“a master”), “blatherskite” (“a person who blathers”), among others, including some I suspect were of his own coinage, like “flunkeyed” (what a flunky does), “stoozled” (dazzled), and “sittery.”  He also described the derriere as a “fundament,” and his characters sometimes recall how they “sat on the back of my lap”.

            Clear communications are important, but, as one who enjoys occasionally stretching our lingo’s boundaries, I value amusement, as well, and read with appreciation “Irregardless of Your Agreeance: Language Pedants Are Crying Foul Too Often,” by Sue Butler for  She wrote that for many grammar Nazis and similar pickers of nits, “the desire to be right is more important to them than the desire to defend the language from degradation, which is what they claim to do …. It would be better if the pedants reserved their deep displeasure for the infelicities that really matter … I do care when one word is being confused with another, especially when it is part of a phrase where the meaning of the individual word has become less important than the meaning of the whole phrase. For example, we find that increasingly we are handing over the ‘reigns’ to someone else (as opposed to the ‘reins’).”

            In a NYTimes article by Matt Richtel from several years ago titled, “It’s No Accident: Advocates Want to Speak of Car ‘Crashes’ Instead,” he wrote, “Just don’t call them accidents anymore. That is the position of a growing number of safety advocates, including grass-roots groups, federal officials and state and local leaders across the country. They are campaigning to change a 100-year-old mentality that they say trivializes the single most common cause of traffic incidents: human error. ‘When you use the word “accident,” it’s like, “God made it happen,” ‘ Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said … ‘Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word “accident” conveys.’”

            The Associated Press Stylebook says, “When negligence is claimed or proven in a crash … reporters should “avoid ‘accident,’ which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible.”  Richtel added that Webster’s defines “accident” as “an unexpected happening” that “is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured.”  He goes on to describe how the American industrial boom in the early 1900s led to rising on-the-job injuries, and “accident” was “when companies were looking to protect themselves from the costs of caring for workers who were injured on the job, according to Peter Norton, a historian and associate professor at the University of Virginia’s department of engineering.”

            “Accident” was embraced by the automotive industry in the 1920s when automobile traffic led to soaring public concern over rapidly increasing traffic fatalities.  “A consortium of auto-industry interests, including insurers, borrowed the word to shift the focus away from the cars themselves. ‘Automakers were very interested in blaming reckless drivers,’ Dr. Norton said.  But over time, he said, the word has come to exonerate the driver, too, with ‘accident’ seeming like a lightning strike, beyond anyone’s control. The word accident, he added, is seen by its critics as having ‘normalized mass death in this country,’ whereas ‘the word “crash” is a resurrection of the enormity of this catastrophe.’ ” 

            Which brings us to “The Crash at Crush” wherein an aptly-named railroad employee named William Crush organized a publicity stunt –running two steam locomotives into each other at full speed.  It happened in 1896 at Crush, Texas, a temporary, one-day town with a fleeting population of 40,000 thrill seekers (no admission was charged), that was sponsored by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (aka “the Katy”).  Wikipedia reports that “Katy engineers assured Crush that his grand idea was safe, specifically that the boilers on the steam engines had been designed to resist ruptures and that, even in a very high-speed crash, they were unlikely to explode. Each engine would pull six boxcars behind it; because the couplers used to link the cars were considered unreliable, the cars were chained together to prevent them from coming apart during the impact.”  Crush insisted that onlookers stayed 200 yards away for safety.  He and the engineers all goofed. 

“Crush, riding a white charger, signaled the start of the main event. The engineers and crew aboard each train opened the steam to a prearranged setting, rode for exactly four turns of the drive wheels, and then jumped from the trains.”  Each train reached 45 miles per hour, and as the Dallas Morning News described it, “A crash, a sound of timbers rent and torn, and then a shower of splinters… There was just a swift instance of silence, and then as if controlled by a single impulse both boilers exploded simultaneously, and the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel.”  The boilers did explode, showering shrapnel into the crowd, killing two and injuring others.  “The story made national headlines, and Crush was immediately fired from the Katy Railroad.  In light of a lack of negative publicity, however, he was rehired the next day and continued to work for the company until his retirement, in a career spanning six decades.” 

            The debacle was terrible, and so is “stochastic terrorism,” a new portmanteau expression meaning “The use of mass public communication, usually against a particular individual or group, which incites or inspires acts of terrorism,” horrible examples of which that seem to abound in our nation.  Perhaps it just a troubling a phase, but “Happiness never goes out of style,” as clothing designer Lilli Pulitzer noted.  Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day site is a regular source of happiness for word lovers, and he recently invited readers to submit new portmanteaus, or blended words.  But some entries reflect our troubling times: “innuendiary” (a comment thrown into a conversation to make it explode), “engrage:” (to stimulate use by triggering rage, an in news programming), and “tirate” (a blend of tired and irate: angry because exhausted. Similar to the widely used “hangry”).  And “adamentia” (adamant + dementia: the state of being insistently incorrect when describing a historical event.  Commonly used by spouses).

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