Saturday, August 1, 2009


I am fascinated by words.

Just the other day, I was attempting to use some previously unfamiliar photo editing software. At one point the message popped up, “you cannot rotate this image losslessly.”

Say what?

I understood the intent of the message. If I were to click the rotate button, I would lose some picture quality.

But “losslessly.”

The word looked awkward. I knew I wouldn’t find it in my dictionary. To my eyes, it was simply…wrong.

Language, though, is constantly evolving. Resistance is futile.

Losslessly” might be an undocumented worker today, but it is well on its way to full citizenship in the English language. And so it goes.

At the same time new words are finding a place in our vocabulary, some lovely old words are suffering from neglect. At home, and at the office, I keep a dictionary close at hand and consult it regularly. While clarifying the nuances of meaning for one word, I’ll start scanning the surrounding words and always discover some gems.

What set me off yesterday was the word “thankworthy.” People don’t use that word very often, so when I saw it, I turned to the dictionary where it was defined as “worthy of thanks or gratitude." There was no surprise to any of this. I was merely reminded, once again, how many fine words are going to waste.

The next entry after “thankworthy” was intriguing.


For many years, I’ve heard the expression “wham, bam, thank you ma’am,” and I thought I knew what it meant.

Maybe not.

According to the dictionary, a “thank you ma’am” is “a bump or depression in a road.

I’ll leave it to others more clever than myself to reconcile “thank you ma’am” with “wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” Until then, I remain perplexed.

Without turning a page, I found plenty of other nifty words.

Thalassocrat – One who has maritime supremacy.

Thane – a free retainer of an Anglo-Saxon lord.

Here’s a beauty. I challenge you to drop this word into a conversation today:

Thaumaturgist – a performer of miracles.

I love it. “I went to see my thaumaturgist this week and she told me…”

There’s more. Chances are, you have a pair of thenars and didn’t know it. Well, you know it, but you didn’t know that’s what they’re called.

Thenar – the ball of the thumb.

I’m ready to start a campaign to bring “thenar” into common usage. What with people texting like mad, the word has its place. Someone could hawk a remedy for thenar fatigue caused by excessive texting.

I didn’t find a listing for “theiliad” but I did find “theodicy.”

Theodicy – defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.

Aren’t you glad the dictionary breaks up all that fine print with an occasional line drawing? More often than not, it is something that you never have seen and never will see. So it was with the illustration of page 915.

Theorbo - a 17th century musical instrument like a large lute but having two necks.

Like they always say, two necks are better than one.

I could turn the page, and see what treasures await us on page 916 of the dictionary…

…but I’d better not.


Anonymous said...

A lovely little essay although the case for losslessly seems more an incidence of laziness. Then again, perhaps it incites my prejudice against adverbs generally and made up ones specifically.
Language ought to have rhythm and flow - even technical writing. Rhythm and flow add to clarity and after all what is language but an effort to shed light, clarity, on our thoughts?
Losslessly sounds to me like the product of the Twitter mentality of language as noise without form or purpose - encapsulated banality.

GULAHIYI said...

I keep thinking "Losslessly" sounds like a song title...some American standard of the 1930's...Cole Porter perhaps.

"When I left youuuuuu...
I left youuuuuuu.....

But, you're the professor. Any thoughts on "What, bam, et al"?

And where do I go to apply for Rod Damon's job? Hard work, but someone's got to do it.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, Rod Damon who once appeared in a movie titled "The Cunning Linguist" which might have less to do with your post today Gulahiyi than one might imagine.

Wham Bam - are we talkng Flintstones? Or perhaps Bowie and the suffragettes or George Michael who had a sports machine before he became a sex idol recording star which was somewhat before he started frequenting public restrooms which might have in fact been his way of studying Republican politics.
But I digress, the translation was losslessly rendered as one might say....
And Cole Porter could make anyone or anything sound good. I suspect if he put the 1400 pages of the Waxman - Markey Energy & Security Bill to music it would sound deliciously rhythmic or maybe losslessly mellifluous.

GULAHIYI said...

Ah, yes, that was a great moment in cinema history.

I don't expect a large audience for these esoteric contemplations on language, but I'm honored and humbled to have an audience of one, when that one is the esteemed Dr. Mucklefutz.

Best wishes with your scholarly adventures, Professor.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I am reminded of that great alliterative melody from the tragically hip days of yore Helplessly Hoping which I believe was performed by the super group Crosby, Stills, Black and Decker. An early take from sessions when they were still known as The Buffalo Chips was entitled Lostlessly Loping -

Losslessly Loping Low Ladies lingered listlessly awaiting a word....

Yes Gulahiyi, probing the depths of your mind and causing me to probe the depths of mine is a clarifying experience. My curiousity and dictionary were piqued and so:

thallus: besides being a letter off from something of great interest to Mr. Damon, a plant body without vascular tissue and not differentiated into root, stem and leaves

thanatology: the scientific study of death and its associated phenomena and practices

theodolite: an instrument that enables the height and position of distant objects to be calculated by measuring the angles between a baseline and a direct line to the object concerned

thermotropism: the growing or bendingn of a plant toward or away from a source of heat.

Happy wording.

Gary Carden said...

When I was a kid ... so young, I did not understand the joke ... I used to hear "the big boys" tell a joke about a horny rabbit who jumped the girl rabbits and the encounter was described as "Wham! Bam! Thank you, m'am." This went on until he made his lightning encounter with a stone rabbit sitting (setting?) in someone's garden, but this time, he said, Wham! Bam! Gawddam!"