Well, Part Deux has taken me on a much more intriguing and time-consuming journey than I’d thought. I am suddenly involved in a refresher course on the Sapir-Whorf theory and finally reading some Lev Vygotsky, Language and Thought. I didn’t mean to turn this into a treatise, but it’s been fun getting back into some linguistic study, so I’m going to keep reading for a bit and then finish my thoughts about my thoughts…how d’ya like them metacognitive apples?
In the meantime, I present to you my favorite word of the week: nincompoopery.
I swear it is a real word. Let me explain the twisted chain of events that brought this to my attention.
It all started with whiskey. (Doesn’t it always?) It seems that Ernest Shackleton took a lot of whiskey with him in his expedition to the South Pole. Hey, you never know, right? When things went south – so to speak – he had to leave it all behind, which no doubt smarted. Well, it’s mostly intact and about to see the light of day. Wouldn’t you love a wee dram of that, eh?
As I read, I suddenly couldn’t remember if it was Shackleton who died in the quest to be first at the pole or if it was someone else. I started obsessing, as one does when one has the ability to instantly indulge any whim to search for any tidbit of information, no matter how unimportant or irrelevant it is to the work you are supposed to be doing instead. After the 0.3 seconds it took Google to find 2,350,000 websites about Shackleton, it wasn’t long that I realized that he was not the doomed explorer. Well, not doomed beyond needing to ditch the whiskey and a few horses behind. I’d been thinking of Robert Falcon Scott.
Suddenly, however, I didn’t care so much about my morbid fascination with frozen corpses on Antarctica. I was struck by the name of Skackleton’s 1907-09 Antarctic expedition: the Nimrod….Really? The Nimrod? As in, well…nimrod?
Well, clearly, the meaning had changed since 1907. Unless polar explorers were, unbeknownst to me, famous for their irony, then clearly nimrod did not at that time mean what it does today.
And so the search began. I started with my trusty Webster’s 1989 edition. No entry. I consulted Volume 7 (N-Poy) of the OED. Bingo. Here’s what I found:
1. A tyrannical ruler; a tyrant (Obs.) Examples 1545 – 1697
2. A great hunter; one who is fond of, or given to, hunting. Examples 1712 – 1877
So when Shackleton named his endeavor the Nimrod, he was invoking the spirit of ruthless, strong, fearless conquerors. They were to boldly sweep the icy continent and plant flags, or some other vaguely phallic, symbolic gesture that men enjoy doing in order to claim their domain. Like peeing on a doorway. But the feminist in me clearly digresses…
I started to wonder if the failure of the expedition led to the flipped meaning of nimrod, but quickly decided it hadn’t. Shackleton failed in 1909, but the 1933 OED still had no mention of the slang usage of the word yet. Since the OED was a descriptive, not prescriptive, record of the language, if nimrod had had the common usage of “silly fool,” it would have been recorded, and 24 years would have been enough time to put that meaning into common usage if it had referred to the polar expedition.
So, I searched a bit more, going back to the Urban Dictionary entry and the Bugs Bunny theory.
Who’d’a thunk it?
As I ruminated, my eyes fell back to the still-open page of Volume 7, and that’s when I saw it: nincompoopery. My eyes took the letters in and my brain turned the images into sound, word, meaning…but I just didn’t believe it. This is a word? Again, I say really?? Of course, I’d heard of nincompoop, but to turn a derogatory term into an abstract noun sounded like the good old-fashioned word play that we geeky linguist grad students used to engage in after indulging in too much of the drink (didn’t I tell you it all starts with whiskey?).
I fell completely and hopelessly in love with the word. There was a momentary flirtation with nincompoophood, but the disbelief refused suspension on that one. And it sounded just a bit too…well, sophomoric to be honest. (What is amusing, however, is that my spell checker wants to turn that word into nincompoop hood. Heh. Sounds gangsta, no?)
No, no. It could only be nincompoopery: it is elegant but silly; it beautifully balances front and back vowels; and it elevates an insult into a philosophical abstraction. My heart was won over by nincompoopery.
And really, what girl hasn’t had to say that to herself at least once in her life?