A WORD IN THE HAND: ABSQUATULATE
Making a spoilt brat skedaddle does wonders for stress
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
“Absquatulate” is a pleasing word that means to leave somewhere abruptly, like when your mom asks you to pull the hairs out of her chin with a pair of tweezers and you have to rush out immediately because you left the iron on. That’s absquatulating.
Unlike people who need suddenly to make themselves scarce, however, the word absquatulate hardly ever has any reason to absquatulate from anywhere because it is hardly ever called upon to do any work. When last did you hear someone say “absquatulate”?
Instead of doing its bit for the English language, absquatulate gets to lie around and drink cocktails by the pool all day while other words shoulder far more than their share of the working word’s burden.
Take stress, for example. (Please take it – it’s giving us all a headache.) Stress is a much older word than absquatulate but in the world of words there is no such thing as respect for one’s elders. Old, overworked words are often treated abominably. You won’t catch spoilt-brat words like absquatulate leaping up off their sun-loungers to carry stress’s groceries or wash its car. No way. No wonder stress is so stressed.Stress was not always as badly treated. It was born in the 14th century as an abbreviation of the Middle English word “distress”, which came via the French “estrece”, meaning narrowness, from the Latin “strictus”, meaning compressed.
The trusty Online Etymology Dictionary says that in the 15th century stress was used to refer to physical strain on an object – as in “the heavy shopping bag is causing stress to my arm” or “the elephant in the room is placing stress on the carpet”. In the 19th century, stress was adopted by abstract mechanics – I can’t provide an example here because I do not understand abstract mechanics.
Only a century later, in around 1932, did stress become a term that described psychological tension. Most historians blame Harvard physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon, who coined the term “fight or flight response”, also known as “acute stress response”, the theory which holds that when faced with a stressful situation one either tackles it head-on or absquatulates.
Ever since then, poor old stress has been working all hours of the day and night for no pay and very little thanks. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it had a complete breakdown and refused to get up again.
Apart from being constantly at the beck and call of the ill-used, anxious and put-upon, stress still has to carry out one of its earlier functions in the area of linguistics, where the emphasis placed on particular parts of words is called “stress”.For example, in the word “therapy” the first syllable is stressed, probably because the first time you have to talk to a stranger about your problems is the most stressful and after that it gets easier. Although of course there are some people who get so stressed in the first session of therapy that they absquatulate.
Unlike stress, absquatulate does not have a long pedigree. It is a nonsense word made up in the 1800s. No one is entirely sure who to credit for absquatulate, but there seems to be evidence of its being used by a mock-American character in a British stage comedy.
As we know from its empty desk and unpunched time card, absquatulate never really caught on. During the American Civil War it was booted out of even soldierly slang and replaced with the equally nonsensical “skedaddle”.Pedants might pause here and say: “Don’t you mean ‘replaced by’?”
No. When a bus driver leaves her company to go and drive a bus for another company and the original company employs someone else in her place, you could say the first bus driver has been replaced by the second bus driver. “Replaced with”, on the other hand, indicates that the replacement is taking the place of a person or object that is broken or defunct.
I’m sticking with obsolete absquatulate being replaced with skedaddle. Absquatulate didn’t move on to a new career. It didn’t even start cultivating petunias in its retirement.
I am very pleased to have dragged absquatulate out of bed and given it a few turns around the block. It was getting flabby from lack of use, was absquatulate. Let’s hope we haven’t caused it too much stress.