LET'S REMINISCE: Some words I treasure

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Do you enjoy discovering new and interesting words? Having read a lot during my childhood, I had a large vocabulary by the time I finished high school. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to English courses in college and wound up having a career as a professor who liked to teach early English novels. Those old novels further extended my word hoard, as the Old English speakers referred to one’s vocabulary.

Nowadays I am a collector of odd and funny words, like bamboozle, which means to pull the wool over someone's eyes, to dupe, or fool. It also means to cheat out of something, cozen or hoodwink, which brings up some more funny words. Some of my colleagues have tried to use “bamboozlement” as a noun, even funnier than the original adjective. If you want to play it safe, stick to bamboozling; it also works as an adjective.

Another of my favorites is macabre, which means bizarrely terrifying, horrible in a somewhat twisted way, or gruesome. It is suggestive of voodoo. The word is traditionally associated with horrible death: "The train wreck was a macabre scene of corpses and mutilated bodies." However, it doesn’t always have that association: "Miss Taykin greeted Halloweeners dressed in a witch's outfit with a macabre smile on her face."

The source of “macabre” is interesting. One theory has the word borrowed from Spanish macabro, a word that Spanish speakers borrowed from Moorish Arabic maqabir, meaning cemeteries.

I’m also fond of the term ad hoc, which refers to something created temporarily for a specific, non-continuing purpose, like an ad hoc committee on ice removal. It has a second meaning: improvised or impromptu, not planned, as an ad hoc attempt to remove ice from a windshield with a screwdriver.

I like the fact that in “ad hoc” we have what seems to be two words, but they are treated as one. There isn't even a hyphen between these two Latin words. That it is considered a single word in English is demonstrated by the regular derivations that come from it. The noun, “ad hocism,” which means acting in ad hoc ways, is widely used.

Another of my favorite words is canny, which means prudent, frugal or

judicious. In Scotland it is used to suggest that something is steady, restrained, and gentle. It also has a negative, uncanny, which has come to mean weird, eerie, or of supernatural nature. Its word history tells us it was cunnan in Old English, also the origin of cunning. Another relative is the kith of “kith and kin,” from Old English cyth:"acquaintance, friendship, kinfolk."

Contrive is an interesting word that means to devise through cleverness and ingenuity, to scheme, to think up. We have both positive and negative senses of this word. First, the positive: "Clara Sill has contrived an ointment that will remove freckles." Now the negative sense: "Lucinda Head is contriving a way to get herself promoted with a big pay raise." English acquired this word from Old French controver: to fabricate or distort the truth, which fits the negative sense.

Another foreign word I’m fond of is doppelganger, from German, which means a double, someone who bears a very close resemblance to you though they are unrelated and possibly even unknown to you; also an alter ego, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.