Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Ustekinumab? Ixabepilone? RimabotulinumtoxinB?

Weird words, indeed, but (even more weirdly) you can probably guess that these are medications. We’ve become accustomed to the unpronounceable alphabetic mishmashes that name our pills. Who concocts these words, and how do they do it?

The process is too labyrinthine for me to explain, or even to understand after looking it up. Suffice it to say, the United States Adopted Names Program attaches a generic name to new drugs. According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, “Pharmaceutical names are assigned according to a scheme in which specific syllables in the drug name (called stems) convey information about the chemical structure, action, or indication of the drug. The name also includes a prefix that is distinct from other drug names and that is euphonious, memorable, and acceptable to the sponsoring pharmaceutical firm.”

I especially love the “euphonious.” (Whose Greek roots, by the way, mean “sweet-sounding.”)

In short, drugs end up with three names: a generic (non-proprietary) name (acetaminophen), a brand name (Tylenol) , and a chemical name. According to Wikipedia, “The brand name Tylenol and the United States Adopted Name acetaminophen were generated by McNeil (Laboratories) from the chemical name of the drug, N-acetylpara-aminophenol (APAP).”

Sinemet, for another example, a brand-name Parkinson’s drug, combines two roots: sine, meaning “without” in Latin, and emetic, from Greek (and then Latin), meaning “to vomit.” Sinemet doesn’t make you vomit! The drug combines levodopa, a dopamine replacement, which causes nausea, with carbidopa, which inhibits nausea by preventing the creation of dopamine outside of the brain. Sinemet’s generic name is carbidopa-levodopa. Its scientific name may or may not be something like (2S)-2-amino-3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)propanoic acid;3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)-2-hydrazinyl-2-methylpropanoic acid.

A cholesterol drug, Lipitor, goes by the generic name atorvastatin. The prefix lipi- derives from lipids, referring to cholesterol compounds, and the suffix –tor- comes from the second syllable in atorvastatin, which apparently comes from a Spanish word meaning “to clog.” Statin comes from the Latin verb stare, meaning “to stand” or “to stop,” as in status, solstice (when the sun “stops”), and stasis. The drug stops the clogging.

Because it’s hard not to get lost in the weeds and because I have probably already butchered much of the science, I’ll stop. Feel free to correct me, and to share some of your own favorite medicinal nomenclature.

In closing, I recommend you check out this website, wherein a pharmacist shares some delightful customer mispronunciations of drug names. X and X, anyone?


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Spoiler Alert

Photo by Neil Daftary on Unsplash

Working on Thursday’s New York Times Connections puzzle, I stared at the word suede long and hard, wondering what it had to do with broil, watch, blur, timer, hourglass, or any of the ten other words it supposedly might connect to. I stared at the word so long it became a meaningless concoction of letters, lacking any meaning at all.

[In case you’re not addicted, Connections offers sixteen words that break into four groups which have a common thread. A few days ago, for instance, buzz, drone, hum, and purr formed a “monotonous sound” group. Not usually so easy, though.]

Suede looked so strange to me, I began wondering about its roots. Where does that weird word come from?

Turns out suede comes from the name of a country, and if you’re guessing Sweden, you’re right. Before we get there, though, let’s examine the actual meaning–“undressed kid skin,” which has nothing to do with naked children (an understandable mistake). A clearer definition is “leather with the the flesh side rubbed to create a velvety nap.” No doubt much of what passes for suede today is some lab-created dried stretched smoothed soft plastic substance. Which is good news for the actual kids, i.e., baby goats.

Many countries turn out both critters and leather, so why Sweden? The Swedes produced prized, soft leather gloves, or gants de Suede, “gloves of Sweden,” and the term began being shortened to suede in English in the mid-19th century.

This research was merely putting off my struggles with Connections. I then tried looking up suede as a slang word, which is cheating but not really cheating. Sometimes Connections lists four ordinary words with hip new meanings I have never encountered. Suede in hip lingo, I learned, describes a cool, good-looking ladies man, as in suave. I would try to incorporate this term into my everyday conversation, but I don’t think I know anyone who fits the bill at this stage of my life. And none of the other Connections words connected with this meaning. Who calls a cute guy a timer or a survey?

As it turned out, the Connected suede is actually a proper noun (spoiler alert) with a musical link. Its three companions were blur, oasis, and pulp, which some of you smarter people probably recognize as 90s Britpop bands. I arrived at this conclusion only by solving the other combinations first.

Do you play? Thoughts?

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Lots of Good Fun That Is Funny

Photo by Reba Spike on Unsplash

Amid my interesting reading lately, I enjoyed revisiting a classic yesterday. Twice.

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.

The opening pages of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat are committed to memory, thanks to frequent bedtime rereadings about forty years ago. It’s also the first book I remember reading by myself.

So this gem has lots of sentimental value for me, but my enjoyment of reading it aloud goes beyond nostalgia. The book falls squarely in the category of “fun to read.”

All Dr. Seuss books, of course, are rhythmically fun. The anapestic beat of The Cat in the Hat chugs along–carrying you through the story with your pint-sized listener. An anapest, in case you’ve forgotten, consists of two short syllables followed by one accented one, as in the word interrupt. The children’s choleric fish is Master of the Anapest:

"Put me down!" said the fish.
"This is no fun at all!
Put me down!" said the fish.
I do not  wish to fall!"

{Try reading aloud but substituting two interrupts per line.)

The story itself is also lots of good fun, if you wish. Revisiting it now, I’m struck by just how weird it is, and I remember feeling similarly when I read it at the age of six. I didn’t love the cat, and I didn’t love the fish, but they fascinated me. Likewise my two-year-old granddaughter yesterday. When the fish shouts, “You should not be here when our mother is not!” she looked up at me and agreed that he shouldn’t. Who, after all, hops up and down on a ball while holding a cup and some milk and a cake and some books and a ship and a fish on a rake? I mean.

The story is subversive. My twin grandson often enjoys books at some remove while performing important construction work nearby with his excavator and dump truck, but he sidles up to view the mess created when the cat comes down with a bump and all the things fall. The cat is a home wrecker, and I imagine the book may be canceled at some point for depicting children’s letting a destructive stranger into their house.

Lastly, Dr. Seuss’s masterful drawings adhere perfectly to the words. When Thing 1 and Thing 2 run down the hall and bump their kites on the wall, there on the page are Thing 1 and Thing 2 and a hall and two kites and a wall. How could kids not learn to read from this book?

The Cat in the Hat consists of 236 different words–all one or two syllables long– demonstrating the magic of simple language, imaginative drawings, and a cockeyed, crazy story.

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More Nonsense Words

Writing last week about YouTuber Dana K. White’s dololly and other weird words, I intended to move on to whomper-jawed, Dana’s adjective for a rickety bookshelf she was getting rid of. But I forgot and moved on instead to thingamajigs and whatllIcallits.

How amazingly coincidental that reader and friend Barbara B., in her comment, referred to whopper-jawed, a common variant, which can also be spelled wapper-jawed, womper-jawed, and even whompsey-jawed. Words used more often in speech than writing often have multiple spellings, because no authority has stepped forward to standardize it. The variants are part of the charm.

I love whomper-jawed and all its variations. I intend to use it whenever I can, and our old house’s many whomper-jawed dolollies provide plenty of opportunities.

Which brings up a charming synonym, cattywampus, also spelled catawampus. It means “askew,” “messy,” “disordered.” I’ve probably heard the word in other contexts, but remember it fondly from an episode of The Office in which Andy, played by Ed Helms, straightened Dwight’s sport coat, admonishing him, “Do not walk around with your jacket cattywampus!” (At about 2:15) I was delighted to shoehorn the word into A Grandmother’s ABC Book, describing some of my embroidery that might have gone cattywampus. On the C is for Cat page, no less!

The Internet is rich with websites explaining such weird old-fashioned and regional usages. One includes a term dear to our current President, malarkey, referring to “talk that is particularly foolish.” Biden’s No Malarkey Tour, part of his Iowa campaign in 2019, raised issues about his age and relevance. Young people didn’t know the meaning of the word and therefore, I guess, might not vote for him. We could refer them to this Merriam-Webster page, which explains the term’s synonym, trumpery.

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Prose and Poetry

I let a few weeks pass after finishing Mozart: The Reign of Love before tackling American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, another massive tome. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2006 biography served as a source and template for Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, of which you may have heard. Have you seen it?

The book covers more of Oppenheimer’s childhood and family background than the film does and does not include the extensive courtroom drama surrounding Lewis Strauss’s Congressional confirmation hearings with which the movie ends. Otherwise, the film’s themes and details (such physicist Richard Feynman playing bongos at a Los Alamos party) clearly derive from the book. Nolan credits the authors in virtually every interview I’ve seen, and Bird expresses gratitude and admiration for the movie. (Co-author Sherwin passed away in 2021.)

I admire the book greatly. The authors labored over the research and writing for 25 years. It’s a massive achievement. It was, though, something of a chore to read, at least for me. So much detail does not necessarily make for elegant prose–it’s workmanlike. Well-written, but not gracefully so.

In that regard, I prefer the Mozart book, which, at times, made me tear up. Jan Swafford’s lyrical prose suited his masterful subject.

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Gizmos and Thingamabobs

Photo by Luca Laurence on Unsplash

When my book group was leaving my house the other night, I offered, with a smile, to get them their wraps. When they noted that quaint locution, I recalled my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Bender suggesting we put on our wraps before recess. I added that Mrs. Bender also advised us to “red up” our desks before leaving for the day.

Nobody knew that expression. The Internet explains that red up (sometimes spelled redd up) has a Scottish origin and and is common out Pittsburgh way. It’s short for readying up, as in “getting ready” or tidying. Maybe Mrs. Bender was from Pittsburgh. Another source traces the phrase to rural Pennsylvania and posits a Pennsylvania Dutch root. Grammarphobia cites the Middle English verb redden, meaning “to rescue, to clear.”

Whatever its source, I like it. I like regional usages and don’t think they should be disparaged as non-standard, not that anyone in my book group did that.

Dana K. White, one of my favorite YouTubers, helps me red up my house and clear out the clutter. A Texan, she uses some charming idioms. What I might call a thingy or a doohickey or a thingamajig, she calls a dololly. My grandmother’s term for such a thing was whatllIcallit, but that was more for when she couldn’t think of a thing’s name than for things that don’t have a name. The housekeeping goal, as you might imagine, is to get rid of as many dolollies as you can.

When I tried looking up Dana’s word as doolally, based on her pronunciation, I learned that doolally is British slang for “crazy.” Take care in your writing to distinguish dololly from doolally to avoid both confusion and possible offense.

Do you have some favorite local expressions? What’s your favorite word for a thingamajig?

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An Absolute Pleasure

The Latin verb solvere, like English’s to put or to take lends itself to multitudinous idioms. It can mean “to untie,” “to release,” “to unbind,” “to loosen what restricts,” “to throw off,” “to pay,” and on and on. The word’s entry in my Latin dictionary is over four inches long. (Yes, I measured it.)

To solvere a ligatam is to untie a bond. To solvere a funem can be to loosen a rope, as in setting sail. To solvere pecuniam debitam means to discharge a debt. (Set it free!)

The English derivative that jumps out, of course, is solve, and don’t you feel unbound when you land on the answer to the daily Wordle? You’ve untied that knot and are free to go about your day! And what is your answer called? It’s a solution, and, guess what, the participle of solvere is solutus, which means, literally, “having been released.”

A chemical solution is a homogeneous mixture in which the two (or more) combined substances can no longer be differentiated. Where’s the unbinding? explains, “Think of solution . . . as a loosening of the chemical bonds that make something solid––when you loosen the structure of salt by mixing it into water, you create a solution.”

Now perhaps a bunch of other English derivatives are coming to mind. Insolvent. Dissolve. Dissolute. Resolve.

An absolution is a formal release from guilt or punishment, emphasis on the release. The prefix ab means from or away from. So absolution frees you from guilt. I’ve been on the library waiting list for Alice McDermott’s new novel Absolution for weeks; she’s one of my favorite writers. As you can see, it finally came in, and I’m looking forward to starting it when I finish some other reading.

McDermott is a Catholic, although a dissident and unsettled one like me. The priest releases one from the confessional with an absolution. I’m sure McDermott’s take on the word will be more nuanced, tentative, and complicated than a simple “Go and sin no more.” I’m looking forward to finding out.

If you’ve read it, don’t tell me anything. But do tell me what you’re reading.

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No Trouble in Bubbleland

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Here’s a writer you’ll not only probably enjoy but who will make you feel a little bit better.

I learned of R. Eric Thomas through our mutual friend (just kidding) Ann Patchett, the novelist, who featured his new book in a little promotion for her Nashville bookstore, Parnassus Books. I requested Congratulations! The Best Is Over! immediately after viewing that video. I can’t re-access the Tik Tok video but you can read Eric’s giddy account of a joint appearance by the two of them here.

Both writers are funny and humane.

Congratulations largely concerns Eric’s reluctant move from Philadelphia to Baltimore, where, he says, “all the ghosts of the unhappy person I used to be still lived.” He and his husband eventually buy a house and build a pond, where noisy frogs drive Eric to distraction. He’s able to describe frog-induced insomnia hilariously.

I’m currently reading his earlier book, Here for It, or, How to Save Your Soul in America, which I may like even better. One essay, “There’s Never Any Trouble Here in Bubbleland,” directed me to a Mister Rogers episode called “Mister Rogers Makes an Opera,” for which I will feel eternal gratitude to R. Eric Thomas. I love and respect Mister Rogers as much as the next person, but, really, the word unhinged sometimes comes to mind. Thomas says affectionately that Mister R. was “relentless in his pursuit of eccentricity.” Watch the opera and see.

One of the episode’s songs, “There’s Never Any Trouble Here in Bubbleland,” gave Thomas’s working-class Black family a catch phrase:

[This] became my mother’s frequent ironic refrain, a sardonic way of expressing frustration at a situation that was set up for my parents to fail. Our neglected neighborhood was rumbling around us; my parents worked tirelessly but still struggled financially their parents were ailing. When the weight of it all threatened to overtake her, my mother, with a lightness, would sigh, ‘There’s never any trouble here in Bubbleland.’ It became a relief valve, a code word, a cry for help. It also served as a guiding metaphor. The world outside was troublesome, but the house and the world my parents built for us within it was a bubble. A delicate, permeable utopia.

Which gives you a taste of Thomas’s graceful writing. Check him out.

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A Scottish Play on Words

A red herring (Photo by Tomas Martinez on Unsplash)

As the credits rolled, I leaned toward my companion. “Is the Maltese falcon a MacGuffin?” I asked.

“Um,” he replied, “I always sort of forget what a MacGuffin is.”

That evening, referring the question to Mr. Wikipedia, we learned that a MacGuffin is an object or person needed to move the plot forward, but insignificant in and of itself. In the renowned 1941 film, the Maltese falcon could have just as easily been a ring or a fleece or a chalice (all arguably MacGuffins in other works) and is therefore often cited as an example of a MacGuffin. The point is not that it’s a falcon. The point is that the characters are after it, relentlessly.

I guess by this definition Moby-Dick is not a MacGuffin, even though Ahab’s pursuit of him drives the plot. The white whale has significance in and of himself. So much significance! I submit in evidence the chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale” and the copious scholarship examining Moby’s meaning.

(On second thought, maybe for all those desperate Ph.D. candidates, Moby-Dick perfectly embodies the MacGuffin–the meaningless object of a futile chase.)

Some websites help draw distinctions among other common, similar devices. A red herring, for example, distracts you from the heart of the matter. At the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Marian (Janet Leigh) has a pile of cash. On first viewing, you think the cash is consequential, but it disappears along with Marian’s body, never to be seen again. Hitchcock is a tricky dick.

Red herring‘s history is murky. It has something to do with the smell of a smoked fish used to distract (or possibly train) hounds going after a fox. Or horses. It’s not entirely clear.

Another term: Chekhov’s gun represents perhaps the exact opposite of a MacGuffin–an item appearing early in the story and exploding (eventually) with significance by the end. It’s full of meaning, and you’re supposed to pay attention to it. Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya famously reveals a gun in the first scene, which you worry about the whole play. It turns out you’re right to worry about it.

A screenwriter named Angus McPhail, who worked on Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, among other films, originated the term MacGuffin. Hitchcock adopted it enthusiastically, and it’s most commonly associated with him.

In an interview with the director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock offered a puckish alternative etymology for MacGuffin:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.

Which is either a red herring or a shaggy dog story. Or both.

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A Christmas Carol in January

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It’s no longer the holiday season, but, because I’d been thinking for a while about rereading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I finally did it today.

Like (I imagine) many people, I supposed I knew the story. I recalled the outlines, of course, and remembered parts vividly. The ominous atmosphere surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has stuck with me best: Scrooge foreseeing the future, including the death of Tiny Tim and a vision of his own grave. I retained the spookiness.

But that’s only ten pages of a fifty-page novella and only one-third of the ghostly visitations. I had forgotten how varied the other experiences are, how joyful some of the visions, and how essentially compassionate the Ghosts. Too many dramatizations on stage and on screen (and in cartoons!) have come between my last reading some decades ago and this one.

Someone recently commented to me that the story really doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, except for the time that it takes place. I didn’t feel I could contradict the person, but I do now. The story is filled with Christmas sounds, smells, sights and family gatherings as we know them and as Dickens largely created them. Here’s Scrooge’s walk in London with the Ghost of Christmas Present:

By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlors, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn, to shut out cold and darkness. There, all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. . . But if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high. Blessings on it, how the Ghost exulted!

Aside from sensory and sentimental associations, the lessons of Christmas and of Christianity, in its best sense, imbue the whole novella. Christmas and Christianity, in their ideal manifestation, are about love, generosity, compassion, and redemption. After the Ghosts’ tutelage, Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” has transformed into “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” When people laughed at Scrooge, his “own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.” Dickens is conveying the hope essential to the Christmas story.

Of course, I’m not insisting that A Christmas Carol has to be read as a religious text. It has truths and pleasures for everyone. I will politely object, however, the next time anyone asserts in my presence that it has nothing to do with Christmas.

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