I’ve learned a new word, this time from that delightful (and heroic) writer Nicholson Baker. I was reading the title essay in his collection The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber when I came across this sentence: “And since a large thought seems to wish to pierce and acknowledge and even to replenish many more shoots and plumules of one’s experience, some shrunken from long neglect (for every thought, even the largest, tires, winds down, and hardens into a hibernating token of chat, a placeholder for real intellection, unless it is worried into endless, pliant movement by second thoughts, and by the sense of its own provisionality, passing and repassing through the many semipermeable membranes that insulate learning, suffering, ambition, civility, and puzzlement from each other), its hum of fineness will necessarily be delayed, baffled, and drawn out with numerous interstitial timidities—one pauses, looks up from the page, waits; the eyes move in meditative polygons in their orbits; and then, somehow, more of the thought is released into the soul, the corroborating peal of some new, distant bell—until it has filled out the entirety of its form, as a thick clay slip settles into an intricate mold, or as a ladleful of batter colonizes cell after cell of the waffle iron, or as, later, the smell of that waffle will have toured the awakening rooms of the house.”
(Pause to admire the waffle smell making its way up the long corridors of the meandering sentence.)
The word “plumule” struck me; it turns out it’s pronounced PLOOM-yule [/"plu:myu:l/], and it means ‘rudimentary shoot, bud, or bunch of undeveloped leaves in a seed’ (it’s from Latin plūmula, the diminutive of plūma ‘small soft feather, down’), so that “shoots and plumules of one’s experience” is a very tasty phrase, incorporating both the visible (as it were) and the embryonic shoots sprouting up from the depths of our lived lives and mulish memories.
And now, for my own pleasure and hopefully yours, I’m going to reproduce the opening paragraph of the essay:

Each thought has a size, and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product. Once in a while, a thought may come up that seems, in its woolly, ranked composure, roughly the size of one’s hall closet. But a really large thought, a thought in the presence of which whole urban centers would rise to their feet, and cry out with expressions of gratefulness and kinship; a thought with grandeur, and drenching, barrel-scorning cataracts, and detonations of fist-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half, and rap on the iron nodes of experience until every blue girder rings; a thought that may one day pack everything noble and good into its briefcase, elbow past the curators of purposelessness, travel overnight toward Truth, and shake it by the indifferent marble shoulders until it finally whispers its cool assent—this is the size of thought worth thinking about.

And before I go, let me repeat the definition of plūma: “small soft feather, down.” Small soft feather, down—isn’t that a lovely phrase?


  1. I’m sorry, I hate to nitpick but I hate the ad-hoc pronunciation “system” even more.
    “it turns out it’s pronounced PLOOM-yule”
    Would there be a difference between PLOOM-yule and PLUME-yool? I especially hate the ad-hoc “oo” because I never know when it represents the sound in “hook” and when the sound in “hoop”. Moreso in international fora where I have to worry about British and American pronunciation.
    So in this case is it /ˈpluːmyuːl/ or /ˈplʊmyuːl/? (SAMPA /”plu:myu:l/ or /”plUmyu:l/) Or to use a more American (non-IPA) system, plo͞om’yo͞ol or plo͝om’yo͞ol? (Unfortunately, Unicode’s combining double macron and breve are not widely supported yet).

  2. Interestingly, in Shenandoah, I heard hook pronounced to rhyme with hoop often enough to notice.
    Also, it occurred to me to wonder whether you had read Nicholson Baker last fall, when I was tearing through his books. I wasn’t too impressed by the libraries one, but I love his novels.

  3. Door, foot or food, that is the question. The first is out, of course, and as for the other two, I’d think it wouldn’t matter much as long as it’s an u-sound: Merriam-Webster Online transcribe it as French-sounding /’plü-(“)myü(&)l/ in their strange Sampa-derivative.
    Unfortunately, its counterpart in French botanical terminology, radicule, apparently has been anglicised into radicle. Imagine what beautiful passages could have been written about plumules and radicules!

  4. Unfortunately, its counterpart in French botanical terminology, radicule, apparently has been anglicised into radicle. Imagine what beautiful passages could have been written about plumules and radicules!
    Well Chris, SOED gives both “radicule” and “radicle” as equivalent terms corresponding to French “radicule”, so we await your purple pen’s outpourings. For our “plumule” we have also “gemmule”, and French has both of these too.
    English has also “radicel” as an equivalent to “radicle” in the relevant sense, but French “radicelle” means something subtly different: Ramification de la racine principale (Le Petit Robert).
    English has also has, or had, “rostellum”. For this SOED gives, among other meanings:
    1 Bot.[dagger]a The radicle of a seed. M18–L19.

  5. Andrew: Thanks for the heads-up (I should have noticed the ambiguity and gone with PLUME-yule); I’ve added one of your suggestions to disambiguate it. However, I’m not about to stop using ad hoc respellings. I am not writing primarily for linguists, and most laymen are baffled by scientific transcriptions. But I will make a greater effort to avoid this kind of problem.

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