Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The vocab blog.

The vocabulary of the English language is a trove as great as Ali Baba's cave. Other languages have their own treasures, I'm sure, but this is my cave. It has more jewels than any one person could know or use. I pity people who have this treasure at their reach, but ignore it.

English is famously absorptive in its vocabulary. Years ago, I was visiting some friends over Labor Day weekend, and one of them set up his hibachi on the balcony of his apartment to do some grilling. We freely referred to this little grilling device as an hibachi. His girlfriend at the time, a multilingual French woman, asked us: "Don't you have a word for that?" Meaning, I suppose, a genuine English word instead of an import.

"That is the word," her boyfriend answered. We went on the explain, though we didn't put it quite this way, that "hibachi" had migrated from Japanese to fill a linguistic gap in English. It described something that grilled like a barbecue, but was too small to be a barbecue, since barbecues are large devices here in North America. And lucky us, there's no Academy of Language Purity to tell us what's a civilized word and what's an invading barbarian one. I don't think she was convinced of the merits of this lax Anglo-Saxon approach to language; but that's just one of those things, and the only thing to say about it is -- c'est la vie.

I got a kick last week out of being able to use the word "yegg," which I've known for years but never have been able to use in print. It's a denizen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries more than now, I think, so you don't see it much. It means thief, or can have the specific meaning of "safecracker," which was perfect for what I was writing about. Some dictionaries trace it to Yiddish, others say origin unknown, as criminal slang often is.

My brother wrote: "It's been a while, too, since I saw the world 'yegg' in print. I can remember learning it from a Scrooge McDuck comic book. It was used in the plural to describe the Beagle Boys. I have the idea that it appeared in a story called "The Status Seekers" -- I didn't remember the title; I Googled it up just now -- which involved the quest for the Candy-Striped Ruby, the world's greatest status symbol, but I'm not sure.

"I also recall learning the words 'baleful' 'williwaw' and 'billibong' while reading Scrooge McDuck comics. In the case of 'baleful' I remember the specific cartoon panel in which it appeared. Scrooge McDuck and company had gone to the Yucatan, where they discovered a lost Mayan city. Scrooge fell (or dove) into a cenote, a water-filled sinkhole, and was pulled towards the bottom by something he was holding, possibly a Mayan mask or some similar ritual object. Towards the bottom he noticed 'baleful lights.' He feared that they might be the ghostly eyes of Mayan sacrificial victims, but they turned out to be gemstones."

I probably learned some vocabulary from Carl Barks by way of Scrooge McDuck, too, but I don't remember any specifics. But I did learn "williwaw" from my brothers, and now I know they got it from McDuck.


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