Free verse, free verbs

Tristan Saldaña, a writer and scholar who made wonderful contributions to Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, just sent me notes about a UC Berkeley poetry seminar he’s auditing, taught by Robert Hass, former poet laureate. The subject is John Clare (1793-1864), whom Hass describes as "a poet-peasant naturalist among the Romantic poets.” (The 19th-century poet was an uneducated farm laborer who went mad and was confined to an asylum; he continued to write poetry for the last twenty-five years of his life. Clare had delusions he was Lord Byron, among other personages.) Clare detested grammar and did not know the formal conventions of punctuation in the early 19th century (to the extent that any existed) and, therefore, did not punctuate his poetry. Later editors have, of course, felt free to reverse-engineer the punctuation, and Hass in the class is inviting students to “time the emotions.” Saldaña, rightly, thought I would enjoy some of the verbs Clare coined:
  • chelp (to chirp or squeak);
  • chicker (to chirp as a cricket);
  • chuff (to swell or plump out [the cheeks]);
  • nauntle (trans.: to lift, rear up; intrans.: to rise up, hold oneself erect)
  • poddle (to walk with slow, short, or unsteady steps)
  • soodle (to walk in a slow or leisurely manner; to stroll, saunter)
Clare is as inventive as Chaucer (who borrowed amble from Anglo-French) and Shakespeare (who coined verbs like arouse, drug, hoodwink, hurry, rant, and swagger) when it comes to coinages. Many people don’t realize this about English, but we have a robust history of creative folks inventing new words. Think of these relatively recent additions to the lexicon: gadget probably came from late nineteenth-century sailors' slang, scrounge was popularized by soldiers in World War I, square (as an adjective) came from jazzmen's slang, and wangle wangled its way into the world of Standard English from the world of printers. Today we an accelerated pace of neologisms in technology, not just in verbs like google and tweet and friend, but also in brand names like iPhone, LinkedIn and StumbleUpon. In citing these examples, I’ve soodled far from Clare’s imaginative verbs, so I’ll stop. But I wonder: do you have some favorite coinages, from any era?  

, , , , ,

11 Responses to Free verse, free verbs

  1. Mackenzie Kelly October 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Google is probably derived from googol, a mathematical word invented as a descriptive noun for a particular vast number. Another word was invented to describe complex googols – Googolplex. I don’t know why google chose to alter googol, but since they named their headquarters Googleplex I think my derivation stand a good chance of being right

  2. Mackenzie Kelly October 28, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    sockdolager knocked my socks off when I came across it in a particularly tough article on logic(?) by Charles S. Pierce 1880’s

  3. Mackenzie Kelly October 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    What a world of coincidences I get into when I start to check on words. I looked up”sockdologer” to see if I could date it using Wordnik. There it was referenced to James f.Cooper in 1830. I then stumbled on to a reference to Our American Cousin marked SPAM. So I Googled Our American Cousin and here is what I found:

    The play’s most famous performance was at Ford’s Theatre in Washington City on April 14, 1865. Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, the character of Asa Trenchard, played that night by Harry Hawk, utters a line, considered one of the play’s funniest, to Mrs. Mountchessington: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

    During the laughter that followed this line, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathizer who was not in the cast of the play, fatally shot Abraham Lincoln. Familiar with the play, Booth chose this moment in the hope that the sound of the audience’s laughter would mask the sound of his gunshot. He then leapt from Lincoln’s box to the stage and made his escape through the back of the theater to a horse he had left waiting in the alley. The remainder of the play that night was suspended.[8]

    The last words Lincoln heard “You sockdologizing old mantrap.”


  4. Mackenzie Kelly October 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    And I am on topic – sockdologizing is a mutant verb. M

  5. Connie Hale October 31, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    I just adore this story about “sockdologizing.” It beats the story I was going to tell about a mutant verb: to Romo. This surfaced the other night at a workshop at The Booksmith on Haight Street, when in homage to the SF Giants (who by sweeping the World Series had assured me a small crowd at a bookstore) we jammed for examples of out-there sports verbs. A young man in attendance offered “creamed” and for that he won black and orange M & Ms. But really the best verb offered came in the passive voice, said of Miguel Cabrera: he “got Romo’d.”

  6. Connie Hale October 31, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Over on Twitter @hfurmann suggests that Romo’d and #Romobombed might be trending again soon.

  7. Frank T Pool November 20, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Thank you for another wonderful posting, and thanks to Mackenzie Kelly for his research on sockdologizing. I published a column mentioning this blog and that amazing story.

  8. Mackenzie Kelly November 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    I am delighted that sockdologer got more attention. However there is a gender problem in Frank T Pool’s posting. It is bad enough to have two last names, but to have two genders too, is just to much.

  9. Mackenzie Kelly November 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    If Mr. Pool would like a picture, refer him to my blog:


  10. David Graves July 19, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    I am late to this party, but at our winery, we have over the years hosted many interns Strine speakers Down Under. (Say “strine” with as if were two syllables and the derivation will pop into your head.) From them we have learned that to be “chuffed” is to be pleased or delighted. “He was chuffed his Pinot Noir made the list at Chez Panisse”. See the “Strine and Australian Slang” website:

  11. Connie Hale July 19, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    Thanks, David, for that example. You were too modest to let everyone know that your winery is Saintsbury, maker of my favorite pinot noir!

    (The winery’s patron, um, saint, is George Saintsbury, the early 20th century literary critic and oenophile, who happens to make two appearances in Sin and Syntax.)

Leave a Reply