Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Playing it for laughs

I was recently looking at the entry for the word stork in The Chambers Dictionary when my eye was caught by a set of brackets containing the word facetious which were appended to one of the senses. When you spend your working life looking at words, it’s always pleasant to come across facetious usages, for they show the language at its most playful, trying to make us smile rather than battering information into our heads. They are, to use a formula discussed in a recent blog, the cartoon channel of the English language.

Using Chambers Reference Online, it is possible to search for all of the words that Chambers considers as facetious, and the 295 results show some distinctive patterns in the way that language can be used to put a smile on your face.

Some of these words are no more than childish alternative words for everyday objects, such as wagger-pagger (‘a waste-paper basket’) and moo-juice (‘milk’), but a more inventive process is at work when the laws of grammar are humorously applied to create words such as chapess (‘a woman or girl’), buttle (‘to act as a butler’), and gruntled (‘happy, pleased, in good humour’).

Another recurring theme is the use of Greek and Latin roots to create elevated terms which are then jokingly applied to lowbrow or homely items. Thus a striptease artist can facetiously be called an ecdysiast, a dog-lover can be a canophilist, and a wheelbarrow can be a monotroch.

These jokes can seem a little smug to modern ears, depending as they do on the understanding that both the speaker and listener have received a classical education. More likely to stand the test of time are another class of facetious terms: imaginary objects that have been invented to embody abstract ideas, such as elbow grease, the bush telegraph, the casting couch and retail therapy.

Another recurring pattern is the application of a formal word to something much more mundane. It is easy to see how comatose can be used facetiously to mean simply ‘asleep’ and liberate can mean ‘steal’. At other times the journey from the basic meaning to the facetious one is more convoluted. The reason why the stork should be ‘the bringer of babies’ is obscure, and it must have involved quite a flight of fancy to apply the word gnome to ‘an obscure but powerful international financier’ (a coinage attributed to Harold Wilson).

There are, it seems, many ways that people can amuse themselves by playing about with the English language.

Ian Brookes

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