March 20, 2017 ➳ Word of the day

Fine, dry particles of earth or other matter, so comminuted that they may be raised and wafted by the wind.

Some words have contradictory definitions. One may sanction a child’s good behavior with a reward, or sanction a government’s poor behavior with embargoes. Some transparent things can’t be seen, like air, while other transparent things are evident, like motives. A fast car moves quickly; a fast rope moves not at all.

These are contronyms and dust is one of my favorites. Its verb definitions are simply contradictory:

The French maid may be a trope, but her trademark bouquet of feathers springs to mind. Do people clean like this? Flicking a wad of feathers with a badmintoner’s wrist? I prefer to believe that that clump of ostrich feathers exists only to complete the ensemble. Blitzering your wrists around vases and grandfather clocks seems to me, a lousy way to clean house.

Fortunately, modern dust removal involves laboratory-produced cloths and sprays in yellow canisters. But the French maid method at least helps evokes our second definition of this contronym.

When searching for fingerprints, detectives act in opposition to our Gallic housekeeper. A sprinkling of lycopodium powder delivered with the tenderness of an archeologist’s wrist.

Now, delicately daubing black powder on housewares seems to me, a lousy way to fight crime, but it tends to work on TV. A careless thumb print on a candlestick holder in act one, leads to a genteel solarium showdown in the act three.

“And that, Inspector General, is why you saw fit to finish Lady Prior in the dining hall, is it not?”

Enough of Paris and London. In the US of A, the pronouncement is to “eat my dust,” (in the 1970s at least) and the habit toward the substance is to neither add nor remove it, but to breathe it in. America comfortably endures phenomena like the Dust Bowl, angel dust, Dusty Springfield, and former Mark Bell outfit Dust. Consider that Dusty is a name that could only originate in America. In the colonies, a duster is more horsepower than bird feathers.

The verb is linguistically fascinating. The noun is existentially so.

Doctors tell me I am allergic to dust. What this means is that I am allergic to dust mites. Even this is a euphemism. It’s dust mite excrement that makes me wheeze. It seems reasonable to choke on another species’ dung, but the tragedy becomes farce when you understand that dust mites feed largely on dead human skin.

Think about this: as I promenade among my vases and grandfather clocks, evaporating into a million billion particles, I am giving life to a million billion organisms who do nothing but produce poison for my nose. I am the source and destination of an arid miasma of skin, bugs, and shit. If that ain’t being hoisted by my own petard, I don’t know what is.

Thank God for anti-histamines. I could give up coffee (maybe), but I need my sneeze pills to live. Should cetirizine ever join the list of scheduled drugs, I would just as quickly join the list of active junkies. I’d buy the strongest stuff, wherever I could find it, and dose myself hard in attics, crawl spaces, under the bed, and in the back of used book stores. I may be the source of my own undoing, but I shan’t go sneezing into that good night.