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Old words are good words, too

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Intrepid Trib copy editor/page maker/grammarian Grace Frick introduced me to a new word the other day — “footle.”

Actually it's a quite old word, dating to 1892, but it certainly is a great word that means talking or acting foolishly or wasting time.

Let's use it in sentences to give it both context and texture:

• “Administration supporters claim ObamaCare will reduce the cost of health care. Talk about footling.”

• “Egypt burned as President Obama footled on Martha's Vineyard.”

Yes, old words are wonderful things. They can spark and add depth to any narrative, written or spoken. But, sadly, it seems as if fewer and fewer old words in the very rich lexicon of the English language are employed these days.

Take a run through a great word reference, such as Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and you'll be concomitantly educated, entertained, amused and surprised.

How about “gimcrack.” Dating to 1618, it means an “affected or showy person.” Bill DeWeese is a gimcrack. Al Sharpton is, too. And don't we all know more than a few gimcracks we'd like to whack on the noggin?

“Insouciant” is another good word. From 1829, it means “carefree.” And that's a great trait. But be careful using it in conversation; someone might mishear (or you might mispronounce it) and think you called him something nasty. That conversation likely will take a decidedly uncomfortable turn.

I've had a few acquaintances from the eastern Mediterranean (countries from Turkey to Egypt) over the years. They're typically referred to, at least in this country and quite cleverly, as eastern Mediterraneans. Ahem. But there's actually a word for them — “Levantines,” from 1649. Be very careful, however, not to invoke word shorthand and refer to them as “Levants,” a word from which Levantines indeed is derived. Problem is if you actually call someone a “levant,” he'll take offense at being labeled as someone who leaves hurriedly or in secret to avoid unpaid debts.

Here's a word that should be used liberally when applied to the proclivities of the Pennsylvania General Assembly: “prorogue.” (And, no, don't make the “e” long at the end or you'll have something more akin to pasta stuffed with onions, potatoes, beef, etc.) From 1419, it originally was another way to say you wanted to prolong or extend something. Think an agreement or a truce. But later, in 1455, it came to mean to “discontinue regular meetings of a legislature or a parliament for a time.” To wit:

• “The Pennsylvania Legislature, a bloated caricature of ineffective and expensive governance, could use a lot more prorogueing. And let's make sure members don't collect per diems during that time.”

To paraphrase 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist Alexander Smith, it is not of so much consequence what you say as how you say it. Memorable sentences are memorable on account of some single irradiating word.

Resurrect a good old word today.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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