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Lollapalooza: a Modern Sockdolager

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t times the English language has seemed inadequate to express the expansiveness and exuberance of the American spirit … at times, that is, when the nation felt expansive and exuberant.

Words like expansive and exuberant wouldn’t do; they can be quite accurate in denotation, but too nicely tied to classical Latin roots to express this spirit.

No, for the American experience, a different kind of sesquipedalian nomenclature was needed. And in the early 19th century it emerged, breathing fire and nonsense.

From those times we got sockdolager, meaning something striking, a blow or a view or anything truly awesome. To cheat someone was to hornswoggle. A disgusting drink or other liquid was slumgullion. To depart, or to take one’s leave under suspicious circumstances, was to absquatulate.

Big politics demanded big words too: callithumpian for a noisy parade, slangwhanger for a partisan speechmaker, snollygoster (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary) for a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician. The OED quotes an 1895 piece in The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch: “A Georgia editor kindly explains that ‘a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.” Have we any masters of talknophical assumnacy today?

More recently we’ve seen a revival (by President Warren G. Harding in the 1920s) of the useful term bloviate, per OED “to talk at length, especially using inflated or empty rhetoric.”

On a happier note, one ten-dollar word was recently rescued from obscurity and is better known than ever now: Lollapalooza. We know it as the name of a midsummer alternative-rock music festival, originated in 1991 and now, after some perigrination, held every summer in Chicago’s Grant Park. In fact, the 2017 version was just held this past weekend, cut short one night by thunder and lightning but otherwise a success.

And the name of the festival comes from the good word lollapalooza, meaning something outstandingly good of its kind, attested by Merriam-Webster as long ago as 1896. The festival organizer, Perry Farrell, remembered the word from a Three Stooges movie and put it back in use.

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