The Niggardly Zerk

The Aliens ululated on the poop deck.

My father never finished high school. In his senior year, during World War II, he volunteered for the Navy. After his enlistment, he came home and went directly into the workforce. He liked reading technical and how-to books, and built many things, including three houses, four large garages/barns and a boat.

My mother bought encyclopedias, one volume at a time, at the grocery store.

I’ve always liked words. My parents ensured that I always had dictionaries. I’m told that at age 3 I giggled over picture dictionaries. At the age of ten or so, while browsing the used book store, I found something called a thesaurus. The thesaurus was my downfall. Every time I found an unfamiliar word in the thesaurus, I would check the dictionary for its correct meaning. Thus, I fell in love with trying to find the right word for each use.

I discovered that I was not alone in wanting to find the right word. Samuel Clemmons was a well-known and feared Literary Critic. He railed against his contemporaries, “There is a right word to be used. Not an okay word, not a word used because it is considered politer. If you want to be understood, use the right word.”[i] If you wonder if you are using the right word, check the sentence. If your verb or noun needs an adjective or an adverb, then you have a lazy word.

Which brings us back to the scene from a book by Stephen Donaldson.

The Aliens ululated on the poop deck.[ii] Donaldson, in six words, planted a rich tableau of cultural behavior and set the historical period. How?

First, somehow we are dealing with aliens. Are these the gray skinned bug-eyed creatures of speculative fiction, alien residents in a country, or immigrants?

Second, they are on the poop deck. Now, what do you think is a poop deck? The poop deck is the highest deck of a sailing ship.[iii] Officers overlooked both the sea and the crew. Did the aliens pick the poop deck to be higher for their ululation? Also, this means that either the officers lent them the space, or that they were important enough to claim it for the period of the ululation.

So, what were they doing on the poop deck? What do we have? Some low-lifes doing nasty things on a floor? They were ululating. Ululating is a form of expression, an undulating cry or shout. Therefore, they were either worshiping, crying, or expressing anger.

In six words, Donaldson painted a picture of a culture with long range ocean going sailing ships, of passengers who aren’t the same culture or possibly even species as the crew, and that they conducted ceremonial acts. They also have the ability to use the command area for their ceremonies, instead of being forced into the bilge.

Look at what happened. I took four paragraphs to describe what took Donaldson six words.

The right word is critical. Using a nonprecise word to not offend only leads to longer explanations, and burying your meaning in layers of confusion. Click To Tweet

Look over any legal document. Does anyone really understand it? How many paragraphs or even pages can be eliminated by using the precise, non-ambiguous word?

Get a dictionary before you embarrass yourself.

Let’s look at another word. One I’ve only used three times that I remember. Once was during a congregational annual meeting to elect officers and approve the budget. This was the third year in a row that the budget was reduced. I looked out the windows to the parking lot to avoid speaking out. That was when someone said, “You have to understand. We’re a poor church.”

Pointing to the parking lot, I asked, “How can we be so niggardly in giving to the Lord. “Look out at the parking lot. The average cost of the trucks and cars are more than three times the Pastor’s salary.” You could hear a pin drop. With one statement, I offended two groups of people. First, those who matched expensive vehicles with low contributions. Secondly, those who hadn’t had their daily ‘I’m offended” fix and chose to use their ignorance of a word to effect offense.

Does your need to be offended include ignoring the real meaning of words? Click To Tweet

Yep, I used the word ‘niggardly.’ Regardless of what too many people think, niggardly is about an attitude, not ethnicity. It predates any word that may be phonemically similar by hundreds of years. Of course, I could have used a less precise word, say parsimonious. But then the same people would have thought I was making an anti-Catholic smear.

The essential point is. Words mean what they mean. They don’t mean what you lazily assume that they mean.

Are you a Zerk?

To loosen this up, I would like to offer another example of precise word use. In 2005, I was the proud new owner of a Supercharged 1963 Avanti. I took baby to the fanciest oil and lube shop I could find in Olympia, Wa. Nothing too good for it. I asked them to be extra attentive to the zerks as I had no history on how the previous owner lubed the undercarriage. Dead stares. Finally, I had to crawl under the Avanti and point out the zerks. As a helpful gesture, I pointed out other zerks in the garage.

To finish up, I’m sharing something on zerks from an abandoned electronic bulletin board.

Are all Zerks the same?


there are Democrat zerks and Republican zerks.

They all leak and won’t hold anything under pressure.

They all get slimy, and dirt sticks to them.

But at election time, they get wiped off and look good as new.

Except they still don’t work any better.

Best to replace them every four years with new zerks.

I know that in our world thumbs are the most active part of the human body. Mental laziness is placed on a pedestal. Don’t do that. Get a dictionary, and remember that your computer will look up words for you.

[i] If you do searches on this, you will find several variations. Look for his direct critiques of a specific author. They are devastating. The quotes ‘for general use’ tend to be watered down.

[ii] May not be an exact quote. Decades do funny things to your mind, but this definitely captures the words and style.

[iii] Oxford English Dictionary and Chambers derive the word from the Latin ‘puppis’, meaning the stern of a ship.