The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 18 Feb 2008

Once I was visiting my grandparents while home from college. We were in the dining room, and they were talking about a book they were reading, in which the author had used a word they did not know: cornaptious. I didn't know it either, and got up from the table to look it up in their Webster's Second International Dictionary. (My grandfather, who was for his whole life a both cantankerous and a professional editor, loathed the permissive and descriptivist Third International. The out-of-print Second International Edition was a prized Christmas present that in those days was hard to find.)

Webster's came up with nothing. Nothing but "corniculate", anyway, which didn't appear to be related. At that point we had exhausted our meager resources. That's what things were like in those days.

The episode stuck with me, though, and a few years later when I became the possessor of the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, I tried there. No luck. Some time afterwards, I upgraded to the Second Edition. Still no luck.

Years went by, and one day I was reading The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies. The unnamed Dean of the music school describes the brilliant doctoral student Hulda Schnakenburg:

"Oh, she's a foul-mouthed, cornaptious slut, but underneath she is all untouched wonderment."
"Aha," I said. "So this is what they were reading that time."

More years went by, the oceans rose and receded, the continents shifted a bit, and the Internet crawled out of the sea. I returned to the problem of "cornaptious". I tried a Google book search. It found one use only, from The Lyre of Orpheus. The trail was still cold.

But wait! It also had a suggestion: "Did you mean: carnaptious", asked Google.

Ho! Fifty-six hits for "carnaptious", all from books about Scots and Irish. And the OED does list "carnaptious". "Sc. and Irish dial." it says. It means bad-tempered or quarrelsome. Had Davies spelled it correctly, we would have found it right away, because "carnaptious" does appear in Webster's Second.

So that's that then. A twenty-year-old spelling error cleared up by Google Books.

[ Addendum 20080228: The Dean's name is Wintersen. Geraint Powell, not the Dean, calls Hulda Schnakenburg a cornaptious slut. ]

[Other articles in category /lang] permanent link