Back in May of last year, I posted on the subject of strange words for unusual concepts. That provoked a lot of interesting responses from you all, so I (perhaps a little belatedly!) decided it was time to dig out a few more weird and wonderful words to define for you. Some of these lexicographical oddities may be more familiar than others, but they all refer to strangely familiar ideas and experiences you might be surprised to know there is even a word for!
Well, I’ll be @*&%ed, so that’s what a grawlix is! And indeed, that sentence contains an excellent example of exactly what a grawlix is – the use of a string of random punctuation marks to indicate swearing, more usually seen in comic book speech bubbles. Created as what was, quite frankly, a bit of a private joke by the American cartoonist Mort Walker in the 1960s, the use of the word grawlix to indicate such a concept has come to take on a validity and a life of its own. By the early 1980s, Walker had written The Lexicon of Comicana, which defined both grawlix and a number of other rather excellent words for common comic book concepts including squeans (the squiggles round a character’s head indicating drunkenness or dizziness), solrads (lines indicating the brightness of the sun or a light) and briffits (the cloud of dust left behind when a character dashes away at speed). Walker’s book is still in print and has become a key text for anyone studying the art of the cartoonist.
We’ve all had one of those fateful moments, usually in the early hours of the morning while lying in bed, the half-waking mind slowly processing our contribution to the most significant conversation of the day, when we suddenly think “Dammit, I should have said…” – and that, my friends, is the good old l’espirit d’escalier at work again. Literally translating as ‘staircase wit’, this incredibly useful French phrase refers to precisely this kind of thought process; the belated realisation of the perfect witty retort. Said to have been coined by the 18th century French philosopher, encyclopedist, critic and writer Denis Diderot, by way of a convoluted anecdote involving staircases and not knowing what to say (oddly enough), the concept is also seen in other languages and cultures, including a wonderful phrase in Icelandic which, rather more honestly, translates as “to be intelligent afterwards” (although not even then, in some cases…).
This is probably my favourite of this batch of weird words. It sounds as if it ought to be a powerful and mysterious magical ingredient listed in a dusty old medieval alchemy text written in scratchy, illuminated Latin, but it’s actually a relatively modern word, only dating back to the 1960s. ‘Petrichor’ is, in fact, the name given to that distinctive and strangely comforting smell of rain on dry earth. Coined in a 1964 Nature article by two Australian researchers, the name is a compound of two Greek words – ‘petros’ (meaning ‘stone’) and ‘ichor’ (which is the stuff the Greek Gods apparently had flowing through their veins instead of blood). This makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that petrichor is created by plant oils being absorbed by clay-based rocks and soils and then released (in combination with other compounds) into the air when it rains. It may not have been alchemy in the end, but it certainly has a lot to do with the strange and wonderful magic of science…
More lexicographical strangeness coming soon. If you have any other particularly weird words to suggest for a future post, get in touch!