Posts for Category Words You Should Use More Often

Colds, collops, and meldrops: Bill’s Head snivels

Bill catches a cold and discusses some cold-related words
Oct 032011
Photo by Jen Waller

Though I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, I seem to be drawn to Scandinavian and Icelandic detective fiction, and I’ve been working my way through the Swedish Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell.* Last week I started the seventh book in that series, One Step Behind, and within the first two paragraphs read this passage:

…the dampness had nonetheless seeped through his clothing. He felt a sudden flash of anger. He didn’t want to catch a cold. Not now, not in the middle of summer.

Come on: it’s the 21st century (well, it was still the late 20th when the book was written, but still). Don’t we all know that viruses cause colds, not damp weather? In typical Bill fashion I was getting all annoyed at Henning Mankell for propagating an old wives’ tale–I even highlighted the passage and added a cranky annotation (yay, Kindle!)–but then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he as the author knows better even if his character does not.
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Word of the day: billhead, plus a roundup of other -head words

Bill's Head explains the billhead, dunks itself in a bucket of water to calculate the volume of a billshead, and looks at some other words with -head at their tails, like futtock-head and firelihead.
Jul 132010

Recently Google sent me a few searchers who wanted to know how to “design my own billhead” or were interested in the “design of bill head.” With narcissistic delusions of my own grandeur still lingering in my head from my encounter with the paparazzi, I was flattered that someone should want their very own Bill’s Head (note, however, that Bill’s Head is the product of evolution, not of design).

It turns out, though, that a billhead is something altogether different:

Bill's Head
A Bill’s Head
A billhead
A billhead

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May 252010
A clyster-pipe in action

When you were a kid, you probably called people “retards” when they did something stupid or awkward or were otherwise in need of being insulted. In my neighborhood (in Phoenix), we called them “gompers” instead. If you’re a member of the Texas school board, you may be cheering the fact that we insulted people by branding them as labor organizers, but in fact the only thing we knew about Samuel Gompers was that there was a school for people with developmental disabilities named after him, and if I remember correctly, it was right next to my elementary school. So we were calling people “retards” as well, in our own localized slang.* (I don’t know if the expression was widely used all over Phoenix, or just common in my neighborhood. I was somehow surprised that the Urban Dictionary has an entry for this usage of the word.)

These days, many of us realize that we shouldn’t call people “retards,” because this usage is offensive to people who actually are retarded (in the clinical sense of the word) and to those who care about them. Of course, we’re not supposed to call retarded people retarded, either, because of the negative connotations the word has taken on through its non-clinical use. Eventually the word will lose its original literal, clinical meaning, and we’ll go back to happily using it as an insult, just as we do with “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” which all were once clinical terms. In the meantime, though, no one can use “retard” in any context at all (you probably shouldn’t even apply fire retardant, to be safe).

This illustrates one of the biggest challenges of life in our present Age of Enlightenment: how do you insult someone without accidentally offending the wrong people?

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May 232010

It’s a rainy day here at Bill’s Head World Headquarters, where I’ve been working this morning on re-posting some old material. (If you’re reading this by RSS, you might want to peruse the Language and Word of the Day categories for these golden oldies, since they’re back-dated and therefore won’t appear in your feed.)

I posted the gruft entry, and the continuing rain theme made me think of “petrichor”, defined by the OED as “a pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” It’s also the word for the mixture of organic compounds that collects on the ground and is believed to produce the smell.

I think I remember reading a really nice article about petrichor long ago, but I can’t find it now. The Word Detective has a brief discussion of petrichor here. Have I mentioned recently that you should be reading The Word Detective?

Want to know more about the sciencey details? You might care to read this “Genesis of petrichor” paper by I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas:

Several possible mechanisms have been considered in connection with the origin of this odour. These include the synthesis of odorous compounds on the clay or rock surface by spontaneous catalysis of atmospheric gases, the sorption of organic compounds from the atmosphere, catalytic transformation of sorbed compounds and microbial activity. Evidence is presented which suggests the atmosphere contains, as general contaminants, lipids, terpenes, carotenoids and other volatile decomposition products from animal and vegetable matter. The sorption of these compounds, or their oxygenated derivatives, by rocks and clays is controlled by the properties of the sorbent and the partial water vapour pressure of the atmosphere, low relative humidities favouring maximum uptake. Oxidation and transformation of sorbates take place on the rock surface and are accelerated by warm to hot climatic conditions. The odorous and volatile products of these processes are subsequently displaced from the pores of the rock by moisture when the relative humidity of the atmosphere approaches saturation.The possibility of a relationship between petrichor and petroleum formation is discussed.

Or you could search around to find more information for free.

Aug 152006

During a recent instant messaging conversation, a friend made a comment that required a reply along the lines of “that’s too bad.” “That’s too bad” not being quite my style (or perhaps not quite strong enough for the occasion), I replied, “that’s a real fucker.” Or rather, I meant to reply, “that’s a real fucker,” but I missed the f and instead typed “that’s a real cucker.” I corrected myself but then thought, “perhaps it could be a real cucker.

A quick trip to the OED told me that cuck is an obsolete intransitive verb meaning “to void excrement,” so a cucker is a shitter, and “that’s a real shitter” would have been a perfectly suitable expression of my opinion in this case.

The beauty of cucker is that it sounds obscene (because it sounds a lot like fucker) and is, I suppose, obscene, due to the idea it expresses, but you can use it without anyone knowing you’re being obscene. In addition to using it as a substitute for shit and shitter, I suggest you try using cuck and cucker as general-purpose expletives along the lines of fuck and fucker.

Amusingly, the online Urban Dictionary lists “sock cucker” as a spoonerism for “cock sucker,” indicating that it “is often used to veil the insult and make it appear less offensive or even to make it go undetected.” In fact the phrase inadvertently creates a novel (and much funnier) insult.


The Urban Dictionary describes itself as “a slang dictionary with your definitions.” Contributor Salt Licky clearly doesn’t quite grasp the meaning of “slang,” as he (I think we can safely assume he is a he, based on his other contributions) has contributed the phrase “sock drawer,” meaning “the drawer that holds your socks.”

Feb 171997

Having recently discovered spade as a word for the gummy secretions of the eye, and learning to my disappointment that this us is obsolete, it occurs to me that there must be an alternative and current word for these secretions. As is so often the case, the news is mixed. First the good news: in addition to spade, three relevant words turned up:

  • Next to appear in the written record (spade is first, popping up in 725) is gound, which appeared around 1000 and occurs also as gund, gunde, and gownde. It comes from the Old English gund (matter or pus) and refers to any foul matter but especially that secreted in the eye.
  • Next is gum, apparently in reference to the gummy nature of such secretions. The first recorded use is by no less a writer than William Shakespeare, in Henry V:
The horsemen sit like fixed candlesticks,
With torch-staves in their hand; and their poor jades
Lob down their heads, dropping the hides and hips,
The gum down-roping from their pale-dead eyes,
And in their pale dull mouths the gimmal’d bit
Lies fowl with chaw’d-grass, still and motionless;
And their executors, the knavish crows,
Fly o’er them all, impatient for their hour. [4.4.45-52]
  • Finally comes gowl, which appeared around 1665 and has no meaning other than a gummy secretion in the eye. There’s also an adjective: gowly.

Now the bad news: gound and gowl are obscure or obsolete; gum apparently remains in use, but just doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi that I think you and I are both looking for. Now that I think about it, I’ve also heard the terms sleepers and eye boogers, but again, these are clearly lacking.

Those in need of the perfect word will therefore want to petition their congress-persons, monarchs, holy seers, &c. in support of a Constitutional amendment and/or papal bull re-establishing gound or gowl (obviously spade and gum are poor candidates for reinstatement as there is too great a risk of confusion with their better-known meanings). And of course if you know of any alternatives I’ve not uncovered, please let me know.

For those of you who have made it this far, the technical name for the corner of the eye (either the inner or outer) is canthus, from the Greek kanthos meaning the same thing. If you’re looking for a less technical word, try wick or wike, both of which refer to a corner of the mouth or eye. The little openings where the tear ducts (lachrymal canals) open into the eye are the lachrymal puncta (from the Latin punctum meaning “point”).