Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Getting "Discombobulated" on Lexicon Valley

I've been a fan of Lexicon Valley, Slate's podcast about language, since it began a couple of years ago, and so I was honored when Mike Vuolo, who hosts the show with Bob Garfield, asked if I'd like to be featured regularly on it. Together, we decided on a format that would be fun for us, as well as, we hope, the listeners: I would come prepared with a mystery word, and Mike and Bob would have to guess the word itself and its origins.

The feature, dubbed "LinguaFile," will alternate with longer episodes focusing on a particular language-related topic. For each episode, I'll use my Word Routes column here to provide a more in-depth exploration of the word I've selected. The first LinguaFile episode is out now: you can listen to it here.

The first mystery word didn't remain a mystery for very long, as Mike cracked my first clue right away and came up with the answer discombobulate. But the hosts had a harder time guessing the origins of the word, meaning "to disturb, upset, disconcert." As I explain on the podcast, it seems like it's a Latin-derived word, but the unusual middle syllable of bob is a clue that the word is only posing as Latin. In fact, it dates to an era when Americans exulted in fabricating jocular words with faux-classical roots.

The pseudo-Latin concoction started its life in the 1820s, a time of great inventiveness in American English, as discomboberate (also spelled as discomboborate or discombobberate). In 1825, an item from the Georgia Patriot appeared in a number of newspapers around the country, relating how some local militiamen had set out to attack the Creek Nation. General Edmund P. Gaines, who had been dispatched to deal with the conflict with the Creek Indians, had stopped the attack. The Patriot wryly reported, "How this interference of Gen. Gaines will affect the peace and harmony of our citizens ... time alone can disclose. It is feared the leading ones will find their plans rather discomboberated."

Later in the 1820s, the word appeared in an self-consciously highfalutin conversation that was widely circulated in humor columns:

"Good-morrow friend, how do you feel to-day."
"Pretty well; how are you?"
"Oh, sir, the intense frigidity of the circumambient atmosphere, combining with the porosity of the earth, and joined with the humidity of the climate has discomboborated my respiration and affected my theoreticks."

The -ulate ending doesn't show up until 1839, in the noun form discombobulation. The New York magazine The Spirit of the Times reported on a Boston production of Shakespeare's Richard III that descended into farce, thanks to the atrocious acting of the lead in the play. Here is the description of the climactic scene at the Battle of Bosworth Field, in which Richard is slain by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond:

In fighting with Richmond, he was particularly effective. Never Richard fought with such determined valor. After a prolonged collision with "gallant Harry," he was about to fall, when a voice from the gallery shouted, "Don't back out, Neddy!" and caused him to renew the battle with valor worthy of a better issue. Finally, Richmond was obliged to trundle him, neck and heels, to the earth, to the utter discombobulation of his wig. He died hard, and not until run through and through repeatedly.

The change from -erate or -orate to -ulate was likely influenced by another pseudo-Latinism that was popular at the time: absquatulate, meaning "to abscond with." The -ulate verb ending sounds Latin enough, based on words like tabulate or perambulate. But in the original form discomboberate, there is an echo of the word bobbery, a word that meant "confusion" or "noise." Bobbery, in turn, apparently came from India, as a colonial mangling of the Hindi exclamation Bap re! (O Father!). The great Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson-Jobson (which I discussed here), explains how bobbery and bobbery-bob came to be.

From discomboberate and discombobulate came ever-more-elaborate words for being thrown into confusion. Two great examples came from a 1916 word list in Dialect Notes compiled by Louise Pound of the University of Nebraska, who kept track of words used by her students and colleagues: discomgollifusticated and discumgalligumfricated.

The joy that Americans take in this word continues to the present day. If discombobulation is the act of confusing, then surely one must be able to rectify the situation through recombobulation. As noted by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman on their Grammarphobia blog, people have had this idea since at least 1970, as in this passage from the mystery novel Poetic Justice (by Carolyn Gold Heilbrun writing under the pen name Amanda Cross):

"To return," Reed said, "to the conversation of last night, why has misrule and horseplay brought you to such a state of discombobulation? Or, since it has, may I offer my help in recombobulation?"

Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport has enshrined this fanciful word in a sign for the "Recombobulation Area," where travelers recompose themselves after passing through the airport's security screening. It's a wonderful use of a word to lighten the mood in a potentially tense situation; in fact, recombobulation area won the "Most Creative" category in the American Dialect Society's vote for 2008 Word of the Year. We continue to find new ways to discombobulate and recombobulate our words.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.