Let's Reminisce: The pleasure of funny words
By Jerry Lincecum
Sep 25, 2018
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Most children enjoy words that sound funny, like “nincompoop,” and I was no exception.  As a senior citizen I still haven’t outgrown that interest, so I was delighted to discover a book entitled The 100 Funniest Words in English, by Robert Beard, a linguist also known as Dr. Goodword and the author of an internet blog on unusual words.  Let’s examine a few of those funny words.


“Nincompoop” is a synonym for “simpleton” or “dunce,” and Beard suggests it provides us with a means of calling someone foolish in an affectionate, almost forgiving way.  Certainly if you smile when aiming it at a friend, he is not likely to take offense and resort to fisticuffs.  Whereas, if you frowned and labeled him a “mugwump,” an angry and even violent response might be expected.  When capitalized, “Mugwump” referred to a Republican who refused to support the party’s candidate for president in 1848, but when uncapitalized it simply designates anyone who takes no position on an issue that should be easy to support or oppose.


But what about some words that just make us laugh out loud before we even know their true meaning: “bumbershoot,” “catercornered,” and “discombobulate”?  The first of those refers to an umbrella, especially an old-fashioned one, and no one knows who created it or when.  Recently it has been adopted by the city of Seattle, WA, as the name of an annual art and music festival that is an “umbrella” event to celebrate all the arts (and not because of the rainy weather Seattle is famous for).


“Catercornered” intrigued me as a child although I mispronounced it as “kitty-cornered” and thought it had something to do with cats.  It actually means to be positioned diagonally across from the person or thing under discussion.  It can also mean to be crooked, as in the sentence “That politician is always involved in something catercornered.”  As for “discombobulate,” Beard suggests that while it isn’t a word he’d advise you to use in a job interview, you can use it elsewhere with relish, to indicate confusion or befuddlement, as in “The city zoning board’s recent decision approving the car wash next door to my business leaves me completely discombobulated.”


If I want to go farther and suggest that the zoning board members are a bit lamebrained (without leaving them certain that I’m insulting their intelligence), there are several amusing words to choose from.  I might suggest their chairman is a “cockalorum,” a little man with too high an opinion of himself.  Or I could say they are a bunch of “flibbertigibbets,” that is, silly scatterbrains.  Then there’s an even stronger word of denunciation: “snollygoster.”  It originally referred to a monster that preyed on chickens and children but has settled into a more generic meaning of a truly rotten person driven by greed and selfishness.


One of my personal favorites is “slangwhanger,” referring to loud, abusive folks who enjoy throwing insults, and we live in an age that has no shortage of people deserving of this “cognomen,” if I may throw in a funny word that didn’t make the top 100 list.  It refers to a distinguishing name or nickname, such as the one I used when I first began writing this column (more than 25 years ago): the Good Humor Man.


Let me end on a more positive note by mentioning “rorulent,” a word that means bejeweled in dew, dew-laden; or covered with a white, dust-like bloom, as plum bushes often are.  The front yard of the house I grew up in had a small native plum tree that every spring would be covered with beautiful white blooms.  I also delight in finding a spiderweb that is covered in dew, giving it that bejeweled look.  Until I found the word “rorulent” on Dr. Goodword’s website, I had no idea there was a word to describe that lovely sight.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: