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Oct 22, 2007
This week's theme
There is a word for it

This week's words

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Words for bosses, officials, and leaders
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with Anu Garg

A reader wrote:
    Dear Anu,

    Some time ago I wrote to ask if there was a word in any language for a parent who has lost a child. My husband and I lost our son in the insane war in Iraq. You sent me a kind reply saying no. I am submitting this Pennsylvania-Dutch word, zeitlang, I found in the paper.

    I shared it with some other Gold Star families who liked the word and description. Yesterday was Gold Star Mothers Day. I hate it. Everyone in the family is suffering, not just the mother. I like the sound of this Pennsylvania-Dutch word, perhaps because of my German heritage. So my family, my brothers and sisters in sorrow and I remain forever zeitlangers.


    Diane Davis Santoriello
    Proud mother of 1st Lt. Neil A. Santoriello KIA 9-13-04 (dianesantoriello at hotmail.com)

The English language has the largest vocabulary of any language but there are moments when all those hundreds of thousands of words in a dictionary might as well be random scribblings with little meaning. We can't find a single word to describe what tugs at our hearts.

Pennsylvania Dutch is a dialect of German spoken by 17/18th century migrants from south Germany and Switzerland who had settled in Pennsylvania. The word Dutch here is a variant spelling of Deutsch (German language). Zeitlang in German means "a while" (from Zeit: time + lang: long). The sense mentioned in the newspaper article is not found in German, but that doesn't mean one can't extend it. After all, that's one of the ways a language grows. And what good is a language if it can't give voice to our deepest sorrows and joys?

This week we'll see a few words that do exist, words that make us say, "I didn't know there was a word for it."


(FAM-yuh-luhs) Pronunciation Sound Clip

noun: An assistant, especially to a magician or a scholar.

[From Latin famulus (servant).]

"But now television is trying to coolify magic by ridding it of its associations with slimeballs in sequined suits, assisted by a mute famulus bedecked in feathers, mascara, and an inane grin, together partaking in a mindless ritual of sawing, stabbing, and vanishing."
Victor Lewis-Smith; Don't Shoot, This is Live; The Evening Standard (London, UK); Oct 6, 2003.

See more usage examples of famulus in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.


A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up. -Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, Nobelist (1875-1965)

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