Word of the Week: Carbuncle

Yes, carbuncle.

I am still reading Daniel Walker Howe’s delightful and much-recommended “What Hath God Wrought,” (Oxford University Press, 2007), taking my time you might say. Or not (it’s 800-some pages). Anyway, I came across this fun bit:

Thomas Jefferson’s warning that large cities would constitute “great sores” on the body politic seemed well on its way to grim fulfillment. The most putrid urban carbuncle of all was the “Five Points” slum neighborhood of Manhattan, overcrowded with poor people from a variety of origins, native born and immigrant, notorious for its filth, disease, gangs, crime, riots, and vice. Charles Dickens, no stranger to urban wretchedness, expressed horror when he visited Five Points. “From every corner as you glance about you in these dark retreats,” he wrote, “some figure crawls as if the judgement hour were near at hand, and every obscure grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would how to be, women and men and boy slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.” Pages, 530-531.

Carbuncle, as the above passage suggests, is an evocative and versatile word. Webster’s Fourth reminds us that carbuncle can also refer to a type of gemstone, “a smooth, convex, deep-red garnet.” But Mr. Howe’s meaning, which is an especially popular, if nauseating, employment of the word, recalls the clinical context, i.e. “a painful bacterial infection (esp. Staphylococcus aureus) deep beneath the skin, having a network of pus-filled boils.”

It is an old word, with both meanings having a lot of currency dating to the 11th century, if the O.E.D. can be believed. Going back that far, the word might not refer to just a precious stone but “a mythical gem said to give out light in the dark.” Which led to its use in heraldry, as in this from the 15th century: “His sheeld was al of gold so reed And ther Inne was a bores heed A Charbocle by his side.”

So you end up with the curiosity that carbuncle can both be something marvelous and something malignant. My advice, though, as your attorney, is to never Google “carbuncle.” Some marvels are best left unseen.

Alarming facts about the carbuncle, medically speaking:

  • They can appear anywhere on the body.
  • They can be as big as a golf ball, or bigger.
  • They can be contagious.

Presuming you don’t have one on the back of your neck, or tucked next to your whatsis, you are most likely to come across “carbuncle” in senses similar to Mr. Howe’s assessment of the Five Points, hyperbolic reviews of architecture and the like.

He must be an eminent expert in sculptural art to feel qualified to use the critical terms “monstrous carbuncle” “grotesque attempt” and “general incompetence” to describe such a Romanesque work reflecting Baths heritage, created by Ben Dearnley whose was classically trained in Italy.

via Shame sculpture blocks the view of McDonalds | This is Bath.

But residents were scathing over the plans, calling the development a “concrete carbuncle”, which would “do nothing” for the approach to Salisbury.

via Hotel plans slammed as concrete carbuncle From Salisbury Journal.

“A carbuncle of industrial ugliness — some have called it — but others, myself included, prefer to think of it as a cornucopia of earthly and sometimes unearthly delights.

via Michael Sheens impassioned Richard Burton speech was finest display of Welsh pride – Features – Essential Wales – WalesOnline.

I should go easy with the accusations of hyperbole. It must be something of an accepted term. There is, in architecture circles, a thing called the Carbuncle Cup:

One, Strata SE1, won the Carbuncle Cup for worst building of the year. Are these towers dynamic signs of economic vitality, or tired gestures of developers, architects and politicans egos?

via Architecture: Debate the race for the sky | Art and design | The Observer.

Some combine the aspect of blight with the aspect for physical pain.

Fukushima Daiichi plant sits like a carbuncle on Japans northeast coast 240 km 150 miles from Tokyo. Its damaged reactors still seep radiation, although at a rate of 10 million Becquerel per hour for cesium versus about 800 trillion right after the disaster.

via Insight: Japans Long War to shut down Fukushima | Reuters.

Some seemed to include the word only for its funny sound.

It was around then, of course, that the authorities insisted on introducing that monstrous carbuncle on the grand old game, the epitome of gimmickry flim-flam, a third stump. It’s all been downhill ever since.

via The Spin | Are we living in a golden age of cricket writing? | Andy Bull | Sport | guardian.co.uk.

And you also get breathless political commentary, like this from Bill Moyers, who I can’t believe is still alive, and who fairly frothed at the mouth when he wrote:

The United States Senate — known as “the worlds greatest deliberative body” when I had a summer job there almost 60 years ago — is now a carbuncle on the body politic. A charnel house where legislation putrefies. And where grown men and women are zombified by a process no respectable witch doctor would emulate for fear of a malpractice suit.

via Bill Moyers: WATCH: End the Silent Filibuster.

I was thinking Mr. Moyers would be old enough to remember that the so-called “greatest deliberative body” blithely enforced a gag rule on antislavery petitions for decades before the Civil War. But I was mistaken. (Sorry.)

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One thought on “Word of the Week: Carbuncle

  1. Thanks for posting my poem and linking me to your page. Thank you for your historical blogpost. I love T-Jefferson’s take ‘urban carbuncles’ — brilliant and poetic. I hadn’t thought about that word in years but when I saw those land iguanas in the Galapagos it’s all I could think about — carbuncles!

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