I was a voracious reader as a kid. Even back then words fascinated me. Between my love of books, a mother who would explain things using medical terminology, and a father who used to play word games with me, I wound up with a pretty advanced vocabulary for my age.
When I encountered a word I didn’t know, I was pretty fearless about asking adults what it meant. Often the definition they gave me might contain a word or two I wasn’t familiar with as well. I would ask about the meaning of those words, and so on and on it went. In retrospect, it was good training.
Today, I make my living with words. Etymology remains a passion of mine. To quote the movie version of V for Vendetta, “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who listen, the enunciation of truth.”
Now, I’m not aware of when every word I know entered into my vocabulary, but there are exceptions. With that in mind, here are seven such words and the stories and memories that go with them. As you’ll see, my general geekiness/nerdiness was firmly established even at a young age. Let’s start the count.
Source: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
My father was, and still is, a huge Monty Python fan. I was fortunate enough to grow up within broadcasting reach of KERA, the local PBS affiliate in Dallas, Texas. They would broadcast all sorts of ‘britcoms’ and British TV, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Doctor Who, Are You Being Served?, and many others.
From the Flying Circus, I graduated to the Monty Python movies, particularly The Holy Grail. I was already big into Arthurian legend at the time, so a completely off-the-wall interpretation of the Knights of the Round Table was perfect for me. It’s definitely one of those movies I can quote nearly verbatim. It has worked its way into my everyday speech.
The scene in question involves Sir Lancelot travelling about with his squire, Concord. Concord is struck by an arrow with a note attached, leading to Eric Idle uttering, “Message for you, sir!” (Which has been my email alert on more than one occasion.) At first, Lancelot believes his squire is dead, vowing that his death was not in vain. When Concord wakes up and offers to go with Lancelot on his rescue mission at Swamp Castle, Lancelot tells him to stay put until he’s accomplished the deed in his own particular…idiom.
Source: Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Both of my parents were fans of Original Series Star Trek, so when Next Generation started up, we were tuned in and ready. While Seasons 1 and 2 of TNG struggled to find traction, it’s episodes like “Measure of a Man” that really started to demonstrate how forward-thinking and idealistic the show could be.
In this episode, the android, Lieutenant Commander Data, is put on trial to determine whether he is, in fact, a sentient being or merely the property of the Federation. The stakes are high because if Data loses the case, he will likely be disassembled and studied by Commander Bruce Maddox.
During the trial, Maddox is questioned by Captain Picard about what defines sentience. Maddox lists three things: intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. Captain Picard is then able to demonstrate that the first two parts of Maddox’s criteria are met, going on to ask what if Data meets the third criteria, even in the smallest degree. It’s a fantastic episode, one that really digs into the morality of artificial intelligence and personhood.
This was a bit of a late-comer to my vocabulary. I had read stories of lords and vassals for years, but for some reason the word genuflect, the act of showing reverence by bending the knee, didn’t reach me until I saw Aladdin in the theatre. It was, you guessed it, the “Prince Ali” song. Genuflect, show some respect, down on one knee…
Bonus points: This song also gave me the word coterie, which would come in handy when I started playing Vampire: The Masquerade a few years later. Thanks, Howard Ashman!
Source: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
When I was about eight or nine, I started reading various classics for kids like Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood, and so forth. Treasure Island was one of my favorites. It sparked my lifelong love of the pirate genre.
So, I was reading this book in my Aunt’s living room when I ran across the phrase: “he drew his cutlass.” The word sounded familiar, but at the time I didn’t know that it meant a sword. My father was sitting at the kitchen table, so I asked him, “Hey, Dad…what’s a cutlass?”
Well, that made no sense. Why would someone take the time in a tense situation to draw a picture of a car that, presumably, didn’t exist in the time of wooden sailing ships and maps to hidden treasure?
Apparently, the confused look on my face prompted him to ask how it was used in the sentence. Then he was able to amend his answer to a single-edged pirate sword.
Source: The Transformers, “The Master Builder” (Season 2, Episode 12)
In this episode, we find the architect, Grapple, with his buddy, Hoist. The two of them are busy building a “Power Tower” model, a device that can turn solar energy into energon. They present it to Optimus Prime, but the Autobot leader declines to advance their project citing that it would make too tempting a target for the greedy, energy-hungry Decepticons.
The two Autobots go to repair Power Glide in the field where they are quickly surrounded by the Constructicons, who claim that they have left Megatron’s cause and gone rogue. They offer to help Grapple and Hoist build a full-scale Power Tower. The Constructicons make a show of some supposedly stolen energon cubes, and the two Autobots agree to jointly build Grapple’s masterpiece.
Surprise, surprise, it’s a trick. Just as the finishing touches are put on the Power Tower, Megatron shows up and captures Grapple and Hoist. He imprisons them in the solar collecting sphere atop the Tower, which will surely melt them down into slag. This prompts Megatron to muse, “Magnificent…now the gullible twosome shall perish in their own tower.”
That’s right, I learned this word from the legendary Frank Welker himself!
Source: Robotech: Macross Saga
Another one I picked up from my weekday-morning cartoons, this was a word that I learned but didn’t quite know the meaning. In the Macross Saga of Robotech, Rick Hunter is the main protagonist. He starts out as a civilian stunt pilot but quickly joins the ranks of the Robotech Defense Force (RDF) as he is pulled into the armed conflict between Earth and the Zentraedi armada.
After an initial training period, Rick is given command of the Vermillion Squadron. The ‘squadron’ seemed to consist only of Rick himself, Max Sterling, and Ben Dixon, though to be fair, sometimes they were referred to collectively as Vermillion Team. I thought the word just sounded cool, but at the time I had no idea it meant a bright shade of red-orange.
Spoilers: Vermillion Squadron’s time in the sun was short-lived, however. Ben Dixon dies in a huge explosion over Ontario. Rick and Max become part of the storied Skull Squadron. Since Rick’s older brother, Roy Fokker, died in the previous episode, Rick takes command of the Skull Squadron. Vermillion Squadron is effectively dissolved at that point.
Source: The Uncanny X-Men #120
The direct opposite of vermillion, this is a word I had heard and knew the meaning of already. I had just not seen it written out. I was a big X-Men fan when I was a kid. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a great way of getting a particular title regularly. So, my comic ‘collection’ (if it could be called that) was a mish-mash of different titles I could scrounge together along with those given to me by friends and family.
Somehow, I wound up with a second-hand copy of The Uncanny X-Men #120. I don’t remember how it came into my possession, exactly, but I remember seeing the word chaos on the cover which proclaimed “Chaos in Canada!” This was when the X-men fought Alpha Flight. Not recognizing the word, I asked my father about it. He informed me it was pronounced kay-os. For a kid who was still trying to master phonics at the time, a ‘ch’ combination of letters that didn’t make the traditional ‘ch’ sound was bit confusing.
To this day, it remains one of my favorite comic book covers. It’s evocative and colorful, and there’s a real menace at seeing the outlines of Shaman, Vindicator, and Sasquatch in the foreground. *chef’s kiss*
Fun fact: One of the cover artists for this issue was none other than Bob Budiansky, who famously developed Transformers lore for the original comic. He is known for naming Megatron, Wheeljack, Starscream, Sideswipe, Shockwave, and a whole host of others. Since Megatron appears on the list above, I’m declaring that a double vocabulary synergy, baby!
So, there you have it, folks — there’s a look at where I discovered seven different words and how I learned them. If you enjoyed this blog post, please give it a like. If you had fun with this one, I have some other word origins I’m happy to talk about in the future. Also, feel free to share where in your personal history you picked up certain words. I’d love to hear your stories. Until next time, thanks for reading!