I was listening to the NPR show Says You! today. I quite like the show, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it. This is a little strange, because it is the perfect show for literary wannabes and pedants everywhere. The centerpiece of the show has one team try to guess which of the three definitions of an obscure word the other team offers. Today, the word was “phrop.”
The first definition was that it is the stage on which a flea circus is performed. The second was that it is a bill introduced to kill another bill. We had an example of this in the recent California election. Proposition 38 was put on the ballot to kill Proposition 30. So such things exist. The third definition was an insincere comment like, “We must do lunch!”
One member of the guessing team asked if flea circuses were real. When she learned that indeed they were, she was sold. And I have to admit, it does sound reasonable: there probably is a word for the flea circus stage. I thought the insincere comment seemed most likely. And so did the rest of her team. But she said something that was very true of the verbally clever group that plays this game, “Don’t you think if ‘phrop’ meant an insincere comment we would all know it?” Everyone laughed—me too. But it also sold them: they are all quite used to such insincere comments (Aren’t we all?!) and they would certainly have heard from a similarly minded person about such a word.
I thought that was a very good observation, but it didn’t change my mind. Words used for these segments are by definition not things that have caught on. They are normally specialty words or relatively recent words. Regardless, they are words now or once used by a small subset of the English speaking world. And indeed, “phrop” is not in most dictionaries. It was coined rather recently by Arnold Lunn, inventor of slalom ski racing. Wikipedia defines it thusly:
I have a feeling now that it’s been on Says You! it will become popular with literary wannabes and pedants everywhere.
Here is (apparently) a real flea circus from 1949 France: