Against Semantic Satiation

Some new words to learn after a wild week

After a week in which the East suffered through earthquakes and a hurricane, we could all use a little entertainment. So here are some words for things you may not have known had names. See how many you can use in the context of earthquakes or hurricanes. We’ve given you a start below:

I had just finished eating lunch and putting the final “tittles” on the “roorback” about Obama when the “microseism” struck. I tried to call my local precinct to see if there was any damage, but the “ocotothorpe” was broken, so I couldn’t navigate the menu. By then the “wambles” got the better of me, so I went for coffee, but they were out of “zarfs,” so I settled for a close relationship with the “kick” of an Australian shiraz.

By the end of the weekend, Irene had become a victim of “semantic satiation,” though it may have created a lot of “lagan.” The rain had been hammering the “muntins” all night. and I was ready to chew off my “aglets” from cabin fever. I grabbed an umbrella, but the “ferrule” was missing. Besides, the “crepuscular rays” said the worst was over. As I stepped outside, I could experience the full effect of the “petrichor.” What a week!
And here are the definitions. All these words, believe it or not, are in the Oxford English Dictionary, among others.

tittle: The dot over the letter “i” or “j.” The OED traces it to Middle English, and says it was first used in 1535.

roorback: A false or slanderous story devised purely for political effect. The OED says it was coined after an 1844 abolitionist newspaper published a supposed extract from a book, by (the fictional) Baron von Roorback, reporting that James K. Polk, then running for the presidency, had a coterie of branded slaves waiting to work in the South.

microseism: A small earth tremor. Technically, what the East experienced wasn’t a microseism, which, geologically speaking, is detectable only by seismometers and is not an actual earthquake. But it presents an opportunity for you to learn a new word!

octothorpe: The symbol “#” on telephones, also known as the “pound sign,” and, especially on Twitter, a “hashtag.” The OED says it may have been coined in 1966 by a Bell engineer, from the eight points of the symbol (“octo”) and the unique name from the runner Jim Thorpe. Pat O’Conner’s grammarphobia blog has a great explanation.

wambles: The queasy feeling or rumbles of an empty stomach.

zarf: The cardboard sleeve for a paper coffee cup, from the original meaning of an ornamental holder, usually made of metal, for a cup or glass without a handle. kick: The indentation at the bottom of a bottle or glass. It’s also called the “punt.”

semantic satiation: The repetition of a word or phrase to the point that it becomes unrecognizable or meaningless. This combination isn’t in the OED, but it’s a recognized psychological state.

lagan: Goods that end up at the bottom of the sea from a ship that has sunk. The OED says it was first used about 1200.

muntin: The dividers between panes of glass.

aglet: The plastic or metal end of a shoelace.

ferrule: The metal tip of an umbrella, and also the metal part of a pencil that holds the eraser.

crepuscular rays: Also known as “God’s rays,” the shafts of sunlight radiating from a central point behind a cloud.

petrichor: The fresh smell outside after a rain (unless the rain was torrential, in which case it probably smells more like a sewer).

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.