Word of the Week 2: Pummel
Welcome to my second post of Wednesday Word of the Week, a hump-day cyber celebration of skillful and felicitous word choice selected from my current reading.
This week’s word comes from When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery by Frank Vertosick, Jr., M.D, a captivating yet shockingly funny account of the author’s neurosurgical residency.
Dr. Vertosick may belong to the rarest breed of doctors, but with his blue-color background, the story he tells is one of an everyman confronted with extraordinary challenges: the deaf, mute, obese, nicotine-addicted “trisomy 21” (i.e. Down Syndrome) patient; the stunningly beautiful, pregnant, fundamentalist Christian with a brain tumor who refuses chemotherapy to save her baby; the young female car-accident victim with both a fractured skull and a perforated heart; the infant with water on the brain.
It is in describing one of these patients, a young Nigerian foreign exchange student with a dramatic case of MS, that Dr. Vertosick wins his place in this post. After recounting how the young man’s arms and legs become uncontrollable, “flailing about like octopus tentacles,” he conjures up a powerful image of the effects of this terrible disease by using a word commonly employed in a very different context.
“His face was swollen from attempts to brush his teeth, attempts which resulted only in a self-inflicted pummeling.”
I am not sure what I expected when I delved into the genre of medical memoir, but it was hardly the brilliant metaphors, surpassingly poignant reflections on life, illness and death, and skillfully rendered characters that make When the Air Hits Your Brain a page turner to the last period. And while the book makes one glad for dedicated physicians like Dr. Vertosick, it also provokes some regret that the doctor is not a full-time author.
How might you use the word “pummel” in a context unrelated to fighting? Can you think of a similar example of a word used in a wildly different context from the one in which it is usually employed? What’s your word of the week? Feel free to share your thoughts here.