Improvised Words

WHEN I have the time and the proper place for doing it, I shall write an addendum for my dictionary, have it neatly typewritten, and paste it right after the Z’s, but before the Foreign and Abbreviated Phrases, Geographical and Proper Names, etc. It is n’t the sort of thing one can write in the city, unless one has a second-story-back library, with a big bay window, and walnut furniture, and heavy crimson curtains with tassels all along the edge. My own library is very small, and has frivolous white woodwork and green wicker chairs and net curtains, without the least flavor of dignity or of labor. Therefore I must wait — since that second-story-walnut-crimson-curtained retreat is not mine — until I can go to the country; and there, under the influence of rows of hollyhocks and a noble whitepaling fence, not a picket missing, I can compose my addendum with a peaceful mind.

There is hardly a family but has some expressive improvised word. In my own family “ humbly ” reigns supreme. This is not the adverb of current usage, but an adjective, and a cross between “ humble ” and “homely;” and it was first used to describe our washwoman, who takes such pride in her humbleness, and is of such a superlative weatherbeaten homeliness, that she needed something special to express her personality. To all of our queries concerning missing collars and handkerchiefs and rents in the new sheets, she replies with a meekness that is wholly unnatural, “I’m sure I counted them, mum,” she murmurs, “ but I’ll look at home if you say so. And as for them tore places, I ask you kindly to take the worth of ’em out of my pay.” Which of course we cannot. We cannot even answer sharply one who speaks thus disarmingly. As for her homeliness, — it is not that she is sickly or bedraggled, as are so many women of her class, but her nose is impossibly tilted, her eyes are crossed, her hair is jerked back from her forehead and skewered into an absurd knot the size of a walnut, and she has no eyebrows! “ Humbly ” she is, and as “humbly Mrs. Wheeler ” she will be known in our family, while the brother who invented the word quite puffs himself up about it, and quotes as precedent the paragraph — is it from “ Alice ” ? — “ For if his mind had inclined ever so little to fuming he would have said fuming furious, and if his mind had inclined ever so little to furious he would have said furious fuming; but since he had a perfectly balanced mind, he said 'frumious.'

“ Streely ” is a contribution from a New York friend, and signifies most intelligibly a sort of stringy unkemptness, peculiar to one’s back hair after a day’s shopping, or to thin muslin curtains that have hung too long at the windows. A lawn gown of last season’s vintage after two days’ wear at the seashore is the most streely thing imaginable, and I have seen at small country stations various old gentlemen whose whiskers, long and straggling, were decidedly streely. Another improvised word was provided by a negro maid from the far South. She was sitting on the porch with the baby when there passed one of these much be-ruffled, be-coiffed, and behatted young women who cannot help betraying in their walk and carriage the consciousness of their frills. Sary eyed the butterfly disgustedly and said, “ Well, you sho do see some pow’ful uppy people in dishyer place! Look at dat! Mos’ too uppy to tread on de pavement! I be boun’ she ain’ i’on all dem ruffles herse’f.” And the word has stayed with me as a delightful and expressive addition to my vocabulary. It cannot be used outside of intimate conversation, but when you have labeled any one as " uppy ” the dullest-minded understands. I have some relatives who are overwhelmingly uppy. They have, I may say, climbed high into the family tree, which they consider as an eminence from which to look down on the rest of the world. But there — relatives ! Every one could write a book on relatives.

Quite in line with “ uppy ” is “ obsniptious,” indicating a sort of conscious aristocracy that expresses itself always in formal terms; that resides, but does not live; that becomes ill, but is never taken sick; that takes its departure, but never leaves; that goes to modistes instead of dressmakers; that has trades-people instead of grocers and butchers; whose life, in short, consists in trying to conceal the fact that a spade is nothing but an agricultural implement. Oh, “ obsniptious ” is a delicious word! I never felt that I had quite expressed my feelings against Barnes Newcome, until I could disdainfully label him as “obsniptious.”

Out in Western Pennsylvania there is another expressive improvised word which pictures to the last hem of her gingham apron the Martha who is eternally troubled about little things. This is “persnickerty.” The woman who lives with her dust-brush and whose doormats are a threat to her visitors, or the man who must untie every knot of the string about his parcels, and wind it into a ball and then fold and put away the wrapping paper, is persnickerty. Truth forces me to say that I believe women are more apt to be persnickerty than men, even though they do tell a tale of one young man in my native village who refused to go to a midnight fire until he was completely and properly dressed, with necktie adjusted and boots brushed. He was the most persnickerty soul I ever heard of, man or woman.

Another good Pennsylvania word, and very full of meaning, is to “ neb,” signifying to pry, to thrust one’s self in where one is not needed and not wanted, to mix into other people’s affairs. “ Such for a person to neb in! ” exclaimed my worthy York marketwoman when the man at the stall opposite tried to attract my attention from her “ smeirkaase ” to his. Yes, “ to neb ” shall go into my addendum and have a prominent place.

The last two words have more or less common usage over a wide section, but not long ago I heard a word used to describe a young man who had been a rather stodgy, embarrassed presence at a lively party of young people in a very lively little city of Maryland. “ I thought David seemed very tod,” said one of the chaperons. “ What do you mean? ” I asked. “ Oh, awkward, bashful, heavy,” she said, and then laughed. “ I don’t know where the word started,” she explained, “ but it is one we use a great deal around here to express any one who seems socially stupid.” The more I thought about it, the better I liked it; “ tod ” — it does sound dull and heavy, doesn’t it? But I believe the use of it in that sense is confined very closely to that particular locality, for nowhere else have I heard it.

A little more dubious as to the exact shade of significance, but certainly alluring to the ear, is “ pang-wangle.” It expresses — well, what does it express ? — a cheeriness under minor discomforts, a humorous optimism under small misfortunes, though indeed these seem dignified definitions for so informal a word. “ I just pang-wangled home in the rain,” says a friend of mine, and I know he got there drenched, but good-tempered. “ We went pang-wangling off to the theatre last night,” says my nearest neighbor; and I feel pretty certain they had been blue over something and felt the need of some small gayety. It would do us all good if we pang-wangled a bit more, I think.

A very meaning word is the Southerner’s “honing.” “My, honey, I’ve just been honing to see you! ” It is not so stilted as “ I’ve been longing,” and it is much more emphatic than “ I’ve been wanting.” It’s a warm, affectionate, intimate word, — honing. Let me put it into the addendum, well toward the front, for I love the sound of it.

These words are not slang. They are not exactly — as one high-brow friend informed me — “ low colloquialisms.” They have a place in language, and they add considerably to its color. Just you wait until (under the influence of that row of hollyhocks and that noble picket fence) my addendum is finished! Then let the purists squirm!