You first heard my concerns about doubtfizzling in a 2011 post on the misuse of apostrophes, Apostrophe Madness.
Do you ever look at a word so long when you’re trying to spell it that you start doubting it’s really a word?
Tacoma. Ta-co-ma. Tacoma. Yeah, that’s right. Taco-MAHHH! (like the evil priest shouting “Kali Ma!” in Temple of Doom while struggling with Indiana Jones).
Tacoma? Hmm. This is such a simple word, yet the Native Americans had a different version. Tahoma. The name of the mighty mountain. Ta-ho-ma…. Ta-ho-MAHHHH!!!
It’s amazing how much you can question your judgment when you think about a word too much.
Today I decided, after discussing this widespread phenomenon with someone for the umpteenth time, that it needs a name. After a few minutes of letting the idea simmer on the back left burner of my frontal lobe, it came to me: doubtfizzling.
A quick Google search told me that it’s not an obscure sports term, a pseudonym for any authors of postmodern alarm clock radio technical manuals, or a vulgarity found in the Urban Dictionary. The latter truly amazed me given that most words in the English language have been converted to off-color slang references found in the Urban Dictionary. I’m not sure that it’s possible to speak the English language nowadays without inadvertently veering off into double entendres.
Doubtfizzling can happen to anyone. It knows no class or creed. It can surprise you at home, at work, in the car, even on remote mountaintops or in laundromats. It most often occurs when one is writing but can also lock you into a temporary brain freeze while you’re reading. Additionally, doubtfizzling can accost you while you’re speaking, like a deranged ostrich leaping out of the bushes intent on relieving you of your $7.99 mango smoothie.
Here’s how it usually happens to me. It’s a nice, quiet evening and I decide to write a blog post. A few paragraphs splosh off the edge of my brain onto the keyboard and I decide to reread them to make sure I’m not typing in Klingon. Suddenly, time begins to slow and an eerie feeling draws my attention to a specific word or phrase. It’s as if the Maelstrom of Saltstraumen has gashed open that section of the page and forced me to laser focus on that one hypnotic thing.
This thing is normally a word or phrase in common use. It can be something simple, like cheese. Or a place name, like Tacoma in the above example. Sometimes it is a slightly more advanced word, like bitumen. Whatever’s at the center of the yawing vortex, the longer I look at it, the more absurd the word or phrase seems, and the more likely it seems that I misspelled or misused it.
Instinctively, the first step in resolving this problem is to ponder the word silently. Bitumen. Hmm, that just looks funny. Bitu-men. Bit-too-men. Is there supposed to be another t or m? Maybe it’s bituman.
When this fails, you begin to say the word out loud, tasting each component. “Bitumen. Bit-tyoo-men. Bitu-mon? Hey mon, you got a bitu? Biddy biddy, bibbity boppity boo. Little bitty men, like Gulliver’s Travels. Bittytyootyoo men. Vitameatavegamin. Yeah, that was a great episode.”
The vortex draws you in. Your eyes are glued on the questionable word as you begin to wonder if the mushrooms on your lunchtime salad were picked from a secret part of the forest inhabited by sadistic farmer gnomes. Desperately you avert your eyes, but the horrible feeling that you’ve created a word that doesn’t exist or slaughtered a term that surely all other literate people would handle correctly sets in.
So you ask a coworker.
“Hey!” (prairie dogging over the cubicle wall). “How would you spell bitumen?” You don’t want to imply that you might have misspelled the word; you just want to have their take on it.
“Hmmpf.” The coworker replies. Their hesitation tells you that dreaded secondary doubtfizzling has set in. Yes, it’s contagious, and subconsciously, you knew that. Like a classic Generation Xer trying to rid themselves of a bad 80s earworm, you just passed the anxiety of doubtfizzling onto someone else.
They make an attempt. “B-i-t-u-m-e-n. I think that’s what it is.” They spelled it correctly, but now that gripping heaviness has both of you in its clutches.
“No, I’m not sure about that,” you say. You know they’re correct but the essence of doubtfizzling is that it continues to make you second-guess yourself. “Let’s look online.”
A few keystrokes later your eyes are overwhelmed by countless repetitions of this word including all the garish mutant variants that plague social networking sites (graveyards of the King’s English). Along with your coworker, your eyes feverishly scan the page for validation.
“There, there, we have it, bitumen. We were right.” You make sure to include your coworker in the congratulations so you don’t look like a jerk. But that leads to a discussion of the writing skills of the petroleum engineer who didn’t spell it correctly on his blog. I mean, really, he has a master’s degree? Oh, and did you hear that restaurant grease is now being converted to fuel in place of petroleum?
Sometime in the next hour, you return to your document, finally able to extricate yourself from the watery pit of doubtfizzling. You make a mental note that the whole experience of second-guessing yourself on that one word was more troubling than the time you found out those pedestrian buttons at crosswalks aren’t always programmed to have an effect on traffic signals.
Then you notice a potential grammar issue two sentences down. Nooooooo…
Oh wait, that was an easy one. You just had to read it out loud to make sure it was okay. You think…
Doubtfizzling can happen anywhere, anytime. Real words, properly spelled words, can melt into taunting apparitions without the slightest warning. If you request another person’s assistance you are likely to drag them down into this unnerving disruption of the space–time continuum with you.
To best combat doubtfizzling, I recommend taking at least one of the following actions:
1. Read more and read often. The more we refresh our vocabularies the more naturally writing and speaking come to us. As Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
2. Ask your cats. They are uncannily decisive and seemingly immune to doubtfizzling, magnificent literary geniuses in sleek fur coats. I threw the bitumen conundrum at mine just now. They both looked at me, mildly amused, and said, “why, you’re not even using the correct word. You need to be discussing the merits of oleoresin instead.”
3. Walk away. Break the unblinking force field created when you question the spelling of a word more than three times by forcing your body to disconnect and find solace in a wordless room. Like the restroom. Nobody there but you and that spider that never seems to leave the southwest corner of your favorite stall. That must be the oldest spider in the world, or his fifteenth great-grandson.
4. Imagine that you are penning a script in Middle High German for a biopic of the Newark accounting clerk that Count Chocula’s character was based on. “Ha ha!” you scoff. “My language skills far surpass those of the average screenwriter.” After reveling in your imaginary mastery of archaic twelfth century linguistics, returning to everyday English seems easy, like making toast after whipping up a vegan four cheese soufflé.
5. Break out your old Far Side books and relive the glory that once was American comics. It’ll give your brain a break and revive your floundering neurons with a hearty dose of irreverence and irony.
Ultimately, if you find yourself questioning whether a word is really a word, learn to recognize the downward spiral that is doubtfizzling. Learn to defeat your opponent before you’re sucked too far into the wormhole and emerge in an alternate post-apocalyptic version of 1962 where Brezhnev forces everyone to collect mongongo nuts at sundown.
Like the Twilight Zone, doubtfizzling is a realm where reality can become grossly distorted and self-doubt can roll in like a mighty fog over a vast marshland. It can be a nightmarish descent into imagined neologisms and disembodied phantasmal phrases.
That reminds me, I meant to learn more about a seldom-used word I came across while absorbing Augustine last night– prevenient. Prevenient. Pre-venni-ent. Pre-veni-ent. Ents are those cool tree shepherds in Lord of the Rings. My precious… Pre- vent forest fires. Pre-veni vidi vici voovalent… André Previn performs Prokofiev at Lent.
Prescient presidents prevent precipitous pentavalent pestilences…
This is my gift, my curse. -Spiderman
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