Enrich Your Word Power

by John Holbo on November 19, 2004

I’m writing about reading right now; a response to a (draft) essay Mark Bauerlein has written about the NEA’s Reading At Risk survey. I’ll quote a bit from Mark:

These findings [steep decline across the board, especially among the young] won’t surprise those who have spent any time in an average college classroom. Professors have always griped about the lassitude of students, but lately the complaints have reached an extreme. English teachers note that it’s getting harder to assign a work over 200 pages. Students don’t possess the habit of concentration necessary to plow through it. Teachers say that students don’t comprehend spelling requirements. Spelling is now the responsibility of spellcheck. Last October at an MLA regional meeting, a panelist who specializes in technical writing observed that while his students have extraordinary computing skills, they have a hard time following step-by-step instructions for an assignment.

I tend to be a sunny optimist in the face of this bad news. First, I assume profs have been grousing extremely about students since forever. (It is such fun I can’t believe any generation of pedagogues has had the will to forego this perk of the job.) Second, I tend to assume that somehow the rich, strange new cognitive shapes young minds assume are all right in their way. Yes, they can’t spell. (I had always assumed Matt used voice recognition software and was dictating his posts. How else to explain his homonym trouble? Matt has a brain like a planet. If he can’t spell, that means spelling can’t be that important.) But mostly I am just so bookish, and everyone I know is, and everyone I grew up with was, and my schools were crammed with bookish teachers and kids clawing after books … I guess I just can’t quite believe that it could be true that less than 50% of the population has read any literature in the last year. (The idea that you can’t assign a 200-page novel in a college class? Preposterous. Can’t be.)

In this vein, Matt Cheney has a fascinating post about teaching Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to high school students. (And Gaiman is duly fascinated.) Matt hits upon the same hard limit as Bauerlein: "I knew that few of my students would ever have read a book of more than 200 pages." But the really interesting and baffling hurdle actually came next.

The students got into it (what else is going to happen, reading that book?). But:

The more they read, the more I noticed many
students were completely lost. Not because they had trouble keeping up with the reading (a few did), but because they had trouble figuring out how to read a fantasy novel. It was a minority of my students that knew how to read a novel that mixed reality and fantasy, history and fiction, myth and the mundane. The handful of kids who had read other fantasy novels did fine with the book — indeed, devoured it, finishing a week or more before the rest of the class. But the majority of students, kids who would have no trouble suspending their various disbeliefs for the most fantastic products of Hollywood, told me again and again that the book was nearly incomprehensible.

Now this is extremely counter-intuitive to me. You say you understand Sky Captain or The Incredibles or The Chronicles of Riddick or The X-Men; you can read English. But you can’t understand American Gods, even if you are enjoying reading it? Matt explains:

In the first half, they loathed and often skipped the "Coming to
America" sections, but by the second half [thanks for the power of being made to take quizes] they were able to tie these seemingly unconnected parts of the book to some of the ideas fueling the main story. One of the things I like best about American Gods is its scope – Gaiman’s bold willingness to tackle American history (whether mythic history or real) from 14,000 B.C.E. to now, and to do so on the outskirts of the primary story, allowing the book the virtues of popular plot-based literature along with the virtues of philosophically serious literature (the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive, though they often are). That scope and breadth, though, is also what makes the book particularly challenging for people who are used to much less ambitious books, never mind people who don’t read many books at all.

That’s quite interesting. Young minds, video-game strong, capable of processing and integrating multiple streams of visual and audio data – I have no doubt – who find American Gods to be an incomprehensibly thick stream of data, coming at them from too many angles. Too busy around the edges. Weird. I was reading stuff that complicated when I was 10-12. But I guess what goes around comes around. I remember going to see Star Wars with my bookish mom. She’d never seen anything like it. The space battles almost overheated her brain, she confided in me afterwards. She didn’t really like it, but she agreed it was very good.

Speaking of that Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ve just read a great collection of essays about the age that comes before. The Golden Age of Comics – which is eight – is fondly memorialized in Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers! I’ll just quote the opening of Sean Howe’s introduction, about learning to read.

I learned to read from comic books. The first world sequence I ever sounded out, as my eyes moved from left to right, was "red" followed by "tornado" – an outrageously odd pairing that named a member of DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Burned immediately into my four-year old mind was this equation: reading = comic books. For a whole decade, I didn’t look back.

I spent nearly every dime that came my way on superhero comic books, memorizing origin stories, first appearances, and creator’s names. From comics I learned geography; I nearned the names of Norse gods, Greek gods, and Roman gods; I learned to draw; I learned scientific principles (though comic book science would turn out to be pretty unreliable). When I was eight years old, I bought a comic book price guide, and got a crash course in the rules of supply and demand (this was the eighties, after all). But more than anything else, I learned about language. I learned the meanings of dozens of extracurricular words like "invincible," "incredible," "astonishing," "uncanny," "quasar," "peregrine," "celestial," and, best of all, "tatterdemalion".

There you have it, I wager. What I had that Matt Cheney’s students evidently do not. Fascination with origins, mythology, geography, weird language for language’s sake.

Consider this an open thread. What words did you learn from superhero comics?

I will tell you a story. I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when I learned the word ‘tatterdemalion’, although I didn’t know yet what it meant. Just that he was slugging it out. I was sitting in a pizza parlor in Florence, Oregon. We were on our way to the cabin. It was raining outside. I was sipping a root beer out of a frosted mug. That word just electrified my brain. Must have been 1976 because I think was reading Ragman #1. (Of course, Marvel has a villain by that name. Easy to get confused when it’s a relatively common name like Tatterdemalion.)

You can’t leave ‘eldritch’ off the vocabulary list either. This is an adjective I associate primarily with the Scarlet Witch. But also the Black Widow, because, if memory serves, she is described as being like an ‘eldritch wraith’, on account of her acrobatic prowess (‘prowess’, there’s another) in a Marvel Team-Up issue in which she appeared with The Thing. I think they were fighting someone on an oil rig. (Oh, there it is. Hey, Claremont wrote and Janson inked.) ‘Eldritch’ probably appears in superhero comics more often than ‘dog’ or ‘cat’; a basic word you have to know.

Also, ‘Nazi’, although it was several years before I connected the Naw-zees Cap and Nick Fury fought with the boring old Not-sees my father taught people about.

‘Armageddon’ is an basic superhero noun that I pronounced Ar-MEDGE-uh-dawn. I once used it in a sentence. I don’t remember whether the occasion warranted. My mother was very puzzled as to what I could possibly be talking about. How embarrassing.

Ergo, the quote I’ve come across this past year that means the most to me may be this one from Bruno Schulz, about why the seduction of the innocent is such, such, such a good idea:

I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the the world crystalizes for us …. They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life … Such images constitute a program, establish our soul’s fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings. It seems to me that the rest of our life passes in the interpretation of those insights, in the attempt to master them with all the wisdom we acquire, to draw them through all the range of intellect we have in our possession. These early images mark the boundaries of an artists’s creativity. His creativity is a deduction from assumptions already made.

It’s about Dostoyevsky, if you like. Or the importance of knowing what ‘tatterdemalion’ means. This passage would make an excellent epigraph for Atomsmashers! A volume I recommend to all who feel as I do about all this.



pierre 11.19.04 at 4:58 pm

If you just teach children to memorize the entire King James Bible first, everything after that will be cake.

Not only that, but both comic books and James Joyce will seem like the same genre in comparison.

Well, it worked for me.


des von bladet 11.19.04 at 5:14 pm

Isn’t Harry Potter going to fix all this in subsequent generations?

In much of Yoorp, I am assured, (and in Sweden I can attest) Donald Duck (Kalle Anka) comics are still ginormously popular – every newsstand has the most recent few 296 page Pockets. This is by far and away my main source of conversational Swedish, as well as an excellent way of learning coping strategies for parallel dimensions and extreme time-travel. (I also have French, Italian, German and Danish equivalents, but except for French I find them much harder going. They all seemed to be strong sellers in their local markets, though.)

(And if I ever do know Italian, Dylan Dog and his many zombie friends will have more than something to do with it.)

But I grew up originally on a diet of now-defunct British comics – my sister read the Dandy and I read the Beano, and we swapped. Bizarre universes, for sure. (Which comic had Deathwish and The Leopard of Lime Street? The latter was the closest Britain offered to a canonical superhero strip.)

Oh, and Asterix. (In English.) And I used to scour second-hand bookshops (yes, as a child) for collections of Mad magazine’s peerless Don Martin, (and settle sometimes for just Mad magazine collections).

Marvel (not DC) came somewhat later, and I didn’t have the pocket-money for the cross-universe spectaculars, so I settled for Daredevil and (some of) Spidey. These days I don’t read superhero comics, beyond the occasional splurge on Essentials phonebooks, because they’re not sold outside of comics shops, and who wants to spend their time inside comics shops?


KCinDC 11.19.04 at 5:27 pm

I remember that my first encounter with the name “Ku Klux Klan” was in reading the Sherlock Holmes story “The Five Orange Pips” — which is odd considering I was in southern Virginia at the time. I don’t know how old I was, but it must have been early. I’m sure I got very little impression of what the KKK was, but it was an unusual enough name that it stuck with me. I’m not sure how long it took for me to figure out that pips were seeds.


cw 11.19.04 at 5:45 pm

I liked comics too, especially the work of Jack Kirby, but my first serious introduction into the world of immagination was reader’s digest condensed books. I loved faking illness and spending the day at home in bed (instead of school) reading Robin Hood or Call of the Wild or Treasure Island or robinson caruso.

I actually don’t think the medium is that important. The novel is obviously (to me) the superior imaginative medium, but kids brains are hardwired for stories and they’ll suck them up wherever they find them. I think stories are vitally important in some way I can’t explain to how we use our minds. Maybe they emulate dreams or maybe dreams emulate the stories we hear or maybe it’s something else, but if you rasie a child you will see first hand the power of story, how important they find them.


fyreflye 11.19.04 at 5:48 pm

I don’t recall learning a single word from a comic book. I did learn “eldritch” from H P Lovecraft, though for quite some time I was sure that it would invariably be followed by “horror.”


Russell Arben Fox 11.19.04 at 5:53 pm

Ok, this demands my single most embarrasing vocabulary-acquisition story, the existence of which permanently confirms me as one of those teeming millions whose geekiness thrust me into a world of knowledge that my native environment and personal hang-ups somehow prevented me from making full sense or use of. In other words, I knew all sorts of stuff, but knew it in mostly the wrong way.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, there was in the Spider-Man universe a police captain by the name of Jean DeWolff. She was presented as a smart, cosmopolitan type, not at all your typical blue-collar cop that, as the Spider-Man universe had up until that time generally held, was suspicious of the webslinger. (In think, in the actual chronology of events back then, it wasn’t until around Spider-Man’s 20th anniversary that the lame subplot of the police constantly trying to bring Spidey in for questioning about the death of Captain Stacey or Miles Warren or whomever was finally dropped. I think there was actually one issue of Spectacular Spider-Man where there was a parade in his honor, and J. Jonah Jameson said he was moving to Europe. But I digress.)

Anyway, Peter David eventually killed Jean DeWolff off (in a story arc that started off with a tremendous bang, but then promptly fell apart), but not before we got to see a lot of Jean, sometimes in slinky dresses (she was always off doing something fabulous and then being abruptly called to the scene of the crime), sometimes in a beret. I loved her. I especially loved how she’d casually, like I imagined all sophisticated New Yorkers at the time did, drop non-English words into her everyday speech; like how she’d shout “Ciao!” to Spider-Man when he slung off. So I started saying “Ciao!” to people instead of “good-bye.”

Problem: I had no idea what language she was speaking, had no idea how to pronounce what she was saying, had never heard anyone identify the word “ciao” with any spoken salutation. I’d figured out in meant “see ya!” so what more was needed. Thus, for years thereafter, in the hallways of grade school and junior high, I would wave to people as I passed them by and shout “Kai-yo!” I don’t think I learned it was pronounced “Chow” until after I graduated from high school; indeed, I think for a while I thought “Kai-yo” and “Chow” were synonyms. (Also along these same lines: for several years in the mid-80s, I thought there were a couple of hot new bands from Australia, one named “In Excess,” the other named “Inks” (oddly spelled “INXS”).)

I think these sort of problems of mine pretty much explain every single social problem I’ve ever had, ever.


Aeon Skoble 11.19.04 at 6:03 pm

“Consider this an open thread. What words did you learn from superhero comics?”
Certainly all the Norse mythology words, including Gotterdamerung, Ragnarok, Aesir, etc., and all the ones Sean Howe mentions (_except_ tatterdamlion!)
Probably the correct answer is “way more than I’m even aware of,” but the following I specifically recall learning from comics:
Alter Ego
Enervate — funny story about that one: the word had been used incorrectly in a story in (IIRC) Iron Man, and some college student wrote a letter taking them to task for it. So I learned the correct meaning from the letters page.


Mary Kay 11.19.04 at 6:09 pm

Alas, I am one of those people who cannot process pictures and words simultaneously. I go for the words and miss the pictures every single time. So comics never did much for me. The reading bug bit me through the kind offices of Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. Our 3rd grade teacher was reading it aloud to us during nap-time…

I see someone above has mentioned the Harry Potter books. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books’ senior editor for SF maintains that the reason those books are so popular is that Rowling is extremely good at pacing the flow of information you need to understand what is happening. Those of us who read lots of fantasy and science fiction are so practiced at it, we forget how difficut it can be. Reading those sorts of things requires different skills, apparently than reading mainstream fiction.



aeon skoble 11.19.04 at 6:09 pm

Russell- LOL! I also spent at least a year mispronoucing “Ciao,” although in my case the mispronunciation was “see-ow.) I encountered the word in a different storyline also, pretty sure it was a mid-70s MJ.


aeon skoble 11.19.04 at 6:10 pm

Russell- LOL! I also spent at least a year mispronoucing “Ciao,” although in my case the mispronunciation was “see-ow.) I encountered the word in a different storyline also, pretty sure it was a mid-70s MJ.


Mary Kay 11.19.04 at 6:12 pm

Alas, I am one of those people who cannot process pictures and words simultaneously. I go for the words and miss the pictures every single time. So comics never did much for me. The reading bug bit me through the kind offices of Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. Our 3rd grade teacher was reading it aloud to us during nap-time…

I see someone above has mentioned the Harry Potter books. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books’ senior editor for SF maintains that the reason those books are so popular is that Rowling is extremely good at pacing the flow of information you need to understand what is happening. Those of us who read lots of fantasy and science fiction are so practiced at it, we forget how difficut it can be. Reading those sorts of things requires different skills, apparently than reading mainstream fiction. So I’m not especially surprised to hear the kids had trouble with American Gods.



Russell Arben Fox 11.19.04 at 6:21 pm

“See-ow.” Yeah Aeon, I could have easily gone in that direction to.

“So I learned the correct meaning from the letters page.”

You know, I really think the letter pages were valuable. Honestly, in an era before the internet or BBSes (or at least before I’d ever heard of such things), comics book letter pages were the closest I ever got to fandom, and thus the sort of learning which comes from fandom. I can remember long, extensive, issue-to-issue arguments being carried out on those letter pages. They seemed to die out in the late 80s–which, probably not entirely coincidentally, is when I stopped reading comic books. Did they ever make a comeback?


Matt McGrattan 11.19.04 at 6:22 pm

I did learn the word ‘chaos’ from fantasy books and went around pronouncing it as “chah-oss” for ages.

Wierdly, I was perfectly aware of the word pronounced ‘kay-oss’, had been using it for a long time AND I was aware that the two words meant roughly the same thing but didn’t manage to connect ‘kay-os’ to ‘chah-oss’ for quite a while.

I think I must have been about 11 before I figured out that ‘chah-oss’ was just how you spelled it.


Rob 11.19.04 at 6:30 pm

There’s really good autobiographical book about how children are shaped by what they read called ‘The child that books made’ (or something like that). I would heartily recomend it to anyone. The author didn’t read comics though, so far as I can remember.


Jacob T. Levy 11.19.04 at 6:32 pm

The look vs. sound problem I remember most acutely was “indict.” It was years before I learned that there was no word “in-DIKT.” But I’ve also got that “Ciao” memory– and, like Aeon, I associate it with Mary Jane, not Jean deWolf.

“geosynchronous orbit,” (not to mention the crucial number 22,300 miles), from JLA.

Probably “dimension” and “dimensional” and all variants (multiple earths, Mxyzptlk, etc)

Will think of more soon, I’m sure.


Morat 11.19.04 at 6:37 pm

Hmm. I started in on fantasy and sci-fi at an early age. I’m not talking the sci-fi and fantasy stuff in the school library (I got through that by the time I was in third grade). By the time I was 9 or 10 I was routintely raiding my mother’s library and the town library, although what I was looking for varied. (I had the usual “Greek myth” phase and the “Dinosaur phase” and the rest).

I can trace my sci-fi/fantasy leanings to a handful of really good books (Susan Coopers “The Dark is Rising” and Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdain Chronicles to name two) I read sometime between 8 and 12.

As for pacing in sci-fi…I’ve never really noticed. It’s all just books to me, whether it’s Vernor Vinge or Victor Hugo (although God save us all from authors who were being paid by the word. Hugo is one of the few authors that I prefer in the “abridged” version).

I do recall that — my junior or senior year in High School — that the English classes were reading Ender’s Game. I’m not sure how people felt about it in general…

Damn, now I want to be an English teacher to find out. :)


Matt McGrattan 11.19.04 at 6:44 pm

Also, re: ‘ciao’ when I first met my wife and asked her how to say hello and goodbye in her language and was told ‘ciao’ <čau> and ‘ahoy’ I thought she was taking the piss.

What kind of wierd Italian-Pirate hybrid is this?

I still get amused by using ‘ahoy’ in ordinary conversation :-)


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.19.04 at 6:57 pm

I started reading very early. I read quite a few comic books (7 boxes in the garage) but I’m not sure which words I learned from comics… with the exception of ‘continuity’. I learned that one while trying to figure out how the Pre-Crisis and Crisis DC universe worked. I think I picked it up from the “Who’s Who in the DC Universe” guides.

I can’t remember how I first pronounced the word, but I think it mixed in ‘continuum’.


Keith 11.19.04 at 7:12 pm

I too, learned eldritch from Lovecraft and tatterdemalion from Charles Fort. Armageddon did come from comics though, which always me later when I encountered it later in theology. Didn’t these rubes understand that Superman had already stopped Armageddon? What were they prattling on about? Comics also gave me a clearer understanding of genetics then I ever recieved in school. The X Men really are just that cool.


pierre 11.19.04 at 7:14 pm

Rowling is extremely good at pacing the flow of information you need to understand what is happening. Those of us who read lots of fantasy and science fiction are so practiced at it, we forget how difficut it can be. Reading those sorts of things requires different skills, apparently than reading mainstream fiction.

So much “fantasy and science fiction” is written with the expectation that there is all kinds of backstory that the reader will acquire some other way than just reading the book. Examples range from the appendices in Lord of the Rings to the more usual provision of seventeen previous books in the series, a convention where people dress up as the characters, tabletop strategy games, etc. etc. This is one of the defining limitations of the genre. Fantasy and science fiction writers are in large part back-story devisors, not storytellers. The better storytellers distinguish themselves against an artificially low bar as a result.

So the reading strategies necessary for reading most science fiction and fantasy have to do knowing the conventions of the ways backstory is integrated with plot. If you know these then you can make your way through a new book without knowing the backstory at all, instead just keeping a list of mental placeholders and following along the character relationships and dialogue until you get far enough into the book that the whole thing becomes clear. On the other hand, if you don’t know this is what you’re supposed to do, it’s easy to give up.

(No knock on Gaiman, btw. He treats general mythology as the backstory, and furthermore exploits the conventions in a very sophisticated way. But, that said, it’s easy to see why “normal” high school students would be at a loss. They are reading something that subverts several layers of expectations, none of which are familiar to them in the first place. Apart from the pedagogical utility of the titillation factor, American Gods is an utterly bizarre choice for them.)


Ted K 11.19.04 at 7:23 pm

Hmm, I was late to comic books, early to science fiction and historical fantasy.

My classic sound/sense moment came (by family tradition – I don’t remember it) when at a library or museum where a staffer asked a pack of little kids what was the difference between a pirate and a privateer. Up piped little Teddy “A privateer has a letter of mar-kew” – I knew marque but pronounced it phonetically.

On your original post, I find that my students have no trouble at all reading easy novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or All Quiet on the Western Front, regardless of the length. They struggle with anything that uses 18th-century prose – Cato’s Letters threw them for a loop while they just plain don’t understand the Federalist.

At one point while talking about how to read fiction in a history class I asked a room of 30-odd students, mostly suburban kids from public schools in a good education state, what books they had read for fun in the last year. About half had not read a thing. Most of the rest had read Harry Potter, Romance novels, or other low-comprehension stuff. (I read a lot of space opera, so I can sympathize with them.)

Today’s students can read, but they are not used to doing it and don’t do it for fun – at least not when they are 18.

On the other hand, every semester a few kids will come up to me and tell me that they picked up something that I gave an excerpt from and read the whole thing just to see what had happened. So there is hope for the kids.


Jacob T. Levy 11.19.04 at 7:33 pm

The more I think about what I was reading when, the more I suspect that I learned a *lot* of even basic vocabulary from comics– not just the funky standout words like “eldritch.” I was starting JLA, LSH, Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man at about the time I was starting to read lots of dinosaur and insect and kiddie-science books, and before we were veen getting vocabulary words at school. The science books taught a specialized vocabulary. But the fiction I remember reading at the same time was still very kiddie-storybookish, written at a much simpler level than comics. I’m sure I picked up at least the following:

“chauvinist” (Supergirl said it a lot)

“tabloid” and “journalist” and “shutterbug” and “editor” and “publisher” (Kent’s and Parker’s day jobs)

“lad” and “lass” (obvious)

“superstitious” and “mugger”(Batman)

“skyscraper” (all the Marvel NYC stuff; I’d certainly never seen one at that point)

“vulnerable” and “invulnerable”

“velocity” (Flash)


harry 11.19.04 at 7:37 pm

Almost every single Americanism I know I learned from Marvel comics; Spiderman, Hulk, Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider, FF, Avengers… I was even smart enough to know when the phrase was a cathc phrase rather than an americanism (Its clobberin time! was a catch phrase, I figured).


urinated state of america 11.19.04 at 7:41 pm

“(Which comic had Deathwish and The Leopard of Lime Street?)”

Quick google reveals the otherwise piss-poor Buster was the home of the Leopard of Lime Street.

Anybody remember Adam Eterno?


aeon skoble 11.19.04 at 7:42 pm

While I did eventually learn how to pronounce “ciao,” to this day I can’t be sure I am correctly pronouncing “Mjolnir.”

Russell, I agree entirely with what you say about letters pages, back in the day. I remember being in, say, junior high or high school, and reading these incredibly erudite (another word I learned from comics, BTW) letters from college students, and thinking that I was doing something of at least some value by reading them and taking them seriously. Just out of curiosity, is Cat Yronwode a CT reader?


frankly a 11.19.04 at 7:47 pm

I learned many of my favourite words from comic books, and i make a point of inserting them whenever they fit…well whenever i can fit them in. I can even remember the comic books that introduced me to such fun words as:

distaff: Spiderman
loquacious: X-men
conundrum: Thor
rime: Sandman
ablution, inimical, sartorial: Howard the Duck
tatterdemalion: Crooked Timber

I also thoroughly enjoyed “American Gods” & made a point of visiting ‘The House on the Rock’ on my last trip to Plattville – alas I lacked Odin’s abilities, so the staff did not allow me to ride the carousel. Believe my other favourite tidbit was learning Easter’s identity as Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the Dawn & her current employement in a coffee shop on the Haight.


Keith 11.19.04 at 8:06 pm

While I did eventually learn how to pronounce “ciao,” to this day I can’t be sure I am correctly pronouncing “Mjolnir.”


Not that the fate of the universe relies on it but:



Roderick T. Long 11.19.04 at 8:10 pm

Two words I learned from comics but mispronounced: macabre (I said MACK-uh-ber) and demise (I said duh-MEESE). I made one less French and the other one more French than it should be. (So on average I was just right, no?)


aeon skoble 11.19.04 at 8:32 pm


Oh great — I’ve been off-base all these years! I’ve been rendering it “mee-yol-nir” (3 syllables). I was close though – thanks for clearing that up.

It occurs to me that I also first encountered “chi” (in the Chinese sense) in comics.


HP 11.19.04 at 8:36 pm

I never really got into superhero comics, but when I was very young (6-8), my big sister had a secret stash of pre-Comics Code EC horror comics that made a big impression on me. I don’t recall any specific words, although macabre (I alternated between “macabra” and “macaber” for years) and gruesome are safe bets. I also learned that virtually any word can be turned into morbid pun if you torture it long enough. (Oh, excuse me, that should be: “if you TORTURE it long enough! Eeeee-he-he-he-he!”)

Most importantly, though, I learned that if you have an affair with a beautiful married woman in order to get your hands on her husband’s money, do not kill her husband and bury his body in the back yard, no matter how dead he looks. It’s probably best just to leave town.


KCinDC 11.19.04 at 8:53 pm

Isn’t it only two syllables: MYOHL-neer? At least that’s what I remember from repeatedly checking out the D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants from the Charles H. Taylor Memorial Library in the 1970s. I don’t think Old Norse spelling is quite as crazy as Keith suggests.


aeon skoble 11.19.04 at 9:03 pm

Kc in Dc, I think what you’ve said is pretty close to what I’ve been saying — rather than “3 syllables” I guess I meant 2-1/2. Anyway, if you’re more accurate than Keith, then I was too, and can thus sleep soundly tonight.


harry 11.19.04 at 9:15 pm

Yes, I remember Adam Eterno; he was in Thunder, and then in Lion and Thunder. 26pigs says that he was in Valiant and then in Lion annual, but I am certain he was in Thunder prior to the merger with Lion. Here is a single page of his adventures:

There’s an account of Lion here, which mentions Adam Eterno and is ambiguous between my memory and the 26pigs account:

I have the vaguest idea that AE turned up as a bit part in some Marvel comic (British version). I’m pretty sure, also, that some version of General/Admiral Jumbo did (probably in Captain Britain, remember him?), but, bizarrely, as a villain.


jif 11.19.04 at 9:16 pm

Awry. Which throughout my childhood I pronounced AWE-ree. Until my fifth grade teacher heard me do it and burst out laughing. Oddly, I was aware of the correctly pronounced synonym awry, though it never occurred to me that they were one in the same.


Sharon 11.19.04 at 9:37 pm

I think the book Rob had in mind was Francis Spufford, The Child that Books Built. (Which is great and should be read by all those of us who had to be bribed, blackmailed and generally threatened with violence to take our noses out of books.)

But I never read comics.


Barry R 11.19.04 at 10:23 pm

Well before Marvel and Dr. Strange, in Bugs Bunny comics I encountered Yosemite Sam during an Oklahoma childhood. I was shocked to find years later that Yosemite, which I pronounced Yose-Might, not only had four syllables instead of my economical two but also referred to a somewhat real place.


Cryptic Ned 11.19.04 at 10:33 pm

I was surprised about Yosemite Sam too, because I had no idea how to spell his name while being fully aware of Yosemite National Park from viewfinders and magazines and such things.

I think English might be the only language where it’s normal to have no idea how to pronounce a word, even down to how many syllables it has within one, unless you’ve heard it said by someone else.

Other words I pronounced in logical ways: Anxiety (“ankshety”…like anxious)
and Misled (My-zuld).

“He misled me, and he’s never going to misle me again.”


harry 11.19.04 at 10:43 pm

What about the miscellaneous tomatoes? (sundried).

We just had a woman called Siobhan move next door. I was the first neighbour in our gang she introduced herslef to. My wife, and all the neighbours I have spoken to thought it was some fancy posh name; none had a clue how to spell it, and all of them, when I told them how to spell it, said ‘Oh, I thought that was pronounced Sy-Oh-bahn’. Even my neighbour of Irish extraction.


Anderson 11.19.04 at 10:53 pm

“Dweomercra(e)ft.” A sure sign of an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons veteran.

(Had always thought “eldritch” indicated the same, but I’m underread in the comics genre.)

(And here’s a thought: I started to write “meant” not “indicated” just now, but realized that was ambiguous. Semioticians take note!)


fyreflye 11.19.04 at 10:55 pm

On second thought, I do recall a couple of words I learned from comic books: “Zap!” and “Pow!” For sme reason they’ve slipped out of my vocabulary recently.


Another Damned Medievalist 11.19.04 at 11:24 pm

Ah, the joys of reading fantasy and myth from an early age — some helpful books had pronunciation guides in the back, especially helpful for learning the interesting -bh and -mh and -wll kinds of words.

Living in the US, it’s best to ask how to spell Siobhan — I’ve seen it spelled Chevaun …


limberwulf 11.19.04 at 11:42 pm

I wonder if the difficulty in following certain novel forms comes from a reading speed issue. I have found that some books I find hard to follow are much easier if I complete the story in a shorter period of time. Large pieces of the story must be hung on to for some time, logged into memory, for later explaination or use. A good novel may be a heavy data stream with a lot going on in it, but it is not the same as processing multiple data streams. The gamer mentality and the movie mentality process a lot at once but only for a short period of time. Reading english is one thing, being able to read enough of a novel to get the complete thought before forgetting much of it requires some decent reading speed or very good retention and memory. I would coach the kids having trouble on their reading speed and retention, rather than trying to explain the format.


Justin Slotman 11.19.04 at 11:54 pm

I’m pretty sure I got “cretin” from Dr. Doom, or someone like him.


clew 11.20.04 at 3:35 am

I know I learnt ’tilth’ from LoTR’s description of the fields around Gondor. I was very annoyed when Jackson had armies charging across half-bare scrubland instead.


Peter Murphy 11.20.04 at 4:03 am

One of the nifty things abour Asterix (mentioned twenty posts above) was that pretty much all the names were buried puns. Three that come to mind are “Getafix”, “Unhygienix” and “Fulliautomatix”. So this 12-year old had to work out what the puns were.

It helps that the translators often chose to make up new names, and generally improved on the original French. For example, the original name for our seller of antiquated fish was “Ordralfabétix”, which just means “alphabetical order”.


Constant Reader 11.20.04 at 5:17 am

Oho … Asterix.

There were all the Gaulish names ending in “ix” — but don’t forget the Romans (Marcus Ginantonicus, for one) and Egyptians (Ptenisnet and Nastiupset), who also had parts to play.

I learned druid, potion, obelisk, menhir, some Roman army terminology which stuck with me for the following 25 years (legion, OK, everyone knows legion, but also cohort, maniple, and century, from which centurion), and I believe also the word gruel. Which makes the sound “flotch” when it is poured into your bowl. I think.

Someone upthread mentioned Sherlock Holmes. I remember learning from his adventures the word “revenge” at about age seven, also its German translation, “rache” — along with Afghanistan, perceive, hansom, carbuncle, sahib, and the expression “to stay true to one’s salt.” And for oddity’s sake, though probably a couple of years later, the word “dolichocephalic” — which describes Watson’s skull, long, and narrower side-to-side than front-to-back.

I learned about anarchosyndicalism from Ursula LeGuin too, and for quite a while thought “propertarian” was an English word. Is it?


Danny Yee 11.20.04 at 11:30 am

I had the same problem as Jacob with “indict” – for years I thought there were two words, one “indict” that I read, and one “indite” that I heard on the radio and television…


cw 11.20.04 at 1:27 pm

Great post & thread!

I had a few word pairings – probably from comics – where I thought there were two different words, one I’d seen spoken and one I’d read. Two positions in the army, for instance, kernel and “coll-o-nell”.

To this day, since I read more geek than I speak, I get confused about how to pronounce Linux. Does the “i” say it’s own name (as my five year old would say)?


cafl 11.20.04 at 5:55 pm

Linux is pronounced “linn-ucks”.


Keith 11.20.04 at 6:44 pm

I’ve seen Mjolnir pronounciations in both the 3 and 4 sylable versions, in different authoratative texts (alas, I can’t recall which ones). I think Old Norse is really quite a bit more fluid than Modern English, so both are valid, along with half a dozen other variations. But I think the fact that we here in the 21st century know what Mjolnir is (and nottice, no one here has asked, we all know it’s Thor’s Hammer) is notable.


ash 11.20.04 at 8:40 pm

‘Lyn-ucks’ is one of the outlier pronunciations. The more popular one is ‘Lee-nucks’, but Torvalds pronunciation is closest to ‘Lie-nucks’. Um, they had file up with him actually saying it outloud, which seems like years und years ago, but is probably something like four years ago.

>Just out of curiosity, is Cat Yronwode a CT reader?

I expect not, but she does post to alt.magick, and she has a bunch of web ventures running:


[‘Defenders #78!’]


Dave F 11.21.04 at 8:39 pm

The F/SF genres are so alien at first encounter that I am not surprised the uninitiated could not get to grips with Gaiman. I think children who began with fairytales (read to them at first) found it a lot easier. The transition book in my case, at about 11, was T H White’s The Sword in the Stone, which is an imagining of the boyhood of King Arthur (“Wart”) during which Merlin guides him into the occult mysteries. A beautiful book.
Nevertheless, when I first discovered pulp science fiction — Amazing Stories, Weird Tales and other mags — I found it almost terrifyingly strange. Some of the best SF writers of the Golden Age were in those pages: Sturgeon, Pohl, Kornbluth, Van Vogt, and many more. I knew one thing: this was electrifying and my parents were scandalised by it. (The covers tended to feature scantily clad wenches being molested by BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). So my SF reading was Samizdat until my later teens.

As for eldritch: Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch takes cunning advantage of its associations with comic book prose …

The point about Harry Potter is that the books just aren’t F/SF by genre. They are typical stories of British boarding school life spiced up with fantasy elements (see Blyton, Enid). The world of Harry Potter is mundane and yet magical (and renders magic mundane). No eldritch etherealities here.


Rick 11.25.04 at 5:06 am

What words did I learn from comics? I was a big Superman fan in the 60s, the era of pots of red and green kryptonite in every garage.

My words were Permanent and Temporary.

Comments on this entry are closed.