Recently, while reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, I came across a word I never encountered before — “pinguid”. The word rang a bell, because I speak Spanish, and its context gave me an indication that I was on the right track.

“Lay hands upon this!” cries one of the Girls of the House, and shakes out a great Wing of Dish-Water, whose pinguid Embrace not all escape, whilst another sets the Hounds who live in the back, upon the Party. The House of a sudden is seen to be fill’d with more people than anyone might have imagin’d.

In Spanish (and, indeed, Portuguese) pingar means to drip, and, informally, to dunk into liquid or soak an object (for example a biscuit in hot chocolate). According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, pingar derives from the Latin pendēre — to be suspended from. There is also a similar word in Spanish, pringar, which means to be soaked or dripping wet. The origin of this word is uncertain.

Both words impart the idea of wringing wetness, dripping, being soggy, which ties in with the above “Girl of the House” drenching the interloping party of men with a basin of dishwater.

When I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, however, the sensation of being pleased with my multilingual, cognate-sleuthing self was punctured. I had guessed wrong. The OED states that pinguid, which is formal, means: “of the nature of or resembling fat; oily or greasy”. This definition also corresponds to the use of pinguid in the above passage from Mason and Dixon: the girl flings a basin of greasy dishwater at the men. Furthermore, the OED gives pinguid’s origin as from the Latin “pinguis“. This got me wondering if some derivative of pinguis had made into Spanish. My Spanish vocabulary did not stretch far enough to retrieve any pinguis-like word from the depths of my cerebral language centre, and so I turned once more to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy. I looked up the common word for fat in Spanish — “gordo” — and, lo and behold, the third entry under this threw up pingüe, which means “viscous, fat, buttery and abundant, copious and fertile”.

I have been suffering though reading Mason and Dixon. In the same way that Joyce’s Ulysses becomes after a couple of dozen pages somewhat of a labour of love, a matter of rolling up one’s sleeves, gritting one’s teeth and saying to oneself “I’m going to get through this, no matter what — it’s character-building”, so has Pynchon’s epic tale of the exploits of Mason and Dixon proven to be the literary equivalent of sugar-free muesli. Apart from being written in the English of the late eighteenth century and narrated from the point of view of an eccentric, prissy Anglican reverend (hence words such as “pinguid”), in typical Pynchon style, the action is, unlike Mason and Dixon’s famous boundary, non-linear. There are long descriptive passages which seem to have nothing to do with either Mason or Dixon or their line, and one gets the feeling that some of the themes and sub-plots (the Jesuits’ secret war against feng shui or the mechanical talking duck which has developed a crush on an unfortunate French chef, to take some examples) are either included as in-jokes for the author’s own benefit or, in a Joycean manner, slotted in to provide academics of the future enough gristle to chew on.

I will slog on through and finish Mason and Dixon, and I will be a better person for it. After all, I’ve learned a couple of words in a couple of languages thanks to Mr Pynchon’s obtuse genius.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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One Response to Pinguid

  1. Stan Carey says:

    Nice discussion of a word too little used. Pendēre also gave rise to depend, which used to mean ‘hang down’ (like a pendant pendulum). As I noted here a few years ago, the word’s meaning has slid from concrete to metaphorical, from physical reliance to figurative reliance.

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