While waiting for my lunch to cook today, I picked up my son’s Oxford Desk Dictionary to look up a word. I had the word “fop” in my head, and I wanted to make certain that I was correct in what I thought it meant. I was correct that it means a dandy, or an “affectedly elegant or fashionable man.” But that’s not where the fun came in. I happened to flip a few more pages, and I ended up learning two new words: funambulist and funicular.
The first, funambulist (fyu-NAM-byu-list), is another words for tightrope walker. The Oxford dictionary didn’t give any etymological info, but the American Heritage dictionary said it comes from Latin. fūnis, which means “rope,” and ambulāre, which means “to walk.” This word kind of reminds me of “pugilist” which is an old word for a boxer, and pugilism, which is another word for boxing. While you do still occasionally hear pugilist or pugilism, I’ve never heard a tightrope walker referred to as a funambulist.
The second word, funicular (fyu-NIC-yu-ler), means “(of a railway, esp. on a mountainside) operating by cable with ascending and descending cars counterbalanced.” I would never have guessed that’s what it meant if I had just seen it written somewhere. It sounds like something related to a funeral, to me. Now that I know what it means, I can describe the cable cars running to the top of Stone Mountain as a funicular cable car system. Neat, huh?
Will I ever use either of these words in normal conversation or writing? Probably not, but I don’t believe that learning is ever a wasted endeavor. Of course, if I ever get on Jeopardy!, they might come in handy.
5 thoughts on “Reading the Dictionary Is Fun”
The first one, funambulist, reminds me of somnambulist, which is the proper word for “sleepwalker.”
I absolutely agree with you, though! Learning new words is a lot of fun. You might enjoy the Language category over at Futility Closet — I sure do!
In my art history classes, I learned new words all the time. Unfortunately I forget quite a few of them. But I remember two and attempt to use them when I can (which isn’t often). Boustrophedon and cephalophore.
Rick, thanks for the link. That does look pretty interesting.
Alicia, what wonderful words those are! Of the two, I have to say that boustrophedon is my favorite. Wikipedia has an excellent page on this fascinating way of writing.
Just when you think you’re smart and know lots of stuff someone comes along with something like Boustrophedon and you realize how ignorant you really are.
Despite its reputation as a logical language, Esperanto, too, has its dustier linguistic corners, many of which were filled up by early translations of obscure European works. I’m partial to “psilo,” which is “a juggle who also trains serpents.” Where was that on Career Day?
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