The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 12, 2009

Local professor’s book helps define funny words

By Jerri Brouse

LEWISBURG – If anyone has ever called you a smellfungus or a slangwhanger and you weren’t quite sure how to respond, then Robert Beard’s new book, “The 100 Funniest Words in English,” should be in your home library.

“This is something I’ve been working on for eight years,” said Beard.

After retiring from Bucknell University where he was a linguistics professor, Beard said he wasn’t quite ready to stop teaching — he just needed a bigger classroom. So he developed a Web site called alphaDictionary.com.

At the web site, readers can find the most frequently misspelled, confused or misused words in English. Beard (known to his subscribers as Dr. Goodword) also offers a variety of glossaries including a historical slang dictionary which can be of use if you are writing a book or movie about a particular period of time. The site also offers links to 4-5,000 dictionaries and a word of the day.

It was through the word of the day that the idea for his book was born.

“I have about 20,000 active subscribers and some of them started sending comments on some of the words,” he explained. “They noticed that some of the words are much funnier than others and that’s what made me decide to put those words into a book.” Beard, 70, of Lewisburg, has sent out about 2,500 words since he launched his web site but decided that was way too many for one book. So, he chose what he considered to be the 100 funniest words and compiled them into a 115-page book that includes an opening essay as well as the spelling, meanings and history of the selected words.

“I wanted to explain to people how and why words are funny,” explained Beard. “Some words just sound funny and some sound funny because their meanings are funny.”

Take the word flibbertigibbit, for example — a noun meaning a silly, talkative scatterbrain, usually in reference to a woman. Or how about bumbershoot? You know, an umbrella or parasol (typically and old fashioned one).

The funniest of words, though, said Beard, are those that are just one letter away from something naughty — like formacation (which, incidentally, means a huge crowd).

The book also contains well-known words that most people may not know much about, like gobbledygook. This silly slang word refers to pretentious bureaucratic jargon and was actually coined by a congressman in the 1930s.

“Texas cattleman Samuel Maverick not only gave English its word ‘maverick,’ he also gave us his grandson, Maury Maverick …” Beard explained in his book. “Maury served two terms in the US where he had difficulty communicating with his congressional colleagues. He said it was because they spoke gobbledygook. When asked what that was, he responded that the word was based on the sound turkeys made back home in Texas…

“Another thing I do in the book besides give the meaning of the word is to talk about the word, then give examples so you can see how it’s used and then provide a bit about the history,” said Beard.

Beard originally considered simply publishing the information online, but said he got too many requests for a printed form. The book, published by Lexiteria, can be purchased at Web sites such as Amazon.com and Alibris.com and will soon be available in stores.

-- Jerri Brouse is a freelance writer who lives in Lewisburg. E-mail comments to scoop@ptd.net.