Spectacular, ornacular, vernacular

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By John Pawlak

 Why is a mouse when it spins?  Well, why not?
 That’s a “koan,” a nonsensical question given to a Buddhist student to help teach them the art of meditation and contemplation.  For me, it was just a great question to ask during an interview and then watch to see how long it took for the candidate to start breathing again.
  In high school, I always did well in math and I took equal pride in my inability to do well in my language classes (or should I say I dint do good).  I recall reading that the great mathematicians throughout history were usually terrible at language.  And at some point in my not-so-accurate education, I was told that people are either left-brained or right-brained (which by the way isn’t true), and that the left-brain controlled mathematics and language.
 And so the theory was that if you were good at math, you didn’t have any “brain room” for language.   I was subsequently told that I was “left brained,” which made perfect sense to my parents who often remarked that I was not in my right mind.
 But as I’ve gotten older (I’m still waiting for the getting wiser part), I’ve found language to be a truly amazing area of study.  The sheer volume of words out there leaves one nonplussed.
 Nonplussed?  Why didn’t they just say subtracted?  Would saying that one is nonsubtracted mean that they are plussed?
 But I digress.  I was reading an article about the history of cheese and it mentioned the abomasum.  Cheese was accidentally discovered by people storing milk in “bags” made from the stomach of a cow, goat or sheep. These stomachs manufacture mixtures of enzymes called rennet which curdles the milk and renders cheese.
 The abomasum is the fourth stomach and contains most of the rennet. Now, as fascinating as all that is, I was more fascinated by the fact that someone came up with a name for the fourth stomach.  Being far less inventive, I would have just named it “the fourth stomach.”
And who would have guessed that a goat’s stomach could be galactic?
No, not enormous.  Like many words in our prodigious language, the word ‘galactic’ has multiple definitions.  One definition is “of or pertaining to milk.”  Kind of makes me wonder why no one ever made a kiddie drink called Galactic Chocolate.
When teaching geometry, students learn the concept of a tangent line.  I tell them that a tangent line osculates a curve at a single point, which means “kisses” it.  In that sense, geometry teaches philematology (the science of kissing).
 As I pound out this nonsensical verbiage, does that make me scripturient?   (having a violent desire to write)
 OK, so words can be strange.  Even paradoxical.  For example, there’s no word that means ‘synonym’, right?  Well, actually, there is one.  Poecilonym.  I suppose synonym is more popular because it rolls off the tongue a bit easier.
  Well, you don’t have to be fissilingual (having a forked tongue) to perorate (speak) like a usageaster (a person who pretends to be an expert on language).
  My wife wants me to admit that when she first met me, I saw no value at all in “obscure” words.  I used to ridicule her for having a vocabulary greater than two hundred words.
  But do we really need words like ruelle (the space between the wall and the bed), yepsen (the amount of water you can hold with cupped hands), or dibble (to drink like a duck)?
  And how often does someone use the word acetarious (referring to plants used in salads) or exophagy (cannibalism outside one’s own group)?  Or boanthropy (a form of insanity in which a person thinks he’s an ox)?  Now, someone thinking that they’re an axolotl, that I could understand!
  I have to admit, however, that knowing caliginous (obscure) words does have its innate value.  Telling my brother that he’s a cebocephalic scholar sounds wonderful (until my scholarly brother looks up that word).
  Of course, oracular vernacular could terrify someone with verbophobia.
 Though.  Myself, I’m anxiously looking forward to when I can proudly admit to being a devout practicing sexagenarian.
  John Pawlak
 Los Alamos Columnist