Monday 1 November 2010


I worry about these posts on useful words, you know. Sometimes I wonder what the merry hell is the point of telling you, dear reader, about words that nobody understands. If you don't know the word, what are the chances that your reader, your interlocutor, your colleague or your parole officer will understand it?

I fret.

But then I see others using strange words, and I feel all right. Take infundibuliform, which means funnel-shaped. Some people would call that an obscure, and therefore a useless, word. They would confine it to texts like The Encyclopedia of British Fungi or The Anatomist's Vade Mecum. The world is simply teeming with such naysayers and lexical dietitians. However, I came across it yesterday in Catch 22:

...that patriotic Texan with his infundibuliform jowls...

Good enough? Or is Britain's eleventh most loved novel beneath you? Well, I already knew the word infundibuliform because I remembered it from the nineteenth century motivational work Les Chants De Maldoror:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not be the one to pour scorn on your infundibuliform anus.

The word (with a little e on the end) is also in the French original. There is even a poem of 1910 by Charles Follen Adams, called My Infundibuliform Hat

The scenes of my childhood, how oft I recall!
The sports of my youth, with my kite, top, and ball;
And that happy day when, with spirits elate,
I took my first step towards manhood's estate,
With a new coat and vest, bosom shirt and cravat,
And d├ębut with my infundibuliform hat.

How I stooped beneath awnings full seven feet high,
To the no small delight of my friends passing by;
And the sport that I made for the boys at the store
When I "chalked" at the height of my "tile" on the door;
One foot and two inches - I think it was that
My guess on that infundibuliform hat.

Them my maiden attempt as a maiden's gallant
When I proffered my elbow, with glances aslant;
And the walk to her dwelling that evening so fair,
Not to speak of the tete-a-tete when we got there,
The forfeit I claimed, as together we sat,
When she tried on my infundibuliform hat.

Well! Boys will be boys, and we men, after all,
Would gladly be freed from Time's pitiless thrall,
And live those days over, when, single and free -
Zounds! Wife's looking over my shoulder to see
What I have been writing... Well, we've had a spat,
And she smashed my infundibuliform hat.

I admit it's an obscure poem, but I'm pretty sure that it must have been the model for this Bob Dylan song:


  1. Useful words is my favorite category of posts from you. My general feeling is that the less people understand of my ordinary conversation, the better. This word I didn't exactly know, but easily guessed. William Harmon, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which I attended, and editor of two anthologies of verse, the Top 100 and Top 500 Poems, I have on good authority would discuss, in regards to metrical verse, the principle of fundibularity (or is it infundibularity?), by which he meant the tendency of a meter, when it contains substitutions, to be most irregular at the beginning of a line, and most regular at the end, with the iambs being as it were funneled into their places with increasing precision as the line draws towards its conclusion. I believe in this principle, even though Wallace Stevens and others have gotten away with such seeming monstrosities as 5th foot trochees. I mention this because I think it might interest you, and in Jane Austen-like syntax, because I am drunk. Another possible explanation of Miss Austen's prose style. FWIW.

    1. Dr Harmon taught the modern poetry class I enjoyed at UNC way back in 1992. He also edited the Oxford Book of American Light Verse which includes My Infundibuliform Hat. He's the best Prof there. I'm drunk too.

  2. "Funnel-shaped" has fewer characters than "infundibuliform," which is a strike against using infundibuliform. After all, to quote Shakespeare and the bible, the love of brevity is the soul of all wit.

  3. The Antipodean, relieved to see someone else commenting under the influence, not that she's done it that often,2 November 2010 at 04:00

    Chris, I was already impressed with your usage of commas, Austenesque asides and that you managed to link funnels to meter, but I'm even more impressed that you've managed it while vinomadefied.

  4. Dogberry, since you're in a handy phase, is fret related to fretsaw?

  5. It is, it has to be said, a very lovely word.
    I shall endeavour to introduce it into polite conversation before the week is out - or failing that, impolite conversation.

  6. In Kurt Vonnegut's incomparable novel "The Sirens of Titan" there is a phenomenon called a chronosynclastic infundibulum. It is a form of wormhole "where all the different kinds of truth fit together." Rather like this site.

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  8. And I just Googled infundibuliform after reading about the jowls of a certain Texan. (I am also a Texan, sans jowls, curiously prone to seeking etymology at all costs) I'm laughing along with your post from 8 years ago. Ah delayed serendipity. . .