Weird Words 2

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition


When you look at the word “phlegm,” it looks really odd, but when you say it you realize that it is perfect.It has a sound that is somehow just right for what it represents. And if you happen to have phlegm in your throat when you say it, it gets even better.

Its roots are in the Greek language. Basically it comes from phlegma which means inflammation or heat. I’m going to guess that phlegm (which I define as thick, gooey snot that collects in the back of the throat, very often first having traveled tortuously and somewhat painfully down from the sinus cavities) is then the result of an infection or allergy.

Due to the somewhat excessive (at least considered so by me) number of allergies that I have, I have an overabundance of phlegm. Because of this, I can make some of the most amazing noises in my throat. Bernd has told me that it is just one of my many (he hasn’t actually named any of the others, alas) super powers: excessive phlegm production. I’m constantly wishing for a super power that is a little more … how shall I say it … useful?

The first time I saw the word, I pronounced it “plegem.” And can anyone tell me why you say the “g” in phlegmatic, but not in phlegm.

My mother was quick to correct me. She was not as quick with the city name “Chicago.” I pronounced it as if you first said “chick” and then said “ago” with the emphasis on the “o” at the end. She laughed but would not correct me when I asked how it was supposed to be said. Obedient child that I was (maybe that’s why I’m so contrary these days; nah, it’s probably just old age), I would say it out loud whenever she asked and there were many other adults who thought it was funny besides my mother. For years I hated being laughed at, especially if I didn’t know why. I don’t take myself nearly as seriously any more. Really. No really.

Both of my parents had a wicked sense of humor. Some might call it sadistic. No part of my sister’s and my lives were considered immune. As an example, the four of us would be sitting at the kitchen table having dinner when Mom or Dad would suddenly jerk and look at the floor. Then the other one would do it too. One or the other of them would then exclaim, “Look! There it goes!” while pointing to the floor. And in a split second, my sister and I would be standing on our chairs and looking wildly around for whatever it was. We stopped screaming as well as standing on our chairs after the first couple of occasions. But we would still pick our feet up as far away from the floor as we could. As gullible as we were, it was a long time until we wised up to that one. They would do this in restaurants too. Not nice.

Grand Prix

I will readily admit that there is nothing special or odd about the word “grand.” But just to keep this as educational as I possibly can (that’s me, always about the lecturi … ah, learning), I will tell you that it comes from Anglo-French graunt or grant, which originally came from the Latin grandis (so many of our words have come to us from either the Greek or the Latin, unimaginative lot that we are). It meant, and still basically does mean, big or great. It also could mean full-grown.

Prix was a problem for me when I was younger. I remember once the family was on a shopping trip to FedMart (oh boy, that really dates me doesn’t it), we were walking through the parking lot and I saw a new car with the name of it on the back. I think FedMart was sort of a precursor to the big membership stores like Costco and Sam’s Club and Gemco, which is another one that I grew up with but went out of business quite a few years ago. FedMart was intended for the benefit of sorely underpaid federal employees of whom my father was one.

There weren’t a lot of them around and we had to drive quite a ways to get to it. So my parents were usually already inclined to not be in the best of moods when we arrived. Probably due to hearing one too many times, “Are we there yet?”

I am either cursed or blessed with a very good memory … depends on the memory … and have a wealth of remembrances from a very early age. I was probably somewhere around seven or eight years old when I asked my dad very loudly what a “grand pricks” was. They were not as amused as usual, especially because there were quite a few other underpaid federal employees in the parking lot with us.

Dad angrily told me never to say that again, so I just had to ask, “Don’t say ‘grand’ again?” He said, “No. The other word.” And so I said, “Pricks?” even more loudly. So maybe I’ve always been this way. But I wasn’t smiling when I said “pricks.” I’m almost sure of it.

I did not, on that day, find out how to say it properly or what it meant. I was taken sternly in hand (that’s putting it politely) and we did not walk past that car on the way out. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out the other meaning for “prick” in an enlightening aha moment that finally explained my parents’ anger and embarrassment that day. I was somewhat slow to wise up to the more worldly things in life. To my chagrin, my younger sister constantly had to explain certain things to me. In my defense I have to say that I was much more interested in chemistry and microscopes at that age than anatomy.

So please tell me if you can, why do the French drop so many of the letters at the ends of their words? Why is “prix” pronounced pree and not pricks? The French do have a fancy sounding language though, I’ll give them that. Which would you rather have, an étagère or a shelf unit? Or a bunch of eggs, scrambled and then cooked into a solid sheet and folded over or an omelet? 

Okay, you’re waiting for it. I know you are. Grand Prix means “great prize,” more or less. It comes from the Grand Prix de Paris, which was an international horse race for three year old horses that was run every June at Longchamps (do not ask me how to say Longchamps) beginning in 1863. Prix can also mean price, as in prix fixe or “fixed price.” And don’t ask me how to say “prix fixe” either. I’ll leave that to the French. It just tends to get me into trouble.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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