Peter Costa: Words that look and sound funny

Peter Costa

Long ago and in a galaxy far away, when desks still had holes in them to accommodate inkwells, a teacher presented me with a book about words. She gave me the book not because I needed remediation, but more because I was, as hipsters used to say in the 1960s, an etymology head.

I loved knowing how words and phrases came into common or not so common parlance and how words sui generis (in and of themselves)could convey funny looks, sounds and/or meanings.

Flummoxed is a funny-sounding word. People don’t usually say the word; they seldom write it. Nevertheless, when I read it in an S.J. Perelman humor column, I invariably guffaw. (Guffaw is a funny-sounding word.)

Woody Allen, another New Yorker magazine humorist like the departed Perelman, uses abstruse words as setups for jokes.

“I was thrown out of college for cheating on a metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy next to me,” Allen wrote. Or, “I ran into Isosceles. He had a great idea for a new triangle.”

Take Dave Barry on the subject: “If you have a big enough dictionary, just about everything is a word.” Dave has a thing for dictionaries: “There is a breed of fashion models who weigh no more than an abridged dictionary.”

Abridged is funny. I often resort to bowdlerization to try to be funny. The other day, when a quartet of landscape workers was blowing leaves into the last pile of the season, I wrote, “My neighbors are so wealthy they can hire a team of Leafbusters to clean up their yards.” (If you haven’t seen the film, “Ghostbusters,” with Bill Murray and friends armed with their backpack proton guns, then Leafbusters won’t make you laugh.)

Speaking of neighbors, I am in a quandary about them. I try to stay out of quandaries – too many people who have had too much to drink. But, anyway, I talk a lot of trash about my neighbors’ peccadilloes – why can’t they keep them on a leash – and I am worried that they might read one of my columns, which “disses” them. I certainly cannot leave copies of my humor book in their mailboxes for a holiday present. They would consider it some federal offense like tampering with the government’s lawful delivery of mail.

Only recently did one of my neighbor’s discover that I have been given a lifetime sentence to write words. (Are you wincing at that awful “sentence” pun?) He was surprised; he thought I was in the trades. Is that like the Keys with Hemingway?

Makes me want to get a vanity plate for my car that will proudly state the word: Hubris. All puns intended.

Peter Costa is a senior editor with GateHouse Media New England. His most recent humor book is “Outrageous CostaLiving: Still Laughing Through Life,” available at