Monday, December 5, 2011

Today's Word: quidnunc

You know those people who hang out at the watercooler (either literally or figuratively) who are always anxious to find out who's doing what with whom, who's doing whom with what, and which office they got caught doing it in, and then pass that information along to any ear that comes by? Almost every office has one, but what do you call them?

If you're indifferent to their actions, you might just call them gossips. If they irk you, you might call them busybodies or, if you're feeling particularly Dickensian, mumblenews. If they really annoy you — and especially if they're a bunch of rotten kids and a talking dog — you might call them meddlers.

English: Picture of a water cooler with a litt...
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If their constant chatter has landed you in a serious meeting with Human Resources, you might need something a little stronger: buttinsky, perhaps. Or even scandalmonger.

Of course, the people spreading the "good word" believe that they are only transmitting Truth, and that if you didn't want to get fired, you should have kept it in your pants, so it's really your fault in the end. It isn't fair of people to brand them with negative epithets for offering such a great service to their coworkers.

And when the inevitable hearings begin, and they are called upon to tell the mediator (or worse, the lawyers) what they knew and when they knew it, they will surely prefer a more neutral moniker. Something suitable for a legal preceding. Something more, well, Latin.

Something like quidnunc.

Quidnunc doesn't have a very complicated etymology. It's from the Latin quid nunc?, meaning "what now?" — the constant question on the lips of every good gossip.

In The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the people of the town loitering in their business on an overly cool and disagreeable summer day while two characters pass through with a secret:

What a treasure-trove to these venerable quidnuncs, could they have guessed the secret which Hepzibah and Clifford were carrying along with them! But their two figures attracted hardly so much notice as that of a young girl, who passed at the same instant, and happened to raise her skirt a trifle too high above her ankles.

In Ulysses, James Joyce makes an aptronym (or, if you prefer, aptonym) of quidnunc, mentioning a Sir Milksop Quidnunc and his cohort, Sir Fopling Popinjay. (I think he just named my next two pets.)

Herman Melville — a man who really enjoyed exercising the English lexicon (have you read Moby-Dick?), used the word in Billy Budd:

About as much was really known to the Indomitable's tars of the Master-at-arms' career before entering the service as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky. The verdict of the sea quidnuncs has been cited only by way of showing what sort of moral impression the man made upon rude uncultivated natures whose conceptions of human wickedness were necessarily of the narrowest, limited to ideas of vulgar rascality . . .

Quidnunc is a good word to know. First off, this eight-letter word would be an amazing bingo in a round of Scrabble (a base score of 20 points). Secondly, not many people know what it means, so you can use it freely to call out the more blabber-mouthed of your coworkers.

On second thought, maybe not. You might just be the subject of the next round of scuttlebutt.
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