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Observing Editor

One adventuresome atom

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Rather than dwelling on political topics, I would like to return attention to mining gems from the vocabulary of English that may be employed to add sparkle to any debate. Last week we initiated a program of review of terms of abuse, which I propose to continue through consideration of the fine word cunctator, along with the related words cunctation and cunctative. As with pismire, much of the appeal in these words lies in their pronounciations.

Properly speaking, a cunctator is simply a person engaging in delay or procrastination. This behavior would normally give little scope for insult, regardless of the supposed sinfulness of sloth. However, the word cunctator possesses a ringing sound that conveys powerful, if erroneous, associations to native speakers of English. This allows us to damn delaying behavior as cunctative with significantly more vituperative force than when employing alternate terms, such as dilatory. One feels that whereas a procrastinator shows human weakness, a cunctator is practically a moral degenerate. At least, such a feeling exists if one isn’t sure of the meaning of the word, and happily this term is rare enough that most people have no idea what it means.

Our first example is taken from the pages of the tawdry thriller Glottal Stop, in which detective Joe Violent is explaining the results of his investigation to his client, the chantootsie Frieda Frick (nee Frikativna):

“I’m afraid I have bad news for you, toots,” I said, looking at my shoes. “I know why Jimbo doesn’t come around anymore.”

She was sitting on the edge of the sofa, trembling, an embroidered hankerchief knotted in her hands. I looked up to meet her eyes, black and red and fearing the worst. She swallowed. “Go on,” she said.

“He’s a cunctator,” I said. She gasped. I opened the envelope and spread the pictures out on the coffee table. “It’s all here in the pictures. The guy takes twenty minutes to walk a block, what with reading ads, window shopping, and stopping in every joint on the way for a cup of coffee or a beer. He’s hopeless.”

I looked to see how she was doing. She was taking it pretty hard, sitting rigidly as she stared at the pictures. Swallowing back tears, she managed, “He’s, he’s, one of those?”

“Yeah,” I said. “What mystifies me is how he could have ever had it together enough to start anything with a knockout like you.” It was a cheap pass, but in my line of business, you can’t afford to let opportunities slip by.

“He’s changed,” she said. “At first, everything was perfect, and then he kept suggested we do… things together. Like showing up at the movies twenty minutes after the show has started, or keeping out library books for months on end. I did them, I loved him! I thought it was just a phase… Oh my God! A cunctator! I feel… dirty.”

“It’s a tough break all right,” I said, “but you’ll be fine. It’s not contagious, as far as the doctors can tell. You still work regularly, right?”

“Of course,” she said, her eyes wide and frightened.

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about, except settling your bill in a timely fashion,” I said. I told myself that a hard line was the best medicine, even though every fiber of my body wanted to take her in my arms. I decided that the sweet stuff could wait, maybe forever.

Our next example shows how cunctator may be used to unbalance an interlocutor and evoke an inappropriately emotional response. This tactic can be a source of immense satisfaction.

The Press: Senator, can you elaborate on your plans to bring your defense spending proposals in line with expected revenues?

Sen. Bumpus: I’m afraid it would be premature to comment on these matters. The budget office has yet to provide final numbers to my committee.

The Press: Yes, but isn’t it unlikely for the final estimates to be very different from the preliminary estimates?

Sen. Bumpus: Since the estimates are not final, discussion of this matter is simply premature.

The Press: There are those who would construe your reticence as little more than cunctation.

Sen. Bumpus: I beg your pardon?

The Press: Several parties in the administration have labeled you a notorious cunctator.

Sen. Bumpus: This is outrageous! I have never stooped to personal attacks in my campaigns, and I will be damned if I’m going to allow this blatant libel. I demand to know your sources! Which of those slimy hacks has dared to call my manhood into question? This interview is over!

When employing these terms, it is important to recognize so-called ‘false friends,’ words that sound similar but possess very different meanings. One such word is cunctipotent, which sounds particularly fearsome. It is a synonym for omnipotent and is recommented for usage in prayers and dialogues such as the following:

The Lady: And another thing, you may be taking Viagra, but you are far from cunctipotent!

The Genilman: Jesus, baby!

The Lady: Exactly.

I hope that you will not delay in utilizing these words at the earliest opportunity. The language will be the richer for it.