Topical Guide 11
Words; Logophilia; Language; Meaning; Dialect, Slang, Idiolect, Shibboleths
I giggled and clapped my hands and said kitten, my favorite among the words I knew, a new one, one that I understood, from watching Gumma’s cat’s kittens hop and tumble about, as a verb, meaning “hop and tumble about.”
Little Follies, “My Mother Takes a Tumble”
Splines. What a nice word. This was my first encounter with it. It appealed to me at once. It seemed inherently poetic, sensual. In fact, it sounded so good that I could imagine lots of uses for it, none of which was related to combination locks. Splines could be soft, round, benign creatures, handy to writers as emblems of hope and calm: “When the storm abated at last, Cynthia and I emerged from the cave where we’d sought shelter. A preternatural calm had settled over the sea, and the splines had come out to sun themselves on the rocks.” Just as easily, they could be the sort of rich, comforting food that grandmothers specialized in: “Jimmy! Time to get up now, you hear? Grandma has fixed you your favorite — hot splines with butter and honey.”
Where Do You Stop?
No one in the world can free his thinking from the manner in which his time wears the cloak of language. Thus no man can know to what extent he actually means what he writes, and in writing it is far less that people twist words than it is that words twist people.
Robert Musil, “The Paintspreader,” in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author
The “slim” in their slang, at the time Protos and he were schoolboys together, were a genus who, for one reason or another, did not present to all persons and in all places the same appearance. According to the boys’ classification, there were many categories of the “slim,” more or less elegant and praiseworthy; and answering to them and opposed to them was the single great family of “the crusted,” whose members strutted and swaggered through every walk of life, high or low.
Our schoolfellows accepted the following axioms:
1. The slim recognize each other.
2. The crusted do not recognize the slim.
Andre Gide, Les Caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures), translated by Dorothy Bussy
MY DIFFICULTIES with the meanings of blow were compounded by a local Babbingtonian teenage slang term derived from it, blow up, which meant “amaze and delight” with a touch of “impress.” Something that blew one up came unexpectedly, brought pleasure, and affected one strongly enough to make one expect that it would leave a lasting memory.
Variations emerged, as you would expect. Inflate became a more elegant, learned, and formal synonym; so, while one might say of the doo-wop tune “Trickle, Trickle” by the Videos, “that blows me up,” one might say of the duettino “Viens, Mallika,” in act one of Delibes’s Lakmé, “it inflates me,” as I did upon being asked by Dudley Beaker what I thought of it, following his playing a recording of it, to which he had required me to pay close attention.
“What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
“I mean I liked it,” I said. I also meant, of course, that I was surprised and delighted to find that I liked it, in part because I had not expected to, but I wasn’t going to add that.
“What a curious locution,” he said, because he was not a teenage Babbingtonian.
Inflating a Dog
[more to come on Thursday, May 27, 2021]
Have you missed an episode or two or several?
You can catch up by visiting the archive or consulting the index to the Topical Guide.
You can listen to the episodes on the Personal History podcast. Begin at the beginning or scroll through the episodes to find what you’ve missed.
At Apple Books you can download free eBooks of “My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?” and “Life on the Bolotomy,” the first three novellas in Little Follies.
You’ll find an overview of the entire work in An Introduction to The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. It’s a pdf document.
For anyone interested in language I recommend Kevin Stroud’s ‘The History of English Podcast’.