For the Love of Language


I like knowing stuff. It doesn’t matter what that stuff is, I just like knowing it. Knowledge is cool. I haven’t figured out what to do with it all yet but in the meantime, I’m continuing to accumulate it.

In that spirit, I was watching a couple of documentaries about Tourette’s syndrome – one focused on children struggling with the condition and the other explored the difficulties in obtaining employment when unable to control muscular and vocal tics. And as I commonly do (because I always want to know more), I Googled Tourette’s syndrome and began reading on Wikipedia about the details the documentaries weren’t going into.

One of the children in the documentary and one of the men looking for work had what I discovered was called coprolalia – “the utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks” – and that only a small minority of people with Tourette’s exhibit this symptom. When I clicked through the link to find out more about coprolalia, I discovered that “copro” came from the Greek for “faeces” and “lalia” came from the Greek for “to talk”. Coprolalia literally means “to talk shit”.

Now knowledge is one thing but language is another entirely. And for someone who loves language as much as I do, this was a glorious find. This was wonderful. This was bliss! My heart skipped a nerdy beat. And it went on and on as I read about copropraxia and coprographia. Copropraxia is “involuntarily performing obscene or forbidden gestures” – “copro” from the Greek for “faeces” and “praxia” from the Greek for “actions”, literally “shit actions”. And coprographia is “involuntarily making vulgar writings or drawings” – “copro” from the Greek for “faeces” and “graphia” from the Greek for “to draw”, literally “to draw shit”. It doesn’t get much better than this!

I know I’m not the only one. During the episode “Mr Willis of Ohio” from The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin writes the following exchange as the main characters play poker.

President Bartlet: There are three words, and three words only, in the English language that begin with the letters DW.
Josh Lyman: This is a pretty good illustration of why we get nothing done.
President Bartlet: Can anyone name them for me please?
Sam Seaborne: Three words that begin with DW?
President Bartlet: Yes.
Sam Seaborne: Dwindle.
President Bartlet: Yes.
Toby Ziegler: Dwarf.
President Bartlet: Yes.
Toby Ziegler (to Sam Seaborne): C’mon, Princeton, we’ve got dwindle, we’ve got dwarf.
President Bartlet: I see your five and raise you five by the way.
Toby Ziegler: Dwarf, dwindle…
Leo McGarry: Fold.
John Lyman: Fold.
CJ Cregg: Last card down.
President Bartlet: “Witches brew a magic spell, in an enchanted forest where fairies…”
Toby Ziegler: Dwell, dwell, dwell! Dwindle, dwarf and dwell!

I’ve written previously about how much I love my dictionary, randomly thumbing through pages to discover new and fantastic words. I’ve also written previously about how my beloved dictionary was more than a decade old and even though I gave in and finally purchased an updated version, I still love my old dictionary more than my new one. This was confirmed when I arrived at the end of the D section to find that there were no longer only three words beginning with DW. My new dictionary (which I loathe more and more each time I pick it up) also lists:

*dwale – the deadly nightshade
*dwang – a short piece of timber fixed horizontally between vertical framing members, to which lining materials may be attached
*dweeb – a person who is despised as lacking vigour or personal style
*dwine – to waste away or fade

As far as I’m concerned, none of these other DW words are all that worthy, certainly not enough to render the scene from The West Wing irrelevant. And none of this is apropos of anything except that I’m a great big word nerd. (In “The Midterms” episode, Aaron Sorkin manages to work in the term “acalculia” and there are so many more examples of his love of language. I love The West Wing almost as much as I love my old dictionary. And for anyone who wants to write, watching all seven seasons is like taking a crash course in how to do it well.)

When I looked up “coprolalia” in my new dictionary, it wasn’t there, although there were several other “copro-” words. But when I looked up “coprolalia” in my old dictionary, there it was – “the uncontrolled use of violent and obscene language, especially as a result of an illness such as Tourette’s syndrome”. Just another black mark against the new dictionary. And further evidence of both my love of language and the fact that I’m more than a little bit unusual – who else looks up the same word three times in three different places, two of them different versions of the same dictionary? I’m sure it isn’t just me even though I’ve never met anyone else who would admit to it. When I do, maybe my love of language will be matched by my love for that person. Until then, it’s just me, my old dictionary and The West Wing as I continue to accumulate knowledge and appreciate language.


4 thoughts on “For the Love of Language

  1. Good stuff. I found this post through the tag Tourettes, which I have but not Coprolalia. But I can truly talk shit when I’m drinking, which I’ve stopped, because I was using alcohol to medicate the Tourettes.


    • Thanks for reading, Jeff. I think there are plenty of people who talk shit without having the excuse of a diagnosed medical condition, especially when alcohol is involved to loosen the tongue. Which is perhaps why I love writing so much. Lots of opportunities to self-edit. I hope you’re in a good place at the moment with your Tourette’s.


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