I WAS feeling pretty down the other day. In fact, on a scale of 1 to Adele, I was truly miserable. Unlike the angst-ridden singer, for me it wasn’t a case of love gone wrong, though. It was far worse – I’d been beaten by a word.
That doesn’t happen to me very often. Actually, I can’t remember it ever happening so to say it was traumatic is an understatement.
In spite of the arsenal of reference books at my elbow – not to mention that word-wide resource, the internet – I just couldn’t find out what it meant. Not even in my brand-spanking-new 1,904 page, 620,000-word definition Chambers Dictionary!
It was all the fault of fellow word nerd, and regular reader of my newspaper column, Doug Williams. Challenged by his American friend Brice – they do this kind of thing to one another apparently – Doug passed the puzzle over to me.
“This is a test,” wrote Brice to Doug. “I want to know how skilled you really are. And don’t you dare Goggle [sic], although it probably wouldn’t produce a result.”
Doug’s mind-goggling test was to come up with the meaning of the word “quillen”.
Instead, he came up blank – and turned to me.
“Are you sure the word isn’t ‘quillon’,” I asked Doug. “That’s the name for either arm of the cross-guard on a sword handle and also on some knives.”
It wasn’t. Reluctantly – after much searching – I threw in the towel, too.
“Okay. I give up. Please enlighten me,” wrote Doug to a doubtless very happy Brice, who wasted no time with his response.
“It relates to train whistles or, more appropriately, horns,” he wrote. (Well, of course it does!)
“Considerable effort and pride are invested in these devices. Many rail companies have their own distinctive sounds. And engineers have their own distinctive methods of ‘playing’ these instruments. An engineer’s horn signature is his quillen.”
Someone who really loves the sound, explained Brice, is Dan, another old friend of his – so old they go back as far as pre-school. Dan’s a marine engineer specialising in the repair of old diesel engines, and a musician with a master’s in music ethnology.
“He also is involved in a small local rail link here in Seattle,” writes Brice. “A couple of years ago he acquired a five-horn train whistle, which he promptly mounted on the roof of his shop [Brice is referring to a workshop here, I reckon] together with an automatic device to blow it every day at noon.
“The neighbours complained. It was very, very loud. Cops arrived, end of train whistle.
“Dan likes loud. He once got his hands on a steam calliope [that’s a kind of keyboard fitted with steam whistles, in case you’re wondering] and damned near everyone in Seattle heard it.”
Now all of this is all very well, but reading it through I’ve decided I won’t concede defeat after all. Not until I see formal proof.
What kind of a word is it that has no documentation, no written definition – and can’t even be “Goggled”?
No word at all.
Suddenly, I feel so much better. — Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)