Potrzebie and Axolotl

With Proust, A Cookie Did the Trick

With Proust, A Cookie Did the Trick

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:

No, This Isn’t It ...

No, This Isn’t It …

Apparently, it’s a word in Polish, as we see below:

Don’t Ask Me What This Means!

In Polish, Potrzebie Means “A Need”

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:

The System in All Its Glory

The System in All Its Glory

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!