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The Grandiloquent Gumshoe

by Charles Harrington Elster


When memory falters and friends cannot help, when the library has been scoured to no avail, when all avenues of investigation prove fruitless, they come to me. The lexically perplexed. The literally lost. The wordstuck.

I’m a word detective, a certified P.V.I. (private verbal investigator). I recover your lost locutions and patch the holes in your vocabulary. "Grandiloquent Gumshoe" is my handle. My motto is "Reliable. Thorough. Discreet."

For nothing more than a few kind words, I’ll track down that missing piece in your verbal picture of the world, wherever it may be lurking—in the demimonde of dialect and slang, in the cobwebbed corners of cyberspace, in the benthic darkness of an unabridged dictionary.

The wordstuck wayfarers who find their way to my door complain of headaches, insomnia, and trichotillomania (a morbid compulsion to tear out one’s hair). A shrink might say they suffer from denotative depression. All I know is they need a word and they don’t know who (er, in this space let’s make that whom) to call.

"What do you call that tweed cap that Sherlock Holmes wears, the one with earflaps and visors in the front and back?" Elementary, my dear Watson. It’s a deerstalker.

"Is there a word for a woman who keeps a man?" Yes, she’s a keeperess. Samuel Richardson used it in his novel Clarissa (1748). You’ll find it in the OED.

"What’s that funny squiggle or flourish of the pen that people used in the olden days when signing their names?" It’s a paraph, and its original purpose (back in the Middle Ages) was to discourage forgery.

"If a female ballet dancer is a ballerina, what’s the comparable male word?" Entre nous, it’s danseur, and because you asked I’ll also tell you that the twiddle he does with his feet when he leaps is called an entrechat.

"There has to be a word for the act of crossing oneself. Do you know it?" An amateur word detective might try to get away with genuflection, but the pro knows that means a bending (Latin flectere, to bend) of the knee (Latin genus, knee) in prayer or obeisance. The act of crossing oneself, which so often accompanies genuflection, is called signation (sig-NAY-shun).

"I have as yet been unable to unearth," wrote a wordstuck translator from Denmark, "a word pertaining to the time (if any such existed) before the creation of Earth, that is, before the Big Bang." Could I help him avoid "a dissatisfyingly verbose paraphrase"?

Could I ever. A dig through the dictionaries unearthed a translator’s mother lode, something for every pre-Big Bang occasion: precosmic, "before the existence of the universe"; pretemporal, "before time began"; precreative and pre-hexameral, "before the Creation"; preplanetary; pre-terrestrial; and (my favorite) antemundane, "existing or occurring before the creation of the world."

Many clients want words about words. "I need the word that means 'a precise word for a precise situation.'" For that, mon ami, we must go to France and find my old friend le mot juste. "What is the term for the delayed riposte, the apt remark one thinks of too late to rejoin the conversation?" To France we go again for esprit de l’escalier, the "spirit of the staircase." (Neologists have also proposed stairwit and retrotort for this phenomenon.) "Is there a word for words that repeat themselves, like mama, papa, bye-bye?" They’re called reduplications or reduplicated words. The term also applies to repetitive couplings in which the initial consonant or a vowel in the second element is changed: e.g. hoity-toity, namby-pamby, ding-dong, dilly-dally.

You can’t win ’em all, and I have my share of unsolved word mysteries. Although I recently found the counterpart to avuncular—the prosaic auntly (two citations in the OED)—I'm still on the trail of the words for "a tapestry with inlaid mirrors" and "writing that is alljammedtogetherlikethis." And I doubt I'll ever discover a word that means "the act of writing from right to left with the left hand and left to right with the right hand at the same time."

When clients ask me for a locution I suspect is nullibiquitous (not in existence anywhere) I hate to let them down, so I make something up. One wordless fellow implored me to end his "decades-old nightmare" by finding a word meaning "the fear of review, of revisiting a subject." I’ve tracked down some 600 phobia words, but not that one. I gave him the name of a doctor and two nonce words: byrotephobia, fear of rote learning or memorization, and vapulequimortiphobia (from Latin vapulare, to beat, equus, horse, and mortuus, dead), the fear of listening to someone beat a dead horse.

Another nebulous query came from a woman filled with polysyllabic expectation. She was looking for a word that meant "a vagueness of celestial bodies . . . something that makes you feel vague when looking at the moon, stars, the totality of space." The answer came to me as if from above: cosmononplusation, "the vague, speechless awe one experiences upon gazing up into the cosmos and contemplating the pathetic minuteness of one’s being."

Why do I do this crazy job? I do it because—and I’m not making this up—there’s a poseur out there who calls himself "Mr. Language Person" and he must be stopped. I do it because it gives me a glisk to think that I probably know a few more words than William F. Buckley Jr., who probably doesn’t know the meaning of glisk. (It’s a slight touch of pleasure or twinge of pain that penetrates the soul and passes quickly away.)

If you ever need my services, don’t bother looking in the Yellow Pages or the classified ads. Check your local bookstore. I’ll be hanging out on the reference shelf, belting down a few bons mots and swapping word stories with the other language mavens.

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Copyright © 1999 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.
This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in The New York Times Magazine, August 29, 1999.