by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter April 1999 and the Boston City Paper 9/2007
Brace yourselves, I’m starting off today’s column with some very foul words.Accolade. Opulent. Arbitrary. Recalcitrant. Bombastic. Cacophony.
Here’s a myriad (foul) of foul words: Enigma. Ennui. Faux pas. Garrulous. Pensive. Gregarious. Nuance. And how about the most fowl: quell. Querulous. Quixotic.
So by now you’re probably thinking I’m crazy, but that’s already been established and it really a discussion for another time. But I digress (foul) and should tell you why I’m using such “foul” language (and what it all means) before you lose interest in this column and start watching “When good pets go bad” on UPN.
It’s junior year, Boston College High School, 1982. Honors-English is being taught by Father Larry Corcoran. Father Corcoran — who turned out to be a good friend of my old friend Eileen Gustin — was a gentle man, always wore Irish sweaters, and had a quiet demeanor about him. His knowledge of the classics and literature seemed endless, as was his great humor. It was never “no,” it was “doe.” It was never “yes,” it was “cha.” The purple literature book we brought to class was referred to as the “purpley” book. We didn’t have quizzes or tests, we had a “tiz.” But this was no kindergarten — this was hard work and he made sure we learned. We read Scarlet Letter and House of Seven Gables and many other classics. We learned good grammar. We wrote essays and discussed poetry.
But what made his class so very enjoyable, and unforgettable, was the “word of the day.” Each day, Father would write a new word of the day on the board: Perhaps it was formidable, cull, crass, crux, or versatile. Or malleable, martinet, or mawkish.
But this was “OUR” word, he explained, we owned it and if anyone else used it without our permission … well, we’d have to cry “foul!”
So the class would go like this:
Father Corcoran: “Does anyone recall our last word of the day?”
Student: “The word was “innocuous.’ ”
“Foul!” the entire class shouted.
Father Corcoran: “Does anyone recall what that meant?”
Another hand: “It means “harmless.’ ”
Father Corcoran: “Right. Here’s today’s word … ” and he’d write the new word. Maybe it was pragmatic, laconic, lethargic, supercilious or emulate or harbinger, or criteria, or bailiwick. We’d shout “foul!” at the new word. Father would explain its meaning, etymology (the word’s origins) and use it in a few sentences. We would also assign a valence to the word: Positive, neutral, or negative. Then he’d open the bidding for the word. Sometimes we’d only bid a few cents for an unattractive word (perhaps unctuous was that day’s word) or several dollars for a “good” word (like faux pas or panacea). We never paid any real money, but the highest bidder got to own the word. Whenever someone used that word in the future, we’d yell “foul.”
I should note that we were encouraged to yell “foul!” in other classes as well. Boy, was Father O’Neil sorry the day he said that the algebra equation was never ‘arbitrary.’ I think we really scared him.
I should also note that during final exams, we were asked to use a stentorian (foul) whisper when someone used a foul word. And once, the fouls were so pervasive throughout campus that Mr. Hunter (God rest his soul) told us to just yell “FOUL” when in Father Corcoran’s class.
What was so special about this class — and why I remember Father Corcoran as one of my favorite teachers — was his obvious love for teaching, his gentle demeanor, and that almost seventeen years later I’m still thinking “foul” when I come across one of his ‘foul’ words. It was one of the best learning tools I’ve ever seen — because it was funny, and it was memorable. It helped me be a better writer.
Father is now director of BC High’s retreat center, and I wish him well. Like those “more you know” NBC spots, I pick Father Corcoran as one of those teachers who really made that difference.
On a humorous side note, during those days one of my favorite TV show actors used the word “scenario” a lot, and I suggested it to Father, but he said he thought it was too technical a word. And I think Father may have changed some of the words over the years; I think bona fide was FOUL as well.
So in conclusion, let me only say that this story has not been embellished (foul) in any way. And so I’m not being at all capricious (foul) or using any cliché’s (foul) when I tell you with no hyperbole (foul) that I’m very grateful to Father Corcoran. He was never didactic (foul), always gregarious (foul), and taught us the salient (foul) points of English. His style of teaching, never maudlin (foul) or ambiguous (foul), dovetailed (foul) nicely with a class of teen-agers and he made learning fun, and almost halcyon (foul).
“Always excel” Father Corcoran wrote in my yearbook. I’m trying, Father, I really am. And by being in your class those many years ago, the journey has been made a little easier!
The photo of Father Corcoran is from the BC High yearbook.
Note: I sent a copy of this column to Father Corcoran, who wrote me a very nice letter and he even took the time to list all the FOUL words he remembered: aberration, abeyance, accolade, aesthetic, altruistic, ambiguous, ameliorate, anachronism, anomaly, arbitrary, atrophy, avocation, bailiwick, bellicose, bombastic, bucolic, cacophony, cajole, canard, capricious, caveat, cavil, chagrin, chicanery, clandestine, cliché, coercion, concur, conjecture, crass, criteria, crux, cull, debonair, decorum, deference, deft, demur, denouement, desultory, didactic, digress, dilettante, dossier, dovetail, duress, egregious, embellish, emulate, enhance, enigma, ennui, ephemeral, epitome, equanimity, escutcheon, esoteric, etymology, euphoria, excoriate, exegesis, faux pas, fiasco, formidable, fractious, garrulous, gregarious, haddy grimble, halcyon, harbinger, histrionics, hyperbole, ignominious, impervious, ineffable, inexorable, ingenuous, innocuous, innuendo, intrepid, inveigle, ironic, Jesuitical, lackadaisical, laconic, lethargy, lucid, lugubrious, lurid, magnanimous, malinger, malleable, martinet, maudlin, mawkish, metamorphosis, meticulous, milieu, mitigate, myopic, myriad, myrmidon, nadir, nirvana, nuance, obstreperous, opulent, panacea, pander, paradox, parasitic, pensive, platitude, pragmatic, prolific, quell, querulous, quixotic, recalcitrant, recant, redundant, regale, reticent, salient, salubrious, sangfroid, sanguine, sardonic, scintillate, serendipity, sesquipedalian, shib, shibboleth, sinecure, stentorian, stigma, strident, subterfuge, supercilious, superfluous, sycophant, symbiotic, synesthisia, tantalize, tantamount, tour de force, ubiquitous, umbrage, unctuous, urbane, vacillate, vendetta, verisimilitude, versatile , vicarious, volatile