Some common things, from aglet to zarf


Roger VanHaren, Times Herald Columnist

How many times have you had to resort to calling something a whatjamacallit or a thingamajig because you didn’t know the name for some everyday item that we should know the word for, or were once told what it was but have since forgotten?

Well, today, I’m going to give you some real (albeit unusual) names for some common things and/or conditions.

I started thinking about this subject when I broke the little plastic thingamabob that holds the end of the shoelaces together. Well, believe it or not, that thingamajig has a name: it’s an aglet. Remember that because there’s going to be quiz afterward!

You know the dusty remnants at the bottom of cereal boxes? They’re called fines, and I think they’re particularly delicious in the more sugary brands, don’t you?

How about the little, white, half-moon part at the base of the fingernail or toe nail? It is paler than the rest of the nail because it isn’t so firmly attached to the blood vessels and is most visible on the thumbs. It’s called a lunule. You know, like “luna” for moon.

You know the little vertical indentation between the upper lip and the nose? That’s called a philtrum, and it derives from the Greek word philein, to kiss. I read that the ancient Greeks believed this area was one of the most erogenous spots on the body. The columella nasi is the little piece of flesh that separates the nostrils. And here’s a good one: rhinorrhea is a runny nose.

The glabella is the space between the eyebrows. And the purlicue is the space between the thumb and the forefingers. Some people believe that if you pinch the purlicue, you can relieve a headache.

As long as I’m talking about body parts, here are a couple more.

Fontanelle is a patch of soft membrane on a baby’s head, which has not yet developed into bone; if you look closely, you can see it pulsating. During birth, it allows the skull’s bones to flex, enabling the infant’s head to pass through its mother’s narrow birth canal.

Collywobbles refers to stomach pain or queasiness, or what we sometimes call butterflies. Remember Winnie the Pooh singing “Rumbly in My Tumbly”? In the song Winnie complains light-heartedly of a rumble in his stomach, indicating his hunger. Well, there’s a name for that. Borborygmus (pronounced bor-buh-rig-mus) is the name for the rumbling sounds made by the stomach. A synonym, and easier to remember, is wamble.

What about when your foot or your hand “goes to sleep”? (My dad used to say, “Sure, now it’ll be up all night!”) Paresthesia is that tingling pins-and-needles sensation. Here’s a bonus word for you: this condition is known as obdormition.

That’s enough about body parts. Here are some more fun words. You know those little silver balls that your mom used to put on cookies or cakes? They’re smaller than a cultured pearl, made of sugar and adorned with a metallic coating to resemble a ball bearing. Generally, they are as tough to crunch through as a real ball bearing. They’re called dragées.

A tittle is the dot over an i or a j. The interrobang is a form of punctuation that is becoming sort of acceptable. As an old English teacher, I would never use it, but some people think it’s OK. It’s formed by combining an interrogative point, or question mark, and a bang (printers’ parlance for the exclamation mark). “You’re going to have a what?!”

Do you know what an octothorpe is? It’s the pound symbol or the “hash” on a phone keyboard.

Marilyn will hate this next one because it contains one of her least favorite words: phlegm bundles are those stringy bits you find between the skin and the edible part of a banana when you peel it.

Ever go into a coffee shop and get a cup of coffee in a handleless paper cup? The little, cardboard sleeve that the barista slides onto your cup to insulate it from your hand is called a zarf.

There are many more, but I’m going to quit with this one: grawlix. That’s the “%#$&@” or any other combination of symbols that you see in comics, used in place of a curse word. Also called jarns, nittles and quimp.

I’ve decided to forgo the quiz. Have a great day, everybody!

Contact Roger VanHaren at