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Aaarrrgggh! and Other Frustrations

When is a word a pain in the neck? When you can't find it in the dictionary because you don't know how to spell it. Such was the case when I tried to look up "argh."

The unabridged "Random House Dictionary of the English Language," with all its heft, has entries for "whew," "wow," and "zowie." But when we come to "argentum," the substance better known as silver, Random skips right to "arghool," which is an Arabian wind instrument of the oboe family.

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Neither will you be able to find "argh" in "Webster's Unabridged." Nor in the "Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang." So to cover all possibilities, I also checked under "arrgh," and that's when the light dawned. I thought to look under "aargh," and bingo!

But even once you've found the word, the question remains, how did "aargh" sneak into the English language? Maybe it entered piggyback on the German ach, the word that, depending on the context, denotes anything from plaintive sigh to surprised wonder to dismissive rebuff. And if that guess is correct, it seems to have happened first in the comics. Haven't we all seen it there? A close-up of a gaping mouth spewing forth a bold-lettered "Aaarrrgggh!!!" - shorthand for utter frustration, rage, or disgust.

That a cartoonist came up with a neologism is probably not a first in the history of comics. But then, do people really use it in speech? The only person I've heard using "aargh" is a friend of mine. Does that make him something of a cartoon character?

But if no one uses the word, how does it manage to maintain its green card status, as it were? Despite the sanction bestowed by an entry in Random or Webster's, "aargh" has been leading virtually an underground existence for a long time. Should it even be considered a bona fide word of the English language, or is it just an inarticulate exclamation? Perhaps it should be classified as a non-word, just as "ain't" once was.

I wonder what the cartoonists would have to say about all this. Probably Aargh!

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