In search of words to describe annoyances

Posted Nov. 28, 2008, at 6:21 p.m.

If I were a linguist, I would set about trying to rediscover the perfect words to describe practices that can annoy even the most stoic among us.

Visitors to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary site have looked up the word “bailout” so often in these troubled financial times the dictionary has made the noun its Word of the Year for 2008.

It’s not so much that people don’t have a general understanding that the word means “a rescue (as of a corporation) from financial distress,” said John Morse, Merriam-Webster’s president and publisher. Lord knows, they’ve heard enough talk about bailing out banks, insurance companies and automobile manufacturers to understand which way the wind is blowing on that dubious deal.

It’s more that those looking up the word seem to be searching for any negative connotations or shades of meaning “bailout” may have, the dictionary guy told an Associated Press reporter, because hits on words such as “trepidation” and “precipice” and “turmoil” were unusually numerous, as well. “There’s something about the national psyche right now that is looking up words that seem to suggest fear and anxiety,” Morse said.

It strikes me that many people who checked out the meaning of “bailout” may have been trying to determine how the word differs in meaning from “handout,” a word that has been around since 1882. My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “handout” as “a portion of food, clothing or money given to or as if to a beggar.”

And that sounds to me suspiciously like a distinction without a difference. The more so when applied to the current financial meltdown in which the federal government appears to be increasing the public anxiety quotient by freely doling out taxpayers’ money as if to beggars.

Speaking of words that inspire apprehensive uneasiness among the natives, I am surprised that one of the more popular entries researched in the online dictionary hasn’t been the word “change,” considering how many times it was used in the Nov. 4 presidential election, and how its definition seems to have changed since then.

President-elect Barack Obama promised great change if elected. But his major job appointments to date look pretty much like refugees from the Clinton administration, the only discernible change being that they are now eight years older. To be fair, the changes Obama likely has in mind realistically can’t come until the present occupant of the White House moves out and leaves the man the key to the front door, so I probably should cut him some slack and return to the subject of words and their popularity.

If I were a linguist or an etymologist dealing with words and their origins, I would set about trying to rediscover the perfect words to describe some of mankind’s practices that can annoy even the most stoic among us.

There must be an appropriately modernized term, for example, for employees in fast-food joints who start sweeping the floor under your feet the minute you sit down to eat. It’s like your arrival triggers some sort of Pavlovian tidying-up reflex, forcing the crew to break out the brooms and whale away at the dust bunnies until you’ve left.

As well, there has to be an ideal word in mankind’s vast word bank to apply to the customer behind you in the supermarket checkout line who watches like a hawk as you deposit your purchases on the conveyor belt before getting rung up, and then offers loud unsolicited editorial comment about what’s for dinner at your house. This term of endearment would not necessarily have to be one that could be repeated in a family newspaper, mind you.

And what of those people who, upon meeting you after some absence, always tell you how great you look, no matter if what you most look like is death warmed over? Might there be an appropriate term for them that tops anything my Roget’s Thesaurus can come up with?

In his reference book, “Word Origins,” published by Bell Publishing Co., Dr. Wilfred Funk observes that words often start as ragamuffins, but rise to social acceptance by the tuxedo crowd. Other words of good repute sometimes fall gradually into disgrace until they are mentioned “only in low dives and waterfront barrooms,” he counsels.

I think that what I may be seeking here is something that would play well in the latter jurisdictions. Suggestions, anyone?

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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