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Help Save the ... How's That Again?

By Ruth Minshull / October 2, 1997



A living language is an ever-changing one. New words are coined; old words are hauled out of dusty corners and restored, others redefined. Jargon is lifted from technical fields and integrated into mainstream vocabularies.

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While new words and new usages enjoy their stint in the limelight, other words quietly die. There's no particular reason for this: They are perfectly suitable words, but people simply stop using them. Finally the dictionaries omit them, and the words are virtually forgotten.

I like the idea of a vibrant, alive language. It's a reflection of contemporary development, knowledge, thinking, products, lifestyles. (Now, there's a contemporary word: lifestyles. Our ancestors didn't need it. Unless they were wealthy, they had no time for lifestyles.)

We certainly need an evolving vocabulary to define our culture. But some old words die prematurely, while there's plenty of use left in them.

Such a word is "smellfungus."

I discovered it in a thesaurus several years ago while searching for something else. What a rich, provocative word! It rambled off the tongue with a satisfying beat. I fell in love with it instantly. But what did it mean? I couldn't imagine, although I did get an image of my son's moist socks as he kicked off his size-12 Reeboks.

Smellfungus, I found (in Webster's Third), is a noun. It means "critic, fault-finder, carper." It's the name of a character in "A Sentimental Journey," by British novelist Laurence Stern, published in 1766.

Mr. Smellfungus was a hypercritical traveler journeying through France and Italy. The character satirized Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett for his descriptions in "Travels Through France and Italy," which had been published two years earlier. Critics of the time considered Smollett's book entertaining, but spiteful and peevish. Mr. Stern apparently agreed.

Now, 231 years later, smellfungus is still in some dictionaries, but certainly among the endangered words. Never have I heard or seen the word in use. An informal poll of my friends has not yielded a single person familiar with it. I must conclude, therefore, that one of these days the lexicographers, in a periodic housecleaning, will say, "We don't need this word anymore; no one is using it." And they'll throw it out and make space for a new definition of "hopefully" (the one that 98 percent of the population is already using).

And that will be the end of a wonderful word.

I SAY, let's not permit this to happen. Many people work industriously to save the whales, elephants, spotted owls, and all sorts of plants and other things from extinction. How about saving a word? We would not be saving lives, but we might be rescuing some of life's enjoyment.

This is a perfect cause for the the reluctant joiner, the noncontributor. It needs no commitments, no dues, no meetings, no elections, no marches or slogan-bearing placards. It requires nothing more than a few seconds now and then - just time enough to drop the word into conversation, when fitting. That shouldn't be too hard. We all know a few. (Smellfungi?)

With a minimum of exertion, we could delight in the satisfaction of knowing that we are helping to save an outstanding word from extinction. And spike our conversation with a little pizazz.