Tuesday, 5 April 2016


The Wonderful World of Words

I remember an amusing conversation with my brother Bob. It would’ve been sometime in 1995, around the time of the second Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The circumstance is vague, perhaps he was in Calgary on business or I had run up to Edmonton for a weekend visit. Anyway, he described the separatist premier of our native province as corpulent. I said something like, ‘Great word!’ Together we decided that the bilious buffoon was porcine too.

Bob went on to say that one of his very favourite words was anthrax: ‘Even if you have no idea what it is, you know it’s bad.’ And isn’t anthrax a nasty word? It’s ugly on paper, in cursive or typeset, no screen font can make it attractive, and it’s harsh to speak or hear. I’m dubious that a rose named anthrax would smell as sweet.

Some words are so aptly coined that they suggest their definitions. Others are not so transparent. I always need a moment to remind myself that hirsute simply means hairy and has nothing whatsoever to do with being particularly astute or incredibly intelligent. An interlocutor is not a murderous midnight rambling house-breaker, just curious, and a sinister questioner would be more of an inquisitor.

Friday night Ann and I hosted a houseful of young people who played board games around the dining room table. We sat at the kitchen counter playing tunes and Scrabble. We stayed up a little later than we normally do. The next morning as we prepared to scrub and gussy up the back porch and steps, no point showering, Ann allowed that she felt a little grotty. ‘What a great word!’ I said. I was feeling the same way but had been thinking: thick, dopey, slow. I’d forgotten such an evocative word as grotty.

To me, grotty, utterly unrelated to grotto, denotes organic filth, not just a film of grime that can be rinsed off, but minge like moss secreted in human nooks and crannies where the sun don’t shine. Maybe the dank cave imagery is appropriate. Ann just wanted to rinse her face, so obviously I was feeling a whole hell of a lot grottier than she. We set up the iPod outside but did not listen to grunge. I knelt and worked, sweating beer as the sun burned the back of my neck red. Applying dark stain to the planks seemed somehow apropos. I would still be grotty when the job was done and I would be grimy too. Still, all things considered, a better state of existence than that of a clownish fat pig in a bad mood.

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