New Form for an Old Plea

The gnomes at Merriam-Webster define "serendipity" as "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." A recent serendipitous moment sent your host on a quest for the expletive "gawdelpus!" He came home with "gavroche" and "gavelock." These things are not easily explained.
The quest began 18 months ago with a letter from Jenna Stone of Appleton, Wis. In the course of her casual reading she had come across "gawdelpus." There was nothing especially novel in her discovery. After all, surely everyone will encounter the interjection at some point in a literary life. She understandably observed, as every reader naturally would observe, that the word "isn’t quite onomatopoeia." Neither, she conceded, may the familiar plea be identified as metonymy or even metalepsis. How, then, she inquired, may be this useful outcry be defined?

It is the kind of inquiry that propels every reader to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. On Page 1084 one learns that the interjection dates from the late 19th century. (I would have thought it several millennia older, but never mind.) As a capitalized noun, a Gawdelpus is "a helpless or exasperating person."

The interesting discovery, of course, is not in the noun alone. As every logophile knows from rapt experience, much of the pleasure in looking up a new word derives from a hike through the words above and below the subject under study. Did you know that to "gaw" is "to gape, to stare at"? Were you aware that a "gavroche" is "a street urchin, gamin or gamine"? A "gavelock" was once a javelin or dart; in time it became a crowbar; it is also a metal spur for a fighting cock. A "gaveller" is a usurer, and a "gawpus" is "a fool, a clumsy stupid lout." A "grampus" is an elderly dolphin. "Gravlax" is a tipsy salmon.

We now return you to our usual musing on the healthy state of the English language. The sheer fecundity of our mother tongue never ceases to amaze even the most dedicated logophile. A year ago the "ph" phenomenon was still in phull bloom. Computer nerds went "phishing" and fake pharmaceuticals were "pham." My impression is that this phad has phaded, but this branch of lexicography requires the taxonomy of moonbeams caught in a butterfly net.

A year or so ago an inquiry came from Jim Brush in Las Vegas. He was working on a piece about big-band musicians. His research led him to a performer who in 1928 "busked the streets of Manhattan before being discovered by Tommy Dorsey." It was a new verb on me, but not to the sages of Springfield: A busker is a person who entertains in a public place for donations. Busk on!

We’re talking today about neologisms, here defined as a word that is new to me, e.g., "Morgan was unsurprised to see St. Louis top the list of dangerous cities." Unremarkably, the adjectival "unsurprising" dates from 1671. The derivative adverb "unsurprisingly" emerged three centuries later. I should have been unsurprised when the verb appeared a year ago in that story from The Associated Press. Humpty-Dumpty would have loved it.

What’s your take on a "giftable"? None of my dictionaries recognizes the noun’s existence, but it turned up last Christmas in an ad for J.C. Penney: "Entire stock of bath giftables, 40 percent off." I venture no objection. Surely it would have seemed odd to promote "bath gifts," as if bodily ablutions were being vended.

Before you ask, let me note that the transitive verb "to gift" dates from 1550, e.g., "he gifted us with a dictionary." What honest noun is next in line to be verbed? As they say, gawdelpus