Uncle Philbert & Aunt Mattie
“I like words.”
That’s how a would-be screenwriter once started a job application letter. “I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady…. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde.” Aside from landing the author a job, the wonderfully witty letter (here) is a testament to the amazing richness of English, a language that combines the best of Anglo-Saxon’s bluntness (ooze), Greek and Latin’s multi-syllabic gravity (mortician), and the Romance languages’ elegance (demi-monde).
I too like words. For years I collected strange words: words I heard old-time Mainers use; words I gleaned from reading the dictionary (yes, I read dictionaries for fun; how else am I going to find a word like fubsy?); archaic phrases no longer in use; or nonsense words my mother’s family invented. My file bulged with weird words.
When I started my chapter book series (No More Nice, No More Nasty, Too Much Flapdoodle), I found the perfect use for them. I had created eccentric characters—Great Aunt Mattie and Great Uncle Philbert—and I wanted them to have distinct ways of speaking. Mattie was somewhat refined, so I had her use my favorite archaic words, like Pecksniffian or rodomontade. Philbert was a farmer, more earthy than Mattie, so it was natural for him to use the old-fashioned Maine terms, like jizzicked.
Lastly I had Mattie and Philbert use some whimsical made-up words. Like Mattie, my mother used to greet her children each morning by asking “How does your corporosity seem to gashiate?” To which the answer was: “Very discombobulate, great congruity, dissimilarity.” I didn’t know what the words meant, it was just what you said in the morning. (Nor did I suspect that ours was the only family to greet each other this way.
Children, too, like words. Many children’s book writers are afraid to use language that is above grade level, but during school visits I’ve found that kids love the challenge of strange new words. In fact, they liked the obscure words so much, they were doing things like searching dictionaries to find their own weird words (above).
The strange vocabulary did create some problems. I had to do battle with Flapdoodle copyeditors who insisted on changing downstreet into ‘down the street’ and putting a would in front of druther. I’ve also gotten lots of queries from readers about what the made up words mean (not to mention from the German translator having a, well, conniption, over how to translate gashiate). To all of whom I say: you’ll have to discombobulate an answer yourself.
Some favorites from Too Much Flapdoodle:
Fub: mess up or mess around.
Whiffet: a small, unimportant person.
Hole in the snow: worthless (like a hole created by, well, whatever).
Teakittle up: tidy up.
Gormy: slow-witted, clumsy.
As in: That gormy cuss has been fubbing around with my fence all morning and it’s still weewaw. He’s a real hole in the snow. As for you, you young whiffet, cut out the flapdoodle, muckle onto that mop, and help me teakittle up.