Last Friday my father Jules, who was born in 1921, turned 93. Most of his friends and relatives have vanished out of sight and some out of mind, and his body has gone ramshackle. His mind, however, is fit and in perfect working order.
Every Saturday afternoon he comes over to my apartment for a cup of coffee and an hour of fervent conversation. We discuss the books that he has read, the films he has seen and the political developments that he is annoyed about. Very often he comes up with suggestions for a possible Word of the Day that I gratefully use.
Last Saturday, when he was one day older than 93, he suggested the word KRAKKEMIKKIG. Why this silly word, I asked? Because, he said, it is a word that will make people smile. The way KRAKKEMIKKIG looks is the way KRAKKEMIKKIG feels. What you see is what you get. All those ‘K’-sounds in combination with the raucous ‘R’ and the concluding semi-harsh ‘G’ make the word sound creakily rickety.
KRAK – KE – MIK – KIG. Vocalize these four syllables slowly ten times in succession and you can see my father as he goes waggling from his house to mine behind his wheeled walker (ROLLATOR).
Pronounce this word rapidly three times after another and you’ll see the old man’s mind flex and pull while his spirits reach higher and higher fighting the gravitation laws of space and time. Growing old is a fight of mind and matter. Life is a battle of the mind trying to hold its grip on what’s going on outside the skull. The body is the home of the mind. Or maybe not only the home but also the spaceship Enterprise. My father has been exploring time and space for almost a century now. For more than two thirds of his life I have been one of his fellow passengers and I hope to be able to travel along with him for many more years.
However, my old father is not the only one who’s going KRAKKEMIKKIG. My course is being steered in the same rickety direction. So, at this point in time and space you ask yourself, is KRAKKEMIKKIG, an old and ancient word? The answer is no.
My favourite etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs lists the word in her chronological dictionary as 1964. NINETEEN SIXTY FOUR! That means that the word is half my father’s age and that it is even younger than I am. Apparently it was derived from the word ‘krakkemik’ which is related to the Antwerp word ‘krikkemik’ which means ramshackle and rickety.
KRAKKEMIKKIG and ‘rickety’ sound as if they could be linguistic brothers or sisters. ‘Rickety’ (liable to fall down), however, is much older than KRAKKEMIKKIG and dates back to the seventeenth century. ‘Rickety’ is derived from the word ‘rickets’ also known as the English disease or in Dutch ‘rachitis’.
In the picture, which was made by my brother Eric and now grandfather, you can see my old father speechifying to his four-year old great-grandchild (achterkleinkind) Dyon in the presence of his proud mother Anouk. That moment there were four generations present: my father and his partner Christine, his three children, four grandchildren and Dyon.
Now that I think about it, the word KRAKKEMIKKIG and the picture remind me of Alice listening to the White Knight’s Song in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’:
I’ll tell thee everything I can:
There’s little to relate.
I saw an aged, aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.
‘Who are you, aged man?’ I said.
‘And how is it you live?’
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.
He said ‘I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat:
I make them into mutton pies,
And sell them in the street.
I sell them unto men,’ he said,
‘Who sail on stormy seas;
And that’s the way I get my bread—
A trifle, if you please.’
But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one’s whiskers green,
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen.
So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried, ‘Come, tell me how you live!’
And thumped him on the head.
His accents mild took up the tale:
He said ‘I go my ways,
And when I find a mountain-rill,
I set it in a blaze;
And thence they make a stuff they call
Yet twopence-halfpenny is all
They give me for my toil!’
But I was thinking of a way
To feed oneself on batter,
And so go on from day to day
Getting a little fatter.
I shook him well from side to side,
Until his face was blue:
‘Come, tell me how you live,’ I cried,
‘And what it is you do!’
He said, ‘I hunt for haddocks’ eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.
‘I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs:
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of Hansom-cabs!
And that’s the way’ (he gave a wink)
‘By which I get my wealth—
And very gladly will I drink
Your Honour’s noble health.’
I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.
I thanked him much for telling me
The way he got his wealth,
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink my noble health.
And now, if e’er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know—
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough;
Who snorted like a buffalo
That summer evening, long ago,
A-sitting on a gate!