Posted by Sheila Connolly
Some time ago, in some magazine, I read an article that fascinated me, about people who find certain words, or combinations of words, extremely funny–far beyond a normal giggle. I'm one of them. Put the right words together and I'm reduced to helpless laughter, to the point of tears. I never know when it's going to happen, and I certainly don't know why.
So, being a proficient Googler, I tried to look up the article. The first problem was deciding what keywords I wanted to use. Word+laugh? Word+funny? I tried both. I got something like seven million hits, which didn't help me much. What was interesting was that I got different results: one version gave me lots of articles dissecting the meaning of humor, and what words some subset of people agree are funny. The other produced a list of articles on how infants and children develop a sense of humor. All very entertaining, but not what I was looking for.
All this came about because I've been filing this week. I have to admit that I'm a dinosaur: I still like to read words on paper. And I like to keep the copies. I just don't like to file them. But every so often, it becomes imperative to file, because otherwise some day my spouse will come home and find my lifeless body smothered until a vast pile of print-outs. (May I say in my own defense that there is a point to saving paper: the other day my external hard drive–yes, the one I responsibly acquired to back up my precious electronic files–died a silent death. Stopped without warning. Went cold and dark. But! I still have my paper copies!) And of course, in the process of sifting through the staggering piles of paper, I found treasures. Well, I also found a lot of crap, much of which left me scratching my head and saying, why did I save that? In fact, I have a file labeled "Interesting things I don't know what to do with". Really.
But back to the treasures. One of my resurrected finds was the "Glossary of Yorkshire Medical Terms" from 2004, which I saved solely because I thought it was full of funny words. I will skip over the quaint and endearing terms for male and female genitalia, but even without those the list remains rich in colorful expressions. "Ay up" for hello (no, it's not a medical term, but you've got to start somewhere, don't you?). "Boggles" for nasal discharge. "Feel whammy" for weakness or general malaise. "Goz" for saliva. "Manky" for infected. "Maungy" for a moaning person. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Of course, it's not necessary to voyage to Yorkshire to find intriguing and obscure terms. I have one great-great-whatever-grandfather who died of "ofium aschemia." I've seen the original death record, and that's what it says, in clear copperplate script. What it means is a mystery to me. And then there's "phthisis" (an old word for tuberculosis). I'm still waiting for someone knowledgeable to pronounce it for me.
For some reason this phenomenon of "funny" words reminds me of a classic M*A*S*H episode in which an exhausted Father Mulcahey hears the confession of an injured soldier. He's listening dutifully, and somewhere along the way the soldier's tale drifts into complete garble, without a change in tone. I'm sure we've all been there, in that moment before sleep when everything seems perfectly logical but it's not. That scene captures it perfectly. But don't you wonder how the scriptwriter chose the nonsense words?
As writers we all play with words. We shuffle and nudge them around the page until they please us. We have our favorites, and we have words we refuse to use. And then some editor comes along and changes our carefully chosen, brilliantly polished words, because what is "right" to one person's inner ear may not be to another. Strange business, this is. Enough to give you a noggling pain.