Words I’m Learning

I like to think that I know English better than the average bear. Yet despite that, I still come across words that confound me. Because I have been trained well by my father and grandmother Kilker, I reach for the online Oxford English Dictionary for clarification. This post will be updated periodically with the words I’ve looked up that are particularly odd, funny, or whatnot. Especially whatnot.

clunch. (n.) a lump, a heavy and unshapely mass.

  • Whence: I came across this one when reading about Devil’s Dyke, Cambridgeshire and the type of hard chalk in the area, which is called clunch. The connotative negative meanings mean this will be a useful alternative swear word for my vocabulary, especially since it has such a nice guttural sound.
  • Etymology:  The Low German klunt , Dutch klont ‘lump, clod, heavy and awkward mass, clown’, etc., which is explained etymologically as a nasalized derivative of the root which gave cleat , clot , clout (Old Germanic *klunt- , < klut -), must apparently have formerly been used in the same sense in English (where it still lingers dialectally in restricted use), as is evidenced by numerous derivatives,clunter n., etc. 

hendiadys. (n.) a figure or speech in which a single complex idea is expressed by two words connected by a conjunction.

  • whence: While reading about the macaronic poem Aldhelm, which was written in Old English, Latin, and transliterated Greek. Whitbread’s discussion of the “reasonably coherent and consistent sense” of the text used “ponus et pondus” (toil and weight) as an example of this common rhetorical technique in Latin poetry.
  • etymology: Latinized form of the Greek phrase ἓν διὰ δυοῖν, hèn dià duoîn, “one through two.”

turves. (n.)  plural of “turf,” a slab from the surface of the soil with the grass and herbage growing on it. . . .

  • whence: In Michael Swanton’s translation of Gesta Herewardi, King William’s soldiers fortify the riverbank with turves. Since I’ve seen some strange military terminology before, I couldn’t figure it out. Now I know.
  • etymology:  Old English turf feminine consonant stem (genitive-dative singular and nominative-accusative plural tyrf): Common Germanic (with variation of gender and declension) < Indo-European *drbh : compare Sanskrit darbhá tuft of grass, < drbh to make into tufts, string together.

A Midwesterner on the evening train to Uppsala

The old man facing me wears the ubiquitous nautical striped shirt, this one grey and black striped with a black blazer. He’s reading the Cinematik brochure, which I try to translate from the corner of my right eye while I pretend to look out the window at the cityscape passing by. I desperately want to ask him if he’s been there – today or yesterday or maybe tomorrow – but I know that’s not the thing. I’m not supposed to make eye contact, not supposed to stare, definitely not supposed to ask questions, whether it’s here in Sweden or back home on the L in Chicago.  I promise myself I’m not going to ask. I can ride fifty-five minutes in silence.

The woman on his right has perfectly styled blond hair, designer leather purse, and a red Samsung Galaxy that buzzes every few minutes with texts (SMS as I’ve heard them called here where people know and care about accuracy). A few rows behind the old man’s shoulder, I can see a young woman in a cream colored jacket with teal and black feathers printed on it like falling leaves; she carries several shopping bags and looks out the window at each stop.

The old man puts away the brochure and reads a black and white sheet – in English! – describing a movie with a mystery plot. It’s hard to pull together meaning from an upside down text, but I am determined not to disrupt the other passengers. Forty more minutes in silence before Uppsala.

The student across the aisle from me wears green leather boots and reads Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, which reminds me of Notre Dame. I’m not entirely sure what systematic theology is, to be honest, since Anglo-Saxon theology was rather idiosyncratic.  He rides for three stops but never looks up from his book.

The train stops again, and bodies pass in and out the automatic doors. The seats empty, some seats fill, but fewer each time as we travel further away from Stockholm. Each stop is prefaced by a small chiming that is hauntingly familiar. Where do I know that sound from?

Everyone turns and looks as a tall man dressed all in black approaches the door to the conductor’s area. Riders look moderately alarmed, but he’s wearing a black SJ jacket and has a key to the door so we all settle down quickly. (It seemed less that he was a threat to us all but rather that one should not be in places where one does not belong. Very Swedish thing, fitting in.)

The old man has now tucked the English film description into his black and red Nike bag, held on his lap loosely. He begins to look up when the train pulls into the next station. I worry that he’s getting off before I remind myself that it irrelevant since I am not going to bother him.

The woman with the perfect hair and red phone is gathering her things, standing up before the chiming begins for the next stop. I realize, with a start, that her nails are painted black like a punk music fan. I smile a little, imagining she listens to Keasby Nights. The chimes sound and I’m trying to stay out of her way as she edges between me and the old man. I look at him, hoping for eye contact. Nothing. The near silence continues; the train rattles along while the notification board once again reads “mot Uppsala.”

When we stop at Arlanda, a middle aged man takes the seat once occupied by the girl in the feather jacket. His previous latitude is revealed by a slight sunburn, green & white striped tank top, and blue Hawaiian print shorts, not to mention open toed sandals. He manspreads in his seat but the car (vägn) is nearly empty so I refrain from giving him the stink eye.

At this point, I crack. My internal Midwesterner has been  bursting at the seams to talk to the old man across from me. I lean forward slightly and say, “Ursäkta.”

There are a few bumbling moments working through my limited Swedish before he understands that I’m curious about the Film Institute in Stockholm. The English-language film he had seen was a sci-fi film starring Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin. Soon, he is telling me about moving from Portugal to Sweden forty years ago. He shows me the Brazilian films listed in the brochure, and we discuss Black Orpheus. He seems pleased that I know it. We chat for a few more miles and then somehow we’re talking about talking to strangers on the train. He smiles. I smile.  The chimes sound, and he hops off the train at Knivsta.

A new man takes his place in the seat across from me, looking like the Swedish version of hipster. His flashy yellow Pumas catch my eye. The rest of his clothing is black except for the red plaid flannel he wears between his T-shirt and suit jacket. A double chain hangs around his neck supporting several pendants: an angel, an old fashioned key, and an abstract art form that makes me think of mushrooms. Scruffy yellow hair peaks out from under his ball cap as he slouches in the seat, legs akimbo. His thumbs dance across the screen of his smart phone. He glances occasionally at the bike he left by the doors.

I sit quietly, picking back through my conversation with the Portuguese man when the chimes sound for Uppsala. I realize where I know that sound from – the Zen Garden in Plants Vs. Zombies. I chuckle a little and gather my things because we’ve reached the end of the line.

As I follow the Swedish hipster towards the platform (spår) another man catches my eye and smiles. “So you just moved to Uppsala?” Glancing at him, I realized that he had been sitting quietly on the train for the last thirty minutes.  I smiled. “Yeah.” Seems I had overlooked someone.