Stickybeak’s Lexicon: Gewgaw.

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

An irregular rummage through the world of words. (Or, should I know what that means?)



There are many methods of acquiring new words; some, no doubt, easier than others.

Reading a dictionary from cover to cover is guaranteed to turn up a fair sprinkling of fresh vocabulary, but imagine the work involved. I don’t doubt that many a young child has spent lonely nights flicking through their cherished copy of a dictionary; I can’t claim to have done the same, but I was equally absorbed by my Philip’s Great World Atlas and proudly knew (still know) most capital cities, official languages, flags and currencies of the majority of the world’s countries. (Admittedly this has become a more onerous task since the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, but I feel I’d still be equal to it).

Another route to glossarial greatness is to become a spelling-bee junkie, either as nervous participant or voyeuristic observer. This is the competitive route to word acquisition and could be all the more stimulating for it.

A far simpler, and possibly more satisfying method, is to simply stumble upon words as they appear in all their confusing and unfamiliar guises on the pages of whatever it is you are currently reading. This has the added bonus of providing context, thereby allowing you to not only learn the spelling of a new word, but also its meaning.

It was in this manner that I came across today’s subject (or should that be object?). Gewgaw appeared to me, much like the Goddess Athene appears numerous times to Odysseus, in the pages of The Odyssey. Typically, I failed to note the exact location of the word, but it had something to do with what Penelope was occupied with at the time (crying/weaving/lamenting?) and its strangeness caught my attention sufficiently enough to scribble it down on a scrap of paper.


In isolation, it does look odd.


Pronounced gyou, as in stew and gaw as in, well, gaw.

My reference library, which amounts to two dictionaries and a thesaurus, tells me that a gewgaw is a gaudy plaything or ornament; a bauble; a toy. As an adjective, gewgaw can be used to mean being showy without value. This, then, is the essence of the word: it is a cheap Christmas decoration, glittered into submission so that you would never know the difference; or a street corner handbag, blinged to the max. It is, in fact, a Liberace word.

I imagine a gewgaw would feel thoroughly at home on the page of an Austin or Thackeray; Becky Sharp would surely have basked in the glow of any number of gewgaws which she’d been able to lay her hands on. However, I’d imagine its use in contemporary literature has been less frequent, (if you beg to differ, please correct me).

That is not to say that modern-day people do not enjoy the benefits of the gewgaw; Paris Hilton probably has an entire condo simply stuffed with the things. You might even suggest her dog is a gewgaw of sorts, carried in a gewgaw handbag.

Which leads me to ask whether a person can be a gewgaw. Exhibit A: Ms Hilton. A gewgaw, carrying a gewgaw, stuffed in a gewgaw. Exhibit B: Liberace. The total gewgaw. Exhibit C: (one for the republican-minded, this) The Queen. A right royal gewgaw. Ma’am.

I’ve been trying to slip the word into everyday conversation ever since I found it, but the opportunity has so far failed to arise. Few women would thank you for describing their earrings as gewgaw; and imagine the insult inflicted on your average male if you described his swanky new motor in such terms.

For now I shall allow it to linger in the lexicon’s dusty corners until the time comes to brush it off so that it may shine, if only for a brief, gaudy moment. In the meantime, if you can think of any examples where gewgaw has occurred, or if you have some of your own, please let me know. Stickybeak’s Lexicon is for sharing, after all.

© flyingscribbler 2011


Flyingscribbler is on holiday……

Flyingscribbler is away from his desk for a few weeks whilst he sails around the Greek Islands. This is for research. Naturally. He looks forward to welcoming you back to the blog in October.

Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Aboulia (abulia).

Welcome to Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Here you will find my (ir)regular scribblings about words newly learnt, phrases freshly heard, and sayings just-acquired.

This is not intended as an all-encompassing dictionary; Samuel Johnson I am not. I simply fancied sharing any intriguing words and phrases with you as I discover them. I might even try using them in my writing; you might like to as well. If you do, let me know; you could even offer up an example of how you might use the word.

Aboulia (Abulia)

I’ll begin with an admission: sometimes I worry that I should already be familiar with a word which I have only just come across. How is it, I think (trying to ignore the looming feeling that I might just be a little bit, hmm, inadequate, in the vocabulary department), that a word which has such a precise meaning has passed me by all these years? Surely it must have appeared on at least one page of one book that I’ve picked up? I’m normally very conscientious about looking up words as they leap out at me for the first time. Perhaps I simply got lazy one afternoon and hoped that the meaning would make itself clear a bit further along; naturally, by the time this happened, my sieve-like memory would have deleted the original intention to reference the word and any benefit from absorbing said word would thereby be lost for ever in the ether of time.


I encountered aboulia (abulia) for the first time last week (not personally, although having looked it up, I might have suffered something similar during a recent bout of gastric flu) whilst reading some online flash fiction. For those of you not familiar with the word, and please let there be at least one, it is a neurological term concerning the loss of will-power as a mental disorder (Oxford Encyclopaedic English Dictionary), or put more clearly, the loss or impairment of the ability to make decisions or act independently (I forget where I read that).


Other online sources tell me that aboulia is one of the disorders of diminished motivation, falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: apathy being less severe and akinetic mutism being rather much more so. (You see what happens? I look up one word, and end up becoming expert in a whole branch of clinical neurology/psychology).


In my research, I have also come across a chap called Paul Oscar Blocq, who gave his name to Blocq’s disease, the synonym of which is the wonderfully rhyming condition astasia-abasia. I think this more specifically concerns the inability to stand or walk in a normal manner, but appears to be linked to aboulia.


So there you have it: aboulia. I wonder where I might find the opportunity to use this in a story; perhaps you would like to try first. I’d also be interested to know if you have ‘discovered’ a word, only to find that you really ought to have known about it already. Go on, I won’t laugh. Promise.