Welcome to NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of the vocabulary of our lives — including useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).
Instrument as crazy as its name: Oomphalapompatronium
Say it slowly. Oom-FA-la-POMP-uh-TRONE-ee-um. Yes, it sounds like an scientific element discovered in Willy Wonka’s factory. But in reality it is a boggling labyrinth of wheels, air bags and PVC pipes that sounds like the offspring of a tuba and Whoopee cushion. (Listen for yourself in the video above.)
What’s in a name: The instrument’s name, bestowed by musical-diversionist Leonard Solomon, can only bring to mind Ooompa-Loompas, those wise and colorful little creatures from Roald Dahl’s famous tale. Other excellent Dahlisms include grubbers, or sweet shops, in which one might taste his like Gumtwizzlers, Fizzwinkles, Liplickers, Plushnuggets and, of course, Everlasting Gobstoppers.
That word we keep hearing: exceptionalism
Candidates love to talk about “American exceptionalism,” which now essentially conveys the belief that America is the most special thing since, well, anything. But language guru Ben Zimmer points out that the term has roots in Marxist theory, as in Karl Marx. According to him, working classes should overthrow the powers-that-be in capitalists societies, but America was an exception.
Other campaign chatter: Zimmer also runs down other buzzwords, including Newtiny, the term used to refer to the mutiny-esque exodus of Newt Gingrich’s staff. And Blingrich, a term used to describe Newt when his credit lines at Tiffany’s were unearthed.
Accusation-turned-punchline: “That’s racist.”
NPR’s Neda Ulaby tracks the morphing of this phrase from a serious reprimand to a modern-day joke—as when, in Parks and Recreation, someone explains that laundry should be sorted into lights and darks and the response is “That’s racist.” Different explanations emerged: the modern usage can mock people who are overly sensitive about race issues; it can establish the person who uses it as really not racist (as in, they’re soooo past racism, they can joke about it); and it avoids serious, “difficult” discussions of race by keeping the idea lighthearted.
Language in action: Tracy Morgan’s 30 Rock character, a caricature of an eccentric, indulged black movie star, often uses this line. Like when he’s mad a magazine accused him of being on crack. “That’s racist! I’m not on crack,” his character Tracy Jordan exclaims. “I’m straight-up mentally ill!”
(PHOTOS: The Many Faces of Tracy Morgan)
Unsettling architectural term: “horizontal skyscraper”
A new building in China that is “part building, part landscape, part infrastructure” has been described as a horizontal skyscraper. The New York Times reviews the Vanke Center, designed by Steven Holl, with awe. “It demonstrates what can happen when talented architects are allowed to practice their craft uninhibited by creative restrictions,” the author writes.
Other disconcerting structure words: There are “lights out” factories, ones in which production is, theoretically, so fully automated that lights are considered unnecessary. And any building described “as is.” But the best is defenestration, which describes throwing something or someone out of a window—as Bohemian insurgents famously did to two imperial regents and a secretary in Prague, thus starting their Thirty Years’ War. (Keep it in mind next time you’re cooking up a good threat.)
(PHOTOS: Top 10 Green Buildings, 2011)