or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I expect that the sorts of mistakes non-native English speakers make in their daily forays into the language can tell us a lot of about English, and language in general, and how the mind works. That doesn't interest me as much as the fact that people who aren't one hundred per cent comfortable in the language can invent words of considerable novelty and charm.

The previous manager of the frame shop in which I work told me about a friend of hers whose mother was French, as in "from France", and coined a word about ten years ago that was entirely delightful: meaning to say "sensuous", or possibly "sexual", she came up with "sexuous", and what I want to know is, why doesn't the word exist in English? It's awesome! (Actually, it sort of does exist; it's in the Urban Dictionary. It isn't in very wide circulation, though it deserves to be.)

The current manager of the frame shop--yes, I could have applied for the position, and I probably would have gotten it, but I like my job just the way it is and I don't need the corporate bullshit and the probable ulcer--is Finnish. She speaks five languages, which I find very impressive, and her English is just fine, although she doesn't seem to think so (though, as I tell her, I understand her and she understands me and that's good enough).

When we're making up an order, we have to write a description of the artwork: "Garden of Earthly Delights", say, or "Family Portrait", to name two recent ones. This manager was taking an order and the artwork to be framed was a picture of a polar bear and two cubs, and her English temporarily failed her, so what she wrote was, "Icebear with cuddies".

First of all, "icebear". Isn't that just wonderful? It's much better than "polar bear"; it's so descriptive. (And, as it happens, "icebear" is the exact translation of how you say "polar bear" in Finnish, and in German, too--their version is "Eisbär". I don't know the actual Finnish word, but take it from me that it doesn't sound like "icebear" or "Eisbär" or probably any other word you might ever have heard. Finnish is really a thing unto itself.)

Second, "cuddies". What could be more delightful? It's such an expressive coinage, redolent of "cub" and "cuddly" together. I'm going to use it, privately. It's adorable.

However, "cuddy" is, as it turns out, already an English word: it more or less means "cubbyhole", which is to say a tiny room or cupboard. And speaking of which, wouldn't you think that "cubbyhole", also known as "cubby", is descended from "cupboard"? After all, the "-p-" is silent, and so the word sounds like "cubberd", from which "cubby" might logically be a shortened form. And yet it isn't at all. "Cupboard" is in fact a joining of the words "cup" and "board", whereas "cubby" and "cubbyhole" come from "cub", an obsolete word for a sort of hutch.


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