There’s fun in words


Literally. You can find fun in words. Like fungus. Maybe you know a guy, and he is fun, so you say he is a fun guy. And if his name is Gus, maybe you say he is one fun Gus.

As you know if you know what’s good for you, fungi rhymes with fun guy. Every time someone uses the other pronunciation that rhymes with fun jai, a dung beetle dies. And do you really want to live in a world without dung beetles? No, because once they are gone, we are in deep doo-doo.


We eat fungi, which are both tasty and sometimes deadly. Fungi live on us and sometimes invade our toes.

Fun Guy: George, you’ve got some fungosity    going there on your toes.
George: You nailed it, Fun Guy. You’ve got onegood eye.


You also might have made a go of something fun like bowling blindfolded. Then you could say you made a fun go of it. And if you talked quickly, squeezing those last seven words together because you heard a loud yell after you threw the bowling ball, you would say you made a fungo of it, and it would be true. Or almost true if your bowling ball was just struck by someone’s foot three lanes over, because fungo is baseball talk for striking a ball thrown up in the air. And that means one of two things: you shouldn’t bowl blindfolded no matter how fun it is, or you need to work on your hook.



The term fungo snuck into the baseball lexicon sometime in the 1880s, probably by climbing over the fence to watch the game. No one knows for sure, except for those people who think they know for sure. Like so many English nouns it has a second career as a verb. So, a person can fungo during practice, or have a coach who thinks fungoing is essential, which in my book is a fungoing coach.

If you think there’s a lot of fun in blindfolded bowling (and frankly, who doesn’t?), you probably think that there’s just as much of it in funambulism, aka tightrope walking. If etymology were done correctly, that fun in funambulism would derive from the word fun, or amusement. We would be left with a fun kind of ambulating, which is a four-syllable way of talking about simple two-syllable walking. However, the Romans lacked the kind of etymological skills that would truly benefit posterity because they spent too much time conquering and slaughtering barbarians to develop much of a sense of humor. In addition, they appeared too early in history to even know about the word fun. This is often true of people who show up too early at a party and then leave before the real party begins.


Courtesy of Philip Bitnar



In what has to be the worst instance of word origin I’ve run across today, they borrowed that first syllable in funambulism from funis, Latin for rope. In one fell swoop, they cut the rope under my feet, so that instead of enjoying the fun of walking 50 stories high on a thin rope connected to two buildings on a windy day in the Windy City, I’m left trying to walk across a rope. Etymology is such a heartbreaker.


If I had more time, and trust me, you are going to be glad I don’t, I could write a ditty, a simple song, about etymology’s betrayals. Of course I would have to make it fun. I’m a positive person and very pro fun, so I would call it a profundity, but I don’t think anyone else would agree.







Words are like people. Some of them look alike because they come from the same parentage. Both “sanguine” and “sanguinary” are adjectives and were born from sanguis, Latin for blood. So, after learning that a sanguine person is cheerful or optimistic, you might run into the word “sanguinary” while reading a text, look at its ruddy face, and expect it to tell you a joke or recite an inspiring quote. Don’t be surprised if it pulls out a knife and threatens you. The only thing it’s cheerful about is bloodshed and cruelty.


Other words, like the nouns “desert” and “dessert” look so much alike, people can hardly tell the difference. If you look closely, you’ll see that “dessert” looks more curvaceous. It’s that extra “s” in the middle. They’re not related although both words have ancestors who came from the Latin. Other than that, the only similarity is that desert is a waste place, and dessert goes to a waist place.


The other day I ran into “twee” online. It was modifying a noun, music, and speaking in a colloquial accent telling everyone who would listen that the music was sickeningly sweet.  I’ve heard it say things like that before. It also has the remarkable ability to make bird sounds. You may have heard it imitate the wren by saying twee-twee-twee.


1916 cover (Wikipedia)


Twee in its original sense of sweet or dainty first appeared in print in the British magazine, Punch, around 1905. Someone heard a children pronouncing “sweet” as “tweet,” then took the word and dropped the “t.” It was the linguistic form of stealing candy from a baby. Now it disparages music and people by calling them mawkish or overly sentimental.


I like how the word sounds. Twee rhymes with glee and whee, words of enthusiasm and joy. I’ve heard birds chirp it, and I’ve had small children answer “Twee” when I asked their age. Elmer Fudd climbed twees looking for that wascally wabbit, Bugs Bunny. “Be vewy, vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits,” he used to say. Twee is a word that fits in your pocket, a small joke of a word, a word with punch.


When sister was twee, she stood front of a twee. You can almost hear the birds singing, "Twee, twee, twee."



Even though the masters of irony and sophistication have forced twee to make disparaging remarks about other people, I won’t abandon it. That’s just its corrupted twin. Elmer Fudd and I know the real twee, and any word that is a friend of birds, Elmer, and three-year-olds is a friend of mine.



Portrait of Elmer J. Fudd courtesy of Wikipedia.



Some words




Yesterday I interviewed the word “some.” Today you’ll see why I was impressed.


The Anglo-Saxons, those lovers of sturdy, compact words, spelled “some” with just three letters, sum. When you are a warrior, you can’t go into battle with extra gear, so you like your words spare and without extraneous letters. They bog you down. Anglo-Saxon warriors invaded and settled much of Britain, with simple spears, throwing them at their enemies until they got the point that this was more than a road trip. The ships the Anglo-Saxons came in weren’t going back. Those warriors also sent their words out to conquer hearts: read Beowulf and be prepared to submit. Today, when we want to make a point, we often grab some of those well-honed Anglo-Saxon words and throw them at our listener or reader.


First page of Beowulf manuscript from Wikipedia


Although “some” has been working for writers since the 9th century, including King Alfred the Great who translated of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, it still looks great. I think it’s because it gets so much exercise.


Some use it as a pronoun. As I just did. However, some people prefer it as an adjective. Like me, in that last sentence. Back when “some” was starting its career, it worked as both. Then in the late 1500s, it applied for a job as an adverb, pairing up with comparative adjectives, to say, “I’m feeling some better now.” Once it got used to being an adverb, some Americans asked it to work with verbs so they could say, “I think some about retiring from my job, so I can read blogs all day.” You might use it as an adverb, too, when you write your mother and say, “I’m sorry I haven’t written in the last six months, I now read some 200 blogs a day. I promise I’ll call at Christmas.”


Even though “some” likes being its own word and going out alone, it’s not a loner. In fact, it likes nothing better than going places with other words. After years of appearing in public with words like “one,” “body,” “where,” and “time,” it agreed to give up its autonomy and become one word, with the stipulation that its name appear first. It’s the only evidence of self-promotion that I discovered about “some.”


Since “some” rarely calls attention to itself, I’m inclined to look kindly on its desire to appear first because I admire its willingness to serve a suffix. As you well know if you read this blog, a suffix is like a dog’s tail. Had you bought my Dog and a Half kit (now marked down 85%!), which you didn’t, you would have been able to create a lot of words with the suffix –some. That should give you pause.


Back in the early 900s, “some” joined hands with “love” and produced that most lovable word, one of my favorites, called “lovesome.” Around the same time, it joined up with the word wyn, which meant “pleasant” or “agreeable” and gave us the word we now spell as “winsome.” It worked as a suffix for several hundred years, but for some reason, words like “whosome,” “whatsome,” and “wheresome” never caught on. I like them and think we should try to revive them.


In the middle of the 1400s, “some” became interested in numbers. Writers could now speak of a “twosome” or a “threesome.” Today, we have dozens of words – nouns,  adjectives, and verbs –  that end in the suffix –some. Some are regional, but they belong to all of us who love words. Here are some of my favorites:


  • Blithesome – cheery
  • Bunglesome – troublesome
  • Chucklesome – amusing
  • Delightsome – pleasing
  • Fulsome – abundant; plenteous
  • Fretsome – given to fretting
  • Irksome – wearisome
  • Meddlesome – given to meddling
  • Toothsome – pleasant to the taste
  • Ugsome – loathsome
  • Woesome – woeful

I could go on, but that would be tiresome and boresome. Have a heartsome day – one full of gladness and cheer.


An extract from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Laud Misc. 636, fol. 62v.

Lovesome words and politics


Why, why, why didn't I download that dictionary app when I had the chance?

Defenestration is my new best word friend forever (BWFF) or until a smarter looking one comes along.


First, it has five syllables, which makes it what is known in etymological circles as a “big” word. Big words are not only a sign of intelligence but can also be used to flummox your friends. Because no one wants to admit that they don’t know the meaning of a big word. Like, really.


Here’s how flummoxing works:


You: I’m so tired!


Your friend: Why? What did you do on the weekend?


You: I was reading a book without a proper ending and I got so riled up, I defenestrated it. It felt so good that I went through the house and defenestrated things for hours. How about you? Did you do any defenestrating over the weekend?


Your friend: Uh…well…yeah, actually…oh, I think I have a message on my phone. Excuse me for a minute.


At this point, your friend will pretend to be checking his or her phone for messages but actually will be looking the word up. But only if the now former friend remembered to download the dictionary app. (Did I mention that flummox is French for “confuse and lose friends”?)


Flummoxing aside, I love the word for the story behind it. The Thirty Years’ War in Europe started in 1618 when some Bohemian nobles threw two government officials and their secretary out of a window to protest the violation of their religious rights. Throwing people out of windows was apparently a common pastime of Bohemians of that day, but up until then, no one knew quite the right word to express it.  The three human projectiles that set off the war landed on a pile of rubbish, and so escaped, bruised and smelling of rotten cabbage, but alive. Thankfully, video cameras had not been invented back then; otherwise, defenestration would become a meme like planking, and people who don’t know big words would be defenestrating all over the place.

Elections: windows of opportunity to practice defenestration

This pane-ful act gave birth to the word we now know as defenestration, which means “to throw out of a window.”  It combines the prefix de-, which gives the meaning of something removed or put away, with the Latin word for window, fenestra.


You see how lovesome the word is. Its story reminds me that there are a number of government officials that I would like to defenestrate, particularly those who have failed to compromise and do what’s right for the country, instead of licking the boots of lobbyists and big money contributors. Election time is our window of opportunity, people. Rise up and defenestrate.