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Susie Dent: word to the wise

19 July 2022

This month Susie Dent is feeling as if inanimate objects have it in for her – and, of course, she knows a word for that...

Susie Dent portrait
Susie Dent photographed by Michael Leckie

It’s been one of those days. The sharp corner of the kitchen table bumped into me, the shed ceiling lowered itself to knock me out as I tried to extract my bike, and – of course – my toast landed butter side down. What is it about inanimate objects that they always seem to have it in for us?

At least I now know what to call it, for a few years ago I learned that there is an actual word for the secret malevolence of the things around us. This is ‘resistentialism’, a term coined in the 1940s by the humorist Paul Jennings who announced it with the slogan Les choses sont contre nous, ‘Things are against us’. It’s a riff, of course, on ‘existentialism’, with the Latin res, ‘thing’, thrown in.

Many of you will know exactly what I mean. Some things seem to sense the very moment we need them and then slyly plot against us. Have you noticed how your keys bury themselves in the squinch of your sofa (that tiny black hole that everything disappears into) the minute you need to go out? Do you curse the protruding corner curb that deliberately crunches your tyres every time you pull out? And a special prize goes to the moisturiser that ends up all over the mirror as you contort yourself and the tube to get the last drops out.

In Greek and Roman theatre, a catastrophe would often be averted at the last minute by a plot device involving a god lowered from the ceiling. They knew this as the deus ex machina, the ‘god out of the machine’. Resistentialism strikes me as the exact opposite. Things are going pretty well until the said machine decides to do a number on you and ruin your day. Chaos ex machina, perhaps?

‘If I were to ask whether you fancy a couple of “cacklefarts and bags of mystery” for breakfast, you might just run for the hills’

This doesn’t mean that I hate all things as much as they seem to hate me, however. I always revel in the lost lexicon of names for the objects around us, which is often so much funnier and more vibrant than today’s. If I were to ask you, for example, whether you fancy a couple of ‘cacklefarts and bags of mystery’ for breakfast, you might just run for the hills. Yet I would simply be offering you some eggs – joyously known in old dialect as ‘cacklefarts’– and sausages, which the Victorians knew as ‘bags of mystery’ because you could never quite tell what was in them.

Should the juice from those bags of mystery squirt down your top (a process rather wonderfully known as ‘jirbling’), you might need a ‘cover-slut’, an old and entirely neutral term for an item of clothing worn over another to hide an unsightly stain.

Then there is the ‘bumbershoot’, a wonderful old American name for the umbrella, based on swapping ‘umbra’ (shade) for ‘bumber’ (the first umbrellas were used as sunshades rather than rain protectors) and the ‘shoot’ sound of parachute. At the end of a bumbershoot by the way, if you’ve ever wondered, is a ferrule – the metal tip that stops it splitting.

There are so many more. What about the plastic bit at the end of a shoelace? That’s an aglet. Or the stringy bits of a banana? Phloem. And what about the cardboard sleeve that cuddles your takeaway coffee? Meet the zarf. I can’t deny then that things really can be wonderful sometimes. Please remind me of this the next time my teabag splits or ketchup bottle explodes. In fact, pass me the cover-slut – because somewhere there’s a machine just waiting for its moment. Welcome to the resistentialist’s club. If you don’t mind a buttery floor, you’re very welcome to join.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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