Friday, January 7, 2011

Still Life with Robin: A Word, Please

by Peggy Robin

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.”  --from Alice in Wonderland

I was thinking of Humpty Dumpty the other day while editing an article by a writer who used the word “apogee” to mean “a sudden insight” or “revelation.” I thought the word she was searching for was “epiphany” and I changed it accordingly. She saw the edit and emailed to say that’s not the word she wanted to use. “But you can’t use ‘apogee’ that way,” I countered. She replied that she had always understood “apogee” to mean a higher understanding or a new, more enlightened view of something. The exchange didn’t end when I sent her the dictionary definition of apogee (which is literally “the most distant point in an orbit from the body being orbited” or metaphorically, the highest point or apex of a trend). She finally wrote back, conceding that I had won the argument, but I could tell that she was somewhat bothered by the outcome.

I think I understand her annoyance, because I’ve had this same feeling myself over certain words. You use a word over and over, and you think you’re using it appropriately, only to discover that it has that particular meaning only to you. Still, the meaning you’ve assigned to the word is real to you, and when you discover it’s not real to the rest of the world, you feel a sense of loss, as if a bit of your vocabulary has been unfairly taken away. You would really prefer it if your readers could come to appreciate the word “apogee” just as you’ve used it in your sentence. Sure, maybe that requires a little mind-stretching on the reader’s part, but what would be so wrong with that?

Which brings me to some other words that have caused some disappointment when the speaker discovered they didn’t signify the thing he or she had in mind. My friend Rick grew up enjoying a dish that his mother, his aunts, his grandmother, and his whole extended family called “gas house eggs.” It’s made by taking an ordinary slice of bread, cutting a hole in the middle, putting it in a buttered frying pan, and then cracking an egg into the middle of the hole. When the egg is cooked sunny-side-up, the dish is ready to serve for breakfast. Many years after leaving home, Rick was sitting in the booth of a diner at breakfast time and saw a waitress serving this same dish to someone at another table. “You make gas house eggs!” he exclaimed in delight. (He had thought his grandmother had invented the dish.) But the waitress looked blank until she figured it out: “Oh, you mean our Rocky Mountain toast! We’ve had this on our diner menu since we opened back in the ‘50s.” It was like a blow, Rick told me, when he found out his family’s secret recipe was a commonplace thing, well known under a different name. Since then he’s learned that his childhood favorite also goes by “frog in the hole,” “egg in a basket,” "sunshine toast," and about a dozen other names. He’s still miffed about it.

Now for a different story about a different item you can buy, if only you know what to call it. I’m talking about those elastic hair ties that have a small plastic ball at the end, which you can wrap several times around the hair in a pony tail or braid and secure by looping the elastic around the little ball when it’s tight enough. In my family we always called those things “bobblies.” I think when the kids were little we once had a babysitter who introduced us to the term. One day I realized that all the ones we had become stretched out, broken, or had gone missing. So I suggested that my husband, Bill, pick up a package when he went to the drugstore. He wandered around the large store for a while, searching in vain, until he asked a sales clerk for help. “Where would I find bobblies?” “Find what?” she asked. “Bobblies -- they’re for girls’ hair.” “Oh, you mean bobby pins.” She helpfully guided him to the right aisle, where she handed him a packet of bobby pins. Not what he was after. Fortunately, the “bobblies” were close by. And they were clearly marked on the package:  “pony tailers.”

Now many years have passed since we first discovered that there’s no such thing as “bobblies” on store shelves. We don’t care. Our girls are grown up and they don’t use them any more. But even if they did, we’re sticking with “bobblies.” It’s a terrific word that somehow suggests how the elastic stretches around that thing-a-ma-bob at the end. It has a fine sound and in my house, at least, we all know what it means.

Is there a “bobbly” in your vocabulary? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Please feel free to share your stories in the comments section below.


  1. I guess we weren't too creative in my family, we just called them "elastic hair ties" or "elastics," for short.

  2. Our son learned to say "bubble" early, so it wasn't a surprise that we drink "bubbly water" or club soda in our house. We also eat "ears" - again because what 2 year old can say tortellini? And finally, "Rabbit Roni" which is another name for Annie's brand of macaroni and cheese!

  3. We called them "egg islands" and later in life a colleague said her family called them "one-eyed Egyptians". Go figure...

  4. @ Eileen: For some reason in our house "bubbly water" (club soda) is called "fuzzy water." Not "fizzy water," which might make sense, but "fuzzy." I think maybe it first started as a joke but now we all say it, unless we realize that a non-family-member is present, and then we say "fizzy water."

  5. There's a puzzle that runs every other week in the NY Times Sunday Magazine. I've been doing this puzzle for years. I always thought it was called the double-crostic. Over the holidays I was a guest in a friend's house and she asked me if I wanted to help her solve the Times Acrostic. It took me a while to figure out that she meant the double-crostic. For the first time I actually looked at the name of the puzzle, and it's just plain "acrostic." All these years it's been right there in front of me and I just never saw it. I don't know where the term double-crostic came from, either, but I have always called it that. But I am planning to call it by its correct name from here on out.