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OK, I Give Up writes: “You used the word ‘pussel-gutted' in last week's column? I consulted every reference I have, and struck out. Can you enlighten us on its meaning and derivation?”
It came up out of the depths unbidden, as strange words and expressions often do when I'm in the ecstasy of composition, so-called, and to my thinking that's often sufficient justification for including them — just because they're there, looking like they need doing something with.
On re-reading, though, I'll usually concede to prudence and look stuff up. It's a cautiousness learned the hard way, hindsight wisdom following several declined duel challenges with repetitive repair to the word poltroon.
In the sober post-inspiration afterglow, I looked up “pussel-gutted” too, but couldn't find it in any of my references, either. Nothing in the OED, nothing in my 1923 unabridged or the later ones, nothing in Mencken, Fowler, Brewer, Bernstein, Roget, Ambrose Bierce, Dr. Bergen Evans, Strunk & White; nothing in the slang dictionaries; nothing online. And nothing between psephology and pyknic in “The Superior Person's Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words.”
Laugh-In used to say, “Look it up in your Funk & Wagnall's” — so I did that too.
Nada.Y nada mas.
When all else fails, the all-knowing entity named Google might come to your assistance if you play your cards right, or hold your mouth right, or whisper the right sweet nothings in its ear, if it has an ear. In this case, Goog, as its friends call it, nudged me in the direction of an old paperback book that I happened to have right here at my elbow, entitled “Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957-1958.”
(Everybody keeps a copy of that one handy, do they not?)
The book is a transcript of some question-and-answer sessions between writing students at Charlottesville and the novelist William Faulkner when he was writer-in-residence there more than 50 years ago. Lucky students.
In one of the q-a's, a student noted that in “As I Lay Dying,” Faulkner used the word “pussel-gutted” twice, once to describe a horse and once to say that a man had brought himself to that condition by overeating cold turnip greens. It was a word you could pretty well imagine the meaning of, but the young man demanded a precise definition.
Faulkner wasn't sure, but ventured that it probably meant bloated. The student wondered if it might have derived from pursley, a common southland weed that can swell grotesquely during wet weather.
Faulkner said:. “It could derive from that. I don't know. I've heard it all my life. It means someone that is bloated, that has a tremendous belly that he shouldn't have.”
That might've been too vague (he would've said evanescent) for Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster — certainly for the Miss Thistlebottoms who used to chortle that Faulkner was uncouth because he implied and inferred interchangeably — but if it was good for America's greatest novelist, known to his Oxford domino illuminati pals as Old Last Ding Dong of Doom (or just Ding, for short), I was right sure it was sufficient for ol' moi and this seldom-traversed corner of the Arkansas Times.
So I went with it. And Editor Phil D. Hole, who has grown accustomed to such impertinences, indulged me as usual, for which I'm duly appreciative.
While I had the book out — and this happens to me all the time — I wound up reading might near all of it, and enjoyed it immensely, and not only because of Old Ding's many little riffs on word usage and pronunciation by people in the Southern interior.
Another student was perplexed by a Faulkner character's reference to a holiday “mast.” What could that possibly be, he wondered. Just a regional way of saying “mask,” Faulkner explained. People in our region often put a “t” at the end of a word in place of a letter that's harder to enunciate. Mast for mask.
Or my own favorite example: the flying, stinging insect that I was scared to death of growing up. The only thing I ever called it, or knew to call it, was a “wast,” rhyming with cost, and I was astonished to learn eventually about the concluding “p.” Probably already in college then. “Wasp? You sure?”
Just about everybody I grew up with put the concluding “t” on the word “once,” so that it was pronounced “wunst.” The sorrier dialect writers write this word in this pronunciation as “oncet,” but I always see that as a misspelling of “onset,” or as a reference to a playful aquatic animal or a kind of jungle cat. Those same people I grew up with, if they did something more than wunst, would say they done it twict.
Our old squirrel dog Jack was a fiest.
And every farmer I ever knew, before they planted their crops, would have the ground disted. Sometimes they'd merely have it dissed, but usually there were two syllables and the distinctive “t.”
The trend today is to reverse that fine old custom and actually replace the easy concluding “t” with the harder consonant. For lots of people here in Hooterville, and I mean lots of them, their main daily adventure is going to Wal-Mark.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.