Spacemen and Anonymuncles Attack!
Old Words for Writers
Mark Peters, the genius behind the blog Wordlustitude in addition to being a Contributing Editor for Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, and a language columnist for Good, and the author of Yada, Yada, Doh!: 111 TV Words That Made the Leap from the Screen to Society, is our guest blogger this week. Check out his past OUPblog posts here. In this post, Mark tries to resurrect some great old words describing writers and journalists.
What do a spaceman, a puddle-poet, and a demonographer have in common?
Though they sound like characters in a bad fantasy short story, they’re all writers.
Despite some obstacles—like acquiring thousands of rejections and being the second-to-last kid to get the penmanship award in second grade—writing has been the only consistent thread in the soiled blanket that is my life. It’s my identity, my profession, my hobby, and my binkie. Writing makes me happier than sunshine or Tom Cruise’s dancing in Tropic Thunder, so I have a vested interest in rescuing some older words for writer. With apologies to newsie, gazetteer, sensationist, sob sister, wireman, diurnalist, paragrapher, penny-a-liner, and pediodicalist, please enjoy these terms, which offer a small window into old worlds of persistent scribblers, for whom blogging and tweeting would have seemed as likely as marrying a Martian warlord to bring peace to a war-torn solar system.
Speaking of the final frontier, this dated term is equivalent to space-filler, related to the expression on space, and partially explained in this 1892 OED quote: “He felt that as a space-man…his duty to his family required him to use every means for making copy.” The astronauts and aliens have definitively whipped the journalists in claiming the meaning of this word, though the first use of spaceman in a cosmic sense wasn’t found till 1933: “Smith…walks as softly as a cat, even in spaceman’s boots.”
Lay-ears may hear this word and imagine a rampaging serial-killer-ette, but a murdermongeress is only a female creator of crime stories. The word has been used in reference to Agatha Christie by Ogden Nash, in 1957: “I repeat that one book by this murder-mongeress Will last you as long as the Library of Congress.”
This is a writer who might grow up to a real author someday but sure isn’t there yet. An 1850 OED quote demonstrates it nicely, dismissing: “Weak manikins and dapper authorlings who mistake indigestion for inspiration.” I’m just thankful I wasn’t born yet and thus can’t possibly—buuuuurp!—be the target of this remark.
This 19th century word has two distinct meanings: “A writer of fragments or of works which survive only in fragments.” It seems to me the second category is far cooler—it scores multiple mega-fonzies, as they say on Futurama—and I have a secret plan to actually be in the first category and then be mistaken for the second, when the future generations discover my work under some carefully placed rocks. Here’s what I have so far: “Sacred aardvark…doom… download spatula…doom…harbinger pancake….double-doom!” Nostradamus, here I come.
The Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) lists this, along with ink-slinger and ink-splasher, as disparaging terms for writers. Here’s an 1865 example with enough venom to fit comfortably on Wonkette: “This rattle-brained scribbler, this miserable ink-jerker, was about to become a candidate for Congress from the Territory of Nevada!” HDAS also records a beautiful sentence circa 1879: “I can sling ink like a bald-headed hyena of journalism.” I would love the world to think of me as a bald-headed hyena of journalism, but my gorgeous mane of flowing locks is standing in the way.
Don’t call the exorcist. A demonographer just writes about demons. This 1883 use shows the kind of important classification proclamations demonographers do: “Italian demonographers do not make any distinction between…a fairy and a witch.” I can relate, because I don’t make any distinction between a werewolf and a wookie—both cost a fortune to defoliate and rinse at the dog groomer, so I lump ‘em together.
Much like ink-jerker, paper-stainer has meant a craptastic writer, though it first meant someone who literally colored paper with the kind of vibrant colors that could make even a dissertation seem perky. Here’s a 1837 OED quote that would still make a fine writer’s toast: “May no learned or unlearned calf write against your knowledge and wit, and no brother paper-stainer pilfer your pages, and then call you a general thief!”
Though the OED’s most recent use is in 1883, anonymuncles—A.K.A. anonymous writers—abound on the web, as bloggers, discussion-forum posters, and article commenters are more secretive about their identity than masked wrestlers. This quote from Swinburne in 1867 should still resonate today: “I have always found that these ‘anonymuncules’ vanish or collapse as soon as one attempts to set foot on them.”
Though I prefer to call them comment monkeys, I can’t deny the charm and appropriateness of anonymuncle—not to be confused with a monkey’s uncle—for online writing. Even though the quality of Internet comments varies somewhere between the pant-hoot of the chimpanzee and the Thanksgiving soliloquy of your drunkest real uncle ever, volume of comments is a common measure of the success of online articles.
I crave that success too. So please, kind readers, don’t leave a brother hanging. Bathe me in your anonymunculous glow!