Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Agile in Our Anility

The original Siamese twins, known to the world later as Chang and Eng Bunker, died in 1874 and therefore a hundred and thirty-eight years before I was even born. They were born in what is now Thailand where, presumably, a name like Bunker was not very common. And, to be sure, it wasn’t. They got that name from a British merchant, Robert Bunker, who persuaded their parents to let him exhibit the pair on a world tour...

This is a rather long way of saying that, working a crossword puzzle yesterday, Brigitte and I did not, automatically, know the answer to the following clue: “Chang’s twin.” The answer had to fit into three squares. We got the first and the last letter of the name by solving other words: E­__G. So what letter should we put into in the middle? Solving for the word that intersected E__G, we got A__ILE. The clue for that word was “Feeble and doddering.” We tried every letter of the alphabet for that blank. The only one that produced a plausible answer was G, as in agile. But agile, it seemed to us, was the very opposite of feeble and doddering. Finally, the whole puzzle was filled in except for that the blank that marked the twin and the dodderer.

So I looked up the shorter of the two. ENG. The missing letter was the N. That, in turn, gave us ANILE for the feeble and the doddering. We looked at each other, baffled, raising hands and eyebrows. “Webster’s please,” said the word surgeon. And there we found the definition for a new word. And at our age. It is: “Of or resembling a doddering old woman.” No end of surprises!

Well, it turns out that the Latin anus—a feminine noun with a masculine ending—does mean an old woman. In fact, Ovid used the phrase anus Cumaea to indicate the Sybil of Cumaea. Meanwhile our word, anus, comes from the Latin annulus, meaning “ring,” shortened to anus. The word senile, by contrast, derives form the Latin senex, meaning “old.”

Now when the Queen in 1992 described that year as the annus horribilis, she was using two Ns, not one, and describing a year, not herself—although she was sixty-eight that year. Curiously, of course, that annus is also a ring, in a way, describing a circle in another dimension, that of time. We two are also gathering dust, anility competing with senility. How much time is left us? Who knows? And how many new words shall we still discover? Plenty, I am sure. That ocean has no shore.


  1. Wow, what a fun read! I shall not forget Anility as I try and postpone it's arrival.

  2. Oh, and by the way, if you were born 174 years after Chang and Eng died, you'd have been born last year, my dear...