Putting on the Old Avoirdupois

"She’s fat!" said Jiggs.
"No," said Maggie, "she’s only pleasingly plump."

With that, the two logophiles settled down to a lovely morning of sorting out the terms we use to identify a universal condition. When a waistline expands — as waistlines regrettably do — the phenomenon is bound to be observed. How is it best to be described? Consider Lady Godiva.

At the bottom of the scale is, "She’s certainly well-fed." Moving on, we encounter adjectives of degree: "Lady Godiva is getting a little plump." She was not only "ample," she was also "well-rounded." Lord Byron, for his part, was on the chunky side. He was a bit overweight — even bulky, rotund, chubby, substantial, stocky or stout. At the center of the scale is the ugly word that Jiggs employed: fat! The adjective dates from the 12th century. Men, women and writers have been avoiding it ever since.

The glossary moves onward and upward. Just beyond "fat" is "pudgy," which is not as kindly as "portly." These are followed insultingly by "tubby" and medically by "obese." Farther up the scale we get to huge, immense and humongous (1967). Finally we reach elephantine, gargantuan and massive. Along the way we have passed by several nouns of opprobrium, such as beer belly, jelly belly, lard bottom, love handles and "that’s a spare tire."

English is such a wonderful tongue! Before pursuing its infinite variety, I must make a humble apology. In this column two weeks ago, I witlessly attributed to Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) the banal sentiment that love is like a red, red rose. That saccharine line actually was the work of Robert Burns (1759-1796). Twenty-four alert readers have alertly admonished me. For a descendant of Clan Colquhoun to mess up on Scotland’s only famous poets is inexcusable. Bring on the haggis! In penance, arrghh, I will eat a whole spoonful.

Getting back to work: My apology was "humble." The adjective provides a lovely example of the art of onomatopoeia, i.e., "the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound suggesting the sense." Broadly, the art involves much more than the usual example of a snake’s "hiss" or a dog’s "bark."

With "humble," we’re looking at the two-syllable tangle of letters that make up the phonetic "-umble." In this combination, the letters usually add up to an English word that is watered-down, inconclusive, half-hearted. Look at them:

My apology was "humble." The adjective dates from the 13th century. (Incidentally, three of my six everyday dictionaries say that "humble" may acceptably be pronounced without the aspirated "h," though the folks at Merriam-Webster say that an ‘umble opinion is "chiefly Southern." I digress, but I don’t digress much.)

Returning to the apology: It was neither proud nor haughty; it reflected "a spirit of deference." I had "bumbled" (1532), i.e., I had "proceeded unsteadily." This was the course, as I recall, of Dickens’ famous Beadle Bumble in "Oliver Twist." And what did Scrooge proclaim? "Bah, humbug!"

Play with the sound! A cookie, or a relationship, "crumbles." It doesn’t crash, or collapse, or dissolve, or fall to pieces — it simply crumbles, and the verb precisely expresses what a writer means to say.

Or "fumble." The verb is perfect. Stumble! Tumble! The syllables fall trippingly from the tongue. Is there a more descriptive verb than "grumble"? It means "to mumble in discontent." Fans of the Washington Redskins are doing it every day. Time for their team to — what? Rumble!