Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Word Nerd Sez: O is for ...


This is one of those two-dollar words that I love to use, especially around young children—and especially to describe young children. Webster's says it means "marked by unruly or aggressive noisiness" or "stubbornly defiant or unruly." I think we've all met kids like this (not mine, of course!), and since they don't pay attention long enough for you to dazzle them with brilliance, I like to try to baffle them with bullsh— two-dollar words. "Why are you being so obstreperous!" I'll cry, and they'll usually stop what they're doing to give me a puzzled look, at least long enough for me to physically intervene in whatever mischief they're getting into. I can't claim this is a particularly effective strategy, and it's one of last resort, but it is one that's guaranteed to get one of those "you are so weird" looks that I usually get from grownups. I'm not sure why I think that's a good idea; maybe it's proof that I don't use a double standard in dealing with kids, which they usually appreciate—if they're not being obstreperous.

Anyway, about that word: there's nothing particularly unique about its origin, which is pure Latin. The prefix ob- means "against" (we see it in obstruction, obstacle, obstinate, etc.) and -strepere means "to make a clamor." (In combining these roots, don't think of it as "against clamor," but rather "against, by making a clamor.") So in addition to being very useful in describing other people's children, obstreperous is a very straightforward word, etymologically speaking. I especially like it because of the way it sounds: ob-STREP-er-ous. You can spit out the "strep" part with an amount of frustration that corresponds to the misbehavior.

I had a high school English teacher who would have told you that this expressive quality makes obstreperous a good example of onomatopoeia*. That's another two-dollar O word I really like, meaning "the naming of a thing by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it" (such as buzz or hiss) or "the use of words whose sound suggests the sense." I still remember her fine example of onomatopoeia: nostril. "It sounds disgusting," she explained, pronouncing it with venom: "Nossss-trull. And it is disgusting!" Needless to say, this was not a big help to us seniors studying for the AP Exam, and I don't think any of us jotted this gem of a tip down. Did this make us obstreperous? I don't think so; later that year I spiked her tissue box with dry ice, creating a cloud of fog around her desk, but she didn't even notice and so there was a distinct lack of clamor involved. Sigh.

*double-checking the definition, I browsed nearby and saw the perfect O-word for this feature: onomastics, or "the sceince of study of the origins and forms of words esp. as used in a specialized field." You mean some people study this all the time, like a career? Swoon!

1 comment:

  1. Sharon BlankenshipJuly 28, 2009 at 10:40 AM

    Love your word "finds." You're even better than A Word A Day.