Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Words I Learned From Comics

Today’s installment focuses on some of the vocabulary I’ve gained from my lifelong enthusiasm for comics. I’ve been a Marvel comics reader since I was six years old, as well as an aficionado of newspaper strips, Mad magazine (in my tweens/teens, anyway), graphic novels, and these days, webcomics.

  • corsair: A pirate.
    [The X-Man Cyclops was originally written as an orphan, but in the 70s, Chris Claremont decided to reintroduce Cyclops’s father as Corsair, the leader of a band of space pirates. Space pirates! Cosmic freebooters! (I may have learned freebooter from this source as well.)]
  • defenestrate: To throw something or someone out of a window.
    [Early in Peter David’s hilarious and satisfying run on X-Factor (issue #71 to be exact), the musclebound mutant known as Strong Guy says this: “I’m watcha call ‘sensitive.’ ‘Course, some blork got a problem with that… then I’ll defenestrate him.” When I looked this up, I was delighted to discover that English has a special word just for throwing somebody out a window. What a great language.]
  • effendi: A Middle Eastern term for a respected man.
    [Stan Lee has an abiding love for unusual, colorful words. When he developed the editorial personality of Marvel, he was known to run wild with the alliteration, producing news column headings along the lines of “A Cacophonous Collection Of Captivating Capsule Comments Calculated To Corral Your Consciousness!” He also instilled certain linguistic tics, one of which was the frequent use of “effendi”, as in, “Don’t worry, effendi, we’ll catch you up on the plot as we go!”]
  • excelsior: Ever upward.
    [And then there’s the most iconic Lee-ism of all. Stan used to write a column in the comics called “Stan’s Soapbox,” in which he expounded about whatever was on his mind or, more often, whatever new product the company was about to offer. He ended each column with an enthusiastic “Excelsior!” (I had to consciously work not to put exclamation points on the word and definition above.) Apparently, this is also the Latin motto of New York state.]
  • hoary: Extremely old.
    [Another place where Lee’s logophilia was allowed to run wild was in the arcane incantations of Dr. Strange. There were plenty of words to learn from these, so I chose one arbitrarily, from the frequently-invoked “Hoary Hosts Of Hoggoth.”]
  • invincible: Impossible to defeat.
    [To punch up his titles, Stan would throw an adjective before the hero’s name on the cover: “The Amazing Spider-Man” or “The Mighty Thor”. In the case of “The Incredible Hulk,” the adjective has practically become part of the character’s name. With “The Invincible Iron Man,” the adjective was new to my 7-year-old self. There’s another one of those coming later.]
  • katzenjammer: Loud, chaotic noise.
    [It wasn’t just Marvel comics that taught me new words. My interest in them led me to scour the library for whatever I could find about comics history, and in the process I ran across The Katzenjammer Kids, a comic strip from the early 20th century. I figured out later that Katzenjammer was not only the name of the strip’s central characters, it was a descriptor of them as well.]
  • martinet: A strict, pitiless disciplinarian.
    [I was a huge fan of Chris Claremont’s New Mutants series in the early 80s, and read those issues over and over. That must be why whole phrases from them still stick in my mind, 25 years after my first reading. For instance, in New Mutants #7, when the team thinks one of its teammates has died in an explosion, Professor X sends them on vacation rather than having them search for her. A couple of X-Men question his decision, and he explains that the entity who caused the explosion is too dangerous for the young team: “For the moment, it is best they think Shan dead — and me a heartless martinet. They may hate me, but at least they’ll be alive.”]
  • mutant: An organism whose genetic makeup is unique due to a spontaneous change in DNA.
    [The word “mutant” itself was new to me when I first started reading about the X-Men in Son Of Origins Of Marvel Comics. According to Lee, he wanted to call the book The Mutants, but was shot down by his publisher Martin Goodman, who insisted that younger readers (what Lee calls “the bubble-gum brigade”) wouldn’t understand the word and would avoid the book. Given that I was a member of that very brigade at the time I was reading, I’m pretty sure Goodman was wrong.]
  • picayune: Trivial; petty.
    [Here’s another one from a newspaper strip, this time Bloom County, whose in-universe newspaper was the Bloom Picayune. One of the strip’s paperback collections even included a sample copy.]
  • prehensile: Able to grasp or hold things.
    [Lee isn’t the only one with tics. Chris Claremont would use the same phrases over and over, such as calling the X-Men “occasionally outlaw superheroes.” One of his favorites was to constantly remind us that Nightcrawler‘s tail is prehensile, allowing him to grab things with it.]
  • ragnarok: The apocalypse, or “Doom of the gods”, in Norse mythology, in which deities clash and destroy the universe.
    [Stan explicitly embraced mythology, going so far as to make a superhero out of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. (That Thor spoke mainly in Elizabethan English is a mystery I will not attempt to unravel here.) In adopting Thor, he brought in not only a huge supporting cast from the Norse myths, but many of their plot points as well. Thor and his fellow gods have been through many a Marvel ragnarok over the last 40 years.]
  • rapport: Sympathetic connection between people, marked by the sharing of perspectives.
    [Claremont liked to lean on this word to describe close relationships with one or more telepaths involved, whether it be Cyclops and Jean Grey or Dani Moonstar and Rahne Sinclair.]
  • revanche: Revenge; retaliation.
    [During the 1990s, X-Men continuity got so baffling that I pretty much disengaged from most of it. At some point during that period, Fabian Nicieza created a character called Revanche, whose most interesting quality was her vocabulary-enriching name.]
  • sobriquet: A descriptive nickname.
    [This one was another Lee-ism, as in, “He calls himself Mr. Fantastic, a swingin’ sobriquet if there ever was one!”]
  • tatterdemalion: A person wearing ragged, tattered clothing.
    [A minor supervillain in the Marvel Universe, Tatterdemalion lived up to his name with a ragged, tattered costume.]
  • telepathy: The ability to read minds and/or project one’s thoughts.
    [Keep in mind, I was quite young when I started reading comics. It was my first encounter with the idea of psychic powers — when Charles Xavier was described as “telepathic,” I had to look it up. Along this line, I also learned telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and other such words for mentally derived superpowers.]
  • uncanny: Eerie, unsettling, bizarre; seemingly supernatural in origin.
    [Like “The Invincible Iron Man”, “The Uncanny X-Men” introduced me to a brand new and very spiffy adjective.]
  • whimsy: Fanciful, illogical, quaint.
    [My memory of this one is fuzzy — it was in some humor magazine, probably a Mad knockoff like Cracked or Crazy. In its table of contents, it contained an expressive row of faces demonstrating various moods of humor, such as satire, drollery, and whimsy. I don’t remember anything else about the magazine, but I do remember that captivating word.]

Sometimes you get not just one brand new word but a whole string of them thrown at you. For those, I am awarding a COMBO SCORE, and I am pleased to give the first one to Avengers #93:

  • Poltroon! Craven recreant!: Coward! Cowardly coward!
    [See, the Super-Skrull is fighting the Vision, and the Vision decides to flee rather than continue the fight. Because the Vision can pass through walls, the Super-Skrull can’t give chase, and so he shouts this in frustration at the fleeing android. It’s the kind of moment that makes me love those early Marvels.]

Also, I should give extra credit to Chris Claremont for teaching me a variety of foreign words. One of Claremont’s enduring mannerisms was to make sure we were constantly reminded of each character’s nationality by either transliterating that character’s speech (e.g. “I dinna ken what ye mean, Dani!”) or peppering it with foreign phrases, or, most often, both. Consequently, Japanese characters were always hissing that Wolverine was “gaijin” (foreigner), Colossus was constantly exclaiming “boizhe moi!” (my God!) and so on.




Words I Learned From Rock and Roll


  1. jrw

    I was trying to see if I could recall off the top of my head any vocabulary I learned from comics, especially Marvel comics. The first one I thought of was macabre, which tended to be used when the Man-Thing would show up, and whose correct pronunciation I didn’t learn for years and years later. (Being only 6 or 7 years old or so I anglicized it to MACK-a-ber.)

    • Ooh, macabre. Excellent one. I think I mostly missed the Man-Thing on my first swipe through reading Marvels, and therefore first encountered macabre when some music class I was in focused on a portion of Saint-SaĆ«ns’ Danse Macabre.

      And hey, you should get points for saying MACK-a-ber rather than MACK-a-bree.

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