1 Column. 3 College Papers. 2 Continents. 8 Years (and Counting)…

Motley. Amenable. Groovy. Bodacious. Frantic. Dog-eared. Pipsqueak. Mosey. Quibble. And Ragamuffin.

These are just a few of the hundreds of words and phrases Will Mari has featured in “Will’s Word of the Week.” Over the past eight years, Mari has maintained the fantastically quirky, educational column for three student newspapers on two continents — the Watchdog at Seattle’s Bellevue College (formerly called The Jibsheet)The Daily of the University of Washington, and The Cambridge Student at Britain’s University of Cambridge.

2For each column, Mari (pictured left) selects a different term and breaks down its origins, definitions, evolution over time, and use in popular culture. The words range from serious to silly. In past weeks, he has broken down everything from Inspiration, Mesmerize, and Caucus to Doodle, Beefcake, and Cowabunga.

Occasionally, Mari goes off the radar entirely, selecting a word a majority of students most likely have never heard, cannot spell, or have no clue about the meaning.

For example, his most recent column broke down Capernoited, an adjective that refers to someone being “slightly tipsy, grumpy, affected by alcohol.” Mari shares that it is a Scottish term. It first gained exposure in an 1824 novel by Sir Walter Scott. And it joins many other drunken descriptions, including “toasted, hammered, plastered, fried, liquored-up, sauced, sloshed, tanked, sodden … drunk-as-a-lord, three sheets to the wind, and under the table.”


At times, he even ties in pop culture. One related highlight: In May 2007, he tackled D’oh, “the well-known catchphrase of Homer Simpson, the fictional father found in ‘The Simpsons.'” As he reveals, the word first appeared on TV in 1988, during a ‘Simpsons’ sketch that ran on “The Tracy Ullman Show.” Thirteen years later, it earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary.

As Mari explains, D’oh is the perfect example of how “practically any word can work its way into the lexicon if it tries hard enough.”

In a recent Q&A, Mari, currently a UW Ph.D. student, detailed how he became a “venerable in-house etymologist,” the motivations behind “Will’s Word of the Week,” and resources for budding student wordsmiths.

How did you first become interested in the world of words?

As a kid, growing up in a military family, I heard a lot of lingo from my dad, and then many funny regional words in the many places we lived around the country. That, and early attempts to read the newspaper and Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” drove me to want to look up weird words, odd words, old words, words from far away — basically any word that I didn’t know.

Yes, I was one of those strange kids who read the dictionary for fun. I wanted to learn all about words, all the time. At community college, I was thrust suddenly into the role of editing, designing, and writing for our school paper’s features section in January 2005. We had a space to fill, and it was only a few hours to our first deadline, and so I wrote my first quick etymology of Usageaster (meaning: a self-appointed word expert) using the Webster’s on my desk and a little bit of embellishment.

What have been your main aims with “Will’s Word of the Week”?

Besides the more mundane desire to fill a hole on my page, I’ve always wanted to share the “aww, really?” insights that etymology can bring. Whether it’s the origins of more ordinary words (such as Please) or unusual slang (including Shank and Jive Turkey), every word has a history — often a crazy and circuitous one. Thanks to the careful entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, those stories can be better shared. Basically, I just like sharing the stories behind the words we use.

How do you decide which words to feature in each column?

Many of my word ideas are suggested to me by colleagues or friends who know I’ve written this column for a long time. I also get feedback from more distant folks — about a fourth to a third of my words are direct suggestions from readers here in Seattle or from as far away as Texas or California.

I also keep an informal running list of my own. I write down any word that seems old-fashioned or otherwise out of place, is rocketing across the Internet, or has a tie-in to the news. Recently, for example, I wrote about Calm in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings.

To read the rest of the Q&A, click here or on the screenshot below.


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