Down the rabbit hole with weird words

Commentary by
Joe McWilliams

Words can lead you down some strange rabbit holes. Or does it go without saying a rabbit hole is strange?

How would I know – I’ve never actually been down one. Metaphorically, though.

It happens often when constructing a crossword puzzle. The other day, for example, the word ‘bezel’ seemed to fit, and I looked it up just to make sure it was legit. Sure enough it’s some whatchamacallit on a car. That sparked a memory of the term ‘rocker panel,’ which is something else on a car. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it; in the 1971 movie ‘The French Connection.’

‘I ripped everything out of there except the rocker panels,’ says the guy in the police garage. To which Popeye Doyle (the Gene Hackman character) says, in an exasperated voice: ‘Come on, what the hell are the rocker panels?’

It turned out they were strips of aluminum (or something like it) along the bottom of the door opening, and sure enough, under them was hidden the heroin Doyle was convinced was in the car.

And what is a bezel, by the way? Well, it may be a ring that fastens a gem in place, or a watch crystal, or something used for a similar purpose on a motor vehicle.

Watch for the word ‘bezel’ in an upcoming Lakeside Leader crossword puzzle. Now that I’ve got it locked in, the thing is bound to show up again and again.

Some words I have never seen or heard outside of a crossword. ‘Ort’ is one of those. It occurs quite often in puzzles, but I have only once in my life heard anyone say it. That was a certain Canyon Creek curmudgeon, who was showing off his crossword prowess.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’ve got an ort in my teeth I’m trying to get out,’ or something to that effect.
‘Adit’ is another. It’s word for a mine entrance that is often in puzzles, but nowhere else that I’ve ever heard.

Speaking of going down the rabbit hole, we have Lewis Carroll to thank for that expression. He also invented the term ‘chortle’ and lots of others that didn’t get picked up. His poem The Jabberwocky is about two thirds invented words. ‘Came snuffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came.’

Shakespeare was the king of new words. For one thing, any word with the prefix ‘un’ on the front is probably a Shakespeare creation. About 300 of them appear in his plays and sonnets, and nowhere before that.

Unkind? Shakespeare. Same goes for unaware and uncomfortable. What people used before that is hard to imagine, but it would have been more complicated, and longer.

Lacklustre, lonely and swagger we also owe the Bard, apparently.

Speaking of the word ‘unkind,’ did you know if you shift the ‘D’ at the start of Dunkin Donuts to the end of the first word you get ‘Unkind Donuts?’ Neither did I, until I watched a TV documentary about people who compete in crossword puzzle tournaments. One of them, being interviewed while driving around some city or other in the U.S., pointed that out.

The language is not fixed, which is probably a good thing on the whole. If nothing new were tolerated, Carroll and Shakespeare would never have been published.

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