Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly.
I bought a new computer keyboard the other day. The one I had worked fine, but many of the letters were almost worn off and others were completely gone, pounded into oblivion by my graceless two-finger typing. Of course, anyone who touch types doesn't need to read the letters, but I don't touch type. I left my high school typing class unable to.
After all these years, I still must look at the keyboard. If I'm typing from my head and looking at the keyboard, I can type a mile a minute with two index fingers, but if I have to copy something, I slow down markedly — look at the paper, look at the keyboard; look at the paper, look at the keyboard. And I literally pound the keys, which partially accounts, I suppose, for the faded letters on the ones I hit most often. I've seen keyboards long-used by writers, secretaries and transcriptionists showing no sign of letter wear because they touch type with gossamer lightness.
gossamer GAH suh mer
the fine film of cobwebs often seen floating in the air or caught on bushes or grass; a soft, sheer, gauzy fabric: hence, anything thin or insubstantial
A young Southerner, Reynolds Price, has written an exceptionally fine first novel, "A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE" (Atheneum, $3.95), and, all told, Mr. Price looks like one of the most promising talents to have emerged for some time. Mr. Price's opening did put me off; the writing seemed lush, and I feared that this might turn into a light trifle of Southern sweet talk and honeysuckle. But very quickly it became clear that this was no purveyor of gossamer sensibility but a very sure and adult writer with a firm grip on his materials. —William Barrett, April 1962
My faded and obliterated keys are A, D, E, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S, T, U, Y. Ladies and gentlemen, that's more than half the alphabet. And while the E is, understandably, heavily faded, the O and the I are completely gone from my keys, which surprises me, for the E is far more used in written English. (And in spoken English, too, no doubt.) The heavily faded A and U keys bring up the vowel rear. But why is the G so worn, and the H, L, M, N, R, S and T? And, for goodness sake, why the almost rubbed out Y? It's a conundrum.
conundrum kuh NUHN druhm
a puzzling question or problem
For years nailing down the date and location of the origin of chess was stymied by an archaeological conundrum. Experts had long believed that chess was invented in Asia in the sixth century, but this conclusion was cast into doubt by the discovery, in 1932, of a set of ivory chess pieces in a grave in Italy dating back to the third century. Six decades passed before radiocarbon dating established that the chess pieces were probably of tenth-century manufacture, reviving the original theory. How the pieces found their way into that third-century grave remains a mystery. —Cullen Murphy, September 2000
Could my conundrum be easily solvable, I wonder? Indeed, what's with that faded Y? Does the adverb-rich writing to which I was addicted in 2008 perhaps explain that virtually letterless key? Could I have gone so unabashedly, unconscionably and unflaggingly overboard adverbially as to have nearly completely worn it off?
Furthermore, was I so agreeably, amenably and, yes, dear reader, lamentably acquiescent in half a decade's e-mail correspondence as to have distractedly, discombobulatedly, even unethically, surfeited my keyboard with yeses — Y-heavy affirmative responses to all and sundry e-mail requests — in addition to tapping out countless adverbial suffixes? Was I so adverbially excessive as to have nearly obliterated our beloved alphabet's penultimate letter, the letter which, preceded by L, ends so many words I'm fond of using, like atavistically, oxymoronically, monochromatically, cadaverously, pussyfootingly and puissantly?
puissant PWI suhnt
powerful; mighty; potent
Years ago someone called steam "that great civilizer." Never has it been more alive, more usefully in the service of man, more puissant, than in this fourth decade of the twentieth century. —George W. Gray, January 1937
Then it hit me. Syzygy must have been the straw that dulled the keyboard's Y, the word that at one time permeated my casual conversation and e-mails, the word that had me pounding countless y's on my keyboard and that I shook off my obsession with only when I discovered ensorcelled and worked and wove and wangled that word into every conversation and e-mail for months.
syzygy SI zuh jee
in astronomy, the alignment of three bodies of the solar system along a straight or nearly straight line, here used figuratively to mean a rare conjunction of two stellar figures: Greek, syzygos, yoked together
1811-1812. A rich autumn of grape harvesting, of golden forests and red sunset skies. The last but two symphonies and the last violin sonata. Lovely declining days and latter-day loves. And the encounter of two suns, Beethoven and Goethe. It was a brief meeting. For centuries the Fates had been preparing the syzygy of these two stars in the firmament of poetry and music. The hour arrives, and the hour passes; their paths have crossed, and each has gone his way. We must wait another thousand years before such an event can occur again. How I envy those who saw them. I even borrow the eyes off such people, and imagine that I too can see the slumbering images of these men reflected as in a pool. —Romain Rolland, February 1929
Although e-mail idiosyncrasies may have played a role in my erstwhile keyboard's worn down Y, there are of course far more prosaic explanations. An online list of the most frequently used words in English helped me to see why most of my keyboard letters were faded or gone. Very simply, they are found in the most commonly used English words.
In addition, most of the letters faded or gone from my keyboard, I have learned, correspond, overall, to the frequency of letter use in the English language. Here's the alphabet with its letters in order of frequency:
E T A O I N S H R D L U C M W F G Y P B V K J X Q Z
[Etaoin shrdlu, pronounced eh tay oh in SHIRD loo, is a phrase (of sorts) composed of the 12 most common letters in English, in descending order of frequency. The sequence of letters in the phrase originated from the way the most frequently used letters in the English language appear on the first two lines of keys on the left side of the keyboard of the linotype machine, which, from 1886 until the advent of computerized typesetting, was used to set type for newspapers and other publications. Linotype operators could not start a line over if they made a mistake; they had to finish it, which they did by simply running their fingers down the two lines of keys on the left side of the keyboard, keys that happened to spell out etaoin shrdlu. Then they would begin the line again. If a linotyper forgot to discard the bad line — by physically lifting it from the banks of type — it would appear in the newspaper. For a century etaoin shrdlu must have appeared in newspapers millions of times.]
As you can see, G is way down the list of letter frequency, yet on my keyboard it's one of the most faded. Could it be because it's a letter in my last name, which I frequently type? I doubt it; I don't type it that much. I'm guessing it's actually my frequent use of agog, gargantuan, gregarious, grudgingly, gung-ho, glug-glug and moo goo gai pan, words I frequently use in e-mail responses to solicitations from individuals in foreign countries who offer me 20 percent of their national treasury in exchange for temporarily depositing the country's entire treasury in my bank account.
The letters on the I and the O keys are no longer visible, completely obliterated. You would think that after all these years I'd nevertheless know the correct key to hit for the letter I wanted. But I continuously hit the wrong key, typing i's for o's and vice versa, and ending up with hos, O thonk, frim, whoch, nit, sime, liik, twi, gi, iol spoll, odoit and koss; and creating sentences like,"Liikong firward ti yiur vosot. See yiu siin."
Despite its worn and bare keys, my former keyboard's B, J, K and V remained pristine — a mystery to me, considering the workout I gave them on my e-mails alone: my frequent use of flibbertigibbit, an affectionate epithet I use when referring to my wife; my labeling of almost everything on television as jejune; my obsessive admiration for Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times's brilliant book reviewer; and my perhaps inordinate use of ovoviviparous as a catchall adjective when I can't think of another (e.g., "I hope the rain dissipates this ovoviviparous humidity"). And yet the B, J, K and V showed no signs of wearing. Go figure.
jejune juh JOO:N
unsatisfying to the mind or soul; dull; flat; insipid
In Henry Adams, I discovered not only the prototype of the modern thinker but also someone who is more interesting: a viper-toothed, puling, supercilious crank, thwarted in ambition, aging gracelessly, mad at the cosmos, and ashamed of his own jejune ideals. He is nevertheless very dear to me. And he appears in my front-hall mirror. —P. J. O'Rourke, December 2002
And my barely visible L? Perhaps it was those -ology words, which I have a penchant for using even in casual conversation, like epistemology, morphology and philology, not to mention teleology and etiology. In one way or another, gosh darn it, they slip into my e-mails at every turn, almost compulsively. I hope to learn soon the etiology of this admittedly pretentious compulsion and eliminate it, as fewer and fewer friends have been responding to my e-mails.
etiology ee tee AH luh jee
the cause or origin of something
About 300 children fell ill with stomach cramps and hallucinations and then lost their hair in the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy in the autumn of 1988. According to Moscow News, the illness triggered an exodus from the city, in which parents, desperate to send their offspring to safety, "stormed the railway station, besieged the airport, and battled to get a seat on a bus." In all, 40,000 children were sent away. Whatever its etiology, the affliction known in the USSR today as the "chemical disease" has not disappeared. —Gabriel Schoenfeld, December 1990
But why the H, whose faded left vertical line alone remains on the keyboard? With what words did I pound that letter two-thirds into oblivion? I may have to consult a hierophant for the answer.
hierophant HIGH yuhr oh fant
an interpreter of sacred mysteries or esoteric principles
To plain people there is an aura of mystery about gold; partly because, as money, they never see it. It sits in subterranean fortresses of incredible complexity, and from their gloomy silence works its queer alchemy upon the fate of nations by processes that only its hierophants can comprehend. —William Orton, February 1932
As I dump my superannuated and timeworn keyboard, cocoa stains and all, I cannot but admire the way its keys withstood the millions of times my fingertips banged, pounded and pummeled them, and regret that I could not have typed more gently.