Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Fluid Dynamics

Okay: today's Word That Just Popped Into My Head All Of A Sudden, No, Seriously, And What The Hell? is "inspissate". Does such a word even exist? And if so, where could I have heard it? And what does it mean? And what the hell?

It does exist. (Perhaps I ran across it as a young geek while leafing through Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary, if it's even obscure or strange enough to be in there.) It sure isn't a word you're going to hear every day, because it sounds mildly rude and has a limited range of use. It means "to thicken", and it comes from the Latin "spissus", "thick". As far as I know, it has no surviving relatives in English, but (and this is a nice thing to know, if you're me) it's the root of the French word for "thick", which is "├ępaisse".

Naturally, as I was poking around to see if we had any words that were related to it, I had to check the word "piss", which obviously couldn't be related--it's purely onomatopoetic--but you never know, do you? (A related onomatopoeia is "sissy", which must be a regionalism of some sort. I've never heard it except from a couple of TV shows, "The Oblongs" and "Dead Like Me", both of which you should go out and buy on DVD as soon as the stores are open: you can thank me later.)

"Piss" and "inspissate" are not related, of course: I would hope not. But the search put me in mind of a word once used by my good and literate friend Ralph English: "pismire", which does come from "piss" and which means the same as "pissant", which is to say, literally, an ant. Both words get their first syllable from the fact that quantities of ants smell strongly of formic acid, which apparently--I don't have any direct experience of this--smells urinaceous. (The second half of "pismire" is from a Scandianavian word meaning "ant", and the metaphorical use of "pissant" as an adjective or a noun denoting insignificance is a natural progression of the word.)

While I'm at it, I might as well mention what I always thought was a strangely delightful Newfoundlandism. Dandelions, as most every child knows, contain a milky sap in their stems; if you should get this sticky liquid on your hands, it is a scientifically proven fact that you will wet the bed that night. Dandelions, therefore, are in some locales called "pissabeds", but where I was growing up were called--and I greatly prefer this pronunciation--"piss-t'-beds".

2 Comments:

Blogger Peggy said...

I do enjoy your fascination with words. Just want to clarify some details you may not be aware of. There is an interesting parallel in what you call a "delightful Newfoundlandism" and the way the French came up with the word "pissenlit" for dandelion. However, "pisse-en-lit", in the same vein as your "piss-t'-beds", implied wetting your bed because of the diuretic virtues of dandelions when ingested, not when their sticky sap is rubbed on your hands.

Saturday, November 05, 2005 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

See, I just can't tell jokes; I shouldn't even try, because nobody can ever tell when I'm serious and when I'm joking. (It's a scientifically proven fact. No, it isn't; that was a joke. See? I'm hopeless; just ask Jim.)

I know it isn't true that when you get the sap of a dandelion on your hands, you'll have an accident in bed. But that's what we believed when we were kids, and you know the sort of thing kids will pass on to one another; we also believed that if you stepped on a rain-beetle it would rain.

Thanks for pointing out the French word "pissenlit", though. I had completely forgotten about it. Jim mentioned it to me yesterday and I had meant to add it to the blog posting, but then I forgot that, too (it was a busy day).

To this day I call dandelions "pistobeds". I really don't believe they make those who pick them piss the bed, though.

Sunday, November 06, 2005 5:34:00 AM  

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