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One of my favorite post-retirement activities is browsing among books in various libraries and bookstores, usually among those on language. I’ve found humorist Willard Espy’s observation to be true: “Ours is a language that reveals its secrets in winks, allusions, sighs, and giggles.”

Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of some lexical curiosities I’ve noticed:

If you sit around with your mouth gaping open, people may view your rictus, and unless you have a large moustache, your philtrum (that little vertical trough between your nose and your upper lip) is also visible. Not readily visible is the frenulum, the thin muscle under the tongue. You may not have known you have a vomer, but it’s that slender little bone separating the nostrils. You probably have a fine tragus, that fleshy bump of the ear between the side of the face and the ear cavity.

The dermatograph is the surgeon’s or allergist’s crayon used for producing markings on the skin. Presumably the notorious surgeon who carved his initials on the abdomen of one of his patients couldn’t find his dermatograph. Actually, the obstetrician, Dr. Allan Zarkan is said to have exclaimed, “I did such a beautiful job, I’ll initial it.”

The word with the most useless letters: phlegm.

It’s a long time before the next national election, but not too early to consider some curious political terms. According to the late Eugene T. Maleska (demonic former crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times) there’s a word for “the slimy art of altering one’s opinion or position to follow popular trends.” It’s girouettism. It comes from the French word for weathercock, girouette. Perhaps you will be reminded of a politician or two. There’s also a word for a defamatory falsehood published for political effect: roorback.

Another interesting lexical curiosity is FIDO, an acronym the U.S. mint uses for its mistakes: (freaks, irregularities, defects, oddities.) That dime is a real dog?

I doubt if anyone has counted the number of words used to denote drunkenness, but nearly fifty years ago, Edmund Wilson compiled a glossary of 108 terms denoting that condition. The number has probably doubled by now. Booze has been used as a slang for intoxicating drinks since the fourteenth century.

Certain words contort the face when you say them, isthmus, thwart, and sphinx, for example. And one word that people who have lisps have difficulty pronouncing: lisp. That somehow seems unfair.

Some words are often seen in print, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone (well, maybe the late William F. Buckley once used them): words such as pusillanimity, ignominious and catachresis. I doubt if even sesquipedalian Buckley would ever be tempted to use the longest word in the English language: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters).

The longest one-syllable word in our language is screeched. And the longest word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is uncopyrightable.

The word brassiere has been globally shortened to bra. According to an article by Diane Wright that I clipped several years ago from the Everett Herald, the etymology of the word is murky, but she claims to have found one possibility in The People’s Almanac: German inventor Otto Titzling “was working in his uncle’s undergarment factory in New York when he went to the opera to hear a young, aspiring singer named Swanhilda Olafsen. After the concert, she complained of breathing problems from the corset she wore to support her huge breasts.

Titzling invented a chest halter for her but neglected to take out a patent on the garment. Women probably would be wearing “titzlings” today if it weren’t for Parisian aviator-turned-dress-designer Philippe de Brassiere, who stole the idea and made a fortune on the garment. I feel I should insert a quotation by humorist Dave Barry here: “I am not making this up.”

Nadine Smith

A native of Oklahoma, Nadine Smith holds a master’s degree in adult education from Arizona State University.

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