Old Worlds. New Words.


I love to roll new words around my brain, watch where they settle, wait for what the sounds make me feel. Looking at them on a page can be equally as satisfying, as I study the shapes or the way various nations adjust the spelling to suit their needs or proclivities. As a linguistics major, briefly, at university, I found it tremendously satisfying to explore combinations of phonemes (sounds) and relate them to morphemes (the smallest units of meaning in a language). It was all so … miraculous. Think about it: early man sits in a cave in ancient Wales. He looks at his cavemate, who is trying to get his woolly mammoth chop out of the new-fangled fiery thing as his fingers disintegrate. The combination of sounds, “ffŵl” (because only the English cavemen were spelling it “fool”) escapes the observer’s lips for the first time. Miraculous, really. And now you know why I was only a linguistics major for a short time. According to my professors, there was way more to the development of language than “It’s a miracle!”

So these days, I focus on the way words make me feel or what they conjure up. “Struth” makes me think of my father, watching the evening news as a child while some politician shared the latest hare-brained idea for increasing taxes. I never hear that word anymore. It’s been replaced with harsher words, usually including the ‘k’ sound at either the beginning or the end. “Whortleberry” is another evocative word for me. I don’t even really know what one is, but the word evokes gentle English countryside and jam while necessitating lingual gymnastics.

But my new favorite word is “slobbies.” You can’t find it in a dictionary. You can find “slob,” meaning “a lazy or slovenly person,” according to Collins. But no one’s yet thought to formally define “slobbies” in the academic annals of language.  It came to me via my friend, Steve. He’s from the north of England. He spends as much time being teased about his accent in his south of England home as I do about my accent in Wisconsin. Anyway, on my recent visit home, Steve told the gathered group we should all “get our slobbies on” before settling in to watch the evening’s entertainment. “Slobbies?” Was it a northern term for “alcoholic buzz,” seeing as wine was on the table? No, “slobbies” means something comfortable, like sweatpants, or pajamas, or anything that allows you to feel completely relaxed. Slovenly. Like a slob. The word even sounds lazy. Perfect! I love wearing slobbies! I’m a slobbyist! I just didn’t know it until I heard the word. I now look around clothing stores for the Slobbies Department, and relegate old clothes no longer fit for human observation to the “slobbies” pile. (A homebound writer needs a large slobbies pile.) Anyway, the word makes me feel good and reminds me of home and family and good times and comfort and, yes, wine too. Thanks, Steve.

I wonder: did cavemen wear slobbies? And what did their “slobbies” word look and sound like?

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