The Good Word — Fantod
Alright kids, we’re rolling out a new feature here at Infinite Detox — The Good Word. I happen to be in possession handsome set of the Oxford English Dictionary, formerly owned by the Palisades branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library (why’d they ever sell it, I often wonder? I hope it wasn’t some horrid fire sale to stave off imminent bankruptcy or foreclosure or something).
At any rate. IJ will send most of us off to the dictionary more often than we’d like, and since Wallace seems to have had a particular lexical hard-on for the OED, and the OED features prominently in IJ (albeit the fictional sixth edition, although in reality they’re only up to two). What I’m going to do is choose one of these crazy Wallacian words each day and see what the OED has to say about it. I’d like to particularly focus on pivotal, recurring, or otherwise conspicuous words that may have some shades of meaning that would have tickled Wallace’s word-bone. Which brings us to:
Yes! The quintessential DFW word. Wallace owns this word. As in “the howling fantods,” one of his most brilliant and instantly recognizable turns-of-phrase. I had always assumed that fantods were basically like the heebie-jeebies. But here’s the etymology and definition from the OED:
fantod [? An unmeaning formation suggested by FANTASTIC, FANTASY, etc.: cf. fantigue.] A crotchety way of acting; a fad.
Crotchety, huh? Interesting. The first recorded use is from 1839: “You have got strong symptoms of the fantods.” Elsewhere it’s cited as a name given to the fidgets of officers on a ship or “a fit of the sulks or other slight indisposition.”
I had also always assumed that this was one of those totally obsolete words that hadn’t seen common usage for hundreds of years, until Wallace single-handedly resuscitated it. Wrong. It actually has a strong pedigree in American literature — Mark Twain used it in Huckleberry Finn: “These was all nice pictures,… but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because… they always gave me the fan-tods.” In this passage Huck is describing pictures drawn by a girl who died at the age of 15. Which, I think, jives quite nicely with a general sense of the heebie-jeebies.
If nothing else, the use of this word places Wallace squarely in the tradition of quintessentially American literature.