Memories · Word of the week

Word of the week: prancer

Is “prancer” a word? It sounds like a word, meaning “one who prances”, but it’s not recognized by any of the three word processing Apps I use most days: Word 2011 for the Mac, Word 2010 for Windows on my netbook or Word 2016 on my Windows Phone. The first two Apps automatically correct the word to “prance” and the latter underlines it in red. “Prancer” (with a capital P) is underlined in red on the Mac (but not AutoCorrected) but is recognized in both Windows versions (netbook and phone). Prancer was, as you may know, one of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s companions, along with Dasher, Dancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

There are inconsistencies around spelling in different versions of business software. Some of this is understandable. Email is now recognized as a word, so we can forget all the variations people used 20 years ago, like E Mail, e-mail, or even “e-mail”. Various older versions of Word treated “spreadsheet” as incorrect and suggested “spread sheet” as an alternative. I never accepted this and am glad to see that the latest versions regard spreadsheet as a word again.

The word “prancer” has been on my mind recently as a Scrabble memory. When I was a teenager my father and I played Scrabble frequently. We both had the same view of the game: it’s better to play two or three games quickly than one long, slow game where each player takes 20 minutes to think of a word. We did not have an Official Scrabble Dictionary. We did not know about words like ea, ee, el, em, en or ex, or the dozens of other 2-letter words that can transform your Scrabble scores. We didn’t believe that there were any 2-letter words beginning with “e”. (This piece from last year, “Coaching: Football and Scrabble” discusses this.) The biggest dictionary that we had in the house was a single-volume Funk & Wagnall, from something like 1907. I have no idea where it ended up, haven’t seen it for years.

One evening, playing Scrabble, my father put down the word “prancers”, using all 7 letters for a score in excess of 100 points (including the 50-point bonus). I challenged it. Funk & Wagnall had no entry for the word. I was half-expecting it to be there but it wasn’t. In later years I would learn (thanks to “Countdown”) that such words are called “agent nouns”, and they can be tricky. You can’t just stick an “r” (or an “-er”) at the end of a verb and hope that it’s a word. Agent nouns have to be specified. A word like “dasher” is allowable but “prancer” isn’t. Something similar applies to comparatives and superlatives. Most adjectives ending in “y” have a comparative ending in “ier” and a superlative ending in “iest” but they still have to be specified in the dictionary. Happy, happier and happiest are fine, for example, and so are grumpy, grumpier and grumpiest. Jangly is fine as an adjective but janglier and jangliest are not acceptable, for now at least.

Over the years my father’s references to the “prancers” Scrabble incident turned things around. He would suggest that I had tried to put the word down and that he had challenged it. He would say things like, “You with your bloody prancers”. I never knew if he was genuinely remembering it differently or just trying it on. Either way I always pushed back, reminding him that it was his word, and Funk & Wagnall had said no.

And what prompted this Scrabble memory? It could have been “Midnight at the Oasis”, a #21 hit here in the UK for Maria Muldaur in 1974. Last month I was denied a perfect score of 39 when listening to a round of Pop Master because I couldn’t remember that the Brand New Heavies covered the song in 1994 (they got to #13 with it). Earlier this month I heard the original on holiday in Spain. It includes the word “prancer”, in these lines: “There’s no need to answer / You don’t need to speak / I’ll be your belly dancer, prancer / And you can be sheikh”. You can hear the word at 1’13” in this live performance. For the record, WordPress recognizes “prancer” and “prancers” and hasn’t underlined them in red while I’ve been finalizing this piece, but it didn’t recognize “jangly”.



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