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The Etymology of Greatness

10 July 2000
Jamie wants to say something about words. Using words. And Word™.

Words. Not everyone's cup of tea. Barry Gibb and his siblings squeaked "It's only words!" at us in disdain. But Tracy Chapman - bless her manly voice - counters with the old chestnut "Years go by and still / Words don't come easily", so make the most of them while they're there (OK, so she actually continued "Like 'sorry'", but only so it scanned). Then Boyzone went and covered both of them. Inconsistent Irish bastards.

My point is, words are great. They let you say things that you want to say, and you can cheat and lie with them too. But some words are far, far greater than others. Let's go deeper.

Take 'thong', for example. It's not just great because of its associations with scantily clad lovelies in 'rap' videos, it's a genuinely good word. Say it a few times. Let the thong roll over your tongue. Tasty. My mate Steve's a big advocate of 'bungalow', which can be enjoyed by everyone, but is particularly fragrant doused in Scouse (any northern speak will do, but try scouse if you get the chance). And why is Eddie Izzard so fond of saying 'jam'? It's not just because of his affection for preserved fruit or Chris Morris' twisted brainchild; no one can hear the word without its phonetic beauty possessing their being and sending warm, strawberry emotions coursing through their veins. Which makes them laugh.

And it's not only comedy which reaps the benefits. A well-crafted word can evoke the whole gamut of emotions, from arousal (moist, gusset) to arousal mixed with disgust (dank, crevice) back to arousal again (nipple, stroking). My gamut, at any rate.

Unfortunately, despite all the research that goes into etymology - people rooting through old Indo-Swahili comic books on the off chance that they'll find out where the word "lozenge" comes from - no one seems to have bothered to consider the importance of word quality, not just as an end in itself, but as a key to the mysteries of the world. Here's an example.

There's a bit at the start of the Bible where God tells Adam to go out and name all the animals in the park. Now either that's balls, or Adam was a serious schizophrenic. There is no way that the guy who named the monkeys and the fish was the same one who came up with such prosaic names as 'cow', 'sheep' or 'cat'. The primate world contains such luminaries as the gibbon (funky and common varieties), the baboon, and the orang-utan (by which point he was just showing off); the pisceans can boast the mullet, the haddock, the carp, the trout - every one a linguistic delight. (Just remember that too much vinegar is not good for the sexy life, as a wise chip shop owner once said.) Even the humble cod, staple diet of the inhabitants of Grimsby, exudes effortless grace from its meagre three phonemes, putting slack monosyllabic creations like the horse to shame.

There's also some evidence in all this for God - or the majority of his minions at least - being of English (possibly British or Australian) origin. Why? Because we've got the best words for everything. Granted, the French come up with the occasional good effort - the fragile papillon, the creamy onctueuse - and any language which can put three e's in a row (créée) and keep a straight face can't be all bad, while the Spanish created cerveza and the Germans provide entertaining directions to the Bahnhof. But the silk purses are lost in a sea of pigswill compared to our glistening tongue (arousal again).

Foreigners also have a little trouble swearing. Whereas your average Tommy could produce five minutes of non-stop expletives without repetition if shot in the stomach, his allies and his axis would be lucky to manage a minute between them if he returned the favour with cold steel. And half of them would be eligible for reproduction in Boy's Own ("Gott in Himmel!" and "Die, Englischer Schweinhund!" being among the more frequent utterances from the stereotypically presented Hun).

So there you have it. Words should not be underestimated: they can play with your mind, they can settle theological debates about the Creation, and they can even support a bit of mindless jingoism (as if there were other kind). If we've learnt anything this week, it's never to trust the hasty maxims of a bearded Antipodean. Who sounds like a chipmunk.


Previously on upsideclown


Current clown:

18 December 2003. George writes: This List

Most recent ten:

15 December 2003. Jamie writes: Seven Songs
11 December 2003. Dan writes: Spinning Jenny
8 December 2003. Victor writes: Rock Opera
4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
1 December 2003. George writes: Charm
27 November 2003. James writes: On Boxing
24 November 2003. Jamie writes: El Matador del Amor; Or, the Man who Killed Love
20 November 2003. Dan writes: Rights Management
17 November 2003. Victor writes: Walking on Yellow
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
(And alas we lost Neil, who last wrote Cockfosters)

Also by this clown:

15 December 2003. Jamie writes: Seven Songs
24 November 2003. Jamie writes: El Matador del Amor; Or, the Man who Killed Love
13 October 2003. Jamie writes: The Persistence of Memory
22 September 2003. Jamie writes: The Email Eunuch
1 September 2003. Jamie writes: Credo
11 August 2003. Jamie writes: Brad and Jennifer and Me
21 July 2003. Jamie writes: Interruption
30 June 2003. Jamie writes: Do you remember the first time?
12 June 2003. Jamie writes: Forthcoming Attractions
19 May 2003. Jamie writes: Stupid Mistake
28 April 2003. Jamie writes: Hoping and Praying
7 April 2003. Jamie writes: Strangers on a Plane
17 March 2003. Jamie writes: Q&A
24 February 2003. Jamie writes: Altered States
3 February 2003. Jamie writes: How to say goodbye
13 January 2003. Jamie writes: In A League Of Their Own
23 December 2002. Jamie writes: What's in a name?
2 December 2002. Jamie writes: Lies, Damned Lies and Spastics
11 November 2002. Jamie writes: Memoirs of a Gaysian: A Preface
21 October 2002. Jamie writes: Love is blindness
30 September 2002. Jamie writes: Time for bed
9 September 2002. Jamie writes: Angry Exchanges Can Be Puzzling [10]
19 August 2002. Jamie writes: High Speed
29 July 2002. Jamie writes: Firkin Hell
8 July 2002. Jamie writes: Do you, er... haiku?
13 June 2002. Jamie writes: Unnatural Porn Thrillers
20 May 2002. Jamie writes: The Triumphant Return of the Septic Fiveskins
25 April 2002. Jamie writes: Meeting People is Easy
4 April 2002. Jamie writes: I Want I Want I Want
7 March 2002. Jamie writes: The Player of Games
11 February 2002. Jamie writes: Fat Man Walking
17 January 2002. Jamie writes: Passive/Aggressive
3 January 2002. Jamie writes: Love (classified)
29 November 2001. Jamie writes: A Lil' Nite Muzak
5 November 2001. Jamie writes: Natural born liar
11 October 2001. Jamie writes: All I need
17 September 2001. Jamie writes: Postcards From The Edge (of the pool)
23 August 2001. Jamie writes: Class act
30 July 2001. Jamie writes: Ritchie Neville is dead
5 July 2001. Jamie writes: A Letter from God
11 June 2001. Jamie writes: "If it's in French, it must be deep"
17 May 2001. Jamie writes: Reportage
23 April 2001. Jamie writes: Show me the Logos
29 March 2001. Jamie writes: Sobering Thoughts
8 March 2001. Jamie writes: Stupid, Stupid, Stupid
8 February 2001. Jamie writes: Spent
15 January 2001. Jamie writes: Full to the brim
21 December 2000. Jamie writes: fuck xmas
27 November 2000. Jamie writes: Eye Candy
2 November 2000. Jamie writes: World-wide-web?
9 October 2000. Jamie writes: Kids' stuff
14 September 2000. Jamie writes: Scatological Warfare
21 August 2000. Jamie writes: I can't stand up (for falling clowns)
10 July 2000. Jamie writes: The Etymology of Greatness

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