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Occasionally in my editing class, the students and I will encounter a word with an unknown meaning—to the students, that is, but sometimes to me too.

Fortunately, there's an unabridged dictionary in the room. This book is only slightly smaller than a sofa and weighs several hundred pounds. At least, that's the way it seems in our world of Kindles and e-books. But I digress.

When we encounter a strange word in class, I hold the unabridged dictionary over my head, calling for "a reading from the Book of Webster," and then let the book slam on the table in front of a student, who looks up the word and reads its definition aloud. But then, I'll take the dictionary and start browsing for random, cool-sounding words. Did you know that being disgruntled is the same thing as not being "gruntled"? Did you know that being underwhelmed is the same thing as being less than "whelmed"? I find words like this in the dictionary in class, and my reaction is somewhere between delighted and gleeful. After all, how can you possibly dislike a word like "gruntled"?

My little show is designed to spark more curiosity about words, to show that playing with them can be fun. And today, while I was reading an online article about editing (I know, I know: I'm a helpless word nerd), I encountered my first fun word of the new year:

Nugatory. New-guh-tore-ee, emphasis on the first syllable. It means "trifling, worthless" (according to my Webster's New World College Dictionary, fourth edition). But its blend of vowels and consonants makes it fit for all kinds of uses that don't have anything to do with its definition. Consider: "He threw a football and hit me right in the nugatory."

W.C. Fields used to be an expert in this sort of wordplay. In his movie My Little Chickadee, when he first spots the sultry, amply endowed Mae West, he asks who the woman is with the "hothouse cognomen." It sounds like he is referring to her body, right? Actually, "cognomen" is (again, according to Webster) "the third or family name of an ancient Roman," or "any family name, surname or last name," or "any name, especially a nickname."

So, to any college-age men reading this: If you're feeling particularly frisky while you're out partying some night, and you see a good-looking woman you want to meet but don't know what to say to her, walk up to her, tell her she has nice cognomen, and ask her if she's interested in slipping away with you for a little nugatory.

Who knows? Something good might happen.

Or you'll wind up getting slapped, or suffocated by a faceful of pepper spray.

One last note: Be careful when describing those massive unabridged dictionaries. The word you want to use is "large."


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 7th, 2011 06:17 am (UTC)
For as often as that book gets opened, you'd think it did weigh several hundred pounds.
Jan. 7th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Once I saw it being used as a doorstop.
Jan. 7th, 2011 11:39 pm (UTC)
The word of the day is "legs". Lets go home and spread the word!
Why only "large"? Why not, say, ginormous?
Jan. 7th, 2011 11:44 pm (UTC)
Re: The word of the day is "legs". Lets go home and spread the word!
"Ginormous" would work. My advisory about "large" was intended as a warning about using the first adjective most people would use in place of "large."
Jan. 8th, 2011 12:02 am (UTC)
Re: The word of the day is "legs". Lets go home and spread the word!
... huge?

*utterly lost*
Jan. 8th, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
Re: The word of the day is "legs". Lets go home and spread the word!
Jan. 8th, 2011 12:22 am (UTC)
Re: The word of the day is "legs". Lets go home and spread the word!
"Big unabridged dictionary"?
Or... "big dic[k]tionary"?
Jan. 8th, 2011 12:58 am (UTC)
Re: The word of the day is "legs". Lets go home and spread the word!
The second alternative. It's impossible to keep a straight face after inadvertently uncorking that one.
Jan. 7th, 2011 11:51 pm (UTC)
It sounds like such fun, this wordplay of which you speak. But I thought every guy wanted a big one.
Jan. 8th, 2011 12:13 am (UTC)
I am going to try to ease gracefully out of this thead now ...
Jan. 8th, 2011 05:20 am (UTC)
Nugatory? I think of Wayne (of Wayne's World) presenting a stoner's philosophy of what makes 3 Musketeers bars so delicious: its nugatory goodness.
Jan. 8th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
That works, Sara, although I have a difficult time picturing you watching "Wayne's World."

I've never been much of a 3 Musketeers guy, though. Snickers tops the list. It has high nugatory content also.

This reminds me of a frozen, summery-sweet treat (can't recall which one) that boasted on its label that it had been "quiescently frozen." In that context the adjective sounded just fine, but it wasn't until later that I found out "quiescent" means "quiet, still, inactive." I got a chuckle out of that one.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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