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One such word that I seldom hear and miss — perhaps because my mother so often used it — is discombobulate. We hear it occasionally, and we still find it in our dictionaries. Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (1999) calls it "informal," but defines it as "to upset the composure of; disconcert." The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (1999) also defines it for us.

Discombobulate is also found as a slang term in J.E. Lighter's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, but it is definitely on its way out. When was the last time you heard anyone use it?



Indeed, discombobulate occupies the Weird Words Section of the Web site World Wide Words. Here, Michael Quinion tells us that discombobulate is "another fine example of the speech of the wild frontier of the US of A, this came to life sometime in the 1830s. Whose invention it was we have no idea, except that he shared the bombastic, super-confident attitude toward language that also bequeathed us (among others) absqualate, bloviate, hornswoggle and sockdolager. It has much about it of the itinerant peddler."



The example Quinion gives us is the patter of a "snake-oil salesman at work in 1860 (except that he was praising the water from the Louisville artesian well rather than any manufactured remedy). … 'It discomboberates inflammatory rheumatism, sore eyes, scrofula, dyspepsia, and leaves you harmonious without any defalcation, as harmonious systematically as a young dove."



Here are some other words that seem to be disappearing and which leave a hole in our language:



poltroon — "a wretched coward" (Random House).



antimacassar — perhaps not a loss because it has been years since I saw one of those little decorative pieces of material on a chair.



dungarees — completely taken over by jeans and Levi's.



Perhaps we can do without antimacassar but let's think carefully before we completely discard discombobulate. It expresses a degree of frustration that even our vaunted new technology can elicit when a network goes down.



To see more of Michael Quinions listings of weird words go to www.worldwidewords.com.Let Rosie hear from you by letter (Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond 23230; by telephone, (804) 358-0825; or by e-mail, repps@styleweekly.com





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