June 30, 2009

Dear Clusterflock

This has probably been asked here before (sorry)–but, are you delighted to know the names for certain things? I know I like saying the names of trees and plants when I identify them, and I’m also excited to hear what obscure mechanical parts are called (isinglass and petcock, for instance). Other terms do it for me too: recently I was reminded by India that the symbol for a paragraph is called a pilcrow. Now when I see one and remember the name–I think of lovely India! Maybe that’s why I like the names for things: they allow us to hold on to a larger world, as we look through the electron haze of each one–that nimbus lit by our combined minds. So what are your favorite names for things? (Warning–I will make them my own).


  1. Sheila Ryan on June 30th, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I like arobase (arobasse): the @ symbol. The NYT featured something on this not long ago. I’ll hunt down the link and post it, though India may beat me to the punch.

    Update: Here ’tis.

  2. Deron Bauman on June 30th, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    yes, Daryl, I love this — those kinds of words. I also feel overwhelmed by them, all the billions of things I do not know. I remember thinking this / feeling this way reading Blood Meridian, and all the different names for dirt and trees and rocks and grass. I love it and am simultaneously overwhelmed by the vastness of this category.

  3. Amy Mabli on June 30th, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    I’m delighted to learn the names for things. I remember how pleased I was to learn the word, snood.

  4. Derek White on June 30th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Speaking of petcock, shuttlecock is a good one. There’s some good ones in sports, like “tools of ignorance” and wheelhouse.

  5. Sheila Ryan on June 30th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Battledore and shuttlecock.

  6. Daryl Scroggins on June 30th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Oh this is all good already! Thanks, Sheila, for the link to @–what a great article. And Deron–I was thinking the same thing about Cormac, but Suttree was the book that came to mind (although any of his will do for this!). Like you say, it’s just astonishing that he has such a vast vocabulary–but it’s good to note that fiction writers are also in charge of time in the work and can make it all look easy by removing the time it took to verify that sound that sounds right for the spot. Amy–the snood link isn’t working at the moment, but what a great word, with so many different uses. Also–I like the word Divot a lot more than I like the game of golf (to make a divot is to hit the ball “fat”).

  7. Chris on June 30th, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    The obscure name I revere the most is gnomon, which is the upright part of a sundial that casts the shadow. I first heard this word about 12 years ago, when Phillip Kerr won the Bad Sex in Fiction award for this magnificent prose:

    “Detaching mind from over-eager gnomon and its exquisitely appointed, shadowy task, he began to make love to her.”


    I also like philtrum, which is the vertical indentation above one’s upper lip.

    I think the more finely grained your vocabulary is, the more observant of the world you can be.

  8. Chris on June 30th, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Also, while writing that post I discovered that I’d been spelling philtrum wrong [as filtrum] for over a decade. I think I like it less with the ‘ph’.

  9. Andrew Simone on June 30th, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Euclid discusses the gnomon at great lengths in his Elements. What is amazing is that all of his work in Book 4 (I could be wrong about the number) is essentially algebra before the abstraction.

    One of my favorites is a bit of a mouthful and two word phrase: hapax legomenon, “a word which occurs only once in either the written record of a language, the works of an author, or in a single text.”

  10. Daryl Scroggins on June 30th, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Chris–thanks so much for that Phillip Kerr sentence. Splendidly bad. And your spelling correction reminds me of many similar cases I have experience–and often with the same sense that I liked my way better!

    Andrew– “hapax legomenon” sounds like a sorcerer’s incantation, and this seems to fit the nature of the phrase, much as a palindrome seems inherently more “magical’ than other odd ways of phrasing the same thing.

  11. Sheila Ryan on June 30th, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Philtrum puts me in mind of philter (or philtre). From Middle French philtre, from Latin philtrum, from Greek philtron; akin to Greek philosophy dear. Date: circa 1587.

    1 : a potion credited with magical power 2 : a potion, drug, or charm held to have the power to arouse sexual passion

    So says your Merriam-Webster.

  12. Derek White on June 30th, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    We could probably have this discussion strictly with words with a cock suffix. Like just now I was reading this story about weathercocks:

    Is it just me or is the ending rather Freudian for school kids?

    “And from that day on, weathercocks have stood on their only leg, seeing everything that happens below, and pointing whichever way their friend the wind blows.”

  13. Sheila Ryan on June 30th, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    The friendly wind is a friend to us all. So long as it is friendly, I say, “Blow, friendly wind! Blow where thou mayest!”

    (How was that for an impersonation of Cooper Renner? Or an impersonation of Cooper Renner impersonating someone or other . . . .)

  14. Derek White on June 30th, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    speaking of people impersonating people impersonating people… yesterday I was wondering (under the influence of The Crying Game and some of the characters running around the meat packing district during gay pride) if there is a classification of transgender people, like men who think they are women pretending to be men, or women who are men pretending to be women, because I saw a few people over the weekend that seem to fit that classification. Does that make sense? Surely Deron would know the answer to this. I fear I might fall into this classification.

  15. Sheila Ryan on June 30th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Derek, what you wonder makes sense, and it fascinates me, especially as I have grown close to transgender folk and have come to think more and more that many distinctions are just a question of degree and of the intensity of one’s desire to embrace one’s various selves.

    Believing, as I do, that the unitary self is a fiction even greater than that of a multiplicity of selves.

  16. raynor on June 30th, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    daryl, like you, i can’t get enough of nomenclature. my current favourites are typography-based (viz. the sagitta (horizontal bar) of an E, the tittle (dot) of an i, or the crotch of an M.) this article is filled with all sorts of sparkling gems (a metaphor) along these lines.