Home > History, Society > A word that doesn’t exist… but should

A word that doesn’t exist… but should

ZeusThe English language is surprisingly versatile.  For every word you might think of on any topic you could care to name, there are a dozen synonyms of it of varying levels of relatedness, each imparting your sentence with its own particular shade of meaning.  For every neutral word like “thin”, there are a raft of horrible words like “skinny”, “rakish”, “bony” or “gangly” and nicer sounding ones like “slender”, “willowy”, “svelte” or “lithe”.  Each one tells a different story and each one seems, somehow, entirely necessary.

It all makes English a wonderfully precise language.  A lot of the reason for this is the tendency for the language to simply absorb words wholesale from a number of sources, from other languages to the ramblings of writers, popular phrases and even the stupid things politicians will sometimes be caught saying.  That and the fact that there are a LOT of English speakers around, many accidentally inventing new words all the time, most that won’t ever be used outside a particular family, neighbourhood or workplace.  Neologisms are often just waiting to happen, it seems, and are sometimes born out of accident, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes are the fruit of a the marriage of two different words.

That said, this post won’t be about sexting, googling, hacktivism, slactivism or even something as scandalous as santorum (google that last one at your peril). No.  This post will be about a word that I personally made up entirely by accident when trying to make myself understood.  It wasn’t until after the fact that I found out that the word I used didn’t actually exist when I first used it, but by then it was too late.  I’d already embarrassed myself at that point by using it in an email.  I don’t expect the use of this word to catch on, but even so, I feel that it should exist or even deserves to exist, because in the context I used it, it was perfect.


The Ancient Greeks and Romans gave us a lot of things.  Most of them very useful things.  Like words.  In this case, I’m talking about their mythology and the dozens of words that spawned out of it.  Words like epicurean, pyrrhic, sisyphean, martial, venereal, mercurial, dionysian and even apician all have their origins in Antiquity. Epicureus, Pyrrus, Sisyphus, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Dionysis and Apicius were all the names of Ancient Roman or Greek people, mythical heroes or gods and each of them became so famous that we still utter their names to this day, in one form or another.

The thing about these words is that they all have an air of sophistication and dignity, even if the subject they describe isn’t very sophisticated or dignified.  And that’s incredible.  To describe someone’s table spread as being an epicurean feast is a fancy way of saying they overcatered.  To say that someone embraces the dionysian virtues could be taken to mean that this person is an incorrigible alcoholic.  To describe just about anything as venereal means that someone has caught or is about to catch a very embarrassing and personal disease.

Enter Priapus.  Now here is a Roman god who, sadly, has no words like this named after him.  He had very specific qualities about him that weren’t shared by the rest of the Roman pantheon and that is a real shame.  You probably didn’t learn about him in High School history because, honestly, you can’t really talk about him to teenage kids without going some places you really don’t want to go or giving them some kind of intellectual justification for the unsightly graffiti they scrawl on the walls of the toilet blocks every single day.

Yes, that IS what you think it is

Believe it or not, it gets worse.

See, Priapus was a fertility deity representing masculine power and fecundity.  As a result, he was rather well-endowed in the genital region, which makes him painfully funny and not just to thirteen year old boys.  The Ancient Romans, with their picture of the ideal man having much more modest dimensions (this ideal making it into many of the famous statues given to us by the Renaissance), thought he was a hoot, and so, turned him from a powerful symbol of luck and the cycle of life into a bit of a joke-god in the space of a few hundred years.  People used to make humorous statues out of him and stand them out at the entrances of their homes to greet guests or guarding their gardens.  His shrines and statues would get lewd jokes grafitti’d onto them by passers-by and he was generally regarded by most people as little more than a divine punchline.  Meanwhile, Jupiter got an almost monotheistic cult built up around him with temples, a full priesthood and everything.  It’s a bit sad, really.

Obviously, it wasn’t all bad news for Priapus.  After all, at some point, someone thought it would be a good idea to collect some of the better graffiti that had found its way onto the walls of his holy places and put it all into a sort of compendium.  It meant that after hundreds of years of laughter, things were looking up for him.  He was, after all, finally getting a holy book, which is a much surer sign that a deity has made it than any amount of blood sacrifice could ever be.  Admittedly, this was a holy book packed with little else apart from dick jokes, but, hey, it’s more than Jupiter ever got (as far as I know).

If you want to get an idea of what sort of stuff was in this book, I’ve included the following excerpt:

Ne prendare, cave, prenso nec fuste nocebo,
saeva nec incurva vulnera falce dabo:
traiectus conto sic extendere pedali,
ut culum rugam non habuisse putes.

For those of you who can’t read Latin, the above verse is absolutely filthy.  The book, which is at least 1600 years old, by the way, goes on like that for ninety five verses.  It’s title?  The Priapaeia.  Thus the definition of the word Priapaeian: 1. Related to the Ancient Roman demi-god Priapus. 2. Pertaining to lewd humour, the primary subject of which is male genetalia.  The beauty of it is that you can use it in a sentence and whatever it is you’re talking about will still come out sounding somewhat dignified.  For example: “South Park is an example of a satire that explores current events by relying heavily on elements of priapaeian humour”.

It would be a useful word to use in an essay about, say, the interplay between society and morality, the use of certain kinds of political propaganda that were popular just prior to the French Revolution or even just as a way of encapsulating everything you ever needed to know about the film The Hangover 2.  Additionally, small children wouldn’t understand it, it’s a little bit hard to spell and it’s even harder to pronounce, so its use is also a shorthand way of signaling how smart you are.  It’s a perfectly cromulent word and I don’t know how generations upon generations of English-speakers could have missed it.

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