The Factotum’s Procrustean Bed

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Years ago, I had purchased an audio lecture course for word nerds via Audible. I quit listening for reasons I don’t remember, but it’s most likely a new semester had begun. Now that I am a certified university graduate, I decided to form a new habit of learning one new word each week in 2022.  

I do love words; yes, I am a nerd. I just don’t know enough of them to make me sound like a pretentious, and pompous windbag, yet I am willing to learn how to be one. Just kidding.  I love how one skilled in language use can string words together, forming into an exquisite and rare-jeweled necklace adorning the page.  Like how a blob of paint upon a canvas can be pushed, pulled, and squished around to form an abstract or still life. Or how a musical note layered one upon another can become an enchanting melody transporting me to a third or fourth dimension. 

I am also inspired by a long-time friend, a genuine Einstein level of genius who has a vocabulary the size of a real, hard copy, 8” thick Webster’s dictionary: The self-proclaimed and humble Master of None (https://rongiesecke.com/?s=giesecke). In my opinion, you are master of the English vocabulary, whose use of language I admire.  (And yes, 8-inch-thick dictionaries really exist. My mother owned one yet was most often used in our family as a toddler’s booster seat at the table.)

But I digress.

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After rediscovering and listening to the introductory chapter of the course, I remembered what had attracted me to the lectures; the technique of teaching was finally a process that I could remember a word’s meaning far beyond that of knowing long enough for a test and promptly flushing.  

Therefore, what and when I write here is something I cannot take credit for––another’s idea yet put into my own words.  That credit belongs solely on the instructor, Kevin Flanigan, PH.D., West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The title of the audio course and the accompanying eBook in PDF format is “Building a Better Vocabulary.” 

His method involves 1) defining the word 2) using the word in context 3) breaking down the morphology and/or etymology 4) making connection: the new with what you already know 5) chunking or learning by groups of similar words. Words that are very often used together are collocates and aids memory by learning synonyms that can be connected in meaning.  

 I have four new words saved to memory: factotum, procrustean, circumspect, and factitious. Following in the footsteps of Prof. Flanigan, I explain my two favorite words from the first four weeks of 2022. These I will remember 50 years from now. (Ask me then.)

Factotum

1. Definition: a factotum is a person who performs many kinds of tasks, or a general servant; a jack-of-all trades. 

2. Context: Modern society would not typically use the word factotum to describe a butler, girl- Friday, or a go-fer, but in fact, that is precise meaning of a factotum––one who performs many different types of tasks. 

3. Morphology: Latin; fac, make, do + totum; all, of the whole. 

Etymology: first used in the 1500s, Martin Luther used factotum in his commentary on            Galatians in 1535. (Merriam -Webster dictionary app.)

4. Making connection: take the new word and connect it to what is already known. We know that mothers are nursemaids, cooks, housecleaners, laundresses, chauffeurs, bookkeepers and more. Picture your mother and now you can make a connection of the new word factotum. Moms do a little bit of everything. 

5. Chunking: category of words that mean servant, jack-of all-trades, man/girl Friday, personal assistant, or a handyman/woman. 

Procrustean

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1. Definition:  Tending to produce conformity by violent or arbitrary means. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means to enforce uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality. 

2. Context: Many U.S leaders have instituted mandates they equate with constitutional law and enforce by tyrannical means of denying basic human rights such prescription drugs, loss of employment, or denying people to be in public places without proof of receiving a particular injection. Many people view these as being placed on the procrustean bed of leadership by coercing individuals to comply, regardless of personal belief or health status, with the specious argument of keeping every citizen “safe.”  

3. Morphology: Procrustean is an adjective derived from Greek mythology of a robber named Procrustes who was known to force victims to lie on a bed and made them fit or by chopping off limbs. Etymology: first known recorded use c.1640s; Procrustes+an (Dictionary.com).

4. Connection: The authoritarian ruler often metes out punishments to young children with procrustean methods such as spanking with a willow tree branch. My personal connection is a memory of an angry mother chasing me around the yard while my calves stung with each strike of a willow branch and an involuntary corresponding yelp. I envision a weeping willow tree and see Procrustes. 

5. Chunking with words that mean ruthless, tyrannical conformity, unmerciful, inexorable. 

I’m excited to think that by this time next year, I will have 52+ new words to insert into my writing. I suppose at the year’s end that the next challenge is to see how many new words I can use in one blog and be coherent. 

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