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Kitty Benders, Anyone? Henry David Thoreau, Wordsmith

Henry David Thoreau and I do not have a terrible lot in common. We do not agree on philosophy, the appetizing appeal of woodchucks, or the purchase of new clothes. I question whether we would have gotten along at a dinner party, especially since (one thing we would agree on), neither of us like(d) dinner parties, and dinner parties, to my mind, are one event that generally need everyone's determination to have a good time in order for the people involved to actually have a good time. However, one thing that Henry D and I would have had in common is a love of words. Not just of writing or reading, but of specific words. I bet you feel the same way.

July 4th marked the 167th anniversary of Thoreau's decision to go into the woods because he "wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," as he wrote in his classic memoir, Walden. He chose the date deliberately, an Independence Day of his own. And there, in a tiny cottage by Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, he spent two years, two months and two days, observing the world around him. While it's highly debatable just how "alone" he was (he used to scoot back into nearby Concord for his mom's dinners), he spent ample time in quiet contemplation of nature and language. In the midst of that contemplation, Thoreau did something we hardly ever recollect: he developed a handful of new words. All quotes below are from Walden.

Of course, people who love words will eventually make some up. Shakespeare, theatre majors such as myself are told in college, invented over 1,000 words and stuck them into the English language. We can thank him for words such as "dapple" and "puking." Thoreau didn't have nearly the output of Shakespeare, but displayed a particular gift for words that describe natural phenomenon. My favorite is "cliffy" as in (about a hawk) "Its eyry now some cliffy cloud." (Note: "cliffy" means exactly what you'd expect.)

"Whinnering" is good too, as in "I formerly saw the raccoon in the woods behind whose my house is built, and probably still heard their whinnering at night." "Whinnering" is exactly the kind of word one thinks is already in existence, because it is so perfectly descriptive for the right situation, but then one finds out it is not a real word when one tries to play it in Scrabble.  I think it should be. I have been awoken by raccoons — ah, that's not quite true. I have been awoken by people who have been awoken by raccoons out in the garbage bins, and the whole situation would have been better if said people could have whispered, "I hear whinnering! Outside!"

Also exactly right is "looning" — yes, about loons — "This was his looning — perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide," he wrote. I am sure that there is a correct form for the noise a loon makes, but this is much better for capturing the feeling of a man alone in the woods, listening to a crazy-sounding bird. "Looning" is also a perfect description for my classroom around early March, when the hormones have kicked in, but spring has not. It may also have application for describing Congress.

And then there's "leach hole," his made-up term for a pool/puddle of pond water made where "the pond leaked out under a hill into a neighboring meadow." The nearest equivalent I can give is to imagine an indoor pool's drainage area. By the way, don't worry about it, says Thoreau: "I can warrant the pond not need soldering till they find a worse leak than that."

Thoreau was a smart guy, and well-educated at Harvard. Thus, he didn't just make up words. Reading Walden, I noticed he comfortably used existent words I had never heard before. "Estivate" is one, as in "as if he had a design to estivate with us." This means to pass the summer in a state of dormancy, and I feel it should always be pronounced as if being said by Amanda Wingfield. ("We just sat around and essstivated in the sun on the plantation's front yard!") Also good is "cupreous" which means "copper-colored" and is actually recognized by my laptop's spellcheck so is perhaps not as unknown as I flattered myself. Thoreau used it to describe fish. And there's "ebriosity" which just means drunkenness, but might be good code for those who want to talk about someone else's bad habits.

I also really love the reference to "kitty benders." This was a game involving running across the ice without breaking it. The prize was that you didn't die. You lost if you fell through and did die, I guess. I just like that such a dangerous and stupid game has a cute title, which sounds now like the kind of poorly translated English one finds all over Japan.

In fact, reading Walden now occasionally throws up flares of oddness from Thoreau's word choice. Some words clearly did not carry the same connotation then as they do now. It's similar to the word "scheme" in the U.S. and the U.K. For the British "a government scheme" is a plan of some kind to help in some way, such as a lottery or a new nursing home tax. For Americans, "scheme" has the connotation of being up to no good, so we may talk about a government scheme, but we mean it far less benignly.

Similarly, Thoreau talks about a stereotype: "Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sounds in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir…" He's talking about a hoot owl. Back then, a stereotype was merely a kind of permanently created printer's device which allowed repeated printing. You can see where we get our "stereotype" from.

Even more unfortunately, is this: "We are a race of titmen, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper." Um, no. Not that kind of tit. Or man. It's a word he made up, actually, but I put it here just to note that, like "queer", "tit" once meant something far more family-friendly (e.g. a little bird). 

With Independence Day not long behind us, you may not feel the same urge that Thoreau did to step out of your everyday life and create a new world for yourself. After all, chucking it all in for a cabin that didn't even have a toilet is a bit too far for most of us. But we can model ourselves on this minor aspect of Thoreau, and make use of just the right words — even if we have to make them up! — for just the right moment.

This article is adapted from Shannon Reed's non-fiction book project, Into the Woods with Mr. Crankypants: The Many Thoreaus of Walden.


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 9th 2012, 9:05 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
So many uncommon words.
Thanks for this thoughtful addition. I love words too-especially weird words. However, the problem is I can not remember the exact meaning of those words at the right time.
Do you have any suggestion for me?
Monday July 9th 2012, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Mark B.
According to Dictionary.com titman means "the runt of an animal litter, especially the smallest pig."
Tuesday July 10th 2012, 2:17 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
What wonderful details about Thoreau, his coinages, and his idiosyncrasies. (*Love* that "he used to scoot back into nearby Concord for his mom's dinners"!)

It wouldn't surprise me if Thoreau's usage in the phrase "It's (sic) eyry now some cliffy cloud" was acceptable at the time. But in the previous sentence, what about "...words that describe natural phenomenon"?

Pedantically yours,
Rosina

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