I’m no Dale Carnegie, God knows, but I recently stumbled upon a principle of mental health that no person wishing to retain his sanity should ignore. In short, it is this: Never open a dictionary unless you have a specific word, a particular verbal destination in mind. To do otherwise is to play Russian roulette with your faculties, the difference being that with a dictionary there is, so to speak, a bullet in every chamber. I speak from bitter, brutal experience.
Just this morning I was searching Random House’s dictionary for clupeid, that is, “kloo’ pe id, n., any of the Clupeidae, a family of chiefly marine, teleostean fishes, including the herrings, sardines, menhaden and shad.” I read through that definition 19 times. It had a rhythm as compelling as any by Bob Marley and the Wailers. By the time “clupeid” had burned pinholes in my pupils, I had forgotten why I had looked the word up in the first place. Luck had been on my side, though. I had set out to locate a single word and had done so without bringing shame to myself or my family (a family of chiefly marine, teleostean fishes, by the way). I had been able, after some effort, to avert my gaze to an especially informative advertisement for women’s undergarments in a nearby mail-order catalog belonging to my wife. Where was she now, the traitor? Shopping, probably; leaving me here alone with the Random House Unabridged. As well to leave a child in the same room with a man named Guido.
I opened the volume and quite by chance stood goggling at the same page where, in my innocent youth, I had looked up “clupeid.” The hair at the back of my neck slowly stiffened with repulsion. I had landed full force on clypeus (klip’ e es), “the area of the facial wall of an insect’s head between the labrum and the frons, usually separated from the latter by a groove.” Think of that! On the facial wall of every last vermin in the world, the clypeus was separated from the frons by a mere groove! Who could bear it? I ran a trembling index finger down the column, hoping for a soothing adjective, a prosaic noun to calm my nerves.
Instead, the final word on the page transfixed me. Cnidocyst (ni’ de sist), It had a foul, almost sinister sound. I repeated it several times in spite of myself. Cnidocyst. Cnidocyst. What it was I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. But it was too late for squeamishness. I read on.
Why, a cnidocyst was nothing but a nematocyst! It said so right there in black and white. How foolish I had been after all. And a nematocyst was…well, a nematocyst was simply a…a…what was it, anyway? According to the ghouls at Random House, a nematocyst is “an organ in coelenterates consisting of a minute capsule containing a thread capable of being ejected and causing a sting, used for protection and for capturing prey.”
A more flimsy tissue of euphemisms would be impossible to concoct. “Capable of being ejected,” the man says. I’d like to see the one that isn’t ejected! “Used for protection and for capturing prey.” Indeed. It’s used for making a damn nuisance if I know my coelenterates — and I think I do. If I had a nematocyst to my name those coelenterates wouldn’t be swaggering like psychotic sailors, capturing helpless prey and causing wholesale carnage, no sir. There wouldn’t be a coelenterate standing in the joint when I finished with them. I could lick ’em all, I could — I checked myself before complete hysteria had hold of me.
I was beginning to wish I had stayed with “cnidocyst.” Innuendo was preferable to outright horror. I felt a compulsion to turn back to “cnidocyst,” praying that the sight of a familiar word, however nauseating, would take my mind off the chilling implications of “nematocyst.”Any port in a storm. On the way to “cnidocyst” I paused among the “D’s” long enough to pick up another happy zoological term, “dulosis,” or “the enslavement of an ant colony or its members by ants of a different species.” Slavery, right here in modern North America! What next?
I made it back to “cnidocyst” all right, but there was little relief in the reunion. It sounded as ugly as ever, and if a cnidocyst was a nematocyst and vice versa, any preference of mine amounted to a choice of evils, no more. Lost in thought, my gaze wandered. I gaped at the word above “cnidocyst.” It was “cnidocil,” obviously a close relative. There was the same squinty, pinch-faced look, the same unctuous air of authority. Cnidocil (ni’ de sil), “a hairlike sensory process projecting from the surface of a cnidoblast, believed to trigger the discharge of the nematocyst.”
“A hairlike sensory process” — again, the words were vague but the images they conjured up were not. I had the desperate certainty that if I encountered a hairlike sensory process, even a small one, I would be incapable of any reaction except screaming myself into a dead faint.
I noted the stock journalistic jargon, “believed to trigger the discharge of the nematocyst” (my italics). It’s considered poor form among journalists, and I suppose, by extension, among the compilers of dictionaries, to prejudice a case by making direct accusations against any of the parties involved, even when their guilt is a public fact. Thus we have “suspected” assassins, “confessed” kidnappers, and cnidocils “believed” to trigger the discharge of the nematocyst.
But in analyzing this nicety I was forgetting a very important factor, the word just above “cnidocil” — “cnidoblast,” or in plain Pig Latin, “the cell within which a nematocyst is developed.” Clearly I had situated myself within a massive web of intrigue, a conspiracy of international proportions. The cnidocil was a trigger man, a gunsel working for the cnidoblast, who was shielding the nematocyst, alias the cnidocyst, alias the “cnida” (from the Greek word for nettle). Paranoid psychosis nearly had me in its grip. I was sinking fast. I fought to maintain consciousness as I babbled like Gertrude Stein, “A cnidocyst is a nematocyst is a cnida is a nematocyst is a –” Then, mercifully, I passed out.
The touch of a cold, wet cloth on my forehead brought me to. I recoiled at first, then allowed my face to be stroked by a pair of delicate feminine hands. It was my wife, back from her shopping spree.
“I told you never to drink before sunset,” she chided me. “You never listen, do you?”
“Easy, hon, or I’ll sic my nematocyst on you,” I said.
“What were you drinking — alcohol or chloroform? Come on now, get your head up. Let me show you what I found at the mall: A brand new hair extension!”
“You mean a hairlike sensory process,” I said. She let my head fall back on to the tile and went to mix herself a double Scotch and soda, no ice.