Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Linguistic "Humdingers" for Sticky Situations

What sounds do you make when words fail? A garbled stutter? A whistle? Or is there just the resounding bump of your jaw hitting the floor?

Turns out, there are words to capture the wordless shock we experience when we're confronted by mess, noise, violence, or otherwise sticky situations. They're linked by sound: repeated syllables and long vowels that are onomatopoeically evocative of the sounds that come out of our mouths when our brains are overwhelmed. Think, "uh-oh" or "um...ah...."

Which takes us right to brouhaha, used to label a big messy fight, either physical or waged with words. Brouhaha comes from the French brouhaha, a theatrical term meaning "The cry of the devil disguised as clergy." This definition places the word decidedly in the camp of the verbal dust-up, as does an interesting theory which has the French having its source in the Hebrew blessing barukh habba "blessed be the one who comes."

There's nothing not physical about any conflict we might describe as a melee, which comes from the Old French meslee "brawl, confused fight." Mesler, the verb meslee comes from, is also at the heart of words like meddle and medley that deal with things that get mixed up together, whether for good — who doesn't love a medley of patriotic songs? — or ill, as in that person who starts fights by meddling in other people's business. Meddling might even take us straight back to melee.

Or fracas, another long-voweled, repeating syllable word we reach for when punches are thrown. From the French fracas "crash, sudden noise; tumult, bustle, fuss," it suggests broken glass and upended chairs, as in a bar brawl. This may be because, ultimately, the word comes from fra-, a shortening of Latin infra- "below," + the Italian cassare "to break," from Latin for "to shake." (We wrote about fracas recently, following Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson's abrupt departure from the show.)

To describe a fight of a more apocalyptic nature — or if fracas and melee sound a bit foppish to your ear — you might want to add donnybrook to your verbal arsenal. The history of donnybrook is a city official’s nightmare: not long after the establishment of the presumably brawl-heavy Donnybrook Fair in County Dublin in 1855, donnybrook became synonymous with drunken carousing and fisticuffs. Perhaps the word's syllable repetition and long vowels helped us slot it into the "uh-oh" category of words we're looking at here.

Fortunately for our glassware and our physical well being, most of the "uh-oh" situation life brings us are of a less physical and more sticky from a down-the-rabbit-hole-of-corporate-bureaucracy angle. One word in particular was used as a political weapon to describe just such a situation in 1930s America.

Boondoggle, "a contemptuous word for make-work projects for the unemployed" was used by opponents of several New Deal programs, and now in general refers to any program that has gotten to big for its own good, a maze of qualifying criteria and paperwork that is so complicated no one is certain what the program was meant to accomplish in the first place. Before it was utilized to smear New Deal programs, a boondoggle was a pioneer word for "gadget" and a boy scout term for "a woven braid," but the relationship between these definitions and the more modern use is unclear.

Also unclear is how anyone is expected to see their way out of a morass, a word for "wet, swampy tract" which comes from the Dutch moeras for "marsh or fen." A deep, muddy mess of a predicament, a morass tends to involve a complex web of activity and people who are now stuck together, whether they like it or not. There is also often a moral consideration to a morass that, say, a boondoggle lacks. Your typical soap opera plot is one big morass.

If you find yourself in a morass, you’re definitely in trouble. There are however, several words like the ones above that suggest noise but not necessarily of a morally sinister nature. Take tumult, which derives from Latin verb tumere, and means "to be excited, swell." Like the up and down of a roller coaster,  an atmosphere full of tumult can run the gamut from "exciting" to "is this train going off the rails?" and your tolerance for that spectrum is a matter of personal preference.

Hubbub is another word full of noise, and the competing etymological theories do nothing to settle whether all this noise is positive or negative. Originally whobub, the word may be from Gaelic ub!, "an expression of aversion or contempt," or alternatively, from the Old Irish battle cry abu from a word meaning "victory." These words are imitative of the raucous energy they embody.    

Although it is now known primarily as a music festival, it was once possible to call something else a lollapalooza, and when you did you were branding it "a great and wonderful thing." Similarly, a dinger was anything wonderful, but humdinger, from 1905, should be used with caution—it applied almost exclusive to good-looking women, and if the object of this label has enough knowledge of early 20th century slang, you could get slapped. Unless you're Tim Robbins. Check out how he uses humdinger in this clip from Bull Durham here:


All of these words seem to be on one level euphemisms for what they are truly discussing — intensely charged situations that are maybe too out of ordinary experience, or too traumatic, to deal with by simple description. 

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 17th 2015, 6:51 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
Thanks for the fun article. I do have a minor disagreement concerning your description of "morass". I don't believe it involves "people who are now stuck together". A group of people, or indeed a single person, may be stuck in a morass, but the idea of people being stuck to each other, is not part of the definitions that I've seen, or the understanding that I grew up with. That would be an even more icky mental image, and one that I would prefer not be encouraged. Thanks.
Wednesday July 22nd 2015, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I was intrigued by the definition of "boondoggle".
While dictionary correct, in the private sector, boondoggle carries a meaning of "gaming the system for personal benefit" as in its use to describe tax-deductible "business" trips that are expensive excuses for out-of-the-office revelry. That connotation has carried back to government projects under the assumption that someone (e.g., the bureaucrats administering the boondoggle or the consultants being paid taxpayer money to produce BS) is benefiting from the otherwise useless project, if in no other way than drawing a salary or grant.

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