Words We Wish We'd Met Sooner

Unfamiliar words are not always what they seem.

For example: Not being a boatman, I was, until just a few minutes ago, unaware of the words gudgeon and pintle.

Coming across them without explanation, I suppose I would have assumed they were possibly two sorts of freshwater fish: the "gudgeon" muscular and toothy, the "pintle" diminutive, lissome, and freckle-backed; the first a solitary and morose frequenter of muddy depths, the second glistening and flashing as they congregate in firefly shoals, their favored habitat the shallows at the pond-edge dappled with sunshine.

In fact, a gudgeon is that metal part into which the pintle of a rudder fits so that it is held to the boat but can be swung easily. Door hinges have a similar relationship of a pintly and gudgeonly kind to door frames.

Any word, if you only repeat it a sufficient number of times in swift succession, begins to sound - and look - odd. It takes on a life of its own separated from precise meaning. But some words are like that on first utterance - like the Scots word ferntickles or fairnytickles. According to my Scottish dictionary it exists, though I have never heard a Scot voice the word. Too bad. It is enchanting and should definitely be given a universal airing. It should even be used, I think, with indiscriminate abandon so as to widen its application.

Weathermen could promise ferntickly cold fronts; geologists could discover seams of ancient sedimentary rock ferntickled into its distinctive form countless millennia ago by the fossilization of primitive plants. On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to reduce a small child to a mass of breathless giggles by ferntickling him or her under the armpits.

But ferntickles, as it happens, have nothing to do with ferns or tickles. They are actually freckles.

Crinkle-crankle is another word of misleading effect that is not spoken half enough. Like cringle-crangle, it describes anything that winds in and out sinuously. In architecture, a wall can be legitimately called a "crinkle-crankle" wall. The Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi is probably the supreme master of the crinkle-crankle wall, as a visit to the Parc Guell up in the higher suburbs of Barcelona spectacularly demonstrates. "Art Nouveau" was a crinkle-crankle aesthetic. Certain over-hybridized forms of petunia have flowers that can only be described as "crinkly-crankly." This is not necessarily a complimentary epithet.

BOTANY as a subject is particularly rich in words that sound unlike their real meaning. Here two will have to stand in for the many: peduncle and flabelliform. The first has nothing to do with uncles, and the second bears no connection at all with flabbiness or bellies. A peduncle is a kind of main stem. And flabelliform, surprisingly, means fan-shaped.

Flipping through the pages of "The Oxford English Dictionary" turns up so many discombobulatingly odd words you can hardly credit it. Many of them are "obsolete," sadly. On the page that has the word wlonk top right, almost all the words starting with the same impossible-to-pronounce conjunction of consonants are (understandably) obsolete. They were the kind of thing Old English people wrote or said back in the earliest centuries.

I am not entirely sure I would like to be described as wlonk or wlonkful. But apparently these words were quite flattering, meaning that you were anything from "magnificent" to "rich in moisture or sap," or even "a fair or beautiful one."

Ugglesome, on the other hand, might half be expected to mean - who knows? - that you are adroitly amusing or witty in a rather loud and Tiggerish way. Yet in truth, "ugglesome" is defined as "fearful, horrible, gruesome."

Fortunately, perhaps, it is described as "now rare." Maybe it just sounded too funny to maintain over the centuries the spine-tickling frisson it originally wrought in the timid and susceptible.

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