Friday, November 6, 2009

The Girl and the Pugilist: a True Story

A few weeks ago, while stirring a cauldron of boiling fudge, the word "pugilism" kept rearing its rather flatulent-sounding head, unbidden and flappy. The word wanted to come out of my mouth in a kind of involuntary linguistic ejaculation. I said it to myself. I said it to Hammer. I said it to the 22-lb. batch of chocolate walnut fudge I was making: "pugilism, pugilism, pugilism." I had read the word in a newspaper article shortly before but couldn't remember its contextual meaning. I asked my coworkers, texted my friends, but finally resorted to Googling the definition at home. Nothing excites me quite like learning a new word -- all that potential births a growing ball of pure nerdy energy bouncing around between my larynx and pelvis -- and using it in fantastically original contexts, usually involving fudge, alcohol or cigarettes.

But that ball-baby died pretty quickly when I discovered "pugilism" means, "n. the skill, practice, and sport of fighting with the fists; boxing," and stems from the Latin, pugnus, or fist. Thus, a situation as hopeless an anabaptist at sea: pugilism is, perhaps, the exact opposite of fudge, alcohol or cigarettes.

Words and/or phrases, like pugilism, often lodge themselves in my mind, staying with me for days or weeks, waiting to be spoken. Today, it's the phrase, "Nine times out of ten." A few days ago it was "solipsism," and before that, "effigy." Some words insist on permanent lodging: "brevity," "reify," "inextricable."

None of these words, though, seem appropriate in daily conversation, especially in my new job at Bed, Bath & Beyond; reification is entirely unnecessary and even insulting in the retail industry; brevity is on the cusp of archaism (probably salvaged only by merit of El Duderino); and no one shopping for 500-thread-count Wamsutta king-size sheet sets wants to hear about (or knows the definition of) solipsism.

For lack of an outlet, I have to ejaculate these words without any regard for context or audience. (E.g. At the top of a twelve-foot ladder in the center stock room, with three springform pans under my arm, the sudden urge to say, "Nine times out of ten," overcomes my concentration, so I say it -- this phonetically delicious sentence fragment, culturally poignant, floating in the air around my head -- and then I wonder, "Nine times out of ten ... what? What happens nine times out ten?" I don't really care.)

An obligation to communication faces all of us, and without our participation, beautiful words like "brevity" simply fade into the ether. (Oooo, another good/dying word!) I don't object to the evolution of language (thank Jesus, Mary and Joseph we don't use the words "clepe" or "puissant" any more), but I do object to the peril of Newspeak or a dystopia in which the only phrases that come to people's minds are, "Your mom," and "That's what she said."


  1. you live in a beautiful literary world I wish I could inhabit. god I should have been an english major. I want to read everything you write, lovely.

  2. Lol! "Your mom". My bro and i bounce that phrase around so much it's not funny anymore. But I do agree with your bit about words and phrases and lack there of. I adore you Jillian!