Memoir: J.N. Hook

(a memoir contained in the Introduction of his book)

J.N. Hook, Ph.D.; was a professor of English at the University of Illinois and co-author of 21 textbooks on English. Dr. Hook was a collector of "rare and beautiful words the way some people collect scrimshaw or Fabergé snuffboxes."

An inspiration for writing his book, The Grand Panjandrum And 1,999 Other Rare, Useful, and Delightful Words and Expressions, according to Dr. J.N. Hook

It all started with borborygmus.

Back in the days when some college girls still blushed, a collegienne was sitting beside the desk in my office, conferring about a report for my course in history of the English language.

Noises began coming from her midsection. She shifted uneasily in her chair and turned slightly pink. One sound from her abdominal area was especially loud. She slid forward in her chair, and the pink turned to red. She was obviously becoming more and more distressed.

"Don't let a little borborygmus bother you, Eva," I said lightly. "It happens to all of us at times."

"A little what?"

"Borborygmus—intestinal growling. The Greeks had a word for it, and we borrowed it from their language a couple of hundred years ago. Unfortunately, it has never become widely known or used."

"That's too bad," she said, now more at ease although her innards were still protesting slightly. "I'm glad there's a name for this thing—makes it seem more dignified, somehow. I suppose there are other words like borborygmus."

"What do you mean?"

"Like, you know, words that tell about other common things but that most people don't know."

"Well, I've never thought much about that, specifically. But I suppose there are. Usually, of course, any word that's really needed catches on, but maybe some unlucky though meritorious words don't."

"I've often thought we should have a word to distinguish a girl who is a cousin from a boy who is a cousin."

"We do—cousiness for the girl, but most people don't know the word. Maybe in these days of unisex and women's lib they wouldn't use it anyway. But they do make a corresponding distinction in niece and nephew and names of other relatives."

As a result of this conversation I began listing other words that I ran across—words that are not widely known or used but that could be valuable to many people. I began thinking of an article on the subject, or even a minor crusade on behalf of some unlucky, undeservedly ignored words. I began checking systematically some of the leading modern dictionaries and the older but especially scholarly Oxford English Dictionary, writing down any words that I thought might qualify.

Quite a few of these were words that I did not remember ever hearing or reading before, and that I myself certainly had never used. Useful rare words, I found, were surprisingly numerous: for each thirteen pages in one unabridged dictionary I discovered about ten of them. The idea for an article quickly became an idea for a book.

The book that resulted was Dr. Hook's The Grand Panjandrum And 1,999 Other Rare, Useful, and Delightful Words and Expressions; printed in 1980 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. in New York, N.Y.

—Excerpts compiled from the "Introduction" of the The Grand Panjandrum
by J.N. Hook; Macmillan publishing Co., Inc.; New York; 1980; pages vii & viii.

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