Thursday, February 21, 2013

This is flapdoodle

I was reading a Jacob Heilbrunn's review of a new book about Calvin Coolidge (Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes) in the New York Times Book Review.

The review was proceeding fine and dandy, then Heilbrunn said the following of one of Shlaes' positive (but questionable) claims about Coolidge's economic policies: "This is flapdoodle."


The word lover in me smiled.

Flapdoodle is a delightful word meaning "nonsense," but saying it in a much more colorful way. It's related to other delightful words like balderdash, folderol, poppycock, hogwash, and many more.

One does not see enough of such words these days. The English language, being a sort of portmanteau, has so many ways of saying things that add delight, whimsy, and color to our conversations, spoken and written. Words are borrowed from other languages, arise from slang and jargon, are coined by creative souls (Shakespeare and Carroll, for example).

I can imagine Chesterton chewing away pensively over some savory word. Perhaps he scribbled a few on ceilings or walls using colored chalk.

My students, family, and friends have heard me use obscure and neglected words. I've been known to coin a few myself - it was many years before my poor daughters realized that "mispronuncicate" was not a real word. I also steal words whilly-nilly. My "swear" word of choice is actually a word borrowed from an episode of the 1960s StarTrek television series in which Captain Kirk created a fictitious card game, "fizzbin." I have been known to insult (quietly) a particularly annoying driver or dense public official by calling that person a "bummelzug" - a German word most people would not know (and hence not understand or take great offense at) meaning, roughly, a slow moving or stopping train.

Plain speak is fine. When I was a journalist I used a more simplified vocabulary in my articles to ensure understanding. That's appropriate in that situation.

But in essays, conversations, reviews, literary efforts, we also need to take advantage of the wonders of our language. We need to continue to encourage not only the growth of the language, but also the continued use of verbal wonders from the past. We need to make use of the full toolbox that is the English language.

Failure to do so would be a lot of tommyrot.

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