Denver Bar Association
March 2012
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There’s a Word for That: Find the Right Word to Say You’re Hanging by a Thread

by Ryan Jardine



here are days when we all have reached the end of our rope. At those times, one thing that helps me is to have the perfect word to describe my situation. Nothing brightens a gloomy disposition like describing it with eloquent style. Just as being arrayed in your finest finery will brighten your mood, so too will using the perfect word at the perfect time.

Before reading this article, you may have considered using cliché expressions such as "I’ve had it up to here," or "I’ve reached the last step of a long walk off a short pier." But those overused clichés don’t carry sufficient potency to turn your day around. As the well-known and popular author Maud C. Cooke observed in 1896 in the timeless "Social Life or The Manners and Customs of Polite Society," "If we talk with flippancy and exaggeration, load our sentences with slang phrases, and preface and punctuate them with oft-repeated expressions of ‘Say!’ ‘Well!’ ‘You Know,’ and ‘Do tell,’ and so on, ad infinitum, all wisdom or propriety of speech will be lost."

With this warning ringing in your ears, it is clear that what you really need is a fresh and underused word to describe that you are truly hanging by a thread. The perfect word for those situations is filipendulous. Say it to yourself out loud. Fil-i-pen-du-lous. Doesn’t it just sound like a word that would make you feel better when ensconced in filipendulous circumstances? I know when I’m feeling a little blue, nothing brings the sun to my sky as quick as saying to myself, "I am having a filipendulous day."

Filipendulous is an adjective and is defined as "hanging by a thread." A possible derivation of this word is from the Latin filum, meaning "a thread," and pendulus, meaning "to hang." Knowing this word and this possible derivation gets a person to the base of the Philadelphia stairs, but to truly climb those stairs with Rocky-esque footing, knowing and appreciating the origin of the word and its early usage is essential.

Discovering the origin of this word requires that we get our hands dirty and dig beneath the surface into the soil. There we find that filipendulous has its roots in botany. In the vintage and page-turning treatise, "Henderson’s Handbook of Plants," published by Mr. Henderson himself in 1890, filipendulous is described as "where tuberous swellings are developed in the middle or at the extremities of filiform rootlets." Another sproutlet 1826 botany text describes filipendulous as "detached tubers, which are attached to the parent plant, by means of cords proceeding immediately from the stem." This leads astute readers to ask the age-old question, what are tubers and how do they swell?

Just as Jack obtained a few magic beans, we too are in for a bit of luck. We are all actually very familiar with tubers and tuberous swellings. We mash them, we frappé them, we stew them, we pluck out their eyes, and we grow creepy things from them in kindergarten. We may even use them to create the walls for moats of gravy. A tuber is defined as a "fleshy, usually oblong or rounded thickening or outgrowth"—or in common parlance, a potato.

Having identified our sample tuber, let’s return to our original 1890 definition above. Filipendulous was defined as tubers, that is, potatoes, hanging from filiform rootlets. And filiform is defined as "threadlike." So now imagine a potato literary dangling from threadlike roots. It is hanging by a thread, and so are we when we feel filipendulous.

Now when you are at the end of your tether, remember this word and you have the perfect pick-me-up answer for the question, "How are you doing?"

Armed with this word and knowing its origins, you will feel better. You found the perfect word to describe your situation, saved the wisdom and propriety of speech, and better yet, people will understand your disposition, give you some space, and maybe, if you’re lucky, provide some mashed potatoes and gravy to bring a bit of poetic justice to your day. D


Ryan Jardine


Ryan Jardine is a public finance attorney with Kutak Rock LLP in Denver.
There’s a Word for That is an occasional column dissecting the roots of words.

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