Many years ago I read a poem entitled “The Grammarian's Funeral." In that spirit, the subject of this column is "A Celebration of the Life of (Almost) Forgotten Words and Phrases." No doubt some of you will be reminded of your own favorite words and expressions that are rarely mentioned these days.
Another of my pets is "gussy," as "all gussied up." It means to dress to the nines or to deck out in a striking fashion. Before you go gallivanting around, it would be good to gussy yourself up. The term comes from a Latin word meaning "majestic, august, revered." Four thousand years ago the root apparently meant "increase, improve"—just what one does to get gussied up nowadays.
If your taste runs to short words, think of "goon," meaning "a booby, lame-brain, nitwit, nincompoop, dimwit, pinhead, dunce, dunderhead, blockhead, numbskull.” I’m sure you know some folks that fit the description. Goon has a second meaning as "a hired thug whose job is to intimidate specific people or groups." The word comes from the gooney bird, so named because the awkward way it takes off and lands makes the bird look stupid. There’s even a WWII era plane (the C-47) that was affectionately nicknamed the “Gooney Bird.”
Moving along, how long has it been since you heard the word "catawampus," meaning" out of alignment, crooked"? I first encountered that one in a story by James Thurber. Itis not to be confused with the "wampuscat" of Cherokee mythology, a woman who disguised herself in the skin of a cougar in order to spy on men of the tribe as they sat around the campfire on a hunting trip and told sacred stories. When the woman was discovered, the tribe's medicine man punished her by transforming her into a half-woman, half-cat, who supposedly still haunts the forests of East Tennessee.
Now I'm going to pull a switcheroo and tell you about a word I never heard or read untila few months ago: "gnomon." It is an astronomical measurement device, and the new science building (IDEA Center) at Austin College has one. It is basically a hole in the ceiling, strategically placed to cast a shadow on the floor precisely when the sun is overhead at high noon. The gnomon pinpoints its shadow a specific spots at the exact time of Summer Solstice, Fall and Spring Equinox, and Winter Solstice.
A special viewing was held in the lDEACenter on Sept. 22 for those who wanted to seethe shadow cross the designated spot at exactly 1:19 p.m. (allowing one hour for daylight saving time and 19minutes for our distance from the equator).
Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite endangered words or phrases?
A retired English professor, Dr. Jerry Lincecum teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any topic: firstname.lastname@example.org