There we were on Saturday evening at my friend Bill Korn’s hacienda in the mountain fastness of Altadena. All of a sudden, Bill threw a word at me that unlocked my childhood in all its tawdriness. The word? It was potrzebie. Is there such a thing? Apparently, but not in our language:
Apparently, it’s a word in Polish, as we see below:
If you were ever a computer programmer, you know who Donald E. Knuth is. He is the author of the multi-volume The Art of Computer Programming. In the early 1970s, I dutifully purchased the first three volumes in the series: Fundamental Algorithms, Seminumerical Algorithms, and Sorting and Searching. I don’t recall reading much of it because it was intense, full of mathematical thingies of great penetration and impenetrability. So I eventually sold them.
Aside from writing books I couldn’t wrap my head around, Knuth also defined a potrzebie as being the thickness in millimeters of Mad Magazine’s Issue #26. For those of you who need to know, that amounts to 2.263348517438173216473 millimeters, as shown in the following illustration from Mad:
But potrzebie came to mean ever so much more than that, because the editors of Mad fell in love with the word, as did Geoffrey Chaucer:
Whon thot Aprille swithin potrzebie,
The burgid prillie gives one heebie-jeebie.
It joined such terms as axolotl (the critter illustrated at top of article), veeblefetzer, furshlugginer (a word I occasionally use to this day), and hoohah. As it happens, I am now way too sophisticated to read Mad, but half a century ago, it was my meat and drink. It was also my introduction to Yiddish, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I had forgotten these words over the years, but now they are like the zahir of Jorge Luis Borges in the story of the same name. The zahir was a coin which, if one ever saw it, one could think of nothing else.
So, all I could say now is hoo-hah!