Words, Words, Words

That was Hamlet’s reply to Polonius’ question “What do you read, my lord?” in Shakespeare’s 1603 play, Hamlet. The implication is that whatever Hamlet is reading is meaningless. But I use that word triplet to express my reaction to the many words I’m encountering these days that are in some way unusual.

Take omicron. It doesn’t have a defined meaning. It’s the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet. For reasons I haven’t been able to uncover, it’s the name assigned to the current variant of COVID-19 devastating the earth. It is also the name of a star, Omicron Piscium, a binary star in the constellation of Pisces—which, incidentally, means “fish.”

Another is travesty. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a burlesque translation or literary or artistic imitation usually grotesquely incongruous in style, treatment, or subject matter.” In other words, an offensive fake. It’s root means to dress for the purpose of deceiving. How did it arrive at its current meaning from that root?

Then there’s flayflint—to exact all possible gain. Close to it is skinflint, “a person who would save, gain, or extort money my any means.” Here the meaning comes from combining very basic English (Anglo-Saxon) words. “Flay” means to strip off skin; “flint” means to strike stone to create a spark and start a fire; “skin” means the flesh that covers the human body.

More next time.

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