Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Sandra Parshall

After every snowstorm, I think of Rich Hall. I’ve been thinking of Rich Hall a lot this winter.

If you’re younger than 40, you probably don’t remember the comedian who became famous in the early 1980s on the HBO show Not Necessarily the News. Hall gave us sniglets – words that aren’t in the dictionary but should be. Sniglets are
blended words or sound-alike words with different spellings and meanings. An example of the latter is sarchasm, the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and those who don’t get it. A perfect example of a blended word is snirt, a pile of dirty snow.

In the Washington, DC, area where I live, we’ve had three gigantic snowstorms this winter, one in December and two in February, along with a couple of storms that deposited less impressive amounts. And we have snirt by the ton, everywhere we look. Mountains of black-or-getting-there stuff that was once pristine white. Even newscasters sometimes use the word snirt when referring to it. This is one sniglet that may end up in the dictionary yet.

So every time I see a pile of snirt, Rich Hall comes to mind. But I don’t think snirt was one of his sniglets. It’s so perfect that it ought to be credited to Hall, but I couldn’t find it in his books. (He produced five: Sniglets, More Sniglets, Unexplained Sniglets of the Universe,
Angry Young Sniglets, and When Sniglets Ruled the Earth – all still available here and there if you take the trouble to search.) I had a lot of fun looking for it, though, and came across sniglets that still made me laugh all these years after I first heard them.

NURGE: To inch closer to a stoplight in the belief that you can make it change faster.

PUPSQUEAK: The sound a yawning dog makes when it opens its mouth too wide.

PIGSLICE: The last piece of pizza that everyone is secretly dying to grab.

CHWADS: Disgusting wads of chewing gum stuck under table and desk tops.

PROFANITYPE: The special characters used by cartoonists to replace swear words.

FLOPCORN: The unpopped corn kernels at the bottom of the popper.

FRUST: The line of debris that refuses to be swept into the dustpan, making you pursue it across the floor until you give up and sweep it under the rug.

Some sniglets are sadly dated now, progress and change having left them behind.

ESSOASSO: A person who cuts through a service station lot to avoid a red light. (“Sunocoasso” doesn’t have the same ring.)

SPIBBLE: The metal barrier on a rotary phone that stops your dialing finger at 0. (The world is now filling up with people who have never seen a rotary phone in their lives.)

PERCUBURP: A coffee percolator’s last gasp, alerting you that the coffee is ready. (Does anyone still own a percolator?)

After browsing through the sniglets books, I became curious about Hall himself. I knew that after Not Necessarily the News he went on to Saturday Night Live, but what happened to him after that?

I discovered that the popularity of his sniglets proved to be a burden to Hall. When he did standup comedy, all people wanted to hear from him were more sniglets. He did a 1986 Showtime special called Vanishing America, and in 1990-91 he hosted a Comedy Channel talk show. But sniglets haunted him, and he fled to England to escape their shadow(s).

These days Hall divides his time between England and the US, and he’s still working as a comedian. To me, though, he’ll always be the sniglets guy, and whether snirt was his brainchild or not, I will always think of him when I see a mountain of filthy snow.
Over at Jungle Red Writers today, Roberta Isleib asks me some questions other interviewers never ask.


Paul said...

I remember Rich Hall (and they say you don't remember anything before you're three years old).

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

New York Magazine used to have contests for people to make up these combined words, though they didn't call them sniglets. Come to think of it, "smog" was originally such a word. And I could make a case for "horrendous," which was certainly not a real word back in, say, the Fifties.

Sandra Parshall said...

Spork is also a blended word now in common usage. (But don't you hate using the spork itself?)

Todd Mason said...

Though "Spork" was a trademark first (ate a bit of one accidentally when they were new).