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Let's Look At The Language

October 22, 2011

Not quite an 'Ode to Pepé Le Pew' after gross, stinky encounter

My previous column ended with the words "sweet dreams," which are nice if you can get 'em, but sometimes the occasion of slumber time is a few degrees short of sweet.

Sometimes -- last night at my house, to be specific -- it's the full 180-degree polar opposite of sweet. It's that never-prepared-for moment when your dog steps outside to visit nature's perfume counter and returns reeking of Eau de Pepé Le Pew.

Never the shy and retiring type, said dog (an athletic terrier named Davey) decided to announce his fragrant condition with as much animated frenzy as he could muster at 2 a.m., and he could muster plenty.

He did wild flips, flops, rolls and body-rubs on every bit of rug, carpet and upholstered furniture between the back door and the front hall before tearing up the stairs to do the same in a pile of clothes in the laundry room and on every bed in every bedroom.

He finally came to rest on my bed, with sheets and blankets everywhere and his skunkified head on my pillow, inside my pillowcase.

In gag mode, I managed to pick him up and carry him unwillingly to the bathtub, where the struggle between human and beast had the result of turning a very foul-smelling dog into a very foul-smelling wet dog. Bonus result: the human who only minutes before was dry and smelling fine was now neither.

It was only sheer exhaustion that gave either of us any sleep, but sleep we finally did. Daylight came all too soon, and the first inhaled breath of consciousness brought immediate recollection of the wee hours past, evoking my first words of the day, "Oh, gross."

If my home were a comic strip, those squiggly lines that signal an unpleasant aroma would be in every panel. The assessment of "gross" nailed the situation. If I wanted to elaborate, I would describe the smell as "godawful and stinking to high heaven, enough to make you want to puke." And that's coming from someone who has created a number of thesauruses and loves these books above all other reference works because they encourage people to better express themselves in both speech and writing, and especially because they provide broader, fresher alternatives to our overused informal language.

Well, not today. There are times when the lowest of our informal expressions are the most appropriate, and capturing the stench of skunk in words is one of those times. I could take a more literary approach and tell you that "I awoke to a noisome miasma" or that "my domicile is infused with a mephitic fetor," but does either convey the message any better than (or even as well as) "there's a really gross stink in here"?

The problem with trying to be meticulously literate with a subject such as rotten smells is that the subject is always going to be an unnatural fit for such cultivated attention. When English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "Ode to the West Wind," you can bet that wind wasn't coming from a gym locker in June. Flowery speech and fetid odors just don't mix. It's almost a rule: if it stinks, keep it simple. And if it's not a skunk, but it smells like a skunk, just put "skunk" in the name, and we can figure out the rest ... you know, like skunk cabbage, skunk currants, skunky beer, and, as of last night, skunk blankets.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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