Saturday, January 02, 2016

A Linguistic Hat Trick

It's known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It's that situation wherein after we learn some bit of new information we start noticing it everywhere else. The name traces its roots back to 1994 when a reader of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote in a letter to the editors that after reading about that radical political group in Western Germany, he started seeing the name everywhere. It's when you suddenly notice a particular type of car on the road, or hear a particular figure of speech. In my case it was a word I had never heard before, and has since cropped up more than I would have thought possible.

That word is "nurdle."

Let's face it: it's not one you hear that often. Strike that: it's one you almost never hear. But it's one that Frank somehow managed to incorporate into a sentence during some pre "let's-get-down-to-business" group small talk one recent morning. I don't even remember the context, merely that the word came tumbling out. And with Frank being a highly-skilled, intensely-experienced, uber-technical professional who has taught me any number of things and solved a basket load of thorny problems when we have worked together, I listen when he speaks.

The word snagged in my ear like a hangnail on a blanket. "Nurdle? What's a nurdle?" I asked. Frank corrected me: "Actually, it's ‘nurdle device.' It's the wave-shaped strip of toothpaste that sits atop a toothbrush that you see in commercials." I shook my head at him: "You're making this up, right?" He assured me he was not. Upon quick reflection, and having some sense based on past experience of the depth of his encyclopedia knowledge of many things, obscure and otherwise, I quickly backed down. Nurdle device it was.

Now, unless I were to go to work for Colgate, one might think that that would be the first and last time the word would cross my path. (We're not counting when Claudia, who was also present for that exchange with Frank, kept it alive by asking me the following week if the nurdle device had been accounted for in our planning.) But that evening I settled down with my current read, "City on Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg. A sweeping nearly 1000-page novel set in New York City of the 1970's, it interweaves numerous story lines and characters. All well and good, until I stumbled upon this passage around page 624 about a young woman named Regan who had anorexia: "And then came the ten seconds in which Regan hated herself more than ever. Time to tear two squares of toilet paper and wipe down the bowl's rim and the bottom of the sink. To brush teeth with a nerdle of Gleem."

I actually knew what that was! I reached out to Frank with thanks, though noting the alternate spelling from what he had related. And while he assured me the author had the correct usage, he thought that perhaps the differentiated spelling had something to do with the fact that Gleam is a P&G product, while the term itself originated with GlaxoSmithKline's Aquafresh alternative (I TOLD you Frank knew these things!)

You would think it would be over that point, that two nurdles was all a lifetime could handle. But then Congress came into the picture. Yes, Congress. In a year when they couldn't agree on much of anything, one of the few laws that made it through both the House and Senate was the "Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015." This legislation bans the use of small plastic beads in beauty and health products which pass through wastewater treatment plants. They wind up in waterways and attract harmful chemicals which get ingested by fish and are passed along in the food chain. And why is this important in our discussion?

Because the pre-production plastic pellets which are used in their manufacture are called – wait for it, wait for it – nurdles.

But I want the hat trick. Turns out that the term is also used in the sport of cricket. In that context, it means "to score runs by gently nudging the ball into vacant areas of the field," as in "South Africa was able to nurdle the ball too easily in mid-innings." And I see that Australia has a series of test matches in January against India.

I, for one, will be watching and listening closely.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves words. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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