Every now and then, I come across a word I wish I had learned in college, because I would have used it many times. “Callipygian” is one such word. It means “having shapely buttocks” and if you’ve never been called “callipygian,” trust me, it’s only because you refused to go on that date with the former Spelling Bee champion. You missed out on a chance to receive the compliment of your life. It’s something you’d want to put on your tombstone. “Here lies Fatima Khan: She was as callipygian as J. Lo and Beyoncé.”
“Callipygian” is one of many great words in the dictionary that only a few people use. Such words are doomed to obscurity and perhaps extinction, partly because the younger generation, communicating through email and text messaging, tend to prefer short words like “u” and “r.” Those may not seem like real words to you and I, but that’s probably because, well, “u n I r old.”
That’s why I had mixed feelings when a reader named Robert J. Baumann of New York City introduced me to an important word. Robert and I, incidentally, have something in common. On his website, he lists his favorite vacation as “anywhere my wife is.” That’s my favorite vacation too – anywhere his wife is.
I just got into trouble with both Robert and my wife and it happened in a femtosecond. “Femtosecond” is the word Robert wrote to me about, hoping I would expose it to my readers, so they can start using it in their daily conversations, perhaps as often as they use other F-words.
A femtosecond is one billionth of one millionth of a second. Ahmed Hassan Zewail, the Egyptian American chemist, used femtoseconds to measure certain chemical reactions. For his great pioneering work, Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999, as well as the right to go through airport security one femtosecond faster than other people named Ahmed.
A femtosecond may seem like an inconceivably short time, but it does have applications outside science. If you’re a married man, you know all about femtoseconds. You experience them every day. A femtosecond is the amount of time it takes your wife to:
—glare at you when you look at another woman at the beach.
—start giving you a lecture when you make a wrong turn.
—switch channels after accidentally landing on ESPN.
—figure out if anyone at a party is wearing the same dress.
—decide what to buy when she receives a new credit card.
If you’re a married woman, you don’t need Dr. Zewail to explain femtoseconds to you. You’ve already got them down pat. A femtosecond is the amount of time it takes your husband to:
—glance at the instructions that came with the furniture assembly kit.
—figure out where the beer is kept at a party.
—switch channels after accidentally landing on Oprah.
—jump off the couch when you say, “I’m in the mood tonight …”
—groan when you add, “… for chocolate ice cream.”
Femtoseconds are not just for married people, of course. Almost everyone encounters them now and then. It takes only a femtosecond for:
—The short line at the post office to turn into a long line.
—Bill Gates to make a buck.
—George Foreman to eat a pizza.
—The New York cabdriver to honk when the light turns green.
—The drunk at the bar to notice that you’re definitely, most certainly, callipygian.