Words I Learned While Reading Christopher Buckley’s “Losing Mum and Pup”
In 1980, while a junior at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis (before it was sexy), I took two courses of “Word Study” with Mr. Beck, an autocratic teacher who, according to student rumor, had been a POW during WWII, and who often excused himself mid-class to get a nicotine fix in the hallway. I remember his white beard was stained yellow around the mouth.
This was an era of increasing and unfocused student rambunctiousness, but everyone knew you didn’t mess with Mr. Beck. Pejorative version: Once in the middle of class I was smiling because of something a friend said, and Mr. Beck looked at me and asked, sharply, “What are you laughing at, Smiley?” (It was traumatic then; it sounds funny now.) Positive version: I learned a lot. Every period we’d read Newsweek magazine and Mr. Beck would expound on the words we didn’t know. I remember him talking about gaffe, for example, in relation to first mom Lillian Carter’s allusion to the possible assassination of Ted Kennedy, who was then politicking to get the Democratic nomination away from her son. (She said something like: “I hope nothing happens to him. I really do.”) I also remember the word fugacious, which means “fleeting or transitory,” but which my friend Nathan Kaatrud, who became Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, used, in our junior year, for just about everything. “That’s so fugacious.” “Hey, don’t get all fugacious with me.” Etc.
Mr. Beck began “Word Study” in 1962 but retired (and, with him, it) during my junior year. It’s in his spirit that I present the words I learned while reading Christopher Buckley’s short, humorous memoir “Losing Mum and Pup.” All I can say is: Thank god I'm taking beginning French or there would've been a lot more.
froideur (n.): coldness (French). “At length a certain froideur encroached as the thought formed, So, you’re an orphan now.”
minatory (adj.): having a menacing quality; threatening. “A moving vehicle was now, in his hands, a potential weapon of mass destruction far more minatory than anything in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein.”
edematous (adj.): describing a watery swelling of plant organs. “I drew up a chair and held what I could of her hand, which was cold and bony and edematous with fluid.”
amanuenses (n.): those employed to write from dictation or copy manuscripts. “Generations of WFB amanuenses had to learn this cuneiform in order to edit his manuscripts and articles.”
blancmange (n.): a sweetened and flavored dessert made from gelatinous or starchy ingredients and milk. “I was impressed, yet again, by the superiority of the Book of Common Prayer to the pasteurized blancmange of the modern Catholic liturgy.”
adipose (adj.): of or relating to animal fat. “...afternoons I hauled my adipose carcass up and down various mountainsides...”
contra naturam (???) against nature; against the natural order of things. “It is contra naturam (to use a WFB term) to say no to someone who has raised you, clothed you, fed you from day one—well, even if, in Pup’s case, these actual duties were elaborately subcontracted.”
avoirdupois (n.): heaviness; weight, particularly personal weight: “Pup, superbly slender figured all his life, had in recent years added some avoirdupois—as indeed had I...”
consanguinity (n.): the quality or state of being of the same blood origin. “Embarrassing One’s Young is in some ways the entire point of having children. I discovered the joy myself when Cat was perhaps three years old and I did something (a public burp) that caused her to turn crimson with shame and to renounce all consanguinity with me.”