Linguistic shenanigans & writing tidbits

–by Joel Patton

Distressions [1] & Digressions [2]


The other day [3], I passed a housepainter’s van. It advertised a variety of services, including the first part of the title of this essay: distressions [4].

I immediately knew the meaning of the word, though I’d never seen or heard it used before, because of an acquaintance’s work experience, to wit [5]:

Said acquaintance worked part-time for a cabinetmaker. My friend can’t carpent [6], but he didn’t need to. His employer and his regular employees would build brand-new $40,000 banks of kitchen cabinets, and my friend, armed with awls [7], rusty chains [8], sandpaper [9], and the like, would make them look like hundred-year-old $40,000 banks of kitchen cabinets.

Although that was the first time I’d seen the word, I found some attestations online [10]. Some are abstract (meaning “a feeling of distress”) and some were concrete (mostly beat-up denim). The earliest I found was from 2005, referring to someone’s woodworking project (but again, the search was brief and lazy [11]).

I hadn’t thought about the noun form of what he was doing. I’m not even sure I thought about the verb form. I just remember thinking it seemed like a sweet part-time gig. But the word makes sense: I can’t find a really solid early citation, now that my access to the OED has vaporized along with my institutional association, but the form follows a standard pattern. The -ion denotes a process (and a Latin origin for the base word). Distress itself probably won’t work, since it’s more often associated with the feeling [12] than with the physical practice, and advertising distressed wood isn’t the right sense at all.

I also found an apropos literary use, in Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier: A Novel:

“…I can see that you’re in a deep distression.”
Is that a word?”
“Doesn’t matter. You know what I mean. That’s all I require of language.” [13]

New words appear just this way. Someone’s got to do it first [14], but it helps if the word itself isn’t really new — it’s easier if it’s just a new form or an expanded sense.

One of the lamentations of lamenters is that language change leads to a narrowing of meanings. If disinterested merges with uninterested, we lose the sense of uninvolved [15].

But the cheerier side is that new words pop up in the same way. We end up with distression, but there’s no need for distress. It’s OK [16]. Calming down about it might help [17].

But I egress [18].



1. Everything’s a digression around here. And some of what I do is distression.

2. “Digression the ocelot / liked to floss a lot. She ate lichen sometimes / and moss a lot.” This is a bit of feline doggerel co-composed by one of my best friends and by me some years ago. We were chatting on the phone at the time, and I inscribed it at the very beginning of a writing notebook. He does not remember it. He’s a scientist now. I’m whatever it is that I am.

3. It was a while ago, and is even longer now that you’re reading this.

4. That is to say, it offered the service of distression. They didn’t seem to be in the business of half-titling essays.

5. What an odd phrase. The literal meaning is to know, more or less, but this usage seems transitive. Maybe it’s just demonstrative: I know this thing, and here’s an explanation.

6. I find fewer jocular online attestations for this form than I’d have thought I might.

7. Awl is a really old word… the origin isn’t certain, but it’s always meant the same sort of thing: a piercer. I get the sense that many people would use the term ice pick instead, though an ice pick is more demodé than an awl (but probably still more common in peoples’ houses, specifically in that weird drawer in the kitchen).

8. Both of these are old, too. Chain comes from French, around Chaucer’s time. It’s related to the Latin catena, as in concatenated, one of the two words I remember learning from a friend’s poem in a grad-school workshop. (Elephants were concatenated in this piece.) Rust is from the same root as red.

9. Sandpaper is attested from the late 19th century. Sand is another Old English word; paper comes to English with lots of other French words, in the 14th century. The origin is Latin, apparently with an Egyptian root, which is kind of neat.

10. A brief and lazy search gives around 4200 results for distression, as of early 2015.

11. Of course, I said that in the above footnote, not in the body of the text.

12. I imagine that some contractors offer distress, but as a side effect of their services rather than as a service proper.

13. I’m unsure of the page — it’s not marked in the Google Books preview. I haven’t read this novel, since I just found the quote in the course of writing this piece, but I’m sure as hell going to now. Man, this is a fun job. (Wait, maybe I will have read the novel by now.)

14. But probably not you, and probably not me.

15. Fortunately, we can say uninvolved.

16. Just about everything is OK, as far as language change goes. Good thing, too.

17. Some time ago, on NPR, I heard an interview with two musicians, singers, sisters, who’d just completed recording a three-part work they’d written. They said that they realized after recording the third part that they’d sung around the melody throughout that section — they’d framed it, but they’d never sung the actual notes of the melody. I don’t know enough about music to fully understand what they meant, and I’m easygoing enough that I wondered if it mattered. Anyway, it feels as though I’m doing that here, since I’ve never parsed out distression. Oh well.

18. I’ve gone too far here. The misuse is egregious.



Joel Patton is a potter in Travelers Rest, SC.


  • fmfats

    If he’s home painting who the hell is driving the van? And how the hell did “melty” become a word? Thanks, Arby’s.