Umbrella words and Buridan’s Ass: a bibliomantic foray

I began drafting a piece the other day on Alfred Hayes’ excellent novel My Face for the World to See, but my wife has taken my copy away with her on a working trip, so I can’t continue with it. Instead I’ve done one of my occasional bibliomantic forays into old notebooks.

Back in August 2012 I was reading Will Self’s neo-modernist Umbrella. I enjoyed it immensely; its sequel published last year, Shark, has been sitting on my TBR shelf (which doesn’t actually exist, it’s just randomly shelved with books read and unread) looking accusingly at me whenever I catch sight of it.

It’s so long since I read Umbrella, however, that I feel ill-equipped to review it here: I’d need to re-read it, and don’t have time to do so. I’ve already got the recently-purchased Patrick Modiano ‘Occupation’ trilogy lined up for my next read. Instead here’s what I was noting about the novel in my notebook back then: samples of Mr Self’s notoriously arcane vocabulary that I had to look up. Many of them reflect the novel’s location in what was then, early in the twentieth century, called a lunatic asylum, and its central theme of the treatment of people with mental health problems.


KYPHOTIC The OED online prefers the spelling cyphosis-cyphotic. It signifies the medical condition in which spinal curving causes the sufferer to bend over severely. It derives from the Greek for ‘hunchbacked’. First recorded 1847.

TACHYPNOEA The first element of the word derives from the Greek for ‘rapid’, the last from ‘to breathe’; it means unusually rapid respiration. From 1898.

VERBIGERATE To repeat the same words or phrases obsessively, often as a symptom of mental disease. First recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656) meaning ‘to speak, to talk, to noise abroad’; its clinical sense was first recorded in D. Hack Tuke (splendid name), A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892). In my notebook I see I’d written this as ‘vergiberate’ – a slip of the pen (or eye – if the eye can legitimately be said to slip) that was perhaps a result of an unconscious association of the word with ‘gibber’.

[I’ll omit here opisthotonos and hypotonic]

APHERISIS Its medical meaning is either ‘amputation’ or, as Self seems to use it, the removal of a quantity of blood, eg to extract specific useful or undesirable components before returning it to the donor (which sense originates from 1880). It derives from the Greek for ‘take’ or ‘snatch’ (from which ‘heresy’ also, oddly, derives). In linguistics it means the loss of an unstressed syllable at the start of a word, as in ‘round’ for ‘around’. It was first glossed as such in 1550 with the Latin equivalent term ‘ablatio’. The introduction of an additional first syllable is called ‘prosthesis’ (hence prosthetic limbs). Omitting the final syllable(s) of a word is ‘apocope’.

BURGOO was a thick gruel or porridge served to soldiers in WWI; sailors called it ‘loblolly’ (first recorded 1750) – Capt. Marryat referred to it in Peter Simple (1834). It derives from Arabic ‘burgul’ which in turn was ‘bulgur’ in Turkish, hence bulgur wheat.

I initially searched for this word in my Encarta dictionary. It wasn’t there, but I found this lovely entry instead:

BURIDAN’S ASS: a situation used to demonstrate the impracticality of making choices

Buridan's ass

Political cartoon c.1900 depicting the US Congress in terms of this paradox, with the 2 piles of hay version, hesitating between a Panama route and a Nicaragua route for an Atlantic-Pacific canal – via Wikipedia

according to a formal system of reasoning (after Jean Buridan, 1300-1358, a French philosopher). Wikipedia defines it as an illustration of a paradox in the conception of free will:

 It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water [or in some versions two piles of hay]. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.

 There are plenty more Selfian terms, including: ‘hebephrenic’, ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure) and this one, which I thought I knew but didn’t –

CRAPULENT The adj. from ‘crapulence’: sickness or indisposition arising from excessive drinking or eating. It’s found in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1727, and Dr Johnson’s of 1755. In Greek the word signified a drunken nauseous headache; the Romans adopted it (‘crapula’, a word first used in English c. 1687) to mean ‘excessive drinking’ as well as ‘intoxication’.

And that’s probably enough verbigeration for one post. Keep hitting the dictionary, Mr Self.